My musings and questions are related to this Dhamma talk by Ajahn Chah, so I would recommend to read it first before replying to my post.
Since my questions should be understood in a particular Dhammic and cultural context, let me describe this context first.
As most of us will probably know, Ajahn Chah was a teacher in the Thai Forest Traditions. This tradition puts particular emphasis on direct experience of Dhammic truths in meditation instead of formal education i.e. studying the Suttas. Sometimes this led to rather dubious doctrinal results. Yes, I am speaking of the Original Mind. It is known as citta in Ajahn Maha Bua’s teachings, nibbana consciousness and heart in Ajahn Mun’s teachings, etc. Many ‘orthodox’ Theravadins habe pointed out how heterodox this teaching seems to be, so quite often the overwhelming majority of Thai forest Ajahns is described as semi- or even fully-blown eternalists.
The argument their students present in reply to these accusations is that this Original Mind is not our usual mind but rather ‘pure awareness, pure knowing’ having no attachments to the concept of Self or to anything altogether - even to itself; it has let go of everything and is thus abiding in complete peace. In my opinion, it is a strawman argument, since I have never seen a single sutta where the Lord Buddha says that having attachment to the idea of self - or anything at all for that matter - is a characteristic of atta. Moreover, while listening to this talk by Ven. Sujato I could not help thinking how this idea of the Original Mind or citta is similar to the description of atman by Yājñavalkya. If the Original Mind is not contained in the five aggregates, it is literally the same thing that Yājñavalkya claimed was atman: notice how the Upanishadic (or the Advaitin one if we look atcthe post-Buddha times) is nowhere described as having attachments to anything but is quite frequently said to be ‘the unknown Knower’. This similarity is so obvious and undeniable that some of the savvier proponents of the Original mind, like Ven. Thanissaro, fully embraced it by reducing the anatta teaching to a ‘strategy of perception’
I think this little introduction is enough to see why I consider the idea of 'Original Mind’to be highly problematic at the very least. As to why such accomplished meditators and teachers as the Kruba Ajahns believed in such a thing, there may be many answers. I personally tend to think that MN 1 give a pretty straightforward answer to that.
This is why I was always fond of Ajahn Chah as an exception to this general (quasi-)eternalist trend in the Thai forest tradition. I think that having a better scholarly education he saw why this idea would be problematic. As a result, I never came across this idea expressed in his Dhamma talks in any prominent fashion - that is, until I read The Knower.
It is a rather unusual talk for Ajahn Chah. First of all, I tried to find out whether it was re-printed in any other collection of Ajahn Chah’s talks. It looks like it hasn’t - not even in the humongous Collected Teachings by Ajahn Chah. Second, it touches the topic of the Original Mind with the unusual directness. Yes, Ajahn Chah from this talk concedes that calling it a ‘mind’ would be a presupposition (I am sorry, this collection of talks is full of atrocious translations like ‘presupposition’), but he still say that this Something ‘does not arise, does not disband’, that it is the source of our ‘regular’ mind and is characterized by its capability to ‘know’:
But when we really speak about the mind, this is something above the mind. Whatever the mind arises from, we call it the mind. The mind arises and disbands. It arises and disbands, this mind.
But this other thing isn’t the mind that arises and disbands. It’s a different experience. All the things that are that truth: They don’t arise and don’t disband. They’re just the way they are. They go past the issues of arising and disbanding. But when you call them the mind, it’s just in terms of suppositions. When you speak in terms of suppositions, you believe in your own mind—and then what happens? Where does this mind come from? You’ve believed in this mind for so long, and there’s no ease. Right?
In the beginning you know about inconstancy, stress, and not-self. These are issues of the mind. But that reality doesn’t have any issues. It lets go. It lets go of the things that the mind arises with and depends on, but it doesn’t arise or disband at all. The things that arise and disband depend on perceptions and fabrications. We think that because contemplation uses perceptions, then they must be discernment. And so we latch onto fabrications, thinking they’re discernment. But that’s not genuine discernment. Genuine discernment puts an end to issues. It knows, and that’s the end of issues. There are still fabrications, but you don’t follow in line with them. There are sensations, you’re aware of them, but you don’t follow in line with them. You keep knowing that they’re not the path any more.
Easy to see why I was a bit puzzled with this talk. Does it mean that Ajahn Chah taugt some version an Original Mind doctrine? Is it the reason why so many of Ajahn Chah’s disciples are staunch proponents of the Original Mind? What’s up with Ajahn Chah’s The Knower?
I would like to direct this question to Venerables @sujato and @brahmali first as they are a part of Ajahn Chah’s lineage and obviously have much more knowledge of his teachings, personality abd Dhammic style than most of us. At the same time, any other answers and considerations would be welcome.