Training the Heart

Ajahn Chah says that if you want to transform the mind, you must to know and transform the heart.

By Ajahn Chah

Photo by Rachel Walker

The whole reason for studying the dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha, is to search for a way to transcend suffering and attain peace and happiness. Whether we study physical or mental phenomena, the mind or its psychological factors, it’s only when we make liberation from suffering our ultimate goal that we’re on the right path. Suffering has a cause, a condition, for its existence.

Please clearly understand that when the mind is still, it’s in its natural, normal state. As soon as the mind moves, it becomes conditioned. When the mind is attracted to something, it becomes conditioned. When aversion arises, it becomes conditioned. The desire to move here and there arises from conditioning. If our awareness doesn’t keep pace with these mental proliferations as they occur, the mind will chase after them and be conditioned by them. And whenever the mind moves, at that moment, it becomes a conventional reality.

If a thought of hate arose, I asked myself why. If a thought of love arose, I asked myself why. This is the way.

The Buddha taught that whenever the mind moves, it becomes unstable and impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and cannot be taken as a self (anatta). These are the three universal characteristics of all conditioned phenomena. The Buddha taught us to observe and contemplate these movements of the mind.

It’s likewise with the teaching of dependent origination: ignorance is the cause and condition for the arising of volitional kammic formations, which is the cause and condition for the arising of consciousness, and so on. The Buddha separated each link of the chain to make it easier to study. But though this is an accurate description of reality, when this process actually occurs in real life, the scholars aren’t able to keep up with what’s happening. It’s like falling from the top of a tree—we have no idea how many branches we’ve passed on the way down. What we do know is that we’ve hit the ground with a thud and it hurts! Similarly, when the mind is suddenly hit by a mental impression, if it delights in it, then it flies off into a good mood. It considers it good without being aware of the chain of conditions that led there. There’s nothing that announces, “This is delusion. These are volitional kammic formations, and that is consciousness.”

So scholarship alone can’t keep pace with the reality. That’s why the Buddha taught that we should cultivate clear knowing for ourselves. Whatever arises, arises in this knowing. When that which knows, knows in accordance with the truth, then the mind and its psychological factors are recognized as not ours. Ultimately, all these phenomena are to be discarded and thrown away as if they were rubbish. We shouldn’t cling to them or give them any meaning.

Knowing the Mind

This mind has already been conditioned. It’s been trained and conditioned to turn away and spin out from a state of pure awareness. As it spins, it creates conditioned phenomena that further influence the mind, and the proliferation carries on. The process gives birth to the good, the evil, and everything else under the sun. The Buddha taught that we should abandon it all. Initially, however, you have to familiarize yourself with the theory so that you’ll be able to abandon it all at the later stage. This is a natural process. The mind is just this way; psychological factors are just this way.

The Buddha taught that the mind has no substance; it isn’t anything. The mind isn’t born belonging to anyone, and it doesn’t die belonging to anyone. The mind is free, radiant, and unentangled with any problems or issues. The reason problems arise is because the mind is deluded by conditioned things, deluded by this misperception of self. So the Buddha taught us to observe this mind. In the beginning, what is there? There is truly nothing there. It doesn’t arise with conditioned things, and it doesn’t die with them. When the mind encounters something good, it doesn’t change to become good. When the mind encounters something bad, it doesn’t become bad. That’s how it is when there is clear insight into one’s nature: there is the understanding that this is essentially a substanceless state of affairs.

We have to look deeply into our own hearts if we want to experience the fruits of this practice. Attempting to describe the psychology of the mind in terms of the numerous separate moments of consciousness and their different characteristics is, in my opinion, not taking the practice far enough. There is still a lot more to it. If we are going to study these things, then we must know them absolutely, with clarity and penetrative understanding.

Insight has to proceed from peace and tranquility. The entire process will happen naturally of its own accord. We can’t force it.

Practicing dhamma is thus extremely important. When I practiced, I didn’t know anything about mind moments or psychological factors. I just observed the quality of knowing. If a thought of hate arose, I asked myself why. If a thought of love arose, I asked myself why. This is the way. Whether it’s labeled as a thought or called a psychological factor, so what? Just penetrate this one point until you’re able to resolve these feelings of love and hate, until they completely vanish from the heart. When I was able to stop loving and hating under any circumstances, I was able to transcend suffering, because at that point, no matter what happens, the heart and mind are released and at ease. Nothing remains; it has all stopped.

Virtue, Meditation, and Wisdom

Virtue (sila) is the beautiful beginning of the path to liberation; the deep peace of samadhi is the beautiful middle; wisdom is the beautiful end. Although they can be separated as three unique aspects of the training, as we look into them more and more deeply, these three qualities converge as one. To uphold virtue, you have to be wise. Usually we advise people to first develop ethical standards by keeping the five precepts so that their virtue will become solid. However, the perfection of virtue takes a lot of wisdom. We have to consider our speech and actions, and analyze their consequences. This is all the work of wisdom. Therefore, we have to rely on our wisdom in order to cultivate virtue.

Wisdom purifies our actions and speech. Once we become familiar with ethical and unethical behavior, we see the place to practice. We abandon what’s wrong and cultivate what’s right. This is virtue. As we do this, the heart becomes increasingly firm and steadfast. A steadfast and unwavering heart is free of apprehension, remorse, and confusion concerning our actions and speech. This is samadhi.

This stable unification of mind forms a secondary and more powerful source of energy in our dhamma practice, allowing a deeper contemplation of the sights, sounds, and so on that we experience. Once the mind is established with firm and unwavering mindfulness and peace, we can engage in sustained inquiry into the reality of the body, feeling, perception, thought, consciousness, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and objects of mind. As these things continually arise, we investigate with a sincere determination not to lose our mindfulness. Only in this way do we come to know what they actually are and that they come into existence following their own natural truth. Once there is clear comprehension of the way things truly are, our old perceptions are uprooted and our conceptual knowledge transforms into wisdom. That’s how virtue, samadhi, and wisdom merge and function as one.

Thwart the craving of the mind with determination. Challenge it to its core, until the teachings penetrate to the heart.

As wisdom increases in strength and intrepidity, samadhi evolves to become increasingly firm. The more unshakeable samadhi is, the more unshakeable and all-encompassing virtue becomes. As virtue is perfected, it nurtures samadhi, and the additional strengthening of samadhi leads to a maturing of wisdom. These three aspects of training mesh and intertwine. United, they form the noble eightfold path, the way of the Buddha. Once virtue, samadhi, and wisdom reach their peak, this path has the power to eradicate those things that defile the mind’s purity, the kilesa.

If the factors of the eightfold path are weak and timid, the defilements will possess our minds. If the knowing isn’t quick and nimble enough as forms, feelings, perceptions, and thoughts are experienced, they will possess and devastate us. However, if the noble path is strong and courageous, it will conquer and destroy the defilements. The path and the defilements proceed in tandem. As dhamma practice develops in the heart, these two forces have to battle it out every step of the way. It’s like there are two people arguing inside the mind, but it’s just the path of dhamma and the defilements struggling to win domination of the heart.

When virtue, samadhi, and wisdom have attained full strength, the path of dhamma is unstoppable, advancing unceasingly to overcome the attachment and clinging that bring us so much anguish. Suffering can’t arise because the path is destroying the defilements. It’s at this point that the cessation of suffering occurs.

Once we’ve arrived at this peace, even if we hear a noise, the mind remains unruffled. Once we’ve reached this peace, there’s nothing remaining to do. The Buddha taught us to give it all up. Whatever happens, there’s nothing to worry about. It is then that we truly, unquestionably know for ourselves and no longer simply believe what other people say.

A Natural Process

If there’s only a little clarity of insight, we call this little vipassana. When clear seeing increases a bit, we call that moderate vipassana. If knowing is fully in accordance with the truth, we call that ultimate vipassasa. Personally, I prefer to use the word wisdom (pañña) rather than vipassana. I think if we’re going to sit down from time to time and practice vipassana meditation, we’re going to have a very difficult time of it. Insight has to proceed from peace and tranquility. The entire process will happen naturally of its own accord. We can’t force it.

The Buddha taught that this process matures at its own rate. Whether the progress is swift or slow is out of our control. It’s just like planting a tree. The tree knows how fast it should grow. If we want it to grow more quickly than it is, this is pure delusion. If we do the work, the results will be forthcoming, just like planting a tree.

If we achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, that’s fine. If we have to wait until our next lifetime, no matter. We have faith and unfaltering conviction in the dhamma. Whether we progress quickly or slowly is up to our innate capabilities, spiritual aptitude, and the merit we’ve accumulated so far. Practicing like this puts the heart at ease.

When you begin to cultivate the serenity of samatha meditation, don’t make the mistake of trying once or twice and then giving up because the mind is not peaceful. That’s not the right way. You have to cultivate meditation over a long period of time. Why does it have to take so long? Think about it: How many years have we allowed our minds to wander astray? How many years have we not been doing samatha meditation? Whenever the mind has ordered us to follow it down a particular path, we’ve rushed after it. To calm that wandering mind, to bring it to a stop, to make it still, a couple of months of meditation won’t be enough.

Whenever we experience a mood or emotion, we should examine it in terms of its impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selfless qualities. Then reflect and investigate. Observe how these defiled emotions are almost always accompanied by excessive thinking. Wherever a mood leads, thinking straggles along behind. Thinking merely reacts to and follows our moods, and they carry on with no end in sight. But if wisdom is operating, it will bring the mind to stillness. The mind stops and doesn’t go anywhere. There is simply knowing and acknowledging what is being experienced: when this emotion comes up, this mind is like this; when that mood comes, it is like that. We sustain the “knowing.” Eventually, it occurs to us, “Hey, all this thinking, this aimless mental chatter, this worrying and judging, it’s all insubstantial nonsense. It’s all impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not me or mine.” Toss it into one of these three all-encompassing categories and quell the uprising. Cut it off at its source. Later, when we again sit in meditation, it will come up again. Keep a close watch on it. Spy on it.

The Buddha said that those who keep a close watch over their minds will be liberated from Mara’s snare. And yet this knowing mind is also the mind, so who is the one observing the mind? Such ideas can make you extremely confused. The mind is one thing, the knowing another, and yet the knowing originates in this very same mind. What does it mean to know the mind? What’s it like to encounter moods and emotions? What’s it like to be without any defiled emotions whatsoever? That which knows what these things are, is what is meant by the “knowing.” The knowing observantly follows the mind, and it’s from this knowing that wisdom is born. The mind is that which thinks and gets entangled in emotions, one after another.

When the mind experiences an emotion and instantly grabs it, it’s the job of the knowing to teach. Examine the mood to see if it’s good or bad. Explain to the mind how cause and effect functions. And when it again grabs onto something that it thinks is adorable, the knowing has to again teach the mind, to explain cause and effect, until the mind is able to cast that thing aside. This leads to peace of mind. After finding out that whatever it grabs and grasps is inherently undesirable, the mind simply stops. It can’t be bothered with those things anymore, because it has come under a constant barrage of rebukes and reprimands. Thwart the craving of the mind with determination. Challenge it to its core, until the teachings penetrate to the heart.

The Courage to Change

The Buddha taught that in the beginning stages of dhamma practice, you should work very hard, develop things thoroughly, and attach a lot. Attach to the Buddha. Attach to the dhamma. Attach to the sangha. Attach firmly and deeply—that’s what the Buddha taught.

I sacrificed my life for the dhamma because I had faith in the reality of enlightenment and the path to get there. These things actually do exist, just like the Buddha said they did. But to realize them takes practice, right practice. It takes pushing yourself to the limit. It takes the courage to train, to reflect, and to fundamentally change. It takes the courage to actually do what it takes. How to you do it? You train the heart.

Why is it necessary to train? Because the heart is totally encrusted and plastered over with defilements. That’s what a heart is like that has not yet been transformed through the training. It’s unreliable, so don’t believe it. It’s not yet virtuous. How can we trust a heart that lacks purity and clarity? Initially, the heart is only a hired hand of defilement, but if they associate together for an extended period of time, the heart is perverted to become defilement itself. That is why the Buddha warned us not to put our trust in a defiled heart.

If we take a good look at our monastic training discipline, we’ll see that it’s all about training the heart. And whenever we train the heart, we feel hot and bothered. As soon as we’re hot and bothered, we start to complain: “Boy, this practice is incredibly difficult! It’s impossible!” But the Buddha didn’t think like that. According to the Buddha, when the training is causing us heat and friction that means we are on the right track. But we think it’s a sign that something is wrong. This misunderstanding is what makes the practice seem so arduous.

Everyone wants to feel good, but they’re less concerned about whether it’s right or not. When we go against the grain of the defilements and challenge our cravings, of course we feel suffering. We get hot, upset, and bothered, and then quit. We think we’re on the wrong path. The Buddha, however, would say we’re getting it right. We’re confronting our defilements, and they are what is getting hot and bothered.

Penetrating the Heart

Practice with unflinching dedication! If you want to practice dhamma, then please try not to think too much. If you’re meditating and you find yourself trying to force specific results, then it’s better to stop. When your mind settles down to become peaceful and you think, “That’s it! That’s it, isn’t it? Is this it?”—then stop. Take all your analytical and theoretical knowledge, wrap it up, and store it away in a chest. And don’t drag it out for discussion or to teach. That’s not the type of knowledge that penetrates inside.

When the reality of something is seen, it’s not the same as the written descriptions. For example, let’s say we write down the word “sensual desire.” When sensual desire actually overwhelms the heart, it’s impossible for the written word to convey the same meaning as the reality. It’s the same with “anger.” We can write the letters on a blackboard, but when we’re actually angry the experience is not the same. We can’t read those letters fast enough, and the heart is engulfed by rage.

This is an extremely important point. The theoretical teachings are accurate, but it’s essential to bring them into our hearts. It must be internalized. If the dhamma isn’t brought into the heart, it’s not truly known. It’s not actually seen.

Everything I’ve said so far is simply for you to listen to and think about. It’s just talk, that’s all. When people come to see me, I speak. These sorts of subjects aren’t the things we should sit around and gab about for hours. Just do it. Get in there and do it. It’s like when we call a friend to go somewhere: we invite them, and we get an answer. Then we’re off, without a big fuss. We say just the right amount and leave it at that. I can tell you a thing or two about meditation, because I’ve done the work. But you know, maybe I’m wrong. Your job is to investigate and find out for yourself if what I say is true.

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.