Who are you laughing at?
You are laughing at yourselves.
In A Still Forest Pool Achaan Chah, Thai meditation master and forest monk, provokes us to laugh at ourselves and at the assumptions we cling to with such adamance.
With mindfulness, you can see the real owner of things. Do you think this is your world, your body? It is the world’s world, the body’s body. If you tell it, don’t get old, does the body listen? Does your stomach ask permission to get sick? We only rent this house; why not find out who really owns it?
Of course it’s my body, my home, my wife, my world, we defend. When Achaan Chah teases us, we experience the shock of incongruity between our self-deception and the actuality. Each time Achaan Chah’s stories, images, questions allow us to laugh at our own absurdity, we loosen, ever so slightly, our solid sense of self.
When we carry a burden, it’s heavy. When there’s no one to carry it, there’s not a problem in the world.
Like Zen Master Seung Sahn, who wrote the foreword to A Still Forest Pool, Achaan Chah flips us over and asks us another question. His images turn our conventional thinking inside out or upside down. Commenting on one of Achaan Chah’s stories, Master Seung Sahn says:
“It is the mind that moves.” That is correct. But very important, if there is no mind, then no problem. If you have mind, you have problem. So where does mind come from? Who made that?
Achaan Chah pulls the self out from under us, just as Master Seung Sahn pulls out the mind. Then what?
Achaan Chah reveals the way we fool ourselves.
In our practice, we think that noises, cars, voices, sights, are distractions that come and bother us when we want to be quiet. But who is bothering whom? Actually, we are the ones who go and bother them. The car, the sound, is just following its own nature. We bother things through some false idea that they are outside us and cling to the ideal of remaining quiet, undisturbed. . . . See the world as a mirror. It is all a reflection of the mind.
Who hasn’t cast endless blame on the noises, the cars, the voices and even his or her own thinking, forgetting that it is not the experiences themselves that cause suffering, but the attitude arising in relation to those experiences.
At times we may feel that thinking is suffering, like a thief robbing us of the present. What can we do to stop it? In the day it is light; at night, it is dark. Is this itself suffering? Only if we compare the ways things are now to other things we have known and wish it were otherwise. Ultimately, things are just as they are—only comparisons cause us to suffer.
He catches us blaming that scoundrel-thief, the thinking mind. He knows our habitual tricks, and reminds us of them with a delight in the human comedy—the way we grip so tightly to the suffering we might easily let go.
The simple truths of Achaan Chah’s teachings are distilled through years of practice as an ascetic monk in which he walked and slept in the forest under the guidance of several great forest masters. He finally settled in a thick forest grove near the village of his birth, “a place of cobras, tigers and ghosts—the perfect location for a forest monk.” Wat Ba Pong, a large forest monastery, gradually grew up around him. Jack Kornfield and Paul Breiter, who translated and compiled A Still Forest Pool, both lived as monks at Wat Ba Pong and studied as monks and laymen with Achaan Chah and other Asian masters.
These stories, discourses and advice are drawn from Achaan Chah’s talks and interviews at Wat Ba Pong. The teachings address the visiting philosopher, the student, the monk; they resonate for me, as I read a few passages before sleep from the copy of A Still Forest Pool I keep by my bed. All of the words point in the same direction.
Just practice . . . . just throw away all desire and expectations and look directly at the ways of the mind.
Achaan Chah speaks to the essentials. Practice, and everything else will follow.
Traditionally the Eightfold Path is taught with eight steps such as Right Understanding, Right Speech, Right Concentration and so forth. But the true Eightfold Path is within us—two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, a tongue, and a body. These eight doors are our entire Path, and the mind is the one that walks on the Path. Know these doors, examine them, and all the dharmas will be revealed.
Reading A Still Forest Pool brought me back to the cushion with renewed interest and trust. Through immersing myself in these teachings I experience something which feels like the protection of the dharma. Achaan Chah reminds us that we have all of the resources within us; each has her capacity for awareness, the capacity to watch, listen, question, investigate. Each of us can train the heart/mind to pay attention with right understanding “by seeing impermanence, suffering, non-self in everything.”
Achaan Chah encourages us to keep contemplating; that is all. What a relief to be reminded that my job is simply to return again and again to the present.
The tree has its own pace. Your job is to dig a hole, water and fertilize it, and protect it from insects. That much is your affair, a matter of faith. But the way the tree grows is up to the tree.
After years of practice, he tells us, “You will reach a point where your heart tells itself what to do.”
Of all the teachings in A Still Forest Pool the most powerful for me comes through the phrase “just that much.”
We human beings are constantly in combat, at war to escape the fact of being just that much . . . . We must investigate the root of suffering, the very truth of our life. If we can see that all things are just that much, we will find the true Path.
What I love about this phrase is that it can be read in contrasting voices. “Just that much!” might be a bitter echo of disappointment. I expect a visit from a friend; I strongly want him to come. He arrives, but we start to argue. The situation is different from what I expected. I feel hurt. He leaves, and I grieve for what might have been. Just that much; how unfair!
Or “just that much” might be a recognition that each moment is already complete just as it is. The friend arrives. We fight. He leaves. I am alone. I embrace the present moment as it is, just that much, “where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess” (Third Zen Patriarch).
Which voice is yours? Which attitude arises in what situations? Do you want darkness during the day? Daylight at night? Do you want more than that much? Achaan Chah suggests, if you experience life as it is, just that much . . .
. . . your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.