|Forest Sangha Newsletter||April 2000|
The Monastic Millennium: Wat Pah Nanachat
Driving along the main Sisaket Road out of Warin, the first distant sight one has of Wat Pah Nanachat is a long, high white wall behind which is a forest. The trees are tall and the growth is thick - a noticeable contrast to the surrounding terrain. Arriving at the Wat on a hot afternoon one's first impression upon being put down at the gate is of being about to enter a different world. The view up the drive is like looking up a tunnel - a tunnel of trees. Upon venturing up the drive one immediately feels the cool of the shade - the forest canopy is thick, and the sun can only glint through the trees, finding an opening here and there down which to pour a pool of fierce light. The wide, swept concrete drive opens out after a hundred metres or so into a circle as one comes to a long low building on the right, the kitchen, and further on the large unadorned sala.
On the weekly Wan Phra observance days it is common for there to be approaching 100 people observing the eight precepts and staying to practice and hear the Dhamma.
|The Wat came into being twenty-five years ago in a rather unlikely way. Ajahn Sumedho, who had already been training with Luang Por Chah at Wat Nong Pah Pong for many years, together with a group of Western monks, were wanting to fire some alms-bowls. This is a process whereby a rust-proof coating is baked onto an iron bowl, and it requires that the bowls be heated in an intense fire for several hours. In the forest at Wat Nong Pah Pong it was actually difficult to come across sufficient quantities of firewood - there were so many monks, and firewood was needed all the time for dyeing and washing robes. Hence it was recommended to Ajahn Sumedho that he and the monks go to the forest at the nearby village of Bung Wai, where there were plentiful supplies of fallen branches and dry bamboo.|
So this group of monks came to the forest, put up their glots (large umbrellas) and mosquito nets and began their work. This soon attracted the attention of the local villagers, however, who were impressed that these farang monks had the courage to pitch their umbrellas and camp out there, for this was their cremation forest - a place haunted by ghosts and spirits, and a place so feared by the locals that it was left unused.
As often happens on such occasions, when the monks were ready to move on the local villagers begged them to stay. And it just so happened that Luang Por Chah had already decided that it would be a good idea to start a branch of Wat Nong Pah Pong specifically for the farangs. Ajahn Sumedho, who had been with Luang Por Chah for eight years, would be the teacher and the farangs could train in their own language. So, as has happened so many times in Thailand, the simple act of a monk hanging his umbrella from a tree was the seed that sprouted and grew into a flourishing monastery.
These days the monastic community comprises about twenty monks and novices of about twelve nationalities. The number of monks who began here and who still live in Thailand is considerably greater. At any one time there will be four or five junior monks placed at some of the Wat Nong Pah Pong branch monasteries, having been sent there to learn the ropes of living with a Thai community, and to learn to speak the language. Having spent his first five years training under the guidance of Wat Pah Nanachat, the monk is then usually 'freed from dependence' and from then on it is up to him. Some monks go off walking on tudong, visiting other teachers and regions. Some settle in other places and some go abroad, but people still keep in touch and usually regard WPN as some kind of 'home base' coming back to 'check in' once in a while. This means at certain times of the year there is a lot of coming and going - in fact the population of the monastery can sometimes fluctuate from week to week. Thai monks also happen by - usually on tudong, and more often than not when it really comes down to it they are interested in learning English. This is not enough of a reason to stay beyond three nights, says the Abbot, and off they go. There are usually two or three Thai monks here - but they already speak English and have some prior Dhamma connection with Ajahn Jayasaro or the community - for instance, one Thai monk here at the moment was working as a doctor in America when he met Ajahn Jayasaro and his faith arose there, upon hearing the Ajahn teach.
|The monastery serves several different and quite distinct groups of people, and for the abbot this is quite a balancing act. There are the many guests from all over the world who, for many different reasons, spend time here developing their understanding and practice of Buddhism through experience of monastic life. Long-term and loyal support, of course, has come from the local Bung Wai villagers, about a dozen of whom come every day to cook and help out, and many regular supporters come to the monastery from the local towns of Warin and Ubon. There is a sizeable following of Bangkok people who come and stay when they can - one group of air hostesses even arrange their schedules so that they can fly up to Ubon on the evening flight, spend all of Wan Phra night meditating and then fly back down to Bangkok on the morning flight. In fact, on the weekly Wan Phra observance days it is common for there to be approaching 100 people observing the eight precepts and staying to practice and hear the Dhamma in the monastery until the following dawn. On these observance days the abbot and the second monk divide their attention between the various groups - talks being given simultaneously in Thai and English in different locations.|
|The steady stream of non-Thai visitors come and stay for varying lengths of time. Usually the initial period is limited to three days, but in most cases this can be extended, depending upon the availability of accommodation. The monastery's requirement is that people write beforehand and will only take those who turn up unannounced if there is space. Demands upon accommodation are getting tighter these days, so quite often people are asked to come back at a later date. It is through coming to stay at the monastery that interest in monastic life can be sparked off. Men are asked to wear white and shave their heads after three days while women wear a white blouse and black skirt but keep their hair, and these gestures give them a chance to feel like they are part of the monastic community for the time being - they are indeed perceived as such by the local people. For many, the level of renunciation required is quite demanding -- living according to the eight precepts, eating just one meal a day, following a routine which requires one to get up at 3am, and having many hours of the day with no form or structure. All of this can be quite a challenge.|
Community members and as far as is possible lay-guests are assigned kutis - simple wooden huts on stilts spread around in the forest (which is about 300 rai or 150 acres) and there are about 30 of these. Accommodation is basic - there is no electricity in any but a few kutis, and a trip to the toilet can mean a walk through the forest. At night it is not uncommon to encounter snakes and other creepy-crawlies - life at Wat Nanachat was once described to me as being 'total insect attack' which, while it is an exaggeration, does convey something of the flavour of the experience. From time to time people are forced to evacuate as ants or termites invade their living space - which they have usually had to reckon upon sharing with geckos (lizards - about 20cm long which punctuate the stillness of the night with a loud 'gekk-kko' call ) bats, spiders and sometimes the odd snake which decides to coil itself around the rafters. Rats also compete for the space and help themselves to anything which can be eaten.
The daily routine varies according to the season - usually there is a period of morning chanting and meditation (at 3.30 a.m.) in a large open sala on the edge of the forest, followed by a leaf-sweeping period for the lay-guests while the monks go out at dawn on their alms-round. The meal is taken at 8am and is followed by a period of cleaning chores. From then until mid-afternoon there is free time - and besides spending that time in meditation people will make use of the well-equipped library to read and study. At 4.30 p.m. the community gathers for tea - an informal affair where questions can be raised and things discussed in a good humoured spirit. A couple of days a week are kept as silent days - one when all formal meetings are cancelled and the other on which the community follows a structured practice routine together. On these evenings a formal talk is given.
|The atmosphere of the monastery also varies according to the season. During the three months of the Rains Retreat (Vassa in Pali, Pansah in Thai) the community is quite stable, since the Sangha members are not allowed to travel away for more than six days during this period. This is a time of focused practice and study - in particular the study of the monastic discipline is undertaken during these three months. At the end of Vassa comes the Kathina season - the ceremonial presentation of cloth by the laity which is collectively sewn into a robe by members of the monks community who spent the Vassa together. This is one of the biggest festivals of the year, and draws the community together before monks move on to other monasteries or return from other places to live here. There is also a tradition amongst the branch monasteries of Wat Nong Pah Pong to attend one another's Kathina ceremonies, and so it is a month of travelling here and there, listening to all-night talks and trying to stay awake and centred amidst the swirling changes going on around one. For new monks who are just starting to find their feet in their first Vassa this time can be quite disorienting.|
|When the wind swings around to blow from the north the local people say that this marks the beginning of the cold season. As the rain stops and the weather turns cooler people fly kites in the almost continuous breeze, flying them high over the rice fields. They attach a device to them which plays a low, melancholy kind of tune over and over, and this characterises the atmosphere of the cold season. This is really the most pleasant time of the year here and it is common for senior monks from England to come visiting during this period from late October until February.|
The cold season is also a time when frequent trips are made out to the nearest of our small hermitages. 'Poo Jorm Gorm'- which means 'little pointed hill' - is situated on the Laotian border about 150km from here and is set in a large area of national parkland. Four or five monks stay there most of the time and live spread out over an area of about two square miles - some in caves, others in simple thatched kutis. Some of these dwellings look out over the great Mekong river that forms the border between Thailand and Laos, and which flows south from China, touching Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before reaching the sea in Southern Vietnam.
At the end of February almost the entire community travels across the country to our other hermitage Dtao Dam on the Burmese border in Saiyok National Park, beyond Kanchanaburi. This leaves just a skeleton crew minding the monastery and so things quieten down as the hot season begins. Wat Pah Nanachat remains quiet for two months until the Sangha returns at the beginning of May. During the following months leading up to the Pansah there are more comings and goings, people returning to Wat Pah Nanachat to spend Pansah here, and young monks being sent off to Thai branch monasteries to spend a year away. By the time of Luang Por Chah's birthday celebrations at Wat Nong Pah Pong on June 17th it is usually clear who is going to be where for the next four months or so and the monastery starts to take on much more settled and stable atmosphere.
One factor that has brought an increased sense of stability to Wat Pah Nanachat is the decision by Tan Ajahn Jayasaro to stay put here for five years as abbot. In the past Ajahn Jayasaro and Ajahn Pasanno would take it in turns to administer the monastery for a year at a time, which allowed each of them to have a period of retreat every other year. Looking back however, I think that Ajahn Jayasaro wonders how good this was for the community. An additional thing that has made being abbot more workable is the new abbot's kuti. The previous one was virtually open on all sides, like living on a platform, and only a stone's throw from the sala, which meant that visitors could seek the abbot out at any time of the day or night. No wonder it was stressful - the abbot had very little privacy there. I thought it a healthy sign, then, when I saw that Ajahn Jayasaro was having a new abbot's kuti built - quite a distance from the sala in a less conspicuous location - and with a much greater feeling of privacy to it. 'That's significant,' I remember thinking. 'If the abbot knows how to look after himself, can take space and find some recuperative solitude here, he won't feel the need to escape to get some time on his own - seems like a healthy direction.'
These days, Ajahn Jayasaro has commented, there is a more harmonious atmosphere here than he can ever remember, and whereas monks in the old days used to look forward to getting past the five pansah mark so that they could go off on their own, there is less of this kind of talk, and monks who have grown up here in the last five years seem to regard Wat Pah Nanachat as 'home'. When the community is harmonious, the abbot is better supported and he is more effective at what he does. So it becomes a more attractive prospect to stay.
Here then are just a few fleeting impressions of this mysterious multi-faceted place. One of the things I've heard Ajahn Jayasaro comment upon more than once is how he feels when people talk about what Wat Pah Nanachat is that they end up grinding out the same old stale impressions year after year based on how it was when they were there, when in fact it has long since changed. Well, if the Abbot himself declares that he doesn't really know what Wat Pah Nanachat is like, then who are the rest of us to presume to say?