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A Swift Pair of Messengers

Bhikkhu Sujato


‘ “This Dhamma is for one with samadhi, not for one without samadhi.” So it was said. For what reason was this said? Here, a monk ... enters and abides in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana.’[1]

The Buddha never divided the themes of meditation into two classes: samatha and vipassana. Nor did he divide meditators into two classes: the samatha practitioners and the vipassana practitioners. He taught the development of the mind for the ending of suffering. As mind is diverse, so too are the means of development diverse. But hypostatizing these different means into different paths only fractures the organic unity of the Dhamma. Some may walk to the left, some to the right; some faster, some slower; some with ease, some with difficulty; but the path itself is one.

‘This [eightfold path] is the only path
There is no other for the purification of vision

As we walk the path, we should not neglect to help each other when in need. So I have written this book with the sincere wish to enhance understanding and harmony between all aspirants in our approach to the Buddha's teachings. I am well aware that by insisting that there is only one true path to liberation I court the risk of being labeled intolerant. Many, rightly wary of the spectre of religious fanaticism, seek common ground between religions or between branches of the same religion by claiming that surface differences, arising as valid responses to the circumstances of time and place, mask an underlying unity. I believe this is mistaken. Certainly, the Buddha flat-out denied that his teaching was the same as any other. While many differences do indeed float only on the surface, in my opinion an honest appraisal shows that, among many similarities, some .meaningful differences persist even in the deep structures of religions ‑ in their philosophies, in the experiences of their sages, and in the sayings of their founders. But of course, non-identity does not mean complete separation or contradiction; it means distinct but related.

Anyway, mere tolerance is a stingy virtue. We should do more than tolerate, we should celebrate goodness wherever we find it. We should rejoice in whatever peace, wisdom, and fulfillment any spiritual practitioner finds in their chosen way. We should be happy to live together, talk together, and practice together in an spirit of mutual respect, mutual harmony, and mutual support even if we have differing views or practices.

Saying: ‘We should get along with them because, in the end, they're the same as us’ is in fact intolerant. We value others because they measure up to our standard; but we should value others because of their intrinsic worth, because they measure up to their own standard. More importantly, one treats the truth shabbily. Truth is one, and bows not to the whims of fashion. Here, surely, all would agree. The rich diversity of religious and philosophical doctrines in the world are attempts to represent that truth. The view that ‘It’s all the same in the end’ is just one more view. But it is a view perilously intolerant of reasoned inquiry. Declaring sensitive issues out of bounds for fear of disputes must be the surest way to sap religion’s vitality, relegating it to stagnation and irrelevance. Undertaking a reasoned, thoughtful critique grants those views the dignity of attention, and it grants the adherents of those views the dignity of taking part in such an inquiry. If the critique is pertinent they can correct their ideas; if it is misguided they can develop a more sophisticated account of their ideas. Investigation can distinguish between trivial and important differences of opinion, and clear the way for meaningful reconciliation.

‘Disputes about livelihood or the code of conduct are trifling, Ananda. But should disputes arise in the Sangha about the path or the way of practice [the thirty-seven wings of enlightenment], they would be for the harm and misfortune of many.’[3]

‘Only this is right ‑ everything else is stupid’: this is one extreme view. ‘It's all the same in the end’: this is a second extreme view. The Buddha taught us to avoid these extremes through analysis and inquiry: ‘What is the same? What is different?’

We may scour all the deserts on this broad earth and not find even two grains of sand that arc completely identical. Still less will we find two grains of sand that are utterly different. The true basis of compassion and respect is not a supposed identity of beliefs or paths, but our shared nature as sentient beings. We all feel pain. We are together in this lifeboat earth, drifting on the trackless seas, longing for a glimpse of land. As we share our sorrows, so too we share our joys. And of all joys, none compares with the joy of letting go. This joy belongs to no-one, lives in no country. It knows not name or face. It is our common heritage as children of the Tathagata.

‘ “One should know how to define bliss, and knowing that, one should pursue bliss within oneself.” So it was said. For what reason was this said?

‘The bliss and happiness that arise dependent on the five cords of sensual pleasure is called the bliss of sensual pleasure ‑ a filthy, coarse, ignoble bliss. I say that this bliss should not be cultivated, should not be developed, should not be made much of, but should be feared.

‘Here, a monk, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unbeneficial qualities, enters and abides in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana. This is called the bliss of renunciation, the bliss of seclusion, the bliss of peace, the bliss of enlightenment. I say that this bliss should be cultivated, should be developed, should be made much of, and should not be feared.’[4]

Meaning does not inhere in a text. Still less can it be extracted and distilled into a definitive, universal formula. Rather, it arises in the response of the reader. Each reader will respond in their own way. But within the spectrum of response one thing is sure ‑ Dhamma does not stop short with the written word.

‘What, Bhante, does “abider in Dhamma” refer to?’

‘Here, a monk studies the Dhamma ‑ the suttas, chants, expositions, verses, inspired sayings, “so it was said” sayings, birth stories, marvelous teachings, and catechisms. He does not waste his days with that Dhamma he has studied, he does not neglect retreat, he is devoted to samatha of the heart within. Thus, monk, a monk is an “abider in Dhamma”.

‘Thus, monk, I have taught you the monk who studies a lot, the one who teaches a lot, the one who recites a lot, the one who thinks a lot, and the one who abides in Dhamma. I have done for you what should be done by a Teacher seeking the welfare of his disciples out of compassion. Here, monk, are roots of trees, here are empty huts. Practice jhana, monk! Do not be negligent! Do not regret it later! This is our instruction to you.’[5]

Dhamma is no weekend pastime. A crash course in meditation cannot be expected to effect any substantial, lasting transformation. If we want quick results we are likely to end up either disappointed or deluded. But if we allow our lives to yield to the soft touch of the Dhamma, our minds will grow more and more peaceful as our attachments grow less and less. Samatha is not about trying very hard to scale some far-off mountain peak; it is about being content with the wholesome happiness of the present moment. This is beyond no-one’s reach. We usually underestimate the task; but we underestimate our own potential even more. Though the road may seem long, none can take more than one step at a time. Wherever we stand, forward is the only way.

‘I thought of a time when my Sakyan father was working and I was sitting in the shade of a rose-apple tree, where quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unbeneficial qualities, I entered and abode in the first jhana, with initial and sustained application of mind, and the rapture and bliss born seclusion. I thought: “Might that be the path to enlightenment?” Then following up that memory there came the awareness:

“That indeed is the path to enlightenment.” ’[6]


[1] A8.30

[2] Dhp 274

[3] M104.5

[4] M139.9 cp. M66.19-21

[5] A5.73

[6] M36.31, M85, M100


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last updated: 06-09-2004