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Ajahn Chah’s Teachings on Nature
A Dhamma talk given at Abhayagiri Monastery in September of 2012 by Pasanno Bhikkhu
Tomorrow I am invited to teach a day-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on the theme of “Ajahn Chah’s Teachings on Nature.” For the past few days I’ve been preparing and have steeped myself in Ajahn Chah’s teachings – swimming in the soup of his biography as well as reading and listening to some of his talks. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I have no idea what will come out in this evening’s talk, but I think it will be influenced by the things that I’ve reviewed.
I have many recollections of Ajahn Chah. I’m completely biased. I was an early student of his, and I am a monk because of the inspiration Ajahn Chah gave me. For everything I say, everything I’ve learned and the practice I’ve done, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Ajahn Chah. His teaching and his presence still affect me.
One of Ajahn Chah’s unique qualities as a teacher was his ability to explain and encourage people in ways that made the practice very tangible. Some of this was his ability to use imagery and similes. One of the images that he gave of the practice was of a coconut tree. A coconut tree draws nutriments from the planet; it draws elements good and bad, clean and dirty, up through the roots and into the top of the tree and then produces fruit that gives both sweet water and delicious meat.
In the same way, as practitioners, we take all the different experiences that we have, all the different contacts with the world that we have, and we draw them up through our practice of Virtue, of Concentration, of Wisdom. They can be all transformed into something that is very peaceful, that bears great fruit in terms of insight, understanding, and a tremendous balance and sense of peace. We don’t need to be shy or worried or concerned about the different experiences that we have – whether we’re successful or not in our meditation, or whether we experience praise or blame, gain or loss.
All of those experiences can be drawn up, through our practice, through our training. They can all be transformed. I think that’s a wonderfully encouraging image.
Another image Ajahn Chah used for practicing meditation is the leaves in the trees and the forest. Quite naturally, the leaves in the forest are quite still. Only when the wind blows will the leaves vibrate or shake, be blown back and forth. In the same way, our mind, our actual mind, our real mind, is always still and steady. It’s the moods of the mind that shake it.
When the winds of our moods, impressions, thoughts and feelings come up, we take the mind to be the various moods and impressions, rather than recognizing that it’s just the winds of mood, of thought and feeling, of perception. The underlying mind is the quality of knowing. The underlying mind is the quality of being present. With that quality, we are able to distinguish between the wind of mood and the quality of knowing and able to be attentive, and recognize that both those things are happening. The moods of the mind – the impressions, the reactions, the additions that we make and the proliferations that we add – affect what we consider to be the mind. In fact, we misperceive experience or don’t recognize the distinction between the two.
One doesn’t stand outside and force the wind not to blow or get upset because the wind does blow. It’s just a natural phenomenon. In the same way, we can allow the mind to become steady, to become peaceful, to attend in ways that don’t get caught up in the activity of the mind. Or, we can be swept up by the winds of change that blow through the mind, but see that as a natural phenomenon. Ajahn Chah was skillful at getting us to really pay attention to the nature and naturalness of the practice – that very natural reality we easily miss.
So often we tend to believe that things should be special in some way, they should conform to some ideal or doctrinal position. But Ajahn Chah was able to see through that habit, that human tendency. The Noble Truths that the Buddha taught were about Nature. All of our experience is something that’s in Nature, it’s something natural. But that truth is something we overlook. Instead, we create all sorts of suffering and confusion around it.
One time when I was sitting with Ajahn Chah, I was asked to be a translator for a visitor – a journalist from Sweden. He was interviewing various spiritual teachers and asking the same questions, and, of course, getting a huge range of answers. His questions included: “Why do you practice? How do you practice? And what results do you get from the practice?” My participation as the translator complicated the situation and created a big obstacle. I felt a particular irritation towards the monk from Bangkok who brought the journalist to the monastery. There were also my views and opinions about what I thought were idiotic questions asked by the journalist. This made the situation really interesting because nothing slipped by Ajahn Chah.
We sat down and the whole farcical scene started to play itself out. The journalist asked questions, then I translated them for Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah started talking about something else – asking his own questions and talking about this and that. After some time, he turned to me and asked, “What were those questions again?” I had to re-translate them and then Ajahn Chah went off on another tangent. After a while he said, “Did the journalist ask some questions? Oh, what were those questions?” And then I had to translate the questions yet again and, of course, Ajahn Chah went off again, and then asked, “Has anybody got a pencil and paper? Can somebody write those questions down for me?” So we went to find the pencil and paper. Ajahn Chah then asked, “So what was that first question?” I had to translate the question slowly enough so Ajahn Chah could write it. “Okay, why do we practice?” Ajahn Chah wrote it down. “What was that second question again?” “How do we practice?” “Oh, okay,” and he wrote it down.
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