Roots of the Forest 1:Wat Pah Pong in 1986

(Note: the following was written in 1986. In those days, Luang Por Chah was still alive, though being nursed around the clock. The numbers of branch monasteries has grown enormously since then – to over three hundred – and with that increase in popularity has come wealth.  Standards of the buildings have changed, but the training and routines remain much the same.)

It all felt new, and yet – touched something as familiar as earth and water.  An arrival that was a first time, and yet spoke of timeless presence.  Having gone forth in a monastery in central Thailand in 1976, I’d never been to the north-east, never visited Wat Pah Pong, the monastery that Luang Por Chah had founded, where Ajahn Sumedho had trained. I’d met both of these remarkable monks elsewhere: Ajahn Sumedho, my teacher, in Chiang Mai, and Luang Por Chah in Hampstead, London in 1979. So this trip, an invitation to accompany Ajahn Sumedho, was my introduction to the culture which gave birth to and still nourishes the Buddhist ‘forest tradition’ of Thailand.  And it seemed fitting that my introduction should be at night, when the bright and sensual aspects of the world give way to shadows, a stilling of activity, and contemplation.

We landed at Ubon early in the evening, and were met and driven to Wat Pah Pong to pay respects to Luang Por Chah. So the order was perfect: first the Master, then a couple of the monasteries that grew around him, Wat Pah Pong and Wat Pah Nanachat.  However, from the early 1950s when he pitched his mosquito-net umbrella (grod) under a tree in the ghost-infested forest of Pah Pong to the present day over one hundred monasteries in Thailand and overseas have been established following his style of practice. It’s also the case that, rather than having an expansionist mission, Ajahn Chah responded to the requests of villagers and Western Dhamma foundations by sending monks to their locations and letting things grow naturally.  I had been living at Cittaviveka, Chithurst, UK, the first overseas branch monastery, then at Harnham, but since its foundation in 1984, I was based at Amaravati, the latest in the extending line of Dhamma-Vinaya.

I hadn’t seen Luang Por Chah since 1979, when his immensely spacious, grounded and warm presence had illuminated the tiny Hampstead Buddhist Vihara. He was so in touch – witty, playful, challenging, loving and deeply silent in turns.  Being in his presence was to me a greater experience than any verbal teaching.  You knew he knew, and you were on his radar; and sooner or later he’d look at you and throw you a line. It could be a seemingly simple question, or a ‘Zen’ style remark, but that was just the hook. You caught it – and his presence gently and firmly pulled you in to a sphere of warmth. It was like being held, I imagined, by some huge and benevolent cloud; lifted into his presence, the world and its anxieties dropped away. Everything seemed clear – and light. It was like being a child with your favourite uncle.

The realities now were that Luang Por couldn’t speak and could barely move. He’d been incapacitated since 1981 and was now bed-ridden in a special clinical kuti that the Sangha had built for him, and was being nursed round-the-clock by a team of monks.  Ajahn Sumedho and I entered the kuti quietly and after bowing to Luang Por, stood beside the prone figure on the bed. Ajahn Sumedho addressed the Master in Thai – from what I could understand, he was giving details of the monasteries and the Sangha in Britain, and at one point mentioned my name.  The figure on the bed showed signs of hearing and understanding what was being said.  Being suspended from the conversation, my mind stepped into contemplation. How serene this place seemed, how peaceful! I realized I had been expecting a morbid or depressing scene with people scurrying around and maybe a body in pain, but no, this place felt very calm, and settled. And Luang Por – strangely enough, or surely not strangely at all – seemed the same in essence. How was that so? The presence was still palpable, calming and steadying my mind and pointing it to the timeless, sorrowless Dhamma.  We had arrived.

Everything else was just detail. But they presented the same message – calm, confidence and timelessness.  We were taken back to Wat Pah Nanachat, the monastery specifically established for Western bhikkhus.  Having trained so long in the West with these monasteries’ way of practice presented as the constant standard, I found myself entering them with a tingling expectation, a mixture of eagerness, awe and uncertainty.  What austerities, what challenges lay ahead?  I should have known better: the unspoken message was ‘just be with how it is, now. Continue with how it’s been for a thousand years.’

The night in the forest felt unusual at first.  It is black. Faintly glimmering sandy trails wander off into the darkness to the huts scattered in the forest, and the newcomer is given a guide and a torch to find his way.  Of course, the old-timers will tell you of the days before torches and trails, when bhikkhus proceeded through the forest with no other guidance than the Karaniya Metta Sutta, but the hazards  haven’t changed.  There are still plenty of snakes about; and large aggressive centipedes that can deliver a painful nip that will have you laid up for a while.  More frequently encountered are dangling vines and newly-spun spiders’ webs, or the roots that jut up through the sand like the knuckles of some malevolent troll for the unsuspecting tenderfoot to mash their toes upon.  So you walk attentively focussed on a beam of light.  My bhikkhu guide took me past a few simple huts (kutis) to a newer one at the edge of the monastery, unlocked its padlocked door, pushed back the wooden shutters, and with a few remarks padded off into the night.

Wat Pah Nanachat’s kutis are quite simple.  They are all plank constructions with large roofs to provide shade and a good run-off for water in the Rains.  They stand on legs, to elevate one from the path of forest pigs and out of the densest flying zone of the mosquitoes; while with the more lofty kutis the space underneath is a cooler place for sitting than inside.  The furnishings are a rush mat, a candle or oil-lamp and matches, a pillow for the head, and a rope to hang one’s robes upon; the accoutrements are a spittoon and a kettle, a soft broom for sweeping the room, and a coarse one for sweeping the paths.  It’s all you need; nothing to distract the mind, and not much to have to look after.  As soon as you enter such a dwelling, you want to sit and meditate for a while – especially when the cool night is mosquito-free and the ghosts are quiet.

Having been advised to come to the sālā (meeting hall) at dawn, I had the pleasure of a private sitting early in the morning.  Trying to find the sālā in the half-light via the unfamiliar trails was a minor challenge, but after some fumbling around, the navigational aids established themselves in my mind – the trailing vine here; the large water urn there; a derelict kuti visible through the trees; a fork in the path.  Light comes around 5 a.m. and daily routines establish another set of norms: the morning puja in the sālā, announced by the bell at 3 a.m.; walking or sitting meditation until 5:30; the morning sweep-up; the alms round (pindabaht); the meal; the afternoon chores; the evening bathing (standing outside, with a bathing cloth around the waist and ladling water over your body), the communal drink; and the evening puja.  Then people leave the sala for their kutis.  Darkness has already swallowed up the familiar, and the long mysterious night invites you to meditate.

The daily routine in a monastery, East or West, provides reference points on how to co-operate and enter a non-verbal communion with the Sangha.  People who can’t adapt get disgruntled and leave monasteries where they find the routine doesn’t fit their style of  practice – a surprising reaction for someone familiar with the difficulties of practice outside of a meditation monastery, but indicative of the human mind’s capacity to find fault with the way things are.  Actually you have a lot of space to contemplate how much rest you need, how you spend your time, and what kind of effort you sustain through unexciting days.  The Ajahns vary the routines to encourage a clearer view of where suffering actually is.  Sometimes there’s more work, sometimes more group meditation, sometimes not much of anything.  If you get the point, you see that dukkha follows its own routines.

But Ajahn Sumedho and I didn’t settle into anything at Nanachat; on the first day we went along with the routine to the point where the Sangha paid their daily visit to Ajahn Chah’s kuti, and then we moved over to Wat Pah Pong.

After visiting Luang Por again  – whose kuti is outside the wall that bounds the original monastery – we entered the monastery proper over a side wall.  The elements were the same: a couple of bhikkhus guiding us; darkness gathering and hastening our paces; and attention fixed on the ground ahead.  An astute lodgings officer had given me a kuti very close to the sālā, with mosquito screens and its own bathing facility underneath.  Well, such a luxury at Wat Pah Pong was a surprise.  Furthermore, an evening drink was being served in the long dining hall adjoining the sālā. Of course, as anyone will tell you, it’s not like the old days when Luang Por gently remonstrated with a lay devotee who brought ice to the monastery, that such a luxury might spoil the monks.  The day when coffee first came to Pah Pong is a noted historical event, and even now the choice of drinks in the poorer branches can be rain-water or well-water.  Things change.  I went over to the dining hall and, surveying the long wooden benches that ran down either side of the building, sat myself in a position that I hoped was not too presumptuous.

But the evening drink is an informal occasion – ‘Tam sabai!’(relax) is the phrase that indicates that it’s not necessary to wear the upper robe or sit in a formal posture.  Huge kettles floated down the line of monks with tiny novices attached to the handles; and in their wake enamelled dishes with `medicines’ – the bitter laxative fruits of the North-East.  It is a quiet time, and unike British `tea-time’, there’s no tradition of lay people attending for an informal chat.  Where the long informal conversations take place is traditionally in or under the Ajahn’s kuti, or nowadays in a sālā outside of the monastery proper where Ajahn Liam receives guests.  We went there after tea.  There was a lot of gentle humour between Ajahn Liam and Ajahn Sumedho; but I missed out on every-thing except Ajahn Liam’s quiet conviviality and the sharpness of his mind.

Ajahn Liam’s been in charge of Wat Pah Pong for five or six years now, at least to the extent that anyone could be in charge of the myths, mystique and devotional energies that surround Pah Pong and Ajahn Chah.  Luang Por is a constant reference point as the standard for correct practice throughout eighty monasteries and thousands of lay people.  Luang Por still oversees the monastery through the many images that gaze at the visitor and the resident with unwavering eye.  A portrait (a reproduction of the painting at Chithurst) presides at the head of the line in the dining hall, and another stands opposite a portrait of Ajahn Mun in the sālā.  There his seat, with kettle and spittoon beside it still occupies the central place before the shrine.  It’s not a cult, but a sign of the continuity of the tradition, and the respect for the Master as an embodiment of the practice.  Meanwhile Ajahn Liam guides the Sangha and adds his own insights to the storehouse of Dhamma-Vinaya that supports the holy life.

It’s not like the old days, but Wat Pah Pong doesn’t pretend to be; it manifests constant change.  A morning wandering around the monastery verifies that.  At one end of the dining hall is a small unused building that was the original meeting place for the small group of bhikkhus with Ajahn Chah in the early days.  Some way off to the side is the mango tree where Ajahn Chah first placed his mosquito net umbrella on arriving in this haunted forest thirty-three years ago.  Now a tiger, symbol of the tudong bhikkhu, pauses there, turned into concrete, wide-eyed and harmless.  A dozen metres away, another image sums up the development: it is an effigy of Luang Por rendered in flawless detail sitting underneath the kuti where he received guests during the prime of his teaching career.  It’s less awesome than the Master in past or even present disabled condition, yet close enough to still convey the comforting presence of a wise man.  In between these two images is a condensed history of Wat Pah Pong: the primitive old kutis; an array of ancient sīmā stones from the Cambodian border; and the new Uposatha Hall. Stylistically, this building is an innovation – with its pointed upswept arched roofs hanging over a polished marble floor, the only connection it made in my mind was with the Sydney Opera House. Luang Por used it for a couple of years before his decline.  Now terracotta murals depicting scenes from his life hang on the walls; and at the feet of a standing Buddha, a bronze figure of the Master gazes out towards the dining hall, the new sālā (the first cement building in the monastery) and the still unfinished three-storey building at the very entrance to the monastery.  This will be the Ajahn Chah museum.

It has become customary to erect these ‘pipitapahn’ to contain the relics, the biographies and books, and the sparse personal effects of forest masters when they die.  Inside this one, more terracotta murals of Luang Por’s life tower over the emptiness.  So this is the latest phase: Wat Pah Pong as a pilgrimage centre.  The critical faculties can mutter that such extravagance contradicts the exemplary austerity of the Master himself, but the heart knows that these are tokens of the faith and the love that sustains a spiritual tradition.  One should approach such places from the heart, not with the memory or the eye.

Looking backwards or looking outwards, the mind is overstimulated.  Images and perceptions collide: USAF fuel tanks (now water reservoirs) from the Vietnam era; Dhamma poems hanging off the trees; the main gate, a replica of the gate at Oaken Holt ( the house where the Sangha were staying in 1979) that impressed Luang Por when he visited Britain; a bell tower festooned with graceful Thai temple plasterwork; rickety kutis; and looking up at the ultra-modern Uposatha Hall, a large blue pottery owl in the style of the Isan.  Notions of the old and the new are obviously not to be clung to.

And then one notices the calm of the forest – no wind to rattle the dead leaves; no voices where forty monks and novices, and as many nuns pass their days; in the afternoons the rhythmic rustle of the sweeping chore; in the evening the absorptive trill of the insects.  The essentials don’t change. You contemplate the trees that punctuate the mind’s monologue with their ordinariness, their suchness, and you settle into practice.


Talks, Essays, Reflections