Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review: The Art of Disappearing by Ajahn Brahm

Ajahn Brahm is both an engaging and challenging Dharma speaker, and both qualities are in abundance in 'The Art of Disappearing: The Buddha's Path to Lasting Joy.' This book has an extremely accessible conversational style, which Ajahm Brahm is well known for, but it also throw's down the gauntlet to the reader in no uncertain terms. The author states that if we want the 'lasting joy' of Nirvana, we need to dedicate ourselves to wholehearted practice, especially in our meditation. Anything less, he warns us, and we don't know where we will end up, either in this life or lives to come.

So, this book is not a primer on Buddhist teachings, nor is it a how-to guide to meditation, these aspects are dealt with respectively in detail in Ajahn Brahm's earlier works 'Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung?' and 'Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond.' The present work can be considered a step on from the second book above, being a series of instructions and encouragements to those already involved in meditation practice, and who wish to deepen their samadhi (meditative concentration) and wisdom. It was not written by the ajahn, as such, but was transcribed and edited from talks which he spontaneously gave on previous occasions.

Ajahn Brahm uses the Tipitika, or Buddhist scriptures, as his primary source of reference for his teachings, and begins this book by referring to the need for the recognition and understanding of dukkha (suffering) as a prelude to enlightenment. He skillfully advises his reader to disengage from the world to the extent required for the development of meditation and wisdom.  He also discusses how a reduction of thinking can create the peace and space conductive to the rising of insight, and unlike most meditation teachers, he likes to discuss the jhana, or deep concentrative states promoted by the Buddha:

"When the body disappears and you experience stillness deep inside, it's a jhana state. In that jhana state you're disengaged from the world outside - the five senses have vanished. Sometimes this is called being 'aloof' from the world of the senses. In fact it's more than aloofness; it's complete disengagement, the complete ending of the world. Now you know the meaning of vanishing, of things not being there anymore." 
('The Art of Disappearing,' p.13)

Gently bringing the contents of consciousness into focus using nonjudgmental mindfulness is a strong theme of this book. Ajahn Brahm emphasizes that to try to force the mind from its natural tendencies to focus on a set meditation subject can result in tension and, conversely, a reaction against such forcefulness that results in a lack of mindfulness. Instead, he suggests, we attend to what the mind is focusing on without indulging in it, starving it of the fuel of interest that it needs to continue. Soon enough it will fall away by itself, and then we can turn attention to the original subject of our meditation.

The author also brings to our notice to the nimitta, which he describes as "a radiant state" (Ibid. p.73). This occurs in meditation when the mind is no longer aware of any of the five senses and instead turns its attention on itself, free of thoughts. He says that a nimitta is beautiful and blissful, a wonderful state of mind free of suffering, which is known as pabhassara cite. It is not, however, enlightenment, but more a foretaste established through this shutting out (or letting go) of sensory interference. However, even with regards to this, Ajahn Brahm has a warning or his reader:

"Only now do you have a real understanding of what the Buddha taught. You also know why people sometimes think that the phrase pabhassara citta, the radiant mind, means 'original mind,' 'the essence of all being,' 'God,' or 'cosmic consciousness' instead. It's because a nimitta is such an extraordinarily beautiful thing. But when you have the insight gained from experiencing nimitta again and again and you know it fully, you'll realize it is a mistake to think of the radiant mind as a higher power or a transcendent reality. The radiance is simply the face of your mind when the five senses have been completely pacified." 
(Ibid. p.73)

Continuing this uncompromising presentation of Dharma, Ajahn Brahm later states that the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice is to let go of mind-consciousness as well. This somewhat disturbing suggestion is found in the Tipitaka itself, and the author makes it clear that this is the end of the eightfold path established by the Buddha. It isn't the destruction of the self, however, for as Ajahn Brahm says, there is no self in the first place; it is the illusion of self that is let go of in Nirvana, and this is the end of the Buddhist path. This is, he states, the realization of anatta ('not-self'), one of the central teachings of Buddhism.

Sprinkled through the book are recollections of the author from his own life of being a Buddhist monk. These include references to his time practicing in the forest monastery of Ajahn Chah in Northeast Thailand, very near the reviewer's present home. One such episode is when his master was considering sending Ajahn Brahm to a small, quiet branch monastery near close to the Cambodian border. At this time, however, the Khmer Rouge were very active in Cambodia, and Ajahn Chah changed his mind, fearing that his western disciple might be kidnapped, or worse. The latter uses this story to illustrate how awareness of his own mortality strengthened his practice. (Ibid. p.113) Elsewhere, he mentions the following:

"To overcome attachment to the body, we do practices such as the contemplation of the thirty-one parts of the body. In Thailand, you might even go to an autopsy. Of all the autopsies I've seen - and I've seen some gross ones - the one that shook me the most was that of a young man of the same age as me. Because he was my age, I could identify with his body. As the autopsy unfolded I saw the repulsive nature of the body, and I knew that mine had to be the same. It drove the message home: there is no value in attaching to the body." 
(Ibid. p.119)

Ajahn Brahm discusses in depth cultivating the understanding that the body will get old, sick, and die, of which the above excerpt is an example. The wisdom that can grow out of such contemplation relates to the Buddha's teachings on suffering, which permeate the book. On a practical, interpersonal level, he also suggests that such insight can help us to be more sympathetic towards others, including those we don't particularly like, for we can see that they too are subject to old age, sickness, and death, like us. This down-to-earth application of Buddhist teachings and techniques is one of Ajahn Brahm's outstanding features as a teacher, and is very much to the benefit of his readers. Another wonderful example of this real life Buddhist wisdom is in the final excerpt below. In conclusion then, if you are serious about Buddhist practice, especially meditation, this book is an invaluable companion for your journey to your true self, the not-self that lies at the end of the Buddha's path.

"Living in Australia, I often see kangaroos fighting over the monastery's leftover food. You notice how greedy they are, just like human beings. But since you know that's the nature of the world and that you can't do anything about it, you just smile and let it go. In the same way, although you can do only so much about other people's suffering, you can pull out your own mental arrow and learn to be at peace. Then you know that the only way suffering is fully eliminated is through the freedom of never being reborn again.In the end, that's the only thing you can wish for. And indeed, wishing nibbana for yourself and others is the highest form of loving-kindness." 
(Ibid. pp.130/131)

The above book is published by Wisdom Publications, and is available from their website at: 


Now said...

Thank you for informing me about this book, it sounds like a wonderful book to read!

Matt W said...

I love Ajahn Brahm - looking forward to reading this. Sounds great. Thanks for the review!

G said...

Now: My pleasure; I really do recommend it. It's a book that informs & well as challenges!

Matt W: Yes, he's a powerful Dharma teacher, for sure. And very different in many ways to another favourite of mine, Ajahn Sumedho.

Brian Ruhe said...

I just led a meditation retreat yesterday with 25 people with this book as the theme of the retreat- mindfulness of sensations. It's very good teachings for practice!
I'm in Vancouver at
Brian Ruhe

G said...

Thanks for the comment, Brian.
Checked out the link and enjoyed reading through the website. I'm sure Ajahn Brahm's book supplied great themes for your retreat. It's wonderful to read of your efforts to share the Dharma in Vancouver. Walk on!