This year was the first time I have been away from Arrow River for the winter since returning in 1996. Thanks to some fortunate circumstances and some generous donors, I was able to return to Thailand for three months.
My first stop was for a week at Birken Monastery near Kamloops, British Columbia. This was my first visit to Ajahn Sona's new location. Both the site (in the mountains) and the facilities are beautiful. I was there, on Ajahn Sona's invitation, to attend an historic occassion; the first ever ordination of Canadians by a Canadian preceptor in Canada. This is the traditional sign that the sasana is established in a new country. Beauty, eh? The date was Nov. 29, 2003.
The preceptor was Ajahn Pasanno, originally from La Pas Manitoba, currently co-abbot of Abhayagiri in California, and the new bhikkhus are Ven. Nanda and Ven. Pavaro. May their going forth be joyous and fruitful. You can read more and see lots of pictures on Birken's web-site.
From there I was given a lift to Vancouver and flew to San Francisco, met up with Tom and then on to Bangkok via Tokyo. A long tiring journey across nine time-zones and the international dateline, but we were met with wonderful Thai hospitality at the other end. As well, we hadn't planned it, but it so happened that we arrived just when a large contigent of overseas Ajahn Chah monks were gathering in Bangkok for a Buddha pouring ceremony. A beautiful life-size statue of the Buddha was being made for the Abhayagiri monastery in California and we were on hand to chant parittas while the metal was poured into the mold. An auspicious sign, there was a brief (and highly unseasonable) sun shower in the middle of the ceremony. Arrow River was later given a smaller replica which now graces the pavillion.
After Bangkok, Tom and I went into Tow Dtum (Black Turtle) Monastery for a couple of weeks. This is a retreat monastery affiliated to Nanachat located in one of the last bits of virgin forest left in Thailand, along the border with Burma (or Myanamar). This is really remote, the only way in is a bone-jarring off-road journey four hours from the highway. Big trees, wild animals, snakes and leeches; this is the type of place that recalls the days of the great Thai forest ajahns. (Strange that in the eight years since I was last there, the hills have gotten a lot steeper. I didn't think geological processes worked that quickly.)
Leaving Tow Dtum we spent a few more days in Bangkok, visiting the National Museum, riding the new sky train and the old river boats. I must say the sky train is a marvellous addition to the city, clean efficient and cheap it has made getting around Bangkok much easier and more pleasant.
After that it was finally time to head up to my principal destination, Wat Pah Nanachat in Ubol Ratchathani. This is where I did my initial training as a bhikkhu and will always be special to me for that reason. Tom stayed on there only briefly, as he wanted to travel around and see the rest of the country. Except for a few short side-trips, I stayed on there for the rest of the three months.
It was very pleasant to settle into the monastic routine once again; morning chanting, almsround, meal, chores, tea-time. Living in Arrow River, I miss the morning almsround (bindabhat.) This is when the monks walk through the village just after dawn, silently and in single file and the lay people put rice in our bowls. It is an ancient tradition, going back essentially unchanged to the time of the Buddha. It is wonderful to start each day with such a wholesome action, incorporating the virtues of generosity, humility and contentment with little.
I also enjoyed the tea-time Dhamma discussions which were often lively and spirited. It was inspiring to see that Nanachat is still attracting new monks, as young men come from all over the planet seeking to follow the Buddha's way in a traditional setting.
It was a beautiful quiet time for me. The biggest excitement was having a gigantic snake in my kuti. Looking him up in the reptile book later I found out it was a harmless variety, which somewhat spoils the story but not the moment.
The current abbot is Ajahn Nyanadhammo of Australia and he is to be congratulated for taking on this often demanding task and managing to keep it all happening. It isn't easy to juggle all the duties required, teaching the monks and novices, preaching to the lay people, dealing with the Thai bureaucracy and handling all the myriad practical problems. Good on you, mate.
I also managed to get in a day-trip to Pu Jon Kom, which is another very special place, a retreat monastery located on the Mekong River overlooking Laos. I spent the night in a bamboo kuti on the top of the Pu Jon Kom (which means Teeny Tiny Mountain) on the same spot where I had spent several months ten years ago.
I met up with Tom again in Bangkok, we swapped stories and got ourselves back to this continent. In San Francisco we were hosted by the very kind Theresa and Rolanda, supporters of Abhayagiri, and shown the sights of that quirky and fascinating city. Tom and I then took the train across country to Minneapolis, which was an adventure in itself.
(If you'd like to do some arm-chair travelling, we have posted some pictures of the Thai trip.)