Saturday, September 11, 2010

Voice of the Dhamma from the Forest

A Monk's Tale

The Autobiography of Phramaha Thanat Inthisan

His life and Practice as Buddhist missionary in overseas

I was born in a small village named Baan Pangkhwangtai in Sakon Nakorn Province in the region of Northeastern Thailand known as Isan in the year 1963. I was raised in a typical farming family of that region. My family was very poor, with four brothers and five sisters and my mother. Unfortunately, my father had passed away when I was five years old. When I was older, I helped my family with the farm work by taking care of the cows and water buffaloes. I also learned to cook. While the rest of the family members worked in the rice fields, I stayed indoors and cooked for them. I cooked so often and gained so much experience that now I know how to prepare every Thai dish.
Turning Point
My life would have continued this way except for a significant event. When I was eight years old, I became seriously ill, and my mother placed me in the local hospital for care. I had a disease of the stomach, although I do not know the name in English. The doctor felt the best option was surgery, but my mother was very worried and frightened. I was young and very frail, and she was not sure I would survive an operation. She pleaded with the doctor to find another method to cure me.

My mother was distressed and fearful of leaving me in the hospital. On the way home, she went before a Buddha statue that had been set up under the Bodhi tree in front of the hospital building and prayed for the Blessed One’s help. She promised the Buddha that if I survived she would place me in a temple and have me ordained a novice when I finished elementary school. She lit a candle and incense sticks before the statue, all the while truly believing that if she asked sincerely, the Buddha would really help her.
Soon after the night my mother prayed to the Buddha, I recovered from my disease. I returned to school to finish the elementary level and graduated when I was eleven years old. The educational system in Thailand is different from that in the United States. In Thailand, when students finish elementary school, they have the choice of continuing their education or going on to something else. In my case my mother wanted to fulfill her promise and have me ordained a novice and stay at the village temple. However, since I was only eleven I was still too young to take care of myself, and was not able to be away from my home and family. My mother thought I should wait until I turned fourteen to be ordained a novice, so I continued to work and help my family on the farm as much as I could.

When I turned fourteen my mother and my relatives took me to Wat Srilumongala, the main temple in Sakon Nakorn Province, about nine kilometers from my village. The ordination ceremony was quite simple, and we did not spend much money. Ordination for monks and novices differs in Buddhism. The ceremony for novices simply requires acceptance of the Ten Precepts. A monk, on the other hand must accept two hundred twenty-seven rules in a ceremony that involves a lot of chanting. During my time at the temple in preparation for my ordination, I practiced meditation, chanted, and repeated what the preceptor taught me. At the time of my ordination, I requested the Ten Precepts, and the preceptor gave them to me. That was the entire ceremony, not too long or complicated, and I was accepted as a novice.

My Life as a Novice
In Thailand there are at least one to three temples in every village. My family took me to the monastery in my home town. There were about five other novices living there as well as two or three monks and the abbot, the chief monk of the temple. The abbot was a very kind, calm man. He taught me how to bow down three times and to chant in the morning and evening. I also learned how to perform Buddhist ceremonies.
At about 5:30 every morning, we hit the gong and rose. In Thailand monks receive food from villagers on their alms round. So at 6:00 a.m. we walked into the village and received food (rice, fruit, etc.) and then returned to the temple. From 7:30 to 8:00 a.m., we ate breakfast. Devoted volunteers came to serve us. After breakfast we studied the Buddha’s teaching and the suttas from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. We studied the Dhamma, forms of discipline, rules and regulations for monks and novices, and the life of the Buddha.
I was truly impressed and inspired when I read about the life of the Buddha. The Buddha’s life was one of sacrifice and devotion. He had lived in a palace in a life of luxury but left it behind to search for truth. For six years he stayed in the forest and meditated until the moment he reached Enlightenment. I thought if I had the opportunity I would devote myself to further study and practice. I wanted to learn more about Buddha’s life.

Back to Lay Life
My days as a novice were coming to an end. When my mother had asked the Buddha for help, she had promised to have me ordained for only seven days. Afterwards I would disrobe to become a lay person again. My ordination also fulfilled the Thai custom of male members of a family getting ordained as novices at least once in their lives. My seven days in the monastery were drawing to a close.
My novice friends at the temple pleaded with me to stay longer. In those seven days I had learned a lot about meditation and the life of the Buddha, and I wanted to learn even more. When I returned home, I asked my mother if I could stay longer, and she said that it was my decision, but that if I did decide to stay longer, she would be very happy.
From that moment on I studied every sutta and every aspect of each Buddhist ceremony in the temple. I stayed during the vassa, or rains retreat, which lasts for three months. Vassa is a time for serious, intense practice in the monastery, when novices and monks study together and practice meditation all day. When I experienced that first Vassa, my mind became very calm, cool, and clean. I really liked that state of mind.

A New Beginning
I truly enjoyed being a novice in the monastery. When I had been there a year, we received a visitor who was to have a profound influence on my life. He was an old monk from a neighboring province coming to visit my teacher, or ajahn. When the old monk met me he said, “This novice has a special gift. If he is well trained, he will be a good monk.” I asked him how I could be a good monk, as he had said. His answer was to go with him to the forest, where I could train my mind. The old monk felt this was a good opportunity for me. He thought it was much easier to teach those who are young, because their minds are pure and uncluttered. When people grow up, there are many distractions to cloud their minds. A young boy’s mind is very clean, very pliable, and easy to train. After my year’s education at the village monastery, I agreed to go with the old monk to the forest. However, there was one thing that worried me, that really scared me. I told the old monk that I was afraid of ghosts.
He asked,”Where are the ghosts?”
“I don’t know,” I responded,”but at night I’m very, very scared.”
”That’s because you’re afraid of the dark, not of ghosts,” he said.

When I was a young boy, my mother used to tell me ghost stories before I went to bed. Every night she would tell me ghost stories or folk beliefs. I liked to listen to them, but I was afraid when I was by myself. When my ajahn asked me to stay with him in the monastery, I was especially afraid because the forest monastery was close to the cremation area. In Thailand ninety-five percent of the people are Buddhist, and in the Buddhist tradition, when someone dies he or she is cremated at the cemetery. My teacher sent me to spend a night at the cremation spot nearby. Naturally, I was very frightened. The events of that night were influential in my life and practice.
Someone in the village had died and was to be cremated the night I was to stay there. Late that afternoon my teacher took me to the area and set up an umbrella and mosquito net for me to sit inside. The spot was right next to the burning pile of wood. At about 4:00 p.m., the villagers put the body on the wood pyre and lit it. Afterward the remains were to be returned to the family.

Panna and the Dhamma
As the cremation began, my teacher left me, instructing me to stay there and not leave. I cried and sat with my eyes closed. My teacher said that scary things only come from your eyes, your ears, your tongue, your body, and your mind. At the time, I did not understand what he meant. Then I experienced for myself what the Buddha said, that panna, or wisdom, will arise when you face the problem, when you seek a way to solve your problem.
I opened my eyes and saw the corpse in the firewood. It was burning right in front of me. I closed my eyes and smelled the burning flesh with my nose. I listened with my ears; to the dog barking outside and the birds chirping in the forest. Oh my Buddha, I was very, very scared. Frightening things came towards me from every direction. My teacher said when you see something, just see it; hear something, just hear it; smell something, just smell it; and if you touch something, just touch it. Also, if you think about something, just allow your mind to contact it and let it go.

I thought, this is the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teaching. This is the supreme teaching, because the things the Buddha experienced at the time of his Enlightenment were the very things I was experiencing. I thought I must have truly learned from the stories of Buddha and the Buddha’s life and philosophy. I understood what he meant by Mara (Devil), or suffering, as the enemy inside; and kilesa (defilements), be they greed, hatred, delusion, fear, worry, attachment, craving, aversion and anger-- everything inside. When I faced my fear, panna, or wisdom, arose.
As I thought about the dead body in front of me, I realized it was merely the combination of the four elements—earth, wind, water and fire. I also realized there was neither soul nor mind in the dead body. It is just like wood in the forest. As the fire burned and burned, I saw that nothing is permanent. I thought, if everything is impermanent, then why am I afraid? I asked myself that question, and I realized that fear comes from the mind--from my mind. If I could stop my thinking, stop my mind, then I could stop the fear.
I simply closed my eyes so that I could not see the dead form, to stop it from controlling my eyes. When I heard something, I did cling to the sound. I simply listened and let it go. I did not create any scary things in my mind. The sounds of birds and dogs were just sounds.

I sat until 11 p.m. with my eyes closed, “watching” my breathing in and breathing out. My mind was firm and very, very settled. I was quite calm and cool. Then I heard footsteps. The sound came towards me. I thought it must be either my teacher or a ghost. I closed my eyes and listened. While I sat there, I decided that if someone wanted my life, then my life would be given to that person. Also, if something, man or animal, wanted my life, the thing would still be my friend. I was not afraid at that time. If a tiger or other animal wanted my life, I was willing to give it away. With that mindset, I defeated my fear.
When the footsteps stopped in front of me, I opened my eyes. It was my teacher. He asked, “How’re you doing? Did the ghosts come and kill you?”
I said, “No Ajahn, not at all.”
“Did you see the ghosts?”
“What did you see?”
“Oh, I just saw the fire burning the corpse.”
“Did she walk to you?” he asked.
Something happened in the firewood when it burned. It was a very high pile of wood and the corpse fell from it. My teacher then said, “Okay, come and let’s take a closer look.”
He took me to where the dead body had fallen and said, “Help me to pick it up and put it back in the pile.” We took two long pieces of bamboo and placed them at each side of the body. We then picked up the body with the sticks and put it back in the fire. Then he asked, “Do you want to stay here or do you want to go back to the shelter?”
I said,”Whatever you wish Ajahn. If you want me to stay here then that’s okay.” He let me stay in the cremation area until morning. That night I sat in meditation and came to some realizations about life. The insights I gained, my situation, and the Dhamma of the Buddha appeared in my mind very clearly. I overcame my fear.

As I accompanied my teacher, sometimes it was necessary to stay in a cave or in the wild, and often it was frightening. He told me there was one thing I should know, that my only weapon to protect myself, my life, would be the Dhamma, the teaching--that is, compassion. He said,”Before you go to bed, you must spread loving- kindness to animals, to human beings, to every creature in the world. If you practice more, your mind will be clean, clear, and calm. You will see everything inside you as it really is. You will spread loving kindness, and your compassionate mind will even find its way into the mind of animals. Wild animals will either go away or choose to be your friend.”
I did as he taught, and no harm came to me, nor was I threatened in any way. When I went into the forest and encountered an animal, I remained gentle, and it either ran away or became my friend.

I was a forest novice for six years from the age of fourteen. I returned to my village temple to continue with my traditional education. However, I still visited my teacher three months out of the year, living in the forest, studying, and practicing with him, until it was time to return to Bangkok to continue my studies at a Buddhist University.
When I was twenty years old, I was promoted to a higher ordination to be ordained a monk. Some of my friends had disrobed for three to seven days before becoming monks, but I have never disrobed. After I got higher ordination as a monk, I spent my life in different temples to study Dhamma and the Pali language and did a lot of propagation work. Then, I went directly to the Mahachulalongkornrajavidhayalaya Buddhist University in Bangkok and studied for a B.A. in Education and Buddhist Studies.

Walking on the Path of the Buddha as Buddhist Missionary

In 1977 at fourteen, I began my journey into the monastic life when I ordained as a novice. In 1983, I received higher ordination as a monk.
Between 1978 and 1996, I practiced Tudong vipassana meditation under several “forest tradition” masters; achieved Pali Languages Study, Class V; earned a B.A. from Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University; and my first M.A (Education) from Century University, New Mexico, USA.
By the year 2000, I had gone to India and earned additional Master of Arts degree in Ancient Indian and Asian studies in the Magadh University of Bihar State in India.
I continued my higher education to complete my Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies at Magadh University in 2003. My Ph.D. dissertation was The Problem of Self in Buddhism.
My studies and monastic duties took me from Thailand to over fifteen countries that include such diverse places as Canada, France, Germany, Nepal, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Taiwan. From 1992 to the present, I served, primarily, as a missionary monk at the Wat Thai Washington, D.C., that serves the local Thai and American communities. While in the USA, I established the Buddhist Meditation Center of Berks (BMCB) at Reading, Pennsylvania; served as the BMCB’s Vipassana meditation and yoga instructor; was a visiting professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Value Research, Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I was an editor of the Thai Sangha Magazine of the Council of Thai Bhikkhus in the USA.

In summer year 2003, I went to Russia and taught Vipassana meditation in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And my duties took me to the World Parliament of World’s Religion in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999, and the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, Spain in July, 2004. My studies also took me to the Rumtek monastery in Gangtok, Sikkim, to research the Karma Kagyu lineage (Karmapa Lama XVII). I stayed in Tri Ratana Mahayana Buddhist Monastery in Siliguri, India. Because of my studies concerning Mahayana Pureland, I then went to the Yuan Kaung Buddhist College No. 11, in Tao Yuan, Chungli, Taiwan, to observe the classroom Buddhist studies, Buddhist ceremonies, chanting and activities of the Pure Land School of the Mahayana Tradition. I was invited to be a vipassana meditation master at Chan Taung, the meditation section of Yuan Kaung Buddhist College, during summer session of August –September, 2002.

In addition, I have visited the following:

- the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, the Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital, the Tzu Chi College of Medicine, the Still Thoughts Hall and the Abode of Still Thoughts (the spiritual home of all Tzu Chi members) in Hualien, Taiwan.
- the Chung Tai Chan Monastery, Chung Tai Road, Puli, Nantou, Taiwan, the third largest monastic building in the world.
- The Fo Kuang Shan Buddhist Temple, Sueshan branch, Keelong branch, in Taiwan
- The Museum of World Religions, established by Master Hsin Tao in the Yongho district of Taipei.
At the end of the year 2002, I went to visit the Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon, Myanmar, and visited some other interesting places in Pagan and Mandalay.

Also, my Buddhist studies took me to observe monastic life in India, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.

Since the year 2000, I have written several Buddhist books in English and in Thai. My English books include History, Scripture, and Archeology: A Brief Study Regarding Some Ancient Buddhist Sites; and The Handbook of Buddhist Ceremonies and Celebrations, The Chanting Book. My Thai books include The Buddhist Missionary in the USA; The Holy Places in India; and The Pure Land on the Earth, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Darjeeling-Sikkim, Sri Lanka etc.

In 1992, the Buddhist Association of Washington D.C., (Wat Thai Washington, D.C.) invited me to serve in the United States. I have stayed at Wat Thai, D.C., since then, returning to Thailand every two years to “recharge my batteries.” I feel I must return to the forest to restore my mind. Sometimes a monk is asked to act as a sort of psychiatrist when visitors to the temple ask for advice about their problems. When monks are exposed to so many problems people have, a sort of mental “toxic” residue remains.

I like to return to the forest to refresh my mind. This year (2010) I have gone to India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the Himalayan Mountains in India. I learned some new things and returned to teach the people in Wat Thai, D.C., and to practice. This is my life, which I’ve enjoyed for twenty eight years to the present.