Wat Pa Nanachat (near Ubon Ratchatani, Thailand) was founded by the late Ajarn Cha as a place where non-Thai speaking foreigners could train as monks in the Thai forest tradition. Most of the ten or so monks there are from Europe and America.
Style of Practice
The practice is strict and simple and down-to-earth. While you might call Mahasi a school of vipassana meditation, you might call the Ajarn Cha lineage (of which the monks are fiercely proud) the School of Sweeping and Bowing. Ajarn Gavesako, One of Ajarn Cha`s most respected disciples was once confronted with with the criticism that, “your lineage teaches nothing but how to bow.”
One thing to note about what goes on at Wat Pa Nanachat is that it is very culturally-specific. By that I mean that there is a lot of praying and bowing and it is externally very patriarchal. You could say that nothing is more “Thai” than the Thai Forest Tradition and there are a lot practices that are done for no obvious reason, which Westerners in particular generally have difficulty in accepting. This tradition puts unusual stress on obeying the letter of the Vinaya monastic code, which leads to lots of practices that many will find frustrating. For example, things can`t simply be consumed even if they are obviously meant for the monks, but must be”offered”, which means they must be touched by a layperson who hands it over to a monk with intention of giving it to him and the last person touching the object must be the monk. If something is touched by a layperson, the object becomes “unoffered” and it must be re-offered. Why good is all this? Ajarn Cha was once asked why there was so much bowing at his temples. “If you cannot bend your body, then how can you bend your mind?” This is really central to the style of practice – this idea of “letting go”. You will encounter many things in the temple which the mind won`t like, will argue against but you just have to observe it and let it go.
There is no formal meditation instruction at Wat Pa Nana Chat. Visitors are asked to pursue their own practice creatively. For this reason, I would strongly advise that people with no meditation experience should not plan to stay for any length of time. At the very least, one should have done a ten-day course somewhere. In place of formal teaching, there are however often many opportunities to hear excellent Dharma talks from the many visiting monks, where the lineage`s central philosophy of “letting go” and not giving the “mind” what it wants all the time is repeatedly stressed. What’s nice about this tradition is that it’s teachings are so down-to-earth. As well as ‘letting go’, the importance of learning from every situation, of gratitude and of compassion are also well-expounded.
Wat Pa Nanachat is has an excellent reputation at home and abroad for the rigorous style of its monastic training. No matter what else they might have to say about it, every layperson or monk I’ve met has said that it provides excellent ‘training’. What, though, does this ‘training’ mean? On a basic level, it means that monks must thoroughly understand the Vinyana (during the rains retreats there are frequent study sessions), be able to recite it in Pali and that they must act according to the many community rules of their sect. There are rules about how one must wear one’s robe, how one must bow, how one must eat. Though their rules of conduct are not as total as, say, Soto Zen there is an important community ethic which comes up frequently of doing the ‘appropriate’ thing at the appropriate time, a sense of which the senior monks say takes many years to ingest. There is enormous importance attributed to ‘community’. Indeed, this year’s official Wat Pa Nanachat T-shirt says, ‘Happy is a harmonious community.’
The training program for monks consists of the traditional five-year dependency upon a single teacher. For some monasteries, this just means that you have to report to their principle teacher every now and then and monks can more or less go where they please. At Wat Pa Nanachat however, dependency means dependency. You will only go where your teachers say, only do as your teachers think best. Often, the temple’s students will find that two years are spent at one of the many Ajarn Cha branch monasteries across Thailand. WPN also has several small branch monasteries which are used as part of its training program. Dao Dam is a very remote tii phra pak, complete with prehistoric birds, cobras and even the occasional tiger. It is a hermitage where many of the monks spent about three months out of every year in intensive meditation and Noble Silence. It is possible for non-monks to go to Dao Dam with the monks, provided they at least take a Pakow ordination (see below). A place called Marp Jam is also used for meditation retreats but is closer to WPN and less remote.
Wat Pa Nanachat has few people ordaining there. There are two likely reasons for this. One, there is no old, father-like-figure, enlightened master present. The abbot, Ajarn Kevali, is kind and intelligent and capable but he does not fulfill this image. However, perhaps what`s best about the place is that is so well known and well-respected. Famous and wizened teachers are coming all the time. I myself was lucky enough to have a relaxed daytime chat with Ajarn Sumedho while he was visiting. The other reason for few men going forth, is that there is a long testing period before ordination can take place. One must, at least, be a layperson for a month, a pakow (a man who wears a white robe and skirt and does many tasks to make the life of the monks easier) for six months, a novice (effectively living the life of a monk, but lower in status) for one year before one can be considered for full ordination.
Staying as a Layperson
The monastery is set in an endlessly-swept forest a few kilometers from Ubon Ratchatani. Unfortunately, you can always hear the din of the highway, so you can’t imagine that you are a medieval hermit or something. Laypeople wake up at 3am everyday, do meditation, do some sweeping, follow the monks on almsround, eat (after prolonged ceremonies), do their assigned chore, do individual practice for a few hours, have tea, chant and meditate and then go to sleep. Laypeople stay in the dormitory above the kitchen for their first few days, but can then usually get a kuti in the forest. The kutis are nice and simple and have many friendly creatures in them. It’s not as likely to produce insight experiences as an intensive retreat, but if you want to know how life might feel like as a monk in a strict monastery in Thailand, WPN certainly provides this opportunity.
The food is first-rate. There are daily vegetarian options. You only eat once a day but you will soon find that this is sufficient. There is a daily Nampanna, or hot drinks break everyday in the evening to ward off hunger and give yourself a sugar boost.
There are excellent quarters for laywomen to stay in. However, there are always far more laymen staying that women. The reasons for this are quite plain to see. The Thai Forest Tradition is all about being a monk (a man), about respecting the Sangha(who are men) and going to the forest to battle the defilements of the mind (like a real man). The teachers argue that this is merely the conventional reality of it, that the real purpose of Buddhism is to look at the mind. This is true but I have to say that, having discussed this with some women visiting the center, many are of the opinion that there has been too little concession in this tradition to gender equality.