Westerners who became Buddhist monks and teachers

The teachings of Thai Buddhism, specifically Thai forest tradition became known to the English speaking worlds through the Westerners who became monks and practiced in Thailand.

I started travelling to Thailand in 2004 in search for answers in life through the Buddhist teachings after reading the translations of famous Buddhist monks teachings thanks to Buddhist monks who were once Westerners. They learned the Thai language and was helping their teacher to translate talks and books from Thai language into English. I have great gratitude to them.

Here are some of the Westerners who became Buddhist monks:

The late Ajahn Pannavaddho (1925- 2004)

Ajahn Pannavaddho (1925- 2004)

Ajahn Pannavaddho (Luang Phor Panna) was a British national who discovered Buddhism when his family was stationed in India. As a layperson, he worked as an engineer for two years before going for Buddhist monk ordination. Eventually he met his teacher, Ajahn Maha Boowa (Luangta Maha Bua) and he went to stay with Luangta till his death in 2004.

Thanks to Luang Phor Panna who did translation and was able to converse in both Thai and English, he was able to brought forward the teachings of Luangta to the Western world. Many foreigners came from all over the world to Wat Pa Baan Taad in Udon Thani. Luang Phor Panna taught and guided people from all over the world to came in search of answers and understand the teachings.

During the later years, Luang Phor Panna developed colon cancer which he was able contain through his meditation practice. However, a doctor who tried to help put him in sedation as he had wanted to help cure the cancer. When Luang Phor Panna woke up, he realized the cancer had spread and there was nothing much that could be done. He passed away in 2004 but not before leaving behind a strong legacy.

Read about the life of Luang Phor Panna in the Forest Dhamma website. and watch the video about his life.
The book Patipada (597 page) detailing the practice of Luang Phor Mun (Luangta Maha Bua’s teacher) was translated from Thai to English by Luang Phor Panna.

Luang Phor Sumedho

Ajahn Sumedho

Luang Phor Sumedho is the senior disciple of the late Luang Phor Chah. There was an interesting story where before Luang Phor Chah first met him…. he had actually requested for a kuti to be build with a door of the height of slightly over six feet. The person who helped to build were initially puzzled because the average Thai person would not require a door of that height. It seemed that Luang Phor Chah had already knew a Westerner would arrive and ordain as a monk. Initially like most Westerners who would not accept blind teachings and blind faith, Luang Phor Sumedho really doubted his teacher, and on numerous occasions got a little upset with his teacher.

Luang Phor Chah had been known to use unconventional way to teach his disciples such as repeating and repeating about a certain theme in his Dhamma talks making his disciples, especially the Westerners who were not used to sitting sideways for long…to fidget uncomfortably. Of course eventually they got used to sitting in that manner and Luang Phor Chah’s unique way of teaching.

Luang Phor Sumedho enabled the profound teachings of Buddhism to be brought to the Western world through books that he had written, Dhamma talks and direct teachings.

You may watch the BBC documentary (in the 1979) on the interview with the late Ajahn Chah which also showed the young Ajahn Sumedho (from 20.17 min onwards).

One of the story Ajahn Sumedho told which I had remembered and found the excerpt in this link:

When I first went to Wat Pah Pong, I couldn’t understand Lao. And in those days Ajahn Chah was at his peak and giving threehour desanas every evening. He could go on and
on and on, and everybody loved him— he was a very good speaker, very humorous and everybody
enjoyed his talks. But if you couldn’t understand Lao…!

I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘When’s he going to stop, I’m wasting my time.’ I’d be really angry, thinking, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m leaving.’ But I couldn’t get enough nerve to leave, so I would just sit there thinking—‘I’ll go to another monastery. I’ve had enough of this; I’m not going to put up with this.’ And then he would look at me—he had the most radiant smile—and he’d say, ‘Are you all right?’ And suddenly all the anger that had been accumulating for that three hours would completely drop away.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? After sitting there fuming for three hours, it can just go. So I vowed that my practice would be patience, and that during this time I would develop patience. I’d come to all the talks and sit
through all of them as long as I could physically stand it. I determined not to miss them, or try to get out of them, and just practise patience.

This is how a compassionate and accomplished master sometimes teaches the Dhamma.

Ajahn Dick Sīlaratano

Ajahn Dick Sīlaratano

Ajahn Dick was born in America who had practiced for many years under Luangta Maha Bua. I have a lot of gratitude to him because he has translated the book that changed my life which is the Spiritual Biography of Ajahn Mun. At the same time, I also had been very fortunate to have been able to receive his guidance when I went to practice in Wat Pa Baan Taad in Udon Thani from 2005 to 2006.

During that time, Luangta Maha Bua was still alive and each morning, there would be many people who offer almsfood which Luangta and all other monks would have in the hall. The monks would eat swiftly and quietly, then proceed to wash their almsbowl.

After that, the foreigners would then gather at a shed located behind the hall where Ajahn Dick would offer advise and answer queries from the participants. He listened to our meditation practice and struggles and gave us advise and suggestions. For example, when I was there, I found a spot under a tree which consist nothing more of a wooden bed frame with a mat and mosquito net. I was a real timid person and at 6pm, it was so dark that you could not even see your own palms. I was scared out of my wits but Ajahn Dick encouraged me to sleep there rather than comfortably at a kuti (where I tend to oversleep). I was very afraid then and he given me some advise to overcome my fear as well as to do walking meditation if I could not concentrate in sitting meditation.

When I was going back, Ajahn Dick was involved in the publishing of DVDs of the Life of Luang Phor Panna (during that time these materials were not available online as we have not yet heard of YouTube yet) and re-doing the book Patipada (adding more photos of senior monks). He allowed us to take back the materials. When I asked him ‘how many could I take back?’, he gave a big smile and said, ‘well, as much as you can possibly carry with you.’

I understand now Ajahn Dick is staying in a monastery in Bangkok. I would always have gratitude for the time he spent teaching us foreigners who sought advise from him.

Ajahn Thanissaro (Ajaan Geoff)

Ajahn Thanissaro (Ajaan Geoff)

(view his Wikipedia page/ you can also listen to his Dhamma talks in YouTube

Ajahn Thanissaro is an American monk who have previously studied under Ajahn Fuang who was the student of the famous Ajahn Lee Dhammadaro.

He currently resides in Metta Forest Monastery in USA (https://www.watmetta.org/)

During the early days when I started to access to the internet, I had started to research the Buddhist teachings and came across accesstoinsight.org which carried many translation from Ajahn Thanissaro.

I have outmost gratitude to him as thanks to him….many of the books from the Thai forest tradition written by the great Masters were being made available to the English speaking world with no chages. There are some books that he has translated which I am grateful because the books offered a lot of comfort:

  1. Straight from the Heart by Ajahn Maha Boowa where the first phrase he mentioned gave me comfort that what I felt ever since I was a child was correct: . It was reading this book as well as the Spiritual Biography of Ajahn Mun (translated by Ajahn Dick as mentioned above) that gave me the determination to travel to Thailand to meet Ajahn Maha Boowa.

The Language of the Heart

The Venerable Acariya Mun taught that all hearts have the same language. No matter what one’s language or nationality, the heart has nothing but simple awareness, which is why he said that all hearts have the same language. When a thought arises, we understand it, but when we put it into words, it has to become this or that language, so that we don’t really understand one another. The feelings within the heart, though, are the same for everyone. This is why the Dhamma fits the heart perfectly, because the Dhamma isn’t any particular language. The Dhamma is the language of the heart. The Dhamma resides with the heart.

Pleasure and pain reside with the heart. The acts that create pleasure and pain are thought up by the heart. The heart is what knows the results that appear as pleasure and pain; and the heart is burdened with the outcome of its own thoughts. This is why the heart and the Dhamma fit perfectly. No matter what our language or nationality, we can all understand the Dhamma because the heart and the Dhamma are a natural pair.

And in the chapter Heir to the Dhamma where his teacher Ajahn Mun predicted that Ajahn Maha Boowa would one day be able to achieve the highest level in attainment:

“An Heir to the Dhamma  

A talk given to the monks at Wat Pa Baan Taad.

The ordinary mind — no matter whose — when it doesn’t yet have any standards and meets up with things that drag it here and there in the wrong directions, will tend to go rolling after those preoccupations without let-up, to the point where it can’t find any foundation for sustaining its peace and calm. In terms of the Dhamma, these preoccupations are called defilements.

We can see them when we begin to practice: The mind stumbles and crawls along, not at all willing to follow the Dhamma, because the defilements are strong. This is something I haven’t forgotten, from the time I first set out to practice up until now, because it’s a truth that lies embedded in the heart. How could I forget?

From the very start of my practice, I was really in earnest — because that’s the sort of person I was. I wouldn’t just play around. Wherever I would take my stance, that’s how it would have to be. When I set out to practice, I had only one book — the Patimokkha — in my shoulder bag. Now I was going for the full path and the full results. I was going to give it my all — give it my life. I wasn’t going to hope for anything else. I was going to hope for nothing but release from suffering. I was sure that I would attain release from suffering in this lifetime. All I asked was that there be someone who could show me that the paths, fruitions, and nibbana were for real. I would give my life to that person and to the Dhamma through the practice, without holding anything back. If I was to die, I’d die with the practice. I wouldn’t die with retreat. My heart was set like a stone post.

The first rains after I had set out to practice, I spent in Cakkaraad District, Korat Province, because I hadn’t been able to catch up with Venerable Acariya Mun. I began accelerating my efforts as soon as I got there, and it wasn’t long before my mind attained stillness, because I was practicing both day and night. I wasn’t willing to do any other work aside from the work of concentration practice — sitting and walking meditation — in my own stumbling and crawling way. My mind was able to quiet down, so I really accelerated my efforts; but then, as I’ve told you before, it regressed when I was making a klod.  Up to that point, I was no mean hand at concentration. It was really solid. I was sure that the paths, fruitions, and nibbana were for real, because the mind was really solid. It wasn’t affected by anything at all. But even then it still managed to regress just because I made a single klod.

When I reached Venerable Acariya Mun, he taught me the Dhamma as if it came straight out of his heart. He would never use the words, ‘It seems to be…,’ because it really came right out of his heart — how he had practiced, what he had known and seen. It was as if he kept saying, ‘Right here. Right here.’ So did he see or didn’t he? Did he know or didn’t he? ‘Right here.’ Where were the paths, fruitions, and nibbana? ‘Right here. Right here.’ My mind was convinced, really convinced. From that point on I made a resolution: As long as he was still alive, I wouldn’t leave him until either he died or I did. As for going off from time to time to practice on my own, I’d ask to do that as a matter of course, but I’d take him as my base, as if my home were with him. No matter where I’d go, I’d have to return to him. So then I stepped up my efforts full speed.

That dream I had — I’ll never forget it. I’ve told you all this dream before, but it had such an impact on me that it bears telling again. I had come to stay with him and made my resolution with full conviction, with complete faith in him. There was no point on which you could fault him. Whatever he did, inwardly or outwardly, was right in line with the principles of the Dhamma and Vinaya. There was nothing roundabout or evasive about him. That was why I had made up my mind to stay with him. If he were alive today, I still wouldn’t leave him. I’d have to stay with him, although as a matter of course I’d still go here or there from time to time, as I had told myself.

It was only around the fourth or fifth night after I had gone to stay with him… this dream, you know, was really amazing. I dreamed that I was fully robed, carrying my bowl and klod, following an overgrown trail through the jungle. There were no side paths on either side. Both sides were full of thorns and brambles. All I could do was to keep trying to follow the trail, which was just barely a path, all overgrown, just enough to give a hint of where to go.

Finally I reached a point where a thick clump of bamboo had fallen across the trail. I couldn’t see which way to go. There was no way around it on either side. How was I going to get past it? I peered here and there until finally I saw an opening — a tiny opening, right along the path, just enough for me to force my way through together with my bowl.

Since there was no other way, I removed my outer robe — that’s how clear the dream was, as if I weren’t dreaming at all — I removed my outer robe and folded it away, just as we keep our robes folded here. I removed my bowl strap from my shoulder and crawled through the opening, dragging my bowl by its strap and pulling my klod just within reach behind me. I was able to force my way through, dragging my bowl, my klod and my robe behind me, but it was really difficult. I kept at it for a long time until finally I worked my way free. I pulled my bowl, and my bowl came free. I pulled my klod, and my klod came free. I pulled my robe, and my robe came free. As soon as I was entirely free, I put on my robe again — that’s how clear the dream was — I put on my robe, slung my bowl over my shoulder, and told myself, ‘Now I can go on.’ I kept following that trail-it was really overgrown — for about another 40 meters, wearing my robe, carrying my bowl and klod.

Looking ahead, there was wide open space. In front of me was the ocean. Looking across, there was no further shore. All I could see was the shore on which I was standing and a tiny island, way out in the distance, a black speck on the edge of the horizon. I was going to that island. As soon as I walked down to the water’s edge, a boat — I don’t know where it came from and I didn’t notice whether it was a speedboat or a rowboat or whatever — a boat came up to the shore and I got in. The boatsman didn’t say anything to me. As soon as I sat down in the boat and got my bowl and other things in, the boat sped out to the island, without my having to say a word. I don’t know how it happened. It kept speeding, speeding out to the island. There didn’t seem to be any dangers or waves or anything at all. We went silently and in no time at all we arrived — because, after all, it was a dream.

As soon as I reached the island, I got my things out of the boat and went ashore. The boat disappeared completely, without my saying even a word to the boatsman. I slung my bowl over my shoulder and climbed up the island. I kept climbing until I saw Venerable Acariya Mun sitting on a small bench, pounding his betel nut and watching me climb up towards him. ‘Maha,’ he said, ‘how did you get here? Since when has anyone come that way? How were you able to make it here?’

‘I came by boat.’

‘Oho. That trail is really difficult. Nobody dares risk his life coming that way. Very well then, now that you’re here, pound my betel for me.’ He handed me his betel pounder, and so I pounded away — chock, chock, chock. After the second or third chock, I woke up. I felt really disappointed. I wished I could have continued with the dream to see at least how it ended.

That morning I went to tell my dream to Venerable Acariya Mun. He interpreted it very well. ‘This dream, you know,’ he said, ‘is very auspicious. It shows the pattern for your practice without any deviations. Follow the practice in the way that you’ve dreamed. In the beginning, it’ll be extremely difficult.’ That’s what he said. ‘You have to give it your best. Don’t retreat. The beginning will be difficult. The part where you made it through the clump of bamboo: That’s the difficult part. So give it your best. Don’t you ever retreat. Once you get past that, it’s all wide open. You’ll get to the island without any trouble. That’s not the hard point. The hard point is right here.’

I listened to him, really listened to him, and it went straight to the heart. ‘Even if it kills you, don’t retreat at this point. Here at the beginning is the hardest part — where the mind advances and regresses. This part is so hard that you’ll want to go smash your head against that mountain over there out of frustration. The mind advances and regresses, over and over again. Once you get past this point, though, you’ll make progress easily, without any obstacles at all. That’s all there is to it. Give it your best at the beginning and don’t retreat. Understand?’ That’s what he said. ‘If you retreat here, you won’t get anywhere. So give it your life. Strike your way through right here. After all, your vision says you can make it. No matter how difficult it gets, you can make it. So don’t retreat.'”

One of Ajaan Fuang’s students — a seamstress — was criticized by a customer: “You practice the Dhamma, don’t you? Then why are you so greedy, charging such high prices? People practicing the Dhamma should take only enough profit just to get by.”

Although she knew her prices were fair, she couldn’t think of a good answer, so the next time she saw Ajaan Fuang she told him what had happened. He replied, “The next time they say that, tell them — ‘Look, I’m not practicing the Dhamma to be stupid.'”

3. The Skill of Release by Ajahn Lee Dhammadaro 

The book has a number of short passages that is inspiring. For example:

Turmoil comes from our own defilements, not from other people. You have to solve the problem within yourself if you want to find peace.

Don’t believe everything you hear. If they say you’re a dog, check to see for yourself if you’ve got a tail. If you don’t, then they’re wrong.

A person who makes a mistake is better than a person who doesn’t act at all, for mistakes can be corrected. But if you don’t act, how will you know how to correct yourself? — for you don’t know whether you’re mistaken or not. The fact that you don’t act is a mistake in and of itself.

People who don’t believe in goodness rarely do good, but people who don’t believe in evil do evil all the time.

The study of the Dhamma is like reading a cookbook. The practice of the Dhamma is like fixing food. The attainment of the Dhamma is like knowing the taste of the food. If we simply read the texts without putting them into practice, it’s like knowing that there are such things as peppers, onions, and garlic, but without having them for a meal.

Having broken precepts is better than not having any precepts to break. Wearing torn clothes is better than going around naked.

Lots of dead beings have gone into your mouth — pigs, chickens, cattle, etc. — so make sure that it isn’t possessed by their spirits. Before you say anything, no matter what your intention, look right and left and speak only when you’re sure that it’s just right for the situation. Don’t give in to bad manners.

Whatever you do, be true in doing it if you want to meet up with the truth. If you’re really true in what you do, doing just a little bit can be enough. One million in real money is better than ten million in counterfeit bills. When you speak, stay right with your speaking. Whatever you do, stay right with what you’re doing. When you eat, stay with your eating; when you stand, stay with your standing; when you walk, stay with your walking; when you’re sitting, stay with your sitting; when you’re lying down, stay with your lying down. Don’t let your mind get ahead of the truth.

A deserted house, a house where someone has died, gives you the chills. Only if there are people in the house will you feel secure. A person who is not mindful of the present is like a deserted house. When you see such a person, you don’t feel secure.

All the above resources are available for free. Dhamma have a way to cure and soothe the heart. The writings have been given me a lot of comfort when I am most down in my life. Had it not been for the Westerners above who have chosen to dedicate their life to the Dhamma, we would not have benefited from the great teachings of the Thai forest tradition.

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