When I lived with Ajahn Chah, he often admonished us not to worry about teaching others but instead to worry about teaching oneself. The foundation of teaching is always to teach oneself, to teach and encourage oneself. Then, later, one may teach others from the perspective of knowing how to teach oneself. One looks after oneself and then one looks after others.
There is a fundamental difference between study to find a job in the world and study of Dhamma. When we study in the world, it rarely leads to a decrease in greed, hatred and delusion. Yet this is fundamental to our individual study in the Dhamma. We need to ask if greed, hatred and delusion are decreasing, because that is when we experience the fruits of practice. The study of Dhamma is the study of internal truths. Ajahn Chah encouraged his students to close the books of external study and open the book of the heart. In the heart, you can learn much more about what leads to happiness and well-being than in the books of external knowledge.When we lack familiarity with the ways of the heart, we do not recognize the moods and impressions that quickly lead to suffering. We must learn how the moods and contacts of the mind either trick us or support us. When we can understand that, then we can have a chance of establishing true happiness in the heart.
The focus of external knowledge tends to be upon the worldly dhammas, those for praise and wealth. The knowledge of the Dhamma, on the other hand, leads to relinquishment or letting go. One is not able to let go until one understands in the heart. The worldly knowledge available in books does not really change the heart. As a lay man, I knew all about greed, hatred, delusion, impermanence, suffering and notself. You can read all about these ideas in the books. But this knowledge didn’t really change my heart. It was necessary to turn the attention back to the heart itself.
Once after a Dhamma talk, a drunkard came up to me and said he knew all about impermanence, suffering and notself, but this intellectual knowledge had not helped him. He still had attachments and difficulties. He was not able to let go even though he understood the concepts of impermanence and suffering and felt their sting. There is a qualitative difference between knowledge and attention directed outside.When attention is directed towards the heart, the natural development is mindfulness and wisdom.When mindfulness and wisdom have an opportunity to function freely in our lives, it is natural to turn towards letting go and relinquishment.
The teaching of the Buddha is often not palatable to those in the world because it goes against the direction or flow of the world. It is important to understand that there are two different directions. There is the direction of the world and the direction of the Dhamma. If that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t have to be a Buddha to point out the Dhamma. However, it is necessary for a Buddha to come along and point out a different direction. Then there is an opportunity to step back from the pull of the worldly tendencies and settle into the stream of the Dhamma. The Dhamma stream takes a different direction, the direction leading to peace and clarity.
For myself, I don’t have much external knowledge. Being from the countryside and from the outer provinces, I didn’t go to school much. My temperament is more inclined to study the natural phenomena that I experience. When I came to train with Ajahn Chah, he understood my nature and gave me the simple meditation object of Buddho. I worked with Buddho for quite a while. I wasn’t interested in the external study of books. I had faith in the teaching of the Buddha and confidence in Ajahn Chah, yet there was still an underlying doubt. Would I ever get anywhere? What is all this Buddho stuff? But as my meditation practice grew, I learned that Buddho was a mirror to understanding the movements, thoughts and impressions of the mind. I saw the way the mind goes out and entangles itself. Buddho became an increasingly stable mirror to understand the mind itself. My practice continued from that base.
What one considers as intelligent or stupid, accomplished or unaccomplished is different in the world and in the Dhamma.What do we know? What don’t we know? How does our intelligence or foolishness manifest? We need to recognize our own ignorance or lack of knowledge.When we do that, it shows a humility that is wisdom. Even if there is understanding and intelligence, we need to see that it is only understanding. We need to recognize the limits of understanding and intelligence. Once, a disciple came to visit Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Kuhn didn’t talk much and loved solitude. He would come from time to time to check in on his practice with Ajahn Chah. When Ajahn Chah asked how he was getting on with his practice, Ajahn Kuhn replied that he still seemed pretty foolish and ignorant. Ajahn Chah said that was all right. He directed him to look after the ignorance and know that it is there. The wisdom of the world and the wisdom of Dhamma are not the same thing.
Ajahn Chah praises someone who knows how to look after his ignorance. Views, opinions and intelligence can easily intoxicate someone who doesn’t do this. Problems in the world often come from intelligent people who don’t understand their boundaries.When a rice stalk is green and unripe, it stands up straight. As it matures and ripens, the stalk bends closer to the ground. The same is true with humans. If we don’t know the difference between intelligence and foolishness, we will be trapped in our lack of understanding.We will stand up straight with pride and arrogance.With true wisdom and understanding, there is a humility and gentleness. Understanding ourselves is central to our practice. To do this, we reflect on natural things within us rather than going for external knowledge. A pot that is empty makes a lot of noise. A pot full of useful things doesn’t make much noise when you bang it.We also don’t need to make a lot of noise. We need to put useful things into our container, and these things are mindfulness and wisdom.
One of the teachings Ajahn Chah emphasized over and over again was “speak little, eat little, sleep little.” He encouraged us to reflect on this.Why did he do this? Humans by their nature do not to understand balance. Rather, there is the tendency is to refer to extremes.We may know what is a lot and a little, but we don’t know what is just right. If someone tells us to speak, eat and sleep just enough,we will usually interpret this exhortation according to our preferences and defilements. We won’t reflect deeply on what really is just enough. However, we can use “little” as an entryway and in this way find balance.We can reflect on what is just enough.We need to challenge ourselves and pull away from following preferences and standards that are comfortable for our defilements.
Ajahn Chah emphasized that we should not follow our untrained minds. Eating, speaking, sleeping little, we can put the brakes on our conditioning, habits and tendencies.We can see the reactions in the mind.When we follow our habits we cannot recognize clearly where our defilements lie. In the early days of practice with Ajahn Chah, he often suggested that we push our favorite foods to the side. So too, when you are moved to start a conversation, you might try to put the brakes on. What underlies the movements and tendencies of mind that lead us to indulge in sleep? What are the motivations? The standard is set at “little” to help us turn the attention around into the heart. The natural flow of the mind is out into the world. We need to learn to work with that. We need to train to see the mind itself.
Adapted from a talk translated by Ajahn Pasanno.
Ajahn Jundee was born in Ajahn Chah’s home village in the Ubon Province of Thailand.