AJAHN CHAH: a biography
Venerable Ajahn (or Achaan) Chah (1918 92, honorific titles: Luang Por and Phra ) was an influential teacher of the Buddhadharma and a founder of two major monasteries in the Thai Forest Tradition.
Respected and loved in his own country as a man of great wisdom, he was also instrumental in establishing Theravada Buddhism in the West. Beginning in 1979 with the founding of Cittaviveka (commonly known as Chithurst Buddhist Monastery) in Hampshire, UK, the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah has spread throughout Europe, the United States and the British Commonwealth.
Over a million people, including the Thai royal family, attended Ajahn Chah's funeral. He left behind a legacy of students, monasteries and dhamma talks - which have been recorded, transcribed and translated into several languages.
Ajahn Chah was born in a subsistence-farming family in a small Thai village. As is traditional, Ajahn Chah entered a monastery as a novice at the age of nine. After three years he left the monastery to help his family on the farm, but resumed monastic life at the age of 20, soon being ordained as a bhikkhu (monk).
The death of his father drove him to think deeply about life's real purpose. He could not see how the buddhist teachings he had studied so extensively could actually be put into practice and seemed no nearer to a personal understanding of them. Aged 28 and feeling disenchanted, he abandoned his studies and became a wandering ascetic. He walked across Thailand, sleeping in forests and caves, gathering alms food in villages and taking teachings at various monasteries.
Among his teachers at this time was Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, a renowned meditation master in the austere Forest Tradition. Ajahn Mun conveyed to him that although the teachings are indeed extensive, at their heart they are very simple. With mindfulness established, if it is seen that everything arises in the heart-mind, right there is the true path of practice. This succinct and direct teaching was a revelation for Ajahn Chah and transformed his approach to practice. The Way was now clear to him.
For the next seven years Ajahn Chah practised in the style of the Forest Tradition, wandering through the countryside in quest of quiet and secluded places for developing meditation. He is reported to have lived in tiger- and cobra-infested jungles, using reflections on death to penetrate to the true meaning of life. This included a practise in a cremation ground, to challenge and eventually overcome his fear of death. As he sat cold and drenched in a rainstorm, he confronted the utter desolation and loneliness of a homeless monk.
At the age of 36, after years of wandering, he was invited back to his home village. He settled close by, in a fever-ridden, reputedly haunted forest called 'Pah Pong'. There he taught his simple, practice-based form of meditation. Despite the hardships, disciples gathered around him in increasing numbers, including the first Westerner, later to become Ajahn Sumedho. A monastery, now known as Wat Pah Pong, was established there and eventually over 250 branch monasteries were established elsewhere.
Ajahn Chah often pushed his monks to their limits, to develop their endurance, patience and resolution. Sometimes he would initiate long and seemingly pointless work projects, in order to frustrate their attachment to tranquility. The emphasis was always on surrender to the way things are, and great stress was placed upon strict observance of the vinaya (monastic discipline).
Nine years after meeting Ajahn Chah, Wat Pah Nanachat (International Forest Monastery) was founded with Ajahn Sumedho as the abbot. This was the first monastery in Thailand to be run by and for English-speaking monks.
In 1977, Ajahn Chah was invited to visit Britain by the English Sangha Trust. 1979 saw the founding of Cittaviveka (commonly known as Chithurst Buddhist Monastery due to its location in the town of Chithurst) with Ajahn Sumedho as its head. Several of Ajahn Chah's Western students have since established monasteries throughout the world.
During the months following this trip, the debilitating effects of diabetes were becoming more evident. As the illness worsened, he would use his body as a teaching, emphasizing that it was "a living example of the impermanence of all things (and) reminded people to endeavour to find a true refuge within themselves, since he would not be able to teach for very much longer". Ajahn Chah would remain virtually paralyzed - bedridden and ultimately unable to speak - for ten years, until his death in 1992 at the age of 73. During his last years, he was diligently and lovingly nursed and attended by devoted disciples, grateful for the occasion to offer service to the teacher who had so patiently and compassionately showed the Way to so many.
www.dhammatalks.org.uk provides links to downloadable talks by some of the monks and nuns of the Forest Sangha community. The Forest Sangha is carrying forward the practice and teachings of Buddhism under the auspices of Ajahn Sumhedo, who - as indicated above - had been a "disciple" of Ajahn Chah.