My dharma teacher Jack Kornfield practiced in the 1960s and 70s in Wat Ba Pong forest monastery in Thailand under the guidance of the meditation master Ajahn Chah.
Since the lineage of our own sangha stems from that same ancient Thai forest tradition that still closely adheres to the Buddha’s teachings, I’d like to tell you some inspiring stories about Ajahn Chah taken from Jack’s recent book, Bringing Home the Dharma.
Ajahn Chah demonstrated that a simple and austere life could be a path to awakening.
He described two levels of spiritual practice:
On the first level, we use the dharma to become more comfortable, to quiet the mind and to live in harmony with others.
On the second level, we no longer seek comfort, but instead bring consciousness to every circumstance in order to be free.
Ajahn Chah offered four major teachings to practitioners, first instructing them to surrender to the reality of challenging circumstances.
As part of their training in surrendering, Jack and other monks meditated without cushions on a stone floor, and they were expected to listen respectfully to dharma talks, which lasted as long as five hours.
On morning alms walks, the monks learned to accept pleasant and unpleasant weather and whatever food was offered.
Last Friday morning, when the rain clouds seemed to be clearing, Mark and I took our dog Marisol on a walk around our neighborhood. When Mark suggested that we bring umbrellas, I answered, “No, it’s been raining for days, and the storms must be over by now.” My confidence was short-lived. By the time we reached North Boulevard, a half-hour away from home, the sky was dark, a cool wind was blowing, and thunder was rumbling. We quickened our pace, but we were caught in a drenching downpour. I did my best to follow the example of Ajahn Chah’s monks, by surrendering to the situation and noting, “Damp, wet, soaked, soggy, chilly, cold, etc.” Hunching my shoulders to resist the storm was laughably ineffective, so it was an ideal situation to practice surrendering. I noticed trees, which had been parched in last year’s drought, being nourished by the inundation. As I spread my hands to catch raindrops, I could appreciate the unexpected chance to experience natural elements directly without the usual protection of a climate-controlled space.
Of course, by surrendering to uncomfortable circumstances that are beyond our control, we are practicing for more profound forms of surrender and ultimately for letting go into death when the time comes. At Houston Hospice, I witness some patients who struggle to hold onto life until the very last moment. Other patients seem to accept physical impermanence with a measure of equanimity. Each person whom I see at the threshold between life and death teaches me lessons about this final stage of surrender.
Ajahn Chah’s second major teaching was to be honest with oneself, to open up to each experience and to see clearly what’s true.
He freely admitted the difficulties he had experienced during his training as a monk—body pain, sickness, doubts, and tears.
To encourage students to look at their own mental patterns with honesty and compassion, he often teased them about their attachments to food, sleep, or comfort.
He drew attention to how many opinions students had about themselves, their practice, the teachings, and the world in general.
In referring to students who were too clever to listen, Ajahn Chah said, “It’s like water in a cup. If the cup is filled with dirty, stale water, it’s useless.” A mind that is empty of opinions can learn and see things as they truly are.
Once Jack accused his teacher of not acting enlightened because his instructions to some monks contradicted his lessons for others.
Ajahn Chah laughed and replied, “It’s a good thing that I don’t look enlightened to you….If I did, you would still be caught in looking for the Buddha outside yourself. You cannot look outside and find enlightenment. Each person is different. Freedom doesn’t come from imitating others.
If you want to know about freedom, it only comes in your heart, when you are not attached to things….Looking outside yourself is comparing, discriminating: it will bring you more suffering. You won’t find happiness or peace looking for the perfect man or the perfect teacher. The Buddha taught us to look at the dharma, the truth, not to look at other people.” Ajahn Chah advised practitioners to pay attention to what was happening inside themselves, rather than making comparisons with others.
I remember confronting Jack about how he didn’t respond to letters I wrote him. He cheerfully admitted, “I’m not a good correspondent.” With that simple response, he helped me stop idealizing him or taking personally unanswered letters.
Ajahn Chah’s third major teaching was the importance of working directly with difficulties as they arise.
He would ask people, “Are you suffering today?”
If they answered, “No,” he’d laugh in approval.
When they admitted, “Yes,” he’d respond compassionately,” Ah you must be very attached today.”
He made it simple to observe how attachment leads to suffering.
According to the tradition of forest monasteries, Ajahn Chah would push monks to do whatever they disliked.
If people were afraid, he would direct them into their fears, sending those who were afraid to be alone into the forest at night.
For someone who was bored or restless, he’d arrange for them to sit for long periods of time to feel fully the resistance of the small self, the “I, ” until it died away. Ajahn Chah, recommended that Jack deal with anger by staying in a hot hut and wrapping himself in warm clothes until he had fully experienced the fires of rage.
Near the end of a month-long retreat, when I had been through a regressive experience, and I was still feeling like a vulnerable child, Jack gave me an assignment to deal with the outside world. In trepidation, I left the shelter of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, walked to the Deli in Woodacre, waited in line where people were talking and reading newspaper articles about the Iraq war, selected food from what seemed like endless options, and figured out how much money I needed to pay for my meal. This rehearsal helped me regain confidence in my adult coping skills. After the retreat ended, I was prepared to deal with busy airports on my way home.
From the renowned forest master Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Chah learned to stop focusing on the many different states and experiences that occur during meditation, but instead to turn directly to awareness, the essence of mind, to make himself a witness to all that arises and passes, whether joyful or sorrowful.
Ajahn Chah practiced to become what he called “the One Who Knows,” resting in the conscious awareness that knows the ever-changing conditions of life.
This awareness is unconditioned, the original mind.
He stated, “Sitting for hours on end is not necessary. Some people think that the longer you can sit, the wiser you must be. I’ve seen chickens sit on their nests for days on end. Wisdom comes from being mindful in all postures. Your practice should begin as you waken in the morning, and it should continue until you fall asleep. Everyone has [a unique,] natural pace. Some of you will die at age fifty, some at age sixty-five, and some at ninety—so too your practice will be different. Don’t think or worry about this. Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become quieter and quieter in any surroundings; it will become still like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful and rare animals will come to drink at the pool….But you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.”
Ajahn Chah’s fourth major teaching was to live in balance with the simplicity of the Middle Path, to rest in the reality of the present moment, wherever we are.
He taught students to combine the ultimate level of the dharma with the practical level.
At the ultimate level, we rest in awareness as the One Who Knows and see the timeless dance of existence— all that arises, days, eons, and galaxies. On the practical level, we attend to the moments we are allotted, and try to live with mindfulness and compassion, being honest with ourselves and caring towards others.
These four teachings about surrender, honesty, facing difficulties, and living in balance are at the heart of our Vipassana practice today.
Let’s hear your questions and comments about these teachings in our lineage.