By now it’s pretty well known that I’m away every January. I go to attend the memorial day for Ajahn Chah, held every year at his forest temple, Wat Pah Pong, in the North-East of Thailand on January 16th, the anniversary of his passing twenty-five years ago. It’s an amazing occasion, hundreds of monks gathered from the many branch monasteries all over Thailand as well as various far flung parts of the world, and thousands of white clad lay devotees, also from all over Thailand and all over the world. In the afternoon, following sermons, one for the laity and another for the monks, there’s a procession that wends its way out and around until it encircles the Ajahn Chah Chedi. Once gridlock is achieved and everyone is still, a dedication to Ajahn Chah is read out and then everyone surges forward to lay their offerings in and around the chedi. Far from diminishing as the years go by the crowd seems every year to get bigger and bigger and I expect that next year it’ll be even bigger as then it will be Ajahn Chah’s centenary.
In the three weeks or so that I am away I usually also visit friends and one or two other places that mean something to me. One of them is a charming little forest temple on a small island not too far from Wat Pah Pong. Its importance lies with the fact that here there once lived an extraordinary monk about whom we know very little, except that it was from him that the great Ajahn Mun, he who revived the forest and wandering tradition and inspired Ajahn Chah, learnt meditation. The silence that surrounds this monk, the fact that he wrote nothing and lived back in the days when there were no recording devices, not only adds to the mystique but reminds us that the silence he cultivated was the silence of a still and penetrative mind, a mind that cuts through to the very heart of wisdom and understanding. On that island they have preserved the hut in which he lived and in a chedi, specially built and dedicated to his memory, a few glass fronted show cases display his coarse hand-woven and hand-sewn robes, his almsbowl and a few simple, personal requisites. Monks like him, like Ajahn Mun and later Ajahn Chah, were extraordinary. They lived simply, had little and few expectations, could walk and wander for miles without map or compass and whatever their austere life threw at them, they could put up with it and learn from it. They had no audience and their aim was to leave no trace. Their’s was a way of discipline, contentment with little, endurance and the ability to watch their mind.
How times have changed. Even when I was a young monk living in the forest, we had no phones, nothing very special to eat and sometimes not much of it, practically nothing to read, letters went out only once in a while and took forever and you know, it didn’t matter. Well, we have to accept the world has changed and there’s no going back to that simplicity but there’s nothing to stop us drawing inspiration from the past and admiring the sheer courage, determination and tenacity of those great monks.
After a few days in North-East Thailand it was time to fly down to Bangkok and there board another plane for Mandalay in Upper Burma, described in the guide book that a Burmese couple in Warwick had thoughtfully provided us with, as not only the cultural heartland but also the spiritual hub of Buddhism in Myanmar. In and around Mandalay and across the mighty river on the Sagaing Hills are so many beautiful temples and ancient pagodas. They say that almost two thirds of the many thousands of monks in Burma live in and around Mandalay. And of course there are the nuns too, resplendent in their pink robes. We were so lucky, that same Burmese couple in Warwick had laid on for us a car and driver and so we spent two and a half days touring the many temples, the old royal palace, and climbing up and down countless steps. Then on our last day, as the dawn was breaking we embarked on a rough old boat to travel that great river, the Irrawaddy, immortalised by Kipling as ‘The road to Mandalay, where the flyin’-fishes play.’ We, of course, were leaving Mandalay, going back down that mighty river that flows the length of Burma to Rangoon and the sea but our destination was Bagan. For ten hours, from sunrise to sunset, we were on that boat, tacking back and forth across this tremendously wide but not very deep river, the captain faithful to a navigable channel. You might have thought it would have been boring after a while but not at all. It was absolutely marvellous.
When we disembarked it was already getting dark and by then we were tired but before us we had a day and a half to explore the crumbling ruins of Bagan, this magical place that teems with ancient brick built pagodas, many of which house huge and extraordinarily inspiring Images of the Buddha. You have some in this year’s calendar. Again, it was a lot of walking with many steps to climb up and down, and it was so hot.
Then lastly, there was a short flight to Rangoon and straight to the wonderful Shwe Dagon. This must be one of the most remarkable places on earth, a place that you just can’t get enough of. It’s a huge pagoda dedicated to the last four Buddhas and covered in gold, surrounded by all sorts of lesser temples and smaller pagodas and where you go just to be there. Some people are meditating, some telling beads, some are simply strolling and chatting but everyone is cocooned in a great cloud of respect and devotion.
Respect was the theme of our pilgrimage: respect for the Buddha and for the Dhamma that can lift us and enable us to purify our minds. Respect too for Ajahn Chah who dedicated his life to living the Dhamma and making it available.