Nearly 2,600 years ago in Northern India, a young prince left the luxuries of the palace and took up the life of a homeless wanderer in the forest in order to find freedom from the sufferings of the cycle of birth, ageing, sickness and death. After six years of searching, he awakened to that freedom while sitting under the Bodhi tree. For the remainder of his life he taught the way to Enlightenment to all those who were interested. By the time of his passing away—again in the forest—he had established a large body of teachings, as well as an organized community of disciples devoted to following the path to release and then teaching it to others.
History records his name as the Buddha, and his teachings as Buddhism. However, he himself called his teachings “Dhamma and Vinaya.” Dhamma is the quintessential nature of perfect harmony existing in and of itself, independent of all phenomena, yet permeating every aspect of sentient existence. Dhamma is thus the right natural order of things that forms the underlying basis for all existence. Dhamma also encompasses the basic principles that are the essence of the Buddha’s Teaching, including the patterns of behavior that should be practiced so as to harmonize oneself with the right natural order of things. Vinaya means discipline, the rules of right living which promote the harmony and well-being of the community of those devoted to the path of Dhamma.
Over the years, countless groups and individuals have made the effort to live in line with the Dhamma and Vinaya so as to realize freedom from the sufferings of the world. Many of them have left the life of ordinary society behind and gone into the forest to be closer to the natural environment that formed the setting for the Buddha’s own search and provided inspiration for his Enlightenment.
Baan Taad Forest Monastery in northeastern Thailand is a monastic community that was founded by Venerable Ajaan Mahā Boowa Ñānasampanno for just that purpose. There Buddhist monks pattern their lives in line with the Teaching and the Discipline—a lifestyle practiced in an environment conducive to the search for release from suffering.
In 1955, after years of living a wandering lifestyle, Ajaan Mahā Boowa returned to his home village of Baan Taad to care for the spiritual needs of his ageing mother. He settled with some disciples in a nearby forested area, which became the focal point of a new monastic community. It was named Wat Pa Baan Taad (Baan Taad Forest Monastery) after the village of Baan Taad which supported it. Its location enabled his mother to come and live as a nun at the monastery. The vigor and uncompromising determination of his Dhamma practice attracted other monks dedicated to meditation. The training at Baan Taad Forest Monastery in those days was quite harsh and forbidding. Ajaan Mahā Boowa often pushed his monks to their limits, testing their powers of endurance so that they would develop patience and resoluteness. And a special emphasis was placed upon strict observance of the Vinaya rules. As he said:
“This monastery has always been a place for meditation. Since the beginning it has been a place dedicated solely to developing the mind. I haven’t let any other type of work disturb the peaceful environment here. If other work must be done, I’ve made it a rule that it takes up no more time than is absolutely necessary. Baan Taad Forest Monastery is a meditation community. We are meditation monks. The primary work of a meditation monk was given to him on the day of his ordination—in its entirety. This is a monk’s real work. It is taught in a form suitable for the small amount of time available during the ordination ceremony; that is, five meditation objects to be memorized in forward and reverse order. After that, it’s up to each individual to contemplate them and develop them in his meditation to the best of his ability. In the beginning, the work of a monk is given simply as: kesā—hair of the head, lomā—hair of the body, nakhā—nails, dantā—teeth, and taco—the skin that enwraps the body. This is the true work for those monks who practice according to the principles of Dhamma that were taught by the Lord Buddha.”
These five parts of the body taught during the ordination ceremony become subjects of meditation. The newly ordained monk is encouraged to contemplate them in order to be aware of the body’s true nature—as being something not inherently beautiful or desirable; but instead, something that’s impermanent, subject to change and disintegration, and not in any sense oneself. These five parts form the external surface of the body. Ordinarily, they can arouse lust and attachment in the mind. But when the body is analyzed and properly contemplated, the mind gradually develops a strong sense of detachment toward the human form and the desires associated with it begin to weaken and dissolve away. The mind is then free to devote itself to subtler aspects of meditation in quest of more lasting and worthwhile forms of happiness. Ajaan Mahā Boowa built his monastery for this very purpose.
Along the Khon Kaen-Udon Thani highway, at kilometer-post 555, seven kilometers from the town of Udon Thani, is an intersection in front of Baan Kham Gling village. A sign with an arrow points out the paved road leading to Baan Taad village. Eight kilometers further down the road, on the other side of Baan Taad village is a piece of land that is cool, shady and quiet. It is covered with thick well-kept forest and protected from unwanted intrusions by a concrete wall that encircles the entire monastery. Since the monastery’s establishment in 1955, the pristine condition of the forest has remained the same—lush in many varieties of vegetation and home to many types of forest animals. The overall view is that of a forest hilltop surrounded by rice fields. It is one of the only unspoiled areas of forest left in the Meung district of Udon Thani province.
“When the monastery was first established, there were three tigers and three leopards that regularly came and went. The leopards walked around the monks’ dwellings but had no interest in human beings, only in the dogs. They were used to eating domesticated animals, like dogs, so whenever they heard a human voice they sneaked in and peeped around, looking here and there. If they found no dogs, they wouldn’t stick around long—they quickly slipped away. But when they found a dog, they kept after it until they caught it. They prowled around and quietly laid in wait. As soon as the dog was off its guard, immediately they pounced on it. This is typical leopard behavior. So they were often seen prowling around the dwelling areas in the monastery. How did we know? Well, aren’t the areas around each dwelling swept clean every day? Even if a mouse runs by, we know about it. And these were big cats, so how could we help but see their tracks?”
The wilderness surrounding the monastery disappeared as the area was gradually cleared for cultivation. The forest that remains inside the monastery compound is only a remnant of what the forest once was. Baan Taad Forest Monastery has tried to conserve this remaining forest in its original, natural condition, so that monks, novices, and lay people can make use of its tranquility for the practice of the Dhamma taught by the Lord Buddha. As Ajaan Mahā Boowa has taught repeatedly:
“Rukkha-mūla-senāsanam—dwelling at the foot of a tree: This is what the Lord Buddha instructed monks to do. Rukkha-mūla-senāsanam nissāya pabbajjā… In translation, this quote from the Buddha comes out sounding like little more than a formality. ‘All of us who have gone forth to ordain as monks should depend on the foot of a tree, the edge of a forest, a mountainside, a cave or an overhanging cliff for our dwelling place. We should try hard to maintain this practice for the rest of our lives…’”
But over the years a lifestyle devoted to serious meditation practice developed around the earnest effort to make this teaching a reality—and not simply a formality. As a consequence, life goes on here with the utmost simplicity—making do with what little one has—and with great contentment.
In the beginning, the boundary of the monastery was not fenced. But in order to protect the many forest creatures who sought refuge in the shade and tranquility of the compound, and in order to prevent outsiders from entering the area and disturbing the seclusion of the monks living there, a concrete wall was built to enclose the property. This wall preserves a natural sanctuary that offers quietude and protection to the forest creatures, as well as the necessary serenity needed by the monks, novices, and lay meditators who endeavor to free themselves from mental defilements and attain the full release of Nibbāna.
Passing through the gate into the compound, we find hardwood forests thick with vegetation lining both sides of the driveway. The monastery’s atmosphere is pleasantly shaded, tranquil, clean, and orderly—reflecting the calm and purposeful minds of its inhabitants. There are no bothersome noises to disturb the meditative environment. The only sounds heard are the occasional calls of forest creatures and other sounds of nature.
Upon entering the monastery, the first thing we notice is the large sāla, or meeting hall, where the monks gather every morning for their meal. Built of hardwood, it is rectangular in shape—its dimensions being roughly 70 feet by 50 feet. It is raised up off the ground on wooden posts to a height of about eye-level. The floor—also of hardwood and highly polished—is constructed in three tiers. At the very back of the sāla is a broad raised platform that houses the Buddha image, with a storage room built in one corner.
There are three flights of steps leading up to the sāla: the largest being at the front of the sāla, with two smaller stairways in the back on the left and right sides. Along both sides of the sāla stand large concrete tanks used for storing rain water. There are three tanks on each side.
The area immediately surrounding the sāla is cleared of vegetation and paved with compressed gravel to give space for walking and for parking cars. Thick forest encircles the outer perimeter of the whole sāla area. An aerial view of the sāla area shows a triangular clearing surrounded on all sides by forest.
Quite small originally, the first sāla was built in 1955. It was constructed of bamboo with a thatched roof. Four years later it was enlarged and rebuilt with more durable hardwoods. In 1961, wings were added to both sides of the sāla, providing extra floor space to accommodate the increasing numbers of lay supporters. With that addition, the sāla took its present form. Later on, owing to the damage termites had done to the original wooden posts, the foundation posts were changed from wood to concrete. This switch prevented any future deterioration from occurring. Under the sāla is a spacious, open area used for general storage.
The sāla building is a very simple structure. There is nothing excessive or extravagant in its design—every part has a necessity and a purpose. It is used for a variety of monastic functions: every morning the monks gather there to eat their one daily meal; the monks congregate there to listen to the teacher’s instructions; monks and lay devotees use it for special religious ceremonies. The sāla is used as an eating hall, and as a place to both receive and temporarily lodge the monks, novices, and groups of lay people who come to stay for a short time on various occasions.
Stepping into the sāla from the front stairway, the full length of the hall stretches out before us. The interior is open to the elements on three sides. The wood floor is clean and polished to a bright shine. Looking into the sāla, all eyes are drawn in the direction the large Buddha image that is located at the far end. Hanging behind the Buddha image are pictures of senior teachers and respected elder monks who are highly venerated by monks, novices, and lay people alike. There are pictures of Venerable Ajaan Sao Kantasīlo, Venerable Ajaan Mun Bhūridatto, Somdet Phra Sangharāja Vajirañānavong, and Chao Khun Dhammachedi.
In the display case are reliquaries containing the relics of Venerable Ajaan Sao Kantasīlo, Venerable Ajaan Mun Bhūridatto, and Venerable Ajaan Singh Khantayākhamo of Wat Pa Salawan. On the shrine are pictures of some of the meditation masters who followed them in the forest meditation tradition. These include: Venerable Ajaan Waen Sucinno, Venerable Ajaan Khao Anālayo, Venerable Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo of Wat Asokaram, and Venerable Ajaan Fan Ajāro. Every morning and evening the monks and novices pay their respects to the Buddha image, the pictures and the relics.
A series of dirt trails lead from the sāla to the areas assigned as dwelling places for the monks and novices. The monks’ dwellings—called kutis—are single-room huts constructed either of simple bamboo or more durable hardwood. These huts are scattered throughout the dense forest. They are placed fairly far apart and are separated from each other by strips of forest dense enough so that the inhabitants cannot see one another. The interior of the monastery where the monks live is always tranquil and quiet. Unlike the immediate vicinity of the sāla, lay people are not allowed to wander there, which allows a monk to stay alone at his kuti without undue interference.
Typically, a monk spends most of his day concentrating on his own practice—exerting himself in the practice of sitting and walking meditation at his own kuti as though the world outside did not exist. He does not engage others in idle conversation, but instead strives to follow as fully as possible the meditation techniques and ascetic practices taught by the Lord Buddha.
The kutis are of two general types: permanent and temporary. Kutis of the more permanent type are few in number. Not overly large, they contain one medium-sized room measuring about 10 feet by 12 feet, together with a door, shuttered windows, and a small porch outside. The entire structure is raised about 3 feet off the ground. Strongly built but simple in design, they blend in nicely with the natural setting. Cleared of vegetation, the ground immediately surrounding each kuti is level and smooth and contains paths for walking meditation both in the front and in the back. The whole area is well-swept, clean and tidy. Beyond the clearing is thick forest, which hides the kuti from the eyes of passersby. It’s almost as if one couldn’t tell that there was a dwelling there at all. Living in this way, the monks can devote themselves to their practice uninterruptedly, without fear of people entering the area and disturbing them.
Most of the monks’ kutis are more temporary structures, constructed with bamboo or scrap wood and roofed with grass thatch or corrugated tin. Easy to erect, these simple shelters are just big enough for one person to lie down. They consist of four posts, a make-shift roof, with a small living platform raised about 3 feet off the ground in order to protect against snakes. Since there are no proper walls, monks hang old robes on all four sides to protect themselves from the sun and the rain. These robes are positioned so that they can be easily drawn open or closed according to weather conditions. Since wind can blow in from all directions, this type of kuti is quite comfortable in the hot season. It is somewhat less comfortable in the cold season, and especially difficult during the rainy season. In front of each kuti is a path used for walking meditation. Forest monks consider walking meditation to be such an important part of their daily lives that they rarely neglect this aspect of their meditation. The paths they use for walking are smooth and level, and are between 25 to 30 paces long. Candles or lanterns are placed at both ends of these paths in order to provide adequate light for walking at night.
Such a simple lifestyle encourages contentment in living with little. Inside the kuti, one finds only a klot—a large forest umbrella that can be fitted with a mosquito net—a grass mat, a blanket, an alms bowl, inner and outer robes, and a few other small necessities. Practicing “contentment with little” means forgoing many of the comforts and conveniences that we normally associate with pleasant living. Since conditions in life are constantly changing, comforts are not a reliable source of happiness. Lasting happiness can be found only in the heart. Once the mental defilements of greed, hate, and delusion are destroyed, only then does the heart gain true contentment. Those defilements create a strong attachment to comforts and conveniences, and this attachment in turn leads to dissatisfaction and suffering. So the monks shun unnecessary conveniences. In order to practice and truly know the Dhamma taught by the Buddha, monks keep their possessions to a minimum.
The area where the monks and novices live and practice is a restricted section of the monastery. Normally, visitors and relatives are not permitted to enter and stroll around, as their presence might disturb the strict meditative environment. As a compromise, visitors are allowed to enter that area while the monks and novices are in the sāla taking their morning meal, provided the visit is done quietly and respectfully to avoid disturbing those monks who are fasting. The monks at Baan Taad Forest Monastery often fast in order to intensify their efforts in meditation, during which time they remain secluded in their dwelling areas.
The section where the monks live forms the main part of the monastery. Most of the kutis are reserved for monks, but there are also guest kutis where those who wish to practice meditation in the monastery may stay on a temporary basis. Another section, which is located to the right of the main gate and in front of the sāla, is reserved for women who come to Baan Taad Forest Monastery to practice meditation. This section is divided into a kitchen area where lay people can prepare food and an area of kutis for temporary lodgers. Because space is limited, permission cannot be given for stays that are unsuitably long. The women’s area contains kutis together with paths for walking meditation similar to those used by the monks.
Well water is used for most general purposes at Baan Taad Forest Monastery. Wells, dug 30 feet deep and lined with concrete rings, provide the water. Water is pumped from the well by hand and distributed throughout the monastery in two-wheeled push-carts. In this way, each afternoon monks fill the large water jars located at the kutis, at the bathing areas, in the rest rooms, and at other points around the monastery. This water is then used for bathing and washing. Rain water is used for drinking. It is collected in the rainy season and stored in the large concrete tanks placed on either side of the sāla and in the kitchen area. The monks’ kutis also have concrete tanks or galvanized steel tanks to store rain water for drinking. These tanks hold enough water to last throughout the year.
The monastery always gives the impression of being neat, orderly and tranquil. In all areas there is a feeling of serenity and calmness that is reflected in the minds of those living there. This quietude arises naturally when the harmful distractions caused by the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion are subdued. Only the sounds of the forest animals that live peacefully in the shelter of the monastery break the silence. Baan Taad Forest Monastery is a domain of Dhamma in the truest sense. It is an exemplary forest monastery, rich in the ancient traditions of Buddhist practice, yet free from modern conveniences such as electricity and running water. The monks live close to nature in simple solitude. This uncomplicated lifestyle fosters the mindfulness, concentration and wisdom needed to counteract the mental defilements that impede spiritual progress.
Although many devoted supporters wished to make merit by providing the monks with various comforts and conveniences—such as electricity, water pumps, telephones and larger and more comfortable kutis—Venerable Ajaan Mahā Boowa refused to accept them. The reason he gave was that these things are unnecessary for a life of meditation. In worldly life, they are considered to be a source of pleasure and happiness; but from the perspective of the Buddha’s teachings, such comforts are considered to be obstacles for a lifestyle of strict meditation. In the Buddha’s time they did not exist, yet monks lived very contented lives, and many became fully-enlightened Arahants. The Buddha’s disciples never indulged in such things as a substitute for the paths, fruitions and Nibbāna. Although they relieve some of the hardships of monastic life, reliance on such comforts encourages laziness, discouragement and apathy. Monks easily become attached to them, and this attachment becomes an impediment to their search for the truth about Dhamma and the truth about the world. Because of its calmness and simplicity, the forest monastery provides an atmosphere conducive to reflection, an environment suitable to the search for true happiness according to the Buddha’s teaching. In Ajaan Mahā Boowa’s words:
“Don’t forget to keep a watch on yourself. Don’t neglect to investigate the movements of your mind: this should be your first priority. These movements are extremely quick. Make sure that they’re in line with Dhamma. Nisamma karanam seyyo: Reflect carefully before doing anything. Don’t act merely out of conceit, or craving. Don’t act on the impulse to force things to be the way you want them. For the most part, we tend to make mistakes to the point where it’s second nature to be mistaken. This is because we don’t stop to reflect. As Buddhists, we must reflect on whatever we do, at all times. Our desires know no limits, so we must make sure that reason takes the lead. Don’t let desire take the lead. If we follow our desires, they will lead us directly to more and more suffering, without us even realizing our mistake. If we take reason—Dhamma—as our guide, our desires will gradually calm down and become quiet until they no longer bother us. ‘What are my motives for acting? Where are they leading me? Is it proper or not?’ When we ask these questions, reason has entered the picture, so desire must give way and obey. It has to obey reason. From that point on, there’s only reason taking the lead. If we follow its lead, we’ll rarely make mistakes.”
The path of practice followed by the monks at Baan Taad Forest Monastery is based on the dhutanga observances—or ascetic practices—that were advocated by the Lord Buddha. These training methods were followed by Ajaan Mun, whom Ajaan Mahā Boowa always greatly respected and admired, referring to him as “one who was like a father and mother to us.” He guides his disciples along Venerable Ajaan Mun’s path in this way:
“The path of practice that Venerable Ajaan Mun followed, and then passed on to us, is truly the correct way for a meditation monk. There can be no doubt about this, for these methods were taught by the Lord Buddha—the ancient texts confirm this truth. We find nothing false or deviant in Ajaan Mun’s teachings. Careful consideration of his teachings is enough to convince us that he always had sound, well-acknowledged precedents for the way he practiced. He never jeopardized his vocation by merely guessing about things. Consequently, his practice was always smooth, consistent and irreproachable from beginning to end.
“The ascetic practices he emphasized were: Walking on alms round every day without fail; eating only the food which has been accepted in the alms bowl on alms round; eating only one meal per day; eating all food directly from the alms bowl; wearing robes made from discarded cloth; and living in the forest. There is nothing secretive or mysterious about these practices—they are clearly mentioned in the scriptures.
“Venerable Ajaan Mun was conscientious in the way he practiced all the dhutanga observances mentioned above. He became so skillful and proficient with them that it would be hard to find his equal in this respect nowadays. He also made a point of teaching his disciples to train themselves using these same ascetic methods. He directed them to live in remote wilderness areas, and to be satisfied with little. He taught them to consider their daily alms round a solemn duty and advised them to eschew food offered later. He instructed his disciples to eat all food mixed together in their bowls, and to avoid eating from other containers. And he showed them the way by eating only one meal a day until the very last day of his life.
“Ajaan Mun was keenly aware of the practical value the dhutanga observances had for practicing monks. He clearly understood that each of these practices is an extremely effective means of closing off the outlets through which a monk’s mental defilements tend to flow. With the help of the dhutangas, monks can rest assured that their conduct will not be offensive to others. Each ascetic practice promotes a virtuous quality, while its observance reminds a monk not to be careless by thinking in ways that contradict the very virtue he is trying to develop. On guard, he immediately becomes aware of any lapses in judgment, which in turn fosters mindfulness to catch such oversights in the future.
“The monk who truly practices one or more of the dhutangas inevitably presents a pleasing, dignified appearance. His basic needs are easily taken care of. What he eats and where he sleeps are never problems for him. He is always contented with the simple belongings he possesses. Unencumbered by emotional attachments and material possessions, he feels mentally and physically buoyant. The dhutangas comprise qualities of Dhamma so supremely profound that it is difficult to fully comprehend their true magnitude.
“In addition to the dhutangas, Venerable Ajaan Mun taught various methods for practicing meditation, all of them completely in line with what the Buddha taught. For example, he taught the recollection of the Buddha and mindfulness of breathing for producing results of peace and calm in the heart. He taught the four foundations of mindfulness and body contemplation for developing wisdom in the heart. He taught his disciples to probe deeply into the heart to discover the truth about birth, ageing, sickness and death; and showed them how to uproot the real causes of suffering from within themselves. He guided them every step of the way with precise instructions and timely advice. Because of his compassionate efforts, many monks were able to attain full enlightenment.”
Meditation means training the mind to be clever and unbiased with respect to basic principles of cause and effect, so that we can effectively come to terms with our own inner processes, and all other related matters as well. Instead of abandoning the mind to unbridled exuberance, we rely on meditation to rein in our unruly thoughts and bring them into line with what is reasonable—which is the path to calm and contentment. The mind that has yet to undergo meditation training is similar to an untrained animal that cannot yet perform its appointed tasks. It must be trained to do those jobs in order to gain the maximum benefit from its work. Likewise, a person should undergo mindfulness training as a means of gaining calm, contentment and understanding within himself.
Those who develop meditation as a solid anchor for the mind enjoy reflecting carefully on whatever they do. They are not likely to take unnecessary chances in a situation they are unsure of, when a mistake could hurt them or someone else who is involved. Meditative development brings definite benefits, both immediately and in the future; but the most significant are those we experience here and now in the present. People who develop an aptitude for meditation will be successful at whatever they put their minds to. Their affairs are not conducted halfheartedly, but are well thought out with an eye to the expected benefits of a job well-done. In this way, people can always look back with satisfaction on the fruits of their labor. Since they are firmly grounded in reason, people who meditate have no difficulty controlling themselves. They adhere to Dhamma as the guiding principle for all they do, say and think. They are mindful not to leave themselves open to the myriad temptations that habitually arise from the defilement of craving—wanting to go there, wanting to come here, wanting to do this, wanting to say this or think that—which give no guidance whatsoever to right and wrong, good and bad. Craving is a very destructive defilement that tends to lead us repeatedly into misery in countless ways. In truth, we have no one to blame but ourselves, so we are left to accept the consequences as something regrettable, trying to do better the next time. Only with sufficient mental training can we reverse this trend. For that reason, at Baan Taad Forest Monastery Ajaan Mahā Boowa always encouraged people from every walk of life to practice meditation to the best of their ability.