Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Food for the Heart - Selections

The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah

CHAPTER 1: ABOUT THIS MIND

About this mind—in truth there is nothing really wrong with it. It is intrinsically pure. Within itself it’s already peaceful. If the mind is not peaceful these days, it’s because it follows moods. The real mind doesn’t have anything to it; it is simply an aspect of nature. It becomes peaceful or agitated because moods deceive it. The untrained mind is stupid. Sense impressions come and trick it into happiness, suffering, gladness, and sorrow, but the mind’s true nature is none of those things. That gladness or sadness is not the mind, but only a mood coming to deceive us. The untrained mind gets lost and follows these things; it forgets itself. Then we think that it is we who are upset or at ease or whatever.

But really this mind of ours is already unmoving and peaceful—really peaceful! Just like a leaf which remains still so long as the wind doesn’t blow. If a wind comes up, the leaf flutters. The fluttering is due to the wind—the fluttering of the mind is due to those sense impressions; the mind follows them. If it doesn’t follow them, it doesn’t flutter. If we know fully the true nature of sense impressions, we will be unmoved.

Our practice is simply to see the “Original Mind.” We must train the mind to know those sense impressions and not get lost in them, to make it peaceful. Just this is the aim of all this difficult practice we put ourselves through.

 

CHAPTER 2: FRAGMENTS OF A TEACHING

People hear about the buddhist teachings from many sources— various teachers or monks, for example. In some cases Dhamma is taught in very broad and vague terms to the point where it is difficult to know how to put it into practice in daily life. In other instances Dhamma is taught in lofty language or special jargon that people find difficult to understand, especially if the teaching is done too literally from the scriptures. Lastly there is Dhamma taught in a balanced way, neither too vague nor too profound, neither too broad nor too esoteric—just right for the listener to understand and practice for personal benefit. Here I would like to share some teachings I have often used to instruct my disciples.

One Who Wishes to Reach the Buddhadhamma

One who wishes to reach the Buddhadhamma must be one who has faith or confidence as a foundation. We must understand the meaning of Buddhadhamma as follows:

Buddha: the “one who knows,” the one who has purity, radiance, and peace in the heart.

Dhamma: the characteristics of purity, radiance, and peace, which arise from morality, concentration, and wisdom.

Therefore, one who is to reach the Buddhadhamma is one who cultivates and develops morality, concentration, and wisdom within themselves.

Walking the Path of Buddhadhamma

People who wish to reach home are not those who merely sit and think of traveling. They must undertake the process of traveling step by step in the right direction. If they take the wrong path they may eventually meet with difficulties such as swamps or similar obstacles. Or they may run into dangerous situations and possibly never reach home. Those who do reach home can relax and sleep comfortably—home is a place of comfort for body and mind. But if travelers instead walk right past their homes or around them, they receive no benefit from having traveled all the way.

In the same way, walking the path to reach the Buddhadhamma is something each one of us must do individually, for no one can do it for us. And we must travel along the proper path of morality, concentration, and wisdom until we attain the blessings of purity, radiance, and peacefulness of mind that are the fruits of traveling the Path.

But if one has knowledge of books and scriptures, sermons, and suttas and only that—that is, only the map or plans for the journey—one will never know purity, radiance, and peacefulness of mind, even if one lives hundreds of lives. Instead one will just waste time and never get to the real benefits of practice. Teachers can only point out the direction of the Path. Whether or not we ourselves walk the Path by practicing, and thereby reap the fruits of practice, is strictly up to each one of us.

Here is another way to look at it. Practice is like the bottles of medicine that doctors give their patients. The bottles have detailed instructions on how to take the medicine. B But if the patients only read the directions, even a hundred times, they are bound to die. They will gain no benefit from the medicine. And before they die, they may complain bitterly that the doctor wasn’t any good, was a fake, and that the medicine didn’t cure them and so was worthless. Yet they spent their time only examining the bottle and reading the instructions. They didn’t follow the doctor’s advice and take the medicine.

But if patients actually follow a doctor’s advice and take their medicine regularly as prescribed, they will recover. If they are very ill, they’ll have to take a lot of medicine, whereas if they are only mildly ill, only a little medicine will be needed to cure them. That we must use a lot of medicine is a result of the severity of our illness. It’s only natural, as you can see for yourself with careful consideration.

Doctors prescribe medicine to eliminate disease from the body. The teachings of the Buddha are prescribed to cure disease of the mind, to bring it back to its natural healthy state. So the Buddha can be considered to be a doctor who prescribes cures for the ills of the mind. He is, in fact, the greatest doctor in the world.

Mental ills are found in each one of us without exception. When you see these mental ills, does it not make sense to look to the Dhamma as support, as medicine to cure you? Traveling the path of the Buddhadhamma is not done with the body. You must travel with the mind or heart. We can divide travelers along the Path into three levels:

The first level comprises those who understand that they themselves must practice and who know how to do so. They take the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha as their refuge and have resolved to practice diligently according to the teachings. These persons have discarded the mere following of customs and traditions and instead use reason to examine for themselves the nature of the world. These are the group of “Buddhist practitioners.”

The middle level includes those who have practiced until they have an unshakable faith in the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. They also have penetrated to the understanding of the true nature of all compounded things. These persons gradually reduce clinging and attachment. They do not hold on to things, and their minds reach a deep understanding of the Dhamma. Depending upon the degree of nonattachment and wisdom, they are known as stream-enterers, once-returners, and non-returners, or simply as Noble Ones.

At the highest level are those whose practice has led them to the body, speech, and mind of the Buddha. They are above the world, free of the world, and free of all attachment and clinging. They are known as arahants or Perfected Ones, the highest level of the Noble Ones.

How to Purify One’s Morality

Morality is restraint and discipline of body and speech. On the formal level it is divided into classes of precepts for lay people and for monks and nuns. In general terms, however, there is one basic characteristic—which is intention. When we are mindful or self-recollected, we have Right Intention. Practicing mindfulness (sati) and self-recollection (sampajañña) will generate good morality.

It is only natural that if we put on dirty clothes and our bodies are also dirty, our minds too will be uncomfortable and depressed. But if we keep our bodies clean and wear clean, neat clothes, our minds will be light and cheerful. So too, when morality is not preserved, our bodily actions and speech are soiled, and this makes the mind unhappy, distressed, and heavy. We are separated from the right practice and cannot penetrate to the essence of the Dhamma. Wholesome bodily actions and speech depend on the mind being properly trained, since the mind controls body and speech. Therefore, we must continue practice by training our minds.

The Practice of Concentration

Training in samādhi (concentration) makes the mind firm and steady. This brings about peacefulness of mind. Usually our untrained minds are moving and restless, hard to control and manage. Such a mind follows sense distractions wildly, just like water flowing this way and that, seeking the lowest level. Agriculturalists and engineers know how to control water so that it is of great use to human society; they dam rivers, construct large reservoirs and canals—all of this merely to channel water and make it more useable. The stored water becomes a source of electrical power and light—a further benefit of controlling its flow so that it doesn’t run wild or flood lowlands, its usefulness wasted.

So, too, the mind that is dammed and controlled, trained constantly, will be of immeasurable benefit. The Buddha himself taught, “The mind that has been controlled brings true happiness, so train your minds well for the highest of benefits.” Similarly, the animals we see around us—elephants, horses, cattle, buffalo—must be trained before they can be useful for work. Only then will their strength benefit us.

The trained mind will bring many more blessings than an untrained mind. The Buddha and his noble disciples all started out the same as we did—with untrained minds. But they later became objects of reverence for us all, and we have gained much benefit from their teachings. Consider how much the entire world has benefited from these beings who have trained their minds and reached the freedom beyond. The mind controlled and trained is better equipped to help us in all professions, in all situations. The disciplined mind will keep our lives balanced, make our work easier, and develop and nurture reason to govern our actions. In the end our happiness will increase accordingly.

The training of the mind can be done in many ways, with many different methods. The most useful method, one that can be practiced by all types of people, is mindfulness of breathing. It is the developing of mindfulness of the in-breath and the out-breath.

In this monastery we concentrate our attention on the tip of the nose and develop awareness of the in- and out-breaths with the mantra Bud-dho. If the meditator wishes to use another word, or simply be mindful of the breath moving in and out, this is also fine. Adjust the practice to suit yourself. The essential factor in the meditation is that the noting or awareness of the breath should be kept up in the present moment so that one is mindful of each in-breath and each out-breath just as it occurs. While doing walking meditation we try to be constantly mindful of the sensation of the feet touching the ground.

To bear fruit, the practice of meditation must be pursued as continuously as possible. Don’t meditate for a short time one day and then, after a week or two, or even a month, meditate again. This will not yield good results. The Buddha taught us to practice often and to practice diligently, that is, to be as continuous as we can in the practice of mental training. To practice effectively we should find a suitably quiet place, free from distractions. Suitable environments are a garden, in the shade of a tree in our backyard, or anywhere we can be alone. If we are monks or nuns, we should find a hut, a quiet forest, or a cave. The mountains offer exceptionally suitable places for practice.

In any case, wherever we are, we must make an effort to be continuously mindful of breathing in and breathing out. If the attention wanders, pull it back to the object of concentration. Try to put away all other thoughts and cares. Don’t think about anything—just watch the breath. If we are mindful of thoughts as soon as they arise, and keep diligently returning to the meditation subject, the mind will become quieter and quieter. When the mind is peaceful and concentrated, release it from the breath as the object of concentration.

Now begin to examine the body and mind composed of the five khandhas (groups of existence comprising body and mind): material form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Examine these five khandhas as they come and go. You will see clearly that they are impermanent, that this impermanence makes them unsatisfactory and undesirable, and that they come and go of their own: there is no “self” that is running things, but only nature moving according to cause and effect. All things in the world have the characteristics of instability, unsatisfactoriness, and the absence of a permanent ego or soul. If you see all of existence in this light, attachment and clinging to the khandhas will gradually be reduced. This is because you see the true characteristics of the world. We call this the arising of wisdom.

The Arising of Wisdom

Wisdom (paññā) is seeing the truth of the various manifestations of body and mind. When we use our trained and concentrated minds to examine the five khandhas, we will see clearly that both body and mind are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self. In seeing all compounded things with wisdom we do not cling or grasp. Whatever we receive, we receive mindfully; we do not become excessively happy. When things of ours break up or disappear, we are not unhappy and do not suffer painful feelings—for we see clearly the impermanent nature of all things. When we encounter illness and pain of any sort, we have equanimity because our minds have been well trained. The true refuge is the trained mind.

All of this is known as the wisdom that knows the true characteristics of things as they arise. Wisdom arises from mindfulness and concentration. Concentration arises from a base of morality or virtue. These three—morality, concentration, and wisdom—are so interrelated that it is not really possible to separate them. In practice it works like this. First there is the disciplining of the mind to be attentive to breathing. This is the arising of morality. When mindfulness of breathing is practiced continuously until the mind is quiet, concentration arises. Then examination shows the breath to be impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self; nonattachment follows, and this is the arising of wisdom. Thus the practice of mindfulness of breathing can be said to be a cause for the development of morality, concentration, and wisdom. They all come together.

When morality, concentration, and wisdom are all developed, we call this practicing the Eightfold Path, which the Buddha taught as our only way out of suffering. The Eightfold Path is supreme because, if properly practiced, it leads directly to nibbāna, to peace.

The Benefits of Practice

When we have practiced meditation as explained above, the fruits of practice will arise in the following three stages:

First, for those practitioners who are at the level of “Buddhists by faith,” there will arise increasing faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. This faith will become their real inner support. They will also understand the cause-and-effect nature of all things: that wholesome action brings wholesome results and that unwholesome action brings unwholesome results. So for such a person there will be a great increase in happiness and mental peace.

Second, those who have reached the noble attainments of stream-enterer, once-returner, or non-returner develop unshakable faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. They are joyful and are pulled toward nibbāna.

Third, for those arahants or Perfected Ones, there will be the happiness free from all suffering. These are the buddhas, free from the world, complete in the practice of the spiritual path.

We have all had the good fortune to be born as human beings and to hear the teaching of the Buddha. This is an opportunity that millions of other beings do not have. Therefore do not be careless or heedless. Hurry and develop wholesomeness, do good, and follow the path of practice in the beginning, middle, and highest levels. Don’t let time roll by unused and without purpose. Try to reach the truth of the Buddha’s teachings even today. Let me close with a Lao folk-saying: Many rounds of merriment and pleasure have passed; soon it will be evening. Now, drunk with tears, rest and see. Before long it will be too late to finish the journey.

 

How to cite this document:
© Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation, Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah (Wisdom Publications, 2002)

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