Whether you’re learning to meditate or ride a bike, says Ajahn Jayasaro, it’s not about how good you are or how far you get. The point is simply to practice with a sincere and consistent effort.
As I remember, the majority of the teachings that Ajahn Chah gave were not startlingly profound. They didn’t consist of things that you’d never heard of before, where you would say, “Wow, esoteric buddhist teachings in the forest! If I hadn’t come here I would never have had the opportunity for this kind of initiation, or this kind of unheard revelation of the dhamma.” Instead, it was more that every single word he said struck home. It was as if we were hearing those teachings for the first time, but at the same time, it wasn’t new information needing an extensive vocabulary. Often he was able to express himself in very simple terms, and they struck home because of the relationship, the feelings of devotion and faith in him that we felt. So he was able to create a situation in which learning took place.
Through his own example and his personal presence and power, we felt this great sense of chanda in practice. I don’t know how many people are familiar with this word, but it’s a vital word to understand. Western presentations of buddhist teachings have often led to the misconception that because suffering arises out of desire, you shouldn’t desire anything. In fact, the buddha spoke of two kinds of desire: desire that arises from ignorance and delusion, which is called tanha, craving, and desire that arises from wisdom and intelligence, which is called kusala-chanda, or dhamma-chanda, or most simply chanda. Chanda has a range of meanings, but in this case I’m using it to mean wise and intelligent desire and motivation, which the buddha stressed as being absolutely fundamental to any progress on the eightfold path.
Of the four iddhipadas—the four paths to power—chanda is the first. In the presence of chanda, effort, or viriya, arises. Effort is in many ways the characteristic dhamma of this whole school of buddhism. In fact, the buddha referred to his teachings not as Theravada but as viriya- vada. It is a teaching of effort, a teaching that there is such a thing as effort, that effort can be put forth, effort should be put forth, and that effort is what is needed for progress on the path.
When we lived with Ajahn Chah at Wat Pah Pong, he was able to create around him, and within the hearts of his students, this sense of chanda. One way that we can talk about chanda is by distinguishing it from the unwholesome kind of desire, or tanha. One of the most observable differences is that tanha is focused on the result of an action, while chanda is focused on the action itself. So tanha wants to get, wants to be, wants to become, wants to get rid of, wants to be separated from something. Chanda wants to do. As I recall, in those days after evening chanting, Ajahn Chah would often say, “Now is the time to go back to your kutis and put forth effort.” He didn’t say, “Go back and meditate.” So our practice was conceived in terms of effort, and it was the putting forth of effort that was important. The willingness and interest to do that came through chanda.
I’ve very rarely taught meditation in the West, but in Thailand a common problem among lay meditators is that they take up meditation practice in order to become peaceful. When people meditate and they don’t become peaceful, or they don’t achieve the kind of peace they imagined they should be achieving, they become frustrated and discouraged, and even assume that they don’t have sufficient spiritual aptitude. In many ways we can say that following the path is the fruit; this is something that I find myself talking about a lot. To make a comparison, let’s say a small child is learning to walk. You could say, “Well, where did the child walk to today? How far did she get?” but that’s not the point. The child wasn’t standing up, walking a few steps, falling down, and getting up in order to get somewhere. She didn’t fail because she didn’t get to a particular place. similarly, if you’re learning to ride a bicycle, it’s not important where exactly you go. The question is, can you balance on a bicycle? Can you control a bicycle? Can you ride a bicycle? The goal is not to ride to a particular destination.
Excerpted from the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.