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Buddhadharma : Summer 2011
buddhadharma| 53 |winter 2005 ajahn sumedho started out life at ajahn chah’s monastery as a very zealous, hyperkeen monk. within a few months of being there, he was convinced that ajahn chah was the greatest dharma teacher and the most enlightened master on the planet. he was also certain that wat pah pong was the greatest monastery in the world and that theravada buddhism was the answer to all problems. he was really flaming. but of course, as we all know, after a while the fuel runs down. as the months and years went by, ajahn sumedho started to notice a few faults in the way ajahn chah handled certain situations and in some of his personal habits, such as the way he chewed betel nut. no one else at the monastery was allowed to chew betel nut. not that ajahn sumedho wanted to chew betel nut, but a lot of the other monks did. although ajahn chah banned it, he could do as he pleased. he also banned cigarettes, which are quite popular amongst the monks in thailand. his was the first monastery in thailand where cigarettes were banned, but ajahn chah still smoked on occasion. and then, even though he had said he was going to stop smoking, ajahn sumedho came across him on a back path one day with a cigarette in his mouth. he caught the master in the act, but ajahn chah just looked at ajahn sumedho and gave him a big grin. then he took a deep toke and carried on. so these kinds of frustrations were mounting slowly but surely. more time went by. being a true western rationalist, ajahn sumedho eventually decided enough was enough. ajahn chah was so exalted by all of the thai people – the monks, the laypeople, and the larger monastic community – that no one would ever dare criticize him. there was no way the nuns would ever say a word. even the monks, some of whom were quite tough guys and straightforward people, all held ajahn chah in such high respect that none of them was ever going to say anything. ajahn sumedho thought it over and decided, “well, i know i’m only a junior monk, but i really should do my duty. i’d better get prepared for this.” he developed a list that carefully enumerated all of ajahn chah’s faults. he wanted to be prepared and to have all the facts straight and ready for his teacher. so he got his list together, chose a moment, and asked ajahn chah, “would it be convenient to talk sometime? i have a few things to discuss.”ajahn chah’s life was pretty open and uncomplicated. actually, he didn’t have a private life. he would sleep in his little hut for about four hours a night maybe. that was it, that was his private life. the rest of the time he was fair game. ajahn chah agreed to talk with his student. and because ajahn sumedho didn’t want to embarrass his teacher in front of everyone, he tried to choose a time when there weren’t too many other people around. how very thoughtful of him. you can imagine the blade hov- ering overhead, ready to fall. ajahn sumedho plucked up his courage and finally approached ajahn chah. he had earnestly memorized his list of all the things he felt compelled to bring up. he began to recount it to his teacher. “you’re really putting on weight, and you’re actually quite a bit heavier than you need to be. you spend so much time talking with people instead of meditating with the rest of us, and often what you are saying is not really good dharma. it’s just kind of chitchat and shooting the breeze, such as talking about this year’s mango crop or how the chickens are doing or giving someone advice about how to look after the water buffalo. what’s the purpose of discussing life in northeast thailand so much? and then there’s the double standard around betel nuts and cigarettes, when you are supposed to be setting an example for the monks.” by the way, i’m extemporizing a little bit here, taking poetic license, but please be aware that ajahn sumedho has told this story himself uncountable times, so it is not privy information. finally he completes his long, detailed delivery and is just waiting for the cold rebuff, or to get blasted. in normal human circumstances, it is reasonable to expect that kind of reaction. but ajahn chah looked at him gently and said, “well, i’m very grateful to you sumedho for bringing up these things up to me. i’ll really consider what you’ve said and see what can be done. but also you should bear in mind that perhaps it’s a good thing that i’m not perfect. otherwise you might be looking for the buddha somewhere outside your own mind.” there was a long and poignant silence. then the young sumedho crawled away simultaneously heartened and chastened. no Buddha elsewhere Ajahn Amaro recounts a story of Ajahn Sumedho’s search for perfection in his teacher. from Small Boat, Great Mountain: Theravadan Reflections on the Natural Great Perfection, by amaro bhikkhu. published by abhayagiri monastery.