Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dharma Talk 015 - Ajahn Chah

I really enjoyed substantial parts of this talk by Ajahn Chah titled Unshakeable Peace.

I first heard of Ajahn Chah by way of Jack Kornfield.  My sense was that Kornfield studied with Mahasi and got stream entry, and then went on to study with Ajahn Chah.  If that is even correct, that was about the limit of my knowledge about Ajahn Chah.  I knew he was a Thai Forest monk, a lineage often thought of as more traditional or fundamental, and that aspect turned me off a bit.

Coming up through the Mahasi style and the Pragmatic Dharma movement, I came to see certain aspects of traditional Buddhism as being somewhat dogmatic and less than skillful at times.  This talk by Chah was given in the presence of a visiting scholar monk, and I relatively swooned at Chah's admonishment to "observe the workings of the mind, but don't lug the Dhamma books in there with you."

I was extremely surprised to read this talk and find that Chah's words were often mirroring many of my own more radical insights and non-traditional takes on things.  Not everything, I can still find some dogma to pick at, but yeah, very nice.

For example many teachers seem to take words that are associated with insight practice such as investigation and contemplation, and they use a modern intellectual definition for those words, basically encouraging their students to think and analyze, as if they were going to cognize their way into enlightenment.  To me passages like the following point to seeing things very directly, just as they are.  "Simply know what you are experiencing."
"Utilize the power of this peaceful mind to investigate what you experience. At times it's what you see; at times what you hear, smell, taste, feel with your body, or think and feel in your heart. Whatever sensory experience presents itself - like it or not - take that up for contemplation. Simply know what you are experiencing. Don't project meaning or interpretations onto those objects of sense awareness."
Chah is of the non-striving camp, something I both agree and disagree with.  I think ultimately one comes to more of an effortless practice, but effort is particularly required at first, because there is a massive amount of conditioning that must be overcome.  If we strap a brick under your left shoe and make you walk everywhere with that for a year, you will become conditioned to walk with that brick.  If we remove that brick, it's not like it's suddenly going to be effortless to walk - you are going to be way off balance because of your prior conditioning.  It will take some effort to relearn how to walk even though the brick has been removed.  Eventually, though, your walking will become more and more effortless.

Chah describes certain types of striving as unskillful, someone setting goals in practice and then beating themselves up for not attaining them.  I would agree about the beating oneself up part.  But to my way of thinking Chah somewhat contradicts himself, imploring his students "try to steadily and persistently train the mind."

My take would be that if one can't get it done with little or no technique, i.e. just sitting or doing MBSR with sheer intent, then a technique such as noting practice that essentially forces one to demonstrate that one is aware every moment might be useful, and tiny, achievable goals along the way seem to be very helpful for learning.

1 comment:

  1. First off: I love your blog.

    I'm sure you already know this, but I figured I'd mention it anyway: in some paths (like Dzogchen), it is early on that one learns a way to practice without effort. That is, one learns to find the place in which no effort can be made. Then one "falls out" and has to make effort to return. One effective way to point out this place is to explain, right from the get-go, that this is even "a thing." For some people, I think, being told "one day you will be able to practice effortlessly" is the primary thing keeping them from seeing it *now*.

    Another way of saying it is: although it's true that there's a massive amount of conditioning that must be overcome, saying so is giving credence to the relative perspective. From the ultimate perspective, that's not truly the case, and it's possible to see this right off the bat.

    Keep up the awesome writing.