A Question of Skill
Interview with Thanissaro
Insight Magazine Online
Bhikkhu, also known more informally to many as Ajaan Geoff,
is an American-born Theravada monk who has been the abbot
of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, CA, since 1993.
He teaches regularly at BCBS (Barre Center for Buddhist Studies)
and throughout the US and has contributed significantly to
the Dhamma Dana Publications project with his books Wings
to Awakening, Mind Like Fire Unbound, and a new free-verse
translation of the Dhammapada. His web-site is: www.accesstoinsight.org
readings in Theravada Buddhism.
thirty years ago you were a student at Oberlin College.
Now you're the abbot of a Buddhist monastery near San Diego.
Could you tell us a little about how you got from there to here?
route was a lot less roundabout than you might think.
Like many college students, I was obsessed with deciding what
to do with my life. Business, government, academia:
I couldn't see myself finding happiness in any of them.
I didn't want to lie on my deathbed, looking back at a life
frittered away. Fortunately, in my sophomore year, I was
introduced to Buddhist meditation, and I took to it like a duck
I decided to take a break in my education to go teach in Thailand—to
get some perspective on my life, and maybe find a good meditation
teacher. While I was there I met Ajaan Fuang, perhaps
the first truly happy person I had ever met. He embodied
the dharma [the teachings of the Buddha] in a way that I found
appealing: wise, down-to-earth, no-nonsense, and with a sly
sense of humor. Whatever happiness and wisdom he had,
he told me, was due entirely to the training. That was
when I realized I had found something to which I could devote
my entire life. So I ordained to train with him, and I've
never regretted my choice.
Ajaan Fuang trained
you as a meditation monk, but for the past several years you've
also been translating and explaining the Pali sutta(s)[the early
Buddhist texts]. How do you find that studying the
suttas helps with meditation?
The Buddha in the
suttas asks all the right questions. We all know that
what we see is shaped by the views we bring to things, but we're
often not aware of the extent to which our views are shaped
by the questions we ask ourselves. The Buddha had the
good sense to see that some questions are skillful—they really
do point you to freedom, to the total cessation of suffering—while
others are unskillful: they take you to a dead end, tie you
up in knots, and leave you there. The suttas are helpful
in showing how to avoid getting involved in unskillful questioning.
If you listen carefully to their advice and take it to heart,
you find that it really opens your eyes to how you approach
meditation and life in general.
currents in modern dharma teaching that de-emphasize the importance
of the historical discourses. One might say, for example,
“Don't we often hear that the Buddha said not to believe texts
Well, he didn't say
to reject them out of hand, either. Have you ever noticed
how American dharma is like the game of Telephone? Things
get passed on from person to person, from one generation of
teachers to the next, until the message gets garbled beyond
I once received a
postcard on which the sender had rubber-stamped the message,
“‘Don't believe anything outside your own sense of right and
wrong.'—The Buddha.” That was apparently meant to be a
quote from the Kalama Sutta, but when you actually read the
sutta, you find that it says something much more sophisticated
than that: You don't believe something just because it's
handed down in the texts or taught by your teachers, but you
don't accept it just because it seems logical or fits in with
your preferences, either. You have to put it to the test,
check it in terms of actual cause and effect. If you then
find that it leads to harm and is criticized by wise people,
you stop doing it. If it's beneficial and praised by wise
people, you stick with it. Notice, though, that you don't
go solely by your own perception of things. You look for
wise people and check your perceptions against theirs.
That way you make sure you're not simply siding with your own
the suttas can serve as kalyana mitta(s), or “wise friends?”
There is no real
substitute for spending time in close contact with a really
wise person, but the suttas can often be the next best thing—especially
in a country like ours where wise people, in the Buddhist sense
of the term, are so few and far between.
that the suttas label certain questions as unskillful.
Some of these may be fairly obscure philosophical issues that
no longer interest anyone, but can you point to any that are
relevant to meditators at present?
The big one is, “Who
am I?” There are dharma books telling us that the purpose
of meditation is to answer this question, and a lot of people
come to meditation assuming that that's what it's all about.
But the suttas list it as a fruitless line of inquiry.
Why is that?
Good question (laughs).
As far as I can see, the response is this: What sort of
experience would give you an answer to that question?
Can you imagine any answer to that question that would put an
end to suffering? It's easier to be skillful in any given
situation when you don't saddle yourself with set ideas about
who you are.
anatta doctrine be considered the Buddha's answer to the question,
“Who am I?”?
No. It's his
answer to the question, “What is skillful?” Is self-identification
skillful? Up to a point, yes. In the areas where
you need a healthy, coherent sense of self in order to act responsibly,
it's skillful to maintain that sense of coherence. But
eventually, as responsible behavior becomes second nature and
you develop more sensitivity, you see that self-identification,
even of the most refined sort, is a form of clinging.
It's a burden. So the only skillful thing is to let it
you respond to those who say they get a sense of oneness with
the universe when they meditate, that they're interconnected
to all things, and that it relieves a lot of suffering?
How stable is that
feeling of oneness? When you feel like you've come to
the stable ground of being from which all things emanate, the
suttas ask you to question whether you're simply reading that
feeling into your experience. If the ground of being were
really stable, how would it give rise to the unstable world
we live in? So whatever it is you're experiencing—it may
be one of the formless states—it's not the ultimate answer to
On an affective level,
a sense of connectedness may relieve the pain of isolation,
but when you look deeper, you have to agree with the Buddha
that interconnectedness and interdependence lie at the essence
of suffering. Take the weather, for instance. Last
summer we had wonderful, balmy weather in San Diego—none of
the oppressive heat that usually hits in August—and yet the
same weather pattern brought virtually non-stop rain to southern
Alaska, drought to the Northeast, and killer hurricanes with
coffins floating out of their graves in North Carolina.
Are we supposed to find happiness in identifying with a world
like this? The suttas are often characterized as pessimistic
in advocating release from samsara, but that's nothing compared
to the pessimism inherent in the idea that staying interconnected
is our only hope for happiness.Yet so many people say the desire
for release is selfish.
Which makes me wonder
if they understand how we can be most helpful to one another.
If the path to release involved being harmful and cold-hearted,
you could say it was selfish; but here it involves developing
generosity, kindness, morality, all the honorable qualities
of the mind. What's selfish about that? Everyone
around you benefits when you can abandon your greed, anger,
and delusion. Look at the impact that Ajaan Mun's quest
for release has had for the last several decades in Thailand,
and now it's spreading throughout the world. We'd be much
better off if we encouraged one another to find true release
so that those who find it first can show the way to anyone else
And the way
to that release starts with the question, “What is skillful?”
the first question the Buddha recommends that you ask when you
visit a teacher. And you can trace this question throughout
the suttas, from the most basic levels on up. There is
a wonderful passage where the Buddha is teaching Rahula, his
seven-year-old son [Ambalannhika Rahulovada Sutta, M 61].
He starts out by stressing the importance of being truthful—implying
that if you want to find the truth, you first have to be truthful
yourself—and then he talks about using your actions as a mirror.
Before you do anything, ask yourself: “Is what I intend to do
here skillful or unskillful? Will it lead to well-being
or harm?” If it looks harmful, you don't do it.
If it looks okay, you go ahead and give it a try. While
you're doing it, though, you ask yourself the same questions.
If it turns out that it's causing harm, you stop.
If not, you continue with it. Then after you've done it,
you ask the same questions—“Did it bring about well-being or
harm?”—and if you see that what originally looked okay actually
ended up being harmful, you talk it over with someone else on
the path and resolve never to make that mistake again.
If it wasn't harmful, you can take joy in knowing that you're
on the right track.
So the Buddha
is giving basic lessons in how to learn from your mistakes.
Yes, but if you look
carefully, you'll see that these questions contain the seeds
for some of his most important teachings: the role of
intention in our actions; the way causality works—with actions
giving immediate results along with long-term results; and even
the four noble truths: the idea that suffering is caused by
past and present actions, and that if we're observant we can
find how to act more and more skillfully to a point of total
And how would
you apply this to meditation?
It starts with your
life. We all know that meditation involves disentangling
yourself from the narratives of your life so that you can look
directly at what you're doing in the present. Now, some
narratives are easier to disentangle than others. If you're
acting in unskillful ways in daily life—lying, having illicit
sex, taking intoxicants—you'll find that you're creating some
pretty sticky narratives, all coated with denial and regret.
So you apply the Buddha's line of questioning to your day-to-day
life in order to clean up your act and provide yourself with
new narratives that are easier to let go.
At the same time,
in doing this, you're developing the precise skills you'll need
on the meditation cushion. Getting into the present moment
is a skill, and it requires the same questioning attitude: observing
what the mind is doing, seeing what works, what doesn't work,
and making adjustments where needed. Once you get into
the present moment, you use the same line of questioning to
investigate the present, taking it apart in terms of cause and
effect: present action, past action, present results.
Once you've taken apart every mental state that clouds the brightness
of your awareness, you then turn the same questions on that
bright awareness itself, until there's nothing left to question
or take apart any further—not even the act of questioning itself.
That's where liberation opens up. So these simple questions
can take you all the way to the end of the practice.
Was this how
you were taught meditation in Thailand?
Yes. The one
piece of advice Ajaan Fuang stressed more than any other was,
“Be observant.” In other words, he didn't want me simply
to follow a method blindly without monitoring how it was working
out. He handed me Ajaan Lee's seven steps on breath meditation
and told me to play with them—not in a desultory way, but the
way Michael Jordan plays basketball: experimenting, using
your ingenuity, so that it becomes a skill. How else can
you expect to gain insight into the patterns of cause and effect
within the mind unless you play with them?
any other questions from the suttas that strike you as particularly
relevant to the American dharma scene?
Two jump immediately
to mind. One has to do with evaluating teachers.
The suttas recommend that a student look carefully at a person's
whole life before accepting him or her as a teacher: Does
this person embody the precepts? Can you detect any overt
passion, aversion, or delusion in what this person says or does?
Only if someone can pass these tests should you accept him or
her as a teacher.
This calls into question
an attitude that's becoming increasingly prevalent here in the
US. A teacher once said, not too long ago, “As long as
a teacher points at the truth with one hand, it doesn't matter
what he or she does with the other hand.” Now, is the
dharma something you can point to with only one hand?
Can the other hand ever really be invisible? There's a
real drive at the moment to turn out teachers to fill the demand
for retreat leaders, but if they feel they can afford a one-handed
attitude, we'll end up with teachers who are little more than
mindfulness technicians or yogi-herders: people whose
job is to get students safely through the retreat experience,
but whose personal life may be teaching an entirely separate
lesson. Is that what we want?
If it is, we are
setting people up for trouble. So far the mindfulness
community has avoided many of the scandals that have ravaged
other American Buddhist communities, largely because it hasn't
been a community. It's more a far-flung network of retreat
clientele. The teachers' personal lives haven't had that
much direct bearing on the lives of the students. But
now local communities are beginning to develop, where students
and teachers have close, long-term contact with one another.
Can we imagine that what each teacher does with that other hand
is not going to have an impact on the students'
lives and their respect for the dharma? If we don't start
now to rely more on the suttas' method for evaluating teachers,
we'll have to start reinventing the dharma wheel after people
get hurt, which would be a great shame.
And the other
What do we have to give up if we want true happiness?
Do we have unlimited time and energy to pursue an unlimited
number of goals? Or do we need to sacrifice some of the
good things in life in order to gain the most valuable form
of happiness? This is a huge blind spot in American Buddhism.
Once, just out of
curiosity, I went through a pile of Western dharma books and
magazines, looking up the topic of renunciation. Most
of them didn't even mention it. From the few that did,
I learned that renunciation means, one, giving up unhealthy
relationships; two, abandoning your controlling mindset; and
three, dropping your fear of the unknown. Now, we don't
need the Buddha to tell us those things. We can learn
the first lesson from our parents, and the other two from a
good therapist. But the Buddha recommended giving up a
lot of things that most well-meaning parents and therapists
would tell their children and patients to hold onto tightly.
And yet you don't see any mention of this in American dharma.
Is that because
Americans tend to live more comfortable lifestyles?
Modern mass culture, whether Asian or American, is a lot more
indulgent than traditional culture, but that may be because
it's a lot more frenetic and stressed out as well. The
Buddha himself said that, when he was starting out on the path
of practice, his heart didn't leap up at the idea of renunciation.
Nobody wants to hear that true happiness involves giving up
the things we like, but at least in Asia there are dharma masters
who, through their words and actions, keep pumping that lesson
into the culture. So it's always there for honest, mature,
reflective people to hear. But here in the West, the dharma
has been so shaped by the marketplace that the lesson is very
Last year Tricycle
printed an article bemoaning how the dharma is being used to
sell mass-market commodities, but a deeper problem is that the
dharma has become a commodity itself. I was in a bookstore
recently with a student, and as we looked at the many shelves
filled with books on Buddhism, he asked me, “Do you get the
impression that these books were written to make money?”
How can you expect to learn the hard lessons of renunciation
from a book that had to get past marketing directors and sales
reps? And given the financial needs of most teachers,
how can you expect even well-meaning teachers not to shape their
message to conform with what people want to hear, as
opposed to what they should hear?
on what you call the “economy of gifts,” in which the dharma
can be offered freely with no strings attached. How do
you think such an economy could be implemented here in America?
It's a long, uphill
process, but yes, it can happen. You have to start small—a
few good monasteries here and there, a few dana-based organizations
such as the Dhamma Dana Publication Fund and now the Dharma
Seed Tape Library and eventually people will catch on to what
a good thing it is. Of course, the fact that dharma is
free doesn't necessarily guarantee that it's going to be top-quality,
but at least it hasn't been filtered through the sort of bottom-line
concerns that we needlessly take for granted. It's only
when we appreciate the need to have the bottom line totally
out of the picture that American dharma will have a chance to
mature. Which makes me wonder if Dana-based dharma will
always be something of a fringe phenomenon in our country.
From our discussion
so far, you seem to see the Pali suttas as offering not only
right questions, but also right answers.
The right answers
are the skillful choices you make in your life as you pursue
the right questions. I think it was Thomas Pynchon who
said, “As long as they can get you to ask the wrong questions,
they don't have to worry about the answers.” There should
be a corollary to that: As long as you honestly stick
to the right questions, you're sure to arrive at answers that
will make a difference.
many people in our society are uncomfortable with the notion
of right and wrong--especially in the area of religion.
I don't think it's
so much that they are uncomfortable with the notion of right
and wrong. It's just that they've shifted their reference
points. Being judgmental is now wrong; being non-judgmental
is right. This, I think, comes from two factors.
One is that we're tired of fervid monotheists who demonize anyone
who differs from their view of The One True Way. We've
seen the harm that comes from sectarian religious strife, and
it's obviously pointless. So we want to avoid it at all
costs. The other factor is that we ourselves have been
subject to evaluation all of our lives, some of it pretty unfair—in
school, at work, in our relationships—so when we come to retreats
we want respite.
This becomes a problem,
though, when people confuse being judgmental with the act of
exercising judgment. And again, the difference is a question
of skill. Being judgmental—hypercritical, quick to dismiss
the opinions of others—is obviously unskillful. But in
our rush not to be judgmental, we can't abandon our critical
abilities, our powers of judgment. We have to learn how
to use them skillfully. It's all very fine not to pass
judgment when you're on the sidelines of an issue and don't
want to get involved. But here we're all out on the playing
field, facing aging, illness, and death. Our skill in
exercising judgment is going to make all the difference in whether
we win or lose. The team we're facing has never been taught
to be uncritical. They play hard, and they play for keeps
The Buddha himself
was quite critical of teachers who wasted their time—and that
of their students—by asking the wrong questions. He was
especially critical of those who misunderstood the nature of
karma, because how we comprehend the power of our actions is
what will make all the difference in how skillfully we choose
to think and act. So refraining from judgment is not the
answer to the question of how we face the differing teachings
we find available. In fact, a knee-jerk nonjudgmental
stance can often be a very unskillful way of passing judgment.
It's a refusal to
take differences seriously, and that totally short-circuits
any attempt to develop skill. You often find this associated
with a lowest-common-denominator approach to the truth:
the assumption that whatever the major traditions of the world
hold in common must be true, while their differences are only
cultural trappings. But that's assuming they're all asking
the same questions, or that the only important questions are
the ones they all ask. Where does that leave people who
think outside the box?
I've seen some elaborate
attempts to create a perennial philosophy from the common ground
of the world's great traditions, but they center on the question,
“Who am I?” That, they tell us, is the question at the
heart of everyone's spiritual quest. But the training
I got from Ajaan Fuang taught me to question the assumption
that that's a fruitful line of inquiry. Does the fact
that everybody else is asking it mean he was wrong?
is to assume that all traditions take you to the same place,
but that they've found different skillful ways of doing it—the
old “many paths lead to the top of the mountain” idea.
But the reports we get from people who have been up this mountain
say that it has plenty of wrong turns, false summits, and sudden
drop-offs. One tradition will say, “When you reach this
point, turn left.” Another will say, “If you turn left
at that point you'll get stuck at a dead-end.” If we plan
to stay on the valley floor, it's okay for us to stay out of
the argument. But can we claim some sort of higher moral
ground for not getting involved in the fray? Do we have
more comprehensive maps of the mountain showing that dangers
are imaginary, and that left turns and right turns are all okay?
Or suppose that one
tradition says, “The summit looks like this.” Another
says, “No, that's a false summit. The real one looks like
this.” The first one responds, “No, you're at the false
summit.” Do we know the limitations of language better
than they do, so that we can dismiss their differences as purely
linguistic? If we want to go up the mountain, we have
to choose one guide or the other—or maybe a third guide, if
we decide that the first two were both on the wrong path.
So how would
One, take a good
look at the teachers. If people are skilled mountaineers,
they should have no trouble negotiating the valley. Can
they get around without injuring themselves or others?
Has their experience of the summit been so overwhelming that
they're willing to sacrifice personal comfort so that others
can get there as well?
Two, look at the
tradition. What kinds of questions does it focus on?
What kinds does it allow? What kinds does it not allow?
Why? Does it encourage the tenacity and maturity needed
to stick to a hard line of questioning? Does it foster
the kind of ingenious, observant mind that would recognize a
false path or figure out a way past an unexpected obstacle?
Finally, take a good
look at yourself. Are you up for the adventure? It may
sound more than a little intimidating, but the Buddha asked
of his students simply that they be honest enough to admit and
learn from their mistakes, and sensible enough to give up a
lesser happiness when they see that, by doing so, they'll gain
a higher one. Are you up to that? If so, you've got what it