Spiritual Truths should be Given Spontaneously

From “Stillness Flowing” Ajahn Jayasaro

Ajahn Chah never prepared himself for any of his spiritual talks because he believed that spiritual truths should be given spontaneously and not pre-prepared. He also required this of all his monks. Doing so would enable the teacher to rely on his intuition and thus deliver a talk that would be most beneficial to the audience on the day of the talk. The story below from Stillness Flowing is an example of how Ajahn Chah gave Ajahn Sumedho a tough lesson on this.

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ajahn_sumedhoAjahn Sumedho was the first western disciple of Ajahn Chah. Given Ajahn Sumedho’s celebrity, and his growing proficiency in Thai, it was natural that Wat Pah Pong’s lay supporters would be eager to hear him give a Dhamma (Spiritual Truths) talk. Four years after his arrival, Ajahn Chah decided that the time had arrived for his first Western disciple to begin a new kind of training: that of expounding the Dhamma.

The opportunity arose during a trip to a branch monastery. As evening approached, a large number of lay supporters started to file into the monastery to participate in the evening chanting period and to listen to a Dhamma talk from Ajahn Chah. With no prior warning, Ajahn Chah asked Ajahn Sumedho to give the talk. The prospect of ascending the monastery’s Dhamma seat and struggling to give an extemporary address to a large audience in a language in which he was not particularly fluent, was an intimidating one. Ajahn Sumedho froze and declined as politely but firmly as he could.

But with his strong trust in Ajahn Chah and the realization that he was merely postponing the inevitable, he began to reconcile himself to the idea that soon he would have to start teaching. When Ajahn Chah ‘invited’ him to give a talk on the next Observance Day, he acquiesced in silence. Despite being well aware of Ajahn Chah’s view that Dhamma talks should not be planned in advance, Ajahn Sumedho felt insecure. At the time, he was reading a book on Buddhist cosmology and reflecting on the relationship between different realms of existence and psychological states. He made some notes for the coming talk. Observance Day soon came and Ajahn Sumedho gave the talk. Although his vocabulary was still quite rudimentary and his accent shaky, it seemed to go down well. He felt relieved and proud of himself.

Throughout the next day, laypeople and monks came up to him to express their appreciation of a fine talk, and he looked forward to basking in the sun of his teacher’s praise. But on paying respects to Ajahn Chah beneath his kuti, and seeing his expressionless face, he felt a chill go through his heart. In a quiet voice, Ajahn Chah said, “Don’t ever do that again”. Ajahn Sumedho realized that Ajahn Chah knew that he had thought the talk out beforehand and that, in his eyes, although it had been an intelligent, interesting and informative discourse, it was not the Dhamma speaking; it was merely thoughts and cleverness. The fact that it was a ‘good talk’ was not the point.

In order to develop the right attitude towards giving Dhamma talks, a monk needs to guard his mind against the desire for praise and appreciation, and he must develop a thick skin. One night, Ajahn Sumedho was asked by Luang Por to give a discourse to the laypeople with an unusual condition – it must last for three hours. After about an hour he had exhausted his initial subject and began to ramble, hunting with increasing desperation for things to talk about. He paused, repeated himself and embarked on long meandering asides, painfully aware of members of his audience getting bored and restless, dozing, walking out. Just a few dedicated elderly women sat there throughout the whole three hours – slumped, eyes closed – like gnarled trees on a blasted plain.

Ajahn Sumedho reflected after it was all over, “It was a valuable experience for me. I began to realize that what Ajahn Chah wanted me to do was to be able to look at this self-consciousness, the posing, the pride, the conceit, the grumbling, the laziness, the not wanting- to-be-bothered, the wanting to please, the wanting to entertain, the wanting to get approval.”

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