Interview with Leigh Brasington

by Gail Gokey

The following article contains excerpts from an interview conducted by Steve Johnston in October, 1996 in the San Francisco Bay area.

I grew up in a small town in Mississippi as the son of a Presbyterian preacher. I have grandparents on every side in every generation as far back as I can trace that are preachers, mostly Baptist. So, I was born with some sort of spiritual genes or something. I went to a Presbyterian college, Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Actually, the summer before I went there I rejected the conservative, fundamentalist Presbyterianism I was brought up with, and I spent the next 18 years being a very confirmed agnostic.

There was nothing spiritual that I believed in, but during that time I did spend three years taking a trip around the world. I spent nine months of that trip in Asia where it is impossible not to encounter the spiritual dimension of life. It's evident there in a way that's not evident in the West at all. India's spirituality is as obvious as cars in America. It's unmistakable - it's quite amazing. Nepal and India were the most influential in terms of seeing that there was something else. I had been in Burma and Thailand which are Buddhist countries and had been very much influenced by the Buddhism I came in contact with: the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Even in Indonesia and Malaysia which are more Muslim countries, the amount of spirituality was certainly more evident than what you see in the West. By the time I left Asia I was certainly much more aware of the spiritual dimension of life than I had ever been, but I wasn't doing anything about it.

After I returned home, I was living in San Francisco and one night in 1985 I had an urge to go buy some spiritual books. I had had a dream earlier in the week which consisted of two words: "Tantric Yoga," spoken in a loud voice, then I woke up. I thought maybe I should go find some books; find out what Tantric Yoga was about. So I went over to the local bookstore, the Green Apple, at 10 o'clock on a Friday night and bought all these books with Tantric in the title. None of which made any sense to me when I tried to read them, but I had bought a book by Houston Smith called The Religions of Man. I had seen Houston Smith in college where he had been invited as a guest lecturer a couple of times. I was very impressed with him. I recognized his name and that was the first book I read which really gave me a background in what are the traditional religions and teachings. I can't say I learned anything spiritual, but at least I had an overview, a roadmap of the paths from their starting point.

I continued to play around in various sorts of things. I remember reading Chogyam Trungpa's Shambala and Alan Watt's The Way of Zen. But it was all dabbling, all intellectual stuff. It wasn't until I did my first retreat that I got serious about it.

Meditation was first recommended to me in late 1984 when I had injured my knees and was seeing a massage therapist who was a student of Ruth Dennison's. Other people had also talked with me about doing meditation around this same time. I was unemployed at the time, so I went to a 10-day retreat down in the desert at Dhamma Dena in June of '85. The retreat was with Ayya Khema, who I'd never heard of before. She gave an evening talk at the San Francisco Zen Center - I went to hear her talk, thought she was pretty good, and signed up for the retreat. She was my first teacher.

I got nothing out of that retreat for the first seven days, except excruciatingly bored. On the seventh day she showed us the sweeping meditation method, which I really connected with. I used the sweeping technique to basically give me something to do instead of being bored. I found that after I had completed the sweep I could follow my breath for a few minutes. The sweeping became my basic technique and when I went home I continued to do it for awhile. Ayya had also given me a really good background. She wasn't teaching the Jhanas openly at that time. She would teach them in the interviews to people who were ready for them. I just got the basic Buddhist instructions: the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, the Five Hindrances. I particularly remember the teaching on the hindrances as being the one that really made the biggest impact.

I think one of the reasons I was so struck by what I learned from her was because she had presented such a complete picture; although, unlike the way she teaches retreats now, it wasn't based on a sutta.

My second retreat was three years later in Thailand at Wat Suan Mokkha, Buddhadasa's place. He gave one of the Dharma talks, but his health was not particularly good at that time and the retreat was basically taught by Bukkhu Santicaro and the other monks there. That was where I got into the first Jhana for the first time. I had no idea it was Jhana. I knew it was piti. They talk about piti and sukkha at Suan Mokkha as part of Buddhadasa's mindfulness of breathing approach.

I went around meditating for the next two years, getting into piti, and asking all the teachers "now what?" I signed up for another retreat with Ayya because I'd sat with her before and thought she was a good teacher. I go in for my interview and give the usual "I can get to Piti - now what?" She says, "Oh good! That's the first Jhana. Here's how you get to the second." It was like this incredible light going on. That was in 1990.


What I want to teach is the Jhanas as a meditation technique and how that technique fits into the broader spectrum of Sila, Samadhi, Pannya: morality, concentration, wisdom. The Jhanas are not being taught openly by hardly anyone besides Ayya. I've been doing the first Jhana since 1988 and learned the others from Ayya over the next few years. I have some facility for doing the Jhanas and have been doing them for a number of years. Ayya wants me to teach the Jhanas. I'm not going to tell anybody how to get enlightened because I haven't got a clue. If I knew, I'd go do it. I think I do have an understanding of how to get into the Jhanas and how to use the Jhanas in a spiritual practice. That's what I want to teach.

There's the morality part. You clean up your act. You get your lifestyle to such a place that you don't really have that many negative things impinging on you when you sit down to meditate. Then you do the concentration practice, the Samadhi practice which is the Jhana practice. Once you have gotten a concentrated mind you then turn that concentrated mind to wisdom practices, to insight practices.

When I say "do" the Jhanas it's more of how you don't get in their way since the Jhanas are naturally arising mental phenomena. The doing of the Jhanas consists of not blocking them from arising. It's setting up the conditions and just sitting there watching them arise.

The Buddha taught a path of Sila, Samadhi, Pannya. Sila is best exemplified in the Five Precepts; Samadhi best exemplified in the Jhanas, and Pannya is the insight practices. There's a lot of people teaching various vipassana practices. Everyone talks about the Five Precepts, but it's the concentration part that really gets left out.

My favorite way of thinking about the Jhanas is thinking of Manjushri, who is the Tibetans' Bodhisattva of Wisdom. He is always pictured with a sword in his hand. The sword is used to cut through the bonds of ignorance. Doing the Jhanas is sharpening the sword.

If I give you a 2x4 and a butter knife and tell you to cut your way through it, which is probably easier than getting enlightened, you're going to have a long, hard work. But, if you take that butter knife and go put an edge on it first, it's still going to be a lot of long, hard work, but it'll go a lot faster. That's what the Jhanas are all about. You sharpen that butter knife to turn it into a sword for cutting through the bonds of ignorance. Doing the Jhanas enables you to get your ego quiet and leaves you with a mind that can much more clearly see things as they are. Then when you begin doing your insight practice which is what's going to get you the enlightenment, the liberation, you can do it much more efficiently. The skillful way to do the Jhanas is to do as much as you know of them in the first half of the sitting; then in the rest of the sitting, you do an insight practice. You've still got to learn to wield the sword. Just because you've got a sharp sword doesn't mean you're going to wield it correctly, so it's very necessary to learn at least one effective insight practice.

One of the translations for piti, which is the primary factor of the first Jhana, is interest. If you sit down and you have a good time when you meditate, you'll be interested in meditating. For me it made a big difference in my approach to meditation. I no longer did the meditation because I thought it was important to do; I did the meditation because I wanted to meditate.

I think anybody who does the Jhanas in this very inquisitive culture is going to be bored with simply getting high on the first Jhana over and over again. I know I did very quickly. Within six months of getting into piti for the first time, I was pestering every teacher I met with, "OK, now what?" I prefer people to have done at least two 1-week or longer meditation retreats before attending this one, and to have a close to daily sitting practice. Other than that and a willingness to learn there is probably no other requirement. I don't want this to be a place where people come and learn about the retreat experience. I want them to have already had their had their first and second retreat experience so they know that all retreats are different. I also want people who come on this retreat to realize that probably less than half the people will get into the Jhanas. On Ayya's retreats of this length, approximately half the people are able to get into the Jhanas. On her longer retreats of a month or so, I'd say probably 95% of the people are able to get at least into the first Jhana. Come with no expectations, or at least as few as possible and the orientation of the retreat will be about the Jhanas.

If you want to practice for the retreat, I would say at least sit for 45 minutes six days a week and be in that mode for more than a few days before you come on retreat. The access to the first Jhana is possible through concentration on following the breath or through metta. If you've had metta experience, you should brush that up. If you want to go in through pure concentration on the breath, you want to watch the breath in the most subtle way you can: Ayya always suggests that people watch it in the nose. If you've been watching the breath in a place other than inside the nose, it would probably be beneficial to switch to watching in the nose simply because it's going to require more concentration.

The other thing is that piti is a really joyous, happy, euphoric experience. Now you notice all these Buddha statues that you see have got this little smile on their face; that's a teaching tool. When you sit and meditate you should have that little smile on your face. I know you don't feel like smiling. Why should you put this fake smile here when you don't feel like smiling. I had the same questions and the same objections for years. I discovered that the smile is a very good key to getting into the first Jhana. Once your mind gets concentrated the way into the first Jhana is to switch your attention to a pleasant physical sensation. If you wanted an unpleasant sensation, no problem, just watch your knee pain, but the pleasant one you're going to need to have one, or have brought one along with you. It's be a lot more useful to have brought one along with you. If you've made a habit of always smiling when you sit, when you get concentrated that smile will begin to feel more genuine and you can switch your attention to the pleasant physical sensation of that smile. If you leave your concentration there, don't try to do anything with it, just watch it, then piti will automatically arise. So prep work: a daily sitting practice, watch your breath in the way that requires as much concentration as possible, and smile.

For this retreat, the main teaching I see taking place is in the interviews. I don't think I'm going to teach people to do the Jhanas by saying "OK, here's how you do it." I think I will probably be most effective in interview with the students saying this is what happens when I sit. This is what I feel. This is where my mind goes. Then I can try to point them in the right direction. In assisting Ayya with her retreats, I have talked with more than a dozen students who said I got into this first Jhana on a retreat several years ago and nobody could tell me what to do; or this happened spontaneously. There are a lot of people out there who are getting into the Jhana and don't know where to go from there.

The key to getting into the first Jhana is not trying to make it happen. The key to getting into the first Jhana is setting up the conditions and sitting back and letting it arise all by itself without your doing a thing, knowing all along you want it. There's a beautiful insight that comes when you see that the first Jhana arises when you manage not to grasp, when you just let it arise.

The sweeping technique is an insight practice, however, I found when I first started that when I do a sweep afterwards I'm more concentrated. So, I will teach it fairly early in the retreat so that people can use this to start increasing their concentration.

Ayya Khema talks about the Jhanas and how they're becoming a lost art. This knowledge needs to be passed on. She thinks I have enough knowledge to pass it on and I should get out there and pass it on. The coming up there and doing is easy; whether anybody learns anything, I don't know. I don't know the way to the top of the mountain. I don't know how to tell people to get enlightened. I do know eight altered states of consciousness, each of which produces more concentration than previous. A concentrated mind is much more useful for gaining insight than an unconcentrated mind. This is all I really know. Hopefully somebody can take their concentrated mind and gain a lot more insight than me and show me the way.

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