Meeting the Dharma Alone

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

Ajahn Chah

Usually when we talk about practice we talk about what to develop and what to renounce, about increasing the positive and removing the negative. But the final result is that all of these are done with. There is the level of sekha, the person who needs to train in these things, and there is the level of asekha, the person who no longer needs to train in anything. When the mind has reached the level of full realization, there is nothing more to practice. Such a person doesn’t have to make use of any of the conventions of teaching and practice. It’s spoken of as someone who has gotten rid of the defilements.

The sekha person has to train in the steps of the path, from the very beginning to the highest level. When she has completed this, she is called asekha, meaning she no longer has to train, because everything is finished. The things to be trained in are finished. Doubts are finished. There are no qualities to be developed. There are no defilements to remove. This is talking about the empty mind. Once this is realized, you will no longer be affected by whatever good or evil there is. You are unshakable no matter what you meet, and you live in peace and happiness.

In this realm of impermanence, there will be times when we cannot find spiritual teachers to point out the path to us. When there is no spiritual guidance for people, we become thickly obscured by craving, and society in general is ruled by desire, anger, and delusion. So at the present time, though the Buddhist religion may be struggling to survive, though in general the way it’s practiced is far from the truth of what really is, we should make the most of the opportunity we do have.

When the Buddha passed into final nirvana, the different types of disciples had different feelings. There were those who had awakened to the dharma, and when they saw the Buddha enter nirvana, they were happy: “The Lord Buddha is well-gone; he has gone to peace.” But those whose defilements were not yet finished thought, “The Buddha has died! Who will teach us now? The one we bowed down before is gone!” So they wailed and shed tears. That’s really bad, crying over the Buddha like a bunch of bums. Thinking like fools, they feared no one would teach them anymore. But those who were awakened understood that the Buddha is just this dharma that he has taught us; though he passes away, his teachings are still here. So their spirits were still strong, and they did not lack for means of practice, because they understood that the Buddha does not die.

We can easily see that except for the dharma, there is nothing that will relieve the trouble and distress in the world and cool the fires of beings’ torment. Ordinary people of the world are struggling, fighting, suffering, and dying because they are not following a true spiritual path. So let’s make efforts to devote our minds and bodies to discovering virtue and spirituality, to becoming real human beings who live according to the dharma of humans. We don’t have to look at others and be critical of their lack of virtue. Even when those close to us can’t practice, we should do what we can first. 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. Outside of dharma, there is only the struggle of winning and losing, envy and ill will. One who enters the dharma lets go of these things and spreads lovingkindness and compassion instead. Even a little bit of such dharma is of great benefit. Whenever an individual has such qualities in the heart, the Buddha’s way is flourishing.

From Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away by Ajahn Chah, ©2005 by Paul Bretier, translator. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Ajahn Chah (1919—1992) was a beloved Thai Buddhist master who was an important influence and spiritual mentor for a generation of American Buddhist teachers.

Image 1: Spring Nude, Nathan Oliveira, 1962, oil on canvas, 96 × 76 inches, Courtesy the Oakland Museum of California, gift of the artist in memory of Edna Stoddard Siegriest.

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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.