I am so embarrassed. This is my second wat orientated post since I said I wasn’t going to do any more! My excuse is that this is a story more about a day travelling around the countryside with a van full of monks than the wats themselves so I hope you forgive me and keep reading.
Just before we start on the main topic here’s a photo I wanted to share.
Gaun and I have been attending regular evening chanting and meditation sessions at a wat about ten minutes down the road from us at one of the many Buddhist forest temples scattered throughout Thailand and beyond. A week ago the Abbot (meaning father) invited us to join a group of laypeople and his monks in a day trip visiting four local temples and their Abbots.
I love things like this. You are either going to sit in your house and exclude yourself from Thai life or jump in when the opportunity is offered. Either is fine and it’s not up to me to be judgemental but I prefer the latter option. If nothing else the blog would die otherwise.
If you just want to read about the day then skip this next bit. As always I try to provide as much background to my stories as I can for those who are interested in learning more about this culture:
The Thai Forest tradition is the branch of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand that most strictly holds the original monastic rules of discipline laid down by the Buddha. The Forest tradition also most strongly emphasizes meditative practice and the realization of enlightenment as the focus of monastic life. Forest monasteries are primarily oriented around practicing the Buddha’s path of contemplative insight, including living a life of discipline, renunciation, and meditation in order to fully realize the inner truth and peace taught by the Buddha. Living a life of austerity allows forest monastics to simplify and refine the mind. This refinement allows them to clearly and directly explore the fundamental causes of suffering within their heart and to inwardly cultivate the path leading toward freedom from suffering and supreme happiness. Living frugally, with few possessions fosters for forest monastics the joy of an unburdened life and assists them in subduing greed, pride, and other taints in their minds.
Forest monastics live in daily interaction with and dependence upon the lay community. While laypeople provide the material supports for their renunciant life, such as almsfood and cloth for robes, the monks provide the laity with teachings and spiritual inspiration. Forest monks follow an extensive 227 rules of conduct. They are required to be celibate, to eat only between dawn and noon, and not to handle money. They also commonly engage in a practice known as “tudong” in which they wander on foot through the countryside either on pilgrimage or in search of solitary retreat places in nature. During such wanderings, monks sleep wherever is available and eat only what is offered by laypeople along the way. (My thanks to these words from the following Site HERE) Another useful resource can be found HERE.
The start of the day was set at 7.00 am today and the abbot was concerned whether I could get up at this early hour (I think their day starts around 4.00am!) Well I made a special effort, set the alarm and we arrived at the wat pretty well on time. The monks were keen for us to join in on the day. One of them is the brother of the lady who owns the land next to ours. The day before he phoned his sister, who phoned Yuan, my sister-in-law, who phoned Peng, my step daughter, because Gauin wasn’t answering her phone to remind us! The advantages of living in a small Isaan village.
I have been awake occasionally at a time to photo the daily rounds of the monks early morning to collect their food for the day donated by the villagers. I have never thought about the process after the food has been donated. Read on.
The forest wat we go to called something like Wat Pha Silawa, which I can’t find on the internet but it is out of the way so maybe not surprising or my phonetic spelling of the Thai is out – Google map photo above. I like the place because of its treed, peaceful location and the fact the abbot has it well maintained unlike so many Thai temples. Everything is spotless and the roads and paths swept of leaves every day. The monks have a two hour chanting and meditation session twice a day, which is open for anyone to join.
It is this third building that was being used on this day and when we arrived the distribution of the morning’s food collection was underway. All of the contributions were collected in tin trays from which the four monks present were selecting what went into their individual pots.
Seeing my normal first meal of the day consists of cornflakes, toast and a couple of coffees this looked a bit overwhelming. Luckily we had some help from a couple of the other visitors who had slept in the temple overnight.
Just as we were about the leave Gaun spotted this mushroom in the trees and the hunt was on.
These type of trees and the rain evidently make an ideal mushroom breeding ground. Everywhere in the local area is selling mushrooms. Roadside stalls have sprung up wherever you drive and you are never far from a source of freshly picked mushrooms.
These formalities took a couple of hours and we were then really to load up with three of the participants for the day and follow the other cars on the day’s round of four temples. I wrote a couple of sentences in my post on the Ubon Ratchathani candle festival HERE, which read “These days monks are more likely to be seen being transported around in pick-up trucks and chatting on their mobile phones but the tradition still carries on. The candles were provided to encourage the monks to stay inside and study the scriptures.”
I don’t want to be negative about the way things are done in the Thai Buddhist world so I won’t make any comment on the transport purchased the day before for use by our temple. It is something I could get hung up on and I don’t have the time left to clutter my life with unnecessary stuff. However (!) I do wonder where the renunciation part of this quote applies to the photo below “Forest monasteries are primarily oriented around practicing the Buddha’s path of contemplative insight, including living a life of discipline, renunciation, and meditation in order to fully realize the inner truth and peace taught by the Buddha.”
The four wats selected for our attention this day were all smallish, simple local temples and not the flash ooh ah type of structures like the amazing one I wrote about HERE. Photograph one of the wats, like “our” forest temple and you’ve pretty well got most of them covered. The highlight of the day for me was being invited to join this event, one of those things that happens in the background of this society that us farang would miss out on unless we get out and become more involved and open.
I had thought that all the temples would be very local but by the day’s end we had covered over 200km so it was quite a round trip. In the unlikely event someone wants to visit any of the wats I describe please write and I will give you the details.
This one was local. It is 4 km off the 228, the road that goes from Nong Bua Lamphu, our local larger town, to Si Bun Ruang, our home. It isn’t actually a forest wat but the abbot is a senior monk, more senior than our abbot, so our group called in.
Each visit followed a set procedure. The abbot of the wat being visited sat up front with his monks and our lot joined in. Laypeople obviously knew we were arriving by turning up and participating in the welcome ceremony. Some then joined our travelling group because as the day went along the party got larger and larger.
There was a welcome prayer and then our monks gave small gifts to the local abbot – candles, a couple of orange robes, bottles of water, a case of coke!, toilet paper and some bottles of vitamin liquid. A collection of money was made from the room and counted. A written note advising the money raised was included in the items given to the abbot and the money deposited into the safe all wats have for donations. I thought this was strange but having read my researched introduction at the beginning of this post “Forest monks follow an extensive 227 rules of conduct. They are required to be celibate, to eat only between dawn and noon, and not to handle money.” this now makes sense.
The abbot in three of the four situations gave a short talk, in Thai of course, so I can’t pass on any wisdoms. A wind-up chant from everyone and the formal part is over. Drinks were then usually made available and the whole visit was over in well under an hour.
Wat 2 – name below if you have a Thai person handy
This one was on the 210 between Nong Bua Lamphu and Udon Thani. It is a huge piece of land of 1,000 lei (1 lei = 1,600 m2), which equals 1.6 sq km or 395 acres.
Wat 3 – Wat Tham Phra Thep Nimit
This one was set at the base of the hills closer to the border with Laos and took about an hour to drive there. “Tham” means cave in Thai and “Phra”, also spelt Pha or Pa, means forest. We didn’t get to see the cave but can vouch for the trees. When Gaun and I went to our local forest wat with my brother and sister-in-law during their visit to us in Isaan, one of the monks gave us a copy of a book, which had this cover. I thought the monk had a certain presence but because the publication is written in Thai I had no idea of who he was or where his wat might be.
But before I introduce you to him it was around lunchtime and the Thai world comes to a stop to eat. Warning – if you are visiting any government offices don’t do it between noon and 1.00pm. Everyone goes to lunch at the same time and many places are deserted during this hour.
Luckily we had plenty of food left over from the morning’s collection and the local people had cooked extra for people visiting the abbot that day. Our group had grown by quite a bit by then.
The meeting with the abbot was again held in a small open sala to the side of the main meeting hall. All very informal and friendly. This was a very happy monk. Instead of giving a talk he just chatted with everyone and there were obviously lots of jokes flying around, which he enjoyed immensely.
Another forest wat on the outskirts of Nong Bua Lamphu. Again nothing architecturally significant but a warm welcome from the abbot and his monks.
For regular readers of the blog do you remember our visit to Wat Pa Phu Kon HERE? You’d remember the photos for sure:
After we called into this wat we popped into a forest wat (although at the time I wasn’t so clued up on them) called Wat Pa (I don’t need to tell you again that means a forest) Nakuamnoi. The main hall was almost identical in style to the ones we were visiting in this post.
Although inside was a step up from our local versions:
Back to the current story.
Gaun went to the toilets before the ceremony and I could hear all this chatter in the distance. It turns out that she had the Thai equivalent of the Australian redback spider on the toilet seat experience.
The formal part of the visit got underway and followed the same schedule as the others.
As a bit of a coffee freak with an Italian espresso set-up at my place, I felt for the monks drinking the shot prepared by this guy. I could gain many Buddhist merit points by teaching him how to make a good coffee 🙂
Even the forest monks can’t help themselves in the endless Thai Buddhist building fever. One does wonder at the necessity for a water based sala but if the money is there to spend………………….
If you want to read about the forest tradition being lived much closer to its original intention then have a read of my post HERE about the day we visited a monk in the hills of Mae Rim behind Chiang Mai. He was an ex very senior monk trying to escape the materialism of modern Thai Buddhism. I will get back to see him one day and probably find a concrete wonderland.
The day finished we dropped our fellow travellers back at our temple and took the lady who lived in the next moo baan to our village home. Gaun was rewarded by being offered lots of cuttings for her garden. A happy Gaun indeed. All planted today as I write this post.
A great day out at a time of the year when the countryside is looking especially Thai with new rice paddies looking picture perfect and all the vegetation thriving in the wetter climate. With temperatures in the high 20’s this is a very comfortable time to visit. Bring an umbrella for the afternoon rain.
Thanks for reading.