As many of you will know it’s been my habit for over twenty years to disappear to Thailand every January for around three weeks to attend the Ajahn Chah Memorial on the anniversary of his death. What hasn’t been my habit was to plan and book my trip well in advance but this time, since it was to be Ajahn Chah’s centenary year and a lot more people would be going, I thought I better had, so I did. But then as I’d always feared and why I don’t like planning too far ahead, the unexpected happened and I heard that on January 12th there was to be a ceremony at his birthplace where a gigantic stone pillar had been erected to mark the spot just a mile or so from Wat Pah Pong, his main temple. That was the day I was due to fly out but as soon as I heard this news I decided that I just had to be there for that. So, thankfully, I managed to change my booking to leave on the 10th – and then something else unexpected happened, I caught a very bad cold. So, it was all a bit touch and go. But never mind! I made it and on the morning of January 12th I took my seat at the ceremony marking the opening and the offering of this very special memorial at Venerable Ajahn Chah’s birthplace.
The three weeks that I was away fell into three distinct parts: first there were the few days in the NE of Thailand for Ajahn Chah’s Memorial; then five days in Burma, first in Mandalay, then a day on the Irrawaddy followed by Bagan and Rangoon; and finally, a week back in Thailand with a day or two in Bangkok and a rest on the coast at Ch’aam. For now, I’ll concentrate on the Ajahn Chah Memorial and report on the rest next month.
So, having arrived in Thailand in the afternoon of the 11th, I then flew on to Ubon and by the early evening I was safely settling in at a temple near Wat Pah Pong and being briefed about the programme for the following day. Next morning, soon after first light, we left to drive the few miles to Bahn Gaw, the village in which Ajahn Chah was born almost a hundred years ago. Arriving at the outskirts we left the cars and walked the remaining hundred yards to the site of his birthplace. There, now instead of the house in which he was born and the buildings that followed, there stands a twelve metre or forty foot high solid sandstone pillar with its crown fashioned to resemble a lotus bud.
Around it are sculpted stone railings with cement and stone friezes that depict scenes from Ajahn Chah’s life. The obvious inspiration for this impressive memorial ‘garden’ have been the huge stone pillars and stone railings erected by the Emperor Ashoka two thousand years ago in India to mark places of significance in the life of the Buddha. Those polished sandstone pillars, most of which have been broken, although one still stands at Vesali, were about fifteen metres tall. For this Ajahn Chah pillar, I was told it took three attempts by the quarry to extract an unbroken piece of stone large enough and then three days to transport it on the only vehicle in Thailand large enough for the job. Once erected and in position stone masons have spent the last four years working on it. Various monks have helped with the surrounding area and one, Luang Por Anek, has sculpted and crafted some of the stone work, particularly the two slabs you can see in the picture on either side of where I and the group are sitting. I think it’s a wonderful and hugely tasteful memorial to Ajahn Chah and like those Ashoka pillars I’m sure it will last for hundreds of years. And perhaps just like those Ashoka pillars, at some time in the distant future it will provide for future generations a clue that will lead them to learn of a remarkable man who rose from humble beginnings to live the Buddha’s message and in his own way teach and transform the lives of thousands all over the world. That’s what the Buddha’s teachings – and the example of people like Ajahn Chah – do, they change people utterly and for the better.
The birthplace ceremony was also the beginning of the five day event in remembrance of Ajahn Chah, for which thousands had gathered from all over the world. From the birthplace to Wat Pah Pong, the principal temple founded by Ajahn Chah, the road was lined with sunflowers and there were plenty more at Wat Pah Pong itself and around the Ajahn Chah Stupa. They were there to provide colour and decoration and in time, of course, an income for the good locals who had grown them.
Remember, I was still recovering from a nasty cold, so for the next three days I took it easy. On one day I did nothing much at all, on another just a drive and an easy walk through a large, wild forest temple where I lived for a year in 1973, and on another, first a visit to the free food stall sponsored and run by followers of The Forest Hermitage before a drive out to see an old friend and mentor who is in indifferent health but still manages to go on a long alms round every day in his electric wheelchair. I should have mentioned that to feed the thousands of devotees and hundreds of monks gathered at Wat Pah Pong, dozens, perhaps hundreds of food stalls dispensing free food were operating at all hours of the day and night.
Then came the 16th, the big day and the anniversary of Ajahn Chah’s passing in 1992. Every year since his funeral in ’93, the anniversary has been marked by a procession from the main meeting hall out to the stupa that houses his relics and then once the leading group have circled it and gridlock been achieved a tribute to Ajahn Chah is recited before we all place the symbolic offerings we’ve been carrying in or around the stupa. This year was much the same, only bigger because this year would have been his centenary and so the numbers were swollen with even more devotees from all over the world. It was, as always, a very moving occasion. Then in the evening that followed and through the night Dhamma talks were given in Thai and in English. Mine was in English.
And that was it. On the 17th it was all over, and people were rapidly dispersing to wherever they’d come from or to wherever they were going to next. For Ajahn Manapo and I it would be Burma next and so that afternoon we set off by car for Bangkok to be ready for our flight to Mandalay the next day.