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  • Writer's pictureStanislas Wang-Genh

The awakening of the Arahant vs. the compassion of the Bodhisattva

An experience in Theravada Buddhism

It was my father's idea: "Before arriving in Japan, you should go and experience a stay in a therāvāda temple in Thailand." Coming from a Zen teacher who reads a lot about ancient Buddhism and refers to it in his teachings, the idea didn't seem so far-fetched to me.

After a bit of research and a few tips from friends on social networks, I applied to stay for ten days at Wat Pah Nanachat, the International Monastery of the Forest Monks, in Ubon Ratchathani in north-east Thailand.

It was founded in 1975 by the Venerable Ajahn Chah (1918-1992) as an annex monastery, close to his own traditional forest monastery, Wat Nong Pah Pong.

A practice that brings us face to face with ourselves

As I arrive at this immense place in the middle of the jungle, I'm aware that my stay is going to be intense. We get up early, eat only once a day and sleep very little. Most of our time is devoted to meditation. Monks and laypeople don't mix. Laywomen are accepted, but they have their own spaces. We rarely bump into each other.

We're here to observe the activity of the mind. And if we don't devote ourselves entirely to this practice, there's no point in this kind of experience. It's not just a question of becoming aware of the thoughts that emerge at any given moment, but the exercise lies in the constant effort to observe their mechanism. Because, in the end, it's a cog that always works the same way. As the Buddha so aptly described, the starting point of everything is desire and intention.

This is why, in this place, we are advised not to become attached to our own well-being, and not to indulge in comfort, sensuality or sensual pleasure. Our bedding is limited to a carpet on the floor. And for those who request it, they can go and isolate themselves in a kuti, a hut in the forest with no water or electricity.

Here is a typical day, apart from the special days of the lunar calendar:

3:00 am: rise

3:30-4:00: chanting & ceremony (Pali canon)

4h00-5h00: meditation

5:00-6:00: sweeping the aisles (it's not daylight yet)

6h00-7h00: rest

7:00-8:00: food sorting and preparation with the villagers

(Food is donated by the villagers and harvested by the monks - a Dānā practice)

8h00: ceremony with monks and laypeople

8:30am-9:00am: only meal of the day

9:00am-9:30am: toilet cleaning

9:30am-3:00pm: time to meditate, read, walk in meditation

3:00 pm - 4:00 pm: sweeping the aisles

4:30 pm: tea

6.15pm-7pm: chanting & ceremony (Pali canon)

7-8pm: meditation

8pm: bedtime

The days of observance of the lunar calendar are called Wan Phra.

Evenings and nights are devoted to meditation.

My relatives asked me if I felt hungry. I told them no. Fatigue? No, not at all. I would say that the most difficult part of this experience was fighting boredom.

Indeed, I'm used to Zen retreats where the program is so intense that you don't really have time to get bored. Here, the opposite is true. Between 9:30am and 3:00 pm, we're left to ourselves for long hours. Of course, the idea is not to be distracted by reading or other activities. Nor to indulge in laziness. We must devote ourselves to the noble activity of: observing ourselves!

Impulses, anxieties, fears, anger, boredom, desire, the urge to amuse oneself, we go from one state to another for several days before the mind calms down. Then, little by little, we become One with the passing of time and detach ourselves from fleeting emotions. Of course, meditation helps, and we devote ourselves to it without measure: sitting, walking, lying down.

"Dressed in white linen and candid probity" - Victor Hugo

As soon as I arrived, I had a chat with the monk in charge of lay people. First and foremost, he takes care to lock up all electronic devices (e-readers, laptops, phones, etc.). During our conversation, he asked me about my life as a Zen monk. Not knowing much about this tradition, he seemed surprised to learn that we're allowed to have a family life and a professional life that allows us to earn money. Besides," I told him, "living at the heart of social life is what Zen monks of the Taisen Deshimaru lineage are all about.

I immediately reassured him by telling him that during these 10 days, I'd be staying with the laypeople and, like them, I'd be dressed in a white top and a white pants.

Within Buddhism, there are many different schools and traditions. This is an opportunity to provide a quick reminder for readers who are unfamiliar with these differences. There are three main currents: the hināyāna (Small Vehicle), of which theravāda (ancient Buddhism) is the only surviving school, the mahāyāna (Great Vehicle) and the vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle). We'll be looking here at the Forest Monks, part of the theravāda, and at Sōtō Zen, a tradition that belongs to the mahāyāna.

It's important to bear in mind that, whatever the differences or forms, what absolutely unites all schools and traditions of Buddhism is the Buddha's doctrine, the teaching on the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Paticca-Samuppaya (conditioned coproduction) and the concepts of anitya (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anatta (non-self).

But Buddhism has the strength to have adapted to the countries it has crossed over the centuries. At Wat Pah Nanachat, the tradition of the Forest Monks is one of the most orthodox paths, based on the pāli canon. The monks respect the vinaya (discipline, in Pali), a corpus of Buddhist texts dealing with the practices of monastic life, and their rules of conduct number 250 for monks.

I don't wish to develop here an article on Buddhist precepts, but rather to see to what extent this experience with the Forest Monks has enabled me to better understand my own tradition, Sōtō Zen. Because if you become too immersed in your own school, you can quickly forget its origins and the essential message of the Buddha.

On precepts and meditation: theravāda vs mahāyāna

Never before had I really understood why there were so many styles of meditation in Buddhism, and why the rules and precepts were not practiced in the same way according to tradition.

Since my experience at Wat Pah Nanachat, it all makes sense.

In the tradition of the Forest Monks, the monk seeks access to deliverance - Awakening or Nirvana - by becoming an arahant (delivered person). To achieve this, he practices a meditation (samādhi and vipassanā) made up of stages that will gradually lead him to Awakening. And to ensure that his quest takes place in the most optimal conditions, he will of course follow the precepts and numerous rules based on renunciation. Rules that will contribute to his liberation.

In the Japanese Sōtō school of Zen, the monk does not strive for enlightenment. Indeed, he does not chase after any goal (mushotoku) at the risk of straying from his own realization (satori) in the here and now. He does not seek his own ultimate liberation, but to awaken to his own suffering, to his impermanent and insubstantial nature. He practices in samsara to free others from suffering.

In zazen meditation, the posture is demanding, and attention is focused on the body and breathing at all times. Thoughts are left to themselves, and we let them pass like clouds in the sky, without grasping them, without becoming attached to them and without feeding them.

There are sixteen precepts in Zen. The central figure in Mahāyāna Buddhism is the Bodhisattva, whose vow is to delay his own liberation out of compassion for others.

Thus, between theravāda and mahāyāna, the approach could be summed up in a single phrase: The Awakening of the Arahant VS the Compassion of the Bodhisattva.

The Zen monk and the virtue of the heart

The Sōtō Zen tradition, which has its origins in Chinese chān Buddhism, has its own set of rules of conduct that have evolved over time. These include the monastic rules set out in the shingi, the first of which is well known in our tradition. It comes from the words of the monk Hyakujo (749-814): "A day without work is a day without food". In the Theravāda school, a monk is not allowed to work.

In addition to these numerous rules, monks and laypeople alike receive the sixteen precepts (kai) of the bodhisattva. Whereas precepts are considered commandments in Theravāda, in Zen they take the form of a prescription from a benevolent being, like that of a doctor. Indeed, the Buddha is also called the Great doctor.

The approach is therefore totally different. If we take the first precept, the Theravada will put it like this: "Do not kill". In Master Dogen's Zen, the wording is different. It's more like: "Avoid killing", or sometimes even: "Protect the living".

In recent years, the question of the end of life has been the subject of debate in the world of Buddhism. Should the end of life of a suffering person be made easier? It's not easy to find a consensus.

More than simple flexibility of mind, it is the virtue of the heart that holds sway with the Zen monk. For him, nothing is closed, established or ratified. If the rule is not seen as something living, it locks you in and blinds you. In Japan, it's not uncommon to see a Zen master sharing a glass of sake with other monks, even though the fifth precept states that the mind should not be intoxicated. But what is more intoxicating to the mind, a glass of sake or feeding anger or extreme ideas?

In ancient Buddhism, one of the precepts states that a monk must not have sexual relations. In Soto Zen, the same precept is formulated as follows: “Do not engage in sexual misconduct”. Although Zen monks were originally forbidden to have sexual relations, it was the Soto Zen school (Sotoshu) that much later authorized monks to have a family life.

Zen monks spread the Dharma through their attitude and way of life. His morality is profound, and he resonates with what is right to do in this cosmic order. For him, the rules are a support to help him do good and not practice evil.

In his daily life, he works on a deeper understanding of wisdom. He will make choices that put the well-being of all beings first, rather than chasing his own desires. The practice of compassion and kindness is at the heart of his life.

On the last day, I was lucky enough to have a private interview with the abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat monastery, who asked me many questions about Zen. At the end of our conversation, we both noted the similarities between our two traditions, which seek only to liberate the suffering of all living beings.

Here's a beautiful teaching from Master Wu Dao on inner peace, compassion and kindness.

Chinese master Wu Dao's teachings on inner peace, compassion and kindness

"Compassion and kindness are fundamental pillars of Zen philosophy. Facing adversity with a compassionate mind is like sowing the seeds of harmony and serenity in our being. When someone criticizes or provokes us, the natural urge is to respond with anger or resentment, which only increases the negativity in ourselves and the environment. However, Zen wisdom invites us to step back and observe ourselves in these moments, recognizing that our emotional responses are often rooted in our own insecurities and attachments.
Flexibility and impartiality are linked to the notion of letting go of our preconceptions and opening our minds to diverse perspectives. In so doing, we free ourselves from the bonds of judgment and prejudice, enabling us to find more harmonious and balanced solutions to life's challenges.
Zen teachings remind us that violence, whether physical or verbal, is never an authentic or enriching solution. Instead of reacting aggressively, we are encouraged to cultivate the ability to remain calm and cool, embracing inner peace and spreading it to others through our actions and words.
When we learn to avoid unnecessary arguments and not get caught up in negativity, we discover a powerful freedom in our being. The freedom not to be enslaved by the opinions of others, not to let external events affect our inner tranquility. It's as if an unchanging serenity has been achieved in the midst of life's storms.
We need to move beyond external circumstances, freeing ourselves from the emotional burden they can bring. By remaining focused on our inner being and the pure essence of our spirit, we are able to experience a profound peace that is unaffected by external influences.
The Middle Way invites us to recognize that true strength lies in inner peace, compassion and wisdom. By developing these qualities within ourselves, we not only find a more peaceful and harmonious life, but we also radiate this well-being to the world around us, contributing to positive change in humanity.
"In inner calm and compassion, we find the true freedom to dissolve violence and live in harmony."

- Zen Master Wú Dǎo

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Hans Straub
Hans Straub
Aug 14, 2023

Very impressive reports and photos. All the best on the way, Stanislas.

Stanislas Wang-Genh
Stanislas Wang-Genh
Aug 14, 2023
Replying to

Many thanks, dear Hans ! I am very glad to hear from you. All the best ! Stanislas

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