Lessons from the Jungle Monks

William W. Lorey


I had the privilege of traveling to Thailand in January 2023 which included a five day stint at Wat Marp Jan, a Buddhist monastery in the jungle east of Rayong. I stayed there with a friend of mine named Bear: a Thailand native and former monk of this monastery who graciously organized our stay at Wat Marp Jan.

It struck me during my stay at the monastery just how different from Western life it was and how difficult it would be to describe life there, especially to people who have only ever known life in the United States as I have. But there was enough treasure in that jungle that I felt compelled to do my best to share it. I’ll describe what the monastery is, what daily life there is like, I’ll recount some interesting experiences from my time at there, and discuss my main takeaways from the trip.

On the road to Wat Marp Jan. Bear and I stopped to eat one last layperson meal in Rayong on the way: boat noodles and mango sticky rice for breakfast. It would be our only meal that day.

Anatomy of a Thai Jungle Monastery

Wat Marp Jan is home to forty monks, a handful of laypeople (some of whom are visitors and some plan to stick around to ordain as fully fledged monks), and a pack of wild dogs. It takes about a year to ordain as a monk if you’re a foreigner (not Thai) and much shorter if you’re a Thai native.

These monks live at the monastery and hold a number of precepts - rules about what behavior they can engage in - including not killing living things and abstaining from mind altering substances among other things. They forfeit nearly all of their worldly possessions and each own little more than an orange robe, a pair of sandals, any items needed for medical reasons (e.g. eyeglasses), and a large bowl in which they collect food offerings and eat out of.

The monastery lies in the jungle near a village and the grounds are sprawling. Through the front gate is a golden statue of the Buddha centered around the chow hall, a large cluster of awnings covering dozens of tables, an outdoor kitchen, and a road which leads deeper into the monastery. Following that road you’ll find an orchard, library, temple, pagoda, multiple dormitory buildings for visitors, various sheds and administrative buildings, and enough small huts tucked away in the forest for every monk to have a private, modest dwelling.

Morning services are held in the chow hall and it’s also where the monks eat their single meal a day. Laypeople who are eating at the monastery (either those living at the monastery or kitchen volunteers) eat outdoors under the awnings. That’s also where the volunteers prepare food for the monks each morning. Evening services are held at the temple which is located near the pagoda.

The temple where evening services are held. The lower level houses one of the monastery’s libraries.
The pagoda which was under construction when I visited.

Life for the monks is about as simple as life can be. Their intention is to take only the bare minimum of activity and nourishment to sustain life so that their lives can be devoted to their spiritual and religious pursuits. Their simple lives are supported by the community in which the monastery is embedded. Daily food offerings and volunteer cooks feed the monks, and financial donations fund upkeep of the many buildings as well as the construction of new buildings. There were multiple construction projects in progress when I visited.

A tremendous amount of respect is paid to these monks, as is the way of Thai culture. How Thais view monks seems to run parallel to how Americans view veterans and active service members: with respect and a degree of reverence for their sacrifices. The Thais’ relationship to their monks is definitely more one of worship though: it’s not uncommon for laypeople to drop to their knees and bow to a monk, especially a high ranking monk, as food is offered or even as a greeting. It’s also worth mentioning that in Thai culture, young men will often live as monks for some period of time as they begin adulthood and Bear is no exception to this. It’s an honorable thing to do as a Thai person: the type of thing that makes your parents proud.

Daily Life at the Monastery

What follows is what my typical day at the monastery consisted of. I am not a monk so my day was somewhat different than that of the monastics, but you’ll get the idea:

Sweeping, Brooms, the Jacked Monk, and the Broom CEO

Sweeping is a huge deal at Wat Marp Jan. It’s the primary work that people do and there’s plenty of it; the monastery is in the middle of the jungle and leaves are constantly falling on the many paved roads and courtyards. The brooms used by the monks were beautiful. The majority were handmade at the monastery with bamboo handles and brushes fashioned by lashing bundles of coconut leaf ends together. Some brooms were ‘normal’ sized but the ones used for serious work outside were around eight feet long.

On our first day Bear and I were assigned to sweep a section of pavement outside and were struggling to make progress. Each of us had one of the long brooms in hand and were choked way up on it, using it like you would a household broom. We were hardly moving any leaves. A group of nearby monks noticed our struggle and one came over to show us how its done. This monk was jacked: he had the kind of pipes that you could only get from doing manual labor every single day for years. He walked out into the middle of the courtyard (which was covered with leaves), choked way back on the broom handle so he was holding it right at the end, and started whipping the broom left and right in huge sweeping arcs as he advanced forward. Leaves started fleeing from him; it was like something out of Avatar the Last Airbender. Within a few steps, he’d cleared a pathway through the leaves as wide on either side of him as his broom could reach.

But what he did next said a lot about him. All his rigorous sweeping had disturbed one of the wild dogs who was hanging out nearby. This dog didn’t seem too keen on this orange-robed dude with the big broom and was all hot and bothered, standoffishly watching him from across the courtyard. The monk noticed the dog and relaxed his posture, babbling some calming baby talk in Thai as he approached this scared looking dog. Not the route I’d have taken: better to give the freaked out animal some space. But with the most harmless way about him, this monk walked right up to the dog and gave him a few kind thumps on the head, to which the dog immediately relaxed and wagged his tail. Here was an example of a monk who really understood nonviolence yet was a strong, capable individual: a powerful combination. Interesting that all these qualities about the man were demonstrated in what couldn’t have been more than a minute.

While Bear and I never got to know the Jacked Monk, coincidentally one of the monks that we befriended was the monastery’s chief broom maker: White Lotus. White Lotus had this carefree, goofy energy about him that made him downright pleasant to be around. He liked to describe himself as the “CEO of Brooms” although he was also a self-described “CEO of one”. It startled me when I learned how old White Lotus was. He was forty-four but looked and acted half his age. He had been making brooms at the monastery for a decade and had been a monk for sixteen years. And when he mentioned that he weighed forty kilos, I was equally startled: that’s about ninety pounds! He liked to drop all sorts of one-liners, my favorite being “If you’re happy here, a year feels like a day. But if you’re unhappy, a day feels like a year.” When Bear and I were leaving the monastery, we made it a point to track down Lotus to say goodbye. It’s a goodbye I remember well. I could feel his good intentions for us as we briefly talked and in closing he said something to the effect of “I give you fifty percent of my happiness because if I gave any more I would die.”

Brooms with Bear for scale. I wouldn’t be surprised if White Lotus made every one of the brooms you see here. Also notice the bundle of bamboo wrapped in orange rags on the ground. These were freshly flame-hardened broom handles. Soon the Broom CEO would take a dremel to the splintery bamboo joints to smooth them out before joining each handle to a homemade brush head.

The Studying Monk

When Bear first lived at the monastery around eight years prior to our time there, he had befriended a monk named Pra-maha-A-nu-sitt who I’ll refer to as the Studying Monk. This monk was a mentor and friend of Bear’s at the time and Bear was eager to meet back up with him after being away for so long.

On our first day, we found the Studying Monk in his favorite spot: outside on the wraparound porch of the library, sitting behind a desk adorned with a tablet and piles of papers and books. He had an extraordinarily calm and centered energy about him, and even though I couldn’t understand him (as he only spoke in Thai) there was a certain weight and intention behind his words. He struck me as someone who really “got it”: someone who really understood spirituality and who was an accomplished meditation practitioner.

As he and Bear caught up, Bear translated the broad strokes of their conversation for me. The Studying Monk had now been at the monastery for twenty-five years and had been studying Pali, the sacred language of Theravāda Buddhism, for at least the past year. He had recently passed a test in the language which had elevated him to the status of “maha”, a title indicating a particular level of mastery in a Pali language hierarchy for monks that apparently has nine levels. I gathered it was a pretty big deal that he was excelling in this language and his Pali studies showed no signs of slowing down.

On a followup visit to his library hideaway, Bear and I ventured to ask the Studying Monk for some meditation advice. At first, many of the pointers he offered us were not new to me. This is a testament of how simple it is to explain meditation at a surface level; I’d heard similar pointers from many sources across many contexts in the West. The concept of meditation is easy enough to think about but to grasp it more deeply and develop it into an actual skill - not merely thinking with your eyes closed - that’s what begins to separate real practitioners from novices. As our conversation moved beyond the introductory to the more advanced, he gave me some advice that resonated with me deeply. He had asked me what meditation technique I generally use which for me was “resting awareness”. This technique, also known as “open awareness”, is an advanced meditation technique because you don’t directly focus on anything in particular. Instead, you relax back and pay attention to whatever arises in your field of awareness (sensations, thoughts, feelings) with the intention of remaining undistracted through all the changes. But the Studying Monk warned me just how sneaky the mind can be. The slightest unnoticed disturbance in the mind, the smallest unnoticed ripple, means a deviation from the goal of meditation: undistracted attention. Without an anchor to rest your mind on it’s easy to get caught up in small waves of passing thoughts, subtle feelings, and distracting sense perceptions. As he said this, I felt my ego rise up to defend my way of practicing but at the same time knew that he was right. I knew then that I had allowed myself at times to be caught in the mind’s subtle ripples when I practiced in this way. The alternative, he suggested, was a simple, tried and tested technique: follow the breath.

Having something to rest your attention on, and to inevitably return your attention to when you become distracted, makes it much easier to stay centered than if you didn’t have that point of focus. It doesn’t matter what this object of awareness is, it’s just common to use the breath as this anchor because it’s always with you and always changing. To further illustrate this teaching, take the metaphor of physical balance. Consider balancing on one leg; surely you’ve done this even if it’s been a while. If you close your eyes and try to balance on one leg, it is very difficult. You have no visual point of focus on which to center yourself and you lose your balance frequently. With practice it’s possible to maintain your balance with closed eyes, but if you just open your eyes and settle your gaze on one spot balance comes much easier.

Meditation is strikingly similar to physical balance, so much so that meditation can be viewed as just a subtler form of balance. It’s an endeavor to stay centered - not physically - but centered inside. It’s an endeavor to be undistracted (i.e. not falling over) when confronted with every passing thought, feeling, and sensation, no matter how strong the tendency may be to be sucked into them and fall away from center.

The Studying Monk gave us one more anecdote to aid in understanding the importance of noticing the slightest disturbances in the mind as soon as they happen. He talked about how when he was a younger man, he would at times experience a great deal of anger. He described this anger as a fire that would start small, but that would inevitably spread, taking hold inside of him like a forest fire. If allowed to spread out of control, this fire would be very difficult to extinguish. As he learned to catch this anger earlier and earlier, he noticed that the sooner he noticed the anger and allowed it to dissipate, the easier it was to extinguish. Just as with extinguishing fires, the same is true for disturbances in the mind. They’re much easier to deal with if you can catch them early before they take hold and spread. Would you rather fight a bear cub or a momma grizzly?

The Village Walk and the Wild Dogs

Each morning the monks walk into the village in small groups to collect that day’s food offerings and one morning I got to join.

The night before, Bear asked our friend White Lotus if we could walk into the village with him but Lotus recommended that we walk with one of the junior monks instead. As one of the more senior monks he takes an abbreviated village walk: venturing only to the monastery’s nearby neighbors to collect his food. Lotus wanted us to have the experience of a full-fledged village walk so he pulled aside a nearby lower status monk and arranged for us to accompany him and his group.

We left promptly at 6am the following morning, setting off into the cool, predawn dark. There were four of us walking single file: three barefoot monks each carrying a bowl in a sling over their shoulder and me bringing up the rear.1 We walked out the front gates, past a few broom operators hard at work, towards the village.

The monks stayed silent the entire time. The only sounds came from our quiet footsteps and the jungle that surrounded us. The road began working its way through rubber tree groves not long after we left the monastery. Workers with headlamps were walking among the trees, collecting latex from small buckets mounted below taps on each tree. And soon a deep purple sunrise rose on the horizon. It wasn’t long after sunrise when we encountered a pack of wild dogs.

The wild dogs at the monastery had been pretty tame (all the monks’ calm energy must have rubbed off on them). But these dogs weren’t so chill. We walked up on a group of five or six of them, and none of them were pleased with us tramping through their territory. They ran circles around us, barking their heads off.

I’d had some unpleasant experiences with loose dogs growing up as a runner in rural Missouri and this “hit my stuff” so to speak. But after several days at the monastery my first reaction to this fear wasn’t to fight it as I’d done as a kid, but to work with it. The three monks ahead of me continued calmly walking forward and I did the same, relaxing as the fear came up, allowing it to pass through without resisting it or doing anything to prevent it. It was quite the thing to watch: my mind was so afraid, demanding some sort of action, but the demands of my mind could be calmly observed as we walked. I felt calmer as I allowed that stored energy to release. Eventually the dogs understood that we meant no harm and left us alone.

I realized, with dogs and with people, that if you meet aggression (which stems from fear) with more fear-based aggression, it becomes an anger-arms race on both sides which lowers the energy of all. Meeting fear with calm and clarity diffuses that fear and raises the energy of the situation.

Ajahn Anan on Letting Go and Wisdom

During services at the temple one evening, Ajahn Anan gave a Dhamma talk from which I had one important takeaway.

Spiritual teachers often promulgate the importance of letting go or surrendering but it’s easy to misunderstand what is meant by this. It’s easy to think that to surrender is to give into the will of someone else or to not take action even when you believe that action to be right. But this is not what’s being suggested here. Anan instead suggested that letting go is best done when accompanied by wisdom; it’s best done by maintaining your center as the single experiencer of all that you can notice, using all the mental faculties available to you, and respecting the moment in front of you as you work to lift it up.

Anan laid out a parable to illustrate this idea. I can’t remember exactly what he said but this gets the point across.

A monk was asleep in his hut when a rainstorm hit. He had allowed the hut to fall into disrepair and a hole had developed in the roof directly above his bed. Water started leaking onto the monk but he stayed calm and didn’t allow himself to fall into agitation. Instead, he calmly moved his bed to the other side of the hut to avoid the falling water.

This monk let go but did so in an unwise manner. The wise action here would have been to fix the hole when it was first noticed or to at least to put out a bucket to catch the water so it wouldn’t ruin the floor of his hut. Being spiritual doesn’t mean you should be stupid. It doesn’t mean that you should ignore tasks that need to be done: tasks that you’re responsible for completing. It means that you should take the action required by the moment in front of you without being distracted.

Wisdom must be incorporated into letting go.

Energetics, Holy Places, and Holy People

Some places give off a particular energy; it’s as if a place can draw you into feeling a certain way or can somehow color your experience. This is subtle and easily missed but upon further inspection there is certainly something there, however faint it might seem.

In the past, I’ve felt this strongly at old churches in Europe. There’s something holy in the stillness of those buildings: so beautifully designed and brimming with sacred imagery, where legions of people have come to pray and be with God, whatever that means to them. These holy places seem to have been “charged up” with an energy over the centuries by visitors who leave behind the residue of their good intentions. These sites become energetic wells from which you can fill your cup and rejuvenate your spirit.

The same can be said about being in close proximity to people who carry with them this type of energy. Have you ever been around someone who is welcoming, non-judgemental, clear, and engaged? This is someone who carries a similar energy to that of a holy place, and this is the type of person who I imagine contributes greatly to the energy of the holy places they visit. When you’re with a person like this, their high state can rub off on you if you let it, elevating your state and that of any others around you. This is how people raise the energy of a situation.

At times I felt both of these forces at work at Wat Marp Jan: the energy of a holy place and the energy of awake, connected people. I felt it most in the temple during evening services when all the monks would gather for a few hours to chant and meditate as one big group. I tended to have deep meditations during these periods and on multiple occasions had energetic experiences that were hard to describe. I’m not confident in accurately recounting them so I won’t go into them here. What I will say is there is a value to these wells of energy that us humans create. Our holy places have worth that is subtle at first glance, but that has a depth to it and the power to draw you deeper into clear awareness. When looked at in this way, it’s easy to see why the Thais hold their monks in such high regard. Monks are the keepers of their holy places.

Closing Thoughts

The following is an excerpt from my journal written on our last day at the monastery.

I feel the riptide of the world already beginning to suck me back in. My mind is planning, scheming, pushing away, and reaching for. It’s easy to see why monks come here to ordain: they attempt to enter an environment in which deeper spiritual states can more easily be reached. But this I believe is a trap. The world bothers us and more generally draws us in because of us. It is not the world’s fault that we cannot be great beings, it is our fault. We are the ones that cling and resist. The world simply is. And what’s more: we begin to carry festering pieces of the world with us when we cannot handle how it is (clinging/resisting). This is because we don’t open and allow the world to simply pass through our being. We begin wrestling with it - with the world as it comes in through our senses - to make it be how we think it needs to be for us to be OK. This is something that you will do in a crowded market or in a peaceful monastery. The setting doesn’t matter, your relationship to it matters. Trying to escape the busyness of the world is to misjudge the problem you’re faced with.

Sequestering yourself away in the jungle to try and become enlightened isn’t necessarily the highest path to take. It’s clear that renouncing the world and living a monastic life does not rid you of all the problems you were trying to leave behind when you ventured out into the jungle. Little things still bother you (like all the damn leaves that you have to sweep up every day), symbols of status still attract you, social interactions can still be awkward, and spiritual materialism is very real. But with all that said, I am not going to argue against the value of having a small percentage of our population renounce the world and devote their lives to spiritual pursuits. What I will argue against is the belief that one must renounce the world in order to devote one’s life to spiritual pursuits.

Living a deeply spiritual life while being an active participant in the world is a very high path, and one that you and the world will never cease to benefit from. The world needs people that are “in the world but not of it”. Living in this way means that in every moment of every day, you release the lower parts of your being - the fear, need for control, unsatisfactoriness, and suffering - turning instead to acceptance and love: appreciating this gift of life for what it is. What is the consequence of following this path? You make every moment that passes in front of you better because you were there playing your role in lifting it up. Now that’s an ideal to aspire to.

This Path of Surrender was introduced to me by Michael Singer, a spiritual teacher who’s books and courses have been very important in my life. If this discussion has piqued your interest, I encourage you to read his book Living Untethered: Beyond the Human Predicament which explores these ideas in detail. I spent a great deal of my time at the monastery reading this book and it certainly played a role in why I found my time there to be so fruitful.

Thank you for reading and Godspeed.

  1. Bear decided to stay back and help the others with the morning sweeping because they seemed short-staffed that morning. He had been on plenty of village walks back in his monk days and was fine skipping out on this one.↩︎