THE FOREST TRADITION
and the ‘The Warrior Wisdom’
Over the last few centuries, in general, all religions and cults have fallen apart, on the one hand, due to the gradual indolence and accommodation of better and more exquisite material conditions, on the other, as a reflection of an imbalance in which the need for institutionalizing an order, came to generate a progressive authority-free will dichotomy. This in turn was opened up by the the very dispersion and inner distraction of the human being, accentuating the weakening of his spiritual attention, thus polarizing more and more his conscious inner power in the submissive and at the same time, voluntary dependence at the level of physical and material conditions.
On the other hand, institutional power and the means to control in societies, as they inflated, were in their turn promoting the exclusivity of power and the restriction of both freedom and initiative in the human being, so essential to access the only door that really opens the way to true inner fulfillment, the door of understanding and discernment.
The history of Buddhism does not escape the previous scenario, but like other religions and philosophies, it is nevertheless particular in its own context and path. The originality of resistance and adaptation on the part of certain masters and groups, between lines and traditions that have emerged throughout the ages, demarcates, in or out of movements, whether institutional or not, precisely the need to find the nobility of the Teaching, above everything in the realization of inner practice, in that sense inspiring the discipline and austerity necessary to overcome the indulgent material condition and to rediscover the original principles and values that the Buddha encouraged to follow.
Throughout the ages, Buddhism has functioned as a civilizing force. Its teaching on Kamma (Karma), for example – the principle that all intentional action has consequences – has promoted morality and compassion in many societies. But on a deeper level, Buddhism has always run the line between Civilization and Wilderness. Tradition tells us that the Buddha was born in a forest, reached Enlightenment in a forest, lived and taught most of his life in the forest and finally died in the forest. When there was a possibility, the forest was his preferred residence, for He Himself said, «Tathāgatas arise in secluded places». The qualities of the mind that He needed to survive unarmed, physically and mentally, among the paths of the wild and virgin forests, were crucial in his discovery of the Dhamma. These qualities included resilience, resolve, and discernment; inner honesty, circumspection, firmness in the face of loneliness, courage and ease in situations of danger, compassion and respect for all other forest dwellers.
Within Theravada Buddhism, at present, a tradition is found more specifically – “The Kammatthāna (Meditation) Forest Tradition”, which today, better known as “Thai Forest Tradition”, had as its fundamental landmark the movement inspired and founded by a monk of the Northeast Thailand in the twentieth century – Phra Ajahn Mun Bhūridatta Thera (Phra – in pāli means Venerable). His impulse came to infuse new life and revitalize the Buddha’s practical Teaching, to illuminate again the forgotten path to Nibbana (Nirvana in Sanskrit) and to raise what in ancient cultures was known as the “Wisdom of the Warrior.”
Let us see then a little bit of this path and how among the various Buddhist lines and traditions in the world, this wild “flower” emerges, the Forest Tradition, similar to the Lotus uppala that rises immaculate from the mud, such as a Buddha flourishing.
Going back in time, the tradition of forest meditation goes even further back than the time of the Buddha himself. It was customary to see in those times gone, in India and in the region of the Himālayas, many who in seeking the way of spiritual liberation, left the life of the city and village in search of a refuge in the mountain and in the virgin forest. In an act of renunciation of worldly wealth and values, this was the ideal place, for the Forest offered a wild, natural space where the few that could be found there were the “madmen”, the outcasts, or spiritual renunciates . It was a dimension apart from material influence and cultural norms, and thus the place conducive to the cultivation of the higher spiritual qualities that allowed them to transcend these same limitations.
At the age of 29, Prince Siddhārta Gautama leaves the palace life where he grew up and heads to the forest for the purpose of training the Yoga disciplines. The story is known of how, unsatisfied, left His masters, seeking His own way. He did so, after which He came to the realization of the essential truth He called “The Middle Way,” precisely under the shade of the Bodhi tree, off the Nerañjarā River, where Bodh-Gayā is now situated in Bihar State, India.
As far as historical records can affirm, it appears that a few months after the Buddha died, sometime in the fifth century BC, a large Council of Elders was assembled to formalize and establish the monastic teachings and rules in the standard form of the vernacular Pālibhasa – “The Language of Texts.” One hundred years later, the Second Council meeting is held again to verify the whole teaching and with the aim of creating a general consensus on the code and doctrine. It was then that the great schism and division between the two “vehicles” took place. Most of the group wanted to modify certain rules and gave rise to the Mahāyāna – Great Vehicle, known as Northern Buddhism, which spread mainly to Tibet (Vajrayāna branch), China, Korea and Japan. The minority of the group was more cautious about the proposed changes, preferring to remain faithful to the strict simplicity of the teachings and not to extrapolate the Dhamma as it had been bequeathed by the Buddha to his original Disciples. It was from this minority group of Theras (Elders in Pāli language) that, 130 years later, this “Council” of the Theravada school – Hīnayāna (Small Vehicle) – was born, characterized by being the most conservative, also known as Southern Buddhism, having spread to the South and Southeast, initially India and later, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Around 250 BC, during the reign of Emperor Aśoka (273-236), there were already several lines and schools divergent throughout the Indian Sub-continent. It was then that the third Buddhist Council was presided over by the Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa Maha Thera, under the fundamental patronage of the Great Emperor and where several missions were decided, sent to both inside and outside India.
A group in which the son of Emperor Aśoka, Arahant Mahinda, along with four others, went to Sri Lanka, later to be the Portuguese Ceilão (Ceylon). There they transmitted the Buddha’s teachings to King Devanampiyatissa (247-207 BC) who, impressed, soon accepted Buddhism. Thus was Buddhism established for the first time on the island.
Following the troubled political period of the first century BC, when a ferment of Hindu Brahmanic revival movements with East and West influences rose in the Indian Subcontinent – a climate of pressure was generated, increasing the risk of losing the master line of the basic and practical Teaching of the Buddha, also partly due to the divergent dilution of the tradition on the various fronts of thought and religion then, in the forge. It was in this period that many of those who were more faithful to the original and practical Teaching of the Buddha, retired to the island of Sri Lanka.
It was then in the reign of King Dutugemunu (101-77 BC), a time acclaimed as the Golden Age of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, that this particular “Vehicle” was established and consolidated with minimal modifications. The tradition of Teaching was transmitted orally and through mnemonic in the Pāli language, not as a need to develop itself in order to confront hostile beliefs, but to keep the distinct line between the basic formal Teaching and the comments subsequently added.
Then comes the Fourth Council according to the Theravada Tradition, taking place near Matale, Sri Lanka, during the reign of King Vattha Gamini Abhaya (29-17 BC). It was there that for the first time, 500 monks presided over by Venerable Rakkhita carried out the transcription of the entire Pāli Canon (Tipitaka) and Commentaries (Atthakatha) for the writing. This was the crucial moment and the place where the unshakeable roots of the Pāli Canon were founded, without which the Theravada Tradition of today would not have survived as it did through wars, persecutions and other setbacks.
Still going back in time, there were other missionary groups which, initially under the aegis of Emperor Aśoka, spread to other Southeast Asian countries, from India and Sri Lanka, such as Burma and later Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. However, despite the geographic dispersion, continual hindsight to the standard values of the Pāli Canon, was maintaining the central verticality of the Tradition, with all respect and reverence for the way of life and discipline that the Buddha performed in the forest. This Tradition of the Forest, has been the model subsisting despite the many ups and downs over the centuries. Sometimes the Tradition faded in Sri Lanka and there came monks from Thailand to help reviving it. Other times it was in Thailand that there was a weakening and there would be monks from Burma giving their breath and encouragement. Thus it was for centuries, bearing and helping one another, maintaining the original character of “religion” to the surface.
Other problems have arisen throughout history. It is quite common not only in the Buddhist arena, but throughout the world, to see the corruption allied with wealth and the material opulence of worldly, ecclesiastical and political success. So it also happened with Buddhism at certain levels and at different times, since from time to time the monastic system was accommodated to a more relaxed character, where material degeneration influenced its own weight, followed by collapse. It was then that a small group or a great master rebelled against the system, returning to the discipline and austerity of the virgin and wild recesses, restoring again the original patterns of the monastic code, the practice of meditation, and the study of the Teaching.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Buddhism in Thailand had acquired a rich variety of regional traditions and practices. However, the general body of its spiritual life had degraded along with the slovenliness and corruption of monastic discipline, encountering teachings of Dhamma mixed with hazy Tantric and animist traces, allied with the fact that rare were already those who practiced meditation. To make matters worse, there was already widespread opinion, both on the side of the degenerate faction and still more by the “scholars” of orthodoxy, that it was no longer possible to perform Nibbāna (Nirvāna), or even to reach the initial states of jhāna (meditative absorption).
This was a situation that the revivalists of the Forest Tradition refused to accept. And it was at the same time one of the reasons why they were “cataloged” as independents and agitators by the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the time, in addition to the disdain which many of them demonstrated by the “monks of study” of the Theravada line itself, asserting that “wisdom is not taken from books.”
This contrast is another crucial point, which, paradoxically, instead of omitting the importance of the Theravada line to the study of the Buddha’s Word, emphasizes above all the particularity of the monks of the “Forest Tradition”, to assume a more concentrated determination in the lifestyle and personal experience than in the books (especially the commentary on Scripture). Perhaps such an attitude would be unworthy, or even less pure feelings could be assumed behind such allusions, were it not in fact the realization that the interpretations of “scholars” were actually driving Buddhism into a black hole.
This was precisely the mature ground for something new to emerge. A few, dissatisfied with the current situation, such as the Buddha 2500 years earlier, felt the need to go further. Not neglecting the study of the Canon, they turned their eyes and their lives back to the wild corners of the forests and mountains, as if withdrawing to their own inner Nature, there seeking the contemplative retreat and meditation in contact with the natural environment, thus bringing to light the practice of inner realization discovery.
Among the various “wilderness” Traditions of Southeast Asia, there appears to be one that has increasingly attracted the attention of a greater number of Westerners for its originality and sobriety, having already begun to take root in the West. It is the “Kammatthāna Tradition (Meditation) of the Forest” of Thailand, which came to embody the fundamental “anima” of the present “Thai Forest Tradition”, a movement that had its initial impulse at the beginning of the twentieth century by the great Thai Master, Phra Ajahn Mun Bhūridatta Thera, one of the bastions of the Buddhist essence that brought to light the lost spirit of the ancient “Wisdom of the Warrior”, and to which the “Thai Forest Tradition” owes its spiritual banner today.
Born in 1870, the son of rice farmers in the northeastern province of Ubon, he was ordained a monk in 1892. At that time the country still suffered the remains of anarchy caused by the destruction of the Kingdom of Ayudhya in 1767, further worsening the disorganization of the already corrupt monastic system.
There was at the time two main groups of Buddhism: Traditional Buddhism, which came to be known as Mahanikaya and which included a manifold variety of customs and branches spread throughout the country, already in disrepair and with various cults to the mixture, little already respecting the Pali Canon; and the Dhammayutta Reformation Buddhist group, which begun in 1820 by Prince Mongkut, who, dissatisfied with the corrupt sloppiness of the monastic situation, decided to reordain in the discipline of the strict Mon near the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Its purpose was to align the practice with the Teachings of the Pali Canon.
By embracing a more rational and “scientific” approach to the Dhamma, he promoted the eradication of all superstitions, a more serious study of the Pali texts, and above all a new rigor in the monastic Code and Discipline. Finding little appeal in the Traditional group, it was in this Dhammayutta group that later Ajahn Mun came to ordain. His method of practice was solitary and rigorous, giving much more attention to meditation practices than to the theoretical side. He followed the Vināya (monastic discipline) faithfully, and also observed many of the classic dhutanga (ascetic practices), such as eating only from what is offered, using habits solely made from leftover cloths, living in the forest and eating only one meal a day. In search of the refuges in the wild forests of Thailand and Laos, he avoided the obligations of the well-to-do monastic life, thus deciding to devote long hours of day and night to meditation.
By then no one believed in realizing the way to Nibbana.
After wandering long years with his Master, who never assured him that this practice would lead to the Noble Accomplishments, Ajahn Mun decides to leave alone, in search of a Master who could safely show him this way. His quest lasted for two decades amidst countless challenges and difficulties as he scoured the jungles of Laos, Central Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), but never found the Master he sought. Often he realized that he would have to follow the example of the Buddha and take the wild Nature as his Master, not as a simple measure of conformity to the laws of Nature itself – for Nature itself manifests samsara (impermanence – transience) to discern and attain in full the truths transcendent to these same laws. If He wanted to find the way beyond aging, disease, and death, He would have to learn the lessons of an environment where aging, disease, and death are clearly in evidence. At the same time, encounters with other monks in the forest told him that learning the lessons of nature involved more than simply perfecting the skill for physical survival. He would also have to develop discernment not to let himself be led into undesirable ways in his meditation. And then, with deep determination and responsibility for his task, he returned to a mountainous region of central Thailand and settled there alone in a cave.
On his long journey through the wild recesses of nature, Ajahn Mun realized that, contrary to the skepticism of both Traditional and Reformation Buddhist groups, the path to Nibbāna (Nirvāna) was not closed. And that the true Dhamma should be found, not in customs, rituals or texts, but rather in the well-trained heart and mind. The texts would be indicators for the training, neither more nor less. The rules of the Vināya (discipline), rather than simple external conventions, should play an important role in physical and mental perseverance. As for the Dhamma texts, practice should not be just a matter of blind faith, affirmation or verbalism. Just reading and thinking about the texts, could not offer an adequate understanding of their meaning, nor would it necessarily mean true respect for them. True respect for texts was translated by taking them as a challenge: to put their teachings seriously to test, in order to verify where they are in fact true. During the testing of teachings along with meditation, the mind would give birth to many unexpected accomplishments that were not found in the texts. These in turn should also be put to test, so that this is gradually learned by experience and error, to the point of effective and noble realization. Only then did Ajahn Mun say, “he would have understood the Dhamma.”
This is the attitude that in relation to the Dhamma (the Truth) goes back to what the ancient cultures called “Warrior Wisdom” – the “knowledge” that comes with the development of expertise in the practice of difficult and adverse situations – in contrast to the “Scholar knowledge” developed by people seated with relative security and comfort. Obviously, warriors need to use words in the course of their training, but they only recognize the authority of a text as its teachings come to fruition in practice. The Canon itself encourages in this regard when it mentions the Buddha teaching his aunt: “With regard to the teachings which you may know,” These teachings lead to overcoming passion, not to passion; to be free, not to imprisonment; to dispossession, not to accumulation; modesty, not superiority; to contentment, not to discontent; to recollection, not to entanglement; to perseverance, not to laziness; to the unburdening, not to the overloading. “- You can certainly assure, This is the Dhamma, this is the Vināya, this is the instruction of the Master.”
In a famous episode with one of his disciples, in which he constantly doubted where to find the dispensation and wise transmission of the Buddha (sāsanā), Ajahn Mun put him all day to meditate on the word “Buddho” … At the end of the day, after having realized the place where to find the sāsanā inwardly and preparing to inform the Master by opening the door of his hut, he faced with this serene man who asked him, “Do you now recognize where to find sāsana?” That is, the ultimate authority to evaluate and judge the Teaching is not in the “works” where it can be found, in this case the Pali Canon or the Buddhist religion itself, but in the inexorable honesty of the human being in testing the Dhamma (Truth – Teaching) and carefully discriminate the results inwardly.
However, by making sure that the path to the Noble Achievements and to the Nibbāna was open, Ajahn Mun returns to the northeast and, despite his reserved nature, with his unique and complete posture, has increasingly attracting admirers and disciples with willingness to start the study in a more wild environment.
The vital point of this pivotal figure of Theravada Buddhism and bulwark of the present “Forest Thai Tradition”, reveals itself precisely in the balance that within the different traditions, Ajahn Mun himself met and fought to conjugate and carry out in and around his practice and discipline. He succeeded in harmonizing the rigor of academic discipline and scholarship inspired by the Dhammayutta movement, with the practical side in relation to wild nature, while revitalizing and inspiring the Mahanikaya order. The Dhammayutta movement, however, failed roundly with its more academic tendency, to bureaucratize itself politically and adopt a more urban and social form, later inspiring a third type of Buddhism, the “State Buddhism”, which even instigates monks to set themselves in the monasteries, to leave the forests and to devote more time to the academic side than to meditation, even challenging anyone who opposed this directive.
Never having attached great importance to the academic and social forum, Ajahn Mun departs with his most faithful disciples to the north, where they could still be free. Throughout his life he refused fame and titles, and when in the early 1930s he was appointed by the Bangkok authorities to serve as abbot and leader of the Tradition in one of the most important and ancient monasteries in the city of Chieng Mai, disappears without leaving track at the dawn of the next day.
His detractors accused him of not following and respecting the traditional Buddhist customs of the time, to which he responded not to be bent on bowing to the customs of any particular society-which were usually the customs of people dull with avarice, hatred, and delusion in their minds. He was more interested in finding what He called the “Costume of the Nobles,” the practices that first and foremost enabled the Buddha and his original disciples to awaken.
This famous phrase – the “Costume of the Nobles” – dates back to an incident in the Buddha’s own life: not long after his “Awakening – Enlightenment”, he returned to the kingdom he had left six years earlier to convey the Dhamma to His family. After spending the night in the forest, when the day woke up, he went to the city to beg for food. His father, the King, when he heard what was going on, went immediately to warn him. “This is a shame,” said the King, “never has anyone in our family’s line ever begged. It is against the customs of our family. ” To which the Buddha replied, “Now I belong no longer to the lineage of my family, but to the lineage of the Nobles. These are the customs I follow. ” Ajahn Mun has devoted many of his years to the pursuit of these customs.
Years later, at the end of his life and after the ecclesiastical authorities had become more condescending to his practice, he returned again, settling in the northeast. The movement founded by Himself, only in the fifties would be accepted in Bangkok.
In an age coinciding with the loss of confidence in most state monks, many of whom were no more than mere bureaucrats dressed in habits, the Kammatthana monks began to represent, in the eyes of many monastics and population, a solid and trustworthy expression of Dhamma, in a world in rapid and furious modernization.
It was around this time that another great name was arising, someone who would ground and catapult the whole movement and essence inspired by Ajahn Mun, across the country and beyond. It was the Venerable Ajahn Chah – Phra Bodhinyāna Thera. Like Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Chah was born in the Land of Isahn, northeast of Thailand, more precisely in the so-called “Province of the Wise,” Ubon. At the age of nine he decides to leave the family and order himself in a local Mahanikaya monastery. At twenty he receives complete ordination as Bhikkhu (monk). In junior studies the basics of Dhamma, discipline and other scriptures. As he studies the Pali and translates from the Dhammapada, he realizes the disparity between his life and that of the monks in the time of the Buddha: they wandered in the forests “solitary, impetuous and determined” and he attached to a book in the room of studying a monastery … was he losing the spirit of resolution? How important was academic study? Something inside him was being muffled by declinations and limited approximations at the root of his own words. That was certainly not the way to liberation. Unhappy with his situation and the slovenliness of the local discipline, he decides to leave in search of superior guidance in meditation. With another friend he leaves in tudong (forest and wilderness pilgrimage).
For several years, they walk in the ascetic style, sleeping in forests and caves, going through various challenges and adversities through the jungles of Isahn. They meet some monasteries and masters of the Forest, with whom they spend their seasons, assimilating their teachings and practicing meditation. It was during his stay at the Wat Kow Wongkot Monastery that for the first time Ajahn Chah heard of the name of the monk that would become a legendary figure throughout Thailand, the most revered monk of his generation, Ajahn Mun. A layman then informs him that Ajahn Mun, after having been retired ten years in the north, had returned to Isahn, with a large group of monks, settling in the mountains of Sakon Nakon. It is then that Ajahn Chah decides to visit him.
At a critical juncture, where doubts flooded his monastic purpose, this was the crucial meeting that profoundly and significantly marked Ajahn Chah until the end of his life. As soon as they entered the monastery of Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Chah was immediately invaded by the quiet and discreet atmosphere. There was something in the monastery like nowhere else – the silence was curiously charged with vibration.
After paying due respect, among several questions, Ajahn Mun asked if they had any questions regarding the practice. Ajahn Chah replied affirmatively, expressing his dismay at the study of the texts of the discipline which seemed to be too detailed to be practiced: it seemed that it was not possible to keep all the rules. What should be the norm to follow? Ajahn Mun counseled him as the basic principle to follow the “Two Guardians of the World”: hiri (a sense of shame) and ottappa (intelligent fear of consequences). In the presence of these two virtues, He said, everything else would follow. Then he spoke about the training of the three categories of the eightfold path to perfection: sila (morality), sādhana (concentration) and paññā (knowing); and on the four Roads to Success and the five Spiritual Powers. With an authoritative authority, he described the “way things really are” and the way to liberation. Ajahn Chah was perfectly ecstatic.
Later, Ajahn Chah said that despite having spent an exhausting day walking, by hearing Ajahn Mun speak, all the boredom disappeared, his mind clear, calm, and light.
On the second day, Ajahn Mun gave more teachings and Ajahn Chah saw all his doubts vanish with respect to his future practice. He felt a joy and a rapture in the Dhamma like never before. Now all he had left was to put his knowledge into practice. Undoubtedly, one of the teachings that inspired him most of these two evenings was instruction to become Sikkhibhuto himself, that is – “Witness of Truth”. But the most enlightening explanation, which gave him the necessary support for the practice which had hitherto escaped him, was the distinction between the mind itself and all the transient states which appear and disappear within it. Ajahn Mun said they are mere states. By not understanding this point, we take them as real, identifying them with our own mind. In reality they are only transitory states.
On the third day, Ajahn Chah paid respect and departed with a heart full of golden inspiration, which he would never forget until the end of his life.
His visit to Ajahn Mun was not simply the visit of a young pilgrim monk to the Father of the Forest Tradition, but that of a Mahanikaya monk to a Dhammayutta monastery. However, the controversy arose, how and why, Ajahn Chah, a Mahanikaya monk, considered himself disciple of Ajahn Mun (Dhammayutta) for the rest of his life, having only lived with Him two nights?
Ajahn Chah’s response to this interpellation was “that close to a fire, a person with closed eyes can spend a lifetime without even seeing it, whereas a person with good, open eyes would not take long in seeing the light.” He seems to suggest receiving from Ajahn Mun, which in other Buddhist traditions is understood as “transmission.” Although it may be objected that “transmission” is an idea extraneous to Theravada Buddhism, it is actually found that following this encounter, Ajahn Chah felt that his path was illuminated. Using another analogy, it was as if he had been given a well-defined plan to accomplish, with his own tools, and all that was missing was to get to work.
It is said that Ajahn Mun, in interpreting the dream of a senior disciple, sensed that Ajahn Chah was the monk who would spread the seed of the Forest Tradition throughout the Mahanikaya order and create a more firm Sangha, with the foundation of several monasteries in the whole Province and Country. And so it happened.
In 1954, Ajahn Chah returns to the province of Ubon. There he is invited to settle in a dense forest near his homeland, Bahn Gor. This uninhabited forest, known as the place of snakes, tigers and ghosts, was in his words the ideal place for a forest monk. As more disciples gathered around him, the Monastery known as Wat Pah Pong, was established.
Keeping the code inspired by Ajahn Mun and the spirit of the Forest, Ajahn Chah, with his own style of simple, clear and austere teaching, allied a fundamental characteristic to the Kammatthana Forest Tradition. Precisely, a stronger sense of community and group practice, promoting closer contact with the population and even abroad. This comes to be his most distinctive contribution to the Tradition. That is, regardless of the factor of the Order, He was able to pass on the essence of the Tradition, from a condition almost exclusively isolated in the distant and reserved recesses or confinement of the villages, to a condition broader and closer to the communities in general. On the other hand, in an era of troubled disorientation in which forests are in grave danger of progressive extinction, this more communitarian movement also helps not only the Tradition to propagate itself more internally, but also at the international level. Today in Thailand alone, there are more than three hundred monasteries of the Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Chah line scattered throughout the country.
The next step that the Tradition of the Forest comes to give, is first of all to Ajahn Chah and soon after the entrance into the Tradition, of one who was the first monk of the West in this Theravada tradition, Phra Rāja Sumedhācariya – Ajahn Sumedho. It was these two great Grandfathers, who patronized the initial settlement of Tradition in the West. After that, many other Western monks emerged.
Ajahn Sumedho was born in Seattle, Washington in 1934. He grew up in an Anglican family along with an older sister. Between 1951 and 1953, he studied Chinese and History at the University of Washington. After serving four years as an assistant medic in the United States Navy, he returns to the University and completes the BA (Bachelor of Arts degree) Bachelor of Science in Far Eastern Studies.
Studies introduce him to Buddhism through reading, while the period of service in the Navy leads him to contact the “Buddhist Society of Japan.” In 1961, he enrolled again to pursue a MA degree in Southern-Asociatic Studies at the University of California, Bekerley, where he graduated in 1963.
Disappointed and dissatisfied with the dogmatism of the Western religion, he decided in 1966 to travel to Thailand to practice meditation at Wat Mahathat, Bangkok. Not long afterwards, he took ordination as a novice monk in a remote part of the country, Nong Khai, until he received complete ordination in 1967.
A year of solitary practice ensues. Although fruitful, this period showed him the need for a teacher who could guide him more actively. A fortuity encounter with a visiting monk led him to seek his meditation master in the province of Ubon, at the Forest Monastery at Wat Pah Pong, the monastery of Ajahn Chah. He accepts Ajahn Chah as his preceptor, thus becoming his disciple and under his intimate guidance for ten years.
In 1975, Ajahn Chah authorizes him to lead a small community of monks, not far from Wat Pah Pong, thus founding a “Monastery of the Forest Tradition” for Western monks, Wat Pah Nanachat, “International Forest Monastery” where Westerners could come and train in English. In 1976, Ajahn Sumedho made a trip to America to visit his parents, but not without stopping in England, being invited to stay in a small Buddhist Monastery in Hampstead, London. A second visit to this monastery in the following year of 1977, accompanied by Ajahn Chah, became the beginning of his residence in England, precisely at the Hampstead Vihāra (Vihāra – residence or small Monastery), along with three other monks.
Since then, with great initial efforts and great will, four great establishments were founded as Monasteries of this Tradition in England: “Cittaviveka Buddhist Monastery” in Chithurst, West Sussex; “Amarāvatī Buddhist Monastery” in Great Gaddesden, Hertfordshire; “Aruna Ratanagiri Buddhist Monastery” in Harnam, Northumberland and “Hartridge Buddhist Monastery” in Upottery, Devon.
Ajahn Sumedho was the Abbot of “Amarāvatī Buddhist Monastery” (Amarāvatī – home of the Immortals) untill 2010, when he retired to Thailand. He has fathered the birth of seven more monasteries in the Western world, namely: “Kloster Dhammapala” in Waldrand, Kandersteg, Switzerland; “Santacittarama” in Localita “Le Brulla”, Italy; “Bodhinyana Monastery” in Serpentine, Australia; “Bodhivana Monastery” in East Warburton, Australia; “Auckland Buddhist Vihara” at Mt. Wellington, New Zealand; “Bodhinyanarama Monastery” in Stokes Valley, New Zealand; and “Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery” in Redwood Valley – California, USA, and now Sumedhārāma Monastery in Portugal.
In 1981 he is conferred the rank of Upajjhaya (Upajjhāya: preceptor) this is a monk with more than ten years, who has the authority to confer complete monastic ordination. Since then he has ordered hundreds of aspirants of various nationalities. In 1992 he was conferred the title of Phra Sumedhācariya, then the first time that such honor was granted to a Western monk.
However, on August 14, 2004, he was given by Her Royal Highness, the Queen of Thailand, the Honorary title of Phra Rāja Sumedhācariya.
In addition to all the pioneering impetus in promoting the spread and initial rooting of the Forest Tradition in the West, Ajahn Sumedho also promoted another fundamental re-institution, which was the possibility of admitting and ordering nuns, thus promoting the creation of a female wing – Siladharā – in the Monastic Community (Sangha). This measure is thus close to the custom of the order of Bhikkhunis (nuns) which was lost in the eleventh century and which had already existed since the time of Siddhārta Gautama, in the light of what the Buddha himself admitted and defended in his time. As can be seen in the Pali Canon, there is the recognition of equal rights for man and woman and that at the same level, these can also become Arhats and achieve both Nirvana and Enlightenment on the path of renunciation.
As we look at this whole course between Siddhārta Gautama and Ajahn Sumedho, we note that one point that was essentially common in the lives of these Masters was dissatisfaction and nonconformity in purity of purpose. We see that, beyond titles, fame or personality, the search for “Noble Truths” within the human being is found on an impersonal and immaterial plane, above institutions, forms, names, orders, races, colors, flags or conventions . In the heart and mind of the human being there is a battle against the values, beliefs, prejudices, emotions, material desires, tendencies, opinions and conventional systems that invade and constantly attack the human mind. In this often uncomfortable and seemingly unpleasant struggle, the “Wisdom of the Warrior” is revealed to be vital in the inexorable spiritual conquest that launches the inner quest to transcend oneself in purity of mind and heart.
Many steps have already been taken to establish a Theravada Buddhist Monastery in Portugal.
Maria Ferreira da Silva, ordained as an Anagarikā in 1988, felt that it would be of great benefit to have a monastery in the Ajahn Chah Forest Tradition in Portugal. Although she did not continue to pursue her monastic life, her idea of establishing a monastery in Portugal continued and after some years, Maria invited Luang Pô Sumedho to visit Portugal.
In 2006, Luang Pô Sumedho paid the first of five visits to Portugal. On that occasion Maria asked if Luang Pô Sumedho would support the existence of a monastery in Portugal. As there were already Portuguese monks in the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England, Luang Pô gave his assent. He advised that before starting the project, all the legal requirements be met and asked Ajahn Vajiro to help with this task.
While searching for property to build the monastery on, suitable forested land was found near Ericeira. Luang Pô Sumedho visited this property first time in 2010.
After the establishment and constitution of the Pessoa Colectiva Religiosa (Religious Charity) ‘Budismo Theravada da Floresta – Comunidade Religiosa’ registry NIPC 592010040, by Ajahn Vajiro, Ajahn Dhammiko, Maria Ferreira da Silva and some collaborators, Ajahn Vajiro was invited to lead the monastic community in Portugal, as Abbot.
Tahn Ajahn Vajiro arrived in Lisboa in 2012, accompanied by Ajahn Subbhado and Ajahn Kancano, two bhikkhus in the Ajahn Chah tradition. They were also invited to come to live in Portugal. Then, in 2013 the community moved to a location not far from Ericeira, a beautiful coastal town 40 km from Lisboa, easily accessible by public transport.
Ajahn Dhammiko and Tahn Appamado formed the Portuguese resident monastic community, which now also includes the Portuguese Bhikkhu Mandali, who was ordained on the new land on 18 September 2016. The monks have been very well received by the local community. They perform their alms round every day. Many people come to the monastery to make offerings and meditate with the monks.
On 28 January 2015, the 10 hectare property, which was visited by Luang Pô Sumedho in 2010, was finally purchased with generous donations. This property, on which the new monastery is now taking shape, is located a few minutes from where the monks are currently living. Luang Pô Sumedho, the first western disciple of Ajahn Chah and teacher of Ajahn Vajiro, gave permission to call the monastery, ‘Sumedhārāma’.
Since the purchase of the land, monks and lay people have been taking care of the forest on the land with the aim to restore the native flora once destroyed in some areas due to agriculture and the intensive cultivation of eucalyptus trees. The first step taken to regenerate the land, was to remove all the non-native species and plant thousands of seeds, trees and autochthonous shrubs and bushes. Our intention is – to bring back the land as much as possible to its original ecological balance, to regain its natural sustainable capacity, where indigenous species like the oak, including the cork oak, may again predominate.
Recently, the plans to build the monastery were approved by the local Town Authorities – Câmara Municipal de Mafra. The project consists of eight phases, the first being the most expensive, but at the same time the one that will allow the monks to move out of their present rented residence in Pinhal de Frades. With permission to build 2000 square meters within all the phases, this first phase of construction has now started, which includes basic infrastructures (water, electricity and sewage) along with the construction of a multi-functional building, including a large sala for meditation, a kitchen, toilets, showers, storage facilities, and guest rooms, as well as four huts for the bhikkhus.
All the people connected with the monastery are joyful when they see the progress in the development of the project. These changes to the new property will certainly be very beneficial, since it will offer more conducive conditions to practice and train in the lineage of Ajahn Chah, in Portugal, bringing blessings to all.
This is a long-term project that demands a lasting commitment from the Sangha and lay Buddhist friends. It is also an encouraging sign that the Buddha’s teachings are spreading in the West in the 21st Century.