A man-made pond with its emerald green water and a small isle sits in the midst of the forest. Standing tall, alone and aloof, there is a coconut tree – planted years ago by an elderly monk. The pond is called Nalikay, a name taken from an age-old lullaby known among people in the South:
Dear little one,
There’s the Nalikay coconut tree,
Growing alone in the sea of wax,
Neither touched by rain,
Nor reached by thunder,
There in the middle of the sea of wax,
Attainable only by the one who’s free.
Khunying Chamnongsri Rutnin Hanchanlash may humbly say she is still far from being like that coconut tree in terms of acquiring a completely liberated, carefree mind. But read her books, or if possible take a closer look at the author herself, a lively yet serene person, and you may see some of that tree-like stillness.
At 66, Khunying Chamnongsri has her hands in both the secular and spiritual worlds – and finds a peaceful balance in both. The chairperson of the Rutnin Eye Hospital also writes a dharma and lifestyle column in the monthly Health and Cuisine magazine. She compiled a collection of her articles in a book titled Vicha Tua Bao (The Art of Living Lightly), which became an instant bestseller and has already gone through several reprints.
So have Thai readers embraced another book of hers, one that chronicles the Khunying’s take on spirituality? The latest reprint of Fon Tok Yang Tong, Fah Rong Yang Theung (Touched by Rain, Reached by Thunder) is also auspiciously timed. Khunying Chamnongsri’s spiritual mentor is the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a reformist monk and founder of Suan Mokkh forest monastery, and this year marks the centenary of his birth.
Written in lyrical prose, Fon Tok Yang Tong, Fah Rong Yang Theung is a collection of Khunying Chamnongsri’s journals during her solitary practice at Suan Mokkh about 16 years ago. The title plays on the well-known contemplating her materially ample life, dealing with life’s ups and downs, attachment and sorrow – and ends with her eventual realization of the true essence of nature and meaning of life.
The Nalikay coconut tree represents nirvana, which is always inside us waiting to be realized.” explains Khunying Chamnongsri.
The sea of wax (mentioned in the song) refers to human emotions and thought, which are so transient, changeable and which depend on stimuli, much like the wax that becomes soft or hard depending on the temperature.
“The one who’s ‘free’ describes a person who has transcended attachments to worldly desires. Such a person will be like the coconut tree that continues to stand firm and alone, regardless of the rain or thunder.”
Over a decade ago, despite all the material abundance around her, the Khunying became dissatisfied and disillusioned with her life, feeling it was “impermanent, troublesome and illusory.” Striving to erase the nagging, individualistic and selfish urges, she sought refuge in spiritual practice, which ultimately led her to Buddhadasa and Suan Mokkh.
“Up until then, I never really cared much about religion. Actually, I used to sneer at it, thinking it was all about blind faith and a waste of time. What I saw in the mirror was a professional working woman, ambitious, driven, that sort of ‘I’m good; I’m smart; I’m a pro’, image.
"I thought I knew myself, but I was totally wrong. When I became anguished, nothing could heal my soul. Splurging or hanging out with friends might cheer me up, but only for a while. I couldn’t guard my own thoughts. I couldn’t get rid of the depression and fear.”
At Suan Mokkh, under the guidance of Buddhadasa’s assistant, Acharn Runjuan Indrakamhaeng, Khunying Chamnongsri had her first lessons in Vipassana (Insight) meditation – how the mind works and how to control and understand it.
“Through meditation, I came to a realization that the very source of dukkha (suffering) is rooted in our own heart. And the only way to put out the burning fire inside is to douse the ego, our constant desire to only think of ourselves.
“At Suan Mokkh, I’ve come to realise the true meaning of education. I found meditation is a path of discipline – but less to satisfy the intellect than to seek a balance between sati (awareness of the present) and samathi (concentration of the tranquil mind),” she added.
Her book, Fon Tok Yang Tong, is full of insights gleaned from natural phenomena. Khunying Chamnongsri said Buddhadasa always stressed that it was best to learn in nature itself. When the venerable monk was still alive, every day, at 5 am. Members of the forest monastery would come to his kuti (abode), to listen to his dharma talks about the perennial cycle of samsara. In the background, a cacophony of nature – the roosters’ crows, dogs’ barking and so on – was clearly at play.
"Than Acharn (Buddhadasa) often said how the notions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are the real culprits of our suffering. By observing the various lives at Suan Mokkh, how the different creatures live and die, I learned to observe the nature of my own mind. I realised how thoughts and emotions are, like everything else, always in a state of perpetual flux.”
But meditation is not an escape from the world, nor past sufferings, Khunying Chamnongsri emphasised. Rather, inner peace and a sense of harmony comes when one is aware of and yet accepts suffering. For only then, “can you seek a way out of it”, she said.
In retrospect, Fon Tok Yang Tong is an ironic, happy twist to a deliberate violation of the master’s words. During a three-month retreat at Suan Mokkh, Khunying Chamnongsri was asked to refrain from all communication with the outside world. This was done in order to minimize any outside influences that might hinder her dharma practice.
“There was to be no phone, computer, radio or television. I was not supposed to read, write, or even speak to anyone. Acharn Runjuan said cultivation of awareness can come only when the mind is cleansed of all thoughts, but I found it really difficult to fulfill this.”
So Khunying Chamnongsri started to “talk” to the white, empty pages in her diary. The journal entries, which later became Fon Tok Yang Tong, was a byproduct of the part of her mind that still clung to attachments and memories.
“Writing is a means of expression of thoughts, but thoughts are products of the past.” She noted.
“When I wrote the diary, yes it was a monologue with the T on the stage and the empty pages as the audience. So when I wrote, I still attached myself to the past, and ended up a victim of my own (and old) beliefs, thoughts, my upbringing, past experiences. In a way, the act of writing is like stirring up the old silts, leading my mind to re-register the pains, not letting them go. Thus writing could create an inner conflict that continued to eat at me on the inside.”
By the third month of her intensive retreat, Khunying Chamnongsri stopped writing altogether.
But Fon Tok Yang Tong went on to have its own life – and merits. In her afterword, the author recalled a meeting with Buddhadasa Bhikkhu not long before his final departure. The venerable monk told her he had read the book and found it was very well-written.
For Khunying Chamnongsri, writing offers an honest, refreshing look at the transitory but ever unfolding nature of life. Such is the case in chapter on sweeping leaves, “I saw leaves fall onto the ground every day I swept them away and the next day there would be more lying on the ground. Everything in life is impermanent, very few things last forever.
“The point of this is that if we can enjoy everything without attachment, we’ll be free of the sorrow when it comes to an end. Such is how we should live.” she said.
Khunying Chamnongsri‘s journey 'inwards' has been a long and arduous one. She has documented it in her book Vicha Tua Bao, which embraces a range of practical dharma tips for everyday use, and gives sensible and realistic advice for living happily, peacefully and harmoniously in society as we know it.
“It’s a fun book of my own views of life and the experiences of others with whom I came in contact with. I find life such a rich material for writing and for discovery.” she said.
I did not intend to write about dharma. Rather, it’s about my discoveries and ways of looking at things. It is just natural that humour and fun are a part of the fabric and, I suppose, of the dharma too.”
The value of dharma books aside, Khunying Chamnongsri said they cannot compare with the actual practice. “Like a scientist, a true practitioner needs to do the ‘experiment’ him – or herself, to explore the nature of the mind first-hand.”
“Normally, we are too busy to see our real selves and to observe our own minds. But think of swimming: You have to keep practicing to improve your strokes and stamina so that if and when you find yourself in stormy waters, you will not drown.”
As modest as always, the veteran writer said she herself is still swimming in the 'sea of wax' as well.
“Sometimes, I am still affected by the notion of ‘what’s next?’ It’s like, to take a line from Emily Dickinson’s poem (If You Were Coming in The Fall) a goblin bee that will not state its sting.”
“I’m still affected by the rain and thunder, though I’ve learned to observe my reactions and responses to the rain and thunder around me.”
“There are certainly bound to be periods of progress, of regressing, even detours. I have not reached the (state of being like a coconut) tree yet, but I’ll keep on striving toward the goal.”
From: In Spirit - A beautiful Mind. by Krittiya Wongtavavimarn
Photo by Somkid Chaijitvanit In Outlook, Bangkok Post, March 26, 2006.