When one enters into a forest monastery, whether Thai or Burmese or Sri Lankan, one understands pretty quickly that they’ve entered into a new social structure. It’s not unlike a martial arts dojo: it has ranks of dewey-eyed initiates, a cadre of seasoned long-term students, and then the master or masters at the top.
The Sangha of monastics is set up as a hierarchy based solely on the amount of time in robes. Not meditative attainments, or skill in speaking, or even experience in management. Just straightforward seniority. Still, in practice, this amount of time reflects a certain mental stability one needs to last that long, as well as experience, wisdom, and possibly even insight into the higher truths. Such experienced monastics are leaders in their communities by default. They’ve come to see what works and what doesn’t in the most important setting: human life.
These senior monastics are known as Acariyā, the pāli word for Teacher. This is shortened to Ajahn in Thailand. Founded on their experience in dhamma practice, they seem to be holding a dozen roles at once: spiritual seeker, politician, community leader, master of ceremonies, black belt master, keeper of lore, wise old hermit … the list goes on and on. When some function is desperately needed, often the Ajahn is the first pick to step into the role.
Students arrive at the monastery because they recognize or believe in some wholesome, enlightened qualities in these ajahns. And, like any martial arts student, new monks must submit themselves to the teacher’s judgement if they have any hope of learning how to get those qualities for themselves. This relationship of having students and subordinates doesn’t change the Ajahn in any outward way. If someone comes up to you and says you are their teacher, it hasn’t changed a single molecule in your body. The Ajahn cannot give or take but only points the way. They can describe what worked for them and offer advice; they can even devise whole training regimens. But whether they have one student or a thousand, the work that needs to be done to arouse the unarisen wholesome qualities is almost entirely up to the student.
There are psychic powers of the mind, the Buddha says, and there is the miracle we call instruction. Of these the second is the greater. With the voice and example of another as condition previously unknown dhamma may arise in one’s heart. Ignorance can be shattered and craving can be extinguished. With the arising of Right View the student will be set on a certain course of development.
To attain Right View the student must be willing to accept their role. Whether the Ajahn praises or scorns one shouldn’t matter, nor whether they are liked or despised. Not all the training methods will work and the student will almost always have failures and crises of faith. Yet if the student’s quest is true they will endure their training no matter what comes up. This is an extension of the Refuge in Buddha – the teacher’s wholesome qualities are real, and they can be attained. All that remains is to find the path to them.
So it is that when one enters the monastery, one comes to see how much the junior monastics are studying their Ajahns. It almost takes on a flavor of military discipline. No decision gets made even on the slightest matter without direct or implied consent from the Ajahn. How do we bow? Watch the Ajahn. How do we arrange the sitting mats? Watch the Ajahn. When do we start eating, when do we stop, how much do we chew? Watch the Ajahn. (There is literally a sutta where a student of the Buddha counts how many times the Buddha chews each mouthful – three).
It’s no wonder that in such a culture the Ajahn takes on almost mythical status. In some communities they are treated less like dictators and more like spiritual rock stars. In Thailand, full color biographies of these teachers are published at the time of their deaths as gifts and mementos to be passed out at the funeral. Each biography is a seed of a legend that grows around the figure as their physical form passes away, though for most the stories and projections are well underway before then. Even in a culture of such prestige, though, the good Ajahns remain unchanged. The dhamma and the process of seeing it are immune to gains, honor, and fame.
Understanding this unmoving nature of the dhamma and stability of a good teacher is to understand what enlightenment is. The Ajahn doesn’t become special, mighty, powerful or gifted just for surviving a long time. Yet they have seen much, endured much, understood much. What the Ajahn has attained through years of diligent practice is, in a way, normalcy. The Ajahn is finally normal. Normal when they are happy, normal when they are sad, normal when they are rested, normal when they are tired. That normalcy shows the rest of us how desperately manic and disorderly we actually are.
This is why the Ajahn, no matter how much they are idolized or emulated, cannot give one enlightenment. There is no quicker way than to teach one to personally walk the path. The Ajahn and the hierarchical structure of the sangha represents the truth of training that this practice shapes one over time. One doesn’t become normal by getting and attaining things; normalcy isn’t acquired at once or overnight. It’s not reached through fasting or days-long meditation marathons. Not by frantically, minutely directing one’s mind nor by completely releasing it to run unrepressed. This isn’t catharsis. It’s the slow process of maturation.
As seekers, we begin by looking to our teachers and questioning them and emulating them – in the end this too has to be let go of. It is not normal to always be second-guessing our own decisions or deferring to another. It’s not normal to doubt our own process and strive to be like someone else. It’s certainly not normal to blame another for our own shortcomings and failures. More importantly it’s not what the Ajahn did. The teacher became who they were by bringing the dhamma inside and learning to chart their own course. They accepted responsibility for their actions and changed what was in their power to change.
At first we need guidance, for if we were capable of figuring it out on our own we wouldn’t be suffering when we arrive at the monastery. But sooner or later the outward glances and internal, “Am I doing this right???” has to fall away. Trust and knowledge arise and the question turns into a statement: “This is the right way.”
When this happens it is as though the Ajahn has come inside and from that point we always have our teacher with us. Not in a schizophrenic multiple-personality way, but as a sense of direction and purpose that is independent of others or circumstances. At that point our habits and views are no different from the Ajahn’s habits and views, so there is no need for the distinction between master and student.
Reverend Heng Sure, a western disciple of the late Chan Master Hua, tells a story along these lines. One day in his early training he awoke to a feeling of intense dread. He wasn’t sure what it was or where it was coming from but he was certain he had done something wrong. He poured over his memories to think of what it could be – a chant mispronounced, a chore neglected, a faux pas committed? He wasn’t sure what it was but he was certain he was in the wrong.
So it was when he came before his teacher, Master Hua, Heng Sure immediately felt an aura of dissatisfaction emanating from his teacher. Master Hua seemed to glare accusingly at Heng Sure and it caused him to want to shrink inside himself. Heng Sure had hardly gotten in the room when his teacher shouted his name.
Without waiting for the admonition, Heng Sure dove to his knees before his teacher, bowing and apologizing. He didn’t even know what he was apologizing for but still he begged for forgiveness. He kept bowing at his teacher’s feet for a long minute until he realized the room was silent. Cautiously looking up, he was surprised to see not a look of anger on Master Hua’s face, but one of complete beatific compassion.
“Ohhhh…”, Master Hua said knowingly. “Heng Sure. You see the dhamma as a policeman.”
That was all. The whole incident was a teaching. Heng Sure had done nothing wrong in actuality, but since his view wasn’t yet ‘Right’, he nevertheless wasn’t free from guilt and suffering. The teacher is good and important and a refuge, but ultimate release doesn’t come from garnering the praise and satisfaction of our teacher, or by avoiding their wrath. Ultimate release has to come when we look at our own conduct and know it is in line with the dhamma. At that point Heng Sure’s teacher was still outside himself.
If we see our Ajahn as a father figure or a policeman we will miss the reality of their compassion. They aren’t really any of the roles we impose on them though they accept those roles to allow us as students to grow. When the dhamma has taken hold, all the roles fall away. There is no teacher and no student, only the path.
When we look at the structure of the Sangha and the roles of our teachers, it’s important to discern this process. The authority and the hierarchy are tools to bring about the miracle of instruction. Once this miracle has occurred and the dhamma has taken root in the student, the tools are not needed in that case. The structures are transcended. But they are not useless tools when one considers there will always be more students coming to seek their own freedom from suffering. So the wise teachers and students use the tools and structures of training and preserve them for future generations.
Thus the Ajahns and their many roles have continued through the centuries, and will continue for many more. This is the method behind what otherwise seems like cultural baggage or dusty traditions. This process continues because it works. The desperation and submission of the student and the firmness of the teacher are all pieces, but it is all for the purpose of bringing the student forward into the dhamma. You can’t arrive at the end without having started at the beginning. When it’s achieved though the student sees the Ajahn wasn’t half the things their mind imprinted on them, yet at the same time they were something great. They hold us steady until we are ready to stand on our own. Then, when the dhamma comes inside, everything seems worth it.