Meeting the Dharma Alone

A late Thai master's final advice on walking the path to enlightenment

Ajahn Chah

Spring Nude People may look at you and feel that your way of life, your interest in dharma, makes no sense. Others may say that if you want to practice dharma, you ought to ordain. Ordaining or not ordaining isn’t the crucial point. It’s how you practice.

Laypeople live in the realm of sensuality. They have families, money, and possessions, and are deeply involved in all sorts of activities. Yet sometimes they will gain insight and see dharma before monks and nuns do. Why is this? It’s because of their suffering from all these things. They see the fault and can let go. They can put it down after seeing clearly in their experience. Seeing the harm and letting go, they are able to make good sense of their position in the world and benefit others.

We ordained people, on the other hand, might sit here daydreaming about lay life, thinking how great it could be. “Oh yeah, I’d work my fields and make money, then I could have a nice family and a comfortable home.” We don’t know what it’s really like. The laypeople are out there doing it, breaking their backs in the fields, struggling to earn some money and survive. But for us, it’s only fantasy.

The laypeople live in a certain kind of thoroughness and clarity. Whatever they do, they really do it. Even getting drunk, they do it thoroughly and have the experience of what it actually is, while we can only imagine what it’s like. So, because of their experience, they may become tired of things and realize the dharma quicker than monks can.

You should be your own witness. Don’t take others as your witness. This means learning to trust yourself. People may think you’re crazy, but never mind. It only means they don’t know anything about dharma. But if you lack confidence and instead rely on the opinions of unenlightened people, you can easily be deterred. In Thailand these days, it’s hard for young people to sustain an interest in dharma. Maybe they come to the monastery a few times, and then their friends start teasing them, complaining: “Since you started going to the monastery, you don’t want to hang out or go drinking anymore. What’s wrong with you?” So they often give up the path.

Others’ words can’t measure your practice, and you don’t realize the dharma because of what others say. I mean the real dharma. The teachings others can give you are to show you the path, but that isn’t real knowledge. When people genuinely meet the dharma, they realize it directly within themselves. So the Buddha said that he is merely the one who shows the way. In teaching us, he is not accomplishing the way for us. It is not so easy as that. It’s like someone who sells us a plow to till the fields. He isn’t going to do the plowing for us. We have to do that ourselves. Don’t wait for the salesman to do it. Once he’s made the sale, he takes the money and splits. That’s his part.That’s how it is in practice. The Buddha shows the way. He’s not the one who does it for us. Don’t expect the salesman to till your field. If we understand the path in this way, it’s a little more comfortable for us, and we will do it ourselves. Then there will be fruition.

Teachings can be most profound, but those who listen may not understand. Never mind. Don’t be perplexed over profundity or lack of it. Just do the practice wholeheartedly, and you can arrive at real understanding—it will bring you to the place the teachings talk about.

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John Haspel's picture

Ajahn Chah emphasizes developing understanding through the Buddha’s direct teachings rather than engaging in conceptual buddhist practices that have arisen from individually and culturally influenced “Buddhist” practices.

This tendency to make a more self-establishing “dharma” was prevalent during the Buddha’s teaching career and many monks and nuns saw the Buddha’s death as an opportunity to create a more user-friendly dharma that fit heir view of what “Buddhist” practice should be, rather than what the Buddha taught. Many continued with the Dhamma as the Buddha presented developing understanding of The Four Noble Truths.

From this initial split we have hundreds of traditions and lineages all claiming authenticity to the Buddha’s original teachings. Some claim in a disincarnate Buddha providing advanced and special teachings to other disincarnate beings and delivered to humankind through magical means or special human messengers, much like the prophets of other religions. Some claim that sutras that were written many hundreds of years, even a thousand years or more, after the Buddhas death, are more advanced and more authentic than the Buddha’s original teachings. Some modern Buddhists dismiss entirely the Buddha’s original Dhamma but continue to claim that their dharma is the most effective or most authentic dharma based solely on their view that it is.

To argue that there is only one legitimate form of “Buddhist” practice is foolish. To show that there are significant differences between the original teachings of the Buddha and later-developed teachings is precisely what the Buddha did. The Buddha taught his Dhamma for the most compassionate of reasons - to bring an end to the confusing and unsatisfactory nature of human life.

He consistently maintained that what he taught was significantly different than other teachings in order to avoid confusing his Dhamma with other dharma. He consistently avoided the need to homogenize his teachings into one unified philosophical teaching to appease self-referential views.

Nearing death he states: “I am not like a teacher with a close fist. I have held nothing back. I have taught you everything you need. Impermanence and decay are inevitable. Strive diligently for your own salvation.”

Many have taken the last sentence as allowing for individual interpretation of what a “Buddhist dharma” should be and dismiss the actual direct teachings presented by the Buddha preserved in the Pali Canon.

Of course this is simply what has occurred to every philosophical, spiritual, or religious system that has shown some connection or usefulness to human society. Human beings will always attempt to fit what is occurring into their own view. This is why the Buddha taught an Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a framework for developing understanding that brings recognition of the ego-personality’s insistence that the path to liberation and freedom be different than it is.

The Buddha awakened to the understanding that it is ignorance of the Four Noble Truths that results in confusion and suffering. He would spend the next forty-five years teaching how to develop understanding of Dependent Origination and The Four Noble Truths.

Ajahn Chah does a wonderful service in pointing the way to the Buddha’s teachings and the Eightfold Path: “Before we worry about the deficiencies of others, those of us who understand and can practice should do that straightaway. Outside of the dharma, there isn’t anything that will bring peace and happiness to this world.”

John Haspel's picture

Yea!'s picture

My practice is thirty years old, while my family has never practiced they tell me they miss the times, when I would sit and make them proud of me no matter what I did, it made them feel as they were practicing with me.