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Ageism in the Ajahn Chah Tradition

Can anyone please explain to me why a monk who is over the age of 50 cannot be accepted as a resident at any Ajahn Chah branch temple?

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This message has been shortened because it contains information too personal to be suitable for this forum. Anyone who knows the Forest Tradition is encouraged to contact the author by PM and ask about his situation.

Of course general replies are fine. :blush:

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From reading Stillness Flowing book, what I got is:

It’s good not to put too many physically old monks together inside a monastery. They would require the young ones to take care of them when they are old. So if too many old monks vs young monks ratio in the monastery, a lot of the young monk’s time will be spent on taking care of the old monks. It could discourage young monks from ordaining there, and thus further making the problem worse.

It could be that there’s already a lot of old monks in the monasteries, and 50 is like one of the limits where one could still have 20 years or more to be healthy in body before one may require medical care.

Anyway, don’t need to be so attached to one tradition, there’s Ajahn Brahm, there’s other forest traditions, there’s other monasteries.

Also, your wording is resident, so I take it it means that even a 51 year old monk who ordained when he was young cannot visit and stay temporarily in their branch temple? Or do you mean they don’t accept candidates for ordination above 50 years old? My answers are only for the second possibility.

Secondary reasons:

  1. Being older, means it’s harder to train that person to switch from lay people thinking to monk thinking.
  2. Being older, it’s harder for that person to learn the chants etc.
  3. Being older, it’s harder for the person to have to deal with their pride, having physically young monks as their seniors.
  4. Ajahn Chah used to do TORAMAN as training method, not sure if the older people could take well to these austerities.

TORAMAN is explained more below.

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Please, you should clarify this point. What are you talking exactly?

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That rule also applies at Na Uyana the leading forest monastery in Sri lanka. The reason there is that health problems are likely to be a burden on the monastery.

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Sorry, I assumed more people had read the book. (Ajahn Jayasaro. “Stillness Flowing”.)

From the book:

“TORAMAN
One of the distinctive features of the training developed by Luang Por at Wat Pah Pong were practices aimed at thwarting the monks’ desires in order to encourage them to look directly at the ways in which craving produced suffering, and how letting go of it led to peace. The Thai word for this kind of training is ‘toraman”. Note: In everyday usage, toraman has lost it’s sense of training and now simply refers to torture or torment.

“The training involved Luang Por requiring his disciples to do things that they didn’t want to do, and not do things that they wanted to do. He emphasized that going against the grain was not to be seen as the goal itself, or as a practice that would inevitably lead to some form of purification. The rationale for the training was that it offered the opportunity to observe the way in which craving and attachment are often invisible if followed, and give rise to tension and frustration if opposed. Bearing with the discomfort mindfully, and looking closely at it, reveals its impermanent, suffering and not-self nature.
The practice took many forms, often quite mundane. On more strenuous work days, for example, a kettle of sweet drinks might arrive from the kitchen. On a cold winter day, the drink would be hot and, occasionally, Luang Por would allow the kettle to be placed under a tree in full sight of the monks without acknowledging it. Monks could not help but observe that, although up to that point they hadn’t been feeling particularly tired or thirsty, now suddenly they could think of nothing other than enjoying a hot drink. If the monks worried about the drink getting cold before they got to drink it, they would immediately begin to suffer. As long as they kept their ears open for the invitation from Luang Por to stop work, the time would drag intolerably, and they would suffer. “The moment they gave up, and put their minds on the work thinking, ‘If there’s a drink, there’s a drink; if there’s no drink, that’s all right too’, then the suffering would cease.”

“Toraman is a teaching strategy that demands that the students have great confidence in the teacher. If they harbour the slightest doubt about his wisdom or compassion, they will find it hard to follow this path consistently. The fortitude needed to bear with the unpleasant comes from believing in the ultimate benefit of doing so. Luang Por was able to command that faith without difficulty.

Luang Por would tell the monks that when they were put in uncomfortable situations and began to feel oppressed, it was important to recognize that it was the defilements, not they themselves, that were being opposed. Only if they refused to assume ownership of the unpleasant sensations would they benefit from the practice. At mealtimes, he would say that the defilements want the food hot and fast; Dhamma wants the food cold and slow. When you don’t get the food you want, how you want it, when you want it – how does it feel?”

Excerpt From: Ajahn Jayasaro. “Stillness Flowing”. Apple Books.

So, it’s actually not torture as in sadistic torture, but more of a skillful means of teaching people, pushing them towards enlightenment faster than otherwise. It’s reading these which made me feel more prepared for hardship in the monastic life. I do highly recommend you read the whole book! When Ajahn Chah sees that people cannot take it, he becomes the grandfatherly figure and shared many stories with his disciples, so many feel the loving kindness from him.

Anyway, as to your other comments, here’s what I would reply based on the book too.

Ajahn Chah is commonly regarded as an arahant, and it’s commonly taught that arahants do not produce new kammas. Thus the old age sickness of Ajahn Chah is vipaka from old kammas from before enlightenment, not from his toraman training style. Anyway, it’s not easy to do that without personal faith in the teacher, so it’s not likely that their branch monastery retains this, but they do have many dutanga practises made to be normal. Eg. eating only once a day, from the bowl. Once a week, not lying down to sleep for that night, but everyone meditate (as Ajahn Brahm mentioned so many times in his talks).

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With all due respect, this community does have rules and standards. When people don’t bother to learn about what’s acceptable on the forum, and then try to argue about it, they are making it more difficult for everyone here. The mods work hard and unfortunately have to deal with difficult people and situations. They should not have to deal with insults and abuse on top of that.

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Thank you.

It sounds more like boot camp. Those who undergo it choose to do so. They are free to walk out at any time are they not?

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Yes, anyone can leave the tradition whenever they want, but this kind of hardship is one of the hallmarks of the Ajahn Cha forest tradition. Things have actually become a little bit less severe over the years. However, life in those monasteries is still set up in a way to take you waaay outside of your comfort zones. If you read about what Wat Nong Pah Pong was like in the early days, and compare it with now, things are relatively “cozy.” Nowadays, there is more to eat than sticky rice and fermented fish/veggies, you probably aren’t going to catch (and nearly die of) malaria, screens are allowed on the windows of kutis to keep out the hundreds of types of poisonous bugs and snakes, and the all-night meditation sessions only happen once every two weeks instead of every week. Some of the branch monasteries in Thailand even have kutis with electricity, which makes it possible to have an electric fan. Normally, people just swelter inside of the kutis in the height of summer. I think clothes washing machines, including clothes dryers, are still unheard of, though. You can imagine what it’s like to wash your one set of robes by hand during the monsoon season (the tricky part is getting clothes to dry before mould starts growing on them). Heavy chores aren’t done every day, but when they are done, you’re doing them with only only meal in your belly and a few hours of sleep. There are a few hundred korwat (rules that govern every aspect of life inside the monastery) on top of the Vinaya. The korwat are taken very seriously. The standard of behavior in these monasteries is extremely high. The hierarchy is rigid and absolute, too. I’ve personally seen and heard stories about monks from outside the Ajahn Cha tradition that went to one of those forest monasteries and tried to integrate. It almost never worked. There have been so many problems that now they usually ask monks from other traditions to disrobe and start the whole training process as a layman.

All the reasons given to the OP for him not being able to stay in the Ajahn Cha monasteries in the West sound like valid reasons to me. All monasteries in the West have huge waiting lists. In fact, I’ve never heard of one that doesn’t. Ajahn Brahm’s monastery seems to have one of the longest. I believe it’s up to 2 years now. So if you couple this with Vinaya and korwat being kept so strictly at these monasteries, which is very different from the average Theravada monastery, it’s not surprising that it’s hard to get in. I also wasn’t surprised that the monasteries in the West that cater to local Thai populations were reluctant to let a British monk live there. Those kinds of monasteries are really cultural and social meeting places for the local Thai/Sri Lankan/Burmese community, not training or meditation centers, for the most part.

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Of course, they can disrobe anytime, or transfer to another monastery.

However, as the book (Stillness Flowing) implies, there’s actually more and more people who wants to transition into the Ajahn Chah tradition. There’s a period of adjustment as the Vinaya rules are tightened up etc. One monk had to relinquish almost everything as most of the stuffs was brought by his own money as a monk. The rate of growth of branch monasteries is testament to this.

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Is that for the local Australian, or overseas group?

I was in their waiting list for 5 years! Overseas list. Haha. Decided not to wait anymore.

Their policy, forced by Australia government is to accept the locals when there’s space, and then when the local list is empty, the overseas can come in. Given this difficulty to get in, 2 years of training as lay yogi and novice before ordination, they don’t accept transfers, only guest monks who live temporarily.

So @Phraalan the above could one one reason you don’t get any replies. Also, Ajahn Brahm is world wide famous celebrity, surely there’s too many people sending too many things to him, if he had to read and respond to all of them, he might not have time for his many duties to his many appointments, train the monks, give talks, and simply meditate. It’s unrealistic to expect a reply from him, even if you’re a monk. Unless you just meet him at some event (like go to his retreat), then you can have interview with him (only on meditation stuffs). Or Q&A in his many talks.

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I’m not sure, but I have heard about them having to prioritize locals over non-Australians.

If you listen to enough of Ajahn Brahmali’s talks, you quickly get the sense that Ajahn Brahm is always incredibly busy. Every Western monastic I’ve known who is popular, especially the ones who opened their own monasteries, are all crazy busy. Between teaching, leading retreats, fund raising, writing, editing, translating, dealing with their own monastic and lay communities, they barely have time to do their own practice. Honestly, I don’t envy them at all. So, they generally have to be very selective in how they use their time, and compassion needs to be shown to them when requesting their time.

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I think that they’ve just fallen into the pattern so common at big, international corporations of making strict policies every time anything happens that they don’t like. In this case, a few stubborn old monks probably caused some problems in the past and the response was a blanket ban on older monks. It has the benefit of appearing fair, at the cost of turning away good people.

Although not an older monk, there was a monk at Wat Pah Nanachat who was a “city monk” for 5 years before moving to Nanachat. The monks at that time just accepted him as a majjihma monk. Unfortunately they discovered that this monk had a horrible temper. He caused all kinds of problems, but since they had already acknowledged his seniority, they couldn’t tell him to disrobe and start over. This monk got slightly better over time, but was always a bit of an issue. After that, the monks at Nanachat never accepted another city monk without first making him disrobe and go through the whole training process. Trying to treat every person and situation as unique and requiring individual time, thought, and consideration is just unrealistic. So blanket rules are made.

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Imagine monks telling a monk to disrobe in exchange for accommodation in a monastery! If a monk or nun has committed a parajika, they are no longer a monk and no longer worthy of the robes, but otherwise. they are still a monk even if they yell or fight or break a few rules here and there… So telling someone to disrobe for being grumpy or for dwelling in an urban temple seems quite extreme! Maybe the community could have just asked him to leave? Or given him a kuti far far away!

The bigger issue here is that monasteries are real estate, real estate is power, and power is control., control is something we like to exert over others… But monasteries do not belong to abbots or individuals. The current residents are not the owners. They won’t stay there forever either. It is not their property, or home and they are not in charge but rather they are stewards. Monasteries belong to the maha-sangha of the 4 directions. Who has a right to reject our companions in the spiritual life?

The gift of accommodation is the highest of the kinds of material gifts that can be offered to the sangha, and from which so many benefits can flow. Wherever possible, monastics should be welcomed into a monastery and monastics should definitely not treat these places as fiefdoms or act like landlords or border guards!

Ageism is a terrible thing. Rejecting people from ordination for their age is not what the Buddha taught at all. I especially feel for people who have had families and waited for their children to grow up before ordaining. I recently received an email from a woman who had been rejected from monasteries in Australia for being too old. The age? 45!

That’s how old I am now. It’s sad to think that if I applied now I might be rejected from a monastery for being too old - 45 is too old? BAH!!!. Actually, it’s absurd. We ‘oldies’ have so much to give and hopefully a bit of wisdom as time goes on…

A different but related reality of monastic life, especially in the west, is that mental health issues and personality disorders (which are often un-diagnosed and untreated) can make living in close quarters very difficult and disrupt the community enormously. This is often why monasteries have such strong policies of not letting unknown people in without at least a trial stay first. I don’t think mental health issues should be an automatic disqualification for ordaining either - there is a huge spectrum and generalisations and stigma are unhelpful, unnecessary and unkind

The worst case of discrimination I know of was here in Australia where there was a blanket ban on ordaining people who were HIV positive. Apart from being an illegal discrimination in Australia (and also illegal to ask someone’s status) it was quite mis-informed and wrong, based on long outdated fears and stigma. (For someone living with HIV who is on meds, there is no risk of any viral transmission.)

Of course, it’s very sad and true that in the ordination rules of the vinaya, people living with certain diseases (like epilepsy and leprosy) were not allowed to ordain. And women who were incontinent, or who had a fistula from childbirth were also barred, along with people with certain bodies and also other assorted reasons. These and other physical maladies were regarded either as an infection risk, or had some social stigma attached that made them socially unacceptable as monastics.

Thinking about these things troubles and saddens me. I’m uncomfortable that the monastic path is not open for everyone who wants to join the sangha and more uncomfortable that we would seek to impose new barriers. Old age is coming for all of us - but ordination is not! I think an “old farts” monastery is needed!

I hope Phra Alan can find some suitable accommodation and that many more monasteries grow where they are needed. For that we will need generous lay people who can let go of that thing which people want to hold on to most of all; property! And inspired by such giving, may we monastics be generous enough to repay that debt of gratitude by sharing our spaces whenever necessary, even if just for a night!

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Yeah, can you even imagine?! What would the Sangha look like if every monk had to apply time, thought, and consideration to everything they do??

Right? It’s so absurd.

:joy: We did that once at our temple when a visiting American was especially obnoxious. He talked loudly about how good his dhamma was, but as soon as he saw a dirty kuti he left :joy:

Well said! And much mudita to whatever quiet place gains the presence of Venerable elders like Pra Alan :slight_smile: :pray:

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Venerable Bhante, I think this Temple by Ajahn Martin might be suitable for you, I’ve contacted them before, they’re very receptive and hospitable,

More details here: http://www.forestdhammatalks.org/en/contact.php

This user on Dhammawheel also reviewed a lot of monasteries in Thailand, maybe of your interest:

https://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=30&t=39509

Oh! The last time I checked, the Venerable is banned from the forum. @moderators Could you send this message to the Venerable’s email for me please? Thank you in advance :pray:

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I’m with Nanachat on this one. I think that if you were the guest monk at Nanachat for a year, and were in charge of resolving every issue and conflict that came up, you’d change your mind pretty quickly. After the umpteenth time someone showed up and demanded exceptions be made for them regarding korwat because of reasons X, Y, and Z (none of which were good reasons), you’d pretty quickly stop spending a lot of time on each issue and just tell people, “These are the rules. Follow them, or find another monastery.” I could write a HUGE post about just the crazy stuff I saw people pull at Nanachat within the span of a few months. So I don’t blame them for being rather strict about some things.

By the way, I’m not arguing for age limits. I’m against them. If you saw the original post, and compared it with the last one by Ven. Alan, you’ll see that he was turned away for a variety of reasons, not only because of his age.

I agree.

Me, too. I can’t imagine being turned away because I’m 45, but in the Chinese Buddhist world age limits are quite common. Many of the Buddhist Colleges (佛學院) have age limits. 35 seems to be the age limit in Mainland China. Dharma Drum has a monastic Buddhist College that also has an age limit of 35. Their general Buddhist College, doesn’t, though. The Buddhist College founded by Ven. Yinshun in Taiwan, Fuyan, has an age limit of 50. It’s also common knowledge that there are unspoken age limits to ordination in the Chinese Buddhist world (although I’m sure there are exceptions, too).

I think there are many places Ven. Alan could go. The Ajahn Cha system doesn’t sound right for him, honestly. There are plenty of monasteries in Sri Lanka with English speaking monks. Unfortunately, Myanmar is pretty much off limits now, otherwise that would be an option, too.

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When I first moved to one monastery, they basically let anyone who walked up the road stay there. It was horrible. (Although, they did let me stay, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) After several years they started screening people and being a bit more selective. The change in the place was drastic. Far more sane and peaceful. Not perfect by any means. Still plenty of social challenges. But they were no longer overwhelming.

Please remember that you are only getting one side of things from the OP. Seeing as how they managed to get themselves banned here, perhaps those communities made a smart choice. If someone can’t stay within the rules of an internet forum, it’s hard to imagine them blending with an IRL community.

Trying to tie things back to the EBT’s, it’s true that I don’t think there is anything in the Vinaya regarding policies of not allowing someone to stay at a monastery. However it is certainly allowed to kick someone out. So while the current residents certainly aren’t the owner of the monastery, they do have some say in who can be in the community.

The last I heard, Abhayagiri had no age limit, but you had to be able to keep up with the physical routine of the monastery.

It’s also good to keep in mind that most, but not all, of the monks in the western Ajahn Chah tradition are really into Ajahn Chah, and probably also into Ajahn Sumedho. And they are also really into their particular way of life. So if they got the idea that someone wasn’t totally into all those things it’s not surprising that they wouldn’t want to have them join their community. Maybe it’s not the highest ideal of the Dhamma. But it’s the way things are.

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As someone who ordained at Wat Nanachat, I can just say that there was no age limit in my day at all, though maybe things have changed. It’s certainly not normal in the Ajahn Chah tradition. I stayed in a branch monastery where they happily ordained men retiring at 70+.

Nor was there any rule forcing disrobal. It is true, you can get into issues with traveling monks (or pretend monks) of bad behavior, but so what? The Vinaya requires an assumption of good faith. If you have reason to believe that a monk’s conduct is suspicious, ask. If they lie, they will be found out soon enough, and can be dealt with then. It’s not like this is happening every day; maybe once or twice a year.

When I was there, Nanachat was simple and somewhat austere, but the accounts of hardship are greatly exaggerated. The basic necessities are good. Accommodation is simple, but then, so is the village nearby. It’s hot in the hot season—what do you expect? There’s an hour or two of chores per day. There is fresh water, good food, medicine when needed, and a supportive community. If you can’t stand heat or Thai food, it’s not for you. But it’s more luxurious than the way 90% of people have lived in history. You even have a choice of coffee or tea!

Again, I haven’t been there for many years, and obviously I disagree with some of their policies, especially regarding bhikkhunis, but I dunno, I had a great time. They really tried to keep it simple and authentic, and there’s something beautiful about that. But perhaps I was there in the Golden Days.

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