One of the difficulties of studying religious traditions is piercing through hagiography. In other words, devotees of this or that teacher might not provide the most critical account of that teacher's ways and teachings.
Timothy Ward, a Canadian from Vancouver, certainly cannot be accused of this!
In the 1980s, like many Westerners at the time, he spent time in the East trying to find out more about the meaning of life. In his case, he became a member of the Buddhist monastic community at Wat Pah Nanachat, in the jungles of northeastern Thailand. This community was one of many which had been set up following the teachings of Ajahn (teacher, guru) Chah. (There are Buddhist monasteries at Chithurst and Hemel Hempstead in England which follow the same tradition.)
Ajahn Chah's teachings appealed to many foreigners and, at the wat (monastery) in which he spent some time, Timothy Ward was one of a number of farang (foreign) monks or lay-people.
Timothy Ward's account of his time at Wat Pah Nanachat is both absorbing and thought-provoking. Though he threw himself into the monastic and meditative life of the forest community in order to lose ego, desire and grasping, he continually finds himself confronting apparent paradoxes: why, for example, if 'self' is an illusion, should there be a strict hierarchy in the monastery? Why, again, should monks be forbidden to take life yet 'permit' others to do so for them?
Timothy Ward comes to no permanent answer (what else would you expect from a Buddhist perspective?) yet his account of daily life in a Thai Buddhist monastery of the 1980s makes for fascinating and challenging reading.
This would be an ideal book to recommend not only to Sixth Form students who are studying religion and culture, but also to those who are starting to question what they observe, both inside and outside of themselves.
Reviewed by Bill Gent, Redbridge Advisory and Inspection Service