Life of a Forest Monk

From the Autobiography of Ajahn Mun

Ajahn/ Ãcariya Mun (1870 – 1949) was a  forest dhutanga monk (ascetic monk). The true beauty of a dhutanga monk lies with the quality of his practice and the simplicity of his life. When he dies, he leaves behind only his eight basic requisites – the only true necessities of his magnificent way of life. While he’s alive, he lives majestically in poverty – the poverty of a monk. Upon death, he is well-gone with no attachments whatsoever. Human beings and devas alike sing praises to the monk who dies in honorable poverty, free of all worldly attachments. So the ascetic practice of wearing only the three principal robes will always be a badge of honor complementing dhutanga monks.

He preferred to remain longer in provinces that were mountainous and thickly forested because they were especially suitable for meditation. For instance, south and southwest of the town of Sakon Nakhon there were many forest covered mountain ranges where he spent the rains retreat near the village of Phon Sawang in the district of Sawang Dan Din. The mountainous terrain in this area is so conducive to the ascetic way of life that it is still frequented by dhutanga monks today.

Monks wandering in such areas during the dry season usually slept out in the forest on small bamboo platforms. They were made by splitting sections of bamboo lengthwise, spreading them out flat, then securing them to a bamboo frame with legs, making a raised sleeping surface of about six feet long, three or four feet wide, and about one and a half feet above the ground. One platform was constructed for each monk and was spaced as far apart from another as the living area of the forest would allow. A large tract of forest allowed spacing of at least 120 feet with the thick foliage in between each platform acting as a natural screen. If the area was relatively small, or a large group of monks lived together in an area, then the spacing might be reduced to 90 feet intervals, though the minimum distance was usually 120 feet.

The fewer the number of monks living in a particular area, the farther apart they were individually – being close enough to one another only to hear the distant sound of a cough or a sneeze.

Local villagers helped each monk to clear a walking meditation track approximately 60 feet in length, which was located beside his sleeping platform. These tracks were used day and night for practicing meditation in a walking mode.

When monks fearful of ghost or tigers came to train under Ãcariya Mun, he usually made them stay alone, far from the rest of the monks – a severe training method designed to draw attention to the fear so that the monk could learn to come to grips with it. He was required to remain there until he became accustomed to the wilderness environment, and inured to the tigers and ghosts that his mind conjured up to deceive him. The expectation was that, in the end, he would achieve the same good results as others who had trained themselves in this way. Then he wouldn’t have to carry such a burden of fear indefinitely. Ãcariya Mun believed this method accomplished better results than simply leaving a monk to his own devices, and to the very real prospect that he might never find the courage to face his fears.

Upon arriving in a new location, a dhutanga monk had to first sleep on the ground, collecting various kinds of leaves, or in some places straw, to make a crude mattress. Ãcariya Mun said that the months of December and January were especially difficult due to the prevailing seasonal weather patterns, as the approaching cold weather met and mixed with the outgoing rainy weather.

When it did rain during the winter months, a monk inevitably got drenched. Sometimes it rained continuously all night, and the umbrella-tent he used as shelter was no match for the driving rain and high winds. Still, he had no choice but to sit shivering under this makeshift shelter, enduring the dank cold and unable to move for it was impossible to see in the dark.

A downpour during the daylight hours was not quite so bad. A monk still got wet, but at least he could see his surroundings and search for things in the forest to help shelter him from the elements without feeling totally blind. Essential items like his outer robe and his matches had to be kept in his alms bowl with the lid tightly secured. Folding his upper robe in half, he draped it around himself to keep out the cold and damp.

The cloth mosquito net that hung from the suspended umbrella down to the ground formed a tent-like shelter that was indispensable for blocking out the windswept rain. Otherwise, everything got soaked and he had to endure the discomfort of having no dry robe to wear in the morning for alms round.

The months of February, March, and April saw the weather change again, as it began to heat up. Normally dhutanga monks then moved up into the mountains, seeking out caves or overhanging cliffs to shelter them from the sun and the rain. Had they gone to these mountainous locations in December and January, the ground would still have been saturated from the rainy season, exposing them to the risk of malarial infection. Malarial fever was never easy to cure. Many months could pass before the symptoms finally went away. It could easily develop into a chronic condition, the fever recurring at regular intervals. This kind of chronic malaria was locally referred to as ‘the fever the in-laws despise’, for its victims can eat well enough but they can’t do any work because the fever is so debilitating. In such cases, not only the in-laws but also everyone else became fed up.

No effective remedies for malaria existed then; so those who caught it had to just let it run its course. I myself quite often suffered from such chastening fevers, and I too had let them run their course as we had no medicines to treat malaria in those days. Ãcariya Mun used to say that most of the dhutanga monks he knew during that period had been infected with malaria, including himself and many of his disciples. Some even died of it.

Listening to those accounts, one couldn’t help feeling a profound sympathy for him and his monks: he nearly died before gaining the necessary understanding to teach the way of Dhamma to his disciples, so they too could practice following his example.

Ãcariya Mun’s chief concern was teaching monks and novices. He took a special interest in those students experiencing various insights in their meditation by calling them in for a personal interview.

It’s quite normal for those practicing meditation to have varying characters and temperaments, so the types of insights arising from their practice will vary accordingly – although the resulting cool, calm sense of happiness will be the same. Differences occur in the practical methods they employ and in the nature of insights that arise during meditation. Some meditators are inclined to know only things existing exclusively within their own minds. Others tend to know things of a more external nature – such as visions of ghosts or devas, or visions of people and animals dying right in front of them. They may see a corpse carried along and then dumped right in front of them or they may have a vision of their own body lying dead before them. All such experiences are beyond the capability of beginning meditators to handle correctly with any certainty, since the beginner is unable to distinguish between what is real and what is not.

Listening to dhutanga monks as they relate their meditation results to Ãcariya Mun, and hearing him give advice on ways to deal with their experiences was so moving and inspirational that everyone present became thoroughly absorbed in it. In explaining the proper method for dealing with visions, Ãcariya Mun categorized different types of nimittas (visions) and explained in great detail how each type should be handled. The monks who listened were delighted by the Dhamma he presented, and so gained confidence, resolving to develop themselves even further. Even those who did not experience external visions were encouraged by what they heard.

Sometimes the monks told Ãcariya Mun how they had achieved a state of serene happiness when their hearts ‘converged’ into a state of calm, explaining the methods they had used. Even those who were as yet unable to attain such levels became motivated to try – or to even surpass them. Hearing these discussions was a joyous experience, both for those who were already well developed and those who were still struggling in their practice.

When the citta (mind) ‘converged’ into calm, some monks travelled psychically to the heavenly realms, touring celestial mansions until dawn; and only then did the citta return to the physical body and regain normal consciousness. Others traveled to the realms of hell and were dismayed by the pitiful condition of the beings they saw, enduring the results of their kamma. Some visited both the heavenly abodes and the hells to observe the great differences between them: one realm was blessed with joy and bliss while the other was in the depths of despair, the beings there tormented by a punishment that seemed to have no end.

Some monks received visits from ethereal beings from various planes of existence – the heavens, for instance, or the terrestrial devas. Others simply experienced the varying degrees of calm and happiness coming from the attainment of samãdhi. Some investigated, using wisdom to divide the body into different sections, dissecting each section to bits, piece by piece, then reducing the whole lot to its original elemental state. There were those who were just beginning their training, struggling as a child does when it first learns to walk.

Some could not make the citta attain the concentrated state of calm they desired and wept at their own incompetence; and some wept from deep joy and wonder upon hearing Ãcariya Mun discuss states of Dhamma they themselves had experienced. There were also those who were simply like a ladle in a pot of stew: although submerged there, it doesn’t know the taste of the stew, and even manages to get in the cook’s way. This is quite normal when many different people are living together. Inevitably, both the good and the bad are mixed in together. A person having effective mindfulness and wisdom will choose to keep only those lessons which are deemed to be really useful – lessons essential to skillful practice.

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