|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1987|
Roots of the Forest
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.