When the Iron Eagle Flies: Buddhism for the West (Arkana) Paperback – 28 Mar 1991
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Having said that, I would call this book "an important addition to your library on meditation", but not necessarily a must read. I actually feel terrible saying that because her teachings have been so important to me. I have been looking for that all elusive "one book on meditation" for many years now, and have yet to find it. This one doesn't quite qualify, either.
Having said that, what is presented here is a meditational system, one that feels like a combination of what Ayya Khema discovered on her own - no easy task, to be sure - and what she got from her teachers. For example, she gives two examples of "sweeping". One is a "concentration" practice (samadhi), and one is a "feelings" (vedana) practice. These are (I believe) Burmese practices. I know some people for whom they have been helpful, and some for whom they have not been so helpful.
Ayya Khema comes from the Theravadan ("southern") school of Buddhism. This puts her practice closer to that of the Buddha's time, in contrast to later developments like Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. However, even in the Theravadan tradition there was a great deal of evolution over time. The sweeping meditation is an example of this. This is not, as far as we know, a meditational technique taught by the Buddha (although the Buddha taught a "wisdom" practice called "the 32 body parts" which might be considered similar). I mention this only because I think it is useful to understand what is an original teaching of the Buddha and what came later.
This book was taken (as far as I know) from her talks, many of which - over 400 - are available on the Internet. As often happens with books taken from talks there is something lost in translation. It doesn't have the tight feel of her retreat talks. I think the book could have used a somewhat more rigorous level of editing and organization.
My best suggestion for someone interested in this book is to find another one if it is your first book on meditation, perhaps one by Joseph Goldstein or Jack Kornfield, along with Sharon Salzberg's book on metta (loving-kindness) meditation. Then come back to this one and see how it fits into your practice. If you have already read a few books on meditation, then I would say this is a five star next read.
One area where Ayya Khema excels, and this is a rare area, is in teaching the "meditative absorptions", the jhanas. For reasons that escape me somewhat, the jhanas are a real hot button with most Buddhist teachers. They not only are not taught, they are actively discouraged. But the Buddha taught them ad nausem, so he obviously thought they were very important. In fact, the Buddha first taught sila - morality - to his followers, and then he taught jhana. Only after that, typically, did he teach the wisdom practices like Vipassana. This is not the way meditation is generally taught in the West. To be sure, the meditative absorptions are not easy to enter, but they are not impossible either. You do Not, as some would have you believe, have to go off on retreat for 3, 6 or 12 months.
The jhanas are an astonishing and dramatic gateway into attributes of samadhi: tranquility, happiness, calm, and stillness. In the second jhana you can step slightly sideways into true metta (loving-kindness), where the meditator - as the Buddha said - "abides pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth; so above, below, around, and everywhere, and to all as to himself, he abides pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill will. When the deliverance of mind by loving-kindness is developed in this way, no limiting action remains there, none persists there." It is quite a profound experience to be in a mind state where it is impossible to dislike anyone, even people who have completely opposing political views, where you can only feel love and compassion.
The jhanas also provide a taste of super-mundane equanimity (in the fourth jhana) and non-self (anatta). And of course the main purpose of jhana is to develop a mind that is razor-sharp, and can be used in the wisdom practices, giving insight into the three marks of existence: impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness/suffering (dukkha), and non-self.
There are other books on jhana, but I think the way Ayya Khma (and her American student Leigh Brasington) teach jhana is more accessible to most people.
In addition to this book I highly recommend listening to some of her retreat talks, which are available on Dharmaseed.org. Her 1994 retreat at Santa Cruz is very good. They may take a while to get through - and absorb (I always listen to her talks at least twice) - but are well worth it. This is a unique, highly qualified and accomplished teacher who, from my standpoint, is one of the very best.
I wish she'd spoken at greater length about her Buddhist training, but I'm happy to read anything she has to say.