“Compassion automatically invites you to relate with people, because you no longer regard people as a drain on your resources. They recharge your energy, because in the process of relating with them you acknowledge your wealth, your richness…. There is no feeling of poverty at all in this approach to life.”
- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche -
Ajahn Chah often said that it was after he became a teacher and abbot and had to deal with all sorts of people that his wisdom really increased, though in the eyes of some he was caught up in talking and socializing. Those who met him later in his life were inevitably struck by his radiant happiness and naturally drawn to him. I think most people felt that they had never seen anyone who seemed so comfortable with himself and who enjoyed life so thoroughly. Though he lived an extremely simple existence guided by a complex code of vows that included poverty and chastity and avoidance of almost all forms of entertainment and gratification, there was no sense of privation or tedium about him.
Mahayana teachings speak of the “Three Kayas,” the aspects of enlightened mind. The Sambhogakaya, usually represented by deities with any number of arms and faces, often in extremely wrathful, unearthly forms, is usually translated as the “Body of Complete Enjoyment.” It can be interpreted in many ways and on many levels, sometimes not relating at all to ordinary experience, but the term often comes to mind when thinking about Luang Por Chah and his complete enjoyment of life. My very first impression of him, when a few of us from Wat Boworn went to see him on one of his rare visits to Bangkok in 1970, was that he looked like a big, happy frog sitting on his lily pad. Newly ordained, I was struggling merely to hold on to my robes in those days, but upon meeting Ajahn Chah I immediately thought, if all you have to do to be like that is sit in the forest for 30 years, it would be worth it.
I made my first visit to his monastery, Wat Pah Pong, shortly after that. When I got there, they said that he was in southern Thailand, unable to return because of heavy rains. Based on my first impression of him from that brief meeting in Bangkok, I had a vivid image of Ajahn Chah sitting in an open jeep, stuck in the mud with rain falling heavily, and enjoying himself immensely. After he returned, the small group of farang (foreigners) who were at Wat Pah Pong (Sumedho, Suvijjano, Dhammagutto, and I) went to see him one evening. As Dhammagutto and I were newly ordained and had come from city monasteries, he spoke of the benefits of practicing in a forest monastery. “When you live in the forest, half the job is already done,” he said. “Living in a city monastery is like trying to meditate in the marketplace.” That immediately brought to mind my frustrations at Wat Boworn: in particular I recalled the ice-cream vendor walking through the monastery and shouting to advertise his goods, and I started laughing. That was an image that stayed with me for a long time, in large part because of the lightness of spirit with which Luang Por had said it. It wasn’t said in a tone of condemnation or criticism, but one of amusement: this is just the way things are, and it’s actually funny (which might be a good summation of Ajahn Chah’s view of life).
Day in and day out, at all hours, he took on all comers, monastic or lay, Thai or foreign, doctor or rice farmer, young or old, in a way that is almost unparalleled among spiritual teachers. He had no personal life, nor did he seek disciples or fame. He also didn’t turn people away or try to hide from difficulty. He didn’t strain to be enthusiastic about things or try to find the bright side and think positively. Joy flowed naturally, as did his teaching.
He never really planned things out, though once he made his mind up to do something, he would focus relentlessly on it—yet was always ready to abandon anything on the spot and change course. The world came to find him, and nothing seemed to throw him. His inner wealth, his lack of worry or panic, communicated itself strongly. I think he enjoyed having farang disciples and felt some sort of freshness in talking with people who had different cultural habits. We also presented fresh challenges, but he took it all in stride. Which is not to say that he was all fun and gentleness. He could be stern, terrifying even, as well as imperious, overbearing, and cantankerous, and a terrible tease.
Classic descriptions of the bodhisattva talk about manifesting in whatever forms are needed, including as a bridge, medicine, food and shelter, a companion and a guide. On a more immediate level, Luang Por in the course of a day, a month, or a year might show many different personae and act in many different roles (and as abbot and teacher he also did provide the material support necessary for life). The vital point is that he was always giving—he wasn’t trying to please himself. Nor did he have things to enjoy; it was just his mode of being. Certainly he was able to enjoy things such as good food, but he could drink horribly bitter borapet (Thai medicinal drink) just like anything else.
In Seattle, staying at the home of Ajahn Pabhakaro’s parents, he asked if I could find some cigars for him. When we were downtown one day I came across a tobacco shop and bought a package to offer him. Then one afternoon I went for a walk in the neighborhood, and as I returned, from several houses away I smelled the distinctive aroma of a cigar. When I got to the Kappels’ house, Luang Por was sitting in the driveway, puffing away and seemingly having a grand time.
He was endlessly amused, though not in the way that needs to belittle others (when he did belittle us, we usually knew he was teaching something, attacking pride or other habits and not people). He seemed to pull things out of thin air, puns that no one else would ever conceive of. After the meal, obviously very relaxed as he joked with the senior monks (while the juniors were anything but relaxed, weighed down with a day’s food and wanting to get up and go), he often had the air of a storyteller in a bar. One day he said, “A little novice was taking the Nak Tam exams (a sort of scholastic certification), and he came to the question, ‘What does dhamakarok mean?’ (It’s a fancy term for the water strainer that every monk is supposed to have, with one ‘m’ instead of two, as in dhamma), and the novice wrote down ‘His Holiness the Sangharaja (the head of the monastic order in Thailand)’.” [I’m not sure how well this reads but it was funny at the time, and when I repeated it to a Thai monk years later he thought it was hilarious - PB].
He also liked to tell stories, and retell them endlessly, enjoying them more each time. In my first year at Wat Pah Pong, as I struggled to adjust and survive, I was involved in several incidents that became part of his canon of tales. Sometimes I went to tell him what had happened, other times the grapevine would report on me.
As he had me remain in samanera status for a long time, I was down at the end of the row in the eating hall. One hot season a local doctor sent his two young sons to stay at Wat Pah Pong. They took anagarika vows, wore white, and sat next to me. They were of course curious about this farang, a rare sight in Ubon in those years, and always wanted to talk with me. Dad would bring them things to supplement the lean dry season fare, and they offered me a bag of peanuts once. I kept them in my yahm and added a handful to my food each morning. Then the inevitable occurred: one morning I awoke to find my yahm (shoulder bag) had been chewed through, and the peanuts spread all over the kuti. A mouse had discovered them. I threw the peanuts into the forest and in consternation went to show the yahm to Luang Por. He immediately asked if I had put any food in it, so I told him I about the peanuts. He thought that funny (of course) and had someone sew the yahm for me, since I hadn’t yet learned to use a sewing machine. But the next morning, there was another hole in my yahm. So I went back to see Luang Por again. He thought this was really hilarious. “It still has the smell of the nuts,” he said. So he had it sewn again, and I washed it well. Over the years that followed, I can’t count how many times Luang Por would say things like, “Varapañño really suffered when he first came to Wat Pah Pong. A mouse chewed his yahm!” or “Poor Varapañño, he was hungry when he was a novice so he stored some peanuts in his yahm. Then one day he came to me and said, ‘Luang Por, a mouse chewed my yahm!’”
During hot season the kutis (huts), with their tin roofs exposed to the sun, often became unbearable in daytime. Mine had a bathroom underneath with toilet and enough space to bathe in (though it was generally referred to as hawng suam, “toilet,” rather than hawng nam, “bathroom”). As it was made of concrete and was sheltered from the sun, I got the bright idea that it might be more comfortable in the daytime, so I brought a mat down there and would take a rest at midday and sit in meditation in it. Of course someone noticed and reported it to Luang Por, which again was repeated over the years—such a thing just wasn’t done by Thai or Isan people. “Oy! Varapañño suffered so much when he first ordained: he used to sleep in the toilet!” And he would always get a good laugh out of it, no matter how many times he told the story.
Everyone was welcome to join his party at any time. Sometimes, with his monks at Wat Pah Pong, he wouldn’t let you leave the party. On the Uposatha days, during evening Dhamma talks, or before or after the meal, for example, he would keep us sitting and sitting while he taught, joked, discussed very minor business, and so on. We would be achy, restless, hungry, angry, wanting to go meditate in our kutis or sleep, while he was demonstrating right before our eyes that suffering is not necessary. The problem was of course that we didn’t recognize there was a party going on, and while it was unlikely he would be able to force us to recognize that, I think he felt that if he kept on pointing in the right direction sooner or later some of us would get it. But no matter how dense or resistant we could be, there were always occasions when we would be at his kuti or listening to his desana in the sala, and in the immediacy of his joy and radiant presence, everything would drop away, all the great burdens and petty concerns, the mental aches and pains and sometimes the physical ones too.
The last time I saw Ajahn Som, the colorful renegade abbot of Wat Tam Saeng Pet, he was standing outside one afternoon, chewing betel nut and occasionally stepping aside to spit it out. We had one of those rambling conversations that people who are in a hurry might consider pointless but which often yield up nuggets of gold. One thing I’ve always remembered is that out of the blue he said, “Most of us humans have a lot of karma to work through. Luang Por Chah is someone with little karma.” He meant negative karma, of course, the positive being parami, spiritual perfections. While Luang Por’s perfections of morality, endurance, diligence, wisdom, and so forth were obvious, I never thought much in terms of generosity (as it’s usually considered “layperson’s practice” in Thailand and somehow inferior to keeping monastic precepts and practicing meditation), yet now it strikes me how totally generous he was and what richness, what wealth, he projected. “I realized that with my begging bowl and one set of robes I was the richest person in the universe and all beings were my children” is one of the statements the Buddha made about his enlightenment. That was over 2500 years ago, but in more recent times many of us had the good fortune to meet a living embodiment of that grand pronouncement in Ajahn Chah.
- Paul Breiter is also the author of the books Venerable Father and One Monk, Many Masters.