January  1994   2537   Number 27 

Ajahn Chah remembered; Jack Kornfield
Heart of a Legacy; Luang Por Chah
Freedom in Restraint; Sister Sundara
Turning the Western Wheel; Ven. Sobhano interviews Aj. Amaro
Faith in Awakening; Many Monastics Reflect
Seize the Time; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:

Ajahn Chah Remembered
Jack Kornfield trained as a bhikkhu under Ven. Ajahn Chah in the early 1970's. Subsequently, he disrobed but has continued to teach meditation and Dhamma in America. In this talk, he recalls the wisdom of Ajahn Chah and his way of teaching.

Ajahn Chah had four basic levels of teaching, and each one, although at times very difficult for the students, was taught with a lot of humour and a lot of love. Ajahn Chah taught that until we can begin to respect ourselves and our environment, practice doesn't really develop. And that dignity, the ground of practice, comes through surrender, through impeccable discipline. A lot of us in the West understand freedom to mean freedom to do what we want, but I think you can see that to follow the wants of the mind isn't terribly free. It's actually rather troublesome.

A deeper freedom, taught through Dhamma, is the freedom within form: the freedom we can find while relating to another human being, the freedom of being born in a body with its limitations, and the freedom of a tight monastic form. What Ajahn Chah did was create a situation of dignity and demand. He really asked a lot from people probably more than they'd ever been asked in their whole life - to give, to pay attention, to be wholehearted. Sometimes practice is wonderful: the mind gets clear enough that you smell and taste the air in ways that you haven't since you were a child. But sometimes it's difficult. He said, "That's not the point; the point is somehow to come to inner freedom."

The quality of endurance in the monks' life in the forest, where you just sit and sit and sit, is a very important one.
We used to sit for long hours at times, and the meditation hall for the monks was a stone platform -they don't use cushions in Asia. You have a square cloth, like a handkerchief, that you put down on the stone to sit on. I remember when I started, because sitting on the floor was so painful, I would arrive early at the hall and get a place where I could sit next to one of the pillars and lean against it. After about a week of being with Ajahn Chah, he gathered the monks together for an evening talk after the sitting and he began to talk about how the true practice of Dhamma was to become independent in any circumstance; to not need to lean on things. And then he looked at me.

Sometimes you would sit while he'd talk to someone or receive visitors, and you couldn't leave until you were dismissed. And you'd sit and sit and you'd look at your mind and it would go: 'Doesn't he know that we are sitting here? Doesn't he know I'm thirsty or I want to get up?' And he'd be talking away - he knew very well. And you'd sit and sit and just see all the movement of the mind. We would sit for hours. The quality of endurance in the monks' life in the forest, where you just sit and sit and sit, is a very important one.

He trusted that people came in order to learn and grow and when it was hard, that was all right by him. He didn't care if people had a hard time. He would go up to them when they were having a hard time and he'd say, "Are you angry? Whose fault is that, mine or yours?" So one really had to give up a lot, but it wasn't to him or for him - it was for oneself. With surrender and dignity one learnt to open up and see clearly. It is essential in our practice to be unflinchingly honest about ourselves and the world - just as he was.

He would sit under his kuti and various lay visitors and other disciples would come and also some of his monks would be sitting around and he would make fun of people. He'd say, "I'd like to introduce you to my monks. This one, he likes to sleep a lot. And this one, he is always sick, his health is his thing; he just spends his time worrying about his health. And this one is a big eater - he eats more than two or three other monks. And this is a doubter over there, he really likes to doubt, really gets into it. And can you imagine, he had three different wives at the same time. And this one likes to sit a lot, all he does is go and sit in his kuti; I think he is afraid of people." And then he'd point to himself and say, "Myself, I like to play teacher."

Once, when he came to the USA, there was a man who had been a monk with him for a long time who had then disrobed and taken ordination as a Zen priest. So he said, "I can't figure out this guy," - this man was acting as his translator - "he is not quite a monk and he is not quite a lay person. He must be some kind of a transvestite.' And throughout the next ten days he kept introducing this man as Miss whatever his name was - Frank or John. "This is Miss John. I'd like you to meet my transvestite translator. He can't quite make up his mind." He was very funny but he was unstintingly honest. He really could make people look at themselves and their attachments. When I was here and I was translating for him, he said, "Even though I don't speak any English, I know the truth is that my translator leaves out all the really hard things I say. I tell you painful things and he leaves out all the things that have a sting in them, makes them soft and gentle for you. You can't trust him."

First comes dignity and surrender - really seeing the power of one's willingness to live in a full way in the Dhamma. And secondly one has to learn to see honestly, to be honest about oneself and the people around one, to see one's limits and not to be caught in the things outside. When I asked what is the biggest problem with new disciples, he said, "Views and opinions about everything. They are all so educated. They think they know so much. When they come to me, how can they learn anything? Wisdom is for you to watch and develop. Take from the teacher what's good but be aware of your own practice. If I am resting while you all sit up, does it make you angry? If I say that the sky is red instead of blue, don't follow me blindly. One of my teachers ate very fast and made noises as he ate. Yet he told us to eat slowly and mindfully. I used to watch him and got very upset. I suffered, but he didn't. I watched the outside. Later, I learned. Some people drive very fast but carefully, and others drive slowly and have many accidents. Don't cling to rules or to form. If you watch others at the most ten percent of the time, and yourself ninety percent, this is proper practice. First I used to watch my teacher, Ajahn Tongrath, and had many doubts. People even thought he was mad. He would do strange things and be very fierce with his disciples. Outside he was angry, but inside there was nobody, nothing there. He was remarkable. He stayed clear and mindful until the moment he died. Looking outside of yourself is comparing, discriminating; you won't find happiness that way. No way will you find peace if you spend your time looking for the perfect man, or the perfect woman or the perfect teacher."


Ajahn Chah seated in front of Sumedho Bhikkhu with Dr. Burns (Suvicanno Bhikkhu) on the left and Jack Kornfield (Sunyo Bhikkhu) to the right.
The Buddha taught us to look at the Dhamma, the Truth, not to look at other people, to see clearly and to see into ourselves; to know our limits. Ram Dass asked him about limits. He asked, "Can you teach if your own work isn't completed, if you're not fully enlightened?" And he replied, "Be honest with them. Tell them what you know from your heart and tell people what's possible. Don't pretend to be able to lift big rocks when you can only lift small ones. Yet it doesn't hurt to tell people that if you exercise and if you work, it's possible to lift this. Just be straightforward and assess what's truly reasonble." Surrender, and dignity in that, and real impeccability: this is the ground. Then there's clarity, seeing what's true in oneself, seeing one's limits, seeing one's attachments. Then the third way he taught was by working with things.

Working is done in two parts: one by overcoming obstacles and hindrances, and the other by letting go. Overcoming: the first Dhamma talk I gave was at a large gathering, Magha Puja festival day, and in a hall filled with five hundred or one thousand villagers. We sat up all night, alternatively sitting for one hour and then listening to a talk given by one of the teachers from his monasteries. He had several hundred monks there at that time; they all came together from the branch monasteries for that day. And then in the middle of the night with no preparation he said, "Now we'll hear a Dhamma talk from the Western monk." I'd never given a Dhamma talk before, much less in Lao, the local dialect. There was no time, I had to just get up and say what I could say. He had his chief Western disciple, Ajahn Sumedho, get up and give a talk. Sumedho ended after an hour and Ajahn Chah said, "Talk more." So Sumedho talked another half-an-hour; he didn't have much to say, people were getting bored, he was getting bored, he finished. Ajahn Chah said, "Now more." Another half-an-hour, three-quarters-of-an-hour, it was getting more and more boring - he's run out of things to say. People are sleeping; Sumedho doesn't know what to say, finishes finally and Ajahn Chah says, "More, a bit more." Another half-an-hour -it was the most boring talk! And why would he do it? He got Ajahn Sumedho to learn not to be afraid of being boring. It was wonderful.

He encouraged people to put themselves in situations they were afraid of. He would send people who were afraid of ghosts to sit outside at night in the charnel ground. I would go sometimes - because I wasn't afraid of ghosts, it was a way of showing off - but for them it was really scary. Or he had people go away out in the forest and meditate, and face the fear of tigers. The spirit of the practice was to really make yourself work with things to overcome them. He pushed you into what you disliked. If you liked to be alone in the forest, you were assigned to a city monastery in Bangkok. And if you liked the city and the easy life and good food, he'd send you to some impoverished forest monastery where there was just rice and tree leaves to eat. He was a real rascal. He knew all of your trips and he could find them and he would somehow, in a very funny and gentle and yet direct way, really make you look to see where you were afraid or attached. Fear, boredom, restlessness- fine, sit with it. Be bored, be restless and die, he would say over and over again. Die in that restlessness, die in that fear, die in that boredom. People were sleepy, great: the ascetic practice he'd assign would be to sit up all night and if you wouldn't sit, walk, walk more, walk backwards if you were really sleepy. Whatever it took, to really go against it.

With anger, restlessness, the same. He said, "You are restless. Fine, go back and sit. Sit more when you are restless, don't sit less." He said it's like starving a tiger to death in a cage of mindfulness. It's not that you need to do anything about the tiger - the tiger being your anger or restlessness - just let it roam around in the cage. But you make the cage around it with your sitting. He really made people look at where they were, made them face it. But still, it was done with humour and it was done with balance. He wouldn't allow people to do fasts, except very rarely. He wouldn't even allow people to do long solitary practice, unless he felt it was really good for them. Some people he'd make work: "You need to know the strength of the ox cart," he would say, "and not overload it." He made space for each person to grow at their own pace. The first part of working was really working to overcome difficulties. He said, "The way of Dhamma is the way of opposites. If you like it cold, you should have it hot, and if you like it soft, take it hard." Whatever it was, to be really willing to let go, to be free.

The second part of working was by the practice of real mindfulness, of being aware of things and letting go of them. In terms of form, this meant to let go of attachments to physical possessions. 'Letting go', however, also included matters of custom. I remember the villagers came to complain to him because he'd set up what still exists as a monastery for training Westerners. And these Westerners were celebrating Christmas, with a Christmas tree and all. The villagers came and said, "Listen, you told us we were going to have a forest monastery for Buddhist monks by our village, and these Westerners are doing Christmas. It doesn't seem right." So he listened to them and said, "Well, my understanding is that the teachings of Christianity are the teachings of loving-kindness, of surrender and compassion, of seeing one's neighbour as oneself, of sacrifice, of non-attachment -many of the basic principles of Buddha-Dhamma. For me, it seems all right that they celebrate Christmas, especially since it is a holiday of giving and generosity, of love. But if you insist, we won't celebrate Christmas there any more." The villagers were relieved. He said, "We'll have a celebration, but instead, let's call it ChrisBuddhamas." And that was the celebration. They were satisfied, and he was satisfied.

It wasn't as if the way to do it was through some particular form, but to let go of form, to let go of doubt. He said, "You have to learn to watch doubts as they arise. Doubting is natural; we all start off with doubts. 'What's important is that you don't identify with them or get caught up in endless circles. Instead, simply watch the whole process of doubting. See how doubts come and go. Then you will no longer be victimised by them." To see them, to know them, to let go. The same with judgement and fear. To feel them, to experience them as physical events, as mental states and yet not be caught. To eventually come to see all of the energies - the difficult ones of anger, fear, sleepiness, doubt and restlessness; the subtle ones of our attachment to pride or to stillness, quietness or even to insight. Just to see them and allow them to come and go, and come to a really profound kind of equanimity.

He said, "Sitting for hours on end is not necessary. Some people think that the longer you can sit, the wiser you must be. I've seen chickens sitting on their nests for days on end. Wisdom comes from being mindful in all postures. Your practice should begin as you wake up in the morning and should continue until you fall asleep. Each person has their own natural pace. Some of you may die at age fifty, some at age sixty-five, some at age ninety. So too, your practice will not be identical. Don't worry about this. What is important is only that you keep watchful, whether you are working, sitting, or going to the bathroom. Try and be mindful and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become quieter and quieter in any surroundings. It will become still, like a clear forest pool. Then all kinds of wonderful and rare animals will come to drink at the pool. You will see clearly the nature of all things in the world. You'll see many wonderful and strange things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness and understanding of the Buddha."