My life in the Sangha (also see www.fourwindslao.com
I was an angry, restless young man. I started to take stock of myself after the premature death of my older brother in 1975. I took a course at university on Comparative Religions of which Buddhism was one and began reading anything of Hermann Hesse that I could get my hands on. I closely related to Harry Heller in the "Steppenwolf" but it was after reading "Siddhartha" that I first realized that the Buddha was a real person not a demi-God and I imagined being alive in the 6th Century BCE and able to sit with Him and listen to Him. I could also have slipped over to China and sat with Confucious, then back to Persia to be with Zoroaster, then to Israel and the desert Prophets and so on back to India to listen to Mahavira. I set my mind upon travel to Asia as so many of us were doing back then.
When doing the section of the course on Buddhism I was wrapped to have Pra Khanti Palo come to our class and outline the basic tenets of Buddhism. He was the first bhikkhu I ever saw. It all made so much sense and he explained much of what had been inexplicable. He invited students to come and see him later that afternoon in his rest room. I was late and thought there would a big queue waiting. It turned out that I was the only one of about 200 students at the lecture who had bothered, so I was lucky really.
I worked two jobs for a year and saved up $3000 and took off overland to Asia in early 1977. After some hedonist adventures in Bali, Phuket and Koh Samui, I met a Lao refugee who lived in Australia. He had just returned from a trip to NE Thailand. I asked him if there was some place a Westerner could go and learn about meditation. He recommended Wat Bah Pong. I had bought a one way ticket to Kathmandu but, luckily, had a few days before I could fly and I hated being in Bangkok in Summer so I caught the night train to Warin, Ubon Province. I arrived in the morning and found my way to Wat Bah Pong.
It was like falling into a well. Set in a quiet and serene re-growth rainforest the huts and buildings were camouflaged even hidden amongst the trees. There were very few people around, not many monks and just one Westerner, Pra Arranya Bo. How lucky I was.
Loom Por wasn't there. He was in England with Ajahn Sumedho on his first trip overseas that would eventuate in the transference of the Western Sangha to England. I was lucky that Arranya Bo was there. He was perfect for what I needed. He explained the practice and the dhamma in the most clear, compelling and humble way. He talked at length about Loom Por's 'Five Year Plan'. Five years is an eternity when you are twenty-four. After talking with him all day I said I had better find a hotel somewhere. He said I could stay there on the floor of the sala. It would be almost six years before I returned to normal life again out of the Sangha.
I started at he bottom at Wat Bah Nanachaht which had been established about eighteen months before. Everything happened in stages, little renunciations that would go on for years. After a week I shaved my head and took eight precepts and became a Pa Kao and spent the pansah of 1977 at Nanachaht. I cleaned spitoons, cleaned toilets, washed monks feet, drew water from the well and sat at the end of the queue for food distribution. I hated the place and was desperate to get out into the Lao sahkahs (branch Wats) where I could really practice and learn the language:) I knew nothing about practice.
The first pansah was hell, constant pain in my knees as we sat forever on concrete floors with knees up under my armpits, listening to boring talks. I committed for three months, then a year. I ordained as a Samanera after 5 months and then Loom Por sent me to famous Wat Tum Saang Pet where I stayed more than a year. I took full ordination with Loom Por as my Uppacchaya just prior to the 1978 pansah. Loom Por gave me a new name to signify my rebirth in the Sangha, Sudhiro or Sutiro in Thai.
I spent the first pansah as a monk at Tum Saang Pet, where I was the only Westerner for a 100 kilometres. Malaria struck during that retreat. There were five monks and novices and one Pa Kao, a 10 year old brother of one of the novices. Sadly he died an agonizing death when the dreaded virus went to his brain. Everyone on retreat at Tum Saang Pet went to hospital for treatment except me who took the least care to avoid mosquitoes, (as an addhitthana I slept without a net for the pansah. The "Mad Falung" they called me.) How lucky I was!
I spent future pansahs at Suan Goo-ay, Nanachaht, and another remote Wat of forgotten name. Loom Por always sent me to the roughest places, including a sala in a paddy field near Dorn Muang Airport, right under the flight path of the Jumbos. Try meditating there! It was the 1980 pansah that I was able to spend with Loom Por at Wat Bah Pong. I had enough language, spoken and written, a tape recorder, dictionaries and I was the second most senior Western bhikkhu there. How lucky I was that Loom Por would be at the top of his teaching prowess before he was gradually overcome with creeping diabetes. I taped and translated everything I could. I sat under his kuti with him every opportunity. He took ill towards the end of the retreat and had to go to Bangkok. But it was still the most rewarding experience of my spiritual life.
That year I also returned to Australia for six months. I spent time with Pra Khanti Palo at Wat Buddha Dhamma in 1981 before returning to Ubon for my 4th pansah as a monk. My final and fifth retreat was at Nanachaht. Big things were happening in the West. The Western Sangha at Chithurst in England had been a success. There was an invitation from Perth to set up a Wat in Western Australia and other places around the world.
I completed my fifth pansah and the famous 5 Year Plan and went Toodong (dhutanga) as is the tradition when a bhikkhu is released from dependence and becomes an Acariya (or Ajahn). It was during this time that I decided to disrobe and return to a new life in Australia. I made arrangements and then returned to Bah Pong to do the deed. Loom Por was now just a shell of the great man that we knew and loved. It was sad to see him that way but such is the lot of all condition things. He never taught again and finally died in 1992.
I had to go and face Ajahn Liam which was something I wasn't looking forward to, as I always found him mysterious. But I was lucky. He was very pleasant and asked me if I was sure, which I was. He wished me all the best and with a few short words my Sangha life was over.
I had many excuses for disrobing : I'd done my five pansahs, life in the Sangha had one purpose only that was to seek enlightenment, I didn't want to become a career monk in the West, Loom Por would never teach again, I could do wonderful things with my life now that I had my stuff together. The mind can throw up some very compelling arguments when you let it but there was really only one reason. I knew that I just wasn't up to the task. I marvel when people say they cannot see Kamma at work in their lives. I now see it as luck.
That was nearly thirty years ago. I have great marriage, have raised a family, and have had a good career but it leaves a strange feeling inside as you get older and realize that you did the most important thing you will do in your life when you were only 25.