An Interview with a Forest Monk Student

Nov 18, 2021 | Ajahn Kovilo, Essays, Writings

This interview with Ajahn Kovilo – centering around his experience as a monastic university student – took place at Dharma Realm Buddhist University in October of 2021 and was originally published on their website, here.

Venerable Ajahn Kovilo, a fully ordained American monk in the Thai forest tradition for over 10 years, joined the BA program in 2020. He did his first meditation retreat at age 20 and discovered that observing his mind was a whole other level of education that went much deeper than the academic classes. He dropped out and eventually life led him to the monastery.  Now he’s back in school! Read more about his journey below:

Q: Did your parents impact you or plant some seeds in your spiritual aspiration when you grew up?

It’s a good question. Yeah, I think so. In addition to being an amazing example of strength and vigor, my mom’s encouragement for us to go to church was quite impactful. She would take us to the local Unitarian church every week, and I think the church’s humanist beliefs and its doctrine of acceptance of other religions had a deep impact on me. The church’s credo was: “Love is the spirit of this church; the quest of truth is its sacrament; and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace is our covenant. And this is our prayer: To seek knowledge in freedom and to help one another.” There’re a lot of service-oriented things in there, a lot of loving kindness. Really good principles there, which I was growing up with; certainly, lots of acceptance of other religions. And if I hadn’t had that, it’s possible that I might not have been open to sitting in a meditation retreat in the first place or reading books from some seemingly foreign tradition.

My dad didn’t go to church, but he had his kind of religion. [It] was kind of not taking himself too seriously. And that, I think, had an effect, too. I think it has had a lasting effect on the way that I’ve taken up my monastic life. In one sense, the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism is very conservative and has a very traditional religious form in one of its most orthodox manifestations, and there are a lot of conforming elements within the tradition. But my dad encouraged us to not take ourselves too seriously, so even though I am a monk and I’ve got to take the role seriously, still I feel it’s very important to hold all these things in a way, which is, at the very least, not fault-finding with others. It has been very life-changing figuring out a way to hold on—to know the principles and the things that I believe in—but not to do it in an overly tight way. So, yeah, I have been deeply affected by both of them. I appreciate the question.

Q: What made you decide to return to college and study at DRBU?

It was in 2020, after I’d been a fully ordained monk for over ten years, that I decided to come to DRBU. For a forest monk in the tradition I ordained in, attending university—even a Buddhist one…even DRBU!—was definitely not the norm. It’s very unusual, actually. I mean, in Thailand, if a monk in the Ajahn Chah tradition decides he wants to go to university, then he is, in some formal sense, no longer considered an Ajahn Chah monk for the period that he’s at the university. That is an overarching decision that the Sangha there made.

Here in America and the West, that decision hasn’t really been so formalized. I think this is mostly just because most Western monks either finished their university studies before ordaining or have no interest in Academia. As far as I know, it’s possible I am the first monk in like 40 years of the Western Sangha that has gone to university, which seems kind of hard to believe.

Deciding to attend DRBU has been a very intentional shift of focus. So far, I have been finding the shared inquiry at DRBU to be much more approachable and interesting than the pedagogy of just memorizing certain facts that is common in many of the traditional monastic universities in Southeast Asia.

I never thought about university for the first ten years being a monk, probably not even once. In 2018 and 2019 while on two different walking pilgrimages with two different monk friends, I came to visit CTTB and attended classes—mostly masters degree classes—at DRBU. And though I was not yet considering attending the University at that time, I was like, this is really interesting. The conversations were really fun, and I appreciated the quality of the questions.

But then, later in 2019, I went and lived in a monastery—an extremely strict meditation monastery in Thailand. The reason I went all the way to this monastery was that in this Burmese tradition they emphasize lots of formal group sitting meditation. So these eight to ten hours a day are in a group format in a meditation hall. That’s a different format from the Thai forest tradition.

Generally, in Thai forest tradition, monks come together for an hour or an hour and a half of group meditation, then go on alms rounds, eat together, and then the rest of the day until evening meditation, we’re off by ourselves at our own huts practicing according to our own inclinations. And that personal practice can be meditation—certainly a lot of monks do spend a lot of their time meditating. But for some monks, it’s study. That’s how I spent a lot of my time. I liked studying in the library according to my own schedule. In a typical Thai forest monastery, the practice is more like a pot, which is just constantly on a simmer.

But in the Burmese monastery, because everyone was meditating in a group format, I found that really helpful. The group practice there was like a container…a pressure cooker, really. In a pressure cooker, you’re sitting for eight hours a day, in a room with the same people every day. It’s like a pressure cooker on medium boil.

Then COVID came, and the Thai government gave instructions that monasteries should no longer meet in a group setting. But still there was the expectation to keep meditating… but there was no container. So my energy got a bit frazzled, and at that point, I started thinking: I want to be a monk for the rest of my life. But this way of practice is not sustainable. If I’m going to be a monk for the rest of my life, and suppose I live another 40 years, then if I’m just in university for four years, it’s not that long of a time. And I will be able to keep my rules in the university. What’s there to lose?

So I wrote and asked for an admissions form. Probably my first serious thought about this was in maybe May of 2020… In August last year (2020), I came back from Thailand and entered into the program. It was a shift of monastic life focus. It’s been insightful in ways which I wouldn’t have even predicted. So yeah, long answer.

Q: Your coming to DRBU seemed to be a big shift in your monastic life within a short time. This is your second year here. What have been the highlights of your life here so far?

Well, I think in one way, the Sanskrit classes and studying Pali on the side with Sean and Lauren. I’d been studying Pali by myself for the whole time I’ve been a monk, basically. But with Sean Kerr to answer all of my questions (and I have so many!), I have made more progress in four or five months than I did in four or five years. Before coming to DRBU, I had my own desultory type of personal study of Pali. But having teachers and fellow Pali/Sanskrit students here has been a highlight. And I hope it continues to be a highlight. I hope to take Sanskrit and Pali for the whole time that I’m in the university in some way or other. Because that’s a skill, which I can take with me after I leave.

Honestly, just figuring out a way to use my time well—both in class and outside of class has been…it’s hard to call that a highlight, because it’s kind of like a diffuse light. But these skills of how to spend long periods of time in a really useful way have been another set of tricks and skillful means, which I feel like I can take with me going on as well.

Q: Have you experienced any difficulties studying another kind of Buddhist tradition?

Oh, for sure. I mean, that’s the hardest. The most challenging classes I have had here at DRBU so far have always been reading Mahayana texts. Like there’s a term which Freud uses called the “narcissism of small differences.” For me, I can read Greek texts or other things for Western classics, or even Indian classics, and not really feel so challenged, but Mahayana texts, there’s so much which is similar enough … but which is slightly different, that my mind has often really felt challenged by those texts. There are a lot of things which are kind of posed as being the right view in Mahayana, which are seemingly framed as wrong views from a Theravada context.

Our first Buddhist Classics class was all on Theravada texts for the first three months. And then we started reading the Prajñāpāramitā. There are some things in that which are very challenging to orthodox Theravada views, like “There is no suffering, no accumulating, no extinction, and no way. And no understanding and no attaining.” I mean, that’s like the exact opposite of the Four Noble Truths, which is like the foundation, the ground, of Theravada Buddhism. Basically, if we were going to have a mantra in Theravada Buddhism, it would be: “There is suffering, there is accumulating; there is extinction, there is a way! And there is understanding and there is attaining!” The exact opposite! So you read these texts, it seems like they’re saying: “No, Theravada is wrong. Theravada is wrong in this way and that way.”

But out of faith in Master Hua and the Dalai Lama, and with the idea that “There is something beneficial here in the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra,” I have kept trying to let go of my biases. I recollect: “These people are wiser than I am, smarter than I am. Find some benefit in this, Kovilo. Maybe I’m not holding this right.” And I could feel it, the attachment. I can feel my attachment to my own view of things. And every time during those classes, studying the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, when I would say something, I would be speaking from this—an attached mind, and it was just painful. Every time I would say something, I would be speaking from this Theravada hardcore view. And it’s like, “Oh, Kovilo, why did you even open your mouth?”

So I try to remember, “Does it not say in Pali Canon: there is nothing which is worthy of clinging to”? And knowing that that’s a fundamental part of the Buddha’s teachings, I can let go a bit. But then, I’d latch on again to some other view, some other certain perspective or certain idea of Theravada right view. And being attached in that way… It didn’t feel good. I mean, I’m suffering. I’m making myself suffer.

For a while, I would chant that text every day in morning meditation. And I was just winding myself up. So yeah, basically I had to get some perspective: “Okay, Kovilo, forget about the body of the text. Just go to the mantra. Can you use the mantra as the heart mantra, the Prajñāpāramitā mantra, gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā (which basically just means ‘Gone gone, thoroughly gone, to enlightenment. Hooray!’). And, yes, I want that. Gone! No attachment! No attachment! No attachment! Awakening! Yes! I can say that over and over.”

So I just took that as my skillful means every time, “Kovilo, when you want to say something in class about how this is wrong view, and the Buddha didn’t teach it, or some stupid thing like that, just recite that mantra instead.” And fortunately, I never said anything vulgar. But I would instead just recite the mantra and, after a while, that attachment did lessen.

But the attachment is still there, and I have been seeing it pop up this semester from time to time studying more Mahayana texts. But as I read more and more—the Sixth Patriarch Sutra for instance—I’m just really loving it. I’m really loving it. Really loving it.

Q: So that propelled me to ask you about the recent CEI (Contemplative Exercise Immersion) and Marty’s talks. What was your experience during the CEI?

I loved that as well. I mean, I came and stayed here at The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas for a few months in late 2007 before I was ordained at Abhayagiri. I was deeply moved seeing the beauty of the bowing process in the [Buddha] Hall and during Guan Yin retreats and probably some Amitabha retreats. And just every day for morning and evening Puja just seeing people who are stronger than I am, more serious practitioners, better meditators just bowing and chanting was deeply moving.

And it was at that time that I started hearing about and maybe even reading about their (Rev. Heng Sure and Dharma Master Heng Chau—a.k.a. Marty) bowing pilgrimage. I’m like, “Okay, these are serious practitioners!” I was a young guy at that time, maybe 25 years old. Young guys are really impressed by heroic, strong, action-adventure archetypes. And during that bowing pilgrimage, Rev. Heng Sure not talking for six years! doing three steps one bow for hundreds of miles! living in a car! eating only one vegan meal a day! not lying down!—these are all like the most hardcore aspects of practice! So I was already impressed with Marty.

As for the practice of bowing, during my fifth year as a monk, I actually asked permission from Ajahn Pasanno, my teacher, to undertake the practice of 100,000 full-length Tibetan prostrations. Every year at Abhayagiri there is a three-month winter retreat, which is usually spent doing sitting and walking meditation. The whole community comes together and does meditation together. And I asked for permission rather than doing the group meditation, to undertake the “preliminary practice” of 100,000 prostrations. It was right before my fifth year as a monk, and that’s kind of a turning point in a monk’s life. You go from being “in dependence” on your teacher to having more freedom of choosing where you live. So I was kind of like, “Okay, I gotta prove that I’ve done some preliminary work. I want to feel like I worked to get these five years in robes.”

In the Tibetan tradition, they call all that bowing a “preliminary practice.” And I’m like, “Okay, I’ve been here at the monastery for a bunch of years and want to have something to show for it. I gotta prove that I haven’t been wasting my time here!” [laughs] And on top of that, bowing so many times would be something which, years later, I could brag about, like in this interview at DRBU, “Yeah, I did 100,000 prostrations!” [laughs again] But during the whole time when I was doing that, none of the other monks were doing it. So I would constantly be in some back room or some corner room or even in the janitor’s closet, doing this bowing meditation. And it’s like 1,111 bows every day for 90 days. That’s just about 100,000 bows. And it was great! I learned a lot.

But as I was doing it, I don’t know if I would have been able to do it if I hadn’t had the psychic support that I got from reading Rev. Heng Sure and Marty’s bowing pilgrimage journals. I read it every day. And that was like, “Okay, I’m not practicing formally with my monks here. But I am kind of, psychically, with these good practitioners, who wrote about their bowing.” So already, I had been doing a lot of bowing before the CEI and was already really impressed with Marty.

So I didn’t find anything challenging about last week’s bowing CEI, because it totally makes sense. And yeah, I could choose what I was bowing to. I thought that was a good idea. The University didn’t try to make it be, “all students have to bow to Amitabha” or something. I probably could have done that. But a lot of students aren’t Buddhist or not inspired by particular Buddhist personages. So I enjoyed the bowing retreat and found it supportive and useful. And it’s not that different from other ways of practice.

Q: Anything you want to add as a closing remark?

As a monk at a university like this that respects monasticism, I feel supported in my introversion, and not be ashamed of it. (smiles) And especially, as an introverted monk, people really give me space. I can come and get my meal or participate in classes and meet with people—one on one or in small group settings outside of class. There’s like this acceptance of one another in this program. I’m really grateful for such a supportive community—everyone, everybody. It’s like everybody here just wants me to be doing well. And of course, people aren’t just only thinking about me … that’s not the only thing other people want … but people do want the other students to be doing well. And I simply want everybody else here to be doing well and thriving in every dimension of their lives as well.

I would like to say thank you to all the people who have quietly supported me and who I probably don’t even know about, who have allowed me to come to the university and support me in ways which I don’t even see. They’re behind-the-scenes supporters. I am deeply grateful to those people. Yeah, just lots of gratitude. And that’s definitely the way to end it.

(Ajahn Kovilo is starting a monastery in Seattle—Clear Mountain Monastery—with a monk friend, Tan Nisabho. They have a YouTube channel to share their journey and their learning.)