Venerable Ajaan Amaro has been a monk in the Thai forest tradition for twenty years and is the co-abbot of Abhayagiri, a monastery he helped to found two years ago in northern California. He grew up J. C. Horner in the English countryside and studied physiology and psychology at the University of London, where he realized that “after forty years of studying the mind, my professors were no happier or wiser than I was.” As a student, his mind-expansion technology consisted of listening to music, reading mystical literature—”Ramakrishna and the like”—and pursuing Dionysian revelry. But a Rudolf Steiner-school philosopher, Trevor Ravenscroft, pointed him toward Asia. At the age of twenty-one, he landed at Wat Pah Nanachat, a monastery in the forest tradition for the Western disciples of meditation master Ajaan Chah.

Ajaan Chah ordained him sometime after his twenty-second birthday, and Amaro Bhikkhu, as he was then known, spent two years training in Thailand before returning to England. Here he joined the man who would be his teacher, Ajaan Sumedho, an American disciple of Ajaan Chah, at the newly founded Chithurst Monastery in the woods seventy miles southwest of London.

Abhayagiri sits on 250 mountain acres in Mendocino County that were donated to Ajaan Sumedho and the order by the late Master Hsuan Hua, the Chinese Buddhist teacher and founder of the California temple City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Nestled amidst madrone-covered hills are the meditation hall, a common building with kitchen and offices, and a half-dozen isolated wooden huti, or meditation huts, where nine monastics—seven men and two women—live and practice, each hut adjoining a shaded path for walking meditation. Some of the monastics as well as lay visitors to the community stay in tents and trailers. Abhayagiri, unlike its sister monasteries, whose funding comes largely from Thailand and other Asian communities, is supported by “good old Caucasian middle-class intellectual meditators.” Ajaan Amaro is the author of Silent Rain, a collection of journal entries and dharma talks. He spoke with Mary Talbot at Abhayagiri in May 1998.

The Buddha got enlightened in a forest. What is it about being in the forest that helps people?

The ignorance that human beings experience is largely based around the identification that we have with our bodies, with our personalities, our families, and our work, and because we’re so woven into those identities—in the midst of our family, in our role as a doctor or teacher, parent, or child, as a personality among other personalities—it’s very difficult to get any kind of perspective. Being in natural surroundings, you don’t have to perform; you don’t have to be anything. Your role as someone with a university degree or as the third sibling in your family is irrelevant to the lizards and the trees. You’re just another thing in the forest. And those cultural identities fall into a much more diminished position in your consciousness. When you’re around other people—and this is true in monastic life as well—it’s hard to keep that perspective. But life in the forest gives you that contrast, where you can exist and not be anything. You’re able to look at the flow of consciousness—thoughts, feelings, memories, ideas—without having to act on any of them. And you’re there with the simplest elements of your being: breathing, feeling the heat or cold, learning to live with the other creatures of the forest. You’re moving from a person-centered perspective to one centered on nature.

A monk's ordination ceremony. Photo © Glenn McKay
A monk’s ordination ceremony. Photo © Glenn McKay

How does this get worked out day after day?

One example is that I’d never related to myself as a food source before. We talk about precepts of nonviolence, and there you are faced with mosquitoes and other critters and you’re moaning and complaining when they come along to bite you. But when you look at it, you’ve just brought this huge, luscious, pungent piece of meat into their midst. You’re like a huge flashing sign outside of Dunkin’ Donuts that says “Eat Me! Free Food! Help Yourself!”

Do you have to be a monastic to take full advantage of the forest?

It’s not required. But renunciation has to do with simplicity, so there’s no condition in which your heart is invested. The principle of renunciation is not to encourage a state of lack, but to establish as complete a state of simplicity as possible. In that simplicity you can more clearly see those patterns of wanting, not wanting, fearing, hoping, as they take shape. And the more complex our life is, the harder it is—particularly those emotional involvements with other people that create the most dense and potent conditions or qualities of mind that we deal with. The more charged-up our emotional bonds, the more difficult it is to get objectivity on them. It’s not a moral judgment; it’s just physics. Picking up a one-hundred-pound bag takes more effort than picking up a twenty-pound bag.

What’s been hardest for you about the renunciant life?

Different things hit you at different phases of your evolution. Early on, I had a lot of restlessness and youthful physical energy. I was twenty-one when I started. Just finding a place to put all that energy was hard work. But Ajaan Sumedho helped me channel that. At other points, it’s been conflicting with people. When you’re living in community you can’t just say, “I’m out of here.” You actually have to stay and work things through.

And celibacy?

That’s on the other side of the scale: attraction to other people. You recognize that as part of the human condition there are urges and fear and aggression and sexual desire and ambition, and they’re always easily ignited in any kind of community because of our biological makeup. The Buddha said that sexual energy is the most powerful force in the universe. It’s extraordinarily powerful, because it has to be. If it wasn’t so compelling as to override all sons of fear and discernment, then you’d never engage with another person in that way.

How do you practice with that?

Looking at a tree, I would say, that’s a beautiful tree. Or a horse. That beauty isn’t having the same confusing effect as when I think about So-and-So. So comparing, and really studying the chemistry of it. When I look at this tree and this horse, the mind is clear and open. When I look at this person, I can see it in a clear and open way momentarily, but it gets confused. Now, what’s causing that? When you know how it works, it’s much easier not to be fooled by it. When you’re a monastic and you’re functioning in a nonsexual way, you’re consciously laying aside that manner of relating. So you’re better able to function with other beings on the basis of being-to-being rather than “Am I attractive? Is she attractive?”

What rules have you had to modify for this monastery?

Adherence to the rule might be very faithful but totally impractical, perhaps totally stupid. A temple in England spent £37,000 on a heating bill because the monks went bare-shouldered in an English winter. All of the adaptations we’ve made we waited until there was a real need, and then we changed. When Ajaan Sumedho was in Thailand and preparing to come to England, he decided: we’ll just do what we do until we need to change it. So first of all, they went out on alms-round every day barefoot. And then they got to their first winter, and then they’d come back to the vihara and their feet would be blue. There were so many complaints and fears from the laypeople who saw what they were doing that they decided to go out with shoes and socks. If you look at the Vinaya, it says over and over again, “The laypeople saw such and such and they were upset so they took the matter to the Buddha and the Buddha said, ‘Monks, I allow you to do such and such.'” There are a number of rules that even highly observant monks in Asia break quite cheerfully on a daily basis. In Thailand, for instance, the size of the robes is vastly greater than what’s allowed in the Vinaya, which is supposed to be nine hand spans of the Buddha by six hand spans of the Buddha. And the robes we have are two meters by three meters. And they get around that by saying, “Well, the Buddha was eighteen feet tall.” Which is, in my humble opinion, patently absurd. But every monk in the country wears a robe that’s too big compared to the size allowed in the Vinaya. And it’s against the Vinaya to travel in a vehicle. But that’s because a vehicle would have been a cart pulled by an animal and you don’t want to burden another being.

A kuti does dual duty as meditation chamber and shelter. Photo © Glenn McKay
A kuti does dual duty as meditation chamber and shelter. Photo © Glenn McKay

Here, it seems that you’ve departed pretty radically from the Thai forest tradition by creating your own nuns’ rules.

That’s the biggest change we’ve made. Thailand is probably the worst situation for women’s training in monastic life. There’s only the Eight Precept ordination. And in Thailand, for a woman of an upper-class family, it’s basically a disgrace to be ordained. She would not be allowed by her family to ordain. It would be as bad as becoming a streetwalker. It’s believed that a woman who ordains would do so only if she were socially inept, couldn’t bear children, couldn’t find husband—it’s like you’re a failed being. And it brings a kind of shadow into the family. Which is bizarre, because to be a monk is considered the most meritorious thing you can do in a family.

What did you base your nunnery on?

When we opened up Chithurst, the monastery in England, in 1979, Ajaan Sumedho gave four women the Eight Precept ordination, and everything was dandy. But after a couple of years, we realized that men who had just arrived were getting higher places in the community and the nuns were still in the kitchen, wondering if they would still be cooking the beans in forty years.

In the Buddha’s time, the women’s order had many more rules than the men’s.

Right. Three hundred thirteen to the men’s 227. When we were discussing all this—and it took seven years to come up with the current structure—it became clear that none of the women in our community wanted to live according to most of those rules. One of the rules—and it’s a serious offense to break it—is that you may never sleep more than a forearm’s distance from another nun. So if you’re a bhikkhuni, you can never sleep in your own room ever again. You can never travel alone, you can never sleep in your own bed.

Why would a rule like that exist in the first place?

A huge portion of the rules for nuns had to do with safety. Because a woman in India at that time had to be under the protection of her father, her brother, her husband, or her son, or some other male relative. A woman on her own was extraordinarily vulnerable. A lot of the nuns’ Vinaya was about safety—they can’t travel alone, they can’t sleep alone, they couldn’t go out in the forest because of the danger of being molested and raped. In a way, it’s almost a blessing that the nuns’ order died out in the Theravada so you can reestablish it according to the culture as it exists.

Do you foresee that Theravada monasticism—which from a Western perspective is the most conservative or even fundamentalist tradition—may end up offering Western Buddhism a “radical” alternative to the mixed, “commune” style that has shaped Western residential centers in this country for the last forty years?

That’s been an interesting thing to watch here in the United States—the number of people in other traditions where there’s marriage and mixed communities, wanting to learn about our tradition. It’s because they come from mixed communities, and the pairing off that happens can create immense headaches. You’re putting together people in this crucible and developing this immense intimacy. In a monastery there’s tremendous intimacy between the monks and the nuns. You’re really affecting each other. Then, if you’ve got the whole sexual element in addition to that, and who’s with who, and who used to be with who, and I can’t sit next to so-and-so in the zendo—aagh!—there are that many more karmic whirlpools.

And how would the Theravadin model help?

This tradition is very workable. People have to understand that renunciation and celibacy are not some kind of weird quirks left over from a spiritual authoritarian. The Buddha was an immensely pragmatic person. And he was totally beyond suffering. If you’re incapable of suffering, why would you choose to live as a barefoot celibate mendicant wandering around Bihar for forty-five years? Why not just go back to the palace and move in with Yashodhara [Siddhartha’s wife] again? Why was the Buddha a monk? And why did he live in the forest? And the answer, I feel, is that that simplicity of living is the most delightful way to be. And when the heart is utterly free from delusion and compulsions, you don’t want to have sex, you don’t want to lie, you don’t want to be burdening yourself with a load of unnecessary duties. If people who want to offer you some alms food aren’t around, then fine—you just help yourself to some water out of the creek and fast for a few days.

Ajaan Amaro stands before his kuti in the backwoods of Mendicino County, California. Photo © Glenn McKay
Ajaan Amaro stands before his kuti in the backwoods of Mendicino County, California. Photo © Glenn McKay

Do you think a mendicant life can really work here?

Many years ago Ajaan Chah asked Ajaan Sumedho if he ever thought he’d move back to the West. And Ajaan Sumedho said, “No way. There wouldn’t be anyone to offer you alms food. How would you live?” And Ajaan Chah just said, “Do you mean to say there are no kind people in America?” And that was the moment he knew he’d be coming back to the West. Because that’s all it takes. If you’re living in a way that warms people’s hearts, they’ll want to support you. Renunciation is a state of freedom. That’s what it’s about. But there’s a quality of the American mind that really fears renunciation. You can’t talk about ending suffering, you have to talk about maximizing happiness [laughs]. People don’t like that negativity. But Buddhist practice only works when it’s on the edge. And that’s what the renunciant lifestyle is about, what living in the wilderness is about, what meditation is all about—getting to the edge. Because that’s where we are transformed. What we’re trying to do is create a situation that preserves the sharpness of the edge. We try to keep the principles of living on dana (charity) and never charging for the teachings and trying to stay very clearly in accord with the Buddha’s teachings on liberation, and not water that down so that it has a pleasant or familiar taste.

But if it doesn’t feel pleasant, is there any hope for people sticking with it?

The Buddha’s method is not dogmatic. If it works, it’ll last. If it doesn’t, it won’t. A lot of people have thrown themselves into meditation retreats or vipassana and then they hit a sort of dry patch—so they get interested in things like Dzogchen and Advaita Vedanta. And what’s fascinating is that now the leaders of the American vipassana movement are saying, “Of all the teachings, I find that the teachings of the Thai forest masters are closest to Dzogchen.” It’s like, “Where have you been hiding?” We weren’t hiding. And some of those people have developed a real appreciation that within their own monastic tradition—the very one they were trying to pull away from—there is the very jewel that they had been seeking in Hindu or Tibetan traditions.

And what is it exactly? What do people need that the forest tradition has?

The teachings on emptiness. On non-abiding. I went on a retreat with a Tibetan rinpoche and had read a few books on Dzogchen, and I thought, “This is our song.” Liberation through seeing with naked awareness. That teaching has been missing from some of the schools of meditation, like the vipassana movement, where it’s almost as if the teaching is about trying to neutralize the senses, getting a degree of concentration and focus and looking upon the senses as the enemy. That’s really exalting states of concentration where everything disappears. I think a lot of people have gotten weary of that—you arrive at this morbio inferiori and say, “This is it? This big empty blank space?” Like being shut in an empty refrigerator—nothing there, but it’s pretty cold. So people have been turning to these other traditions to pull themselves back to that insight: The nature of mind is intrinsically pure, and then defilements come and obscure it. But there is nothing to perfect, and there’s no one to perfect it. Just stop being confused. Be quiet. Wake up. And there it is. That’s the national anthem of the forest monks of Thailand.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.