I spent 16 days at Wat Nana Chat as a novice retreatant and was briefly enraptured with the idea of being a Buddhist nun. Samsara beckoned but the days I spent there remain the most vivid and memorable of my life. I wrote about it for Verve magazine and am posting an excerpted version here.
This photo of Wat Pah Nanachat is courtesy of TripAdvisor.I spent a lot of time meditating in this small sala away from the main hall and was assigned regular days sweeping leaves here.
Ubon Ratchadhani is the raw edge of Thailand. Don’t expect the smooth white sands of Krabi and Koh Samui, the Buddhist -Brahmin heritage of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai or the cultural pretensions of Chiang Mai.
Ubon an old Vietnam War air base, a Khmer Rouge border area, is now citified and shares a long hemline with Vietnam and Cambodia. This is the home of fiery Isaan northern cuisine and the famous som tam -Thai papaya salad with pounded bird’s eye chillies that can rip your palate like a razor’s kiss.
Nestled in one corner of village Bung Wai is Wat Pah Nanachat, a monastery in the Theravada tradition.
The road to Wat Nana Chat slices through paddy fields when you hop off tuk tuk or song taw number 36 from Amper Warin. Through a long red dusty track you come upon a spiritual forest that has been lovingly nurtured by a succession of Thai and Western Ajhans (Teachers) and monks in the Buddhist -Thai tradition, the most notable being its founder Ajahn Cha and his student an ex American GI now known the world over as Ajahn Sumedho.
My kuti in the women’s section is on the outskirts of the monastery between the crematorium and the paddy fields. This is an active crematorium and bodies are frequently brought here for last rites. But that is part of our meditation.
Ajahn Dhammadharo, my guide tells me why he feels walking is the right form of meditation for me even though I argue I am used to sitting in the silence of traditional Vipassanna meditation. The path for walking meditation cuts into the forest, still and isolated. Leaves and gnarled branches form strange arabesques cutting out the light .The only sound is that of an insect a hundred feet above in the foliage. Or the gecko bursting forth in full Dolby sound at the most unexpected moment. Sometimes sounds carry in from the highways and fields. Strange hairy creatures cross the meditator’s path, firmed with mud and countless feet in the manner of the old Buddhist viharas of Ashokan times. Ten feet long, two feet narrow – that is all the space to walk and turn and walk and turn into the realization that when you walk you walk-that is the only reality. Barefoot soles, feet, steps merge into an awakened consciousness as hours go by. It is the daily afternoon prescription. I accept another way may be possible. Bleeding feet and endless peace are the fall out of sixteen days I spend at Wat Nana chat.
There are four women in the center right now. Ten men who will train to be novice monks make up our very international lay community – Australian, American, German, Japanese, Israeli and one Indian. The centre is geared for male initiates into the Buddhist order of monks . It is a traditional forest monastery and does not initiate women though they can stay as novice nuns or lay retreatants. I do find some of the rules for women a little stifling but I learn to concentrate on meditation and am very grateful for the privacy and serenity created for anagarikhas .
I wear the regulation uniform for all women anagarikhas- black sarong and white shirts. The men wear all- white.
Our days are part of the working monastery life. At five a.m in the mist and cold of the forest a handful of orange robes dot the grey. They walk in a single file, alms bowls in hand, the white- clad men behind them to bring back food for the monastery. Out in the fields and outside village homes men and women prostrate themselves to offer alms food one of the prescribed ways to increase ones parmis or good deeds. Devotion is absolute. Alms food takes on all kinds of hues and flavours beyond considerations of cholesterol and calories. As novitiates we eat whatever the monks bring back. On a good day the table set out under the forest trees outside the grand sala is groaning but the rules of alms food are clear.
The food cannot exceed the rim of your alms bowl and you must take it once, all at once, so balancing the bowl is itself a meditative exercise in restraint. You cannot go back for another round, you cannot look down the line to see what comes next and since you are achingly aware this is the only meal of the day there is a sense of urgency to the choices made. Sugar doughnuts, roast pork and shredded duck, bamboo shoots and leaves, five kinds of rice, unidentifiable tongue ripping curries, French fries, pink and green sweet halwas, strange fish, ducks eggs, bananas , milk and juice, sweets.
Everything is accepted with gratitude. That logic is sacred. Choice and judgment are suspended. The daily chant in Pali, “Patisankha yoniso pindapatham….Wisely we accept alms food, not for fattening, not for beautification, not for pleasure but to live the holy life”, is a reminder that food too is an exercise in detachment.
By nine thirty am we have finished our only meal for the day. The rest of the day is on assigned tasks, deep meditation and the sound of geckos calling in the forest. The evening meditations are solitary sitting meditations by candlelight in the hall or kutis and the forest takes on a surreal stillness. Every leaf that falls rustles as if to signal approaching footsteps. Often the meditation extends far into the night as time collapses its boundaries.
Day 9Back at dawn in silence, men and women; white and black silhouettes in the mist sweep the forest paths. The leaves fall again and again and we sweep again and again. Unquestioningly. This is the meditation on life says Ping who is Chinese Malay when she sees how irritated I am by the falling leaves. And she is right. Things happen, events occur; people pass by seamlessly within the fabric of our daily routine. Again and again. My feet are torn but the walking mediation continues. In the evening the wind howls but we sit in our individual kutis meditating by candlelight or in the small forest Bot past midnight.
On Wan Prah – full moon days- and the king’s birthday, local crowds flood the monastery. The village women and monks chant all night and maintain vigil while we chant the dawn sutras from three am. The monks from all over the world, Japan, Australia, Canada, the UK, America, in orange robes, heads tonsured , eyebrows shaven eyes downcast with their black alms bowls in the main sala form a timeless picture against the soundscape of the triple gem , “Buddham saranam gacchami, dhamam saranam gacchami, sanghang sarnam gacchami “
Day 16 Meditation teaches you not to hold on to sadness but connections in retreats are always intense. We continue our stories alone and each one’s pans out in different directions. David is ill and may not be able to ordain until he recovers. I watch him come to terms with a dream deferred and am humbled. James goes back to his job as a software engineer. Barbara is going to ordain in a month. Ping will be a nun in Australia. Alex will stay on and take the vows. Sixteen days later there is no need to exchange e-mail ids or addresses.
Merely time to return to samsara on Tuk tuk no 36