Roots of the Forest; N-E Thailand
Ajahn Sucitto spent ten weeks of the winter in Thailand, mostly in theNorth-East, which is the source of the monastic style of the monasteries ofthis Sangha. The North-East has produced many masters in the ForestTradition, but naturally enough, it was Ajahn Chah and Wat Pah Pong thatformed the fundamental reference point for the trip. It was Ajahn Sucitto'sfirst visit to Wat Pah Pong and it provided some clear reflections on theheart of monastic practice....
In the middle of last year, Ajahn Sumedho invited me to spend the winter months in Thailand. I had no particular motivation in going, so there was a quiet space in my mind around the projected trip. I let the space be and watched to see how it would fill. A few days before my departure, I received a message from Ajahn Pasanno at Wah Pah Nanachat inviting me to go tudong with a group of monks in Kanchanaburi, a wild province on the Burmese frontier.
Hardly had I got kitted out with tudong equipment by the senior monks at Amaravati and given advice on malaria, than a phone call came notifying us that Tan Ajahn Chah had been diagnosed as having cancer, and tudong and any other supposed certainties were indefinitely suspended. So on the 20th November, in a sudden change of events, Ajahn Sumedho himself joined me on the flight into the who-knows-what at Wat Pah Pong. It was a good start, a reminder that in the spiritual life, every journey, and every day, should be experienced as a movement into the unknown.
It had been eight years since I had left Thailand. Being greeted with anjali by air hostesses and customs officials was something of a suprise. At Don Meuncr Airport, the customs men took my bags, not to inspect them, but to carry them through, as they ushered us to the front of the line. Travelling with Ajahn Sumedho certainly presents some occasions for reflection; the way that people relate to you shifts your perspective from a physical location to a place in the ongoing spiritual tradition. Images of benevolence arise at every turn. Ajahn Pasanno and Venerable Sumano from Wat Pah Nanachat greeted us at the airport, with a car to take us to Yom Kesaree's house. There a kuti had been made ready and almsfood prepared for our arrival. Anonymous supporters arranged for us to be taken to visit Tan Chao Khuns Sobhana and Pannananda in the evening -- the unexpected continued to be welcoming. But it could only be a short stay with the thought of Tan Ajahn Chah on our minds, and the next afternoon we were flown off to Ubon, the nearest city to Wat Pah Pong.
Ubon is the capital of one of the seventeen provinces of the North-East which are collectively known as the Isan (pronounced Eesahn). The Isan is mostly a broad plateau extending from mountains 200 Km. east of Bangkok up to the Mekong River. Most of the land is given over to the cultivation of sticky rice. Without the technology to control nature, and without the resources to avoid it, people have to get used to being too hot in the hot season, flooded in the wet, cold in the cold, and hungry if the crop fails. Accordingly, Isan folk have developed ample resilience and patience.
The Isan bears strong cultural and linguistic affinities with Laos. Until recently poor roads have made links with central Thailand tenuous, and villagers have always relied on their local custom and village traditions as social reference points, particularly when these have integrated with Sangha observances. When so much of the rest of life is uncertain, tradition exerts a far more powerful influence than changing governments. With the frailty of personal existence acknowledged and accepted, there is yet an unshakeable confidence in the spiritual life, in its conventions and essence. Complete commitment to it is for a few, and total fulfillment of it a rare attainment, but the holy life has been a vital presence in Thailand for about 800 years. It is to the sign of the holy life that customs men make anjali, it is to those who live the holy life that the villagers of the Isan offer rice every day. On special days some will bring food to the monasteries, while others will work in the kitchen -- preparing a meal for thirty, by 8:00 a.m. Through reflecting on this generosity of heart, the Sangha's incentive to practice is sustained, as well as its physical existence. From the villagers' point of view, supporting the Sangha is as much a part of life as planting crops or rearing children -- and as beneficial.
When we landed at Ubon, late in the afternoon, the whole Sangha from Wat Pah Nanachat was there to greet us and take us to Wat Pah Pong. In the tropics, night comes down as swiftly and impressively as a snowfall, and the lights around Ajahn Chah's special kuti/ infirmary were glowing to match the innumerable stars when we arrived. After formal greetings had been exchanged, we were invited in to Ajahn Chah's bedside. The face was hardly recognizable as that of the radiant master I had met 7 years ago at the Hampstead Vihara. Ajahn Sumedho squeezed his hand and gave his greetings: there was a movement in the eyelids -- nothing more -- but I quickly realized that Ajahn Chah's movements were measured in such fashion. A movement of the eyes, a slight tensing of the hand muscles of one hand, or a look of recognition were all the signs that one could expect. Aiahn Chah was hardly traceable within this physical form. How he was feeling and for how long he would continue to live were equally uncertain. All that was magnificently apparent was the total care and attention afforded to him by his attendent bhikkhus. They were operating his body for him with a tenderness and respect that makes the word 'nursing' sound bare: it meant saving his life, guessing as to the state of his comfort, being aware of the effects of sudden noises, or changes in light, and a lot of hard menial work. Yet, it was a practice of love, in which every occasion to move his body was preceeded by the deferential gesture of anjali.
Every day, Ajahn Sumedho and I went to the kuti to join the Sangha from Wat Pah Nanacahat in chanting vipassanabhum -- the development of insight. There were always visitors from all over Thailand coming to pay their respects, so for these occasions, Ajahn Chah would be brought into the glass-walled reception room in his wheelchair. His face was often not visible through the reflection of the Sangha in the glass; a strangely fitting image of what one can most clearly trace of Ajahn Chah now. His presence seems more manifest in the sincere practice of his disciples than in a worn out body. 'Ajahn Chah' signifies a quality of practice, quotations, personal memories, and a well respected Sangha. It is through their efforts that his body survives, and it is through his teaching that Wat Pah Pong, and its 80 or so branch monasteries pulse with spiritual life.
Ajahn Chah's teaching has always emphasised a high degree of personal resourcefulness and respect for the traditions of the Sangha. It therefore fits very well with the principles that guide Isan society. The form of beautiful conduct that was apparent towards the Master is an aspect of the Vinaya that can readily be refined and extended, in a society that values deference and service to the elders, and in particular to those living the holy life. Such service benefits the 'servant' as much as the one who is served, because, if freely undertaken it brings joy into the mind. When the monastery and the teacher are established in Dhamma-Vinaya, people take on the training with a sense of honour. I noticed how teenage novices applied themselves to their duties with cheerfulness and personal initiative; they really seek out opportunities to look after the monks bowls, and to do running repairs on worn robes. It sounds archaic, but it looked like a realistic way to channel energy in a spiritual direction. Comparisons with teenagers in the West who have no spiritual guidance arose naturally in my mind, and I couldn't help but think that my meditation would have been a lot more peaceful, if I'd been washing alms bowls at Wat Pah Pong in my teens...
Many of the down-to-earth applications of mindfulness that over-intellectual Westerners find so refreshing are highlighted by the forest life. You have to walk mindfully to avoid tripping on tree roots in a dark forest, or stumbling into a trail of biting ants; you bathe mindfully -- frogs like to congregate near water, and where there are frogs, there are hungry snakes. In the monasteries, people are trained to be very scrupulous about their needs -you have to seek out a responsible monk to obtain even modest requisites, like washing powder and torch batteries: and they might very well run out. There is a routine and there are duties, but things are not always spelled out you're expected to notice and find out. You may be sent off somewhere at short notice, or find that your carefully prepared trip gets cancelled. Life is uncertain in forest monasteries; but the way of the Buddha is defined in practical detail by the careful use of Vinaya and training conventions. So such places, particularly when blessed by the presence of a master, are sought out by those who look for good practice. There's not much else you can expect to get out of a forest monastery, but those who stay come to appreciate the training for what it can bring forth from the mind. If you can learn to live without holding on, you find it a wonderful door to the Dhamma.
Going into insecurity with mindfulness typifies Dhamma practice and extends it beyond any particular location. East or West, life is uncertain, and the Way invites us onwards. So we were only at Wat Pah Pong for about ten days before circumstances changed: Ajahn Chah's condition stabilised, Ajahn Sumedho had to fulfil a promise to visit Switzerland, and with things back to 'normal', I took up another invitation to go tudong. There was talk of hardships and tigers, but when 1 contemplated it, it didn't seem any more precarious than travelling in an aeroplane, or in a Thai bus for that matter. And, unlike most travellers, my wanderings would all be within the realm of Dhamma-Vinaya.
After a few weeks, Tan Ajahn Chah was examined again by doctors, who found no traces of cancer. Current1y, his condition remains the same, with occasional crises when it seems as if he is about to die. Work on building the memorial building, composing a biography, and making arrangements for the eventual funeral are still underway.