Reminiscence of Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo
from a talk by
Phra Ajaan Phut Thaniyo
from the Thai by
© 1997 Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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our day and age, the practice of going into the forest to
meditate and follow the ascetic dhutanga practices began with
Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo, the teacher of Phra Ajaan Mun and,
by extension, Phra Ajaan Singh and Phra Ajaan Lee. Phra Ajaan
Sao was inclined to be, not a preacher or a speaker, but a
doer. When he taught his students, he said very little. And
those who studied directly under him are now elders who speak
very little, who rarely preach, having picked up the habit
from their teacher. Thus, as Phra Ajaan Sao was not a preacher,
I would like to tell you a little of the way in which he taught
How did Phra Ajaan Sao teach? If it so happened that someone
came to him, saying, "Ajaan, sir, I want to practice meditation.
How should I go about it?" he would answer, "Meditate on the
If the person asked, "What does 'Buddho' mean?" Ajaan Sao
would answer, "Don't ask."
will happen after I've meditated on 'Buddho'?"
ask. Your only duty is simply to repeat the word 'Buddho'
over and over in your mind."
That's how he taught: no long, drawn-out explanations.
Now, if the student was sincere in putting the Ajaan's instructions
into practice and was persistent in practicing the repetition,
if his mind then became calm and bright from entering into
concentration, he would come and ask Ajaan Sao: "When meditating
on 'Buddho' my state of mind becomes such-and-such. What should
I do now?" If it was right, Ajaan Sao would say, "Keep on
meditating." If not, he would say, "You have to do such-and-such.
What you're doing isn't right."
For example, once when I was his attendant novice, a senior
monk of the Mahanikaya sect came and placed himself under
his direction as a beginning student in meditation. Ajaan
Sao taught him to meditate on "Buddho." Now, when the monk
settled down on "Buddho," his mind became calm and, once it
was calm, bright. And then he stopped repeating "Buddho."
At this point, his mind was simply blank. Afterwards, he sent
his attention out, following the brightness, and a number
of visions began to arise: spirits of the dead, hungry ghosts,
divine beings, people, animals, mountains, forests... Sometimes
it seemed as if he, or rather, his mind, left his body and
went wandering through the forest and wilderness, seeing the
various things mentioned above. Afterwards, he went and told
Ajaan Sao, "When I meditated down to the point were the mind
became calm and bright, it then went out, following the bright
light. Visions of ghosts, divine beings, people, and animals
appeared. Sometimes it seemed as if I went out following the
As soon as Ajaan Sao heard this, he said, "This isn't right.
For the mind to go knowing and seeing outside isn't right.
You have to make it know inside."
The monk then asked, "How should I go about making it know
Phra Ajaan Sao answered, "When the mind is in a bright state
like that, when it has forgotten or abandoned its repetition
and is simply sitting empty and still, look for the breath.
If the sensation of the breath appears in your awareness,
focus on the breath as your object and then simply keep track
of it, following it inward until the mind becomes even calmer
And so the monk followed the Ajaan's instructions until finally
the mind settled down in threshold concentration (upacara
samadhi), following which the breath became more and more
refined, ultimately to the point where it disappeared. His
sensation of having a body also disappeared, leaving just
the state in which the mind was sitting absolutely still,
a state of awareness itself standing out clear, with no sense
of going forward or back, no sense of where the mind was,
because at that moment there was just the mind, all on its
own. At this point, the monk came again to ask, "After my
mind has become calm and bright, and I fix my attention on
the breath and follow the breath inward until it reaches a
state of being absolutely quiet and still -- so still that
nothing is left, the breath doesn't appear, the sense of having
a body vanishes, only the mind stands out, brilliant and still:
When it's like this, is it right or wrong?"
it's right or wrong," the Ajaan answered, "take that as your
standard. Make an effort to be able to do this as often as
possible, and only when you're skilled at it should you come
and see me again."
So the monk followed the Ajaan's instructions and later was
able to make his mind still to the point that there was no
sense of having a body and the breath disappeared more and
more often. He became more and more skilled, and his mind
became more and more firm. Eventually, after he had been making
his mind still very frequently -- because as a rule, there's
the principle that virtue develops concentration, concentration
develops discernment, discernment develops the mind -- when
his concentration became powerful and strong, it gave rise
to abhiñña -- heightened knowledge and true
insight. Knowledge of what? Knowledge of the true nature of
the mind, that is, knowing the states of the mind as they
occur in the present. Or so he said.
After he had left this level of concentration and came to
see Ajaan Sao, he was told, "This level of concentration is
fixed penetration (appana samadhi). You can rest assured that
in this level of concentration there is no insight or knowledge
of anything at all. There's only the brightness and the stillness.
If the mind is forever in that state, it will be stuck simply
on that level of stillness. So once you've made the mind still
like this, watch for the interval where it begins to stir
out of its concentration. As soon as the mind has a sense
that it's beginning to take up an object -- no matter what
object may appear first -- focus on the act of taking up an
object. That's what you should examine."
The monk followed the Ajaan's instructions and afterwards
he was able to make fair progress in the level of his mind.
This is one instance of how Phra Ajaan Sao taught his pupils
-- teaching just a little at a time, giving only the very
heart of the practice, almost as if he would say, "Do this,
and this, and this," with no explanations at all. Sometimes
I would wonder about his way of teaching. That is, I would
compare it with books I had read or with the Dhamma-talks
I heard given by other teachers. For example, Phra Ajaan Singh
wrote a small handbook for the practice of meditation, entitled,
Taking the Triple Refuge and the Techniques of Meditation,
and in it he said that in practicing meditation you must,
before all else, sit with your body straight and establish
mindfulness directly in front of you. That's how he put it,
but not how Ajaan Sao would put it. Still, the principles
they taught were one and the same, the only difference being
that Ajaan Sao was not a preacher, and so didn't make use
of a lot of rhetoric.
As he explained to me: "When we make up our mind to repeat
'Buddho,' the act of making up the mind is in itself the act
of establishing mindfulness. When we keep thinking 'Buddho'
and are not willing to let the mind slip away from 'Buddho,'
our mindfulness and alertness are already healthy and strong,
always watching over the mind to keep it with 'Buddho.' As
soon as our attention slips away, so that we forget to think
'Buddho' and go thinking of something else, it's a sign that
there's a lapse in our mindfulness. But if we can keep our
mindfulness under control and can think 'Buddho, Buddho' continuously,
with no gaps, our mindfulness is already strong, so there's
no need to go 'establishing mindfulness' anywhere. To think
of an object so that it is coupled with the mind is, in and
of itself, the act of getting mindfulness established." That
was how he explained it to me.
This was one instance of how I saw and heard Phra Ajaan Sao
teaching meditation, and should be enough to serve us all
as food for thought.