April  2005   2548   Number 72 
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No Regrets; Ajahn Paņņasaro
Recollections of an Anagarika; Adrian Cambden
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No Regrets
A talk given by Ajahn Paņņasaro during the Winter Retreat 2002

I first came to Amaravati a few days before Christmas in 1987. I was a law graduate from Thailand and had come to England to do my Master's degree. Because my English wasn't adequate, I couldn't go to university straight away. I had to attend a language school and live with an English family. Over Christmas, the family asked me to find somewhere else to stay. Somebody gave me the address of Amaravati and let me know that the monastery offered free board and lodging. So this is what brought me here. I intended to stay just two weeks and return to the language school on the 6th or 7th of January.

I arrived here at about one or two o'clock in the afternoon. We didn't have the cloister here yet so the taxi parked in front of the sala, and the taxi driver told me that is where I should go. The first person I met was Khun Ladda; she was exactly the same then as she is today, cleaning the servery and working in the kitchen. I had a friendly conversation with her and she later introduced me to the guest monk, Ajahn Amaro.

It was a Saturday, and Ajahn Amaro had been teaching the Saturday meditation workshop. This lasted the whole afternoon, finishing at five o'clock. When I met him, he told me that it was approaching the winter retreat and Amaravati was not accepting guests at that time, and he couldn't give me permission to stay. As it was already dark however, he allowed me to stay one night. I was supposed to leave the next day, but I asked special permission from Luang Por Sumedho to stay until the 6th of January because it was going to be very difficult to find a place during Christmas and New Year. When the 6th of January arrived I asked Luang Por if I could stay longer, in fact for the whole winter retreat. That was 14 or 15 years ago.

 
I worked with a sewing machine, and I discovered that I really loved it, and that I didn't like studying law at all.
 
It was quite an emotional time for me. That winter made a strong impression. Like all the other lay guests, I worked in the kitchen, and helped with other chores while the monks and nuns were on retreat. In those days Luang Por was still very much in charge of the monastery, and we rarely had time for our own meditation practice. Every day we had morning chanting at four o'clock. Like all group practice this was compulsory, so no one dared to miss it. If you missed it, you had to see Luang Por and tell him the reason why you weren't there. As I said, it was very serious in those days.

When I first came here, I couldn't understand how I could stay without paying for room and board, or anything else. A week or two later I realised that the people who came on Sundays made big contributions; they brought lots of offerings ­ a sack of potatoes, a big bag of tissues, and this sort of thing. I found this very inspiring, that such a situation, such a rare opportunity as this, still existed. What most impressed me about monastic life was the beautiful relationship between lay supporters and the monks. The more I understood this relationship, the more I appreciated it. Although my family is Buddhist, this was my first real exposure to the religion. I knew almost nothing about it. I never knew that this old monastic tradition was still going.

The talks Luang Por gave then were the same as you hear today: his story about how he met Ajahn Chah, about how he practised in Wat Maha Taht, about receiving ordination in Nong Khai and how his preceptor sent him to Wat Nong Pah Pong. These talks made a strong impression on me because they were on an aspect of Thailand that I knew nothing about.

What he said about the Isaan, the Northeast of the country, was quite new to me, because I was educated in a Catholic School in Bangkok. I had never in my life set foot in the Isaan, which is a remote part of Thailand. I grew up in the city, and my upbringing was almost Western. My university had a Western orientation too. This led me to become very critical of Thailand. But at Amaravati, as I reflected on Thailand's role in the development of Buddhism, my critical attitude began to soften. I began to love my country, and this made me all the more appreciative of Amaravati. During the winter retreat I started to question whether studying law and becoming a lawyer was the right thing for me to do. For the first time in my life I contemplated giving up my education.

The winter retreat ended at the end of February; in those days we only got two months. After the retreat we had a big Sangha gathering on Magha Puja day. All the monks from Chithurst, Devon and Harnham assembled to pay respects to Luang Por. The abbots of each monastery took turns at giving the evening talk. In those days, there were about thirty monks. We didn't have samaneras yet. When the Sangha paid respects to Luang Por the monks bowed first, followed by the siladharas, anagarikas and lay people. Being a layperson, I was right at the back, so I could watch the group of monks bowing together. I found it very inspiring to see, and thought to myself, 'I want to be in that group.' And so it was on Magha Puja day that I first started to think about becoming a bhikkhu. Soon after that, I asked Luang Por for ordination as an anagarika. As he was still very much in charge, he gave me permission straight away. In those days there was no need to consult the Sangha; he made all the decisions.

In March, Luang Por went to see his family in the States and I prepared myself for ordination. I remember practising chanting with Ajahn Sucitto, and preparing my robes and white requisites. This was the first time I had ever worked with a sewing machine, and I discovered that I really loved it, and that I didn't like studying law at all. I realised that this was the direction I wanted to go with my life. It was a drastic, very sudden change. I couldn't have imagined that after three months I'd find myself in white, but there it was.

Quite soon after my anagarika ordination my mother discovered she had terminal cancer, so I had to return to Thailand to look after her. I arrived home with a shaven head and wearing white, and continued to live as an anagarika, strictly keeping the eight precepts. Before I left Amaravati, Venerable Jayamano, who has now disrobed, had taught me how to knit socks, so I travelled to Thailand with my needles and yarn. While looking after my mother, I would get on with my knitting, and this made my father, a doctor, thoroughly ashamed of me. It was a difficult period for me, and tough on my family too. They found what I was doing absolutely unacceptable.

When my mother died, I wanted to return to Amaravati, but suddenly found a problem getting a visa. When I had travelled to England as a student I had barely started my studies, and was surprised that the Home Office allowed me to stay, to change my student visa for a religious one. But when I returned to Thailand I couldn't get back into England again, so Luang Por recommended I stay at Wat Nanachat. So I took samanera and then bhikkhu ordination there.

As a samanera and bhikkhu at Wat Nanachat, I didn't spend much time working on my own meditation practice. I didn't go to the jungle or anything. I worked in the office, doing the paperwork and organising visas for the Western monks. In 1990, in my first vassa as a bhikkhu, I went over to the nearby Wat Pah Pong to assist Ajahn Jayasaro, who had started to compile Ajahn Chah's biography.

In 1993, following Ajahn Chah's funeral at Wat Pah Pong, when I had three vassas, I returned to Amaravati. I found the Sangha here was going through many changes. Luang Por was no longer really in charge. No one seemed to listen to him any more, so it was a difficult time for him. He started to delegate his authority, and we began making decisions in committee meetings. This brought up a lot of conflict, so I will not go into much detail about it.

At that time Luang Por planned to leave Amaravati for a while, straight after the temple was built. I felt the same way. Up to that time I had spent all my monastic life with Westerners, even in Thailand when I had stayed at Wat Nanachat. So in 1997, when I had six or seven vassas, I returned to Thailand. I stayed in a monastery, a Pali school, in the South, because I wanted to stay clear of Westerners.

When the temple at Amaravati was built, the situation wouldn't allow Luang Por to leave, because some of the other monks had left. In particular, one very senior monk had departed deeply wounded. If Luang Por had taken his sabbatical at that time, the Sangha would probably have disintegrated, so it is fortunate that he delayed it till now, after the official temple opening, as there is a much better atmosphere here. The Sangha has slowly rebuilt itself; we have learned from our mistakes, we have learned to respect each other's space and to appreciate each other's unique offering.

When I left Amaravati for Thailand in 1997 I didn't think I would come back. The Sangha had changed too much. It wasn't the same place that I had seen in the years previously. Personally, I liked Luang Por's strong leadership. This is the way they run some monasteries in Thailand. Apart from this, I found there was a lot of interest here in psychotherapy, including pop psychology and all that sort of stuff, where people get deeply hurt over very petty, very tedious stuff. We had to have committee after committee, meeting after meeting. I got very fed up with this.

The Amaravati temple opening ceremony was to take place in 1999 and lots of Thai monks were to be invited. Luang Por contacted me in Thailand, inviting me several times to also come. So I decided to return for a year or two to help out a bit, and hoped then to return to Thailand again. After the temple opening ceremony was over, and we had cleaned up the place, dismantled the marquees and tents, and piled all the rubbish into the skip, it was suddenly very quiet here. Very few people were left. This meant I was very busy. I remember I had two or three shawls to make, as well as being the attendant monk and secretary to Luang Por. I had to ask the nuns to take care of the evening locking-up duty.

As I said, my plan was to leave Amaravati soon after the temple opening ceremony, but suddenly a change happened in me, and I ended up solemnly vowing to myself that I would never leave. I decided to stay here indefinitely. It was a big relief for me to relinquish all my uncertainties, always somehow feeling that this is not the right place, that I don't like the people, and I don't like their ideas. I let it all go. I began to appreciate other people's needs. This has helped me a lot in terms of practice.
Positive things have started to suddenly blossom here since that time. Last year there had been a big problem between two of the monasteries. Suddenly one of the monks rang up, and wanted to speak to Luang Por about it. I was surprised but very happy. At that time Luang Por didn't have a hotline in his kuti, so I had to wait in the office and transfer this important call to him at seven o'clock one evening. It is things like this which have really brought harmony to the Sangha.

This harmony is also evident in our winter retreat this year. We have such a supportive team of laypeople here, and a good group of monks, nuns, and anagarikas. It is very good to see such a harmonious community. Never before have we had such a happy group of people practising here, especially the nuns. Luang Por has really praised the nuns' Sangha. So finally Luang Por can have his sabbatical with his mind at ease. He has completed the circle, and can get on with what he needs to do. This is a good opportunity for him to step back and see what he has been involved in for the last 35 years, from the time of his ordination up to the temple opening ceremony.

Some people when they look back on their lives feel a lot of regret. But even if they have accumulated enormous wealth, they can't retrieve the past. For ourselves however, if we keep practising, when we look back we will never experience regret. When I look back to what's happened to me over the last 15 years, I never regret a single moment. Even if you sit here with painful knees and a painful back and never get anywhere, never get enough samadhi, or your mind is still restless, remember, this is the process of training; this is the process of meditation, and you will never regret it, whether you believe me or not.

When I first came here and heard Luang Por give a Dhamma talk, it seemed like the first time I had heard the word 'gratitude' (kataņņu). He seems to use the word almost every time he talks about Luang Por Chah. So in turn, I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Luang Por and to all the lay supporters here. When I first arrived here I found it easy to make friends, which made me feel that I belonged to the place. That is part of the reason that made me want to join the monastic life, because of such good support, such a good team.

Today the director of a local university came to see Luang Por, asking for advice about establishing a course in Buddhist studies. Luang Por later told me he was not at all interested in this sort of thing. I agree with him. Our practice here is so meaningful and inspiring. It is not just a course of education in which you stuff information into your brain so you can get a degree or diploma. I am not at all interested in such an approach. I want a practice that is relevant to my life.

By convention it's not allowed for me to do this, but from the depths of my heart I bow to the feet of the lay support team. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude and appreciation for all that I have received since the day I arrived, the day that I first met Khun Ladda. She's not here, but she's always in my heart. So it's a good opportunity for me now, the right time and the right moment, to express my feelings to all of you. I hope that you understand what I am saying; I'm quite nervous ­ this is my first time on this high seat. There are many things that I would have liked to say to you this evening, but I haven't remembered them. So I will finish my talk now.