Thirty Years as a Western Buddhist Monk
An Interview With Ajahn Pasanno - by Fearless
Mountain: What was your early religious experience?
Pasanno: I was raised in northern Manitoba, 600 miles
north of the U.S. border. My religion was Anglican, which is
Episcopalian in the U.S. I had a good experience growing up
as a Christian. It was a small town and a small church. My family
was reasonably devout. My father had grown up in the United
Church, and we took religious classes together. But by the time
I was 16 or 17, I found it difficult to maintain any kind of
faith. I stopped going to church and taking communion. I started
to look for alternatives.
Did you ever think you would become a monk?
I certainly didn't spend my years growing up dreaming of
becoming a monk. However, I definitely had an attraction to
religion, and the mystique of hermits interested me. But there
were no Buddhists in northern Manitoba, or even in Winnipeg,
where I attended university. However, I did take an Eastern
which covered Buddhism. This reading motivated me to continue
I finished university, I had a vague idea to study Buddhism
some more. I was looking for a way to learn to meditate since
I knew from my reading that meditation was
essential if I was to continue.
had read mostly Zen books because that was what was available
in Canada at that time. Because of this, I had a vague idea
to go to Japan. I left Canada in 1972 with a one-way plane ticket
to Europe.My plan was to travel overland to Asia, then go down
to Australia to work and make money, and then go to Japan. I
wanted to get
my fill of the world before meditating in Japan.
travelled from Europe, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and
Pakistan, to India and Nepal. In India, I kept my antennae out,
yet nothing resonated there or in Nepal. A year after I began
my travels, I arrived in Thailand. I felt totally comfortable
and decided to stay for a while. I wanted to find a place to
meditate. The second day
I was there, I bought a dictionary and Thai grammar instruction
was hot in Bangkok and cooler in the north, so I traveled up
to Chiang Mai and stumbled across a monastery which had the
Tripitika in English. I stayed at a hotel and went to the monastery
to read the Tripitika every day. It happened to be a meditation
monastery. There was a German novice who helped arrange a meditation
me. It was a month-long silent retreat, the first meditation
I ever did.
You really jumped into it!
That really opened me up. I had some powerful experiences
of calm and concentration and insight, which made me want to
continue to study and practice vipassana. The monks encouraged
me to be ordained. I said, "No, I have traveling to do;
I'm not ready to make a long-term commitment." They explained
how ordinary it is to do a three-month temporary ordination
in Thailand. I thought I could handle three or four months,
so I was ordained.
was there that I first heard of Ajahn Chah. One of the other
monks encouraged me to visit and pay my respects to Ajahn Chah.
I had only been ordained for a month or two before I was given
permission to visit Ajahn Chah. I traveled up to Wat Pah Pong
to pay my respects to Ajahn Chah and was very smitten. One of
the first things he said was that if I wanted to train with
him, I would have to stay for five years. That was difficult.
I wasn't ready to make such a commitment. I stayed for about
a month and then took leave to go to another monastery, Wat
Sai Ngam, where I had an opportunity to do a lot of formal practice.
I continued to have many good experiences in meditation. What
kept coming up was: "If I am really going to do this, then
I have to go back and give myself to Ajahn Chah. Five years
is five years. Don't think about it."
wrote, and Ajahn Sumedho responded and said I was welcome to
come for the Rains Retreat. However, my teacher invited me to
spend the Rains Retreat with him instead, and then he took me
to Ajahn Chah himself after the Rains. That delay was quite
good. I had been all fired up to go back to Ajahn Chah, and
then there was an obstacle. I used it to let go of preferences.
I also settled in to a lot of formal practice and learned the
Thai language, which came in handy up in understanding the Laotian
dialect they speak up in Ubon.
What happened then?
When you have been ordained somewhere else, you are taken
on as a guest monk. Then you observe the practices and decide
if you want to make a commitment to stay. The senior monks keep
an eye on you, too. After two to three months of waiting, I
was accepted. If any of your monastic requisites were not properly
say if you bought something with money, then it had to be relinquished.
happens because most monks use money. Even if you had a robe
offered but you had been washing or dying it with detergent
or dye that you bought yourself, then
Ajahn Chah would require you to change it.
is an excitement to get these new requisites. The robes have
been sewn at the monastery. The dye is monastery dye. The robes
are real forest monk robes. The bowls are usually bigger because
in the forest you carry requisites in them when you are traveling.
If it's raining, you can at least keep some of your robes dry.
Also, because forest monks eat from their bowls, the bowl tends
to be bigger. These bowls are special, and one looks forward
to receiving them.
It sounds deeply traditional.
Yes, that was the feeling of going to Wat Pah Pong: It feels
as if the tradition has been passed on since the Buddha's time.
There is an antiquity, integrity and simplicity that was so
palpable. What struck me was the peace. Things were well taken
diligence of the monks and novices and the commitment of the
laypeople were obvious. In such a poor area as Northeast Thailand,
the laypeople were out every morning sharing their offerings
with the Sangha. On the observance days there were lots and
lots of laypeople listening to Dhamma, meditating and chanting.
You felt the sense
of a living tradition.
I've heard that the laypeople stay up all night meditating.
Yes, they stay up the whole night, once a week on observance
nights. For myself, just arriving, it was difficult to sit still
for even an hour. You were not sitting still on a zabuton and
zafu with a few foam props. You had a one-layer sitting cloth
on a concrete floor. Some of the people would sit for two to
three hours and then do some walking meditation, and then sit
for a few more hours till dawn. Close to dawn you would do chanting.
It was awe-inspiring. It also felt so healthy, the interaction
between the monastic community and the lay community. There
would be people coming to make offerings, ask questions or pay
respects to Ajahn Chah. Laypeople would also help out at the
monastery. They had a real sense of the monastery being a focus
When did you become abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat?
It was in my ninth year as a monk. I hadn't really planned
on it. I had been at a branch monastery that had about a thousand
acres of beautiful forest, surrounded on three sides by a reservoir,
and I hoped to stay on for a long time. But one of the monks
came with a message from Ajahn Chah asking me to return to Wat
Pah Nanachat to start to learn the ropes of being an
abbot. Because Ajahn Chah asked me to do it, I did it.
He saw some qualities in you that you had perhaps not seen
I found I had to rely on what he saw in me rather than what
I saw in myself. It was pretty miserable to have to be in that
position, to be perfectly honest. There was obviously a sense
of excitement and willingness to take it on because I had been
asked to, but it certainly wasn't easy. It was difficult being
in a position of leadership and having more responsibilities,
mostly just dealing with people much more. Among the great sufferings
in the universe, dealing with people is at the top of the list!
From my perspective, I didn't have a choice. I had to make it
work somehow. I had to learn from it.
Has your practice changed much over the years?
One of the meditation practices I have done from day one,
and still do, is mindfulness of breathing. I have experimented
with a variety of methods, but mindfulness of breathing is my
home base. Of course, it has been refined and become a lot clearer
in how to use it skillfully. The Buddha's teachings have a certain
simplicity, and the profundity begins to shine out of that.
ways it's really changed is that there is a whole lot more ease
than when I started. At the start there were a lot of good intentions
and effort, but it was not so easeful. I enjoy the practice
more now than when I began. It has so much more clarity
How is it to be co-abbot here?
It's helpful to share responsibilities and to have somebody
to consult with. Furthermore, there is not just one person at
the top of the line who is the single role model. Ajahn Amaro
and I have different temperaments and provide different models
of how to be as a person. It's also helpful to see that there
are different ways to practice. It gives people the opportunity
to breathe a bit easier and figure out for themselves what is
going to work for them rather than just emulating the ajahn.
tried to keep my focus at Abhayagiri on spending most of my
time at the monastery. I want to be available for the training
of the monastics, for people who want to take on monastic training,
and for people who want to come to the monastery to practice
Is the monastic training here different than in Thailand?
There are definitely differences.
Thailand, it is a more autocratic model. That's just how it
works. In America there is an expectation of being involved
and consulted in decision making.
the tendency of American society is toward so much
have to be very conscious not to let the monastery get swamped
with that same kind of hyper-organization, where everything
has to be scheduled and there is very little free time. It's
easy for that attitude to drift over into the monastery.
I have heard that in Asia people like themselves more and
don't seem to have as much self-hatred as Americans do. Would
you say this is true?
I don't think it's that people like themselves more. They
are just not so confused about themselves, and there is a higher
degree of acceptance of themselves. There is not the same kind
of complicated analyzing, proliferating and assessing that goes
on in Western
minds, particularly Americans!
How is the emphasis of practice different in the West?
I tend to steer people in the direction of what is conducive
to harmony. I ask them to be really clear on their virtue, precepts
and generosity. People are so wrapped up in themselves, so up
in their heads that they don't recognize the value of fundamental
qualities like generosity and kindness. Generosity is not just
material but includes generosity of time and service and
giving of themselves. It gives a lot more confidence.
is a mystique that says: if I figure myself out, then I will
be all right. But there is no end to that. People are so distant
from themselves. This is why I also emphasize mindfulness of
the body. It's not immediately apparent how important it is
to be centered and focused in the body. However, it cuts through
the mind's obsession with itself, its comparing and evaluating.
The constant asking of what is the most advantageous thing for
me. It goes on and on, this spinning out. Just coming back and
being attentive to the body is the antidote. It might be the
breath or the sensations in the body, the posture or the elements.
The important thing is to be anchored in the body.
26, 1949 - Born Reed Perry.
to 1968 - Grew up and went to school in The Pas, Manitoba,
to 1972 - Studied at University of Winnepeg, Canada, and
graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (History).
- Travelled to Asia.
4, 1974 - Ordained as a Buddhist Monk at Wat Pleng Vipassana
in Bangkok, Thailand, at the age of 24.
to 1978 - Trained under Venerable Ajahn Chah at Wat Pah
Pong Monastery, Ubolrachatani Province, Thailand, and at Wat
- Spent a year on retreat and pilgrimage in Thailand.
- Returned to Wat Pah Pong to continue training with Ajahn
- Appointed abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat, taking on responsibility
for teaching, leading ceremonies, building, and administration.
- Initiated development projects in the villiage of Bung
Wai, the nearest village to the monastery. The village won first
prize in the region for their efforts.
- Established Poo Jom Gom Monastery in Ubolrachatani Province
as a forest retreat facility for Wat Pah Nanachat.
- Established Dtao Dum Monastery in Kanchanaburi Province
as a forest retreat facility for Wat Pah Nanachat.
- Assisted in organizing the state funeral of Ajahn Chah.
The preparations took one year and the event was attended by
the King and Queen of Thailand, the Prime Minister, and various
dignitaries, with close to 10,000 monastics and 400,000 laypeople.
- Established Nature Care Foundation in Ubolrachatani to
assist in the protection of the forest near the Poo Jom Gom
- Linked the Nature Care Foundation to Dtao Dum Monastery
to protect the forest in that region as well.
- Arrived at Abhayagiri
Monastery on January 1 to take up duties as co-abbot.
- Appointed as an upajjhaya and ordained the first
"home-grown" bhikkhu at Abhayagiri, the Venerable