At Wat Pah Pong the emphasis was on communal activities, working together, eating together, etc., with all its rules. I knew that if I was going to live as a bhikkhu I needed the bhikkhu’s training and I hadn’t been getting that at the meditation centre that I had been in before.
What Luang Por gave me was a living situation to contemplate. You developed an awareness around the monastic tradition and it was something that I knew I needed. I needed restraint and containment. I was a very impulsive person with a tremendous resistance to any kind of authority. I had been in the navy for four years and had developed an aversion to authority and rank. And then before I went to Thailand I had spent a few years at Berkeley, California, where it was pretty much a case of ‘doing your own thing’. There was no sense of having to obey anybody or live under a discipline of any sort.
But at Wat Pah Pong I had to live following a tradition that I did not always like or approve of in a situation where I had no authority whatsoever. I had a strong sense of my own freedom and rights and asserting them, but I had no idea of serving anyone else. Being a servant was like admitting you were somehow inferior. So I found monastic life very useful for developing a sense for serving and supporting the monastic community.
What impressed me so much about Luang Por was that although he seemed such a free spirit, an ebullient character, at the same time he was very strict with the Vinaya. It was a fascinating contrast. In California the idea of freedom was being spontaneous and doing what you felt like; and the idea of moral restraint and discipline in my cultural background was like this big ogre that’s coming to squash you, with all these rules and traditions — you can’t do this and you can’t do that — and pressing down on you so much.
So my immediate reaction in a strict monastery like Wat Pah Pong was to feel oppressed. And yet my feeling about Luang Por was that although his actions were always within the margins of the Vinaya, he was a free being. He wasn’t coming from ideas of doing what he liked but from inner freedom. So in contemplating him I began to look at the Vinaya so as to use it, not just to cut yourself off or to oppress yourself, but for freedom. It was like a conundrum: how do you take a restrictive and renunciant convention and liberate your mind through those conventions? I could see that there were no limits to Luang Por’s mind.
Oftentimes attachment to rules makes you worry a lot and lack confidence, but Luang Por was radiant. He was obviously not just someone just keeping a lot of rules, anxious about his purity. He was a living example of the freedom that comes from practice.
This reflection by Ajahn Sumedho as recounted by Ajahn Jayasaro is from the booklet, Twain Shall Meet, (pdf) pp. 7-8.