In late 1947, the great meditation master Ajaan Chah (1918-1992) arrived at Khrong Forest Monastery. He found that if he wanted to stay at this wat, he would have to follow the traditional thudong (dhutanga) practice of dwelling in a cemetery. He forced himself to try.
If I tried to reason with myself I’d never go, so I grabbed a pha-khaw [white-robed novice] and just went…The pha-khaw wanted to camp right next to me but I wouldn’t have it…I made him move away, otherwise I’d have counted on him for support. Well, just as it was getting dark…in they came carrying a corpse. I couldn’t even feel my feet touch the ground, I wanted to get out of there so badly…they had buried the corpse right next to my spot, making the bamboo used for carrying it into a bed for me to stay on.
Chah survived the first night, having gotten his initial fear under control. Then, later in the afternoon, villagers brought another corpse and cremated it about twenty meters from Chah’s spot.
I don’t know what it was, but there came a sound of shuffling from the fire behind me. Had the coffin just collapsed?…It sounded more like a buffalo walking steadily around…then it started walking towards me, like a person!…It must have been about half an hour later…when the footsteps started coming back.
Chah did not know what it was, but this fear and his belief in the existence of local spirits made him think of many possibilities…
It got closer and closer until it stopped dead in front of me and just stood still. I felt as if it were waving burnt hands back and forth in front of my closed eyes…I forgot everything else…From the day I was born I had never experienced such fear. Buddho and Dhammo had disappeared. I don’t know where.
Chah managed to regain his mindfulness, then he began to look inward to see where his fear lay.
I sat as if I wasn’t touching the ground and simply noted what was going on. The fear was so great that it filled me, like a jar completely filled with water. If you pour water until the jar is completely full, and then pour in some more, the jar will overflow. Likewise, the fear built up so much within me that it reached its peak and began to overflow.
“What am I so afraid of anyway?” a voice inside me asked.
“I’m afraid of death,” another voice answered.
“Well, then, where is this thing ‘death’? Why all the panic? Look where death abides.”
“Why, death is within me!”
“If death is within you, then where are you going to run to escape it? If you run away, you die, if you stay here you die. Wherever you go it goes with you because death lies within you, there’s nowhere you can run to.”
By investigating his fear, Chah was able to deal with it effectively, and this led to insight: ”As soon as I had thought this, my perception seemed to change right around. All the fear completely disappeared as easily as turning over one’s own hand. It was truly amazing. Non-fear arose in its place. Now my mind rose higher and higher until I felt as if I was in the clouds.”
“Death Watch” is excerpted from Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in the Twentieth-Century Thailand, by Kamala Tiyanavich, reused with permission from the University of Hawai’i Press.
Illustration from a Thai meditation manual, nineteenth century. By permission of The British Library, MS OR 13703.
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