|Meditation hall of Wat Pah Nanachat/Wikimedia Commons|
Wat Pah Nanachat Bung Wai, International Forest Monastery of Bung Wai District in northeast Thailand, could also be named Forest Monastery of Detachment or something of that order. The influence of its founding abbot, Ven. Ajahn Sumedho, seems to pervade the woods and illuminate the forest paths.
Now noisy from the nearby highway, busy with monks, trainees, and visiting laypeople, still an atmosphere of serenity pervades the place. In the first days after arriving, the mind mulls over preferences and thinks about how things should be. Then I hear Ajahn Sumedho in my head, saying, “That’s just creating more self (atta),” or, “You don’t need to create concepts around the experience,” or, “All that does is create more suffering (dukkha).” Maybe the fact of the impermanence of outer and inner happenings is so obvious that I didn’t need to hear him mention that other characteristic of conditioned phenomena.
“Ordinary mind is the way” is a well-known saying in Zen circles, attributed to the Tang Dynasty master Nan Chuan. The different schools of Buddhism might give slightly different interpretations, but they would all agree that what it doesn’t mean is that following one’s impulses and letting conceptual thinking run wild is the way.
There is also a famous Zen dialogue in which someone asks a teacher, “What is the meaning of the Buddha’s way?” and the answer is, “Do good and refrain from evil.” The questioner counters, “Even a three-year-old child can say that,” to which the master replies, “A three-year old can say it, but a sixty-year-old can’t practice it.” Ajahn Sumedho’s instructions have always been both understandable and practical, offering an entry into the Dharma here and now, no matter what the individual’s circumstances may be. They often don’t seem to amount to much on paper, but when imbued with his presence, or the memory of his presence, they come to life. He visited the monastery ten days after I arrived there and one night gave an informal talk to a small gathering of monks and trainees.
It began with a simple enough question about difficulties with food. Forest monks subsist on one usually enormous meal per day, taken at 8 or 9 in the morning. The northeast Thai staple of glutinous rice can weigh one down even more and bring serious drowsiness, and it can take a few years to find a middle path with this most basic requisite for living.
After some reminders about use of the requisites of robes, almsfood, dwelling place, and medicines, Luang Por, as he is now known, went on to talk about states of mind and the three categories of craving (tanha). Desire for food and sex, the biological urges, is kama tanha, sensual craving. He pointed out that they are natural to the animal bodies we are born into; the way to handle them (especially for those who have taken ordination vows) is to neither indulge nor suppress, not to glorify them or feel guilty about them, but to observe their arising and ceasing and not view them as oneself or one’s own. With guilt or negative attitude toward them, we fall into vibhava tanha, desire not to be, which can only produce conflict and unhappiness. The original question, about the troubling effects on meditation practice caused by too much, too little, or the wrong kind of food, led him to point out the suffering involved in wanting things to be other than they are and in taking our experience personally.
Fear and aggression, he said, are also animal impulses related to survival. “If you were a primitive human hunting for your food in a jungle, fear and aggression would be useful emotions.” That was an interesting take on those things, which we usually judge to be entirely harmful and negative.
Bhava tanha is translated as “desire for becoming,” i.e., desire to be something. In meditation practice, it manifests as the laundry list of things we feel we should be experiencing and attaining, and is basically just a distraction from being aware of what is going on. Such desire is just that, desire, and it isn’t a self or a person but only a source of delusion and suffering.
As one contemporary Zen teacher said about “Ordinary mind is the way,” if the positive states and qualities we wish for are to appear, they have to appear in a now, and it would be best if they appeared in the now we have now--even with a busy highway near the monastery and a new 7-11 at the entrance to the once-bucolic, middle-of-nowhere village. Luang Por Sumedho always reminds us to deal with the mind we have now and not think longingly about the mind we wish we had or think we should have. Observing the conditioned mind in the present, we watch it arise and cease, arise and cease; we note that it is nothing more than a collection of conditions, something impermanent and impersonal; and not attaching to the conditioned will allow the unconditioned to appear. Staying in the monastery, shedding compulsions about what I should be doing or attaining, but just eating my food, washing my clothes, and doing sessions of formal meditation, a sense of spaciousness naturally grew. The timelessness of the Dharma was hinted at even as I ticked off the days remaining on my short stay: just to live like that, without concepts of the future, of how things should be or how I should be, I considered, might come as a great relief. Indeed, without such a viewpoint, isn’t one just living in the worldly extremes of hope and fear, in a fantasy realm?
About the Author Paul Breiter was born in Brooklyn in 1948. In 1970, he became ordained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, where he met Ajahn Chah and became his student. After disrobing in 1977, Breiter returned to the US and continued Buddhist study with masters in the states. Breiter's books include One Monk, Many Masters, A Still Forest Pool, Venerable Father: A Life with Ajahn Chah, Being Dharma, and Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away.