In Praise Of Luang Ta

Paul Breiter

In Praise Of Luang Ta

“In the naturally free openness, peace of mind, remain naturally and gracefully, like an old man.”

(Longchenpa – translation from Tulku Thondup)

In Thailand, many fine customs are associated with Buddhism, which has been an integral part of the culture and daily life for centuries. Sometimes they are referred to as ariya prapaenie, ‘noble traditions.’ One of the most wonderful, and most meaningful, is that of elderly men and women, people at what we would call ‘retirement age,’ taking ordination and going to spend the rest of their days within monastic environs.

Of course there are many who use that opportunity to take it easy and pass their time enjoying good food, conversation, and the leisure of an undemanding life. But for those who go to a place like Wat Pah Pong and its branches, and especially for those who submit themselves to the guidance of teachers like Venerable Ajahn Chah, it is anything but an indulgent way of life.

Luang Por Chah used to say that when he was young he liked to stay around the elderly monks – known affectionately / derogatorily as ‘luang ta’ if they had gone forth in their old age – observing them and questioning them about what it was like to be old and near death. I always enjoyed the company of the older gents, maybe for different reasons: their easygoing dispositions, good cheer, dedication to practice. There was something about them that said, “I’m not struggling anymore”; they weren’t taking seriously so many of the things that present themselves with almost life-and-death immediacy to younger people. Many of my finest memories of the years I spent in Thailand involve some very lovely old gentlemen.

They grew up in a time and place where life was simple, where there was basic understanding and acceptance of the Dhamma and a genuine respect for the sasana, the many facets of the institution of Buddhism. There was also a concept of old age that was vastly different from ours. Aging wasn’t denied or shunned, and the later years were seen as an opportunity for spiritual practice and the growth of wisdom – though it should be added that Ajahn Chah chided people who would say, “When I’m older I’ll start practicing Dhamma seriously.” He would note that the continuation of life from one year, day, or moment to the next is uncertain and would thus urge us to “age before we age” by recognizing that we are, every moment, older than we were previously and that, if we continued living, aging and physical decline were inevitable.

Several of the older monks became favorites of Ajahn Chah. They were of the same generation for one thing, but I think the deeper reason might be that Luang Por really appreciated the fact that here were people who appeared ready to stay in robes for the rest of their lives. They’d had full lives in the world and were unlikely to have the restlessness and hankering that afflicts younger monastics. One got the sense that they were really there – their minds didn’t seem to be somewhere else, there wasn’t an air of wistfulness about what they might be missing. But of course Ajahn Chah usually wouldn’t make such a big deal out of it. After visiting Luang Por Laht on my first trip back as a layman, I reported back to Luang Por Chah, “Por Laht’s surrendered,” to which he replied, “He’s too feeble to go anywhere, so we say ‘He’s surrendered.’”

The only old monk I can recall disrobing was Por Sook. He was a sweet old gent, about seventy years of age, physically slight and quite humble. He was from the town of Warin and not one of the ex-farmers, though I never asked what he had done in lay life. His kutī was out in the open on the way back to mine, and I started striking up conversations with him. Like most of the old monks, he kept a low profile and followed the routine in the monastery strictly. I think he was there a little more than a year. After my second rains retreat (vassa), when I returned to Wat Pah Pong, he showed up on the observance day in lay clothes. He came to see me at my kutī and told me that he had been ill and his doctor insisted that he disrobe. An ex-farmer might never have gone to a doctor in the first place, but I guess Por Sook was inclined to accept medical advice. He told me that he shed tears when he gave his robes back and took leave of Ajahn Chah. It was quite poignant. He invited me to go to his house sometime, but of course that’s not something that junior monks normally do, so I didn’t give it much thought.

I went off to stay with Ajahn Sinuan soon after and didn’t see him until the following vassa, when my parents were visiting and I went to Wat Pah Pong to receive them. My father rented a pickup truck and on the day after wan phra, the lunar observance day, when he was taking me back to Nong Hy, Por Sook hopped in the back for a ride down the road. He plaintively said, “You still haven’t come to my house.” I apologized and said that I would try to do it in future. But the next I heard of him was one evening after the uposatha ceremony the following year, when Luang Por was shooting the breeze with the monks. One thing led to another, and they were talking about an old monk whose lower robe came undone and fell off while on alms round in Warin, the nearby town.

“Who was that?” Luang Por asked, laughing, trying to recall. “What was his name?”

“Por Sook,” someone answered. “What became of him?”

“He died.”

And a few more laughs, and that was that.

Por Put was another of the monks who befriended me when I was new to Wat Pah Pong. He was probably in his 40’s or at most early 50’s, not what we would now call elderly but then old enough to be my dad. He had just a tinge of grey in his hair, a reserved manner and dignified presence. He seemed pretty serious about practice in a quiet way that didn’t call attention to himself. One hot season, when Luang Por ratcheted up the schedule to include long hours of sitting and walking meditation, I would notice Por Put sitting silently on a bamboo bed in the dying shed late at night, after the evening’s five or six hours of practice were done.

He also tried to tutor me in Lao, though his diction was hard to follow and some of his phrases perhaps a little dated. He was one of Luang Por’s favorites, meaning he was fare game as the butt of his jokes. Once Luang Por was talking about inviting senior monks to give Dhamma talks when he was away, and he did an imitation of Por Put sitting on the Dhamma seat used for formal instruction, petrified and unable to speak. “The laypeople will ask, ‘What’s the matter with the venerable one?’ You can tell them, ‘Pra Pak Tai( a monk from the south), he can’t speak the Isan dialect.’”

Por Put went off on his own not long after completing his fifth rains retreat. I met him at Wat Kow Chalak in Chonburi, in central Thailand, a few times over the years, both when I was still in robes and when I went back as a layman. He was quite calm and content to be continuing his practice there. Though I would give him a brief account of where I’d been and what I’d been up to each time I returned there, he never seemed particularly curious about any of it.

Luang Por Chai, the abbot, himself aspired to the hermit model and was happy to indulge those who wanted to spend most of their time practicing alone in the forest. I heard him come in for some criticism for wanting to avoid teaching and dealing with people, but I really came to appreciate him. He always extended a hospitable welcome and appeared very bright and serene. One of my last Uposatha days as a bhikkhu was there at Wat Kow Chalak, and afterwards Luang Por Chai spoke to the Sangha about how he never wanted to be an abbot but figured it was his vipaka, which means the result of past actions but in common Thai usage usually refers to negative karma. But years later he was in charge of a much larger community, with a great and devoted lay following (I’ll never forget the sumptuous daily banquets when I was there at year’s end in 1986), and he seemed to be doing quite nicely with it all.

The elderly monk who was probably most well-known to the Westerners was Por Laht. I started to notice him when I returned to Wat Pah Pong after my first rains retreat as a bhikkhu. I had been at a small monastery with crusty old Por Noo and Ajahn Anek. The latter had labored mightily to instill in us an ironclad respect for the daily routine with all the various aspects of monastic practice. High on the list were the daily meetings for morning and evening chanting and meditation. Ajahn Anek had whipped me into shape during a colorful vassa, and his unyielding stance had produced in me a great reverence for the way of practice in Ajahn Chah’s monasteries as something that could indeed lift one out of the morass. When I returned to Wat Pah Pong, I made sure to attend morning chanting without fail. Much of the year it was pretty much up to the individual to go or not, and especially in the cool season, the majority decided to stay back at their kutīs. So Ven. Khemadhammo and I, an English bhikkhu who had ordained with me and who was also staying at Wat Pah Pong, usually enjoyed a near-empty hall, with the noticeable exception of Por Laht and Por Pah (whom I had known at Tam Saeng Pet monastery the year before, where he and the mountain-goat-like Por Tee were able to handle the hills and the multi-kilometer alms-rounds much better than the 23-year- old Varapañño), who were there every morning.

Por Laht was always cheerful, and most things seemed to provoke delight and mirth in him. When he was around Ajahn Chah, of course, he was extremely humble and chastened, and quiet like a mouse. Luang Por clearly liked him, and the boss/lackey relationship (for want of a better description) was the way the traditional roles were played, as well as a sort of comic/ straight man shtick (for want of a better word). When Luang Por started going on the short alms-round to the village closest to the monastery (and later to the nuns’ village), Por Laht was the only one who regularly accompanied him, apart from an attendant novice. When I started walking again after knee surgery, I tagged along on that route. As much as I’d ever seen, Luang Por spoke with Por Laht simply one person to another, as men of the same generation, culture, and world-view. I think it was a sign of the respect he had for Por Laht. But in the assembly it was a different matter, Por Laht became the foil or the butt of jokes (as so many of us did), and sometimes the object of Luang Por’s wrath, which may have been merely another of his acts but which could be quite intimidating.

Por Laht had lived all his life in one corner of Ubon Province and at Wat Pah Pong. When he was getting near seventy, he decided he ought to see the ocean before he died. He asked permission of Luang Por to travel to central Thailand, and after receiving his fair share of abuse, permission was granted.

Some time later, there was Por Laht sitting in the uposatha ceremony. After the patimokkha, the recitation of the monastic rule, Luang Por zeroed in on him. In his gruffest Lao, he asked him, “So, did you see the ocean?”

With head bowed and hands in añjali, Por Laht meekly replied that he had indeed seen it.

“Well? How about it?” Luang Por demanded. Even more meekly, probably with head bowed a little lower, Por Laht said, “Water.” Luang Por grunted, and that was that.

Por Laht was also one of an exclusive group of luang ta who could do the patimokkha recitation. I’m sure that Luang Por really appreciated that, which would make the hot seat even hotter when the old-timers got up to recite. Once Por Laht was cruising along, and his mind suddenly seemed to go blank. He stopped reciting the patimokkha but sort of hummed for a while until it came back to him, provoking some smiles and chuckles. Or as Venerable Puriso remarked, “He forgot the words but he remembered the tune.”

There were several other fine old gentlemen I had the privilege to meet over the years, but let me not forget an honorable mention for Por Noo, who was generally not loved. Thin, consumptive and crotchety, without much in the way of social skills (he even caused Ajahn Sumedho to remark what an uncouth bumpkin he was when presiding over a gathering for Dhamma talks once, ringing his little bell to cut off the speakers when their allotted time was up), he nevertheless had a good measure of that Dharmic integrity which becomes part of the territory when one submits to an authentic teacher, and the Vinaya. He was the nominal abbot during my first rains retreat at a monastery in Det Udom district. I don’t think anyone cared for him too much, and he provoked a fair bit of ill will in me with his abrasive manner, leading me to take the diminutive Noo – meaning ‘mouse,’ and which might have been a nickname for one small in physical stature or part of a longer first name – and dub him instead ‘Father Rat’ which was also a technically correct translation of his name (no, Virginia, the thoughts of saffron-clad monks are not always directed heavenward).

But he also displayed understanding of Dhamma and reverence for the monastic life that I couldn’t deny. When I told him, just after the start of the rains retreat, that I was going to leave, he held the rope firmly and wouldn’t let me go. I can still remember the look of burning intensity in his eyes as he clobbered me with the recitation and translation of “Aciram vattayam kayo, pathavim atthisesathi, chuddho…,” part of the funeral chanting that translates something like:

“Not long, alas, and it will lie, This body here upon the earth, Hollow, void of consciousness And useless as a rotten log.”

It made me feel that maybe the old codger knew more than I did and that I should cool off a little. And when, at Ajan Anek’s urging, I started performing the proper duties of a disciple toward an acariya, one’s teacher, for him, I found I could swallow the resentment and transform my outlook considerably. So I always had some goodwill for the curmudgeonly old man after that, even though it seemed that, wherever he went, nobody liked him. I think the last time I saw him was in my last year as a bhikkhu, when I had gained an enormous amount of weight after being almost as emaciated as Por Noo himself for many years. He was at Wat Pah Pong for a Sangha gathering and, when he saw me, he took hold of my meaty forearm and, without saying a word, chortled mightily; it was something no one may have ever seen him do.

In the book Venerable Father I also recounted the two months I spent at a small monastery with two old monks, Por Boon and Por Sieng Noi. It bears repeating here, at least in part, as it gave me some insight into the way the older monks operated.

Por Boon was probably the most intriguing and inspiring of all the senior citizens I met in those days. He was a monk of the Dhammayut sect, which is generally known for strict adherence to Vinaya. Though Wat Pah Pong also had a good reputation in that regard, Dhammayut monks rarely went outside of their fold so it was unusual for them to stay at branches of the Mahanikaya lineage. He was from another province in the northeast, soft-spoken, tall and thin, with a natural dignity that was accompanied by a lightness of manner and a cheery disposition. When he first came to Wat Pah Pong, his kutī was near mine, and no matter how early I rose in the morning, I would always see a light on in his place. Luang Por sent me and Por Sieng Noi to Wat Pah Klor, near the Cambodian border, a few months later, and Por Boon was there, holding the fort by himself. As the hot season began, the two oldsters went on the longer alms-round and let me have the shorter one. In the afternoon they would sweep leaves for hours while I gasped for breath. At night Por Sieng Noi and I would often drink hot, sugary tea, but Por Boon would abstain – “If I drink it, it just makes me hot,” he explained.

I told him that I too indeed got hot and sweaty from it, but at least it gave me a little energy for the long evenings of practice in my kutī. That led him to remark on the differences between the old and the young.

“An old person has aches and pains. He’s tired. He feels that way today, he felt that way yesterday, and he knows he’ll feel that way tomorrow. The old man sees home, he knows the end is coming, so things don’t matter much to him. But to a youngster they matter a lot.” Suddenly I could understand how people who were no longer in the physical prime of life could practice so hard.

Por Sieng Noi was quite a comic talent, very lively, and he treated me pretty much as his buddy. I’ve been forever indebted to him for teaching me to read Lao script (though books in Lao were and still are pretty hard to come by). He told me a couple of times that he was from Pak Tai (the south), which had me a little confused until I finally figured out that he meant the south of Laos.

I guess the cuisine where he came from was chili-laden, as one day while we were eating, Por Boon said, “They sure don’t stint on the chilies in this neighborhood” – I would venture a guess that not many of us can say we ever heard a north-easterner complain about food being too spicy – to which Por Sieng Noi said, “I don’t taste anything hot here.”

This was right around the time that Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam fell to the communists, and sometime before I disrobed I heard someone say that Por Sieng Noi had gone back to his home and was killed by the communists. It’s a not unlikely scenario, though one always has to allow for the exaggerations that creep in when stories get passed around.

Por Boon generally seemed aloof and didn’t have much to say, though my brashness did prompt a reaction from him once. Often he referred to me as khun luk, a phrase I hadn’t heard before but which sounded to me something like “son.” When the time came to return to Wat Pah Pong, I requested forgiveness for misdeeds of body, speech, and mind from the two old gentlemen. At that time Por Boon spoke in a fatherly way, with a kindness and gentleness that made it clear he certainly had no hard feelings and was most understanding of a person from another generation and culture.

When I met up with him a couple of years later at that same Sangha function where I made Por Noo laugh, Por Boon simply smiled sweetly, eyes twinkling, and asked, somewhat conspiratorially, “Gin lai bor? (Have you been eating a lot?)” almost with a wink and a nod.