I’ve been interested in Buddhism for many years. For the past several years my practice has consisted largely of reading books of the teachings of a Thai forest monk named Ajahn Chah and using his teachings as a basis for contemplation and meditation. One book in particular, A Still Forest Pool, has many passages that I’ve read over and over again. I’m attracted to the simplicity of the teaching; it sometimes seems that if I could really understand the teaching in one of the chapters or even one of the paragraphs, that I would understand the essence of Buddhism.
I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on a passage from another book of his teachings, Food for the Heart: “Everything mental and physical, everything conceived and thought about without exception, is conditioned.” (p. 183)
I began noticing all the examples of times when my behavior appears to be conditioned. There are so many examples. Suppose I have a doctor’s appointment and when I get there I’m told that I have to wait 45 minutes to see the doctor. One response would be to get angry and to storm out, upset that the doctor considered me of so little importance. Another response would be to be happy because I have an extra 45 minutes to read a book that I’ve been wanting to get to.
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I began to see that my entire life is made of of situations where I react based on prior conditioning. This being the case, instead of simply reacting blindly to every situation, I have the choice of stopping, watching and deciding how I want to respond.
Of course it’s not just this easy.
I’ve also been listening a great deal to some talks by another monk, Ajahn Sumedho, who studied many years with Ajahn Chah.
These talks, like much of the teaching of Ajahn Chah, emphasize the importance of seeing things exactly as they are. No need to change anything, just notice. As Ajahn Chah says in the book Being Dharma: “When you have studied and practiced Dharma, you understand that the Buddha did not teach to fix things but to see according to truth.” (P. 20) Ajahn Sumedho has a certain phrase that I found very useful – “. . . is just like this.” It can be applied to any sensation, thought or mood. If I am angry, rather than trying to control my anger or to change the condition that is making me angry, I can simply be aware of the anger, really feel it, and realize that “Anger is just like this.”
All of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction comes from wanting situations or things to be different than the way they are. The teachings of the Buddha, passed on through these two monks, tells us that we should not rely on any conditioned reality because all conditions are impermanent and therefore constantly changing, arising and dying. Ajahn Chah often reminds that it is not enough to merely understand this intellectually; we must experience it and that meditation is necessary for this.
I’m very much a beginner at meditation, after doing it on and off for many years. The very first year I went to Thailand, I did a 10-day meditation retreat at Suan Mokh (The Garden of Liberation) in the south of Thailand. It was 10 days of silence and meditation. The insights from those 10 days still are with me. At the retreat, all of our needs (food, shelter, clothing) were adequately (if not extravagantly) taken care of: we really didn’t need anything other than what we already had. In those circumstances, it became very clear that if I was unhappy, that the unhappiness resulted from my own mind, not from anything around me.
The other thing I noticed was how quickly states of mind can change. Sitting in meditation my mood could switch from utter contentment to complete restlessness and boredom in (literally) the blink of an eye.
At this point I’m meditating some each day, hoping that Ajahn Chah is right: “The beauty of our way of life is that the mind can be trained. With our own right effort, we can come to wisdom.” (from A Still Forest Pool, p. 146.)
A previous post on this subject was named Buddhism, Thailand, Achaan Chah.
Written by Michael Babcock, August 2009.