Not sure, part 1 of 2

Friends, I am on an overseas holiday for two weeks and in my absence have decided to treat you to a section from Stillness Flowing, a comprehensive review of the life and teachings of Ajahn Chah, by Ajahn Jayasaro. We’ll start with a section titled “Mai Nae” (p. 454), which is a phrase in Thai meaning ‘unsure’, ‘uncertain’, etc. Enjoy!

Mai Nae

In the last five or six years of his teaching career, most of Luang Por’s [Ajahn Chah’s] Dhamma talks were recorded on audio cassette. In this collection of talks, now stored digitally, Luang Por deals with a wide variety of themes, amongst which one frequently repeated teaching stands out – that of ‘mai nae‘. The phrase ‘mai nae’ translates most readily as ‘unsure’, ‘uncertain’, ‘changeful’ or ‘indefinite’ and is an everyday term that all of Luang Por’s audience would have immediately understood. A farmer, for example, asked in the planting season whether he expected to get a good harvest that year, would most probably reply, ‘mai nae. If we get enough rain, it should be all right.’ The phrase ‘mai nae’ here is a simple recognition that things are affected by many variable conditions (e.g., how much rain falls) and are thus never completely predictable.

Luang Por taught his disciples to practise the perception of ‘mai nae’ as a means of cultivating the wisdom faculty. By constantly reminding themselves that both internal and external phenomena were ‘mai nae’, they developed aniccasaññā (the perception of impermanence), and with practice, the associated perception of dukkhā (the inherently flawed, ultimately unsatisfactory nature of experience) and anattā (the conditioned, selfless nature of experience). These perceptions of the ‘three characteristics of existence’ created a pathway for vipassanā, the deep, wordless insight that uproots defilements and leads to the end of suffering.

The practise of ‘mai nae’ achieves its power from directly confronting the ingrained tendency of unawakened beings to invest experience with the appearance of solidity. This sense that the things within and without us are real and substantial is founded upon unexamined assumptions. The perception of changefulness became the tool Luang Por most often recommended to challenge those assumptions. Luang Por chose to use the phrase ‘mai nae’ in preference to the more traditional aniccaṃ or ‘impermanent’, to bring a fresh slant on wisdom development. For his disciples, ‘mai nae’ was a familiar, approachable idea, deeply embedded in the culture. It demystified Dhamma practice and made it seem immediately practical.

The specific emphasis of the ‘mai nae’ practice may be examined by comparing it to the comparable phrase ‘this too will pass’. Whereas ‘this too will pass’ reminds us of a future beyond the present experience and so puts it into perspective, ‘mai nae’ points to the nature of the present phenomena itself.

In daily life, Luang Por taught that the ‘mai nae’ reflection was particularly effective in dealing with attachment to ideas and views. In this context, the word might be better translated as ‘maybe not’. Whenever the mind was about to draw a conclusion or jump to one, when it was about to make a judgement about something, he taught the meditator to recall, ‘maybe not’. Maybe that’s not how it is, maybe that’s not how it happened, maybe that’s not what he or she is really like. Whenever the sense of certainty arose, meditators were to temper it with a gentle ‘maybe not’. Even if they were convinced, they were still to reserve a small space in their mind for the possibility of being wrong: ‘Yes, but maybe – just maybe – not’. In this way the mind was to become more careful and nuanced in its attitudes.

Part 2 of 2 to follow…

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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