Venerable Ajahn Chah was born
on June 17, 1918 in a small village near the town of Ubon Rajathani,
North-East Thailand. After finishing his basic schooling, he spent three
years as a novice before returning to lay life to help his parents on the
farm. At the age of twenty, however, he decided to resume monastic life,
and on April 26, 1939 he received upasampada (bhikkhu ordination). Ajahn
Chah's early monastic life followed a traditional pattern, of studying
Buddhist teachings and the Pali scriptural language. In his fifth year his
father fell seriously ill and died, a blunt reminder of the frailty and
precariousness of human life. It caused him to think deeply about life's
real purpose, for although he had studied extensively and gained some
proficiency in Pali, he seemed no nearer to a personal understanding of
the end of suffering. Feelings of disenchantment set in, and finally (in
1946) he abandoned his studies and set off on mendicant pilgrimage.
He walked some 400 km to Central Thailand, sleeping in forests and
gathering almsfood in the villages on the way. He took up residence in a
monastery where the vinaya (monastic discipline) was carefully studied and
practiced. While there he was told about Venerable Ajahn Mun Buridatto, a
most highly respected Meditation Master. Keen to meet such an accomplished
teacher, Ajahn Chah set off on foot for the Northeast in search of him.
At this time Ajahn Chah was wrestling with a crucial problem. He had
studied the teachings on morality, meditation and wisdom, which the texts
presented in minute and refined detail, but he could not see how they
could actually be put into practice. Ajahn Mun told him that although the
teachings are indeed extensive, at their heart they are very simple. With
mindfulness established, if it is seen that everything arises in the
heart-mind. ..right there is the true path of practice. This succinct and
direct teaching was a revelation for Ajahn Chah, and transformed his
approach to practice. The Way was clear.
For the next seven years Ajahn Chah practiced in the style of the
austere Forest Tradition, wandering through the countryside in quest of
quiet and secluded places for developing meditation. He lived in tiger and
cobra infested jungles, using reflections on death to penetrate to the
true meaning of life. On one occasion he practiced in a cremation ground,
to challenge and eventually overcome his fear of death. Then, as he sat
cold and drenched in a rainstorm, he faced the utter desolation and
loneliness of a homeless monk.
In 1954, after years of wandering, he was invited back to his home
village. He settled close by, in a fever ridden, haunted forest called
'Pah Pong'. Despite the hardships of malaria, poor shelter and sparse
food, disciples gathered around him in increasing numbers. The monastery,
which is now known as Wat Pah Pong began there, and eventually branch
monasteries were also, established elsewhere.
In 1967 an American monk came to stay at Wat Pah Pong. The newly
ordained Venerable Sumedho had just spent his first vassa ('Rains'
retreat) practicing intensive meditation at a monastery near the Laotian
border. Although his efforts had borne some fruit, Venerable Sumedho
realized that he needed a teacher who could train him in all aspects of
monastic life. By chance, one of Ajahn Chah's monks, one who happened to
speak a little English visited the monastery where Venerable Sumedho was
staying. Upon hearing about Ajahn Chah, he asked to take leave of his
preceptor, and went back to Wat Pah Pong with the monk. Ajahn Chah
willingly accepted the new disciple, but insisted that he receive no
special allowances for being a Westerner. He would have to eat the same
simple almsfood and practice in the same way as any other monk at Wat Pah
Pong. The training there was quite harsh and forbidding. Ajahn Chah often
pushed his monks to their limits, to test their powers of endurance so
that they would develop patience and resolution. He sometimes initiated
long and seemingly pointless work projects, in order to frustrate their
attachment to tranquility. The emphasis was always on surrender to the way
things are, and great stress was placed upon strict observance of the
In the course of events, other Westerners came through Wat Pah Pong.
By the time Venerable Sumedho was a bhikkhu of five vassas, and Ajahn Chah
considered him competent enough to teach, some of these new monks had also
decided to stay on and train there. In the hot season of 1975, Venerable
Sumedho and a handful of Western bhikkhus spent some time living in a
forest not far from Wat Pah Pong. The local villagers there asked them to
stay on, and Ajahn Chah consented. The Wat Pah Nanachat ('International
Forest Monastery') came into being, and Venerable Sumedho became the abbot
of the first monastery in Thailand to be run by and for English-speaking
In 1977, Ajahn Chah was invited to visit Britain by the English Sangha
Trust, a charity with the aim of establishing a locally-resident Buddhist
Sangha. He took Venerable Sumedho and Venerable Khemadhammo along, and
seeing the serious interest there, left them in London at the Hampstead
Vihara (with two of his other Western disciples who were then visiting
Europe). He returned to Britain in 1979, at which time the monks were
leaving London to begin Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in Sussex. He then
went on to America and Canada to visit and teach. After this trip, and
again in 1981, Ajahn Chah spent the 'Rains' away from Wat Pah Pong, since
his health was failing due to the debilitating effects of diabetes. As his
illness worsened, he would use his body as a teaching, a living example of
the impermanence of all things. He constantly reminded people to endeavor
to find a true refuge within themselves, since he would not be able to
teach for very much longer. Before the end of the 'Rains' of 1981, he was
taken to Bangkok for an operation; it, however, did little to improve his
condition. Within a few months he stopped talking, and gradually he lost
control of his limbs until he was virtually paralyzed and bed-ridden. From
then on, he was diligently and lovingly nursed and attended by devoted
disciples, grateful for the occasion to offer service to the teacher who
so patiently and compassionately showed the Way to so many.
What is contemplation ?
Dharma talk By Ven. Ajahn Chah
The following teaching is taken
from a session of questions and answers that took place at Wat Gor Nork
monastery during the Vassa of 1979, between Venerable Ajahn Chah and a
group of English-speaking disciples. Some rearrangement of the sequence
of conversation has been made for ease of understanding.
The knowing that arises is above and beyond the process of thinking. It
leads to not being fooled by thinking any more.
When you teach about the value of contemplation, are you speaking of
sitting and thinking over particular themes - the thirty-two parts of the
body, for instance?
Answer: That is not necessary when the mind is truly still.
When tranquility is properly established the right object of investigation
becomes obvious. When contemplation is 'True', there is no discrimination
into 'right' and 'wrong'. 'good' and 'bad'; there is nothing even like
that. You don't sit there thinking, 'Oh, this is like that and that is
like this' etc. That is a coarse form of contemplation. Meditative
contemplation is not merely a matter of thinking -- rather it's what we
call 'contemplation in silence'. Whilst going about our daily routine we
mindfully consider the real nature of existence through comparisons. This
is a coarse kind of investigation but it leads to the real thing.
When you talk about
contemplating the body and mind, though, do we actually use thinking? Can
thinking produce true insight? Is this vipassana?
In the beginning
we need to work using thinking, even though later on we go beyond it.
When we are doing true contemplation all dualistic thinking has ceased;
although we need to consider dualistically to get started. Eventually all
thinking and pondering comes to an end.
You say that there must be
sufficient tranquility (samadhi) to contemplate. Just how tranquil do you
Tranquil enough for
there to be presence of mind.
Do you mean staying with the
here-and-now, not thinking about the past and future?
Thinking about the
past and future is all right if you understand what these things really
are, but you must not get caught up in them. Treat them the same as you
would anything else -- don't get caught up. When you see thinking as just
thinking, then that's wisdom. Don't believe in any of it! Recognize that
all of it is just something that has arisen and will cease. Simply see
everything just as it is -- it is what it is -- the mind is the mind --
it's not anything or anybody in itself. Happiness is just happiness,
suffering is just suffering -- it is just what it is. When you see this
you will be beyond doubt.
I still don't understand. Is
true contemplating the same as thinking?
We use thinking
as a tool, but the knowing that arises because of its use is above and
beyond the process of thinking; it leads to our not being fooled by our
thinking any more. You recognize that all thinking is merely the movement
of the mind, and also that knowing is not born and doesn't die. What do
you think all this movement called 'mind' comes out of? What we talk
about as the mind -- all the activity -- is just the conventional mind.
It's not the real mind at all. What is real just IS, it's not arising and
it's not passing away. Trying to understand these things just by talking
about them, though, won't work. We need to really consider impermanence,
unsatisfactoriness and impersonality (anicca, dukkha, anatta); that is, we
need to use thinking to contemplate the nature of conventional reality.
What comes out of this work is wisdom -- and emptiness. Even though there
may still be thinking, it's empty -- you are not affected by it.
How can we arrive at this stage
of the real mind?
Your work with
the mind you already have, of course! See that all that arises is
uncertain, that there is nothing stable or substantial. See it clearly
and see that there is really nowhere to take a hold of anything -- it's
all empty. When you see the things that arise in the mind for what they
are, you won't have to work with thinking any more. You will have no
doubt whatsoever in these matters. To talk about the 'real mind' and so
on, may have a relative use in helping us understand. We invent names for
the sake of study, but actually nature just is how it is. For example,
sitting here downstairs on the stone floor. The floor is the base --
it's not moving or going anywhere. Upstairs, above us is what has arisen
out of this. Upstairs is like everything that we see in our minds: form,
feeling, memory, thinking. Really, they don't exist in the way we presume
they do. They are merely the conventional mind. As soon as they arise,
they pass away again; they don't really exist in themselves.
There is a story in the scriptures about Venerable Sariputta examining
a bhikkhu before allowing him to go off wandering (dhutanga vatta). He
asked him how he would reply if he was questioned, 'What happens to the
Buddha after he dies?' The bhikkhu replied, 'When form, feeling,
perception, thinking and consciousness arise, they pass away.' Venerable
Sariputta passed him on that.
Practice is not just a matter of talking about arising and passing
away, though. You must see it for yourself. When you are sitting, simply
see what is actually happening. Don't follow anything. Contemplation
doesn't mean being caught up in thinking. The contemplative thinking of
one on the Way is not the same as the thinking of the world. Unless you
understand properly what is meant by contemplation, the more you think the
more confused you will become.
The reason we make such a point of the cultivation of mindfulness is
because we need to see clearly what is going on. We must understand the
processes of our hearts. When such mindfulness and understanding are
present, then everything is taken care of. Why do you think one who knows
the Way never acts out of anger or delusion? The causes for these things
to arise are simply not there. Where would they come from? Mindfulness
has got everything covered.
Is this mind you are talking
about called the 'Original Mind'?
What do you
It seems as if you are saying
there is something else outside of the conventional body-mind (the five
khandhas). Is there something else? What do you call it?
anything and we don't call it anything -- that's all there is to it! Be
finished with all of it. Even the knowing doesn't belong to anybody, so
be finished with that, too! Consciousness is not an individual, not a
being, not a self, not an other, so finish with that -- finish with
everything! There is nothing worth wanting! It's all just a load of
trouble. When you see clearly like this then everything is finished.
Could we not call it the
You can call it
that if you insist. You can call it whatever you like, for the sake of
conventional reality. But you must understand this point properly. This
is very important. If we didn't make use of conventional reality we
wouldn't have any words or concepts with which to consider actual reality
-- Dhamma. This is very important to understand.
What degree of tranquility are
you talking about at this stage? And what quality of mindfulness is
You don't need
to go thinking like that. If you didn't have the right amount of
tranquility you wouldn't be able to deal with these questions at all.
You need enough stability and concentration to know what is going on --
enough for clarity and understanding to arise.
Asking questions like this shows that you are still doubting. You
need enough tranquility of mind to no longer get caught in doubting what
you are doing. If you had done the practice you would understand these
things. The more you carry on with this sort of questioning, the more
confusing you make it. It's all right to talk if the talking helps
contemplation, but it won't show you the way things actually are. This
Dhamma is not understood because somebody else tells you about it, you
must see it for yourself -- paccattam. If you have the quality of
understanding that we have been talking about, then we say that your duty
to do anything is over; which means that you don't do anything. If there
is still something to do, then it's your duty to do it.
Simply keep putting everything down, and know that that is what you are
doing. You don't need to be always checking up on yourself, worrying
about things like 'How much samadhi' -- it will always be the right
amount. Whatever arises in your practice, let it go; know it all as
uncertain, impermanent. Remember that! It's all uncertain. Be finished
with all of it. This is the Way that will take you to the source -- to
your Original Mind.
Update : 01-04-2003