In the early days of Suan Mokkh, Ajahn Buddhadasa began to observe his birthday -- May 27 -- as a day of reflection on his spiritual growth and development of the preceding twelve months. Later, he started to call it "Age Teasing Day" (Wan Lor Ayu) to distinguish from the Thai custom of "age extending" (tor ayu), that is, ceremonies for longer life. Wan Lor Ayu was intended to look the aging process and issues of life and death right in the face. He faced them with Dhamma and smiled back unperturbed, inviting the rest of us to do the same. In his final years, he spoke of "Age Ending" (Leuk Ayu), not having an age to tease or extend or whatever, that is, no longer conceiving of "my life" or "my age" or "my death" or "my anything."
Back in the middle years of Suan Mokkh, many students began to come to pay respects on Wan Lor Ayu. When they tried to give birthday gifts, he asked that they instead follow the practice he had kept for many years -- a day of fasting from solid food. The money each person saved could be given to charity, sharing with the needy. This became known as "age teasing gift."
For me, there have been many memorable Age Teasing Days since my arrival at Suan Mokkh in 1985. The following year was Tan Ajahn's 80th birthday, for which many events were organized nationwide, especially in Bangkok and at Suan Mokkh. Tan Ajahn's custom was to give three self-reflective lectures on his own experiences and development, as well as those of his students. This was not his usual speaking style; in fact, he saw it as somewhat of an indulgence, for which he apologized. Nonetheless, many of us found the openness and intimacy inspiring, even when we were declared "red and white rhinos." (Thick skinned, hard of hearing creatures in saffron and white clothing who didn't seem to get the Dhamma through their thick skulls).
On this occasion, the morning talk (9 am till noon) was broadcast on national TV. The afternoon (3 pm) and evening (9 pm) talks were only broadcast on national radio and were shorter than the usual 3 hours due to his poor health. As on some other occasions, he spoke in terms of his Three Resolutions:
Since his death in 1993 (which many of us believe would have occurred on his birthday if not for aggressive and unwanted medical intervention), tapes of his lectures from previous years have been played. This year, we heard his 2517 (1974) lectures, also centered on Three Resolutions. I enjoyed an old, comforting sense of place as I sat in my usual place on the ground beside old vines and roots, hearing his voice again in the setting of the Curved Rock Amphitheater, looking out on the semi-circles of monks and lay students on the slope below. Even if the voice was a recording, much of Suan Mokkh's atmosphere remained.
Here are a few sentences that I jotted down from the lectures:
The night before "Age Teasing Day" I was asked to speak about how America is coping post-911. There was much sympathy for Americans, though bemused by anger as a national policy. I also spoke of Liberation Park and some of the challenges and potentials for Buddhism in America.
There was great curiosity about what I've been doing in the USA. Some had heard of SALP, but not many as my visits the last couple years did not coincide with a major event. That I was returning "home" made sense to most. Person after person expressed warm wishes that Liberation Park would be a vibrant center for Dhamma teaching and practice. Many also regretted that they could never afford to visit. So I will have to return yearly, I guess, to give regular progress reports.
I arrived on Monday morning (26th), rested up, then taped a TV discussion on "the Right to Die." Since the controversy concerning how Tan Ajahn's body was taken to Bangkok against his express wishes, his death has been an opportunity to reflect on how to die mindfully and with dignity in an age of aggressive medical technology and hubris. This continues even a decade after his passing. (For a sense of what happened, please see this letter I wrote to the doctors of Siriraj, Thailand's oldest hospital and main teaching hospital.)
Once that finished, I could turn my attention to visiting with old friends, both monastic and lay. For example, Ajahn Singthong who was Tan Ajahn's attendant for many years and learned to read the hard way. We spent six weeks together in the ICU of Siriraj Hospital a decade ago when the doctors were playing out their medical fantasies on Tan Ajahn's body. He recently walked to Bangkok and back in less than month, covering over 50 km/ day; not bad for somebody who used to be a rather scrawny spoiled momma's boy and is now in his mid-fifties. He accepted no rides or money, usually slept outdoors, and ate only what he collected on alms, one meal a day.
Another is Khun Pranee, the wife of Dr. Prayoon, a long-time supporter of Suan Mokkh, public health official, and Dhamma aficionado. Khun Pranee is an especially sweet, soft-spoken person of good manners who epitomizes for me the best of Southern Thai womanhood. While this is not the sort of thing I would normally appreciate, her kindness, gentle way of advising and encouraging, enthusiasm, and now smiling acceptance of an aging body have gradually made an impression on me over the years. I wonder if American Buddhism can produce similar exemplars of Buddhist family life, of which Khun Pranee is only one.
There were many others to catch up on about their monasteries and families, activities and practices. There were also old comrades to remember, those who had died in the past year or were too sick to attend.
I am now writing this on the train up to Bangkok, where more adventures and joys await.
I remain most grateful to this warm-hearted (and often maddening) culture for all it has given me, most of all the experience of Suan Mokkh under Tan Ajahn's guidance. I hope I can repay a little of the abundance.