Lessons in the Forest
Daily life at Wat Ba Pong, as at most forest monasteries, begins at 3;00 AM with group chanting and meditation until just before dawn. At dawn monks walk barefoot two to eight miles to collect alms food at various nearby villages. On their return, the food collected is shared equally in begging bowls, and eating of the one daily meal begins with a chanted blessing. After meal clean-up, from 9;30 A.M. to 3;00 PM monks return to their huts for a period of solitary meditation, study, or work, or they join various monastery projects, such as repairing buildings and fences, sewing robes, or constructing new cottages. At 3;00 PM all are called to help draw and carry well water to the water storage barrels and to sweep the central grounds. At 6;00 PM after bathing, the monks reassemble for meditation, evening chanting, and periodic Dharma talks. Returning to their cottages, they use the late evening hours for silent sitting and walking meditation and as a time to listen to the sounds of the forest as it settles down for the night.
The spirit of practice at Wat Ba Pong is to establish right understanding and then apply it with mindfulness to every task and situation. This way of practice is one that can be equally well applied in the midst of any busy life, so the Lessons in the
In all these situations he teaches the monks. Sometimes it is through his presence, his simple, straightforward participation in the round 'of monastery life. Often it is through his words-humorous comments, practical Dharma points, or answers to questions that arise in the course of a day.
Periodically, Achaan Chah gives an extended evening talk to the assembled monks and lay people on some aspect of practice and spiritual life. The talk may be given in response to a question, for a special visitor, or as a spontaneous teaching. In each case, he sits silently for a moment, closes his eyes, and a natural outflow of Dharma begins.
In many ways he inspires those who share daily life with him in the forest. He shows us that only in walking this path ourselves can we move from theory to realization, from ideas of Dharma to a life of wisdom and compassion.
A Monk’s Life
Here in the forest where a monk can learn to contemplate the nature of things, he can live happily and peacefully. As he looks around, he understands that all forms of life degenerate and eventually die. Nothing that exists is permanent, and when he understands this, he begins to become serene.
Monks are trained to be content with little-to eat only what they need, to sleep only when necessary, to be satisfied with what they have. This is the foundation of Buddhist meditation. Buddhist monks do not practice meditation for selfish reasons but in order to know and understand themselves, and thus be able to teach others how to live peacefully and wisely.
Meditation does not simply involve being at peace with the world. On the contrary, confronting the self can be like walking into a raging storm. Beginning intensive practice, one often despairs at first and may even want to km oneself. Some think that a monk's life is lazy and easy-let them try it themselves and see how long they can stand it. A monk's work is hard; he works to free his heart in order to feel the loving-kindness that embraces all things. Seeing that all life rises and falls, is born and expires like the breath, he knows that nothii1g can belong to him, and thus he puts an end to suffering.
If we just practice with sincerity, the fruits of our practice will shine forth. Anyone with eyes can see. We do not have to advertise.
The worldly way is outgoing, exuberant; the way of the monk's life is restrained and controlled. Constantly work against the grain, against old habits; eat, speak, and sleep little. If you are lazy, raise energy. If you feel you cannot endure, raise patience. If you like the body and feel attached to it, learn to see it as unclean. Indulging your desires instead of opposing them cannot even be considered the slow way, as a month's rather than a day's journey. Instead, you will simply never arrive. Work with your desires.
Virtue or following precepts, and concentration or meditation are aids to the practice. They make the mind calm and restrained. But outward restraint is only a convention, a tool to help gain inner coolness. You may keep your eyes cast down, but still your mind may be distracted by whatever enters your field of vision'. .
Perhaps you feel that this life is too difficult, that you just cannot do it. But the more clearly you understand the truth of things, the more incentive you will have. Suppose you are walking home and step on a large thorn that goes deep into your foot. In pain, you feel you just cannot go on. Then a ferocious tiger comes, and, afraid that it will "eat your head," you forget about your foot, get up, and run all the way home.
Constantly ask yourself, 'Why am I ordained7" Let it be a spur. It is not for comfort and pleasure; these are much more easily had in lay life. On alms round, at any time, ask, 'Why do I do what I d07" It should not be out of habit. Listening to the Dharma, are you hearing the teaching or merely the sound7 May be the words enter your ears, but you are thinking, 'The sweet potatoes at breakfast were really delicious." Keep your mindfulness sharp. In activity around the monastery, the important point is intention; know what you are doing and know how you feel about it. Learn to know the mind that clings. to ideas of purity and bad karma, burdens itself with doubt and excessive fear of wrongdoing. This too is attachment. Too much of this mind makes you afraid to sweep because you may kill ants, afraid to walk because you may harm the grass. New doubts constantly arise in regard to one's purity-if you keep following the anxiety, you only gain temporary relief. You must understand the process of doubt in order to put an end to it.
In our chanting, we say that we are the Buddha's servants. To be a servant means to give yourself completely to your master and rely on him for all your needs: food, clothing, shelter, guidance. We who wear the robes, an inheritance of the Buddha, should understand that all the requisites we receive from lay supporters come to us because of the virtue of the Buddha, not because of our own individual merit.
Know moderation in those requisites. Robes need not be of fine material, they are merely to protect the body. Alms-food is merely to sustain you. The Path constantly opposes defilement and habitual desire. When Sariputta was going for alms-food, he saw that greed said, "Give me a lot," so he said, "Give me a little." If defilement says, "Give it to me fast," our Path says, "Give it to me slowly." If attachment wants hot, soft food, then our Path asks for it hard and cold.
All our actions-wearing the robes, collecting alms food-should be done mindfully, according to the precepts. The Dharma and discipline that the Buddha gave us are like a well-tended orchard. We do not have to worry about planting trees and caring for them; we do not have to be afraid that the fruit will be poisonous or unfit to eat. All of it is good for us.
Once inner coolness is attained, you still should not throwaway the forms of monastic life. Be an example for those who come after; this is how the enlightened monks of old behaved.
Rules are Tools
One should fear wrongdoings, sometimes even to the point of not being able to sleep. At first, cling to the rules, make them a burden. Afterwards, you can carry them lightly. But you must experience the heaviness first, just as before one can go beyond suffering, one must experience suffering. One who is conscientious is at first like a freshwater fish in salt water -trying to keep rules, his eyes will burn and sting. Whereas one who is indifferent and negligent will not be disturbed but will also never learn to see.
Working with the 227 precepts is essential to our monk's practice. We must follow the rules well. Yet the rules are endless. Keep in mind that rules are conventions or tools. There is no need to study all the expressions of Dharma or know all the rules. To cut a path through the forest, you need not cut down all the trees. Cutting just one row can take you to the other side.
The point of all practice is to lead you to freedom, to become one who knows the light all the time. The only way to reach an end in the practice of virtue is by making the mind pure.
Go Left, Go Right
A Western monk at WatBa Pong became frustrated by the difficulties of practice and the detailed and seemingly arbitrary rules of conduct the monks had to follow. He began to criticize other monks for sloppy practice and to doubt the wisdom of Achaan Chah's teaching. At one point, he went to Achaan Chah and complained, noting that even Achaan Chah himself was inconsistent and seemed often to contradict him self in an unenlightened way.
Achaan Chah just laughed and pointed out how much the monk was suffering by trying to judge others around him. Then he explained that his way of teaching is very simple: "It is as though I see people walking down a road I know well. To them the way may be unclear. I look up and see someone about to fall into a ditch on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him, 'Go left, go left' Similarly, if I see another person about to fall into a ditch on the left, I call out, 'Go right, go right!' That is the extent of my teaching. Whatever extreme you get caught in, whatever you get attached to, I say, 'Let go of that too.' Let go on the left, let go on the right. Come back to the center, and you will arrive at the true Dharma. "
Cures For Restlessness
Here are several ways to work with restlessness and an inability to concentrate:
Take very little food.
Do not talk with anyone.
After the meal, return to your hut, close the doors and windows, wrap yourself up in a lot of robes, and sit, no matter how you feel. In this way, you can face the restlessness directly. When feelings arise, question them and realize that they are only feelings.
As you go deeper into your practice, there will be times of great inner tension followed by release to the point of weeping. If you have not experienced this at least several times, you have not yet really practiced.
The "Deeper Meaning" of a Chant
Each morning, the monks enter the eating hall after their alms round. Seated in two long rows with the last food distributed, they raise their hands in a palms-together gesture of respect while reciting the meal-time chants, ancient Pali blessings that date back to the time of the Buddha. Lay devotees who have come to offer food and participate in the meal sit by silently as the monks chant. Following this, in mindful stillness the monks begin their meal.
A Western visitor, new to the monastery and its traditions, asked Achaan Chah at the close of the recitation why the monks were chanting: "Is there some deep meaning to this ritual?" Achaan Chah smiled, "Yes, of course. It is important indeed for hungry monks to chant like “this before the only meal of the day. The Pali recitation means thank you," he said, "thank you very much."
The Dharma of Menial Tasks
The practice here is not really that difficult, although some people do not like to do it. In the early days of WatBa Pong, there was no electricity, no large meeting hall or dining room. Now that we have them, we have to take care of them; conveniences always give rise to complications.
We each have various responsibilities in the monastery. Taking care of huts and bathrooms is important. Simple things are important, like cleaning the hall and washing bowls for elder monks, keeping huts and toilets clean. What is dirty, beginning with the body, we should recognize as such, but we should still keep them clean.
This is not crude or menial work; rather, you should understand that it is the most refined. Each activity done fully, mindfully, for its own sake, is an expression of our practice, of our Dharma.
Harmony with Others
One purpose of morality or virtue is harmony with our spiritual friends. This should be our aim, rather than just trying to fulfill our selfish desires. Knowing one's position and respecting one's seniors is an important part of our precepts.
For harmony with the group, we must give up pride and self-importance and attachment to fleeting pleasure. If you do not give up your likes and dislikes, you are not really making an effort. Not to let go means you seek peace where there is none. Discover this truth for yourself. No need to rely on a teacher outside-mind and body constantly preach to us. Listening to their sermon will remove all doubts.
People get caught in being the leader, the chief, or they get caught in being the student, the follower. Who can learn from all things without being the student? Who can teach all things without being the chief?
Make bowing a way to care for the entire world around you. Bow with reverence and care. When returning to your cottage put everything down and prostrate first thing. If you go out to sweep, prostrate first. Returning, prostrate. When you have to go to the bathroom, prostrate first, and do it again when you come back, saying in your mind: "Any misdeeds I have done through body, speech, and mind, may I be forgiven." Stay mindful always. We monks are very fortunate. We have our dwelling place, good companions, lay support, and the teachings. All that is left is to practice.
Monks Don't Chatter
As for speaking little, saying just what is necessary, if someone asks, 'Where are you going?" simply answer, ''To get jackfruit wood." And if they ask further, 'What are you going to do with the wood," just answer, "I'm going to dye my robes." Rather than, "Oh, I've just come from Umpur Muang, and I've heard there's some good jackfruit wood around, so I'll cut some and dye these robes, which I just finished sewing last week. Boy, what a job it's been! Say, what have you been doing this week?"
Ordained people should not be interested in chattering and socializing. Not that they should not speak at all, but they should only speak what is useful and necessary. In Achaan Mun's monastery, after the afternoon water hauling, sweeping, and bathing, no noise could be heard save the sound of the sandals of monks doing walking meditation. Once a week or so, the monks would gather for instruction and teaching, then go right back to their practice. The walking paths were well worn in those days, whereas today the only footprints to be found are often those of the village dogs.
Good meditation temples are increasingly hard to find. For most monks, Buddhism is a lot of study without real practice. Everywhere, there is more interest in cutting down forests and building new temples than in developing the mind. In earlier times, this was not the case-meditation teachers lived with nature and did not try to build anything. Now, offering buildings is the religious activity that most interests lay people. So be it. But we must know the purpose of having a~ monastery. The monk's own practice is 80 to 90 percent of his job, and the remainder of his time can be spent benefiting the public. Even then, those who teach the public should be ones who are in control of themselves and thus capable of helping others, not caught up with their own burdens.
The occasional talks the teacher gives are an opportunity to check out your state of mind and your practice. The points he teaches are important to work with. Can you see them in yourself? Are you practicing correctly or making certain mistakes? Do you have the right outlook? Nobody else can do this for you, you cannot end doubt by listening to others. You may assuage your uncertainty temporarily, but it will return and you will only have more questions. The only end to doubt is to put it to rest by yourself once and for all.
We must use the physical solitude of the forest to help develop mindfulness, not just for isolation and escape. How can we escape our mind and the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena? Really, suffering, impermanence and no self are everywhere. They are like the smell of excrement. Whether you have big piles or little piles, the smell is the same.
If the lay life were the most suitable for practice, the Buddha would not have had us become monks. Our bodies and minds are a gang of thieves and murderers, constantly pulling us toward the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. In lay life, it is so much more difficult, with constant sense contact, as if someone were calling in welcoming tones from a house, "Oh, come here, please come here." and as you approached, they were to open the door and shoot you. You can do ascetic practices, such as using worn out unattractive things or doing the corpse meditation, looking at everyone you see, including yourself as a corpse or a skeleton. Yet these practices are not easy. As soon as you see a pretty young girl, you stop seeing corpses.
Body meditation is an example of opposition. We normally consider the body good and beautiful; the Path is to contemplate its impermanent and unpleasant aspects. When we are young and strong, not yet afflicted with serious illness, it is easy to think wrongly and act unskilfully. Death seems far away, one fears no one and nothing. If one does not meditate, a taste of illness and a realization of aging may be necessary to change one's outlook. Why wait for this? Just be as one who has died. Your desires have not yet died, it is true, but behave as if they had.
Sometimes it is necessary to go to extremes, such as living near dangerous beasts. If you know there are tigers and wild elephants about and fear for your life, you will not have time to think about sex. Or you can reduce your food or fast to temporarily reduce energy.
Some monks live in cemeteries and make death and decay their constant object of meditation. As a young monk, I liked to live with old men, asking them what it was like to get old, seeing them and realizing we all must go the same way. Constantly keeping death and decay in mind, dispassion and disappointment in the world of senses arise, leading to rapture and concentration. One sees things as they are and is free of them. Later, when meditation is firmly established, there are no difficulties. We are only driven by lust because meditation is not yet unshakable.
When we come to live in the forest as monks, we are no longer letting the defilements be content in their own way, so we find they kick at us quite hard. Patience and endurance are the only remedy. In fact, at times in our practice there is nothing else, only endurance. Yet of course it will all change.
People outside may call us mad to live in the forest like this, sitting like statues. But how do they live? They laugh, they cry, they are so caught up that, at times, they kill themselves or one another out of greed and hatred. Who are the mad ones?
Remember to keep in mind why we ordain. Anyone who comes to a practice like ours and does not taste enlightenment has wasted his time. Lay people with families, possessions, and responsibilities have attained it. One who is ordained should certainly be able to do the same.
Scenes Change, but the Mind Remains the Same
One would think that to relinquish all worldly life and take the robes and bowl of a forest monk should put an end to the concerns of possessions for a time. No longer the owner of car and stereo, books and wardrobe, the monk is free. But the movement of the attached mind is like a heavy flywheel that only slows down imperceptibly.
Therefore, some of the new Western monks soon became attached to their robes and bowl and monk's bag. Carefully, they dyed their robes just the right color or contrived ways to become owners of the newer, lightweight, stainless steel begging bowls. Concern and care for and even attachment to only two or three possessions can take a lot of time when one has little else to do but meditate.
Several of the Western monks who had been world travelers before ordination, extravagantly free in their dress and their lifestyle, soon found the surrender and conformity of the monastery oppressive and difficult. Heads are shaved just alike, robes are worn just alike, even the way to stand and to walk is prescribed. Bows to senior monks are performed just this way, the begging bowl is held in just such a manner. Even with the best intentions, a Westerner can find this surrender frustrating.
One particular monk had been not only a regular traveler, but as he described himself, a "costume" hippy, with bells and flowery embroidered capes, fancy hats, and long braids. The monastic conformity became so difficult after a few weeks that he was awakened in the middle of the night by a violent dream in which he had taken his golden robes and tiedied them red and green and had painted flowers and Tibetan designs over his black begging bowl.
Achaan Chah laughed when he heard this story the next morning. Then he asked about freedom in
For each who experiences this greed in the circumstances of renunciation and simplicity, it is a lesson illuminated as never before. The difficulty with possessiveness and desire is quite independent of external circumstances-it takes root in the heart and can take charge in any situation, with any quantity of goods. Until it is thoroughly understood and the lesson of relinquishment deeply learned, the new outer form becomes only another arena in which habits of greed play.
Achaan Chah is well aware of the power of the forest life to illuminate and at times exacerbate problems rooted in the mind / heart. His mastery is to use the ascetic discipline to allow monks to confront and work directly with their own problems of greed or judgment, hatred or ignorance. And his teachings always turn the monks back to their own minds, the source and the root of all trouble.
Where Can You Run To?
People come and ordain as monks, but when they face themselves here, they are not at peace. Then they think of disrobing, running away. But where else can they go to find peace?
Know what is good and bad, whether traveling or living in one place. You cannot find peace on a mountain or in a cave; you can travel to the site of Buddha's enlightenment without coming any closer to the truth.
Doubting is natural at first: Why do we chant? Why do we sleep so little? Why do we sit with our eyes closed? Questions like these arise when we start practicing. We must see all the causes of suffering-this is the true Dharma, the Four Noble Truths, not any specific method of meditation. We must observe what is actually happening. If we observe things, we will see that they are impermanent and empty, and a little wisdom arises. Yet we still find doubt and boredom returning because we do not really know reality yet, we do not see it clearly. This is not a negative sign. It is all part of what we must work with, our own mental states, our own hearts and minds.
Looking for the Buddha
Achaan Chah has been unusually tolerant of the comings and goings of his Western disciples. Traditionally, a new forest monk will spend at least five rains retreats with his first teacher before beginning his ascetic wanderings. Achaan Chah stresses discipline as a major part of his practice-working precisely and carefully with the monks' rules and learning to surrender to the monastic style and to the way of the community. But somehow Western monks, like favored children, have been allowed more than the traditional space to travel in order to visit other teachers. Usually when someone does leave, there is no fuss and not much memory. Life in the Dharma is immediate, full, and complete. Achaan Chah has said that from where he sits, "Nobody comes and nobody goes."
After only a year and a half of practice at WatBa Pong, one American asked and received permission to travel and study with other Thai and Burmese teachers. A year or two later, he returned full of tales of his travels, of many months of extraordinary and intensive practice and of a number of remarkable experiences. After completing his usual prostrations, he was greeted as if he had never left. At the end of the morning Dharma discussion and business with monks and visitors, Achaan Chah finally turned to him and asked if he had found any new or better Dharma outside the forest monastery. No, he had learned many new things in his practice, but actually, they were to be found at WatBa Pong as well. The Dharma is always right here for anyone to see, to practice. "Ah yes," Achaan Chah laughed, "I could have told you that before you left, but you wouldn't have understood. "
Then the Western monk went to the cottage of Achaan Sumedho, the senior Western disciple of Achaan Chah, and told all his stories and adventures, his new understandings and great insights into practice. Sumedho listened in silence and prepared afternoon tea from the roots of certain forest plants. When the stories were completed and the insights recounted, Sumedho smiled and said, "Ah, how wonderful. Something else to let go of." Only that.
Yet the Westerners kept coming and going, all to learn these lessons for themselves. At times, Achaan Chah would bless their travels; often, though, he would tease.
An English monk, vacillating in his search for the perfect life, the perfect teacher, had come and gone, ordained and disrobed, several times. "This monk," Achaan Chah finally chided, "has dog droppings in his monk's bag, and he thinks every place smells bad."
Another English monk who had come and gone from the monastery, to
Out of frustration, another Western monk went to Achaan Chah asking permission to leave. Practice and surrender to the monastic life were hard, and this monk began to find fault with all that surrounded him. ''The other monks talk too much. Why do we have to chant? I want more time alone to meditate. The senior monks don't teach newcomers very well, and even you," he said to Achaan Chah in desperation, "even you don't seem so enlightened. You're always changing-sometimes you're strict, sometimes you don't seem to care. How do I know you're enlightened?"
Achaan Chah laughed heartily at this, which both amused and irritated the young monk. '11's a good thing I don't appear to be enlightened to you," he said, "because if I fit your model of enlightenment, your ideal of how an enlightened person should act, you would still be caught looking for the Buddha outside yourself. He's not out there-he's in your own heart. "
The monk bowed and returned to his cottage to look for the real Buddha.
Rely on Oneself
Sitting cross-legged on a hard stone temple floor is natural to villagers who have grown up in a culture without furniture. But to one newly arrived Western novice, gawky and inflexible, it was a hard way to begin the daily hours of meditation and chanting. Thus it was with some relief the novice discovered that by arriving early to meditation, he could sit next to the stone pillars at the front of the hall and, once. All the monks had closed their eyes to practice, he could gently lean on the pillar and meditate in Western-style comfort.
After a week of this practice, Achaan Chah rang the bell to end the sitting and start the evening Dharma talk. "Tonight," he began, looking directly at the new monk, "we will talk about how practicing the Dharma means to support oneself, to rely on oneself, to not have to lean on things outside of oneself." The other monks in the hall tittered. The Westerner, a bit embarrassed, sat up unusually straight for the rest of the lecture. From that point on his resolve grew firm, and he learned how to sit straight on any floor under any conditions.
Keep the Teaching Simple
A large piece of wild forest land was offered Achaan Chah by nearby villagers to start a monastery. A wealthy lay supporter heard of this and offered to build a magnificent hall and temple on top of a small mountain in the forest. Other lay supporters gathered together, and a design was drawn for the largest Dharma hall in several provinces. Huts for monks were built in caves around the mountain, and a road was laboriously cut through the woods. Construction commenced on the Dharma hall: concrete foundation, tall pillars, platform for a giant bronze Buddha. As work proceeded, new designs were added. Complex discussions between lay sponsors and the builders ensued. Just how fancy should the roof be? Should we modify the design to make it better in this way? In that way? How about hollow pillars and a huge rainwater tank underneath? Everyone had good ideas, but they were all very costly.
The culmination of all these discussions was a long meeting with Achaan Chah. Construction experts, lay sponsors, all presented the different design options, the costs, the time for building. Finally the wealthy lay supporter spoke up with her ideas and questions. "Tell us, Achaan, which of these designs to follow. The frugal one? The costly one? How shall we proceed?"
Achaan Chah laughed. "When you do good, there are good results." That was all he would say. The finished Dharma hall was magnificent.
Learning to Tech
Makkha Puja is an important Buddhist holiday celebrating the coming together of 1,250 enlightened disciples in the Buddha's presence. At this meeting, he told them to "wander forth" spreading the Dharma "for the good, the benefit, and the awakening" of beings everywhere.
To celebrate this holiday, Achaan Chah and his many hundred monks sit up all night in meditation with the village lay supporters. In a typical year the great hall is filled with perhaps a thousand villagers. They sit for an hour, then Achaan Chah or one of his chief disciples, who are all abbots of their own monasteries, gives an inspiring Dharma talk. Again they sit for an hour, alternating sitting and talks all night long.
One of the earliest Western students of Achaan Chah was seated among the group of new monks feeling the inspiration and joy and difficulty of this night long celebration and practice. At the completion of one hour of sitting in the middle of the night, Achaan
Chah announced to the villagers that they would now hear a talk in their native Lao language by the Western monk. The monk was as surprised as the viJ1agers, but having no chance to prepare or to get nervous, he sat in front of the assembly and spoke of
the inspiration that had brought him to ordain and of the new understandings of the Dharma he had gleaned from practice. After this experience, he was rarely ever nervous about speaking before a group.
Achaan Chah later explained that Dharma teaching must flow unprepared from the heart and from inner experience. "Sit, close the eyes, and step out of the way," he said. "Let the Dharma speak itself."
On another occasion, Achaan Chah asked Achaan Sumedho, his senior Western monk, to speak. Sumedho talked for a half hour. "Speak a half hour more," said Achaan Chah. A half hour later, Achaan Chah said "Speak more still:' Sumedho continued, becoming increasingly boring. Many of the listeners started to doze. "Surrender to speaking," Achaan Chah cajoled. "Just do it." After struggling on for several hours, SUI11edho had learned to bore his listeners thoroughly and was never again afraid of their judgments when he talked.
Achaan Chah asked a monk who was leaving if he was planning to teach when he got back to the West. No, he had no particular plans to teach Dharma, he replied, although if someone asked, he would do his best to explain how to practice.
"Very good," Achaan Chah said, "it is beneficial to speak about the Dharma to those who inquire. And when you explain it," he went on, "why not call it Christianity. They won't understand in the West if you say anything about Buddha.
"I speak of God to Christians, yet I have not read their books. I find God in the heart. Do you think God is Santa Claus, who comes once a year with gifts for children? God is Dharma, the truth; the one who sees this sees all things. And yet God is nothing special-just this.
"What we are really teaching is how to be free from suffering, how to be loving and wise and filled with compassion. This teaching is the Dharma, anywhere in any language. So call it Christianity. Then it will be easier for some of them to understand."
Achaan Chah had this advice for an aspiring Dharma teacher:
"Don't let them scare you. Be firm and direct. Be clear about your own shortcomings, and acknowledge your limits. Work with love and compassion, and when people are beyond your ability to help, develop equanimity. Sometimes teaching is hard work. Teachers become garbage cans for people's frustrations and problems. The more people you teach, the bigger the garbage disposal problem. Don't worry. Teaching is a wonderful way to practice Dharma. The Dharma can help all those who genuinely apply it in their lives. Those who teach grow in patience and understanding."
Achaan Chah encourages his students to share what they learn. "When you have learned the truth, you will be able to help others, sometimes with words but mostly through your being. As for conversing about Dharma, I am not so adept at it. Whoever wants to know me should live with me. If you stay for a long time, you will see. I myself wandered as a forest monk for many years. I did not teach-I practiced and listened to what the masters said. This is important advice: when you listen, really listen. I do not know what else 'to say."
He had said enough to last us a long time.
What Is The Best Kind Of Meditation?
Achaan Chah is surrounded by visitors most of the day-students, farmers, politicians, generals, pilgrims, devotees. They ask for blessings, seek advice, question him, praise him, challenge him, blame him, and bring him a thousand problems to solve. He teaches this constant stream of people without rest. One day he was heard to remark how he had learned as much Dharma from receiving them as from any other practice.
A Wonderful Meal
Some Students asked Achaan Chah why he so rarely talks about Nirvana but teaches instead about wisdom in daily life. Other teachers speak so often of attaining Nirvana, of its special bliss and its importance in their practice.
Achaan Chah answered that some people will savor a good meal and then go on to praise its merits to everyone they meet. Others will eat and savour the same meal but, once through, will feel no need to go around telling others of a meal already eaten.
Achaan Chah's Cottage
Achaan Chah says he does not dream any more. He sleeps only a few hours a night, upstairs in a small one-room cottage. Underneath this cottage, which is on wooden pillars in Thai fashion, is an open floor where he receives visitors.
Often these visitors bring him gifts, not just food or robes but also exquisite ancient statues and carefully made folk art depicting Buddhist themes. One Western monk, a collector and appreciator of Asian art, was excited by the possibility of seeing such lovely objects when he was assigned to help with the daily cleaning of Achaan Chah's cottage. He went upstairs, unlocked the door, and found only a bare bed and a mosquito net. He discovered that Achaan Chah gives these gifts away as fast as he gets them. He does not cling to anything.
Holy Ceremonies and Hot Days
Since the time of the Buddha himself, monks have been called upon to perform ceremonies, to make blessings, or to bring comfort in times of difficulties in the lives of 'lay disciples. The Buddha himself is said to have employed the tradition of soothing the hearts of his disciples with holy water and blessings.
Because the life of study and ceremony has taken the place of genuine practice for most monks in
One young Western monk in the party was growing impatient in the heat and yet more impatient with the ceremony. "Why do you bother with such obviously useless ceremonies like this when they have nothing to do with practicer he whispered to Achaan Chah. "Perhaps because," the teacher whispered back, "it's a hot day and all these people want a cool shower."
The Real Magic
The villagers and other disciples around WatBa Pong tell many tales of Achaan Chah's powers. They say he can make his body manifest in several places at once and some claim to have seen his double. They tell of his great healing powers, of his cures of the sick, or they speak of his power to know the minds of others, of his clairvoyance and penetrating Samadhi.
Achaan Chah laughs at these stories, at the unenlightened concern for, the misguided awe of such powers. "There is only one real magic," he says, "the magic of the Dharma, the teachings that can liberate the mind and put an end to suffering. Any other magic is like the illusion of a card trick-it distracts us from the real game, our relation to human life, to birth and death, and to freedom. At WatBa Pong," he says, "we only teach the real magic."
On another occasion he told the monks: "Of course, if one reaches Samadhi, it can be used for other purposes-cultivating psychic powers, or making holy water, blessings, charms, and spells. If you reach this level, such things can be done. Practicing like that is intoxicating, like drinking good liquor. But over here is where the Path is, the way the Buddha passed. Here Samadhi is used as a foundation for Vipassana, contemplation, and need not be very great. Just observe what is arising, continue observing cause and effect, continue contemplating. In this way, we use the focused mind to contemplate sights, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily contacts, and mental objects." It is in our very senses that the whole Dharma of liberation can be found.
Practice for the Householder
You have often asked about the path of the householder. Household life is both hard and easy hard to do, easy to understand. It is as if you were to come complaining to me with a red-hot coal in your hand, and I were to tell you to simply drop it. "No, I won't," you say. "I want it to be cold." Either you must drop it, or you must learn to be very patient.
"How can I drop it?" you ask. Can you just drop your family? Drop it in your heart. Let go of your inner attachment. You are like a bird that has laid eggs; you have a responsibility to sit with and hatch them. Otherwise, they will become rotten.
You may want the members of your family to appreciate you, to understand why you act in certain ways, yet they may not. Their attitude may be intolerant, closed-minded. If the father is a thief and the son disapproves, is he a bad child? Explain things as well as you can, make an honest effort, then let go. If you have a pain and go to the doctor, but he and all his medicines cannot cure it, what can you do but let it go?
If you think in terms of my family, my practice, this kind of self-centered view is just another cause of suffering. Do not think of finding happiness, either living with others or living alone-just live with the Dharma. Buddhism helps to work out problems, but we must practice and develop wisdom first. You do not just throw rice into a potful of water and immediately have boiled rice. You have to build the fire, bring the water to a boil, and let the rice cook long enough. With wisdom, problems can eventually be solved by taking into account the karma of beings. Understanding family life, you can really learn about karma, about cause and effect, and can begin to take care of your action in the future.
Practicing in a group, in a monastery, or at a retreat is not so hard; you are too embarrassed to miss sittings with others. But when you go home, you find it difficult; you say that you are lazy or unable to find time. You give away your personal power, projecting it onto others, onto situations or teachers outside yourself. Just wake up! You create your own world. Do you want to practice or not?
Just as we monks must strive with our precepts and ascetic practices, developing the discipline that leads to freedom, so you lay people must do likewise. As you practice in your homes, you should endeavour to refine the basic precepts. Strive to put body and speech in order. Make real effort, practice continuously. As for concentrating the mind, do not give up because you have tried it once or twice and are not at peace. Why should it not take a long time? How long have you let your mind wander as it wished without
doing anything to control it? How long have you allowed it to lead you around by the nose? Is it any. wonder that a month or two is not enough to still it?
Of course, the mind is hard to train. When a horse is really stubborn, do not feed it for a while-it will come around. When it starts to follow the right.
course, feed it a little. The beauty of our way of life is that the mind can be trained. With our own right effort, we can come to wisdom.
To live the lay life and practice Dharma, one must be in the world but remain above it. Virtue, beginning with the five basic precepts, is all important, parent to all good things. It is the basis for removing wrong from the mind, removing the cause of distress and agitation. Make virtue really firm. Then practice your formal meditation when the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes the meditation will be good, sometimes not. Do not worry about it, just continue. If doubts arise, just realize that they, like everything else in the mind, are impermanent.
As you continue, concentration will arise. Use it to develop wisdom. See like and dislike arising from sense contact and do not attach to them. Do not be anxious for results or quick progress. An infant first crawls, then learns to walk, then to run. Just be firm in your virtue and keep practicing.