Excerpts from A STILL FOREST POOL
The Teachings of Achaan Chaa of Wat Ba Pong
by Jack Kornfield and Paul Breither
Originally published in Laughing Man Magazine
vol 2 no 3, 1981
Achaan Chaa (1918-1992 – Chao Khun Bodhinyana Thera, alternatively Achaan Chah) of Wat Ba Pong Monastery in Thailand is one of the greatest Theravadin Buddhist masters alive today. He was born in a rural village in the Lao area of northeast Thailand and ordained as a novice in his early youth. At twenty he became ordained as a Buddhist monk, practicing meditation under the guidance of several local teachers in the ancient tradition of forest dwelling ascetics. Achaan Chaa wandered freely for many years in the style of an ascetic Buddhist monk, begging for food and sleeping under trees in the forest. During this time he spent a short but enlightening period with Achaan Mun, probably the most famous Thai meditation master of the century.
After many years of ascetic practice Achaan Chaa returned to the village of his birth, settling down in a thick forest nearby that was uninhabited and infested with cobras-in his words, the perfect place for a forest monk. Gradually, a large monastery formed around him as more and more monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists came to live with him or to hear his teachings.
Discipline at Wat Ba Pong, and the more than a dozen branch temples throughout Thailand where his disciples teach, is very strict. Meals are limited to one each day, and possessions are limited, as are robes and living places. The heart of the practice is the austere and meditative way of life.
Achaan Chah welcomes Western students, and over the past decade more than a dozen lived and studied with him, often for years at a time. Among them is Jack Kornfield, who returned to America after several years at Wat Ba Pong to help found the Insight Meditation Society, the principal center for the practice of Theravada Buddhism in the United States. For the past six years Jack has taught thousands of Americans the techniques of vipassana-meditation aimed at insight into things as they really are-throughout the country. He has also authored a number of articles and a book, Living Buddhist Masters. The following excerpts are from a forthcoming book, A Still Forest Pool, by Kornfield and coauthor Paul Breiter, on the life and teachings of Achaan Chaa of Wat Ba Pong.
Even as a young child I was fascinated and drawn by the monk’s life and the monasteries. So, at fifteen I was ordained as a novice. At the time I didn’t really understand what was happening to me, but reflecting back, it feels like there was always a very strong unconscious pull to monastic life. So, I lived as a novice in a nearby monastery and began to study the Dhamma1 – but if I tell you my whole tale, we will go on all night. Anyway, eventually I began to travel as a wandering forest monk. It was not always easy. I had an awful lot of problems in my practice-a great deal of suffering, bodily pain and otherwise. But I just sat through them pretty much. I can remember sitting in the forest with only my robes and bowl when it began to rain, and I felt so discouraged. The rain would pour down and soak everything, and I sat there and would just cry and cry, adding my tears to the rain. But I would just sit through it. I discovered I had a quality of daring that made my practice strong; I was willing to go through anything. It carried me through a lot, but still there was a great deal of pain and difficulty in practice. Nevertheless, it was worth it. It’s always worth it to get free.
1. Dhamma-Pali for the Sanskrit term dharma denotes the natural and moral Law underlying all existence and, by extension, the teaching pertaining to this. -ED.
0ften there are doubts as to what practice is for those who are just beginning. Try going against the defilements, the old habits, not feeding them. This should create friction. Where there’s heat and difficulty, that’s it. Often it seems hard. It’s like having a friend from childhood all along you’ve done things together, been close in all ways-then the Buddha comes along and says to split up.
What is normally called good, we must call no good; what is called beautiful, we should call not beautiful. If the word “good” keeps coming back, just say it louder, “Not good.” Know your enemies: attachment to forms seen by the eye, sounds heard by the ear, and so on. There is constant deception-the same stimulus can cause at one time like, at another time dislike.
Resist defilements. Don’t give them all the food they want, as much sleep as they want. After a while many people think this is the extreme of self-torture, but it’s necessary to be strong inwardly. See for yourself.
Be careful. Even a hair can hide a whole mountain from you. Do you understand this? There was a man who came here several years ago, an American psychiatrist who wanted to meditate. When he heard that he had to chant in the morning and the evening, he came to me and said, “I don’t want to chant, it’s just like singing. It’s a waste of time. I want to sit in my cottage and meditate.” So, I explained to him about practice and desire and insisted that he go and chant. This was not because chanting is actually better than not chanting, but in this particular case this man’s opinion, his attachment, or desire, kept him from seeing the most simple, obvious thing, kept him from real freedom., Our desires keep us from being in harmony with our world. We get so caught up in our view, our self, our own wants, that we cannot see how things really are. And that’s when even a hair can keep you from seeing a whole mountain.
Virtue, precepts, and concentration-meditation are aids to the practice. They make the mind calm and restrained. Things that arise when the mind is calm are important, they should not be ignored. Here you can learn a lot. Stay with it. Then, if you experience suffering in your practice, you will seek a way out of it. If you sit in the hot sun, you become uncomfortable and will seek shade. But this doesn’t mean self-torture, such as not eating or sleeping, standing on one leg, remaining in one posture, and so on. Rather, the point is to keep constant mindfulness and self-control.
Outward restraint is only a convention, a tool to help gain inner control. You may keep your eyes cast down, but still your mind may get caught up with whatever enters your field of vision. Yet, once the inner control is attained, you still shouldn’t throw away the forms of our monastic life. Be an example for those who will come after you-this is how the enlightened monks of old behaved.
Perhaps you feel this is too difficult, you just can’t do it. But the more clearly you understand the truth of things, the more incentive you will have. You’re walking home and step on a large thorn which goes deep into your foot. In pain you must stop and sit down; you feel you just can’t 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.
To help people to contemplate the true nature of the body, we display human skeletons in the meditation hall here because when one doesn’t understand death, life can be very confusing. If our body really belonged to us, then it would obey our commands. If we say, “Don’t get old,” or, “I forbid you to get sick,” does it obey us? No, it takes no notice. We only rent this house, but we don’t own it. If we think this house belongs to us, we suffer when we have to leave it. But there is nothing solid or unchanging about us. In reality there is no such thing as a permanent self. Buddha made a distinction between ultimate truth and conventional truth. The idea of a self is merely a concept, a convention-foreigner, Thai, interviewer, you the reader, these are all conventions. In ultimate reality there isn’t anybody, there is only earth, fire, water, and air-elements which have combined temporarily. We call the body a person, mine, but ultimately there is no me, there is only anatta, “not self.”
To understand anatta you have to meditate. If you only intellectualize about it, your head will explode. Once you understand anatta in your heart, then the burden of life is gone. The normal daily life with your family, your work, all will be much easier. You’ll be at peace with the world. When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness, and when we no longer cling to happiness, we can begin to be truly happy.
Enlightenment does not mean to become deaf and blind, like a Buddha statue. One who is enlightened thinks also, but knows the process as impermanent, unsatisfactory, empty of self. We who practice must see those things clearly. We want to look at suffering so that we can see it and stop its causes. If we don’t see it, wisdom can never arise. There should be no guesswork, we must see things exactly as they are. Then we will see that feelings are just feelings, thoughts are just thoughts, etc. This is the way to end our problems.
The Buddha told his cousin Ananda to see impermanence, see death with every breath. We must know death, we must die in order to live. How can we die? What does this mean? To die is to come to the end of all our doubts, all our questions, just to be here with the present reality. Actually, you can never die tomorrow. You must do it now. Can you do it?
Question: A lot of times it seems that many monks here are not practicing. They look sloppy or unmindful. This disturbs me.
Answer: It is not proper to watch other people. This will not help your practice. If you are annoyed, watch the annoyance in your own mind. If others discipline is bad or they are not good monks, this is not for you to judge. You will not discover wisdom watching others. The monk’s discipline is a tool to use for your own meditation. It is not a weapon with which to criticize or find fault in others. No one can do your practice for you, nor can you do practice for anyone else. Just be mindful of your own doings, and this is the way to practice.
Question: So, what should I do when I feel anger arising?
Answer: You must use loving-kindness. When angry states of mind arise in meditation, balance them by developing feelings of roving-kindness. If someone does something bad or gets angry, don’t get angry yourself. If you do, you are being more ignorant than they. Be wise. Keep compassion in mind, for that person is suffering. Fill your mind with loving-kindness as if he were a dear brother. Concentrate on the feeling of loving-kindness as a meditation subject. Spread it to all beings in the world. Only through loving-kindness is hatred overcome.
Sometimes you may see other monks behaving badly. You may get annoyed. This is unnecessary suffering. It is not yet our Dhamma. You may think like this: “He is not as strict as I am. They are not serious meditators like us. Those monks are not good monks.” This is a great defilement on your part. Do not make comparisons. Do not discriminate. Let go of your opinions and watch yourself. This is our Dhamma. You can’t possibly make everyone act as you wish or be like you. This wish will only make you suffer. It is a common mistake for meditators to make, but watching other people won’t develop wisdom. Simply examine yourself, your feelings. This is how you will understand.
When those who don’t understand the Dhamma act improperly, badly, they look left and right to make sure no one is looking, that there are no police, no people watching. How foolish. The Buddha, the Dhamma, is always watching. Do you think the Buddha can’t see that far? There is no such thing as getting away with something. Karma is always watching.
Question: If putting everything together in our bowls is important, why don’t you as a teacher do it yourself? Don’t you feel it is important for the teacher to set an example?
Answer: Yes, it is true, a teacher should set an example for his disciples. I don’t mind that you criticize me. Ask whatever
you wish. But it is important that you do not cling to the teacher. If I were absolutely perfect in outward form, it would be terrible. You would all be too attached to me. Even the Buddha would sometimes tell his disciples to do one thing and then do another himself. Your doubts in your teacher can help you. You should watch your own reactions. Do you think it is possible,,that I keep some food out of my bowl in dishes to feed the laymen who work around the temple?
Wisdom is for yourself to watch and develop. Take from the teacher what is good. Be aware of your own practice. If I am resting while you must all sit up, does this make you angry? If I call the color blue red, or say that male is female, don’t follow me blindly.
One of my teachers ate very fast. He made noises as he ate. Yet, he told us to eat slowly and mindfully. I used to watch him and get very upset. I suffered, but he didn’t! I watched the outside. Later I learned. Some people drive very fast but carefully. Others drive slowly and have many accidents. Don’t cling to rules, to outer form. If you watch others at most ten percent of the time and watch yourself ninety percent, this is proper practice. At first I used to watch my teacher, Achaan Tong Raht, and had many doubts. People even thought he was mad. He would do strange things or get very fierce with his disciples. Outside he was angry, but inside there was nothing. Nobody there. He was remarkable. He stayed clear and mindful until the moment he died.
Looking outside the self is comparing, discriminating. You will not find happiness that way. Nor will you find peace if you spend your time looking for the perfect man or perfect teacher. The Buddha taught us to look at the Dhamma, the truth, not to look at other people.
So, you must examine yourself. Know who you are. Know your body and mind by simply watching. In sitting, in sleeping, in eating, know your limits. Use wisdom. The practice is not to try to achieve anything. Just be mindful of what is. Our whole meditation is looking directly at the mind. You will see suffering, its cause, and its end. But you must have patience, much patience, and endurance. Gradually you will learn. The Buddha taught his disciples to stay with their teachers for at least five years. You must learn the value of giving, of patience, and of devotion.
Don’t practice too strictly. Don’t get caught up with outward form. Watching others is bad practice. Simply be natural and watch that. Our monk’s discipline and monastic rules are very important. They create a simple and harmonious environment. Use them well. But remember, the essence of the monk’s discipline is watching intention, examining the mind. You must have wisdom. Don’t discriminate. Would you get upset at a small tree in the forest for not being tall and straight like some of the others? This is silly. Don’t judge other people. There are all varieties. No need to carry the burden of wishing to change them all.
So, be patient. Practice morality. Live simply and be natural. Watch the mind. This is our practice. It will lead you to unselfishness, to peace.
Initially, people come and ask the question, “What is the Dhamma?” or, “Where can I find the Dhamma?” Any place you look is the Dhamma-in the building of a building, in walking down the road, in the bath room, sitting here; this is all Dhamma. When you understand correctly, there’s nothing in the world that is not Dhamma. Do you understand? There is happiness and there is unhappiness.
There is pleasure, and there is pain. And it’s always here. When you understand the nature of pleasure and pain, then you see the Buddha, then you see the Dhamma. The Buddha is not apart from that. And so each moment of experience is the Dhamma-is the Buddha-when you can see it clearly. But most people react blindly to anything pleasant: “Oh, I like this, I want more!”and to something unpleasant, “Go away, I don’t like it, I don’t want any more!” If you can allow yourself to open fully to the nature of each experience, in this most simple way, then you are paying respects completely to the Buddha. That opening or oneness is seeing the Buddha, it is seeing the Dhamma, it is becoming the Buddha.
It’s so easy, if only you could understand. It’s so simple and so direct. When pleasant things arise, understand that they’re empty. Unpleasant things arise they are not you, not yours-they pass away. Don’t relate to them as being you, or see a self as the owner of them. If only you can see this, then the mind comes into balance. This balance is the correct path, the correct teaching of the Buddha, the teaching which leads to liberation. Often people get so excited-“Can I go into this level of samadhi [“meditative trance”] or that one?” or, “What are the powers I can develop?” or, “What can you see in samadhi?” They completely skip what the Buddha taught for something that’s not really useful. The Buddha is to be found in the most simple things, right in front of you if you’re willing to look. And the essence of this is the mind that doesn’t grasp.
When you begin to practice, it’s important to have a proper sense of direction. In taking a journey, instead of just trying to imagine which way to go and wandering around in circles, you must consult a map or consult someone who’s been there before. Similarly, in practice, it’s important at first to establish a sense of
the path-of the way there. In following the Buddha, the way to liberation is the middle path. This journey lies between the extremes of indulgence in desire on one hand and self-mortification on the other. This means your mind must learn to be open to all experience without falling into these extremes. This allows you to see things without reacting and grabbing, without reacting and pushing away.
When you understand this balance, then the road, the path, becomes very clear. If you don’t understand and get caught in liking this and disliking that, you will travel in endless circles. But as you grow in understanding, things will come that are pleasant, and you will realize that they won’t last, that they’re empty, that there is no security in them. Things will come that are unpleasant which is also no problem. They won’t last either, they’re equally empty, there’s no security in them. And finally as you go on down the path, you will come to see that nothing in the world has any particular value in the sense of being valuable like gold or jewels. There’s nothing to grab onto that’s worth anything. When you see that, then everything is like, “Does anybody want an old banana peel or a coconut husk?” You have no use for it, no fascination with it. When you see that things in the world are like banana peels, that they don’t have any great value for you, then you’re free to walk in the world without being moved, without being bothered, without being hurt in any way by all of the various kinds of things that come and pass away-whether pleasant or unpleasant. This is the path that leads to freedom.
Let us practice in this direct and immediate way. Whether or not there is tranquility, don’t be concerned. Let go of that first. Just the fact of your practicing is the first concern, the matter of creating the right causes. If you are doing it, then whatever may come is alright, is useful. Of course, no matter how it goes, you won’t stay that way, for all things will eventually change. Don’t be afraid that you won’t succeed, or won’t become tranquil. It is all natural. If you practice sincerely, you must grow in Dhamma. Who will see if those who practice don’t? The ones who seek will see. Just as those who eat will be satisfied. Though various things deceive you time after time, it is good if you become aware of this. The same old person comes telling the same old lies-if you know it, that’s good. It takes a long, long time before one knows. Our habits are ever striving to deceive.
Therefore, if you will practice, you should establish virtue, concentration, and wisdom in your mind, aspire to the Three Gems: Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha2 Stop all the activity, all things. Be an honest person, and go at it.
When you have learned the truth, then you will be able to help others. Sometimes the help is with words, but mostly it must come from your way of being. As for conversing about Dhamma, I am not so adept at it. It is difficult to speak about. 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 didn’t teach-I practiced and I listened. Whatever the masters I visited talked about, I listened to. This is important. When we listen, let us really listen. I don’t really know what else to converse about. If you are interested in Dhamma, then just be interested in this giving up, letting go. Do this, give it up, lay it down. You don’t need to study a lot. You get older every day. If you merely think about practice, you just pounce on the shadow and never get to the thing itself.
Well, we must end our talk here. Remember, all of this which I have said is merely words. When people come to see me, I have to speak to them. But really, these things are not something to say a lot about. Begin to do it right away. It’s like calling someone, asking him, inviting him to go somewhere, saying, “Shall we go?” If you’re going to go, just go. That’s the right way.
2. The Three Gems are the pillars of faith for all Buddhists. Buddha is the spiritual teacher. Dhama is the teaching, and Sangha is the community of practitioners. -ED.
end of article
Venerable Achaan Chah
Venerable Achaan (Ajhan) Chah (1918-1992) of Wat Ba Pong, a temple in north-east Thailand, was one of the great masters of the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism and one of the most accessible to Westerners. Thai forest monks strictly adhere to the monastic disciplines and emphasize meditative practices and the realization of enlightenment. They live frugally with few possessions and commonly engage in a practice known as “tudong” in which they wander on foot through the countryside either on pilgrimage or in search of solitary retreat places in nature. During such wanderings, monks sleep wherever is available and eat only what is offered by laypeople along the way.
In 1996, some of Achaan Chah’s followers founded the Abhayagiri (Fearless Mountain) Buddhist Monastery in the mountainous forests north of Ukiah near Redwood Valley, California on land given them by Venerable Hsuan Hua, abbot of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah. The original Abhayagiri Monastery (Uttaravihara) built before the Current Era was in ancient Sri Lanka at Anuradhapura. That monastery was most notable for welcoming practitioners and teachers from many different Buddhist traditions. Theravada, Mahayana, and even Vajrayana practitioners lived there amicably alongside one another, distinct in their particular practices but not separate as communities.
Achaan Chah had many lay followers as well as monastic disciples, including Jack Kornfield who was very instrumental in popularizing meditation in the West.