|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1992|
Alone on a Mountain
Three hours from Wat Pah Nanachat, driving toward the Lao border over increasingly rough dirt roads, crossing bridges which wash out during the rainy season, one finally comes to the small village of Ban Toong Na Meuang. Going another half kilometre one finds a metal sign leaning against a rock, half hidden by weeds. Hand-written in Thai, it reads, 'Wat Pah Poo Jom Gom.' One has arrived at Wat Pah Nanachat's first branch monastery, the wilderness outpost for Western monks in Thailand.
The monastery is located on a small mountain (in the local dialect 'Jom Gom' literally means 'teeny weeny') overlooking the Maekong River in a forest reserve. This land was recommended as suitable by a Thai lay-supporter during the phansa (Rains Retreat) of 1989. Before the following phansa, local villagers from Bung Wai, and Wat Pah Nanachat monastics, combined efforts to build a main sala and kitchen by a stream at the bottom of the mountain. Six huts and a cave sala were built at the top.
Beginning the ascent up the mountain, one sees huge black boulders balanced at angles not easily believed, creating shapes to test the imagination. Wind-twisted trees with Bonsai branches rise out of cracks in the rock. Roots cling where they can. At the top there is a small canyon in the middle of which rises a seven-meter column of solid rock (Ashoka's pillar or Shiva worship?). The exotic stone formations seem to turn the entire area into a cross between a T'ang Dynasty rock garden and the setting for a Carlos Castaneda novel. In every direction, rocks are found in such refined symmetry and balance that one suspects them to be the work of some divine landscape artist.
The environment is a powerful tool at a Dhamma-practitioner's disposal. In theory, whether in a city or a forest, practice is the same, but at Poo Jom Gom there is a gut feeling that this is the appropriate context for a forest bhikku. For one who understands the urgency of the human condition, this monastery offers the supportive conditions of solitude, silence, no fixed schedule and vast open space. Poo Jom Gom affects one on unseen levels, and one is intuitively steered towards austerity, energetic exertion, a non-interest in comforts and an appreciation for making do with the bare minimum.
Trekking down and up the mountain for the meal each morning takes a total of at least five hours, and sometimes monks opt to fast.
I see solitude as a necessary complement to community religious life. To temporarily cut oneself off with a determined resolve of renunciation gives a great sense of clarity and simplicity to practice. It affords the opportunity for deepening, refining and strengthening the mind. One is free to confront the perceptions of self head-on and to spiritually 'Let it all hang out.' The benefits are quickly noticed in formal practice. The expansive horizon helps to develop an internal spaciousness, drowning out the childish voices of the petty entangled mind. The entire setting is naturally soothing, quieting and peaceful. Depending on the person, solitude can also be a self-centred escape from responsibility and unpleasant sense-contact. An open schedule can lead to wasted time, and with little contact with other Sangha members for feedback, one can more easily become caught up in moods and opinions. A balance is necessary.
The bamboo hut I'm staying in is set on the brink of a sheer rock wall. My jongrom (walking meditation) path ends in open space - cliffs down to the Maekong. Peeking over the edge, I can see treetops, and have to confront sloth and torpor in a dramatic way. Venturing over the edge of the cliff, following a path of bamboo ladders and precarious narrow ledges, one clings and winds one's way barefoot, or with plastic sandals, to a twenty-metre horizontal crack in the side of this rock wall. It has been furnished with a level but slightly 'S'-shaped jongrom path and a bamboo platform. Many such spots have been prepared for the monks to stay, since the shaded folds of the mountain help one to survive the hot season.
The daily descent down the mountain begins in the freezing darkness of 4:30am. One heads out into the field of barren rock at the summit. Mist creates a moonscape - a maze of boulders, crevices, and precipices. It is truly the signless, and the newly-arrived often wander in frustrated aimlessness as their flashlight batteries run down. Trekking down and up the mountain for the meal each morning takes a total of at least five hours, and sometimes monks opt to fast.
The monks and novices gather for alms-round (pindapat) at the sala, a grass-roofed structure of hand-sawed planks and woven bamboo-mat walls. Each Wan Phra (Observance Day) we come here together with the villagers for puja, Dhamma teachings, and all night meditation. In contrast to most Thai wats, those who come are mainly teenagers.
The pindapat route through the village follows a road of sharp rocks that tests one's patient endurance. The smell of fresh water-buffalo manure mixes with that of smoky hearth fires and steaming sticky (glutinous) rice. Small children with big eyes squat and stare up in wonder as their mothers put rice into our bowls. Some are in torn rags, others in New Wave Surf Club T-shirts - part of the supplies from the Kathina festival - passed out by the monastery. A tiny withered old woman with trembling hands plays out her role as a heavenly messenger. Empty structures in the village remind us of our Lao friends who were herded up in an early morning police raid last pansa and packed off to a refugee camp.
There always seem to be plenty of sweet children around, and at the end of the pindapat route, eager boys receive and carry our bowls. After the meal, brown robes fit naturally into the landscape as monks wash their bowls by the stream. After caring for the bowl, the monks again go their separate ways.
Even in the cold season, daytime temperatures are in the thirties (Celsius). The more trees that are cut in Thailand the hotter it gets. We watch rain storms blowing toward us from Laos only to evaporate at the border. To cool down and wash up there is a stream. At this time of the year, the water is still flowing. However, even though this is officially a forest reserve, so many trees have been cut that by New Year the stream stops and becomes stagnant. Since we have been here, the tree-cutting has stopped, and the monastery has built a series of small dams in an attempt to slow the drain-off and retain water in the upper valley.
The stream-bed is littered with boulders and pockmarked with craters and cylindrical holes, creating a maze of pools, eddies, underwater tunnels, and idyllic sandy-bottomed bathing spots. Tiny fish nibble at one's feet. During the rainy season the stream can swell to a violent torrent, leaving monks stranded or clinging precariously to a rope while water rushes by at chest level. Local villagers have now built a bridge spanning a small gorge. It consists of two shaky logs with a few boards nailed crosswise.
In case of accident or emergency each person is outfitted with a whistle to alert others. If hospitalisation is necessary, one can be driven out in the monastery vehicle - a small motorbike with a wagon on the back - although the ride itself may kill you.
As the sun drops so does the temperature. Staring down the winding green Maekong valley at dusk one can feel the calming power of the river. In watching the process of flowing rather than following a particular ripple, perspective changes. Endless flux, melancholy timelessness.
On the further shore are the nearly untouched forests of Laos, and hills roll on until lost in obscurity. One can actually hear the abundance of wildlife. The near shore is quiet because the Thais have hunted the animal population to near extinction, but sounds from Laos are thick with strange bird calls. Ajahn Pasanno is trying to instigate the creation of an international park which would include land on both sides of the river.
Throughout the day the perception of beauty arises over and over to such an extent that the effect on the mind becomes clear. One more beautiful sight tugging at my past conditioning. Dukkha. I only want to be free.
The cold-season gales begin to blow at night. My glot (monk's umbrella) shakes, and the cloth mosquito net billows and flaps. Yet there is a sense of security and contentment. A single candle light and many hours of meditation. My three robes will protect me from the chilling cold.
Looking down from my cliff-edged jongrom path I can see the scattered wooden houses along the banks of the river of the small village called Kan Ta Gweean. It is literally the end of the road as the next village upstream can only be reached by footpath or canoe. Kan Ta Gweean provides alms-food for one monk, and those here take turns going on the pindapat route, thus giving the opportunity for complete solitude. During this time the monk usually has no human contact except for those who put food in his bowl.
Heading down the steep mountain path at dawn, walking stick in hand, one has the opportunity to experience the classical form of the samana (spiritual seeker). There is a great sense of connectedness to the tradition through time and space. Tied to my Dhamma brothers and sisters in this way I never felt alone. The wisdom behind this traditional set of conditions becomes apparent as one lives it. Much of the culture and etiquette of north-east Thailand is supportive of mind-cooling sense restraint. The utter simplicity of the requisites helps to pare life down to the bare necessities.
Going on this pindapat route I feel the power of mendicancy. What I get in my bowl is what I eat. Taking even this small step away from the complacent security of having a kitchen and the insidious tendency to become domesticated is very freeing and vitalising for the mind. Taking refuge in the insecurity of not knowing and not expecting brings one to the present.
On this route monks eat like the locals. Heavy glutinous rice makes up the bulk of the meal, with chilli sauce, spicy green papaya salad, bananas and slightly stale cakes on the side. Often it is easy to take food for granted, but here there is a great appreciation for every banana received.
Walking along the main street one sees that the sandbagged army bunker facing Laos now stores bananas - a sign of peace. The sense of timelessness at Poo Jom Gom is aided by being cut off from news of international events. Wars begin and end. The perennial problems of humanity continue on. Our job as samanas remains unchanged.
Nature is the big Ajahn at Poo Jom Gom. Focusing on its general characteristics rather than how wonderful it is, the forest becomes a fruitful field for investigation. Each particular, encapsulating universal laws, becomes a metaphor for the big picture. Living outside one becomes keenly aware of and attunes to the interwoven revolving rhythms of the environment. By contrast, one realises how far removed and alienated the ego-inundated hyped-up sensuality of the modern world is from the earth, wind, sun and moon. Everywhere Dhamma reveals itself. Each rock, plant and the flow of water is calling out, 'Look! This is how I adapt to my surroundings. This is how I display my characteristics. This is how I follow the laws of nature, and this is how I dissolve and fade away.'
Not every monk likes to stay at this monastery. It takes a certain commando spirit to put up with the hours of climbing up and down the mountain each day, the extremes of temperature, the simple food, the poisonous snakes, and the heavy strain of malaria. After being here a while, the monks take on a rugged appearance. The robes become a mass of patches, the feet are full of cuts and blisters, and the angsa* is worn as a head covering against the sun. The body becomes lean, the beard infrequently shaven. And yet even in the wild, bhikkus retain a refined gracefulness due to their training in Dhamma-vinaya.
* angsa, a broad sash, worn modestly to cover the chest
when the upper robe is not being worn.
Dhamma practice at Wat Poo Jom Gom is uncomplicated, direct and down-to-earth. One of the biggest advantages of living here is that there is no need to do a lot of conceptualising about practice. You just do it.