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A reflection by Ajahn Chah on the emphasis on meditation and insight in the Western approach to Buddhism. - From Ajahn Amaro's essay on mindfulness.

Wisdom and samādhi Develop sīla

In the teaching and practice of Buddhism in the West, across all traditions, it is commonly found that there is initially little interest in the subject of ethics. The use of Meditation as a way to calm the mind, coupled with the development of wisdom—whether through the practices of the Theravāda (Southern) or Mahāyana (Northern) Buddhist traditions—is the clear priority for interested Westerners.

In the traditional methodologies of Buddhism in Asia, the practices of generosity (dāna) and ethics, or virtue (sīla), are regarded as the sine qua non of spiritual development. It is a given, backed up by numerous statements by the Buddha (e.g., D 31.3–8 in relation to lay-life and M 51.14 in relation to monastic life) that any significant growth toward psychological well-being depends on a foundation of wholesome ethical conduct. In this light, when Ajahn Chah came to visit the West in the late 1970s, his close students found it strange that he emphasized meditation (samādhi-bhāvanā) and wisdom (paññā) in his teachings to the Western audience yet seemed to mention sīla sparingly.

Ajahn Chah explained that it was clear to him that there was a disinterest in, even a strong resistance to, the concept of sīla in the West as it seemed to go counter to popular ideals of freedom. He was prepared to respect the fact that this was where the students were starting from because he felt that, in due time and with experience, they would see for themselves that by ignoring wholesome ethical standards they were only causing themselves trouble. He considered that it was more effective for individuals to learn such truths for themselves, rather than to take it as received knowledge from some religious authority.

It was plain to him that Westerners practiced meditation with great sincerity—even remarking that he could never get his monks and nuns to sit so still and keep so silent as the Westerners on a 10-day retreat—however, it was also clear that the students were not living according to wholesome standards of ethical conduct between retreats. Breiter (2004) recounted Ajahn Chah as saying, “The approach many people had to meditation was like a thief who after he gets caught hires a clever lawyer to get him out of trouble. Once he is out, he starts stealing again. [Ajahn Chah] also compared it to a boxer who gets beaten up, nurses his wounds, and then goes to fight again, which only brings him fresh wounds. And this cycle goes on endlessly. The purpose of meditation is more than just calming ourselves from time to time, getting ourselves out of trouble, but seeing and uprooting the causes which produce trouble and make us not calm to begin with.” This process of seeing and uprooting such causes is understood, in traditional Buddhist practice, to be realized through the development of both informed and holistic mindfulness (sati-sampajañña and sati-paññā). The individual learns through their own experience and wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra) that if one behaves dishonestly, self-indulgently or cruelly, the mind will remember those events and their causes. If there is a wish to not have such memories to deal with, the simplest approach is seen to be to refrain from such acts in the first place. This might be considered to be an overly simplistic approach and one that imposes unwished for restrictions on the individual; however, it can also be regarded as a pragmatic way to fulfill a person’s aspiration to comprehensive well-being. It is safe to presume that most people would not regard it as an imposition upon their freedom to have it pointed out that the left shoe is designed to fit the left foot, not the right.

  • As a side note, this essay has been amazingly helpful to me and is perhaps essential reading if you think mindfulness is something encapsulated in a single paragraph or even a phrase. Ajahn Amaro's essay on mindfulness -
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A reflection by Ajahn Chah on the emphasis on meditation and insight in the Western approach to Buddhism. - From Ajahn Amaro's essay on mindfulness.


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