Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1992

Suffering and the Way to Cessation; Ajahn Sumedho
Flowing with the Pain; Jody Higgs
Towards Simplicity; Sister Thanasanti
Washing Away the Blood; E. Bernstein, Y. Moser
Out in the Outback: Letter from Australia; Ven. Kovido
Life of Forest Monk (Pt IV); Luang Por Jun
Highland Retreat; Venerable Suriyo
Aspects of Training: A Universal Order; Ajahn Sucitto

Signs of Change:
Editorial: Ajahn Sucitto


Life of Forest Monk (Pt IV)

The continuing recollections of Luang Por Jun, one of Ven. Ajahn Chah's most senior disciples.

Question: Luang Por, could you tell us about the practice and training for the Sangha and the laity once your monastery was firmly established?
Answer: The monastery became established following the same routine as Luang Por Chah's. Much emphasis was placed on the form and the sila and the Vinaya.

Q: Luang Por, do you mean different levels of sila for the monks, the nuns, and the laity?
A: That's right. According to their level of practice. I stressed being genuine in keeping the sila and had to teach the laity to change their ways. Repeating the precepts after the Ajahn like a parrot isn't keeping the sila. Take, for example, the first precept, panatipata, not killing. Don't just say it, make it a part of life and relinquish the desire to swat even a mosquito. Don't regard the precepts as a custom, make them a practice. The same with the sila observed by the monks and nuns. When we acknowledge our faults, we have to make a firm resolution not to continue to transgress the precepts again. Saying you will do it without intending to is just blindly following another custom.

Q: Luang Por, could you tell us more about the Observance Days and the practice in everyday life at your monastery?
A: It was just like the practice at Wat Pah Pong. We would sound the rising bell at 3.00am. I'd allow 15, maybe 20 minutes at the most for the community to gather together in the sala. I'd have to yell at the latecomers to come in gently without making much noise. We would do the chanting and meditate, and at 4.00am I'd give a desana for about 30 minutes and spend another 30 minutes explaining it. The sun rose about 5.00am, and we would have closing homage and leave the monastery for almsround to receive the offerings of the laity with restraint and gratitude, taking care to observe the training rules*. The lay people and the novices would prepare things for the meal and pass the almsfood around to the monks. In this way, we used the form and the established tradition to cultivate our practice. Sometimes we would receive a joint invitation with the village monks to go somewhere. This could be a bit tricky as relations were still strained. I wouldn't allow any new monks to go along as I wanted to ensure that no upsets occurred.

* (e.g. to walk with downcast gaze,to walk in silence,
to wear one's robes neatly, to accept alms-food
with attention on the bowl.

Later on, we had a nun from Wat Pah Pong ask permission to come and stay. We built a separate place for nuns to live, and I began to train men and women to live the holy life. At certain times of the year, all of us would go to Wat Pah Pong to pay respects to Luang Por Chah. Sometimes he would come to visit us.

Some monks would determine silence, others not to sleep, or only eating what one collected on alms round.

Q: Would you go to visit Ajahn Chah often?
A: Yes. In those early years, I would still go to Wat Pah Pong at least once a month as I still had duties to perform there, such as training the young monks. As things became busier at my monastery, I had few opportunities to visit Wat Pah Pong and so became less involved with the activities there.

Q: When you would go, would you stay for very long, Luang Por?
A: Maybe I would spend one night or go for the day. I was the next senior monk after Ajahn Chah when I would visit. I would present a good example for the others to follow so that they could see the correct manner of showing respect and observing the traditions at the monastery. Eventually, Ajahn Maha Amon came to stay with Ajahn Chah and helped to lighten Ajahn Chah's responsibilities. Ajahn Maha Sompong and Ajahn See came to stay and, as time went on, they branched out to their respective monasteries.

Once when I returned to Wat Pah Pong, I was surprised to see that some of the new monks there couldn't learn their chanting correctly - their pronunciation was a bit off. Luang Por Chah didn't make this a problem. He said the mistakes in pronunciation and wording can be overlooked as long as we kept the essence of the chanting in our practice, meaning we weren't scholar-monks, we were there to practise. Sometimes scholar-monks would come to visit and would transgress the rules of the Vinaya, only because they didn't realise what they were doing. I remember going on alms round with one of these monks who had completed his eighth or ninth level of study. As we went through the forest, he was curious to know the names of the different plants and trees. He would casually break off branches and leaves to look at them.** Ajahn Chah didn't say anything - he just smiled. The lay people following behind knew about these things, but nobody said anything. This exemplified what Ajahn Chah used to say in his desanas about studying the scriptures and memorising the words without knowing the practice.

** (These actions - entailing the damage of plant life
- are transgressions against the bhikkhus' training rules.

As time progressed Luang Por Chah was invited to open many branch monasteries. He would visit them in turn and offer his support.

Q: Luang Por, could I ask about the Observance Days and the entering of the Vassa?
A: We would always begin the Vassa with the traditional ceremony of pledging to stay within the monastery and setting the boundaries for the rains. We would set special dhutanga [austere] practices for ourselves and these would be proclaimed before the Sangha as we publicly made a determination to keep them. We would write the details of each monk's dhutanga determination down on a blackboard in the sala.

Some monks would determine silence, others not to sleep, or only eating what one collected on alms round, or eating just plain white rice with salt. Emphasis was placed on speaking very little, and noble silence was broken only when necessary. Sometimes Ajahn Chah would decline the special dishes offered him by the laity and say: 'Give it to the third monk in the line; he's vowed only to eat what is offered into his alms bowl.' In this way, he showed lots of metta for those making a determination in their practice. But he would forbid the laity from seeking out the monks who ate only what was placed in their alms bowl to ensure they had enough food. 'Don't worry about him,' he'd say, 'he won't die. Even if he doesn't receive any food on pindabaht, there's plenty of rice, and if there's no rice, there's always water! All you're doing is feeding the defilements.' At the end of the Vassa, we would formally ask forgiveness from Luang Por Chah.

Q: So you've talked about the least strict and the Middle Way; what is the strictest practice regarding eating only what is put into the alms-bowl?
A: The most refined of these practices is to only receive what falls into the bowl coincidentally on alms round. If the monk realises that people are aware of what he is doing and strive to seek him out especially, then he would not accept the food they offer.

Q: Luang Por, would Ajahn Chah have any special practices of sitting in samadhi for long periods of time - the 'sitters' practice', for example?
A: On the Observance Days, Ajahn Chah would sit in the Dhamma seat after the chanting and give a desana. I would present a reading from the scriptures about the Triple Gem and the Vinaya and Ajahn Chah would expound it further in his talk. The book I used - called Pubbasikkha Vannana - taught about the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and then the Vinaya. Usually we'd get through the entire book during the Vassa, and sometimes we'd get through the book twice. After the talk, he would lead us in meditation, sitting with us, sometimes giving instruction, sometimes just sitting for hours. Ajahn Chah would see monks and novices getting sleepy and dozing off, and he would order them to stand or go out and do walking meditation and then return to the sala for more sitting, instruction, or a desana. In those days, the laity were quite keen and interested in Dhamma. Many of them had a deep understanding of the practice. After his talk they would ask Ajahn Chah questions about the Dhamma while the monks sat and listened. But since those days, there hasn't really been any laity with the same vision. Often these discussions would last until dawn.

Q: Regarding the 'sitters' practice', Luang Por, Ajahn Chah wouldn't allow you to get up and leave when you wanted, would he?
A: That's right. Ajahn Chah had us do everything together. If we would stand, we would all stand together; if we sat, we sat together. Some monks found sitting so difficult that they would continue to stand, which was all right. We practised together in this way until dawn. Everyone did this together. No one would be given permission to go back to his kuti and go to sleep. In later years after I left Wat Pah Pong, some monks would ask to be excused at midnight and would be given permission. I would allow this at my monastery as well. But although I have lessened the severity, it isn't taken for granted that anyone would be allowed to stop at midnight. I usually stay up until midnight and then ask permission from the Sangha to go and rest; I encourage the monks and laity to keep the Wan Phra sittings for as long as they can. If they need to go and rest, they can do so, but they should return for the morning chanting at 3.00am. In the past, we didn't have laity from the city coming as we do now. Our practice was more inspiring before they came because they all fall asleep before midnight; now the old diligent villagers have been affected by this and are drawn into this practice of laziness and don't manage to stay awake much longer.

Q: Do you still have this practice at your monastery in Bung Kao Luang, Luang Por?
A: Yes, this practice is still kept on every Wan Phra, and there are no exceptions for not keeping it.

Q: So, Luang Por, you make them sit all night or do you give them permission to alternate between postures?
A: Yes, they can change their postures, maybe sit for an hour or two, then stand for a bit, then walking for a while. If the monks seem to be getting sleepy and tired, I sometimes put on a tape for them to listen to and change the atmosphere. Sometimes I may have to threaten them, too.

Q: Then you always do things together, is that right?
A: Yes, always together at the same time. Some of the monks find sleepiness a real hindrance. I go over to them and correct their posture if they're slumping forward and show them the proper way to sit, or how to hold their arms out in ways to overcome drowsiness.

to be continued....