The Venerable Ajahn Chah (from Thailand) was one of the great Vipassana meditation masters of our time. These selections are from a conversation between Ajahn Chah and an aging lay-disciple who was approaching her death.
Today I have brought nothing material of any substance to offer you, only dhamma, the teachings of the Lord Buddha. Listen well. You should understand that even the Buddha himself, with his great store of accumulated virtue, could not avoid physical death. When he reached old age, he relinquished his body and let go of its heavy burden. Now you too must learn to be satisfied with the many years you’ve already depended on your body. You should feel that it is enough.
You can compare it to household utensils you’ve had for a long time—your cups, saucers, plates, and so on. When you first had them they were clean and shining, but now after using them for so long, they are starting to wear out. Some are already broken, some have disappeared, and those that are left are deteriorating—they have no stable form—and it’s their nature to be like that. Your body is the same: it’s been continually changing right from the day you were born, through childhood and youth, until now it’s reached old age. You must accept that. The Buddha said that conditions (sankharas)—whether internal conditions or bodily conditions—are not-self; their nature is to change. Contemplate this truth until you see it clearly.
This very lump of flesh that lies here in decline is saccadhamma, the truth. The truth of this body is saccadhamma, and it is the unchanging teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha taught us to look at the body, to contemplate it, and come to terms with its nature. We must be able to be at peace with the body, whatever state it is in. The Buddha taught that we should ensure that it is only the body that is locked up in jail and not let the mind be imprisoned along with it.
Now as your body begins to run down and deteriorate with age, don’t resist that—but don’t let your mind deteriorate with it. Keep the mind separate. Give energy to the mind by realizing the truth of the way things are. The Lord Buddha taught that this is the nature of the body, it can’t be any other way: having been born, it gets old and sick and then it dies. This is a great truth you are presently encountering. Look at the body with wisdom and realize it.
Even if your house is flooded or burnt to the ground, whatever the danger that threatens it; let it concern only the house. If there is a flood, don’t let it flood your mind. If there’s a fire, do not let it burn your heart; let it be merely the house, that which is external to you, that is flooded and burned. Allow the mind to let go of its attachments. The time is ripe.
You have been alive a long time. Your eyes have seen any number of forms and colors, your ears have heard so many sounds, and you’ve had any number of experiences. And that is all they were—just experiences. You have eaten delicious foods, and all the good tastes were just good tastes, nothing more. The unpleasant tastes were just unpleasant tastes, that’s all. If the eye sees a beautiful form, that’s all it is, just a beautiful form.
The Buddha said that rich or poor, young or old, human or animal, no being in this world can maintain itself in any one state for long: everything experiences change and estrangement. This is a fact of life that we can do nothing to remedy. But the Buddha said that what we can do is to contemplate the body and mind so as to see their impersonality, see that neither of them is “me” or “mine.” They have a merely provisional reality. It is like this house: it is only nominally yours; you cannot take it with you anywhere. It is the same with your wealth, your possessions and your family; they are all yours only in name; they don’t really belong to you; they belong to nature.
The Buddha taught us to scan and examine this body, from the soles of the feet up to the crown of the head and then back down to the feet again. Just take a look at the body. What sort of things do you see? Is there anything intrinsically clean there? Can you find any abiding essence? This whole body is steadily degenerating, and the Buddha taught us to see that it doesn’t belong to us. It is natural for the body to be this way, because all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. How else would you have it be? Actually, there’s nothing wrong with the way the body is. It is not the body that causes you suffering; it’s your wrong thinking. When you see the right wrongly, there is bound to be confusion.
So let go, put everything down, everything except the knowing. Don’t be fooled if visions or sounds arise in your mind during meditation. Put them all down. Don’t take hold of anything at all. Just stay with nondual awareness. Do not worry about the past or the future; just be still and you will reach the place where there is no advancing, no retreating and no stopping, where there’s nothing to grasp at or cling to. Why? Because there is no self, no “me” or “mine.” It is all gone. The Buddha taught us to be emptied of everything in this way, not to carry anything with us. To know, and having known, to let go.
Realizing the dhamma, the path to freedom from the round of birth and death, is a job that we all have to do alone. So keep trying to let go, and to understand the teachings. Really put effort into your contemplation. Don’t worry about your family. At the moment they are as they are, in the future they will be like you. There’s no one in the world that can escape this fate.
Even if you find yourself thinking—well, that is all right too, as long as you think wisely. Don’t think foolishly. If you think of your children, think of them with wisdom, not with foolishness. Whatever the mind turns to, then think and know that thing with wisdom, aware of its nature. If you know something with wisdom, then you let it go and there’s no suffering. The mind is bright, joyful and at peace, and turning away from distractions it is undivided. Right now what you can look to for help and support is your breath.
This is your own work, nobody else’s. Leave others to do their own work. You have your own duty and responsibility, and you don’t have to take on those of your family. Don’t take anything else on; let it all go. That “letting go” will make your mind calm. Your sole responsibility right now is to focus your mind and bring it to peace. Leave everything else to others. Forms, sounds, odors, tastes—leave them to others to attend to. Whatever arises in your mind, be it fear of pain, fear of death, anxiety about others or whatever, say to it: “Don’t disturb me. You’re not my business anymore.”
What does the word dhamma refer to? Everything is a dhamma. There is nothing that is not dhamma. And what about “world”? The world is the very mental state that is agitating you at this moment. “What will this person do? What will that person do? When I’m dead, who will look after them? How will they manage?” This is all just “the world.” Even the mere arising of a thought of fearing death or pain is the world.
Throw the world away! The world is the way it is. If you allow it to arise in the mind and dominate consciousness, then the mind becomes obscured and can’t see itself. So, whatever appears in the mind, just say: “This isn’t my business. It’s impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self.”
Thinking you’d like to go on living for a long time will make you suffer. But thinking you’d like to die right away or die very quickly isn’t right either—it’s suffering, isn’t it? Conditions do not belong to us; they follow their own natural laws. You cannot do anything about the way the body is. You can prettify it a little, make it look attractive and clean for a while—like the young girls who paint their lips and let their nails grow long—but when old age arrives, everyone is in the same boat. That is the way the body is; you can’t make it any other way. But what you can improve and beautify is the mind.
Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, it’s only nominally ours. It’s a home in the world and it follows the ways of the world.
Our real home is inner peace. An external material home may well be pretty, but it is not very peaceful. There is this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it is not our real home, it is external to us; sooner or later we will have to give it up. It is not a place we can live in permanently because it doesn’t truly belong to us; it is part of the world.
Our body is the same: we take it to be self, to be “me” and “mine,” but in fact it is not really so at all, it is another worldly home. Your body has followed its natural course from birth, until now it’s old and sick and you can’t forbid it from doing that, that’s the way it is. Wanting it to be different would be as foolish as wanting a duck to be like a chicken. When you see this is impossible—that a duck has to be a duck, that a chicken has to be a chicken and that bodies have to get old and die—you will find strength and energy. However much you want the body to go on and last for a long time, it won’t do that.
The word sankhara refers to this body and mind. Sankharas are impermanent and unstable. Having come into being they disappear; having arisen they pass away—and yet everyone wants them to be permanent. This is foolishness. Look at the breath. Having come in, it goes out; that is its nature, that is how it has to be. The inhalation and exhalation have to alternate; there must be change. Sankharas exist through change; you can’t prevent it. Just think: could you exhale without inhaling? Would it feel good? Or could you just inhale? We want things to be permanent, but they can’t be; it’s impossible. Once the breath has come in, it must go out; when it has gone out, it comes in again—and that is natural, isn’t it? Having been born, we get old and sick and then we die, and that’s totally natural and normal. It is because sankharas have done their job, because the in-breaths and out-breaths have alternated in this way that the human race is still here today.
As soon as we are born, we are dead. Our birth and death are just one thing. It is like a tree: when there is a root there must be twigs. When there are twigs, there must be a root. You cannot have one without the other. It is a little funny to see how at a death people are so grief-stricken and distracted, tearful and sad, and at a birth how happy and delighted. It is delusion; nobody has ever looked at this clearly. I think if you really want to cry, then it would be better to do so when someone’s born. For actually birth is death, death is birth, the root is the twig, and the twig is the root. If you’ve got to cry, cry at the root, cry at the birth. Look closely: if there were no birth there would be no death. Can you understand this?
Even if you don’t let go, everything is starting to leave anyway. Can you see that, how all the different parts of your body are trying to slip away? Take your hair: when you were young it was thick and black; now it’s falling out, it’s leaving. Your eyes used to be good and strong, and now they are weak and your sight is unclear. When the organs have had enough they leave; this is not their home. When you were a child your teeth were healthy and firm; now they’re wobbly, perhaps you now have false ones. Your eyes, ears, nose, and tongue, everything is trying to leave because this is not their home. You cannot make a permanent home in a sankhara; you can stay for a short while and then you have to go. It is like a tenant watching over his tiny little house with failing eyes. His teeth are not so good, his ears are not so good, his body is not so healthy, and everything is leaving.
So you need not worry about anything, because this is not your real home, it is just a temporary shelter. Having come into this world, you should contemplate its nature. Everything there is, is preparing to disappear. Look at your body. Is there anything there that is still in its original form? Is your skin as it used to be? Is your hair? It is not the same, is it? Where has everything gone? This is nature, the way things are. When their time is up, conditions go their way. This world is nothing to rely on—it’s an endless round of disturbance and trouble, pleasures and pain. There is no peace.
When we have no real home we are like an aimless traveler out on the road, going this way for a while and then that way, stopping for a while and then setting off again. Until we return to our real home we feel ill-at-ease whatever we are doing, just like the one who has left his village to go on a journey. Only when he gets home again can he really relax and be at ease.
Nowhere in the world is any real peace to be found. The poor have no peace and neither do the rich. Adults have no peace, children have no peace, the poorly educated have no peace and neither do the highly educated. There is no peace anywhere. That is the nature of the world.
Those who have few possessions suffer as do those who have many. Children, adults, the aged … everyone suffers. The suffering of being old, the suffering of being young, the suffering of being wealthy, and the suffering of being poor—it is all nothing but suffering.
When you’ve contemplated things in this way you will see anicca, impermanence, and dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. Why are things impermanent and unsatisfactory? It is because they’re anatta, not-self.
Being disenchanted does not mean you are averse, though. The mind is clear. It sees that there’s nothing to be done to remedy this state of affairs; it is just the way the world is. Knowing in this way, you can let go of attachment, let go with a mind that is neither happy nor sad, but at peace with sankharas (tendencies) through seeing they are changing nature with wisdom.
So today, all of your children and relatives gathered here together; see how your parents become your children. Before, you were their children; now they become yours. They become older and older until they become children again. Their memories go, their eyes don’t see so well and their ears do not hear; sometimes they garble their words. Do not let it upset you. All of you nursing the sick must know how to let go. Do not hold on to things; just let go and let them have their own way. When a young child is disobedient, sometimes the parents let him have his own way just to keep the peace, to make him happy. Now your parents are like that child. Their memories and perceptions are confused. Sometimes they muddle up your names, or you ask them to give you a cup and they bring a plate. It’s normal; don’t be upset by it.
These are the only parents you have. They gave you life, they have been your teachers, your nurses and your doctors—they have been everything to you. That they have brought you up, taught you, shared their wealth with you and made you their heirs are the great beneficences of parents. Consequently, the Buddha taught the virtues of katafiiiu and katavedi, knowing our debt of gratitude and trying to repay it. These two dhammas are complementary. If your parents are in need, if they are unwell or in difficulty, then we do our best to help them. This is katafifiu-katavedi; it is a virtue that sustains the world. It prevents families from breaking up; it makes them stable and harmonious.
Today I have brought you the dhamma as a gift in this time of illness. I have no material things to give you; there seem to be plenty of those in the house already, so I give you dhamma, something which has a lasting worth, something which you’ll never be able to exhaust. Having received it from me you can pass it on to as many others as you like, and it will never be depleted. That is the nature of truth. I am happy to have been able to give you this gift of dhamma, and I hope it will give you strength to deal with your pain.
Reprinted by arrangement with Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery, Redwood Valley, California, Copyright © by the International Forest Monastery, Ubon, Thailand.