Training to Overcome Internal Suffering

From “Stillness Flowing” Ajahn Jayasaro

In the end, it was the Western monks’ belief in Ajahn Chah’s wisdom and compassion that allowed them to give themselves to the training. He pushed them out of their comfort zone. He showed them that they could do far more than they thought they could, endure things that, alone, they would never have endured. Work projects were one good example. Every now and again, there would be an intense period of hard physical labour, usually a building project, and the daily routine would be transformed.

Morning chanting at three, a one or two hour alms-round at dawn, meal at eight – these were sacrosanct. But after the daily meal was over there might be a string of days when the monks would become cement mixers and labourers from midmorning until after dark. Working long hours in temperatures exceeding thirty degrees and humidity above 90%, fuelled by one meal a day and four or five hours of sleep, stretched them to the limits.

Wat Pah Pong 2The construction of a new Uposatha Hall was one of the last major projects that Ajahn Chah was to oversee. The Uposatha Hall is usually the most beautiful and ornate building in a monastery. Often, many years have passed before a newly established monastery has sufficient funds to build such a hall. This was the case at Wat Pah Pong. From its inception, Pāṭimokkha recitations took place in a small nondescript building behind the dining hall. Only in 1977 did work begin on the erection of an imposing Uposatha Hall, designed by an architect disciple of Ajahn Chah in an unorthodox modern style. The building was to be situated to the west of the Dhamma Hall on a raised platform of earth some three metres high. The earth for this base was brought in by truck, but with no machinery available, the task of moving it into place and pounding it solid fell to the monastics.

It was gruelling work, accomplished with wheelbarrows, bamboo baskets and wooden pounders. The monks would begin at nine in the morning and finish by the light of kerosene lanterns at nine or ten at night. Most of the Thais, being from farming backgrounds, were not unused to this type of work in these kinds of conditions. But for the Westerners, predominantly from urban, middle class backgrounds, it was a harsh test of endurance. Worse perhaps than the physical ordeal, was the mental resistance. One monk said, “The choice was to do it in a grudging way, longing to be away from all the activity and exhaustion, back in your kuti meditating; or just give yourself to the work. It made more sense to say to yourself: ‘Ajahn Chah is my teacher, and he wants me to do this. He’s not asking me to do anything wrong, just something I don’t want to do. Why make myself miserable with wanting something I can’t have right now?’ Also, I’d notice that if I did think wistfully of being away somewhere doing formal meditation, the meditations I imagined I’d be having were always more peaceful than the real ones I was actually having at that time.”

The presence of Ajahn Chah put others’ minds at rest. One monk said, “Just catching sight of Ajahn Chah walking around looking so solid, so unshakeable, I would be filled with this absolute certainty that he knew exactly what he was doing. If this project was all right by him,’ I’d think, ‘it’s certainly good enough for me”.

With the conclusion of the work on the mound, Luang Por left for a few days and an almost farcical period of earth shifting ensued. The acting abbot decided that the left-over earth, which had just been laboriously shifted to a discreet location, would be better placed at a different spot.

The monks were asked to return to work in order to shift the earth for a second time – a job requiring some three days hard work. On Ajahn Chah’s return, however, he declared his preference for the original location and the earth had to be carried, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, basket by basket, back to the original spot. Some of the Western monks remembered having read about the trials of the Tibetan yogi Milarepa, and now felt that they had a better idea of what had been involved.

Nevertheless, the value of this kind of interlude was not lost on the monks involved. Another monk commented, “Ajahn Chah was always creating situations where we’d have to face up to our old ingrained habits, particularly the ones in which we created suffering for ourselves by wanting things to be other than the way they were. He helped us to see our craving and, in everyday situations, how it fed our discontent, how we lied to ourselves.”

Ajahn Brahmavamso summarized, “It taught me to look for the cause of suffering, not in the externals, but in ‘me’, in ‘my attitude’, in ‘my craving’, in ‘my attachment’, in ‘my delusions.’ … And that if you cannot work and be peaceful, if you cannot move earth all day and be at peace with it, you will never be freed from suffering.”

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