Lion's Roar

Awakening “the One Who Knows”

The late Ajahn Chah teaches on the clear and penetrating knowing which frees us from the deception and suffering of untrained mind.

By Ajahn Chah

There are two ways to support Buddhism. One is known as amisapuja, supporting through material offerings. These are the four supports of food, clothing, shelter and medicine. The act of amisapuja supports Buddhism by giving material offerings to the sangha of monks and nuns, enabling them to live in reasonable comfort for the practice of dhamma. This fosters the direct realization of the Buddha’s teaching, in turn bringing continued prosperity to the Buddhist religion.

Buddhism can be likened to a tree. A tree has roots, a trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves. The leaves and branches depend on the roots to absorb nutriment from the soil. The words we speak are like branches and leaves, which depend on a root—the mind—to absorb nutriment and send it out to them. These limbs in turn carry the fruit as our speech and actions. Whatever state the mind is in, skillful or unskillful, it expresses that quality outwardly through our actions and speech.

Therefore the support of Buddhism through the practical application of the teachings is the most important kind of support. For example, in the ceremony of taking the precepts on observance days, the teacher describes those unskillful actions that should be avoided. But if you simply go through the ceremony of taking the precepts without reflecting on their meaning, progress is difficult. You will be unable to find the true practice. The real support of Buddhism must therefore be done through patipattipuja, the “offering” of practice, cultivating true restraint, concentration and wisdom. Then you will know what Buddhism is all about. If you don’t understand through practice, you’ll never know, even if you learn the whole Tipitaka.

In the time of the Buddha there was a monk known as Tuccho Pothila. This monk was one of the Buddha’s most learned disciples, thoroughly versed in the scriptures and texts. He was so famous that he was revered by people everywhere and had eighteen monasteries under his care. When people heard the name ” Tuccho Pothila” they were awestruck, and nobody would dare question anything he taught, so much did they revere his command of the teachings.

One day he went to pay respects to the Buddha. As he was paying his respects, the Buddha said, “Ah, hello, Venerable Empty Scripture!” Just like that! They conversed for a while until it was time to go, and then, as he was taking leave of the Buddha, the Buddha said, “Oh, leaving now, Venerable Empty Scripture?”

That was what the Buddha said. On arriving, “Oh, hello, Venerable Empty Scripture.” When it was time to go, “Ah, leaving now, Venerable Empty Scripture?” That was the teaching the Buddha gave. Tuccho Pothila was puzzled, “Why did the Buddha say that? What did he mean?” He thought and thought, turning over everything he had learned, until eventually he realized, “It’s true ! ‘Venerable Empty Scripture’—that’s me, a monk who studies but doesn’t practice.” When he looked into his heart he saw that really he was no different from lay people. Whatever they aspired to, he also aspired to; whatever they enjoyed, he also enjoyed. There was no real samana within him, no truly profound quality capable of firmly establishing him in the Noble Way and providing true peace.

So he decided to practice. But there was nowhere for him to go to. All the teachers around were his own students. No one would dare accept him. Usually when people meet their teacher they become timid and deferential, and so no one would dare to become his teacher.

Finally he went to see a certain young novice who was enlightened and asked to practice under him. The novice said, “Yes, sure you can practice with me, but only if you’re sincere. If you’re not sincere then I won’t accept you.” Tuccho Pothila pledged himself as a student of the novice.

The novice then told him to put on all his robes. Now there happened to be a muddy bog nearby. When Tuccho Pothila had carefully put on all his robes—expensive ones they were, too—the novice said, “Okay, now run down into that bog. If I don’t tell you to stop, don’t stop. If I don’t tell you to come out, don’t come out. Okay…run!”

Tuccho Pothila, neatly robed, plunged into the bog. The novice didn’t tell him to stop until he was completely covered in mud. Finally the novice said, “You can stop now.” So he stopped. “Okay, come on up!” And he came out.

Clearly Tuccho Pothila had given up his pride. He was ready to accept the teaching. If he hadn’t been ready to learn, he wouldn’t have run into the bog like that, being such a famous teacher. The young novice, seeing this, knew that Tuccho Pothila was sincerely determined to practice. So he gave him a teaching. He taught him to observe sense objects, using the simile of a man catching a lizard hiding in a termite mound. If the mound has six holes in it, how can he catch the lizard? He must seal off five of the holes and leave just one open. Then he simply has to wait and watch, guarding that one hole. When the lizard comes out he can catch it.

Observing the mind is like this. Closing off the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body, we leave only the mind. To “close off” the senses means to restrain and compose them. Meditation is like catching the lizard. We use sati to note the breath. Sati is the quality of mindfulness, as in asking yourself, “What am I doing?” Sampajanna is the awareness that “now I am doing such and such.” We observe the in and out breathing with sati and sampajanna.

Closing off the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body, we leave only the mind.

This quality of mindfulness is something that arises from practice. It’s not something that can be learned from books. Know the feelings that arise. The mind may be fairly inactive for a while and then a feeling arises. Sati works in conjunction with these feelings, recollecting them. There is sati—the mindfulness that “I will speak,” “I will go,” “I will sit,” and so on—and then there is sampajanna—the awareness that “now I am walking,” “I am lying down,” “I am experiencing such and such a mood.” With these two things, sati and sampajanna, we can know our minds in the present moment. We will know how the mind reacts to sense impressions.

That which is aware of sense objects is called “mind.” Sense objects wander into the mind. A sound, for instance, enters through the ear and travels inward to the mind, which acknowledges that it is the sound of a bird, a car, or whatever. Now this mind that acknowledges the sound is still quite basic. It’s just the average mind. Perhaps annoyance arises within this one who acknowledges. We must further train “the one who acknowledges” to become “the one who knows in accordance with the truth”—known as Buddho. If we don’t clearly know in accordance with the truth, then we get annoyed by the sounds of people, cars, machinery, and so on. The ordinary, untrained mind acknowledges the sound with annoyance. It knows in accordance with its preferences, not in accordance with the truth. We must further train it to know with vision and insight, or nanadassana, the power of the refined mind, so that it knows the sound as simply sound. If we don’t cling to a sound, there is no annoyance. The sound arises and we simply note it. This is called truly knowing the arising of sense objects. If we develop the Buddho, clearly realizing the sound as sound, then it doesn’t annoy us. It arises according to conditions; it is not a being, an individual, a self, an “us” or “them.” It’s just sound. The mind lets go.

This clear and penetrating knowing is called Buddho. With it we can let the sound simply be sound. It doesn’t disturb us unless we disturb it by thinking, “I don’t want to hear that sound, it’s annoying.” Suffering arises because of this attitude. Right here is the cause of suffering: we don’t know the truth of this matter; we haven’t developed the Buddho. We are not yet clear, not yet awake, not yet aware. Such is the raw, untrained mind, a mind that is not yet truly useful.

We must develop the mind, just as we develop the body. To develop the body we must exercise it, jogging in the morning and evening and so on. Soon the body becomes more agile, stronger; the respiratory and nervous systems become more efficient. Exercising the mind is different. Instead of moving it around, we bring it to a halt, bring it to rest.

For instance, when practicing meditation we take an object such as the in- and out-breaths as our foundation. This becomes the focus of our attention and reflection. We note the breathing, which means that we follow the breathing with awareness, noting its rhythm, its coming and going, and let go of all else. As a result of staying on one object of awareness, our mind becomes refreshed. If we let the mind wander to this or that, however, it cannot unify itself or come to a place of rest.

To say the mind “stops” means that it feels as if it’s stopped: it doesn’t go running here and there. It’s like having a sharp knife. If we use the knife to cut at things indiscriminately, such as stones, bricks and grass, our knife will quickly become blunt. We should use it for cutting only the things it was meant for. Similarly, if we let the mind wander after thoughts and feelings that have no value or use, the mind becomes tired and weak. If the mind has no energy, wisdom will not arise, because a mind without energy is a mind without samadhi.

If the mind hasn’t stopped you can’t clearly see the sense objects for what they are. The knowledge that the mind is the mind, and sense objects are merely sense objects, is the root from which Buddhism has grown and developed. This is the heart of Buddhism. When we look at ourselves and the way we behave, we are just like little children. A child doesn’t know anything. To an adult observing the behavior of a child, the way it plays and jumps around, its actions don’t seem to have much purpose. If our mind is untrained, it is like a child. We speak without awareness and act without wisdom. We may fall into ruin or cause untold harm and not even know it.

So we should train this mind. The Buddha taught us to train the mind, to teach it. Even if we support Buddhism with the four requisites, our support is still superficial; it reaches only the bark or sapwood of the tree. The real support, the heartwood of Buddhism, comes through the practice and from nowhere else: from training our actions, speech and thoughts according to the teachings. This is much more fruitful. If we are straight and honest, possessed of restraint and wisdom, our practice will bring prosperity. There will be no cause for spite and hostility. This is what our religion teaches us.

If we take the precepts simply out of tradition, then even though our teacher imparts the truth, our practice will be deficient. We may study the teachings and be able to repeat them, but if we really want to understand them we have to practice. Failure to practice may well be an obstacle to our penetrating to the heart of Buddhism for countless lifetimes to come.

Therefore the practice is like the key to a trunk. If we have the right key in hand, the key of meditation, no matter how tightly the lock is closed, when we take the key and turn it, the lock falls open. If we have no key we can’t open the lock. We will never know what is in the trunk.

Actually, there are two kinds of knowledge. One who knows the dhamma doesn’t simply speak from memory; he or she speaks the truth. Worldly people usually speak from memory; and what’s more, they usually speak with conceit. For example, suppose there are two people who haven’t seen each other for a long time. One day they happen to meet on the train. “Oh! What a surprise,” says one. “I was just thinking of looking you up!” Actually it’s not true. Really, they hadn’t thought of each other at all, but they say so out of excitement. And so it becomes a lie. Yes, it’s lying out of heedlessness. This is lying without knowing it. It’s a subtle form of defilement, and it happens very often.

So with regard to the mind, Tuccho Pothila followed the instructions of the novice: breathing in, breathing out, mindfully aware of each breath, until he saw the liar within him, the lying of his own mind. He saw the defilements as they came up, just like the lizard coming out of the termite mound. He saw them and perceived their true nature as soon as they arose. He noticed how one minute the mind would concoct one thing, the next moment something else.

Thinking is a sankhata dhamma, something that is created or concocted from supporting conditions. It’s not asankhata dhamma, the unconditioned. The well-trained mind, one with perfect awareness, does not concoct mental states. This kind of mind penetrates to the Noble Truths and transcends any need to depend on externals. To know the Noble Truths is to know the truth. The proliferating mind tries to avoid this truth, saying, “That’s good” or “This is beautiful”; but if there is Buddho in the mind, it can no longer deceive us, because we know the mind as it is. The mind can no longer create deluded mental states, because there is the clear awareness that all mental states are unstable, imperfect and a source of suffering to one who clings to them.

The well-trained mind, one with perfect awareness, does not concoct mental states. This kind of mind penetrates to the Noble Truths and transcends any need to depend on externals. To know the Noble Truths is to know the truth.

Wherever he went, the “one who knows” was constantly in Tuccho Pothila’s mind. He observed the various creations and proliferations of the mind with understanding. He saw how the mind lied in so many ways. He grasped the essence of the practice: “This lying mind is the one to watch—this is the mind that leads us into extremes of happiness and suffering and causes us to endlessly spin around in the cycle of samsara, with its pleasure and pain, good and evil.” Tuccho Pothila realized the truth, and grasped the essence of the practice, just like a man grasping the tail of the lizard.

It’s the same for us all. Only this mind is important. That’s why we train the mind. Now, what are we going to train it with? By having continuous sati and sampajanna we will be able to know the mind. This “one who knows” is a step beyond the mind; it is that which knows the state of the mind. That which knows the mind as simply mind is the “one who knows.” The “one who knows” is above the mind, and that is how it is able to look after the mind, to teach the mind to know what is right and what is wrong. In the end everything comes back to this proliferating mind. If the mind is caught up in its proliferations, there is no awareness and the practice is fruitless.

So we must train this mind to hear the dhamma, to cultivate the Buddho, the clear and radiant awareness, that which exists above and beyond the ordinary mind and knows all that goes on within it. This is why we meditate on the word Buddho, so that we can know the mind beyond the mind. Just observe all the mind’s movements, whether good or bad, until the “one who knows” realizes that the mind is simply mind, not a self or a person. This is called cittanupassana, contemplation of mind. Seeing in this way we will understand that the mind is transient, imperfect and ownerless.

We can summarize thus: the mind is that which acknowledges sense objects, which are distinct from the mind; the “one who knows” knows both the mind and the sense objects for what they are. We must use sati to constantly cleanse the mind. Everybody has sati. Even a cat has it when it’s going to catch a mouse; a dog has it when it barks at someone. This is a form of sati, but it’s not sati according to the dhamma. Everybody has sati; but there are different levels of it, just as there are different levels of looking at things. For example, when I tell people to contemplate the body, some say, “What is there to contemplate in the body? Anybody can see it—hair, nails, teeth and skin we can see already. So what?”

This is how people are. They can see the body all right, but their seeing is faulty; they don’t see with the Buddho, the “one who knows,” the awakened one. They only see the body in the ordinary way; they see it visually. Simply to see the body is not enough. If we only see the body there is trouble. You must see the body within the body; then things become much clearer. Just seeing the body, you get fooled by it, charmed by its appearance. Not seeing transience, imperfection and ownerlessness, kamachanda (sense desire) arises. You become fascinated by forms, sounds, odors, flavors and feelings. Seeing in this way is to see with the mundane eye of the flesh, causing you to love and hate, and discriminate into pleasing and unpleasing.

The Buddha taught us that we must see with the “mind’s eye.” See the body within the body. If you really look into the body…ugh! It’s so repulsive. There are today’s things and yesterday’s things all mixed up in there; you can’t tell what’s what. Seeing in this way is much clearer than seeing with the physical eye, with this crazy eye that looks only at things it wants to see. Contemplate with the eye of the mind, with the wisdom eye.

This is the practice that can uproot clinging to the five khandhas—form, feeling, perception, mental formations and sense consciousness. To uproot attachment is to uproot suffering, because attaching to the five khandhas is the cause of suffering. If suffering arises it is here, at the attachment to the five khandhas. It’s not that the five khandhas are in themselves suffering, but the clinging to them as being one’s own—that’s suffering.

If you clearly see the truth of these things through meditation practice, then suffering becomes unwound, like a screw or a bolt. When a bolt is unscrewed, it withdraws. The mind unwinds in the same way, letting go, withdrawing from the obsession with good and evil, possessions, praise and status, happiness and suffering.

If we don’t know the truth of these things it’s like tightening the screw all the time. It gets tighter and tighter until it’s crushing you and you suffer over everything. When you know how things are, you loosen the screw. In dhamma language we call this the arising of nibbida, disenchantment. You become weary of things and lay down the fascination with them. If you unwind in this way you will find peace.

People have only one problem—the problem of clinging. Just because of this one thing people will kill each other. All problems, be they individual, family or social, arise from this one root. Nobody wins; they kill each other but in the end no one gets anything. Gain and loss, praise and criticism, status and loss of status, happiness and suffering—these are the worldly dhammas. These dhammas engulf worldly beings; they are troublemakers. If you don’t reflect on their true nature, you will suffer. People even commit murder for the sake of wealth, status or power. Why? Because they take them too seriously. They get appointed to some position and it goes to their heads, like the man who became headman of the village. After his appointment he became drunk with power. If any of his old friends came to see him he’d say, “Don’t come around so often. Things aren’t the same anymore.”

The Buddha taught us to understand the nature of possessions, status, praise and happiness. Take these things as they come but let them be. Don’t let them go to your head. If you don’t really understand these things, you’ll be fooled by your power, by your children and relatives…by everything! If you understand them clearly, you know they’re all impermanent conditions. If you cling to them they become defiled.

When people are first born there are simply nama (nonmaterial or mental phenomena) and rupa (material or physical objects), that’s all. We add on the business of “Mr. Jones,” “Miss Smith,” or whatever later on. This is done according to convention. Still later there are the appendages of “Colonel,” “Doctor,” and so on. If we don’t really understand these things we think they are real and carry them around with us. We carry possessions, status, name and rank around. If you have power, you can call all the tunes. “Take this one and execute him. Take that one and throw him in jail.” Rank gives power. This word “rank” here is where clinging takes hold. As soon as people get rank they start giving orders; right or wrong, they just act on their moods. So they go on making the same old mistakes, deviating further and further from the true path. One who understands the dhamma won’t behave like this. If possessions and status come your way, let them simply be possessions and status. Don’t let them become your identity. Just use them to fulfill your obligations and leave it at that. You remain unchanged.

This is how the Buddha wanted us to understand things. No matter what you receive, the mind adds nothing on to it. They appoint you a city councilor: “Okay, so I’m a city councilor…but I’m not.” They appoint you head of a committee: “Sure I’m head, but I’m not.” Whatever they make of you: “Yes I am, but I’m not.” In the end, what are we anyway? We all just die in the end. No matter what they make you, in the end it’s all the same. What can you say? If you can see things in this way you will have a solid abiding and true contentment. Nothing is changed.

In the end, what are we anyway? We all just die in the end. No matter what they make you, in the end it’s all the same.

This is to be not fooled by things. Whatever comes your way, it’s just conditions. There’s nothing that can entice a mind like this to create or proliferate, to seduce it into greed, aversion or delusion.

Now this is to be a true supporter of Buddhism. Whether you are among those who are being supported (the Sangha) or those who are supporting (the laity), please consider this thoroughly. Cultivate the sila-dhamma within you. This is the surest way to support Buddhism. To support Buddhism with the offerings of food, shelter and medicine is good also, but such offerings only reach the sapwood of Buddhism. A tree has bark, sapwood and heartwood, and these three parts are interdependent. The heartwood relies on the bark and the sapwood; the sapwood relies on the bark and the heartwood. They all exist interdependently, just like the teachings of sila, samadhi and pannamoral discipline, concentration and wisdom. Moral discipline establishes your speech and actions in rectitude. Concentration firmly fixes the mind. Wisdom thoroughly understands the nature of all conditions. Study this, practice this, and you will understand Buddhism in the most profound way.

If you don’t realize these things you will be fooled by possessions, fooled by rank, fooled by anything you come into contact with. We must consider our lives and bring them in line with the teaching. We should reflect that all beings in the world are part of one whole. We are like them, they are like us. They have happiness and suffering just like we do. It’s all much the same. If we reflect in this way, peace and understanding will arise. This is the foundation of Buddhism.

From Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah, published by Wisdom Publications ( © 2002 Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation.


Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Chah trained in the Theravada practices of Buddhist meditation under Ajahn Mun, the greatest master of the Thai and Laotian forest tradition in many centuries, and lived the life of a simple forest monk for more than seventy years. His startling wisdom and simplicity attracted many western disciples, and in Thailand, more than a hundred forest monasteries grew up under his guidance.