Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
The autobiography recounts Ajahn Tate's life from his experiences growing up in a devout familyin the poorest area of Thailand, to his present position as abbot of Hin Mark Peng Monastery. At age 14 he left home to join a group of wandering 'homeless' mendicant monks. The 'forest monk' lifestyle closely followed the way of training that was preactised in the time of Buddha. Central to this training was the development of meditation with the aim of realising Nibbana, enlightenment. Ajahn Tate's wanderings took him throughout Thailand as well as into Burma and Laos. He recounts not only his experiences travelling the external jungle and mountain paths, but also the obstacles and gradual progress along the internal spiritual path.
In addition to being one of the pre-eminent leaders of Thai Buddhism, Ajahn Tate has given extensive aid and support to social programs such as rural development and the building of hospitals and schools. In recognition of Ajahn Tate's great service to his country, the King of Thailand has bestowed upon him numerous royal ecclesiastical titles.
The memoirs and Dhamma teachings presented in this book are the fruit of a long life dedicated to truth and wisdom.
This book is the autobiography of one such monk. Venerable Ajahn Tate recorded his pwn life story so that it would not be lost, so that it might be of benefit to those monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen who, following after him, seek to realise the Dhamma. He recounts his life from his boyhood encounter with forest monks to his present status as one of the great masters of the modern era. This book is not only a description of Ajahn Tate's experiences but a tale of a personal spiritual quest. It also offers a unique historical perspective on a specific period of rural Thai culture and contains advice and reflections on Buddhist meditation and practice.
The Passages of the Rains Retreats
The threading of the autobiography is structured around the annual gatherings which become necessary during the onset of the monsoonal rains. When the rains descend, the journeyers and the wandering folk make haste to a retreat, where the monsoon season may be weathered. Transportation - to all intents and purposes - ceases during the seasonal deluge, where rivers and streams swell and are often impassable, paths and tracks become treacherous, and the communities of the Kingdom of Thailand draw together - especially in the more remote and inaccessible regions.
The following table outlines the life of the Venerable Ajahn Tate as he presents his biography as a forest monk over the span of more than fifty years - more than fifty Rains Retreats:
Rains Retreats of the Life of Venerable Ajahn Tate
||3rd||1925||Nah Chang Nam
||4th||1926||North of Ahgaht Amnoy
||5th||1927||Nah Chang Nam
||6th||1928||Phra Nah Phak Hork Cave
||7th||1929||Nah Sai Village
||11th||1933||Wat Arannavasee in Tah Bor
||12th||1934||Pah Mi-ang Maa Pung
||13-14||1935-36||Barn Poo Phayah
||15th||1937||Bahn Pong in Maa Dtaeng District
||16th||1938||Nong Doo Village, Pah Sahng District
||17-25||1939-47||Wat Arannavasee, Tar Bor, Nongkhai
||26-27||1948-49||Khao Noi, Tah Chalaep, Chantaburi
||28th||1950||Koke Kloi, Phang-nga
||42nd||1964||Tam Khahm Cave, Phannah Nikom District
||43-50||1965-72||Hin Mark Peng
||53rd||1975||(Building) Wat Lumpini
||54th||1976||Spreading the Dhamma Abroad
||55th -||1977 -||Hin Mark Peng
In addition to recounting events and observations as these seasons progressed through their natural cycles, the account weaves other histories into its scope. The history of the author's family, the history of the emergence of modern Theravada Buddhism in the Kingdom of Thailand and its dual regard for both academic study of the scripture and the practical tradition of meditation, the history of the development of many of the present Thai Wats - or Buddhist monasteries.
It is better to provide an example or two of these accounts, and so demonstrate the nature of the account of this Autobiography of a Forest Monk.
We arrived at Ajahn Mun's place at about four o'clock in the afternoon. He was engaged in walking meditation but as soon as he saw us coming he immediately recognised us and called out our names. He halted his walking meditation and went over to sit in his hermitage. We began to slip our things down from our shoulders and place them on the ground outside, but he wouldn't have it and insisted that we put them on the verandah of his hermitage. Doing so, we entered and bowed our respects to him.
Ven. Ajahn Mun opened by enquiring after our well being. I then respectfully explained to him:
I then proceeded to detail my meditation practice and experiences to him, starting from my very first endeavours right up to those experiences that I had related to Ajahn Singh in Korat. This led him to describe how he had previously instructed his disciples, in effect suggesting how I should assess the group of disciples whom he had taught:
"In your investigations, never allow the mind to desert the body for anywhere
else. Whether or not it appears to be clearing and becoming more lucid, dont
retreat from fixing your investigation there. You can examine the body's
loathsomeness, or view it as made up from elements, or examine it to see it as
aggregates, or by way of the Three Characteristics [Impermanence; Suffering; and
Not Self]. Any of these methods can be used. But you really must fix your
invetsigations within these, including all the four bodily postures. Yet this
isn't to say that after looking you can stop with that - regardless of whether
it is seen clearly or not, just continue with the investigation. When any of
these aspects are fully and lucidly seen by one's heart, all other exterior
things will clearly manifest there too."
"Any monk who follows my way of practice until he becomes skilled and firmly
established in it, should progress well and will at least hold his own and
succeed. If a monk doesn't proceed along this way, he wont last long and will
eventually regress or disrobe. Even for myself, should I be burdened with many
responsibilities and involvements with the groups of monks, then my meditation
development can't be consistently developed. My focused investigation into the
body wouldn't be refined, nor would the heart become clear and lucid.
"In your investigations, never allow the mind to desert the body for anywhere else. Whether or not it appears to be clearing and becoming more lucid, dont retreat from fixing your investigation there. You can examine the body's loathsomeness, or view it as made up from elements, or examine it to see it as aggregates, or by way of the Three Characteristics [Impermanence; Suffering; and Not Self]. Any of these methods can be used. But you really must fix your invetsigations within these, including all the four bodily postures. Yet this isn't to say that after looking you can stop with that - regardless of whether it is seen clearly or not, just continue with the investigation. When any of these aspects are fully and lucidly seen by one's heart, all other exterior things will clearly manifest there too."
He also told me not to allow the mind to enter bhavanga.
As soon as Ajahn Mun had finished speaking, I made a resolution in my heart:
One can say that from that day forward, my mindfulness was solely directed towards investigating the body. Throughout the day and night it was now being viewed as loathsome, as made up of the four elements and as a mass of suffering. I intensified my practice without let up or negligence for six months - (I stayed there for the Rains Retreat) - without wearying of it. As a consequence, my heart received calmness and peace and a new understanding arose:
This new understanding gave great solidity and firmness to my heart, which was very different from how it had been. I became confident that I was now going along the right path. But I did not inform Ajahn Mun about this because the firm belief in my new understanding convinced me that I could do that any time.
When I had finished cutting, sewing and dyeing the robe, I again went up the mountain. But this time I didn't return to my original spot but went on to the Moo-ser hilltribe village of Poo Phayah. On my arrival, they were more than glad to see me and kindly came together to make a hut for my stay. First thought - Ah! - my hopes that the language barrier would probably stop anyone coming to bother me were soon dashed.
When I first arrived, I stayed in one of their abandoned houses. These people had never seen forest tudong monks before and the whole village turned out, from the youngest to the oldset, to stare at me. The gawked from far and near, some coming so close as almost to tread on my toes. As one onlooker went another came to replace him and it went on from midday until around four in the afternoon. They stood there gawking, and then they sat there gawking, then lay down gawking at me. They were dirty and smelled. It was all too much for me and made me feel quite dizzy.
They made me a path for walking meditation. But I only had to go out on it for them all to throng after me, so that I ended up with a long line after me, strung out the length of the path. This was more than I could handle, so I went inside and sat down again. Meanwhile, they continued parading in groups along the path thinking it all great fun.
Afterwards, I was able to come to an understanding with their 'Chief' (Poo Phayah, or distict headman). We agreed that it wasn't suitable for them to trail behind me and that if they wanted to make merit then whenever they saw me out doing walking meditation they should 'peu' (join their hands in the gesture of respect). That would certainly be meritorious. From then on, whenever they saw me going out to do walking meditation they would all approach and standing together in a line, would 'peu'. Anyone missing would be called out to come and join the group.
On reflection, one couldn't help feeling sympathetic towards these forest people, who, though living far from material civilisation, were so honest and upright. In those days no one had come up to assist and teach them for decades, and - unless some serious crime had been committed - no government officials would ever show their faces up there. They were self-governing and strictly trusted and relied upon their 'Chief'. Those bad characters who were troublemakers and stubbornly would not heed their Chief's admonition were expelled from the village by the Chief. If the perpetrator refused to go the villagers would all move away from him. You can be assured that nothing like stealing and thievery existed.
Whenever I was walking through these mountain ranges and saw one or two isolated houses, I could immediately surmise that I wouldn't be able to stay with so few people. [Footnote: A monk depends on the generousity and goodwill of the laypeople for his alms food. If there are too few families in a village a monk, unless specifically invited, may be reluctant to stay there so as not to impose on them.] The hilltribes in this region lacked sufficient rice after two successive bad harvests. There were twelve houses in the village where I was staying but only three of them had enough rice to eat. Yet they all had such alot of faith. When I came on almsround only three people would come out to put food into my bowl, but each one gave so much that it was sufficient for me to eat.
Sometime later the Chief came to see me and explained that everyone had faith and wished to offer food on my almsround, but they were embarrassed becuase they had no rice to give. [Footnote: For Thais, rice is the staple at every meal. In Thai 'to eat' literally is 'to eat rice'.] They had to eat boiled yams and tubers instead of rice. [Footnote: Wild yams, taros and other potato-type tubers were widely found and eaten throughout Northern Thailand. In North-East Thailand they were considered more a famine food.] I felt sorry for them and since I rather liked steamed yams myself, I told him so. I said that that was why I was able to come up to live with them - if I hadn't liked them, I wouldn't have come. Once they all knew about this, they dug up wild yams to steam and offer into my bowl, which consequently filled every day. They were also delighted with the idea, laughing and smiling, their faces lit up in an endearing way. They did, though, remain apprehensive that I wouldn't be able to eattheir yams and so they followed me back to my hut to see for themselves. Having received their gifts I was determined to show my appreciation by letting them see me eat them.
That year the rice crop had been sown but poor rainfall had caused the seedlings to shrivel and turn pale yellow. The villagers built my hut ten days before the beginning of the Rains Retreat and when it was completed, astonishingly, the rain started to pour down. They were all overjoyed, absolutely delighted to think that it was the result of the merit they had made in building a 'monastery' for me to stay in. The rice was transformed by the rain into a lush green, splendid crop. Their rice fields that year produced so much that they couldn't use it all and some of them were even able to sell the surplus.
Apparently no monks had previously spent the Rains Retreat with the Moo-ser hilltribes people, so that I may possibly have been the first monk in Thailand to have done so.
When they had completed construction of my hut, I recalled that in the 'Life of the Buddha', Prince Siddhattha had been thirty five years old when his strivings had come to fruition in his Awakening. That year, I too would be thirty five years old (having gone forth as a monk when I was entering my twenty second year). I therefore resolved that I would offer my strivings in mediation that year to pay homage to the Awakening of Lord Buddha:
Having made this resolution, I applied myself to my meditation throughout the Rains Retreat. Yet I didn't seem to be progressing and remained firmly as it was before. In order to bring it up to the level of my resolution, I decided to put myself through a trial by fasting for five days.
The Moor-ser had never seen such a thing and were afraid I would die. They came and pleaded with me to partake of food as usual, but I refused and continued for the full five days in accordance with my pledge. They took it in turns surreptitiously to come and watch over me. If I closed my door to sit in meditation inside the room they would call out to me and ask me to reply, and only when I answered would they leave.
Actually, fasting is not the pathway to Enlightenment. The Lord Buddha had already tried this method and subsequently said it was more like self-mortification. All my meditation teachers had repeated that. Having already tried it for myself, I knew that it was merely a technique for tormenting the body, without leading to the arising of the wisdom to exploe Dhamma and sharpen one's understanding. I fasted as a test of my will-power, to see which was strongest - attachment to life or my faith in the Dhamma qualities I had already seen. When I had come to truth within my own heart about this, I returned to eating as before. But I didn't take any rice for the first four or five days, eating just steamed yams and taro. When the Moo-ser saw that I was taking food again, they were all delighted.