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

Unfortunately, I am neither on Ajahn Brahmavamso’s nor on Ajahn Chah’s level, so I am still lost and confused. If even for a simple reason that I am now not even sure whether a single talk from the 800-page strong Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah I had the merit to take from the monastery where I stayed for a couple of days last week really contains Ajahn’s words.

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Suppose, a respected ajahn agrees that the discourse is faulty. Then he has to explain to you about nibbana in different terms or he refuses to describe it at all.
after 2, 3 or 4 days, you would find yourself in exact spot doubting if he knows nibbana at all, why he refuses to give you an direct answer, so on.
Your doubt is pulling a trick on you, it leads you in circle.

Best to dodge all description to nibbana if that gets your mind ranting. Go back to your mindful theme, knowing doubt as doubt, confusion as confusion, knowing stuck as stuck, see them come see them go, get really familiar with yourself, your mind, its tricks.

There is no danger to talk about nibbana with a different name once right view settles in and you have confidence about the stability of the right view. All the time we question the talks treating nibbana as something eternal, but no question that those ajahns still treat us as sentient beings. After all they can see us as empty form, phenoma, not beings at all. Then the mere actions of teaching is in conflict with non-self.

Buddha said something in ball park, ‘what i teach is a fistful of sand and what i know is like all sand in all ocean and rivers.’ Some high minds would tell a tale or two with no roots in sutta, but it doesn’t mean that is beyond what Buddha knows.

If a topic takes you far and long away from your mindful base, you should be really cautious about this indulgence, even if it is nibbana.

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Well, it is one thing that I may have my doubts about the nature of Nibbana, and it is another thing when someone manipulates a speech by a respected teacher to better support their view on Nibbana.

Sure thing. But again, it is one thing to talk about Nibbana under a different name and another one to preach a wrong view. How do we identify a false view? By applying the criteria advised by the Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta: if someone’s teaching is not traceable in the Suttas and verifiable by Vinaya, then it is not the saccadhamma. So, when you say

then I am sorry, the Buddha does not seem to agree to that statement.

It is my firm conviction that the Original Mind theory as well as other citta-like beliefs as taught by certain highly venerated ajahns in the Thai Forest Tradition are not traceable in the Suttas despite some rather feeble attempts of their proponents to read the Original Mind or Unbound Signless Consciousness or whatever into some obscure Sutta fragments, mostly taken out of context and translated with a fair amount of doctrinal spin (cf. bhava being translated as ‘becoming’). It means that the ajahns preaching these doctrines are at the very least not arahants. They may be lovely people, extremely good, disciplined, ascetic monks, experienced meditators (far better than me), extraordinarily talented abbots of their monasteries, but they still have wrong views and are still not awakened.

If we ignore the perniciousness of preaching such views for the sasana as well as loads of bad kamma generated by it (AN 1.306–315) and focus solely on whether they conform to the Buddhadhamma as found in the Suttas, Ajahn Chah’s being an Original Mind proponent would mean that at least some of his teachings are patently false and would lead practitioners to bad results. If it is not his teachings but those of his disciples and his disciples’ disciples, it should be discussed, clarified and stated in unequivocal terms for the well-being of all involved. This is actually my primary concern in that entire affair as well as the reason for my spiritual turmoil.

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Further to your excellent comment, is there a reliable collection of Ajahhn Chah’s teachings that can be recommended?

This is exactly what I am trying to find out :slight_smile:

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This is a public service announcement, courtesy the Forum FAQ.

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Q16 I’m so angry! I want to expose the wrong doing of that Teacher, those Monastics and their Tradition.

A : While we understand your situation, we regret that this forum is not the place to express your angst. Every Teacher and Tradition has their plus and minus points. The approach that is best for one person may feel unduly restrictive to another. If you feel that there was some genuine wrongdoing, you should contact the appropriate authorities. Please do not level unsubstantiated allegations against any Teacher, Monastic or Tradition on this forum.

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And now, back to the thread… :slightly_smiling_face:

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Thanks for reminding me about that, but I don’t feel like I have made any allegations or accused someone of something. True, I have memtioned that there is a theory I am more inclined to believe but I am open to other explanations as well. My purpose is to find out the truth, even if it contradicts my assumptions. Which is why I have tried to reach out to the venerables as people with more knowledge of the context and tradition than me.

As for my repudiation of the Original Mind theory, I made extra effort to criticize the theory and not the ajahns. My experience with Thai forest monks has been positive so far, their teachings, books and meditative instructions can be a real help. But some of the teachings one finds in this tradition are just not what the Buddha taught.

Tobsum it all up, we can all be sure that there is an issue with these two renditions of the same talk being quite different. One of them is closer to what @Viveka described, the other one to the Original Mind theory. In any case, such major discrepancies between two versions of the same talk are a cause of legitmate concern. This is why I would like to know the truth.

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@Vstakan and @4GreatHeavenlyKings

Doubt can be either a rightly apprehended temporary tool or a misapprehended detrimental lingering hinderance. In one aspect it can be utilized as a discerning bridge towards proper confirmed confidence that is quickly abandoned once crossed over or it can conversely be a persistent, consistent mental turmoil that is never quenched.

Your doubt seems reasonable.

Perhaps, it is in fact well placed doubt.

It would be prudent to consider where someone is mostly likely to find confidence in the dhamma.

I would suggest reading the Saṁyutta Nikāya cover to cover (skipping the first vagga of verses on the first pass might be helpful) multiple times. Purchase Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation because the footnotes alone are worth the cost, even if one doesn’t have the knowledge base to fully understand them initially. All it takes to get the full value from Bodhi’s notes is a functional understanding of Pali grammar/vocabulary, a rudimentary familiarity with Abhidhamma terminology, and being comfortable with the commentary and sub-commentary being wrong as often as right about the many nuances.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has great classes available free online for elementary/intermediate Pali as well as classes on the Abhidhammattha Saṅgāha, an overview manual on the Abhidhamma, which is at least interesting, if not particularly practical to praxis.

Make the Saṁyutta your bridge. Read every translation. Cross reference different translations against each other. Understand the definitions of core Pali terminology, not simply how they are translated into English. Know what the commentary/sub-commentary’s glossing of tricky words is, right or wrong.

Conceivably one might learn why certain ubiquitous understandings of core terms are in fact laughable in their naïveté. Like that the word dhamma used in the plural changes in meaning by 100%.

If anyone is aware of any noun in any language whatsoever that changes its meaning in a 100% fashion by simply going from the singular to the plural please let me know. Lol. This is probably the most bizarre grammatical anomaly in history.

By understanding the overall message and intentions of the doctrine in the Saṁyutta the stumbling blocks (for translators and commentators) of saṅkhāra, dhamma/dhammā, and nibbana, etc… will illustrate themselves over time and one will build an understanding that is divorced from popular contemporary figures.

Best of luck.

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“What is Contemplation?” was originally published in Seeing the Way, a 1989 anthology of teachings in the Thai Forest tradition. All subsequent publications use this same translation with the exception of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s in 1994. Here’s a couple of links to the original publication. :

https://www.dhammatalks.net/Books/Ajahn_Chah_SEEING_THE_WAY.htm#CONTEMPLATION

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Thanks for pointing that out! :pray: That changes the situation a bit and makes it look somewhat more likely that The Knower’s translators changed the talk.

Although the big question of why the two versions are so different and which one is closer to the real teaching by Ajahn Chah is still standing. Anyway, your comment was of help, thanks again!

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I just want to say that at times I’ve felt very sad and dejected upon learning that some respected Ajahn teaches something that, according to my own perception, seems very hard to reconcile with the suttas.

I don’t know what to do about it though, except stick to teachers who are sutta oriented?

This is an assumption that may not be useful. The Buddha taught how unreliable is perception. We can see this in operation everyday. You and I could read the same passage yet perceive it differently, and in good faith paraphrase it and come out with different slants. There is a huge difference between a technical ‘translation’ and a ‘re-telling’ of something. My hypothesis is that the second ‘version’ of the talk is a re-telling rather than a translation. In principle, both have elements of unreliability built into them, but the latter is much more likely to result in something that reflects the ‘re-tellers’ perception and understanding. It can be the result of the best intentions, of wanting to clarify something that appears a bit unclear to be clearer- but then it is transformed into that persons view. This may be a totally unconscious and invisible process. Views are built on perceptions, which are unreliable. That is why the Buddha says that views are something to be abandoned, and that perception is to be seen to be unreliable. One of my favourite reported stories about Ajahn Chah is that he would have a constant ‘uncertain’ attitude towards ‘views’. Is it ‘x’ ? … uncertain, not sure…

The Buddha was so meticulous in the way he used language, with such a high order of internal consistency across his teachings. How often do we see him chastise one of the monks “foolish stupid man, when have you known me to teach it like that”… Sometimes I would find it frustrating - why say things in such a complicated and convoluted manner… :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: I think this is the reason why, to reduce the possibility of wrong perception… (reduce not eliminate). The Buddha also foresaw that over time, just through the natural action of attention/perception/formation of views that his teachings on cessation would become corrupted, to something more comfortable … we even see the proto-evidence of this at the end of MN1 - and the monks were not happy…

That is why the EBTs are such a gift. One can go back with a pretty high degree of certitude, and actually read what the Buddha taught. Through the scholarship on EBTs and parallels we are closer than ever (in the last 2000 years) of having access to the actual teachings of the Buddha. This is the Standard against which everything else is measured. Reading many translations really helps, as well as referring to the parallels. And this is where I have such gratitude to Sutta Central and the work of Bhante Sujato and all the others who contribute scholarship and translations. Here we have an easily accessible tool for multiple translations and parallels. And then one can always learn Pali. Or Thai if you want to listen to and understand what Ajahn Chah was saying. There are recordings of his talks.

The Buddha said not to believe logic, or gurus, or masters, but to always compare it to his teachings and to accept it ONLY if they match. But it doesn’t stop there, it also needs to be reflected by ones own practice experience - only then can one truly come to an understanding. The rest is a pointing… the test is when it becomes a lived reality.

With regard to the issue of Nibbana and the end of the path, there is one resource that I have found that really presents this in the most thorough and skilled way, leading us through the maze of misunderstandings and through the history of misinterpretations - always coming back to the Buddhas teachings as the authority. It is the work Nibbana the Mind Stilled by Bhikkhu K Ṇānananda. It is a challenging read, 800 very dense pages. Bhikkhu Anālayo did a 3 year series on it, covering 11 chapters/sermons per year. This is probably the best way to do it - by reading the text together with listening to the lectures. Here is the link

Added:

It is our desire that someone tell us the answer that makes us suffer, when we discover that they are fallible human beings. But this need not be the case, if one realises that these are just perspectives and experiences of individuals, and not invest anything more into it. Also one needs to be careful not to reject the whole lot, just because some aspects are limited. EG if the teacher is spot on about most things, but maybe not about cessation, it doesn’t mean that all the other teachings are worthless. Expectations cause a lot of suffering.

Just keep comparing it to what the Buddha said and to practice experience. The tricky thing is that it takes a LOT of time to become familiar with the Buddhas teachings. The more of a ‘short-cut’ we look for, the less reliable the information. There really is no short cut… just the Noble 8 fold Path and the word of the Buddha.

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I think this is really important. I’ve learned a lot from teachers whose use of language I sometimes find problematical, and I deal with it by internally translating their terms into something that makes sense to me. So a teacher might say something like: “If you let go of clinging, greed, hatred, and delusion you’ll find your true nature.” That sounds a little odd to me, but in the context the “true nature” they are referring to is probably
yathābhūtañāṇadassanaṁ, commonly translated as “knowledge and vision of things as they really are”: AN10.3: SuttaCentral. This translation is also a little problematic, as it sounds like some static “reality”. Bhikkhu Sujato uses: “true knowledge and vision”: AN10.3 SuttaCentral, and some suggest that “knowledge and vision of things as they have become” better captures the dynamic nature of the knowledge. More colloquially: “knowing how stuff works”.

The point is that being overly concerned about whether someone uses exactly the expressions that I prefer is probably counterproductive. I’ve certainly had the experience on retreats of getting internally worked up about such things, which isn’t helpful! Hence my translation strategy. Of course, there will be cases where it’s not just a matter of expression, but I don’t like to jump to that conclusion without some careful consideration.

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The problem is that the teacher’s wrong views are bound to lead to bad results in him and his practice. Even if I think he is spot on, how do I divide the wheat from the chaff? Ignoring the teacher’s words altogether could also be unwise because the wheat is still there.

The end result, i.e. two rather different talks, is way too visible and even somewhat drastic for these changes to creep into the text in an unconscious and invisible manner. No matter which version is further from the source material, I can’t really believe its author could not notice how far his rendition deviates from Ajahn’s literal words. What is even more heart-wrenching for me is that this deviating version, whichever it may be, is told to be Ajahn Chah’s authentic words: not the translator’s intepretation of it but Ajahn’s direct words.

What the intention behind it was, I do not know and I am not interested to know it because the end result is suboptimal in itself, no matter what the intention behind it originally was.

That is why I find this issue so important for me. I rely on the integrity of a tradition and its transmitters that they will not present their ‘re-tellings’ as ‘translations’. My support of a tradition has many reasons, but of them is that it is exactly that - a tradition, something relating to me important teachings of advanced practitioners without me having to learn Sinhalese, Thai, or Burmese. Imagine that an English-language instruction for your German-produced dish washer would be changed in such a way. It would be absurd to expect that you learn a new language each time you buy a piece of house equipment or medicament from a new country. How much more important is the Dhamma!

If it were a scientific, political or even philosophical text, trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible for that (whether maliciously or not is beyond the point). But when it comes to religion or Dhamma in particular, some people for some reason seem to be acting like it is no big deal. Just to be clear, it is not an attack on you or anyone or criticism of someone in particular. I am just trying to get my point across: the Dhamma is the most important thing that there is, which is why I would like to treat this situation the same as it would be treated in most other areas.

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Well, if you look at the side-by-side comparison of the two texts, you’ll see that it is not merely a matter of using other expressions. I am okay with Ajahn Chah’s using the term 'Original Mind’and whatnot. My concern is whether Ajahn Chah really said something like ‘get back to the source, which is your Original Mind’, etc. because the other text does not feature such an expression at all or changes the expression in ways that go beyond merely using other expressions.

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You are indeed exact in your diagnosis here.

I’d refer to the Mahātaṇhāsankhayasutta in Majjhima Nikāya #38 which deals explicitly with this issue on multiple levels. There are no excuses or justifications which would be acceptable.

Ajahn Chah unfortunately can not provide clarification and his teachings were haphazardly recorded.

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Okay, so I found the original talk in Thai. Are there any Thai speakers here in this thread or in our community that could listen to the recording of the talk and compare it to both versions?

I think this is splitting hairs because if you don’t know Central Thai/ NE Lao dialect, whichever this one is in, you cannot really get confirmed confidence through a third party.

It seems very likely to me that when Ajahn Chah’s surviving teachings are taken in as a whole, this “Original Mind” talk could be taken mostly as an idiomatic tongue-in-cheek expression. :man_shrugging:

Either way it doesn’t matter. The suttas/root texts are the sole authority…

I’m not sure if I can answer your question satisfactorily, but I hear your pain and confusion, and I understand what you’re going through. I have been through something similar myself. It’s never easy to feel that the spiritual teachers that one looks up to might be fallible.

Let me clear up a few things.

  • Is it the case that some of the Thai Forest Ajahns say things that sound uncomfortably close to eternalism?
    • Yes, this is acknowledged and widely debated in Thailand.
  • Is Ajahn Chah among them?
    • Certainly less so than, say, Ajahn Maha Bua. I can’t really recall anything that he’s said that made me go, hmmph. When questioned directly on the matter, as in the discussions quoted above, he equated the “original mind” with cessation.
  • What about Ajahn Chah’s students?
    • Well, there are a lot of them and I can’t speak for all. But one monk shared with me a conversation about this with Ajahn Liem, and he agreed that the original mind stuff spoken of by some Ajahns sounded like eternalism.
  • Are the translations of Ajahn Chah’s work reliable?
    • TBH I’m not really sure. I do know that Ajahn Jayasaro has both impeccable Thai and a lot of integrity, so I would expect his translations to be reliable. But I have never really checked them in detail.
  • Are some translators guilty of translating the Ajahn Chah they wanted to hear, rather than the one who existed?
    • It seems so, and this has been a topic of discussion among the Sangha for many years. Apart from the “original mind” thing, it’s also been claimed that Ajahn Chah’s emphasis on jhanas has been downplayed or removed.
  • Do some of the western Ajahns read their own eternalistic readings into Ajahn Chah?
    • I can say that this happens with how Ajahns such as Amaro or Thanissaro quote and deal with the Suttas. It’s worth remembering that Ajahn Amaro spent only a short time in Thailand. When I hear him speak about the Thai forest tradition, it sounds nothing like what I heard in Thailand.

As some practical advice, I’d caution about reading too much into what any of the Thai Ajahns say. They were not philosophers and did not attempt to develop coherent bodies of thought. By their own admission, they were offering practical guidelines based on their own experience. Ajahn Maha Bua would say, “If what i say disagrees with the texts, just put it aside.”

The Ajahns all taught in their own idiosyncratic ways, using language in playful and creative ways (especially Ajahn Chah!) If you try to capture the language and bottle it, you end up with a bunch of dead specimens. The value of the Thai forest tradition is not in philosophy, but in inspiration and a dedication to authentically living the Dhamma.

Don’t try to understand the Dhamma from the top down. That’s a rookie mistake. Look to the simple things, the basic things, things that everyone knows. Build up from there.

For myself, I can’t get too excited if someone has a different understanding of Nibbana than I do. But if they cannot get their heads around the idea of relating to women with equality, respect, and decency, then we have a problem. And perhaps it is a coincidence, but did you ever wonder why the same monks pushing eternalism are also the same ones opposing bhikkhuni ordination? (Psst: it’s about power.)

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Thanks for your answer, Venerable, it definitely did help me.

As for my concern with that particular talk and its translation, maybe I will enough merit for Ven. Dhammanando to spend some of his precious time on that when he’s back from his vassa-related Internet abstinence, as I do not know other people who could help me with that. Or he will not - in that case it will be a nice exercise in letting go, I presume.

Oh yes. I just read Luang Pu Waen’s talks for the first time today, and oh boy… Still, sometimes Ajahns’ focus on quasi-etermalistic doctrine is way too pronounced for me to simply say it is because of their being practitioners first - take, for example, Ajahn Maha Bua, or Ajahn Mun for that matter.

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