Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1990

Consciousness and Sensitivity; Ajahn Sumedho
Making Our Minds Up; Anagarika
Self-Training; Ajahn Chah
Living with Luang Por; Several Reflections


Living with Luang Por

A series of recollections from some of those who trained with Ajahn Chah, or had occasion to meet him during his active teaching years.

Paul Breiter (formerly Ven. Varapanno) writes of his early contact with Ajahn Chah (c. 1970)
One cold afternoon as we swept the monastery grounds with long-handled brooms, I thought how nice it would be, what a simple thing it really was, if we could have a sweet drink of sugary coffee or tea after working like that, to warm the bones and give us a little energy for meditation at night.

I had heard that Western monks in the forest tend to get infatuated with sweets, and finally the dam burst for me. One morning on pindapada, from the moment I walked out of the gate of the wat to the moment I came back in about 1 1/2 hours, I thought continually about sugar, candy, sweets, chocolate. Finally I sent a letter to a lay-supporter in Bangkok to send me some palm sugar-cakes. And I waited. The weeks went by. One day I went to town with a layman to get medicine. We stopped by the Post Office and my long-awaited package was there. It was huge, and ants were already at it.

When I got back to the wat, I took the box to my kuti [hut] and opened it. There were 20-25 pounds of palm and cane sugar cakes. I went wild, stuffing them down until my stomach ached. Then I thought I should share them (otherwise I might get very sick!), so I put some aside and took the rest to Ajahn Chah's kuti. He had the bell rung, all the monks and novices came, and everyone enjoyed a rare treat.

That night I ate more; and the next morning I couldn't control myself. The sugar cakes were devouring me; my blessing started to seem like a curse. So I took the cakes in a plastic bag and decided to go round the monks kutis and gave them away.

For a start I fell down my stairs and bruised myself nicely. The wooden stairs can get slippery in cold weather, and I wasn't being very mindful in my guilty, distressed state of mind.

The first kuti I went to had a light on inside, but I called and there was no answer. Finally after calling several times and waiting, the monk timidly asked who it was (I didn't yet understand how strong fear of ghosts is among those people). I offered his some sugar, and he asked me why I didn't want to keep it for myself. I tried to explain about my defiled state of mind. He took one (it was hard to get them to take much, as it is considered to be in very bad taste to display one's desire, or anger).

I repeated this with a few others, having little chats along the way. It was getting late, and although I hadn't unloaded all the sugar cakes, I headed back to my kuti. My flashlight batteries were almost dead, so I lit matches to try to have a view of the path - there were lots of poisonous things creeping and crawling around in the forest. I ran into some army ants, and experienced my first fiery sting. I got back to my kuti, feeling very foolish. In the morning I took the rest of the cakes and gave them to one of the senior monks, who I felt would have the wisdom and self-discipline to be able to handle them.

It was a foot in the door and a privilege. Through it, I was to start seeing that there was a way of life in the monastery which is rich, structured, and harmonious.

My heart grew heavy. I went to see Ajahn Chah in the afternoon to confess my sins. I felt like it was all over for me, there was no hope left.

He was talking with one old monk. I made the customary three prostrations, sat down and waited. When he acknowledged me, I blurted out: 'I'm impure, my mind is soiled, I'm no good....' He looked very concerned. 'What is it?' he asked. I told him my story.

Naturally he was amused, and within a few minutes I realised that he had me laughing. I was very light-hearted; the world was no longer about to end. In fact, I had forgotten about my burden. This was one of his most magical gifts. You could feel so burdened and depressed and hopeless, and after being around him for a few minutes it all vanished, and you found yourself laughing. Some times, you only needed to go and sit down at his kuti and be around him as he spoke with others. Even when he was away, I would get a 'contact high' of peacefulness as soon I got near his kuti to clean up or to sweep leaves.

He said, 'In the afternoon, when water-hauling is finished, you come here and clean up.' My first reaction was, 'He's got a lot of nerve, telling me to come and wait on him.' But, apart from being one of my duties, it was a foot in the door and a privilege. Through it, I was to start seeing that there was a way of life in the monastery which is rich, structured, and harmonious. And at the centre of it all is the teacher, who is someone to be relied on.

Finally, he asked why was I so skinny? Immediately, one of the monks who was there told him that I took a very small ball of rice at meal-time. Did I not like the food? I told him, I just couldn't digest much of the sticky rice, so I kept cutting down. I had come to accept it as the way it was, thinking that I was so greedy that eating less and less was a virtue. But he was concerned: Did I feel tired? Most of the time I had little strength, I admitted. 'So', he said, 'I'm going to put you on a special diet for a while - just plain rice gruel and fish sauce to start with. You eat a lot of it, and your stomach will stretch out. The we'll go to boiled rice, and finally to sticky rice. I'm a doctor.', he added. (I found out later on that he actually was an accomplished herbalist, as well as having knowledge of all the illnesses monks are prone to). He told me not to push myself too much. If I didn't have any strength, I didn't have to carry water, etc.

That was when the magic really began. That was when he was no longer just Ajahn Chah to me. He became Luang Por, 'Venerable Father'

Ajahn Munindo describes a visit from Luang Por.
There was a very difficult period in my training in Thailand after I had already been a monk for about four years. As a result of a motor bike accident I had had before I was ordained, and a number of years of sitting in bad posture, my knees seized up. The doctors in Bangkok said it was severe arthritis, but nothing that a small operation couldn't fix. They said it would take two or three weeks. But after two months and three operations I was still hardly walking. There had been all kinds of complications: scar tissue, three lots of general anaesthetic and the hot season was getting at me; my mind was really in a state . I was thinking: My whole life as a monk is ruined. Whoever heard of a Buddhist monk who can't sit crossed-legged.' Every time I saw somebody sitting cross-legged I'd feel angry. I was feeling terrible, and my mind was saying, 'It shouldn't be like this; the doctor shouldn't have done it like that; the monks' rules shouldn't be this way ....' It was really painful, physically and mentally. I was in a very unsatisfactory situation.

Then I heard that Ajahn Chah was coming down to Bangkok. I thought if I went to see him he might be able to help in some way. His presence was always very uplifting. When I visited him I couldn't bow properly; he looked over me and asked, 'What are you up to?' I began to complain: 'Oh Luang Por,' I said, 'It's not supposed to be this way. The doctors said two weeks and it has been two months ....' I was really wallowing. With a surprised expression on his face he said to me, very powerfully: 'What do you mean, it shouldn't be this way? If it shouldn't be this way, it wouldn't be this way!'

That really did something to me. I can't describe how meaningful that moment was. He pointed to exactly what I was doing that was creating the problem. There was no question about the fact of the pain; the problem was my denying that fact, and that was something I was doing. This is not just a theory. When someone offers us the reflection of exactly what we are doing, we are incredibly grateful, even if at that time we feel a bit of a twit.


Petals of perception

Tenderly unfurl

Over tranquil waters

Of a reflective mind

Where thoughts ripple

And ebb

Into stillness

John B. B.
Ajahn Sumedho recalls an incident from his early days with Ajahn Chah (c. 1967-69)
In those days I was a very junior monk, and one night Ajahn Chah took us to a village fete - I think Satimanto was there at the time. Now we were all very serious practitioners, and didn't want any kind of frivolity or foolishness; so of course going to a village fete was the last thing we wanted to do, because in these villages they love loudspeakers.

Anyway, Ajahn Chah took Satimanto and I to this village fete, and we had to sit up all night with all the raucous sounds of the loud speakers going and monks giving talks all night long. I kept thinking, 'Oh, I want to get back to my cave. Green skin monsters and ghosts are much better than this.' I noticed that Satimanto (who was incredibly serious) was looking angry and critical and very unhappy. So we sat there looking miserable, and I thought, 'Why does Ajahn Chah bring us to these things?' Then I began to see for myself. I remember sitting there thinking, 'Here I am getting all upset over this. Is it that bad? What's really bad is what I'm making out of it, what's really miserable is my mind. Loudspeakers and noise, distraction and sleepiness - all that, one can really put up with. It's that awful thing in my mind that hates it, resents it and wants to leave.'

That evening I could really see what misery I could create in my mind, over things that one can bear. I remember that as a very clear insight of what I thought was miserable, and what really is miserable. At first, I was blaming the people and the loudspeakers and the disruption and the noise and the discomfort, I thought that was the problem. Then I realised that it wasn't - it was my mind that was miserable.

Sister Chandasiri first met Luang Por Chah while still a lay woman, during his second visit to England in 1979.
For me one of the most striking things about Luang Por Chah was the effect of his presence on those around him. Watching Ajahn Sumedho - who hitherto had been for me a somewhat awe-inspiring teacher - sit at his feet with an attitude of sheer delight, devotion and adoration lingers in the mind as a memory of extraordinary sweetness. Ajahn Chah would tease him, 'Maybe it's time for you to come back to Thailand!' Everyone gasped inwardly.....Is he serious?'

Later on a visitor, a professional flautist, began to ask about music, 'What about Bach? Surely there's nothing wrong with that - much of his music is very spiritual, not at all worldly.' (It was a question that interested me greatly.) Ajahn Chah looked at her, and when she had finished he said quietly, 'Yes, but the music of the peaceful heart is much, much more beautiful.'

Ajahn Santacitto recollects his own first meeting with Ajahn Chah.
From the very first meeting with Ajahn Chah, I couldn't help but be aware of how powerful a force was emanating from this person. I had just arrived at the monastery with a friend, and neither of us spoke much Thai, so the possibility of talking with and hearing Dhamma from Ajahn Chah was very limited. I was considering taking ordination as a monk mainly in order to learn about meditation, rather than from any serious inclination towards religious practice.

It happened that, just at that time, a group of local villagers came to ask him to perform a certain traditional ceremony which involved a great deal of ritual. The lay bowed down before the Master, then they got completely covered over with a white cloth, and then holy water was brought out and candles were dripped into it, while the monks did the chanting. And, young lad that I was, very science-minded, rather iconoclastic by nature, I found this all rather startling and wondered just what I was letting myself in for. Did I really want to become one of these guys and do this kind of thing?

So I just started to look around, watching this scene unfold before me, until my eye caught Ajahn Chah's, and what I saw on his face was very unexpected: there was the smile of a mischievous young man, as if he were saying, 'Good fun, isn't it!' This threw me a bit; I could no longer think of him as being attached to this kind of ritual, and I began to appreciate his wisdom. But a few minutes later, when the ceremony was over and everyone got up and out from under the cloth, all looking very happy and elated, I noticed that the expression on his face had changed; no sign of that mischievous young lad. And although I couldn't understand a word of Thai I couldn't help but feel very deeply that quality of compassion in the way he took this opportunity of teaching people who otherwise might not have been open and susceptible. It was seeing how, rather than fighting and resisting social customs with its rites and rituals, he knew how to use it skillfully to help people. I think this is what hooked me.

It happened countless times: people would come to the monastery with their problems looking for an easy answer, but somehow, whatever the circumstances, his approach never varied. He met everybody with a complete openness with the 'eyes of a babe', as it seemed to me - no matter who they were. One day, a very large Chinese businessman came to visit. He did his rather disrespectful form of bowing, and as he did so his sports shirt slipped over his back pocket, and out stuck a pistol. Carrying a pistol is about the grossest thing you can do in coming to see an Ajahn in a Thai monastery! That really took me aback, but what struck me most of all was when Ajahn Chah looked at him, there was that same openness, no difference, 'eyes like a babe'. There was a complete openness and willingness to go into the other person's world, to be there, to experience it, to share it with them.

Ajahn Sumedho recalls an incident during Luang Por's visit to Britain in 1976.
When Ajahn Chah first visited England, he was invited to a certain woman's home for a vegetarian meal. She obviously had put a lot of effort into creating the most delicious kinds of food. She was bustling about offering this food and looking very enthusiastic. Ajahn Chah was sitting there assessing the situation, and then suddenly he said: 'This is the most delicious and wonderful meal I have ever had!'

That comment was really something, because in Thailand, monks are not supposed to comment on the food. And yet Luag Por suddenly manifested this charming character in complimenting a woman that needed to be complimented, and that made her feel so happy. He had a feeling for the time and place, for the person he was with, for what would be kind. He could step out of the designated role, and manifest in ways that were appropriate; he was not actually breaking any rules, but it was out of character. Now that shows wisdom and the ability to respond to a situation - not to be just rigidly bound within a convention that blinds you.

Paul Breiter
On his visit in 1979, he related that once a Westerner (a layman, I think) came to Wat Pah Pong and asked him if he was an arahant. Ajahn Chah told him: ' Your question is a question to be answered. I will answer it like this: "I am like a tree in the forest. Birds come to the tree, they will sit on its branches and eat its fruit. To the birds, the fruit may be sweet or sour or whatever. But the tree doesn't know anything about it. The birds say 'sweet' or they say 'sour' - from the tree's point of view this is just the chattering of the birds."'

On that same evening we also discussed the relative virtues of the arahant and the bodhisattva. He ended our discussion by saying: 'Don't be an arahant. Don't be a Buddha. Don't be anything at all. Being something makes problems. So don't be anything. You don't have to be something, he doesn't have to be something, I don't have to be something ......' He paused, and then said: 'Sometimes when I think about it, I don't want to say anything.'