A Tree in the Forest - Part 2.1 - by Ajahn Chah
Saturday 27 March 2010
- A Tree in the Forest
means to help the mind see the truth."
Similes by Ajahn Chah
A Hundred of Everything
- People only think about the pleasure of acquiring and don’t consider the trouble involved. When I was a novice I used to talk to the lay people about the happiness of wealth and possessions, having servants and so on - a hundred male servants, a hundred female servants, a hundred cows, a hundred buffaloes . . . a hundred of everything. The lay people really liked that. But can you imagine looking after a hundred buffaloes, or a hundred cows, not to mention the two hundred servants? Would that be fun? People do not consider this side of things. They have the desire to possess, to have the cows, the buffaloes and the servants, hundreds of them. But I say fifty buffaloes would be too much. Just twining the rope for all those brutes would already be one big headache! But people don’t consider this. They just want to acquire as much as they can.
- When we sit in meditation we want the mind to become peaceful, but it doesn’t. We don’t want to think, but we think. It’s like a person who is sitting on an ants’ nest. The ants just keep on biting him. Why? Because when the mind is in the world, then even though a person is sitting still with his eyes closed, all he sees is the world. Pleasure, sorrow, anxiety, confusion, they all arise, because he still hasn’t realized Dhamma. If the mind is like this, the meditator can’t endure the worldly dhammas, he can’t investigate. It’s just the same as if he were sitting on an ants’ nest. The ants are going to bite because he’s right on their home. So what should he do? He should look for a way to get rid of them.
- If you ask people why they were born, they probably would have a lot of trouble answering, because they’re sunk in the world of the senses and sunk in becoming. For example, suppose we had an orchard of apple trees that we were particularly fond of. That’s becoming for us if we don’t reflect with wisdom. How so? Suppose our orchard contained a hundred apple trees and we considered them to be our trees. We’d then be born as a worm in every single one of them, and we’d bore into every one of them. Even though our human body may still be back at the house, we’d wend out tentacles into every one of those trees. It’s becoming because of our clinging to the idea that those trees are our own, that that orchard is our own. If someone were to take an axe and cut on of the trees down, we would die along with the tree. We’d get furious and would have to go and set things straight. We’d fight and even kill over it. The quarrelling is the birth. We are born right at the point where we consider anything to be our own, born from the becoming. Even if we had a thousand apple trees, if someone were to cut down just one, it would be like cutting the owner down. Whatever we cling to, we are born right there, we exist right there.
- You can begin doing away with selfishness through giving. If people are selfish they do not feel good about themselves. And yet people tend to be very selfish without realizing how it affects them. You can experience this at any time. Notice it when you are hungry. If you get a couple of apples and then the opportunity arises to share them with someone else, a friend, for instance, you think it over. Really, the intention to give is there, but you only want to give away the smaller one. To give the big one, well, it would be a shame. It’s hard to thin straight. You tell your friend to go ahead and take one but then you say, "Take this!" and give him the smaller one. This is one form of selfishness, but people don’t often notice it. Have you ever seen this? In giving, you really have to go against the grain. Even though you want to give the smaller fruit, you must force yourself to give the bigger one. Of course once you’ve given it to your friend, it feels so good. Training the mind by going against the grain in this way requires self-discipline. You must know how to give and how to give up and not nurture your selfishness. This is called going against the grain in a correct way.
- No matter how much you like something you should reflect that it’s uncertain. Like bamboo shoots: they may seem to be so delicious but you must tell yourself "not sure!" If you want to test out if it’s sure or not, try eating them every day. Eventually you’ll complain: "This doesn’t taste so good anymore!" Then you’ll prefer another kind of food and be sure that food is delicious. But you’ll find out later that’s "not sure" too. Everything is just "not sure."
Big Stick, Little Stick
- People aren’t able to see themselves outside of their problems because of wrong view. They’re like the man who throws away a small stick and picks up a bigger one, thinking that the bigger stick will be lighter.
- To know the taste of Dhamma, you will have to put the teaching into practice yourself. The Buddha didn’t talk about the fruits of the practice in much detail because it’s something one can’t convey in words. It would be like trying to describe the different colors to someone who has been blind from birth. You couldn’t do it. You could try, but it wouldn’t serve much purpose.
Body and Its Charms
- We are deluded by the body and its charms, but really it is foul. Suppose we didn’t take a bath for a week. Could we bear to be close to each other? We’d really smell bad. When we sweat a lot, such as when we are working hard together, the smell is awful. We go back home and rub ourselves down with soap and water, and the fragrance of the soap replaces our bad body odor. Rubbing sweet-smelling soap on the body may make it seem fragrant, but actually the bad smell of the body is still there, temporarily suppressed. When the smell of the soap is gone, the smell of the body comes back again. Now we tend to think the body is beautiful, delightful and strong. We tend to think that we will never age, get sick or die. We are charmed and fooled by the body and so we are ignorant of the true refuge within ourselves. The true place of refuge is the mind.
- The teachings of the Buddha can help us to solve our problems, but first we must practice and develop wisdom. It’s like wanting to have boiled rice. We must first build a fire, wait until the water comes to a boil, and let the rice cook for as long as it needs to. We just can’t throw rice into a pot of water and have boiled rice right away.
- If some sensation makes an impression on the mind, don’t simply disregard it. It’s like baking bricks. Have you ever seen a brick oven? They build a fire up about two or three feet in front of the oven so that all the smoke gets drawn into it, and none is left outside. All the heat then goes into the oven and the job gets done quickly. People who practice the Dhamma should be like a brick oven. All their feelings will then be drawn inwards to be turned into Right View. Seeing sights, hearing sounds, smelling odors, tasting flavors, and so on, the mind draws everything inwards. Feelings thus become experiences which give rise to wisdom.
- Let your mind be like a bridge which is steady, and not like the water that rises and falls underneath it.
- Enlightenment does not mean to become dead like a Buddha statue. An enlightened person still thinks, however he knows that the thinking process is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty. Through practice we can see these things clearly. We need to investigate suffering and stop its causes. If not, wisdom can never arise. We must see things exactly as they are - feelings are just feelings, thoughts are just thoughts. This is the way to end all our problems.
Building a House and Dyeing Cloth
- Only wanting to make merit without developing virtue is like building a beautiful house without preparing the area first. It wouldn’t be long before the house would collapse. Or it’s like wanting to dye a piece of cloth without washing it first. Most people do it like that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dyeing it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Would dyeing a dirty old rag look good?
Yet this is how people are. They just want to perform good deeds, but don’t want to give up wrongdoing. They still haven’t understood that it is only when the mind is free of impurities that the mind can be peaceful. You have to look into yourself, look at the faults in your actions, speech and thoughts. Where else are you going to practice but in your actions, speech and thoughts?
- All religions are like different cars all moving in the same direction. People who don’t see it like that have no light in their hearts.
- If defilements arise, you have to do something about them. Defilements are like a cat. If you give it as much food as it wants, it will constantly be coming around to look for more. But if one day it scratches you and you decide not to feed it anymore, it will finally not come around. Oh, yes, it will still come around meowing at first, but if you remain firm it will finally stop doing so. It’s the same with the different defilements of your mind. If you do not feed them, they will not come around to disturb you again and again, and your mind will be at peace.
Chicken in a Coop
- As the mind develops calm, it is held in check by that calm, just like a chicken that is put in a coop. Once inside the coop, the chicken is unable to wander outside, but it is still able to walk around within the confines of the coop. The action of walking to and fro doesn’t lead to any great harm because the chicken is always inside the coop. Some people don’t want to experience any feelings or thoughts when they meditate, but thoughts and feelings do arise. The awareness that is present when the mind is calm, however, keeps the mind from getting agitated. This means that whenever there are thoughts or sensations walking around in the mind, they do so within the coop of calm, and so cannot cause you any harm or disturbance.
- If you don’t oppose and resist your mind, you just follow its moods. This is not right practice. It would be like indulging a child’s every whim. Will that child be a good child? If the parents give their child everything it wishes is that good? Even if they do so at first, by the time it can speak they may start to spank it occasionally because they’re afraid it’ll end up spoiled and helpless. The training of your mind must be like this. Don’t indulge its whims.
- The essence of our practice is to watch intention and examine the mind. You must have wisdom. Don’t discriminate. Don’t get upset with others if they are different. Would you get upset at a small and crooked tree in the forest for not being tall and straight like some of the others? That would be silly. Don’t judge other people. There are all varieties. No need to carry the burden of wishing to change them all. If you want to change anything, change your ignorance to wisdom.
- Many people contend that since the mind is inherently pure, since we all have Buddha nature, it’s not necessary to practice. But this is like taking something clean, like this tray, for example, and then I come and drop some dung on it. Will you say that this tray is originally clean, and so you don’t have to do anything to clean it now?
- We invent names for the sake of study, but actually nature is just as it is. For example, we are sitting here downstairs on this stone floor. The floor is the base. It’s not moving or going anywhere. Upstairs is what has risen out of this floor. Upstairs is like everything that we see in our minds: form, feeling, memory, and thinking. They don’t really exist in the way we presume they do. They are merely the conventional mind. As soon as they arise, they pass away again. They don’t really exist in themselves.
Drops of Water
- Keep your precepts. At first you’ll make mistakes. When you realize it, stop, come back and establish your precepts again. Maybe you’ll go astray and make another mistake. When you realize it, re-establish yourself. If you practice like this, your mindfulness will improve and become more consistent, just like the drops of water falling from a kettle. If we tilt the kettle just a little bit, the water drips out slowly - plop! . . .plop! . . . plop! If we tilt the kettle a little bit more, the drops fall faster - plop, plop, plop! If we tilt the kettle even further, the water doesn’t drip anymore but turns into a steady stream. Where do the plops go? They don’t go anywhere. They simply change into a steady stream of water. This is how your increasing mindfulness will be.
- However much we want the body to go on living for a long, long time, it won’t do that. Wanting it to do so would be as foolish as wanting a duck to be a chicken. When we see that that’s impossible, that a duck has to be a duck, that a chicken has to be a chicken, and that the body has to be the body and get old and die, then we will find strength and energy when we have to face the changes of the body.
- Some people come and ask me whether a person who’s come to realize impermanence, suffering, and non-self would want to give up doing things altogether and become lazy. I tell them that’s not so. On the contrary, one becomes more diligent, but does things without attachment, performing only actions that are beneficial." And then they say, "If everyone practiced the Dhamma, nothing could be done in the world, and there’d be no progress. If everyone became enlightened, nobody would have children and humanity would become extinct." But this is like an earthworm worrying that it would run out of dirt, isn’t it?
- No matter where you go in the world there is suffering. There is no escape from it as long as your mind is in the world. It would be like trying to escape the odor of a big pile of excrement by moving over to a smaller one. In big piles or little ones, the odor of excrement is exactly the same wherever you go.
- Suppose we come to possess a very expensive object. The minute it comes into our possession our mind changes: "Now where can I keep it? If I leave it here somebody might steal it." We worry ourselves into a state, trying to find a place to keep it. This is suffering. And when did it arise? It arose as soon as we understood that we had obtained something. That’s where the suffering lies. Before we had obtained that object there was no suffering. It hadn’t yet arisen because there was no object yet for the mind to cling to. The self is the same. If we think in terms of my self then everything around us becomes mine. And confusion follows. If there is no I and my then there is no confusion.
- People wonder why they have so many problems when they start cutting down on their desires. They can’t figure out why they have to suffer so much. It was easier before, when they satisfied their desires, because then they were at peace with them. But that’s just like a man who has an infection inside his body but only treats the sore outside on his skin.
Falling from a Tree
- If we divide up the Paticcasamuppada as it is in the scriptures, we say Ignorance gives rise to Volitional Activities, Volitional Activities give rise to Consciousness, Consciousness gives rise to Mind and Matter, Mind and Matter give rise to the six Sense Bases, the Sense Bases give rise to Sense Contact, Sense Contact gives rise to Feeling, Feeling gives rise to Wanting, Wanting gives rise to Clinging, Cling gives rise to Becoming, Becoming gives rise to Birth, Birth gives rise to Old Age, Sickness, Death and all forms of sorrow. But in truth, when we come into contact with something we don’t like, there is immediate suffering. The mind passes through the chain of the Paticcasamuppada so rapidly that we can’t keep up.
- It’s like falling from a tree. Before we can realize what’s happening - thud! - we’ve already hit the ground. Actually we pass by many twigs and branches on the way down, but it all happens so fast that we aren’t able to count them nor remember them as we fall. It’s the same with the Paticcasamuppada. The immediate suffering that we experience is the result of going through the whole chain of the Paticcasamuppada. This is why the Buddha exhorted his disciples to investigate and know fully their own mind, so that they could catch themselves before they hit the ground.
- Our lives are like the breath, like the leaves that grow and fall. When we really understand about growing and falling leaves, we can then sweep the paths every day and have great happiness in our lives on this ever-changing earth.
Farmer and Mother
- Wherever you are still lacking in your practice that’s where you apply yourself. Place all your attention on that point. While sitting, lying down or walking, watch right there. It’s just like a farmer who hasn’t yet finished his field. Every year he plants rice, but this year he still hasn’t gotten his planting finished, so his mind is always stuck on that. His mind can’t rest happily because he knows his work is not yet finished. Even when he’s with friends, he can’t relax. He’s all the time nagged by the thought of his unfinished field. Or it’s like a mother who leaves her baby upstairs in the house while she goes to feed the animals below. She’s always got her baby on her mind, for fear something might happen to it. Even though she may be doing other things, her baby is never far from her thoughts. It’s just the same for us in our practice. We should never forget it. Even though we may be doing other things, our practice should never be far from our thoughts. It should constantly be with us, day and night. It has to be like this if we’re really going to make progress.
- Even though simply listening to the Dhamma might not lead to realization, it is beneficial. There were, in the Buddha’s time, those who did realize the Dhamma, even became arahants, while listening to a discourse. They could be compared to a football. When a football gets air pumped into it, it expands. Now the air in that football is all pushing to get out, but there’s no hole for it to do so. As soon as a needle punctures the football, however, all the air comes rushing out. This is the same as the minds of those disciples who were enlightened while listening to the Dhamma. As soon as they heard the Dhamma and it hit the right spot, wisdom arose. They immediately understood and realized the true Dhamma.
- The Buddha didn’t want us to follow this mind. He wanted us to train it. If it goes one way, go the other way. In other word, whatever the mind wants, don’t let it have. It’s like having been friends with someone for years, but we finally reach a point where our ideas are no longer the same. We no longer understand each other. In fact, we even argue too much and so we split up and go our separate ways. That’s right, don’t follow your mind. Whoever follows his mind follows its likes and desires and everything else. This means that that person has not yet practiced at all.
Fruit in Hand
- It’s of great importance to practice the Dhamma. If we don’t practice it, then all our knowledge is only superficial knowledge, just the outer shell of it. It’s as if we have some sort of fruit in our hand, but we don’t eat it. Even though we have that fruit in our hand, we get no benefit from it. Only through the actual eating of the fruit will we really know its taste.
- A tree matures, blossoms, and fruit appear and ripen. They then rot and the seeds go back into the ground to become new fruit trees. The cycle starts once more. Eventually there are more fruit which ripen and fall, rot, sink into the ground as seeds, and grow once more into trees. This is how the world is. It doesn’t go very far. It just revolves around the same old things. Our lives these days are the same. Today we are simply doing the same old things we’ve always done. We think too much. There are so many things for us to get interested in, but none of them leads to true completion.
- Sometimes teaching is hard work. A teacher is like a garbage can that people throw their frustrations and problems into. The more people you teach the bigger the garbage disposal problem. Don’t worry. Teaching is a wonderful way to practice Dhamma. The Dhamma can help all those who genuinely apply it in their lives. Those who teach grow in patience and in understanding.
- People think that doing this and memorizing that, studying such-and-such, will cause suffering to end. But it’s just like a person who wants a lot of things. He tries to amass as much as possible, thinning if he gets enough his suffering will get less. It’s like trying to lighten your load by putting more things on your back. This is how people think, but thinking is astray of the true path, just like one person going northward and another going southward, and yet believing that they are going in the same direction.
Going Into Town
- Some people get confused because these days it seems like there are so many teachers and so many different systems of meditation. But it’s just like going into town. One can approach the town from many directions. Whether you walk one way or another, fast or slow, it’s all the same. Often the different systems of meditation differ outwardly only. There’s one essential point that all good practice must eventually come to - not clinging. In the end, you must let go of all meditation systems, even the teacher himself. If a system leads to relinquishment, to not clinging, then it is correct practice.
- Don’t be in a hurry to get rid of your defilements. You should first patiently get to know suffering and its causes well, so that you can then abandon them completely, just as it’s much better for your digestion if you chew your food slowly and thoroughly.
Grand Central Station
- When it comes to practice, all that you really need to make a start are honesty and integrity. You don’t have to read the Tipitaka to have greed, hatred and delusion. They are all already in your mind, and you don’t have to study books to have them. Let the knowing spread from within you, and you will be practicing rightly. If you want to see a train, just go to the central station. You don’t have to travel the entire Northern Line, Southern Line, Eastern and Western Lines to see all the trains. If you want to see trains, every single one of them, you’d be better off waiting at Grand Central Station. That’s where they all terminate. Some people tell me that they want to practice but don’t know how, or that they’re not up to studying the scriptures, or that they’re getting old, so that their memory’s not so good any more. Just look right here, at Grand Central Station. Greed arises here, anger arises here, delusion arises here. Just sit here and you can watch all these things arise. Practice right here, because right here is where you’re stuck, and right here is where the Dhamma will arise.
Hair in Your Soup
- Why does the body attract you and you get attached to it? Because your body-eye sees and not your heart-eye. The real nature of our body is that it is not clean, not pretty, but impermanent and decaying. See the body like a hair in your soup. Is it pretty? See clearly that the body is nothing but earth, fire, water and air - nobody there. You only fall down when you want to make it beautiful.
Hair that Hides a Mountain
- Our opinions, attachments, and desires are like a hair that can hide a whole mountain from our view, because they can keep us from seeing the most simple and obvious things. We get so caught up in our ideas, our self, our wants, that we can’t see how things really are. And that’s when even a hair can keep us from seeing a whole mountain. If we’re attached to even a subtle desire, then we can’t see that which is true, that which is always very obvious.
- We are only visitors to this body. Just like this hall here, it’s not really ours. We are simply temporary tenants, like the rats, lizards and geckos that live in it, but we don’t realize this. Our body is the same. Actually the Buddha taught there is no abiding self within this body, but we believe it to be our self, as really being us. This is wrong view.
Handful of Mud
- If you grab a handful of mud and squeeze it, it will ooze through your fingers. People who suffer are the same. When suffering has a squeeze on them, they, too, try to seek a way out.
Hen or Rooster?
- Teaching people with different levels of understanding is very difficult. Some people have certain set ideas. You tell them the truth and they say it’s not true: "I’m right, you’re wrong!" There’s no end to this. If you don’t let go there will be suffering. It’s like the four men who go into the forest and hear a rooster crowing. One of them wonders if it is a rooster or a hen. Three of them decide it’s a hen, but the curious one insists it’s a rooster. "How could a hen crow like that?" he asks. They answer, "Well, it has a mouth, doesn’t it?" They argue and get really upset, but in the end they are all wrong. Whether you say a hen or a rooster, they’re only names. We say a rooster is like this, a hen is like that. This is how we get stuck in the world! Actually if you just say that there’s really no hen and no rooster, then that’s the end of it.
- The theory of Dhamma is like a textbook on herbal medicine, and going out to look for the plants is like the practice. Having studied the book, we know what it says about herbal medicine, but we do not know what the actual herbs look like. All we have are some sketches and names. But if we already have the textbook on herbal medicine, we can then go looking for the plants themselves, and do so often enough so that we can recognize them easily when we see them. In this way we give the textbook value.
- The reason we were able to recognize the various herbs is because we studied the textbook. The textbook on herbal medicine was our teacher. The theory of Dhamma has this kind of value. However, if we depend completely on practice and do not take time to learn, then it would be like going out looking for herbal plants without having first done some study. Without knowing what we were looking for, we would not succeed in finding any. So both theory and practice are important.
Host and Guests
- Your mind is like the owner of a house and the feelings are like the guests that come and go. But have only one chair in your house so you can see each guest clearly. See the moods and emotions that come to bother you, then let them go. Keep mindfulness in every posture. If you just follow your moods, you won’t see them.
Hot Iron Ball
- The cultivators of old saw that there is only the arising and ceasing of dhammas. There is no abiding entity. They contemplated from all angles and saw that there was nothing stable. While walking or sitting, they saw things in this way. Wherever they looked, there was only suffering. It’s just like a big iron ball which has just come out of a blast furnace. It’s hot all over. If you touch the top, it’s hot. If you touch the sides, they’re hot. If you touch the bottom, it’s hot, too. There isn’t any place on it which is cool.
Hot Iron Bar and Candy
- It is unlikely that we can really affect the state of mind of a dying person very much, either positively or adversely. It’s like if I took a hot iron bar and poked you in the chest with it, and then I held out a piece of candy with my other hand. How much could the candy distract you? We should treat dying people with love and compassion and look after them as best we can, but if we don’t turn it inwards to contemplate our own inevitable death, there is little real benefit for us.
- We are all born with nothing, and we die with nothing. Our house is like a hotel and so is our body. We’ll have to move out of them both one day and leave them behind.