Love in a Wild Climate
Alone amongst the beasts of the forest, Thai Thudong monks overcome their fears. Kamala Titavanich describes a remarkable practice of awareness and positivity.
The North and North-east of Thailand where thudong monks used to wander were sparsely populated. Paved roads were few. Vast tracts of the land were covered by forests that were home to elephants, tigers, clouded leopards, black panthers, bears, wild buffaloes, boars and snakes. These animals ruled not only the wilderness but also the fears and fantasies dwelling in every monk's and villager's imagination. As Ajahn Man told his disciples, until the monk actually faces these beasts, he will never know how much or how little he fears them.
For thudong monks, advancing along the path meant developing the mind. One of the 13 thudong practices requires that practitioners stay in the forest for prolonged periods of time. Since fear discourages the aspirant and dissuades him from seeking seclusion, staying in the wild was a proven method for reducing and eventually eliminating fear. The deep forest was a training ground for the thudong monk, who saw himself as a 'warrior battling the unwholesome forces inside' for the sake of spiritual liberation. To survive, the monk had to rely on his individual skill, experience and knowledge.
The tiger occupies a conspicuous place in monks' accounts of their life in the forest. The monks regarded this animal with a mixture of fear and respect. Fear of tigers and the vivid imagining of oneself being devoured by tigers often drove the mind to one-pointed samadhi (concentration).
Samadhi, a thudong master explains, 'is a gathering of the mind's energies so that they have great strength, able to uproot attachments and to cleanse the mind so that it is, for the moment, bright and clear'. Any of the 40 meditation methods that the Buddha taught could, if practised seriously, bring the mind to samadhi. The chosen meditation practice varied according to the temperaments of teachers and disciples. The concentration method that Ajahn Man taught his disciples was the recitation of the mantra 'Buddho'.
In the early stage of his training, a monk or novice stayed with his teacher; he participated in daily rituals, received instruction, and learned by observing. During this stage the disciples depended on the teacher for inner guidance. If a monk was afraid of tigers, Ajahn Man sometimes put him deep into the forest, at some distance from the other monks. At night, when fear attacked his mind, the monk would force himself to do walking meditation in the open. Each monk slept on a platform built by villagers, high enough off the ground to discourage tigers from leaping on them.
Thudong masters believed this method of learning the Dharma was far more difficult than studying scriptures. In the wilds a student had to be ever cautious of lurking dangers, which made him constantly alert. He was defenceless except for his mind, which could fix itself on a theme of meditation or a recitation of 'Buddho' until, as Ajahn Man said, the mind became 'absorbed in Dharma'. Man's theory was that at such a critical moment, strong concentration would develop or deepen, and further wisdom or insight would occur. In the battle between fear and Dharma, as Man's biographer observes, 'If the fear is defeated the mind will be overwhelmed by courage and enjoy profound inner peace. If fear is the victor, it will multiply itself rapidly and prodigiously. The whole body will be enveloped by both a perspiring heat and a chilling cold, by the desire to pass urine and to defecate. The monk will be suffocated by fear and will look more like a dying than a living man'.
In their second stage of training, a monk wandered with other monks or novices and practised the meditation method learnt from the master. Living in the forest, monks developed finely-tuned senses and became experts in using their eyes, ears and nose. Some of the recorded accounts of their lives illustrate how the monks dealt with their fear when they heard, glimpsed or encountered wild animals, and how each situation served as an exercise in mindfulness and concentration.
During his fourth year of wandering, Fan took his nephew (a novice) along with him. One day, as they were walking along a forest trail parallel to the Mekong River, Fan spotted tiger tracks and droppings, some of them recent. As dusk was falling, they heard the snarling and growling of tigers ahead and behind them. To keep calm, Fan and the novice meditated while walking but they had difficulty concentrating. They were afraid a tiger would attack at any moment.
To boost his courage, Fan recited an old saying: 'Should a tiger kill cattle, it's no big news, but should it devour a villager or a thudong monk, the news spreads far and wide.' The recitation made him feel brave; he was ready to face any kind of danger. He thought, 'A monk who is afraid of wild animals is not an authentic thudong monk.' He reassured his nephew: 'When we have mindfulness, the mind is at peace. It's not afraid of danger. Even if we're devoured by a tiger, we will not suffer.' As it turned out, Fan and the novice saw no tigers on this trip.
If a monk continued to lean on the teacher, on a friend or on a group, he would never become wise. In his third stage of training, the monk wandered by himself, living on a mountain, in a cave, or under a tree in a forest. At times a thudong monk might end up alone not by choice but by force of circumstance. This is what happened to Fan.
In 1925 Fan spent five days meditating alone on a mountain. One day, while walking uphill, he was startled by an unusual noise. It sounded like a big animal digging in the ground. As the thought of a tiger entered his mind, he froze. Although the encounter was sudden, Fan's quick reaction indicates his strong mindfulness:
Within seconds he concentrated his mind so it wouldn't react to the situation. The animal raised its head out of the thick brush. 'It's a tiger alright,' he thought, 'and judging from the size of its head it must be huge'. Seeing the beast he felt a chill run up his spine. Sweat broke out on his face. Intuitively he knew that 0if he turned his back and started running he would be killed. The tiger would certainly attack. So he focused his mind to face the critical situation calmly, even though his breathing was not as relaxed as usual. The tiger took one glance at him, gave a loud growl, and leapt into the forest.
Sometimes a wandering monk deliberately put himself in a risky position by travelling at night. One such monk was Chaup, considered by fellow monks to be most adventurous. Walking alone through a forest forced him to be constantly alert and aware. He often ran into nocturnal tigers on the prowl. Once while wandering in northern Siam, Chaup was approaching a great forest when he met some villagers who invited him to spend the night in the village and continue his journey the following morning. They warned him that the forest was large and ferocious tigers inhabited it. If he entered it that afternoon, night would catch him there. Tigers had killed travellers who had spent the night in the forest, they said. But despite their concern, Chaup insisted on going. He believed if he became a tiger's meal, then that was his karma.
Travelling alone, Chaup was able to take acute notice of his environment. He had not gone far when he came across tiger tracks and saw both fresh and old droppings everywhere. So he fixed his mind on his recitation while walking. At nightfall, when he was still in the middle of the forest, he heard two tigers growl. As they moved nearer their roars became deafening. Suddenly a tiger emerged on the trail walking toward him. Chaup stopped, turned, and saw another tiger approaching from behind. Each moved to within two metres of him. They were the biggest tigers he had ever seen. Each of them looked as big as a horse, its head about 40 centimetres wide. Seeing no way out, Chaup stood motionless, his feet frozen, thinking this was to be his end.
At that critical moment, mindfulness came to his rescue. Determined not to abandon mindfulness even though he might be killed, his mind withdrew from the tigers, dwelt within, and became one-pointed. Intuitively Chaup then knew that the tigers could never kill him. In an instant he was oblivious to the tigers, to his body, and to everything around him. His mind withdrew completely into a deep concentration and remained there for several hours. When he emerged from his samadhi, he found himself standing on the same spot, with the klot on one shoulder and the alms-bowl in its sling across another shoulder; the lantern was still in one hand but the candle long since out. He lit another candle, but no tigers were to be seen. The forest was quiet.
Chaup was surprised that he was still in one piece, untouched by the tigers. His mind was filled with courage and compassion. 'He felt that he would be able to face hundreds of tigers, now that he knew the power of the mind. He felt great love for those two tigers, who were really friends in disguise, for having "lifted" him to the Dharma and for helping him to realise its wonders.' Chaup's life may have been saved by his ability to concentrate deeply, which allowed him to stand still for several hours.
Wild elephants also occupy a conspicuous place in the monks' recollections. The inexperienced monk learnt from his thudong teacher how to handle encounters with these formidable animals. Aware of the elephant's intelligence, a thudong monk would first try to reason with it. During the 1930s, for example, Ajahn Man and two disciples Khaw and Maha Thaungsuko were wandering in the North. One day, while approaching a narrow pass in the mountains, they came upon a bull elephant, its tusks about two metres long. The elephant was eating bamboo; it was facing away from the monks and completely blocking the path. There was no way around it. The monks stopped five metres from the animal and consulted with one another.
Man asked Khaw, who had some affinity with elephants, to handle the situation. Realising it was they who were trespassing in the elephant's territory, Khaw addressed the animal with respect and humility: 'Big brother! I'd like to talk to you.' The elephant immediately stopped eating and turned around to face the three monks. Though standing still, its ears were spread in full alert for any danger. Khaw spoke again. 'Great, powerful brother! I'd like to talk to you. We monks are powerless and so are afraid of you. We'd be grateful if you'd let us pass. As long as you stand there like this, we can't possibly go forward.'
Upon hearing Khaw's voice the elephant moved into the bamboo clump and buried its long tusks in the thicket. Then the monks mindfully walked past it in single file, Khaw ahead, Man in the middle, and Thaungsuk in the rear. Only half a metre separated them from the huge animal. Thaungsuk's fear may have distracted him. As he approached the elephant, the hook on his klot got caught in the tangled bamboo branches. Man and Khaw turned back and watched. Thaungsuk, untangling the hook, was in a sweat. Uneasy and apprehensive, he kept glancing at the beast. As soon as he freed his klot, they continued. Khaw turned around to thank the elephant. 'My big brother, we have already passed. Now you are free to go on with your eating.' The elephant, breathing heavily, withdrew its huge tusks from the bamboo clump.
The experiences of these thudong monks who survived in the wilderness confirmed their belief in the power of the Dharma. As Man told his disciples, 'From such a mind an attacker will draw back, be it a tiger, a snake, or an elephant. The aspirant may even be able to walk right up to it. His attitude toward animals is based on metta (loving- kindness), which has a mysterious but real and profound influence. It is true that animals do not know this, but they can feel and sense it. This is the power of Dharma which gives protection to the aspirant, meanwhile softening or neutralising the ferocity of the animals. This is the mysterious power of mind, which is self-evident but is still difficult for others to realise who have not yet developed to the same level.'
Dangerous animals seem to have an inexplicable forbearance toward forest monks. The monks themselves were often surprised that wild beasts, supposedly fierce, did not harm them. In Phuang's view, 'Tigers never attack thudong monks. Often a tiger will just stalk past a klot or quietly lie down beside it, so close that the monk can hear its heavy breathing. The tiger simply ignores the monk.'
To ordinary people, the practices adopted by thudong monks might seem unnecessarily risky, but from their teacher's perspective living in the forest was indispensable to spiritual liberation. The monks' belief in the merit of their thudong practice set them apart from those who followed the scholarly path urged by the monastic authorities in Bangkok. It led them to accept risks willingly, even the risk of death. As Man told his disciples: 'The Dharma is on the other side of death. Without crossing that threshold there can be no hope of realising that Dharma.'
Extracted from 'Forest Recollections' by Kamala Tiyavanich, published by University of Hawai'i Press