2549 Number 76
The Forest Sangha is
a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn
The Founding of
Wat Pah Pong
The Chapter of Octads
Gratitude for Luang Por Chah
from a talk given at Amaravati on 17 June 2003 by Luang Por Sumedho
evening we have an opportunity to reflect on the great teacher Ajahn
Chah. Today is his birthday, and each year at this time a Sangha
meeting is held at his monastery Wat Pah Pong in Thailand where
disciples and lay people gather. They usually hang their glots
(mosquito nets supported by a large umbrella) under the trees, camping
out in this way for the week. In the evenings monks give talks on
The great teacher Ajahn Mun, who died many years before I arrived
in Thailand in 1966, was one of the great meditation masters of
modern times, and many of his disciples were, by then, becoming
increasingly well known. Ajahn Chah said his association with Ajahn
Mun was very brief.
Ajahn Chah began life as a monk at the age of twenty, in a village
monastery where he studied the pariyatti Dhamma, the more academic
aspects of practice. After four years or so, he decided to develop
his meditation practice, and travelled through Thailand seeking
out various teachers. He spent some time with one teacher in Lopburi
and then with another teacher in Ubon, but most of the time he travelled
alone gradually gaining insight through his practice of meditation.
It was during this period that he spent two nights at Ajahn Muns
monastery where his insights were affirmed by the great teacher.
Luang Por Chah liked the style of practice of the Dhammayut sect
- one of the two sects in Thailand - in which Vinaya the
monastic discipline - was very much part of the practice. It offered
a complete lifestyle and was therefore unusual in Thailand where
much of the meditation was taught as a technique and could therefore
be quite separate from the monasticism. For example, with the Mahasi
Sayadaw system it didnt matter if you were a layperson or
a monk. It is a technique that works just as well for a layperson.
But Luang Por Chahs approach was in mindfulness through ordinary
monastic life. It was a way of using the monastic form to develop
awareness and reflectiveness.
In his monastery, Luang Por Chah didnt encourage much study.
When I eventually met him he saw that study was the last thing I
needed to do. I had been through the university system in the United
States and was an obsessive reader; I was addicted to literature.
Wherever I went I always had to have a book with me or I would feel
nervous and ill at ease. I always had to have a book in order to
relax. When I met Ajahn Chah I didnt tell him this, but he
seemed to pick it up intuitively because he said No books!
In Thailand they always ask me How could he teach you?
because when we met I couldnt speak Thai and he couldnt
speak English. Ajahn Chah always put a reflective tone into answering
this by saying Sumedho learnt through the language of Dhamma.
And then people would ask, Well, what language is that?
They obviously didnt quite understand
The language I really learned from wasnt English or Thai but
came through living, through awakening and learning from the experience
of being conscious, of having a human body, feelings, thoughts,
greed, hatred and delusion. These are common human things; they
are not cultural things. This is what we all share, theyre
common human problems and conditions.
I remember feeling an immediate confidence with Ajahn Chah, a sense
of trust. I met him through a series of coincidences. Some people
like to think that I was meant to be with Ajahn Chah, it
was in the stars; but maybe it was just good luck or coincidence.
It is interesting how, in life, one can experience things that cant
be traced to what one is expecting. Meeting a teacher like Ajahn
Chah wasnt what I was expecting. By the time I met him I had
been to all the other teachers. It wasnt that I didnt
like those teachers or that I was critical of them or felt they
werent good enough for me, but nothing clicked, the magic
didnt happen. I just didnt feel I wanted to be with
So I went my own way, the first year as a samanera and, just by
chance, ordained in Nongkhai up in the Northeast of Thailand and
spent my first year teaching myself. Then the following year I met
Phra Summai, the devaduta monk [divine messenger]
who youve all heard about.
While living alone I had the insight that I could get to a certain
point, but never get beyond it, never see clearly, unless I learned
humility. I remember having a wish that I could meet a teacher (because
at that point I still hadnt taken up the bhikkhu training.
I was planning to do that in 1967). Then, almost immediately, Ajahn
Chahs disciple, Phra Summai, appeared. Coincidence? I dont
know. Whatever you want to think, but this is the truth. He was
about my age, 32 or 33. He could speak English. He had been in the
Thai Navy during the Korean War. I had been in the American
navy during the Korean War. When we met I hadnt spoken English
for months and months. If you havent spoken your native tongue
for months and months, then at the first opportunity it is like
a burst dam. You cant stop. At first I thought I had frightened
him. It was like having diarrhoea; there was no way I could stop
it. Nonetheless, he stayed with me at this monastery for a while
and eventually convinced me that, after I had ordained, I should
go and meet Ajahn Chah. My preceptor agreed with this. He gave me
upasampada and sent me off to stay with Ajahn Chah.
At that time Ajahn Chah was not well known in Bangkok even by Thais,
not to mention the expatriate community, but was increasingly well
known in northeast Thailand, known as the Isaan. Its
strange, because the Isaan was the last place that I had wanted
to live. Its the poorest part of Thailand. I had always imagined
living down on the coast where all the resorts are now. I had this
romantic image of being a monk sitting under a coconut palm tree
on a white sand beach. Instead I ended up spending ten years in
What impressed me about Luang Por Chah was his emphasis on teaching
the Four Noble Truths. I hadnt come across this before with
other teachers, or perhaps I just hadnt picked it up
there was always a problem around language because I didnt
speak Thai. Many of the meditation techniques I learned were based
on Abhidhamma teaching, which I found very boring. The last thing
I wanted to learn was all that incredibly complex Abhidhamma. I
remember going to an Abhidhamma teacher in Bangkok who gave lectures
on it in English; I was never so bored in my life. I thought, That
is not what I want from this religion.
In that first year on my own, learning from a little book, I had
developed a lot of insight into the Four Noble Truths. I found it
a powerful teaching, very simple in its form; its just one-two-three-four.
Thats easy enough, I thought. It pointed to suffering (dukkha)
and I had plenty of that. There was no shortage of it. I didnt
have to go looking for it. I realised that this was the teaching
I had been looking for. And when I met Luang Por Chah I found his
whole emphasis was also in developing insight into these truths
through daily life in the monastery.
I feel that I have received the very best from life, not only in
terms of the Buddhas teaching, but also in terms of its manifestion
in the form and life of Ajahn Chah. It is not that Im a devotee
of Ajahn Chah or a cult follower of his. Towards Ajahn Chah I have
gratitude (katannu katavedhi) because of his compassion.
He didnt want us to make him into a cult figure. He never
pointed to himself saying that he was a sotapanna or an arahant.
Whenever one wanted to find out where he was at - and I dont
know how many people asked him if he was an arahant - he would answer
in a way that made you look at what you were asking. Who is it that
is asking? Why do you want to know? So hed point you in the
right direction, by refusing to answer either yes or no.
What I gained from that ten years was a good foundation in practice
and in Vinaya. By the time I came to England I was only ten years
as a bhikkhu. I sometimes think that I was crazy to come here having
just ten years in the robes. Nowadays we wouldnt think
of putting a ten-year monk in such a position. But my confidence
in the practice was firmly established during that ten years, and
Luang Por Chah obviously realised that, because he was the one who
encouraged me to come here. Once you have confidence in awareness,
then whatever happens to you, you can reflect on and learn from
I have now been in England for over twenty-six years, which has
been a time of learning from all the many things that have happened
to me; I get praise and blame, things go well and fall apart, people
come, people go, ordain and disrobe. But reflectiveness is always
Even a teacher is not a refuge, because eventually even Ajahn Chah
became very ill. He was incapacitated for ten years. He couldnt
say a word and was nursed until he died in 1992. So the refuge is
not in a teacher or in the scriptures or in a monastery or in a
religious tradition or Vinaya or anything like that - but in awareness.
Awareness is so ordinary, so natural to us, that we ignore it, we
overlook it all the time. So, this is where we need continuous reminding,
awakening, reflecting, so that when tragedies and so on happen we
can use those very things as part of our training, as part of the
path of cultivating the Way. This is the fourth Noble Truth.
You only need the confidence to reflect, to be aware, not of how
things should be but on what you are actually experiencing,
without claiming it, without adding to it in any way. Thus, when
I feel sad, if I think I am sad then I have made it
more than what it is. Instead, I am simply aware of the sadness
- which is pre-verbal. So awareness exists without the arising of
thought. The habit tendency is to think, I am sad, and I dont
want to be sad, I want to be happy. Then it becomes a big
problem for us. Awareness is not a special quality that I have more
of than you. It is a natural ability which we all share. The practice
is in using this natural ability and in being willing to learn from
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