A Visiting Elder Talks About His Time as a Novice with Luang Por Chah

Ajahn Preecha

A Visiting Elder Talks About His Time as a Novice with Luang Por Chah

A transcibed and translated Dhamma talk by Ajahn Preecha of Wat Santacittarama, Italy

from the book “Ging Gahn Haeng Bodhinyana’ (Twigs and Branches of Bodhinyana)”

Ajahn Preecha will be visiting Abhayagiri from June 11th to July 6th. An elder of our broader international community of Ajahn Chah monasteries, he has been resident at Wat Santacittarama, Italy for two decades. Luang Por Pasanno has known Ajahn Preecha since he was a teenage novice helping to look after Luang Por Chah at Wat Nong Pah Pong and later when he came to live at Wat Pah Nanachat in the early 1980s. They have maintained their connection since.

“Don’t view your inner world with pessimism.

But also don’t just view your inner world with optimism.

See the world in-line with what is true

because this world has both day and night.

View the world so as to see the benefits of both sides.

That, is Right View (Sammaditthi).”

-Luang Por Chah

When I was nine years old, I met a disciple of Luang Pu Chah’s who had come by my house on his alms round. He was a monk from Wat Nong Pah Pong who was coming to set up a branch monastery not far from my home. I immediately gained faith and wanted to ordain. I was only this little kid and was pleased and moved to faith simply by having seen a monk. So I went and asked my parents permission to ordain; but they refused, wanting me to finish elementary school first. From that day on, I was intent on going to make merit (offering food) at the monastery every day before school without a miss, except if I was sick or had some other necessary task. Also, I would go alone. This was my own idea and I did it without anyone else having to tell me to do it. After the final exams on that very last day of school of my elementary education, I went to live at the monastery. At that time I still didn’t know who Luang Pu Chah was, but I had gained faith by simply seeing a disciple of his. In the past I had probably created some “boon-parami” (merit and affinity) with Luang Pu.

Luang Pu ordained me as a novice. In the old days there were lots of novices. At that time at Wat Nong Pah Pong, there were over ten of us. After I ordained as a novice with Luang Pu Chah, I went back to spend the pansa at my home village. At the end of that pansa every single one of my fellow novices disrobed: I was the only novice in the whole monastery! When I no longer had friends to talk to, I got lonely and started thinking about home. But at the same time I still had faith in my heart. I got scared that I wouldn’t be able to stay on. I was scared of my own heart. So, I went respectfully to request permission from the abbot of that monastery (Wat Pah Pong branch # 40) to take me to Wat Pah Pong because I wanted to have some friends. The Ajahn took sympathy on me and brought me to Wat Nong Pah Pong. At that time they were having their kathina celebration. After living at Wat Nong Pah Pong for about a month, the Sangha decided that I would be the novice-upatthak for Luang Pu for about the next year.

It was my good fortune that I was given the privilege of being upatthak-assistant to Luang Pu and that I didn’t yet know how difficult upatthaking him was going to be. Before I could go to bed—usually around midnight everyday—I had to be with Luang Pu. In the mornings I wasn’t able to make it to puja because I was so exhausted. I had the duties of boiling the water for him; setting out his face-washing water, his toothbrush and towel; and sweeping out and cleaning up both the upper and lower floors of his kuti. After that I would prepare his bowl and then go out on pindapat with him. Having returned, I would receive his bowl and take it to the dining hall to set it up for the meal. When it came time for the meal, I had to eat quickly to be able to receive his bowl for washing. In the afternoon, I had to prepare his afternoon tea. If there were oranges, I would make fresh-squeezed orange juice to offer him. These were the duties (kicca-wat) that I had to do everyday.

Luang Pu would talk with the laypeople after the meal, around 9:30 a.m. They would come from near and far and he would discuss the Dhamma with them until around noon. Then, it was the job of the novice-upatthak to let the laypeople know that it was time for Luang Pu to have a rest. Once Luang Pu had gone up to rest in his kuti, the novice-upatthak had the duty of being the person to receive the laity in his stead. We would tell the laypeople who had come to pay respects that Luang Pu was currently resting and then inform them of a more convenient time to visit. I was a little Isaan country boy and couldn’t even speak Thai very clearly. Although I had studied Thai in school, it was just reading and writing. I felt that having to do this part of the job was like torture. But still, I tried to do my best. The novice-upatthak had to sit underneath his raised kuti until 1 p.m. If Luang Pu came down and didn’t see the novice-upatthak, he would tell the Sangha to change out the upatthak for neglecting his duty.

Back when Luang Pu still had his strength, I was the only novice who could upatthak him. For the most part the others didn’t get the opportunity to get close to him because everyone feared him so much. If a monk or novice didn’t have some duty or reason to be around him, he would notice! For a period when I was a novice, I stayed on as Luang Pu’s upatthak for pretty much a whole year without going anywhere else. I looked after his medicine and other basic necessities and Ajahn Boon looked after his food. I was just a little 12-year-old novice but I still had to take responsibility for things in the same way as the adults.

Each day Luang Pu never really stopped to take a break. If we hadn’t kept track of his daily schedule, he would never have stopped, as the laity came in multitudes all day long to pay their respects. In the evening he would teach the monks and novices or sit beneath his kuti. Although it would be fairly dark, he wouldn’t turn on the lights. Often the monks and novices would keep an eye out to see if “Ehh! Is Luang Pu receiving people over there?” If he was there, we would go sit by his side as well. We wanted to hear him and talk to him. We were content to hear just one or two words. I don’t quite understand how it could have been like it was. Just hearing his words or his voice was enough to give us strength of heart. Something was happening that couldn’t be captured in words. Sometimes I would give him a massage for a whole hour and he wouldn’t say a thing, probably because he was tired. Sometimes he would speak, but only just a little. Other times he would talk a lot, just like we were all kids. I was inspired by upatthaking him. Although sometimes it seemed like it wasn’t “Dhamma talk,” we still got so much metta from him. I both totally feared and totally respected Luang Pu. I had this feeling that he was like my father.

The first photograph I saw of Luang Pu was the one taken by the manager of the Thai Commercial Bank. He had made a number of copies and had placed them in a fancy clay vessel to be given out to important, special people. Having just come from growing up in the backwoods, I had never seen such a thing—and I wanted one. I missed my dad and mom and wanted to take one back home for them to pay respects to. Since I only now had seen such a thing, I suspected that Luang Pu Chah also had never seen one. So I wondered to myself whether or not it would be okay for me to ask for one. I also feared that he might think that I lacked tact (lit. “knowledge of time and place”) being so bold as to ask forthright. So I waited five or six months until I was certain that I had some familiarity with him. I chose the perfect day for respectfully requesting one of the pictures from him. It was in the afternoon when there weren’t any monks or laypeople coming to pay respects and I was sitting alone with him underneath his kuti. I crawled up right next to him and, having bowed, I spoke up. “Luang Por, may I humbly request a photograph of you, please?” Having looked at my face, he replied, “Ughh, Why would you want one of those?” When he answered like that, out of my respect for him, I didn’t dare explain my reasoning.

After that he continued sitting there informally and I moved back and began to fan him. Even though he spoke like that—“Ughh, Why would you want one of those?”—I didn’t regret having asked because I trusted him. A bit later when visited by a monk who had come to pay respects to him at Tam Saeng Pet, he bade him, “…and give one of those photos to Novice Cat too!” This incident was a good example of his skillful means of teaching us. “Did we ordain to get something?” Rather than wishing only to give something physical to our parents, we should wish to give them the most excellent thing, namely, the Buddha’s Dhamma. This is both better for them and for us. These other things are externals. Luang Pu would still give out these things to us, but he would make us wait first so we could see our own hearts.

When it came almost time to enter the pansa he called me. “Cat, this year I’m going to spend pansa at Wat Tam Saeng Pet. My health isn’t so good and getting some fresh air there will be good for me. But you shouldn’t come along.” He explained that I might catch malaria. (Many years earlier a white-robed, child novice had died from malaria). He told me to spend the pansa at Wat Nong Pah Pong. I respectfully replied, “Of course, whatever your kindness (metta) would have me do.”

Ten days after Luang Pu left to spend the pansa at Wat Tam Saeng Pet, he came back to Wat Nong Pah Pong for a visit. Afterwards he had me return with him. For the whole of that pansa, I almost never made it back to my kuti in the evening because I was so exhausted. I had to stay up upatthaking him until around midnight every night. Just after coming down from Luang Pu’s raised kuti, I would wrap myself completely in my robe and pass out next to his stairs. I would wake up totally hot from being inside the robe, having been bitten-up by all the mosquitoes. During that pansa all the laypeople who slept under mosquito nets and all the monks who stayed in their glots got malaria, whereas I, having slept outside letting the mosquitoes take their fill, escaped it. When it came almost time for the end of pansa, Luang Pu went down to have his operation in Bangkok and had me go live at Wat Pah Nanachat.

I continued upatthaking Luang Pu up until sickness ruined his strength. When walking, he said it was like a ship swaying about at sea, crashing into the waves. The doctor said it was water in his brain that wasn’t able to escape via the urinary system. He recommended an operation to insert a miniature release pump. When symptoms arose, one could press a button to turn on the pump to release the water into a tube connected to his bladder. After the operation it wasn’t long before Luang Pu began experiencing strange states of mind. He said that his ability to dictate his actions was all mixed-up. For example, if he wanted a spittoon, his brain might make him request a kettle. If he wanted a kettle, his brain would switch things around and make him ask for a spittoon. When the attendant monk brought back whatever it was that he had asked for, he would say, “Not that one!”

Before he went for the surgery in Bangkok, Luang Pu said, “Cat! (my nickname) Go stay at Wat Pah Nanachat. Go and learn the language.” I respectfully replied, “Of course. Whatever you say.” He then said, “Okay, that’s the plan.” But after the operation when Luang Pu had returned to Ubon, he said, “Hey, don’t go to Wat Pah Nanachat just yet. You should study the nak-tam (Dhamma-Vinaya) exams with Tan Maha Amon first.” So I did just that and when I came back, Luang Pu, for unknown reasons, had ceased being able to speak. It could have been a result of his brain problem or that he just decided to stop.

After Luang Pu passed away, I looked back over the time I had spent living with him. I thought, “Regarding matters of Dhamma, I pretty much didn’t take away anything from Luang Pu.” I thought: I was too young, the burden and responsibilities were too much, and I was just too exhausted. Each time I would hear the Dhamma from him, it would almost always go over my head, as I was so tired. But after ordaining as a monk, I would experience various problems, and insights (panna) would arise on their own. These came from things I had heard, listened to, and accumulated. They were things that had seeped into my heart. It’s like the teachings I heard from Luang Pu were seeds planted in the Earth. Being buried in the ground, we don’t see them and think there’s nothing there. But when they sprout up into sapling trees, we know for sure they’re there. The most impressive thing was how Luang Pu would teach us: to know our thoughts and not to be heedless, but to be people who could adjust our own views to be ever in-line with Right View, not just believing or rejecting things too quickly. “It’s uncertain.” He taught us to see things in accord with the Three Characteristics, that things are aniccam, dukkham, and anatta, and that everything is changing all the time. If we cling to or believe that something is certain, there will be dukkha because, in fact, everything is absent of self. This is what Luang Pu taught.

He especially emphasized continuously knowing one’s mind and one’s responsibilities and making one’s practice consistent: beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, beautiful in the end. Each and every one of his disciples took away something different from Luang Pu Chah, as his teachings were different for each. Children and adults lift heavy things differently. Luang Pu would make difficult things easy. For example, he would ask, “Would carrying around this big rock be heavy?” Most people would answer, “Yes, because it’s a big rock.” But Luang Pu would answer, “If we just let go, then, right there, it’s no longer heavy. Whatever happens, if we don’t carry it around, then it’s not heavy. Which is heavier: Carrying around this rock, or carrying around your moods? Carrying around the rock is only so heavy. When we realize its heavy, then we just put it down. But carrying around your moods, even though you know they’re heavy, still, you can’t let them go. Therefore, carrying around your moods is heavier than carrying around a big rock. This is why we have to practice the Dhamma: to adjust our view to let go of our moods, feelings and thoughts. Otherwise, things get heavy.”

Here’s how Luang Pu taught Right View. “Don’t view your inner world with pessimism. But also don’t just view your inner world with optimism. See the world in line with what is true. This is Right View. This world has both day and night. View the world so as to see the benefits of both sides. Whether it’s the middle of the day or the middle of the night, they both have their benefits. Use what is beneficial. Someone who uses what’s proper in this way is someone who sees the world in line with what’s true, in line with what is. All problems can be solved through shifting our views first and foremost. If we can adjust our views, then anything else is adjustable. Right View is being in the middle: don’t go to either or any one extreme. The worldly path doesn’t teach us this and, hence, all sorts of problems arise in society. The universities teach people how to have smarts, to have an “I” and a self, to be someone or something.”

This was a once in a lifetime experience. I do everything to the full extent of my strength and ability as accords with my rank and duties. I have to do my best but I don’t feel pressured because I don’t have expectations. Things will go according to their causes just as did Luang Pu’s loving-kindness towards me. The Sangha at Wat Nong Pah Pong has monks and novices from many different countries, backgrounds, former livelihoods, and various dispositions. We have to continually adjust our moods to make them balanced all the time. To become a normal, happy human being, we have to adjust both externals and internals. The externals include our bodies and their food, our livelihoods, clothing, and our sleep patterns. We have to adjust these constantly. The internals are the heart and mind. Instead of adjusting, if we just let things go their set ways following the habits of the heart, then it’s going to be difficult to pull oneself out, difficult to remedy. Whatever is heavy, let it go; don’t fall for it. Whatever dukkha there is, let it go; don’t fall for it. When resting or sleeping, let go and don’t make it heavy.

The Buddha taught us to see dukkha. If someone can see dukkha as being a universal characteristic, then that person can be said to have Right View. Seeing dukkha as a universal characteristic is the same as seeing all Three Characteristics. “Universal characteristic” here can be understood as describing how dukkha is always manifesting in everyone. The pervasiveness of this characteristic expresses itself in every person in this world. Whenever we hear the word “dukkha,” nobody wants it. If everybody could draw the parallel “as they, themselves, don’t want to suffer, so, too, do others not want to suffer,” then everyone would let others be as they are. This is the Dhamma. First, as you don’t want to die or to be in pain, others, too, don’t want to die or to be in pain. This is the first precept. If you practice, you can see it immediately. If one sees dukkha as being a universal characteristic, then virtue arises right then. It arises in our hearts because we have consideration for others. The second and third precepts are the same. No one wants these things to be done to them. If we can see things like this, then we can change out of our personality views (sakkayaditthi) of only looking out for one’s own self, holding one’s self up as the highest, holding one’s self up as the chief. If you like something, you want it. You hold that killing isn’t wrong and that it’s perfectly okay to kill anything in any pasture or field. Nobody asks all the shrimp, shellfish, crabs, and fish whether they are okay with it or not. You think killing for food isn’t evil; but, still, watch how all the animals run away. This shows a misunderstanding and lack of consideration for others. We don’t see that the dukkha they experience is a universal characteristic. If we were to see dukkha as being a universal characteristic, the world wouldn’t be like this. Right View is the most precious of things. Wherever one goes, whether in Thailand or abroad, one makes use of it. It’s useful all the time and it will never be out of date.