Remembering our Goal




An interview with Ajahn Pasanno

FSNL: Do you have any general comment on establishing monasteries in the West?

AP: Reflecting on the development of the Western monastic community, I think it's really important to consider that there are kammic consequences in establishing places - you have to look after them. If the monks don't feel comfortable taking responsibility, or they feel comfortable but aren't competent in doing it, it's really problematic for the rest of them as well as for the lay community.

I think we have to really remember what our goal is - it's practising this Dhamma-Vinaya and trying to understand the teachings of the Buddha: how to apply them, so that there's a clear acknowledgement of the fact that there is suffering and there is the end to suffering and be able to experience liberation. I think it must be oppressive for monks if they have to view their life as a career - that they're slotted into that pattern. If that was my perception of what I'd have to do - to fulfil the external duties of the and finally become an abbot - that would be oppressive. Because, really the emphasis always has to be on how we can live this way of life so we can participate or partake in the virtues of wisdom, compassion and purity. Without that it turns into a job, or a duty, which is even worse than a job in that you have to do it, and that is quite burdensome.

FSNL: It's quite specific, isn't it, to be able to listen to a lot of people, make decisions, act as a go-between with lay-people, between this monk and that monk, and also have an eye on practical things. I mean, it's not just a matter of if you can meditate, you can therefore be the abbot of a monastery.

AP: Yes, right, in terms of abbot-ship, it's really an art: learning how to listen to people, learning how to communicate, how to administrate, how to harmonise the community, learning how to be patient with things. I mean, that's an on-going sort of learning - when do you push people, when do you try to push the community, and when do you just have to sit back, be patient and let it unfold and work itself out? That's something that you're always learning.

It's hard to get a balance, because sometimes people really need to be pushed and encouraged to make or do something better than what they're doing and other people just need to be left to go on their own. We've been thinking more and more of the necessity of screening, in terms of the training before people get ordained, because the longer that I'm a monk I see that it's not actually for everybody. It's not something that everybody is either happy doing or wants to do, and even if they sometimes feel they'd like to, sometimes they're not cut out for it.

FSNL: What do you see as the different ways that monks can develop? First of all they have to learn the basics of the vinaya but then after 3 or 4 years or even 5 years or so, what lies ahead for them?

AP: I think that is something we've not been very clear on, and I think there should be more structure to support this development. You know, having places and situations where people can study, can have opportunities for meditation - not just as a part of everything else that's going on, but to have the time to really focus on aspects of study, on consistently developing meditation, like taking anapanasati or metta bhavana, for example, and over 6 months, a year, 2 years, really getting it clear just how to use those tools.

You do need to be able to get good foundations in both the theoretical and experiential aspects of the teachings of the Buddha to really understanding how the Four Noble Truths work, what the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are and how to apply them, and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment - what do those mean? How can you relate them to the other teachings the Buddha gave, so that then they become something you can really apply and therefore a foundation of saddha (confidence). Now, as Westerners, we come from a background where we have so much information and knowledge, that it takes a long time to clear the clutter away. Once we have a basic understanding of how to use the tools: how to live with the community; how to use the Teachings in that way - because that takes a lot of the rough edges off - then, to have a period of being able to settle into consistent study and consistent practice. Having time to delve into it not as some research project, but as a practice.

FSNL: Do you have any situations in North East (Thai) branch monasteries where you can do that?

AP: Well, there are places like Poo Jom Gom and Dtow Dum on the border with Burma. Those two places are very quiet and inaccessible; there's not a lot of coming and going and once the monks are there, they can settle into longer periods of practice.

Once a monk has gone and done a bit of tudong, visited some of the other teachers who are available - and I think it's very important for monks to see other places of practice and other teachers - then it's good to have a place where they can come back and settle into periods of retreat and practice on their own. And that can be balanced out with periods of helping at Wat Pah Nanachat, which is the main training place.

FSNL: Do you think that's possible in the West, or do you feel we're still at the stage where there's a lot more work to get things going?

AP: Just from my period of stay in Britain, I think it'd be really useful to have one of the branch monasteries where the majjhima monks (those with five to ten years training) could go, study and practise, and be in an environment where they're not seeing the same old situation, with the responsibilities and activities that go on around that. I think people would benefit from it and appreciate it a lot. I think especially in the West where there are so many external pulls and where the pulls go into very diverse directions, it's important to take the opportunity to really focus on the Theravada teachings.

Here there's a whole range of Buddhist teachings and teachers, and this Hindu teacher and that Swami and that guru and these Christian ones; and they're doing this and they're doing that, and that's interesting and we can learn something from all that; but then to be able to come back and focus really clearly on the Theravada teachings - this teaching as it is available to us, the teachings of the Buddha in the Theravada tradition. They're a bit stodgy, so you actually have to make an effort to investigate them, and it's when you start looking at them clearly that you really start to appreciate the directness and the clarity and the focus - the quality of it. There's a real integrity to these Teachings. Sometimes the commentary, the explanations and the overlay of things can be dry and you have to sift through things. Sifting through a lot of sand you come to some real gems!

FSNL: Don't you think that the situation in Thailand would favour that a lot more, because there, for a start, the very context is so very solidly Theravada Buddhist, in a way you're much more hard-pressed to actually find anything else anyway - whereas this is a cosmopolitan, multi-cultured society. Also, the monks and nuns have to be available to some extent to physically run the places, to do maintenance work, which perhaps isn't so necessary in Thailand.

AP: That's true, I mean we're pretty blessed in Thailand to live in the situations we have and to be supported so completely. Here in the West there is the necessity to be involved in so many ways. But I think that's also why it's important to bring up as an option a situation where people could focus more clearly. Because the more clearly you can focus on the practice and the teaching of the Buddha, then the more clearly you're able to give that reflection back to the lay community and channel their interest. And as you get more clear in the practice and the Teachings, people recognise that, want to follow that and be like that. That's why we're all here. But the level of our minds tend too much to chaos and busy-ness, it's just so easy to get lost. But as soon as you see a reflection and something reminds you of that, then you get back down to it.

I think that it's useful for us as senior monks to take the time to have periods of retreat. Then that emphasis on the roots of the practice acts as a focal point for everybody else.

When you're leading a community, if you're doing it as a practice, you're really doing it completely and making yourself completely available all the time. And as a practice you really learn a lot from that. But then I think it's quite necessary as a balance to that, to have the time to meditate in a consistent way. Because when you're always available for everybody, you don't have this same sort of time to develop the meditation consistently, or time to just sit down and read the scriptures. You have to be able to sit with them and chew them over and really investigate them. And when you're taking on all sorts of responsibilities for the external aspect of the monastery and the monks and the lay-people there, then you've got so many things on your mind, it's difficult to have the continuity of reflection.

So it's quite necessary for senior monks to have periods of time - some months, a year, two years, because it takes time when you do go into retreat to just settle down and get into it - so that you can clear out all the stuff you've been carrying around. We can only help the community to the point to which we ourselves have developed. So we need time as well to come back and consider our own development.

FSNL: Do you think there are commonly held wrong views about Theravada - particularly in the West it can often be portrayed as a rather stale and life-denying experience?

AP: That is a perception, definitely how some people see it. Again, we get a lot of our perceptions from books and that's how it's presented. But, especially in Thailand, we've been blessed to have a teacher who was a model of how to live the Teachings and what the results of the practice were. Maybe written down it looks like that, but when it's lived, it's lived like this and the results come about like this. You've got a living tradition. So there's a more clear sense of how to apply it.
I think it's important how human these teachings are. I think that the general perception of the goal as it's sometimes presented in Theravada Buddhism is as some sort of miserable extinction! I don't think that accords with the teachings, once you start delving into them. It doesn't really accord with the way the Buddha presented it, but it's how it's been presented. In a society like Thailand that presentation can act as a balance because within the whole society there's a tremendous life-affirmation and enjoyment of life. But as Westerners, we have a pretty miserable world-view to begin with and we take that perspective and it turns into something really dreary!

But if one goes back to the scriptures, you start realising that there is a stress on the importance of happiness. The reason why you keep moral precepts is in order to be happy, to be free from a sense of oppression from the things that agitate the mind. This sense of restraint is to allow the mind to really dwell in well-being, so it's not bounced around all the time. If one practises meditation, the whole reason why samådhi actually establishes itself in the mind is because of happiness. If the mind isn't happy, then meditation doesn't come to a point of fruition. And your clear-seeing of the true nature of reality is the source of tremendous happiness. So the whole path is a path of happiness and often that's not seen or understood.

FSNL: How about Thailand? I mean, if we're looking at, say, an example of how Theravada Buddhism works in a society, sometimes you get some pretty grim reports: AIDS, the drinking, the rabid development, de-afforestation, crime rate, child prostitution and so on, and also quite a lot of reports of the Sangha seemingly not living up in any way to what the Buddha would have wanted them to live.

AP: I think the Buddha would be pretty horrified by what he'd see. I mean you can definitely see those things; they're definitely there. I think it's like a natural phenomenon in a religious society - a religion tends to get old and creaky and corrupt, and it doesn't matter whether it's a religion, a bureaucracy, a government, or whatever - the seeds of their own destruction or degeneration are sown within them. So it's an old tradition and it's getting pretty rickety and falling apart in certain aspects.

On the other hand, there are some really vital things going on in Thailand, in terms of Dhamma, in terms of practice. People who are most interested in Buddhism in Thailand are middle-class or upper-class people, educated people who have a really sincere interest. In Bangkok you've got Buddhist groups established in various places. Government ministries, hospitals, banks, private businesses, will get a Buddhist group together and then try to get a monk or a nun, or a lay-man or a lay-woman who is knowledgeable in Dhamma, and a group will form. There are different teachers, they'll hear so-and-so is coming to Thailand and so-and-so is giving some teachings, then these different groups will invite different people, so in Bangkok there are always places where you can go and listen to Dhamma. And there are monasteries which are doing a similar thing, that get really large groups of people coming to listen to talks and who want to practise meditation.

When I first went to Thailand over 20 years ago, there was very little interest in meditation within the society at large - it was seen as something that was for the monks. Now that's not the case at all. You've got places where people want to practise, they want to get the tools, so they can go home and meditate and find out more about the Buddha's teachings. You've got not just meditation groups, but study groups, sutta study groups, you've got Abhidhamma study groups - it's very active that way. And that is something really promising.

FSNL: Do you get some kind of trickle-down effect, say from the lay interest in meditation and the suttas into something that's working in terms of dealing with their social problems, like welfare, employment or charities?

AP: One of the things that works really well in Thailand is the charities and different things that people can support. The whole concept of dana is just so strong in Thailand that people are very willing to give, to help with things.

A really good example is a monk called Phra Phayom who lives on the edge of Bangkok. He's built a kind of hostel beside his monastery. Normally when the country people come into Bangkok it's very easy for them to be taken advantage of and badly abused in various ways. So he's made a hostel where anybody who comes to the city can have a place to stay, to be safe. Because he's a well-known teacher, various companies and businesses will let him know when they have jobs available, so he'll make sure these people get jobs where they won't be taken advantage of. If somebody's in Bangkok, without a job and doesn't know where to go, they can go to that monastery and be looked after. There are other groups that take in all sorts of second-hand things and make them available to poor people very cheaply, such as food and clothing. All these things are done through Dhamma groups and monasteries.

FSNL: And you've been doing some work in terms of preserving natural forest?

AP: Yes, particularly around the Poo Jom Gom area. I'd been in Ubon say, 15 or 16 years at the time and I thought that Ubon province was all flat paddy fields with scrubby trees scattered around, but this is one area that is left. It's along the Mekong River and up until recently was very inaccessible, so there's still existing forests left and a National Park has just been established. We established the monastery there before the National Park was made legal, so we started to try to help preserve that area of forest, because it's definitely encroached on and threatened, as any forest in Thailand - it doesn't matter whether it's a National Park or not. The forests are disappearing incredibly quickly.

There are eleven villages surrounding this large area of forest and in order to protect the forest, you've got to educate the villagers, you've got to have the co-operation of villagers. Basically you've also got to be able to give the villagers some means of making a living without destroying the forest, because right now, it's a very poor area of Thailand so they survive by poaching the logs and shooting the animals and eating them or selling the skins, so you've got to have alternatives for them to actually make a living. And this is something that has never been done before. Generally, when a National Park was set up, the policy was to keep everybody out of it; and then all that did was to alienate the villagers. The forestry officials don't have the manpower or the power within the society to change things, so they just get swamped and the forest just keeps being destroyed.

FSNL: So what can the monks do?

AP: Monks can act as arbitrators. Senior monks are respected, so we can act as a go-between, between the government bureaucrats and the villagers. There are people who are actually hired to work in public health, but often with these outback villages, the civil service or the government never really gets there, or when they do get there they come in and lord it over the villagers, or the villagers get taken advantage of by the civil service, so you've got to re-establish a relationship. The monks can do that.

And then also the monks can get volunteer groups involved. Right now there are students from the teachers' college and the technical college, who put on plays and skits concerning ecology, the environment and looking after the forest. So once you get the kids involved, then you get the teachers involved. The teachers are quite important in terms of the society. Then once the kids are talking about things, the parents are involved, so it has an indirect effect on things.

We've got the involvement of the Population and Development Association and the head of the Family Planning has committed his organisation to helping us by focussing on alternative livelihood for the villagers. Then there's the nature care group that started with me, we're focussing on education... but it's about everyone working together, and a monk can be very effective in bringing all these different groups together. It's one of the functions of a monk and a monastery to be a meeting place for different levels of society and different groups of people.

Forest Sangha newsletter: January 1998, Number 43

Source : http://www.forestsangha.org


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