Volume 1, ISSUE 2 Summer 1995

What the Buddha never taught: Western Monks in Thailand

Tim Ward

"Do not speak unless you can improve on silence," said a Buddhist sage.

Deep in the jungle of northeastern Thailand [Siam], near the border with Laos, a Buddhist monk is found dead in a cave, his corpse withered and ramrod erect in perfect lotus posture: a samadhi suicide. Apparently, he had meditated through his own slow death, impassively observing his body atrophy and decay. The monk's skeletal photograph now rests on the altar at nearby Pah Nanachat monastery as inspiration for other seekers on the path to liberation.

Canadian author and journalist Tim Ward sought Enlightenment in his own way and spent a season in this unique jungle monastery, one of the strictest in Southeast Asia. Run by Theravada Buddhist monks their monastic community embodies the ancient 2500-year tradition of the Buddha's original teachings.

What the Buddha Never Taught is the engaging account of the author's initiation into Pah Nanachat monastery where over half the members are Western Caucasians. These aspirants include Mr. Chicago [Tan Sumeno], a former American real estate millionaire who left it all for a monk's hut in the jungle; Percy, the eccentric English layman, bent on the unplugging a chakra; Mark, the doctor from New Zealand searching for the meaning of death; Ruk, the German monk who has to have his knees operated on from too much meditation; and the author's look-alike "double," a cynical American from Swarthmore College, Philadelphia, named Jim.

"Licensed to meditate," Tim and Jim strike up a friendship as they struggle to fit into the hierarchy. Their discussion range from hell, suicide, and the meaning of death and suffering, to faith, karma, Enlightenment-and how to clear the ants out of the water tank without killing them.

Life at Pah Nanachat monastery involved renunciation and emaciation of both body and mind. Tim Ward takes his vows, shaves his beard and eyebrows, puts on the robes, and struggles to obey the 227 precepts originally set down by the Buddha. The monks rise for morning chanting at 3:00 a.m., beg for rice barefoot in the villages, and refrain from all killing. They must tolerate swarms of mosquitoes, nits, and ants. Scorpions and cobras on the jungle path help them cultivate the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness with every step. They eat one meal a day.

Always the presence of the revered guru of the monastery, Ajahn Chah, is felt in the background. He has spent a lifetime teaching the impermanence of all things. In an ironic and macabre twist, he is kept alive after surviving a debilitating stroke that has left him insensible. Fed intravenously, he is wheeled about as the monks bow to this vegetal icon. They cannot bear to let him die.

By turns humorous, iconoclastic, and inspiring, What the Buddha Never Taught is full of parable, anecdote, and spiritual insight. It is exotic travel writing.

..."How big is a stick?" Ajahn Chah once asked his disciples. "It depends on what you want to use it for, doesn't it? If you need a bigger one, then it's too small. If you need a smaller one, then it's too big. A stick isn't big or small at all. It becomes so as a product of your desires. In this way, suffering is brought into the world."

[Jim and I] both had doubts about what we were doing, but we were determined not to back out. Vowing to follow the eight precepts was not a problem. Although the precepts are similar to the Ten Commandments in content, they are not imperatives handed down from heaven. The Buddha taught his followers to practice sila, moral purity, as an essential preliminary to meditation. He said wrongful actions produce guilt and fear. When the mind is agitated it is incapable of tranquility. Right actions produce a natural calm. This calm is necessary if meditating is to arise. The precepts are simply a means to meditation. Jim and I could take these vows sincerely. However, we were both uneasy about taking refuge in the Triple Gem. Neither of use were Buddhists. I was a Christian. Jim was an atheist. From these opposite extremes, we were reluctant to declare Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as our sole refuge... Perhaps we could accept it under the more esoteric interpretation of Buddha as the "One Who Knows" and Dharma as truth in general, but neither of us felt ready to submit to the community of monks as if they were divine. The Buddha had challenged people to test his words against their experience...

The mind is like a monkey, say the Buddhists. It hops from place to place, restless and wild. We have no control over it. Our sensations, perceptions, memories, wills, and thoughts chatter erratically in our heads. There is no peace. The aim of meditation is to learn first how to control the monkey mind; then to be free of it. This is not how the West views the mind. The scientific and artistic traditions of the human race are not erratic chatter to us. We exalt our minds. We raise our consciousness. Our sense of self is our most important possession. We cannot comprehend what the Buddha taught.

But the goal of meditation can also be considered in terms of science, according to right brain/left brain psychology. The two hemispheres of the cerebrum control different activities. The left hemisphere generates linear thought. It is conceptual, abstract, verbal. It gives us our words and ideas. The right hemisphere generates non-linear thought. It is intuitive, reactive, imaginative. The left hemisphere is the dominant partner in most human activities; it seldom relinquishes its control. It thrives on complex tasks and if not fully taxed will wander distractedly. The right brain is easily absorbed with just the sort of simple activities the left side finds tedious. For example, if required to concentrate on the mundane simplicity of breathing, the left brain will rebel. It will want to think of something more interesting. But if attention is continually returned to breathing, the left may eventually give control to the right brain. When this happens, a distinct mental shift will be experienced. Restlessness will cease as the right brain takes over. A person in this condition will relax into peaceful contemplation.

Viewed in this way, meditation is a therapy for lessening left brain dominance. As the passive right brain learns how to be in control, enabling us to lead more creative and intuitive lives, this restores a balance in our own human nature...

One word, one thought leads to the next. The chattering left brain takes over like a bully:

"Yes, I'm finally meditating. Well, almost there for a second. Sure is hot now. When's coffee break? Remember coffee break back on the rigs? Fudge brownies. Damn mosquitoes."

This book marks the debut of an exciting new writing talent; it is a fine example of sound metaphysical journalism. In an age consumed by materialism, here is an exploration of alternative realities. What the Buddha Never Taught is also an item of personal transformation...