Wednesday, June 11, 2008

E-book Review: The Teachings of Ajahn Chah

“To define Buddhism without a lot of words and phrases, we can simply say, ‘Don’t cling or hold on to anything. Harmonize with actuality, with things as they are.’”
(Page 26, ‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah’)

This is a monumental work. Basically, this book is all of the talks of Ajahn Chah translated into English collected in one large volume, and as such is pretty much an electronic version of the commercial paperback release Food for the Heart, published by Wisdom Publications. The Teachings of Ajahn Chah is available completely free, in both pdf and online formats, from his former monastery’s website here Wat Nong Pah Pong.

The book is 725 pages long and contains all the separate books published by his various monasteries over the years, including Bodhinyana, Living Dhamma, Clarity of Insight and Everything is Teaching Us, amongst others. Ajahn Chah was very popular both with native Thais and Westerners wishing to learn the Dharma from a living master, some as laypeople, and others as monks or nuns living under his leadership in Northeast Thailand. A flavor of the way he instructed his disciples comes the book’s introduction:

“He taught villagers how to manage their family lives and finances, yet he might be just as likely to tell them about making causes for realization of Nibbana. He could instruct a visiting group on the basis of morality, without moralizing and in a way that was uplifting, but would gently remind them of their morality at the end of infusing them with his infectious happiness; or he might scold the daylights out of local monastics and laypeople. He could start a discourse by expounding on the most basic Buddhist ideas and seamlessly move on to talking about ultimate reality.”
(From the foreword by Paul Breiter)

One classic talk to be found in the book is also one of my own favorites entitled Our Real Home. It was a talk addressed to an aging lay disciple approaching her death, and using all his teacher’s skills. Ajahn Chah began by using the analogy of household utensils such as cups, saucers, plates and so on as examples of aging and impermanence. He tells the disciple to accept that the body too ages and decays just like her kitchen ware, and through contemplating this fact she can come to terms with her own impending mortality. He doesn’t stop here, however; the talk winds on leading to a most striking description of the meditative process by using the mantra Buddho (a variant of the word Buddha), which leads to a letting go of all that is impermanent. He tells her that:

“Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, it’s only nominally ours. It’s home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace. An external, material home may well be pretty but it is not very peaceful. There’s this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it’s not our real home, it’s external to us.”
(Page 218, ‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah)

Elsewhere in the book there are explanations of Buddhist teachings such as The Four Noble Truths, suffering and its ending, Samadhi (meditative concentration), morality, Vinaya (monk’s rules of conduct), and Right View, to name but a few. Ajahn Chah comes across in these transcribed talks as someone totally at peace with himself and the world, and has often been described by those that knew him as the happiest person they ever met. As a strict forest monk, he kept to the monk’s discipline assiduously, and demanded the same from his ordained disciples. Yet, he could also be incredibly humorous or tactful when the occasion required such. He was even referred to by some senior Thai monks as a sort of ‘Zen Theravada Buddhist’, with his tendency to sacrifice orthodoxy when the situation asked for something more vital and direct. The following extract could well have been said by a Mahayana monk:

“This emptiness is something people don’t usually understand, only those who reach it see the real value of it. It’s not the emptiness of not having anything, it’s emptiness within the things that are here. Like this flashlight: we should see this flashlight is empty; because of the flashlight there is emptiness. It’s not the emptiness where we can’t see anything, it’s not like that. People who understand like that have got it all wrong. You must understand emptiness within the things that are here.”
(Page 182, ibid.)

Ajahn Chah’s rich and non-doctrinal teaching style wasn’t indicative of a man who lived the life of a libertine, however. As mentioned above, he promoted strict adherence to the Vinaya (monk’s rules), and as often been said, he lived with the absolute basic necessities of life, giving away many fancy gifts that laypeople felt inspired to give him. This isn’t to say that he didn’t appreciate the generosity of the local population that supported his community of monks and nuns with their material needs. Indeed, he was very keen to instill in the ordained community at his monasteries a sense of gratitude to such laity, saying that:

“Right now, they have the faith to support us with material offerings, giving us our requisites for living. I’ve considered this: it’s quite a big deal. It’s no small thing. Donating our food, our dwellings, the medicines to treat our illnesses, is not a small thing. We are practicing for the attainment of Nibbana. If we don’t have any food to eat, that will be pretty difficult. How would we sit in meditation? How would we be able to build this monastery?”
(Page 607, ibid.)

Reading this book is both an honor and an injunction. It’s an honor to be exposed to such a rich depth of wisdom that Ajahn Chah clearly possessed. It’s also an honor to have such a work freely available for one’s development, given as an act of generosity by the monastic community at Wat Nong Pah Pong (Ajahn Chah’s main monastery). It is an injunction too, however. It’s a call to arms, to take up the practice of the Buddhadharma with sincerity and endeavor to cultivate the wisdom and compassion required to transcend this world of suffering. Moreover, in the life and teachings of Ajahn Chah, we have the perfect example of the selfless sharing of such realization that true wisdom brings.

‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah’ may be downloaded free of charge from Wat Nong Pah Pong’s website at the following address:
The Teachings of Ajahn Chah.


Wade M | The Middle Way said...

Wow Gary! What a great review. Thank you also for pointing out this great resource. I was not aware of it's existence, let alone it's free online.

This space feels rich in the dharma, keep up the great work.



JD said...


I echo what wade m said, "Great review." I suppose one could spend a lifetime learning from Ajahn Chah's example. Be well in your practice.

G said...

Hi Wade & Justin.

Thanks for the kind responses. I'm really glad that the review has led you to discover this collection of teachings, Wade. If this was the only result of writing & posting the review then it was well worth the effort. (In fact, it was a joy & privilege to write it, as it probably shows in the review itself.) And yes, Justin; reading & learning in our Dharma practice from this one work could take a lifetime, let alone all the many other worthwhile sources. Wow, indeed!

May you both be well in the Dharma,

They call him James Ure said...

I'll be buying that book for sure.

G said...

Er, it's a free e-book, James - you just go to the link & download it! ("The gift of Dharma surpasses all other gifts")


puthujjana said...

Thank you Gary for this wonderful review. I would not be on this path if not for the teachings of Ajahn Chah. I downloaded this collection some time ago and return to it often.


They call him James Ure said...

Whoops!! Thanks for the correction. I need to slow down. Great lesson for me. :)

G said...

Kris, it's a wonderful resource for Dharma praqctice, for sure. Just wish I could live up to Ajahn Chah's standards!

James, don't worry. We all need to slow down until we stop forever. Stop what? Stop being greedy, hateful and deluded!

Be well,

Anonymous said...

I have been recommending a book called "My Stroke of Insight - a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor and also a TEDTalk Dr. Taylor gave on the TED dot com site. And you don't have to take my word for it - Dr. Taylor was named Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People, the New York Times wrote about her and her book is a NYTimes Bestseller), and Oprah did not 4 interviews with her.

G said...

Thanks for the recommendation, "Anonymous". Be well on your chosen path.

ganesh statue said...

How much does the ebook cost?

G said...

Er, it's a free e-book, Ganesh Statue - you just go to the link & download it! ("The gift of Dharma surpasses all other gifts")