I’ve been back in Sydney for a little while now but fondly remember the four months I stayed at Wat Pa Tam Wua in Mae Hon Song Province in north-western Thailand last year for the annual Vassa, or Rains Retreat.
The forest monastery is nestled between limestone mountains that ripple through the landscape, arching up like a dragons spine. The morning mist clings to the sides of the mountains, revealing and concealing perilously drooping trees and the occasional monkey. During the rainy season the days are still hot and humid, with great thunderstorms that soak the hills, making the many local rivers swell with fast flowing water and inundating the surrounding forests and farmland. There is a fertile richness to the landscape, it’s incredibly green and seems to almost pulsate with intense vitality.
It was wonderful to have a sustained period to solely focus on my meditation practice. I spent most of my day engaged in walking and sitting meditation, and also set myself the task of learning some new chants, which is something that requires more time and effort as I get older!
A daily highlight was going for early morning alms round to the local village with my fellow monk, Bhante Billy. With our almsbowls draped from our shoulders, we would make the 2hr round trip, barefoot across various terrain, including rice paddies, fields of water buffalo, pretty streams, dirt tracks and roads. The village, Roongaroon, is actually a Chinese village, made up of immigrants who fled China during the Japanese occupation in the 30s and 40s and came here via Myanmar. They have retained as much of their culture as possible, speaking Chinese as a mother tongue, all the signage is in Chinese and the houses are made in the Chinese style, each house with a large gate, with columns and tiled roof, usually with some red and gold banners and red lanterns hanging from them.
The villagers are not necessarily Buddhist, and also practice ancestor worship. Each house has a shrine with fruit offered and candles burning, and there are many Daoist temples throughout the village. But they seem to also enjoy offering food to the monks. This is especially touching as they are not exactly well off. Some of the house are well built but many are quite rudimentary, tacked together from bits and pieces. One houses is just a simple bamboo hut 3 metres square with a family of 5 all crowded in together. It’s the simplest house in the village and it’s at the top of a hill but it’s worth the climb because it has the most spectacular view!
I loved getting to know the rhythm of the community (Tuesday is egg delivery day. Wednesday is garbage day) and getting to know the members of community a tiny bit through our silent interactions every day. There was a little girl who squeals with joy when she saw us coming. And a shy teenage boy with a facemask tan line that made him look like a cat with whiskers. There was an old man smoking a metre long bamboo bong sitting in a deck chair and an elderly lady who would approach us with a slow dignity using her walking frame.
But my favourite village interaction was with a local dog, who I call ‘Brazen’. He lives outside the village but followed us in a little further each day, snuffling and looking back to make sure we were following. At first I thought he was protecting us by accompanying us into dangerous territory but now I understand that we were his protection from the growling, snarling village dogs, who—thanks to our presence— he could safely either ignore them completely or else mark his territory whilst looking them dead in the eye! Each day he became more bold as brass (hence the name, Brazen) and less cautious of danger. I love him and his wagging tail so much and looked forward to seeing him each day.
Beyond the monastery, hidden in the hills amid teak forests and bamboo groves, there are some semi-inhabited cave monasteries which look great in photos but are mostly mouldy and home to mosquitoes. In the hills there are dozens of small communities and farms alongside winding roads and next to plentiful streams. There’s so much water flowing and the soil is incredibly fertile, so everything seems to grow rapidly in front of your very eyes; corn, rice and all sorts of fruits, including papaya, dragon fruit and of course bananas.
One of the best things about being in Thailand was being in a Buddhist culture and feeling that I belonged and made sense as a monk. Sometimes here in Australia, being a monk can feel a little alien and weird; people yell things at me from passing cars or point and laugh at me on the street. Some people think I am a Hare Krishna and mistake my almsbowl for a drum and try to ‘play’ it. I’ve had several people approach me on the street and try to convert me lately, too. At times I feel disconnected from the sense of belonging to the larger tradition of Buddhist culture which is thousands of years old and I miss the beautiful old established temples and monasteries that one sees in Asia where it’s easy to feel a deep sense of historical connection that lasts right up till today.
My positive and refreshing experience in Thailand last year has inspired me to spend the annual Rains Retreat in a Buddhist country from now on, focussing on my meditation practice and learning about Buddhist culture in different places. I feel by doing this I will have much more to share with communities here in Australia on my return. I’m not sure yet where I will spend the 2023 Rains Retreat—suggestions welcome!