(Ajahn Nyaniko recently returned to Abhayagiri after spending five years in Thailand. The Abhayagiri Publications Staff invited Ajahn Nyaniko to write a reflection on his time there. Numbers indicate footnotes which can be found at the end of the article.)
Poo Jom Gom was founded in 1990 by Ajahn Pasanno, as a place where Wat Nanachat monks could go to seek solitude, have few duties, and deepen their practice. The year before, when Ajahn Pasanno was looking for a suitable place to start a branch monastery of Wat Nanachat, a Thai layman who was a student of his suggested this place on the Laos border, the eastern end of Ubon Province, near a tiny rural village. The area which would be the monastery sat at the edge of Paa Dtaem National Park, a rocky locale overlooking the Mekong River and covered with mushroom-shaped pillars and boulder overhangs that form well ventilated caves. Poo Jom Gom at that time was remote, simple, and austere, and before the first vassa Ajahn Pasanno and the Wat Nanachat community built a grass roof sala, a few grass roof kutis, and renovated a cave. To this day, Poo Jom Gom is a great place to seek solitude, not as austere as the old days, as that tiny village has grown and become more developed, but that first cave, and the sala, remain as they were back in 1990.
Poo Jom Gom translates roughly as “teeny weeny hill.” The village where the monks walk on almsround each day is Toong Naa Meuang, which could be translated as “Field-town.” The sala is only about a mile North from the village, and North from there is a gently sloping incline leading to the “teeny weeny hill”, which is another two miles away. The area around that hill is what we call the “upper area” or “caves area.” This area is an expanse of sandstone covered in small trees and sparse vegetation. The mushroom-shaped pillars and boulder overhangs you see everywhere were formed by a receding sea ten million years ago. There are large fields of rock which appear black because of a dark green algae that grows on it during the rainy season, which dries and turns black during the hot season. If you scrape some of that dried algae away, an orange and pink, sometimes white, sandstone is revealed. Nesting sites of Swifts, Thai hawks, and the odd mongoose are scattered around. Banded Kraits and other extremely poisonous, bu relatively docile, snakes appear at night. There are very few villagers that wander to the upper area, save some mushroom pickers and cowherds. Monks have spent weeks and even months in the caves and not seen anyone apart from the people in the village during almsround.
I first lived in Thailand from June 2005 to June 2006, and I first went to Poo Jom Gom in November 2005, after spending by third vassa at Wat Nanachat. After vassa Ajahn Nyanadhammo, the abbot at that time, asked if I wanted to go tudong for one week in Paa Dtaem National Park near Poo Jom Gom. I was excited to try going tudong, and once me and a group of five other monks arrived a Poo Jom Gom to prepare our requisites and supplies, I felt like we were wandering monks just like in the time of the Buddha. The first couple hours of walking took us to the “Tea Cave”, that first cave that was renovated by Ajahn Pasanno. As we rested there for a while, I realized that I wanted to try living and practicing in that cave.
After the tudong I stayed on at Poo Jom Gom and spent about six weeks in the Tea Cave. Life at the Tea Cave is simple: there are some water tanks which collect fresh rain water for drinking and bathing. A small fire pit is used for boiling water and making tea. The walk down each morning for almsround takes about an hour. One eats at the sala then walks back up to the cave. During this time I felt healthy in body and mind, and I knew that if I returned to Thailand, I would like to spend even more time in the Tea Cave.
That year in Thailand passed, I spent my fourth and fifth vassa at Abhayagiri, then returned to Thailand for my sixth vassa. Back to Poo Jom Gom, in fact. Historically, Poo Jom Gom has been looked after by different senior monks, changing around every one to three years. No one has stayed longer than three years. There aren’t many Western monks who are willing to get stuck looking after a monastery, so sometimes more junior monks ranging from seven to ten vassas look after the place. At that time a nine vassa monk was “taking up the burden” and keeping Poo Jom Gom running.
Instead of going straight up to the Tea Cave, I entered vassa in an earth brick kuti down below, closer to the sala. I was overjoyed at the prospect of spending a longer period of time at Poo Jom Gom, but my sixth vassa wasn’t without painful lessons. The night of September second (I remember because I had just called Abhayagiri to wish Ajahn Amaro a happy birthday), a giant centipede got under the door of my kuti at one a.m. and bit me in the neck. Now centipede bites, I learned later, feel like a light pinch at first, then get worse over time. So, I woke up feeling like an ant was on my neck, and lightly brushed with my hand. Then another pinch on my chin, and a blossoming of pain in the neck, and then I thought “No… its a centipede!” I grabbed it and flung it off, but had to grope around in the pitch black room to find my lighter and light a candle, all the while hoping the thing wouldn’t bite my hand. I lit the candle and there it was scurrying crazily around on the floor of my kuti: a giant centipede.
My first impulse was to get it out with a broom, but also the neck was beginning to spasm and swell, and I didn’t really know what the effects of a centipede bite were, so I left to go wake up the senior monk at his kuti. On the way, I stopped by the sala and on a whim took a couple antihistamine pills. Then I went to the senior monk’s kuti and he called our neighbor and devoted monastery-goer, Por Jalerm. Por Jalerm had previously given an invitation, that if there was ever a medical emergency at Poo Jom Gom, he would take anyone to the hospital any hour of the day or night. So he and his wife showed up in their commuter car and we drove to Khong Chiam Hospital, about 30 miles away.
During that drive the pain got worse, but there was not much swelling. I had some green balm - “Mongoose Phlegm Balm” that I could rub on the bites to lessen the pain somewhat. It felt like the top of my head down to below my chest was on fire, and this was the worst pain of my life.
In the hospital at four a.m., they shot me in the backside with more antihistamines, then told me that it was a good thing I took the antihistamines earlier because that’s indeed what they give to treat centipede bite victims. Without the antihistamines, my neck may well have swelled up to the point of closing off the passage of air. The doctor told me “the pain will last for 24 hours then will be gone completely.” He spoke exactly right. Afterward, the only side effect was that I had a cough for about a week.
Shortly after that in mid-September, the group of us at Poo Jom Gom went to Ajahn Liem’s mid-vassa practice session at Wat Pah Pong. We informed Ajahn Liem of the centipede bite and right away he, somewhat out of character, said “Maybe you were creating some bad kamma in your mind and a devata was coming to test you!” He taught us that the fangs of the centipede don’t contain any poison, but when it bites it will then contort its body around and urinate into the bite. The urine is the poison; so if you can flick it away soon enough the bite will have no effect.
Right at the end of that vassa, the senior monk left to visit his teacher and no one really knew if he would come back to Poo Jom Gom or not. So, he left me in charge and passed on the few duties there are in order to look after the place and suddenly, I was alone, looking after a monastery. As it happens, he did come back a couple months later.
After my sixth vassa I left Poo Jom Gom and tried my legs at a longer tudong, then spent my seventh vassa at Wat Pah Pong, and these were great learning experiences in and of themselves, but stories to be saved for another time.
When I was living at Wat Pah Pong, another seven vassa monk arrived at Poo Jom Gom and “took up the burden” of being senior monk. This monk was a good friend of mine, so we had planned on living together at Poo Jom Gom for our eighth vassa and co-running the place. As it happened, that monk wasn’t happy taking full responsibility and just wanted to practice. He hoped to keep living there, but in a way where he didn’t have to interact with people.
The senior monks at Wat Nanachat approached me a few months after my seventh vassa and asked if I would agree to look after Poo Jom Gom. I was hesitant to take on that position without another monk helping me. However, it was clear that there was no one else who really wanted to live at Poo Jom Gom for an extended period of time, and I agreed to stay at Poo Jom Gom as long as was needed unless one of my parents fell ill and I had to go see them, or if Ajahn Pasanno asked me to go somewhere else.
I started living long term at Poo Jom Gom in February 2010. I had a plan to just stay there as long as possible without going anywhere. But then in April my father fell ill with a heart condition and I rushed off to visit him for two weeks in Hawaii. Also, Ajahn Pasanno invited me to accompany him for a month in Ladakh in June. So only a few months at Poo Jom Gom and already the two reasons for leaving had come up. A two-week vacation in Hawaii followed by a one month stay in Ladakh marked the beginning of my term of looking after Poo Jom Gom!
When I got back from Ladakh in early July, it looked as though it would just be one other monk and I spending the vassa together. About one week before entering vassa, a group of five had coalesced, with a sixth senior monk coming a month later and entering second vassa. So I was number five in a group of six monks, and looking after the place.
To date, I think this was my most memorable vassa. The group was Ajahn Achalo, Ajahn Poom, Ajahn Vajiravamso, Tan Buddhisaro, myself, and Tan Saddhammo. Ajahn Achalo was the guest monk at Abhayagiri when I arrived in 2001, and is now the abbot of Wat Anandagiri in Petchaboon Province. I have always considered him a good friend and teacher. Ajahn Poom is a Thai monk who ordained with Ajahn Achalo, and is the abbot of Wat Boon Lom, about a one-and-a-half hour drive from Poo Jom Gom. He contacted me just before vassa and said he’d like to take a break from running a monastery for a few months. Ajahn Vajiravamso is a Sri Lankan monk who is spending time in Thailand in order to study the etiquette and standards of practice in Wat Pah Pong branch monasteries. Tan Buddhisaro is an American monk who is about six months my senior, and was looking after Poo Jom Gom just before me. The one monk junior to me, Tan Saddhammo, is also a good friend who started on his monastic path by serving the winter retreat at Abhayagiri, then later ordained at Wat Nanachat.
I am trained to always be extremely deferential to more senior monks, but Ajahn Poom assured me that the senior monks this vassa didn’t want any responsibilities and that I should be the one to come up with a schedule and set the standards however I see fit. So I defaulted to what I know: Abhayagiri style. There are six two week periods in the vassa, so we all got a solitary two week retreat. During this time one would not go almsround, but have another monk bring the food to a drop-off point. Sometimes people would fast. Also, I wanted the group to have a circle meeting every two weeks, just to check in and keep things harmonious.
I spent my two week retreat in the Tea Cave. I never had to leave the cave because Por Derm, our Poo Jom Gom employee of twenty years, brought food to me almost every day. He said he didn’t mind because he could then go look for mushrooms.
Being on retreat in the Tea Cave for two weeks was deeply fulfilling, bolstering my commitment to live as a bhikkhu long term. I would meditate in the pre-dawn silence, then just as it was getting light, go up to the rocky expanse above the cave, and do about 45 minutes of Chi Gong. The weather was not too hot, not too cold, and almost every morning the clouds and cool mist combined with the rising sun produced phenomenal double rainbows. Feeling refreshed and balanced, I would go into the cave and meditate for 2-3 hours. Around 10:30 a.m. Por Derm would show up and offer me the meal. Some days another monk brought the meal and would leave it close by the cave and ring a bell. After eating I would do some sweeping up in and around the cave, then go sit or lie down in the “Ajahn Pasanno Kuti,” a grass roof hut near the Tea Cave. Then, around 1 p.m., I would make a fire, boil water and have some green tea, then walk meditation until about 5 p.m. Some days I memorized chanting during the walking, some days recited a mantra (if the mind was especially restless), some days I walked in silence, internally reciting “Bud-dho… bud-dho… bud-dho…” After that I would read a sutta or study Thai. At 7 p.m. I did some chanting, then another couple hours of sitting meditation. The last four days of the retreat I ate only a few handfuls of rice each day. I was feeling light in body and mind.
Hindrances and obstacles certainly came up during this retreat, but the time for meditation coupled with the secluded location was ideal for getting some perspective around those hindrances, and for seeing their passing away. Even though it was only two weeks, that retreat became a useful point of recollection whenever there was a wavering of faith or devotion in the path of practice.
After that vassa, Poo Jom Gom had a kathina ceremony for the first time in seven years. Ajahn Poom thought I should receive the kathina robe since I was making a commitment to the place. During Ajahn Liem’s mid-vassa practice session at Wat Pah Pong, I had invited some senior monks to come to the Poo Jom Gom kathina but I didn’t really know who would show up. We also invited Ajahn Sangwon, the senior village monk in our area. We rolled out some electric wire from the village and set up a speaker system in preparation for all night Dhamma Talks.
Monks from Wat Pah Nanachat as well as monasteries surrounding Poo Jom Gom showed up during the day. In the evening a senior disciple of Ajahn Chah named Ajahn Kampan showed up. I was overjoyed as we received him and served him some drinks at a kuti specially set up for senior monks. After evening chanting and meditation, he gave the first Dhamma Talk. He started by saying “I last came to Poo Jom Gom twenty years ago when Ajahn Pasanno was the abbot. Now there’s some krooba looking after the place and I don’t know his name but nevermind.” Then he proceeded to talk for seven hours in Lao, and although I didn’t understand any of it, it was still thoroughly enjoyable.
Around midnight, as Ajahn Kampan was talking, another Wat Pah Pong monk, Ajahn Tawin, showed up. Seeing that Ajahn Kampan was not going to stop anytime soon, he went and laid down on a really rough un-level section of rocks near the sala and slept under a big blanket. I was impressed that these Isarn Ajahns can sleep anywhere. Around 3:45 a.m., as Ajahn Kampan was wrapping up his seven-hour talk, Ajahn Tawin got up, put on his robe, and prepared to give the second and final talk of the evening. This one I could understand – he described the kathina ceremony, the offering of cloth and sewing it into a robe in a single day, and the process of dying the robe using the heartwood of the Jackfruit tree. At 5:30 a.m. it started to get light and the 40-or-so monks at the kathina did a “rice almsround” in the monastery.
At 7 a.m., after the rice almsround, all the monks and laypeople gathered under a tent near the main sala and performed the formal part of the kathina ceremony. Cloth was offered by the “kathina donors,” and Tan Buddhisaro and Tan Saddhammo chanted a formal announcement in pali, saying that the Sangha has agreed that I am a suitable candidate to receive the kathina cloth, and reaffirming that the cloth was not sought for or asked for, but came in a pure and unsolicited way. At about 9 a.m. the main meal was offered and then everyone returned to their monasteries and homes as the resident monks of Poo Jom Gom spent the rest of the day sewing and dying a sabong.
About a week after the kathina, our vassa group dispersed. When spending vassa with other monks, inevitably friendships deepen and I was sad to see everyone go. Ajahn Achalo went to Petchaboon Province to start building Wat Pah Anandagiri. Ajahn Poom picked up his abbot duties again at Wat Boon Lom. Ajahn Vajiravamso and Tan Buddhisaro went to Sri Lanka for tudong practice and to seek other solitary places to mediate. Tan Saddhammo went back to Wat Nanachat, and I was alone again at Poo Jom Gom.
Such is the ebb and flow of life at Poo Jom Gom… sometimes there is a small community gathered, and sometimes one is alone, with almost no duties. The emptiness of people, sounds, and duties, can be almost overwhelming at times. There isn’t much human contact, save the time when the villagers come and prepare food in the morning, so the opportunity for going inward with the meditation is always there. The days seem really long when one has few duties. Below is an attempt to describe the solitude at Poo Jom Gom in verse:
The caves at Poo Jom Gom are secluded and quiet.
During the day, bees buzz around
There’s the sound of a gentle breeze at night.
Fragrant flowers bloom at unexpected times, and
Rare medicinal herbs abound.
Surrounded by just the rocky expanse and the vast sky,
Its a good place to stop the outflows
And journey inward.
Walking back and forth under the stars,
Or sitting inside a grass roof hut during a cooling rain,
You can spread lovingkindness,
Or undertake any practice suitable to your temperament.
Its a place that great tudong monks and rishis frequented
Not too long ago.
Its remote – if you want
You can go meditate on some forgotten hill.
Its up to you if you want to practice like that.
Peace and happiness have the opportunity to grow deep
When you live naturally,
Drinking clear rainwater and eating clean food.
So please go to a cave
Spread your sitting cloth on the wooden seat.
Start watching your breath,
And hear the crickets sing their praises.
Footnotes- - - - - -
- At that time Ajahn Pasanno was the abbot of Wat Nanachat, the International Forest Monastery in the lineage of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho. Wat Nanachat is located in Ubon Rajathani Province in the northeast of Thailand.
- Paa Dtaem = “Painted Cliff”. A cliff face near the Mekong River in this area is covered in ancient paintings, hence the name “Painted Cliff” National Park.
- A pali term referring to the three month “Rains Residence” observed by bhikkhus. From the full moon of July to the full moon of October, monks will stay in one monastery and not leave for longer than seven days. The word for vassa in Thai, “pun-saa”, is commonly used in western branch monasteries of Wat Nanachat.
- Sala is a Thai word which means “Pavilion” or “Meeting Hall.”
- Asian countries have three seasons: cold (November to February), hot (March to June), and rainy (July to October).
- “Tudong” refers to a practice of wandering undertaken outside of the vassa.
- The years one has been a monk are counted by the number of vassas one has completed.
- “Yaa Sae-lot-pung-pawn” is a dark green balm with a single ingredient, translated roughly as “Mongoose Phlegm Weed.” It is common in Thailand and is used for wasp, scorpion, and centipede bites to draw the poison out and lessen the pain.
- Wat Pah Pong is the monastery founded by Ajahn Chah. The current abbot is Ajahn Liem.
- A devata is a celestial being.
- Ladakh is an area in northwest India in the state of Jammu-Kashmir.
- If a monk isn’t able to get to a monastery in time to enter the vassa, he is allowed to enter “second vassa” on the full moon of August. His time in that monastery must then continue until the full moon of November.
- Petchaboon is right in the center of Thailand, but technically it is the southern part of the northern quarter of Thailand.
- Ajahn Poom ordained with Ajahn Achalo but is technically junior because he name was recited second during the ordination ceremony.
- Slow exercises, mostly in a standing position, similar to Tai Chi.
- Kathina is an annual observance laid down by the Buddha himself, whereby the monks who have completed the vassa receive unsolicited offerings of cloth and other requisites. One member of that group is designated to receive the “kathina robe,” which in a collaborative effort, is sewn and dyed before the following dawn. The actual “kathina ceremony” involves special chanting and a formal receiving of cloth from the kathina donors.
- Krooba is the way of saying “Tan” or “venerable” in the local dialect of northeast Thailand.
- Isarn refers to the northeast of Thailand.
- At most kathina days, instead of entering the village for almsround, the monks will do a short almsround in the monastery and all the laypeople who attended the kathina will line up and offer rice.
- Sabong is the lower robe, which is wrapped around the waist and is the smallest of the three robes of a bhikkhu.