Training in Thailand
Wisdom arises when one reflects on the way things are and how to live in harmony with them. The wise person learns from life itself; the fool waits for perfect weather. Life as it is has highs and lows, opportunities and problems. If we’re foolish, we think that because things are not perfect or ideal, we can’t practise, develop or progress in the same way that we would if everything were ‘just right.’ The wise person on the other hand takes advantage of all of it, in order to see that all conditions are impermanent, unsatisfactory and not me or mine.
Before I became a monk, I was teaching English in Bangkok. It was 1966, and there were a lot of American Air Force bases in Thailand. One of the teachers at the language school was an American airman. Once, when he came back after an absence of a week or so, I asked him where he’d been. He said, ‘I’ve been to a place in North East Thailand where the people are so poor they have to eat insects.’ I thought, ‘I’m never going there.’ I imagined myself instead as a monk sitting in samādhi on the beach under a palm tree or in a cave among beautiful mountains, realizing the truth. Of course, I ended up as a monk in the North East of Thailand for ten years, and it’s true – they eat insects.
The first year I spent alone in a monastery, living in a little hut. I didn’t really associate with anybody – just practised meditation. I set my own agenda. As a big, tall American, I could just puff out my chest, look fierce and get almost anything I wanted. During that year, I came to see that I had a lot of arrogance and the sort of character that needed limits. I had always been a very independent person, so I needed to learn how to serve in a community. I needed a teacher who wouldn’t put up with my behaviour. Then, by chance, I met a monk from Ajahn Chah’s monastery – the only one who could speak English – and he ended up taking me back to meet Ajahn Chah. So I went to Wat Nong Pah Pong in Ubon, Thailand, in 1967 with the idea of training myself in a strict tradition.
The following ten years spent with Ven. Ajahn Chah gave me every possible opportunity to adapt to change and to learn to let go of my personal preferences. The frustration, resistance and annoyance that I experienced were eventually transformed into a deep and profound sense of gratitude and love. The harsh edges of ego and conceit began to wear away as the years passed by.
The Thai Forest Tradition was an ideal I found very inspiring, so at first I was entranced and uplifted, but the realities soon appeared. The weather got hot, the monsoon season started, and everything turned rotten and stinky. I began to hate the place. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Why am I here?’
In those days, Ajahn Chah loved testing our patient endurance to the point where we didn’t think we would be able to last another moment. I’d hear myself saying, ‘I can’t take any more of this … I’ve had enough. This is the END!’ Then I’d find out I could endure more. I began to distrust this inner hysterical screaming in me. The monastic form and the conditions helped a lot, but being brought up with an egalitarian ideal of freedom and equality, I felt an incredible frustration in being suffocated by the system. I was living in a hierarchical structure based on seniority, and because I was the most junior monk there, I had to perform certain duties for those who were senior to me. Learning to acknowledge and to take an interest in performing them was quite a challenge. There was a selfish side in me that wanted to live monastic life on my own terms. I was willing to perform duties if it was convenient for me, but much of the time it wasn’t. I felt resistance and rebelliousness.
At the same time, the teachings continually encouraged me to acknowledge what I was feeling – the resistance, the rebelliousness, the criticism. I became aware of my stubbornness and an immaturity that grumbled and complained if things didn’t suit me. The emphasis was on cultivating mindfulness of what I was feeling: I wasn’t simply browbeaten into conformity like it was a military camp. Nobody pushed me into that place; I chose to live there. My agreement was to conform to the discipline, to surrender and learn to adapt to this very strict and conservative monastic lifestyle. This included learning to eat food that I didn’t particularly like. Villagers would bring nice little curries with chicken, curries with fish, curries with frog, but in those days, Ajahn Chah would dump them all into a big basin and mix it up. It made me sick to even look at it. Fortunately, it was mango season, and there were big trays of mangoes. I managed to live on mangoes and sticky rice for an entire month, but after the mango season ended I started getting thinner and thinner. Finally, I learned how to eat the food – it is surprising how well we can adapt.
Sometimes all the monks would ride into town in the back of a big truck. We would then walk through town on an alms-round with Ajahn Chah. This was a grand experience, as the entire population of the town lined the main street. People had all kinds of nice dishes ready and would offer them into our alms-bowls. When the bowls were filled up, a man would come around and we’d pour the food out into his big basket and continue walking. When we got back to the monastery, we could choose what we wanted to eat from whatever was left in our alms- bowl. This was such a rare occasion that it made us go crazy. Once, a woman put a nice little cake into my alms-bowl, and later as I dumped out all the rest of the food into the man’s basket, I tried to hold onto the cake. I didn’t want him to know what I was doing, so all kinds of devious thoughts came to mind. It was amazing to see the anxiety and the effort I put into holding onto that little cake!
I also found myself obsessed with sweets. We lived a celibate life and ate only one meal a day, often without any delicious food, but we were allowed sugar and honey as medicine, if they were offered. One time, Ajahn Chah gave me a bag of sugar. I was so happy. I thought, ‘I’ll just take a little taste.’ I opened the bag, scooped out a teaspoonful and put in it my mouth. Within fifteen minutes I consumed the whole bag. I couldn’t stop myself! Sometimes I would dream about sweets: I’d go to a pastry shop, sit down at a table and order delicious-looking pastries. Just as I was about to eat one, I’d wake up!
Here I was, a monk trying to lead a spiritual life acting like a hungry ghost and dreaming about sugar. But because the greed was so focused, I could easily contemplate it – and I learned to reflect on these desires and obsessions of the mind. It’s here that we often need the precepts to stop us from following our habits or whatever is easiest to do. Precepts help us to see our impulses, how we follow them and the results. The restraint and restriction of the precepts give us a sense of stopping. With reflective awareness, we begin to notice how strong the mind’s impulses and compulsions can be. We see them as mental objects rather than as needs we must fulfil. Many of the rules of monastic life are based on restraint in order to witness these mental objects and their power.
One of rules that used to irritate me in the beginning concerned the wearing of robes. We were given three robes when we became a monk. The custom in the Thai Forest Tradition is to wear all three robes when going out on the morning alms-round. The mornings were hot, and we usually had to walk quite a long distance through paddy fields and villages. By the time we got back, all our robes were soaking wet with sweat. The robes were dyed with natural jackfruit dye, so after a while, the mixture of sweat and jackfruit dye began to smell terrible. Life in the monastery centred around robes – using the robes, washing the robes, sewing the robes. I found this incredibly frustrating. I wanted to meditate; I didn’t want my life centred around robes, and I spoke with one of the other monks about this. I spoke about how all we needed was one thin robe; it covers us adequately. The heavy double-thick robe is difficult to make. It takes a lot of cloth, and by wearing it every day out in the heat it easily deteriorates. Then we have to make another one – more material, more dyeing, more sewing. I made a very good case for not wearing all three robes, being the very reasonable man that I am, but I was really just whining and complaining.
Well, the monk told Ajahn Chah, so I was called to see him. I felt so embarrassed. Suddenly it dawned on me: ‘Why make a problem out of this? Just wear the robes. I can bear it. It isn’t going to ruin my life. What is ruining my life is my whining mind: “I don’t want to do this, this is stupid, I can’t see any point.”’ This complaining was eating me up from inside – whining, blaming, holding strong views, getting fed up, wanting to leave, not wanting to cooperate. That was the suffering that I couldn’t bear. I came to see that throughout much of my life before becoming a monk, even in the midst of a comfortable lifestyle, I had a habit of complaining and endlessly looking at things through a critical eye.
The following year the urge came over me to go to a mountain refuge to meditate alone like a hermit. I told Ajahn Chah this, so he took me to one of his branch monasteries, which was called the Red Mountain Monastery. I was expecting a mountain, so when I arrived I was somewhat disappointed to find only a mosquito-infested hillock. (The Thai word for ‘mountain’ includes anything from a mound to Mount Everest.) Fortunately, Ajahn Chah didn’t insist that I stay there. On returning to Wat Pah Pong, I asked to take leave for six months to go to a beautiful mountain that fulfilled my romantic expectations of a hermit’s mountain refuge.
I spent the six months with one other bhikkhu, living most of the time on the very top of the mountain near an ancient Khmer stupa, far, far away from any town or village. We had to descend the mountain every morning and wait at an appointed spot for the faithful villagers to come and offer the day’s meal. Receiving the food in our alms-bowls, we would climb back up and eat our meal on the mountaintop.
During those six months, I experienced a severe infection in my right foot that kept me invalided for over a month. I was unable to walk anywhere. I had to stay in a crude tin-roofed shack under the glaring sun in the middle of the hot season. Once a day coarse and unpalatable food and a kettle of water was offered. There I lay, sick, dirty and ragged, with tiny little gnats hovering around my eyes and crawling in my ears and mouth, with nothing to do and seldom anyone to talk to. I’d listen to the occasional airplane flying overhead and a terrible longing for home and my mother, a despairing self- pity and disillusionment would fill my mind. There was no escape from the suffering of the moment. The miserable conditions of my body and mind were unrelenting. There was nothing else to do but to concentrate on the suffering. It was as if the wise powers that be had such compassion for me that I was forced into a cul-de-sac – a ‘no-exit’ situation. The only relief came through resignation and non- resistance. I just simply let go. Then I realized: ‘Ah! I see that suffering is my own creation. It is the reaction to the body, to the conditions of the mind and to the world.’ Then there was peace.
The next year, Ajahn Chah sent me to live at another branch monastery, where the senior bhikkhu was one who aroused enormous amounts of aversion in his disciples. The man was ugly, crude and seemingly below average in intelligence, and he regarded formal meditation or practice as a waste of time. He insisted that we all work doing manual labour. Sometimes I felt that I was doing hard labour in a slave camp.
At the end of the work period, or after the alms-round, the abbot would stand waiting for me at the footbath. I had to force myself to run over, kneel down and scrub his feet. At Wat Nong Pah Pong, it was a privilege to wash the feet of my honourable teacher, Ajahn Chah; bowing on my knees to the Ven. Ajahn Chah had been an act of devotion, but here it was a perfunctory duty generating no joy – an act of sheer willpower – and there was such resistance and aversion. So again, the wise powers that be had kindly sent this teacher to expose the origin of suffering in order that I might discover its cessation. I spent two years at that monastery, and by the time I left I had learned another lesson in letting go.
‘See happiness and unhappiness as having equal value’ – this teaching was constantly emphasized by Ajahn Chah. The devotion to one teacher and the aversion to another have equal value. Wanting to stay, wanting to go; infatuation and disgust; the good times and the bad times; formal meditation practice and slave labour; good health and sickness – all of it is teaching us the reality of impermanence and that suffering is our heedless struggle to grasp, maintain or escape from changing conditions.
During those ten years with Ajahn Chah, the experiences, the opportunities, the lack of opportunities, the lifestyle of the bhikkhu, the Vinaya discipline, Thai traditions, the other monks, the laypeople, the forest, the town, the hot weather, the mosquitoes, snakes and ants, the hopes and disillusionments, the ageing process itself, being a disciple and being a teacher, being praised by some and being criticized by others, the successes and the failures – all were of equal value, pointing the way to liberation: the opanayika dhamma1 that leads towards peace, towards calm … towards nibbāna. Even though the mind sometimes screams, ‘I can’t take any more of this’, the truth of the matter is that we can take more. If we learn to endure and not just be caught by an impulse, then we begin to find strength in our practice. We can’t control what arises in the mind, but we can reflect on what we are feeling and learn from that rather than be caught helplessly in our impulses and habits.
The human heart is filled with discontent, comparing, choosing and making preferences: it knows no peace. The qualities of the conditions of sense consciousness overwhelm it; they seem so dazzling or so disgusting that one is constantly reacting. This struggle is the dukkha of the first Noble Truth. To recognize that the struggle itself is the suffering and that it is caused by our ignorance of the nature of things; to realize that the nature of all conditions, regardless of their specific qualities, is impermanence and not-self – when this is understood one no longer needs to react habitually to the conditions one experiences. One ceases to struggle, and when one ceases to struggle, that is the end of suffering. If you reflect on this for a while, then you’ll be able to learn from it all: from sentimental longing for the hermit’s mountain refuge, and from all teachers and all conditions. Your body and the conditions of your mind can teach you the Four Noble Truths.
Even though there is a lot in life that we can’t change, we can change our attitude towards it. That is what so much of meditation is about – changing our attitude from a self-centred, ‘Get rid of this or get more of that’ attitude to one of welcoming life as it is: welcoming the opportunity to eat food that we don’t like; welcoming wearing three robes on a hot morning; welcoming discomfort, feeling fed up, wanting to run away. This way of welcoming life reflects a deeper understanding. Life is like this: sometimes it’s very nice, sometimes it’s horrible, and much of the time it’s neither one way nor the other. The wise person knows that any viewpoint or opinion whatsoever is only a changing condition and that with its cessation there is peace.
(Adapted from ‘Training in Thailand’ – The Middle Way, February 1980; and from ‘Life Is Like This’ – a talk given at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, summer 2005)
Excerpts from the book ” The Wheel of Truth ”
The Anthology by Ajahn Sumedho Volume 5