Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 48, has lived as an ordained monk in the Thai forest tradition for twenty-two years, fourteen of them in a tiny meditation monastery in the jungle of southeastern Thailand, where he cared for his ailing teacher, often around the clock, for weeks on encl. Today, he is abbot of the Metta Forest Monastery in Valley Center, California, a handful of spare buildings and shady meditation paths peppered through a mountaintop avocado grove, a forty-five minute drive into the hills north of San Diego. Founded eight years ago with the help of an American benefactor and a Thai teacher, Ajaan Suwat, the monastery now houses six monks and a steady stream of students—a small size that helps keep the personal contact “because the teaching relies on that contact, day in and day out.” Metta depends for its survival mainly on the dana, or generosity, of the substantial Thai community in southern California.
Born Geoffrey DeGraff, he grew up “a very serious, independent little kid” first on a potato farm on Long Island, New York, and later in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. At Oberlin College in the early 1970s, he eschewed campus political activism because “I didn’t feel comfortable following a crowd.” For him, the defining issue of the day wasn’t Vietnam, but a friend’s attempted suicide. When the opportunity came to meditate in a religious studies class “l was ripe for it. I saw it as a skill I could master, whereas Christianity only had prayer, which was pretty hit-ormiss.” He traveled on a university fellowship to Thailand and after a two-year search found a forest teacher, Ajaan Fuang, who insisted that his scholarly American student put his books aside. After a brief stay with the teacher was cut short by malaria, he returned to the U.S. to weigh the merits of academia and monasticism. While attending a panel on Buddhist studies, however, he decided definitely that practice was better than theory.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu follows the path of the Kammatthana forest monks—a path based on the Vinaya, the Buddha’s monastic code, that appears strict in the extreme to outsiders: he doesn’t handle money and cannot ask for anything that is not freely offered; he eats only one meal a day, before noon; he does not spend time alone with a woman, or drive. The author of Wings to Awakening and The Buddhist Monastic Code, among other books, he has translated many Buddhist texts from Pali and Thai, including, most recently, the Dhammapada. The interview was conducted by Mary Talbot at Metta Forest Monastery.
If the Buddha got enlightened without all the rules, why, in this tradition that claims to be closest to the life of the historical Buddha, are there so many rules for monks?
The Buddha had already internalized the principles of the dharma. Rules were really a response to monks who got out of line. They’re also useful as warning lights—when you’re tempted to break a rule, you have to slow down and examine your motivation. Often you find there are subtle levels of greed, anger, or delusion that you didn’t see at first.
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