A short introduction to understanding the long topic of “dos and don’ts” for well intended practitioners taking up monastic training at Wat Pah Nanacht by Ajahn Chandako (Vimutti Monastery, New Zealand) :
What we’re referring to when we speak of Korwat is the monastic etiquette and protocol. Sometimes these details of the monastic form are derived straight from the Vinaya texts; sometimes they refer to how a particular rule is interpreted and practiced; sometimes they concern the body of customs and traditions that comprise the lifestyle of a forest monk in Thailand; and sometimes they refer to the agreed ways of doing things in a particular community. As all these play a central and practical role in the daily life of Buddhist monastics, our relationship to the korwat is a key factor in our Dhamma practice.
The Buddha himself created thousands of rules and regulations to guide and train his monastic Sangha. Luang Pu Mun could be meticulously demanding in the level of korwat practice he expected from his disciples. The most successful training monasteries in the Thai Forest Tradition – for example those of Luang Por Maha Bua, Luang Por Chah, Luang Por Ben, tended to have a very refined standard of monastic etiquette. Why is it that these liberated beings are so concerned with all these minute details? Surely the Buddha and his foremost disciples, once having realized the ultimate mental freedom of Nibbana, could have chosen to behave however they liked, unrestricted by mundane codes of conduct. And yet these great monks and nuns instead preserved and followed these conventions of action and speech with utmost dedication, both during the Buddha’s lifetime and after his parinibbana. In fact it was the comment from the old monk (though recently ordained) Ven. Subhato that prompted Ven. Maha Kassapa to convene the First Council. Subhato seemed to be of the opinion that the Buddha was compulsively obsessed with instituting an over abundance of picky little rules. Ven. Maha Kassapa, recognizing the potential danger for the Sangha if such attitudes grew more widespread, was moved to codify the Sutta and Vinaya Pitika out of compassion for future generations. Why is it then that korwat is held in such high esteem by these eminent teachers?
Our actions, reactions and interactions moment to moment in the usual unspectacular activities of daily life are precisely the spots where Dhamma and Vinaya are woven together into the tapestry of the Buddhist monastic life. In the details of korwat the immaterial Dhamma manifests in behavior and speech. Conventional and ultimate reality have a chance to blend in a balanced way that is neither too theoretical nor too worldly.
As in a typical old martial arts story an idealistic new arrival approaches a great master and enthusiastically express his desire to become a great fighter. The master grunts and gives him a broom to sweep the refectory. “What! I came here to learn the secret abilities of a warrior, not to sweep like a servant!” The Forest Tradition is similar. Realizing the fruits of jhana, suññata and nirodha grow from roots imbedded in the soil of knowing how to keep one’s kuti simple and tidy.
If you envision the realization of Nibbana as the blooming of a rose, the korwat is the garden trellis that gives the vines and leaves of Dhamma a framework to grasp, assisting the bush to grow tall and lifting it off the ground. Without a trellis the flowers may still bloom, but when it rains they easily get splashed with mud.
The Krooba Ajahns in the lineage of Luang Pu Mun regularly emphasized the importance of korwat in their Dhamma talks to the Sangha. Without an understanding of Thai one would understandably not realize the extent to which they refer to and encourage it, because such instruction is often considered too prosaic or mundane to be worthy of putting in print in a foreign language. However for Luang Por Chah and his contemporaries the high Dhamma and the banal were like the top and bobbin thread in a treadle sewing machine. Consider the old saying of the Forest Sangha, “If you want to know how the monks are practicing, look at their toilets.” Luang Por’s Dhamma flows seamlessly from anatta to the spittoons.
Generally speaking, those teachers who placed an emphasis on refined korwat tended to have a greater number of high quality disciples than those that didn’t. Through observing his disciples’ korwat and acariya vatta (the duties to one’s teacher), the Krooba Ajahn will know their temperaments and kilesas, see who is eager to learn and easy to train and get an indication of how entrenched their sense of self is.
How then does korwat function to support the realization of Dhamma? One of the main objectives is to develop sati, a continuous, heightened and focused awareness. Through refining our behavior we foster a refined attention to detail. Because of the huge number of details governing nearly every act from pre-dawn to post-dusk, a person undertaking the training – especially in the beginning – has to pay attention to everything he is doing. Mindfulness is generated through being aware at all times what is happening, remembering what is appropriate for that situation and then doing it. Korwat specially assists in developing a broad all around circumspection that is sensitive to the entire situation we find ourselves in, encompassing not only our own body and mind but also the significant things happening around us. For highly educated and intelligent people korwat offers an opportunity to get out of one’s head and pay attention to how one’s body is moving and relating to the things and living beings it comes in contact with.
Another purpose of korwat is to develop diligence and energy. It counteracts the tendency to do things half-heartedly or in a sloppy way. The defilement of laziness is a great hindrance to mental cultivation and a clearly outlined schedule or standard of training encourages us to rise up and raise energy event after event. Through developing external habits of diligence in action, we simultaneously develop corresponding habits of bright, uplifting and energetic mind states. The monastic form can, sometimes surprisingly, push us past our perceived limits of energy, surpassing the efforts we would achieve on our own.
Korwat is a stabilizer. We just do it, whether we feel like it or not. As Luang Por Chah taught, “If you’re feeling diligent, then do it. If you’re feeling lazy, then do it.” Whether feeling inspired or depressed, bouncing with energy or lethargy like a full python, we just keep following the routine, doing the appropriate things at the appropriate times. If our heads are floating in the cirrus clouds of Dhamma, korwat can bring us back to earth. And because even following the korwat with minimal enthusiasm requires some focused energy, it can function as a safety net that prevents us from falling into the depth of an immobilizing state of depressed apathy. Sometimes just cleaning our kuti and sweeping around it can improve a bad mood. Even better is sweeping public paths within the monastery.
In an average day in the monastery there are innumerable ways of creating puñña, merit and developing paramis. This puñña is a fuel that powers us on, and it is helpful to have a continuous fresh influx. Take bowing for example. Luang Por Chah taught his disciples to bow to the shrine every time we enter and leave a dwelling. Each bow is a small act, but as the years go by the cumulative wholesome kamma generated becomes a powerful and positive force in our lives. Whether the motivation behind the bows is simply to overcome the laziness of the “Oh, it doesn’t matter” attitude or we are sincerely moved to lower our bodies with reverence and gratitude toward the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, these tiny drops of good kamma gradually fill up an ocean. Serving a senior monk with the acariya vatta or serving the community in some way are also great sources of puñña and parami. Always on the lookout, thinking “How can I help others?” is an attitude which evokes much happiness and energy. Doing even small acts of service motivated by kindness and consideration for others is bound to open the heart and create self respect. With hundreds of these tiny but significant intentional actions we can nip kilesas in the bud by not giving in to the desire to take short cuts, indulge or act out of aversion.
Another aspect of the korwat intended to subdue kilesas is maintaining consistency between behavior in public and in private. We may be willing to follow through with a particular activity if we are aware that others are watching but when alone easily let the standard slip. Achieving this consistency develops a sense of self-reliance and motivation that is independent of the eyes and opinions of others. A helpful aid in this area is to develop the perception that we are always in our teacher’s presence. Even when alone we can imagine a Krooba Ajahn there with us and ask ourselves, “How would I behave if he were here watching me?” It is also a realistic possibility that at any given time discerning devas are observing our behavior. (Check Devata Samyutta SN 1, 2, for examples)
The korwat teaches us to respect our requisites. We develop a sense of care. Those things that we rely on to maintain life and that offer a moderate degree of comfort have all been offered by the lay supporters, so we have a responsibility to look after those things. In order not to be an excessive burden on the lay community we should live frugally. Whether something belongs to the Sangha, (such as a kuti, books, or tools) or it is a personal possession (such as one’s bowl and robes) we try to care for these items in a way that will make them last as long as possible. This may mean, for example, that we wash our jiwon gently, not roughly; hang it in the sun only for as long as necessary; fold it neatly and store it in a safe place; and when it wears thin, patch it before requesting a new one. Even if requisites are plentiful, a samana takes only what is necessary and cares for it as if it was something precious. As the saying goes, “Treat your almsbowl as if it were the Buddha’s head.” Korwat helps us to be more aware and respectful of sacred spaces, for example not going bare-chested in a meditation hall. Ven. Maha Kassapa was praised by the Buddha as an example worthy of emulation in regards to his relationship with the four requisites. (See Kassapa – Samyutta, SN 17)
Meticulously caring for our requisites takes mindfulness. It also trains us to be considerate of others. If we know that other people will use our kuti and blanket after we have finished with them, then we can make an extra effort to make sure the candles don’t melt on the cloth or burn the kuti floorboards. The responsibility to care for things is even greater when we are looking after someone else’s requisites. If we are assigned to take care of an ajahn’s robes and bowl, we need to be sensitive.
Having a clear monastic form is a way that a diverse collection of individuals can live together as a harmonious community. There are many small rules in areas where it doesn’t particularly matter if we do things one way or another. But once a community makes a decision to proceed in a particular way, it then carries the same weight as a minor regulation of the Vinaya, and it is very helpful if everyone follows that decision. Fitting in with the form is one part of learning how to blend in with and be in sync with the people around us. We learn how to take responsibility for how our behavior affects others, and become more aware of their needs. If people see everyone in the community keeping the same korwat, mutual trust is fostered.
Self-sacrifice is at the heart of our practice. Ultimately we sacrifice identification with the five khandhas, but in the beginning it may simply entail the renunciation of the ego-centric idea of freedom: the desire to do things the way “I” want to do them, when and where “I” want to do them, the desire to control my surroundings in accordance with what “I” think is right. Monastic form entails a great degree of conformity. No one is advocating blind obedience. Opinions are welcome, but whenever the sense of self is sacrificed, the result is an increase in humility, a beautiful character trait. As Tan Ajahn Dtun advises:
“Try to follow the korwat practices we’ve established. Korwat is Dhamma-Vinaya for living in communal peace. When we all understand practice in the same way, problems don’t arise in the community. All of us have the kilesa of ditthi-mana, self-importance expressed in views and opinions, but why are we practicing?—in order to be victorious over kilesa, to destroy the kilesa in our hearts. For this reason, when we live together as a community, korwat and a regular routine arise. If everyone follows the korwat and routine at the monastery they’re at, there’s not much that needs to be said. That monastery will be peaceful. That monastery will assist one in cultivating bhavana. Twenty or thirty monks can live together in silence, peace and impeccability. Bhavana will keep developing, and growth in Dhamma will continually deepen. Because Dhamma-Vinaya and the various korwat practices are the core of our way of life, when everyone follows the same routine, there’s the peace of sila: the body’s at peace; speech is at peace.
But try going to a monastery that already has a routine and saying, ‘I’m going to do things my way. I’m not going to follow the korwat. I’m going to do things the way I want. The korwat here is wrong.’ We stay at that monastery following the kilesas in our hearts. How can we expect to derive any benefit?”
Practically speaking life just becomes much simpler when everyone is following the same monastic form. It actually frees us from the burden of choice – having to continually wonder how we should do something. It frees space in the mind to focus on citta-bhavana, maintaining our object or theme of meditation throughout daily activities. Knowing how to proceed outwardly, more of our mind’s energy can focus inwardly. There is a special atmosphere in communities where everyone is diligent in following the korwat. It helps to create an unseen but tangible focused group energy that is conducive to tranquility and effort.
Our surroundings inevitably condition our mental landscape to some degree; so if externally everything is clean, tidy and well organized our mind states will lean in the same direction. As in the Zen aesthetic, a minimum of clutter and a refined attention to detail can create a serene and beautiful atmosphere – inwardly as well as outwardly. When a well trained Sangha comes together for the meal, dana service or a puja, interaction flows as smoothly as well-oiled and precisely gauged intermeshing gears. Or as Tan Ajahn Jayasaro envisioned, a tightly coordinated crew of experienced sailors guiding a clipper ship through the sea. Luang Por Chah used the simile of a millipede. Rather than all those hundreds of legs tripping over each other, they ripple gracefully to propel the critter along.
This is, of course, the ideal – an admirable level of human cooperation that is sometimes achieved. But even when it’s not achieved, the monastic form can offer unique opportunities to learn and gain experience. This brings us to the next benefit and function of korwat. It’s a means for getting to know ourselves better. This clearly outlined framework tests our reactions. It reveals attachments, strengths and weaknesses and indicates where we are stuck. It’s a mirror for reflecting our moods and character traits. What states of mind does korwat bring to the surface? Exuberance? Resistance? Serenity? Obsessive fault finding? Overwhelmed? Fearful clinging? Determination? Exasperation?
As with intensive meditation, daily contact with the same people can bring up an entire host of mental states. Rather than assuming that those states arise due to some other person or the korwat, with sati we can simply know and acknowledge whatever emotions have arisen. We accept them fully without denying or pretending that they are not present and make an effort to replace negative states of mind with positive ones.
Becoming familiar with our kilesas is sometimes not a pleasant realization, not a pretty sight. Though we may aspire to be mature, caring and wise, beyond our control our minds may become lost in their opposites. Some people discover that they are preoccupied with controlling and may become harshly judgmental both towards themselves and others. Some people find they are addicted to comfort. Some become wrought with fear, worried about making the slightest mistake and what others will then think. For some, korwat stimulates authority issues and rebellious reactions against their perceived tyrannical oppressors. Others just burn in the fire of their self-righteous anger. The important thing is to recognize what is happening, not buying into or fully believing what our thoughts are telling us. Keep it in perspective with a centered awareness. Hating our kilesas only makes it worse.
Even if the mind becomes swamped by vile emotions, this is not necessarily a sign that we are practicing Dhamma incorrectly. It simply may be part of the process of receiving the fruits of past kamma. It’s essential not to compound negative mind states with self-critical blame. “It’s hopeless. I’m a spiritual failure.” Anytime we are practicing in the right way and going against an entrenched habit of kilesa, it’s normal that some tension will arise. This is the friction between the old, deluded perceptions and the new, wise ones. We need to be patient with ourselves. We need to have a lot of compassion for our suffering. If however, anxiety becomes chronic, then we need to check how we are approaching the lifestyle in general. Perfectionist tendencies easily lead to tension. Overly idealistic expectations or projections easily lead to disappointment. We take on this lifestyle and gradually discover what motivates us. When filled with inspiration, ask “Why?” When resistance is felt, ask “Why?” When experiencing dukkha, ask “What am I clinging to?”
As korwat is designed to go against the stream of desire, it’s natural that at times it may feel uncomfortable. As Luang Por Chah taught:
If we take a good look at our monastic training discipline, we’ll see that the whole thing is about training the heart. And whenever we train the heart, we feel hot and bothered. As soon as we’re hot and bothered we start to complain, “Boy, this practice is incredibly difficult! It’s impossible.” But the Buddha didn’t think like that. He considered that when the training was causing us heat and friction, that meant we were on the right track. We don’t think that way. We think it’s a sign that something is wrong. This misunderstanding is what makes the practice seem so arduous. In the beginning we feel hot and bothered, so we think that we are off track. Everyone wants to feel good, but they are less concerned about whether it’s right or not. When we go against the grain of defilements and challenge our cravings, of course we feel suffering. We get hot, upset, and bothered and then quit. We think we’re on the wrong path. The Buddha, however, would say we’re getting it right. We’re confronting our defilements, and they are what’s getting hot and bothered. But we think it’s us who’re hot and bothered. The Buddha taught that it’s the defilements that get stirred up and upset. It’s the same for everyone.
The kilesas of clever people can create convincingly intelligent reasons for not following the korwat. Some common pitfalls of thought and attitude to watch out for are:
“It’s just conventional reality. The goal is liberation, not regulation.”
“Maybe young men from the Isaan countryside need such strict guidelines, but we as educated individuals are mature enough to make our own decisions on how we should behave.”
“The senior monks are fascist dictators on a power trip.”
“Korwat is silabataparamassa, attachment to rites and rituals, and is an obstacle to Nibbana.”
“Get real! This is the 21st century.”
“You can practice how you want, but please allow me to practice how I want. The Buddha gave us 84,000 ways to enlightenment.”
“I follow most of the korwat, so I don’t see what’s wrong with doing a few things differently.”
“Just be mindful and everything is alright, you know. Don’t worry about all those details. Just relax.”
The ways of the mind are tricky, and korwat is a fertile ground for growing reactions. Again, if such ideas arise, recognize them as thoughts subject to arising and passing away. Challenge them, neither blindly believing, nor blindly rejecting them. Hold them with a spacious mind and question their validity with Luang Por Chah’s universal standard of verification: “Mai nae” (It’s not sure. possibly it’s true and possibly not).
Korwat is a tool, and like any tool it can be used skillfully or unskillfully. If it is used with skill and dexterity, it can be of great benefit. It’s like a hammer. If we want to put a nail into a piece of wood, we have to grasp the hammer. If we don’t grasp it firmly, it’s going to slip out of our hands and hit someone – possibly our self. But to grasp the handle so tightly that our knuckles become white and our hand aches is also absurd. It needs to be grasped firmly but gently. People untrained in carpentry swing a hammer with a lot of muscle power: “whack! whack! whack!” They use a great deal of force and exertion, and in a short time they’re exhausted and have to stop and rest. Experienced carpenters however, let the hammer do the work. Their muscles are more relaxed and their movements graceful. The weight of the hammer, directed with gravitational force and momentum, is what drives the nail. The muscles of the carpenter are more for guidance and direction than for brute force. In order to focus his energy into the head of the nail, he has to pay close attention. If his mind wanders, he’ll hit his thumb. Each stroke necessitates re-establishing mindfulness until the awareness is continuous and sharp. An entire house can be built from thousands of small well placed strokes. So a hammer is very useful and practical. We can also hit our self on the head with it. Some people delight in hitting other people on the head with it. So the korwat is there to be used with wisdom.
There are many opportunities for developing common sense, the most basic level of wisdom. When attending to a senior monk for example, the upatahkshould try to figure out what needs to be done and how to do it successfully, anticipating the needs of the ajahn without having to be told. It takes common sense to responsibly deal with requisites – for example to realize that in Thailand if a blanket, robe or towel is put away when still slightly damp, it will quickly go moldy.
It takes common sense and mindfulness to know how to adapt to a variety of changing situations. Each forest monastery – even within the Luang Por Chah lineage – will have a distinct and slightly different way of doing things. This necessitates flexibility. It doesn’t work to rigidly hold to particular forms of behavior without being sensitive to a new environment with different people. But it also takes wisdom to know what to hang on to. A new situation may only require minor adjustments, so we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the footbath water. If we can maintain our dhutanga practices without offending anyone, then it’s best to do so even if no one else is practicing that way.
The need for wisdom around korwat greatly increases once we step out of the monastic environment – especially outside of Thailand. We try to strike a balance between not inconveniencing people and not giving in to kilesas; between not demanding that other people unfamiliar with our lifestyle cater to our monastic form, and not indulging in the rationalized opportunity to stop behaving like a monk.
Some laypeople would lose faith if they saw a Luang Por Chah disciple eating off of a plate while others would think he was crazy if he didn’t. When we find our self as the lone monastic in a lay environment, upholding the korwat can maintain a comforting connection with the monastery. It’s one of the many things that are designed to set us apart from the world, so that our status as renunciants is regularly kept in mind. This very important way of perceiving ourselves is called samana sañña, the perception of being renunciants who have gone forth from the lay life, no longer dedicated to worldly aims and values.
Upholding the korwat in unfamiliar situations is a challenge. If we can explain our lifestyle in a way that is sensible, acceptable and even humorous, then it’s not necessary to make drastic compromises. Say you are visiting your family for the first time since ordaining. The main point of the visit is to cultivate relationships of loving kindness, not to force your mother to learn the Pali formula for guppying fruit. Some parents do find it interesting to gradually learn to be part of our lifestyle, but if it looks like following the korwat would lead to unnecessary tension in the family then it’s best to adapt with a smile. There is room for flexibility within the minor regulations, but even in extenuating circumstances, we should try to uphold all of the rules in the patimokkha. Another main reason of going home to visit is to give our family and friends the opportunity to see a samana – someone dedicated to enlightenment. Without attempting to verbally instruct anyone, simply upholding the korwat and dhutanga practices can be a teaching which makes a deep impression on people. It is worthy of respect.
Wherever we find ourselves, it takes much wisdom to walk down the center of the path. Avoiding the extremes of, on one hand, a lazy, lackadaisical, and complaining attitude; and on the other hand, a tense, compulsive and critical attitude which leads to chronic stress. A discerning use of korwat clearly comprehends its purpose and goal as a skillful means. If we only go through the motions, we are merely re-conditioning our behavior with little or no spiritual benefit. We have to reflect, “Why do I follow the korwat?” or “Why don’t I follow the korwat?” There may be wholesome and unwholesome reasons for both. We’ve got to investigate over and over the reciprocal cause and effect relationships between our actions, speech and states of mind. If we aspire to a mind of peace and freedom, what type of behavior leads in that direction?
This code of conduct that we teach at Wat Pah Nanachat is only one shade of color in the entire spectrum of the Buddha’s training. In that light it is helpful to keep the whole kaleidoscopic vision in perspective, neither underplaying nor overpaying its significance. This is foundation work for sure, but work that can directly confront kilesas and that pays off in the long run. The body of regulations that the tradition hands us is a skeleton. It’s up to us to flesh it out with the muscles of samadhi, a heart of metta and eyes of wisdom.
In the end we follow the korwat out of faith. Faith that the Buddha was enlightened and that he did in fact create the etiquette in the Vinaya. Faith that our Krooba Ajahn’s know what they are talking about. Faith, love and reverence for our mentors such that simply because they did things in a particular way and recommended we do the same, we do it. We just do it because our teachers did. This is more of a ‘heart’ quality than a function of intellect. Sometimes a disciple feels so much respect and affection for his teachers that something as simple as following their korwat can make him feel closer to them – especially if they are living far away or have already died. Each little observance is transformed into a puja. It is a ritual that connects us through time to the generation before generation of monastics who have practiced in this way - right back to the Buddha himself. It bonds us through space to all of our good friends and mentors in the Sangha spread around the globe. Through upholding the korwat, we inherit and carry on the tradition. With the right motivation and persistent effort we become inspiring examples for other monks, for the lay community and models of integrity, impeccability and peace for the world at large.
As the Cullavagga concludes:
Being imperfect in following the korwat,
one does not perfect sila.
Impure in sila, of poor wisdom,
one never knows unification of mind.
With a wavering mind, ununified,
the Dhamma is not seen correctly.
Not seeing the true Dhamma,
one is not liberated from dukkha.
Being perfect in following the korwat,
one perfects sila.
Pure in sila, wise,
one knows unification of mind.
With an unwavering mind, unified,
the Dhamma is seen correctly.
Beholding the true Dhamma,
one is liberated from dukkha.
So the mindful sons of the conqueror
should perfect the protocol
-- the teachings of the best of Buddhas --
and thereby attain Nibbana.