Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1992

Learning and Spirituality; Ajahn Sucitto
Complementary Education; Medhina Fright
Meditating with Children; Sister Abhassara
Life of a Forest Monk (Pt V); Luang Por Jun
Alone on a Mountain; Venerable Chandako
In the Deathless Land; Sister Rosemary
Questions and Answers; Luang Por Chah

Signs of Change:


Life of a Forest Monk (Pt V)

The last in a series of recollections of Luang Por Jun, one of Ven. Ajahn Chah's most senior disciples.

These days the saddha (faith and devotion) of both the laity and Sangha members seems to be waning. This is different from how it used to be. For example, take the pre-ordination anagarika period. Men seem to find the three-month anagarika period too difficult, particularly the civil servants and policemen who come to take ordination, they really struggle with their defilements. They have so much worldly knowledge these days, and find it difficult to conform to monastic life after holding a position of power or influence in the world. Particularly in the early years, when Ajahn Chah first began teaching the Dhamma, he had a great influence over those who came into contact with it. Several generations have passed and times have changed in Thailand. Today's generation will listen to the teaching, but most of them don't seem to have the same faith and trust. I began to feel disappointed and I gradually stopped receiving civil servants, as I could see they were not willing to practise in a way that would bear fruit. As for the anagarika period, it is often disregarded these days and some men are only postulants for two or three weeks, usually three months at the most. Even after they've become monks, they don't show a lot of faith in genuine practice. It seems that the most sincere monks are those who come from a distance to find the teaching. The local men become monks for a short time just to follow custom. But those who stay and train long enough become fine monks, suitable to look after the monastery and the branch monasteries.

On several occasions I have found Mahatheras - who hold important positions of administrative power - to be quite obstructive. Even the ecclesiastical head of a province or a district has been known to forbid dhutanga* bhikkus from residing within his jurisdiction. Some of these monks holding positions of power within the Sangha are antagonistic and prevent faith from arising in our supporters. I tried to stand up to this and contend with this as best I could, but at times it was a bit much. After Ajahn Chah received his honorary title and his reputation became more well-known this helped matters tremendously. Whatever the situation, I feel that the saddha is bound to wane regarding practice.

* dhutanga refers to the ascetic practices allowed by the Buddha.
Such monks who live an austere life in the forest,
are often called 'dhutanga' or 'tudong' monks.
Once you are established, then you can gently inform people. I'm sure they will be understanding of our ways.

Then we had Westerners coming to Thailand to train as monks. This was a great source of inspiration to the monks here, to see men travel across the world to live this way of life with sincerity. This was very exciting for the laity. Soon people came from many places to see these farang monks, and other monasteries wanted to invite them to their ceremonies and hear them speak. When Ajahn Chah was still in good health, he made a special effort to train these Western monks.

Question: Luang Por, could you tell us your memories of when Ajahn Sumedho first arrived?
Answer: When Ajahn Sumedho first arrived, if I recall correctly, I had left Wat Pah Pong, and met him when I went there for an overnight visit. He had come from Nong Khai with Phra Sommai - the one who went mad. Ajahn Sumedho was very sincere in his practice, but Phra Sommai was more of a study monk and not really into practice. I remember once when Phra Sommai didn't show up at chore time. That evening Ajahn Chah asked me to exhort the monks, so I gave a teaching to the monks and mentioned Phra Sommai's absence at chore time. I said that everyone that comes to the monastery must follow the practice we observe and work together, whether it be sweeping or hauling water. We should perform these duties out of respect for our teacher, and withhold our views if they differed. This went against Phra Sommai's views, and Ajahn Sumedho brought news that he had become quite angry after this talk. I had given a teaching, as Ajahn Chah had asked me to do, and spoke of things are they were.

Ajahn Sumedho spent one Vassa with me and I remember he was having problems with his foot, so I helped him look after it. I felt sympathy for the Western monks, because they did have to endure many hardships and often only had their inspiration and their sincerity to keep them going. In fact, I often used the farang monks as an example for the Thai monks because of their genuine zeal for the practice.

At one point Ajahn Chah had to become protective with the Western monks, and stopped allowing them to accept invitations to go here and there, because their popularity was beginning to cause problems for their meditation practice.

Now that I've experienced the way Buddhism is flourishing in the West, I can say that I have been pleased to see how fruitful it is. However, one can't expect everything to be the same as it is in Thailand. It's a different part of the world, and the customs and the climate are so different. But seeing how it is being done, I feel it is doing very well indeed. The changes made are good, and suitable for the Western culture. I ask you to make a constant effort, to reflect on this, and not change the unnecessary. Only change that which is really necessary. Regarding dress and attire, it will be necessary to make some changes; if you don't, then it will make practice difficult because of the climatic conditions here. In other respects, strive to safeguard the tradition. I feel this is possible. It may be objectionable in the beginning, but stay with it. Once you are established, then you can gently inform people. I'm sure they will be understanding of our ways. Like our custom of not touching women: initially one will make some mistakes, because the customs here are different. But once we are well-founded, then more and more people will understand.

Firstly, we must start with an understanding amongst ourselves. Most importantly, is the relationship with the nuns. This is essential. There must be a mutual support and help that will in turn help others outside to understand.

Q: Luang Por, from what you have observed, what do you feel the monks have to be most careful of?
A: The one thing you must be most careful about is contact with women. Even if you don't have any lustful intention and there is nothing to it, you must still preserve our discipline out of respect for our teachers and for the students and disciples for generations to come. In Thailand and India, the history was like this. Even the Buddha and arahants preserved the customs and discipline for this same reason, for future generations. So we may say to touch women is no problem if we have no defilements or desire, or thoughts of that sort. This may be true for some, but still we should keep our discipline. This will be the cause for faith arising in those from outside, like the Thais. If Thais come here that are accustomed to the appropriate ways of relating and see otherwise, it will be harmful and offensive for them and could cause their faith to decline; for some, even to be put off. So this is something we must help each other with, both the Thais and Westerners. Although it is not against any existing customs here, we still should observe it. This will bring us closer together in mutual support and understanding.

Q: Luang Por, what do you feel about the monasteries you have seen here that are already established and those planned for the future?
A: For the future establishment of new monasteries, I feel it is important to train the leaders well; to make sure they are qualified and competent. Don't be careless and simply follow their requests or willingness to go. The Ajahns should take a close look and test their abilities and knowledge first. Can they teach and give advice to the laity? Then one should keep an observant eye on them by periodic mutual visits. Don't let them be contentious or obstructive. The same applies for the lay people: if they want to have monks in their respective countries and towns, they should come and train first. They should be willing to be told the proper behaviour and relationship to us. It can be done as in Thailand where, say, two or three lay people come to learn to look after monks; how to offer food and the other relevant gestures of respect. Once you make the proper procedures known, I feel it will help things to develop and expand continually.

Q: Luang Por, regarding the heads or leaders of a monastery, what do you see as the appropriate guidelines? For example, how many Vassas should he have?
A: He should have five or more Vassas. One must consider his understanding of the discipline. He should know what is a heavy offence, and what is a light offence, and have memorised the Patimokkha. His personal practice should be such that it inspires confidence and respect in others, and they wish to listen to him. He is one who is not over-familiar or indulging in much laughter or joking, but also not too serious or quick to anger or make threats. He knows the balance between what is too slack and too strict for those living with him. He is called one who leads others without causing the heat of strife. He is cool-hearted. If he does cause contention and strife, then he should be changed. Regarding visiting senior monks who wish to stay with you, they shouldn't be senior to the abbot. This is the practice in Thailand. If the visiting monk is senior there must be an agreement about his surrender to our form. Monks with many Vassas may mean many problems because of pride. So if we have a visitor senior to us, it is best to advise him to go to a monastery where the abbot is senior to him.

Abbots can make mistakes you know, myself as well as our teachers. Ever since the time of the Buddha this has been so. Even the Buddha gave open invitation to his disciples and the Sangha to correct him if he made a mistake. If we leave all the decisions to one monk, then there will be some things that get overlooked; therefore we must help to inform each other.