A mind clear and bright
Story by Richard Hermes & photo by Yingyong Un-Anongrak, Bangkok Post, Feb 27, 2005
Urban Thais are hungry for teachings that they can apply to their daily lives, and many turn to British-born Phra Jayasaro to fill the gap
Bangkok, Thailand -- In 1975, 17-year-old Shaun Chiverton left his home in England to travel overland to India and learn about the religions of the East. By the age of 20, the only thing he would consider doing is living as a Buddhist monk.
In India he hitchhiked "without any real destination - just getting on and off trucks", until one afternoon when one truck left him in a small, secluded village. When he told a curious villager that he was "just looking for a quiet place to meditate", the man took him to a small concrete cell, three metres by two. It was the home of a Hindu monk. The monk pointed to a corner of the room and told him he could stay there and for three months he did, learning from the man he called "Swami". The old monk even studied English to be able to speak to his visitor.
"I think it's amazing," he says now. "A strange Westerner comes and you share your life together in that tiny room."
It was an early step for the young man who had "always felt a deep pull toward Asia". In 1980 Chiverton was ordained and took the name Phra Jayasaro. He became a member of the Forest Monastery tradition and, eventually, one of Thailand's most respected Buddhist monks.
From 1997 to 2002 he served as the abbot of Wat Pa Nanachat, a forest monastery in Ubon Ratchathani province.
These days Phra Jayasaro lives alone in a hermitage at the foot of Khao Yai mountains. Two Sundays a month he receives visitors in Phak Chong. They are mostly upper-middle class Thais from Bangkok, and they often number a hundred people, driving up from the city to attend one of his morning sessions of meditation, chanting and dhamma talk.
Phra Jayasaro sees a trend of educated, urban Thais returning to Buddhism. "It has become legitimate again. When I was here in the late '70s, it wasn't."
Others talk of a slightly different trend: The ever-stronger connections between western-born monks and lay western-educated Buddhists in eastern countries such as Thailand. Acharn Jayasaro was a disciple of the late Luang Por (Venerable Father) Chah, a well-known Thai monk who was able to foster a particularly vibrant community of western monks that has spread throughout the world.
Prinda Puranananda, a self-employed interior designer working in Bangkok, recently attended a meditation retreat led by Phra Jayasaro at Baan Namsarn, the private residence of Khunying Chamnongsri Hanchanlash in Mae Rim, Chiang Mai.
"I'm interested in monks that studied under Luang Por Chah because as a Thai you're brought up going to the temple without knowing the real reason why. You just do it.
"Most people, when they first study [Buddhism], they think it's just about karma and past and future lives." But when Ajarn Jayasaro leads the retreat, she said, "the most important thing is the present."
Phra Jayasaro does not normally give interviews. He doesn't like it when journalists transform monks into "personalities". It's difficult, however, for a writer not to take the story in that direction: Here is a man who combines a fierce dedication to Buddhist practice with a sharp analytical mind, a straightforward approach to sharing wisdom, and a healthy dose of humour - a trait he admired in his mentor.
In the past, cultural gaps ran across ethnic lines, but today's middle- and upper-class residents of Bangkok may feel more culturally distant from a Northeastern Thai farmer than from an English businesswoman living in London. If it's true that more educated urban Thais are gravitating toward foreign monks and Thai lay teachers to seek advice on how to hone their personal religious practice, it may have to do with urban versus rural culture. A large proportion of the ethnically Thai members of the sangha (monkhood), come from rural backgrounds.
Growing up in his own rural landscape in England as the academically precocious son of a man who was sceptical of Christianity, Phra Jayasaro turned to books in his search for the answers to his questions about the world: What's a good way to live? Are concepts of "good" and "bad" culturally relative, or are there universal standards? Why is it that, if everyone wants to be happy, there is so much suffering in the world? Why do human beings act so badly toward each other?
"I felt an incredible sense of recognition," he said. "The Buddha's teachings articulated something that I somehow already knew but was unable to put into words. It just seemed like common sense."
"I'm not a 'western' monk. What's more important is that I'm transmitting Luang Por's teachings as best I can. Still, I have a certain distance from this culture," he admits.
Indeed, to spend time with Phra Jayasaro is to confirm that any essential notions of what it means to be "Western" or "Eastern" are inherently flawed.
He speaks fluent Thai and gives the impression not that he has adopted Thailand as his home, but that he has come back to it after an absence, in the way that a child given up for adoption may be reunited with its mother.
Yet his perspective as a person raised in the West remains relevant. His familiarity with western society and with a Judeo-Christian tradition that run so deep most people aren't even aware of its influence, allows him to see certain aspects of Buddhism more clearly.
One way to cultivate loving kindness and compassion, he said, is to start by forgiving yourself, and move from there to your family, friends and finally your enemies. Phra Jayasaro has noticed, though, that for many Westerners, the first step is the most difficult. Even for Westerners who do not consider themselves Christians, the ingrained concept of original sin can take a toll on the psyche. Some people treat themselves as terminally, spiritually flawed.
"A lot of people ask me if they can do it the other way around, by forgiving their enemies first, because it's actually harder to forgive themselves ... we'll give more weight to one bad thought or motivation than all the good ones."
Prinda cites Phra Jayasaro's advice on forgiveness as particularly helpful. Now, she said, "I bring it into my real life. If I get angry or irritated I realise I'm just hurting myself. So when you realise that you just stop. And by not hurting yourself, you're not hurting other people."
Often, he uses his familiarity with "western" thought to argue against it.
One hallmark of western culture is its commitment to empiricism. Phra Jayasaro tells a story of a Thai engineer he met on an airplane who told him that while he appreciated the value of meditation, he couldn't accept the concept of reincarnation because "it's just not scientific".
Phra Jayasaro points out that science is no less fallible than his religion. Scientists begin their experiments with no assurance of a certain outcome. Instead, they work from the starting point of a hypothesis. Similarly, Buddhism starts with certain convictions about human nature - namely, that all of us suffer, that this suffering is a result of certain conditions, and that the suffering can be alleviated by letting go of our attachments to, for instance, the idea of a permanent self.
"In Buddhism, faith is somewhat comparable to the faith that a scientist has - the idea is that you take on certain teachings to prove that they are true." Unlike theistic religions, he said, there are no commandments in Buddhism, only "training rules" that must be taken up out of one's own volition.
That impermanent, insubstantial understanding of self is called anatta. For people who have worked their whole lives at self-fulfilment, letting go of their notion of a permanent self may be frightening or exhilarating. Phra Jayasaro likes to quote Joseph Goldstein, a US Buddhist teacher: "When you first hear about anatta, it feels like you've just jumped out of a plane without a parachute. Then you realise there's no ground, either." If all life is impermanent - in the same way that a river's elements are always in flux - then there's no such thing as death.
Ajarn Jayasaro understands that lay people crave guidance on contemporary issues, even if those issues may be difficult or controversial, and he is generous with his advice. On vegetarianism: There's nothing in the Buddha's teachings that prohibits the eating of meat, but it's just bad maths. With so many hungry people in the world, why waste all that grain on cattle feed? On the role of women in the sangha: The Buddha was "unequivocal, forthright, clear" that women can realise every level of enlightenment. On Buddhist sects: "It's like speaking different languages. One can respect each language, but if you start speaking English and claim it to be German - when a sect proclaims itself as being traditional Buddhist but teaches things in conflict ... it's not the best policy to turn a blind eye." On religious evangelism: There's a middle way of mutual respect and friendship, but within a freedom to practice certain boundaries must be respected.
And, finally, dealing with tragedy.
Even the most hardened empiricist has trouble making sense of some events. Those who survived and those who went to work in the tsunami-struck southern provinces in the weeks after the disaster found their sleep unsettled by nightmares. One didn't need to volunteer to be exposed to dark images, either; they flashed across our television and computer screens with disturbing frequency.
The mind's attempt to process, and to heal, reminds us of what little control most of us wield over those conditions - internal and external - that can cause us suffering.
One month later, Ajarn Jayasaro sat under the shade of a lychee tree on the beautiful grounds of Baan Namsarn, answering questions and leading meditation. To Prinda and the 40-odd participants, it felt like a gift.
Later, of those who tried to do what they could, he said, "When you're faced with death in those kinds of conditions, you're going to pay for it, psychologically, afterward, depending on how you've reflected on old age, sickness and death before. Just be very patient with that. I think most people would say yes, 'I'm still glad I did that, paid that price.' ... not overlooking the fact that you're a human being as well and you owe compassion to yourself.
"Certain things are very special in this culture and the natural attitude toward death is one of them.
"I think a healthy education is one in which you introduce the truths of old age, sickness and death so that by the time the child grows up, it's not such an awful shock to them."
A small child who climbs up to a coffin and looks down and tips coconut water on to the body will see first hand the impermanent nature of human life. In this way, the dead become our teachers. They reveal us to ourselves, and we can, with the right mind-set, also offer them our loving kindness and compassion.
"Coming face to face with death in the right context can be nurturing." Phra Jayasaro said. "There's no closure to human suffering; the only remedy is your own attitude toward it."
Sitting on the grass under a comforting sun, a positive attitude came a little easier.
"Ajarn Cha would say, 'Everything around you becomes your teacher, if the mind is clear and bright."'
There will always be hindrances to meditation. Here are some tips from Ajarn Jayasaro to help you:
- If you're feeling sleepy, don't focus on a particular object. Instead, let your whole body fill with bright light.
- Distracted? Find a mental image that conjures stillness. If it's words that keep coming to your mind, imagine those words traced on water and watch them disappear.
- Take advantage of a simple psychological truth: When you enjoy something, your mind doesn't wander. Don't just notice your breathing; enjoy it.
- Meditation is not a magic pill. It's the essential heart of practice, but can't be taken alone as a way to alleviate suffering. How you live the rest of your life is important, too.
- Finally, consider this: "In the long run, you might learn as much from the problems as you do from the peace."