In April of 2001, several hundred people gathered in Portola Valley, California, for a weekend billed as 'The Life, Times, and Teachings of Ajahn Chah.' Monks, nuns and lay people, disciples present and past, along with many other interested parties traveled from across the country and around the world to join the event. In two joyful and illuminating days, people gave personal recollections, read from teachings, and discussed Ajahn Chah's way of training. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment that brought back a lot of memories for all the speakers, perhaps capped by Ajahn Sumedho's reflection on how 'this one little man' had done so much with his life for the benefit of the world.
When I was a freaked-out young man, I dumped myself on the doorstep of Ajahn Chah's orphanage. Physically debilitated, emotionally immature, and spiritually blind, I had nowhere to go in this world, no one to turn to for help. Ajahn Chah took me in and placed me under his wing. He was able to instill perfect trust and give me a feeling of safety as he nursed me along and helped me grow up. He was parent, doctor, teacher, mentor, priest, and Santa Claus, comedian and taskmaster, savior and nemesis, always waiting well ahead of me, always ready with the unimaginable, the unexpected, and the beneficial. During those years I also saw him work his magic on many others. Since then I've had occasion to realize how extraordinary it was to have the undistracted attention of such a great (and busy) master for so long and how uniquely gifted he was in helping sentient beings.
I left the robes and Ajahn Chah in 1977, yet over the years I've gone back again and again, to monasteries in Thailand, England, and the United States. In 1998, at the suggestion of Ajahn Pasanno of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California, I contacted Shambhala Publications and embarked on a translation of Ajahn Chah's teachings that ended up in 2001 as 'Being Dharma: The Essence of the Buddha's Teachings'. Since then, I've found myself unable to stay away from Ajahn Chah's teachings, and I've had what is probably the not uncommon experience of seeing my awe, reverence, and appreciation for this great master continue to grow. So it was most welcome when I heard that friends in Melbourne, Australia, wished to publish some of these more recent translations.
'Everything Is Teaching Us' summarizes Ajahn Chah's approach quite neatly. Showing us the immediacy of the Dhamma, he demystified the concepts of Buddhism so that almost anyone who listened could get the point, be they barely literate farmers or highly educated city people, Thais or Westerners. Yet nothing was compromised, and through his unmatched skill people usually got more than they bargained for.
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 Nibbāna. He could instruct a visiting group on the basics of morality, without moralizing and in a way that was uplifting, but would gently remind them of their mortality at the end of infusing them with his infectious happiness; or he might scold the daylights out of local monastics and lay people. He could start a discourse by expounding the most basic Buddhist ideas and seamlessly move on to talking about ultimate reality.
Surprises were always in store in the way he taught and the way he trained. He frequently changed the routine in his monastery. He wasn't easy to pin down or classify. Sometimes he emphasized monastic life, pointing out its many advantages, yet he gave profound teachings to lay people and showed real respect for anyone with a sincere interest, anyone who made effort in practice. He sometimes taught about the jhāna and emphasized the need for concentration, while at other times he pointed out that mere tranquil abiding is a dead end and that for real insight practice, samādhi need not be very great. His treatment of the monastic discipline could be just as puzzling. But those who stayed close to him and patiently sought out his real intent found a wholeness beyond the seeming contradictions.
Ajahn Chah's monasteries were known for strictness as well as a certain flexibility rooted in a reverence for the path of practice laid down by the Lord Buddha, along with an intensely practical approach that sought to realize the essence of what the Buddha taught, which is liberation. This might be worth keeping in mind while reading the teachings; Ajahn Chah gives us the 'bad news' about the shortcomings of ordinary, worldly existence and emphasizes renunciation as the key, yet his only aim was liberation. As he said, ''Making offerings, listening to teachings, practicing meditation, whatever we do should be done for the purpose of developing wisdom. Developing wisdom is for the purpose of liberation, freedom from all these conditions and phenomena.'' And that was what he embodied. He manifested a joyous, vibrant freedom that spoke volumes about the worth of the Buddha's teachings.
Ajahn Chah didn't prepare his talks or teach from notes, nor did he give series of talks. Sometimes a single talk will cover many aspects of the path. Many of the teachings have a rambling, stream of consciousness (perhaps 'stream of wisdom' describes it better) quality, and it is quite valid to open them anywhere. Some talks seem to go off on tangents, only to come back to an underlying theme, while others take time to warm up to the main theme and then develop it relentlessly. So this book need not be read from the beginning, and the individual talks need not be read beginning to end. Feel free to open the book anywhere and enjoy the glow of Ajahn Chah's wisdom. But please don't read in a hurry or merely enjoy Ajahn Chah's rhetorical skill. He was a gifted speaker, and the flow of his words can be entertaining, even mesmerizing, but his teachings are rich in meaning, and the full import is to be had by reading and contemplating, and by coming back to read again sometime later on. Read with a discerning spirit, not taking anything on his say-so. ''Those who easily believe others are said by the Buddha to be foolish,'' was one of his frequent admonitions. He urged everyone to put the teachings into practice and understand them through experience rather than just taking them as an object of intellectual curiosity.
I apologize in advance for any vagueness in my translation. When ordinary
people try to render the words of an enlightened master into another
language, something is inevitably lost. I wish to thank Ajahn Pasanno
of Abhayagiri Monastery, California, for his assistance in helping
me with Dhamma and language questions. If this volume can point something
out to help even a few people learn more about their own minds and
encourage them on the path to liberation, the efforts to produce it
will have been most worthwhile.
The translator of 'Everything is Teaching Us' (Paul Breiter)