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As darkness climbs the wild sagebrush slopes around the Metta Forest Monastery, coyotes bark. In a leveled clearing light spills out from a simple wooden shrine onto the sandy ground. Inside all is quiet, except for a singular voice, going on pausing, going on again.
The voice of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, its clear and certain tones, cut through the gathering darkness like the light of reason itself. He leads a guided meditation for a handful of people sitting Thai style (ankles under the buttocks), on the woven straw, mats of the shrine room, under the gaze of huge golden Buddha. There are three young men from the outskirts of LA, a lone school teacher from Alaska, and a Thai family, several women and men.
"We look for true happiness and think about where true happiness would be found. Breath anchors us in the present but even there we find there is change so we have to dig deeper. The breath and one's inner happiness are the only real things to rely on. Why wouldn't you want something you can rely on to be happy. So think about the breath, how the breath is shallow or deep, fast or slow, and concentrate on getting to know the breath."
Its the voice of a farmer, selling his crop to the shipper next door, smoothly arguing the quality and ripeness of his produce. It's a voice that has been called "American" since Jefferson or Thoreau. Economy, confidence, reason. And indeed it is Thoreau, in his self-imposed exile and in his simplicity, that Thanissaro identifies as one of his earliest heroes.
Like Thoreau, American born, Thanissaro Bhikkhu has founded a kind of Walden as the Abbot of the Metta Forest monastery near San Diego, the first and only Thai Forest tradition monastery in the country. Just as the utopian movement in America was sparked by the advent of the industrial revolution, the forest Tradition of the Theravada was developed in Thailand around the turn of the century by Ajahn Mun Bhuridatto as a reaction to the increasing urbanization of the Buddhist monastic communities there. Forest tradition monks abandoned the heavy social demand of the town and headed for the forest, where they redevoted themselves to meditation.
From an eight-lane freeway the roads grow increasingly narrower until a country road leads out of the Southern California we imagine to the Metta Forest. It meanders through orchards heavy with lemons and oranges then turns to dirt and climbs on into a mountainous landscape, of native chaparral thick with wild rosemary and sage, where tall stalks of agave bloom like white-hot torches. It's a rutted dirt road and steep that hugs the mountain so tightly you can't tell where it's leading. There is something rough in the dusty air, a whiff of something wild from the Mojave that stretches out over the next ridge.
At the entrance to the Metta Forest, there is no gate, and no fence. Nor is there really a forest at all, but a lush 40-acre orchard of avocado trees. Metta is the Pali word for Loving Kindness and one can't fail to imagine the setting as a sort orchard of Loving Kindness
From the sunstruck clearing where the monastery's temple building stands, there is dazzling view, framed by young palm trees and scarlet blooms of proteus. There is a panoramic sweep of the scattered valleys below, there is an Indian Reservation painted with squares of irrigated green, lines of brown mountain ridges rise beyond, and on one distant ridge the white finger of Mt. Palomar telescope points its lens to infinity.
The handful of buildings are built for an outdoor life, with raised platforms for sitting around the outside edge, there are outdoor sinks and kitchens, broad swatches of white rice drying in the sun. Orchard workers move hoses around wearing wide straw hats, there is the tell tale Airstream trailer behind the shrine room and the temporary piles of things that signal a work in progress.
Thanissaro’s robes are the color of the dirt road that leads here, his body lean; and relaxed as we talk at the long table under the overhanging roof. "Sometimes the avocados pay us and other times we pay for them. Water is very expensive, though this year we made around 20,000." He says like a true farmer. "But they are good trees for meditating under says Thani, their shade is thick and it is always cool underneath.
As we begin to talk a car pulls up and a large Thai family gets out, they shout greeting to Thanissaro in Thai and he answers, they seem to know each other. "We're on the pilgrimage route" he explains. Its a place Thai people visit for a family outing, many of them come from the John Wayne Dharma Study Group up in Ontario. There is growing Thai community in the area, professionals, doctors, and bankers, who have come to serve the spreading suburbs of Orange County.(check) They don't seem to mind the heat of these inland valleys. The land for Metta Forest was donated by a wealthy American in 1991 under the condition that the community would find some monks to run it.
"When I first saw this place I said yes, this is a good place to meditate, and decided immediately to take it on."
Stretched out under a shady trellis on an old Volkswagon back seat a lanky young man shifts his long bronzed limbs around like some local lizard, glancing up periodically to check out the action. The lounging teenager seems an anomaly until "Thani" mentions that the Buddhist monastic code, or Vinaya, states that a Bhikkhu, (Pali for monk) is never to be left alone with a woman; the teenager is our chaperon.
Like all aspects of Thanissaro's life the Vinaya or Buddhist Monastic code shapes the setting. It is surprising how well it works. The chaperon protects not only the bhikkhus vows but my own concentration, and also suggests our gender identities himself, so that we don't have to. It is suddenly easier to ask personal questions.
Thanissaro (Jeffrey De Graff) was born on Long Island where his father had a potato farm, though later the family moved to Virginia. His father was an elder in the local Presbyterian Church, but liberally minded. He remembers the farm fondly, as a place to wonder alone, in nature, a self described loner. Once when he was 12 or so and camping with the family in northern Michigan he had what he describes as a religious experience, a kind of elevated and sustained euphoria, a super awareness of people and things. It lasted for a week, then subsided but he did not forget it. He clearly remembers when he first heard of the Four Noble Truths, he was in an airplane over the Pacific Ocean flying back from Asia with some other exchange students, who had taken temporary vows in Thailand. The Four Noble truths struck him and he remembered them. In the second year he was at Oberlin College a special class in Buddhist meditation was offered and he began meditating with some seriousness. When he had a chance to go to Asia to teach, he chose Thailand.
In Thailand, in 1974 he was led to the jungle hermitage of Ajahn Fuang Jutiko, in the Rayong province on the southeast coast of Thailand, Fuang had been a student of the well known (in Thailand) teacher Ajahn Lee, a member of the Dhammayut lineage of the Forest tradition. When Ajahn Lee, died, everyone expected him to take over Asoka Monastery in Bangkok, instead he slipped away as soon as he could to a fledgling monastery in Rayong. Choosing meditation over administration is the Forest tradition way.
Thanissaro writes of that time . . .
[In 1974] Wat Dhammasathit had the look of a summer camp down on its luck: three monks living in three small huts, a lean-to where they would eat their meals,...and a small wooden structure on top of the hill-where I stayed-which had a view of the sea off to the south....Yearly fires swept through the area, preventing trees from taking hold, although the area on the mountain above the monastery was covered with a thick malarial forest. "
In essence, it was a poorer version of the very place we were sitting now. A handful of buildings, a few students, a hideout off the beaten track, a forest- of sorts. And now after Fuang's death Thani also had retreated from running the by now firmly established Wat Dhammasathit, and had started over. As Thani explains "Ajahn Fuang said to keep moving, this is not a tradition that works well in big groups."
He reaches into the outdoor cabinet and produces some cold sodas, for me and the chaperon. Though it is in the 90's (degrees) he drinks nothing all day, not because of the Vinaya he says, but because he isn't thirsty. We talk of local reactions to the monastery, the Indians he says were no problem. It occurs to me that Indians are used to cowboys, and that the Forest Tradition monks are a little like the cowboys of Buddhism.
"When I first saw Ajahn Fuang he was smoking a cigarette, Thani relates, and I said "Now what kind of a monk smokes cigarettes." But there was something about him. He seemed very kind to me and down to earth. I had planned on staying three days and I stayed for three weeks, had my Visa renewed and returned for three months until I contracted malaria and had to leave.
I came back to the US, thought hard about taking vows. I thought of all the professors I knew who were thinking and writing about Buddhism but I wanted to do it, not just talk about it. Before I met Ajahn Fuang I thought, if someone spends their life meditating what are they going to be like, are they going to be dull and dried up, but Ajahn Fuang was such a lively interesting person, that I knew then that was not the case. Finally I said I'll give it five years and if it doesn't work I can always come back. That was in 1976, 19 years ago. When I said I wanted to be ordained, Ajahn Fuang made me promise that "Either you succeed in the meditation or you die in Thailand." There was to be no equivocating. It was very good he insisted because it made me certain, yes this is what I want.
"In my experience, practicing as a lay person was like looking into a mirror that had a wall of glass blocks in front of it. Living with my teacher was like stripping all the glass blocks away."
Fuang had this uncanny way of mentioning some thing in passing that was exactly what was coming up in my meditation, before I told him. At times there was a sense that this was a continuation of some previous relationship. It was very concentrated one on one study which is the essential focus of the forest tradition. By the third year I had become Fuang’s attendant and pretty much stayed with him until the end.
Ajahn Fuang had been orphaned early in his life, and had taken vows as the only available means of supporting himself. "I have sometimes thought that if he hadn't become a monk he would have been a gangster, he had that kind of toughness; and as it turns out one of his best students now in Thailand was a former gangster. If you think about it, some of the same skills are required, a sense of subtlety, toughness, independence. You are very much thrown back on your own resources."
"In Thailand, a culture where having family and connections is everything, being an orphan has a special stigma. The fact that I was an American in Thailand without any real connections, meant that I was in essence an orphan too, so we had that in common."
Thani smiles when he talks of his teacher, if pressed he will admit that he believes Ajahn Fuang was enlightened. Their bond was obviously strengthened by the distance each of them had traveled to come together. The intimacy of exiles is often the strongest intimacy of all.
The exile spirit certainly is in keeping with spirit of the forest tradition; and also points to what Thanissaro considers one of Fuang’s most important lessons to him, and in turn, his offering to the Buddhist community at large. Thanissaro is firm in his conviction that real Dharma practice in any culture, to be successful must be counter-cultural Ajahn Fuang writes . . . " Our practice is to go against the stream against the flow. And where are we going? To the source of the stream. That's the cause side of the practice. The result side is that we can let go and be completely at ease."
"Irritated in part by years in the jungle humidity Fuang had a terrible case of psoriases and how he handled this sickness made me see what a tough person he was. This is a serious disease in its most extreme cases, fever, weakness the whole thing. Often it would get so bad that he had to lie on banana leaves because cloth would stick to his skin. When he was very sick he would talk with the accent of South Eastern Thailand where he came from, talk very softly. He would only ask for something once, and if you didn't hear him, he would crawl over and get it himself. So you had to be very quick. Also you had to be very quiet, silent, so as not to wake him, but also not fall asleep in case you were needed. You did it because it had to be done. He wasn't always pleasant to be around."
When asked if there were regrets, in the way of unfinished business with his teacher Thani relates how. "Once he had been taking western medicine for psoriases, and decided to stop taking that, but his symptoms came back in a few weeks. Then someone invented a Thai treatment that used the leaves of a certain plant, which worked all right if we could get it; but many days we couldn't get this plant and his fever would rise, this was in the middle of the hot season. I said one day "this kind of treatment is such a burden" and I meant a burden for him but he thought I meant a burden on me. So he said 'Go away get out, that if I didn't want to help no one was asking me to. That hurt the worst, the misunderstanding.
“Ajahn Fuang once said that Westerners would be very hard to train because they had so much pride. And it occurred to me that I was really the only Westerner he had known very well."
But then he would also come back from Bangkok and tell me if someone was having a very strange problem in meditation; and there was a real sense that you may some day be asked the same kind of question. Years later Thani found out that Fuang had been taking care of him, in turn. There was a certain kind of yogurt that healed a stomach disorder he had, and Fuang would make sure they always had it, but of course would never say anything.
"Fuang told me a story that if a teacher praises you to your face saying you have done very well, then that means you have gone as far as you can go; so of course he would want you to feel good about it. So no, he never did show me any favor which I guess is a good sign.
One day when Ajahn Fuang had gone away to Hong Kong Thani was meditating and heard suddenly the woman in the kitchen crying. "I knew right away what had happened, and my first thought was, there is still so much to be done, and I meant it both inside and outside."
"After Ajahn Fuang’s deathit was my responsibility to take his belongings back to Asoka monastery where he was lying in state, and everyone there was mourning. I remember thinking, why are they crying. I felt I had been able to look after my teacher, I had done my best, if it hadn't been ideal, it was the best I could do. Then reality set in, who and how were we going to run this monastery?”
What counter-cultural Buddhism has meant in Thailand, a country where Buddhism was (and is) the national religion, complete with Monk of the Month Magazines and patrons eager to invest stock in the great Merit Market of the monastic universe; is to a large degree the Forest Tradition. What counter-cultural Buddhism means in America, and the west (where any Buddhist tradition is arguably already counter-cultural) may also have something to do with the Forest Tradition.
Unlike some other traditions, which in their current efforts to serve an increasingly middle-class following, offer attractive weekend seminars on popular subjects like "skillful means" or "practice in daily life," and at varying prices; the Forest tradition offers absolutely nothing. And charges absolutely nothing for it. What it does offer is not exactly quantifiable; knowledge of the breath through meditation; space for, and instruction in, meditation.
The sound of sprinklers whispers against the loose leaves under the trees. Scattered through the orchard shadows are a number of "spots" simple wooden platforms; one for sitting and a larger one to pitch a tent on, around it is a smooth swept path for walking meditation. Though the views from the clearing are spectacular, the vast panorama stretching into the external world is here given up for the even vaster landscape that stretches out in the mind with the rhythm of the breath in meditation.
When someone comes to the monastery to practice, Thanissaro gives them a basic lesson in breath meditation and shows them to a place under the trees. Mornings and evenings there is a chanting session and a teaching. The subject is usually breath meditation. The simplicity suggested by such a curriculum, in its refusal to be attractive or compelling is part of the outlaw flavor of the Metta Forest.
What students offer in return for the teachings varies with each student, one brought a bag of ice, a bag of rice, and some bottled water. In a discreet corner of the shrine room behind the giant Thai Buddha there is a book where one may leave monetary donations, but you have to ask for it.
The Vinaya prohibition against the use of money extends to not-charging those who come to use the monastery, as well as Thanissaro using money. Traveling through the modern world in yellow robes without a penny in ones pocket (not even having a pocket) is an interesting proposition; and he has waited often long hours for rides form airports that were slow in coming, or never came.
"At the beginning I was not that enthusiastic about the rules but then living in the community I saw that they were very well designed, and they serve to help and protect not only the monks, but the people around them as well." He has held to them faithfully since his ordination 17 years ago and is somewhat of an expert on the Vinaya, (discipline) in theory and in deed.
He has recently re-translated from the Pali the voluminous "Buddhist Monastic Code, a comprehensive guide to 227 precepts, which along with detailed chapters on dealings with women, clothing, food and diplomacy also include admonitions against eavesdropping, tickling, and against stopping in the village to talk of kings, robbers ministers of state, armies, or scents. But in his introduction Thani suggests the real import of presenting the Vinaya not only as "rules" of the monastic discipline but "qualities developed in the mind and character" of those practicing the Dharma. It is as a way of being in the world that the Vinaya finds its real meaning.
Though the Theravada has been faulted by other Buddhist schools for not actively attending to the practice of compassion or Bodhicitta, Thani points out that adhering to the Vinaya, and devoting oneself to meditation, creates of necessity a more compassionate person. The way Theravadan monks live, being totally dependent on what is given them, beginning with their morning alms round for food, is a situation in which both givers and receivers are able to act with generosity and humility. This he says is the indirect, but not insignificant form of developing compassion in the Theravada.
Early in the morning there is the sound of blue-jays and laughter, outside the ladies dorm room, Thai women in black skirts and white blouses squat on the linoleum floor of the kitchen, chatting and drinking instant coffee, outside a few of the men are smoking cigarettes as they wait for the rice to finish cooking.
Everyone is busy preparing the food that they would offer as alms to Thanissaro and a young Thai monk there were wide rice noodles, and fish, watermelon, mango and raisins arranged in bright patterns, there is a soup, some salads, whole fruits and biscuits and cookies and flowers, and rice mounded up in elaborate aluminum serving bowls.
When the monks are spotted on the path between the rows avocado trees everyone lines up with their offering of rice and bows. The monks stop in front of each person as they place their portion of rice into the metal alms bowls, (rice has become the symbolic offering of all the foods). Thani is quick to point out to us novice benefactors to save some rice for the monk behind him, this is done in silence, then the monks turn deliberately without hurrying and disappear again into the avocado forest.
The 20th century floods back in as a yellow Lincoln Continental screeches into place in front of the kitchen and the remainder of the elaborate feast on the table is quickly loaded into the capacious trunk. The trunk is slammed shut as the car races down to the table by the shrine room where the monks eat from the vast feast first and then the lay people finish whatever they have left.
"I had talked with Ajahn Fuang about going to the west, taking the tradition to America, he was so explicit as to say that would probably be my life’s work" . He felt as many teachers have, that the Forest Tradition would die out in Thailand but would take root in the west.
As we walk along one of the dusty perimeter paths of the property Thani points out the native flora he is beginning to know, and talks of the future. He is translating many of the Forest teachings into English; so far he has translated the teachings of Ajahn Lee, Ajahn Fuang and other famous forest sages.
He is also the author of "The Mind Like Fire Unbound" an original and scholarly exploration of the Pali cannon in relation to the common definition of nirvana as the "extinguishing of a fire." Thani's concept is that the original meaning of the word nirvana was closer to unbinding the fire from its fuel, rather than extinguishing the fire; the potential fire remains in some other nascent state. One Buddhist scholar called it "too original', others have welcomed its important implications. It seems appropriate that unbinding, would be a theme in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s teachings, he has after all, unbound himself from several cultures and unbinding from the city, from habits, from popular Buddhist trends, is at the core of the Forest Tradition.
As more students find their way up the winding road Thani hopes that a few will want to become monks. He was recently made an official preceptor in Thailand (someone who can bestow ordination) But there is in no hurry, he hopes the monastery grows slowly, shaped by those dedicated to the practice.
As we walk Thani bends periodically to check the progress of his newly planted trees. Native trees- California walnut, scrub oak- and digger pine, they're no more that a foot or so now, barely visible in the waist high chaparral. They are trees that grow naturally on the edge of the California desert, not dependent on irrigation or human care to survive. Thani has planted them with the hope they will eventually replace the avocado orchard all together. When that happens the Metta Forest will be in America to stay; a native forest, able to thrive and spread on its own.