Saturday, January 16, 2010

No Ajahn Chah Day

Ajahn Chah...Not!

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


POD said...

Thanks for this. I found the booklet at this link.

G said...

Thanks, POD. I've changed the link so it now works. Have a happy No POD Day!

POD said...

Will do! Thank you.

Lorem Ipsum said...

Thanks G for this pithy and interesting post and for the link, which I got at POD's version of it. I hadn't realised it was Ajan Chan day - I wonder what he would make of the debate over the ordination of women (,8855,0,0,1,0).

The unconditioned is difficult if not impossible to put it into words without tying things up into knots. But I intend to continue paying attention to it.

With thanks

G said...

Yes, Lorem, trying to put the unconditioned into conditioned words is certainly an impossible endeavor, and all we can do is keep on gazing back at 'it' and see what words come out!

As to the ordination of women, what Ajahn Chah would have made of the current shenanigans is anyone's guess. (Unless someone somewhere recalls him talking on the issue of full female ordination, that is.) What No Ajahn Chah would have made of it is another matter, however, for we can observe No G or No Lorem to find out, as all these Nos at the heart of each of us are really one and the same No.

Lorem Ipsum said...

'as all these Nos at the heart of each of us are really one and the same No '

Isn't this reification? In other words, by positing something at the heart of all of us aren't you making a thing of no-thing?

I learn and gain a great deal from your posts G, but I intuit from my (admittedly limited) reading of Ajahn Chah that for him emptiness itself is empty. That being so, it is illogical to ascribe it a separate existence, which is what I think you are doing here.

Perhaps you could enlighten me on this point, because I think the ramifications of this are important - I'm happy to converse off line with you on this, if that's easier.

With thanks

G said...

Words, as I'm sure you know, Lorem, can be deceptive little things. As far as I can tell, there is no separate existence from existence, and the 'No' in 'No Ajahn Chah' or 'No Lorem' etc. is simply pointing to the absence of a permanent self anywhere. Also, 'it' surely is the same no-thing whether referring to you, me, the Buddha or anything else, for how can there be two or more no-things?

An important point that is worth exploring here pertains to Buddhist teachings, whether purported to come from an ajahn, roshi, guru, lama, bodhisattva, or a buddha. And this is that every single word attributed to such beings is not to be clung to as some kind of orthodox doctrine, the opposite of which must thereby be deemed unorthodox or 'wrong.' Whilst it is true that some descriptions of the spiritual life may be considered more 'accurate' in some sense or another, in the end they are all way off the mark.

As to the teachings of Ajahn Chah, from conversations with ajahns in the Western Forest Sangha, it seems that what is referred to here as 'No' is in line with what he taught his disciples. Perhaps the unorthodox nature of my words causes some confusion, but then again Ajahn Chah was (and still is) considered somewhat unorthodox by senior monastics in Bangkok. One Buddhist scholar once remarked to me that more orthodox monks considered Ajahn Chah to be a bit 'Zen', which apparently meant as an insult. (A compliment, in my book!)

The direct experience of emptiness wipes away any trace of words & concepts. It is only in the attempt to communicate the incommunicable that such devices are employed, and always in the knowledge that they are just as likely to deceive as they are to enlighten. Furthermore, Lorem, to apply human logic to enlightenment is like applying human property laws to termites. Ask any Zen master as to whether life is inherently logical or not, and you'll receive a swift clip around the ear!

All this aside, in one sense the whole of Buddhist history is a kind of reification, for it is bound up in the effort to make known the unknowable - unknowable with the intellect, that is - and this unknowable is itself 'No-thing.' (Please be sure, Lorem, that this 'No' is not a god or being that inhabits each and every one of us, for no such deity can be found. But, just as the space that you occupy is perceived to be no different to the space that I occupy, in that sense your 'No' is my 'No' and vice verse.)

Be well,

Lorem Ipsum said...

I'm not convinced you've actually addressed the point of my question, G. I wonder why that is. That said, I thank you for the lecture and the benefit of your experience.

With thanks

They call him James Ure said...

Great post!! I really liked this one and especially agreed with this part:

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.

G said...

The answer was in there somewhere, Lorem. :-)

G said...

Thanks for the comment, James, especially as there's nobody there to write it! ;-)

Lorem Ipsum said...

Well, G, I will thank you again for communicating with me. I think we must agree to differ: just as there cannot be two no-things, actually there cannot be one no-thing either. Perhaps you might consider where this takes you? Perhaps you may then deign to consider that there is a sense in which logic is important, even to those who consider themselves enlightened? For you cannot have it both ways, if you wish to exist and write in the 'conventional' world: words may be deceptive but that makes their accurate, honest and humble usage even more important, not less. Similarly with all 'conventional' 'actions', including for example the ordination of women.

I wish you peace, wisdom and happiness.

G said...

Who's counting this No-thing, Lorem? (And, incidentally, 'it' is nowhere, of course - it's things that are seen to move around and change location, not this No-thing.)

What's really important about words when referring to the unconditioned is that they are nigh on useless. This can be seen in this very moment, as the No-thing that contains every single thing that is experienced is clearly beyond description. Turn your attention around and look at the emptiness that contains your thoughts, emotions, sensations etc., and then try to encapsulate it in words: it's like trying to catch the ocean in a glass. (Impossible, unless the glass happens to be the size of a planet!)

As to female ordination, rules, rituals, meditation forms etc., as with everything that is conditioned, words are somewhat more accurate, though still not 'perfect.' It's a crucial point to apprehend, Lorem; limited words can approximately describe the conditioned, but they cannot describe the unconditioned. Conditioned logic has its place in the conditioned realm, but it cannot touch the unconditioned. Even these words are misleading, if clung to in any way.

Wishing you peace, wisdom, and happiness, too, Lorem. (Don't forget to smile, either!)

Lorem Ipsum said...

You were counting, actually. Of course I have no disagreement with what you say about the conditioned and the unconditioned - and how can I even express in words or have an opinion on something that is outside space, time and language? No, the point I'm making is that my (or your)inability to describe the unconditioned does not absolve us of responsibility within the conditioned.

This would all have been easier if you had just admitted in the first place that the assertion about the no's at the heart of us was incorrect. But then we would have been deprived of a highly enjoyable debate, wouldn't we?

G said...

Please don't put numbers in my mouth, Lorem! ;-)

Why would I admit that I was 'wrong', Lorem? Who are you to make such an assertion, anyhow? 'I' am no more wrong than 'you' are - we are expressing our experiences using limited words. But, there's the crux of the matter - attaching to concepts and words and misinterpreting others' words - we are all (on the level of intellect) subject to such human failings from time to time.

As you write, we are having an enjoyable debate, anyhow, so let's make the most of it: I stand by my statement about the 'Nos' - we can use words figuratively & creatively to help hint at what is beyond literal conceptual representation. There is no 'wrong' and 'right' in this, for the unconditioned is beyond notions of such opposites.

The Path to awakening can be described in a logical manner, for it is a conditioned process. The (non-)state that lies at the end of all ignorance is not so conditioned, and therefore is open to a myriad descriptions that we might see fit to give it. (Hence, Zen masters have often made what are logically insane statements regarding the true nature of things, but these where valid in the moment of expression.)

Moreover, to shift the clinging nature of the mind from its assumptions so that it may awaken to an understanding free of the intellect can benefit from the creative use of language. Again, Zen Buddhism shows us how to utilize illogical statements to transcend our conditioned ways of thinking about even mundane activities. For, even typing these words can be seen to be an act of the Buddha, if 'I' do not get in the way. And, whatever you write in response is equally from the Buddha if 'you' do not get in the way, Lorem.

No G.

Lorem Ipsum said...

That's an interesting way of putting a challenge, G.

POD said...

Wow. I missed so much or maybe nothing.

G said...

It's interesting that you see the above as a challenge, Lorem. Isn't the real challenge to see the unconditioned and live from it, however? ;-)

Haha, POD - right on both counts!