In the foothills nestled among the many sugarcane fields that blanket the plains of Uthai Thani, Thailand, stands the red roof of Wat Pa Sak Thong’s main temple. There are five resident monks at this monastery, ranging in age from thirty to seventy. The Abbot, Luang Po Maan Noon, is fifty-eight. There are normally three nuns (or, maechee) here as well, aged fifty-five to eighty-one. One of them is my longtime friend, Maechee Samnao. The nuns are here owing to the support and protective care of the Abbot and they tell me that they are quite happy with this arrangement. They say that he is a kind, wise and generous leader. After my three days there in June of 2015, I find myself agreeing with them.
Wat Pa Sak Thong practices in the Thai Forest Tradition, which emphasizes meditation even over study. Though the community eats its single meal of the day communally — around 7:30 AM — the monks spend most of their time in their individual meditation huts (called kutis) meditating. The nuns handle most of the domestic chores at the Wat, but they also meditate.
Pindabat (or, alms-gathering) is conducted each morning by the monks for the entire community, including the nuns and two other male helpers. Apart from these daily food alms, the monastery’s entire yearly budget derives solely from the once-a-year offerings made to the community following its three-month rainy season retreat. (This special day of offering is referred to as katin, or “new robes” day). The fact of daily food gathering highlights one of the main issues facing Wat Pa Sak Thong today: namely, its distance from a lay community. Forest monks were originally itinerant, never staying long in one place. With time, however, even these wandering meditator-monks settled into communities. Still, in order to keep its focus on solitary meditation, Wat Pa Sak Thong was established some twenty-two kilometers from the nearest town, Ban Rai. But walking this distance and back today in order to gather the one-time morning meal is clearly prohibitive; this community of meditators could not sustain itself. Ironically, for these once solely itinerant monks, having a reliable means of transportation is now an absolute necessity.
During my stay at Wat Pa Sak Thong, I observed other areas in need of addressing as well. First, there is a three-kilometer-long entrance road into the Wat that is entirely comprised of gravel. While the road works well in the dry seasons, during monsoon season there is the constant possibility of its being washed out. Second, though the monastery was founded over ten years ago, it sits in an area of Uthai Thani that is still unserviced by cell or Internet towers. Consequently, making a phone call is only possible from one specific point — in the kitchen (!) — and there is simply no Internet capability within miles. The Wat was given an old HP computer and a Samsung monitor but these have never been turned on since there is “no Internet.” Such is the price of seeking to maintain the Forest Tradition.
I look at these sincere practitioners, each having offered their lives to practice and I think there must be help for them to continue. There must be more towers set up for such folk. There must be a way to connect with others and in case of emergencies. A good IT person could help once the tower was in place. A good mechanic might keep a vehicle running while at the same time learning meditation from this Abbot. I think these constitute ideal forms of “eco-tourism” and engaged Buddhism in today’s modern world.
Wat Pa Sak Thong has simple and admirable plans for future development: restrooms for the main temple and a guesthouse for hosting larger events — like the new machee ordination ceremony that it hosted just a week before my arrival. This Abbot is quite a feminist at heart. He is wise and visionary, but he knows that he is battling great odds. And even while he is himself so well respected in the Thai Forest Tradition (his teacher was the much-revered practitioner, Luang Po Sung Wan), he finds himself struggling with the dilemma of contemporary life that we all do: How do we maintain the slower pace and focus of contemplative practice in a world that is moving at warp speed?
If you agree with me that the projects that Wat Pa Sak Thong wants to undertake are worthy of support, whether financially or technically, please contact me at [email protected] for further information.