[Note: if you want to stay at Wat Pah Nanachat yourself, please see this page for instructions as to how to set that up]
I just finished a two week stay at Wat Pah Nanachat monastery, here in Thailand.
Quoting Wikipedia, Wat Pah Nanachat (spelled วัดป่านานาชาติ in Thai, and meaning “International Forest Monastery”) is situated in a small forest in north-east Thailand about ten miles outside of the city of Ubon Rachathani. The eminent Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah established the monastery in 1975 to serve as a training community for the many Europeans, Americans, and other non-Thais who were pursuing study with him along traditional Thai Forest monastic lines at his famous Thai-language Wat Nong Pah Pong monastery. Wat Pah Nanachat’s monks, novices and postulants include a wide range of nationalities, but the primary language of communication and instruction is English.
Some people reading this may be familiar with the wonderful English monk Ajahn Amaro, who, for years, would give monthly inspiring, amusing, and engaging Dharma talks in downtown Berkeley. He lived and studied at WPN for a couple years in the seventies.
This was my meditation/residential structure (called a kuti) at Wat Pah Nanachat (or, as I called it, “What Banana Shot”). It was apparently assigned as a temporary residence to visitors who wished to participate in WPN’s monastic life.
At the base of the stilts it stood on were little disks filled with thick black oil, so as to keep ant swarms out. The building was rough and simple – I could see the ground bellow through cracks in the floorboards, and I usually meditated indoors on top of the bedroll and under the mosquito net, so that all the swarming insects inside would not get at me.
My kuti from the side farther from the main path. I was located near the central area of the monastery, where the sala (chanting/lecture/meditation hall), the kitchen, the office, and other such buildings were.
This was fortunate, since we woke up at three am each morning, and I had only a short way to go, stumbling over gnarled tree roots in the dark, to walk through the back entrance of the large meditation pavilion, back grab a cushion, and take my place at the back of the hall, for two and a half hours of meditating and chanting in the cool night air.
After that, as the sun came up, we either went on food begging rounds or swept the paths, and then ate our one meal of the day. Most days, from then on, we had the rest of the day unscheduled. The expectation is that we would use that time for individual meditation.
The porch of my kuti was peaceful to sit on and meditate, with my gaze aimed towards the pulsating, verdant jungle – only when the mosquitoes weren’t out.
One thing I learned at WPN was that many Thai monks who meditate five or ten hours a day actually spend more of that time walking than they do sitting. Many of the monks will even memorize scriptures or do their chanting while slowly walking back and forth on their hut’s walking meditation path.
I was happy to learn this. I have always thought of walking meditation as more how it seems to be in Japanese-lineage Zen temples, something that we do just as a short mindful break to stretch our legs, before getting back to sitting. Thinking in terms of being allowed to walk as much as I feel is appropriate makes the life that the Thai forest monks engage in, meditating many hours a day for years on end, seem less daunting.
The path pictured was behind my kuti. It felt peaceful to go back and forth on; perhaps I was picking up the deep vibes from all of the past meditators who had walked on this path before me.
Me doing walking meditation on one of the paths at WPN. Lay people staying in the monastery wore white. They had me borrow these comfortable blue-white pajama-like clothes from a bin of em that they had. I’m a walking meditation rebel here : my hands are in a Japanese Zen walking meditation mudra (hand position), not the Thai Theravada mudra that the monks at WPN recommended.
Wat Pah Nanachat went on for a couple miles back from the main area. A few of the monks lived in kutis back in the jungle, long peaceful paths away from the main area – a nice walk for me in the warm breezy afternoon, maybe not so nice for them, in the dark cold night, as they strode through the jungle at three am on their way to morning meditation.
Some of the residents for the senior monks, way back in the jungle, were actually somewhat nice little multi-room brick houses, with electricity and running water.
Another long Wat Pah Nanachat jungle path.
And, still another long Wat Pah Nanachat jungle path
Me, on the path
Since the monastery gets food that is already cooked donated on the begging rounds, there was not much actual productive work that needed to be done at WPN. One day, in preparation for a conference, all of us spent a day cleaning leaves off the roofs of a cluster of usually-unused huts (it turned out to be fun and chat to work with the normally serious and silent monks). And, every other day, I cleaned a block of showers (although I was the only one using any of them, and they probably did not need to be cleaned that often).
We did do a lot of raking of leaves – up to 2.5 hours a day. I think that all that raking was less that the paths needed to be spotlessly clean every single day, and more as a meditation exercise. Raking (which I’ve done a lot in other monasteries, too) can be seen as a way to transfer mindfulness and balanced open awareness from sitting still into a simple repetitive exercise. It’s difficult to remain mindful while reading, talking, driving, etc., but comparatively easy to do so while chopping vegetables, sweeping and raking,cutting wood, etc. – which is probably one reason why Eastern and Western monasteries for centuries have emphasized such simple, repetitive, manual labor tasks.
Me on front of the main altar in the main sala (hall) at Wat Pah Nanachat. During meditation periods, the senior monks sat directly in front of the altar, facing it.
That picture is from the internet, not from WPN (all the Thai visitors to WPN wore formal outfits – all white for men, white tops and navy blue skirts for women). But this picture does show women sitting in “pubpeab” posture, which is how the the monks and the Thais would sit at WPN for meditation, chanting, and lectures.
I found sitting in pubpeab to be unpleasant. After five or ten minutes of sitting that way, my lower back/sacrum, on the sides that my legs were going, began to hurt, as my torso compressed down on it. As a meditation posture, pubpeab goes contrary to basic principles of symmetry and avoiding compressing any nerves – the posture seemed like it was asking for sciatic problems.
One website I encountered however said:
Pubpeab is the polite, traditional way to sit in Thailand, which Thais always do at temples, in front of Buddha images, with monks, with their boss, and to show respect to anyone older than them.
As a westerner, when I moved to Bangkok a decade ago and began teaching at a Thai high school, Pubpeab was something I learned to do quickly. It involves sitting on the floor in a type of kneeling position, your body facing forward and your legs curved behind you at the knee, so the soles of your feet are always facing to the back (having feet facing forward in Thailand is not polite).
Personally, I don’t find Pubpeab to be a comfortable way to sit. It seems to contort your body in an unnatural shape, at least for a foreigner. For Thais though, brought up in sitting in a Pubpeab position for hours, it is as natural and comfortable as any other posture.
Every morning, the monks went out, barefoot, for about ninety minutes to the poor villages around the monastery to do “pindupot”. I had the privilege of being food-carrier for the monks a couple mornings. It was a trip, all these people getting down on their knees to offer the best food they had to the monks. I have never seen a Buddhist center so integrated into, and dependent on, its surrounding community. While the monks were begging, some li’l old local ladies cooked up raw ingredients from previous mornings into colorful curries and stews (not sure if they got paid or not).
When the monks got back with the food, there was this frenzied sorting process, as the food was laid out in an ornate fashion. It would usually be quite a spread, by the end of it all. Then we would line up to take our food in our bowls – monks first, in descending order of seniority, then the semanaras (monk novices), then the pakows (prospective monks), then us (resident lay people – seen here), then the Thai villagers.
The food was often delicious (sliced and peeled fresh fruit, big steaming bowls of fried rice), and I appreciated the generosity of the supporting community. But much of food also looked kind of dodgy – for example, Issan (North East Thailand) cuisine is big on fermented (rotting) fish juice as a seasoning, and also eating beetles. Also, much of the food I ate at the monastery, like the more cleaned-up Thai food in American restaurant, had so much sugar in it, so so so much sugar.
When I visited, there were not any senior monks in residence at WPN who I felt drawn to as teachers. However, a former abbot of the monastery, an Englishman who goes by Ajahn Jayasaro, visited for a few days while I was there, and he did feel like a teacher I would love to learn more from. He seemed to me like perhaps the most clear and spiritually liberated practitioner of Theravadin Buddhism that I have ever met. Eye contact with him was intense, kind and accepting yet burning and boring though.
Apparently, many westerners would like to study with him. But, in gratitude for the Thai culture that spawned forth the forest Buddhist lineage he loves so much, he spends his days now mostly running large retreats for Thais.
He answered a question I asked (about the legitimacy of meditation techniques) in a way that I loved, and that seemed true to my experience. He replied that, as far as he is concerned, there is no one set of legitimate meditation techniques, and that it is perfectly fine to come up with new, self-created meditation techniques, as long as we can honestly say that we experience increased awareness, clarity, detachment, equanimity, and liberation when we practice them.
Me with two pakows – postulant monks. They wear white, because they are not yet accepted into ordination.
On the left is Les – came from Texas, had an intense combat history with the US Army, former biker, had explicative-filled tattoos. On the right is Collum – a young Canadian lad who did all of his monk tasks more than perfectly, with a great enthusiastic attitude, and seemed to sometimes drive Les CRAZY with his clean cut perfection.
I liked em both. Most of the actual monks at WPN were not too friendly – they seemed quite inwardly focused on their own monkish lives, were busy with much to do, and, like many relatively newbie Buddhist monastics, may have had a feeling of superiority to mere civilians and our relatively lazy lives. But Les and Collum were quite helpful to me while I was there. They helped me to understand how things worked and where things were, and we also had some great chats about the Buddha Way.
Les, me, Collum
Me and Lien Tieng, who came to Thailand from Taiwan because he wanted a more rigorous Buddhist practice than he could find in Taiwan. I admired him for, at the age of forty, coming to an English language monastery for a three month visit, arriving knowing zero English. He spoke enough to get by, when I met him.
Me and Derek, a friendly fun dude from South Africa who came to stay at the monastery for a week. He’s not wearing the white pajamas, cuz he was about to leave.
Derek with Venerable Nyaniko, the monk who was the liaison for us layman visitors.
The monks at WPN live a rigorous life – they do not ingest any drugs alcohol or other intoxicants, they enjoy no movies music or other entertainment, they sleep on the hard floor, they get up from sleep at three am each day (after lying down at about ten – and some of them sleep sitting up), they never touch money, they eat one meal a day, they have no contact of any sort with women and no sexual activity of any type, they let mosquitoes bite them, they do not kill insects or any other life form, they spend long hours memorizing long chants and scriptures, they sleep out in the open jungle during three months of the year, and they never have a day off from any of it. Also, their robes were made from cast-off scraps, and dyed brown in an ancient manner that involved boiling tree wood for three days, and their flimsy robes were all they wore, no matter what the temperature was.
Their lifestyle may seem extreme, and needlessly austere, to many people reading this. But, when I have lived and practiced in monastic environments, I have appreciated the positive power of renunciation. Cutting myself off from pleasures and distractions has helped me to see the way my mind works, and to be able to work with and clear up deep seated negative emotional patterns I might have been distracted from noticing otherwise.
In the history of Indian religion, many holy men have engaged in greater austerities than the monks of WPN do – cutting off limbs, standing on one leg for years, for example – in the name of attenuating attachment to the impurity of this world. In the story of the Buddha’s life, it is said that he tried austerity practices for a while, and indeed almost starved himself to death at one point. After he saw that such self-mortification had not brought about enlightenment, though, the Buddha developed the philosophy of called the majjhimā paṭipadā, translated as “The Middle Way” or “The Middle Path”. The idea here is that spiritual practice goes fastest when one practices neither indulgence in sense pleasures, nor self-destructive self-mortification.
The rules for monks that were apparently created by the Buddha and enacted by his direct followers are called the vinaya. The vinaya, which consists of about 250 or so regulations, may be considered austere by modern standards (for example, the rule to not ever touch money, and to not come within three feet of a woman). Most Theravada monks (in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia) follow the vinaya, often strictly, however, as do most ordained Chinese and Koreans. Japanese and Tibetan ordained Bhuddhists usually do not follow the vinaya (for example, some of them have wives, some of them eat meat, and some of them drink alcohol).
There is an additional set of austerities for Buddhist monks, known as the dhutanga, which are practiced in a addition to the vinaya, and are stricter still, and which the monks at WPN attempted to follow. Dhutanga is designed to further to “break a monk’s energetic entanglement with the dream of this life”, and there is some debate whether dhutanga breaks the spirit of the Middle Way, by going too far in the direction of austerity. Apparently, though, the set of practices have a history stretching back to the earliest days of Buddhism.
I found inspiration in how the monks of WPN lived. It seems like they were purifying themselves of their attachments of mind at a tremendous rate – being willing to face the difficulties of their life directly, working out their resistance to how life is just as it ism and relaxed on the most fundamental level even as they faced great hardships.
It made me wonder if such a lifestyle is for me. I’ve lived in a strict monastic environment for up to eight months straight and found it to be an immensely positive experience. Could I do live that way for five years, or for forty? I do not want to, because I feel certain that I want to have children. And I certainly would have a very hard time living and practicing Buddhism at WPN, because people with blood-sugar hypoglycemia problems are supposed to eat four to six small, sugarless meals a day – and not, as the monks at WPN did, one single Thai-curry sugar-filled meal. While I was there, my blood sugar would sometimes drop so low late in the day that I could barely form coherent thoughts.
All that said, again – I felt inspired by how the monks at WPN lived.
Colum told me that the WPN monks spend three months out of the calendar year living in a traditional “Thai Forest” way, sleeping under trees in the open jungle in West Thailand. Those months sounded like even more difficult of a lifestyle than the monks’ already difficult WPN life.
He told me a story about, a few years back, while on jungle forest retreat, one of the monks, a European, who was walking on a path when he suddenly found a growling adult tiger on either side of him. This monk apparently wet himself in terror, but also managed to have the presence of mind, and the momentum of Buddhist practice, to calm down and wish loving-kindness on the tigers. After he did, the big cats apparently sniffed him and then sauntered away.
Colum interpreted that the tigers’ lack of attack as evidence that they had felt the monk’s good vibes, and had been pacified by them. The Buddhist tradition is full of mythological stories with a similar plot, for example the monstrous “nagaraj” (king of snakes) who was so impressed by the Buddha’s goodness that it used its cobra hood to shade him from the sun while he meditated.
I felt that indeed it could perhaps have been that the monk’s calm and kindness won the tigers over. Or, I thought, perhaps the tigers didn’t see the human as potential food. Or perhaps he was just lucky.
Regardless, the man apparently disrobed and returned to Europe as soon as he could. I can’t say as I blame him.
Big gecko in the bathroom rafters.
As part of dhutanga practice, WPN was intentionally built over a charnal ground. The reasoning for this is, I think, something about keeping the inevitability of death close in mind, giving the monks some tricky spooked-out feelings to meditate on, and purifying the karma of the deceased through positive spiritual vibes.
Anyway, at one point, I was telling Derek about a story about the “haunted hut”, way at the back of the monastery property, where people experienced strange events, a hut that even the most eminent masters would refuse to stay more than a night in. All of a sudden, in the middle of my story, this unearthly wailing noise filled the room. We both jumped, eyes wide.
Then, one of the young monks, sitting by a portrait of an old master, pulled back the picture, to reveal a big fat gecko, croaking his lizardy lungs out. COINCIDENCE?