(This is an account of a trip that I made to Ko Sichang with Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako in December 1986. It was one part of a longer tudong that took us across N.E.Thailand. Ajahn Gavesko disrobed in 2013, much to everyone’s surprise, after years of working to support a charitable foundation for children in Thailand)
Siraja is not a particularly beautiful town. It’s part of that urban overspill to the east of Bangkok that flows along the coast through Samut Pakhan and down to Chonburi, oozing along in the wake of the oil and shipping developments around the Gulf of Thailand. Ajahn Gavesako and I had decided to go there as part of our tudong trip in order to get out to an island called Ko Sichang – The Island of the Noble Elephant. This would be around Christmas time, which like most festive occasions in Thailand, is very noisy, at least in the more Western-influenced cities. Accordingly, we planned to stay a night or two at a small monastery that Ajahn Gavesako knew, and then go out to the island for a few days of living very simply away from the hustle and bustle.
It seemed like a good idea: even before the festivities began, life in the city was noisy compared with the forests of the Isan The little monastery that we were staying in occupied a few acres squashed up against a hillside on the Outskirts of the city of Siraja; it wasn’t exactly in the heart of town, but it certainly wasn’t outside of it. There was a lot of noise from the streets and from Christmas music being played very loudly; so after the initial pleasantries with the resident monks, I for one was quite eager to get away. But of course one has to wait until someone gets to know of one’s wishes and offers to buy a ticket – which may take a few days.
So one evening we went down to the seafront and walked out to a small island that was connected to the mainland by a pier. Off this island there was one of those Chinese Buddhist temples of which there are very many in Thailand, which go in for the more ritualistic side of Buddhism. In order to obtain good fortune one can make offerings at shrines in such temples – to the Buddha or to one of the bodhisattvas, particularly to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, The One Who Listens to The Sounds Of The World, or Kwan Yin as she is known in Chinese. I must admit this supplication to divine agencies has never fitted in with my ideas about Buddhism; my mind kept turning away from the painted images and the decorative shrines to the sea, bathed in sunset gold. The serene horizon hinted of sublime planes, and I found myself more eager than ever to get out to a place where I could apply myself wholeheartedly to meditation.
By the next afternoon, unseen wheels had turned and we were able to get a ferry boat out to the island to Ko Sichang. We landed at a little harbour and walked along the coast of the island until we came to a more remote area. There we found a fantastic old ruined temple that had been built in the reign of King Mongkut. It wasn’t like the Chinese temple. Its very decay gave it a certain air of sanctity: there was a bodhi tree growing up through the roof, and the cracked walls inside were bare except for a few photographs of tudong bhikkhus like Venerable Ajahn Mun. To be in the presence Of such images of austerity and dedication to Dhamma practice was very encouraging. This was the right place, sure enough!
We walked on down to the rocky seashores the beaches and the sparkling water. We decided to make the best use of the situation by separating and practising on our own most of each day. I had resolved to fast for the five days that we’d be there, because whenever I fast then I find that there gives a clarity to my mind, and a greater refinement to my attention. The physical energies calm down and level out and there is less need to sleep.
The weather was beautiful. December in Thailand a lovely time of year, hot but not stuffy and sticky: and then being on an island there were pleasant breezes’ so it was quite idyllic. At night it was, warm and balmy and I would sit underneath the measure stars meditating with the moon as my only companion. Time stretched itself out and went to rest…
After a few days of this I was getting pretty blissed out, Then, I think it was on the third day, I came across a beautiful old wooden palace structure that was half burnt down, set in grounds with frangipani trees – and that was quite amazing! I was near the ruined temple, and exploring further I found a cave which opened into the ground. You could walk down inside this great cleft in the ground, which then opened out to reveal long galleries where one could do walking meditation, and niches in the rock where you could sit and meditate. Then you could go down even further until you couldn’t see or hear anything; so you could be completely enfolded in the earth’s womb. A hermit’s dream!
I thought, ‘This is amazing, this is really wonderful!’ And it was the day of the full moon. I immediately constructed the evening confrontation with Mara: I was near the ruined temple so I could sit there with the image of Ajahn Mun, or I could go down into the cave and practise, or I could do walking meditation out under the frangipani trees with the coal evening breezes blowing and the full moon beaming down. ‘This is it,’ I thought, ‘This is going to be the night when I really get into some samādhi.’
I was feeling very light, almost skipping up the slope with expectation, when I noticed some people. They were all dressed in white; then I recognized that it was one of the anagārikas from the monastery in Siraja we’d been staying at, and he had some laywomen with him who were also dressed in white. I quickly realized that, they must have come to see us; but I didn’t want to be bothered with polite conversation – particularly as I couldn’t speak the language. However, they’d seen me: I couldn’t ignore that, so I decided to make the best of it, come over, be nice, and hopefully it wouldn’t last too long. We sat down by a big bodhi tree outside the ruined temple and they had one of those refrigerated boxes with some Coca Cola in it so I accepted a bottle and drank some. They started asking questions and talking and I couldn’t get very much of what they were saying. I just smiled and said I didn’t understand, and thought that sooner or later Ajahn Gavesako would happen along. Then he would talk to them, and I could go off and sit and get into some samādhi.
But somewhere in the back of my mind was an anxious voice: ‘Why have they come? I wonder what’s up?’
Then Ajahn Gavesako came along. I sat with him for a while, but he seemed quite at ease listening and talking to them, so I thought: ‘Well I’ll just move off.’ I started to slip away: but as I was slipping away he turned around and said: ‘Oh, Tan Sucitto, pack your bag, will you – we’re going back.’
My mind stopped: ‘Back, what?’ He said, ‘We’re going back to Siraja.’ And I said, ‘What for? What are we going back for?’ Suddenly my evening of samadhi dropped away. ‘Oh, they’ve invited us.’ I looked at him questioningly, and he added. ‘I don’t know what for. It doesn’t matter. They’ve invited us we’d better go. It wouldn’t be polite to refuse.’
At that point something in me stopped. I turned around and walked off and went to where my bowl bag was and packed my alms bowl with my mind going: ‘What do they want? What are we doing? I suppose we’re going back to chant something or another, do some silly ritual. Why can’t we stay here? We came here for a few days. We were going to go back in a couple of days anyway. We came here for a few days to practise and now we’ve got to go back to the town. What for? What do they want?’ But I knew enough to recognize that resistance in the mind and not to follow it. So I packed my bag. We walked back from that haven to a road where they’d got a motorbike taxi to give us a ride out to the little harbour village. We waited there. I stared glumly at the sea, and then when the ferry came we all packed into it. The boat lingered for a few minutes, then turned and carried us away from the Noble Elephant back to the reeking harbour of Siraja.
We returned to the temple in the city not knowing what for. I went to my kuti, unpacked my bag and sat there waiting for something to happen. And I sat and waited: and nothing happened except the sounds of the city swelled as the duskfall turned into night. Sounds of the traffic, sounds of the world – and I had to listen to it as night turned into day. And it being Christmas Eve and Thai people, Christians as well as Buddhists, enjoying loud music, there were lots of loud Christmas songs in English. Perhaps it was because they were in English that it didn’t seem to matter what they were. In English it didn’t seem to matter what they were about, because they weren’t even Christmas Carols you could be inspired by. What came rolling into my kuti was christmas Muzak, like ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ – again and again. I sat there in the night and I sat there in the morning: listening, waiting and listening to ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, remembering the full moon, the ruined temple, Ajahn Mun and samādhi.
But I did listen, and something in me got the point. Something in me stopped resisting and became at one with the way things are ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is quite a reasonable song actually, when you listen to it a few times; it’s got a moral to it. And when something in me let go and listened to the sounds of the world, it seemed there was a vibrant silence behind it all. That silence behind the sound of the world seemed to encompass and listen to everything. Profound or petty or inane, no sound could stain the silence of the listening mind: and in that acceptance was timeless compassion.
Nobody came for us; nor did anyone come to take us anywhere. They didn’t want me to give a talk, do any chanting, bless anything, go anywhere, or say anything. Maybe they were worried that we were getting lonely. Perhaps they thought we weren’t getting enough to eat, I expect the whole event arose out of compassion. But in the end I was grateful. Whatever the Law or compassionate Bodhisattva that arranges these events – I have a lot to thank them for. They’ve always managed to catch me out; always turned me away from my attachments, and ideas of practice, and made me listen to the way things are. Their emissaries are everywhere. They never let up.
And perhaps I learnt something about the Noble Elephant, the symbol of Dhamma practice. The Buddha himself is likened to the elephant: it’s the symbol of the unstoppable aspiration to nibbāna that keeps going through anything. It is with such an aspiration that a tudong monk establishes his practice – he inclines to be enduring, to be resilient, and to be tested by wild and lonely places. In fact for me it’s always been a great pleasure to go to remote places, where I could be alone and independent. Yet I’ve also noticed that when I interpret the aspiration too literally, a mahout climbs on the back of the Noble Elephant. This mahout is always saying things like: ‘I’m going to get into jhāna tonight. This is the real place for practice, if I could stay in this place forever, I’d really develop.’ And he’s always asking the practice to come up with something fancy; like a mahout that wants his elephant to dance and prance and perform tricks. He’s always been a burden, this mahout; and as long as he’s driving the elephant I’ve never felt that satisfied, even in blissful circumstances. Instead, my attitudes get caught up in trying to prove or attain or hold on to something – a rather self-conscious striving that finally does not lead to coolness, detachment or liberation.
Of course, when one lives as a bhikkhu there are chances to undertake austerities and live alone sometimes, but the basic standard always entails a relationship with the society. The life is one of dependence; it’s an interface. Yet if the Buddha established the bhikkhu life for liberation, then we should trust the opportunity for selflessness that it presents. It’s a bumpy ride at times, but I’ve learned to appreciate the tests of Sangha life, and the enigmatic compassion of the Way It Is: they always create predicaments where I have to let go of my self-interest.
When I came down from my kuti on Christmas Eve morning, Ajahn Gavesako was reading a newspaper. ‘It says here there’s four babies born in the world every second!’ ‘Better get used to being with people.’ I commented.
Sometimes we need austerities, sometimes we need isolation, and sometimes it takes a Red-Nosed Reindeer to awaken us from ourselves.