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AJAHN KHEMANANDO

Question: What single thing most impressed you about Luang Por Chah with examples according to your experiences.

Answer: Most of my own personal experience of Ajahn Chah comes from the period, beginning in January 1979, when I came to stay at Wat Pah Pong as a layman, followed by many months as a anagarika or pa-khao. I was a new-comer to Thailand and monastic life and spoke or understood very little Thai, being quite dependent on the more senior Western monks for translations and explanations of what was happening. So my impressions from that time were not so much of profound dialogues or specific instructions on meditation, etc., but more revelations of Ajahn Chah's character which would often over-turn my own pre-conceptions about the nature of an enlightened being whilst also, sometimes simultaneously, providing evidence that he did indeed function on quite a different level to the people by whom he was surrounded. Apparently small incidents in which Ajahn Chah would do things that didn't need explaining, which I was able to observe and gain some food for thought.

Once, myself and a fellow pa-khao- a New Zealander - were whiling away a hot, steamy afternoon in idle conversation on the balcony of my kuti. At Wat Pah Pong in those days, much of the formal practice was done as a group activity in the main hall morning and evening, while your individual kuti was kind of sacrosanct, where you could expect to be left to your on devices most of the time. We had adjacent kutis in a far corner of the monastery and had become friends offering each other companionship and support in this way, basically relaxing and goofing off. So you can imagine how surprised and guilty we felt when Ajahn Chah himself suddenly appeared on the path to the Kuti, calling out and beckoning with his hand! We thought we were in for a scolding for not meditating diligently, but Ajahn Chah didn't seem bothered at all - he wasn't telling us to stop talking, but calling to us, "Come here, come here!".

It transpired that Ajahn Chah was taking time off from being the resident sage of Wat Pah Pong, receiving a constant stream of visitors at his kuti and had decided to go hunting for monitor lizards instead! Having just spotted one in the vicinity, he had come to enlist our help, patiently miming an explanation of how to fix a string snare to the end of a bamboo pole. Ajahn Chah was very fond of the forest chickens, which he would feed with rice in the area around his own kuti, and wanted to protect them from their natural enemy, the large monitor lizards, which liked to eat their eggs.

So there followed what turned out to be an hilarious scene of two rather clumsy, inexperienced Westerners being goaded on by an enthusiastic Ajahn Chah, their adopted spiritual guide, thrashing around in the forest trying to catch a big lizard - hardly the sort of thing that I had imagined writing home about! We were quite hopeless, of course, and eventually gave up without catching anything - but not before having a good laugh at ourselves.

What struck me most about this little episode was the contrast between Ajahn Chah the lizard hunter, displaying a very natural spontaneity and down-to-earth, almost child-like simplicity and humour and the awe-inspiring formality of this role as head of a large, important monastery which, up to this point, was all I had ever seen of him. This had the effect of undermining many of my own pre-conceptions regarding what a great, enlightened teacher was supposed to be like and helped me to see that Ajahn Chah was actually very natural and quite funny and to feel less intimidated and more relaxed in being around him.

I sent the Vassa of that year as a pa-khao with Ajahn Chah when he unexpectedly decided to leave Wat Pah Pong for the monastery in his home village, Wat Gor Nork, three kilometres way. I was the most junior of the four foreign disciples who accompanied Ajahn Chah at that time for what turned out to be a unique Rains Retreat. He did give some very profound Dhamma talks during this Vassa, in response to specific questions by more senior Western monks who took advantage of Ajahn Chah's increased accessibility in such a small place. Most of this was over my head at the time, as my Thai was still pretty minimal and I was for the most part pre-occupied with various chores - cleaning spittoons, etc - that were the lot of my lowly position.

Ajahn Chah had come to this little monastery specifically to renovate it and soon set about building a new main hall (sala). He was often to be seen supervising the work in progress, strutting around with his big walking-stick, barking out comments and commands in a most imperious manner, displaying what really appeared to be dissatisfaction, irritation or even anger. It was really quite intimidating to watch and I was starting to get a bit put off by it all when Ajahn Chah seemed to noticed that I was having a few doubts about this performance and looked across at me and by way of reassurance pointed to the centre of his chest and said, "Nothing here, nothing here!".

I realized then that he was actually a consummate actor and could display behaviour without being at all affected by it. He was simply doing what was necessary to get the right response from the village workers, who are culturally conditioned to respond to that kind of expression of authority. Another time, I witnessed him metamorphose into a really friendly, jovial old uncle or grandfather in response to a visiting family group - a most saccharine performance that at the time struck me as transparently artificial. But on reflection I could see that it was in fact just right for those people in that situation and they departed happy and uplifted.

Through experiences like these I learned to let go of fixed views about how supposedly enlightened people should or should not act. Ajahn Chah was very skilful in adapting to circumstances for the sake of inspiring or teaching others and this indicated a highly developed mind. But an unenlightened observer of such outward behaviour cannot see the true quality of a mind like that. The purity, or lack of defilement cannot be seen directly - all that can be seen is an apparently normal person displaying normal characteristics and reactions. So we should be very cautious about jumping to conclusions or passing judgement based on such superficial observations. As the Buddha pointed out, it is very difficult for an unenlightened person to know the quality of a wise person and needs keen observation over a long period of time. A very important point.

Visiting Ajahn Chah back at Wat Pah Pong after that Vassa, I found him directing a contingent of young conscript soldiers who had come to help clean up the monastery, sweeping, picking up leaves, etc. There he was, sitting in his wicker chair, waving his stick and bellowing orders left right and centre. Seeing it was me who had come to sit beside him under his kuti, he made an oblique reference to the previous encounter at Wat Gor Nork by leaning over and saying, with a little grin, "You can't talk to Westerners like that, can you?".

I was impressed how much he seemed to understand the character of Westerners and the problems they had in undertaking the monastic training. Although he spoke most of the time in the appropriate way for Thais, who are conditioned to respond to authority like that, yet he was adaptable and quick enough to pick up ways of dealing with Westerners, even those who couldn't understand his language. The villagers were always amazed how Ajahn Chah, who had very little in the way of formal education or worldly sophistication could actually teach so many Western disciples without even speaking English. Aj Chah would simply point out that they themselves were raising chickens and buffalo all the time without knowing their language and managing all right!

He was very observant and could quite accurately assess the personality of an approaching new-comer by watching their faces, their postures, the way they walked etc. Before they had even sat down or said anything Ajahn Chah would make a remark to those present, such as, "This one's full of doubt!" which subsequent conversation would reveal to be true!

More than anything else, I think it was probably his humour that made him attractive to Westerners, for whom conceit, views and attachment to all sorts of worldly knowledge and sophistication could be serious obstructions. But Ajahn Chah would have way of deflating all that in a humorous way. It's very difficult to point out somebody's defilements in an acceptable way that doesn't cause offence or inspire resistance or rejection. But Westerners generally have a rather sarcastic sense of humour and Ajahn Chah would play on that with his own wit and make people aware of their own faults in a very funny way, which would in turn endear him to them even more.

So, most of the time I was actually with Ajahn Chah, I didn't understand Thai very well at all. And just as I was getting competent in the language, he got sick and was incapacitated to the point of being unable to speak! But although the tapes and books produced in later times made me aware of what I had missed experiencing personally, I feel no regret about it because, having carried on for over twenty-two years now, I really believe that the initiation into spiritual life of those early years gave me something that has sustained me right up to the present. Basically the simple conviction that this is right. It works. It's all you need.

This conviction sprang directly from my own experience of Ajahn Chah's example, this person who seemed to have such cast-iron integrity; who conveyed complete certainty and a kind of natural authority that commanded respect. Confronted almost daily by all kinds of people, problems and questions, he was quite unmoveable from this position of inner certainty and calm. No one could upset him or make him move from this position, and this was most impressive. I had never seen anyone so constant and it seemed to be proof that he was operating on quite a different level to the average person.

So although I can't really claim to have had profound discussions or a deep, personal connection with Ajahn Chah, the constancy of his mere presence was enough to anchor me to the principles of the training he taught. And it inspired great confidence to have an example of someone who had achieved such results from the practice, who embodied the Dhamma and lived it all the time. Consequently, I never really had doubts about it or any problems surrendering myself to it. I had never had a teacher before or much understanding of what that might imply and was also a fairly critical person with a rather cynical bent. But the example of Ajahn Chah himself made the surrender of opinions and preferences, the endurance of simplicity and austerity, the tribulations of diet and climate, etc. a joy to undertake.

Without such an example as a constant reminder, it's very easy to remain stuck in one's own views and opinions, which is a major obstacle to success in training. Westerners, especially, have problems because they know so much. They know that there are other teachers, other traditions, and books all over the place. And they can just get lost, never really grasping the point of it all. Ajahn Chah would say, "Don't read books. Don't write home more than twice a year. You've come here to die!". The idea of living in the forest and being simple really appealed to me as my character naturally disposes me to be that way. It was no great wrench to take up the forest life.

It's often assumed that living with a teacher means having an in-depth personal rapport characterized by weighty discussions of profound topics pertaining to spiritual life and the highest goals thereof. But it's by no means necessarily the case. You never really enter spiritual life wholeheartedly until you surrender yourself, surrender views and opinions. Ajahn Chah's genius was in his ability to point this out, orchestrating an environment or training situation in which people could become aware of their own defilement and learn not to believe their own thinking. This is incredibly important. Without the example of someone who has done it, who lives it, it's really difficult to give up self-concern. I never had any problems wondering whether I should be doing this or whether I should go somewhere else. Inspired by Ajahn Chah's example, I just got on with it. I didn't see any point in going anywhere else.

Eventually, you verify the teaching through your own practice and you realise how things change. Your habits change. Your character changes. Your defilements get less. Life gets easier and your mind is more peaceful. Everything Ajahn Chah has been saying is true!


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