Friday, August 31, 2012

The forest monastery, Wat Pah Nanachat

Wat Pah Nanachat  
            Innumerable events in my spiritual practice gave it life, meaning, and expression. Major points for me include stumbling upon meditation while reading and an unexpected leap of insight driving home. The experiences I’ve had at various spiritual communities have also impacted me tremendously.  This post is about one such community - Wat Pah Nanachat, a place of Buddhist spiritual practice in the Thai Forest tradition.     

(That's me on the right)

            Monks at Wat Pah Nanachat uphold 227 precepts with no exceptions. They include the vow of celibacy, not eating after noon, refraining from lying, stealing, and intoxicants, not handling money, and not sleeping on a bed. If this sounds strict, well, yes, it is. But the monks cherish them. They say the precepts are like the rules in any sport. Without rules there would be no discipline, no art, no challenge. The precepts are meant to facilitate the calming of the mind. Solitude is prized, for in solitude a person is not likely to be bothered by a family, a career, or sensual pleasure and therefore, is more easily able to follow the 227 precepts. This is why Wat Pah Nanachat is in a forest.

            Before going on, I want to stress other interpretations of Buddhism. For example, I consider myself to be a Buddhist, but I disagree on the emphasis they place on cutting oneself off from the world. It just doesn’t click with me. But in Buddhism there is no one right way. It’s not a proselytizing religion; it is not set in stone. Buddhists all over the world encourage people to doubt Buddha’s teachings. If Buddha says something, don’t just believe it! Test it out for yourself. You don’t have to believe everything Buddha said to be a Buddhist. I don’t – it’s why I’m not living in a forest upholding 227 precepts. But the Thai Forest monks tested out the 227 precepts and found it worked for them. Despite not agreeing with them, I respect them. Overall, I learned much during my time at Wat Pah Nanachat, was greatly influenced by the organization and practice, loved the forest and the people there, but a forest monk I shall not be.  

            Meditation has immeasurable benefits with only one cost – effort. The forest assisted me in meditation, for its solitude helped my mind settle while it’s buzzing insects, restless leaves, and quietness created a surreal feeling that kept me motivated. So I pushed myself, constantly trying to be aware, meditating while standing, sitting, and lying down. I exerted effort. One night, I was meditating alone in my forest cabin and the candle flame went out. I kept sitting - a little darkness wasn’t going to ruin my concentration. But my eyes couldn’t adjust. I started sweating. Ten minutes later I found myself breathing heavily, panting, gasping for air, trembling and chattering. I was in the midst of some powerful storm. For some reason the darkness triggered my deep fears of death. I felt like there was a pit of death in my stomach like a gaping black hole, sucking all of life into it by its sheer inevitability. It was too much for me. I got up, lit a candle, and began walking in circles, shivering all the meanwhile. After some time the storm passed, like all storms do, and I sat down. I stared at my hands, the flickering candle, and listened to the outside noises. Then I began to identity the causes and conditions of the storm. Part of my daily sweeping chores brought me to an empty meditation hall with a preserved dead baby and skeleton. The monks had kept them there as reminders of our certain fate, death. I witnessed a Thai funeral as well: a dead man with a swollen black-and-blue left eye had been placed in an open casket. I don’t know how he died. He was just so still and dead. Even if he had been placed on a park bench and I had only viewed him from afar I would’ve sensed he was dead. All of his life energy was gone. He burned quick - the casket had wood soaked with gasoline stacked beneath it. A few minutes into the funeral only a sizzling body  and burning wood was left. Fat popped, skin sizzled, smoke rose, and in the end, there was only ash and charred bones. I thought about a talk Manapo, this cool monk from Britain, gave about death. ‘Death’, he said, ‘inspires us to live fully. It is inevitable. We don’t know when it will strike us down, only that it will. Are you prepared? Have you lived the life you wanted to live? You only have a limited amount of breaths left. How you are spending your days? This life is precious and it is slipping by. Do you truly know who you are?’ He mentioned death contemplation, how one can harness death to help motivate oneself to live to the fullest. I thought about the terror I felt and decided I would begin contemplating death daily. Not in a morbid way, but as a means to keep motivated. Better to confront my fear of death now than on the deathbed. 

A cool experience
            After a week of solitude in a forest without electronics one’s mind begins to settle. I experienced an extremely wonderful state of mind one night in the meditation hall. I was just sitting normally but suddenly was uplifted by energy. My hands at that time were in the circle mudra, and it felt like they formed a golden halo of light. Soon I was completely awake and serene. I’d always read in books that the correct attitude towards meditation practice was practicing just for the sake of practicing. Not seeking after blissful states of mind and simply letting go. Practicing in this manner is hard, not striving after anything. It tests one’s conviction in meditation. You really have to know meditation is inherently worthwhile to continue in the long-run. Experiencing this state of mind was like a pat-on-the-back, a high five, a little reward. It seemed to mean: congratulations Jared! You’re doing great, keep it up! So I leave Wat Pah Nanachat with a renewed commitment to mindfulness (mindfulness is the core of any meditation practice). Before I practiced mindfulness dutifully; now I practice with zeal. My life is the culmination of past moments; as I add more mindful moments, year after year, my character changes. I had let this slip from the forefront of my mind. Now it is firmly in place. Note: it’s important to not become worried about being mindful. Don’t think you have to be aware of every breath but also don’t settle for laziness. Find your balance and just keep gently bringing yourself back to the present moment. Explore for yourself the benefits of mindfulness. And start a consistent meditation practice, for without meditation I fear your practice of mindfulness will not bring you any results. And don’t worry. I’m nowhere close to being continuously mindful but I’m not stressing about it either. My goal is to be mindful every single moment of every single day. I figure shoot for the moon, if I miss I’ll end up amongst the stars.    

Spiritual Communities     

             I was at ease with the people at Wat Pah Nanachat. We were similar for all of us had decided to spend time in a forest monastery knowing full well what we were getting into. We said we came for different reasons but deep down all of us were trying to cultivate inner contentment. I fit in with this group. It is interesting how I didn’t fit so well during my study abroad experience but felt like a part of a community at Wat Pah Nanachat. The lay people there were like close friends, even though I’d known them for only a few days. I wasn’t trying to impress them and I wasn’t worried about what they thought of me. Being free of social pressure was a great feeling. It made me realize how much social pressure I create for myself by trying to live up to some image in the eyes of others. I’m going to practice this attitude of ‘let it be’ in my day-to-day life (Beatles inspired). Hopefully I can improve on it! I’m finding monasteries harbor individuals like me who have decided to treat others with kindness and respect. They too realize meditation is ultimately about helping others. I’ve always been slightly out of place in mainstream society, but these types of people welcome everybody with open arms.  I think in the future it would be wise of me to keep in mind that I feel a sense of belonging in spiritual communities.

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