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What's Up with Ajahn Chah's The Knower?

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.

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IMO, “This other thing which doesn’t arise and disband” = Amata - The Deathless. AFAIK, its a stage just short of Nibbana. See AN9.55 - AN9.61, SN47.41, AN9.14 etc.

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Yeah, but ‘mind arising from Deathless/Nibbana’? The Deathless/Nibbana characterized by ‘knowing’ and being ‘mind above the mind’? This is the most puzzling part about the talk.

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I find the translation of amata as ‘the deathless’ difficult - and I see why translators do it. Because the straightforward translation (also applied in Vedic contexts) is ‘immortality’, which of course doesn’t fit well with the Buddhist interpretation we have cultivated over time.

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Is there any grammatical justification for your suggested translation? Not a criticism or anything, just genuinely curious: my Pali’s been a bit rusty lately.

amṛta is quite a normal Vedic term, going back to the Rgveda and is there commonly rendered as immortal or immortality.

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I suppose ‘immortality’ (or maybe ‘the immortal’) is fine for amata, typically rendered as ‘deathless’.
Past participle of marati + the ‘a’ negator = not dead. Marati and mortal are PIE related, mṛ.

PED’s definition cites a commentarial gloss, “na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati ti amatan ti vuccati”.

(that not born nor age nor die is called amata)

It’s a gloss on the line from the Ratana Sutta:
“Destruction, dispassion, the deathless, the sublime, (khayaṃ virāgaṃ amataṃ paṇītaṃ)
which Sakyamuni, concentrated, attained:
there is nothing equal to that Dhamma,
This too is the sublime gem in the Dhamma,” etc…
Ven. Bodhi trans.

These 4 qualities in the stanza all refer to nibbāna.

How this is related to “Original Mind” I do not know.

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Vs

Contradiction here…:thinking:

So according to this teaching, is the ‘Original mind’ considered unconditioned or not?

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Doctrine isn’t my strong point… but what comes to mind is that for the Arahat there is also non-manifest consciousness (Anidassana Vinyana). And then with the abandonment of Self-Thinking (Mannana), there is still the process/mechanism of knowing, but without ‘attachment’… Language (even to the level of Nama) becomes extremely problematic when talking about these things as even the grammar constructs a particular conceptual environment within which one must communicate, and which must be untangled first…

Looking forward to hearing from Ajahn @Brahmali and Bhante @sujato :smiley:

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Here is a link to an essay by Bhante Sujato, that clearly outlines that any type of consciousness (including Anidassana Vinyana) is not permanent or ‘unconditioned’.

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100% conditioned. Not Self. But very easy to attach to as representing an immortal Self, all the more so because it seems constant and unchanging. It is that which does the knowing, that which powers/ underlies the constantly changing facade of Mind. In the words of Ajahn Sumedho “Awareness is constant, it doesn’t change. And my Awareness is not different from your Awareness.” That’s why some call it Original Mind aka ‘The Watcher/ The Knower’. AFAIK, it is a condition free of Lust and Aversion, only the last bit of Delusion (the final whiff of the odour of I/ my making) remains. Once that is let go of, everything dissolves into the Dhamma, Cessation occurs and there is Nibbana.

(PS: There is a whole book on the concept of Amata in the Connected Discourses and its also described in multiple other suttas. AFAIK, its very closely related to Nibbana, yet its not exactly the same - sort of like the relationship between Samadhi and Jhana. )

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That may be your perception, but I have heard more than one talk by forest Ajahns - Western ones included - who directly described the Original Mind as eternal and not suffering. Combined with the arguments I present in the Original post, it is hard to see how it is not an atman and / or unconditioned in their view.

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Well, my perception comes from listening to probably the very same talks as well as reading the very same texts, so go figure!! :rofl: :rofl: :upside_down_face:

Snp 4.12
Indeed the truth is one, there’s not another,
about this the One who Knows
does not dispute with another,
but the Samaṇas proclaim their varied “truths”
and so they speak not in the same way.

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There’s nothing in that quotation from Snp4.12 to suggest either conditioned or unconditioned.

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I have read the Dhamma talk by Ajahn Chah.

What I understand is that Ajahn Chah was explaining about cittānupassanā and the development path till final stage of insight ( ñana).

Fabrications is called Sinkhara aggregate. At the end (exhaustion) of all Sinkhara, there is Nibbana, which is unconditioned, permanent but no-self, according to Vipassana book by late Mahasi Sayadaw from Myanmar.

In whatever word you call- Original Mind or Primal Mind- it seems to me that it is a purified mind at the Asinkatta paramattha dhamma which is beyond Sinkatta paramattha dhammas (citta, rupa and cetatika).

As Ajahn Chah stated “Knower can change”, I understand “Knower” means only vijnana aggregate while sleeping and vijnana + sati (awareness) cetakina while meditating (sounds like Abidhama teaching).

Despite differences in detailed words, his explanation looks similar to the discourses on meditation and Nibbana by some venerable monks from Myanmar.

Thanks and regards,

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Totally agree with you. And defiantly there is some Abidhama influences. There is no doubt if somebody read all talks of Ajhan Chah that no permanent soul is ever mentioned. Quite the opposite.

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I’ve also heard that the problematic, or maybe not so problematic word “eternal” is mentioned on the subject. Maybe when one speaks from an ordinary mind, a 3-dimensional being, the word eternal is ok … But if awareness or knowing could have a say, it might say; I’m infinite and dimensionless.

Do you mean that the Abhidhamma influences despite Thai Forest claims to ignore the Abhidhamma, or do you mean that there is definitely Abhidhamma influence?

Are you referring to Ajahn Chah’s talk “The Path to Peace”? All I get is an error 503 when I click on the link. Thanks.

Here is the link to the interview transcript.
https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/StillFlowingWater/Section0012.html

When I read these passages I don’t get the idea that he is talking about a permanent essence or consciousness at all. It is the end of fabrication and construction, and end to imaginings and holding on to views, and the end of papanca.

Note it is the interviewer who coins the phrase ‘Genuine Mind’ – Ajahn Chah does not use this terminology. This conceptual overlay has sneaked in… What Ajahn Chah is talking about is an absence of fabrications and issues… It is like in the suttas - the place where no-thing finds a footing (the house with no walls or floor for a beam of sunlight to land – or trying to draw images in the sky where they can not hold an image. Sorry I can’t recall the two sutta numbers here). I think of it as a wave passing through the ocean without leaving a trace. What are you going to call/label it… the waveless ocean? Non-Manifest Consciousness? … I particularly love Ajahn Chah’s Still Flowing Water. All labels are inadequate to describe this absence/extinguishment… especially while still alive - another way of thinking about Nibbana is not just as ‘deathless’ or unconditioned but also as conceptlessness. That is so tricky – how does one use conceptual thought to illuminate a ‘state’ without conceptual proliferation (including the concept of ‘I’ or even a concept of ‘Nibbana’).

These extracts from the interview make it even clearer! It is the interviewer who keeps clinging to the concept of some kind of permanent mind/self, and Ajahn Chah keeps correcting that perception.

Excerpt from the Ajahn Chah talk linked above

“Don’t follow your thought-fabrications. When you see the activity of fabrications, that’s discernment. But if you keep on running to get inside them, it’s all just fabrication. That kind of knowing isn’t really you, so you have to discard that, too. Consciousness is just consciousness, that’s all. It’s not a being, not a person, not a self, not “us” or “them.” So you discard it, too. That’s the end of the matter. And what else would you want? Where would you go from there? You’d just be putting yourself to difficulties, you know.”

and the excerpt quoted by @Vstakan a little further on

Further down we have this

“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.

Question: What do we do to find this point, the point of the genuine mind?”

“When you understand this much, that’s the end of issues. When you understand it, you take it to contemplate so as to give rise to discernment. See clearly all the way in. It’s not just a matter of simply arising and disbanding, you know. That’s not the case at all. You have to look into the causes within your own mind. You’re just the same way: arising and disbanding. Look until there’s no pleasure or pain. Keep following in until there’s nothing: no attachment. That’s how you go beyond these things. Really see it that way; see your mind in that way. This is not just something to talk about. Get so that wherever you are, there’s nothing. Things arise and disband, arise and disband, and that’s all. You don’t depend on fabrications. You don’t run after fabrications. But normally, we monks fabricate in one way; lay people fabricate in crude ways. But it’s all a matter of fabrication. If we always follow in line with them, if we don’t know, they grow more and more until we don’t know up from down.

Question: But there’s still the primal mind, right?

Ajahn Chah: What?

Question: Just now when you were speaking, it sounded as if there were something aside from the five aggregates. What else is there? You spoke as if there were something. What would you call it? The primal mind? Or what?

Ajahn Chah: You don’t call it anything. Everything ends right there. There’s no more calling it “primal.” That ends right there. “What’s primal” ends.

Question: Would you call it the primal mind?

Ajahn Chah: You can give it that supposition if you want. When there are no suppositions, there’s no way to talk. There are no words to talk. But there’s nothing there, no issues. It’s primal; it’s old. There are no issues at all. But what I’m saying here is just suppositions. “Old,” “new”: These are just affairs of supposition. If there were no suppositions, we wouldn’t understand anything. We’d just sit here silent without understanding one another. So understand that.

Question: The primal mind and the knower: Are they the same thing?

Ajahn Chah: Not at all. The knower can change. It’s your awareness. Everyone has a knower.

Question: But not everyone has a primal mind?

Ajahn Chah: Everyone has one. Everyone has a knower, but it hasn’t reached the end of its issues, the knower.

Question: But everyone has both?

Ajahn Chah: Yes. Everyone has both, but they haven’t explored all the way into the other one.

Question: Does the knower have a self?

Ajahn Chah: No. Does it feel like it has one? Has it felt that way from the very beginning?

I feel that it is very clear from this that the interviewer is the one clinging to an idea of a ‘primal mind’ that has a permanent essence and that Ajahn Chah keeps saying that gradually and ultimately it all ceases

this exerpt from MN140 is relevant

‘They have four foundations, standing on which the streams of identification don’t flow. And when the streams of identification don’t flow, they’re called a sage at peace.’ That’s what I said, but why did I say it?

These are all forms of identifying: ‘I am’, ‘I am this’, ‘I will be’, ‘I will not be’, ‘I will have form’, ‘I will be formless’, ‘I will be percipient’, ‘I will be non-percipient’, ‘I will be neither percipient nor non-percipient.’ Identification is a disease, a boil, a dart. Having gone beyond all identification, one is called a sage at peace. The sage at peace is not reborn, does not grow old, and does not die. They are not shaken, and do not yearn. For they have nothing which would cause them to be reborn. Not being reborn, how could they grow old? Not growing old, how could they die? Not dying, how could they be shaken? Not shaking, for what could they yearn?

‘They have four foundations, standing on which the streams of identification don’t flow. And when the streams of identification don’t flow, they’re called a sage at peace.’ That’s what I said, and this is why I said it. Mendicant, you should remember this brief analysis of the six elements."

As @Vstakan indicated, MN1 is clear about the role of ‘imaginings or suppositions’ (mannana) needing to be overcome. This is the point that I believe Ajahn Chah, is making.

This is clearly shown in the Bahiyasutta Ud1.10
“In that case, Bāhiya, you should train like this: ‘In the seen will be merely the seen; in the heard will be merely the heard; in the thought will be merely the thought; in the known will be merely the known.’ That’s how you should train. When you have trained in this way, you won’t be ‘by that’. When you’re not ‘by that’, you won’t be ‘in that’. When you’re not ‘in that’, you won’t be in this world or the world beyond or in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering.”

In the case of Ajahn Chah – I believe that he is just using his own words/labels, to communicate what the Buddha was pointing to. This would be natural if he has seen it himself and is not just repeating dogma. His words don’t have to be interpreted as a permanent essence/self, – but there is a tendency for people to grasp onto a self, and thus interpret them in a specific way just as the interviewer did by inserting the concept of Genuine/Primal Mind into the interview, just what happens with the misunderstandings of the Buddhas teachings on Anatta.

I do, however, acknowledge that it appears that some of the Thai teachers do seem to subscribe to a concept with similarities to the Original Mind, but I don’t see that as the case here.

Added:
It is not surprising that this is hard to penetrate. This stuff is really in the Panna section of the gradual training. First one needs to have perfected Sila, then achieved Samadhi. These are necessary to get past, (or put down/still), the proliferation in the mind, to enable one to see beyond objects or the subject/object dichotomy (perceptions - the known/the knower) and to focus on the mechanisms and processes of Mind, thereby going even deeper into impermanence and unsatisfactoriness and non-self. Only at this stage of ‘weakening’ habitual conceptualisations can one see them clearly and then also abandon them as ‘only suffering arising and ceasing’. It is to be expected that one will not be able to see this clearly without having done the preliminary work – of having put the conditions into place that enable this to occur.

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