This year my annual pilgrimage to SE Asia was in two parts, the first to NE Thailand and Wat Pah Pong for the Ajahn Chah Memorial Day and the second a short trip to Burma, to Pagan and the Shwe Dagon in Rangoon.
Every year but one since the passing of Ajahn Chah on January 16th, 1992, I have attended first the funeral and then the annual Ajahn Chah Memorial Days. Way back when these annual events first began I determined that so far as I could and for as long as they might continue I would be there every year. Since then I’ve only missed one year when I had the flu and couldn’t travel. I go to pay my respects, to remember Luang Por Chah and his extraordinary example and to go back to my monastic roots and to privately renew my commitment to do my best to practise the Buddha-Dhamma in the style and to the standards that Ajahn Chah taught. People sometimes, perhaps tongue in cheek, speak of this trip as my annual holiday, and yes, it is a break, but that’s not really what it’s about, really it’s a pilgrimage.
This year, having made sure I could be at the first of Warwick Uni Buddhist Society’s Monday meditation evenings, I flew out for Bangkok on Tuesday January 12th, arriving the following afternoon and then jumping in another smaller plane to go onto Ubon by the evening. Of course it was dark by the time I was met and driven to Wat Pah Nanachat where I was to stay for a few days but, nevertheless, it was good to be back. The following morning I only managed a short almsround to the people gathered outside the main gate and then after the meal I was driven to another large forest temple near the Cambodian border to visit my old friend Ajahn Nudang. Now in indifferent health following a couple of strokes, he’s a little bit older than me, a little bit senior and a very dear friend and teacher of mine. We’ve known each other for forty-five years. I spent the afternoon with him, watched him career around on the electric tricycle they’ve bought him to get about on and admired his new eating hall.
On the 14th I managed a longer almsround through the village of Bungwy and that day after
the meal I went over to Wat Nong Pah Pong for a meeting of the foundation that looks after the publications and image of Ajahn Chah. And from there we went to have a cup of tea with another old friend.
The next day was the big day itself, the 16th, the anniversary of Luang Por Chah’s passing in 1992 at the age of 73. We went over from Nanachat to Wat Pah Pong at around midday. That was just in time for the Dhamma Desanas, one for the laity and another for the monks.
Immediately they were both over we quickly assembled in the main sala and prepared for the procession that then slowly wound its way out through the old main gate, along the path that skirts the old boundary wall, down one of the avenues that approaches the Ajahn Chah Chedi and then partially around the chedi until gridlock.
Then groups of us took up positions at the four chedi doors and the Acariya Puja in honour of Ajahn Chah was recited. Afterwards we placed the flower offerings we had been carrying, paid our respects and retreated to the shade of the outside sala for cool refreshment.
This year amongst the thousands gathered at Wat Pah Pong there was a group of Thai people from England, people associated with me who often come to the Forest Hermitage. They had organised one of the free food stalls and their offering had been egg and chips! They were joined by another group, mostly from Bangkok and after the 16th for a couple of days we went together to visit some of the more local branch monasteries of Wat Pah Pong. One of them was Ajahn Nudang’s and another the huge and beautiful forest monastery on the banks of a colossal man-made lake close the Lao and Cambodian borders where I had spent my second year as a monk in 1973. And on the way back from there we called briefly at the small island wat where the great Ajahn Sao, the teacher of Ajahn Mun, had lived. Ajahn Mun had been an extraordinary monk who spent most of his life wandering in remote places practising meditation and teaching those brave enough and committed enough to stay with him. Almost single handed he revived the Forest tradition. For our group’s last day we went to Sakorn Nakorn to visit Ajahn Mun’s museum and on the way back we spent the late afternoon and early evening at the great chedi of Dhat Panom. While we were there I was privileged to be allowed to go inside the chedi and later I took great pleasure in being just outside the main compound, soaking up the atmosphere and listening to the birds roosting, the novices chanting and watching the light change as the evening drew in.
After that I think I had a day when I didn’t go anywhere and then it was down to Bangkok, some old friends and a few days rest by the sea before – Burma. And I’ll tell you about that next time.