The Dharma Goes Westward


(Seattle, 1979: a conversation with an ex-monk)

Q: A friend of mind went to practice with a Zen teacher. He asked him, “When the Buddha was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree, what was he doing?” The Zen master answered, “He was practicing zazen!” My friend said, “I don’t believe it.” The Zen master asked him, “What do you mean, you don’t believe it?” My friend said, “I asked Goenke the same question, and he said, ‘When the Buddha was sitting under the Bodhi tree, he was practicing vipassana!’ So everybody says the Buddha was doing whatever they do.”

AC: When the Buddha sat out in the open, he was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. Isn’t that so? When he sat under some other kind of tree, he was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. There’s nothing wrong with those explanations. “Bodhi” means the Buddha himself, the one who knows. It’s OK to talk about sitting beneath the Bodhi tree, but lots of birds sit beneath the Bodhi tree. Lots of people sit beneath the Bodhi tree. But they are far from such knowledge, from such truth. Yes, we can say “beneath the Bodhi tree.” Monkeys play in the bodhi tree. People sit there beneath the Bodhi tree. But this doesn’t mean they have any profound understanding. Those who have deeper understanding realize that the true meaning of “the Bodhi tree” is the absolute Dharma.

            So in this way, it’s certainly good for us to try to sit beneath the Bodhi tree. Then we can be Buddha. But we don’t need to argue with others over this question. When one person says the Buddha was doing one kind of practice beneath the Bodhi tree and another person disputes that, we needn’t get involved. We should be looking at it from the viewpoint of the ultimate, meaning realizing the truth. There is also the conventional idea of “Bodhi tree,” which is what most people talk about, but when there are two kinds of Bodhi tree, people can end up arguing and having the most contentious disputes—and then there is no Bodhi tree at all.

            It’s talking about paramathadhamma, the level of ultimate truth. So in that case, we can also try to get underneath the Bodhi tree. That’s pretty good--then we’ll be Buddha. It’s not something to be arguing over. When someone says the Buddha was practicing a certain kind of meditation beneath the Bodhi tree, and someone else says, No, that’s not right, we needn’t get involved. We’re aiming at paramathadhamma, meaning dwelling in full awareness. This ultimate truth pervades everything. Whether the Buddha was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree or performing other activities in other postures, never mind. That’s just the intellectual analysis people have developed. One person has one view of the matter, another person has another idea; we don’t have to get involved in disputes over it.

            Where did the Buddha enter Nirvana? Nirvana means extinguished without remainder. Finished. Being finished comes from knowledge, knowledge of the way things really are. That’s how things get finished, and that is the paramathadhamma. There are explanations according to the levels of convention and liberation. They are both true, but their truths are different. For example, we say that you are a person. But the Buddha will say, “That’s not so. There’s no such thing as a person.” So we have to summarize the various ways of speaking and explanation into convention and liberation.

            We can explain it like this: previously you were a child. Now you are grown. Are you a new person or the same person as before? If you are the same as the old person, how did you become an adult? If you are a new person, where did you come from? But talking about an old person and a new person doesn’t really get to the point. This question illustrates the limitations of conventional language and understanding. If there is something called “big,” then there is “small.” If there is small there is big. We can talk about small and large, young and old, but there are really no such things in any absolute sense. You can’t really say somebody or something is big. The wise do not accept such designations as real, but when ordinary people hear about this, that “big” is not really true and “small” is not really true, they are confused, because they are attached to concepts of big and small.

            You plant a sapling and watch it grow. After a year it is one meter high. After another year it is two meters tall. Is it the same tree or a different tree? If it’s the same tree, how did it become bigger? If it’s a different tree, how did it grow from the small tree? From the viewpoint of someone who is enlightened to the Dharma and sees correctly, there is no new or old tree, no big or small tree. One person looks at a tree and thinks it is tall. Another person will say it’s not tall. But there is no “tall” that really exists of its own. You can’t say someone is big and someone is small, someone is grown up and someone else is young. Things end here, and problems are finished with. We don’t need to get tied up in knots over these conventional distinctions, and we won’t have doubts about practice.

            I’ve heard of people who worship their deities by sacrificing animals. They kill ducks, chickens, and cows, and offer that to their gods, thinking that will be pleasing to them. This is wrong understanding. They think they are making merits, but it’s the exact opposite: they are actually making a lot of bad karma. Someone who really looks into this won’t think like that. But have you noticed?  I’m afraid people in Thailand are becoming like that. They’re not applying real investigation…

Q: Is that vimamsa?

AC: It means understanding cause and result.

Q: Then the teachings talk about chanda, satisfaction; viriya, exertion; citta… (the four iddhipada, “bases for accomplishment”)

AC: When there’s satisfaction, is it with something that is correct? Is exertion correct? Vimamsa has to be present with these other factors.

Q: Are citta and vimamsa different?

AC: Vimamsa is investigation. It means skillfulness, or wisdom. It is a factor of the mind.  You can say that chanda is mind, viriya is mind, citta is mind, vimamsa is mind. They are all aspects of mind, they all can be summarized as “mind,” but here they are distinguished for the purpose of pointing out these different factors of the mind. If there is satisfaction, we may not know if it is right or wrong. If there is exertion, we don’t know if it’s right or wrong. Is what we call mind the real mind? There has to be vimamsa to discern these things. Investigating the other factors with wise discernment, our practice gradually comes to be correct, and we can understand the Dharma.

            But Dharma doesn’t bring much benefit if we don’t practice meditation. We won’t really know what it is all about.  These factors are always present in the mind of a real practitioner. Then even if they go astray, they will be aware of that and be able to correct it. So their path of practice is continuous.

            People may look at you and feel 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 is not really the crucial point. It’s how you practice. As it’s said, one should be one’s own witness. Don’t take others as your witness. It means learning to trust yourself. Then there is no loss. People may think you are crazy, but never mind. They don’t know anything about Dharma.

            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 meet the Dharma, they realize it specifically within themselves. So the Buddha said, “The Tathagata is merely one who shows the way.” When someone ordains, I tell them, “Our responsibility is only this part: The reciting acariyas have done their chanting. I have given you the going forth and vows of ordination. Now our job is done. The rest is up to you, to do the practice correctly.”

            Teachings can be most profound, but those who listen may not understand. But 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 same place they are talking about. 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 bunch 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 shoulder and says it’s something else again from what the others say.

It’s like this. There’s no resolution, no end. 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 monks are always traveling around with their bowls and umbrellas, learning 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, and others. It seems to me you’ve 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. Then each successive teacher increases your confusion further. There’s a story of a wanderer in the Buddha’s time who was in this kind of situation. He went to one teacher after the next, hearing their different explanations and learning their methods. He was trying to learn meditation but was only increasing his perplexity. His travels finally brought him to the teacher Gotama, and he described his predicament to the Buddha.

            “Doing as you have been doing will not bring an end to doubt and confusion,” the Buddha told him. “At this time, let go of the past; whatever you may or may not have done, whether it was right or wrong, let go of that now.

            “The future has not yet come. Do not speculate over it at all, wondering how things may turn out. Let go of all such disturbing ideas—it is merely thinking.

            “Letting go of past and future, look at the present. Then you will know the Dharma. You may know the words spoken by various teachers, but you still do not know your own mind. The present moment is empty; look only at arising and ceasing of sankhara. See that they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty of self. See that they really are thus. Then you will not be concerned with the past or the future. You will clearly understand that the past is gone and the future has not yet arrived. Contemplating in the present, you will realize that the present is the result of the past. The results of past actions are seen in the present.

“The future has not yet come. Whatever does occur in the future will arise and pass away in the future; there is no point in worrying over it now, as it has not yet occurred. So contemplate in the present. The present is the cause of the future. If you want a good future, create good in the present, increasing your awareness of what you do in the present. The future is the result of that. The past is the cause, and the future is the result, of the present.

“Knowing the present, one knows the past and the future. Then one lets go of the past and the future, knowing they are gathered in the present moment.”

Understanding this, that wanderer made up his mind to practice as the Buddha advised, putting things down. Seeing ever more clearly, he realized many kinds of knowledge, seeing the natural order of things with his own wisdom. His doubts ended. He put down the past and the future, and everything appeared in the present. This was eko dhammo, the one Dharma. Then it was no longer necessary for him to carry his begging bowl up mountains and into forests in search of understanding. If he did go somewhere, he went in a natural way, not out of desire for something. If he stayed put, he was staying in a natural way, not out of desire.

Practicing in that way, he became free of doubt. There was nothing to add (to his practice), nothing to remove. He dwelt in peace, without anxiety over past or future. This was the way the Buddha taught.

But it’s not just a story about something that happened long ago. If we at this time practice correctly, we can also gain realization. We can know the past and the future, because they are gathered at this one point, the present moment. If we look to the past we won’t know. If we look to the future we won’t know, because that is not where the truth is; it exists here, in the present.

Thus the Buddha said, “I am enlightened through my own efforts, without any teacher.” Have you read this story? A wanderer of another sect 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 thought it was not possible to achieve anything without a teacher and guide.

It’s like this: You study with a spiritual teacher, and he tells you to give up greed and anger. He 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 didn’t come about just because he taught you; you had to actually practice and do that. Through practice, you came 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. He tells you about getting rid of them, but it doesn’t happen just because he 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 there. 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 understanding or knowledge of the truth.

Usually when we talk about practice we talk about entering and leaving, increasing (the positive) and removing (the negative). But the final result is that all of these are done with. There is the sekha puggala, the person who needs to train in these things, and there is the asekha puggala, the person who no longer needs to train in anything. This is talking about the mind: when the mind has reached this level (of full realization), there is nothing more to practice. Why is this? Because 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 he has completed this, he is called asekha, meaning he no longer needs 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. Such people dwell in peace. Whatever good or evil there is will not affect them; they are unshakeable no matter what they meet. It is talking about the empty mind. Now you will really be confused.

You don’t understand this at all. “If my mind is empty, how can I walk?” Precisely because the mind is empty. “If the mind is empty, how can I eat? Will I have desire to eat if my mind is empty?” There’s not much benefit in talking about emptiness like this when people haven’t trained properly. They won’t be able to understand it.

Those who use such terms have sought a way to give us some feeling that can lead us to understand the truth. For example, these sankhara that we have been accumulating and carrying from the time of our birth until this moment—the Buddha said that in truth they are not our selves and they do not belong to us. Why did he say such a thing? There’s no other way to formulate the truth. He spoke in this way for people who have discernment, so that they could gain wisdom. But this is something to contemplate carefully.

Some people will hear the words, “Nothing is mine,” and they will get the idea they should throw away all their possessions. With only superficial understanding, people will get into arguments about what this means and how to apply it. “This is not my self” doesn’t mean you should end your life or throw away your possessions. It means you should give up attachment. There are the level of conventional reality and the level of ultimate reality--supposition and liberation. On the level of convention, there are Mr. A, Mr. B, Mr. M., Mr. N., and so on. We use these suppositions for convenience in communicating and functioning in the world. The Buddha did not teach that we shouldn’t use these things, but that we shouldn’t be attached to them. We should realize that they are empty.

It’s hard to talk about.

We have to depend on practice and gain understanding through practice. If you want to get knowledge and understanding by studying and asking others, you won’t really understand the truth. It’s something you have to see and know for yourself through practicing. Turn inwards to know within yourself. Don’t always be turning outwards. But when we talk about practicing, people become argumentative. Their minds are ready to argue, because they have learned this or that approach to practice and have one-sided attachment to what they have learned. They haven’t realized the truth through practice.

Did you notice the Thai people we met the other day? They asked irrelevant questions, like “why do you eat out of your almsbowl?” I could see that they were far from Dharma. They’ve had modern education, so I can’t tell them much. But I let the American monk talk to them. They might be willing to listen to him. Thai people these days don’t have much interest in Dharma and don’t understand it. Why do I say that? If someone hasn’t studied something, they are ignorant of it. They’ve studied other things, but they are ignorant of Dharma. I’ll admit that I’m ignorant of the things they have learned. The Western monk has studied Dharma, so he can tell them something about it.

Among Thai people in the present time, there is less and less interest in ordaining, studying, and practicing. I don’t know why this is, if it’s because they are busy with work, because the country is developing materially, or what the reason might be. I don’t know. In the past, when someone ordained they would stay for at least a few years, four or five rains. Now it’s a week or two. Some ordain in the morning and disrobe in the evening. That’s the direction it’s going in now. People say things like that fellow who told me, “If everyone were to ordain the way you prefer, for a few rains at least, there would be no progress in the world. Families wouldn’t grow. Nobody would be building things.” 

I said to him, “Your thinking is the thinking of an earthworm. An earthworm lives in the ground. It eats earth for its food. Eating and eating, it starts to worry that it will run out of dirt to eat. It is surrounded by dirt, the whole earth is covering its head, but it worries it will run out of dirt.”

That’s the thinking of an earthworm. People worry that the world won’t progress, that it will come to an end. That’s an earthworm’s view. They aren’t earthworms, but they think like them. That’s the wrong understanding of the animal realm. They are really ignorant.

There’s a story I’ve often told, about a tortoise and a snake. The forest was on fire, and they were trying to flee. The tortoise was lumbering along, and then it saw the snake slither by. It felt pity for that snake. Why? The snake had no legs, so the tortoise figured it wouldn’t be able to escape the fire. It wanted to help the snake. But as the fire kept spreading, the snake fled easily, while the tortoise couldn’t make it, even with its four legs, and it died there.

That was the tortoise’s ignorance. It thought, If you have legs, you can move. If you don’t have legs, you can’t go anywhere. So it was worried about the snake. It thought the snake would die because it didn’t have legs. But the snake wasn’t worried (“the snake was cool about it”); it knew it could easily escape the danger.

This is one way to talk to people with their confused ideas. They will feel pity for you if you aren’t like them and don’t have their views and their knowledge. So who is ignorant? I’m ignorant in my own way; there are things I don’t know about, so I’m ignorant on that account.

            Meeting different situations can be a cause for tranquility. But I didn’t understand how foolish and mistaken I was. Whenever something disturbed my mind, I tried to get away from it, to escape. What I was doing was escaping from peace. I was continually running away from peace. I didn’t want to see this or know about that; I didn’t want to think about or experience various things. I didn’t realize that this was defilement. I only thought that I needed to remove myself and get far away from people and situations, so that I wouldn’t meet anything disturbing or hear speech that was displeasing. The farther away I could get, the better.

            After many years had passed, I was forced by the natural progression of events to change my ways. Having been ordained for some time, I ended up with more and more disciples, more people seeking me out. Living and practicing in the forest was something that attracted people to come and pay respects. So as the number of followers increased, I was forced to start facing things. I couldn’t run away anymore. My ears had to hear sounds, my eyes to see. And it was then, as an Ajahn, that I started gaining more knowledge. It led to a lot of wisdom and a lot of letting go. There was a lot of everything going on, and I learned not to grasp and hold on, but to keep letting go, and it made me a lot more skillful than before. 

            When some suffering came about, it was OK; I didn’t add on to it by trying to escape it. Previously, in my meditation, I had only desired tranquility. I thought that the external environment was only useful insofar as it could be a cause to help me attain tranquility. I didn’t think that having right view would be the cause for realizing tranquility.

            I’ve often said that there are two kinds of tranquility. The wise have divided it into peace through wisdom and peace through samatha. In peace through samatha, the eye has to be far from sights, the ear far from sounds, the nose far from smells, and so on. Then not hearing, not knowing, and so forth, one can become tranquil. This kind of peacefulness is good in its way. Is it of value? Yes, it is, but it is not supreme. It is short-lived. It doesn’t have a reliable foundation. When the senses meet objects that are displeasing, it changes, because it doesn’t want those things to be present. So the mind always has to struggle with these objects, and no wisdom is born, since the person always feels that he is not at peace because of those external factors.

            On the other hand, if you determine not to run away but to look directly at things, you come to realize that lack of tranquility is not due to external objects or situations, but only happens because of wrong understanding. I often teach my disciples about this. I tell them, when you are intently devoted to finding tranquility in your meditation, you can seek out the quietest, most remote place, where you won’t meet with sights or sounds, where there is nothing going on that will disturb you. There the mind can settle down and become calm because there is nothing to provoke it. Then, when you experience this, examine it to see how much strength it has: when you come out of that place and start experiencing sense contact, notice how you become pleased and displeased, gladdened and dejected, and how the mind becomes disturbed. Then you will understand that this kind of tranquility is not genuine.

            Whatever occurs in your field of experience is merely what it is. When something pleases us, we decide that it is good, and when something displeases us, we say it isn’t good. That is only our own discriminating minds giving meaning to external objects. Understanding this, then we have a basis for investigating these things and seeing them as they really are. When there is tranquility in meditation, it’s not necessary to do a lot of thinking. This sensitivity has a certain knowing quality that is born of the tranquil mind. This isn’t thinking; it is dhammavicaya, the factor of investigating Dharma.

             This sort of tranquility does not get disturbed by experience and sense contact. But then there is the question, If it is tranquility, why is there still something going on? There is something happening within tranquility; it’s not something happening in the ordinary, afflicted way, where we make more out of it than it really is. When something happens within tranquility, the mind knows it extremely clearly. Wisdom is born there, and the mind contemplates ever more clearly. We see the way that things actually happen; when we know the truth of them, then tranquility becomes all-inclusive. When the eye sees forms or the ear hears sounds, we recognize them for what they are. In this latter form of tranquility, when the eye sees forms, the mind is peaceful. When the ear hears sounds, the mind is peaceful. The mind does not waver. Whatever we experience, the mind is not shaken.

            So where does this sort of tranquility come from? It comes from that other kind of tranquility, that ignorant samatha. That is a cause that enables it to come about. It is taught that wisdom comes from tranquility. Knowing comes from unknowing; the mind comes to know from that state of unknowing, from learning to investigate like this. There will be both tranquility and wisdom. Then, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we see the truth of things. We know that the arising and ceasing of experience in the mind is just like that. Then there is nothing more to do, nothing to correct or solve. There is no more speculation. There is nowhere to go, no escape. We can only escape through wisdom, through knowing things as they are and transcending them.

            In the past, when I first established Wat Pah Pong and people started coming to see me, some disciples said, “Luang Por is always socializing with people. This isn’t a proper place to stay anymore.” But it wasn’t that I had gone in search of people; we established a monastery, and they were coming to pay respects to our way of life. Well, I couldn’t deny what they were saying, but actually I was gaining a lot of wisdom and coming to know a lot of things. But the disciples had no idea. They could only look at me and think my practice was degenerating—so many people were coming, so much disturbance. I didn’t have any way to convince them otherwise, but as time passed, I overcame the various obstacles, and I finally came to believe that real tranquility is born of correct view. If we don’t have right view, then it doesn’t matter where we stay, we won’t be at peace and wisdom won’t arise.

            People are trying to practice here (in America). I’m not criticizing anyone, but from what I can see, sila is not very well developed. Well, this is a convention. You can start by practicing samadhi first. It’s like walking along and coming across a long piece of wood. One person can take hold of it at one end and have the other end in hand. Another person can pick up the other end. But it’s the same one piece of wood, and taking hold of either end, you can move it. When there is some calm from samadhi practice, then the mind can see things clearly and gain wisdom and see the harm in certain types of behavior, and the person will have restraint and caution. You can move the log from either end, but the main point is to have firm determination in your practice. If you start with sila, this restraint will bring calm. That is samadhi, and it becomes a cause for wisdom. When there is wisdom, it helps develop samadhi further. And samadhi keeps refining sila. They are actually synonomous, developing together. In the end, the final result is that they are one and the same; they are inseparable.

            We can’t distinguish samadhi and classify it separately. We can’t classify wisdom as something separate. We can’t distinguish sila as something separate. At first we do distinguish among them. There are the level of convention and the level of liberation. On the level of liberation, we don’t attach to good and bad. Using convention, we distinguish good and bad and different aspects of practice. This is necessary to do, but it isn’t yet supreme. If we understand the use of convention, we can come to understand liberation. Then we can understand the ways in which different terms are used to bring people to the same thing.

            So in those days, I learned to deal with people, with all sorts of situations. Coming into contact with all these things, I had to make my mind firm. Relying on wisdom, I was able to see clearly and abide without being affected by whatever I met with. Whatever others might be saying, I wasn’t bothered, because I had firm conviction. Those who will be teachers need this firm conviction in what they are doing, without being affected by what people say. It requires some wisdom, and whatever wisdom one has can increase. We take stock of all our old ways as they are revealed to us and keep cleaning them up.

            You really have to make your mind firm. Sometimes there is no ease of body or mind. It happens when we live together; it’s something natural. Sometimes we have to face illness, for example. I went through a lot of that. How would you deal with it? Well, everyone wants to live comfortably, to have good food and plenty of rest. But we can’t always have that. We can’t just indulge our wishes. But we create some benefit in this world through the virtuous efforts we make. We create benefit for ourselves and for others, for this life and the next. This is the result of making the mind peaceful.

            Coming here (to England and the US) is the same. It’s a short visit, but I’ll try to help as I can and offer teaching and guidance. There are ajahns and students here, so I’ll try to help them out. Even though monks haven’t come to live here yet, this is pretty good. This visit can prepare people for having monks here. If they come too soon, it will be difficult. Little by little people can become familiar with the practice and with the ways of the bhikkhusangha. Then the sasana can flourish here. So for now you have to take care of your own mind and make it right.


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