In the quote below, “the Dhamma” refers to both the teachings of the Buddha and to the fundamental truth of how things are.
So whether you are talking about the Dhamma or listening to it, you should know the Dhamma. You needn’t wonder where the Dhamma is, it’s right here. No matter where you go to study the Dhamma, it is really in the mind. The mind is the one who clings, the mind is the one who speculates, the mind is the one who transcends, who lets go. All this external study is really about the mind. No matter if you study the Tipiṭaka**, the Abhidhamma or whatever, don’t forget where it came from.
When it comes to the practice, the only things you really need to make a start are honesty and integrity, you don’t need to make a lot of trouble for yourself. None of you laypeople have studied the Tipiṭaka, but you are still capable of greed, anger and delusion, aren’t you? Where did you learn about these things from? Did you have to read the Tipiṭaka or the Abhidhamma to have greed, hatred and delusion? Those things are already there in your mind, you don’t have to study books to have them. But the teachings are for inquiring into and abandoning these things.
Let the knowing spread from within you and you will be practising rightly. If you want to see a train, just go to the central station, you don’t have to go travelling all the way up the Northern Line, the Southern Line, the Eastern Line and the Western Line to see all the trains. If you want to see trains, every single one of them, you’d be better off waiting at Grand Central Station, that’s where they all terminate.
– from Toward the Unconditioned in The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah
**(1) the sutras (discourses), (2) the vinaya (monastic rules), and (3) the abhidhamma (analysis)
This analogy, of the mind as central station, has been very helpful to me. Often we think that the problem is somewhere “out there”, but as Ajahn Chah says, the problems (and freedoms) all originate and terminate in our minds. If we’re looking elsewhere, we won’t find the causes of our suffering or the remedies.
Sometimes, naturally enough, we want to know why difficulties arise; what made this or that happen? We can drive ourselves mad with these thoughts. The Buddha was focused not on the why, but on what the problem is and how to handle it. The workings of karma are impenetrable to the ordinary mind; the Buddha once said that if we tried to figure out the causes for all the things that go on, our heads might explode! Maybe we should leave that aside and focus on diagnosing and addressing our concerns, individually, as they arise. The Buddha gave us a framework for working with all our mind states. If we bring our honesty and integrity to bear, our progress is assured.