Our Real Home

A Talk to an Aging Lay Disciple Approaching Death

by Ajahn Chah | 1987 | 4,569 words

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source: accesstoinsight.org

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Now determine in your mind to listen with respect to the Dhamma. During the time that I am speaking, be as attentive to my words as if it was the Lord Buddha himself sitting in front of you. Close your eyes and make yourself comfortable, compose your mind and make it one pointed. Humbly allow the Triple Gem of wisdom, truth and purity to abide in your heart as a way of showing respect to the Fully Enlightened One.

Today I have brought nothing material of any substance to offer you, only Dhamma, the teachings of the Lord Buddha. Listen well. You should understand that even the Buddha himself, with his great store of accumulated virtue, could not avoid physical death. When he reached old age he relinquished his body and let go of its heavy burden. Now you too must learn to be satisfied with the many years youve already depended on your body. You should feel that its enough.

You can compare it to household utensils youve had for a long time — your cups, saucers, plates and so on. When you first had them they were clean and shining, but now after using them for so long, theyre starting to wear out. Some are already broken, some have disappeared and those that are left are deteriorating; they have no stable form, and its their nature to be like that. Your body is the same way — its been continually changing right from the day you were born, through childhood and youth, until now its reached old age. You must accept that. The Buddha said that conditions (sankharas), whether they are internal conditions, bodily conditions, or external conditions, are not self, their nature is to change. Contemplate this truth until you see it clearly.

This very lump of flesh that lies here in decline is saccadhamma, the truth. The truth of this body is saccadhamma, and it is the unchanging teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha taught us to look at the body, to contemplate it and come to terms with its nature. We must be able to be at peace with the body, whatever state it is in. The Buddha taught that we should ensure that its only the body that is locked up in jail and not let the mind be imprisoned along with it. Now as your body begins to run down and deteriorate with age, dont resist that, but dont let your mind deteriorate with it. Keep the mind separate. Give energy to the mind by realizing the truth of the way things are. The Lord Buddha taught that this is the nature of the body, it cant be any other way: having been born it gets old and sick and then it dies. This is a great truth you are presently encountering. Look at the body with wisdom and realize it.

Even if your house is flooded or burnt to the ground, whatever the danger that threatens it, let it concern only the house. If theres a flood, dont let it flood your mind. If theres a fire, dont let it burn your heart. Let it be merely the house, that which is external to you, that is flooded and burnt. Allow the mind to let go of its attachments. The time is ripe.

Youve been alive a long time. Your eyes have seen any number of forms and colors, your ears have heard so many sounds, youve had any number of experiences. And thats all they were — just experiences. Youve eaten delicious foods, and all the good tastes were just good tastes, nothing more. The unpleasant tastes were just unpleasant tastes, thats all. If the eye sees a beautiful form, thats all it is, just a beautiful form. An ugly form is just an ugly form. The ear hears an entrancing, melodious sound and its nothing more than that. A grating, disharmonious sound is simply so.

The Buddha said that rich or poor, young or old, human or animal, no being in this world can maintain itself in any one state for long, everything experiences change and estrangement. This is a fact of life that we can do nothing to remedy. But the Buddha said that what we can do is to contemplate the body and mind so as to see their impersonality, see that neither of them is "me" or "mine." They have a merely provisional reality. Its like this house: its only nominally yours, you couldnt take it with you anywhere. Its the same with your wealth, your possessions and your family — theyre all yours only in name, they dont really belong to you, they belong to nature. Now this truth doesnt apply to you alone; everyone is in the same position, even the Lord Buddha and his enlightened disciples. They differed from us in only one respect and that was in their acceptance of the way things are; they saw that it could be no other way.

So the Buddha taught us to scan and examine this body, from the soles of the feet up to the crown of the head and then back down to the feet again. Just take a look at the body. What sort of things do you see? Is there anything intrinsically clean there? Can you find any abiding essence? This whole body is steadily degenerating, and the Buddha taught us to see that it doesnt belong to us. Its natural for the body to be this way, because all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. How else would you have it be? Actually, theres nothing wrong with the way the body is. Its not the body that causes you suffering, its your wrong thinking. When you see the right wrongly, theres bound to be confusion.

Its like the water of a river. It naturally flows down the gradient, it never flows against it; thats its nature. If a person were to go and stand on a river bank and, seeing the water flowing swiftly down its course, foolishly want it to flow back up the gradient, he would suffer. Whatever he was doing his wrong thinking would allow him no peace of mind. He would be unhappy because of his wrong view, thinking against the stream. If he had right view he would see that the water must inevitably flow down the gradient, and until he realized and accepted that fact, the person would be agitated and upset.

The river that must flow down the gradient is like your body. Having been young your body has become old and now its meandering towards its death. Dont go wishing it was otherwise, its not something you have the power to remedy. The Buddha told us to see the way things are and then let go of our clinging to them. Take this feeling of letting go as your refuge.

Keep meditating, even if you feel tired and exhausted. Let your mind dwell with the breath. Take a few deep breaths, and then establish the mind on the breath using the mantra "Buddho." Make this practice habitual. The more exhausted you feel, the more subtle and focused your concentration must be, so that you can cope with the painful sensations that arise. When you start to feel fatigued then bring all your thinking to a halt, let the mind gather itself together and then turn to knowing the breath. Just keep up the inner recitation: "Bud dho, Bud dho."

Let go of all externals. Dont go grasping at thoughts of your children and relatives, dont grasp at anything whatsoever. Let go. Let the mind unite in a single point and let that composed mind dwell with the breath. Let the breath be its sole object of knowledge. Concentrate until the mind becomes increasingly subtle, until feelings are insignificant and there is great inner clarity and wakefulness. Then when painful sensations arise they will gradually cease of their own accord. Finally, youll look on the breath as if it was a relative come to visit you.

When a relative leaves, we follow him out and see him off. We watch until hes walked or driven out of sight and then we go back indoors. We watch the breath in the same way. If the breath is coarse, we know that its coarse, if its subtle we know that its subtle. As it becomes increasingly fine we keep following it, while simultaneously awakening the mind. Eventually the breath disappears altogether and all that remains is the feeling of wakefulness. This is called meeting the Buddha. We have that clear wakefulness that is called "Buddho," the one who knows, the one who is awake, the radiant one. It is meeting and dwelling with the Buddha, with knowledge and clarity. For it was only the historical flesh and blood Buddha that entered parinibbana; the true Buddha, the Buddha that is clear radiant knowing, we can still experience and attain today, and when we do so the heart is one.

So let go, put everything down, everything except the knowing. Dont be fooled if visions or sounds arise in your mind during meditation. Put them all down. Dont take hold of anything at all. Just stay with this non dual awareness. Dont worry about the past or the future, just be still and you will reach the place where theres no advancing, no retreating and no stopping, where theres nothing to grasp at or cling to. Why? Because theres no self, no "me" or "mine." Its all gone. The Buddha taught us to be emptied of everything in this way, not to carry anything with us. To know, and having known, let go.

Realizing the Dhamma, the path to freedom from the round of birth and death, is a job that we all have to do alone. So keep trying to let go, and to understand the teachings. Really put effort into your contemplation. Dont worry about your family. At the moment they are as they are, in the future they will be like you. Theres no one in the world who can escape this fate. The Buddha told us to put down everything that lacks a real abiding substance. If you put everything down you will see the truth, if you dont you wont. Thats the way it is and its the same for all, so dont worry and dont grasp at anything.

Even if you find yourself thinking, well thats all right too, as long as you think wisely. Dont think foolishly. If you think of your children, think of them with wisdom, not with foolishness. Whatever the mind turns to, then think and know that thing with wisdom, aware of its nature. If you know something with wisdom, then you let it go and theres no suffering. The mind is bright, joyful and at peace, and turning away from distractions it is undivided. Right now what you can look to for help and support is your breath.

This is your own work, nobody elses. Leave others to do their own work. You have your own duty and responsibility and you dont have to take on those of your family. Dont take anything else on, let it all go. That letting go will make your mind calm. Your sole responsibility right now is to focus your mind and bring it to peace. Leave everything else to others. Forms, sounds, odors, tastes — leave them to others to attend to. Put everything behind you and do your own work, fulfill your own responsibility. Whatever arises in your mind, be it fear of pain, fear of death, anxiety about others or whatever, say to it: "Dont disturb me. Youre not my business any more." Just keep saying this to yourself when you see those dhammas arise.

What does the word "dhamma" refer to? Everything is a dhamma. There is nothing that is not a dhamma. And what about "world"? The world is the very mental state that is agitating you at this moment. "What will this person do? What will that person do? When Im dead, who will look after them? How will they manage?" This is all just "the world." Even the mere arising of a thought of fearing death or pain is the world.

Throw the world away! The world is the way it is. If you allow it to arise in the mind and dominate consciousness then the mind becomes obscured and cant see itself. So, whatever appears in the mind, just say: "This isnt my business. Its impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self."

Thinking youd like to go on living for a long time will make you suffer. But thinking youd like to die right away or die very quickly isnt right either; its suffering, isnt it? Conditions dont belong to us, they follow their own natural laws. You cant do anything about the way the body is. You can prettify it a little, make it look attractive and clean for a while, like the young girls who paint their lips and let their nails grow long, but when old age arrives, everyones in the same boat. Thats the way the body is, you cant make it any other way. But what you can improve and beautify is the mind.

Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, its only nominally ours. Its a 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. Theres this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say its not our real home, its external to us, sooner or later well have to give it up. Its not a place we can live in permanently because it doesnt truly belong to us, its part of the world. Our body is the same; we take it to be self, to be "me" and "mine," but in fact its not really so at all, its another worldly home. Your body has followed its natural course from birth until now its old and sick and you cant forbid it from doing that, thats the way it is. Wanting it to be different would be as foolish as wanting a duck to be like a chicken. When you see that thats impossible, that a duck has to be a duck, that a chicken has to be a chicken and that bodies have to get old and die, you will find strength and energy. However much you want the body to go on and last for a long time, it wont do that.

The Buddha said:

Anicca vata sankhara
Uppada vayadhammino
Uppajjhitva nirujjhanti
Tesam vupasamo sukho.

Conditions are impermanent,
subject to rise and fall.
Having arisen they cease
their stilling is bliss.


The word "sankhara" refers to this body and mind. Sankharas are impermanent and unstable, having come into being they disappear, having arisen they pass away, and yet everyone wants them to be permanent. This is foolishness. Look at the breath. Having come in, it goes out; thats its nature, thats how it has to be. The inhalation and exhalation have to alternate, there must be change. Sankharas exist through change, you cant prevent it. Just think: could you exhale without inhaling? Would it feel good? Or could you just inhale? We want things to be permanent, but they cant be, its impossible. Once the breath has come in, it must go out; when its gone out, it comes in again, and thats natural, isnt it? Having been born, we get old and sick and then we die, and thats totally natural and normal. Its because sankharas have done their job, because the in breaths and out breaths have alternated in this way, that the human race is still here today.

As soon as were born, were dead. Our birth and death are just one thing. Its like a tree: when theres a root there must be twigs. When there are twigs there must be a root. You cant have one without the other. Its a little funny to see how at a death people are so grief stricken and distracted, tearful and sad, and at a birth how happy and delighted. Its delusion, nobody has ever looked at this clearly. I think if you really want to cry, then it would be better to do so when someones born. For actually birth is death, death is birth, the root is the twig, the twig is the root. If youve got to cry, cry at the root, cry at the birth. Look closely: if there was no birth there would be no death. Can you understand this?

Dont think a lot. Just think: "This is the way things are." Its your work, your duty. Right now nobody can help you, theres nothing that your family and your possessions can do for you. All that can help you now is the correct awareness.

So dont waver. Let go. Throw it all away.

Even if you dont let go, everything is starting to leave anyway. Can you see that, how all the different parts of your body are trying to slip away? Take your hair: when you were young it was thick and black, now its falling out. Its leaving. Your eyes used to be good and strong, and now theyre weak and your sight is unclear. When the organs have had enough they leave, this isnt their home. When you were a child your teeth were healthy and firm; now theyre wobbly, perhaps youve got false ones. Your eyes, ears, nose, tongue — everything is trying to leave because this isnt their home. You cant make a permanent home in a sankhara; you can stay for a short while and then you have to go. Its like a tenant watching over his tiny little house with failing eyes. His teeth arent so good, his ears arent so good, his bodys not so healthy, everything is leaving.

So you neednt worry about anything, because this isnt your real home, its just a temporary shelter. Having come into this world, you should contemplate its nature. Everything there is, is preparing to disappear. Look at your body. Is there anything there thats still in its original form? Is your skin as it used to be? Is your hair? Its not the same, is it? Where has everything gone? This is nature, the way things are. When their time is up, conditions go their way. This world is nothing to rely on — its an endless round of disturbance and trouble, pleasures and pains. Theres no peace.

When we have no real home were like an aimless traveler out on the road, going this way for a while and then that way, stopping for a while and then setting off again. Until we return to our real home we feel ill at ease whatever were doing, just like the one whos left his village to go on a journey. Only when he gets home again can he really relax and be at ease.

Nowhere in the world is any real peace to be found. The poor have no peace and neither do the rich. Adults have no peace, children have no peace, the poorly educated have no peace and neither do the highly educated. Theres no peace anywhere. Thats the nature of the world.

Those who have few possessions suffer and so do those who have many. Children, adults, the aged, everyone suffers. The suffering of being old, the suffering of being young, the suffering of being wealthy, and the suffering of being poor — its all nothing but suffering.

When youve contemplated things in this way youll see anicca, impermanence, and dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. Why are things impermanent and unsatisfactory? Its because theyre anatta, not self.

Both your body that is lying here sick and painful, and the mind that is aware of its sickness and pain, are called dhammas. That which is formless, the thoughts, feelings and perceptions, is called namadhamma. That which is racked with aches and pains is called rupadhamma. The material is dhamma and the immaterial is dhamma. So we live with dhammas, in dhamma, we are dhamma. In truth theres no self anywhere to be found, there are only dhammas continually arising and passing away, as is their nature. Every single moment were undergoing birth and death. This is the way things are.

When we think of the Lord Buddha, how truly he spoke, we feel how worthy he is of salutation, reverence and respect. Whenever we see the truth of something, we see his teachings, even if weve never actually practiced Dhamma. But even if we have a knowledge of the teachings, have studied and practice them, but still havent seen their truth, then were still homeless.

So understand this point that all people, all creatures, are about to leave. When beings have lived an appropriate time they go their way. The rich, the poor, the young, the old, all beings must experience this change.

When you realize that thats the way the world is, youll feel that its a wearisome place. When you see that theres nothing stable or substantial you can rely on, youll feel wearied and disenchanted. Being disenchanted doesnt mean youre averse though. The mind is clear. It sees that theres nothing to be done to remedy this state of affairs, its just the way the world is. Knowing in this way, you can let go of attachment, let go with a mind that is neither happy nor sad, but at peace with sankharas through seeing with wisdom their changing nature.

Anicca vata sankhara — all sankharas are impermanent. To put it simply: impermanence is the Buddha. If we see an impermanent phenomenon really clearly, well see that its permanent, permanent in the sense that its subjection to change is unchanging. This is the permanence that living beings possess. There is continual transformation, from childhood through youth to old age, and that very impermanence, that nature to change, is permanent and fixed. If you look at it like that your heart will be at ease. Its not just you that has to go through this, its everyone.

When you consider things thus, youll see them as wearisome, and disenchantment will arise. Your delight in the world of sense pleasures will disappear. Youll see that if you have a lot of things, you have to leave a lot behind; if you have few you will leave behind few. Wealth is just wealth, long life is just long life, theyre nothing special.

Whats important is that we should do as the Lord Buddha taught and build our own home, building it by the method that Ive been explaining to you. Build your home. Let go. Let go until the mind reaches the peace that is free from advancing, free from retreating and free from stopping still. Pleasure is not our home, pain is not our home. Pleasure and pain both decline and pass away.

The Great Teacher saw that all sankharas are impermanent, and so he taught us to let go of our attachment to them. When we reach the end of our life, well have no choice anyway, we wont be able to take anything with us. So wouldnt it be better to put things down before that? Theyre just a heavy burden to carry around; why not throw off that load now? Why bother to drag them around? Let go, relax, and let your family look after you.

Those who nurse the sick grow in goodness and virtue. One who is sick and giving others that opportunity shouldnt make things difficult for them. If theres a pain or some problem or other, let them know, and keep the mind in a wholesome state. One who is nursing parents should fill his or her mind with warmth and kindness, not get caught in aversion. This is the one time when you can repay the debt you owe them. From your birth through your childhood, as youve grown up, youve been dependent on your parents. That we are here today is because our mothers and fathers have helped us in so many ways. We owe them an incredible debt of gratitude.

So today, all of you children and relatives gathered here together, see how your parents become your children. Before, you were their children; now they become yours. They become older and older until they become children again. Their memories go, their eyes dont see so well and their ears dont hear, sometimes they garble their words. Dont let it upset you. All of you nursing the sick must know how to let go. Dont hold on to things, just let go and let them have their own way. When a young child is disobedient, sometimes the parents let it have its own way just to keep the peace, to make it happy. Now your parents are like that child. Their memories and perceptions are confused. Sometimes they muddle up your names, or you ask them to give you a cup and they bring a plate. Its normal, dont be upset by it.

Let the patient remember the kindness of those who nurse and patiently endure the painful feelings. Exert yourself mentally, dont let the mind become scattered and agitated, and dont make things difficult for those looking after you. Let those who nurse the sick fill their minds with virtue and kindness. Dont be averse to the unattractive side of the job, to cleaning up mucus and phlegm, or urine and excrement. Try your best. Everyone in the family give a hand.

These are the only parents youve got. They gave you life, they have been your teachers, your nurses and your doctors — theyve been everything to you. That they have brought you up, taught you, shared their wealth with you and made you their heirs is the great beneficence of parents. Consequently the Buddha taught the virtues of katannu and katavedi, of knowing our debt of gratitude and trying to repay it. These two virtues are complementary. If our parents are in need, if theyre unwell or in difficulty, then we do our best to help them. This is katannu katavedi, it is a virtue that sustains the world. It prevents families from breaking up, it makes them stable and harmonious.

Today I have brought you the Dhamma as a gift in this time of illness. I have no material things to give you; there seem to be plenty of those in the house already, and so I give you Dhamma, something which has a lasting worth, something which youll never be able to exhaust. Having received it from me you can pass it on to as many others as you like and it will never be depleted. That is the nature of Truth. I am happy to have been able to give you this gift of Dhamma, and I hope it will give you strength to deal with your pain.


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