Early Years in Thailand

Ajahn Sumedho

Early Years in Thailand

I’m not usually here for this special event—the remembering Tan Ajahn Chah’s birthday. We have another celebration on January 16 for his death. Usually I go to Thailand for that and also for many big meetings and a meditation retreat event at Wat Pah Pong, Ajahn Chah’s monastery.

So, this is his birthday. He always thought celebrating birthdays was a bit of a joke. I think they have a different attitude in Thailand, especially his generation. Still people like to celebrate birthdays. Also it gives one a chance to reflect on a great teacher. Some of us knew him very well. I think Ajahn Candasiri met him, as well as Ajahn Nyanaratto Thanissaro and myself. He was the inspiration for these monasteries in England, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and America.

It’s quite an interesting thing to contemplate: a Thai monk in northeast Thailand who was relatively unknown when I first went to live in Thailand in 1966. I spent the first six months in Bangkok where I was trying to find a teacher or a place to ordain. Nobody mentioned him to the expatriate or European Buddhist community living in Bangkok at the time; nobody ever mentioned Ajahn Chah. He lived in Ubon, the Province that borders both Laos and Cambodia. This was during the Vietnam War. There was a huge American military base there and a big B-52 airfield where these monstrous planes would take off from Ubon and fly over and bomb Hanoi. From the monastery we could even sometimes hear them taking off because they made so much noise.

I was the first Western monk there. So it was quite a surprise for the local people. They were used to American airmen running around on motorcycles and so forth, but not for an American to become a Buddhist monk. Wat Pah Nong Pah Pong was considered one of the strictest, disciplined, and toughest monasteries in all of Thailand. They couldn’t see why I would even think of ordaining there. In the Thai tradition, usually during his lifetime, a man is supposed to ordain for at least one Vassa, the three months of the Rainy Season Retreat. Some people told me that spending even one Vassa Retreat at Wat Pah Pong was worth ten years of being a monk at any other monastery. But the things that impressed me were the teacher himself, Luang Por Chah, and that it was a disciplined place. Thailand, being a Buddhist country for hundreds of years, has a wide range from the best to the worst. I never really wanted to become a monk if I had to live in the monasteries in Bangkok. My ideal monastery was these forest monasteries.

By circumstances or fate, destiny or whatever, I eventually found Luang Por Chah. It was a strange event because he wasn’t known even in Bangkok. He was becoming quite well known in the northeast Thailand, the Issan. But even the Thai people that I knew in Bangkok had never heard of him. By circumstances I met one of his disciples, a Thai monk who spoke English. At that time, I couldn’t speak Thai. This monk convinced me to spend my first Vassa as a bhikkhu with Luang Por Chah.

The first year when I was a sāmaṇera, I wasn’t with Luang Por Chah. I was living in Nongkai. I had the insight there that I needed to learn how to submit, to surrender, to obey. I had the very strong insight that if I was going to become a bhikkhu, I needed to be not just a kind of perfunctory bhikkhu just getting by, I needed to learn how to be under somebody and live in some kind of discipline where I had no say in the matter and that was beyond my control. Wat Pah Pong offered this opportunity because it’s a very traditional Thai Forest monastery and very strict on the Vinaya discipline.

Well this Vinaya discipline is not an easy one for an American from California because this is not what we expect from life. Even more so than the British, Americans have this very strong sense of self-assertion, independence, not being dependent on anybody, and proving one’s self. So, there’s very much this strong sense of “me” in my cultural conditioning. The importance of me and my life, what I think and what I want. I could see that that would be an obstruction. Even before I met Ajahn Chah there was too much of me in everything I did, even when I was living alone. So I had this insight that I would try to find a very strict Vinaya monastery, which I found through circumstances in meeting this disciple of Ajahn Chah.

When I went to Wat Pah Pong I immediately felt that this was what I was looking for. It was an intuitive sense. I had been to many other monasteries and never felt so strongly about staying at them. I met most of the well-known monastic teachers in Thailand and I was very much impressed with them. But I never felt any great affinity or desire to train under them or live with them. But I did with Ajahn Chah. So, the chemistry was right or the kamma or whatever way you want to explain it. Once I found this monastery, I didn’t really look any further. I decided to stay there as long as I could.

Excerpted from the talk “Early Years at Wat Pah Pong” from the collection “108 Talks.”