The Countryside of Chithurst

Reflections of Buddhist monastic life in England

When ‘East’ meets ‘West’ (1)

Posted by phrajew บน กุมภาพันธ์ 8, 2007

 

 

ช่วงที่ผ่านมา  มีคนขอให้ช่วยเขียนบทความไปลงจดหมายข่าว Forest Sangha Newsletter  จึงขอเอาบทความที่ว่ามาให้อ่านตรงนี้ด้วย  แต่เนื่องจากบทความค่อนข้างยาวจึงจะขอแบ่งออกเป็นสองตอน เพื่อให้อ่านได้ง่ายขึ้น 

 

Having been a monk in the rural area of Thailand for more than eleven years, I never thought that one day I would find myself living in the West. But now, here I am with the good recommendation from one of my venerable Ajahns and the generous support of a lay Buddhist. Many people usually ask how I see the differences between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ or what my impression of living in England is. It took me a while to reflect upon these questions and here are my responses.

 

When I think of the most memorable experience I have had while living in
England, the first thing that comes to my mind is the chanting on Luang Por Sumedho’s 72nd birthday celebration. Since I became a monk, I have chanted the ‘Anumodana’, the expression of appreciation for giving and generosity, numerous times, but none were like those I chanted in the dining hall of Amaravati with my fellow monks, nuns and anagarikas of various nationalities. I was so impressed that I almost cried. It was wonderful to be among a group of more than 50 people from different backgrounds and cultures, sharing the same aspiration and living in a harmonious way. The unison of chanting is a clear example of that harmony.

 

With 14 nationalities during the Vassa, Chithurst is the biggest community that I have ever lived with. Most of my years in the yellow robe, I stayed in a small monastery in the forest or lived by myself in a hermitage. It was really a drastic change in life to come to the West. One can see how it could be a cultural shock for me. However, I even surprised myself by how easy I have been able to fit into this Western community -just taking to it like a duck to water as one would say. In doing so, I am very grateful to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha and all my teachers who have provided me with a very good practice so that I can adjust myself to any environment without having much difficulty.

 

To me, one of the crucial aspects of Dhamma practice is to develop the ability to go beyond the conditioned mind. Since we tend not to see how we have been conditioned by our own culture, we then have to meditate to see ourselves more clearly. Like good singers who learn to use their voice in a wider range to be able to sing better, Dhamma practitioners learn to expand beyond limitations in their own mind to find more freedom and inner happiness. Living in England provides me with more chances to reflect on my own cultural conditioning and help me to understand more about the Western mind. There are many observations that give me such understanding. Here is just one.

 

During late June, about a month after arriving in England, I noticed that the grass at the field near the monastery had all been cut down. The hay was later stacked into a big square block in black plastic. An English friend of mine explained that the hay will be kept for cattle and horses during winter. This small incident may be nothing special for many Westerners, but to a Thai monk who used to live in the countryside of
Thailand, it is quite unusual. I have never seen any Thai farmers plan their farming so well.

 

In England the climate is very different from Thailand. Through a history of more than 800 years, people in my homeland never experienced severe winters that can cause many deaths and starvation. Thai people do not have a similar need to be exceedingly well prepared, even in the middle of winter; Thai villagers can still go out to get wild vegetables and leaves which can be used as food. Their cows and buffaloes are left to roam freely to feed on plenty of grass in the paddy field.

 

Having some experience with the English cold weather, even in late autumn, I can imagine how difficult life would be through a long winter. There is no way to take it easy like Thai farmers do. The reason for being well prepared and organized seems obvious to me. There is no doubt that anyone who has grown up in a ‘things-have-to-be-planned’ environment will gradually adopt this attitude towards other aspects of life. I then understand the comment that Westerners are a lot better than Thais in planning and organizing.

 

While we can see many good points of being well-planned and having good management; deep down in the mind, there is a high potential for suffering due to expectation and fear. When things do not turn out as expected, many Westerners find it very difficult to cope. They sometimes make the problem even worse by seeing it in a negative way. Many blame themselves when things go wrong or not as planned. In order to avoid problems that may occur, many of them put more effort into planning which can eventually lead to more suffering.  

 

Thais are not better than Westerners in coping with problems in life and there are some harsh climates, believe me. But they tend to differently define what could be called ‘problems’. There is generally more acceptance of physical discomfort, being hot and sweaty, getting mosquito bites, pain and so on. Since many of their activities are not well planned, there is nothing wrong when things do not go as planned. When life presents the unexpected, they then find it is not so difficult to accept and are able to make the best of it.

 

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