Ajahn Chah and the Question of Will

Sunday 22 Feb 2015

I would like to address a myth or a confusion that holds “will” as an ultimate energy for enlightenment. The idea that a fully realised person has full control over themselves and perhaps their environment!   In my last blog “A Question of Will”, I highlighted “letting go “as most important in a realisation of enlightenment. Letting go means letting go of everything including our will and our mind! This blog is my attempt to clarify these positions.

I want to highlight the remarkable death of one of the 20th Century’s great spiritual leaders, Ajahn Chah. He lived in a monastery in North East Thailand. He was instrumental in bringing Theravadin Buddhism to the West by setting up an International Monastery in order to train Western monks. Many of these Monks learned at the feet of Ajahn Chah and then left to take what they had learned to many parts of the world. When Ajahn Chah died many thousands of people attended his funeral along with Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens, all from many different countries around the world.

Ajahn Chah finally died after a more than 10 years in a coma. On the face of it, it could be seen as an ignominious death for someone so great. He could not use his normal senses; he was fed through a tube and needed assistance to live. He had developed a condition of water on the brain and had to have a shunt and tube inserted into his body to let the fluid discharge from his brain into his stomach. He had the best of care from Doctors and he had round the clock attention and love from the many close monks rostered to look after him. Many times his breathing stopped and his heart stood still. The Doctors presumed he had died, but the Monks, sensing the quality of the stillness, asked them to hold off and after a time his heart would start beating again and his breathing would come back. Presumably his mind had entered a Jhana (Still) state which was no doubt a conditioned pattern he had much practiced over his many years as a Monk.

The usual narrative remembered about the deaths of great people like Ajahn Chah, is how they used their tremendous omnipotent will to defy and challenge death. Stories that are myth making! Stories that raise them to high pedestals with the Gods! At the very least they are martyrs. When I tell the story of Ajahn Chah’s death to people, invariable they seem to say, “How ordinary, why did he not just use his will to die, why linger on so uselessly when there is no hope”.  The fact that he did not use his will at all is probably the greatest story and legacy that this great man has left to us.

There is no doubt that Ajahn Chah had mastered all aspects of his mind, and probably could have chosen to die had he thought it to be a good idea, but he did not. It is clear that he was just letting nature take its course. There was no trouble or rancour in him. If anything, within the limited abilities of his largely defunct bodily senses, his mind seemed to have been filled with Compassion and Metta (Loving Kindness), naturally attending to the fact that he had a team of Monks who in turn were attending to him. Then beyond there were other monastic and lay community’s both in Thailand and beyond all attending to him and practicing to do the right thing. From Australia our community had sent a respirator. He did not die quickly, he died when nature’s consciousness deemed. He did not manipulate, he had his formidable practice with him until the end. There is not a finer example I can think of to illustrate “Letting Go”.

Letting go is a difficult thing to do! We are so conditioned and trained to be who we think we are, it is difficult to even know what “Letting Go” means. However when our practice eventually takes us to knowledge of the fungible nature that pure consciousness displays, we can start to see how this pure consciousness ebbs and flows through us, the world and beyond, We start to see it working through not only the animate creatures and entities, but we also start to notice it working in the inanimate conditions like Earth, Water, Wind and Fire. For instance we start to notice the sensuality of Gravity as binds us to our world. We feel the form of the ground and rocks that in turn shape our own form and how we live. We start to see the conscious connection in the electromagnetic radiation that is continuously reforming and reshaping us. We see how it connects us back into the Universe. Indeed the universe is fully conscious. Karma is made in the conditioning of this consciousness, and our experience of it compels us to believe so completely in our own stories, and that is why it is so difficult to let go.  

One of the most important aspects to contemplate when thinking about the issues I have raised in this blog is the Buddha’s list of the Three Characteristics of All Things.

1.       Everything is Dukkha. (Unsatisfactory --- Suffering)

2.       Everything has the characteristic of Anicca.

(All conditions change and will eventually finish, there is no permanence)

3.       Everything is Anatta. (There is no self)

This third characteristic may seem to be frightening. “I am real, I don’t want to let go of myself, I might go mad”. Yes, from a mundane perspective this grasping is acceptable and understandable, but the first and second of the Buddha’s characteristics still remain true and eventually we are forced to look deeper. When we do, it can be seen that rather than Anatta being a frightening prospect it is a relief. Not only is it a pathway to Peace, it is a pathway to Unification and Absolute Truth.

Post Script.

Many teachings posit an after death life in a heaven realm, with continual happiness and joy, a life of goodness and light. A spiritual bliss beyond what we could imagine. All this along with an everlasting life! From a Buddhist perspective it is instructive to contemplate the balance in scenarios like these. The conditions we are talking about here are all conditioned and conditional. They have come into existence depending on conditioned energy, fine-tuned though it may be, that will act with an opposition in order to balance and support the condition. Clearly they have a dependent arising and will eventually finish when the karma that supports their existence expires. However it must be said that the probable good karma that goes to support births in these high heavenly realms could last a long time, but the “fly in the ointment” will always be the will that stands behind them. These conditions are not totally with equanimity and need to be seen through and let go of.

In order to get some idea of the scale that “Letting Go” needs to operate in, especially when we are not considering a creator, the Buddha was asked about how the world began and he said that he had “looked back over 24 universal cycles and no beginning could be seen”. Thus the Buddha balanced the idea of world without end, a scenario often contemplated and encouraged in religions that invoke a creator. The Buddha encouraged us to “let go” into the unconditioned, beyond consciousness, (the smallest scale) and outside the cycle of Samsara (Births & Deaths along with Beginnings and Ends). This truth can be seen by any person who practices the Buddha’s Noble 8 Fold Path.

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