Venerable Ajahn Chah

Venerable Ajahn Chah (Bodhiñana Thera) was born in 1918 in a farming village in Ubon Rachathani province, Northeastern Thailand. He ordained as a novice monk for a brief period in his youth, and at the age of 20, still deeply attracted to monastic life, took full ordination. After following the traditional curriculum of Buddhist studies customary in Thailand at that time, he eventually grew disenchanted with study. In 1946 he  took up the austere life of a wandering forest monk.

Thailand’s tradition of forest-dwelling monks, having waned in previous centuries, had been revived recently by renowned meditation master, Ajahn Mun.

Inspired by this teacher’s example, many monks in early twentieth century Thailand abandoned sedentary lives of study to wander the forest as the Buddha had, practicing strictly in line with the Vinaya — the Buddhist code of monastic discipline — and single-mindedly pursuing meditation as a path to the realization of truth. Desiring to find the real essence of the Buddha’s teachings, Ajahn Chah followed the example of such wandering monks.  He spent the following eight years of his life searching out remote wilderness areas and practicing meditation under various teachers of the tradition, including Venerable Ajahn Mun himself.

After many arduous years of travel and practice, Ajahn Chah was invited to settle in a thick forest grove, known as a dwelling place of tigers, cobras, and spirits, near the village of his birth. The monastery that eventually grew up there came to be known as Wat Nong Pah Pong. The conditions were difficult and the basic living requisites scarce.  Out of faith and loyalty to their teacher, Ajahn Chah, the monks and nuns willingly endured these myriad hardships to follow the path and teachings Ajahn Chah lovingly laid out for them.

In 1968, Ajahn Sumedho, an American intrigued by the strict monastic discipline and way of life, came to study under Ajahn Chah. From this time on the number of Western disciples grew, and the first overseas branch monastery of Wat Nong Pah Pong was established in England in 1979. Today, Ajahn Chah’s teachings and disciples are dotted across the globe, with additional monasteries in Switzerland, Italy, France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.A.

In 1981 Ajahn Chah’s health began to fail, culminating in the need for a brain surgery. Despite this intervention, his condition became progressively worse, and he spent the last ten years of his life bedridden and unable to speak. Throughout this time he was carefully tended by his faithful disciples.

On the 16th of January, 1992, Venerable Ajahn Chah passed away at the age of 74, leaving behind a lineage that is still growing today. He is credited with the highest spiritual accomplishments of the Buddhist path and was loved for his humor and wisdom. Individuals interested in the liberating teachings of the Buddha, both monastic and lay, Thai and international, traveled far and wide to seek out even a short audience with this extraordinary yet down-to-earth man. The warm embrace of Ajahn Chah’s compassionate presence touched many hearts around the world, and his sharp wisdom were always at hand to help others find their way to true peace of mind.

Headed by the King and Queen of Thailand, his funeral was attended by nearly a million people, paying their last respects to a man who truly embodied the Buddha’s teachings. To this day thousands of monastics and lay people come to pay respects and practice the Dhamma on the anniversary of Ajahn Chah’s death. As Ajahn Chah’s disciples remind us on such occasions, the best way to honor his memory is to practice and realize for ourselves the freedom to which Ajahn Chah so compassionately pointed the way.