|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1995|
No Ease in the Isahn
I hope this letter reaches you all in good health and on the path. As you know, I am staying at Wat Pah Kor Chareun Tham, the Forest Monastery with the Ceylon Oaks; its name means 'Where the Dhamma Prospers' or something like that. The abbot is Ajahn Banjong, (23 pansahs), he has been abbot here for twenty years. He is in utter control. It's a small pace 80 rai [a little over 30 acres -ed.], the beautiful old Ceylon Oaks give high-roofed shade in the sala area and over most kutis. It's quiet except for the chickens, dogs, pakhows [ anagarikas - ed.], novices, the brick factory, detonations from the dam nearby and the odd landmine exploding in the hills bordering Cambodia.
The Sangha consists of 10-12 monks, 3-4 novices, and a few pakhows, most of whom will take ordination for the pansah. The first three monks down from Ajahn Banjong are tudong-ers from Wat Keuan; Ajahn Tawee-Sin, Ajahn Pitaya and Ajahn Vinaya. I know some of you know them. Then it's all local sons of the land; none older than three pansahs or 25 years of age; five of us with one pansah.
The routine varies little: a morning sit at 3:00 am, chanting at 4, pindabaht [alms round -ed], the meal around 8, chores at 2:30 or 3:00 pm, evening sit at 5, chanting at 6, drinks and desana [talk or exhortation by the abbot - ed] from 7:00 to 8:30 or so. Not a lot of solo time. An hour of walking meditation after the meal, before the evening sit and after drinks is expected. There's quite a lot of 'gung-ho' energy around, for better and for worse. Good group momentum; everybody is virtually always present and on time for the meetings, any instructions on practice from the Ajahn are promptly carried out, a good deal of effort is put in in general.
Ajahn Banjong puts great emphasis on wakefulness. . . He often talks in terms of attainment and stresses disenchantment.
Several monks do the sitter's practice[@], the three-robes practice[&] (plus an angsa and a bathing cloth) and everybody usually makes it through Wan Phra[#]. Most monks are ferocious workers. I feel like a lost old man at chores. (At most times actually.) A clear majority of the monks confess to be sense-desire types and believe that hard labor will reduce lust. Almost all say they have serious doubts about whether they will stay in robes, which surprises me.
Pindabaht is a long haul, most routes are around two hours. Almsfood is good, it's a fairly prosperous area. A modest kitchen supplies some extra dishes. All curries are put into one big pot, so if you have anything against grey porridge with buffalo fat and rotten fish you're out of luck. There is usually plenty of eggs, fruits, greens and sweets though. Drinks are O.K.; a cup of coffee on Wan Phra, standard mattoom-hibiscus-tamarind-boropet[$] fare. No cocoa or tea usually. So much for a general outline.
As for my personal experience, I've found it quite hard to fit in. I've felt a bit like I'm from another planet all along. When I arrived in January it took a couple of weeks before Ajahn Banjong let me take dependence, for various reasons. Meanwhile he had great fun (he always has) as soon as he'd see me he'd break out in a farang accent 'Natthiko hoti asamvaso' (Natthiko is no longer in communion[%]). And of course his monks soon started imitating him. Everybody had great fun except me. Quite funny actually.
Then there's the language. The Lao here is as thick as yoghurt. A monosyllabic language, where they habitually swallow the last syllable of every word, is no picnic. None of the monks have been to university. The most cosmopolitan one spent some months working in Bangkok. He speaks decent Thai. The others sound very Isahn when they speak Thai.
The Ajahn speaks good Thai but we still haven't really connected, although he's been great when I've been ill. They're building a bot [chapter-house -ed] here and on one of the occasions when the monks helped out the bamboo scaffolding broke under me while I was painting. I landed fairly bruised and with my shoulder dislocated. I was also totally exposing my private parts. Now, one of the things I've found hardest to understand is their habit of laughing as soon as you make a mistake by body or speech or the situation gets tense. And here I was, sore and bleeding on the concrete floor with intense pain in the shoulder and the entire Sangha is laughing their heads off. Great practice.
Lately we have been working a lot; 2-6 hours a day. First building a shelter for leftover wood, then cementing the new bot floor and asana (monks' sitting platform - ed.). They reinforce the cement with a bamboo lattice work here rather than steel, so it has involved a lot of cutting bamboo with machetes. On a good day it takes about an hour before I cut myself with those big knives, on a bad day it's almost instant. It became a daily highlight to see how long it takes before Natthiko-Hoti-Asamvaso is off to the medical cabinet.
All this work is exhausting some days. One evening sitting after a long day's work I was overwhelmed by sleepiness and just fell asleep with a broken neck and bent back. I didn't even wake up at the bell. It was a hilarious situation; me slowly coming to life while they all waited to start chanting. The monks know how sensitive I've become here to being laughed at, but a novice or two couldn't restrain themselves and soon most of the Sangha was roaring with laughter, including the Ajahn. It was so bad it was good.
Ajahn Banjong puts great emphasis on wakefulness. throughout pansah matchbox hats are part of the morning meeting dress-code[^]. Lose it twice (for monks) or thrice (for others) and you only eat sticky rice that day. Some mornings, it sounds like somebody is playing maracas in the sala.
The acariyavattha[*] is fairly well kept here. Like most things it's unrefined but adequate. A bit of dirt in the corner is no big deal. Ajahn Banjong makes a point of being easy to please. Most monks have better equipment than he does. They all think he is attained and are very respectful. He does command a lot of respect quite naturally; I've never seen him even slightly irritated or impatient. There is a zen-like deliberateness about everything he does. He gives 60- 90 minute desanas every night in thick Lao. The monks cherish them. The usual forest tradition subjects , but he is very thorough and very funny. He is a great impersonator; among his classic caricatures are the submissive but mischievous village housewife and a drawling and nasal Ajahn Jagaro. Ajahn Banjong gives his talks from a traditional wooden sofa while we sit in a row on the floor (to more fully experience the begging dogs' bad breath) He gets into some postures so casual they make Luang Por Leeam seem uptight. He often talks in terms of attainment and stresses disenchantment. He makes a clear distinction between 'sotas, sakyas , anagas' ( his expressions) and 'Phra Arahan'[+].
The laity treat him with great deference. He is big on blessing vehicles, so often people come with their new truck or motorcycle and he does a small ceremony. When we go for invitations the holy water left over from the mahakaruniko [great compassion -ed] chant is usually sprinkled on all the vehicles by somebody.
Almost no laypeople come here once the meal is over. My kuti is next to the Ajahn's and he does formal practice usually at least 6-7 hours a day, not including any practice he might do when the lights are out. He is endowed with strong but unassuming metta. Always observant as to the problems and tensions among the monks and quick to help out when he can. Although he makes fun of at least a couple of monks or novices almost every evening in his desanas, nobody ever seems to take offence. The monks even save his hair shavings, expecting them to turn into relics.
As for requisites, it's the kind of place where you feel decadent about having a torch. Most monks don't even use them because there are never any batteries around anyway. Usually no candles or incense either. Kerosene lamps are used. They don't make any bowl-stands or glots[~], very few know how to use the sewing machine to put a patch on a robe. I still haven't seen anyone sewing a robe or an angsa.
The only real reservation I have about the way of practice here is 'chattiness.' Ajahn Banjong is very chatty when around people. He just seems to be very witty and at ease talking. Unfortunately many monks emulate him, but without his sati [mindfullness -ed]. So it is very seldom quiet if there's more than one person around. During work, before almsround, before the meal, before the evening meeting, before and after drinks, throughout the day, there is joking and chatting. Noise in general doesn't seem to be perceived as a problem. While the monks do Patimokkha on the asana there is usually a novice around slamming kettles in the sala or a couple playing in the kitchen next door. The two beloved (by everyone but me) monastery dogs will be lying on the floor next on the asana during sittings, doing all the sounds dogs do.
There has been some letting go around those dogs for me. The monks feed them on the asana during the meal. I was never big on dogs, especially not in my bowl lid during the meal. But slowly I've developed something between stoicism and indifference from an initial position that was close to rabid. The ultimate test was feeding them myself from the asana. So one day I took a half-eaten fish and laid it down on the asana. The older dog came and gulped it down, leaving some dog saliva gleaming on the concrete. Now, I once had a girlfriend whose family had a boxer, one of those dogs with compressed faces only English people like. It always had a long string of spittle dangling from one corner of its mouth. You had to be very careful not to be in the way when it decided to turn or swing its head. Astonishingly enough, her family didn't find this utterly repulsive. After a few clots on my trouser leg I was close to switching girlfriends. So, I don't like dog spittle. I had great difficulty finishing the meal that day with those glistening droplets occupying about 90% of my field of vision, and about 98% of my mind space. Ajahn Chah, as usual, put it succinctly: "life as a monk is 90% trying to let go but not being able to."
As for the language, its very slow going. Isahn is still pretty much a solid wall of sound; whereas in Thai I can have a slow, basic and tedious conversation if the other person is very articulate, patient and polite. I'm sure all these humbling experiences are good for me, but something non-humbling sometimes would make a welcome change of diet.
As for the Sangha, there are a lot of good people around. Nobody seems overly averse toward me and many put in quite touching efforts to make me feel a home. The young pakhows and novices are just like average, insecure, giggling, restless and noisy teenagers anywhere. The Wat Keuan monks are a continuous source of inspiration. With their farang experience they explain some of our idiosyncrasies to the rest of the Sangha. They also happen to be very kind and ardent monks, with impeccable vinaya and attendance to duties. The effect a few good monks on the upper end of the asana can have on the rest is beautiful to behold. Two brothers in the local Sangha are thoroughbred 'Buddha-nature' types. Soft spoken and considerate, even- tempered, always doing the right thing; they seem very into formal practice. Practice is luckily the favourite topic of the monks here, especially defilements. Everybody knows how many hours everybody else sleeps and practises during night and day. The Ajahn often goes down the line in his talks and asks everybody about some particular aspect of practice. The day after Wan Phra there is usually someone asking if you made it through the night. If you didn't, no cookies and Ovaltine before pindabaht. People's weak spots in food, drink and women are public goods.
The twice daily chanting can be quite oppressive. The monk on my left has a congenital problem with his throat, but he's very enthusiastic, so he's in a loud permanent monotone. The monk on my right is fiercely competitive and knows every syllable in the chanting book. He has an unsettling habit of sneering, snickering and chuckling as soon as I make a small mistake or nod off.
So, all in all, a good place for practice. I have, however, felt a need for a bit of solitude before pansah, so now I'm spending a month or two at a new branch monastery of Wat Pah Kor. It's one of those forest wats without a forest. But a laity endowed with great faith is planting trees almost every day, building kutis and taking very good care of the monks. I just wish they wouldn't die so often. Two deaths in the last week has meant seven or eight chanting occasions.
There is a very pleasant and mature atmosphere among the monks here; a Sangha in concord. The absence of pakhows and novices makes life a bit less exciting but more peaceful. I feel it's doing me a lot of good.
Out here in the backwaters of the beyond one really appreciates the value of Sangha. Kalayanmittas are truly precious: that becomes painfully obvious when there's none around that one can really communicate with. Having gone forth into homelessness, Wat Pah Nanachat has paradoxically become the first place where I have ever felt "I belong here."
Well, well, its time to wrap up. The sheer joy of being understood had made this a very long letter. Summing up regarding my difficulties here; some progress is being made. I don't dig the pits of dukkha for myself fully as deep or as often as before. Mindfullness doesn't always go on a holiday when things get tough, leaving the house in the lethal care of arrogant opinions. And the language barrier prevents almost all wrong speech, which has been a great protection for me. So I know it's good for me - it hurts in all the right places.