Against The Grain

Ajahn brahm has always been rebellious. Whether it was his long hair as a teenager, his giving up of alcohol as a student, or his embrace of Buddhism at the tender age of sixteen, he has never been satisfied with mainstream thinking and received wisdom. This sense of non-conformism is evident throughout his spiritual journey as a monk.

On one occasion, as a young monk at Wat Pa Nanachat, he had been invited by the abbot to give the evening Dhamma talk. The monks, as well as all the laypeople, had arrived at the main hall and taken their seats. Ajahn Brahm then rose from his seat, bowed down to the abbot, and ascended the high Dhamma seat. He then closed his eyes to focus his mind, as is customary before giving a talk. Except this time, he never opened his eyes. He just sat there quietly with closed eyes for a full hour! That was his “talk.” Uh-oh. The abbot was not impressed. This was not what a junior monk was supposed to do when asked to give a talk. But from Ajahn Brahm’s perspective, he was offering a lesson
in understanding expectation. It was not the lack of a talk that was a problem, but the expectation of one. So much suffering in life comes from having expectations.

Ajahn Brahm liked to challenge convention also in his personal practice, such as by meditating in charnel grounds where corpses are taken to be burned in the open air. For the average Thai, this is almost unthinkable. In Thai culture, charnel grounds are closely associated with ghosts. Moreover, as most Thais are brought up on a steady diet of ghost stories, many are terrified at the prospect of encountering one. It takes a brave Thai monk to meditate overnight in a charnel ground, and only the boldest of forest monks would do it. When Ajahn Brahm said he was going, some
of the monks tried to dissuade him, saying, “Don’t go. Stay with us. You’ll be safe here.” But to no avail.

For a Westerner, Ajahn Brahm thought, charnel grounds are not scary. So he found a suitable place, set up his little platform and started to meditate, waiting for the dark to arrive. But to his consternation, as the light faded,
his imagination started to play tricks on him. In tropical forests, there is a constant backdrop of noise. At night, when the sense of hearing gets more acute, these noises seem to intensify. And so, as Ajahn Brahm was sitting there, he started to hear sounds. It must be a small animal moving through the forest, he thought. As the light faded, the
sound grew louder, coming closer and closer. Perhaps it was not a small animal, after all. Perhaps it was a cat or a dog. By the time it was pitch black, the sound was extremely loud and very close by. Oh no, it must be a tiger! He finally opened his eyes. The “tiger” turned out to be a tiny mouse sitting next to him on the platform.

Maybe charnel grounds are scary for Westerners after all. But the real lesson was that sometimes you need to go against the stream to make progress on the path. In this case, Ajahn Brahm made an important discovery about the power of the imagination. Through one’s own fabrications, things often appear far worse than they really are.
As with most things in life, there is a right and a wrong way to be rebellious. Used wisely, it opens up new avenues for learning. To achieve uncommon wisdom, by definition, you need to go against the grain.

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