Meeting the Dharma Alone

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

Ajahn Chah

Don’t rely on the perceptions of ordinary people. Have you read the story about the blind men and the elephant? It’s a good illustration. Suppose there’s an elephant, and a group of blind people are trying to describe it. One touches the leg and says it’s like a pillar. Another touches the ear and says it’s like a fan. Another touches the tail and says, “No, it’s not a fan, it’s like a broom.” Another touches the body and says it’s something else again from what the others say.

There’s no resolution. Each blind person touches part of the elephant and has a completely different idea of what it is. But it’s the same one elephant. It’s like this in practice. With a little understanding or experience, you get limited ideas. You can go from one teacher to the next seeking explanations and instructions, trying to figure out if they are teaching correctly or incorrectly and how their teachings compare to each other. Some people are always traveling around to learn from different teachers. They try to judge and measure, so when they sit down to meditate they are constantly in confusion about what is right and what is wrong. “This teacher said this, but that teacher said that. One guy teaches in this way, but the other guy’s methods are different. They don’t seem to agree.” It can lead to a lot of doubt.

You might hear that certain teachers are really good, and so you go to receive teachings from Thai ajahns, Zen masters, Vipassana teachers, and others. It seems to me that most of you have probably had enough teaching, but the tendency is to always want to hear more, to compare, and to end up in doubt as a result. Each successive teacher might well increase your confusion further.

Thus the Buddha said, “I am enlightened through my own efforts, without any teacher.” A wandering ascetic asked him, “Who is your teacher?” The Buddha answered, “I have no teacher. I attained enlightenment by myself.” But that wanderer just shook his head and went away. He thought the Buddha was making up a story and had no interest in what he said. He believed it wasn’t possible to achieve anything without a teacher or a guide.

You study with a spiritual teacher, and she tells you to give up greed and anger. She tells you they are harmful and that you need to get rid of them. Then you may practice and do that. But getting rid of greed and anger doesn’t come about just because she taught you; you have to actually practice and accomplish that. Through practice you come to realize something for yourself. You see greed in your mind and give it up. You see anger in your mind and give it up. The teacher doesn’t get rid of them for you. She tells you about getting rid of them, but it doesn’t happen just because she tells you. You do the practice and come to realization. You understand these things for yourself.

It’s like the Buddha is catching hold of you and bringing you to the beginning of the path, and he tells you, “Here is the path—walk on it.” He doesn’t help you walk. You do that yourself. When you do travel the path and practice dharma, you meet the real dharma, which is beyond anything that anyone can explain to you. So one is enlightened by oneself, understanding past, future, and present, understanding cause and result. Then doubt is finished.

We talk about giving up and developing, renouncing and cultivating. But when the fruit of practice is realized, there is nothing to add and nothing to remove. The Buddha taught that this is the point we want to arrive at, but people don’t want to stop there. Their doubts and attachments keep them on the move, keep them confused, keep them from stopping. So when one person has arrived but others are somewhere else, they won’t be able to make any sense of what he may say about it. They might have some intellectual understanding of the words, but this is not real knowledge of the truth.

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