|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1992|
The Life of a Forest Monk: Pt II
The first few years passed and looking back, I remember that it wasn't until the second Vassa I spent with Ajahn Chah that he pointed out my mistakes by showing me the Vinaya rules I had transgressed. He pointed out very clearly the difference between theory and practice, that only now was I doing the actual practice. You can understand things theoretically, but that isn't the same as practice. During that first year, the lay people there watched me, and formed their own opinions about me. When I first arrived they were betting among themselves to see how long I would last. Some thought I was a village monk used to having a good time and would leave; others thought I would stay and be a good monk. Overhearing these things gave me inspiration to stay, particularly when life was difficult and there were many hardships. I had a very sincere earnestness to stay and practise. I had quite a nice bowl that I was very proud of, and sometimes I would wake up during the night and look at it and hold it. Everything it represented was a great inspiration.
During those early years, I insisted that I not be told any news of my home village so that I could be completely removed from things happening there. Ajahn Chah was keen to give me all of the support he could so that I could stay with him and further my practice. The hardships and difficulties just increased my faith and determination to stay on. I stayed very close to Ajahn Chah during the day, and spent much time in his presence. I was very dependent on his strength for my practice. My faith and pursuit of the practice was unremitting.
I let it be known that I didn't wish to hear any news of my home village, as I realised that getting caught up with things there would inhibit my progress. Then one day a man came to pay respects to Ajahn Chah from my village, and he recognised me. I talked with him, but was very reserved when speaking so as not to get caught up in news from home. Even when I was seriously ill, I asked Ajahn Chah not to send word to my village, even if I died.
You don't think this will kill you, do you? And so what if it does? Go to death. That which is good is still found, even beyond death.
Luang Por, when was the first time that you went on tudong?
The first time was in my fourth year with Ajahn Chah. He and I went on tudong together in Ampher Bundalik with a group of other monks and novices for about two and a half months. A year later I had another opportunity to go tudong again, this time as the senior monk and leader, with Ajahn Sinowin and Ajahn Toon. We just kept going for five months, not trying to see any other teachers or stay at any particular place. Our determination was to have the opportunity to be on our own and utilise the teaching we had received from Ajahn Chah. We pressed on, feeling quite secure with the practice given to us by Ajahn Chah, and had no doubts. In these five months we visited many provinces, and walked along the Mekong River for a time. My feet became quite swollen and cracked from all the walking.
Luang Por, I'd like to ask about those early days with Ajahn Chah. Please share some of the anecdotes and instructions that he gave you regarding practice and the Vinaya.
One of my strongest memories of Ajahn Chah is his firm emphasis on the Vinaya and the sila. His desanas always pointed out the importance of practising and keeping the sila. He encouraged a sense of honesty and integrity by acknowledging any breach of the discipline and confessing the offence. Ajahn Chah was a great example, because he practised this with us in all that we did. At meal time and chore time his punctuality and his presence created a sense of harmony, because he worked together with us.
So there was a great emphasis on keeping the form, doing the chores, and the daily routine at the monastery?
Yes, that's very true. Ajahn Chah placed a lot of emphasis on keeping the form and the routine.
What about the bhavana and practice of sitting in meditation? Did Ajahn Chah give much instruction and advice on that?
Ajahn Chah led us in meditation instruction and guidance, and would frequently put us to the test. He would tell us to sit inside our kuti, with the doors and windows closed and bundle our robes around us. This was during the hot season, and sometimes he would call us together during the hottest part of the day to meditate in the sala. When we asked him why he wanted us to do these things, he said to help us go against our defilements. During the hottest time of day, we wanted to go and sit in a cool place, and this was Luang Por Chah's way of helping us go against our natural tendency to get away from the cause of suffering - in this case the extreme heat - by going against our desire to keep cool. In the cold season we had to do just the opposite and bear the cold. Ajahn Chah was right there doing it with us. Any time the monks would whimper he would shout at them, 'Just endure! You don't think this will kill you, do you? And so what if it does? Go to death. That which is good is still found, even beyond death.' And we were all very content to do these things. Sometimes after the food had been passed round at the meal, he would get up and give a long desana on greed and desire, while the monks sat there looking into their bowls and salivating.
What was he teaching? What did he say?
He would talk about greed and desire, and the craving for food, giving details of what would happen to the food after we ate it - how it turned into flesh, blood, and bones, and excrement. He would talk about the pindabaht duties, the correct manner of carrying the almsbowl and receiving food, as well as the distribution of the almsfood at the monastery. Some of us may not have enough, others would eat too much.
Would he do this often, Luang Por?
No, not often. Only two or three times each month. Oh yes in those days we smoked cigarettes. Then Ajahn Chah decided to stop it.
Were you smoking too?
Sure. We all smoked.
Ajahn Chah heard a desana given by Ajahn Pannananda that discouraged smoking. He said if one couldn't let go of a tiny defilement like smoking, how could one be liberated from the big ones? Ajahn Chah contemplated this, and decided to forbid smoking on these grounds, as well as because few other Ajahns in the district smoked. He thought the resources of the laity could be put to better use. It wasn't easy for the local villagers to get cigarettes. In those days, factory-produced cigarettes weren't available and we only had the local hand-made roll-ups. Some of the monks and novices would directly ask the laity for cigarettes without a being asked if they needed anything, and this went against the bhikkhu Vinaya. He could see problems and difficulties arising because of this.
How did you decide to quit? How did the decision come about?
A meeting was called and everyone discussed it. We trusted Luang Por's advice and wanted to do whatever he wished, so the Sangha unanimously gave it up.
What year was this? Was it after you went on tudong by yourself?
Oh yes, I remember smoking when I was on tudong in Chiang Mai province.
This reminds me of the time when I took the other monks on tudong without Ajahn Chah. We met some lay supporters one evening who kindly took us to a good place to stay the night in the forest. They took their leave - to go home to supper - but said they would return later to hear a desana. I was asked to give a talk and told them I would if I was still in the same spot when they returned, or they could call out to me if I had moved. All of us were tired and, to tell the truth, I didn't feel like giving a talk. So we moved to another place, and all of us agreed not to light a fire and keep quiet if the lay supporters came looking for us later. Then I thought, 'When the lay folk return, they're bound to bring some cigarettes, and I'd quite like a smoke to perk me up a bit.' Sure enough, the lay people came along. They began calling for me through the forest, and I broke my agreement with the other monks and called to them, surrendering because of my desire to have a cigarette. Some good came out of it, and after my talk they departed respectfully. Afterwards Ajahn Sinowin came creeping over. 'Did you get any tobacco?' he whispered. We had a smoke together. This is the nature of defilement and desire.
Before leaving on this tudong Ajahn Chah had told me to be wary of arguments and disagreements among the monks while we were away. Sure enough, we had a disagreement. About a month after we had left the monastery a dispute arose regarding which trail to take. I wanted to go one direction, and Ajahn Sinowin suggested another route; there was no one around to give advice. We continued along the route I had decided, but the other monks were disgruntled because they thought we could get lost or end up at the wrong destination. We finally met someone on the trail, and sure enough it was the wrong route, but the other route the monks suggested was wrong as well. Eventually we found the right trail, but both of us were somber and still steaming from our disagreement.
Throughout the next few days Ajahn Sinowin constantly disagreed about where we should stay, or how long we should rest. Another monk began to move so slowly that we had to leave him behind to catch up later. One day we got separated but found him in the next village the following day. We were happy to find him again, but I rebuked him for being so slow and lagging behind. He didn't reply and became angry. When we returned to Wat Pa Pong, Ajahn Sinowin told Ajahn Chah that he and Ajahn Toon had been on the verge of leaving me and returning to the monastery before the tudong had finished. I never knew this at the time, but at least everyone stayed together throughout the tudong. Luang Por Chah just said that's how it happens, that's how things go.
Luang Por, what was it like the first time you went tudong with Ajahn Chah? What did he advise and instruct about living in the wilds and in the forest? What guidance did he actually give?
Ajahn Chah advised us to stay in ancient burial grounds and cemeteries whilst on tudong - especially places of ancestral burial, where spirits are believed to live. Get permission from the local villagers first, he advised, and don't stay in any place longer than seven days. Don't get attached to any particular place or its villagers. Keep the sila, and be wary of dangers around you. Some places may be haunted by spirits or ghosts, so be careful. And sleep right down on the ground, where your mindfulness and sensitivity is at its best; I found this to be very true. Take care not to destroy plant life, insects or small creatures, and be aware of your surroundings. If you don't have a novice or lay supporter to prepare a place in the forest, do the best you can within the sila. Look around you and make sure there aren't any dead branches overhead that could fall down on you. Stop during the day when it's still light to prepare a place to camp, so you can get a feel for the place where you are resting. Also, you can see things for what they are in daylight, and not create them to be apparitions in the dark. It's important to be sensitive to the people where you are staying. Don't do anything offensive or say anything that may offend the local village monastery. Be mindful of speech - say the appropriate things to the villagers, if they want to hear a talk. Be flexible and receive them graciously.
Often the villagers would ask me what would happen to an arahant's consciousness when he dies. I would quote Ajahn Chab's answer to them, which was an analogy of a candle. 'As long as three conditions exist - the wick, the wax, and matches - the candle continues to burn. The flame can be extinguished and relit, as long as these three things are there. But when all of the wax has been used, and no more matches are available, where does the flame go? This flame is like the consciousness of the arahant.' I used this simile from Luang Por Chah whenever presented with this question. We maintained a sense of deference. Even though Ajahn Chah wasn't with us on tudong, his teachings were, and no matter what I was asked I could give an answer by drawing on what I had learned from my teacher.
Ajahn Chah taught that you could hear a desana of the Buddha under any tree, in any place, because the teaching of the Buddha would be right there with you. He compared being on tudong to being a soldier who had left his training camp to fight in the open field. We had to be prepared for anything - alert and ready within ourselves. This attentiveness must be maintained wherever we are. Some of the things the Vinaya discipline trains us for never really have the opportunity to manifest within the monastery. It's when we spend time outside the monastery that we are confronted by these things, and must solve them for ourselves.