As the voices of the assembled Sangha recited the words of the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma – the Buddha’s primal teaching on the Middle Way and the Four Noble Truths – we filed up, one by one, and offered our gratitude to Luang Por Sumedho.
Each member of the monastic community of the European branch monasteries had previously been given a small card in a golden envelope; we were invited to write upon it an expression of our gratitude and words of parting from the heart. As the sounds of the Pali syllables merged with the silence of the temple, we presented our cards, bowed three times and withdrew. There were 43 bhikkhus, 9 siladharas, 6 samaneras, 5 male and 7 female anagarikas in the gathering.
As he has said so many times before, Luang Por reiterated after this poignant ritual that he considered this discourse – the Dhammacakka-pavattana Sutta – to be “The perfect spiritual teaching.” He has spent countless hours of his decades of teaching expounding on the directness and applicability of the Four Noble Truths. Accordingly, these teachings have transformed the lives of many of us so what better words to be reflecting on and to be surrounded by, as we all bade our formal farewell?
Before we entered upon this part of the ceremonies, however, Luang Por Sumedho had wished us to begin by recollecting and reflecting on our root connection to Luang Por Chah. It was his own profound and heartfelt sense of gratitude to Luang Por Chah that had caused him to accept the invitation to teach, both in Thailand and in the West.
In recognition of this deep-seated link, and wishing to embody it as part of the ritual, the evening began with the enshrining of Luang Por Chah’s ashes, along with many Buddha relics, beneath his memorial statue in the temple. In placing these few remains of our beloved teacher’s physical form in the shrine, Luang Por Sumedho cemented the bond of the Amaravati community to its origins in the forests of North-east Thailand, and in the being of our great Elder, Luang Por Chah.
When the last card had been offered by the last anagarika, and the chanting of sutta and paritta had faded, Ajahn Sucitto and Ajahn Sundara came forward to present, on behalf of the male and female monastic communities respectively, a freshly-sewn set of three robes, candles, flowers and incense, and other trays of gifts to Luang Por Sumedho. We then collectively bowed our heads and put our palms together, in time-honoured fashion, to formally ask for forgiveness.
This ceremony is a part of monastic discipline, and a custom, established by the Buddha which supports skilful parting of the ways. When we spend time in each other’s company, even with the best of intentions, we can say or do things that cause difficulty or pain for others. The Buddha recognized this and established this simple exchange whereby, when such a parting is about to occur, the juniors begin by requesting the forgiveness of the elder for anything they might have done which has brought on hurt of any kind. The elder then responds by asking, in return, for forgiveness for any action that similarly might have caused pain.
Even though this might be a much-repeated ritual in monastic circles, as Luang Por Sumedho pointed out that night in relation to the enshrining of Luang Por Chah’s ashes, a ritual has power and can provide profound illumination and support, if we let it. It is not a small thing.
When this last part of the formal procedure was complete, Luang Por offered reflections on his most favoured of themes, the Four Noble Truths and the centrality of awakened awareness, as his parting exhortation to the monastic community. The air in the temple rang with his words and the charge of alert attention.
It was a moving moment; bitter-sweet insofar as they were his parting words to his closest disciples, in his role of Abbot of Amaravati, and at the same time they embodied the nectar of the essential Teachings. Bitter-sweet, yet that selfsame flavour is the taste of Dhamma.