Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1987

Settling in at Stokes Valley; Ajahn Viradhammo
Roots of the Forest; Ajahn Sucitto, (part II)
Letter from Chithurst; Ajahn Anando
Tudong in the Lakes; Venerable Amaro's notes
Desana; Ajahn Lee Dhammadaro
Meditation and Prayer; Ajahn Sucitto


Roots of the Forest

Ajahn Sucitto continues his introduction to the forest monasteries of the Isan.

My introduction to the forest monasteries was at night. We had landed at Ubon early in the evening, been driven to Wat Pah Pong to pay respects to Luang Por Chah and then taken back to Wat Pah Nanachat, the monastery specifically established for Western bhikkhus. Having trained so long in the West with these monasteries' way of practice presented as the constant standard, I found myself entering them with a tingling expectation, a mixture of eagerness, awe and uncertainty. What austerities, what challenges lay ahead. I should have known better.

Anyway, I was not prepared for night in the forest. It is black. Faintly glimmering sandy trails wander off into the darkness to the huts scattered in the forest, and you try to follow one with a torch. Of course, the old-timers will tell you of the days before torches and trails, when bhikkhus proceeded through the forest with no other guidance than the Karaniya Metta Sutta, but the hazards haven't changed. There are still plenty of snakes about; and large aggressive centipedes can deliver a painful nip that will have you laid up for a while. More frequently encountered are dangling vines and newly-spun spiders' webs, or the roots that jut up through the sand like the knuckles of some malevolent troll for the unsuspecting tenderfoot to mash their toes upon. So you walk attentively focussed on a beam of light. My bhikkhu guide took me past a few simple huts (or kutis) to a newer one at the edge of the monastery, unlocked its padlocked door, pushed back the wooden shutters, and with a few remarks padded off into the night.
Darkness has already swallowed up the familiar, and the long mysterious night invites you to meditate.

Wat Pah Nanachat

Wat Pah Nanachat's kutis are quite simple. They are all a plank construction with large roofs to provide shade arid a good run-off for water in the Rains. They stand on legs, to elevate one from the path of forest pigs and out of the densest flying zone of the mosquitoes; while with the more lofty kutis the space underneath is a cooler place for sitting than inside. The furnishings are a rush mat, a candle or oil-lamp and matches, a pillow for the head, and a rope to hang one's robes upon; the accoutrements are a spitoon and a kettle, a soft broom for sweeping the room, and a coarse one for sweeping the paths. It's all you need; nothing to distract the mind, and not much to have to look after. As soon as you enter such a dwelling, you want to sit and meditate for a while -- especially when the cool night is mosquito-free and the ghosts are quiet.

Having been advised to come to the sala at dawn, I had the pleasure of a private sitting early in the morning. Trying to find the sala in the half-light via the unfamiliar trails was a minor challenge, but after some fumbling around, the navigational aids established themselves in my mind -- the trailing vine here; the large water urn there; a derelict kuti visible through the trees; a fork in the path. Light comes around 5 a.m. and daily routines establish another set of norms: the morning puja in the sala, announced by the bell at 3 a.m.; walking or sitting meditation until 5:30; the morning sweep-up; the alms round (pindabaht); the meal; the afternoon chores; the evening bath and drink; and the evening puja. Then people leave the sala for their kutis. Darkness has already swallowed up the familiar, and the long mysterious night invites you to meditate.

The daily routine in a monastery, East or West, provides reference points on how to co-operate and enter a non-verbal communion with the Sangha. People who can't adapt get disgruntled and leave monasteries where they find the routine doesn't fit their style of practice -- a surprising reaction for someone familiar with the difficulties of practice outside of a meditation monastery, but indicative of the human mind's remarkable endeavours to find fault with the way things are. Actually you have a lot of space to contemplate how much rest you need, how you spend your time, and what kind of effort you sustain through unexciting days. The Ajahns vary the routines to encourage a clearer view of where suffering actually is. Sometimes there's more work, sometimes more group meditation, sometimes not much of anything. If you get the point, you see that dukkha follows its own routines. But Ajahn Sumedho and I didn't settle into anything at Nanachat; on the first day we went along with the routine to the point where the Sangha paid their daily visit to Ajahn Chah's kuti, and then we moved over to Wat Pah Pong.
Wat Pah Pong

After visiting Luang Por again -- whose kuti is outside the wall that bounds the original monastery -- we entered the monastery proper over a side wall. The elements were the same: A couple of bhikkhus guiding us; darkness gatheringand hastening our paces; and attention fixed on the ground ahead. An astute lodgings officer had given me a kuti very close to the sala, with mosquito screens and its own bathing facility underneath. Well, such a luxury at Wat Pah Pong was a surprise. Furthermore, an evening drink was being served in the long dining hall adjoining the sala. Of course, as anyone will tell you, it's not like the old days when Luang Por gently remonstrated with a lay devotee who brought ice to the monastery, that such a luxury might spoil the monks. The day when coffee first came to Pah Pong is a noted historical event, and even now the choice of drinks in the poorer branches can be rain-water or well-water. Things change. I went over to the dining hall and, surveying the long wooden benches that ran down either side of the building, sat myself in a position that I hoped was not too presumptuous.

But the evening drink is an informal occasion-- "Tam sabai!" (relax) is the phrase that indicates that it's not necessary to wear the upper robe or sit in a formal posture. Huge kettles floated down the line of monks; with tiny novices attached to the handles; and in their wake enamelled dishes with 'medicines' -- the bitter laxative fruits of the North-East. It is a quiet time, and unlike British 'tea-time', there's no tradition of lay people attending for an informal chat. Where the long informal conversations take place is traditionally in or under the Ajahn's kuti, or nowadays in a sala outside of the monastery proper where Ajahn Liam receives guests. We went there after tea. There was a lot of gentle humour between Ajahn Liam and Ajahn Sumedho; but I missed out on everything except Ajahn Liam's quiet conviviality and the sharpness of his mind.

Living Images

Ajahn Liam's been in charge of Wat Pah Pong for five or six years now, at least to the extent that anyone could be in charge of the myths, mystique and devotional energies that surround Pah Pong and Ajahn Chah. Luang Por is a constant reference point as the standard for correct practice throughout 80 monasteries and thousands of lay people. Luang Por still oversees the monastery through the many images that gaze at the visitor and the resident with unwavering eye. A portrait (a reproduction of the painting at Chithurst) presides at the head of the line in the dining hall, and another stands opposite a portrait of Ajahn Mun in the sala. There his seat, with kettle and spittoon beside it still occupies the central place before the shrine. It's not just a cult, but a sign of the continuity of the tradition, and the respect for the Master as an embodiment of the practice. Meanwhile Ajahn Liam guides the Sangha and adds his own insights to the storehouse of the Dhamma-Vinaya that supports the holy life.

It's not like the old days, but Wat Pah Pong doesn't pretend to be; it manifests constant change. A morning wandering around the monastery verifies that. At one end of the dining hall is a small unused building that was the original meeting place for the small group of bhikkus with Ajahn Chah in the early days. Some way off to the side is the mango tree where Ajahn Chah first placed his mosquito net umbrella on arriving in this haunted forest 33 years ago. Now a tiger, symbol of the tudong bhikkhu, pauses there, turned into concrete, wide-eyed and harmless. A dozen metres away, another image sums up the development: it is an effigy of Luang Por rendered in flawless detail, sitting underneath the kuti where he received guests during the prime of his teaching career. It's less awesome than the Master in past or present condition, yet close enough to still convey the comforting presence of a wise man. In between these two images is a condensed history of Wat Pah Pong: the primitive old kutis; an array of ancient sima stones from the Cambodian border; and the new Uposatha Hall. Stylistically, this building is an innovation -- with its pointed upswept arched roofs hanging over a polished marble floor, the only connection it made in my mind is with the Sydney Opera House. Luang Por visited it for a couple of years before his decline. Now terecotta murals depicting scenes from his his life hang on the walls; and at the feet of a standing Buddha, a bronze figure of the Master gazes out towards the dining hall, the new sala (the first cement building in the monastery) and the still unfinished three-storey building at the very entrance to the monastery. This will be the Ajahn Chah museum.


It has become customary to erect these pipitapahn to contain the relics, the biographies and the books, and the sparse personal effects of forest masters when they die. Inside this one, more terracotta murals of Luang Por's life tower over the emptiness. So this is the latest phase: Wat Pah Pong as a pilgrimage centre. The critical faculties can mutter that such extravagance contradicts the exemplary austerity of the Master himself, but the heart knows that these are tokens of the faith and the love that sustains a spiritual tradition. One should approach such places from the heart, not with the memory or the eye. Looking backwards or looking outwards, the mind is overstimulated. Images and perceptions collide: USAF fuel tanks (now water reservoirs) from the Vietnam era; Dhamma poems hanging off the trees; the main gate, a replica of the the Oaken Holt gate that impressed Luang Por when he visited Britain; a bell tower festooned with graceful Thai temple plasterwork; rickety kutis; and looking up at the ultra-modern Uposatha Hall, a large blue pottery owl in the style of the Isan. Notions of the old and the new are obviously not to be clung to.

And then one notices the calm of the forest -- no wind to rattle the dead leaves; no voices where forty monks and novices, and as many nuns pass their days; in the afternoons the rhythmic rustle of the sweeping chore; in the evening the absorptive trill of the insects. You contemplate the trees that punctuate the mind's monologue with their ordinariness, their suchness, and you settle into practice.