Scenes Change, but the Mind Remains the Same
One would think that to relinquish all worldly life and take the robes and bowl of a forest monk should put an end to the concerns of possessions for a time. No longer the owner of car and stereo, books and wardrobe, the monk is free. But the movement of the attached mind is like a heavy flywheel that only slows down imperceptibly.
Therefore, some of the new Western monks soon became attached to their robes and bowl and monk's bag. Carefully, they dyed their robes just the right color or contrived ways to become owners of the newer, lightweight, stainless steel begging bowls. Concern and care for and even attachment to only two or three possessions can take a lot of time when one has little else to do but meditate.
Several of the Western monks who had been world travelers before ordination, extravagantly free in their dress and their lifestyle, soon found the surrender and conformity of the monastery oppressive and difficult. Heads are shaved just alike, robes are worn just alike, even the way to stand and to walk is prescribed. Bows to senior monks are performed just this way, the begging bowl is held in just such a manner. Even with the best intentions, a Westerner can find this surrender frustrating.
One particular monk had been not only a regular traveler, but as he described himself, a "costume" hippy, with bells and flowery embroidered capes, fancy hats, and long braids. The monastic conformity became so difficult after a few weeks that he was awakened in the middle of the night by a violent dream in which he had taken his golden robes and tiedied them red and green and had painted flowers and Tibetan designs over his black begging bowl.
Achaan Chah laughed when he heard this story the next morning. Then he asked about freedom in America. Did it have to do with hair style, with clothes? Perhaps, he reminded the monk as he sent him back to his meditation, there is a deeper meaning to freedom. His task was to discover that liberation beyond all circumstances and times.
For each who experiences this greed in the circumstances of renunciation and simplicity, it is a lesson illuminated as never before. The difficulty with possessiveness and desire is quite independent of external circumstances-it takes root in the heart and can take charge in any situation, with any quantity of goods. Until it is thoroughly understood and the lesson of relinquishment deeply learned, the new outer form becomes only another arena in which habits of greed play.
Achaan Chah is well aware of the power of the forest life to illuminate and at times exacerbate problems rooted in the mind / heart. His mastery is to use the ascetic discipline to allow monks to confront and work directly with their own problems of greed or judgment, hatred or ignorance. And his teachings always turn the monks back to their own minds, the source and the root of all trouble.
Holy Ceremonies and Hot Days
Since the time of the Buddha himself, monks have been called upon to perform ceremonies, to make blessings, or to bring comfort in times of difficulties in the lives of 'lay disciples. The Buddha himself is said to have employed the tradition of soothing the hearts of his disciples with holy water and blessings.
Because the life of study and ceremony has taken the place of genuine practice for most monks in Thailand, Achaan Chah usually jokes about these ceremonies as diversions on the Path. Nevertheless, he will also use ceremonies when they are helpful. One very hot afternoon he had been invited to town to give a Dharma talk and a blessing ceremony for some devoted lay students. After the preliminary chanting and Dharma discourse, Achaan Chah proceeded to chant over a brass bowl of water connected by a string through the hands of the eight monks accompanying him (remnants of the ancient Hindu sacred thread) to a large image of the Buddha in meditation. The chanting over the water was completed with an offering of candles and incense, and Achaan Chah stood up with a palm leaf to sprinkle this water as a blessing on the house and on those who came to hear the Dharma.
One young Western monk in the party was growing impatient in the heat and yet more impatient with the ceremony. "Why do you bother with such obviously useless ceremonies like this when they have nothing to do with practicer he whispered to Achaan Chah. "Perhaps because," the teacher whispered back, "it's a hot day and all these people want a cool shower."
Learning to Tech
Makkha Puja is an important Buddhist holiday celebrating the coming together of 1,250 enlightened disciples in the Buddha's presence. At this meeting, he told them to "wander forth" spreading the Dharma "for the good, the benefit, and the awakening" of beings everywhere.
To celebrate this holiday, Achaan Chah and his many hundred monks sit up all night in meditation with the village lay supporters. In a typical year the great hall is filled with perhaps a thousand villagers. They sit for an hour, then Achaan Chah or one of his chief disciples, who are all abbots of their own monasteries, gives an inspiring Dharma talk. Again they sit for an hour, alternating sitting and talks all night long.
One of the earliest Western students of Achaan Chah was seated among the group of new monks feeling the inspiration and joy and difficulty of this night long celebration and practice. At the completion of one hour of sitting in the middle of the night, Achaan
Chah announced to the villagers that they would now hear a talk in their native Lao language by the Western monk. The monk was as surprised as the viJ1agers, but having no chance to prepare or to get nervous, he sat in front of the assembly and spoke of
the inspiration that had brought him to ordain and of the new understandings of the Dharma he had gleaned from practice. After this experience, he was rarely ever nervous about speaking before a group.
Achaan Chah later explained that Dharma teaching must flow unprepared from the heart and from inner experience. "Sit, close the eyes, and step out of the way," he said. "Let the Dharma speak itself."
On another occasion, Achaan Chah asked Achaan Sumedho, his senior Western monk, to speak. Sumedho talked for a half hour. "Speak a half hour more," said Achaan Chah. A half hour later, Achaan Chah said "Speak more still:' Sumedho continued, becoming increasingly boring. Many of the listeners started to doze. "Surrender to speaking," Achaan Chah cajoled. "Just do it." After struggling on for several hours, SUI11edho had learned to bore his listeners thoroughly and was never again afraid of their judgments when he talked.
Achaan Chah asked a monk who was leaving if he was planning to teach when he got back to the West. No, he had no particular plans to teach Dharma, he replied, although if someone asked, he would do his best to explain how to practice.
"Very good," Achaan Chah said, "it is beneficial to speak about the Dharma to those who inquire. And when you explain it," he went on, "why not call it Christianity. They won't understand in the West if you say anything about Buddha.
"I speak of God to Christians, yet I have not read their books. I find God in the heart. Do you think God is Santa Claus, who comes once a year with gifts for children? God is Dharma, the truth; the one who sees this sees all things. And yet God is nothing special-just this.
"What we are really teaching is how to be free from suffering, how to be loving and wise and filled with compassion. This teaching is the Dharma, anywhere in any language. So call it Christianity. Then it will be easier for some of them to understand."
Achaan Chah had this advice for an aspiring Dharma teacher:
"Don't let them scare you. Be firm and direct. Be clear about your own shortcomings, and acknowledge your limits. Work with love and compassion, and when people are beyond your ability to help, develop equanimity. Sometimes teaching is hard work. Teachers become garbage cans for people's frustrations and problems. The more people you teach, the bigger the garbage disposal problem. Don't worry. Teaching is a wonderful way to practice Dharma. The Dharma can help all those who genuinely apply it in their lives. Those who teach grow in patience and understanding."
Achaan Chah encourages his students to share what they learn. "When you have learned the truth, you will be able to help others, sometimes with words but mostly through your being. As for conversing about Dharma, I am not so adept at it. Whoever wants to know me should live with me. If you stay for a long time, you will see. I myself wandered as a forest monk for many years. I did not teach-I practiced and listened to what the masters said. This is important advice: when you listen, really listen. I do not know what else 'to say."
He had said enough to last us a long time.