I’ve just finished revising and publishing my first book, A Swift Pair of Messengers. You can find it online here. At the moment it’s just in html format; in the next few days I’ll be supplying print-on-demand, pdf, and scribd versions.
I originally wrote this while staying at Sukhavana in Ipoh, Malaysia. At that time, there was a lot of questioning going on in the community about these issues, since the Mahasi school had been the predominant force in early Malaysian meditation centers. In the early 90’s, only Ven Dhammavuddho had stood up for a more sutta-based samatha practice. Later, Ajahn Brahm, and then Pa Auk Sayadaw appeared on the scene, so there is more balance these days.
I myself started meditation in Mahasi-style school, at Wat Ram Poeng in Chieng Mai. I had an amazing, transformative experience there, and just wanted to continue with the practice.
I remember when I finished my first retreat, I asked what books I should read – up until that time I had only read one Dhamma book, Buddhadasa’s Handbook for Mankind. They suggested a few books – What the Buddha Taught, Seeing the Way, some books on Mahasi technique – but I was not really satisfied, so I asked what were these ‘suttas’ that I had heard about. I noticed a little reluctance, but anyway they showed me the majjhima Nikaya, and i was hooked.
I remember my confusion, as in the Majjhima Nikaya I could find no mention of the noting technique, the vipassana ñāṇas, and all the other aspects of the technique I had been taught. Instead, there was constant talk of these things called ‘jhanas’. When I asked about them, i was told that this was how the Buddha had practiced, but not what he recommended for followers. I was a bit skeptical of this, but didn’t know enough to say anything.
Later on, when I went to Wat Nanachat, I kept on doing the Mahasi technique. I took a serious interest in the approach, and read all i could from Mahasi, U Pandita, Nyanaponika, U Silananda, and other exponents of that approach. On my first monastic retreat, as an anagaraka with the monks in the jungles of Dao Dum, I memorized the Mahasatipatthana Sutta in English, taking as my study guide U Silananda’s commentary. In fact, it was in this reading that I really learned about Mahasi technique, as at Wat Ram Poeng they didn’t really teach very much about the meditation, just gave instructions on how to meditate.
In my naiveté, at the time I couldn’t understand how anyone would actually practice samatha – didn’t they know that it was unnecessary and dangerous because you could get attached to the bliss? There is, of course, a wonderful conceit that comes from practicing the ‘One Way’…
Nevertheless, I gradually started experimenting with various samatha practices. This was under the influence of both the Suttas and also the meditation as taught in the forest tradition. of course, the forest tradition is very non-dogmatic about meditation, and will encourage any technique. But Ajahn Pasanno, who was my teacher at the time, while rejecting the samatha/vipassana divide, in fact mainly taught anapanasati. Then i discovered the metta practice of Ajahn Mahachatchai, which became my main practice from then until today.
After doing samatha, studying the suttas, and being exposed to a variety of views, my own idea were evolving. I now accepted that samatha was a good and useful practice. I was still not convinced of one of the basic problems, though: was jhana actually necessary for stream entry?
Then I went to stay with Ajahn Brahm for three years. Obviously there was a strong samatha emphasis, and my own practice progressed well there. There was discussion in the community about these points, and there was no agreement about this basic problem. i was still unsure, especially since when I arrived at Bodhinyana i had a strong attachment to the traditional Theravadin commentarial viewpoint. Only after it became obvious that in important areas the commentaries had clearly got it wrong did I let go of this attachment.
The critical question was the description of the path, whether that could be considered as a ‘mind moment’ as claimed in the commentaries. The sutta passages that contradict this are simply too numerous and too explicit to be discounted. If the commentaries could get something so important so badly wrong, what else was at stake?
Then I left Bodhinyana and ended up at Ipoh, still undecided as to whether jhanas were really necessary. The question came up, and I did more research, especially studying in detail the classic Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation: Criticisms and Replies. Around that time, there were articles published by contemporary Malaysian monks, such as this one by Visuddhacara, arguing that there was a near-consensus that jhanas were not necessary.
I considered all these things very carefully: I really wanted to know. For me the issue was not about getting embroiled in a controversy, but because these different teachers, all of who i respected, were saying quite different things. I wanted to really understand the issues so that i could be clear in my own practice, and also give accurate advice to others.
I went through the arguments against samatha practice one by one, taking what was said by the vipassana masters and comparing it closely with the suttas. Time after time, I saw that what they were saying was not supported by the sutta passages they were quoting; and that the further i went into the suttas, the more essential samatha seemed to become.
The essential insight that decided the issue for me was a simple one: when I was reading the passages quoted by the Mahasi school in support of their ‘dry-insight’ approach, I found myself trying to interpret all these obscure, one-off little passages here and there in the suttas, while the central passages on practice always seemed to be ignored. I reflected on a piece of advice that wa given by Ven Nyanaponika to Ajahn Brahm: that central teachings should never be explained away by minor and secondary passages, especially ones of doubtful interpretation. It became more and more clear to me that in order tio sustain their argument, the vipassana school had to systematically explain away all the major teachings on practice, using the complicated Abhidhamma framework, which I had earlier come to realize was not at all in accord with the Suttas.
This is, of course, not obvious on the surface, as when the vipassana technique is taught the underlying theory is usually left aside. But it becomes very apparenet when you get down to the nitty-gritty, as in Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation: Criticisms and Replies.
Eventually, I decided to note down a few of these observations in the essay that was to become A Swift Pair. The book was written by hand, and typed up by some supporters in Ipoh.
The original draft had a chapter where I went through the claims by the Mahasi writers and refuted them point by point by comparison with the Suttas. I later took that chapter out, as i felt it was too confrontational. Much of the material found its way elsewhere in the book. I regret that, as it would make it clearer to know exactly what someone is arguing against. But I’ve lost the references now.
The final book, after much polishing, was published by Inward Path in Penang. 2000 books were printed; and it has been available on the web also.
I wanted to revise the book, mainly for stylistic reasons: the original was far too formal and uptight. I was so immersed in the world of the suttas that I had kinda forgotten that for most of the people who might be interested to read it this would be their first excursion in the suttas. In revising it, i have tried to make it a little more accessible. Much more could be done, but this is all I can manage at the moment. Due to my pressure for time, I decided when beginning my revision that I would not update the research, only the prose. So the new edition contains essentially the same content as the first edition, leaving out a few complications, and adding some more explanations.
In the time since the original publication, samatha has enjoyed somewhat of a comeback, and is apparently quite trendy now. This brings a new generation of problems, of course, which lie beyond the scope of this book.