Venerable Ajahn Chah was born on June 17, 1918 in a small village near the town of Ubon Rajathani, North-East Thailand. After finishing his basic schooling, he spent three years as a novice before returning to lay life to help his parents on the farm. At the age of twenty, however, he decided to resume monastic life, and on April 26, 1939 he received upasampada (bhikkhu ordination). Ajahn Chah's early monastic life followed a traditional pattern, of studying Buddhist teachings and the Pali scriptural language. In his fifth year his father fell seriously ill and died, a blunt reminder of the frailty and precariousness of human life. It caused him to think deeply about life's real purpose, for although he had studied extensively and gained some proficiency in Pali, he seemed no nearer to a personal understanding of the end of suffering. Feelings of disenchantment set in, and finally (in 1946) he abandoned his studies and set off on mendicant pilgrimage.
He walked some 400 km to Central Thailand, sleeping in forests and gathering almsfood in the villages on the way. He took up residence in a monastery where the vinaya (monastic discipline) was carefully studied and practiced. While there he was told about Venerable Ajahn Mun Buridatto, a most highly respected Meditation Master. Keen to meet such an accomplished teacher, Ajahn Chah set off on foot for the Northeast in search of him.
At this time Ajahn Chah was wrestling with a crucial problem. He had studied the teachings on morality, meditation and wisdom, which the texts presented in minute and refined detail, but he could not see how they could actually be put into practice. Ajahn Mun told him that although the teachings are indeed extensive, at their heart they are very simple. With mindfulness established, if it is seen that everything arises in the heart-mind. ..right there is the true path of practice. This succinct and direct teaching was a revelation for Ajahn Chah, and transformed his approach to practice. The Way was clear.
For the next seven years Ajahn Chah practiced in the style of the austere Forest Tradition, wandering through the countryside in quest of quiet and secluded places for developing meditation. He lived in tiger and cobra infested jungles, using reflections on death to penetrate to the true meaning of life. On one occasion he practiced in a cremation ground, to challenge and eventually overcome his fear of death. Then, as he sat cold and drenched in a rainstorm, he faced the utter desolation and loneliness of a homeless monk.
In 1954, after years of wandering, he was invited back to his home village. He settled close by, in a fever ridden, haunted forest called 'Pah Pong'. Despite the hardships of malaria, poor shelter and sparse food, disciples gathered around him in increasing numbers. The monastery, which is now known as Wat Pah Pong began there, and eventually branch monasteries were also, established elsewhere.
In 1967 an American monk came to stay at Wat Pah Pong. The newly ordained Venerable Sumedho had just spent his first vassa ('Rains' retreat) practicing intensive meditation at a monastery near the Laotian border. Although his efforts had borne some fruit, Venerable Sumedho realized that he needed a teacher who could train him in all aspects of monastic life. By chance, one of Ajahn Chah's monks, one who happened to speak a little English visited the monastery where Venerable Sumedho was staying. Upon hearing about Ajahn Chah, he asked to take leave of his preceptor, and went back to Wat Pah Pong with the monk. Ajahn Chah willingly accepted the new disciple, but insisted that he receive no special allowances for being a Westerner. He would have to eat the same simple almsfood and practice in the same way as any other monk at Wat Pah Pong. The training there was quite harsh and forbidding. Ajahn Chah often pushed his monks to their limits, to test their powers of endurance so that they would develop patience and resolution. He sometimes initiated long and seemingly pointless work projects, in order to frustrate their attachment to tranquility. The emphasis was always on surrender to the way things are, and great stress was placed upon strict observance of the vinaya.
In the course of events, other Westerners came through Wat Pah Pong. By the time Venerable Sumedho was a bhikkhu of five vassas, and Ajahn Chah considered him competent enough to teach, some of these new monks had also decided to stay on and train there. In the hot season of 1975, Venerable Sumedho and a handful of Western bhikkhus spent some time living in a forest not far from Wat Pah Pong. The local villagers there asked them to stay on, and Ajahn Chah consented. The Wat Pah Nanachat ('International Forest Monastery') came into being, and Venerable Sumedho became the abbot of the first monastery in Thailand to be run by and for English-speaking monks.
In 1977, Ajahn Chah was invited to visit Britain by the English Sangha Trust, a charity with the aim of establishing a locally-resident Buddhist Sangha. He took Venerable Sumedho and Venerable Khemadhammo along, and seeing the serious interest there, left them in London at the Hampstead Vihara (with two of his other Western disciples who were then visiting Europe). He returned to Britain in 1979, at which time the monks were leaving London to begin Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in Sussex. He then went on to America and Canada to visit and teach. After this trip, and again in 1981, Ajahn Chah spent the 'Rains' away from Wat Pah Pong, since his health was failing due to the debilitating effects of diabetes. As his illness worsened, he would use his body as a teaching, a living example of the impermanence of all things. He constantly reminded people to endeavor to find a true refuge within themselves, since he would not be able to teach for very much longer. Before the end of the 'Rains' of 1981, he was taken to Bangkok for an operation; it, however, did little to improve his condition. Within a few months he stopped talking, and gradually he lost control of his limbs until he was virtually paralyzed and bed-ridden. From then on, he was diligently and lovingly nursed and attended by devoted disciples, grateful for the occasion to offer service to the teacher who so patiently and compassionately showed the Way to so many.
What is contemplation ?
Dharma talk By Ven. Ajahn Chah
The following teaching is taken from a session of questions and answers that took place at Wat Gor Nork monastery during the Vassa of 1979, between Venerable Ajahn Chah and a group of English-speaking disciples. Some rearrangement of the sequence of conversation has been made for ease of understanding. The knowing that arises is above and beyond the process of thinking. It leads to not being fooled by thinking any more.
Question:When you teach about the value of contemplation, are you speaking of sitting and thinking over particular themes - the thirty-two parts of the body, for instance?
Answer:That is not necessary when the mind is truly still. When tranquility is properly established the right object of investigation becomes obvious. When contemplation is 'True', there is no discrimination into 'right' and 'wrong'. 'good' and 'bad'; there is nothing even like that. You don't sit there thinking, 'Oh, this is like that and that is like this' etc. That is a coarse form of contemplation. Meditative contemplation is not merely a matter of thinking -- rather it's what we call 'contemplation in silence'. Whilst going about our daily routine we mindfully consider the real nature of existence through comparisons. This is a coarse kind of investigation but it leads to the real thing.
When you talk about contemplating the body and mind, though, do we actually use thinking? Can thinking produce true insight? Is this vipassana?
In the beginning we need to work using thinking, even though later on we go beyond it. When we are doing true contemplation all dualistic thinking has ceased; although we need to consider dualistically to get started. Eventually all thinking and pondering comes to an end.
You say that there must be sufficient tranquility (samadhi) to contemplate. Just how tranquil do you mean?
Tranquil enough for there to be presence of mind.
Do you mean staying with the here-and-now, not thinking about the past and future?
Thinking about the past and future is all right if you understand what these things really are, but you must not get caught up in them. Treat them the same as you would anything else -- don't get caught up. When you see thinking as just thinking, then that's wisdom. Don't believe in any of it! Recognize that all of it is just something that has arisen and will cease. Simply see everything just as it is -- it is what it is -- the mind is the mind -- it's not anything or anybody in itself. Happiness is just happiness, suffering is just suffering -- it is just what it is. When you see this you will be beyond doubt.
I still don't understand. Is true contemplating the same as thinking?
We use thinking as a tool, but the knowing that arises because of its use is above and beyond the process of thinking; it leads to our not being fooled by our thinking any more. You recognize that all thinking is merely the movement of the mind, and also that knowing is not born and doesn't die. What do you think all this movement called 'mind' comes out of? What we talk about as the mind -- all the activity -- is just the conventional mind. It's not the real mind at all. What is real just IS, it's not arising and it's not passing away. Trying to understand these things just by talking about them, though, won't work. We need to really consider impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality (anicca, dukkha, anatta); that is, we need to use thinking to contemplate the nature of conventional reality. What comes out of this work is wisdom -- and emptiness. Even though there may still be thinking, it's empty -- you are not affected by it.
How can we arrive at this stage of the real mind?
Your work with the mind you already have, of course! See that all that arises is uncertain, that there is nothing stable or substantial. See it clearly and see that there is really nowhere to take a hold of anything -- it's all empty. When you see the things that arise in the mind for what they are, you won't have to work with thinking any more. You will have no doubt whatsoever in these matters. To talk about the 'real mind' and so on, may have a relative use in helping us understand. We invent names for the sake of study, but actually nature just is how it is. For example, sitting here downstairs on the stone floor. The floor is the base -- it's not moving or going anywhere. Upstairs, above us is what has arisen out of this. Upstairs is like everything that we see in our minds: form, feeling, memory, thinking. Really, they don't exist in the way we presume they do. They are merely the conventional mind. As soon as they arise, they pass away again; they don't really exist in themselves.
There is a story in the scriptures about Venerable Sariputta examining a bhikkhu before allowing him to go off wandering (dhutanga vatta). He asked him how he would reply if he was questioned, 'What happens to the Buddha after he dies?' The bhikkhu replied, 'When form, feeling, perception, thinking and consciousness arise, they pass away.' Venerable Sariputta passed him on that.
Practice is not just a matter of talking about arising and passing away, though. You must see it for yourself. When you are sitting, simply see what is actually happening. Don't follow anything. Contemplation doesn't mean being caught up in thinking. The contemplative thinking of one on the Way is not the same as the thinking of the world. Unless you understand properly what is meant by contemplation, the more you think the more confused you will become.
The reason we make such a point of the cultivation of mindfulness is because we need to see clearly what is going on. We must understand the processes of our hearts. When such mindfulness and understanding are present, then everything is taken care of. Why do you think one who knows the Way never acts out of anger or delusion? The causes for these things to arise are simply not there. Where would they come from? Mindfulness has got everything covered.
Is this mind you are talking about called the 'Original Mind'?
What do you mean?
It seems as if you are saying there is something else outside of the conventional body-mind (the five khandhas). Is there something else? What do you call it?
There isn't anything and we don't call it anything -- that's all there is to it! Be finished with all of it. Even the knowing doesn't belong to anybody, so be finished with that, too! Consciousness is not an individual, not a being, not a self, not an other, so finish with that -- finish with everything! There is nothing worth wanting! It's all just a load of trouble. When you see clearly like this then everything is finished.
Could we not call it the 'Original Mind'?
You can call it that if you insist. You can call it whatever you like, for the sake of conventional reality. But you must understand this point properly. This is very important. If we didn't make use of conventional reality we wouldn't have any words or concepts with which to consider actual reality -- Dhamma. This is very important to understand.
What degree of tranquility are you talking about at this stage? And what quality of mindfulness is needed?
You don't need to go thinking like that. If you didn't have the right amount of tranquility you wouldn't be able to deal with these questions at all. You need enough stability and concentration to know what is going on -- enough for clarity and understanding to arise.
Asking questions like this shows that you are still doubting. You need enough tranquility of mind to no longer get caught in doubting what you are doing. If you had done the practice you would understand these things. The more you carry on with this sort of questioning, the more confusing you make it. It's all right to talk if the talking helps contemplation, but it won't show you the way things actually are. This Dhamma is not understood because somebody else tells you about it, you must see it for yourself -- paccattam. If you have the quality of understanding that we have been talking about, then we say that your duty to do anything is over; which means that you don't do anything. If there is still something to do, then it's your duty to do it.
Simply keep putting everything down, and know that that is what you are doing. You don't need to be always checking up on yourself, worrying about things like 'How much samadhi' -- it will always be the right amount. Whatever arises in your practice, let it go; know it all as uncertain, impermanent. Remember that! It's all uncertain. Be finished with all of it. This is the Way that will take you to the source -- to your Original Mind.
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Nguyện đem công đức này, trang nghiêm Phật Tịnh Độ, trên đền bốn ơn nặng, dưới cứu khổ ba đường, nếu có người thấy nghe, đều phát lòng Bồ Đề, hết một báo thân này, sinh qua cõi Cực Lạc.
May the Merit and virtue,accrued from this work, adorn the Buddhas pureland, Repay the four great kindnesses above, andrelieve the suffering of those on the three paths below, may those who see or hear of these efforts generates Bodhi Mind, spend their lives devoted to the Buddha Dharma, the Land of Ultimate Bliss.