January 16th is Ajahn Chah Day, when members of the Thai Forest Tradition in the lineage of the monk in the above picture celebrate the life and teachings of this remarkable man. Here in Ubon Ratchathani, thousands of people congregate at his old forest monastery Wat Nong Pah Pong, teachings are given by senior monks and mass chanting and meditation sessions take place. Food is given freely to anyone that visits, and a market forms in front of the monastery grounds, selling all kinds of food, souvenirs and knickknacks. All this is quite a palaver for a man that never existed. To state that Ajahn Chah never existed might seem an outrageous thing to write, especially at this time of year, and yet, it’s not my warped sense of humor that’s inspiring these words, but the words of Ajahn Chah himself. If you’ve read a book knocking around entitled ‘No Ajahn Chah’, you’ll know what this article is getting at, and if you haven’t, there’s a link below which will take you to a site where you can download it for free. So, in this small, compact book, two occasions are recalled when the forest monk was asked who Ajahn Chah was. Once, when seeing that the questioner was not advanced in practice, he replied that he was Ajahn Chah, whereas on the other occasion, he saw that the person asking was more advanced, so he answered that there was no Ajahn Chah! Which answer was true? Well, both were, for on the conventional level of human experience Ajahn Chah was Ajahn Chah – he certainly wasn’t anyone else – but on the level of ultimate Dharma, when all is realized as not self and emptiness is seen at the heart of experience, there was no Ajahn Chah, just as there’s nobody writing these words and nobody reading them. You may think that this is plain nonsense, because you are aware of your existence as you are reading – but, what is it exactly that you’re aware of? In other words, what are you?
Your body belongs to nature – it is a natural organism born via procreation and sustained by physical nutrients. Your mind is somewhat more complicated to apprehend, but in essence it is a collection of ever-changing thoughts, feelings, memories, fantasies, emotions, and habits. These too can be understood as impersonal, natural processes taking shape on the psychological level, interdependent with the corresponding physical sensations. The sense of ‘I’ that we tend to be so precious about is a collection of thoughts, feelings, and sensations: strip away the layers and there’s nobody home. This ‘home’ was referred to by Ajahn Chah as our real home – inner peace. It’s not simply a nihilistic void, or absence of being, but neither is it ‘me’ any more than it is ‘you.’ Rather, it is the unconditioned as opposed to the conditioned – in other words, it is the no thing that lies at the heart of every thing. And, not being limited to being this or that, it is simultaneously no thing and all things, but never limited to being any particular thing. Therefore, it is free from the sufferings of human beings, whilst aware of them and responsive to them, forever serene amid the turmoil of our lives. So, if you can’t make it to Ubon to pay respects to the ashes and memory of Ajahn Chah, why not turn your attention to the ‘No Ajahn Chah’ which is also the No You and the No Me that is right where you are at this very moment.
To download the lovely little book mentioned above, click here: No Ajahn Chah