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An American adapting to monastic life

Q: Ajahn, you are an American that ended up in the North East of Thailand as a Buddhist monk in the 1960's. Can you share some of your experiences?

A: Being an American brought up with an egalitarian ideal of freedom and equality, I felt an incredible frustration in being suffocated by the system (Vinaya- the strict monastic codes). I was living in an hierarchical structure based on seniority. Because I was the most junior monk there, I had to perform certain duties for those who were senior to me.

Learning to acknowledge and to take an interest in performing them was quite a challenge. There was a selfish side in me that wanted to liveamonastic life on my own terms. I was willing to perform duties if it was convenient for me, but much of the time it wasn't. I felt a kind of resistance and rebelliousness.

(Answers extracted from an article "Life is Like This" By Ajahn Sumedho www.forestsangha.org.)

Q: For example?

A: The custom of washing the feet of the senior monks when they returned from the almsround. After they walked barefoot through the villages and rice paddies, their feet would be muddy. There were foot baths outside the dining hall. When Ajahn Chah would come, all the monks--maybe twenty or thirty of them--would rush out and wash Ajahn Chah's feet.

When I first saw this I thought, 'I'm not going to do that--not me!' Then the next day, thirty monks rushed out as soon as Ajahn Chah appeared and washed his feet--I thought, 'What a stupid thing to be doing--thirty monks washing one man's feet. I'm not going to do that.'

The day after that, the reaction became even more violent... thirty monks rushed out and washed Ajahn Chah's feet and... 'That really angers me, I'm fed up with it! I just feel that is the most stupid thing I've ever seen--thirty men going out to wash one man's feet! He probably thinks he deserves it, you know--it's really building up his ego. He's probably got an enormous ego, having so many people wash his feet every day. I'll never do that!'

I was beginning to build up a strong reaction, an overreaction. I would sit there really feeling miserable and angry. I'd look at the monks and I'd think, 'They all look stupid to me. I don't know what I'm doing here.'

(Answers Extracted from "The Four Noble Truths" by Ajahn Sumedho.)

Q: Ajahn, those were pretty strong feelings?

A: Yes indeed. But then I started listening and I thought, 'This is really an unpleasant frame of mind to be in. Is it anything to get upset about? They haven't made me do it. It's all right; there's nothing wrong with thirty men washing one man's feet. It's not immoral or bad behaviour and maybe they enjoy it; maybe they want to do it--maybe it's all right to do that... Maybe I should do it!'

So the next morning, thirty-one monks ran out and washed Ajahn Chah's feet. There was no problem after that. It felt really good: that nasty thing in me had stopped.

(Answers Extracted from "The Four Noble Truths" by Ajahn Sumedho.)

Q: What other kind of monastic lifestyle did you have to adapt to that was particularly difficult?

A: Learning to eat food that I didn't particularly like. Villagers would bring nice little curries with chicken, curries with fish, curries with frog. But in those days, Ajahn Chah would dump them all into a big basin and mix it up. It was horrible. Or the nuns would glean things from the forest for us to eat, things like tree leaves. I remember writing my mother, "I'm living on tree leaves." She wrote back a letter of great concern.

(Answers extracted from an article "Life is Like This" By Ajahn Sumedho www.forestsangha.org)

Q: How did you feel wearing a robe?

A: One of rules that used to really irritate me in the beginning concerned the wearing of robes. We were given three robes when we became a monk. The custom in the Thai forest tradition is to wear all three robes when going out on the morning almsround.

The mornings were hot, and we usually had to walk quite a long distance through paddy fields and villages. By the time we got back, all our robes were soaking wet with sweat. The robes were dyed with natural, jackfruit dye, so after a while, the mixture of sweat and jackfruit dye begins to smell really terrible. Life centered around robes—using the robes, washing the robes, sewing the robes. I didn't want to live around robes; I wanted to meditate.

I found this incredibly frustrating. I remember saying to one of the other monks, "This is a stupid custom, wearing all these robes. All we need is one thin robe; it covers us adequately. It is very difficult to make our heavy, double robes. It takes a lot of cloth, and by wearing it every day out in the heat, it easily deteriorates.

Then we have to make another one—more material, more dying, more sewing." I made a very good case for not wearing all three robes, being the very reasonable man that I am. But I was really just whining and complaining.

(Answers extracted from an article "Life is Like This" By Ajahn Sumedho www.forestsangha.org)

Q: So what happened with all your whining and complaining about the robe?

A: Well, the monk told Ajahn Chah, so I was called to see him. I felt so embarrassed. Suddenly it dawned on me: Why make a problem out of this? Just wear the robes. It's not worth making a scene about. I can bear it. It isn't going to ruin my life. What is ruining my life is my whining mind: "I don't want to do this, this is stupid, I can't see any point."

This complaining was eating me up from inside—whining, blaming, holding strong views, getting fed up, wanting to leave, not wanting to cooperate, griping about life. That's the suffering that I couldn't bear. I came to see that even throughout much of my life before becoming a monk, even in the midst of a comfortable lifestyle, I had a habit of complaining and endlessly looking at things through a critical eye.

(Answers extracted from an article "Life is Like This" By Ajahn Sumedho www.forestsangha.org)

Q: Ajahn, how did you manage to overcome all these initial difficulties?

Even though there is a lot in life that we can't change, we can change our attitude towards it. That's what so much of meditation is really about—changing our attitude from a self-centered, "get rid of this or get more of that" to one of welcoming life as it is.

Welcoming the opportunity to eat food that we don't like. Welcoming wearing three robes on a hot morning. Welcoming discomfort, feeling fed up, wanting to run away. This way of welcoming life reflects a deeper understanding. Life is like this. Sometimes it's very nice, sometimes it's horrible, and much of the time it's neither one way nor the other. Life is like this.

(Answers extracted from an article "Life is Like This" By Ajahn Sumedho www.forestsangha.org)

Training at Wat Pah Pong

Q: How did you meet Ajahn Chah?

A: One year after I ordained as a monk at Nongkhai up in the Northeast of Thailand, I met Phra Summai, the devaduta monk ("divine messenger"). Before this, I was living alone and I remember having a wish that I could meet a teacher. Then, almost immediately, Ajahn Chah's disciple, Phra Summai, appeared. Coincidence? I don't know. Whatever you want to think, this is the truth.

He was about my age, 32 or 33. He could speak English. He had been in the Thai Navy during the Korean War. I had been in the American navy during the Korean War. When we met I hadn't spoken English for months and months. If you haven't spoken your native tongue for months and months, then at the first opportunity it is like a burst dam. You can't stop. At first I thought I had frightened him. It was like having diarrhoea; there was no way I could stop it. Nonetheless, he stayed with me at this monastery for a while and eventually convinced me that, after I had ordained, I should go and meet Ajahn Chah.

My preceptor agreed with this. He gave me upasampada (rite of ordination by which one undertakes the Buddhist monastic life) and sent me off to stay with Ajahn Chah.

(Answers Extracted from the article " Gratitude for Luang Por Chah" by Ajahn Sumedho www.forestsangha.org)

Q: What was it like when you arrived at Wat Pah Pong (the monastery of Ajahn Chah)?

A: When I first went to Wat Pah Pong, I couldn't understand Lao. We had to conform to everything at Wat Pah Pong and Ajahn Chah would give very long desanas (Dhamma talks) in the evening, sometimes four or five hours. And of course, I couldn't understand them. So when he would start to give a talk in Lao, I asked him if I could get up and go back to practice at my kuti.

He said, "No, no, you have to stay and develop patience." And so I thought I had to do what he said, so I did that. And of course, when you are feeling bored with a lot of pain from sitting so long, you feel anger. And he's the one with all the power; he's the one sitting up in the Dhamma seat and he can decide to stop when he wants to.

I'd start feeling all this rage, real anger and I'd start thinking, "I'm going to leave this monastery, I don't want to be here." But then it would drop very quickly. It didn't hold, for some reason. I didn't carry it. One time, I remember I was really angry, he'd been talking for a long time and I was so fed up and tired with the whole thing and then at the end of his talk he looked at me and smiled and asked me how I was doing. I said I felt fine, because all that anger and rage had just dropped away.

Basically I had so much faith in him that I could allow him to do things that would push me to the edge, to make me see what I was doing. Basically I trusted him, so I never felt like I was used or abused or exploited because I trusted that he was helping me even when I didn't like what he was doing.

(Answers Extracted from "Recollections of Ajahn Chah by Ajahn Sumedho" www.amaravati.org)

Q: Ajahn, how could Ajahn Chah teach you, since he only spoke Thai and you spoke only English?

A: Ajahn Chah always put a reflective tone into answering this by saying "Sumedho learnt through the language of Dhamma". And then people would ask, "Well, what language is that?" They obviously didn't quite understand…

The language I really learned from wasn't English or Thai but came through living, through awakening and learning from the experience of being conscious, of having a human body, feelings, thoughts, greed, hatred and delusion. These are common human things; they are not cultural things. This is what we all share, they're common human problems and conditions.

(Answers Extracted from the article " Gratitude for Luang Por Chah" by Ajahn Sumedho 2003 www.forestsangha.org)

Q: Ajahn, how else did Ajahn Chah instruct you at Wat Pah Pong?

A: At one time, when I was at Wat Pah Pong with Ajahn Chah, I could see a lot of things going wrong in the monastery. So I went up to him and I said'Ajahn Chah, these things are going wrong; you've got to do something about it.'He looked at me and he said, 'Oh you suffer a lot, Sumedho. You suffer a lot. It'll change'.

I thought, He doesn't care! This is the monastery that he's devoted his life to and he's just letting it go down the drain!' But he was right. After a while it began to change and, through just bearing with it, people began to see what they were doing.

Sometimes we have to let things go down the drain in order for people to see and to experience that. Then we can learn how not to go down the drain.

Q: Ajahn , I understand when you were young, you felt very self conscious.

A: Yes when I was young saying something in public was absolutely terrifying for me. Even when I was in the Navy, just having to raise my voice to say "Aye, aye sir!"in public in a roll call would have me shaking because of self-consciousness.

Q: How did you over come your self-consciousness?

A: When I became a monk, the concept ofself-consciousness became apparent: the highs you'd get when you felt you'd given a good talk and everybody praises you. Then sometimes I would give a really stupid talk and think, "I don't want to give another talk, ever again. I didn't become a monk to give talks.'

One time, at a Kathina ceremony (where we had to sit up all night), Ajahn Chah said, 'Sumedho, you have to give a talk for three hours tonight.' And up till that time I'd talked for half an hour. That was a strain.

So I sat up on the high seat and talked for three hours. I had to sit there and watch people get up and leave; and I had to sit there and watch people just lie down on the floor and sleep in front of me. And at the end of the three hours, there were still a few polite old ladies left sitting there!

I began to realize what Ajahn Chah wanted me to do was to be able to look at the various forms ofself-consciousness: the posing, the pride, the conceit, the grumbling, the lazy, the 'not wanting-to –be bothered', the wanting to please, the wanting to entertain, the wanting to get approval.

(Answers Extracted from the article Stillness and Response from the book, "The Way It Is" by Ajahn Sumedho.)

*Kathina: A ceremony held at the end of a Vassa** in which lay people make offerings to the monastery.

**Vassa: The annual rain-retreat undertaken by Buddhist monks for a three month period during the monsoon season, normally lasts from June to October. The Buddha instituted the custom of remaining in one place.

Q: What do you feel towards Ajahn Chah?

A: I feel that I have received the very best from life, not only in terms of the Buddha's teaching, but also in terms of its manifestion in the form and life of Ajahn Chah. It is not that I'm a devotee of Ajahn Chah or a cult follower of his. Towards Ajahn Chah I have gratitude (katannu katavedhi) because of his compassion.

(Answers Extracted from the article " Gratitude for Luang Por Chah" by Ajahn Sumedho 2003 www.forestsangha.org)

Why Buddhism?

Interview by Roger Wheeler of Ajahn Sumedho 1981 www.forestsangha.org)

RW: What attracted you to Buddhism? What did you feel it had to offer?

AS: The path of liberation.

RW: Had you tried other paths or methods as well?

AS: At one time I was quite a devout Christian, yet I later became disillusioned with Christianity, mainly because I did not understand the teachings and was not able to find anyone who could help me to comprehend them. There did not seem to be any way to practise Christianity, other than just believing or blindly accepting what was said.

What impressed me about Buddhism was that it did not ask one merely to believe. It was a way where one was free to doubt. It offered a practical way of finding out the truth through one's own experience, rather than through accepting the teachings of other people.

I realised that was the way I had to do it, because it is my nature to doubt and question, rather than to believe. Therefore, religions that asked one to accept on faith were simply out. I could not even begin to get near them.

When I discovered Buddhism, it was like a revelation for me, since I saw that one's religious inclinations could be fulfilled in this way. Previously, I felt a sense of sorrow in the fact that I knew the material world was not satisfactory for me and yet the religion I had been brought up in offered no alternative way of practice other than just blind faith. Buddhism was quite a joyous discovery.

[Ajahn Sumedho mentioned being inspired by D.T. Suzuki's books, and having encountered Buddhism in Japan while in the navy during the Korean war.]

Parents & Children

Q: Ajahn, what advice do you have for parents?

A: Yyou love your children--but if you become attached to your children, then you don't love them any more, because you're not really with them as they are. You've got all these ideas about what they should be and what you want them to be. You want them to obey you, and you want them to pass their exams. And then you're no longer loving them. Then if they don't fulfil all your wishes, you feel angry and frustrated and averse to them.

So attachment to children no longer allows us to love them. But as you let go of attachment, you find that your natural way of relating is to love, and you are able to be aware of them as they are, rather than having a lot of ideas of what you want them to do tofulfill all your wishes.

(Extracted from the article "Question Time with Ajahn Sumedho" www.forestsangha.org)


Q: Ajahn, when do you think you first realized, that happiness was not forever?

A: I remember as a child wanting a certain toy. I told my mother that if she got me that toy, I'd never want anything ever again. It would completely satisfy me. And I believed it -- I wasn't telling her a lie; the only thing that was stopping me from being really happy then was that I didn't have the toy that I wanted.

So my mother bought the toy and gave it to me. I managed to get some happiness out of it for maybe five minutes... and then I had to start wanting something else. So in getting what I wanted, I felt some gratification and happiness and then desire for something else arose. I remember this so vividly because at that young age, I really believed that if I got that toy that I wanted, I would be happy forever... only to realize that 'happiness forever' was an impossibility...

(Extracted from the article "Happiness forever" by Ajahn Sumedho www.forestsangha.org)

Read more about:

Ajahn Chah Remembrance Day
The Thai Forest Tradition
Thai Forest Monastic Tradition from ajahnchahrd.com

MySinchew 2009.12.30


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