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Place to no place
A conversation with Ajahn Nyanarato
Ajahn Nyanarato has been one of the senior monks at Amaravati since 2001. He has come to be loved and respected by many, as he helps lead the community in his quiet, patient way. The following is from a conversation I had with him in December, 2006, in order to share something of his life and reflections here in the FSN.—Editor
What was your exposure to religion like growing up in Japan ?
I was born into an ordinary countryside family, Buddhist but not especially religious. Like almost all such Japanese households we had both a Buddhist shrine as well as a Shinto shrine. We lived in Nara, which was the first capital of ancient Japan before it moved to Kyoto at the end of the eighth century. So I was born in an old and traditional part of Japan. There are many famous Buddhist temples there. I don’t remember anything much about going to the temple as a religious observance but for about six years as a teenager almost every day I walked through Nara Park where there are famous ancient temples, so in that way I was breathing in a traditional Buddhist atmosphere. My university was in Kyoto and that is also strongly coloured by Buddhism. Kyoto has over one thousand Buddhist temples.
Kofuku-ji Temple, in Nara Park, Nara Prefecture, Japan. Ajahn Nyanarato often walked on a path nearby, passing this temple on his way to and from school.
Todai-ji Temple, Nara Park, Japan. Also near Ajahn Nyanarato’s boyhood route.
How did you regard Buddhism when you were younger?
Questions of life and death became very serious at a certain point after I became a medical student, and after that Buddhism started showing its depth to me. In my teens it had been somewhat in my consciousness, but I didn’t spend much time with it mainly because I had to concentrate on the competitive schoolwork required in Japan, which is a really big thing. When I was about eleven years old, death became a question. Of course, by that time I had some notion of death as a concept, but then quite suddenly ‐ without any external incident to stimulate this ‐ I perceived its reality. And it really frightened me. I was powerfully scared. But to survive the education process in Japan I suppose I suppressed the question, and after some time it faded from the surface of consciousness.
When I succeeded in entering university, I knew the question was there somewhere and had not been solved; a big source of unhappiness in me was this unsolved feeling. Then when I was a bit over 20 ‐ I suddenly remembered. It took just one night. I was reading an introductory book on philosophy, and my mind was strongly focused and that question came up. To follow my thoughts I kept writing in my notebook: what can I value, even in the face of death? I will die ‐ what do I need to do? I can’t do what I am doing any more. My attitude towards life changed in that one night. By dawn I had determined to stop my normal way of living. But instead of abandoning everything at once, I decided to first finish the medical course. Then instead of pursuing a career as a doctor, I would finally stop and devote myself 100% to this pursuit of the meaning of life, so to speak. From that night my efforts in studying medicine were the barest minimum, and the rest of my time I used to start searching. It was in that context that Buddhism became important.
Did you search for ways other than Buddhism at first?
For some reason I already respected the teaching of Buddhism; I felt it had something very important. But I didn’t yet limit which way I could go. I explored anything to do with body, mind, life ‐ with awakening. I was looking for opportunities and picking things up.
What brought you to Thailand?
I followed my determination, and when I graduated in 1984 I left Japan. That was the first time I’d left the country, the first time even on an airplane. I went to India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and stayed for one year in those areas. I wanted to stay on but I couldn’t renew my visa, and I knew I wasn’t at all ready to go back to Japan. Some of the Western travellers I met in India suggested I go to Thailand. They knew of my spiritual interest and they said, “Yes, Thailand can be a place for that pursuit.” My return ticket went through Bangkok so instead of going back to Japan I stayed on there. From the first day I looked for places I could go to practise meditation. I would stay in each place about a month, and every few months I needed to leave the country to renew my visa. I did this for another year until I arrived at Wat Pah Nanachat. At that point I’d been thinking that maybe the next place would be the last, as I’d been travelling for some time and I wondered if I was escaping things.
At WPN I didn’t instantly feel, “Yes, this is the place.” Gradually I developed a strong connection. Looking back, I can see that I was increasingly appreciative of what WPN had to offer. I had practised intensive meditation at the places where I stayed previously. But the set-up of WPN is not for doing an intensive meditation course, but more to practise with life in general. The good-natured atmosphere, and seeing Westerners dedicating their whole lives to this form were also important in inspiring me. After a few months I asked to be an anagarika, then slowly continued in the usual way.
Ajahn Nyanarato with Tan Ajahn Gavesako in Kyoto. This photo was taken about two years ago, when they met in Japan during individual visits.
I was there about two years and struggling, both with the usual challenges at the beginning of monastic life, but also with difficulty in understanding all the English spoken there. Having seen my frustration, Ajahn Pasanno, the abbot, suggested I spend time with Ajahn Gavesako (a senior disciple of Ajahn Chah, who is Japanese), who had for years been on tudong in Thailand. I went to join him at a quiet place where he had gone to stay on the Laotian border, and later accompanied him in his wandering. I was fortunate because since he didn’t yet have a monastery to look after, he had enough time that I could approach him whenever I needed, and he was so kind to accept me in doing so. That close personal contact really helped me to understand the Buddhist teaching, to understand the monk’s life ‐ both from our verbal contact and just from observing and receiving his being. Learning from the way he was.
After that, he planned to go to Japan to do a tudong there, walking from Tokyo International Airport to Hiroshima: one thousand kilometres. He asked me if I would join him and I instantly said yes! This was after my second vassa.
(right) Honsen-ji Temple in Tokyo. Ajahn Gavesako and Ven. Nyanarato spent the vassa here after their tudong to Hiroshima.
What was it like, on tudong in Japan?
Very hard! It was the hardest time of my monk’s life. In Thailand everything was so supportive but in Japan that wasn’t the case. It is a Buddhist country, but not Theravadan; they have different ways. There were the physical difficulties of the journey, but tudong is a time you expect that kind of challenge. On top of this, for me there were many memories and emotions involved. In Thailand the whole society is set up to support what you are doing as a monk, so even if you have your own questions you also have encouragement and protection. But in Japan you are exposed. And I had my strong connection with the culture as well; this was my first encounter with my homeland since I had left. So everything was questioned.
In general people were supportive and kind; they just had a much different way of looking at the monk’s life than Thais. It was their genuine questions I would find difficult: “Why are you a monk, abandoning and leaving everything behind? You’re a medical student, you finished the medical course, why are you doing this? How about your responsibility for your parents?” It was this kind of very raw, hot issue I could not look at at that time. And being Japanese I could totally understand their point of view. My foundation then was tiny, so I felt challenged, even from out of their kindness.
Why Hiroshima? Was it a ‘Peace Walk’?
People often asked this. “Why Hiroshima? Do you have any message or slogan?” And Ajahn Gavesako would answer: “Each step is our peace walk.” Part of it for him was just to walk, to be in the middle of modern Japan, keeping our monastic rules. He wondered how this form would work in modern Japan. That was one aspect of our experiment. But the question: what was the spiritual aspect of it? Rather than to have some external slogan for the world or something, it was: Each step is our peace walk.
Soon after we started walking, one TV station came to know what we were doing, so they followed us ‐ every few weeks for a few days ‐ and in the end they made a documentary. When we finished the walk to Hiroshima and I was interviewed, I said I had received lots of energy and support from people and it was a wonderful experience. That was true, yet also there was this genuine questioning for me.
After the tudong finished, we stayed in a Buddhist monastery in Tokyo for over three months to spend the vassa. It was called Honsen-ji, a very old temple in the middle of Tokyo. The abbot had some connection with Thailand. They offered us shelter as well as food every day, which wasn’t an easy thing for them; they were very kind. We still have a connection. After that we went back to Thailand. During the stay in Tokyo my struggle continued. Had I solved the questions? No. But when I came back, Ajahn Jayasaro (then the vice abbot of WPN) told people, “Oh, Nyanarato has changed.” My commitment to Thailand and the monk’s life had changed ‐ I recognized that ‐ so although I didn’t recognize what had happened consciously, something had changed. My life as a monk in Thailand from that time on became more clear and strong.
The next year, Ajahn Gavesako and I spent the vassa in different monasteries in Thailand. Then he decided to accept an invitation to establish his own monastery in Kanchanaburi, near the Burmese border, and invited me to join him. That was before my fifth vassa. I stayed there with him for almost ten years. Originally it was just a few huts and several hundred acres of sugar cane field. In the middle of simplicity and the bare minimum, we practised hard with enthusiasm. Later Ajahn Gavesako developed it into a proper (huge!) monastery, planting trees, building kutis and a Dhamma Hall and everything else. I did many things there, helping to manage the monastery and the Sangha. Building the monastery itself gave me joy, and also that time was still a good opportunity for me to learn from Ajahn Gavesako: about the Dhamma and about how to be a monk, how to relate with lay people; about the essential attitude in being a monk.
How did you approach Dhamma practice while you were there?
Among other things, Ajahn Gavesako teaches anapanasati as a method, a means to develop the path, based on the sixteen stages in the Anapanasati Sutta. Soon after he started the monastery this became his main teaching from a theoretical point of view. So I was practising this. But also a very important aspect of his approach is taking responsibility for oneself: always to look after our own heart, not getting caught in judgements, opinions, anger, etc. He pointed out my own responsibility not to suffer. In many ways and from many angles he would come back to this; he was very straightforward. When I made mistakes, from subtle ones to gross ones, he would point them out, how I was making myself suffer. He could be very direct with me, which could be painful but helped me to learn important things. I can see that was a very precious opportunity.
You lived there for ten years. Then what happened? How did you wind up here?
Altogether I spent about fifteen years in Thailand, including the first year as a layman looking around. Ajahn Gavesako suggested I move. He noticed in me perhaps some stubbornness; once you become too familiar with things, one’s flexibility is gone because of attachment to the situation. Maybe he also saw I lacked the opportunity to practise in a solitary situation. So he encouraged me to move on, to have a break from the place. I was reluctant, but in the end I accepted. He recommended I leave Thailand altogether. At first, I thought I would go to another forest monastery in Thailand, because I could speak Thai, but he said, “Change everything! Let go of anything familiar!” He suggested I go to Sri Lanka. Again, I felt very reluctant but gave in. That was the beginning of the year 2000.
As it happened, I went to the Buddhist holy places in India with some Japanese supporters for a short while, and then to Kathmandu in Nepal and stayed on for some time. Then the political situation in Sri Lanka got bad. The Japanese embassy was discouraging Japanese travellers from going there, so I changed my plan. The Western monasteries had been in my mind, and I had thought that maybe after Sri Lanka I could experience the West, in order to learn something about community life, and with new skills I could go back to Ajahn Gavesako’s monastery. The vassa was approaching, and to find a place before then was not easy. I asked several monasteries, including Amaravati, but they all said, “Sorry ‐ after the vassa there might be room for you to come, but not before.” But at Chithurst, Ajahn Sucitto was really kind in coming forward. He said, “Yes. You can come.” When I read that message I was really grateful. That was the summer of 2000. It was my first time in the West.
Your being Japanese and having lived only in Asia, there must have been general cultural differences in coming to live in the UK. Were there differences in the monastic cultures as well, because things in the monasteries in the West are different than they are in Thailand? How was that for you?
It was a gentle start, and the learning is still going on. I could speak enough English, and the Vinaya standard is the same, and we all have Luang Por Chah as our core teacher; and the lifestyle ‐ although some aspects are different ‐ the idea of the forest tradition, not just the Vinaya standard, but the ethos of the forest tradition is still shared. So with the climate and culture of the West, I felt that, yes, something completely new is now in my life, but the Vinaya as well as the forest tradition and the language that we shared together was offering a comfortable background for me to feel at ease. And then on that comfortable background I would receive the various new experiences, and I had space to receive and contemplate them. I didn’t have to struggle with how to live, or force myself to change, particularly; I was observing internally and externally, and simply fit into the routine. So, I didn’t feel like I’d come to a completely new place. It was somewhat pleasant.
How long did you stay at Chithurst?
One year. I liked it very much, the forest is beautiful; also, in a way the setting as a monastery is more thorough, so from time to time you have dedicated time for quiet practice, which is well-structured and protected. In Thailand you don’t have to have a structure: just being somewhere everything happens around you. But in the West, because of the inevitable complications of life here ‐ the climate, the newness of Buddhism and so forth ‐ you have to organize your life so that you can have time for practice and developing the monastic life. I felt that the solitary periods at Chithurst were excellent, and nothing less than what’s available in Thailand.
Interesting, because often people think there’s more space in the monasteries in Thailand for personal practice, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Right. The quietness, the respect for the monastic life was clear at Chithurst, and the community was quite together ‐ so I liked it. When I came to Amaravati my intention was to spend one vassa here, then return to Chithurst. I wanted to spend some time living with Luang Por Sumedho. I remember that when I left Chithurst in spring I told the community I’d be back before the colour of the leaves changes.
And you never left Amaravati. Why did you want to stay here?
To be honest, the first time I’d visited I didn’t have much of an impression of the place: old school setting, not as much forest as Chithurst has, Amaravati seemed like a man-made place. Chithurst is more in nature. But when I returned here to spend the vassa, very soon I noticed this sense of … freedom is not the word, but there is a feeling of space for each of us to live within the routine. It’s not very strict; which means, for me, it’s an opportunity to do everything as my own responsibility, rather than a duty or obligation to follow
the routine. We become more aware that in truth everything is our own choice; whatever we do, it is our own choice and we are responsible for it. Whether we make it something beneficial or do it in a passive way or even a limited way depends on from where each one of us relates to the situation. That was uplifting, and gave me a kind of joy. And of course, to be with Luang Por Sumedho was always very important for me. From the beginning of my monastic life in Thailand I’d had direct contact with him on his annual visits there, but no chance to live with him. To be at Amaravati, living with him very closely, that’s been a wonderful experience which is still going on. So that’s an important reason to be here.
And your practice here ‐ has it changed? Would you talk about how your practice has developed while you’ve been here?
I can say it has developed in two ways. Luang Por’s teaching of … to describe it is difficult! The immediacy of his teaching, so to say, has shown me a very precious place to be, internally and for my whole being. I had a sense of it before, but never so clear as since I started living with him. After I came here, his direct teaching and obvious presence really helped. So Luang Por’s awakening teaching has given me this really precious, important place of ‘nowhere to go’, ‘nobody to become’.
On the level of person, there has been an integration, meaning not just me as a monk but as a human being. You see, when I went back to Japan the first time, that was a struggle. Yes, in a certain context being a monk was OK, but in being a Japanese, being in the wider society, many things had not been addressed; they were kind of unspoken areas. So although after I came back to Thailand I became firmer, and didn’t have many problems living life as a monk, there was still this kind of unspoken issue of integration: being a monk as a person in this modern world. Being here ‐ England is in many ways similar to Japan. They are developed countries, have similar climates, are in the centre of the materialistic world. They’re not Theravadan. So there are many things in common. Now these different parts of me being a monk, being a human being with a Japanese background, being one who lives in this materialistic world ‐ all these have come to one point. I’m not playing a role of being a monk, but I am a full human being, I am one hundred per cent living here. So that is a very pleasant experience. Another way to put it is my relationship with the world has become much more open. I can go to London and come back to the monastery, I can visit Japan or Thailand, and yet I can remain as the same person in every context. That’s been very important to me.
What are some of the biggest cultural differences you’ve noticed?
When I was in Thailand, I recognized the big differences between Japanese and Thais. I thought maybe Japanese are more westernized, but after I came here I saw that, “Oh yes, it is different. Japanese are not westerners!” One difference is in how people here relate to the world. The sense of ‘I’ is very clear, in not necessarily a negative or positive way, but it is clear. You need to be clear in terms of communication. Because of the position of ‘I’ in the language you almost can’t talk without using subject and object such as ‘I’ and ‘you’. But in the languages of Thais and Japanese, unless we want to particularly point that subject/object relationship out, usually we don’t have to. If you use ‘I’ too often, it becomes strange. It’s not like we are omitting the subject, but in our actual experience, the direct experience itself, we don’t hold ‘I’ as such. So the starting point is different. The sense of the subject hasn’t
arisen strongly. In English you have to say, “I feel this,” but in Thai: “Roosuk” (lit. “feel”). It doesn’t have a subject. It’s somewhat similar in English when you say, “It feels.” Before, I thought the Western way made more logical sense, but it’s not like that. In direct experience, simply ‘feel’ comes first, and then if necessary we can emphasize a sense of ‘I’. So the attitude towards life as we experience the moment is somewhat different.
Would you say there’s less of an experience of separateness?
There can be. It might also bring a vagueness in responsibility; in describing what’s happening, the accuracy can be less in terms of decision-making or discussion, or sharing things. So there is both a constructive as well as a weak side to it. One of the examples of this is how in Western culture the presence of the door is very clear. There are separated rooms with doors. You open the door to meet people, but in Thai houses the door doesn’t exist ‐ not even a partition. The space is there, and then maybe you have to make your own space, which is unusual to them. And Japanese are somewhat similar. In the Western context, person A and person B come and meet and this is how to develop a friendship, but particularly in the Thai context, the starting point is already being together. Before, I thought, “Yes, person A and person B meet, and Western culture describes this very clearly, while Asian cultures are maybe not so developed in this way.” But the way we experience is itself different. It’s not necessary to hold ‘I’ as a starting point for experience: that’s just a modern Western way of approaching life, which has now gone all over the world, and people assume this is the only way human beings can experience. In Asia now we think, “Oh, yes, we should learn to think like this, it is the more advanced way.” But it is just one particular way of relating to people.
How do you see Amaravati as a place for practising Dhamma?
I think this is a very good place for practice. I’m not saying it’s better than other places, but it is more than good enough. Luang Por’s teaching is available, and it’s quite an open situation, so you need to be mature. This place provides an opportunity to become mature in our practice. You cannot follow certain ideas ‐ wanting to fix things here to be a certain way ‐ or it becomes a difficult place to practise. It is such an open place; many people can come and go. We need to be responsible for ourselves. It is an opportunity. We are allowed to be as we are, and I think that is the only way to really appreciate the life here. And as Luang Por says, to be aware, and to question: what does the Buddha’s teaching really mean? What is liberation? To understand this with one’s own being, not just theoretically, is the only way to appreciate the life here. And actually, wherever we go, that will be the way we need to be. Amaravati is a perfect example of the kind of place where we need to learn how to be.
Of course, we can’t be idealistic. We provide times to be very quiet, like the Winter Retreat or occasional group practice together, or our self-retreats, and the formal teachings. But I have learned to practise here, not just to play a role of ‘meditator’ or play a role of a Buddhist monk, but to live totally as a human being, one hundred per cent. So Amaravati offers that perspective. It sounds like quite a statement, but we need to be real, and in this place we can be real.
The path of the Buddha is not in the techniques or particular forms; if we think in this way while living at Amaravati, our understanding will be questioned. But from that questioning we can grow. If you have particular opinions and views or some fixed perception of Buddhism, then life here is not easy. Actually, what is most important? We need to recognize this. This is the only answer. And Luang Por’s teaching is always there as an immediate contemplation. We have a good Vinaya standard and good support; it’s a wonderful place.
(left) In Japan, with deer.
And the young people coming to train here, they’re helped by having mentor relationships with individual senior Sangha members?
I think it’s important to have personal contact with people who can guide us. I was fortunate to have had such a time with Ajahn Gavesako. Perhaps it’s not necessary for everyone, but for many people that kind of human to human care, encouragement, and support is crucial. And support from the community is also important. Now we have many Ajahns, and a happy, harmonious atmosphere in the community. This holds each of us so we can live comfortably, peacefully, as we each meet the challenges of the kamma we carry.
One other thing I have felt has been a similarity between Amaravati and Wat Nong Pah Pong (Luang Por Chah’s monastery). The first time I felt this was when we had the World Abbots’ Meeting here about six years ago, during my first year at Amaravati. There was a sense of working together that was wonderful to see. People were so willing. From seniors to juniors and laypeople, people simply coming forward with an attitude that doesn’t draw a line about “my practice and my time”, but doing whatever was necessary to do whenever it needed to be done. That sort of happy, shared openness and willingness reminded me of what I felt at Wat Pah Pong. It’s not just community spirit, but something that I think started with Luang Por Chah’s way of teaching the monastic life. This openness to the situation means considering, where is the practice? Not in the particular form or situation, but always relating to the centre of our being ‐ the most important thing. I think from the beginning of Luang Por Chah’s teaching that approach has formed how Wat Pah Pong is, and how the other monasteries in our tradition are, particularly Amaravati. The community here reflects that way of teaching and learning.
Having said this, as meditation monks, of course when there is the chance to have solitude and quiet settings that’s a wonderful opportunity. I really appreciate the support to have a quiet space; I value that a lot. If I say practising “in the middle of civilization” requires and helps us to be mature, I’m not saying we should always engage ‐ that’s not the point. But on the question of how to practise in this particular context, where Amaravati is sometimes busy, I would say, “Yes, but this is an opportunity for us to be mature.” Solitude and a quiet external setting, in all Buddhist countries from the time of the Buddha, has always been essential. It is fundamental. Otherwise maybe we will go too far!
A quiet moment in a cathedral while on an invitation to teach in Portugal.
Where our body disappears
where we are alone,
our forehead leaning against
in blossoming silence.
The horizon remains
like your most
here your gesture,
is the only answer.
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