Roots of the Forest 2: Observance Day at Wat Pah Nanachat

(This was written in 1987: since then Ajahn Pasanno has moved on, to become abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in California. Luang Por Chah passed away in 1992; the current abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat is Ajahn Kevali; and Bung Wai village has upgraded its road. Observance Days however continue in much the same way.)

The sound of the bell resonates through the dark forest at 3 am, as usual. They may have been up already, walking in meditation in the cool of the night, or awash in the lands of dreams; but for the twenty or so residents of the monastery, the bell is a reminder that it is the time to begin another day at Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon Rajathani, N.E. Thailand. Soon it will be time for the morning puja and meditation for a couple of hours in the sālā before dawn. The date hardly matters: dawn occurs with only a few minutes’ variance throughout the year and the day follows a regular routine. As day breaks, we sweep the sālā in silence; the junior bhikkhus and the novices come with their own and the senior bhikkhus’ alms bowls; in three and fours we go out for alms. It’s another normal day for the Sangha. And for their supporters, the village folk of the Isahn, it’s another day with the land, the family, and the presence of Buddhist tradition.

So it is on January 13, 1987. It’s the cold season and the rice has been harvested. The flat paddy fields are going brown, and sunrise has a welcome warmth; people asleep in the wooden plank-walled houses huddle in blankets; men squat by the side of the road, heads swathed in cloth, warming themselves by fires of dead leaves and twigs; the breath of the buffaloes beneath the houses is smoky. To a European it seems cool and pleasant to file along the grit and dust roads (when your bare feet have toughened a little) and silently move through the waking village receiving morsels of sticky rice. Some of the people that you see kneeling before you with little rattan baskets of rice, you see every day, year in, year out; a little more wizened with time and the sun, faces either calm or cracked open in a toothy grin for a few words of greeting. It’s all rather strange to me, a visitor of a few weeks only; yet as I am wearing the dark ochre robe of the forest bhikkhu, and carrying the large alms bowl that can hold my belonging when travelling, the key factors of my identity are well-known and trusted by the villagers. They’ve got used to Westerners now: it’s been over twenty years since Phra Sumedho became the first Western disciple of Luang Por Chah and nearly thirteen since he became the first abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat –  the forest monastery for Western monks. Nowadays Ajahn Pasanno is the Abbot and he generally leads the pindabaht line through Bung Wai village with two or three other monks, and – uniquely in N.E. Thailand – one ten precept nun. Eight precept nuns wear white and the ten precept form is a rarity in Thailand, particularly in the conservative North-East; so Sister Sanghamitta in her ochre robe has been mistaken for a boy novice at times. A few eyebrows have been raised when this ‘novice’ sits with the womenfolk; however Luang Por’s disciples are held in great respect; and these are Westerners. Such factors smooth over any misunderstandings when tradition is enriched by practice.

Today is a little special, although conforming to ancient tradition. It is the Observance Day, Wan Phra in Thai, Poya Day in Sri Lanka, or  – if you use the Pali terms – the Uposatha Day. Such days occurring on each lunar quarter day were established as days for religious observance in Northern India before the time of the Buddha. They were days when people would observe the rituals and make sacrifices to the gods; and for such occasions a standard of moral conduct was adhered to by keeping the Eight Precepts, and symbolised by the wearing of white clothes. On such days religious wayfarers, ascetics, and yogis (known collectively as ‘samanas’) would also meet to debate on spiritual themes, often with the householders. The Buddha felt that at least two of these days – the full and new moons – would be suitable for his samana disciples to gather together. But the ‘sons of the Sakyans’ were great lovers of silence and meditation; householders received little instruction and King Bimbisara questioned as to why they sat ‘dumb, like hogs’ while the wanders of other sects expounded their doctrines the whole night long. ‘Monks, I allow you to talk on Dhamma’, proclaimed the Buddha, and later made such occasions times for the Sangha to recite the Pāṭimokkha – the principle guidelines of their training. It is from regular observances of this kind that the Buddha’s samana disciples evolved from a wandering sect into a monastic Order.

Nowadays in Thailand it is customary for devout Buddhists to take the Eight Precepts, wear white and spend the lunar quarter day in their local monastery. The Sangha presents a focus for such observances by receiving alms, giving the Precepts and teaching Dhamma, while in many monasteries bhikkhus, nuns and laity will spend the night of the Wan Phra meditating together. To idealise the lay people – or the monks – would be a falsehood, and it would take away some of the meaning of their practice. Encouraged by human beings’ recognition of human fallibility, something gracious appears in the world: a shared occasion for reflecting on and fully comprehending selflessness. Even the less devout may come out to give alms; or at least recognise the pre-eminence of the Holy Life. (I remember reading that onone Wesak Day, the most important Wan Phra of the year, the bars and parlours of Bangkok’s red-light district closed down for the day – well ‘little by little is the water jar filled.’) So Observance Days are the focal point of a relationship that uplifts the ideals of a society and keeps the religion in touch with the earth.

Having been travelling around the North-East for a month or so, I made a special determination to get back to Nanachat for the Uposatha Day. A mixture of bus rides and short walks (walking is difficult for bhikkhus in the devout Isan; it’s seldom that you can get more than a kilometre before someone offers a ride) took me from Sakorn Nakhon to Ubon on January 12 in time to shave my head and exchange news with Ajahn Pasanno. It was good to be back. Going to new places can give interesting reflections and present challenges, but for me the most useful practice occurs in the everyday and the normal. And nothing establishes my mind so much in the sense of the timeless norms of the Dhamma-Vinaya and the monastic life so well as the Pāṭimokkha recitation and the all-night vigil. Observance Days make a lot of sense for people living in the ‘go-out-and-grab-it-now!’ world, but even in the contemplative life one needs that reminder to step back from particular events and problems and see them as just part of the flow of life.

The first signs of the Uposatha Day (apart from the freshly shaven heads) is the presence of a lot more lay people in the monastery when we return from pindabaht around 7 am. There are always a few village women in the monastery at this time, preparing food to augment the pindabaht offerings, but on Wan Phra there must be more than thirty villagers in the big open-air kitchen near the sālā. Some are clad completely in white, but most have at least a white shirt over their workaday clothes, or a simple white wrap or sash worn over the left shoulder: as usual the women outnumbered the men fivefold. As the food becomes ready, it is brought into the sālā in one great enamel dish after another for an hour or more until everything and everyone is gathered together in the sālā for the offering. The dishes are then handed one at a time up to the senior monk on the raised platform; he takes a spoonful of the food and passes it down the line of monks. This procedure goes on for up to thirty dishes, so it trains you to know the measure of how much you need. Thinking about it takes too long, and is always biased by under- or over-estimation. Left in silence, the eye is a more astute judge.

This morning Ajahn Pasanno has been called over to Wat Pah Pong on Sangha business, so I am the senior monk. This is fine as far as chanting a blessing goes, but obviously it will be Venerable Nyanadhammo on my left who will be giving the Dhamma talk. So when all the food has been passed out amongst the monastic community, Venerable Nyanadhammo leaves the platform, gets up into the Dhamma seat, gives the Eight Precepts and talks on Dhamma fluently for another half an hour. It’s good to see an Australian bhikkhu and a group of Isan villagers – such cultural strangers – gathered together around the Buddha’s teachings. It’s also nice to know that after years of meditation, sitting with your daily meal beside you for an hour observing the proceedings without understanding a word doesn’t hurt a bit. Such are the small joys of patient practice – there will be many more I’m sure.

The congregation of about fifty villagers chant the morning puja in Thai and Pali while we eat, then go to the kitchen for their meal. When we have finished our meal, the junior monks and novices clean their own and the senior monks’ alms bowls, and we all take part in a general sweep-up. After cleaning up the kitchen, some of the villagers go home; most rest, meditate or do minor chores; and towards noon the monastery becomes still. Excepting Ajahn Pasanno – who has arrived back in the sālā after the meal – the residents go back to their kutis and get an hour or two’s rest. The Ajahn spends his noon break talking with local villagers or visitors (today it’s Sister Sanghamitta’s parents); and he’s still receiving guests in the sālā when the afternoon work begins at 2.30. Then it’s time to clean up the sālā and haul water from the well to supply the numerous water jars that are set around the forest for washing purposes. And so the day proceeds.

At four o’clock we gather in the downstairs of the Ajahn’s kuti for a hot drink before going over to Wat Pah Pong in an ex-Army truck. Luang Por Chah is critically ill, so it has become a regular practice for the Sangha to chant paritta outside his kuti. These visits offer us all a clear reflection. To be reminded of the fraility of existence – especially in the case of a beloved teacher – would be depressing if there were nothing beyond appearance; but the practice that Ajahn Chah has exemplified looks directly through life’s fragile surface to timeless peace. If you follow the teaching, there is serenity in the heart; if you don’t, your eyes mist with tears.

We return to Nanachat, as quietly as the darkening evening. There is time to bathe and then the bhikkhus pair off to acknowledge and clear any transgressions of the discipline before the Pāṭimokkha recitation. The Uposatha Hall is still in the process of being built, so the bhikkhus assemble upstairs in Ajahn Pasanno’s kuti. The recitation takes between forty-five minutes and an hour in conventional time; but for me each recitation is a summary of my life as a bhikkhu. In its chattering incomprehensible syllables, all personalities dissolve, and the group of monks become the Sangha; issues cool into material for contemplation; and after the recitation there’s talk on the practice of the religious life. The Pāṭimokkha is something you love as you would a father, even when you feel exasperated by the rules, irritated by the personalities of your spiritual companions, and disheartened by your shortcomings. I think it takes a lot of people that way – certainly there’s no shortage of bhikkhus who learn to recite it.

That evening Ajahn Pasanno talked on contentment with little; on the avoidance and abandoning of sorrow; and on the beauty of the Holy Life. I for one rejoiced at his words. They came from the heart and that’s where they went.

Meanwhile, the lay congregation are waiting for the Ajahn to give them the evening Dhamma talk. While we were absent, they have chanted the evening chanting (in Pali and Thai) and are now sitting in meditation: our return cues one of the village men to request a desanā. This time it’s Ajahn Pasanno who responds by getting up into the Dhamma seat, and the talk seems quite informal. He speaks rather slowly (understandable, considering he’s been talking the better part of the day) but the people are pleased. There are pauses and gentle laughter and remarks or questions coming back until nobody has anything more to say. Then the silence which has been drifting into the desanā is finally acknowledged: the lamps dim; the cool and darkness of the night enters through the huge glassless windows; and the monks, wrapping their robes around them, turn into silhouettes.

At midnight things take shape around a hot drink. People come in from walking meditation; heads that were drooping pick up; the mind moves into functional mode. Just hold your mug out and the monk carrying the kettle fills it with something hot, sweet and brown. An enamelled plate with small slabs of cheese makes its way down the line. The monks lean back a little and rest their backs against the wall or gently stretch. Slowly and softly Ajahn Pasanno mentions playing a tape of a talk of Ajahn Sumedho’s; a monk pads out and returns with a deck and some cassettes. How bright Ajahn Sumedho’s voice is! For an hour in our dark night, the sālā glows with warmth and light.

Then we are left alone in our minds, trying to leave our minds alone. When energy softens and subsides, the mind’s focus blurs and contemplation gets tricky. Instinct looks for something to hold on to. There is the welcome firmness of the ground beneath my feet when I practise walking meditation; but sitting in the sālā, the breath is too subtle; what to follow when it seems to fade out altogether? When thought gets fuzzy, who can know what they are doing? An inquiry weaves through the pattern of mind: snagged on patches of unkempt memory, challenged by renegade passions, turned aside by shambling dullness, it yet half remembers itself. The observing takes over. We persist, we practise patience; and even when the certainties mutiny, the ship remains on course. I keep opening my eyes to re-focus attention, and in those glimpses the inner perspective is confirmed: though most are bobbing in their moorings, people are still afloat. A lone mosquito comes to keep me company and provides something to focus on – arm … neck … wrist … cheek … But that goes too, and by three a.m. there’s just patience and surrender; and something that would not exchange that peace for all the happiness in the world.

The bell sounds and nothing happens. At four a.m. we begin the morning chanting (in Pali and Thai) this time borne along by the congregation as the voices climb and plunge – and occasionally blend. It’s perhaps not the most melodious chanting (and my toes sing their own laments after forty minutes of kneeling on them): however, the spirit is harmonious, to put it kindly – and what more can one ask for in the religious life? And how impeccably the lay people complete their observance! Led by one of the older men, they ask forgiveness from the Sangha for any wrong-doings or offences they may have caused, and then ask permission to leave the monastery. Another normal day is about to begin, and there is work to do … Ajahn Pasanno says a few words, and the villagers pay their respects and leave. The Sangha sits on until dawn in a benevolent afterglow: thus, our observance is completed in harmony. On the human plane, at this time, everything is All Right.

As the light returns, we sweep up: everybody knows what to do. The junior bhikkhus and the novices come with their own and the senior bhikkhus’ alms-bowls. In threes and fours we go out for alms. It’s a normal day. However, this evening there will be a fire lit in the monastery’s sauna.

Being human has its special joys.

Talks, Essays, Reflections