2549 Number 76
The Forest Sangha is
a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn
Luang Por Chah
The Chapter of Octads
Founding of Wat Pah Pong
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 Pongs
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 Chahs
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 fathers slight
puzzlement at Ajahn Sows teaching style, It wasnt
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 fathers 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 couldnt. Ajahn Dee said It isnt our place.
We cant stay. It wont 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
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 forests 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.
Theres 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 didnt 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 its
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 Id 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 oclock, 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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