Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: Food for the Heart, by Ajahn Chah

If there’s one book to have containing the teachings of Ajahn Chah, it’s surely got to be this one. All of the venerable forest monk’s previously freely distributed collections of talks have been collected into one volume for commercial release here, in the hope that his teachings will reach a wider audience than those visiting forest monasteries or the various forest Buddhism websites (click on the Weblinks tab above). These free books include Bodhinyana; A Taste of Freedom; Living Dhamma; Food for the Heart; and The Key to Liberation.

Now, Ajahn Chah wrote precious little in his life, despite being literate, so Food for the Heart is not a typical Buddhist book with well-organized chapters focusing on individual themes. It is made up of spontaneous talks given by Ajahn Chah in a variety of contexts and recorded by his disciples, each talk effortlessly flowing between different topics, neatly woven together. Many are desana (sermons) given at Wat Nong Pah Pong and Wat Pah Nanachat, others are informal instructions handed out around forest monastery grounds, whilst others were given in general society, such as the talk entitled Our Real Home that was given in a dying lay woman’s home. In this sermon, Ajahn Chah states that no being can remain in any state for long, whether they are rich or poor, young or old, human or animal. Change is a fact of life that we cannot alter, but what we can do is follow the advice of the Buddha and contemplate the body and mind, seeing them as neither ‘me’ nor ‘mine.’ Like a house, the body is only nominally ours, as are wealth, possessions, and family. They belong to nature.

The words above are classic Ajahn Chah: down-to-earth; relevant to their listener; practical; and deceptively wise. The great meditation monk is famous amongst those who new him as someone always in the present moment, seeing what needed to be done now, including just what to say to those in his company. The above is a pretty general set of statements, however inspiring, but Ajahn Chah could also give very precise teachings on the specifics of Buddhist training, born of his own life long practice of Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma). In a talk focusing on anapanasati meditation, the meditation master said that while meditating there’s no need to pay attention to sense impressions. Ajahn Chah further advises us to let go of any feelings or sensations that arise in the mind. It doesn’t matter whether such feelings and sensations are good or bad, the trick is to not make anything of them, and turn one’s attention to the breath.

Ajahn Chah is also renowned for his vivid use of allegory in his teachings used to illustrate what might otherwise be rather dry, complicated or boring Buddhist doctrines. He uses the image of an apple orchard to explain the Buddhist idea of bhava (becoming), saying that if we don’t reflect wisely, we can be ‘born’ into every one of the apples grown in it. The forest monk says that this is ‘a bhava’ for us, as the mind has been born into each apple like a worm: in fact, it’s as if our mental ‘tentacles’ have been sent into all the trees in the orchard.Food for the Heart is a book full of forest wisdom, cultivated by Ajahn Chah over many decades of dedicated contemplative practice. This simple, humble, yet sometimes fiery master has inspired thousands of Buddhists and non-Buddhists with his particular brand of insight, and it is this breadth of teaching experience and variety of oratory techniques that make this book so unique. Despite all this, Ajahn Chah could be very direct when the listener(s) required it, as when announcing that if we don’t practice, we may study till the day we die, but we’ll never know the taste of freedom!

Title & Author : Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah
Publishers      : Wisdom Publications
Page Count    : 432
Price               : $15.16
ISBN               : 0-86171-323-0


Kerry Brian Davidson said...

Thanks for the review, going to put it on my list to read.

G said...

Thanks for the comment, Kenny. It really is a wonderful set of teschings. Make sure you do get around to reading it!