& Personal Recollection
Ven. Ajahn Khemadhammo with his
teacher, Ven. Ajahn Chah, in 1972.
In 1971 when I was preparing to set off on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy places in India on my way to Thailand and ordination, Venerable Ajahn Chah was not yet a well-known name. But a monk who was then staying at the Thai temple in London knew him and suggested I go to him. I had other ideas. However, months later, sitting in a big monastery in Bangkok where I was just about to ordain as a samanera, that monk I’d known in London suddenly arrived and having supervised my ordination insisted on whisking me off to Ubon and a visit to Wat Nong Pah Pong, the principal monastery of Ven. Ajahn Chah. Just before we went I stepped out into a busy Bangkok street and saw coming towards me in the distance an old and close friend whose judgement I valued. He’d taken off a couple of years ahead of me and I hadn’t seen him since. By the time we met again in Bangkok he’d already been in robes some little while and having visited many monasteries was able to confidently tell me that the very best place to ordain and train as a bhikkhu was with Ven. Ajahn Chah. So, on New Year’s Day I and the Thai monk from London went to the North-East, to Ubon, and a few days later I paid my first visit to Wat Nong Pah Pong and Luangpor Chah.
It was not the most encouraging of beginnings. When we arrived in the middle of the morning the gates were firmly shut and locked, and a big notice proclaimed that Luangpor Chah was ill and resting. It was the only time I ever saw visitors discouraged, although it seemed we were forever expecting his health to collapse. But that very first morning outside Wat Pah Pong we weren’t turned away. A message was sent in to him, then the gates were opened and we were led in and invited to sit in the expanded area under his simple dwelling where he usually received his many visitors. He came down the stairs and sat with his legs tucked up on the raised hard wooden bench in front of us and sipped glasses of tea while he talked. He seemed tired, but smiling and jolly and we did our best to communicate, with the friendly Thai monk from London not the most fluent of interpreters.
There were one or two things for me to clear up before I could stay with him permanently, but having been accepted I lost no time in fulfilling those few obligations back in Bangkok and returning as soon as possible to begin my life under the guidance of Luangpor Chah. This was to turn out to be not entirely a bed of roses!
Of course the problems were all mine. But that’s often not how one sees them and I’m afraid I found things to criticise. But I stayed. And of course there was much that I appreciated and as the years have rolled on I’ve come to value him and what I learnt and absorbed from him more and more. My love for him was slow to take, but it’s grown and is growing steadily. But life with Luangpor Chah was not always easy, in fact it was sometimes downright impossible and I well remember the frustrations of having for the umpteenth time got it wrong – and in public too!
There was a way of doing everything, much of it established by the Buddha in the Vinaya, but some personal to Luangpor and while he could always tell me what was wrong, he wouldn’t always tell me what was right! I soon caught on that there was something in this, although that didn’t necessarily make it any easier.
He had his idiosyncrasies, he had style and he was on occasions wonderfully theatrical with a gift for superb entrances. I’ve never forgotten cowering in the shelter of a grass roofed sala after a long wet hike along flooded and boggy paths through thick forest when he’d sent us on ahead to beat the impending storm, and watching him make his entrance into the surrounding clearing like some grand opera star, his umbrella in one hand, staff in the other and his enormous tummy bearing all before it.
The traditional meditations that he advocated didn’t usually include metta or loving-kindness, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met such a loving or compassionate person. One of my earliest recollections during the first few months with him was hearing someone call me and turning into the glare of the sunlight to be embraced by a feeling of the nearest thing to pure love I’ve ever experienced – it was him just standing there smiling at me. He took good care of us too and although he sometimes scolded or made fun or brought us down to earth in other ways, you never felt that there was anything but a deep and genuine concern for your welfare behind it all – at least once you’d recovered.
He loved strolling around the edge of the monastery in the morning just after his almsround and while other monks who’d gone farther afield returned and the meal was prepared. Occasionally he’d be alone, but more often than not he’d beckon another to go with him. If you were in trouble or wobbling, you might be that favoured companion. When I was having a hard time – or harder time – he took me for a few days and while I had great difficulty understanding him – the convention of walking to one side and slightly behind didn’t help – it pleased me enormously to have that personal contact with him. On one of those days as we came near the front gate, just the two of us, he started fussing about and tidying things up. I remember there was a long, lumpy and ungainly branch that had fallen on the ground and he wanted it out of the way. He motioned me to get hold of one end while he lifted the other and then, in the moment when we held it ready to throw, he looked up and his presence glowing in the early morning sun, he asked, “Is it heavy?”, and then again as we chucked it into the forest, “Now is it heavy?”!
Like that, he taught us to see the Dhamma in everything, to practice ‘letting go’, and to see everything we said or did as included in our practice. It wasn’t just a method of sitting in meditation that interested him, but a wider cultivation that reached into every part of one’s life, baring the worst and drawing out and encouraging the best. Training with him the rules, etiquette and forms of monastic life were not the tired empty traditions of so many other monasteries. They all became a ‘skilful means’, a part of the tool-kit with which one might fashion an enlightened inner attitude. And the purpose of our life we were never allowed to forget: we are bhikkhus not for gain and fame, not for status and worldly advancement, but in order that we may have the best possible chance of facing our kilesas, all those spoiling influences of our hearts and minds, of seeing and understanding them, of casting them out and achieving a secure and lasting peace, the real happiness of Nibbana. But while there was this serious, highly committed and even fierce side to him, there was also a tremendous warmth and happiness. A friend of mine once commented that his first impression of him was of a big, happy frog sitting on his lily-pad. With all that Buddhism has to say about suffering, negative mental traits, the analysis of mind and matter, and its incomprehensible terminology, it often feels as though its relationship to life and living and the happiness factor have been ignored. Not so with Luangpor Chah! He exuded happiness and people were drawn to him and loved to be with him. But he never missed a trick. He never bored people with long dry lectures full of lists and Pali terms, but sat and enjoyed their company, laughing and joking with them and listening to all their rubbish, until the moment there was an opening, then, like a master swordsman, he’d be in and striking right to the heart would deal them some real, living Dhamma. And he’d sit there doing this all day from soon after the meal till late at night, while an almost continual, ragged procession of visitors came and went.
There were always a few of us waiting on him, but not many of us could stand it for long. I remember one day when I tried to do my bit in the heat of the day and an old, deaf man with an extremely primitive hearing aid, a prototype of one of the first ever built by the look of it, came to discuss some benches he was to make for outside the dining-hall. There was Ajahn Chah yelling at him for all he was worth and even getting down off his seat to squat in front of him and get a bit closer, and the old boy frantically rattling and banging the ancient box of tricks on his chest and – well, after a couple of hours of this I’m afraid my endurance petered out and I trailed off into the forest to find my kuti and some relief for my pounding head. But patient endurance was something that Luangpor valued highly and frequently drummed into us. “There’s nothing to it, just endure”, he’d say and I know I was one of those who’d groan and not feel very certain of all this. But I stuck it and I know now there’s a lot to be said for just waiting and watching.
Life with him was never dull, but you had to be on the ball, “like a good soldier, always ready”. And of course his unpredictability was made even worse when you weren’t very certain of what you thought you might have understood. Out with him on a tour of some of the branch monasteries I was nearly frantic to get my stinking robes washed. Oh the joy when at one stop I saw the novices hurrying across to the washing sheds with Luangpor’s robes to wash. I grabbed mine and dashed after them, with the other attendant monk who was in a similar predicament hard on my heels. Unfortunately, what we didn’t take into account was that as his were first in the wash, they would also be the first out, the first on the line and the first to be dry. Mine were just looking all right when I heard a shout and glancing across the compound I saw the car ready to leave with Luangpor already robed. There was nothing else for it but to grab everything and get moving. My friend was not as fortunate as I – his robes had been done after mine – and so, a very damp monk, he rode in the back of the pick-up spreading what bits of his robe he could to dry in the sun.
Luangpor looked after us but he didn’t coddle us, and as much as possible left us to find out for ourselves. I remember him listening attentively as I laboured to explain some of the difficulties I’d been having and then grinning and pointing to himself and saying, “Me too!” – and that was it.
And he was amazingly tolerant. Really, with so many monks and a few really awkward ones, like me whose language he couldn’t speak, it must have been an awful lot to put up with. But he never seemed to mind, except on one occasion when something went badly wrong and then that jolly, happy old frog suddenly metamorphosed into the most terrifying species of monk-eating tiger you can imagine.
He didn’t mess about. I liked that. When something had to be done, it had to be done and someone had to get on and do it. When we were preparing to come to England I had to go across to see him early one morning and explain that through a telegram and telephone call we’d discovered that the preparations for our visit were being delayed. He took me for a stroll across the monastery, then turned to me and announced that there was nothing else for it, we would have to go to Bangkok and get it sorted out.
That trip to England in 1977, his first outside South-East Asia, was a great success. While Wat Pah Pong practically starved without him – not many came with food if he wasn’t there – he enjoyed a relatively relaxing time in Hampstead and I felt so pleased to have him there in an area that I knew and loved and where I had lived through some of my more formative and important years. The old Hampstead Vihara was also where I’d first encountered Buddhism. It was the closest time I had to him, but eventually he went back and I had to stay.
During his months there, the dizziness that was eventually to lead to his almost complete disability became worryingly apparent. I remember taking him on a train down South to visit my parents for the Queen’s Jubilee Weekend and wondering whether I’d ever get him back to London, he was so bad.
After his return to Thailand I didn’t see him again for nine and a half years and then hearing he was dying I rushed to see him. He didn’t die that year, but he was dreadfully ill and practically helpless. I went to see him every year after that. Apparently, as he was declining he’d said that this was his karma and there was no need for anyone to do anything about it. He was bed and chair bound, physically dependant on others for everything for nearly ten years before his death in January 1992. We can’t know what he was doing in that time or why it had to be that way, but after so many years so selflessly giving himself to others, I like to think and hope that he had some time to himself and that perhaps he may have finished his own task. We may never know, but I hope he ended his life an Enlightened Being and that if he hadn’t quite made it he soon will.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to have known several remarkable people and the best of them all has been Luangpor Chah. He’s grown on me. And I respect and love him and am ever so grateful that I’ve had the good fortune to be his disciple. When the news came through that he’d died, amongst my first thoughts was the determination to try harder to be worthy of him and I really do hope that I can carry on and keep alive in some small way something of what he has offered to so many like me.
A week after he died I arrived in Thailand and went straight to Wat Nong Pah Pong to pay my respects. The huge ornate coffin was set up in the new and hardly completed sala, flanked by wreaths from the Royal Family and with his portrait and robes and bowl displayed by the side. A fifteen day period of practice had begun immediately after his death and thousands were flocking from all over Thailand, coming and going all the time, to pay their respects. Every day, out under the trees and delivered from the place in the forest where he’d first camped many years ago, there was a sermon. Then in the evening from soon after seven until midnight there was chanting and meditation and another sermon. The atmosphere was electric. A sense of loss there was, but it was charged with love and the joy of being part of what this very great man had created. It was wonderful. He always emphasised the Sangha and I am so happy to belong. Thank you, Luangpor Chah Subhatto.
Ven. Ajahn Khemadhamma (Phra Bhavanaviteht) OBE
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THE FOREST HERMITAGE
– Wat Pah Santidhamma –
Lower Fulbrook, near Sherbourne
Warwickshire CV35 8AS
The Buddha-Dhamma Fellowship, Reg. Charity No. 289913