The temple of the Dhamma farangs

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Wat Pah Nanachat12_Arno Maierbrugger
Morning meditation in the main hall, the sala, in Wat Pah Nanachat © Arno Maierbrugger

While elsewhere in Thailand foreign tourists at 3am might walk home from a night out at the many entertainment spots the country has to offer, at a place not known to many Western visitors, or farangs, foreigners wake up from their plain beds in simple forest huts to the deep and hollow sound of temple bells and start to engage in morning chanting and meditation.

It happens every day in Wat Pah Nanachat, an international Buddhist forest monastery situated in a small woodland in northeast Thailand’s Isaan province, a short drive from the city of Ubon Ratchathani.

What makes the monastery, or wat, unique, is that it is primarily catering to non-Thais, i.e. to foreigners who seclude themselves at the place to meditate and listen to the reflections of the Theravadan forest tradition, a particular Buddhist teaching method.

The place is open to all, including of course Thais, while it has turned out popular particularly among Western foreigners who either stay there as guests or as laymen and later novices, while some went the full way to become ajahn (or ajarn, Buddhist monk teacher) and even abbot of the Wat, having completely backed out from their worldly obligations.

Wat Pah Nanachat10_Arno Maierbrugger
Ajahn Pasadiko, one of the most senior monks in Wat Pah Nanachat, at the place where monks wash their robes © Arno Maierbrugger

Ajahn Pasadiko, one of the most senior monks in Wat Pah Nanachat, is originally from the US, but, however, had a showdown with Buddhism when on vacation in Thailand in 1997, where he discovered the forest monastery and since stayed there.

“At present, there are three to four ajahns here,” he tells Investvine, “and quite a number of guests, laypeople and novices. The current abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat, Ajahn Kevali, is from Germany.”

There are other US and German monks in the Wat, along with monks from Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Austria and Israel, while the novices (recognisable by their white robes) are from Italy, UK, Australia, Turkey, Russia, the Philippines and from as far as Uganda and Guyana.

“Since Wat Pah Nanachat has been founded some 40 years ago, it has grown popular among foreigners due to its simple yet profound style of teaching and because of the fact that English serves as the main language for communication and instruction,” Ajahn Pasadiko says.

While chanting is primarily held in Pali language, the classical and liturgical language of the Theravada Buddhist canon, there are also Pali-English and English only chants, which is unique for a Thai wat.

Wat Pah Nanachat was founded in 1975 by Thai monk Ajahn Chah, who was one of the most eminent monks in Thailand at that time and whose teaching spread far and wide. Built from donations, the wat rose to what is today the first and only Buddhist monastery in Thailand run by and for English-speaking monks. Early abbots of the wat came from Australia, US, Canada, the UK and Italy.

Wat Pah Nanachat9_Arno Maierbrugger
A novice cleans one of the temples at the wat © Arno Maierbrugger

The biographies of the monks and abbots at the wat vary widely. One earlier abbot, US-born Ajahn Sumedho, in his “former life” used to serve as soldier for the US navy in the Korean War and later for the Peace Corps. When sitting one morning in a sidewalk café in Singapore in 1966, he watched a Buddhist monk walk by and thought to himself, “that looks interesting,” only to become Buddhist novice in Thailand in the same year and a monk one year later. Today, Ajahn Sumedho is a prominent figure in the Thai Forest Tradition with his teachings being described as “very direct, practical, simple and down to earth.”

Another former abbot, Ajahn Pasanno, born in Manitoba, Canada, discovered Buddhism when traveling across India, Nepal and finally Thailand in the 1970s, where he ended up in a meditation monastery in Chiang Mai, and later met Ajahn Chah and became one of the early residents of Wat Pah Nanachat.

Italy-born Ajahn Jagaro, a studied chemist, also discovered Buddhism on travels through Asia. Casual interest in meditation developed into a decision to take ordination as a Buddhist monk in 1972. He eventually became abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat in 1979.

Wat Pah Nanachat8_Arno Maierbrugger
Younger monks cite a variety of reasons why they joined the monkhood © Arno Maierbrugger

Younger monks describe that their decision to join the forest monastery was due to the strong urge to contemplate about their existence and seek spirituality in life. One 30-something year old monk told Investvine that he quit his former top job as a marketing manager at the Thai branch of Philips Electronics, which he eventually began to dislike because of stress and rude treatment among colleagues, deciding to become a Buddhist monk instead.

“I can’t say if I will be a monk forever, or will eventually return to a working life,” the young monk said. “All I know is that I life the spiritual way now and it makes me very happy.”

Others, both young monks and novices, say that they got in contact with Buddhism through exercise practices that became popular in the West over the past decades such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, as well as the ascetic practice of tudong. One young monk, born in Italy and formerly an art student and street artist, got his interest aroused by Buddhist-inspired literature, while another came closer to it through the vegetarian tradition of Buddhism.

Wat Pah Nanachat7_Arno Maierbrugger
Daily meal at 8am, the only one in the day. The food is donated by villagers © Arno Maierbrugger

But it’s not just about living a spiritual life. There are certain rules to follow: Apart from a more or less strict daily routine, novices are supposed to ask their parents for permission to become a monk if they are younger than 20 years. They shall not have a criminal record or lie to their teachers about their past. They are supposed to part with their worldly possessions, i.e. riches of all sorts, and close their bank account and either donate it or hand it over to a custodian.

“The monks you see here have no bank accounts or any other possessions, in fact they are not even allowed to touch money,” says Ajahn Pasadiko. “They also don’t use electronic devices or mobile phones. The only one who has a computer with Internet access is the abbot and he uses it sporadically to keep himself – and us – updated on important news.”

Donations and other money-related affairs in the wat are handled by laymen, as well as things such as maintenance and cooking and the wat’s self-presentation on the Internet and on social media.

“Monks here are doing some chores too, but they mostly chant and meditate rather than engage in daily routines,” says Ajahn Pasadiko.

In fact, the monks aren’t doing a lot of what could be called hard work. This is why there is only one meal per day, as early as 8am, and just a short afternoon tea-time. The laymen, novices and monks are expected to refrain from eating after midday. This “frees time for meditation and enhances simplicity of life,” the teaching goes.

Wat Pah Nanachat5_Arno Maierbrugger
Aphorisms in the garden © Arno Maierbrugger

Other precepts are to refrain from using entertainment such as music, dance, playing games and beautifying or adorning the body with jewelry or makeup. In addition, they must refrain from using “high or luxurious beds or seats” and from “indulging in sleep.” According to the teachings, this “develops the qualities of wakefulness, mindfulness and clear awareness in all postures and in all activities throughout the day.”

“We have a strong focus on morality in what we are doing,” says Ajahn Pasadiko, “and this makes us feel positive.”

He refers to incidents where monks in orange robes are found wearing posh smartphones or indulging in shopping malls, and to more shocking scandals of abbots amassing huge fortunes from donations and jet-set monks with Rolex watches and Ray Ban sunglasses being portrayed flying in private jets.

“This is not the right thing”, says Ajahn Pasadiko, with a sudden touch of sadness in his voice. “It causes people losing their faith as it unfortunately gives the wrong impression of monkhood. These people need to go to the root of the problem of their wrong karma. There is no joy coming from such actions.”

Wat Pah Nanachat2_Arno Maierbrugger
The food is prepared by laypeople © Arno Maierbrugger

The monks and novices in Wat Pah Nanachat are highly revered by the local population despite their farang-ness. There is a weekly monk’s day when villagers come from all around for chanting. Food and other small necessities are donated regularly by villagers.

The wat is basically open for everyone. Lay guests are welcome, whether they are male or female. Resident lay guests in Wat Pah Nanachat wear traditional Thai lay monastic attire, which are a loose white and long trousers and a white shirt for men, and a white blouse and long black skirt for women. Men staying longer than one week are asked to shave their heads, beards and eyebrows. While there are indeed facilities for female novices, there is no nun community in Wat Pah Nanachat.

Becoming a monk can happen rather quickly: After one month as a layperson and another six months as a novice following the precepts, the ordination ceremony can be held anytime the ajahn feels the novice is “ready”.

Typical daily schedule at Wat Pah Nanachat:

  • 3:00am Wakeup
  • 3:30am Morning meeting in the main hall for Buddhist chant
  • 6:00am Sweeping the grounds – a vigorous meditative practice; laypersons helping in the kitchen and accompanying the monks making rounds for alms.
  • 8:00am Daily meal
  • 9:30am Daily Dhamma reflections and advice for practice by the abbot or senior monks
  • 10:00am Work period (daily chores, cleaning or community projects)
  • 11:00am Time for private meditation, all through the day
  • 4:30pm Tea time, brief communal meeting
  • 6:15pm Evening meeting in the main hall for evening chanting and communal meditation
  • 7:45pm Private meditation in the main hall or back in the forest hut
  • 9:30pm Rest

The five training precepts:

1. Harmlessness: to refrain from intentionally taking the life of any living creature.
2. Trustworthiness: to refrain from taking anything that is not given.
3. Chastity: to refrain from all sexual activity.
4. Right Speech: to refrain from false, abusive, malicious or disharmonious speech and worldly gossip.
5. Sobriety: to refrain from taking intoxicating drinks or drugs; smoking is prohibited at all times at the monastery.

 

Size of the community:

Monks and novices: 15-20
Laypeople: 5-10

Wat Pah Nanachat3_Arno Maierbrugger
Plenty of food for the entire wat community © Arno Maierbrugger
Wat Pah Nanachat4_Arno Maierbrugger
From the teachings of Ajahn Chan © Arno Maierbrugger
Wat Pah Nanachat1_Arno Maierbrugger
The Wat Pah Nanachat is open for everyone © Arno Maierbrugger
Wat Pah Nanachat11_Arno Maierbrugger
Some privileges there are for monks: Leather sofas at Ubon Ratchathani airport
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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Morning meditation in the main hall, the sala, in Wat Pah Nanachat © Arno Maierbrugger

While elsewhere in Thailand foreign tourists at 3am might walk home from a night out at the many entertainment spots the country has to offer, at a place not known to many Western visitors, or farangs, foreigners wake up from their plain beds in simple forest huts to the deep and hollow sound of temple bells and start to engage in morning chanting and meditation.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Wat Pah Nanachat12_Arno Maierbrugger
Morning meditation in the main hall, the sala, in Wat Pah Nanachat © Arno Maierbrugger

While elsewhere in Thailand foreign tourists at 3am might walk home from a night out at the many entertainment spots the country has to offer, at a place not known to many Western visitors, or farangs, foreigners wake up from their plain beds in simple forest huts to the deep and hollow sound of temple bells and start to engage in morning chanting and meditation.

It happens every day in Wat Pah Nanachat, an international Buddhist forest monastery situated in a small woodland in northeast Thailand’s Isaan province, a short drive from the city of Ubon Ratchathani.

What makes the monastery, or wat, unique, is that it is primarily catering to non-Thais, i.e. to foreigners who seclude themselves at the place to meditate and listen to the reflections of the Theravadan forest tradition, a particular Buddhist teaching method.

The place is open to all, including of course Thais, while it has turned out popular particularly among Western foreigners who either stay there as guests or as laymen and later novices, while some went the full way to become ajahn (or ajarn, Buddhist monk teacher) and even abbot of the Wat, having completely backed out from their worldly obligations.

Wat Pah Nanachat10_Arno Maierbrugger
Ajahn Pasadiko, one of the most senior monks in Wat Pah Nanachat, at the place where monks wash their robes © Arno Maierbrugger

Ajahn Pasadiko, one of the most senior monks in Wat Pah Nanachat, is originally from the US, but, however, had a showdown with Buddhism when on vacation in Thailand in 1997, where he discovered the forest monastery and since stayed there.

“At present, there are three to four ajahns here,” he tells Investvine, “and quite a number of guests, laypeople and novices. The current abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat, Ajahn Kevali, is from Germany.”

There are other US and German monks in the Wat, along with monks from Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Austria and Israel, while the novices (recognisable by their white robes) are from Italy, UK, Australia, Turkey, Russia, the Philippines and from as far as Uganda and Guyana.

“Since Wat Pah Nanachat has been founded some 40 years ago, it has grown popular among foreigners due to its simple yet profound style of teaching and because of the fact that English serves as the main language for communication and instruction,” Ajahn Pasadiko says.

While chanting is primarily held in Pali language, the classical and liturgical language of the Theravada Buddhist canon, there are also Pali-English and English only chants, which is unique for a Thai wat.

Wat Pah Nanachat was founded in 1975 by Thai monk Ajahn Chah, who was one of the most eminent monks in Thailand at that time and whose teaching spread far and wide. Built from donations, the wat rose to what is today the first and only Buddhist monastery in Thailand run by and for English-speaking monks. Early abbots of the wat came from Australia, US, Canada, the UK and Italy.

Wat Pah Nanachat9_Arno Maierbrugger
A novice cleans one of the temples at the wat © Arno Maierbrugger

The biographies of the monks and abbots at the wat vary widely. One earlier abbot, US-born Ajahn Sumedho, in his “former life” used to serve as soldier for the US navy in the Korean War and later for the Peace Corps. When sitting one morning in a sidewalk café in Singapore in 1966, he watched a Buddhist monk walk by and thought to himself, “that looks interesting,” only to become Buddhist novice in Thailand in the same year and a monk one year later. Today, Ajahn Sumedho is a prominent figure in the Thai Forest Tradition with his teachings being described as “very direct, practical, simple and down to earth.”

Another former abbot, Ajahn Pasanno, born in Manitoba, Canada, discovered Buddhism when traveling across India, Nepal and finally Thailand in the 1970s, where he ended up in a meditation monastery in Chiang Mai, and later met Ajahn Chah and became one of the early residents of Wat Pah Nanachat.

Italy-born Ajahn Jagaro, a studied chemist, also discovered Buddhism on travels through Asia. Casual interest in meditation developed into a decision to take ordination as a Buddhist monk in 1972. He eventually became abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat in 1979.

Wat Pah Nanachat8_Arno Maierbrugger
Younger monks cite a variety of reasons why they joined the monkhood © Arno Maierbrugger

Younger monks describe that their decision to join the forest monastery was due to the strong urge to contemplate about their existence and seek spirituality in life. One 30-something year old monk told Investvine that he quit his former top job as a marketing manager at the Thai branch of Philips Electronics, which he eventually began to dislike because of stress and rude treatment among colleagues, deciding to become a Buddhist monk instead.

“I can’t say if I will be a monk forever, or will eventually return to a working life,” the young monk said. “All I know is that I life the spiritual way now and it makes me very happy.”

Others, both young monks and novices, say that they got in contact with Buddhism through exercise practices that became popular in the West over the past decades such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, as well as the ascetic practice of tudong. One young monk, born in Italy and formerly an art student and street artist, got his interest aroused by Buddhist-inspired literature, while another came closer to it through the vegetarian tradition of Buddhism.

Wat Pah Nanachat7_Arno Maierbrugger
Daily meal at 8am, the only one in the day. The food is donated by villagers © Arno Maierbrugger

But it’s not just about living a spiritual life. There are certain rules to follow: Apart from a more or less strict daily routine, novices are supposed to ask their parents for permission to become a monk if they are younger than 20 years. They shall not have a criminal record or lie to their teachers about their past. They are supposed to part with their worldly possessions, i.e. riches of all sorts, and close their bank account and either donate it or hand it over to a custodian.

“The monks you see here have no bank accounts or any other possessions, in fact they are not even allowed to touch money,” says Ajahn Pasadiko. “They also don’t use electronic devices or mobile phones. The only one who has a computer with Internet access is the abbot and he uses it sporadically to keep himself – and us – updated on important news.”

Donations and other money-related affairs in the wat are handled by laymen, as well as things such as maintenance and cooking and the wat’s self-presentation on the Internet and on social media.

“Monks here are doing some chores too, but they mostly chant and meditate rather than engage in daily routines,” says Ajahn Pasadiko.

In fact, the monks aren’t doing a lot of what could be called hard work. This is why there is only one meal per day, as early as 8am, and just a short afternoon tea-time. The laymen, novices and monks are expected to refrain from eating after midday. This “frees time for meditation and enhances simplicity of life,” the teaching goes.

Wat Pah Nanachat5_Arno Maierbrugger
Aphorisms in the garden © Arno Maierbrugger

Other precepts are to refrain from using entertainment such as music, dance, playing games and beautifying or adorning the body with jewelry or makeup. In addition, they must refrain from using “high or luxurious beds or seats” and from “indulging in sleep.” According to the teachings, this “develops the qualities of wakefulness, mindfulness and clear awareness in all postures and in all activities throughout the day.”

“We have a strong focus on morality in what we are doing,” says Ajahn Pasadiko, “and this makes us feel positive.”

He refers to incidents where monks in orange robes are found wearing posh smartphones or indulging in shopping malls, and to more shocking scandals of abbots amassing huge fortunes from donations and jet-set monks with Rolex watches and Ray Ban sunglasses being portrayed flying in private jets.

“This is not the right thing”, says Ajahn Pasadiko, with a sudden touch of sadness in his voice. “It causes people losing their faith as it unfortunately gives the wrong impression of monkhood. These people need to go to the root of the problem of their wrong karma. There is no joy coming from such actions.”

Wat Pah Nanachat2_Arno Maierbrugger
The food is prepared by laypeople © Arno Maierbrugger

The monks and novices in Wat Pah Nanachat are highly revered by the local population despite their farang-ness. There is a weekly monk’s day when villagers come from all around for chanting. Food and other small necessities are donated regularly by villagers.

The wat is basically open for everyone. Lay guests are welcome, whether they are male or female. Resident lay guests in Wat Pah Nanachat wear traditional Thai lay monastic attire, which are a loose white and long trousers and a white shirt for men, and a white blouse and long black skirt for women. Men staying longer than one week are asked to shave their heads, beards and eyebrows. While there are indeed facilities for female novices, there is no nun community in Wat Pah Nanachat.

Becoming a monk can happen rather quickly: After one month as a layperson and another six months as a novice following the precepts, the ordination ceremony can be held anytime the ajahn feels the novice is “ready”.

Typical daily schedule at Wat Pah Nanachat:

  • 3:00am Wakeup
  • 3:30am Morning meeting in the main hall for Buddhist chant
  • 6:00am Sweeping the grounds – a vigorous meditative practice; laypersons helping in the kitchen and accompanying the monks making rounds for alms.
  • 8:00am Daily meal
  • 9:30am Daily Dhamma reflections and advice for practice by the abbot or senior monks
  • 10:00am Work period (daily chores, cleaning or community projects)
  • 11:00am Time for private meditation, all through the day
  • 4:30pm Tea time, brief communal meeting
  • 6:15pm Evening meeting in the main hall for evening chanting and communal meditation
  • 7:45pm Private meditation in the main hall or back in the forest hut
  • 9:30pm Rest

The five training precepts:

1. Harmlessness: to refrain from intentionally taking the life of any living creature.
2. Trustworthiness: to refrain from taking anything that is not given.
3. Chastity: to refrain from all sexual activity.
4. Right Speech: to refrain from false, abusive, malicious or disharmonious speech and worldly gossip.
5. Sobriety: to refrain from taking intoxicating drinks or drugs; smoking is prohibited at all times at the monastery.

 

Size of the community:

Monks and novices: 15-20
Laypeople: 5-10

Wat Pah Nanachat3_Arno Maierbrugger
Plenty of food for the entire wat community © Arno Maierbrugger
Wat Pah Nanachat4_Arno Maierbrugger
From the teachings of Ajahn Chan © Arno Maierbrugger
Wat Pah Nanachat1_Arno Maierbrugger
The Wat Pah Nanachat is open for everyone © Arno Maierbrugger
Wat Pah Nanachat11_Arno Maierbrugger
Some privileges there are for monks: Leather sofas at Ubon Ratchathani airport
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