In Simple Terms 108 Dhamma Similes by Ajahn Chah

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In Simple Terms

108 Dhamma Similes

by

Ajahn Chah

translated from the Thai by

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

© 2011

"…The Dhamma is just like this, talking in similes, because the Dhamma doesn't have anything. It isn't round, doesn't have any corners. There's no way to get acquainted with it except through comparisons like this. If you understand this, you understand the Dhamma.

"Don't think that the Dhamma lies far away from you. It lies right with you; it's about you. Take a look. One minute happy, the next minute sad, satisfied, then angry at this person, hating that person: It's all Dhamma…"

Introduction

Venerable Ajahn Chah was a master at using the apt and unusual simile to explain points of Dhamma. Sometimes he would make an abstract point clear with a vivid and simple image; sometimes he'd tease out the implications of an image in a way that suggested many layers of meaning, offering food for continued thought. In other words, some of his similes provided answers, whereas others provoked questions.

Since his death, several collections of similes have been drawn from his Dhamma talks. The present translation is based primarily on a collection compiled by one of his Thai students, Ajahn Jandee, in the early years of this decade. I say "primarily" because I have introduced the following changes:

  • — Three of the similes in the original collection have been replaced by three others, drawn from the talk, "Disenchanted with What You Like" (Byya khawng thii chawb):"Bottled Water, Spring Water"; "The Fence"; and "In the Shape of a Circle." In two of these cases, the original similes were redundant with other similes in the collection. In one, the original simile was more of historical than of practical interest.
  • — One of the original similes — "Water Drops, Water Streams" — includes a few extra sentences from the Dhamma talk in which it appeared.
  • — Some of the titles for the similes have been changed to work more effectively in English.
  • — The order of the similes has been changed to provide a more organic sense of unity and flow.

Ajahn Jandee transcribed his collection directly from recordings of Ajahn Chah's talks with minimal editing, and I have tried to follow his example by giving as full and accurate translation as I can. The unpolished nature of some of the similes is precisely what reveals unexpected layers of meaning, making them so provocative, and I hope that this translation succeeds in conveying some of the same unfinished, thought-provoking quality in English as well.

Several people have looked over the original manuscript and have provided helpful recommendations for improving it. In particular, I would like to thank Ajahn Pasanno, Ginger Vathanasombat, and Michael Zoll.

May all those who read this translation realize Ajahn Chah's original intention in explaining the Dhamma in such simple and graphic terms.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu
October, 2007

Your Real Home

Your external home isn't your real home.

It's your supposed home, your home in the world.

As for your real home, that's peace.

The Buddha has us build our own home

by letting go till we reach peace.

To the Ocean

The streams, lakes, and rivers that flow down to the ocean, when they reach the ocean, all have the same blue color, the same salty taste.

The same with human beings: It doesn't matter where they're from — when they reach the stream of the Dhamma, it's all the same Dhamma.

Groundwater

The Buddha is the Dhamma; the Dhamma is the Buddha. The Dhamma the Buddha awakened to is something always there in the world. It hasn't disappeared. It's like groundwater. Whoever digs a well down to the level of the groundwater will see water. It's not the case that that person created or fashioned the water into being. All he's done is to put his strength into digging the well so that it's deep enough to reach the water already there.

So if we have any discernment, we'll realize that we're not far from the Buddha at all. We're sitting right in front of him right now. Whenever we understand the Dhamma, we see the Buddha. Those who are intent on practicing the Dhamma continuously — wherever they sit, stand, or walk — are sure to hear the Buddha's Dhamma at all times.

It's All Right Here

The Buddha is the Dhamma; the Dhamma is the Buddha. He didn't take away the knowledge he awakened to. He left it right here. To put it in simple terms, it's like the teachers in schools. They haven't been teachers from birth. They had to study the course of study for teachers before they could be teachers, teaching in school and getting paid. After a while, they'll die away — away from being teachers. But you can say that in a way the teachers don't die. The qualities that make people into teachers remain right here. It's the same with the Buddha. The noble truths that made him the Buddha still remain right here. They haven't run off anywhere at all.

Elephants, Oxen, & Water Buffaloes

Training the mind well is a useful activity. You can see this even in draft animals, like elephants, oxen, and water buffaloes. Before we can put them to work, we have to train them. Only when they're well trained can we use their strength and put it to different purposes. All of you know this.

A mind well trained is of many times greater value. Look at the Buddha and his noble disciples. They changed their status from being run-of-the-mill people to being noble ones, respected by people all over. And they've benefited us in more wide-ranging ways than we could ever determine. All of this comes from the fact that they've trained their minds well.

A mind well trained is of use in every occupation. It enables us to do our work with circumspection. It makes us reasonable instead of impulsive, and enables us to experience a happiness appropriate to our station in life.

The Roots

We're like a tree with roots, a base, and a trunk. Every leaf, every branch, depends on the roots to absorb nutrients from the soil and send them up to nourish the tree.

Our body, plus our words and deeds, our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and feeling, are like the branches, leaves, and trunk. The mind is like the roots absorbing nutrients and sending them up the trunk to the leaves and branches so that they flower and bear fruit.

The Lost Wallet

It's as if you leave home and lose your wallet. It fell out of your pocket onto the road away back there, but as long as you don't realize what happened you're at ease — at ease because you don't yet know what this ease is for. It's for the sake of dis-ease at a later time. When you eventually see that you've really lost your money: That's when you feel dis-ease — when it's right in your face.

The same holds true with our bad and good actions. The Buddha taught us to acquaint ourselves with these things. If we aren't acquainted with these things, we'll have no sense of right or wrong, good or bad.

Wagon Wheels, Wagon Tracks

The cycle of rebirth is like a wagon wheel. An ox is pulling the wagon. If it keeps on pulling the wagon without stop, the wagon tracks will keep on erasing the ox tracks without stop. The wagon wheels aren't long, but they're round. You could say that they're long, but their length is round. We see their roundness but we don't see their length. As long as the ox pulls without stopping, the wagon wheels turn without stopping.

On a later day the ox stops. It's tired. It drops the yoke. The ox then goes its way, the wagon goes its way. The wagon wheels stop of their own accord. If you leave them there a long time, they disintegrate into earth, water, wind, and fire, turning back into grass and dirt.

It's the same with people who are still making kamma: They don't come to closure. People speaking the truth don't come to closure. People with wrong views don't come to closure.

A Block of Ice

If you place a large block of ice out in the open sun, you can see it deteriorate — in the same way the body ages — bit by bit, bit by bit. After only a few minutes, only a few hours, it will all melt into water. This is called khaya-vaya: ending, deterioration.

The deterioration of fabricated things has been going on for a long time, ever since the world came into being. When we're born, we take on these things as well. We don't discard them anywhere. When we're born, we take on illness, aging, and death. We gather them up at the same time.

Look at the ways it deteriorates, this body of ours. Every part deteriorates. Hair of the head deteriorates; hair of the body deteriorates; fingernails and toenails deteriorate; skin deteriorates. Everything, no matter what, deteriorates in line with its nature.

Children, Bullets

A gun shoots its children — its bullets — outward. We shoot ours inward, into our heart. When they're good, we're shot in the heart. When they're bad, we're shot in the heart. They're an affair of kamma, our children. There are good ones, there are bad ones, but both the good and bad are our children all the same.

When they're born, look at us: The worse off they are, the more we love them. If one of them comes down with polio and gets crippled, that's the one we love the most. When we leave the house we tell the older ones, "Look after your little sister. Look after this one" — because we love her. When we're about to die we tell them, "Look after her. Look after my child." She's not strong, so you love her even more.

The Tail of the Snake

We human beings don't want suffering. We want nothing but pleasure. But actually, pleasure is nothing but subtle suffering. Pain is blatant suffering. To put it in simple terms, suffering and pleasure are like a snake. Its head is suffering; its tail is pleasure. Its head contains poison. Its mouth contains poison. If you get near its head, it'll bite you. If you catch hold of its tail it seems safe, but if you hold onto its tail without letting go, it can turn around and bite you just the same. That's because both the head of the snake and the tail of the snake are on the same snake.

Both happiness and sadness come from the same parents: craving and delusion. That's why there are times when you're happy but still restless and ill at ease — even when you've gotten things you like, such as material gain, status, and praise. When you get these things you're happy, but your mind isn't really at peace because there's still the sneaking suspicion that you'll lose them. You're afraid they'll disappear. This fear is the cause that keeps you from being at peace. Sometimes you actually do lose these things and then you really suffer. This means that even though these things are pleasant, suffering lies fermenting in the pleasure. We're simply not aware of it. Just as when we catch hold of a snake: Even though we catch hold of its tail, if we keep holding on without letting go, it can turn around and bite us.

So the head of the snake and the tail of the snake, evil and goodness: These form a circle that keeps turning around. That's why pleasure and pain, good and bad are not the path.

The King of Death

We live like a chicken who doesn't know what's going on. In the morning it takes its baby chicks out to scratch for food. In the evening, it goes back to sleep in the coop. The next morning it goes out to look for food again. Its owner scatters rice for it to eat every day, but it doesn't know why its owner is feeding it. The chicken and its owner are thinking in very different ways.

The owner is thinking, "How much does the chicken weigh?" The chicken, though, is engrossed in the food. When the owner picks it up to heft its weight, it thinks the owner is showing affection.

We too don't know what's going on: where we come from, how many more years we'll live, where we'll go, who will take us there. We don't know this at all.

The King of Death is like the owner of the chicken. We don't know when he'll catch up with us, for we're engrossed — engrossed in sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. We have no sense that we're growing older. We have no sense of enough.

The Beginning Is the End

When we're born we're already dead, you know. Aging and death are the same thing. It's like a tree. Part of it's the base; part of it's the end at the tip. When there's a base, there's an end. When there's an end, there's a base. When there's no base, there's no end. When there's an end, there has to be a base. An end without a base: That can't be. That's how it is.

So it's kind of amusing. When a person dies, we're sad and upset. We sit and cry, grieving — all kinds of things. That's delusion. It's delusion, you know. When a person dies we sob and cry. That's the way it's been since who knows when. We don't stop to examine this carefully. Actually — and excuse me for saying this — it appears to me that if you're going to cry when a person dies, it'd be better to cry when a person is born. But we have it all backwards. When a child is born, people beam and laugh from happiness. But actually birth is death. Death is birth. The beginning is the end; the end is the beginning.

Leaves

When we sit in a quiet forest when there's no wind, the leaves are still. When the wind blows, the leaves flutter.

The mind is the same sort of thing as leaves. When it makes contact with an object, it vibrates in line with its nature. The less you know of the Dhamma, the more the mind vibrates. When it feels pleasure, it dies with the pleasure. When it feels pain, it dies with the pain. It keeps flowing on in this way.

Colored Water

Our heart, when it's at normalcy, is like rainwater. It's clean water, clear, pure, and normal. If we put green coloring in the water, yellow coloring in the water, the color of the water turns to green, turns to yellow.

The same with our mind: When it meets with an object it likes, it's happy. When it meets with an object it doesn't like, it gets murky and uncomfortable — just like water that turns green when you add green coloring to it, or yellow when you add yellow coloring. It keeps on changing its color.

Orphaned

Our mind, when there's no one looking after it, is like a child without parents to look after it — an orphaned child, a child with no protector. A person without a protector suffers, and it's the same with the mind. If it's not trained, if its views aren't straightened out into right views, it's put to a lot of difficulties.

 Why It's Heavy

When suffering arises, you have to see that it's suffering, and to see what this suffering arises from. Will you see anything? If we look at things in an ordinary way, there's no suffering. For example, while we're sitting here, we're at ease. But at another moment we want this spittoon, so we lift it up. Now things are different. They're different from when we hadn't yet lifted up the spittoon. When we lift the spittoon, we sense that we're more weighed down. There's a reason for it. Why do we feel weighed down if it's not from having lifted the spittoon? If we don't lift it, there's nothing. If we don't lift it, we feel light. So what's the cause and what's the result? All you have to do is observe just this much and you know. You don't have to go off studying anywhere else. When we grasp onto something, that's the cause of suffering. When we let go there's no suffering.

A Hypodermic Needle

…This is suffering. Ordinary suffering is one thing; suffering above and beyond the ordinary is something else. The regular pains of this bodily fabrication — pains when you're standing, pains when you're sitting down, pains when you're lying down: This sort of thing is ordinary suffering, the regular suffering of these bodily fabrications. The Buddha experienced feelings like these. He felt pleasures like these, pains like these, but he realized that they were ordinary. All these ordinary pleasures and pains he was able to bring to stillness because he understood them. He understood ordinary suffering: It was just the way it was. It wasn't all that strong. Instead, he kept a look-out for visiting suffering, suffering above and beyond the ordinary.

It's like when we're sick and go to the doctor for a shot. The hypodermic needle gets inserted through our skin and into our flesh. It hurts a little, but that's an ordinary thing. No big deal. This is the way it has to be for everybody. The suffering above and beyond the ordinary is the suffering of upadana, or clinging. It's like bathing a hypodermic needle in poison and sticking it into the body. This doesn't hurt in just an ordinary way; this isn't just ordinary suffering. It hurts enough to kill you.

Meat Stuck in Your Teeth

Sensual desire is something hard to escape from. It's no different from eating meat and getting a piece of meat stuck in your teeth. Boy, does it hurt! Even before you finish the meal, you have to take a toothpick to get it out. Once it's out you feel relieved for a while and you don't want to eat meat anymore. But when more meat comes your way, another piece gets stuck in your teeth. You take it out again and you feel relieved again. That's all there is to sensual desire: nothing more than a piece of meat stuck in your teeth. You feel agitated and unsettled, and then you get it out of your system in whatever the way. You don't understand what it's all about. It's crazy.

A Thirst unto Death

It's like a man with a strong thirst from having traveled a long way. He asks for water, but the person with the water tells him, "You can drink this water if you want. Its color is good, its smell is good, its flavor is good, but it's poisonous, I want you to know. It can poison you to death or give you pains like death." But the thirsty man won't listen because he's so thirsty.

Or like a person after surgery. He's been told by the doctors not to drink water, but he asks for water to drink.

A person thirsty for sensuality is like this: thirsty for sights, thirsty for sounds, for smells, for tastes, all of which are poisonous.

The Buddha tells us that sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas are poisonous. They're traps. But we don't listen to him. Like the man thirsty for water who won't listen to the warning because his thirst is so great: No matter how much trouble or pain he'll get into, all he asks is for water to drink. He doesn't care if, after he drinks the water, he'll die or suffer pains like death. As soon as he gets his hand on a glass, he keeps on drinking. A person thirsty for sensuality drinks in sights, drinks in sounds, drinks in smells, drinks in tastes, drinks in tactile sensations, drinks in ideas. They seem delicious, so he keeps on drinking them in. He can't stop. He'll drink them in until he dies — caught in the act, right in the middle of sensuality.

Poking a Red Ants' Nest

Sensuality is like taking a stick and using it to poke a big red ants' nest. The more we poke it, the more the red ants come falling on us, onto our face, into our eyes, stinging our ears and eyes. But we don't see the drawbacks of what we're doing. It's all good as far as we can see. Understand that if you don't see the drawbacks of these things you'll never work your way free of them.

A Frog on the Hook

Animals caught in traps and snares suffer. They're tied down, strapped down tight. All they can do is wait for the hunter to come and get them. Like a bird caught in a snare: The snare pulls at its neck, and no matter how much it struggles it can't get free. It keeps struggling, thrashing back and forth, but it's trapped. All it can do is wait for the hunter. When the hunter comes, that's it. That's Mara. Birds are afraid of him; all animals are afraid of him because they can't get away.

Our snares are sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. They tie us down. When we're attached to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas, we're like a fish on a hook, waiting for the fisherman to come. No matter how much we struggle we can't get away. Actually, we're worse off than a fish on a hook. We're more like a frog on a hook — for when a frog swallows a hook, it goes all the way down to its gut. When a fish swallows a hook, it goes only as far as its mouth.

A Sense That Your Arm is Short

The Buddha's teachings are direct, straightforward, and simple, but hard for someone who's starting to practice them because his knowledge can't reach them. It's like a hole: People by the hundreds and thousands complain that the hole is deep because they can't reach to its bottom. There's hardly anybody who will say that the problem is that his arm is short.

The Buddha taught us to abandon evil of every kind. We skip over this part and go straight to making merit without abandoning evil. It's the same as saying the hole is deep. Those who say their arms are short are rare.

Rowf! Rowf! Rowf!

I once saw a dog who couldn't eat all the rice I had given it, so he lay down and kept watch over the rice right there. He was so full he couldn't eat any more, but he still lay keeping watch right there. He would drift off and get drowsy, and then suddenly glance over at the food that was left. If any other dog came to eat, no matter how big or how small, he'd growl at it. If chickens came to eat the rice, he'd bark: Rowf! Rowf! Rowf! His stomach was ready to burst, but he couldn't let anyone else eat. He was stingy and selfish.

People can be the same way. If they don't know the Dhamma, if they have no sense of their duties to their superiors and inferiors, if their minds are overcome by the defilements of greed, anger, and delusion, then even when they have lots of wealth they're stingy and selfish. They don't know how to share it. They have a hard time even giving donations to poor children or old people who have nothing to eat. I've thought about this and it's struck me how much they're like common animals. They don't have the virtues of human beings at all. The Buddha called them manussa-tiracchano: human-common-animals. That's the way they are because they lack good will, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.

The Dog on a Pile of Unhusked Rice

…This is like a dog lying on a pile of unhusked rice. Its stomach is gurgling — jawk, jawk — and it lies there thinking, "Where can I get something to eat?" Its stomach is hungry, so it jumps off the pile of unhusked rice and goes looking for some garbage.

There's food right there in the pile, but it doesn't realize it. It doesn't see the rice. It can't eat unhusked rice.

Knowledge exists, but if we don't practice it, we don't understand it. We're as stupid as the dog on the pile of unhusked rice. It's really a pity. Edible rice is there, but it's hidden by the husks — in the same way that release is here, but it's hidden by our suppositions.

Mange

The Buddha said, "Monks, did you see the jackal running around here in the evening? Did you see him? Standing still it suffered. Running around it suffered. Sitting down it suffered. Lying down it suffered. Going into the hollow of a tree, it suffered. Going into a cave, it felt ill at ease. It suffered because it thought, 'Standing here isn't good. Sitting isn't good. Lying down isn't good. This bush isn't good. This tree hollow isn't good. This cave isn't good.' So it kept running all the time. Actually, that jackal has mange. Its discomfort doesn't come from the bush or the tree hollow or the cave, from sitting, standing, or lying down. It comes from the mange."

You monks are the same. Your discomfort comes from your wrong views. You hold onto ideas that are poisonous and so you're tormented. You don't exert restraint over your senses, so you blame other things. You don't know what's going on inside you. When you stay here at Wat Nong Pah Pong, you suffer. You go to America and suffer. You go to London and suffer. You go to Wat Bung Wai and suffer. You go to every branch monastery and suffer. Wherever you go, you suffer. This comes from the wrong views that still lie within you. Your views are wrong and you hold onto ideas that are poisonous in your hearts. Wherever you go you suffer. You're like that jackal.

Once you recover from your mange, though, you can be at ease wherever you go: at ease out in the open, at ease in the wild. I think about this often and keep teaching it to you because this point of Dhamma is very useful.

Maggots

When we give rise to right view in our hearts, we can be at ease wherever we are. It's because we still have wrong views, still hold onto ideas that are poisonous, that we're not at ease. Holding on in this way is like being a maggot. Where it lives is filthy; its food is filthy. Its food isn't fit to be food — but it seems fitting to the maggot. Try taking a stick and flicking it out of the excrement where it's feeding, and see what happens. It'll wiggle and wriggle, eager to get back to the pile of excrement where it was before. Only then does it feel right.

It's the same with you monks and novices. You still have wrong views. Teachers come and advise you on how to have right view, but it doesn't feel right to you. You keep running back to your pile of excrement. Right view doesn't feel right because you're used to your old pile of excrement. As long as the maggot doesn't see the filth in where it's living, it can't escape. It's the same with us. As long as we don't see the drawbacks of those things, we can't escape from them. They make it difficult to practice.

Rivers

It's like rivers that flow down to the lowlands. They flow down in line with their nature. The Ayutthaya River, the Muun River — whatever the river: They all flow downhill. None of them flow uphill. That's the way they ordinarily are.

Suppose there were a man standing on the bank of a river, watching its current flow swiftly downhill, but his thinking is wrong. He wants the river to flow uphill. He's going to have to suffer. He won't find any peace. Sitting, standing, walking, lying down, he won't find any peace. Why is that? Because his thinking is wrong.

The Chicken & the Duck

Two people see a chicken and a duck. The first person wants the chicken to be a duck, and the duck to be a chicken, but it simply can't be. Throughout their life, it can't happen. If the first person doesn't stop thinking in this way, he'll have to suffer. The second person sees the chicken as a chicken, and the duck as a duck. That way there's no problem. When your views are right, there's no suffering.

The same holds here. Anicca — things that are inconstant — we want to make constant. As long as they're inconstant, we're sad. The person who sees that inconstant things are simply inconstant can be at ease. There's no problem.

Ever since the day of our birth we've been running away from the truth. We don't want things to be the way they are, but we can't stop them from being that way. That's just the way they are. They can't be any other way. It's like trying to make a duck be the same as a chicken. It'll never be the same. It's a duck. Or like trying to make a chicken be the same as a duck: It'll never be the same. It's a chicken. Whoever thinks that he wants to change things like this will have to suffer. But if you think, "Oh, that's just the way it is," you gain strength — for no matter how much you try, you can't make the body permanent or lasting.

Salt That's Not Salty

A monk who claimed to be a meditator once came and asked to live here with me. He asked about the way we practice, and I told him, "If you live with me, you can't keep money or stored up things. I follow the Vinaya."

He said that he practiced non-attachment.

I said, "I don't know what you mean."

So he asked, "If I use money but without attachment, can I stay here?"

So I said, "Sure. If you can eat salt but it doesn't taste salty, then you can. If you simply claim to be unattached because you don't feel like observing these bothersome rules, then it would be difficult to stay here. But if you can eat salt without its tasting salty, then I'll believe you. Can you really eat a half-bushel of salt without its tasting salty? This business of non-attachment isn't something you can just talk about or guess about. If you talk like this, you can't live with me."

So he left.

The Lonely Path

Whatever there is in the mind: If our reasons aren't yet good enough, we can't let it go. In other words, there are two sides: this side here and that side there. People tend to walk along this side or along that side. There's hardly anybody who walks along the middle. It's a lonely path. When there's love, we walk along the path of love. When there's hatred, we walk along the path of hatred. If we try to walk by letting go of love and hatred, it's a lonely path. We aren't willing to follow it.

A Thorn

Things are simply the way they are. They don't give us suffering. Like a thorn: Does a sharp thorn give us suffering? No. It's simply a thorn. It doesn't give suffering to anybody. If we step on it, we suffer immediately.

Why do we suffer? Because we stepped on it. So the suffering comes from us.

Carrying a Rock

"Letting go" actually means this: It's as if we're carrying a heavy rock. As we carry it, we feel weighed down but we don't know what to do with it, so we keep on carrying it. As soon as someone tells us to throw it away, we think, "Eh? If I throw it away, I won't have anything left." So we keep on carrying it. We aren't willing to throw it away.

Even if someone tells us, "Come on. Throw it away. It'll be good like this, and you'll benefit like that," we're still not willing to throw it away because we're afraid we won't have anything left. So we keep on carrying it until we're so thoroughly weak and tired