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
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
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
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
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