The Buddhist Channel

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A Stay at Wat Pah Nanachat

So there I was, after many years of reading stories and accounts, on the train towards Wat Pah Nanachat in Ubon Ratchatani Province, northeast Thailand. “It had been a long time coming” I thought to myself. Would it live up to the hype and expectations or would it just be another place, to at least try, to practice? My slight anxiety kept my mind ticking over imaginations of what it would be like whilst periodically being distracted by the ever more forested countryside we were now passing through.




On arrival at Ubon station, I quickly searched out a low cost guesthouse (with the aid of the holy book that is The Lonely Planet guide to Thailand) and settled down my things in my modest but perfectly adequate room; at 120 Baht per night (about £2.40) anything is perfectly adequate, and headed into the city centre to find food and explore the general scene. Following an interesting fair-type atmosphere in town (the infamous Ubon Candle Festival was building up momentum) I tuktuked back to the guesthouse and settled down for the night with a Dhamma book conveniently left by a previous postulant on his/her way to the wat; I think the same person had also drawn the likeness of the Buddha on the wooden wall beside me; I felt a connection with the process building up already.



I rose early Saturday morning, clad myself in the white long trousers and shirt a lay person traditionally dons for a temple stay and proceeded towards the monastery by motorbike taxi. Within 15 minutes or so, I was entering the monastery compound and sheepishly attempting to get someone’s attention over at the first wooden building I came upon. A lay woman kindly brought me to the guest monk Ajahn Asoka, a towering young man with warm-hearted eyes and a big grin, who then showed me my lodgings and informed me of monastery schedule/etiquette etc. He invited me to join in with the morning meal at 8am so I lay down my things, sat in meditation and awaited the bell signaling mealtime.


Shortly after the meal and formal chanting, I felt my time at the monastery had really begun. My roommate that morning was a young German kid visiting with his family on holiday though he left later that day and an 18 year old aspiring ethnomusicologist from the USA. We were to form a supportive bond throughout our stay.

At the wat, the first part of the schedule consists of chores so I wandered out with the intention of being assigned some job to do around the site. Much to my surprise, the first monk I inquired to about this suggested I go up onto the 15 metre high roof of the new vihara (Buddhist temple/wat) and paint the metal framework of the new construction. It was a very shaky affair and I was sweating copiously under the heat of the Thai sun. Nonetheless, I felt honored to be taking part in the construction of a new religious building, almost like “modern Cathedral building” to quote Ajahn Asoka. A few hours I spent there; it was surprisingly conducive to calm arising in the mind having to focus on my balance whilst seeking out unpainted under parts of the girders so I relished the opportunity to work mindfully.



The rest of the day I studied from the library of texts, spoke with my roommate Jeff and generally immersed myself in the quietude of the place; it was a welcome refuge from the high voltage atmosphere of the high school in Surin city! The nighttime brought the sound of many creatures (some in the forest some upon my very person!) along with the awkward pressures one gets from sleeping on a solid wood floor.



Rising at about 5am (the usual schedule being 3am; it was different due to the exhausting building work) we went to sweep the many pathways whilst awaiting the signal to join the monks on pindapat (alms round). What an experience! I have never witnessed such generosity from such a relatively poor community. It was such a joy to see these people on their knees, lining the village lanes with baskets of food held to their heads in anticipation of the Bhikkhus. This tradition has been going on, unbroken, for about 2600 years of Buddhist history; it really is a remarkable sight.

Bare-footed and in silence, we made our way back to the wat for the single meal of the day. Later that morning, I had the opportunity to speak with Ajahn Asoka about some of the many challenges facing the continued dissemination and practice of the Buddha-Sasana (the Buddhist religion) as well as my intentions to eventually ordain myself at some stage. It was an interesting discussion and one of the first times I felt at ease speaking about such matters openly and with someone who had first hand experience of it. I continued meditation practice in my dorm, wandered the forest for a while and was also invited into the kuti (monks individual dwelling) to speak with an elderly novice monk from Israel. He gave me such a profound teaching about monastery life; pointing out the importance of not having the view that entering the Sangha is like leaving the world but rather like learning to be a monastic within the world as it is already. His kuti was bare and unembellished, not like the monks dwellings I had seen in town wats; I new he was practicing in line with how the Buddha taught so long ago. A second night in the dorm brought with it a light rain and a sound nights sleep.



Refreshed and awake, I swept and went on alms round with the monks. It was now Sunday and the following day would be Asalha Puja, the full moon (Wan Phra) of the lunar month of Asalha, which commemorates the first teaching of the Buddha (the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta; the setting in motion the wheel of Dhamma discourse) to the 5 ascetics he previously trained with at Benares (modern day Varanasi, India) prior to the awakening. Many lay people cam to offer food both on alms round and at the wat; we shared the meal and continued with our daily practice. I spent some time in the outside sala (an open sided pavilion used for Dhamma talks, meditation and group meetings etc). There is the skeleton of a young woman from a local village who had had bone cancer suspended in a glass cabinet. The Israeli monk, Ajahn Paññanando, informed me that she had killed herself and that in Thailand, anyone who commits suicide cannot be cremated so she was buried. A former abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat then requested to have her disinterred and display her remains in the monastery. Anyone who has a good knowledge of Buddhist teaching will know that this isn’t done in order to scare people or to encourage a morbid fascination with death, but rather to foster a contemplative approach to the impermanence of all things in particular of our own bodies. Beside the skeleton is also the preserved unborn foetus of a child. A stark reminder of the dukkha tied up in the process of birth and death.



We would take tea at about 4pm, usually the lay guests would sit together and as we were only 3, it was a subdued but enjoyable affair. My fellow tea drinkers were the American Jeff and a Russian layman who had been at the wat for the last three months, he is intending to ordain soon.



The next two days were very beautiful. So many people came to the wat for Asalha Puja Day and for the first day of the rains retreat (Khao Phansa) on Tuesday. The amount of food offered was incredible; tables had to be laid out outside the building just to be able to serve everything up efficiently. That night the lay English speaking guests had an audience with one of the senior monks in which we asked questions relating to the practice etc. They invited us to join them in the all night vigil (one of the dhutanga/ascetic practices allowed by the Buddha which they would hold over at the outside sala. I can honestly say it was challenging but a great support to developing mindfulness, especially through physical tiredness although the constant heavy rain cooled the air and made it very pleasant for staying awake; it really seemed like the rainy season had started right on que. It was such an honour to take part in that and an unforgettable experience. The night ended with morning chanting with the Thai lay people over at the main building, it can be very painful sat for so long after a night of meditation but somehow we managed to endure it and again joined the monks for morning almsround. A new lay man arrived from Hong Kong that morning so we explained the general routine and said our goodbyes to those we had been with throughout the stay with special reference to a kind and humble Laotian lady who was living indefinitely as a lay postulant at the wat.



I hope to return for many more visits.

7 comments:

flgomez said...

Dear Paul Michael, I enjoyed the blog from Barranquilla, Colombia. Keep in touch. drfernandoluisgomez@yahoo.es.

George Neville Fernando said...

My name is George Neville Fernando living in Canada for the last 21 years a pensioner recently retired from a Bank. I have been a Meditator in the Vippasana (Goeinkaji tradition) for the last 11 years doing retreats both in Dhamma Torana (Canada) and at Dhamma Kuta (Sri Lanka-(SL)).

My family owns a 13 acre Estate in Yakkala (25 KM from Colombo) with an old Bungalow and my plans were to convert the place to Ashram for Meditators and possibly a hostel. I moved to SL in 2007 and worked on this project and spent monies in this regard for over 10 months but had to give it up due both health and family reasons.

Now I have written this property in my son’s name that lives in Canada. As he is unlikely to move to SL he now wishes dispose of it. With his consent (if need be buy it off him at a discount) I would like to revive this plan with some collaborators or preferably with those in the Dhamma path. The property cultivated with coconut, pineapple and other fruit trees is off the main road and it is the last block on the side road and backs vast area of paddy land . The house at present has electricity and running water & has about 6 rooms with a large common hall where groups can meditate. I plan to move to SL early next year and will assist and attempt to raise funds both to work and revive my dream I will be more than happy to send pictures of the land to those that may be interested in matter.

Erik Wallmark said...

Thanks for sharing Paul!

Vern said...

Wat Pah Nanachat is a great place to go if you're Buddhist and practice meditation. You can stay for a couple days at a time, and sometimes weeks or longer as a layperson. One need not ordain immediately, but if you do - I heard the new length of commitment is 5 years. It was 3, years ago.

There is another great place for meditation - Wat Suan Mokkhabalarama in southern Thailand (Chaiya) that offers the monthly 10 day meditation retreats. Two of my favorite places in Thailand... Great article, I enjoyed reading it Paul! -- Vern L., Jhana8.com

Duan Fitzell said...

Hi Paul

My name is Duan and I am a 21 year old South African guy and me and my long time friend are planning to go to the Wat Pah Nanachat monastery for a whole two months. I know that seems a bit long but we thought it through and are dead set. Things have quite literally just started, from the visa and passport obtaining to flights, recommended 10 day meditation seminar etc. We both have our reasons for going and I wonderd if you could help. I have done a bit of research and noticed that the writing to the abbot for permission should be done a long time before hand and I was wondering 3 things and this considering we were planning to go from the end of november to the end of january 1- what is the likelyhood of the abbot giving us permission for both the dates and 2- the length. And finally 3- If we only write now 2012-06-05? We are both fully commited and working hard to prepare physically and mentally do we stand a chance?

Yours sincerely
Duan

Paul Michael Burton said...

Hi Duan. Sorry for the delay and thanks for reading the blog. I think that if you write to the 'guest monk' (not the abbot) now then there would be plenty of time to receive a response etc. Usually people only stay for 3 days on their first visit but I guess each situation is considered separately. I don't see why they would decline your request to stay for so long. There were always people staying for long periods whenever I visited and there was generally always space for newcomers (apart from over significant events such as the Ajahn Chah Memorial etc. My opinion of the placeis that it's much less physically demanding as it was when the first westerners turned up there. The site has good facilities now and is well supported by local people. I suppose it depends what you are used to but I think coming from S. Africa the heat won't be a problem. They sometimes have building projects (I helped paint the new Sala - when you look up at the roof, imagine me right on the top of the girders before all the plaster/roof was put in haha).

Hope you have a fruitful time. Let me know if you have any further questions. Email me at paulchachacha@yahoo.co.uk for a quicker response.

Paul

resort mun river said...

my name is vincent and i colaborate with the wat pahnanachat giving special discount to the temple guests who wants to stay more time in ubon ratchathani.we are very close so we can go and pick you up to bring you at the new "resort mun river" for a few hundreds baths in a beautifull place in front of hadkudua near the river and near the city also.
all information at www.resortmunriver.com
tel:045955449