I am sitting in front of my meditation teacher Ahba, a Burmese Buddhist monk who fled Myanmar in the 1980s.
After walking hundreds of kilometers through the Thai jungle he settled as an abbot in a small wooden monastery in the middle of nowhere in northern Thailand.
Ahba still lives in the same wooden kuti (cottage) on the monastery terrain, but it is now equipped with running water, reasonably reliable electricity and, yes, air conditioning.
All around him his monastery has since grown into one of the largest monasteries in northern Thailand. His Pali school (the language of the ancient Buddhist writings that the monks study in his monastery) has been the number one in the country for years when it comes to the results obtained during the national exams, which has earned him a royal award.
Still, it’s not to learn Pali that I’m sitting in front of him. I’m sitting there because Ahba is known to the practitioners of the Buddhist path in Thailand and Myanmar as a renowned meditation teacher.
Monks from all over the country visit him, sometimes traveling for days, to pay homage and ask him for advice for their meditation. Among them are alleged arahants and monks who themselves are respected as great meditation teachers in their own right.
No matter what form of meditation they practice or what the questions are, Ahba is always perfectly capable of providing them with personal advice or special knowledge.
In his teaching Ahba emphasizes the practice of samatha meditation. Samatha means as much as calm and is synonymous with concentration (samādhi). You could therefore translate samatha meditation as concentration meditation.
Samatha meditation is practiced to clean and purify your mind. A clear and pure mind is a prerequisite for the arising of wisdom (paññā).
Ahba likens it to cleaning a window. If the window is dirty, you can’t see what’s going on outside. If you clean the window a little bit you can see through it a little bit better. Only when the window is completely clean and clear can you see exactly what is going on outside. Through samatha meditation you develop a calm and concentrated mind, making it pure and clear, allowing you to see reality as it is.
Another example often used in Myanmar to describe samādhi is the comparison with standing on top of a mountain. On top of a mountain you have an unobstructed view. You can look in all directions and see both what is close and far away. It is the same with samādhi. With samādhi you can see the smallest phenomena from which reality is built and the interdependence, the conditions, which bind these phenomena together. Both in yourself and in others. Both now, in the past and in the future. Both nearby and far away.
As long as you haven’t seen this with your own eyes, experienced it yourself, you can’t really imagine it. Seeing reality from one’s own experience, that’s what it’s all about. With samatha meditation you develop the foundation from which this is possible.
Yet in the West, samatha meditation is often thought of somewhat disparagingly and samādhi as easily developed. After all, Buddhism is about achieving wisdom (paññā) and therefore it is better to start with vipassana meditation (insight meditation) immediately and skip the development of high levels of samādhi through samatha. In this case a few deep breaths are thought to be enough to achieve the necessary calm and focus.
In this context the suttas (teachings of the Buddha) are often looked at very selectively to show that the Buddha also taught vipassanā without samatha, which is taken as proof that the practice of samatha is not necessary at all.
But those who study the suttas in their entirety can see that when it comes to meditation, the Buddha almost always talks about samādhi, and then most often about jhāna (very high and pure levels of concentration).
The arguments against samatha meditation are usually variations on the same theme.
First, developing a high level samādhi takes a long time, perhaps your whole life, leaving you with no time for vipassanā (insight) practice.
Secondly, samādhi could potentially become a new obstacle on the path because you can get into such pleasant mental states that you become completely enraptured and no longer inclined to develop your mind further.
That last risk is real. At least if you are planning to meditate based on an online course, book, or with the help of a teacher who himself does not have the necessary personal experience to guide you. For samatha meditation true personal guidance by someone further down the path is an absolute must.
Someone who smiles kindly every time you think you’ve achieved something, when you see special things, experience nice feelings, when the ‘I’ fades, or every time you think you’ve achieved high concentration or deep insight, and tells you based on his or her own experience that it might be wise to just keep going because you’re nowhere near the end of the path.
But also someone who can see your personal pitfalls, try to guide you around them, aid you when you fall in to them nonetheless, inspire you and sometimes show you a hint of what is possible if you continue to practice patiently.
There is also a kernel of truth in the first thought as to why samatha meditation should not be practiced. The development of true samādhi is indeed not easy and it might be that you need to develop samadhi for a significant part of, or even your whole life. But the idea that you should therefore skip it is typical of our current zeitgeist where everything needs to go quickly.
Samatha meditation is a slow grinding process that requires a lot of patience (khanti), mindfulness (sati), perseverance (viriya) and confidence (saddhā). It is in this gradual grinding process that you purify your mind and develop wholesome mental qualities.
Ahba always shakes his head and smiles when it comes to people impatiently trying to take a shortcut in the meditation practice. There’s a lot of talk about wisdom and insight, like it’s up for grabs. Words are easy, he says, actually practicing is hard. Cautionary, he advises not to listen to people who claim it can all be done faster. Longing for insight, for results, is one of the biggest obstacles in the Buddhist practice nowadays.
Just meditate patiently, advises Ahba, slowly but surely, without wanting. You will take the good paramis (mental qualities) you acquire in this life with you to your next life. These qualities travel together with you as it were.
It is our very limited perception of the relativity of time that causes impatience. If you practice correctly, it doesn’t matter if it takes a day, a year, a life or a hundred lives. You will eventually reach your goal.
There is another point that may cause friction when it comes to samatha meditation. You can’t separate the process from the rest of your life.
If you want to calm and purify your mind, you will have to live in a way that prevents the emergence of mental obstacles such as remorse and regret. That is, you have to behave morally.
Moral behavior (sila) in this context means that at an ever deeper level you strive to abide by the precepts that the Buddha advises: refrain from killing, refrain from stealing, refrain from sexual misconduct, refrain from speaking incorrectly (lying, gossiping, coarse language or splitting speaking), refrain from the use of intoxicating substances that disturb mindfulness (alcohol and drugs).
If you practice sila on an ever deeper level, you also develop mindfulness (sati). This is how your practice deepens and refines itself.
Sīla and sati are a condition for samādhi. They form the fertile soil in which samādhi can take root. The calm and purity that can grow in this soil forms the prerequisite for the blossoming of wisdom (paññā).
Ahba gives the following example. If you have a dirty body, full of warts, pimples and pus, and you hang jewels on it, is it suddenly a beautiful body? No. Suppose you have a clean body, everything is pure, is such a body beautiful even though there are no jewels attached to it? Yes. And if you decorate such a beautiful body with jewels it becomes even more beautiful. It is the same with samatha and vipassanā (insight). Samatha makes the mind and body clean and pure, vipassanā are the jewels. If you just want insight, it’s like trying to hang the jewels of wisdom on an impure and dirty mind.
It is ultimately the clean and pure mind that looks into the world full of love and compassion and is a true safe haven for all beings.
Just develop samādhi slowly but surely by practicing samatha meditation on buddho. Very patiently. In this way you will get a clean and clear mind. You will get concentration, and wisdom will arise by itself. That’s what Ahba teaches. And that’s why I’m sitting in front of him in his wooden kuti.