Many of the monks seen around Ubon follow the Thai Forest Tradition, focusing on meditation, rather than study, and attempting to live as closely to the way that the Buddha lived as possible. The founder of two of the area’s best-known forest monasteries, Wat Nong Pah Pong and Wat Pah Nanachat, was also the inspiration for a global meditation movement.
The story begins with the 1918 birth of a boy in a small farming village outside of Ubon city. Ordained at the age of 20, Ajahn Chah spent his formative years studying the Pali Canon before setting off on thudong to wander the forests that covered most of Thailand, where he dodged wild tigers and meditated in caves and cemeteries.
After several years of travelling on foot while receiving only basic alms food from rural villagers, Ajahn Chah sought the guidance of Ajahn Mun, an older forest monk now credited with revitalising the Thai Forest Tradition. Ajahn Mun simplified the Dharma for the confused Ajahn Chah, teaching him that the essence of Buddhism is immediately evident in the mind, but clouded by anger, greed and delusion. He taught that mindfulness, sharpened by diligent meditation, was the key for realising the true nature of phenomenon.
With Ajahn Mun’s teachings steeping deep into his experience, Ajahn Chah continued to wander until 1954, when he returned to Ubon and began to meditate in what’s been described as a cobra-infested forest. Over time, the monastery that would become Wat Nong Pah Pong grew up around him.
Most of the rest of Ajahn Chah’s life was spent perfecting a teaching style that could relay profound Buddhist points in language — often humorous similes — that made sense to uneducated farmers. He was also known for practices of extreme austerity, including all-night meditation sessions and eating from a bowl in which all donated foods (curry, cola, frogs, etc.) were mixed together, which he believed would help in overcoming attachment.
In 1967, a young American man visited Wat Nong Pah Pong and was captivated by Ajahn Chah. He eventually ordained, taking the Pali name Ajahn Sumedho and becoming fluent in Thai and the Lao dialect spoken by most people in Ubon, including Ajahn Chah. Other young spiritual seekers soon followed from the US, UK, Australia, Germany and elsewhere, and soon Thailand had its first-ever community of foreign monks and nuns.
With the help of Ajahn Chah and locals from the nearby village of Ban Bung Wai, these foreign monastics established Wat Pah Nanachat, the International Forest Monestary, in 1975. Ajahn Sumedho served as the first abbot. Today it remains the only Theravada Buddhist monastery in Thailand that uses English for nearly all communication and instruction.
Two of Ajahn Chah’s early Western disciples, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, disrobed in the late ’70s and returned to the US to found the Insight Meditation Society and write best-selling books like A Path With Heart and Insight Meditation. Remaining in the robes, Ajahn Sumedho became abbot of a branch monastery in England, while the British monk, Ajahn Brahm, took his eccentric teaching style to Australia.
Today Wat Nong Pah Pong has 26 branch monasteries in 11 countries, not including the many non-monastic meditation centres founded by students of Ajahn Chah and their ever-expanding lineages. Dozens of books have been penned by members of this global community, including several, like Being Dhamma, that were derived from direct translations of Ajahn Chah’s talks. Ajahn Sumedho added The Sound of Silence, while Ajahn Brahm’s Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? is one of the more entertaining Buddhist reads that you’ll find anywhere.
After travelling to the US and UK on short teaching trips in the late ’70s, Ajahn Chah’s health failed in 1981 and he was nursed and taken care of for much of the last decade of his life by his own monks, living in a kuti made especially for him at Wat Nong Pah Pong. He was cremated on the grounds of the same wat, where a large golden shrine topped by a Lao-style chedi now displays his ashes. Ajahn Sumedho eventually returned from England and spends most of his time in Nakhon Ratchasima province at the relatively new Wat Pah Ratanagiri.
Wat Nong Pah Pong’s broad forested grounds are still a tranquil place for a stroll or meditation. An on-site museum exhibits a life-like wax sculpture of Ajahn Chah along with his personal effects and a few old ox carts and animal skeletons. You might also see the resident monks dying their signature brown-orange robes in water boiled with the natural dye of jackfruit trees, which are abundant on the grounds.
Wat Pah Nanachat occupies a smaller but similarly peaceful patch of forest, and an English-speaking monk is usually available to talk with visitors in the mornings and afternoons. The monastery also accepts a small number of longer-term visitors, both men and women, who are expected to stay for a minimum of seven days. Only those who have at least done a beginner’s meditation retreat are accepted.
Overnight guests are expected to take part in the daily routine, beginning with a 03:00 wakeup bell. Accommodation is basic. The only daily meal is taken at 08:00, and eating solid foods after noon is forbidden. Men staying longer than seven days are expected to shave their heads, beards and eyebrows. See Wat Pah Nanachat’s website for the full details, and check out Craig Bennett’s account of what his retreat was like.
Wat Nong Pah Pong and its current abbot, Ajahn Liem, was recently at the centre of a controversy over the ordination of female monks, or bhikkhunis. After Ajahn Brahm quietly ordained four women in Australia, Wat Nong Pah Pong’s elders officially expelled him from their community, igniting an international uproar among progressive Buddhists. As with virtually all Thai temples, female monastics can still receive only the inferior status of mae chii at Wat Nong Pah Pong and its branches.
When visiting Wat Nong Pah Pong, Wat Pah Nanachat, and any other Thai monestary, it’s important to be respectful by wearing clothes that fully cover the shoulders and knees — and everything in between. Women should stay at least a few feet away from monks, and visiting after 17:00 is not advisable.
Credit: All but the second photo down by Chin Chongtong.
How to get there
Wat Nong Pah Pong is around 20 kilometres south of Ubon city in Warin Chamrap district. Khantharalak-bound buses or local songthaews caught at the market in Warin can drop you three km away along Highway 2178, from where you’d have to walk or hitch to the temple unless a motorbike taxi is around.
Located in the village of Ban Bung Wai, Wat Pah Nanachat is eight km west of Wat Nong Pah Pong but can be more easily reached by public transport thanks to its location right off Highway 226. You can take a Sisaket-bound minibus and ask to be let off here, or catch a songthaew at the market in Warin. The wat can be seen about 100 metres back from the northern side of the highway; look for a small brown sign and white walls encasing an inordinate number of trees.
If going by taxi or tuk tuk, expect to pay between 300 and 700 baht for a roundtrip to both temples from Ubon city, depending on how long you plan to stay.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 29th July, 2015.