For the past month I’ve been living in a hut in the woods at a monastery
in Chiang Rai Province, Northern Thailand. It is a kuti, or monk meditation hut. No electricity, no running water, and somehow no phone signal. It comes with an adjacent covered walkway for walking meditation. I love the simplicity of it, and having to refill my water bottles daily in the kitchen. When I grow up, I’d like to have such a cabin of my own.
In Thailand, the overwhelming majority of monasteries are village temples. There are tens of thousands of these across the country. City monks wear bright orange robes, and they do all kinds of rituals and blessings and ceremonies for the lay population. In exchange, they are supported by the lay population. They go out on alms round in the morning for their daily food, and they rely on people’s generosity for pretty much everything.
And parallel to this village temple tradition, there is a forest tradition, which is far less
common. These monasteries are usually a little further away from towns, and the monks tend to be a little more reclusive, although they still rely on the lay population for their sustenance, and they still go out on alms round. They are recognized by their brown robes. Westerners who have been drawn to Thai Buddhism in the last decades have all gravitated toward this forest tradition, because the monks tend to meditate and cultivate wisdom, as opposed to doing mostly rituals, which is the job of the city monk. Forest monks often look down to city monks, but the Ajahn (teacher, in Thai) at this monastery says he’s grateful toward them for doing all this ceremonial stuff in which he has little interest. The temple in the heart of the nearby village caters to most of the people’s religious needs, and this means few people visit Ajahn’s little forest monastery. So we both have our peace.
One of the great modern teachers in the forest tradition is Ajahn Chah, who passed away in 1991. He attracted numerous Westerners, who later started monasteries in the West. Today, most Thai forest monasteries in Western countries are in the Ajahn Chah lineage, and this little monastery also belongs to the Ajahn Chah lineage. Ajahn ordained in 1994, a few years after Ajahn Chah’s passing, and he has been a disciple of several of Ajahn Chah’s students.
This is a traditional forest monastery, which probably explains why Ajahn has no other monks staying with him. Most monks nowadays want a little more comfort, even the forest monks. We live in the woods here, three kilometres from the village, and the simple buildings have no power or running water. The only food is what is donated in the morning alms round. Basic conditions, and lots of insects, but I think I am quite lucky to be the only other resident of the monastery. I essentially live alone with an English-speaking teacher with 23 years of experience. Although we don’t see each other much during the day, we do meet for at least an hour every afternoon for tea and informal conversation. In fact, if it wasn’t for him, I probably would have left already. I hope to share a little bit of what I learn here in this blog.