Paul Breiter, who, thirty years ago, was Varapañño Bhikkhu, recollects his experiences with Luang Por Sumedho in the early 1970s.
My first year in college I had one of those rare instructors who prodded and provoked students into thinking and investigating the world and themselves. One day he was talking about myth. He said that myths are something relevant to their time and place and fill a need, allowing contact with dimensions of life that we normally feel disconnected from. In modern times (that was 1967), a mythic figure might be someone like Bob Dylan.
About six years later I found myself walking behind Ajahn Sumedho on pindapat (almsround) in the environs of Wat Pah Sri Mahādhātu, on the outskirts of Bangkok. It was almost rural in those days and the pindapats were bright and peaceful occasions. I hadn’t seen Ajahn Sumedho for about a year (later on we were to learn that he had burned out on Pra Farang (Western monks) and asked Luang Por Chah’s permission to go off on his own to central Thailand and then India). While he had always been an impressive figure, it was evident that he had matured further. This was something I would notice over the years—every time I saw him after a period of time, he displayed new facets of spiritual development.
We had inspired and brilliant conversations on the walk to and from the houses during those two weeks. His words conveyed clarity and profundity in that uniquely accessible way of communicating he’s always had. I felt it a great honor to walk in his footsteps as we made our alms round and I began to think that here indeed was someone who provided a truly meaningful mythic figure for our times, a model that youngsters would do well to aspire to, much more so than any frenetic musician or poet. The one statement I recall clearly from those days long ago is his saying that “All the little mohas (delusions) seem like such big things now,” because he wasn’t struggling with the grosser levels of defilement.
He left for India after New Year 1973. One of the monks he traveled with for part of that time was Dhammaguto, who occasionally made memorable statements. When we were talking about Ajahn Sumedho once, he said, “He and Luang Por (Chah) are really the same; they’re only different in their paramī.”
I returned to Wat Pah Pong, where I inherited the mantle of translator and sometimes guide for newly arriving farang. Ajahn Chah would tell them, “This is Varapañño. He is your Ajahn. That’s not because he has any wisdom, but because he’s the only one who can translate for you.” Still, I got a little too comfortable with my Big-Man-on-Campus role and Luang Por sent me into exile for the Vassa.
Shortly before Vassa began, I was at Ajahn Chah’s kuti one day. Out of the blue, he remarked, “I miss Sumedho. I’d like to see his face again.” The next day when I approached Luang Por’s kuti after chores, a big, skinny farang in bright city robes was sitting there. His back was to me and it took a moment to realize that it was Ajahn Sumedho.
My Vassa was a rough ride and I didn’t garner any accolades for it. One night, after I had returned to Wat Pah Pong and thought I was settling in again, several of us met with Ajahn Sumedho. Like Luang Por Chah, he could be soothing or wrathful; especially after returning from India, there was something leaner, sharper and tougher about him. On this occasion, it was definitely the wrathful manifestation.
He heard out my whining, complaining and vacillating and then let me have it. “These are monasteries. You can’t go into these places and demand everything be to your comfort. You create disharmony; you’ve got a reputation as a troublemaker.
“If you’re committed to this way of life, you have to make up your mind to endure and stop complaining and putting conditions on things. It would be better to die than to continue like that. It would be the manly thing to do.”
His words rang in my ears for a good while after that night. Of course, in monastic life, one knows that such scolding is not a personal attack and hard feelings are (generally) not held. I had plenty of respect for Ajahn Sumedho, and also had nowhere else to turn, so I tried to step up my feeble efforts. I ended up at Wat Nong Hai with Ajahn Sinuan, he with Ajahn Jun. Each occasional meeting with him would have a different tone and subject matter.
Ajahn Sumedho doesn’t go much for categories and standard Buddhist terminology, but he probably fits the bill for dukkha‐patipadā‐khippābhiññā, one whose path involves suffering but who comes to see quickly.
Ordaining in his mid-thirties, he had more life experience than most of us who took robes in the 1960s and 70s. Always something of a seeker and thinker, he told me that he was a voracious reader. “I used to sit in coffee shops and libraries reading books and I finally started to wonder, ‘What’s the point of life if all you can do is read about it?’” He was also of a religious bent from an early age, eagerly taking part in church activities, but as he grew up and perceived suffering in himself and all around him, he began to think that “God must be a terrible bore and have a really bad sense of humor” to create such a world. When he came across Buddhism, he said, “I had faith in it because it told me I didn’t have to believe in anything.”
After a year of practicing meditation, he heard about Ajahn Chah. He went to stay at Wat Pah Pong but chafed at the discipline, still wishing to be a hermit meditator, and after one year he went to live on a remote hill in Sakon Nakhon province.
He became seriously ill and had a major breakthrough in his practice and finally “realized what a silly person I was and made up my mind to go back and surrender to Ajahn Chah.”
Ajahn Chah must have been very fond of his first farang disciple (especially as he was much more mature and durable than many of us who followed), which meant he didn’t make life easy for him and afterwards loved to tell stories about him and occasionally jab in the needle. As often happened, things reported to Luang Por got magnified and embellished and recounted over and over.
One episode involved eating som tum, the raw papaya salad that’s made fiery spicy in the northeast. Ajahn Sumedho was caught by surprise the first time he ate it, with comical results, and the story grew to him picking up handfuls of it, stuffing it in his mouth and catching on fire from it. Luang Por used to do an imitation that included Ajahn Sumedho smearing som tum on his face.
Then on one of the Buddhist holy days, when Ajahn Sumedho had gone to see Luang Por at his kuti, Luang Por told him to go prepare for circumambulation, wien tien in Thai. The way Luang Por told it, Ajahn Sumedho showed up with his bowl all packed and ready to travel, because he thought they were going to Vientiane (the capital of Laos).
Ajahn Sumedho says that he was generally respected by the monks because he practiced hard, but to the laypeople he became something of a circus attraction, “like a monkey.” All they knew of America in those days was from Elvis Presley movies and they wondered why an American would want to come live in an austere forest monastery when he could be home “riding a big motorcycle and singing and dancing in the street.”
A senior scholar monk in the area was once visiting Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Sumedho came to Ajahn Chah’s kuti while they were talking. Astonished, the scholar asked, “Can a farang be a monk?” to which Ajahn Chah replied, “He’s a better monk than you—he doesn’t handle money!”
I first heard of him in late 1970. I had been ordained for about two months in Wat Boworn in Bangkok, which was pretty much Dhammayut headquarters. I had met several veteran Pra Farang, and though they were friendly, dedicated and seemingly very clear about what they were doing, there was something subdued, almost desperate, about them all—maybe just their Britishness giving off that feeling of likeable, duty-bound people slogging onward. Then Jack Kornfield (Santidhammo Bhikkhu) and Douglas Burns (Suvijjano Bhikkhu) showed up after spending a Vassa (their first) with Ajahn Chah and Sumedho. They were practically bursting with enthusiasm and it was contagious, as much as anything could be for me in my depressed state of those days.
Ajahn Chah showed up in Bangkok not long afterwards and blew me away. A few weeks later I was on the train to Ubon.
When I arrived at Wat Pah Pong, monks were just getting back from pindapat. I saw Suvijjano and one other farang, Dhammaguto, and then Ajahn Sumedho was there and they introduced me. He had his famous ear-to-ear grin—sort of unmonk-like, I thought, having been around dour types like Khantipālo in Bangkok—and welcomed me.
I stayed for about three weeks. He was generous with his time, taking us to see Ajahn Chah on a few occasions and inviting us to his kuti for tea and conversation. There was something very natural and unforced about his bhikkhu-hood. He would admit that food could be delicious, that things could be attractive—also seemingly unmonk-like—but he had the wider view that such things were bound up with their opposites. Rather than fostering blind revulsion and avoidance, he talked about learning how the mind works in all situations in order to no longer be a slave to habits. He would say, “It’s natural to like sweet things. You give your girlfriend chocolates—you don’t give her samor (empyric mirobalan, small sour fruit that is taken as a laxative and is a standard post-noon refreshment for monks in northeast Thailand) pickled in Ajahn Chah’s urine.” He obviously had great trust in Ajahn Chah and confidence in monastic life. Being there and experiencing his presence and common sense and of course Ajahn Chah’s was very uplifting for me. I decided that after getting my visa renewed in Bangkok, I would return.
A couple of months later I was back, as hot season was about to begin. Ajahn Sumedho was at Wat Tam Saeng Pet and Luang Por was sending farangs there to stay with him, so Dhammagutto and I, who had returned together, were on our way after a few days.
We were told that Ajahn Sumedho was sick with malaria, a recurrent illness for him. Someone led us to his cave on the hillside. He was sitting cross-legged, wrapped in his robe. He greeted us, we asked how he was, and with a huge grin he said, “Not very well.” That was impressive. He didn’t look like he was suffering just because he was very ill.
As the mind is wont to, I had already started to accustom myself to Wat Pah Pong and feel some sense of security in the routine there. All of a sudden I was in a huge, mostly empty monastery, consigned to a cave and left to practice on my own. The first night’s jolly meeting in the sālā, with a full kettle of some steaming sweet liquid to drink, allayed some of the unease, but as the days went by I began to wonder what I was doing in such a place.
Ajahn Sumedho would chat after the meal, sometimes inviting us to meet in the sālā or one of the caves in the evening. One day as we parted at a fork in the paths on the way back to our caves after the meal, he started talking about peaks of inspiration and valleys of despair in practice. I think most of us westerners were concerned with success and achievement and expected our minds to be always clear, brilliant and inspired, and felt it was something wrong and terrible if we weren’t always happy and making measurable progress in our meditation—in other words, we were racing right past the real point of practice, while Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho kept pointing out the impermanence of absolutely everything.
He also said something I didn’t catch on to for a long time, that wisdom is like space. “We notice objects, but we never notice the space around objects,” he said, without further elaboration.
He started guiding my meditation, having me pay attention to the way the senses work, to get a feel for what my body was. He would tell me to do things like grasping parts of my body with my hands when I woke up. It did have a peculiar grounding effect to do that. Then he went on to one of his great loves of the time, the hua tou or koan method as explained in Charles Luk’s book, Chan and Zen Teachings, using doubt to open up the mind. He certainly wasn’t promoting a lifetime of anapanasati, which he compared to learning to play scales on the piano. (One monk remarked a few years later that samādhi came easily for Ajahn Sumedho, much more so than for the rest of us. That might be why he didn’t place great emphasis on meditations that focused on a single point.)
The koan stuff was effective, perhaps too much so. I started to feel like I was descending into the depths of myself way too fast; everything was hitting the fan and it seemed to be more than I could handle or even force myself to try handling. One night after an evening meeting, I asked if I could speak with him. We went to the dyeing shed and sat in meditation together for a while and then I told him I was having a really hard time and didn’t see how I could continue (not that I saw any alternative, which was the most frightening part).
He had already told several of us how he had struggled in his early days, how he had reached his own depths and finally let go. Now he was telling me that sometimes there was nothing to do but grit your teeth and bear it, and that when it changed, which it always did, you were left with a deep understanding of impermanence that could see you through anything. Finally he said, “You wouldn’t believe what it’s like,” when you do let go.
Because he had met with strong difficulty in his practice and had come through it, he was someone we could relate to and someone we could look to as an inspiring model of what could be. And I think it gave him real empathy—indeed, he always said that compassion comes about from first seeing suffering in yourself and then realizing that others suffer just the same. Still, I was too freaked out. There wasn’t really any haven anywhere, but I thought I might be safer at Wat Pah Pong (I wasn’t) and then in Bangkok. Before leaving for Bangkok, when talking with Ajahn Chah, he simply said, “Sumedho says, ‘Varapañño thinks too much.’”
At Tam Saeng Pet I thought the bottom had fallen out, but during my Vassa at Wat Boworn, it fell out further. I realized that the only hope was to go back to Ajahn Chah after the rains retreat and take whatever medicine he was dispensing. I scrapped my way through the three-month period and corresponded with Ajahn Sumedho and the others, who were spending Vassa at the dreaded Tam Saeng Pet.
An aside on impermanence: one part of the forest routine that depressed me most, made me feel all alone with a vast and endless task before me and no pleasure to look forward to, was sweeping the grounds of the monastery. Once when talking about taking the daily life as practice, Ajahn Sumedho urged putting energy and mindfulness into everything we did. “When you sweep the leaves,” he began to say, and repeated the party line. During my exile in Bangkok, I used to recall the misery of sweeping and immediately Ajahn Sumedho would pop into my head, saying, “When you sweep the leaves…” But it turned out that sweeping with the long handled brooms became an exercise in mindfulness (and good physical exercise as well) that I started to enjoy and even looked forward to, especially as I felt myself working in concert with a few dozen monks and novices around me at Wat Pah Pong. When I returned to Tam Saeng Pet as a layman in 1981 and years after, it was almost pure pleasure staying there and meditating in the caves.
Doug Burns, now back in lay life, dropped by once in a while. When we were discussing Wat Pah Pong and the cast of characters, he told me, “Santi (Jack Kornfield) says Sumedho is a saint.” I mentioned that in one of my letters to Ajahn Sumedho, telling him that if ever I had met anyone I wanted to be like, it was him (Ajahn Chah’s example seemed too far out of reach).
The whole crew pitched in and wrote a letter back, each person offering words of encouragement. It was quite moving. Ajahn Sumedho, of course, was the least sentimental. He told me to forget about trying to be like anyone else, not to get caught up in the dramas going on in my mind. Whenever thoughts of fear or worry, hopes and ideals, came up, I should simply say, “Horseshit!” and keep on saying that until it all subsided.
I finally did make it back, on the day of Kathina. It was already a big relief to be there. Ajahn Chah seemed greatly amused to see me, saying, “Varapañño’s come back! I thought he was afraid of sticky rice (a good part of my difficulty had been inability to digest the food, especially the glutinous rice that is the staple of the diet in the northeast)!”
After Kathina, Ajahn Sumedho and the others were soon off to other monasteries and Ajahn Chah himself was often away, going to Kathina ceremonies at the various branch monasteries. I floundered around for a couple of months until Ajahn Chah probably got the idea that I might be staying this time and took me under his wing.
I would see Ajahn Sumedho every few months. Sometimes we would gather at his kuti, sometimes talk on pindapat or in the sālā after chanting, sometimes at a fork in the path when returning to our kutis. His words were always to the point and memorable. Tall and upright, full of vigor and without hesitancy, he felt like a tower of strength. And he never seemed to put his own needs or desires first; many years later, I realized that I had never seen him do anything selfish. Yet he wasn’t trying to project any certain persona and often spiced up his advice with stories of his own foibles and difficulties.
He freely poked fun at the way he tended to get ahead of himself. When he was first ordained, he thought, “I would be happy if I could become just a little bit better—if I could just quit smoking, that would be something.” But as his practice progressed, he occasionally started thinking big. Once on a train to Bangkok he was thinking that he had realized truths that would help create a utopia and he saw himself as possibly Spiritual Adviser to the United Nations. His heart was full of love for all beings. But as soon as he arrived in the bustling city, he immediately became angry and irritated.
Another time, he was living in a cave, enjoying blissful meditation. He decided that his profound insights should be preserved, so he started writing poetry. “After a while, it began to feel like the whining of mice and I wondered if it would ever stop,” he said of his scrivening.
He was especially tuned in to doubt. He saw and heard farang after farang come and air out all sorts of doubts, about themselves, about the teachings, about the practice, the teacher, the way of life. He had a take-no-prisoners attitude and was always urging us to burn our bridges. At the same time, he recognized that doubts did occur and couldn’t simply be sup- pressed, so he recommended looking directly at each doubt as just another mental occurrence, even to use doubt, such as in the hua tou method of asking, “Who is the one that is thinking?”
Months and years went by. My parents came to visit during the Vassa of 1974. I came from Ajahn Sinuan’s monastery, Ban Nong Hai, to meet them at Wat Pah Pong. It seemed I was out of the doghouse, especially when I recited the Pātimokkha, at the end of which Luang Por, for once taken by surprise, I think, said “Hai hoojuk Varapañño (You guys should know Varapañño).” Before I left, one night after Wan Pra, I had tea with Ajahn Sumedho at his kuti. We had a nice, relaxed chat. I felt like I might have been through most of the worst days of my monastic career and I boldly proclaimed, “If I make it through the next hot season, nothing can stop me!” He was kind enough not to ask, “Stop you from doing what?” Then he told me that he wasn’t trying to do anything special, just being aware of himself. “I watch my mind, how it’s always looking for something to happen. Even waiting for the bell to ring becomes a big thing. Usually I know what it’s going to do next—my mind is so boring!” He said he was becoming more and more dispassionate. “I’m not enamored of living anymore. I don’t dislike life, but I’m not clinging to it.” Being with him on such occasions would usually put me in a meditative way and enable me to see myself more clearly and feel a sense of detachment from what I saw: it was obvious that he spoke from experience and he transmitted something tangible. Maybe that’s what is called blessing or grace.
After that Vassa I ended up at Wat Pah Kloh in Amper Detudom, not far from the Cambodian border (it was early 1975, just before the Khmer Rouge took power and we could hear sounds of fighting sometimes). I lived with two lovely old gentlemen there. When I returned to Wat Pah Pong for Maghā Pūja, my first night back I went to chew the fat with Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Ban Kao, a Laotian bhikkhu who now lives in France. Just as I thought we were ready to adjourn, he insisted I listen to him recite a sutta. It was on the topic of ditthī—views—and it took the framework of the Four Noble Truths: views, the arising of views, the cessation of views and the path leading to the cessation of views. After his recitation, he remarked that there must be some reason for it being presented that way, i.e., that views and opinions themselves, when clung to, were the cause of suffering. This was to become a main theme of his teaching, almost an obsession, it seemed (Venerable Pabhakaro once commented that our “Opinions Ajahn” has a few of his own).
That night he was also talking about the practice in general and meditation as the vital point. “And what is meditation?” he asked rhetorically. “Sometimes it’s just sitting there with a sick mind and listening to all the shit that’s been accumulated over a lifetime.” He talked about forbearance and going against the grain. “Sometimes when your bladder is aching, you can just sit there and watch your reaction instead of immediately getting up to go urinate.” After a pause, he added, “Your mother would never understand something like that.”