LIfe in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 13

Monks Chanting at Wat Pah Nanachat

During that Rainy Season, Luang Por gave exhortations to the monks and novices everyday after morning and evening chanting. The morning chanting at Wat Bahn Huay started at 4:30am. At 4:00am the bell would be rung—bong bong—waking the members of the saffron forest—both those with ringworm and those without—and urging them to wash their faces and put on their robes. We younger monks and novices would take it in shifts to ring the bell.

At precisely 4:30am every monk had to be sitting peacefully in front of the Buddha image in the chanting hall. Luang Por would then open his door (his room was right next to the chanting area), and then cast his eyes in the dim light of the lanterns over the hall to see who was missing. He couldn’t know, however, because it was quite dark and there were many monks at the time. But Ven. Dtawn would unfold a list of everyone’s Pali names and loudly call them out. We would then reply āgato bhante—‘I’ve come, venerable friend’; this way we would know who was dodging and who not. This calling out of names would often lead to humorous incidents. Some monks would be happily sleeping and then wake up to the distant call of their friends saying āgato bhante; they would then groggily grab their robes and reach the steps of the chanting hall just in time to answer to their names. The guilty ones, however, would often arrive without having put on their under- or upper-robes; if they were seen by the others, raucous laughter would ensue.

After morning chanting, Luang Por would give teachings on various subjects. We would then get ready to go out for almsround. By this time the dawn’s light would be brightening.

One may wonder why morning and evening chanting in Thai is referred to as tam wat—‘to perform one’s observances—vatta.’ Those things that monks should do on a regular basis are called ‘observances,’ like going for alms, sweeping the monastery, and chanting. Some of the duties can be evaded (many city monks for instance neglect going on alms), but chanting is indispensable. This is why it is referred to as ‘performing one’s observances.’ Another activity that many monks engage in, even if it’s not appropriate, is to sleep after the morning meal. In Thai, the act of sleeping for monks is called jam wat—‘to remember one’s duties.’

Lay Women Chanting at Wat Ratanawan

On the subject of sleep, let me diverge a little. When I later went to Bangkok and lived as a disciple with an abbot in a monastery on the Thonburi side of the river, the abbot was seriously ill with a neurological disorder. The doctors told Luang Por Chao Khun to get lots of rest, but because he was a fortune-teller many people came to see him. We disciples thus stuck a note on his door saying: ‘Sick—not receiving visitors.’ Those people who came to consult with him about auspicious occasions would see the sign and go away. But there was one layman who lived next to the monastery and would come and talk to Luang Por until late in the night, prattling on by himself. Luang Por was extremely considerate of others and, although he wanted so much to rest, he didn’t dare beg to be excused. Eventually he would close his eyes and listen, yawning loudly, while the layman would say:

‘Get lots of rest, Tahn Chao Khun. It’s best to go to sleep in the evening.’

‘You mean sleep with ghosts? You come and talk until one or two in the morning every night!’

Luang Por didn’t actually say this last sentence—it was me growling in the next room. Because of this layman I had to sit with my eyes wide open and be deprived of sleep. As Luang Por’s attendant I had to wait and serve on him until he went to sleep. A few months later we got the news that this bozo’s wife was having an affair. I had pity on her—she had an old husband who was a Dhamma fanatic, going off to speak with the monks every night until late. Who could put up with this?

Okay, let me get back to the main story. Of all the subjects that Luang Por would talk about after the chanting, there was one that I think caused the greatest transformation for our monastery at Bahn Huay. This subject was the ascetic practices (dhutaṅga). Let’s leave the transformation till the end—let me first expand on Luang Por’s teachings.

Woman Offering Alms to the Monks from Wat Pah Nanachat

Luang Por taught that these austere practices are devices for dispelling defilement or for training the mind. The Buddha did not make these practices compulsory. He simply specified that any monk who wishes to engage in an increased strictness of practice, which is suitable to being a worthy disciple, can choose from among these thirteen practices:

  1. The observance of eating only almsfood. Here, one determines to collect one’s food only by going on almsround; one goes out every day unless one is too sick. One abstains completely from accepting meal invitations and eating at people’s homes.
  2. The observance of wearing only three robes. Here, one uses only three robes—the upper-robe, the under-robe (sabong), and the outer-robe. One does not receive any robes additional to these. In short, one doesn’t have another set of robes in reserve.
  3. The observance of wearing rag-robes. One abstains from using readymade robes offered by the laypeople. Instead, one finds bits of discarded cloth and sews one’s own robes.
  4. The observance of collecting almsfood house-to-house. One receives food from one house to the next; one doesn’t choose only those houses where good food is offered and turn away from those old women waiting to offer fermented eggs.
  5. The observance of eating only one meal a day.
  6. The observance of eating only from the bowl. One doesn’t use any other receptacle.
  7. The observance of refusing any additional food after one has begun one’s meal.
  8. The observance of living in the forest (dwelling only in quiet and remote places, away from noisy places).
  9. The observance of living under a tree, abstaining from dwelling under any other form of roof or covering.
  10. The observance of dwelling out in the open, exposed to the sun, wind and rain.
  11. The observance of living in cemeteries, along with the ghosts.
  12. The observance of accepting whatever dwelling is offered; not choosing one’s dwelling according to personal desires.
  13. The observance of only sitting, abstaining from lying down at all times.
Alms Bowls at Wat Ratanawan

To be continued….

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