When I first went to study with my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, he handed me a small booklet of meditation instructions and sent me up the hill behind the monastery to meditate. The booklet — written by his teacher, Ajaan Lee — began with a breath meditation technique and concluded with a section showing how the technique was used to induce the first four levels of jhana
In the following years, I saw Ajaan Fuang hand the same booklet to each of his new students, lay and ordained. Yet despite the booklet's detailed descriptions of jhana, he himself rarely mentioned the word jhana in his conversations, and never indicated to any of his students that they had reached a particular level of jhana in their practice
. When a student told him of a recurring meditative experience, he liked to discuss not what it was, but what to do with it: what to focus on, what to drop, what to change, what to maintain the same. Then he'd teach the student how to experiment with it — to make it even more stable and restful — and how to judge the results of the experiments. If his students wanted to measure their progress against the descriptions of jhana in the booklet, that was their business and none of his. He never said this in so many words, but given the way he taught, the implicit message was clear.
As were the implicit reasons for his attitude. He had told me once about his own experiences as a young meditator: "Back in those days you didn't have books explaining everything the way we do now. When I first studied with Ajaan Lee, he told me to bring my mind down. So I focused on getting it down, down, down, but the more I brought it down, the heavily and duller it got. I thought, 'This can't be right.' So I turned around and focused on bringing it up, up, up, until I found a balance and could figure out what he was talking about." This incident was one of many that taught him some important lessons: that you have to test things for yourself, to see where the instructions had to be taken literally and where they had to be taken figuratively; that you had to judge for yourself how well you were doing; and that you had to be ingenious, experimenting and taking risks to find ways to deal with problems as they arose
So as a teacher, he tried to instill in his students these qualities of self-reliance, ingenuity, and a willingness to take risks and test things for themselves
. He did that not only by talking about these qualities, but also by forcing you into situations where you'd have to develop them. Had he always been there to confirm for you that, "Yes, you've reached the third jhana," or, "No, that's only the second jhana," he would have short-circuited the qualities he was trying to instill
. He, rather than your own powers of observation, would have been the authority on what was going on in your mind; and you would have been absolved of any responsibility for correctly evaluating what you had experienced. At the same time, he would have been feeding your childish desire to please or impress him, and undermining your ability to deal with the task at hand, which was how to develop your own powers of sensitivity to put an end to suffering and stress. As he once told me, "If I have to explain everything, you'll get used to having things handed to you on a platter. And then what will you do when problems come up in your meditation and you don't have any experience in figuring things out on your own?
So, studying with him, I had to learn to take risks in the midst of uncertainties. If something interesting came up in the practice, I'd have to stick with it, observing it over time, before reaching any conclusions about it. Even then, I learned, the labels I applied to my experiences couldn't be chiseled in rock. They had to be more like post-it notes: convenient markers for my own reference that I might have to peel off and stick elsewhere as I became more familiar with the territory of my mind. This proved to be a valuable lesson that applied to all areas of my practice.
Still, Ajaan Fuang didn't leave me to reinvent the dharma wheel totally on my own....
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