DARKNESS CLIMBS THE WILD SAGEBRUSH SLOPES around the Metta Forest Monastery northeast of San Diego. Coyotes bark. In a leveled clearing, light spills out from a simple wooden shrine. Inside all is quiet except for a single voice—pausing . . . going on, pausing . . . going on again.

The Arhat Kalika, from Cave 17, Dunhuang, Tang Dynasty, 9th c. C.E., ink on paper, courtesy of The Trustees of The British Museum.


In clear and certain tones, the voice of Thanissaro Bhikkhu leads a guided meditation for a handful of people sitting Thai-style on their ankles under the gaze of a huge golden Buddha. There are three young men from the outskirts of Los Angeles, a lone schoolteacher from Alaska, a Thai family, and several women and men.

“We look for true happiness and think about where true happiness would be found. Breath anchors us in the present, but even there we find there is change, so we have to dig deeper. The breath and one’s inner happiness are the only real things to rely on. Why wouldn’t you want something you can rely on to be happy? So think about the breath—how the breath is shallow or deep, fast or slow—and concentrate on getting to know the breath.”

It is the voice of a farmer selling his crop to the shipper next door, smoothly arguing for the quality and ripeness of his produce. It’s a voice that recalls Thoreau. Economy, confidence, simplicity, reason. Indeed, it is Thoreau whom Thanissaro identities as one of his earliest heroes.

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