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A Simple Forest Monk

Binh Anson

Below is a short article about a Thai monk - Ajahn Gunhah - of the forest meditation tradition.

I had the opportunities to meet Ajahn Gunhah when he came to Perth, Western Australia, twice to stay at the Bodhinyana monastery, 60 km south of Perth. During the first visit, he stayed at the monastery for about a year, and I learnt a lot from him, from his experience in meditation.

One day, during his second visit, as part of my job I went to a large water supply dam located in a thick forest, near the monastery, for field inspection all alone by myself. When driving on a dirt track in the forest, I had a freak accident but somehow miraculously I escaped unscathed.

So, on the way back, I stopped by at the monastery, went into its main meditation hall, paid respect to the Buddha, sat in meditation for a while, and contemplated on that near-death experience.

When I came out from the hall, I met Ajahn Gunhah walking back to his hut. The monastery was located in a native bushland, and each monk had his own small hut for sleeping and meditating.

Ajahn Gunhah asked me to come with him to his hut. Once inside, he made himself a cup of hot and dark cocoa, and made me one also. According to the Vinaya, the monks are not allowed to drink milk after mid-day, but they can drink dark tea, dark coffee and the like. While I was sipping my hot cocoa, he looked at me, smiled, and gently said: "Life is short, isn't it ?" This caught me by surprise! How did he know what was in my mind at that time ? I had not told him anything about my day trip and certainly not about that accident!

To this day, I still don't know the answer. Perhaps it's just a casual remark from him and simply a coincident, or perhaps not so !

With Metta,
Binh Anson
Perth, October 1996.

Ven. Ajahn Gunhah: A Profile

Ven. Chandako
(from Forest Sangha Newsletter, UK, October '94)


A noted disciple of Luang Por Chah who is gaining respect in his own right as a teacher is his nephew, Ven. Ajahn Gunhah. At age 44, with 27 years as a monk, he is part of a new generation of up-and-coming meditation masters in the Thai forest tradition.

Ajahn Gunhah has something to offer nearly everyone. Half of the year he spends the greater part of each day sitting in a bamboo chair receiving guests, answering questions and chatting with his monks and nuns. If no one else is around he simply sits. His round and pudgy body shakes as he giggles, smiles and jokes with those around him. Radiating peace and loving-kindness his compassionate eyes penetrate to the heart. His is soft, gentle and motherly.

The other half of the year Ajahn Gunhah is on "tudong" (dhutanga), walking barefoot around the country. Displaying physical stamina and an ability to persevere through hardship, he has been going tudong every year since he was ordained. When he leaves on these spiritual wanderings, he takes most of the monastery with him, and each year the number of his disciples increases.

After Luang Por Chah's funeral he left on foot followed by 62 others. Unperturbed by heat, rain, pain or sometimes scarcity of food (boiled banana stems for a month), Ajahn Gunhah is tough and disciplined.

Ajahn Gunhah is a traditionalist in that he strictly observes the dhutanga practices (ascetic practices recommended by the Buddha) and closely follows the simple and reclusive lifestyle of a forest monk. Yet he is quite innovative in his methods of training. He and his disciples are all vegetarians and caffeine-free. It is Ajahn Gunhah's combination of equanimity and serene composure in the face of hardship and his nurturing compassion that attracts others, arouses respect and brings out the best in his disciples.

Whether sitting in his bamboo chair receiving guests hour after hour or enduring through some extremely trying situations on tudong, what most arouses admiration in his disciples is the extent of his even temperedness. His joyful expression seems constant. They say he never shows any signs of fatigue, impatience or drowsiness. One rains retreat he resolved not to sleep or lie down, only resting by entering deep states of samadhi (concentration). For three months without sleep he was not once seen to nod or yawn.

Ajahn Gunhah rarely gives a Dhamma talk, yet he is known as a great teacher. Setting an impeccable example, he teaches informally with an economy of well-timed words in a simple and direct way! On tudong, he will push people to their limits, or creatively frustrate their desire for comfort. As if knowing the hearts of his disciples, he directs each person according to their individual tendencies.

"We were born for enlightenment, so don't let anything make you hot and bothered. We can't blame anyone else - we wanted to be born. Stay with the Knowing and let the mind be calm, happy and peaceful. Whatever it is, watch it pass away. However, trying to develop insight without samadhi is like trying to cut down a tree with a razor blade. It's sharp but only when combined with the weight of an axe can the tree be cut down. Make your mind serene and don't look too far ahead or you will step on a thorn. Let your mind be cool, Sabaay Sabaay ..." (Sabaay - Thai, meaning to be at ease).

The external conditions of Ajahn Gunhah's monastery are cramped, crowded and next to a busy railroad line; yet due to the atmosphere he creates, many people still find it a tranquil place to practise. This is achieved by encouraging a minimum of talking and socialising. During chores, often the monks simply gesture to each other when communication is necessary. Eating, bowing and bowl washing are done slowly and quietly. Daily events are carefully orchestrated and well organised with an attention to detail.

Demonstrating respect to monastic seniority is used as a tool for cultivating humility, and the interwoven roles of the community flow harmoniously with a refined politeness. There is an air of cool serenity pervading the monastery. In such an atmosphere of trust and compassion it feels safe to let go of the defences, barriers and constructs of the self.

What did this rotund and robust Ajahn do before he became a monk? He was a jockey! Ajahn Gunhah said he was successful because he had no fear of dying. Riding bareback he wouldn't hold on but would slap the sides of the horse with both hands. He also worked as a village medic giving medical care to prostitutes. Because of this experience, dispassion arose towards the world. He had always wanted to ordain from an early age but his father had continually forbidden it. Ajahn Gunhah said this was his greatest suffering.

Once, while alone on tudong in 1981, Ajahn Gunhah had arranged to meet up with disciples of his at Langklaburi near the Burmese border. It was two weeks before the beginning of the Rains Retreat and the monsoon rains had already begun. He needed to traverse well over a hundred kilometres through the extensive jungles and mountains of Tung Yai Wildlife Reserve. He knew he would have to travel many days without encountering any village where he could go on alms round to obtain food.

There are no paths or roads through this region. He had no map, but by using a compass and following elephant trails he aimed for a range of high mountains in the distance. He frequently came across wild animals and, while walking through a track of high grass, a tiger suddenly crossed his path close enough to touch. "Stop, stop," he called out. The tiger stopped, then startled, bounded away.

For seven days Ajahn Gunhah fasted and continued walking. "Surviving only on samadhi," he carried on until he came upon the tracks of a domesticated water buffalo. Following the tracks he saw a Karen hill- tribesman gutting a barking deer he had shot. Ajahn Gunhah asked him where he lived but he didn't speak Thai. Using sign language the Karen motioned for Ajahn Gunhah to follow him. He led him to a grass shack and disappeared.

Half an hour later he returned with a group of armed communist guerrillas - Thai students - who were battling the government forces. They immediately assumed Ajahn Gunhah was a spy in monk's garb and began interrogating him. Repeatedly cross-examining him in an attempt to expose his supposed undercover mission, they asked how long he'd been walking.

"Seven days".
- Where are your supplies?
"I have none."
- What trail did you come on?
"I followed no trail but simply cut through the wilderness."
- How can that be? This entire area is a minefield!

By this time the communists were not so sure Ajahn Gunhah actually was a spy. Since it was still before noon they ordered the Karen to boil the innards of the barking deer (a delicacy) and offered it with some plain rice to the monk. Ajahn Gunhah responded that it was his personal practice to eat only vegetarian food and that plain rice would be enough. Surprised and impressed, they gathered some forest vegetables to offer him.

After the meal the communists escorted him underguard to their main camp. The series of sentries and lookouts used birdcalls to communicate with each other. They passed through hundreds of acres of rice paddies - enough to feed a large army - until arriving at the main camp where he was again interrogated by rebel leaders. Ajahn Gunhah told them he was a disciple of Ajahn Chah.

"Ajahn Chah is O.K." they replied. "He teaches people to have wisdom and doesn't try to delude the people by handing out magic amulets like some monks."

Ajahn Gunhah simply spread metta the entire time he was captive. When they finally believed he was indeed an authentic monk they agreed to release him on the condition he wouldn't disclose their whereabouts. He again was escorted through minefields with a guard in front and behind. Upon reaching the edge of the minefield the solders told him he could go free.

As Ajahn Gunhah walked off, they called out for him to stop. They ran up, put down their guns, took off their boots and bowed three times. They asked him if he wouldn't please consent to spend the Rains Retreat with them. Ajahn Gunhah replied he was sorry but his disciples would be very worried if he didn't show up.

He turned and continued walking ...