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.
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