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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