Ajahn Chah and the Original Mind

by Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero

Ven. Thaniyo: This is another talk by Ajahn Chah called “The Path to Peace.” Now, this is just a few paragraphs from it that I found interesting. In this talk, Ajahn Chah gives a complete outline of the practice. It’s about the middle of the talk that I’ll begin from:

“At a certain point in the practice, you see that it is the mind which gives orders to the body. The body has to depend on the mind before it can function. However, the mind itself is constantly subject to different objects contacting and conditioning it before it can have any effect on the body. As you continue to turn attention inwards and reflect on the Dhamma, the wisdom faculty gradually matures, and eventually, you are left contemplating the mind and mind-objects, which means that you start to experience the body, rūpadhamma, as arūpadhamma, formless. Through your insight, you’re no longer uncertain in your understanding of the body and the way it is. The mind experiences the body’s physical characteristics as arūpadhamma or formless objects, which come into contact with the mind. Ultimately, you’re contemplating just the mind and mind-objects—those objects which come into your consciousness. Now, examining the true nature of the mind, you can observe that in its natural state, it has no preoccupations or issues prevailing upon it. It’s like a piece of cloth or a flag that has been tied to the end of a pole—as long as it’s on its own and undisturbed, nothing will happen to it. A leaf on a tree is another example. Ordinarily, it remains quiet and unperturbed. If it moves or flutters, this must be due to the wind, an external force. Normally, nothing much happens to leaves—they remain still. They don’t go looking to get involved with anything or anybody. When they start to move, it must be due to the influence of something external, such as the wind, which makes them swing back and forth. It’s a natural state. The mind is the same. In it, there exists no loving or hating, nor does it seek to blame other people. It is independent, existing in a state of purity that is truly clear, radiant and untarnished. In its pure state, the mind is peaceful, without happiness or suffering—indeed, not experiencing any feeling at all. This is the true state of the mind.”

Ven. Nyanamoli: That’s nothing other than seeing things arise as phenomena, appear as phenomena, which they already are, because phenomena, i.e. dhammā, are the objects of the mind, of mano, as a sense. Most people in their day-to-day life don’t even see that because they’re too absorbed with the sense world, and usually, that then results in all the views as well. That’s why it’s so common to have the assumption of the external public world that “we inhabit”—the world that is independent of our experience, the “material” world; but you fail to see that even your assumption of “material” is actually a phenomenon arisen on the level of your thought, on the level of the dhammā, on the level of the image in your mind. And that’s usually how people go about in their day-to-day life: not even seeing the mind, the field where these phenomena appear. So they’ve no signs of it, no recognition of it. So then everything revolves around the assumptions of the material world, interpretations based on that and so on.

Again, in itself, it’s still on the level of phenomena, but the only difference is the person’s completely unaware of it; but a person can become aware of it. So once you start recognizing that your own body—no matter how material it is or how material it might “feel”—it still can only be known as such because it has arisen on the level of that mind. And in that sense, you realize “This, in a way, has nothing to do with this matter that I’m thinking of, this matter that I assume; it’s the opposite way: the matter that I think of and assume is only intelligible because the thing is still there in the level of that mind as a phenomenon,” and that’s what Ajahn Chah referred to as arūpa, non-material. But even a material thing is known as such only because that phenomenon has arisen on the level of your mind, which is non-material. So that’s what he meant when he said the mind is the one that governs and precedes these things structurally.

A person now might start thinking: “So I must find the immaterial” or something like that. The arūpa that Ajahn Chah refers to—the phenomenal nature of things—is within the material that you’re perceiving. It’s not that you must abandon or deny or get rid of the material or stop thinking it in order to see the immaterial: you just have to discern it properly whereby you know that the arisen experience of the material body right here, right now, is an image in your mind already. And that’s these two tiers of existence, so to speak. Two domains: the simultaneous presence of the material domain and the mental domain. Material is inconceivable without the mental designation of it—without the mental phenomenon being there simultaneously present; but, in the same manner, there would be nothing present as a phenomenon on the level of the mental domain if the actual physical rūpa is not there, still alive. So nāmarūpa determines viññana, and viññana determines nāmarūpa to the same extent, like the simile of the two reeds supporting each other: you can’t separate them, you can’t investigate them independent of each other—one implies the other. That’s just how it works. But in practical terms, the way the experience proliferates, with lack of sense restraint, sensuality and views, you drift away from that phenomenal side of things that’s simultaneously there: you drift away from your mind. That’s why the Buddha said it’s hard to see the mind correctly for what it is. That’s why it’s a prerequisite for sotāpatti—seeing the signs of your mind, seeing the domain of the phenomenal, phenomenological, whatever you want to call it—because for most people that’s completely overlooked.

Ven. Thaniyo: Do they go directly into the senses?

Ven. Nyanamoli: Yes. Usually, the entire attention gets absorbed, even if you don’t necessarily proliferate it or are not wild and unrestrained—just naturally—not discerning your mind means automatically over-discerning that which comes from the senses, which then influences all the views that you have on account of it, which is the public material world independent of my experience, science, scientific measure and data as the objective value. Again, independent of your experience, failing to see that you cannot even conceive those things unless they are your experience.

Ven. Thaniyo: For example, thinking: “When I die, this world will continue.”

Ven. Nyanamoli: Exactly. All the wrong views can be boiled down to the two fundamental points: “when I die the world will continue” or “when I die I will continue, not the world.” Either way, it’s this external projection of your experience as a whole, which is wrong, not because some higher authority told you it is, but because it’s a contradiction in terms. How can you even know something external of your experience if that’s not already experienced? Which means, then, it’s not external to your experience.

Parts of your experience present themselves based on your ignorance as if they were independent of your experience, but you’re experiencing it, and that’s a contradiction in terms. That’s why attavāda is one of the first contradictions to go when you get the Right View: the assumption of the external sense of self, independent of this experience. And that will go when you realize that no matter how external it might feel, it’s still experienced, which means it’s still internal in that manner. So it doesn’t matter how material, how objective it is: the notion of objectivity, the notion of materiality is on the level of the phenomenon persisting in your mind that gives it it’s meaning. That’s why things are significant and determined by the mind. That’s why the mind is the forerunner—as the Buddha would say in the Dhammapada (verse 1 and 2)—the forerunner of all things: without the mind giving it’s determination to these things, there would be no experience; but now if you say “it’s all in the mind”, that’s not true either because that mind wouldn’t be there mirroring the phenomena if the matter is not there to be mirrored in the first place, if the four great elements are not there.

Ven. Thaniyo: And it shows that inaccessibility of that matter to you.

Ven. Nyanamoli: Exactly. The only way you can access it is the indirect experience of it, which is not it, it exists because of it.

Ven. Thaniyo: And that’s anicca?

Ven. Nyanamoli: Exactly. That’s why the Mūlapariyāya Sutta (MN 1) talks about that conceiving: “He conceives in matter,… apart from matter,…. thinks matter is mine,” and so on. He develops all these attitudes towards that which is matter, failing to see that he can only experience his experience of matter, not the matter—so his perception can only perceive perception, his feeling can only feel feelings, his intentions can only intend intentions—because assuming that you’re perceiving the genuine rūpa means you are actually accessing that external world of the four mahābhūta (the four great elements) and that’s inconceivable. Hence, the slightest of those assumptions as described in the Mūlapariyāya Sutta means that there is a conceiving of “I am.” There is a conceiving of a separate entity that’s independent and objective from the experience as a whole. That’s why the Buddha referred to the four great elements, saying: “they cease to find footing”—they don’t cease to be wherever they are, but they stop finding footing in your experience. As in you stop conflating the perception that has arisen on account of the four great elements being there with the perception of the actual four great elements; but see, now, when you think: “Oh, so the four great elements are something different”, that’s also your perception on the level of your thought. So by no means of grasping—by your thought, by your intentions—can you actually ever enter the domain of the four great elements. So you realize all you have to do is stop misconceiving it. That’s how it will stop finding the footing, not by finding it where it is and removing it and so on: just stop making the mistake of thinking that you can relate to it. And you will keep making the mistake of relating to it for as long as you hold your sense of self dearly because the relations with the world are the direct result and also direct fuel for the sense of self.

So, if you’re willing to let go of that sense of self, you will then have no reason to keep maintaining this gratuitous assumption of the world external to you because the only reason you do that maintenance is that that’s how you maintain your sense of self.

Ven. Thaniyo: What about, as Ajahn Chah is saying, “the state of the mind”?

Ven. Nyanamoli: If you start recognizing that no amount of materiality or objectivity can be found elsewhere except on the basis of the mind, you realize the mind is the gateway—it doesn’t matter what comes your way through your senses, good or bad, threatening or agreeable and friendly—the mind is the basis, and in itself, on that basis of the mind, things are quite indifferent. It’s your own attitude, then, towards what comes through the mind, by not seeing that you want to deal with it, prevent it, want more of it, indulge in sensuality, engage in ill-will: because you don’t see that you don’t need to go and chase these things out there; because even the assumption of “out there” can only be known as such on the level of the phenomenon of your mind, which means, you realize: “What if I just know it as a persisting, enduring phenomenon right here, right now? I don’t need to go anywhere, I just stay with this framework.” And then there will be no overly delighting or trying to deny it to get rid of it, which means equanimity will be a natural result.

Ven. Thaniyo: That’s what is there anyway, without “you”.

Ven. Nyanamoli: Absolutely. The mind and the body are there without “you”. They don’t need your sense of self. So that’s why you can develop equanimity. Because things, in themselves, are equanimous: they’re indifferent to you. It’s your own passion and confusion—and passion that comes out of that confusion—that confuses that whole thing; but if you stop fueling that passion, confusion disappears, which means, then, equanimity is restored because all you have is things that have arisen and persist, and that’s it. It has nothing to do with you.

Ven. Thaniyo: I’ll continue with Ajahn Chah’s talk, “The Path to Peace.” He continues:

“The purpose of practice, then, is to seek inwardly, searching and investigating until you reach the Original Mind. The Original Mind is also known as the Pure Mind. The Pure Mind is the mind without attachment.”

Ven. Nyanamoli: That’s what I just said. You find the phenomena there, and you realize the phenomena, the way they have arisen in that mind, are already indifferent, already non-polluted by passion and lust, and they can’t really be polluted. Your actions can be polluted by desire and lust, but the persisting phenomenon is still the way it has arisen, which means it’s impenetrable to your assumptions, your cravings, your attachments. That’s why it needs constant maintenance: it can never really get settled in these things that you’re attached to or trying to get rid of or whatever, it’s only an attitude in regard to it; but the thing in itself remains completely indifferent. So you recognize that that true indifference, true equanimity comes from the things—the way they have arisen—and you have no say, even if you want to have a say.

Ven. Thaniyo: That’s the original state.

Ven. Nyanamoli: Exactly. And then you realize: “Things were always like this, in a way. It was because I did not know that they were this way that I kept assuming them to be different.”

Ven. Thaniyo: Ajahn Chah said further:

“The Pure Mind is the mind without attachment. It doesn’t get affected by mind-objects. In other words, it doesn’t chase after the different kinds of pleasant and unpleasant mind-objects. Rather, the mind is in a state of continuous knowing and wakefulness, thoroughly mindful of all it’s experiencing. When the mind is like this, no pleasant or unpleasant mind-objects it experiences will be able to disturb it. The mind doesn’t become anything. In other words, nothing can shake it. Why? Because there is awareness. The mind knows itself as pure. It has evolved its own true independence, has reached its original state. How is it able to bring this original state into existence? Through the faculty of mindfulness wisely reflecting and seeing that all things are merely conditions arising out of the influence of elements, without any individual being controlling them.”

Ven. Nyanamoli: The mind gives the meaning, gives the significance, simultaneously, to the present material domain; but without the material domain, there would be nothing manifesting in the mind. It’s the two reeds simile holding each other: it’s the “dyad”, as the Buddha referred to it. And that’s the experience as a whole, back and front. That’s it. Wherever you look, it’s within these two bases that are mutually determined.

There is no room for your sense of self, for your ownership, for your mastery. Or rather, your sense of ownership, as it is now, is within that, which means it’s determined by that basis independent of your sense of self. And the sense of self, that’s not in your own control… Well, that’s not your self, then, is it? Because sense of self implicitly declares ownership, mastery over experience. That’s why it’s my self, my own self. So you realize that your own self depends upon this basis that you’ve no say in, and that’s how your own self is not yours. You realize the basis that’s not my self, that cannot be my self, determines this sense of self, and it’s, because of that, not my self. You actually learn how to perceive not-self with not-self, and that’s what the Buddha was talking about in those various Suttas.

When Ajahn Chah talks about the “Original Mind”, again, you can mystify that: you can think “Oh, it’s this pure bright mind that you just have to tap into.” No, the “Original Mind” is right in front of you where your thoughts are, where these appearances are. The way things arise, you realize they have arisen on their own to that extent, and you’ve no say in that. And that is that “originality” of it: it’s not your mastery, your creation of those same things. You realize you can only appropriate things to be “mine” because they were given beforehand: they’ve arisen on their own so you appropriate them. You realize you can’t even create anything in that sense; but it’s not like a delay—it’s not like things have arisen and then you don’t see them—it’s the simultaneous presence of these things enduring and your ownership of that endurance, but you want to realize that that endurance cannot be owned, that’s why you stop owning things. You can’t stop owning things by trying to destroy them, get rid of them and say no to everything: you can stop owning them by realizing that your ownership cannot belong to you. Hence, it’s not ultimate ownership.

That is the “Original”, the “Pure Mind”, as Ajahn Chah said, that there is no room for anyone there, in a way, means exactly that: inasmuch as the mind gives a significance and recognition—it allows matter to manifest on its basis—to that same extent without that matter, there would be nothing for the mind to discern; so the matter is the measure of the extent of the mind, and the mind determines the extent of the appeared matter, and whichever way you look, it’s going to be determined by the other. So “I am independent of this” becomes inconceivable to even assume, but in order to see this correctly, a person has to stop just focusing on things in front of them because these two levels I talk about, that Ajahn Chah talks about, they’re not in front of you as two objects. Only one can be in front of you. The other one is always behind from where you look, and that’s what we spoke about in other talks: “the peripheral.”

Learning how to see things peripherally without directly looking at them because that’s where the mind is, that’s where phenomena are. But what you see in front of you is the objects of your senses. That’s why people are naturally, with the grain, automatically absorbed with the world and senses and chasing pleasures: it actually takes effort to learn how to see the context behind it, how to develop that peripheral vision without needing to turn away and look at it because it won’t be peripheral then. Like, I’m looking at you now, and I’ve all these things peripheral to me, and they will remain peripheral if I keep looking at you, but if I start looking at that… Well, that’s not peripheral anymore. Now that’s the actual thing right in front of me. And that’s the point that you must keep in mind when you try to discern what Ajahn Chah’s describing here. Rūpa is what you’re staring at, arūpa would be everything around it. You want to learn how to see arūpa as arūpa; you want to see the peripheral as peripheral.

By the way, rūpa and arūpa are not quite used in this sense in the Suttas, but Ajahn Chah used it on a practical level, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ven. Thaniyo: So I’ll continue with the talk:

“This is how it is with the happiness and suffering we experience. When these mental states arise, they’re just happiness and suffering. There’s no owner of the happiness. The mind is not the owner of the suffering—mental states do not belong to the mind. Look at it for yourself. In reality, these are not affairs of the mind, they’re separate and distinct. Happiness is just the state of happiness; suffering is just the state of suffering.”

Ven. Nyanamoli: Any phenomenon is a phenomenon in itself; that’s why it’s independent of you. That’s why the Suttas say: “He knows the mind affected with lust as mind affected with lust.” It’s not like “me affected with lust.” There is lust present; there is non-lust present. There is happiness present; there is sadness present. It’s enduring inasmuch as sights are enduring, sounds are enduring and so on. Anything that manifests, that is its nature: to be manifested. That’s it. So even if it’s a weird, ambiguous thought, it’s real as such: as the experience of an ambiguous thought. But it’s our own expectation of “concreteness” which is fueled by that assumption of “material, public concreteness”, so to speak, —the world independent of me— that prevents you from seeing the mind, seeing the phenomena, seeing the Dhamma. That’s why dhammā means, literally, “phenomena”. And then the Dhamma is the teaching of the knowledge of the phenomena, of that which manifests.

Ven. Thaniyo: It’s right there.

Ven. Nyanamoli: Yes, it cannot be anywhere else. So it’s learning how to see it correctly.

Ven. Thaniyo: Ajahn Chah says:

“You are merely the knower of these things. In the past, because the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion already existed in the mind, whenever you caught sight of the slightest pleasant or unpleasant mind-object, the mind would react immediately—you would take hold of it and have to experience either happiness or suffering. You would be continuously indulging in states of happiness and suffering. That’s the way it is as long as the mind doesn’t know itself—as long as it’s not bright and illuminated. The mind is not free. It is influenced by whatever mind-objects it experiences. In other words, it is without a refuge, unable to truly depend on itself. You receive a pleasant mental impression and get into a good mood. The mind forgets itself. In contrast, the original mind is beyond good and bad. This is the original nature of the mind. If you feel happy over experiencing a pleasant mind-object, that is delusion. If you feel unhappy over experiencing an unpleasant mind-object, that is delusion. Unpleasant mind-objects make you suffer and pleasant ones make you happy—this is the world. Mind-objects come with the world. They are the world. They give rise to happiness and suffering, good and evil, and everything that is subject to impermanence and uncertainty. When you separate from the original mind, everything becomes uncertain—there is just unending birth and death, uncertainty and apprehensiveness, suffering and hardship.”

Ven. Nyanamoli: Yes, and you’re separated from the “Original Mind”—you’re separated from that domain of phenomena, you don’t see them as phenomena—when you never restrain your actions in regard to your senses. The threshold of the being you are used to is on the level of the senses and the pleasure or pain that comes from it. That’s why many people would have the implicit attitude that even their own thoughts don’t really exist, are not real: because the expectation of reality has been proliferated so far out.

Going back to that “Original Mind”, as Ajahn Chah says, is not some hidden reality behind all these appearances: it’s actually stopping to misconceive the appearances for what they’re not, and that is its original state. It was always there. That’s why arahantship is possible in the first place. That’s why undoing of the wrong conceiving is possible: because these things are truly independent of whether you conceive them or not. So that’s why the sense of self is a problem: because it’s a contradiction in terms. “Self” means mastery, ownership, rulership of your experience. Yet you can only rule that which was given to you beforehand, which means you’re not the ruler then because if you were the true creator, master, ruler of these things, you would have been creating it, you would have been truly independent of it. But your whole existence depends on these things still being there so that you can maintain your ownership in regard to it; but when that thing decides to go, and it will—that’s why the Buddha encouraged reflecting on the four great elements, how they change—you realize it’s inconceivable that you would still exist in your domain of ownership. So, that’s not ownership then, and you realize the only way to maintain that sense of ownership of things around you is to ignore the fact that you cannot actually own it. That’s why people don’t want to think about death naturally—don’t want to think about losing their loved ones, losing things they care about—because it’s implicit that it will happen, so it just reminds them of the obvious. So you stop being ignorant by making an effort to not ignore things. That’s it. Because ignoring things is effortless. It’s with the grain of sensuality, the grain of ignorance; not ignoring takes effort. But not ignoring is not like “resolving some mystery of the universe.” You just need to stop ignoring the very things that are in front of you: stop ignoring the broader context; stop ignoring the peripheral to the actual; stop trying to get rid of the states of mind you don’t like or that “should have not arisen.”

Ven. Thaniyo: You can just look at “mind-objects.”

Ven. Nyanamoli: Yes. That’s what we do when we do the questioning, asking: “How am I feeling right now, fundamentally? Is it OK or is it not OK?” And you realize you find that a state there enduring, and you have no say in it. You may have lots of joy now because you feel OK, or you have a bit of a pressure and unpleasant feeling because you don’t feel OK, but that fundamental bit of whether it’s OK or not OK has arisen on its own. Feeling has been manifested to its own extent, and you have no say in that. That’s why I compare it to the weather that comes and goes. You will act differently when the weather’s bad, you’ll act differently when the weather’s good. In the same way, you’ll act differently when there is a pleasant feeling than when there is an unpleasant feeling, but that in itself is not necessarily the problem until your actions delude you into believing that they are the controller of the weather: they are the controller of the feelings. And that’s why the Buddha would ask that person in that Sutta: “Well, if the feeling is truly yours (as in you’re the controller), which one is it then?” because they keep coming and going. Good feelings, bad feelings, neutral feelings, but if you were truly the owner, you would only have good feelings because ownership and pleasure go hand in hand. That’s why you want to undermine that pleasure, not by trying to get rid of it, but seeing that it cannot actually be yours—it hasn’t come from you. That’s how you also then undermine the ownership.

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