Ajahn Chah was one of the great dharma teachers of the 20th century and was one of the key figures in bringing Theravada Buddhism to the West. He founded two major monasteries in the Thai Forest Tradition and left behind a rich legacy of dhamma talks and books. Many of his students are very well-known in the West: Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Khemadhammo, Ajahn Munindo, Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Viradhammo, Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako, and Jack Kornfield.
I first “met”Ajahn Chah when I began my investigation of Theravadan teachings, inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s, my heart teacher’s, obvious familiarity with the early Pali teachings. I discovered the book Being Dharma: The Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings and found it an immediate help and inspiration to my meditative practice. I highly recommend it for its depth of insight, down-to-earth practicality, and accessibility—oh, yes, and Ajahn Chah’s wit and sense of humor.
What follows are some helpful excerpts from a talk titled “Still, Flowing Water.” It’s newly translated from Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and the full talk can be found at this link, at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery website:
I hope these excerpts inspire you to go read the full article and to check out the absolute treasure trove of dhamma teachings by Ajahn Chah and his student teachers at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery website!
Still, Flowing Water
Some people think that concentration means sitting, but the truth of the matter is that standing, sitting, walking, and lying down are part of the practice, too. You can practice concentration at any time. Concentration literally means “firm intent.” To practice concentration you don’t have to imprison the mind. Some people think, “I have to go look for some peace, to sit without any issues arising at all. I want to sit in total silence,” but that’s a dead person, not a live one. To practice concentration is to give rise to knowledge, to give rise to discernment.
So you have to contemplate to find peace. What people usually refer to as peace is simply the calming of the mind, not the calming of the defilements. You’re just sitting on top of your defilements, like a rock sitting on the grass. The grass can’t grow because the rock is sitting on it. In three or four days you take the rock off the grass, and it starts growing again. The grass didn’t really die. It was just suppressed. The same holds for sitting in concentration: The mind is calmed but the defilements aren’t, which means that concentration isn’t for sure. To find real peace you have to contemplate. Concentration is one kind of peace, like the rock sitting on the grass. You can leave it there many days but when you pick it up, the grass starts growing again. That’s only temporary peace. The peace of discernment is like never picking up the rock, just letting it stay there where it is. The grass can’t possibly grow again. That’s real peace, the calming of the defilements for sure. That’s discernment.
Actually, in practicing the Dhamma, whatever happens, you have to start from the mind. Do you know what this mind is? What is the mind like? What is it? Where is it? Nobody knows. All we know is that we want to go over here or over there, we want this and we want that, the mind feels happy or sad, but the mind itself we can’t know. What is the mind? The mind isn’t “is” anything. We’ve come up with the supposition that whatever receives impressions, both good and bad, we call “heart” or “mind.” Like the owner of a house. Whoever receives the guests is the owner of the house. The guests can’t receive the owner. The owner stays put at home. When guests come to see him, he has to receive them. Who receives sense impressions? Who lets go of sense impressions? That’s what we call “mind.” But we don’t understand it, so we think around in circles: “What is the mind? What is the heart?” Don’t confuse the issue like this. What is it that receives impressions? Some impressions it likes and some it doesn’t. Who is that? Is there something that likes and dislikes? Sure there is, but we don’t know what it’s like. That’s what we call “mind.” Understand? Don’t go looking far away.
People these days keep studying, looking to understand what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and evil, but they don’t know neither-rightness-nor-wrong-ness. All they’re looking to know is what’s right and wrong: “I’m going to take only what’s right. I won’t take what’s wrong. Why should I?” If you try to take only what’s right, in a short time it’ll go wrong. It’s right for the sake of wrong. People keep searching for what’s right and wrong, but they don’t try to find what’s neither-rightness-nor wrong-ness. They study about good and bad, they search for merit and evil, but they don’t study the point where there’s neither merit nor evil. They study issues of long and short, but the issue of neither long nor short they don’t study.
This knife has a blade, a back, and a handle. When you pick it up, can you lift only the blade? Can you lift only the back of the blade, or the handle? The handle is the handle of the knife; the back, the back of the knife; the blade, the blade of the knife. When you pick up the knife, you pick up all three parts together.
In the same way, if you pick up what’s good, what’s bad must follow. People search for what’s good and try to throw away what’s bad, but they don’t study what’s neither good nor bad. If you don’t study this, things never come to an end. If you pick up goodness, badness comes along with it. It follows right along. If you pick up happiness, suffering follows you. They’re connected. The practice of clinging to what’s good and rejecting what’s bad is the Dhamma of children, Dhamma for children to toy around with. Sure, if you want, you can take just this much, but if you grab onto what’s good, what’s bad will follow. The end of this path gets all cluttered up. So it’s not so good.
When we practice sitting in concentration, that’s just a temporary kind of peace. When it’s peaceful, issues arise. If there’s an issue, there’s what knows the issue, tests it, questions it, keeps after it, examines it. If the mind is simply blank then nothing happens. Some people really imprison the mind, thinking that that sort of peace is the genuine practice, but genuine peace is not just peace of mind. It’s not just peaceful in that way. “I want to take just the ease and happiness, and not the stress and suffering.” Once you’re peaceful in this way, taking just the ease and happiness, after a while it gets uncomfortable. Discomfort comes in its wake. Get so that there’s no happiness and suffering in the mind. That’s where there’s real peace. This is a subject that people rarely study, rarely understand.
To train the mind in the right way, to make it bright, to develop discernment: Don’t think you can do it by sitting and making it just still. That’s the rock sitting on the grass. People jump to the conclusion that concentration is sitting. That’s just a name for concentration, but really, if the mind has concentration, walking is concentration, sitting is concentration—concentration with the walking, concentration with the sitting, the standing, the lying down. That’s the practice.