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forest sangha newsletter

 July      2006            2549            Number 76
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah


76newsletter           Gratitude for Luang Por Chah          The Chapter of Octads

The Founding of Wat Pah Pong

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By Ajahn Jayasaro

On the 8th March 1954 the gorged red sun was already dropping below the forest ahead of them. As Ajahn Chah and his disciples walked westwards from Bahn Gor village, the cracked earth of the paddy fields on either side of them soon gave way to trees - at first scattered, spindly and forlorn in the heat, and then increasingly luxuriant - patterning the cart track with welcome pools of shade. Pong Forest, their destination, loomed ahead of them, dense and cool. Despite the deafening shrill of cicadas as they put up their glots at the edge of the forest, the bhikkhus found Pah Pong’s presence calm and benign.

It was a place that held strong associations for Ajahn Chah. During his early childhood, Luang Boo Sow had passed through the area and, for a few days, put up his glot in Pong Forest. Ajahn Chah’s father had gone out one morning with some friends to offer alms to the great monk and in the evening Ajahn Chah had listened with fascination to his account of it. This was the first time he had heard about wandering monks living austere lives in the jungle. He always remembered how impressed his father had been that Ajahn Sow ate all his food from his bowl, rather than from plates as the village monks did. And also he recalled his father’s slight puzzlement at Ajahn Sow’s teaching style, “It wasn’t like a proper sermon at all,” he had complained. “It was just like normal talking.”

Many years later Ajahn Chah related: “When I set off and started practising myself, the memory of my father’s words was constantly with me. Whenever I visited home my mind would always turn to this forest. Ajahn Dee from Pibun and Luang Por Put once passed through and the villagers invited them to stay in Pong Forest. They said they couldn’t. Ajahn Dee said “It isn’t our place. We can’t stay. It won’t be long till the owner arrives.” Luang Por Put still speaks of that to this day.

The following morning the group of monks entered the seemingly impenetrable forest for the first time with villagers from Bahn Gor in front of them expertly hacking a way through the stubborn vines and tangled undergrowth with their machetes. Eventually, at the cool heart of the forest, they halted. The wiry villagers, sweat running down the protective spells tattooed on their chests, squatted in a circle and rolled cigarettes. The monks sat down some distance apart, with Ajahn Chah at the foot of an ancient and imposing mango tree, drinking water from their bamboo flasks, and tranquillity from the air around them.

A group of women had been following in the monks’ wake. After a short rest they joined their men-folk in methodically removing all the vines, stumps and thorns in the neighbourhood of the old mango tree. Clearing land was work at which the villagers were adept, and a central open area soon started to take shape amongst the larger shade-bearing trees, creating a neat, stately, almost park-like atmosphere in the midst of the thick and tangled jungle that surrounded them. At the foot of some of the larger trees beyond the edge of this area, small squares of land were cleared for the monks to set up their glots. The monks themselves, forbidden by the Vinaya to dig the earth or destroy plant life, helped by dragging off cut branches into the forest and sweeping the cleared areas. There was a break at midday for the villagers to eat their lunch - sticky rice and fermented fish brought from home and fresh forest leaves gathered along the way - and then with the sun overhead filtering down between the large patches of shade in bright, hot pools, it was back to the steady rhythm of the work. By late afternoon a rudimentary path had been cut to the edge of the forest, and after taking their leave of Ajahn Chah, the laypeople made their way along it for the first time hurrying a little in order to reach their homes before dark. In the heart of the forest, as darkness set in, the monks sat in meditation in their glots.

Early one morning a few days later, a group of volunteers from the villages of Bahn Gor and Bahn Glang arrived to build kutis for the monks and expand the open area. They brought with them sections of thin yaka thatch for the roofs and cut the main posts and beams from the trees around them. Deftly the men split bamboo into long strips to weave into flooring , while the women attached large dry chat leaves to bamboo frames for the walls. Four huts were completed by the evening - simple dwellings but sufficient for the monks’ needs. The flimsiness of these shelters could not conceal their significance. Their creation, in the space of a day, had transformed the monks’ presence in the forest from that of respectful guests of its peace and shade, to gentle settlers.

Pong Forest, the monks’ new home, possessed a certain notoriety amongst local people. In former days the now-dry, fresh-water pool towards its northern end had attracted many wild animals, including tigers and elephants. Adding to the forest’s daunting nature was the general belief that a harsh and vengeful guardian spirit had determined to protect it from human intrusions. Unusually, Ajahn Chah, generally very forthright in his opposition to superstitions, did not counter this belief. He once explained to some guests:

“When I first came to stay here it was a tough place to live: there were none of these buildings you see now, nothing but forest. There’s no need to tell you there were no roads; coming in and out was very difficult. The local farmers lived a long way away. They didn’t dare to come into the forest because the guardian spirit here was so fierce. This spirit was once an elephant herder who would often pass through the forest on his expeditions to capture elephants and would water them at the pond on the way back. In the end he settled down here to look after the forest, and it’s thanks to him that by the time I came to live here there was still some of it left, otherwise it would probably all have been cut down long ago. One time some villagers from Bahn Bok and Bahn Peung did manage to clear a patch of land and plant some rice and vegetables, but all of them came to an unfortunate end. People who have come in and cut down trees have tended to die from mysterious causes. Wild potatoes grow abundantly in the forest but nobody has dared to touch them. It was only after I’d come to live here that people started to farm more closely to the forest edge.”

On the full moon day of March marking the first uposatha (Observance Day) since the monks’ arrival in the forest, about a dozen laypeople came to spend the day and night practising with the Sangha. At seven o’clock, the evening chanting completed and the last light of the day fading away, Ajahn Chah began to expound Dhamma, his voice energetic and compelling. As the words flowed more and more surely he became illuminated by the rays of the newly-risen moon. Then quite without warning, in the full spate of his exposition, Ajahn Chah suddenly fell silent. Many of his listeners found their eyes jerked open in surprise to be greeted with the view of their teacher sitting in the moonlight as still and composed as a Buddha image. After a few moments he spoke to them,
“Everyone just sit calmly. If anything strange occurs, there is no need to be alarmed.” And then, without further explanation, he resumed his discourse.

A few minutes later a bright light, like a comet, appeared in the sky to the northwest of the small cleared area in which they sat, passed very low above their heads and dropped earth-wards to the southeast of them. The whole forest grove was bathed in a dazzling light. Despite the forewarning, monks and laypeople were profoundly thrilled at what they considered to be quite obviously an auspicious portent for the new monastery. Ajahn Chah, however, paid no attention to the light whatsoever and carried on with his Dhamma talk as if nothing had happened. Gradually the spell and power of his exposition re-asserted its hold over the audience.

Ajahn Chah was never to refer to this matter again. Nevertheless, the following morning when he led a small group of  lay people to mark with stakes the limits of the new monastery, it did not pass unnoticed that the boundaries he chose, enclosing an area of some sixty-seven acres, were governed by the points at which the strange light had risen and fallen.

 

 

 

 

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