Monday, February 10, 2014

Interviewing Buddhist Women: Miskaman Rujavichai

Brooke Schedneck

Miskaman Rujavichai at Wat Pa Baan Taad

Miskaman Rujavichai is a disciple of the well-known Thai monk, the late Luang Ta Maha Boowa [1] (1913–2011). Since 1982 she has lived at the temple he founded, Wat Pa Baan Taad [Baan Taad Forest Monastery], where he was abbot for many years. I met Miskaman while doing research for my dissertation on international meditation communities in Thailand. At the monastery an international group would meet once a week with English-speaking monks who were giving Dhamma talks. Miskaman was one of the friendly faces in this group who helped the international guests. I kept a research website called Wandering Dhamma for my findings, and Miskaman kept in touch by commenting on the site and emailing me when new developments in the international group at Wat Pa Baan Taad developed. I asked Miskaman to tell me more about her memories of Luang Ta Maha Boowa and how she came to live at that temple. At first she did not want to reveal this information, telling me of other women she considered better practitioners. I convinced her however, that her story was interesting for Sakyadhita blog readers.

Brooke: When did you start to live at Wat Pa Baan Taad and why?

Miskaman: I had practiced at Wat Pa Baan Taad for some time before I left my home and work for full-time practice in 1982. Because of both spiritual, as well as worldly circumstances (being transferred to an office abroad), I finally understood Luang Ta Maha Boowa’s words to me: “Life is like driving—when you come to a crossroad you must decide whether to go straight or turn.” So I decided to make a change and live at Wat Pa Baan Taad. Originally I was impressed by Venerable Bhuridatta Maha Thera (Luang Pu Mun) [2] and his lineage of forest practice [aranyavasi in Pali]. I then came to know several of his disciples and they told me about Luang Ta Maha Boowa, who was a part of Luang Pu Mun’s lineage and had served as his long-time assistant.

My favorite of these disciples was Venerable Ajahn Chuan, who took me out for dhutanga (ascetic) training in the forest hills of Phu Thok. He told me Tan Ajahn Maha Boowa [3] was enlightened with great wisdom, but that he was terribly strict and straightly steadfast to the rules of monasticism [Vinaya]. After Venerable Ajahn Chuan’s death by plane crash in 1980, I felt lost and [felt that I] had to go to a strict teacher, so I chose Wat Pa Baan Taad and Luang Ta Maha Boowa.

Luang Ta Maha Boowa
warmkapok via Compfight cc
Brooke: What was your first encounter with Luang Ta Maha Boowa like?

Miskaman: Before meeting Luang Ta Maha Boowa, I had read many of his books, including his biography of Luang Pu Mun. I had been his “disciple by mail” as well, writing him many questions about meditation practices. But I didn’t know his face yet as there were no pictures in Dhamma books at that time. One day a fellow practitioner said we’d better stop over at Wat Pa Baan Taad and see Luang Ta Maha Boowa, as we were in the area. The night before, I dreamt about my favorite grandmother who passed away when I was young. In the dream she was in the yellow robes of an old monk, and she smiled at me while she chewed betel nuts. As soon as we went to see Luang Ta Maha Boowa in his kuti [hut], he was sitting there with betel nuts in his mouth and a tin plate beside him. He turned to us, smiling in greeting—just like my grandmother in the dream. Therefore, my first encounter with Luang Ta was one of paternal warmth—but he was very strict also!

Brooke: How did he teach you and direct your practice?

Miskaman: During the first decade I was at Wat Pa Baan Taad, Luang Ta treated female disciples similar to his male monk disciples. The only exception was that we could cook. I felt like the system was similar to the time of the Buddha when laywomen went to spend a week or two at the monastery in solitude, taking eight precepts, with candlelight at night, without tap water, and living on monks’ leftover food. At that time, food was usually arranged by the monks in charge and brought to each lay kuti by villagers. We also learned from Luang Ta Maha Boowa that if one was fussy, the food was meager and tasteless, but for one who practiced well, the food was special and delicious. There was also enough food left over for the villagers who came to bring back the food trays to wash. In this way we were taught to develop our sati [awareness].

Luang Ta Maha Boowa would give a preaching in the morning after the meal and/or in the afternoon in the sala [meeting hall] when visitors came. He also let us listen to tape cassettes of his preaching while we practiced. Each female disciple stayed in one assigned kuti equipped with a meditation walkway. We were not allowed to mingle with others. We’d see other women meditators at the food-offering stalls in the morning or in the sala if there was a preaching. In the women’s quarters there were both small kutis for single people and large ones for many. If we were assigned a single kuti by Luang Ta Maha Boowa that meant we had to concentrate on practice and not talk at all with others. If we were assigned a large one that meant we should meet others and get to know new friends.

In general, Luang Ta Maha Boowa taught his disciples by preaching and giving talks. We were to take every word from him, whether [he was] speaking to us or others, as our lesson. But his Dhamma could come by other means such as tape cassettes, books, and even hearing others talking Dhamma, as he would use other’s voices to speak to us. Usually he would walk around the temple to inspect monks and laity at practice. He would even watch over the animals at scattered feeders throughout the temple. If any meditator had problems in practice, he would happen to appear and say something or nothing—all had meaning. His eyes glancing or looking at you, or not looking at you also told something. I learned from foreign monks that this was also the way Luang Ta Maha Boowa taught them—without words. His eyes, glances, and gestures did the teaching. So there was no language barrier in teaching, if one was willing to learn.

Brooke: What is your daily life like at Wat Pa Baan Taad?

Miskaman: We’re supposed to follow a strict schedule of sleeping only four hours, usually from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Then we get up to meditate and perhaps do morning chants until 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. After this we can start preparing food for offerings, but this is optional. If we don’t help prepare the food, we can go on meditating until it’s time to go to the main hall for the preaching, and then we can take our meal back to our kuti. Here at Wat Pa Baan Taad, morning and evening chants are individual and we are taught to do this by heart in order not to disturb others’ meditation. We’re to have sati [awareness] at all times as this develops both good samadhi [concentration] and panna [wisdom], and also prevents meditators from behaving incorrectly.

There’s also nature to deal with in this forest monastery. In the rainy season there are broken branches and tree falls. There are other beings like squirrels, chipmunks, rats and mice, lizards, geckos, snakes, frogs, toads, bees, stingflies, itching worms, rabbits, chickens, and peacocks as well. We take care of the feeders for these creatures and help separate them from fighting and killing. There’s also Dhamma coming up while dealing with them. In the afternoons during sweeping we should remember how Luang Ta Maha Boowa taught us to sweep away leaves without picking up any dust in accordance with the wind direction of each season. Luang Ta Maha Boowa said the kilesas [defilements] are both rough and subtle. We must learn these subtleties in order to deal with the subtle kilesas.

Brooke: What are your relationships with the other women in the temple? As a senior member of the community, do you have any special role to help out new members?

Miskaman: Relationships with other women in the quarters rest on the basis of friendliness and mutual help, but there is no mingling. We’re taught to control our senses, which is very important for women living together—watching only our citta [mind, heart] and our own behavior. If there is a new visitor assigned to our kuti, we show them beds and blankets, bathroom, meditation walks, and orient them to the daily schedule. It used to be that Luang Ta Maha Boowa and then the “key manager” monk would take turns each week being in charge of taking care of the monastery and meditators, assigning visitors to kutis. In the old days when there weren’t so many English-speaking people, I used to be assigned to help foreign visitors, but now there are many younger generations who can do this so I only have to practice.

Brooke: What is your relationship with the international group at Wat Pa Baan Taad?

Miskaman: It's not my duty or assignment, but I do help the monks with the translation, printing, and publication of Dhamma books in English when requested. There are now other women of younger generations who have better capabilities. Remember I’m now approaching seventy!

[1] Luang Ta Maha Boowa was a monk for seventy-seven years and is widely regarded as an arahant (an enlightened being). He was a disciple of the esteemed forest master, Luang Pu Mun, and was himself considered a master in the Thai Forest Tradition.
[2] Ajahn Mun is credited, along with his mentor, Ajahn Sao, with establishing the Thai Forest Tradition, which strongly emphasizes direct experience through meditation practice and strict adherence to monastic rules (Vinaya). Forest monasteries are primarily oriented around practicing the Buddha’s path of contemplative insight, including living a life of discipline, renunciation, and meditation.
[3] Tan Ajahn is a reverential term for addressing a senior monk or an abbot.

Brooke Schedneck: Lecturer

Brooke Schedneck is lecturer in Buddhist studies at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiangmai University, Thailand. She holds a PhD in Asian Religions from Arizona State University. Her main scholarly interests include the intersection of Buddhism and modernity, as well as the emerging global Buddhist landscape. Her most recent project explores the history of modern vipassana meditation, specifically investigating Thailand’s international meditation centers. The title of her monograph through Routledge’s series Contemporary Asian Religions is Thailand’s International Meditation Centers: Tourism and the Global Commodification of Religious Practices. She has been published in the Buddhist Studies Review, the Pacific World Journal, the Journal of Contemporary Religion and Contemporary Buddhism and maintains a research website called Wandering Dhamma.

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