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Ageism in the Ajahn Chah Tradition

This is slightly off-topic, but I attend a wat in the United States that primarily serves the local Thai and Lao community. Several years ago an American of European descent started attending the wat. He was genuine and sincere in his motivations and became a regular attendee at events. After awhile he did a temporary ordination. A couple of years later he decided to fully ordain (he was in his mid-40s at the time). The Thai and Lao laypeople couldn’t have been happier. Although he ordained at the wat, he spends most of his time at a nearby hermitage which was established for the octogenarian Thai monk whose teachings inspire the wat’s practice.

I too am an American of European descent. Next year I will be taking early retirement from work. Many of the laypeople at the wat have encouraged me to do a temporary ordination to mark this life event. A few have even suggested that I ordain full time as the other American has done. However, at my age, I am too set in my ways for such a huge change.

My point is, there are some Thai/Lao wats in the West that are very receptive to people with sincere and genuine motivations who want to practice the Dhamma and participate in wat activities. Speaking from my own experience I can say that I have been made welcome at my wat in ways that amaze me. The monks at the wat have gone out of their way to guide me in my practice, and often I am overwhelmed by the generosity and affection that the laypeople have shown me.

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That’s my understanding. I heard they nearly closed it down entirely a few years ago

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I’ve enquired into ordaining in the UK. Amaravati doesn’t do monastic training whilst Aruna Ratanagiri told me they won’t ordain anyone over 40ish (this is from memory). I’ve heard Cittaviveka is the same.

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Would you mind clarifying what you mean by this? Isn’t monastic training kind of… the whole of what they do? :sweat_smile:

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I can’t remember where I read it, and now I can’t seem to find it, but it said they weren’t taking on any new monks there at the moment.

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I found the OP interesting (I saw the original before it was edited). Obviously, the references to specific people and monastics were too personal for here (and it’s probably not really fair for some of that specific stuff to be put out there without some kind of right of reply, and even then here is not really the right venue). However, it does sound like a difficult situation for a monastic of quite a few years standing. If some of the references to specific monasteries and monastics were just made more vague and non-specific, e.g., a monastery in North Thailand rather than a specific place, and one or two things toned down, then I think it would then make quite an informative post (and still get across the gist of the situation clearly). I think there are many people on boards like this who have at least considered ordaining. I think it’s hard to do so and get a place in a monastery in the West. I’d imagine it’s far easier to get into a monastery in countries like Thailand. However, that all comes with its own downsides, e.g., one is quite far from one’s cultural roots and if things don’t work out one can find oneself in quite a precarious situation in a distant land (maybe OK when one is young enough but not so easy when one is getting on a bit in years). Hopefully, the OP author can find some useful help and advice for his predicament. It seems a pity to me that there was a straight ban (though I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes). Perhaps the OP might still be allowed to post replies (even if subject to mod approval) or leave contact details/email for private replies, at least until this thread runs its course?

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This is an excellent point—it’s quite difficult to find reliable information about whether it’s something worth pursuing (and if so, where) depending on one’s specific circumstances, and many Western Buddhists are unfortunately not in a position to develop personal relationships with monastics who could provide advice. Personally, being 46 and female, I think it’s probably unwise for me to pursue at this point and I’m okay with that, but it would definitely have been helpful making that decision if there was more practical information readily available for Westerners considering ordaining.

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Thanks for that Metaphor. Certainly, without my local Thai Wat I would not have found the Dhamma.

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I think a lot of internet speech etiquette is based on trial and error, due to the difference compared to face to face talking. No tonal or body language input, at most some emojis. Due to sitting behind keyboard, some may be more bold to speak of things which doesn’t gives back a frown or other negative reactions.

So this could be the OP’s trial and error phase. I had many of them in facebook, reddit, etc. Maybe most people had some in the past too.

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Unfortunately the Forum rules are explicit about not sharing such details. They have to be because everyone on the internet can read our threads, there’s no need to be a member to read.

It is a great shame the Venerable was unable to follow the forum rules. It must be a great loss when one’s respected teacher of many years dies. I’m sure I speak for our whole community in wishing that he can find a place where he can settle and be well and happy again. Anyone who has helpful suggestions can ask @helpdesk-dd to forward them to Venerable’s email.. Apology: I was mistaken in this assumption.
Unless Google can help you find a link to Phra Alan, we can only hope that he is reading this thread, which he can do without logging in.

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Ok, thank you very much, I have followed your advice, and is now looking forward for a reply from @helpdesk-dd

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When I was there I met a Western monk who was about 60 when he ordained. He was quite fit, so I’m sure that helped.

No official rules, but has there been a Mahayana monk who showed up at Nanachat and was accepted and treated equally as a bhikkhu? Had his seniority as a monk acknowledged, and was seated ahead of Nanachat monks who had been bhikkhus for a shorter period of time? During my time there were a few Mahayana monks showed up, and they were seated on the floor next to the lay people. One disrobed, stayed as anagarika, received novice ordination in the Ajahn Cha tradition, and then was allowed to truly join the community and was treated as an equal. I also knew a few monks who had gone through that before I arrived. Since they knew I came from a Mahayana background, they told me about how they had been Mahayana monks before. Generally, anything Mahayana related was spoken about in hushed whispers, and was not shared widely. Anyway, it was pretty obvious that they, or pretty much any monk from outside the Ajahn Cha tradition, would would have to do the same thing if they wanted to become a part of the monastery. When I was there it was an unspoken rule.

I think you have a unique perspective, Bhante, ha-ha. That’s probably one reason why you’ve been a monk for so long. If you grab someone who isn’t part of some hardcore Theravada tradition and explain what daily life is like at Nanachat, they would probably have quite a different reaction from you.

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Thank you, that’s ok, I don’t have any knowledge about Thailand to start a conversation anyway. Normally I don’t have any inclination to give any advice to such situations at all, for I’m quite naturally averse to the idea of going to foreign countries to begin with. But surprisingly, just about two weeks ago, I contacted the webmaster of the website forestdhammatalks.org (which is ran by Wat Phu Khong Tong of Ajaan Martin) to inform them about some issues regarding the Dhamma talks of Ajaan Paññavaddho (whom I admire and listen to a lot), the Bhikkhu replied to my email was very kind and generous. And it’s a coincidence that Phra Alan, who’s also named Paññavaddho, is having some issues with his living situation in Thailand. So I just thought this little information might help him somewhat, and I hope it will.

Well, I was actually browsing Dhammawheel just now and happened to notice a new member Pannavuddho there introducing themselves in the Introductions subforum (it sounds almost certainly the same person as the OP author judging from their bio):
https://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?p=631325#p631325
I guess this seems to be a likely point of contact if anyone here has helpful advice that they want to share more privately (this is a topic I know close to nothing about, but I think some here would be far more knowledgeable).

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Good catch, I’m glad that anyone wanting to reach out to the Venerable can find him on Dhammawheel.

To clarify for anyone who missed the unedited posts, “Phraalan” - that is, Phra (Monk) Alan - dropped a bomb of despair and criticisms over his extremely isolated and somewhat trapped position at a monastery in Thailand. He aimed rage at English-speaking monastics & monasteries that denied his applications to join them or, worse, seemed to ignore his pleas.

His situation sounds very concerning. I took his posts, though unhinged (and unfortunately aggressive towards a moderator), not to be malicious trolling, but a clumsy cry for help.

The moderators rightly erased his rants, and were well within their rights to ban him; but I wish they hadn’t, given that his unhinged state appears to be based on isolation and perceived continuous rejections. I hope some monks will kindly reach out to him on Dhammawheel at the link provided by @suaimhneas.

When I headed overseas to fully ordain, an old friend and former Tibetan nun shrewdly advised me to proactively take good care of myself, saying that anyone can “go crazy” living in a foreign country. So I always had a backup plan, and was careful to keep myself grounded while far from home.

Phra Alan’s background suggests that [he] was once well-adjusted. The circumstances he described could possibly put anyone on edge; just add parasites, perhaps, or some other illness, and it all could easily become a recipe for unhinged misery, including lashing out at the seeming wall of monastic indifference that he keeps facing.

I’ll be praying for him.

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Dear Ayya Sudhamma, these are good points - in situations of extreme stress and isolation many of us do not show our best selves. . . .

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Last month was Ajahn Chah’s birthday. There is a beautiful short video-talk at Amaravati Monastery website by Luang Por Sumedho sharing his personal experiences of staying in a monastery in Thailand and learning directly from Ajahn Chah.

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Great advice. Living abroad requires mental and emotional stability and strength. The greater the difference between one’s own culture and the culture of the country one is staying in, the more mental and emotional fortitude one needs. Living in a challenging environment, like a monastery, can make things that much harder. If the culture one is staying in expresses, processes, and deals with emotions differently than one’s own culture does, that complicates things even further. In my experience, many Asian cultures tend to be much more reticent than Western cultures when it comes to feelings. What is acceptable to discuss and share with people, and which people it’s acceptable to share things with, is also quite different. So it can be very difficult for a Westerner to find a sympathetic ear. Even if he or she does find someone, that person might not be comfortable listening to someone unload a lot of what they see as very intimate information. And even if they are comfortable with it, there’s often times nothing that person can do. Other Westerners abroad can’t always be counted on for help, either.

I saw people go off the rails a few times during my 10 years in Asia. Some of these people had no business being by themselves in Asia, honestly. It was obvious that they were either somewhat fragile people to begin with or had legitimate mental illnesses. In Hong Kong there was one American guy sleeping in construction sites with a brief case full of what he believed to be secret information that revealed global government conspiracies. A British ex-pat I knew befriended the guy, and so learned about the American guy’s background and heard all of his delusions. This American guy had been institutionalized in the US, but had ran away, flown to Hong Kong, and was “in hiding from the secret government cabals who knew he was on to them.” The British guy didn’t really know what to do. I called the US consulate in Hong Kong, but they said they couldn’t help unless I got the guy to set foot into the consulate. The guy was probably a paranoid schizophrenic, and so that was never going to happen. I spoke to the manager of the hostel I was staying in, who was a retired Hong Kong cop, and his response was, “What’s it to you?” I said that this American probably had family back in the States who were worried about him. The hostel manager’s response was to shrug. I never learned what happened to that man.

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That’s true, and just for yourself or anyone else, there are a number of senior monastics on this forum, including myself, who are happy to talk if any advice or feedback is needed. :pray: I hope you find the path for you!

Thanks so much for this story!

When I was there, yes. We had visiting senior Mahayana monks from Bhutan and Taiwanese tradition, and they were treated kindly and respectfully. I remember the senior Mahayana monk sitting next to Ajahn Pasanno at the meal time.

Two Bhutanese monks were invited to Thailand by I think Ajahn Jayasaro; the senior one needed an operation and an attendant came to translate. One of our monks, (Ven Natthiko, more recently known as a meditation teacher in Sweden) was sent to Bangkok to look after them while they were getting medical care. They’d never been outside of Bhutan before. They arrived at the hospital and went to the elevator. When the doors opened, they looked at each other, and the junior monk asked Natthiko, “Is this an elevator?”

Later they came to Nanachat. I can’t remember what happened at the meal time, I think they might have been served in a kuti (they didn’t really eat Thai food; they brought a suitcase of dried meat from Bhutan!)

But I remember the senior monk gave a Dhamma talk in the outside sala, it was really special. Someone asked him what the difference was between the goal of Mahayana and Theravada, and he said, “None. We just want to get enlightened, same as you.”

Again, I can’t speak to what might have changed, but in my day, there would normally be a period of probation while getting to know a visiting monk from an unknown background (i.e. not referred by someone we knew), then they would be accepted in the Sangha. I can’t recall having any Mahayana monks come for long-term stays, so not sure how that would have been handled.

The Ajahn Chah tradition has this concept of nānasaṁvāsa “different communion”. Essentially they treat any outside monk as of a different communion, with certain exceptions. They would be accepted after probation of a few weeks.

Note that this isn’t what nānasaṁvāsa means in the Vinaya. Here’s the relevant passage from the Khandhakas. (pli-tv-kd10:1.10.2-3)

There are these two grounds for belonging to a different Buddhist sect. Either one makes oneself belong to a different Buddhist sect, or a unanimous assembly ejects one for not recognizing an offense, for not making amends for an offense, or for not giving up a bad view.

It’s not mean to be applied as a blanket exclusion of those outside one’s circle, but as a specific (and probably rare) means of detaching oneself from a bad community, or else excluding a monk of bad behavior. And there is no precedent in Vinaya to treat other monks on probation unless they have actually transgressed an offense.

I mean probably? I dunno, I was just speaking with a couple of young monastics in the US, they were looking forward to spending the vassa in tents. But what would I know, I spent my first vassa in a cave here:

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CLARIFICATION: as a matter of policy we don’t disclose personal details of our members unless direct consent is given, or when it is required by law.

@Phraalan (Pannavuddho Bhikkhu) has contacted us recently and asked us to share his contact information, if anyone wishes to contact him directly please send a PM to @helpdesk-dd.

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