Open Hands – Reflections on Thailand's Culture of Generosity

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Open Hands – Reflections on Thailand's Culture of Generosity

Robert Aitken Roshi said he is often asked why he teaches so much about generosity. His answer is that all other positive qualities, all the spiritual perfections, grow out of it.

Generosity, dāna, is explained as having several facets or levels: giving material support, giving freedom from fear, and giving the gift of Dhamma, for example. For Westerners who aspire to the Buddha’s way, the first of these often means parceling out donations to a teacher, a Sangha, or a worthy project. These days many people are living on tight budgets and struggling just to pay bills without getting submerged in debt or losing their homes, so it seems like every material offering has to be scrutinized for its affordability and worthiness – especially as it often comes in addition to hefty fees charged for teachings and retreats.

Those who have studied and lived in Asian Buddhist societies have witnessed a remarkable culture of giving that supports the Dhamma and the Sangha. Still, there can be a dismissive attitude toward such practice: Asians do it because they want to get better rebirths; because as laypeople they avoid the hard work of meditation and renunciation; they try to buy their way out of doing any real spiritual practice by making offerings; they are just following cultural norms; and so on. Yet who could fail to notice the easygoing nature of so many people in Asian Buddhist countries, the selfless helping and hospitality that are practically a reflex, the way that meditation seems to come so easily to those who do practice it – this compared with the difficulty in practice and the tense, uneasy character of many of us long-time Western meditators, who find it so hard to take our focus off of “How am I feeling?” and “What do I need?” I am probably not the only person who has had the notion that I would have to practice for a long time just to get to the ‘level’ of so many Asian Buddhists who rarely, if ever, sit down to meditate.

Patrul Rinpoche said, “A spark of merit is worth more than a mountain of effort.” Dāna is taught as a way to reduce self-centeredness and possessiveness, which seems like an excellent route to the avowed goal of all Buddhists, recognizing that all aspects of the mind, the body and the world are not self. And obviously, if there’s no self to protect, there is no basis for fear. In the various presentations of the Buddha’s way, dana is often the first factor. For example there is the progression of the ten pāramitās; then the summary of the path into dāna, sīla, and bhāvanā; and the ‘graduated teaching,’ beginning with generosity leading to celestial results; then the shortcomings of the heavenly states of sensual pleasure; then the blessings of renunciation; and finally the insight into the Four Noble Truths.

When I was in robes, it didn’t take me long to get accustomed to having my entire existence subsidized by people who didn’t know me, though occasionally an act of generosity would be so noteworthy that it couldn’t fail to startle even me out of complacency and indifference. But mostly I grumbled about the difficulty of my living situation, the sometimes meager food, lack of the things I was accustomed to and desired. What’s the big deal about providing things that people like, I would ask myself, certain that if it were me in pants and shirt, showing up at the wat in an automobile, I would outdo everyone with lavish offerings. Yet when I disrobed and was scraping out a subsistence-level, no-frills life (by American standards), there seemed little left over to support worthy causes and people. I managed to occasionally donate to Oxfam and send coffee or tea to Wat Nanachat, but it was far from being a way of life or an ongoing part of my life; it was more like paying the IRS when the time came due, though of course there was more joy in thinking about the monks drinking brewed coffee on my dime than Uncle Sam using those tax dollars for whatever purpose. But I digress…

Anyone who has been ordained in Thailand will have many stories of the generosity of the laity there. One person’s recollections may be a drop in the ocean but, as the years go by, what I experienced there seems more and more extraordinary. So please indulge me while I take a break from my usual stream of negativity to type a few words in praise of virtue and generosity, and to recall old friends.

It began with my arrival in Bangkok in 1970. On my second morning there I found myself sitting in the office of the manager of Suksit Siam, the bookstore of Sulak Sivarak. Khun Sutchai had all the time in the world to explain Buddhism and monastic life to me. (In fact, he made me uneasy with his assumption that I was ready to sign my life away when I thought that all I wanted to do was learn to meditate).He steered me to Tan Dhammaramo in Wat Boworn, where I quickly took up residence and began learning Buddhist theory and meditation. After a couple of weeks of that, I decided to ordain, and that was when the donors really started coming out of the woodwork.

An American fellow, a former soldier named Jim who occasionally came around to see Dhammaramo, offered to be my ordination sponsor, providing the robes and whatever else was required. Dhammaramo alerted his patrons that there were two new novices, Mike Shameklis (Jotamano) and I, and we got some extra offerings on pindapat, our daily alms-round, most notably from the ‘Bread Man,’ a retired doctor who came out every morning without fail to offer some flavorless toast because, as he said, “Farang (foreigners) can’t eat rice.”

One thing led to another and I was on my way to Wat Pah Pong, Ajahn Chah’s monastery, after a few months. The Warin train station is a good six kilometers from the monastery – a long hike for a pampered city monk, though not undoable for sure. But, in those days, as soon as an occidental in robes appeared there, some unknown person would pay a pickup truck driver to take us to Wat Pah Pong.

After that test run to Wat Pah Pong, I decided to return once I had got my visa renewed. When I went back some two months later, Ajahn Sumedho was at Tum Saeng Pet monastery, so Dhammagutto and I were sent there. To my delight, Ajahn Sumedho informed us that a local Chinese man, the indomitable Saengchai, brought delicious food every day. And a wealthy patroness, Khun Ying Dtun, was building a grand meditation hall on top of the hill.

Up to that point in my life I’d never had to support myself. Any jobs I’d had were to get extra spending money or to help pay for travel. I was used to others footing the bill without having to consider what it was costing them, so I guess it seemed logical to me now, as a monk, that someone would be providing food and a place for me to stay. When I began to study Tibetan Buddhism later on, my teacher urged his students to do long retreats. He told us how in Tibet, whenever people learned of someone practicing in a cave or mountain site they would start bringing provisions. Here in the US, however, “No one is going to give you even a crust of bread,” he said, so it was necessary for those of us who weren’t well-heeled to work and save up money for our purposes. He also did suggest that those who were comparatively wealthy help support the poverty-stricken aspirants who seriously wanted to do retreat, and I thought it quite extraordinary to see some people respond to that, though, of course, it would be commonplace in Asia.

Anyhow, in spite of the high living at Tam Saeng Pet, I fell on hard times spiritually and tried to make a run for it. First, though, I had to go back to Wat Pah Pong. On the way, the nameless sponsor who was driving me there – without fail, such a person always appeared when the need arose – stopped in Ubon city to take me to see a doctor, as I had lost a lot of weight and was pretty weak. It was the clinic of Dr. Utai, a kindly Chinese man.

I think it was late Sunday afternoon. He examined me and prescribed some vitamins, and then as I got up from the examining table my glasses slipped off my skinny head and shattered on the floor. It felt like yet another big wave rolling in from the ocean of misery, further crushing my spirits, but barely three seconds passed before Dr. Utai jumped up and said, “I will offer a new pair.” The layman who was escorting me took me down the street to an optician’s shop, and the next day I was brought back to pick up my new pair of glasses.

I was so amazed, and comforted, by the gentleness and kindness of Dr. Utai that I kept him in mind for a long time. When my sister came to visit and fell ill, my first thought was for her to see him. When I started having a problem with a knee, I went to see him in the hospital. Luang Por Chah started calling me “luksit Mor Utai,” Dr Utai’s disciple. I didn’t study with him, but I never forgot that incident. After Ajahn Sumedho and I visited the US several years later, I had a photo of us enlarged and copies made, and I delivered one to Dr. Utai when I was in town one afternoon. He was relaxing in his home behind the clinic, but he snapped to when he saw a bhikkhu arrive. It was a little odd to see my former savior looking tired, like an ordinary human, but he lit up when I gave him the photo and said, “I will keep it for pūjā.”

When I returned to Wat Pah Pong for the long haul, after a most difficult Rains Retreat in Bangkok, Luang Por got hold of me and put me to work as his attendant. I hung out with the novices who served him and learned the ropes from them. There seemed no limits to their patience with my bumbling, freaked-out ways as well as my limited command of the Thai language (and hardly any understanding of the Isaan dialect). If there was a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude on the part of any of them, I sure didn’t see it. I also got to know several of the monks, and they were all most encouraging. Still, there were hard realities to face, and the conversation that stands out most in memory is with Ajahn Kam, one of the senior bhikkhus, who had about ten Rains at that time. We were sitting with Luang Por one cold windy night at his kuti, drinking tea and talking about a lot of things, but especially the trials of practice and monastic life. Before we adjourned, Ajahn Kam turned to me and said, “Ot ton, Varapañño. Ot ton mahk mahk,” which translates roughly as, “Hang in there and tough it out,” or literally as “Endure, Varapañño: endure a lot.” I think my experience in those days gets at some of the essence of monastic life: there’s a great support system, but in the end it’s up to you to face the music and take bold baby steps.

There were several laymen who seemed to have nothing more important to do than come to the monastery, hang out with Luang Por, and run errands. A few of them earned nicknames (not all of them flattering) in my Cast of Characters. My tolerance for some of them wore thin pretty fast, such as they guy I called The Loudmouthed Layman but, even for an irritable sort like me, most of them registered on the positive side. An always-smiling, gaunt old man, who lived near Wat Pah Pong and used to come most mornings, became The Joker, after the figure in the Batman comics. I saw him shuffling back and forth between the kitchen and the eating hall and going home after the meal, but I never spoke with him. One observance day, however, I was sitting under one of the kutis near the sala and he came by to chat. He asked me a little about myself and then he said that we foreign monks were guests, kaek in Thai. The Buddha, he noted, was similarly a kaek (which also means a person of Indian ethnicity), so he felt that we were deserving of the kind of hospitality that would be extended to the Buddha.

The northeast of Thailand is certainly not a wealthy area, and in the 1970s the people had even less than they do now. But the habit of giving is strong among rich and poor and those in-between. From one branch monastery to another over the years the story was pretty much the same – people at all levels of society lending a hand to sustain the existence of those in robes, with the foreign monks, or phra farang, usually getting a little extra attention. There may be a lot of cultural overlay, with many people not even sure what the purpose of meditation and monastic life is, but I don’t think we can overestimate the power of supporting and respecting those who renounce the world and seek enlightenment, as well as the blessings that come from revering the symbols of that way of life, such as the ochre robes.

It begins with pindapat, the daily almsround. Throughout the Kingdom, people are up before dawn, preparing food for the bhikkhus and samaneras who will be coming to seek their daily sustenance. In Bangkok there were a few regular donors whose houses I would always visit on my round, along with some people who were out every morning and who gave their offerings for the day to the first monks who came by. Then there were those offering food for special occasions such as a birthday, (that itself was a revelation – the idea of giving rather than expecting gifts on one’s birthday), who would get dressed in their finest, set up a table in a well-trafficked spot, and scoop rice out of their best tureen and offer colorful curries in little bags and dainty treats wrapped in banana leaves. Yet none of this to me compares with the way it’s done in the Isaan, where large numbers of the inhabitants of every village are out every single morning. Often they give only sticky rice, but several will go to the monastery afterwards and bring or prepare more food. These are some of the poorest people in Thailand – the Northeast is periodically afflicted with drought and poor crop yields – yet somehow there is always enough to feed the Sangha. Among other things, it’s a great example of what can be done and how resources can be found when priorities are in order, regardless of seeming hardship.

A few of us were sitting with Luang Por Chah at his kuti one afternoon when seemingly out of the blue, he said, “Santacitto! There’s not much to the practice here. The Buddha wanted us to go pindapat every day. He wanted us to walk through the villages, see the houses, see the people, see the chickens, and contemplate.” He didn’t elaborate on it any further, but over the years I considered that statement many times and, especially as a layperson struggling to survive, I felt he meant that ordained people should be aware that lay life is not something easy or idyllic. Walking through villages in the Northeast in those days certainly showed me that life was rough in many ways and that the people who fed me were not at all wealthy. And yet those poor, humble folk exhibited more happiness and graciousness than I was capable of, and more than I usually found among the middle and upper classes in the US as well as in the more materially developed Asian societies like Japan and Taiwan.

One layman who will no doubt come to mind for anyone who was around Ajahn Chah in the 1970s was Pansak. He was Jah Pansak when I first saw him coming to Wat Pah Pong, a low-ranking Air Force officer. He spoke some English and knew Ajahn Sumedho, but we suspected him of wanting to con us into giving him English lessons, something we tried to avoid. But as months and years went by, I noticed him showing up at the most fortuitous moments, usually with a jar of instant coffee and a box of sugar cubes.

He left the Air Force under circumstances rumored to be less than favorable and, after that, was always busy with some grand scheme to make money. One morning when he came to Wat Nanachat, as we were sitting in the assembly hall waiting for the meal to begin, Ven. Santacitto compared Pansak to Sergeant Bilko, the central figure of an old TV sitcom who always had some money-making scheme brewing. He’d done well with nightclubs in Ubon city, but Luang Por told him it wasn’t good livelihood so he turned them over to his brother. So he started a restaurant that had been doing a roaring trade but then his brother opened one across the street and ran him out of business. Next was dogs: he got the idea to raise Afghan hounds, thinking he could corner the market in Thailand. They couldn’t take the heat, however, and he ended up spending a fortune on steak dinners and vitamin injections for the dogs and soon gave that one up. After that came bean sprouts and who knows what else. Pansak later told me that in desperation he went to Bangkok with his oldest son and was riding around town on a motorcycle to cut people’s grass for twenty baht a house. Yet through it all he came to the monasteries regularly to offer food, and was available to run errands on the way home, with, of course, repeated offers to supply the phra farang with anything they needed.

Pansak finally moved his family to Bangkok, where he had his ups and downs for a good while. When I returned in 1984 and went to visit him, his wife told me he was in Samrong Hospital with hepatitis. I took a bus out there one evening. Soon after I arrived an Indian man came in, handed him a wad of five-hundred baht notes and asked after his health, and departed. Pansak lifted up his pillow and added the wad to a big stash he had there.

“Everyone is bringing me money,” he said. “When I get out I’ll give it back.” Then he said something I’d heard from other Asian lay Buddhists: “I’ve made offerings, I’ve helped others when I could, so I’m sure I will be taken care of.” But he also said that this was the second time he’d had hepatitis, and the doctor told him that if it happened again he’d be a goner. Sadly, that did come to pass fifteen years later.

With his wife and five children he lived in a rented shop-house near New Road. She sold rice and curry downstairs in the daytime, and he got a regular job as personnel manager in a factory in Samutprakan, well outside of town, which meant a few hours a day commuting by motorcycle, often in the rain.

It was pretty tight quarters but, whenever I visited, there was always a feeling of spaciousness and family harmony, and of course the usual hospitality. His children were just plain good kids, though each with a distinct personality.

One time he told me that one of his wealthy friends had taken him to the lunch buffet at the Royal Orchid Sheraton. He couldn’t get over the lavish spread and the beautiful surroundings, all for some ten dollars. “Just to see the ice sculptures is worth the price,” he said. And he offered to ‘sponsor’ me for lunch there on Sunday, merely requesting that I first spend a little time to help his older daughter with her English homework.

So we went, and it certainly was quite a production. Still I felt a little funny being hosted by someone who lived hand to mouth. Several years later when I was teaching English in Japan, one of my students, a well-to-do physician, was planning a trip to Bangkok with his wife, and I suggested he look up Pansak to guide him around town. Unlike most Japanese, Dr. Funahashi didn’t travel with tour groups, and I thought he might appreciate getting a look at Bangkok different from the usual offerings. I wrote to Pansak, and sure enough, he and his wife took a taxi to the doctor’s hotel, and took him out to dinner as well. He later told me, “That’s how it is. Poor people are supposed to treat rich people.” But he had a grand time, saying, “The Japanese doctor is a really good man.” Having experienced Dr. Funahashi’s free spending when he took me out on the town in Shizuoka, I supposed he probably treated Pansak and family to a night out too.

Pansak finally did get on his feet financially with his job at the factory, along with occasional second jobs like managing a friend’s restaurant at night. He confided in me that he didn’t tell his wife how much he was earning, so he managed to squirrel away enough money to buy a new town house on Soi 81 after several years. Then he started selling real estate during the boom of the late 1980s and his ship came in, though he was aware that the party wasn’t going to last forever. Jokingly, I said to him, “If you get rich enough, maybe I’ll come ask for one of your daughters.” Without hesitation, he asked, “Which one?” Then he called to his wife in the kitchen, “Hey, would you like a farang son-in-law?”

With my endless comings and goings in those days, I always had some extra baggage and stored some of it with him. I would drop in to get something, or sometimes stop by to stay hello after visiting whatever bhikkhus might be staying nearby in Bangkok. He was always curious about my studies in other schools of Buddhism and even talked about going to Tibet and Nepal with me, though when the time came he was always too busy to get away. When I returned all aglow from seeing Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Nepal and described that great being to him, Pansak seemed genuinely enthusiastic and said, “Sure, I’ll be disciple of Luang Por Khyentse!” On one of my trips to Tibet he asked me to bring back a rosary for him, and I got Lama Gonpo to bless it to be used with Avalokiteshvara’s mantra into the bargain. Being from a Chinese family he was perhaps more open to Mahayana traditions than most Thais would be. But even taking that into account, Pansak was uniquely broad- minded and free of cultural inhibitions (though certainly not in any immoral way).

Through the years the trips to restaurants continued, and my offers to take him out sometimes were never accepted. His family all called me ‘Ajahn’ and my ex-monkhood probably put me on a special footing with them, but he was quite open with me about most things, and we usually spoke as good buddies. He often voiced regret about not having the opportunity to practice and taste the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. “You’re lucky you never married. What a burden it is having children,” he would say. He wasn’t the only Thai layperson I heard this from. Later on he got some land in a remote spot in Hua Hin, on the Gulf of Thailand, and used to go there to retreat. I was happy to know about that, though I had little contact with him after the early 1990s.

Almost everything was free when you were ordained as a monk in Thailand: local buses, medical care, food and lodging. When something did require payment, a cheery donor would usually appear soon enough. When Ajahn Sumedho and I were planning our trip to the US in 1976, we went to Bangkok with Pansak to get plane tickets.

That was when Nai Akom and his Air Force group made their first visit to Wat Nanachat. We went to Bangkok with them on the overnight train. They put Ajahn Sumedho and me in first-class sleepers and hosted us when we arrived. Someone steered us to Air Siam, a new international airline, for our first inquiry. We were shown into the office of the director, one Captain Tawee. He had never seen farang monks and was so moved that he immediately offered us his own tickets that the airline gave him once a year.

Mae Bau, the wife of an Air Marshal, and her circle of Air Force families became legendary for their lavish support of the monasteries and of monks visiting Bangkok. Later on, Mrs. Kesree started hosting bhikkhus from Wat Pah Pong and Wat Nanachat at a gorgeous ‘kuti’ on her property, also at Soi 81, off Sukhumvit Road. I became a frequent visitor to monks staying there when I was in town in the 1980s, and also became friends with Kesree – stopping by to see her in later years. Thailand is a class-stratified society and, in my attire and financial situation, I was maybe just a rung above Kesree’s servants, but I always felt I was treated with extraordinary consideration and respect there, probably because of my resumé of proximity to the Sangha and to Buddhist practice generally.

When I arrived in Bangkok in late 1981 Luang Por Chah was staying at Khun Kesree’s kuti, after his brain surgery. I had brought some humble gifts for old teachers and companions, one of which was a can of ground coffee, quite the luxury item n those days. I presented it to Ajahn Pabhakaro, who was attending on Luang

Por. A couple of days later I noticed an electric coffee maker in the kuti and, when the can was empty, more was provided. For a forest bhikkhu that’s heaven-realm treatment, but it also points out the sensitivity and awareness of people with truly meritorious minds, always looking out for what they can do in service to the Sangha.

A few months later I was back at Kesree’s after a stint in the forest. Ajahn Jagaro and Puriso were there, just before leaving for Australia. When I learned that the latter’s birthday was coming, I mentioned it to one of the ladies, and immediately the wheels were set in motion for a lavish meal offering, with specially ordered birthday cake.

In the early days of that friendship with Kesree, when Luang Por was newly recuperating there, one morning I and some others were washing the almsbowls, when Mr. Manun, whom I barely knew, put 200 baht in my shirt pocket. I looked at him with puzzlement and simply said, “Why?” “Disciples of Luang Por need to help each other,” he answered. In months to come he befriended me. He was a poker-faced Chinese whose expression never revealed any emotion, but he truly had a heart of gold. I received mail at his place for a few years, and whenever I went to pick it up, he insisted I join them for dinner. It was quite a production every time; five or six children, his sister and mother who lived there, he and his wife, with the servants and the ladies of the household constantly cooking and bringing out one dish after another. “This one’s really tasty,” he would say with each new platter put on the revolving table.

I started going mid-afternoon, fearing I was imposing on them. But when I showed up outside of meal times, whoever was there would insist I wait while they sent out for food. So I went back to visiting at dinner time and made sure I brought an empty stomach so as not to disappoint them. Occasionally I would bring some dessert, which the kids liked, but Manun or his wife would admonish me that I didn’t need to do that.

He pressed money on me occasionally. Finally I became aware of when he was reaching for his wallet and was able to stop him sometimes Once I brought a friend who had been at Wat Nanachat and was thinking about staying in Bangkok to teach English, and as soon as I introduced him, Manun asked me with concern, “Does he need money?” and almost had his billfold out before I assured him my friend was fine.

The way I was treated as a layperson in Thailand came as quite a surprise. Of course it was due mainly to the deep and widespread reverence for the yellow robe I had once worn, not because of my personal charm or virtue. As with the tradition of giving, this may be something that Westerners think of as not really having much to do with the essence of Buddhism, yet it shouldn’t be too hard to connect some dots and see how it creates a harmonious social structure that supports the continuation of the Buddha’s teaching and also helps nurture people who are nice to be around.

It didn’t really sink in until I got back to Wat Nanachat for my first visit as a layman. The villagers showed me so much respect, always calling me ‘Ajahn,’ that it got to be embarrassing. Vitit, the trainman, a longtime disciple of Ajahn Chah, asked me to go on his train when I went back to Bangkok and stay over at his house. He saw me eating fried rice on the train, so when we arrived at his place in Korat, he had his family go out to the market and prepare fried rice for my dinner. I was taking an early bus to Bangkok the next morning, and of course someone was there at the crack of dawn to take me to the bus stop.

Once, when I discovered a hole in a wisdom tooth, thinking a filling must have fallen out, I went to the Thai Army clinic that was walking distance from Wat Boworn. I’d been there as a monk and found the dentist competent, though stingy with anesthetic. On this occasion the dentist – the same guy, I think, though he didn’t recognize me – asked me how I had found the place, as it was unlikely any Western laypeople were going to walk in off the street, much less know of its existence. I told him I’d been there when I was in robes several years before.

He examined me and told me that the hole was from decay and that the tooth should be pulled. He gave me a shot of novocaine this time and yanked it. The fee was a whole forty baht (a dollar and a half, which could easily buy three square meals at that time), but he absolutely refused to let me pay.

“You were a monk,” he insisted.

“But I’m not a monk now,” I replied.

“It doesn’t matter. You were ordained.”

These stories have been mostly about material generosity, but giving Dhamma (Dhamma-dana) and giving freedom from fear (abhaya-dana) are also intertwined with giving provisions. In Thailand it is considered that the ordained Sangha follows the highest calling, renunciation of the world and the quest for enlightenment, and its part in the interaction with lay supporters is to offer teachings. Selfless action on any level is a form of teaching; when I see a Buddhist helping others without self-concern, I feel it speaks volumes about what that person has learned and put into practice. The laypeople practice it in their offering of requisites and financial support to the Sangha, and the ordained ones practice it in a life based on selflessness, restraint, sharing, and helping each other, as well as always being available to provide spiritual guidance to anyone who shows up at the monastery. Furthermore, the Dhamma is always given free of charge in Thailand. No one could ever conceive of charging a fee for teachings or for staying in a monastery. There is also the fine tradition of printing Dhamma books for free distribution, often with great and small donations from large numbers of patrons.

Dhamma itself points out the way to reducing and eliminating fear in our lives. Taking it a step or two further, anyone who has been around a teacher like Ajahn Chah has a very tangible idea of what Refuge means and knows how the presence of an enlightened being can dispel anxiety and fear. ‘Safe’ was the word that most often came to mind when I first found myself under Luang Por’s wing, and it was pretty obvious the way people flocked to him that he instilled that feeling of safety in them; and the kindness of legions of lay donors also gives a feeling of safety, not simply through being fed and housed, but because one becomes aware of being part of something meaningful and of the fact that there are others who care about one’s existence.

While Luang Por’s reasonable words and wise counsel were always illuminating, it was his being more than anything else that gave comfort. That, in turn, validated the worth and effectiveness of the Dhamma he was teaching. And a big part of all that was his complete generosity: he offered his whole life, first to incredibly diligent practice and a willingness to undergo any hardship for the sake of enlightenment, and later to guide people and make himself available without conditions or time constraints, even to the detriment of his own health.

Finally, a word on the ultimate joke: We experience fear because we are afraid of harm coming to ourselves. If there were no sense of self, no self-cherishing, how could there be fear? And what better and easier way to begin turning the tide of me-focused living, and undoing the painful knots of self-concern, than to cultivate the habit of giving rather than holding and grasping?

For Westerners, it seems the approach we usually follow is to carefully construct a fortress to protect ourselves, making sure we have provisions, comfort, money, freedom from irritating factors, and so on, so that we can undertake spiritual practice. But at some point I think we need to let go and trust the Dhamma, trust ‘the way things are,’ enough to stop worrying about what might happen in the future.

As I mentioned in a previous article, the best wealth empowerment I ever received in the Tibetan tradition was the simple reminder of the Buddha’s promise that none of his followers would ever starve to death. Luang Por Chah said similar things to monks, nuns, and laypeople. And during the first Rains at Wat Nanachat, back in 1975, Ajahn Sumedho said that real vipassanā meditation means to be able to face any conditions, observe your mind, and let go, and that trying to create a perfect environment, so as to make every meditation session just right, is ‘cheating.’

Paul Breiter, formerly Varapañño Bhikkhu, trained as a monk in Thailand under Ajahn Chah during the 1970s. He is also the author of the books Venerable Father and One Monk, Many Masters.