S A N T A C I T T A R A M A B U D D H I S T M O N A S T E R Y
Ajahn Chandapalo's Travels - Part 2
The first part of this account can be read on our website by clicking here.
Northern Thailand, bordering with Burma and Laos, is culturally and ethnically close to both countries and shares the same mountain ranges, being in fact the foothills of the Himalayas. This region, commonly known as the "Golden Triangle", was once a major area of opium production, now largely replaced by less controversial crops such as tea, peaches and asparagus. We stood at a point overlooking the confluence of the rivers Sai and Mekong where the three countries converge at the very centre of the Golden Triangle. Green actually seems to be the most predominant colour here. I'd only visited the North very briefly, about ten years ago, so I was keen to return. Here you find all the comforts of modern living, excellent roads (better than in Italy according to Giorgio), historical temples, delightful scenery and wonderful hospitality. It was certainly a joy to be back in Thailand, where Buddhism is so deeply rooted and has continued without interruption for centuries, undisturbed by the effects of colonialism and extreme political ideologies. In the week or so that we were there - mostly in Chieng Mai, Chieng Rai and Nan, with brief stopovers in Mae Sai and Lampang - the level of devotion and generosity that we witnessed was truly heart-warming.
One of the most memorable moments was at Wat Chedi Luang in Chieng Mai. This is a 14th century temple which, for a brief spell, had Ajahn Mun (1870-1949) as its abbot, the most revered Thai forest monk of the first half of the twentieth century, and an important influence on Ajahn Chah. Its stupa was originally almost 90 metres in height but was partly destroyed by an earthquake in 1545. We were blessed with an incidental meeting with the present abbot, a 90-year-old direct disciple of Ajahn Mun, with a radiant smile and warm and peaceful presence.
I would have happily spent more time in the North, but I had an appointment at Wat Pah Nanachat, the International Forest Monastery (www.watpahnanachat.org) near Ubon in the Northeast. Every few years the abbots of the various western branch monasteries in the Ajahn Chah lineage - numbering about 15 by now - meet together for several days, and this time the venue was Thailand, in the monastery founded by Ajahn Sumedho over 30 years ago. At that time all the disciples of Ajahn Chah were in Thailand; now there are branch monasteries in Britain, Switzerland, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Being so dispersed, it feels important to come together on a regular basis, to maintain a sense of unity and concord. One of the conditions mentioned by the Buddha as conducive to the welfare of the Sangha, was assembling frequently and in large numbers. There were around 70 of us staying in the monastery, including the usual residents, visiting abbots and western monks converging from all over Thailand for the gathering. Even so, it was spacious enough to feel quite solitary in one's own little hut in the forest.
For the three days of the meetings about 20 senior monks gathered together and discussed various issues that concern us. These included such topics as what does it mean to be an Ajahn Chah branch monastery, how to preserve the tradition, what are the required standards; commercial publications; relationships to computers and cell phones; how best to serve Buddhism in our countries and how to support each other as abbots. Although this was intended to be an open forum for discussion rather than a decision making body, in a couple of instances it did become necessary to come to an agreement. A procedure for accepting monasteries as official branches was formalised. It was also decided to produce an English version of the Ajahn Chah biography, which was written originally in Thai and distributed at his funeral. (No doubt an Italian version will quickly follow!). In the main, however, it was a chance for the abbots to relate their experiences, share their views and listen to each other, in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. Despite the different perspectives and varying opinions on many of these topics what came through most powerfully was a genuine delighting in each others' company, and a sense of sharing in common something much greater than any apparent differences. One final decision was made, and this was to meet again, in December 2008, at the long-established Bodhinyana Monastery near Perth in Western Australia.
The meetings were timed to finish in order for us to participate in the Luang Por Chah anniversary commemoration at Wat Nong Pah Pong, his main monastery nearby. On the 16th of January 2006, 14 years after his death, nearly 800 monks and thousands of white-clothed lay people came together to honour his memory and pay their respects, to chant, meditate and listen to Dhamma talks. A retreat programme had been ongoing for several days, while people continued to arrive, camping in mosquito nets dispersed among the trees. The grand finale was a procession around the stupa. This had been built by the monks in time for the funeral, serving initially for the cremation and later to house the relics. It was deeply moving and inspiring to be walking slowly around this wonderful monument together with so many people in an atmosphere of quiet devotion.
Procession on the Ajahn Chah Memorial Day at Wat Pah Pong
Then it was back to Bangkok again; quite a contrast to the rural Northeast, but even in such a teeming and chaotic metropolis, the blessings of the Triple Gem still have a chance to shine forth. Before flying to Australia I had the unexpected and uncommon pleasure of spending a few days almost alone with Ajahn Sumedho. He had to delay his return to Britain following a minor laser treatment for his eyes, so we stayed together in a quiet residence for visiting monks. At 72 years old his general health seems excellent, and the good results of more than 40 years of Dhamma practice are evident in him; he's a delight to spend time with.
While in Bangkok, I found myself in one of those situations where I suddenly wonder if this is really happening, or whether I will wake up and discover that the past 25 years have been a dream and I'm really still an engineering student in England. I had been invited to give a Dhamma talk in Thailand's first university, the Chulalongkorn, named after its founder, otherwise known as Rama V, the country's most beloved historical king. The most unusual aspect of the event was that the talk was to be in Italian, for those Thais studying Italian language. In the end I was asked to give a talk in English, as well, for a second class that were not all conversant with Italian. It took place in the most splendid setting, the "International Tipitaka Hall", a room in the university's oldest building, that houses editions of the Pali Canon in many different languages and scripts. The centrepiece is believed to be the only surviving complete set in Thailand of the world's first printed romanised Pali Tipitaka, from 1893, a project that was undertaken on the initiative of King Chulalongkorn himself. As the paper is very fragile, the 39 volumes are kept in a special glass display case at constant temperature and humidity. At the time it was printed 500 copies were given to different monasteries around the country as a royal gift, and 260 editions were distributed worldwide to leading institutions, mainly prestigious universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg, Harvard and Stanford. I was told that one was given to Italy. Does anyone reading this happen to know where it is now? King Chulalongkorn - generally regarded as Thailand's most progressive and reformist monarch - was also the first Thai king to visit Italy, in the year 1897 (incidentally the year that the first Italian Buddhist monk, Ven. Lokanatha, was born), and was apparently favourably impressed.
To be continued.
We were joined in early June by Ajahn Uttamo, a Taiwanese monk with nearly 20 years of monastic life in Thailand. Tan Gavesako, a young Czech monk ordained in England, should soon be with us. In a moving ceremony, and in the presence of many well-wishers, Anagarika Luca took the samanera (novice) precepts and was given the Pali name Brahmano. Ajahn Jutindharo is still in Thailand and expected back at Santacittarama for the Kathina ceremony, which will be held on October 29th.
The following would like to meet others in their neighborhood who are interested in Buddhism and meditation, with the intention of forming a group to meet regularly:
Pescara: Dorian Di Renzo, Via Alento 7 - 65025 Manopello Scalo (PE). Cell.:347-2994902, [email protected]
Rocca Di Papa: Piero Gatti, Tel: 06-9495515, [email protected]
Saronno (Varese): Davide Puglisi, Via Roma 149,Tel: 338-1021020, [email protected]
For groups present in other areas please see the page: community