Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: A Still Forest Pool, by Jack Kornfield & Paul Breiter

Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. Yu will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.
(A Still Forest Pool,

There are some books that just touch the heart, lifting it to a place of peace & inspiration. A Still Forest Pool is such a book. Its editors Jack Kornfield & Paul Breiter were students of the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah, even ordaining as Buddhist monks for a number of years before returning to the USA. Some time later, they decided to compile this wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes and teachings of the late ajahn ('ajahn' is Thai for teacher).

The book is divided into seven parts, each dealing with a different aspect of Buddhist practice, their titles indicating their contents. Examples are 'Our Life is Our Practice,' 'Meditation and Formal Practice' & 'Lessons in the Forest.' It is worth noting here that Ajahn Chah was a forest monk, who originally wondered the dwindling woodlands of Thailand, practicing the Buddhist path under a canopy of trees. Eventually, he was invited to establish a forest monastery near his home village in the northeast of Thailand. Now, there are branch monasteries not only all over Thailand, but also across the globe, in such places as the US, the UK, Australia, Switzerland & Italy.

In the first chapter, entitled 'Understanding the Buddha's Teachings,' Ajahn Chah teaches about basic Buddhist teachings such as the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path & where to focus our efforts - right here in the person that is taken to be the self. This, he teaches, will lead to the realization of anatta ('not-self'), not as an intellectual understanding, but as an existential one. A favorite story of Ajahn Chah appears in this section of the book, and it illustrates Ajahn Chah's practical & direct approach to the Buddha's teachings:

One day, a famous woman lecturer on Buddhist metaphysics came to see Ajahn Chah. This woman gave periodic teachings in Bangkok on the abhidharma and complex Buddhist psychology. In talking to Ajahn Chah, she detailed how important it was for people to understand Buddhist psychology and how much her students benefited from their study with her. She asked him whether he agreed with the importance of such understanding.

"Yes, very important", he agreed.

Delighted, she further questioned whether he had his own students learn abhidharma.

"Oh, yes, of course."

And where, she asked, did he recommend they start, which books and studies were best?

"Only here," he said, pointing to his heart, "only here."
(Ibid, p.12)

A central emphasis of Ajahn Chah's teaching was the importance of the mind. In the second part, 'Correcting Our Views,' he points out that it is in our own minds that we will discover the truths of Buddhism, and that through meditation these truths will become clear to us. Kornfield & Breiter have ordered the teachings in a way that insight follows insight, allowing the wisdom of Ajahn Chah to unfold bit by bit, like a tap (or faucet) dripping in the silence. Indeed, there are no long segments of text, with many pieces less than a page long, lowing the reader to treat them as separate meditations to be reflected on. Famous for his colorful & ear-catching similes, Ajahn Chah often uses everyday images to illustrate Buddhist teachings, as shown in 'Sense Objects and the Mind':

This practice is like caring for a buffalo and a rice field. The mind is like the buffalo that wants to eat the rice plants, sense objects; the one who knows is the owner. Consider the comparison. When you tend a buffalo, you let it go free but you keep watch over it. You cannot be heedless. If it goes close to the rice plants, you shout at it and it retreats. If it is stubborn and will not obey your voice, you take a stick and hit it. Do not fall asleep in the daytime and let everything go. If you do, you will have no rice plants left, for sure.
(Ibid. p.p.37-38)

Two running themes throughout A Still Forest Pool are the interrelated subjects of meditation & mindfulness. As a forest monk, Ajahn Chah himself spent hours meditating, deepening his insight into the three characteristics of existence (impermanency, suffering & not-self), along with other important Buddhist concepts. These practices, including sitting & walking meditations, as well as general mindfulness throughout the day, are promoted in the book again and again. Moreover, Ajahn Chah emphasizes that it is our responsibility to develop a meditative mindset, and not look to blame outer circumstances for failings in our practice, whether residing in a forest monastery or elsewhere. This latter point is vividly demonstrated in the segment entitled 'Learning Concentration': 

In our practice, we think that noises, cars, voices, sights, are distractions that come and bother us when we want to be quiet. But who is bothering whom? Actually, we are the ones who go and bother them. The car, the sound, is just following its own nature. We bother things through some false idea that they are outside us and cling to the ideal of remaining quiet, undisturbed.

Learn to see that it is not things that bother us, that we go out to bother them. See the world as a mirror. It is all a reflection of mind. When you know this, you can grow in every moment, and every experience reveals truth and brings understanding.
(Ibid. p.89)

The last part of the book is a collection questions from Ajahn Chah's students, answered by the latter with his usual incisive wit & clarity. This section reveals the living, interactive element of Ajahn Chah's realizations and teaching styles. For, his was not a dry, philosophical outlook, nor a manipulative master-disciple relationship, but rather a compassionate explanation of Buddhist truths & practices, enabling his students to see for themselves 'the taste of freedom.' A Still Forest Pool is a glorious little book, full of the wisdom of the great Thai forest monks of the Twentieth Century, and this reviewer recommends it wholeheartedly: Get it, now! To finish with, we will quote an answer Ajahn Chah gave to a question asking what the main points of their discussion had been; it's as valid today as it was then, several decades ago in the forests of northeast Thailand.

You must examine yourself. Know who you are. Know your body and mind by simply watching. In sitting, in sleeping, in eating, know your limits. Use wisdom. The practice is not to try to achieve anything. Just be mindful of what is. Our whole meditation is to look directly at the heart / mind. You will see suffering; its cause, and its end. But you must have much patience and endurance. Gradually you will learn. The Buddha taught his disciples to stay with their teacher for at least five years.

Don't practice too strictly. Don't get caught up with outward form. Simply be natural and watch that. Our monk's discipline and monastic rules are very important. They create a simple and harmonious environment. Use them well. But remember, the essence of the monk's discipline is watching intention, examining the heart. You must have wisdom.

Watching others is bad practice. Don't discriminate. Would you get upset at a small tree in the forest for not being tall and straight like some of the others? Don't judge other people. There are all varieties-no need to carry the burden of wishing to change them all.

You must learn the value of giving and of devotion. Be patient; practice morality; live simply and naturally; watch the mind. This practice will lead you to unselfishness and peace.
(Ibid. pp.169-170)

The book is available for purchase here: ~ A Still Forest Pool


Anonymous said...

Thanks, yes lovely. "You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha"

G said...

Thanks for the comment. Be well!