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forest sangha newsletter

 October 2005            2548            Number74
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah


74newsletter     Subjection to Change, and peace      Dhamma in Prisons


Starting the Path Where We Find It

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Extract of a talk given by Kittisaro at Amaravati during a retreat he led in 2003

I remember once, when I was a monk, being asked to give a talk at a home for disabled children. An amazing variety of electric wheelchairs rolled into the hall, different kinds of machines that helped the children work with their physical pain and disabilities. I did some chanting then gave a talk about how we all have our own areas of struggle. Whatever our pain, I said that we should try and work with it in skilful ways. With courage it is possible to overcome our suffering. We must have a tenderness for ourselves whatever our predicament. One particular nurse was furious about this. She said “It’s easy for you sitting there peacefully all day!” She seemed almost proud of the suffering, having the idea that to be a caring person you have to be sour.

It reminded me of a difficult situation I was involved in when I was in Thailand. I was staying at Wat Nanachat with other Western monks. I started thinking “Oh gosh, we Westerners talk too much. I’ll never get anywhere with all this talking.” So I went off to Ajahn Jun’s monastery, as it had a reputation for being tough. They got up earlier in that monastery and didn’t chatter, and nobody spoke to me…

One day I was dyeing my robes. I picked up a straw mat in order to roll it up. Under the mat was a tropical centipede, notoriously dangerous. It clamped itself onto my finger with its big pincers, its body hanging down six inches. The Thai monks went wild, “Takaab! Takaab!” They were running around wailing, “Oh God! The farang [the foreign monk] has been bitten by a takaab!” I felt this fire moving up my arm. The monks were chanting mantras and Ajahn Jun got the nuns involved, who started brewing up some medicinal concoction; some of them even started spitting on my finger. The fire in my arm got higher and higher. The pain was unbearable. I thought, “What is going to happen when it hits my heart?”

I sat moaning in the sala all night. A few days later Ajahn Chah came to visit. The monks told him “The farang was bitten by a centipede! The farang was bitten by a centipede!” What was so moving was that Ajahn Chah came up and just held my hand. He simply asked “Jep mai? Does it hurt?”, not trying to make it better, not going “Oh no! That’s terrible!” but held my hand peacefully, not panicing, with a quiet smile, “Does it hurt?”

My hand was swollen for three weeks; then I started urinating blood. Ajahn Jun thought, “Gosh, the farang is going to die in my monastery. I’d better send him to hospital.” So off I went. In hospital I didn’t accept painkillers because I thought monks were not supposed to need them. Then in the middle of the night I heard someone screaming; it woke me up- and I realized it was me. I was screaming from incredible pain in the kidney area. So I asked for medicine.

I found the hospital scary. I was in the monks’ ward. The first night the monk on my right died of cholera. The monk across the hall had a leg with a huge sore; they thought he might lose it. His little brother slept on the floor under him. The monk on my left was possibly to have a kidney operation. So moaning, pain and suffering filled the room.

After a day or two, Ajahn Chah came to visit. It was like a rising sun, a lovely orange ball, a beautiful glow as he walked in. Even though I was the only person he knew, he went around each monk there, bestowing courage and kindness. To me he said, “It’s okay. You can be here.” I said, “Ajahn, I just want to get out.” He said, “If you leave, I’ll send the police after you.” It was a joke; it was nice. Then I asked, “What should I do about this unbearable pain?” Though I have terrible Thai, I could understand what he said: “Tong roo kwahm jep townan: You just need to know the pain for what it is.” This is the essence of the First Noble Truth, the encouragement: “You can wait a little longer. You can open to this, not for the sake of special points, but just to understand, just to know.” And then he said something else: “Pom ja dai cheui cheui,” which means, “I’m going to die, and it’ll be okay. It’s not going to be a problem.”

Ajahn Chah had so much sickness in his life. He had years of it, being with what was uncomfortable. One of his most important gifts was to bestow on us the courage to look at our suffering. He wanted us to see that being continually afraid to stop lest something catch up with us is torture, because then we will never rest, we spend our lives guarding and avoiding. The essence of the First Noble Truth is the encouragement not to be ashamed or terrified of our suffering. If there is terror, it gives us the courage to touch that terror, to get a feeling for what it is. When we do that, all the Four Noble Truths emerge from it. If you go deeply into suffering, you will discover non-suffering. So I encourage us all to practise this, and to start the Path where we can find it.

 

Kittisaro was a bhikkhu for 15 years in Thailand and UK. Together with Thanissara, he now manages a retreat centre in South Africa, the Dharmagiri Buddhist Hermitage, and is involved with various HIV/Aids Outreach programmes. Contact: dharmagiri@xsinet.co.za.

 

 

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