|Midwestern Dhamma Refuge
grounded in contemplative practice
for a peaceful, just, & sustainable society
Every monastery depends on physical work, ranging from preparation of food to maintenance. Sometimes, the lay supporters supply and arrange for everything, leaving the monks to perform ceremonies, study, teach, meditate, and other such "holy" acts. More often, especially in rural areas, the monks must do much of the work themselves, becoming skilled, especially in construction work. Unfortunately, this work is seldom seen as Dhamma practice - necessary, yes; spiritually valuable, no. This misunderstanding can create frustration and confusion in the bhikkhus who must do such work and yet see it as separate from their spiritual practice and growth.
At Suan Mokkh, any necessary work is considered a duty, and duty is one meaning of Dhamma. Doing duties is practicing Dhamma. Cleaning toilets, as much as scriptural study and meditation, is necessary, therefore important and valid practice. In fact, one is less likely to feel pride over a toilet properly scrubbed than, say giving sermons. Yet, there is a satisfaction in it that brings joy and serenity, which can in turn lead to deepening wisdom.
In the early days, when only one or a few bhikkhus lived at Suan Mokkh, the work was small and could be handled easily by Ajahn Buddhadasa and anyone staying with him at the time. Later, as Suan Mokkh grew, there was a need for larger projects and coordinated work. Thus began a tradition know as Labor Day. Each month there are four lunar observance days. The day before each of these observances is an opportunity for the monks and novices to get some exercise and clean themselves with sweat. Our hearts are defiled by selfishness, so we clean them by unselfish work. Doing so once every seven or eight days doesn't take away from other duties and accomplishes tasks on which the Wat depends.
As Suan Mokkh grew and Ajahn Buddhadasa's reputation spread, it became necessary for certain work to be done regularly, often daily. In an informal and voluntary way, different bhikkhus, and sometimes lay residents, take responsibility for receiving and aiding visitors, teaching individuals and groups, recording lectures and copying tapes, transcribing talks, translating, maintenance, and looking after new monks. There are no positions or offices, and no administrative structure. Each does work that suits his skills, interests, and needs, which he considers valuable and satisfying. A small group of nuns and lay women also help out, especially in the kitchen.
One last bit of work is common to all forest Wats - sweeping the leaves, twigs, and branches that continually fall from our trees. Each hut has a strong broom (made from the ribs of palm fronds) and others are scattered liberally throughout the Wat. Everyone helps to keep living areas, public areas, and pathways clear. The never-ending task teaches patience and working for its own sake. This work is never finished, a leaf always falls upon the ground one has just swept. That's how it goes - impermanence, thusness. The value is in the working, in serving unselfishly: "Dhamma sweeps the heart while the broom sweeps the ground." External cleanliness helps cultivate a clean, undefiled mind. And when it is done without any grasping and clinging, when there is only sweeping and no sweeper, then "void-mind" is uncovered and there is direct living in Dhamma.
As has been implied already, Suan Mokkh has always seen teaching as one of its duties, in fact, a central duty second only to spiritual study, practice, and realization. Anyone who has benefited from the teaching in some way has a duty, in turn, to keep those teachings alive, to pass them along to others, to maintain the religion. Even before founding Suan Mokkh, Buddhadasa Bhikkhus delivered frequent sermons at other Wats in the area. Later, he was kept quite busy speaking around the province, throughout the southern region, then more and more in Bangkok, and finally in the central and northern regions. Other monks from Suan Mokkh have been recognized as knowledgeable, inspiring, and creative speakers. Now that Ajahn Buddhadasa never travels, many of his monks, former students, and others influenced by him - including many lay people - are helping to keep alive and deepen understanding of the Buddha's Dhamma in Wats, schools, hospitals, government offices, non-government organizations, social activist circles, and Buddhist groups (often formed by the employees of medium and large sized companies). Suan Mokkh is by no means the only source of teaching energy, but the number of respected teachers - especially lay - coming from somewhere outside of Bangkok and outside the traditional mainstream is extraordinary. Many disagree with ideas coming from Suan Mokkh, but no one in Thailand can be indifferent to them. Over the years, controversy and criticism has lessened but not disappeared; this is taken to be a good sign. 
14 If everyone agrees with what we say, either they don't understand what we're saying or what we are saying is meaningless mush.
In the past, travel to Suan Mokkh was difficult, and most of its teaching work was done by bhikkhus traveling to the audience. Since the building of the Asia Highway at our gate, and with rapid increases in bus transportation and personal car ownership (in addition to the rail service available since the beginning), the number of visitors has grown from year to year. Almost every bus tour group traveling south stops at least to stretch their legs. We hope that they can catch some peace of mind among the trees before continuing their hectic schedule, and when time permits, we invite them into the Spiritual Theater for some Dhamma nourishment. The Theater is a large hall covered on the outside with copies, made here, of ancient relief sculpture from the earliest Buddhist shrines in India and inside with an eclectic collections of paintings, original and copied, from all Buddhist schools, other religions, folklore, fables, and flower catalogues. There are always bhikkhus available to help visitors discover Dhamma meaning in these paintings. For most the Theater is strange but interesting, something that might spark some spiritual inquiry. While sight-seeing at Wats is common, taking the time to examine one's own heart is not.
Housing is available for those who wish to stay longer. As in most forest Wats, there is no charge and no time limit. Study programs are arranged for the many groups that come for a few days to over a week. There are groups of high school and university students, teachers and civil servants, monks and novices, development workers and ordinary villagers, and even foreigners. Some weekends and during the school holidays the older bhikkhus are not given much time to rest. Most of the programs include an introduction to meditation and daily sittings. Further, meditation courses are organized regularly for foreign travelers, some who come out of curiosity and other who come to Thailand specifically to study Buddhism. The instruction is in English, with Western and Thai monks helping out. In turn, Thai groups have asked for similar courses in Thai, which now are happening as well.
Another recent development of special interest is that Bangkok's oldest and most famous hotel, under the leadership of the personnel director, who is a practicing Buddhist, is bringing down groups of its own staff on a regular basis. The hotel has found that higher pay does not make for satisfied and happy staff. In fact, more money leads to more drinking, debt, and other personal and family problems. The response, which is popular among staff and showing positive results, is to help them find meaning in their lives through an understanding of Buddhism that goes deeper than beliefs, superstitions, and traditional ceremonies. The message is simple: Selfishness never brings true happiness; genuine unselfishness is immediately happy. Most of the staff has come, and many are asking for a second visit.
Because Suan Mokkh is not like other Wats, many visitors are given a fresh look at Buddhism, especially those who have lost interest in the traditional, and often outdated, Wats. Suan Mokkh is more like a park; it lacks the imposing and expensive buildings that intimidate as much as they awe. The atmosphere is both informal and committed, lively and relaxed, challenging and friendly. This can be disarming, helping people to drop their defenses and open their hearts, and often kindles a bit of childlike innocence. While many merely take the opportunity to unwind and relax before rushing back to increasingly chaotic modern life (which Suan Mokkh doesn't begrudge them), some are touched profoundly. The work and service is its own reward, but the peace and joy in the eyes and smiles of others is a pleasant bonus. Suan Mokkh doesn't claim credit for these changes in people. They have done the work themselves and must continue to do so. And much of the teaching is done not by words and painting but by nature. Who can really know the transformation and awakening in others' hearts? It's enough to begin to see it in oneself and cultivate it as far toward selflessness as one can. Serving others serves the Dhamma, and when there is no "self" to be served there is true peace.
No matter how unique, innovative, or controversial, everything and everyone without exception meets in Dhamma, in nature, in ordinariness. In trying to share our understanding of Dhamma with others, bhikkhus should not hold themselves up as an ideal to follow; I for one am far from ideal. We are monks, they are not, but our common humanity runs deeper than any distinction. There is only one truth, one Law; the Buddha's teaching speaks to all human beings. Naturally, the circumstances of our lives must vary and so too our approaches to Dhamma. We each must realize our own duty, no one is "holier" than another. Too often, the "full-time religious" (do any truly live their religion full-time to the depths of the heart?) are put on a pedestal to be respected, even worshipped, leaving the worshipper feeling lower and lesser and confused. Humility is proper, but denigration one's own spiritual potential kills. As much as Thai custom allows, Suan Mokkh tries to avoid putting the monks above others. The need is for everyone to bow to the Dhamma in their own hearts. Bowing to anything else is superstition.
To avoid becoming special, to perform its duty successfully, the Wat must be relevant. Thai Wats used to be the center of village life and traditional Thai culture. With rapid modernization, capitalization, and urbanization, the Wats tend to be more and more on the fringe, except when they are co-opted. They are kept separate for special days and activities, rather than being a vital part of daily life. Sometimes a Wat tries to get up-to-date with gadgets, marketing, and slang. Usually it gets swept along and loses its spiritual grounding. Or it just holds tight to its traditions and watches the congregation get old, then burns them one by one.
When the Wat, church, or synagogue can no longer speak its rightful message in terms coherent to its community, then society becomes dead within its heart. The challenge in these increasingly confusing, materialistic, and selfish times is to keep the spirit alive and to rejuvenate the traditions, to maintain the spiritual ground and to speak with the community in spiritually practical words. Suan Mokkh is determined to keep pace with the rapid changes in society, not merely to be modern, not to follow, but to lead. No one thinks it is easy to do so. We must be dedicated, sensitive, open, inspired, creative, and on-the-ball. No matter, we prefer this most difficult service work - teaching Dhamma and all the inner work it entails - to watching our friends rot in a spiritually meaningless world.
For many years Suan Mokkh has operated in line with "Three Resolutions." These are to try our best
- To help everyone penetrate to the heart of their own religion;
- To create mutual good understanding among all religions;
- To work together to drag the world out from materialism.
Muslims and Christians, the main religious minorities in Siam, all religious people, and even those who shun religion have always been welcome here. Out of curiosity, goodwill, and necessity, Suan Mokkh wishes to meet with all religions. The basic principle is to establish mutual good understanding. This means that each party expresses its spiritual understanding as clearly as it can, with all other parties listening open-mindedly. There is friendly give and take. Agreement is not expected but is found where possible. Differences are noted, but the emphasis is on what we have in common and what each can contribute to the battle against selfishness. There is no wish to form some One World Religion. People have different cultures, backgrounds, education levels, and mental abilities. Therefore, a variety of religions is necessary. The key is to prevent that variety from being a source of competition, argument, and conflict.
Suan Mokkh's emphasis on nature helps the dialogue. Everyone can appreciate this most common denominator. No religion claims nature for its own; we can all respect, share, and learn from it together. Self-reliance and responsibility, no side setting itself up as teacher, openness and freedom of thought, dedication to hard work and service to humanity, simplicity, and directness: All these are qualities that will help each of us to get to the deepest spiritual core of our traditions. Then we can met without fears and schemes in true sisterhood and brotherhood. And for those who dare, the fresh look Suan Mokkh takes at Buddhism can explore all traditions.
Suan Mokkh's latest project is the development of an International Dharma hermitage. One of its uses will be for holding meditation courses and group trainings. Ajahn Buddhadasa is most interested, however in using it to bring together spiritual people from all of Thailand's religions to further mutual good understanding and cooperation against rampant materialism and moral decay. If such meeting are successful, and they will not be so difficult to arrange, he would hope to do the same on an international scale. For now, Suan Mokkh is waiting to see who is interested.
In describing some of Suan Mokkh's more interesting aspects, I have explained the "why" as much as the "what," giving the reasons for things as I understand them. Further, the view is rosy. I have not discussed Suan Mokkh's weaknesses and difficulties at all. Each member of the community lives up to these ideas as best as her or his understanding and ability enables. The writer's enthusiasm is not meant to be partisan, nor does it imply that Suan Mokkh's is the only way, or even "the best" way. Let's say that it's the best way for Suan Mokkh as it strives to keep Buddhism alive and relevant in this tormented modern world.
I hope this description of a Buddhist monastery in Thailand may help other monastics to perform the vital duty of creating oases of clarity, wisdom, and peace. May our oases, our Wats, and monasteries, shine the light of compassionate wisdom into the troubled and darkening world.
Many years have passed since the above was written, years in which some things have necessarily changed. For one, Ajahn Buddhadasa is no longer alive, although you can still catch hints of his way of life and teaching while wandering through Suan Mokkh. Some of the principles and ideals mentioned above may not be as clearly modeled by the current leadership. The writer had moved across the Asian Highway to Dawn Kiam (in 1990), which had not yet been conceived when this article was written. Now he lives in the USA (as of 2000). My understanding of things has changed here and there, but rewriting the article would be a waste of time. It expresses one person's understanding of an impermanent phenomenon. The place and the person change, so do the perceptions and descriptions. Except in a few places, I have avoided the temptation to make revisions. The above will stand for now, even if a new one is written later.
For a talk by Ajahn Buddhadasa on the life and perspective of forest living, please see "Forest Wat, Wild Monk" ...
On The Style of Practice at Suan Mokkh ...