Food for the Heart

by Ajahn Chah | 1992 | 51,134 words

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Chapter 9 - Not Sure!

The Standard Of The Noble Ones

There was once a western monk, a student of mine. Whenever he saw Thai monks and novices disrobing he would say, "Oh, what a shame! Why do they do that? Why do so many of the Thai monks and novices disrobe?" He was shocked. He would get saddened at the disrobing of the Thai monks and novices, because he had only just come into contact with Buddhism. He was inspired, he was resolute. Going forth as a monk was the only thing to do, he thought hed never disrobe. Whoever disrobed was a fool. Hed see the Thais taking on the robes at the beginning of the Rains Retreat as monks and novices and then disrobing at the end of it..."Oh, how sad! I feel so sorry for those Thai monks and novices. How could they do such a thing?"

Well, as time went by some of the western monks began to disrobe, so he came to see it as something not so important after all. At first, when he had just begun to practice, he was excited about it. He thought that it was really important thing, to become a monk. He thought it would be easy.

When people are inspired it all seems to be so right and good. Theres nothing there to gauge their feelings by, so they go ahead and decide for themselves. But they dont really know what practice is. Those who do know will have a thoroughly firm foundation within their hearts — but even so they dont need to advertise it.

As for myself, when I was first ordained I didnt actually do much practice, but I had a lot of faith. I dont know why, maybe it was there from birth. The monks and novices who went forth together with me, come the end of the Rains, all disrobed. I thought to myself, "Eh? What is it with these people?" However, I didnt dare say anything to them because I wasnt yet sure of my own feelings, I was too stirred up. But within me I felt that they were all foolish. "Its difficult to go forth, easy to disrobe. These guys dont have much merit, they think that the way of the world is more useful than the way of Dhamma." I thought like this but I didnt say anything, I just watched my own mind.

Id see the monks whod gone forth with me disrobing one after the other. Sometimes theyd dress up and come back to the monastery to show off. Id see them and think they were crazy, but they thought they looked snappy. When you disrobe you have to do this and that... Id think to myself that that way of thinking was wrong. I wouldnt say it, though, because I myself was still an uncertain quantity. I still wasnt sure how long my faith would last.

When my friends had all disrobed I dropped all concern, there was nobody left to concern myself with. I picked up the Patimokkha [1] and got stuck into learning that. There was nobody left to distract me and waste my time, so I put my heart into the practice. Still I didnt say anything because I felt that to practice all ones life, maybe seventy, eighty or even ninety years, and to keep up a persistent effort, without slackening up or losing ones resolve, seemed like an extremely difficult thing to do.

Those who went forth would go forth, those who disrobed would disrobe. Id just watch it all. I didnt concern myself whether they stayed or went. Id watch my friends leave, but the feeling I had within me was that these people didnt see clearly. That western monk probably thought like that. hed see people become monks for only one Rains Retreat, and get upset.

Later on he reached a stage we call... bored; bored with the Holy Life. He let go of the practice and eventually disrobed.

"Why are you disrobing? Before, when you saw the Thai monks disrobing youd say, Oh, what a shame! How sad, how pitiful. Now, when you yourself want to disrobe, why dont you feel sorry now?"

He didnt answer. He just grinned sheepishly.

When it comes to the training of the mind it isnt easy to find a good standard if you havent yet developed a "witness" within yourself. In most external matters we can rely on others for feedback, there are standards and precedents. But when it comes to using the Dhamma as a standard... do we have the Dhamma yet? Are we thinking rightly or not? And even if its right, do we know how to let go of rightness or are we still clinging to it?

You must contemplate until you reach the point where you let go, this is the important thing... until you reach the point where there isnt anything left, where there is neither good nor bad. You throw it off. This means you throw out everything. If its all gone then theres no remainder; if theres some remainder then its not all gone.

So in regard to this training of the mind, sometimes we may say its easy. its easy to say, but its hard to do, very hard. Its hard in that it doesnt conform to our desires. Sometimes it seems almost as if the angels [2] were helping us out. Everything goes right, whatever we think or say seems to be just right. Then we go and attach to that rightness and before long we go wrong and it all turns bad. This is where its difficult. We dont have a standard to gauge things by.

People who have a lot of faith, who are endowed with confidence and belief but are lacking in wisdom, may be very good at samadhi but they may not have much insight. They see only one side of everything, and simply follow that. They dont reflect. This is blind faith. In Buddhism we call this Saddha adhimokkha, blind faith. They have faith all right but its not born of wisdom. But they dont see this at the time, they believe they have wisdom, so they dont see where they are wrong.

Therefore they teach about the Five Powers (Bala): Saddha, viriya, sati, samadhi, panna. Saddha is conviction; viriya is diligent effort; sati is recollection; samadhi is fixedness of mind; panna is all embracing knowledge. Dont say that panna is simply knowledge — panna is all embracing, consummate knowledge.

The wise have given these five steps to us so that we can link them, firstly as an object of study, then as a gauge to compare to the state of our practice as it is. For example, saddha, conviction. Do we have conviction, have we developed it yet? Viriya: do we have diligent effort or not? Is our effort right or is it wrong? We must consider this. Everybody has some sort of effort, but does our effort contain wisdom or not?

Sati is the same. Even a cat has sati. When it sees a mouse, sati is there. The cats eyes stare fixedly at the mouse. This is the sati of a cat. Everybody has sati, animals have it, delinquents have it, sages have it.

Samadhi, fixedness of mind — everybody has this as well. A cat has it when its mind is fixed on grabbing the mouse and eating it. It has fixed intent. That sati of the cats is sati of a sort; samadhi, fixed intent on what it is doing, is also there. Panna, knowledge, like that of human beings. It knows as an animal knows, it has enough knowledge to catch mice for food.

These five things are called powers. Have these Five Powers arisen from Right View, sammaditthi, or not? Saddha, viriya, sati, samadhi, panna — have these arisen from Right View? What is Right View? What is our standard for gauging Right View? We must clearly understand this.

Right View is the understanding that all these things are uncertain. Therefore the Buddha and all the Noble Ones dont hold fast to them. They hold, but not fast. They dont let that holding become an identity. The holding which doesnt lead to becoming is that which isnt tainted with desire. Without seeking to become this or that there is simply the practice itself. When you hold on to a particular thing is there enjoyment, or is there displeasure? If there is pleasure, do you hold on to that pleasure? If there is dislike, do you hold on to that dislike?

Some views can be used as principles for gauging our practice more accurately. Such as knowing such views as that one is better than others, or equal to others, or more foolish than others, as all wrong views. We may feel these things but we also know them with wisdom, that they simply arise and cease. Seeing that we are better than others is not right; seeing that we are equal to others is not right; seeing that we are inferior to others is not right.

The right view is the one that cuts through all of this. So where do we go to? If we think we are better than others, pride arises. Its there but we dont see it. If we think we are equal to others, we fail to show respect and humility at the proper times. If we think we are inferior to others we get depressed, thinking we are inferior, born under a bad sign and so on. We are still clinging to the Five Khandhas, [3] its all simply becoming and birth.

This is one standard for gauging ourselves by. Another one is: if we encounter a pleasant experience we feel happy, if we encounter a bad experience we are unhappy. Are we able to look at both the things we like and the things we dislike as having equal value? Measure yourself against this standard. In our everyday lives, in the various experiences we encounter, if we hear something which we like, does our mood change? If we encounter an experience which isnt to our liking, does our mood change? Or is the mind unmoved? Looking right here we have a gauge.

Just know yourself, this is your witness. Dont make decisions on the strength of your desires. Desires can puff us up into thinking we are something which were not. We must be very circumspect.

There are so many angles and aspects to consider, but the right way is not to follow your desires, but the Truth. We should know both the good and the bad, and when we know them to let go of them. If we dont let go we are still there, we still "exist," we still "have." If we still "are" then there is a remainder, there are becoming and birth in store.

Therefore the Buddha said to judge only yourself, dont judge others, no matter how good or evil they may be. The Buddha merely points out the way, saying "The truth is like this." Now, is our mind like that or not?

For instance, suppose a monk took some things belonging to another monk, then that other monk accused him, "You stole my things." "I didnt steal them, I only took them." So we ask a third monk to adjudicate. How should he decide? He would have to ask the offending monk to appear before the convened Sangha. "Yes, I took it, but I didnt steal it." Or in regard to other rules, such as parajika or sanghadisesa offenses: "Yes, I did it, but I didnt have intention." How can you believe that? Its tricky. If you cant believe it, all you can do is leave the onus with the doer, it rests on him.

But you should know that we cant hide the things that arise in our minds. You cant cover them up, either the wrongs or the good actions. Whether actions are good or evil, you cant dismiss them simply by ignoring them, because these things tend to reveal themselves. They conceal themselves, they reveal themselves, they exist in and of themselves. They are all automatic. This is how things work.

Dont try to guess at or speculate about these things. As long as there is still avijja (unknowing) they are not finished with. The Chief Privy Councilor once asked me, "Luang Por, is the mind of an anagami [4] pure yet?"

"Its partly pure."

"Eh? An anagami has given up sensual desire, how is his mind not yet pure?"

"He may have let go of sensual desire, but there is still something remaining, isnt there? There is still avijja. If there is still something left then there is still something left. Its like the bhikkhus alms bowls. There are "a large size large bowl; a medium sized large bowl, a small sized large bowl; then a large sized medium bowl, a medium sized medium bowl, a small sized medium bowl; then there are a large sized small bowl, a medium sized small bowl and a small sized small bowl... No matter how small it is there is still a bowl there, right? Thats how it is with this...sotapanna, sakadagami, anagami... they have all given up certain defilements, but only to their respective levels. Whatever still remains, those Noble Ones dont see. If they could they would all be arahants. They still cant see all. Avijja is that which doesnt see. If the mind of the anagami was completely straightened out he wouldnt be an anagami, he would be fully accomplished. But there is still something remaining.

"Is his mind purified?"

"Well, it is somewhat, but not 100%."

How else could I answer? He said that later on he would come and question me about it further. He can look into it, the standard is there.

Dont be careless. Be alert. The Lord Buddha exhorted us to be alert. In regards to this training of the heart, Ive had my moments of temptation too, you know. Ive often been tempted to try many things but theyve always seemed like theyre going astray of the path. Its really just a sort of swaggering in ones mind, a sort of conceit. Ditthi, views, and mana, pride, are there. Its hard enough just to be aware of these two things.

There was once a man who wanted to become a monk here. He carried in his robes, determined to become a monk in memory of his late mother. He came into the monastery, laid down his robes, and without so much as paying respects to the monks, started walking meditation right in front of the main hall... back and forth, back and forth, like he was really going to show his stuff.

I thought, "Oh, so there are people around like this, too!" This is called saddha adhimokkha — blind faith. He must have determined to get enlightened before sundown or something, he thought it would be so easy. He didnt look at anybody else, just put his head down and walked as if his life depended on it. I just let him carry on, but I thought, "Oh, man, you think its that easy or something?" In the end I dont know how long he stayed, I dont even think he ordained.

As soon as the mind thinks of something we send it out, send it out every time. We dont realize that its simply the habitual proliferation of the mind. It disguises itself as wisdom and waffles off into minute detail. This mental proliferation seems very clever, if we didnt know we would mistake it for wisdom. But when it comes to the crunch its not the real thing. When suffering arises where is that so called wisdom then? Is it of any use? Its only proliferation after all.

So stay with the Buddha. As Ive said before many times, in our practice we must turn inwards and find the Buddha. Where is the Buddha? The Buddha is still alive to this very day, go in and find him. Where is he? At aniccam, go in and find him there, go and bow to him: aniccam, uncertainty. You can stop right there for starters.

If the mind tries to tell you, "Im a sotapanna now," go and bow to the sotapanna. Hell tell you himself, "Its all uncertain." If you meet a sakadagami go and pay respects to him. When he sees you hell simply say "Not a sure thing!" If there is an anagami go and bow to him. Hell tell you only one thing..."Uncertain." If you meet even an arahant, go and bow to him, hell tell you even more firmly, "Its all even more uncertain!" Youll hear the words of the Noble Ones..."Everything is uncertain, dont cling to anything."

Dont just look at the Buddha like a simpleton. Dont cling to things, holding fast to them without letting go. Look at things as functions of the Apparent and then send them on to Transcendence. Thats how you must be. There must be Appearance and there must be Transcendence.

So I say "Go to the Buddha." Where is the Buddha? The Buddha is the Dhamma. All the teachings in this world can be contained in this one teaching: aniccam. Think about it. Ive searched for over forty years as a monk and this is all I could find. That and patient endurance. This is how to approach the Buddhas teaching... aniccam: its all uncertain.

No matter how sure the mind wants to be, just tell it "Not sure!." Whenever the mind wants to grab on to something as a sure thing, just say, "Its not sure, its transient." Just ram it down with this. Using the Dhamma of the Buddha it all comes down to this. Its not that its merely a momentary phenomenon. Whether standing, walking, sitting or lying down, you see everything in that way. Whether liking arises or dislike arises you see it all in the same way. This is getting close to the Buddha, close to the Dhamma.

Now I feel that this is more valuable way to practice. All my practice from the early days up to the present time has been like this. I didnt actually rely on the scriptures, but then I didnt disregard them either. I didnt rely on a teacher but then I didnt exactly "go it alone." My practice was all "neither this nor that."

Frankly its a matter of "finishing off," that is, practicing to the finish by taking up the practice and then seeing it to completion, seeing the Apparent and also the Transcendent.

Ive already spoken of this, but some of you may be interested to hear it again: if you practice consistently and consider things thoroughly, you will eventually reach this point... At first you hurry to go forward, hurry to come back, and hurry to stop. You continue to practice like this until you reach the point where it seems that going forward is not it, coming back is not it, and stopping is not it either! Its finished. This is the finish. Dont expect anything more than this, it finishes right here. Khinasavo — one who is completed. He doesnt go forward, doesnt retreat and doesnt stop. Theres no stopping, no going forward and no coming back. Its finished. Consider this, realize it clearly in your own mind. Right there you will find that there is really nothing at all.

Whether this is old or new to you depends on you, on your wisdom and discernment. One who has no wisdom or discernment wont be able to figure it out. Just take a look at trees, like mango or jackfruit trees. If they grow up in a clump, one tree may get bigger first and then the others will bend away, growing outwards from that bigger one. Why does this happen? Who tells them to do that? This is Nature. Nature contains both the good and the bad, the right and the wrong. It can either incline to the right or incline to the wrong. If we plant any kind of trees at all close together, the trees which mature later will branch away from the bigger tree. How does this happen? Who determines it thus? This is Nature, or Dhamma.

Likewise, tanha, desire, leads us to suffering. Now, if we contemplate it, it will lead us out of desire, we will outgrow tanha. By investigating tanha we will shake it up, making it gradually lighter and lighter until its all gone. The same as the trees: does anybody order them to grow the way they do? They cant talk or move around and yet they know how to grow away from obstacles. Wherever its cramped and crowded and growing will be difficult, they bend outwards.

Right here is Dhamma, we dont have to look at a whole lot. One who is astute will see the Dhamma in this. Trees by nature dont know anything, they act on natural laws, yet they do know enough to grow away from danger, to incline towards a suitable place.

Reflective people are like this. We go forth into the homeless life because we want to transcend suffering. What is it that make us suffer? If we follow the trail inwards we will find out. That which we like and that which we dont like are suffering. If they are suffering then dont go so close to them. Do you want to fall in love with conditions or hate them?... theyre all uncertain. When we incline towards the Buddha all this comes to an end. Dont forget this. And patient endurance. Just these two are enough. If you have this sort of understanding this is very good.

Actually in my own practice I didnt have a teacher to give as much teachings as all of you get from me. I didnt have many teachers. I ordained in an ordinary village temple and lived in village temples for quite a few years. In my mind I conceived the desire to practice, I wanted to be proficient, I wanted to train. There wasnt anybody giving any teaching in those monasteries but the inspiration to practice arose. I traveled and I looked around. I had ears so I listened, I had eyes so I looked. Whatever I heard people say, Id tell myself, "Not sure." Whatever I saw, I told myself, "Not sure," or when the tongue contacted sweet, sour, salty, pleasant or unpleasant flavors, or feelings of comfort or pain arose in the body, Id tell myself, "This is not a sure thing"! And so I lived with Dhamma.

In truth its all uncertain, but our desires want things to be certain. what can we do? We must be patient. The most important thing is khanti, patient endurance. Dont throw out the Buddha, what I call "uncertainty" — dont throw that away.

Sometimes Id go to see old religious sites with ancient monastic buildings, designed by architects, built by craftsmen. In some places they would be cracked. Maybe one of my friends would remark, "Such a shame, isnt it? Its cracked." Id answer, "If that werent the case then thered be no such thing as the Buddha, thered be no Dhamma. Its cracked like this because its perfectly in line with the Buddhas teaching." Really down inside I was also sad to see those buildings cracked but Id throw off my sentimentality and try to say something which would be of use to my friends, and to myself. Even though I also felt that it was a pity, still I tended towards the Dhamma.

"If it wasnt cracked like that there wouldnt be any Buddha!"

Id say it really heavy for the benefit of my friends... or perhaps they werent listening, but still I was listening.

This is a way of considering things which is very, very useful. For instance, say someone were to rush in and say, "Luang Por! Do you know what so and so just said about you?" or, "He said such and such about you..." Maybe you even start to rage. As soon as you hear words of criticism you start getting these moods every step of the way. As soon as we hear words like this we may start getting ready to retaliate, but on looking into the truth of the matter we may find that... no, they had said something else after all.

And so its another case of "uncertainty." So why should we rush in and believe things? Why should we put our trust so much in what others say? Whatever we hear we should take note, be patient, look into the matter carefully... stay straight.

Its not that whatever pops into our heads we write it all down as some sort of truth. Any speech which ignores uncertainty is not the speech of a sage. Remember this. As for being wise, we are no longer practicing. Whatever we see or hear, be it pleasant or sorrowful, just say "This is not sure!" Say it heavy to yourself, hold it all down with this. Dont build those things up into major issues, just keep them all down to this one. This point is the important one. This is the point where defilements die. Practitioners shouldnt dismiss it.

If you disregard this point you can expect only suffering, expect only mistakes. If you dont make this a foundation for your practice you are going to go wrong... but then you will come right again later on, because this principle is a really good one.

Actually the real Dhamma, the gist of what I have been saying today, isnt so mysterious. Whatever you experience is simply form, simply feeling, simply perception, simply volition, and simply consciousness. There are only these basic qualities, where is there any certainty within them?

If we come to understand the true nature of things like this, lust, infatuation and attachment fade away. why do they fade away? Because we understand, we know. We shift from ignorance to understanding. Understanding is born from ignorance, knowing is born from unknowing, purity is born from defilement. It works like this.

Not discarding aniccam, the Buddha — This is what it means to say that the Buddha is still alive. To stay that the Buddha has passed into Nibbana is not necessarily true. In a more profound sense the Buddha is still alive. Its much like how we define the word "bhikkhu." If we define it as "one who asks," [5] the meaning is very broad. We can define it this way, but to use this definition too much is not so good — we dont know when to stop asking! If we were to define this word in a more profound way we would say: "Bhikkhu — one who sees the danger of Samsara."

Isnt this more profound? It doesnt go in the same direction as the previous definition, it runs much deeper. The practice of Dhamma is like this. If you dont fully understand it, it becomes something else again. It becomes priceless, it becomes a source of peace.

When we have sati we are close to the Dhamma. If we have sati we will see aniccam, the transience of all things. We will see the Buddha and transcend the suffering of samsara, if not now then sometime in the future.

If we throw away the attribute of the Noble Ones, the Buddha or the Dhamma, our practice will become barren and fruitless. We must maintain our practice constantly, whether we are working or sitting or simply lying down. When the eye sees form, the ear hears sound, the nose smells an odor, the tongue tastes a flavor or the body experiences sensation... in all things, dont throw away the Buddha, dont stray from the Buddha.

This is to be one who has come close to the Buddha, who reveres the Buddha constantly. We have ceremonies for revering the Buddha, such as chanting in the morning Araham Samma Sambuddho Bhagava... This is one way of revering the Buddha but its not revering the Buddha in such a profound way as Ive described here. Its the same as with that word "bhikkhu." If we define it as "one who asks" then they keep on asking... because its defined like that. To define it in the best way we should say "Bhikkhu — one who sees the danger of samsara."

Now revering the Buddha is the same. Revering the Buddha by merely reciting Pali phrases as a ceremony in the mornings and evenings is comparable to defining the word "bhikkhu" as "one who asks." If we incline towards annicam, dukkham and anatta [6] whenever the eye sees form, the ear hears sound, the nose smells an odor, the tongue tastes a flavor, the body experiences sensation or the mind cognizes mental impressions, at all times, this is comparable to defining the word "bhikkhu" as "one who sees the danger of samsara." Its so much more profound, cuts through so many things. If we understand this teaching we will grow in wisdom and understanding.

This is called patipada. Develop this attitude in the practice and you will be on the right path. If you think and reflect in this way, even though you may be far from your teacher you will still be close to him. If you live close to the teacher physically but your mind has not yet met him you will spend your time either looking for his faults or adulating him. If he does something which suits you, you say hes no good — and thats as far as your practice goes. You wont achieve anything by wasting your time looking at someone else. But if you understand this teaching you can become a Noble One in the present moment.

Thats why this year [7] Ive distanced myself from my disciples, both old and new, and not given much teaching: so that you can all look into things for yourselves as much as possible. For the newer monks Ive already laid down the schedule and rules of the monastery, such as: "dont talk too much." Dont transgress the existing standards, the path to realization, fruition and nibbana. Anyone who transgresses these standards is not a real practitioner, not one who has with a pure intention to practice. What can such a person ever hope to see? Even if he slept near me every day he wouldnt see me. Even if he slept near the Buddha he wouldnt see the Buddha, if he didnt practice.

So knowing the Dhamma or seeing the Dhamma depends on practice. Have confidence, purify your own heart. If all the monks in this monastery put awareness into their respective minds we wouldnt have to reprimand or praise anybody. We wouldnt have to be suspicious of or favor anybody. If anger or dislike arise just leave them at the mind, but see them clearly!

Keep on looking at those things. As long as there is still something there it means we still have to dig and grind away right there. Some say "I cant cut it, I cant do it," — if we start saying things like this there will only be a bunch of punks here, because nobody cuts at their own defilements.

You must try. If you cant yet cut it, dig in deeper. Dig at the defilements, uproot them. Dig them out even if they seem hard and fast. The Dhamma is not something to be reached by following your desires. Your mind may be one way, the truth another. You must watch up front and keep a lookout behind as well. Thats why I say, "Its all uncertain, all transient."

This truth of uncertainty, this short and simple truth, at the same time so profound and faultless, people tend to ignore. They tend to see things differently. Dont cling to goodness, dont cling to badness. These are attributes of the world. We are practicing to be free of the world, so bring these things to an end. The Buddha taught to lay them down, to give them up, because they only cause suffering.

Footnotes and references:


The central body of the monastic code, which is recited fortnightly in the Pali language.


Devaputta Mara — the Mara, or Tempter, which appears in a seemingly benevolent form.


The Five Khandhas: Form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), conceptualization or mental formations (sankhara) and sense consciousness (vinnana). These comprise the psycho physical experience known as the "self."


Anagami (non returner): The third "level" of enlightenment, which is reached on the abandonment of the five "lower fetters" (of a total of ten) which bind the mind to worldly existence. The first two "levels" are sotapanna ("stream enterer") and sakadagami ("once returner"), the last being araham ("worthy or accomplished one").


That is, one who lives dependent on the generosity of others.


Transience, Imperfection, and Ownerlessness.


2522 of the Buddhist Era, or 1979 CE.

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