Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1992

Ajahn Chah Passes Away; Venerable Thitapanno
50th Day Commemoration; Ven. Nyanaviro
A Noble Life: 17.6.1918 to 16.1.1992
A Niche in the Woods; Aj. Viradhammo
Life of a Forest Monk (Pt III); Luang Por Jun
Work in Hammer Woods; Mike Holmes
Staying Alive; Ajahn Sucitto

Being Nobody; Aj Sumedho
Why Are We Here; Aj Chah
Brightness; Aj Sucitto


Why Are We Here?

A talk given at the remote Turn Saeng Pet Forest Monastery, North-east Thailand, in September, 1981. This talk was one of the very last that Luang Por gave before he lost the ability to speak.

Today all of you - both lay people and monks - have come to offer flowers as an act of reverence. Making offerings to, and showing respect towards our seniors is very auspicious. This Rains Retreat I don't have much energy; I am not well, so I have come up to this mountain to get some fresh air for the Rains. People come to visit, but I can't really receive them like I used to because my voice has just about had it and my breath is nearly finished. You can count it as a blessing that there is still this body to sit here for all of you to see now. This is a blessing in itself. Soon you won't see it. The breath will be finished, the voice will be gone. They go according to the supporting factors of all compounded things. As the Lord Buddha called it, KHAYA VAYAM, the decline and fall of all conditioned phenomena.

How do they decline? We can compare this to a lump of ice. Originally it was simply water; they freeze it and it becomes ice. But it doesn't last many days and it's melted. Take a big lump of ice, say about as big as this tape-recorder here, and leave it out in the sun. You can watch the decline of this lump of ice, much the same as this body. It will gradually melt. In not many minutes or hours the lump of ice is gone, melted into water. This is called KHAYA VAYAM, the decline and cessation of all compounded things. It's been like this for a long time now, ever since the beginning of time. When we are born we bring this inherent nature with us: we can't avoid it. On being born we bring old age, sickness and death with us.

So this is why the Buddha spoke of KHAYA VAYAM, the decline and cessation of all compounded things. All of us sitting in this hall here, without exception - laymen, lay women, monks and novices - are simply 'lumps of decline'. Right now the lump is hard, just like the lump of ice which was previously water. It becomes a lump of ice and then it melts again. Can you see its decline? Look at it. This body of ours is declining every day; the hair is aging, nails are aging. Everything is declining.

You probably weren't like this before, were you? You were probably much smaller than this. Now you have grown and matured. From now on you will decline, following the way of nature. One declines just like the lump of ice. Soon it's all gone: the lump of ice becomes water. Our body is like this. All bodies are made up of the elements of earth, water, wind and fire. When there's a body the four elements of earth, water, wind and fire come together, and we call that a 'person'. Originally it's hard to say what you'd call it, but now we call it a 'person'. We get elated over it, saying that's a male person, this is a female person; we give them names - Mr. This and Miss That - so that we can identify each other and perform our functions more conveniently. But actually there isn't really anybody there. There's earth, water, wind and fire. When these are all brought together as a body we call that a 'person'. Now don't get all excited over it. If you really look into it there isn't anyone there.

They're so busy looking at other things that they never see themselves. To be honest, people are really pitiful. They have no refuge.

That which is solid is the body - the flesh, skin, bones and so on - is called earth. Those aspects of the body which are liquid are the water element. The aspect of warmth in the body is called fire and the winds coming and going throughout the body are called wind.

At Wat Pah Pong we have a body which is neither male nor female. It's a dead body from which all the flesh has been removed, leaving only the bones. It's the skeleton which hangs in the main hall. Looking at it one can't tell if it's a man or a woman. People ask whether it's a man or woman, and all they can do is look blankly at each other because it's only a skeleton. All the skin and flesh are gone.

People are ignorant of this. They go to Wat Pah Pong, go into the main hall and see the skeletons . . . some people can't bear to look: they run outside again. They're afraid . . . afraid of themselves! I figure these people have never seen themselves before. Afraid of the skeletons . . . they don't reflect on the great value of the skeleton. In order to get here they had to ride in a car and walk ... if they didn't have bones how would it be? Would they be able to walk about? They sit in their cars and go to Wat Pah Pong, walk into the hall, see the skeletons and run straight back out again! They've never seen such a thing before. They're born with it and yet they've never seen it. They sleep in the same bed with it yet they've never seen it. It's really fortunate that they have a chance to see it now. Older people, 50, 60, or 70 years old, see the skeletons and get scared. What's the fuss about? This shows that they are not at all in touch with themselves, they don't really know themselves. Getting home they can't sleep for three or even four days and yet they're sleeping with a skeleton, nothing else! They get dressed with it, eat food with it, do everything with it... and yet they're scared of it. This shows that people are really way out of touch with themselves. How pitiful! They're always looking outside, looking at trees, looking at other things, saying this is big, that's small, this is long, that's short. They're so busy looking at other things that they never see themselves. To be honest, people are really pitiful. They have no refuge.

When I conduct ordination ceremonies the ordinands must learn the five basic meditation objects: kesa (hair of the head), loma (hair of the body), nakha (nails), danta (teeth) and taco (skin). Students and learned people probably snigger to themselves when they hear this: 'What's Tahn Ajahn trying to teach us here? Teaching us about hair when we've had it for ages. He doesn't have to teach us that. We know about it already. Why bother teaching us something we already know?' People who are really dim are like this, they think they can see hair already. I tell them that when I say 'to see the hair' it means to see it as it really is. See body hair as it really is; see nails, skin and teeth as they truly are. That's what I call 'seeing'. It doesn't mean just seeing in a superficial way, but to see according to the truth. We probably wouldn't be so sunk up to the ears in this world if we could see things as they really are. Hair, nails, teeth, skin . . . what are they really like? Are they pretty? Are they clean? Do they have any real essence? Are they stable? No . . . there's nothing to them. They're not pretty but we imagine them to be so. They're not substantial but we imagine them to be so.

Hair, nails, teeth, skin . . . people are really hooked on these things. The Buddha laid these down as the basic objects for meditation. He taught us to know these five things. They are impermanent, imperfect and devoid of self; they are not 'us' or 'them'. We are born with these things and become deluded by them, but they are in truth foul things. Suppose we didn't bathe for a few days, could we bear to be close to each other? We'd really smell bad. When we sweat a lot, such as when working hard together, it really stinks. We go back home and rub ourselves down with soap and the smell abates somewhat; the fragrance of the soap replaces it. Rubbing soap on the body may make it seem fragrant but actually the bad smell of the body is still there, dormant. The smell of the soap just covers it up. When the soap is all gone the smell comes back as before.

Now we tend to think that these bodies here are pretty, delightful, solid and strong. We tend to think that we will never age, get sick or die. We are deluded and charmed by the body so we don't know how to find the real refuge within ourselves. The true place of refuge is the mind. The mind is one's true refuge. This hall here may be big but it's not a true refuge. It's simply a temporary shelter. Pigeons take shelter here, geckoes take shelter here, skunks take shelter here. Anything may come and take shelter here. We may think it belongs to us but it doesn't. We live here together with the rats and everything else. This is called a 'temporary shelter'. Soon we must leave it. People tend to take these shelters as a refuge. Those who have small houses are unhappy because their houses are too small, but those who have big houses are unhappy because they're impossible to keep clean. In the morning they complain, in the evening they complain. . . . People take things and leave them around, never putting them away.. . the lady of the house ends up having a nervous breakdown!

Therefore the Buddha said to find your refuge. That means to find your real heart. This heart is really important. People mostly don't look at the important things, they spend all their time looking at unimportant things. For example, when they sweep the house, wash the dishes and so on, they're aiming for cleanliness. They wash the dishes to clean them, they want to clean everything . . . but they fail to see that their own hearts are not very clean. This is called 'needing a refuge but taking only a temporary shelter. They beautify house and home, beautify this and that, but they don't think of beautifying their own hearts. They don't examine suffering. This heart is therefore the important thing. The Buddha urged us to find a refuge in our own hearts: attahi attano natho - 'Make yourself a refuge unto yourself'. Who else can be one's refuge? That which is the true refuge is our own heart, nothing else. One may try to depend on other things but they aren't a sure thing. One can only depend on other things if one already has a refuge within oneself. We must have a refuge first. Before we can depend on a teacher, depend on family, friends or relatives, one must first make oneself into a refuge.

So today, both the lay people and monks who have come to visit and pay respects, please take this instruction and contemplate it. Ask yourselves: 'Who am I? Why am I here?' Ask yourselves often, 'Why was I born?' Some people don't know. They want to be happy but the suffering never stops. Rich or poor they suffer. Young or old they still suffer. It's all suffering. And why? Because they don't have any wisdom. If they're poor they're unhappy because they're poor; if they're rich they're unhappy because they're rich, there's too much to look after. In the past, when I was a boy novice, I was once asked to give a Dhamma talk. I talked about the wealth of having servants. Let's say one had a hundred servants . . . say, a hundred male servants, a hundred female servants, a hundred elephants, a hundred cows, a hundred buffaloes. . . . a hundred of everything! People really lapped it up. But would you like to look after a hundred buffaloes? Say you had a hundred buffaloes, a hundred cows, a hundred male and a hundred female servants, and you had to look after all of them yourself. Would that be fun? People don't think of that. They only have the desire to have . . . to have the cows, the buffaloes, the elephants, the servants . . . hundreds of them. That's worth listening to. ... Ah, makes you feel really good, doesn't it? But, say, fifty buffaloes would be already too much. Just twining the rope for all those brutes would be too much! But people don't think of this. They only think of acquiring but they don't think of the trouble involved.

If we don't have wisdom everything within us will be a cause for suffering. If we have wisdom it will lead us out of suffering. Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind... . The eyes aren't necessarily good things, you know. If our heart is not good, just seeing other people can make us angry and ruin our sleep. We may see other people and fall in love with them; that kind of love is suffering too, if one doesn't get what one wants. Aversion is suffering and attraction is also suffering, because of one's desire. Wanting is suffering, not wanting is suffering; the things we don't like, we want to get rid of. We want to acquire those things that we like but even if we get them it's still suffering.., afraid that we shall lose them. There is only suffering. How is one to live?

Therefore all of you should take a look at yourselves. Why were we born? Have we ever really gotten anything? I've asked various elderly people, eighty years and over, simple farmers. In the countryside here people start planting rice right from childhood. When they reach 17 or 18 they hurry to get married because they're afraid they won't have enough time to get rich. So they start working from an early age thinking they'll get rich that way. They grow rice until they're 70, 80 or even 90. When they come to hear a talk I ask them, 'From the day you were born until now you've been working. Now it's almost time to go, have you got anything to take with you?' They don't know what to say. All they can say is: 'Beats me! Beats me!' We have a saying in these parts, 'Don't waste your time picking berries along the way. Before you know it, night falls'. Just because of this 'beats me!' They're neither here nor there, content with just a 'beats me!' Sitting among the branches gorging themselves with berries. . . . 'Beats me! Beats me!'

When you're still young you think that being single is no good, if you find a partner you'll be better off. So you find a partner to live with. But if you put two things together they collide! Living alone is too quiet, one feels lonely, but living with makes for friction... clunk! clunk! clunk!

When the children are born and they're still small the parents think, 'When they get bigger we'll be all right'. So they raise their children, three, four, or five of them, thinking that when the children are grown they'll be better off. But when they grow up it's even heavier. It's like two pieces of wood, one small and the other big. You throw away the small one and take the big one thinking it will be lighter but of course it's heavier. When children are small they don't bother you very much really - just a ball of rice and a banana now and then. When they grow up they start asking for a motor-cycle or a car. Well, you love your children, you can't refuse, so you try to give them what they want. Problems. Sometimes the father and mother argue: 'Don't go and buy him a car, we haven't got enough money!' But when you love your children you have to borrow the money from somewhere. Sometimes you may even have to go without food to do so. Then there's education. 'When he's finished his studies we'll be all right'. There's no end to the studying! What's he going to finish? There's no end to it. Only in the science of Buddhism is there an end to the studying; all other sciences just go round in circles. In the end it's just a headache. If there's a house where four or five children are studying at once, the parents argue every day.

The suffering that is imminent in the future we fail to see; we think it'll never happen. When it arises, then we know. That kind of suffering, the suffering inherent in our bodies, is hard to foresee. When I was a child, minding the buffaloes and cows, I'd take charcoal and rub it on my teeth to make them white. I was just getting charmed by my own bones, that's all. When I reached 50-60 years' old, my teeth started to get loose. When the teeth start falling out you want to cry, it hurts so much. When you eat, the tears start falling - you feel as if you're being kicked in the mouth. The teeth really ache, it's a lot of suffering and pain. I've been through this already. I just got the dentist to take them all out. Now I've got false teeth. They were giving me so much trouble that I had them taken out, sixteen in one go. The dentist was reluctant to take out sixteen teeth at once, so I said, 'Doctor, just take them out, I'll take the consequences.' So he took them all out at once. Some were still good too, at least five of them. Took them all out. But it was really touch and go. After taking them out I couldn't eat for two or three days.

Before, when I was a child minding the buffaloes, I used to think that polishing the teeth was really good. I loved my teeth. I thought they were good things but in the end they had to go. The pain almost killed me. I had toothache for months, years. Sometimes both my gums were swollen at once. You may all have a chance to experience this for yourselves someday. Those of you whose teeth are still good, brushing them constantly to keep them nice and white - watch out! Watch out they don't start acting up on you later on. Now, I'm just letting you know. You may meet up with this yourselves someday - the suffering that arises within us, the suffering within our own bodies. There's nothing in the body which one can depend on. But it's a bit better when you are still young. As one gets older things begin to break down. Everything begins to fall apart. The sankharas (compounded phenomena) go their natural way. Whether we cry or laugh they just go on their way. However we feel about it they go their own way regardless. Whether we're in pain or distress, whether we live or die, they just go on like that. There's no knowledge or science which can prevent this. You get a dentist to look at your teeth; even if he can fix them they eventually go on their way. Eventually even the dentist has the same trouble, he can't do any more. Everything falls apart in the end.

These are things we should contemplate with a sense of urgency while we still have some vigour, we should start to practice. If you want to make merit then hurry up and make it. But most people just leave it up to the oldies. People wait till they get old before they go to the monastery to study Dhamma. Women and men are the same: 'Wait till I get old first.' I don't know what they're thinking of. Does an old person have any energy? Try racing with a young person and find out. Why must they leave it till they're old? Just like they were never going to die. When they reach 50 or 60 years: 'Hey Grandma! Let's go to the monastery.' 'Oh, my ears aren't so good any more!' You see? When her ears were good what was she listening to? 'Beats me!' Just dallying with the berries. Finally when her ears are gone she goes to the temple. It's hopeless. She listens to the sermon but hasn't a clue what he's saying. People wait till they're all used up before they'll think of practising.

In the past my legs could run. Now just walking around they feel heavy. Before, my legs carried me; now I have to carry them. When I was a child I'd see old people getting up from their seats, 'oooy!', sitting down, 'oooy!' Even when it gets to this stage they still don't learn. Sitting down they moan 'oy!', getting up they groan, 'oy!' There's always this 'oy'. But they don't know what it is that makes them groan like that. There's only the 'oy . . . oy. . .

Even when it gets to this extent people still don't see the bane of the body. We never know when we're going to be parted from it. That which is causing all the pain is simply the sankharas going their natural way. People think it's rheumatism, arthritis, gout and so on. The doctor comes and gives you some medicine, but it never really goes. In the end it all falls apart, even the doctor! This is the sankharas declining according to their nature. That is their way, that is their nature.

So therefore, brothers and sisters, take a look at this. If you see it in advance you'll be okay, like seeing a poisonous snake which lies ahead of us. If we see it first, then we can get out of the way and it won't bite us. If we don't see it we go walking right on and step on it. And then it bites. Then, if suffering arises we don't know who to go to. Where will you go to treat it? People only want not to have suffering. They want to be without suffering but they don't know the way to treat it when it arises. And they live on like this until they get old . . . and get sick . . . and die.

In olden times people used to say that when someone was mortally ill, lying on his death bed, then one of his next-of-kin should quietly go up to him and whisper in his ear, 'BUDDHO, BUDDHO'. What's he going to do with 'BUDDHO?'

When they're almost on the funeral pyre what good is 'BUDDHO' going to be for them then? When they were young and active why didn't they learn 'BUDDHA' then? Now with the breath coming in fitful gasps you say, Mother, mother! . . . BUDDHO BUDDHO.' Why waste your time? Don't bother, you'll only confuse her: let her go peacefully.

People just like the beginnings and endings. The middle they don't really bother with. That's the way they are. All of us are like that, lay people, monks, novices. . . they don't know how to solve problems within their own hearts. They don't know their refuge. So they get angry easily, have a lot of desires. Why is this? They have no refuge in the heart.

Married couples, when they're still young and healthy, can bear to talk to each other somewhat. But after 50 or so years they can't understand each other. The wife speaks and the husband can't endure it. The husband speaks and the wife won't listen. So they turn their backs on each other. One favours the son, one favours the daughter, there's no harmony.

Now I'm just saying this: actually I've never had a family. And why haven't I ever had a household? Because just looking at these words 'house hold', I knew what it was all about. What is a household? This is a 'hold': if we're just sitting here comfortably and then somebody gets something and surrounds us with it, what's that like? Sitting normally is bearable, but if we box ourselves in with something, that's called 'being held'. Whatever that's like, 'holding' is like that. There is a 'confining ring'. When I read this word 'household' . . . oh! it's a heavy one. The word is no trifling matter, it's a real killer. The word 'hold' is a word of suffering. One can't go anywhere, got to stay in ones ring of confinement.

It's due to this word that I became a monk and didn't disrobe. 'Household' is frightening. One is stuck and can't go anywhere. Problems with the children, with money and all the rest, but where can one go? One is tied down. There are sons and daughters - arguments galore until one's dying day and there's nowhere else to go, no matter how much suffering it is. The tears pour out and they go right on pouring. The tears are never finished with this 'household', you know. If there's no household then maybe one can be done with the tears but otherwise it's just about impossible to find an end to them.

Let all of you consider this. If you haven't come across it yet you may later on. Some people may have experienced it already to some extent. Some are already at the end of their tether: 'Will I stay or will I go?'

At Wat Pah Pong there are about 70 or 80 huts. Sometimes when they are almost full I say, 'Keep some aside. Maybe some husband or wife will have an argument and come looking for a place to stay.' Sure enough, here they come! A lady arrives with her bags. I ask, 'Where are you from?' 'I've come to pay respects, Luang Por. I'm fed-up with the world.' 'Whoa! don't say that! I'm really scared of that one!' Then the husband comes and says he's fed-up too. They stay two or three days in the monastery and then their world-weariness disappears. The lady says she's fed-up - she's just fooling herself. The man says he's fed-up . . . fooling himself. They go and sit alone in separate huts, in the quiet, on their own, thinking: 'When's the wife going to come and ask me to go home?' 'When's Hubby going to come and take me home?' There! They don't really know what's going on. What is this 'being fed-up' of theirs? They get angry and frustrated and so run to the monastery. When they were at home, they could only see what was wrong with everything else: the husband is all wrong, the wife is all wrong. After three days of thinking, it's: 'Oh, the wife was right after all, it was I who was wrong.' 'Hubby was right, I was wrong.' They change sides like this. This is how it is, so I don't take the world too seriously. I know it's ins and outs already so I've chosen to live as a monk.

When you are in the fields or doing the garden take these words and consider them. ... 'Why was I born? What can I take with me?' Ask yourselves over and over. One who asks like this often will become wise. Those who don't consider it will remain ignorant.

You may listen to today's talk and then understand it when you get home - perhaps this evening or in no long time - it happens every day. When listening to a Dhamma talk all is subdued but maybe things are waiting for you at the car. Or when you get in the car and 'it' gets in with you. When you get home it becomes clear, 'Oh, Luang Por had something there. I couldn't see it before. All right, I think that will be enough for today. If I talk too much this old body gets tired.