On my last retreat I had the good fortune to bring along the absolutely wonderful new book by Ajahn Brahm, The Art of Disappearing. Ajahn Brahm is the abbot of a thriving monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia. He was born in England but ordained in Thailand under Ajahn Chah. Lately Ajahn Brahm has become (even more) famous for his part in the ordination of bhikkhunis.
If you know the story, skip ahead. If not, here’s the short version: Officially bhukkhuni (nun’s) order died out in the Theravada centuries ago. Fortunately, it survived in some Mahayana countries, so it was revived some years ago in Sri Lanka. In Thailand, however, it is actually illegal to declare yourself a Buddhist nun. This leads to a fair amount of institutionalized sexism and other ugly business. Almost unbelievably, the monasteries in the Ajahn Chah tradition in the West have generally followed in this pattern. Bhikkhuni ordination requires the participation of bhikkhus, so a couple of years ago when so women wanted to ordain, they asked Ajahn Brahm to participate. He didn’t ordain the women as is sometimes reported. Rather, he played a part in the ceremony. For his troubles, he was summoned back to Thailand where he was reprimanded.
At the behest of the monks there he promised not to take part in any bhikkhuni ordinations, but when he refused to rescind the ordinations that had already happened (which can’t really be done according to vinaya anyway), he was kicked out of the community of Ajahn Chah. Amazingly, the Western ajahns generally refused to support him or the nuns. There’s more to be said on this topic, but for the moment it is only background and does figure in The Art of Disappearing.
As the author admits up front, The Art of Disappearing isn’t a book in the normal sense. It is, rather a collection of dhamma talks curated and edited by Ajahn Brahmali. Many of these talk can be found as mp3s or even videos on Youtube for free, so why bother shelling out $16 bucks?
The answer for me is that it was as perfect little companion for a solo meditation retreat. On retreat, it’s usually not a great idea to spend a lot of time reading. On the other hand, there are times when that perfect little bit of advice or encouragement is exactly what the doctor ordered to get your meditation back strong. I suspect that this book was made exactly for that purpose. It appears that most of the talks were given to people on retreat, and the aim is to guide and direct someone doing a lot of meditation. I can see what it’s not advertised as such. After all there’s a bigger market for Buddhists in general than there are Buddhists on solo meditation retreat!
Before Ajahn Brahm was known for bhikkhuni ordination, he was most famous for his full throated defense of jhana. It seems strange that the final step of the eightfold path needed defense, but that’s how things evolved. It took teachers like A.B. to bring it back to prominence within the living Theravada. His article Travelogue of the Jhanas was passed around for years as almost a “hidden teaching”.
Even now his teachings are at odds with most meditation teachers in the West. But Ajahn Brahm has the better of it. He is the preeminent meditation teacher in the English language. One controversial point within jhana meditation is whether the 5 senses are still active in jhana or whether they “shut down”. Ajahn Brahm teaches the second point. I’ve often felt that “shutting down” was rather the wrong metaphor. The senses don’t shut down, it’s just that our attention is so focused on the meditation, that we are not plugging in to that stimulus. It’s less like, say, going blind and more like losing track of time when you become absorbed in a craft project. For A.B. this is not a bug, it’s a major feature. It’s only when we shut down the firehouse of sensations that we can truly know the mind.
This is not, in my opinion, a book for beginners. Ajahn Brahm doesn’t shy away from the more difficult teachings. In fact, he puts them front and center. His teachings on free will are challenging. Challenging for anyone, anywhere. Challenging because they run counter to the absolute root delusions we have of ourselves. But I don’t know of a better teacher in the English language to have as a guide.