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forest sangha newsletter

 July      2006            2549            Number 76
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

76newsletter           The Founding of Wat Pah Pong          The Chapter of Octads

Gratitude for Luang Por Chah
ajahn chah

Excerpt from a talk given at Amaravati on 17 June 2003 by Luang Por Sumedho

This 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 Dhamma.

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 Mun’s 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 didn’t matter if you were a layperson or a monk. It is a technique that works just as well for a layperson. But Luang Por Chah’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t speak Thai and he couldn’t 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 didn’t quite understand…

The language I really learned from wasn’t 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, they’re 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 can’t be traced to what one is expecting. Meeting a teacher like Ajahn Chah wasn’t what I was expecting. By the time I met him I had been to all the other teachers. It wasn’t that I didn’t like those teachers or that I was critical of them or felt they weren’t good enough for me, but nothing clicked, the magic didn’t happen. I just didn’t feel I wanted to be with them.

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 you’ve 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 hadn’t taken up the bhikkhu training. I was planning to do that in 1967). Then, almost immediately, Ajahn Chah’s disciple, Phra Summai, appeared. Coincidence? I don’t 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 hadn’t spoken English for months and months. If you haven’t spoken your native tongue for months and months, then at the first opportunity it is like a burst dam. You can’t 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’. It’s strange, because the Isaan was the last place that I had wanted to live. It’s 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 the Isaan.

What impressed me about Luang Por Chah was his emphasis on teaching the Four Noble Truths. I hadn’t come across this before with other teachers, or perhaps I just hadn’t picked it up – there was always a problem around language because I didn’t 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; it’s just ‘one-two-three-four’. That’s easy enough, I thought. It pointed to suffering (dukkha) and I had plenty of that. There was no shortage of it. I didn’t 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 Buddha’s teaching, but also in terms of its manifestion in the form and life of Ajahn Chah. It is not that I’m a devotee of Ajahn Chah or a cult follower of his. Towards Ajahn Chah I have gratitude (katannu katavedhi) because of his compassion.

He didn’t 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 don’t 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 he’d 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 wouldn’t 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 it.

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 the way.

Even a teacher is not a refuge, because eventually even Ajahn Chah became very ill. He was incapacitated for ten years. He couldn’t 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 don’t 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 it.




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