Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1993

Living with Dying; Ajahn Munindo
Questions & Answers with Luang Por Chah: II
Dhamma Notes from Thailand; Ajahn Santacitto
A Buddhist Kingdom; Aj Pasanno & Jayasaro
Ten Rains; Sister Candasiri
First Rains; Ven. Sunnato
Wildlife in Hammer Woods; Mike Holmes

Signs of Change:


Dhamma Notes from Thailand

As many readers are aware, senior bhikkhus and siladhara from Europe and the Antipodes will be going to Thailand for the funeral of Venerable Ajahn Chah on January 16th 1993. Ajahn Santacitto here gives us some idea of what to expect by describing his visit to the 50th day commemoration earlier this year.

About to arrive in Ubon after six years away, and the predominant feeling after two nights sitting - car, plane, car, train - is just body-mind fatigue, making this familiar/unfamiliar scene happening all around me seem very distant. One thing does slip past this semi-insensitivity to my environment - the actual physical presence of the crowds of Thai people, which is in complete contrast to what I have become used to in the West. While the outward appearance of the people reflects the relative harshness of life here, compared to the West, there is also a greater softness and smoothness with which these conditions are gracefully negotiated - as though people have less internal baggage to carry around. There seems a greater denseness to the space taken up by the Western traveller, but the Thais - with the notable exception of some of the civil servants - seem to take up a lot less personal space, which makes it easier for them to be crammed together without getting in each other's way. Their movements around each other flow like water, reflecting a deeply ingrained social sensitivity.

Making these observations awakened a bit more energy to sit in stillness with the rhythm of the train on the track. With the mind more sharp and alert in the early light as we approached Ubon station, it dawned on me that it was just at this time exactly seven weeks ago that Ajahn Chah slipped away.

Walking through the forest
Walking through the forest, on alms-round and other occasions, one feels an atmosphere of reverence and respect here, which has a deep and rich gravity. Being back in the forest monasteries of Thailand there is a sense of ease, like floating along on a deep, wide river which naturally carries along whatever drops into it. In simply walking through the forest, there is a steady joyousness which leads one on in cultivating this awareness here/now. The heart just feels good. It is a simple happiness - a sense of gratitude which draws forth the participation of positive heedfulness, which guards against the slippery slope of the ever-so-normal human tendency to make happiness a consumer commodity. By diverting this heedfulness to the ebb and flow of the sense of self, one finds that place where awareness settles and abides in naturally-relaxed alertness.

Conflict ripens in frustrated desires, and genuine concord is put to the test by such differences in preferences and positions.

The 50th day Remembrance Ceremony
Arriving at Wat Pah Pong: there is an incredible sense of 'presence' on entering the sala and approaching the coffin; bowing; not wanting to finish bowing ... nor to leave.

That afternoon a large gathering of abbots from the various branch monasteries was arranged to discuss issues concerning Luang Por's cremation. As the Royal Family will preside over the event, it will involve a certain degree of pomp and ceremony requiring suitable preparation. Several hundred thousand people might come to this place, which usually houses one or two hundred, so the mind boggles to think of the facilities needed: water, food, toilets, parking etc. Each of the 120 branch monasteries was asked to run, or help to run, a food kitchen to keep the atmosphere untainted by commercialism.

On the earth-mound already built for the cremation - which is several hundred feet across - there will be a metal funeral pyre in the shape of a stupa. Afterwards, an identically shaped stupa will be built on the same spot to house Luang Por's relics. When it was suggested that the relics should not be distributed amongst the branch monasteries but should all be kept centrally in the stupa, the tone of what had been a fairly routine meeting shifted. In a way characteristic of north-eastern Thai culture, a good-humoured yet slightly heated Dhammic banter ensued: the mike bounced around the room as the Ajahns expressed their opposing views on this highly significant and symbolic issue. Conflict ripens in frustrated desires, and genuine concord is put to the test by such differences in preferences and positions. It was over this very issue of distribution of relics that war between seven states almost ensued upon the death of the Buddha. So when it became clear that this particular question was not yet likely to be resolved, it was decided that patience was needed to wait for a time when a more harmonious conclusion could come about.

This test of concord left me feeling strengthened. No-one knows how things will evolve without Luang Por's physical presence to harmonise and stabilise it all, but as far as maintaining enough harmony and stability to enable continued growth in Dhamma-Vinaya is concerned, it seems that the Sangha is quite prepared to make a successful go of it.

The all-night sit
The tastefully decorated and spacious new sala, together with a vast array of spectacular wreaths, gave a suitable sense of grandness to this tribute to Ajahn Chah. This was also reflected in the quality of the talks that were given. First, Tan Chao Khun Pannananda gave a wonderfully inspiring talk. Then a list was announced of eighteen further speakers to give talks through the night. My name was thirteenth. Despite suggestions from fellow monks to ignore this invitation and return to Wat Bung Wai, I felt determined not to be swayed.* Even if my talk was not until 4 a.m., and if by then only a handful of groggy survivors remained, and even if they didn't understand my Thai all that well - still, having come all this way, an opportunity to share from the heart with fellow-disciples was not to be missed.
* Ajahn Santacitto had not rested since leaving the UK.

However, in the middle of the first talk, one of the senior bhikkhus approached and informed me that Luang Por Jun had changed the order of speakers, and I was next. I felt a strong determination not to think about it at all, and to wholeheartedly 'go for it.' It is said that there were thousands of people there, but I didn't really notice - trying to speak and relate to the few people sitting directly in front of me. A super-sensitive microphone and sound-system offered control as effortless as that of a sports car, and the talk felt as if it took off with almost instant acceleration. I didn't quite realise what was happening as the words kept coming. I gave up trying to find the right word and grew content with the way my thoughts flowed. The real satisfaction, though, was being able to express some feeling about our living and practising together in harmony and concord.

When we returned to Wat Nanachat at 5 a.m., the unusually high number of vertical survivors perhaps showed the highly-charged feeling that the day's ceremonies had carried.

Wat Keuan
Wat Keuan is on a peninsula in an artificial lake with a thousand acres of natural forest well-endowed with wildlife, including monkeys and wild boar. Ajahn Puriso's efforts to protect the forest - not only from poachers, but also from forest fires (sometimes two or three a day in the peak of the hot season) - have been reported even in the international press. It's an environmental story with a happy ending. The self-sacrificing determination of the bhikkhus won the help of the authorities and the financial support which made it possible to build a defensive wall cutting across and protecting the peninsula. This beautiful and peaceful environment has now been transformed into a very fine forest monastery which, despite having an Australian abbot, is truly Thai - a good midway station for Western bhikkhus moving from the special support of the International Forest Monastery at Bung Wai to a greater freedom further afield.

There are two other special features of this site, one of which is the daily boat ride across the lake for alms-round. Contemplating the graceful flow of water yielding can quickly calm the mind. The other special feature is a resident human corpse. It seems that visiting him and, especially staying the night, has its calming effect!

On Observance Day the Sangha and about fifty white-clothed villagers did the all-night sitting out in the open in the full-moonlight, which was so beautifully romantic that it was worth taking pictures. Ajahn Puriso did just that, using a new technique which did not require a flash - even by moonlight. The story that the inspiring picture posters won't be telling though is that the community spirit was being empowered that night by patient endurance, as we were busy feeding hundreds, if not thousands, of voracious out-of-season mosquitoes.

Another branch of the International Forest Monastery is in Kanchanaburi - a province which is not without its similarities to the American Wild West, with its gun-toting villagers and air of lawlessness. Instead of the wholesale destruction of the American bison, the buffalo, here we have the utter devastation of endless miles of natural forest. So Ajahn Gavesako has asked permission from the Forestry Department to protect about 5000 acres of forest around the monastery as well as to re-forest some of the newly-devastated areas with ten thousand saplings.

Kanchanaburi was made world-famous by the movie 'Bridge on the River Kwai', which documented the terrible hardships endured by allied slave labour at the hands of the Japanese while building Death Railway. It earned this name from the nearly hundred thousand lives it cost, about one life per railway sleeper. Many years ago, a museum here full of artefacts, recording the whole horrific story, moved me so deeply that I walked pilgrimage on the fifty miles of remaining track in dedication to the victims. Now, ten years later and fifty years since the actual event, it seems curious to come back and find this the site of a monastery built by my Japanese bhikkhu friend, Gavesako. Here, Japanese, Westerners and Thais now live and practise together in a way that helps the horrors of the past reach true resolution and cessation.

I arrived to find Venerable Vimalo - our good-natured friend, ex-anagarika Paul Hendrick - and a Welsh bhikkhu. With the help of a Burmese bhikkhu and an Australian novice, they were working hard from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. building a dam. They light-heartedly pointed out how difficult it was not to joke about certain curious similarities to the past with them slaving away (voluntarily, I hasten to add) under Japanese management. However, the power of peace overflowing from their practice, is healing not only the pain of the past, but also that of the future.

War they say is the scourge, the cruel tormentor responsible for all this horror. Let us remember, let it never happen again. Yes, but ... to me that doesn't fully resonate, doesn't quite ring true. I walk out of the door of the bamboo-hut replica of where prisoners slept, back into the real world: pretty objects for the tourists, pretty tourists, the beat of music, air conditioning ...'Oh, Venerable Sir, you must take a taxi' ... Not so slowly, but ever so surely, the sacredness of remembering them is devoured by heedlessness; lulled into sufficient forgetfulness that memory can be expediently swept under the rug of this moment's comfort. Yet the pain in the heart can still be noticed when turned to; and when I do, I notice there is also a confusion about what's being felt. So I reach for a pen, for notebook, feeling there is something within which wants to speak and is asking me for a voice ... and now, said, it's time to return to my world - where there is still heedlessness and forgetting.





Last updated31.10.2005