To the Northeast (Monday, November 14)
It was now the middle of November, and Wat Pa Pong, the monastery where Jayanto had spent the previous vassa (or pansa, or rains retreat) was about to hold its Kathina, which he was expected to attend.
Wat Pa Pong was founded by Ajahn Chah, the Thai monk who trained the leaders of Jayanto's community. During his years as abbot at Wat Pa Pong, he attracted so many Western followers who became monks that eventually he asked an American monk named Sumedho (soo-MAY-doe), the most senior of these, to found another monastery just for them. That was the origin of Wat Pa Nanachat, which is just a couple of miles from Wat Pa Pong. Ajahn Chah was also responsible for starting the community in England where Jayanto and Punnyo were ordained. Invited to Britain in the late 1970s by English Buddhists who wanted a monastery there, he took with him some English and American monks and left them behind to establish the community. One of these was Ajahn Sumedho, who has been its chief abbot and spiritual leader ever since. Because of this kinship, Wat Pa Nanachat is a kind of official headquarters for monks from the western monasteries who are living in Thailand. However, in keeping with the forest-monk tradition, they are not obliged to stay at WPN but are free to wander as they will — although they do of course observe the rule, which applies to monks of all traditions, that they must stay in one place during the rainy season.
Ajahn Chah is greatly revered in Thailand, and a year after his death in 1992, the cremation of his body (at Wat Pa Pong) was attended by Thai royalty, many wealthy and powerful Thais, and monastic representatives from all over Thailand and the West. He came from a poor farming family in the Isaan (EE-sahn), Thailand's northeastern section, which is the poorest place for agriculture — and therefore the poorest place — in the country. It is separated from Laos by the Mekong River, but Lao and Thai are such closely related languages that Thais and Laos can more or less understand both. Ethnically, Isaan natives are mostly Lao, and Lao is the common language there, although for political reasons it is called the Isaan dialect of Thai, and the government has (in the past at least) chosen to blur ethnic distinctions.
Although the Isaan is dry compared to the rest of Thailand, rice farming does go on there, and it's one of the last places in Thailand where you often see water buffalo. We saw a good many, but Jayanto told us that there are far fewer buffalo in the Isaan now than when he first arrived in 1997. They're being replaced by small gasoline engines that a farmer can attach to a plow at planting time and use for other purposes (such as pumping water in and out of rice paddies) at other times. Water buffalo, by contrast, are useful to the farmer only for plowing, but they need food all year round. (Except at plowing time the buffalo enjoy a life of ease, with nothing to do but eat, sleep, and increase and multiply.)
Wat Pa Pong and Wat Pa Nanachat are located near Ubon Ratchathani, a large city that experienced a major growth spurt in the 60s because it was near a big American air force base. Thus are the blessings of democracy spread.
We flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, where we changed planes to fly to Ubon. (Thailand being a much smaller country than ours, none of our domestic flights took more than an hour or so.) Waiting for the plane in Bangkok, Jayanto and Punnyo met a couple of other monks from their community who were on their way to the same monasteries. At the Ubon airport we were met by Jayanto's good friend Tan S, who was at the moment (the abbot being away) the senior monk in residence at Wat Pa Nanachat. A supporter in Ubon had made a van and driver available, so there was room for all of us, monks and laity, to ride in style. We were to stay at WPN, where Dorothea and I had the use of a house built at the edge of the monastery grounds by Khun D, our Chiang Mai benefactress. She uses it when visiting the monastery, and at other times Thai and western guests, including monks' parents, are welcome to stay there.
The monasteries are several miles from the city, and as Dorothea and I would be unable to get an evening meal at Wat Pa Nanachat, we stopped first at a Seven-Eleven for packets of ramen noodles and then at a food stall for some prepared food, which Tan S kindly helped Dorothea to order.
At Wat Pa Pong, we stopped to pay respects at the chedi where Ajahn Chah's remains are entombed, and found that the current abbot, Ajahn Liem ("LEE-emm") was in the main temple building (a modern, open-sided sala) and willing to receive a visit from us. Jayanto admires him greatly and had urged us to bring gifts for him, which we did — chief among them a top-of-the-line Leatherman tool that includes almost everything but a lathe. Aj. Liem is a "building abbot" who, Jayanto told us, creates the designs for buildings in his head and keeps them there, issuing specific instructions without writing down a plan. Everything, he said, comes out perfectly. Though by no means young, the abbot also participates actively in the construction work. Aj. Liem gave us a short talk about the best way to live one's life, which Tan S translated for us as he went along, and a German monk recorded the talk and later presented it to us on a CD. I was personally grateful that the abbot's talk hadn't been a long one, for I was having problems with sitting on the floor. I couldn't have used a chair even if one had been available, because in Thailand no layperson ever stands or sits — at least not on formal visits like the present one — with his head higher than that of a monk.
When we moved on to Wat Pa Nanachat and Khun D's house, we found that some recent guests had left it in rather a mess and that the caretaker hadn't been in to clean. But with a little help from our son and his friends, we got the place into acceptable shape and did our best to bridge the gap between the Thai and American notions of bedroom furniture. Our bedroom, when we arrived, contained only a clothes rack. Thais customarily sit on the floor and — at a monastery — sleep there too, with only a mat intervening. The house, which is spacious, had a good many of these inch-thick mats to accommodate the many Thai guests who share the space during holidays and festivals. Each of us piled up several mats to sleep on, and the result was comfortable enough, although so close to the floor that I couldn't rise to a standing position without a thoroughly undignified scramble. We also borrowed a chair and table from the ground floor.
The ground floor — to be more accurate, the screened-in space between the posts holding up the floor where the bedrooms were — had, besides the kitchen, a large sitting area with two wooden sofas and a few big wooden chairs surrounding a low table. It was a good place to read or to talk with visitors, of whom we had quite a few during our three days. We were as comfortable there as the hot, damp climate would allow, despite the partial absence of western amenities. The shower was only intermittently willing to produce hot water — but cold water, fortunately for us, is not as cold in Thailand as it is in Massachusetts, so we were able to keep ourselves respectably clean without suffering any traumatic experiences.
Tours and Visits (Tuesday, November 15)
The morning after our arrival we attended the ceremony of offering the morning meal in the Wat Pa Nanachat's large main sala, or meeting hall. Jayanto had put a chair for me in the middle of the hall, and Dorothea sat on the floor beside it. The abbot and most of the monks were away visiting an affiliated monastery in Chiang Mai province. Tan S had been left in charge as the most senior monk on the scene, but Tan Punnyo was senior to him and Tan Jayanto had greater seniority than either. So the first thing that happened, after the monks had filed in and taken their places on a platform that ran down one side of the sala, was that all of the dozen or so monks present came forward and bowed to each of them, in order of seniority, to welcome them to the monastery. We all sat while the monks filed out with their bowls, which they filled from platters laid out on a stone table outside. When they returned to the sala, they chanted, as is customary after a meal has been offered and received — not to express explicit thanks to the offerers, but to praise generosity and its positive effects in the universe.
It was now the laity's turn to eat. We went outside to the stone table, where there was still plenty of food. A Thai man, walking up and down one side, had been briskly waving a fly whisk to protect it. The men filed down one side of the table, the women down the other. Long-term residents went first, followed by short-term guests and local supporters. At the head of the men's line were the "pa kaws," who have made a commitment to stay for a significant period of time and taken certain vows. They are dressed all in white. Many go on to become monks. The women's line is usually headed by the nuns, called "mae chees," but during our visit the mae chees insisted that Dorothea, as the mother of a monk, go before them. Mae chees are usually older women, often widowed, who choose to live in monasteries and devote themselves to serving the monks. At WPN, all the women residents live in a corner of the monastery grounds reserved for them.
The mae chees and lay residents of Wat Pa Nanachat had prepared most of the food on the table, which was varied, delicious, and vegetarian. The rest had been given to the monks on their morning pindabat, and included bits of meat or fish here and there, as well as sticky rice, an Isaan staple. (The red-hot peppers that flavored many of the dishes are another Isaan staple. Actually, they're popular with all Thais, and westerners who aren't used to a lot of spice must taste cautiously and order with care wherever they go.) The kitchen had been informed of our need for an evening meal, and one of the mae chees presented Dorothea with a multilayered container — a sort of four-story dinner pail — full of food set aside from the morning meal.
After the meal, Jayanto gave us a tour of the monastery. Because so few monks were present, we didn't have to be too careful about avoiding areas where women don't usually go. At 11, a ride was available to Wat Pa Pong, and he showed us around there. Monks' kutis were scattered here and there along the forest paths, and (unlike our experience at Wat U Mong in Chiang Mai) he had no problem pointing out the one he had occupied during the recently ended vassa. As the picture shows, it was large and fairly new — at least a three-star accommodation by monastic standards.
Because of Ajahn Chah's fame, Wat Pa Pong attracts numerous visitors from all over Thailand — so many that the monastery might sometimes be completely overrun, to the detriment of the contemplative quiet that is a forest monastery's reason for existence. To prevent this from happening, a museum dedicated to Ajahn Chah and his teachings has been built in a peripheral area. Guests can visit Ajahn Chah's chedi and the museum without intruding on those monks who wish to meditate in solitude. As sometimes happens in Thai monasteries, WPP has occasionally been given animals whose owners can no longer care for them, and in this way the wat has acquired a pair of ostriches. Their pen is another peripheral attraction for guests for whom a visit to a wat is a holiday outing as well as a religious experience.
The day was very hot (nothing unusual about that), and we were both exhausted by the time the tour was over. We got a ride back to Wat Pa Nanachat, but Jayanto remained at Wat Pa Pong for the Kathina ceremony, which was to begin that evening and continue to the next day. (There was to be a full moon the following night, and it's customary at Theravada Buddhist monasteries to sit up all night meditating and chanting at such times, even when there isn't a major festival. This has more to do with the Asian tradition of following a lunar calendar than with any special Buddhist religious feelings about the moon.) Neither of us felt up to an all-night ceremony that would be attended by 500 monks and thousands of lay people, and Jayanto had told us that he couldn't see any reason for us to go.
Some but not all of the monks at WPN went to WPP for the Kathina. Tan Punnyo, who didn't go, accepted responsibility for us in our son's absence and escorted us from our quarters to the sala each morning. Since the route led over forest paths that forked here and there, we were grateful for the guidance. Anyone who walks those paths at night must carry a flashlight and use it diligently, for one of the world's most poisonous snakes, the banded krait, lives in the area. It isn't aggressive, but does bite when stepped on, a misfortune that can easily happen in the dark. In the daylight, one often sees solid lines of ants crossing the path, moving very rapidly. They don't like to be interrupted, and if one inadvertently sets a foot in the line and doesn't remove it very quickly, the ants attack fiercely. Some species give especially painful bites. Because of my sandal troubles at the beginning of the trip, I was always wearing shoes, so I was in less danger than Dorothea, who had on sandals, or any of the monks, all of whom wear sturdy rubber flipflops. Because we didn't go out at night, the ants were the greatest danger we needed to worry about, but we certainly did keep our eyes on the path. This made it a little more difficult to take note of our general surroundings, and was one of the reasons why we were glad to be guided even after we'd made the same trip a couple of times.
In the evening, Tan Punnyo dropped in to keep us company. Two other monks also came, one British and one American. We talked about linguistics, Irish names, the American Revolution, Scotch-Irish immigration, and much else, and passed a very pleasant evening together.
This section last updated 3-5-2007