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A Novice in a Thai Buddhist Monastery

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Novice Buddhist Monk at Wat Pah Nanachat near Ubon Ratchathani, N.E. Thailand
The Author as a Novice at Wat Pah Nanachat
near Ubon Ratchathani, N.E. Thailand (Aug-Sept 1983)

Miss Cindy was an American Peace Corps English teacher from Missouri. She had been posted to the town of Surin in north-east Thailand. Tom was a devoutly Catholic American agricultural scientist who relished becoming absorbed in the ritual and ceremony of a Thai Buddhist monastery. He also worked with the Peace Corps (volunteers abroad).

Acharn Passano was a Canadian who had lived as a monk for more than 10 years in a remote Buddhist temple. It was in a forest surrounded by rice paddy fields in the rural locale of Ban Bang Wai (Bang Wai village) near the small town of Warin in Ubon Ratchathani province in north-east Thailand. Was this the face of the West in the East?

Buddhist Monks on morning alms round - N.E. Thailand
Morning Alms Round:
Buddhist Monks in N.E. Thailand
Pahkhao (white cloth) - Novice (unordained) Buddhist Monk in North-East Thailand living in a kuti in the forest
Pahkhao (White Cloth):
Novice Buddhist Monk's Forest Kuti

Seven years prior to this, I returned for two years to the town of my childhood in north-east Australia. In that town I became good friends with Roy, a Singaporean Chinese who taught at a local Catholic high school. Was this the face of the East in the West?

OR ...... had I just been feeling like an outsider? ...... AND/OR ....... was I simply looking for something elusive that haunted my imagination?

North-East Thailand - Alms collection in village by Buddhist forest monks from local temple / monastery
N.E. Thailand - Alms collection in village by Buddhist forest monks
from Wat Pah Nanachat in Ubon Ratchathani Province

Both Tom , Acharn Passano and a small number of Thai and foreign Buddhist monks were at Wat Pah Nanachat (meaning "International Forest Temple" in Thai). I landed there for yet another distraction and learnt that I was really just a buffalo wandering on another one of my "new and wonderful paths". One of the young Thai monks told me that I was a "kwai" (a buffalo) because he had trouble understanding my poor pronunciation and use of tones in the Thai language.

At that stage I had come from eight months of teaching English in Bangkok (or Krung Thep, the city of angels, as the Thai people call it). From the city, I took a train trip of several hours to Nakhon Ratchasima, which is just a mortar shot from the Cambodian border. The loud speakers strapped to posts in the central streets sound a siren when the town is being shelled by Khmer Rouge soldiers who hide in remote jungles. They resent the Thais helping refugees from Cambodia.

From there I hitched a ride with Red Cross workers to Kaui Deng (Bitch Mountain), the Cambodian refugee camp shown at the end of the movie "The Killing Fields", about the horrors committed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (then called Kampuchea) between 1975 and 1978.

The driver of a timber truck gave me a lift to Surin, further north and away from the sensitive border area. Miss Cindy had been working for the Peace Corps at a government school in Surin where I found lodgings on the floor of the local temple for a couple of nights. My goal was to try the life in a forest temple for a month or so. So I travelled in the general direction of Laos for a couple more days before arriving in the village of Bang Wai.

At the forest temple, the monks were a very mixed group - from Thai teenagers (often the youngest boy in a family), to foreign ordained monks, a selection of unordained "pahkhao" (white cloth) novices and a seriously self-mortifying Japanese monk. The Japanese monk had subjected himself to three 35-day periods of complete starvation already that year. Each time he remained alone in a totally bare room in an unfurnished and windowless wooden hut for the whole of the time. The idea was to remove all external stimulation. He joked that blue movies had never been made that matched his dreams and imaginings after a few weeks of this deprivation.

You can see my white cloth in the photo at the top of this page. Like all of us in the monastery, I slept alone on the timber floor in a single-room kuti or hut on high stumps in a small clearing in the forest. Each of us awoke at 3 a.m. each morning and walked through the dark forest to the sala or meditation hall where we chanted prayers in Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha in northern India, six centuries before the time of Christ. "Namo tassa bhagavato samma sam bhuddhasa."

After prayers we would practice Vipassana (or Insight) Meditation by letting go of or detaching from our feelings as they arose and concentrating on our breath or on our physical pain as a result of being in the semi-lotus position for some time. Then I helped the monks dress in their full robes before accompanying them on their regular morning begging round through the dirt lanes of the village. This was how we picked up the only meal we ate each day. I often carried Acharn Passano's begging bowl for him as we walked through the paddy fields before reaching the village each morning.

N.E. Thailand - Buddhist forest monks from local temple / monastery in Bang Wai, Ubon Ratchathani Province
N.E. Thailand - Buddhist forest monks with begging bowls
from Wat Pah Nanachat in Ubon Ratchathani Province

On returning from begging, we would eat the meal with all food being placed together in a single bowl, regardless of whether it was green guava, plain rice, sweet palm oil cakes or green curry. Village people would dish out and help clean up following the meal, which all the monks and novices would eat out of their bowl while lined up side-by-side sitting on the floor of the meditation hall.

Fetching water from the well with a rope and bucket, and sweeping the leaves on the ground around the hall / temple, were the regular activities that followed mealtime. Meetings between monks and local laypeople about community issues and for prayer, studying scriptures, washing and meditation took up most of the remainder of each day.

The memory that I find most evocative is that of the meditation hall between 3.30 and 5.00 a.m. when the hall candles created patterns of shade and light in the forest outside as it still lay under the cloak of darkness. The gold-leaf covered statue of the Buddha at the front of the sala seemed to join in the pooja (prayers) as it caught the gently moving candlelight. The nearby human skeleton and the human foetus preserved in a large glass jar of formulin cast shadows towards the doors on both sides of the temple. These symbols of birth and death served to remind us of the impermanence of existence while invisible forces made the light dance across the pre-dawn forest.

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Thai Buddha : Timber 50cm tall
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Thai Buddha : Timber 50cm tall
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Tibetan Thangka / Thanka : Dalai Lama Wisdom Words
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Tibetan Thangka / Thanka : Dalai Lama Wisdom Words
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