At one time, the Buddha heard of two monks arriving at his camp in the morning. One came and took the leftover food for his meal, not having eaten since the previous day. The other skipped the food, and took off to the root of a tree for meditation. Which one acted correctly?
If you have been around Thailand for very long you will likely have heard some of the stories of monks in forests. While the psychic powers and supernatural happenings are a stretch to believe, and are probably huge embellishments, there are the more earthy stories.
Many of the monks for instance, have done forest meditation, and had to confront dangerous animals. Especially tigers. Meditators tell you that when a tiger finds you in the jungle, you should remain meditating, and offer it loving kindness. The Tiger will not attack (those who are attacked of course are not around to tell the tale!). Many meditators, including westerners, have had tiger encounters.
Bears are different. A bear will attack you just as part of its defense mechanism (not the Freudian defense mechanisms for neurotic bears). Best thing to do is run, preferably up a tree.
Snakes are said to respond to your mind frame. If you have loving kindness they will not bother you. If you think too much and too heavily, they will always be on your path. More practically, monks are advised to make lots of noise with their feet, and the snakes won’t bother them.
The temples in the forest are also pretty hard to live in. There is daily sweeping of leaves to complete – very hot and dusty. The water to draw from the well in many places. Other places the water is not so good … it can be muddy or smelly.
The huts are very basic. Sometimes just 6 foot by 6 foot – that is only just long enough to lie down in straight. Often no electricity, or no mosquito screens.
The older Ajahn Chah monks tell of malnutrition, and rough Isan food they could not eat. Not to mention malaria and other diseases.
Dose of Dukkha
The question then (that I posed to Ajahn Pasanno a couple of weeks ago) is whether facing hardship is actually good for you. Should we look for some suffering to keep us sharp. Afterall, as they say in North Country England, a fed hound don’t hunt.
At what point do we stop trying to improve our surroundings? Are the Kutis in Ajahn Brahm’s temple too nice for good meditation? Or should abbots make things rough for the newer monks?
Something in us really admires those who have gone through hard times. Nelson Mandela for instance, might not have been anyone special if he had been born to a more peaceful country. Jesus might have been just a philosophical carpenter if not for the Romans.
Ajahn Pasanno replied that we all have enough suffering to go on with. You do not have to go looking to make things hard for yourself. In fact, you should probably concentrate more on appreciation for the health, room, food, electricity, medicines …. that you do have.
Keeping a Keen Edge
So between the two monks who arrived at the Buddha’s camp which one was correct? We know that a person should be keen and willing to give things up. But also that too much self torment is not good. Which way did the Buddha describe as the ‘middle path’.
In fact he praised the second person, who skipped the meal. He said that monk’s actions ‘lie close to the end of desire’. Perhaps a Dose of Dukkha is what we really need!
In a discourse called the La.tukikppama Sutta, a monk complains, very reasonably, that formerly the monks had been allowed to eat all day long. Later they were told to abandon eating in the evening. Apparently the evening meal was the more sumptuous. Now they were limited to almsround in the morning only. Sometimes that meant coming through the forest at night to get to town. Some monks
in the thick of darkness have walked into a cesspit, a sewer, thornbush, or fallen over a sleeping cow. Some have met bandits or been accosted by amorous women.
The complaining monk Udayin, described how one time he had been going to the village for dawn almsround when a flash of lightning revealed him to a woman outside her house, causing her to scream in terror,
Mercy Me! a devil has come for me!
After learning he was a peaceful monk she scolded him
Better bhikkhu, that you cut away your belly with a sharp knife, than prowling for alms for your belly’s sake in the thick darkness of night!
Pretty reasonable request then. Can’t the monks make things a little easier on themselves?
The Buddha did not see it that way, and proceeded with a very eloquent series of metaphors giving a clear message that even small things should be abandoned.
What, such a mere trifle, such a little thing as this?
….. is not a valid argument for lessening the yoke of the holy life.
We now know from experience that going without is often good for us. Very low calorie diets are proven to limit the effects of ageing. The Butyeko breathing method reveals that ‘maintaining the feeling of shortness of breath’ is a good cure for many ailments. We know that a person enclosed in a climate controlled environment for most of their life, is more prone to many illnesses than someone who spends time outdoors.
It seems that keeping yourself just a little below comfort levels is a good thing.
The forest tradition used to be more harsh – here is a previous post on this, with a couple of very relevant comments