Thursday, December 31, 2009

An American on adapting to monastic life

Ajahn Sumedho, a Western student of Ajahn Chah in the Theravada Thai forest tradition, who now leads a mostly White Sangha in California at Abhayagiri monastery.

Q: Ajahn ["teacher"], you are an American that ended up in Northeast Thailand as a Buddhist monk in the 1960's. Can you share some of your experiences?

A: Being an American brought up with an egalitarian ideal of freedom and equality, I felt an incredible frustration in being suffocated by the system (Vinaya, the strict monastic codes). I was living in an hierarchical structure based on seniority. Because I was the most junior monk there, I had to perform certain duties for those who were senior to me.

Learning to acknowledge and to take an interest in performing them was quite a challenge. There was a selfish side in me that wanted to live a monastic life on my own terms. I was willing to perform duties if it was convenient for me, but much of the time it wasn't. I felt a kind of resistance and rebelliousness.

  • Answers extracted from the article "Life is Like This" by Ajahn Sumedho (
Q: For example?

A: The custom of washing the feet of the senior monks when they returned from the alms round. After they walked barefoot through the villages and rice paddies, their feet would be muddy. There were foot baths outside the dining hall. When Ajahn Chah would come, all the monks--maybe twenty or thirty of them -- would rush out and wash Ajahn Chah's feet.

When I first saw this I thought, 'I'm not going to do that -- not me!' Then the next day, thirty monks rushed out as soon as Ajahn Chah appeared and washed his feet -- I thought, 'What a stupid thing to be doing -- thirty monks washing one man's feet. I'm not going to do that.'

The day after that, the reaction became even more violent... thirty monks rushed out and washed Ajahn Chah's feet and... 'That really angers me, I'm fed up with it! I just feel that is the most stupid thing I've ever seen -- thirty men going out to wash one man's feet! He probably thinks he deserves it, you know -- it's really building up his ego. He's probably got an enormous ego, having so many people wash his feet every day. I'll never do that!'

I was beginning to build up a strong reaction, an overreaction. I would sit there really feeling miserable and angry. I'd look at the monks and I'd think, 'They all look stupid to me. I don't know what I'm doing here.'
  • Answers from "The Four Noble Truths" by Ajahn Sumedho
Q: Ajahn, those were pretty strong feelings?

A: Yes indeed. But then I started listening. And I thought, 'This is really an unpleasant frame of mind to be in. Is it anything to get upset about? They haven't made me do it. It's all right; there's nothing wrong with thirty men washing one man's feet. It's not immoral or bad behavior, and maybe they enjoy it; maybe they want to do it -- maybe it's all right to do that... Maybe I should do it!'

So the next morning, thirty-one monks ran out and washed Ajahn Chah's feet. There was no problem after that. It felt really good: that nasty thing in me had stopped. More>>

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