Like an expertly prepared and artistically presented feast, this compilation of Ajahn Chah’s dhamma talks offers a tasty treat for just about anyone traveling the path to freedom. The talks were previously published in limited quantities and only for free distribution through monastic channels.
As we delve into this repast, we see a master at work. Ajahn Chah offers teachings in his signature no-nonsense style using simple language, humor and delightful similes. At times he is fierce, as when he encourages the monastic community to make full use of the renunciate life. And yet his fierceness is balanced by sprinklings of humor. You can almost hear him snicker as he tells us how to make meditation easier:
Take a glass and place it on the table for two minutes. When the time is up, place it somewhere else on the table for two minutes. Then put it back where you first had it, again for two minutes. Keep doing that.
When the mind starts to go crazy, he says, coming up with all kinds of views about this glass-moving meditation, our task is to refocus our attention.
Fully one-third of the book is devoted to meditation instruction offering refinements to our understanding of jhana, samadhi, insight and contemplation. In this section one feels lifted up by the strength of Ajahn Chah’s character, by his unfailing confidence in dhamma, and by his earnest encouragement to do the work of practice, as communicated through his frequent imperative, “Just do it!” And he is not shy about letting us in on his own practice. In one section he describes how he faced overwhelming fear as he took up practice in the charnel grounds. Elsewhere he describes an evening when his mind inclined so completely inward that the entire cosmos shattered and disintegrated into minute particles.
Ajahn Chah often teaches through simile. Here are a few samples: “Defilements are like a stray cat. If you give it as much food as it wants, it will always be coming around looking for more food; but if you stop feeding it, after a couple of days it’ll stop coming around.” Or his warning against trying to force our mind-states to follow our desires: we can’t tell cars to stop driving on the freeway; it’s the place where cars go. “If we don’t want them there, we suffer.” Finally, he encourages patience with practice, saying it’s “like pulling in the big fish—we gradually feel our way with it.” The fish will struggle, but eventually it gets tired and we are able to catch it easily.
Ajahn Chah’s talks reveal much about monastic life—the content, meaning and importance of monastic rules; daily life in the monastery; and the difference between lay and monastic practice. He clearly values, even cherishes, community life. For many people living together to find harmony—that is the work of practice. He compares sangha to the many-legged millipede: “You’d think it would have difficulty walking, but actually it doesn’t. It has its own order and rhythm.”
Regarding the relationship between theory and practice, he notes that Buddhism has flourished because the two have gone hand in hand. But he cautions against studying so much that our minds become “full of words” and we forget ourselves. At times he seems to come down hard on theory: “Doubts will never vanish through thinking, theorizing, speculating, or discussing,” and “People who study a lot, who are full of theoretical knowledge, usually don’t succeed in dhamma practice.” Talking about the fruits of practice is “like trying to describe different colors to a person blind from birth.” Theory, he says, is important, but it’s essential that we bring it into the heart.
Ajahn Chah also sorts out some classical confusions: the appropriate desire for freedom versus the dreaded “wanting”; the difference between useless thinking and the highly regarded use of contemplative thought; the question of whether or not defilements are completely uprooted with enlightenment; and the artificial categorization of insight and concentration as separate activities.
This is one of those books that can be opened to any page to find a wise teaching. And at its end, one comes away with the feeling of having enjoyed a great meal. You have to taste dhamma for yourself, says Ajahn Chah.
Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia is a dhamma teacher living in North Carolina. She is a student of the Western forest sangha, the disciples of Ajahn Chah.