|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1991|
The Life of a Forest Monk
Please Luang Por, would you tell us your life story, as best you can, in brief?
How old were you, Luang Por, at this time?
So I began to inform my friends of my plans. My friends didn't believe me or support what I wanted to do. Fine. I let them think what they wanted. When they realised that I was serious, they decided to offer me bowl and robes and the requisites I would need as a monk. I finally returned to my village and told my family my plans. They had no objections and were quite pleased.
Now put all of these things aside for the time being, so that you can put them behind you.
So I took Upasampada [bhikkhu ordination] and began to think that I would like to become a forest monk and seek the quietude of a cave or the forest. I sought the life of a wandering forest monk, but my preceptor didn't think this to be a good idea. He thought it selfish to just go off on my own, and encouraged me to stay and support my Dhamma brothers and sisters. 'What would happen to you if you went off and then fell ill? Stay here, close to your friends and family so that you can be cared for.' My preceptor said it was a rare occurrence to have someone in the village who had made such a firm determination to give his life to the Dhamma and to the robe. He said I would be of great value and benefit to the monastery if I stayed. My preceptor did promise to send me off to the city where I could learn to study the scriptures. I realised that even if I never went away and learned to study the scriptures, I would still benefit by staying with my preceptor and learning how to serve him and help look after the monastery and the junior monks.
So I agreed to follow his advice and stayed in the village monastery for two or three years and became involved in building works and things of this nature. After my fourth Vassa [Rainy- season retreat] I still hadn't been sent anywhere to study, so I approached my preceptor about going to the city. He agreed - and so I went off to Ubon city in the year 2500 [Buddhist era, or 1957 C.E.] to study Pali. I had already completed my three-year study of the scriptures.
When I arrived at the monastery in the city I commenced my Pali studies, memorised the Patimokkha [bhikkhu training rules], and learned the different sorts of chanting. We wouldn't even have the same chant twice in just one month, and my mind begin to spin with all the new knowledge. This verse, that verse, I became caught in a chaotic cycle of turbulent thought. I did manage to learn and complete quite a few things that first year, but by the second Vassa, I was absolutely fed up! I had headaches from studying so much. The monastery was beside a noisy cinema that often didn't close until after midnight.
I began to wonder what to do. I couldn't study and memorise the scriptures for much longer, so I thought maybe I could become one of these monks who is a professional speaker and give desanas [Dhamma talks], if I studied the fancy language and intonation that they used. I couldn't come to a decision, and I would have been too embarrassed to return to my own village as I had not achieved what I had set out to do. My mind was very upset and confused. I also began to experience a lot of lust and desire.
An old man that I knew - he was actually the grandfather of a friend of mine - came to the monastery to take ordination. I began to question him and asked him if he would like to study the scriptures after he was ordained. 'No,' he replied, 'I'm too old for that. I'm going to stay with a forest master at Wat Pa Pong. All you have to do is meditate in the forest - close your eyes, adopt the right posture - and everything comes to you. It sounded like just the thing for me; I wanted to go as well! He was leaving after his ordination, in 10 or 15 days, so I went and asked the abbot if I could go to Wat Pa Pong. 'Have you given up, then?' he asked me. So I had to tell him that my heart was no longer in studying, and I had come to the conclusion that I should go to live in the forest.
He gave me his blessing and his support, so I began making preparations to go. I didn't know what the routine of a forest monastery would be, but I bought a mosquito net and new robes together as well as Ovaltine and milk powder to drink before going pindabaht [alms round] in the morning. I made sure that I had enough money with me as well, just in case*.
*The irony of Ajahn Jun's 'preparations' is that according to the discipline that forest monasteries lay emphasis on, possession and use of money, and storing and consuming Ovaltine and milk before dawn (the time of the alms round) are forbidden.
The day came to go and so we were off. I hadn't contacted Luang Por Chah before I left my monastery to ask if I could come. When we arrived at Wat Pa Pong monastery we went to pay our respects to Luang Por Chah. He was expecting the old man that I had travelled with, and told him that a kuti [hut] was ready for him. The old man introduced me to Luang Por Chah and told him how I had become fed up with my studies and wanted to live in the forest as his disciple. Luang Por Chah responded by saying he wasn't sure if there would be room for me; he was surprised to have someone turn up at the last minute like this without asking beforehand.
Ajahn Chah turned to me and began asking about me: which village had I come from, when was I ordained, how many Vassas did I have, and so on. I told him that I was sincere about being a monk, that studying hadn't been very fruitful and that I was ready to entrust my body and life to him as my teacher and train as a forest monk. Ajahn Chah was sympathetic, but told me he regretted there was no space for me to stay at the monastery. I offered to stay in the kitchen or the sala, but he would only allow me to stay if I had a hut of my own. The lady who had given us a lift to the monastery asked Ajahn Chah if she could offer 120 Baht [about £2.50] to the monastery to cover the costs of building a small grass kuti for me to live in. Ajahn Chah was silent for a moment or two, and then gave his consent. 'All right,' he said. 'Let's give it a try.'
On a Visit
to a Buddhist
Half in novice-white,
half priestly saffron.
'How glad I am it's you!'
I feel the warmth
of being chosen,
On soft and gentle feet
from this small source
Our spirits meet.
Bubbling her melodious song
Mrs. Rosemary Stevens
After puja that same evening, Luang Por Chah sent for me. I went in, paid my respects, and he asked me what I had thought of the monastery after my first day there. Did I miss the monastery I had left? 'No,' I replied. Did I think I would be able to stay at Wat Pa Pong? 'Yes, I think so.' He didn't really say much to me that first night, just told me that the practice was right there in the monastery, just as things were. The next night he asked the same questions again: it was only a few days before we would enter the Vassa, and he wanted to ensure that I would stay for the Rains. 'Yes,' I told him, 'I'll stay.' 'Good,' he said, 'but if that's the case, all of your requisites and possessions will have to be examined.' Ajahn Chah's background was similar to my own. He had lived in a village monastery for eight years before he started to live strictly by the Vinaya and practise in this way.
And so he began to question me and cross-examine me in the presence of the other monks - there were about four or five other monks at Wat Pa Pong in those days. I opened my case and the Ajahn began looking through. 'Did you buy this mosquito net?' 'Yes,' I replied. 'Then put it over there,' he said. 'Did you buy this new sabong?' 'No,' I said, 'They offered it to me.' 'In that case put it over here.' And so we went through my whole case, item by item, with Ajahn Chah asking where each item had come from. 'What about the robe you are wearing? Did you buy that too?' 'No.' I told him. 'Did you wash it with soap that you bought?' 'Well, yes, Ajahn.' 'Then take it off and put it over here.' And so it was with my angsa [shoulder cloth], until finally my sabong [lower robe] was the only thing I had on after surrendering my other robes. 'You can keep the sabong,' Luang Por said. I breathed a sigh of relief. I realised by then that Ajahn Chah meant business and would have no nonsense. Of course I didn't dare say anything. After I had given up my robes, one of the other monks went and got some robe material and made the appropriate markings on the cloth. Ajahn Chah saw me eyeing the pile of robes I had just given up. 'This is nothing to be sad about,' he said, 'Those things didn't come to you in a pure way, and in our practice we are developing the path of purity. This same thing was done to me, and I had even more things taken away. They set fire to them. But I won't do that to your robes. We'll send them back to your home village.'
Luang Por Chah then asked if I had any qualifications or worldly experience that would be useful at the monastery. I told him about my building and brick-laying experience and my study of the scriptures. Could I give desanas? 'No, I didn't learn any of that.' He saw the various tattoos that I had and wanted to know if I knew any magic charms or spells or incantations. 'A few,' I said. He made me write them on paper and them throw them away as a sign of giving them up, and then made me relinquish the charms and amulets I had as well. Ajahn Chah went on to say, 'Now put all of these things aside for the time being, so that you can put them behind you. I want to teach and train you to practise in the way that we do at Wat Pa Pong. And whether you think it is right or wrong, I want you to do your best to train in this way, to trust and follow the teaching.'
I knew that it was important to do as I was asked. I was nearly at the end of my rope after the route I had taken via my village monastery and studying the scriptures. There was no other place I could go, so I was quite happy to surrender and give myself to the practice. But after we had finished that evening, Ajahn Chah still hadn't given me any guidance or instructions on the practice. When he left that night, he just told me to come over to the sala when I heard the bell the following morning and we would practise together.
The next morning Luang Por Chah gave a talk on training the mind (bhavana) after we finished the chanting. Afterwards we got ready for alms round. I wasn't used to wearing two upper robes together as they did on alms round, and a novice had to help me put them on properly. They were old and tatty, quite a dark colour and well worn, but I was quite pleased to have them.
Time passed by, and soon there was only a day or so left before the Vassa began. We began building the little thatched-roof hut I would occupy. One of the novices was having a difficult time digging out the foundation, so I took the shovel from him and began digging away. Ajahn Chah just looked on and smiled, but didn't say anything. When the foundation was finished, we needed some vines to bind things together. Ajahn Chah sent the same novice to get some, and thinking I would save the young novice some trouble, I went to give him a hand pulling them down and cutting them up. Ajahn Chah still didn't say anything, he just watched smiling**. I didn't have a clue what he was smiling at, and I thought he was smiling with approval at my work, that I must be showing him what good handyman I was. The kuti still wasn't finished before the Vassa began. Ajahn Teeang was invited to spend the rains in his home village, so he left and I was offered his kuti.
** More transgressions of the training! Bhikkhus are forbidden to dig soil or damage plants.
I gradually settled in at Wat Pa Pong. Everything was different than I had previously imagined it would be. But I was earnest and resolute in my practice, very sincere, and determined to be a good example, particularly since Ajahn Teeang had left and I was the monk immediately junior to Ajahn Chah. I was very cautious to present a good example, and some nights I wouldn't even sleep. I was very keen to practise. I would wake up in my kuti worried that I was late for morning puja and make my way through the dark forest without a torch, stumbling over everything, to reach the sala and discover it was only midnight or 1 a.m.! So I would stay there, and practise meditation, even though it didn't seem to be producing fruitful results. But I was earnest in my pursuit and persevered....
to be continued