An interview with Ajahn Ritthi Thirajitto of Atammayatarama Buddhist Monastery
by Santidhammo Bhikkhu
Ajahn Ritthi is the Abbot of Atammayatarama Buddhist Monastery in Woodinville, Washington. He is a monk and Dhamma teacher of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Theravada, literally the “Way of the Elders”, is the original practice established by the historical Buddha Sakyamuni in Northern India more than 2,500 years ago, and is still preserved in the traditions of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
Ajahn Ritthi, a native of southern Thailand, now lives in the United States where he ministers to the spiritual needs of the Thai immigrant community, and works to promote the understanding and practice of Buddhism among English-speaking Americans. He is a proponent of the reformist ideas of his mentor, the great Theravada teacher Buddhadasa, who labored tirelessly to promote authentic understanding and practice of Dhamma, especially focusing on meditation practice in the forest. Ajahn Ritthi’s formal teacher, Panyananda, now 92 and living in Bangkok, is the last living colleague of Buddhadasa’s group of reformers.
The Thai language has a word that describes Ajahn Ritthi perfectly: “nam jai” which means, “flowing heart.” It describes a person with a natural impulse of generosity and kindness, open and welcoming to all. For those who know Ajahn Ritthi, he teaches Buddhist values of kindness and compassion more by example than in words.
Ajahn Ritthi was admitted to the monastic life more than 27 years ago as a youth of fourteen. His family had encouraged him to follow the traditional Thai custom of being ordained as a Buddhist monk for one month, but at the end of the month he declined to disrobe. “I liked to be a monk,” Ajahn Ritthi says. “I think the home-life is very narrow and confining. When you are a married lay person, you are tied by family obligations and have to take care of the family.”
“I thought that if I am a monk, my life will benefit many people all over the world, so I decided to be a monk.”
Santidhammo: What was training like for a young monk in Thailand?
Ajahn Ritthi: I had a regular monastic training. Every day we did our duty as a monk – temple chores. After I had studied the Dhamma for three years in my rural monastery, I went to Bangkok to study at the Buddhist University. I studied everything about the Dhamma, Pali, Suttas, Vinaya, History, Comparative Religions, and The Tipitika (Buddhist Scriptures).
Santidhammo: Your teachers are Panyananda and Buddhadasa, the influential Thai reformers?
Ajahn Ritthi: Yes. I lived with Panyananda for one year before coming to America, before he sent me to Chicago. I love his teaching and the teaching of Buddhadasa and their emphasis on practicing the Dhamma.
There are three monks who were colleagues in promoting Dhamma studies in Thailand: Buddhadasa, Panyananda, and Ajahn Chah. Panyananda, who is now 92 years old, is the only one still living.
Their teaching methods, especially Buddhadasa’s, are very straightforward. His way of teaching was to explain the meaning of Dhamma. Many monks in Thailand teach in the people’s language (according to populist folk legends) but not according to the Dhamma language. Buddhadasa taught people the meaning of the Dhamma. I believe he was practicing and teaching the true Way of Dhamma.
Santidhammo: There is a certain tension between the two traditions of monastic life in Thailand, the city monks who specialize in scholarship and administration, and the forest monks who emphasize actual practice and meditation. Buddhadasa had studied in Bangkok as a young monk in the 1920s. He became disillusioned and moved to the jungle to practice meditation in solitude. Why did he go to the forest?
Ajahn Ritthi: He found that the monks in Bangkok and the way they were living were not concerned with the Way to Nirvana. All the monks who were living in the city were very materialistic, following the way of materialism. They were concerned with self-promotion and to move themselves up (the ladder of the Buddhist hierarchy). They were promoting themselves and using Buddhism as a career. Buddhadasa said this is not the way of the real Dhamma.
Buddhadasa’s method of teaching became very popular in Thailand. Now, in every university, they teach the ideas of Buddhadasa.
The forest monks live in the forest, not in the city. They practice a daily way of life that is different from the city monks. They don’t get involved in the ceremonial Buddhism, but practice meditation in the forest. They eat one meal a day. They live a simple lifestyle in a small kuti (hermitage).
Santidhammo: Trees, forest, wilderness are especially important for Buddhists, symbolized by the Buddha’s life, born under a tree, enlightened under a tree, died under a tree. He directed his disciples to go to the forest and sit under the trees.
Ajahn Ritthi: Yes. The monks are very concerned with the environment and people cutting the trees. In Thailand, they have started a movement to ordain the trees as Buddhist monks, wrapping the tree in a yellow robe to protect them. The people will not allow the trees to be cut.
In the Buddhist idea, we have to live with nature and we cannot get away from nature. That is why we have to protect nature. The Buddha directed us to live nearby nature, live at the edge of the forest. We must live simple. Thoughtful. Thinking.
Santidhammo: Do you think society is going on the wrong path, with all this emphasis on technology and material development?
Ajahn Ritthi: I think Buddhism is not against material development. But the Buddha said he is teaching how we can live without suffering. The people attach very much to technology and development, but they lack developing the mind. Materialism cannot give them real happiness. Materialism can make you comfortable, but cannot make you happy.
Santidhammo: After you were in Thailand, you went to India for three years. Was that your first time outside of Thailand? What did you do in India?
Ajahn Ritthi: I studied at the University of Delhi. I liked India. It is very important for Buddhist people to understand India, because the Buddha was born in India. I have seen that the human beings are very different, some extremely poor, and some extremely rich.
This was the first time outside of Thailand. After I came back to Thailand and had to decide what I wanted to do, I decided I wanted to go to another country to spread the Dhamma. In India it is very difficult to do that. But in America it is not so difficult. We have lots of monks in Thailand, but we need more monks in America.
Santidhammo: Why did you come to America?
Ajahn Ritthi: My teacher sent me. I was living at Wat Chalpratanrungsarit in Bangkok with my teacher Panyananda. One day he visited (our monastery in) Chicago, and he asked me to come here. That was eight years ago. While I was in Chicago, I learned a lot about American culture and the way of living in America. I saw that Americans have some good characteristics: they love to read and they love freedom in body speech and mind. They love to study.
Santidhammo: From your perspective as some one who came from outside American culture, what are the good things about America, and what are the bad?
Ajahn Ritthi: The good thing is that Americans love nature and they protect the environment. Another good thing is that America is a country that is governed by the rule of law. The people believe in the rules and they follow the rules. These are good characteristics. But the people of America do not have the “warm” friendly feeling that Asian people have. They are alone, individual, alienated. They are not like a big family, warm in the mind. This is a problem in America. They don’t do things together and help each other. American people are very lonely. Isolated.
Santidhammo: Were there any surprises about America?
Ajahn Ritthi: Yes, many. In Thailand, the custom is very friendly, we give food to the people who live nearby or who come visit. We talk to every one. In America, I had culture shock. No one is walking or talking to each other. They don’t even talk to their neighbors in the next house. In Thailand there’s more openness and welcoming. I was shocked by that.
Santidhammo: You once said that Americans know a lot about freedom in body, speech, and mind, but we don’t understand the Buddha’s teaching of freedom.
Ajahn Ritthi: In Buddhism, freedom means “freedom from desire, freedom from craving.” It is not simply freedom to say or do anything you feel like doing. Freedom from desire is true freedom.
Santidhammo: Western civilization has a lot of knowledge about the external world and how to control the outside material world, but we don’t have much understanding of the inner world of the heart and mind. For Westerners, the mind has only recently — within the last hundred years — become a subject of inquiry. Buddhist culture, on the other hand, has a lot of knowledge about the nature of the mind and heart – how to live in harmony and peace in balance with nature.
Ajahn Ritthi: Yes, Asia can learn technology from the west, and increase the standard of living to make the people more comfortable. And western people can learn from Buddhism how to become more happy inside the mind.
We need material comfort, but that is not the same as happiness. In America, they have so much material, but they don’t have the happiness of the mind. There is something wrong here in America, and in Thailand, too. Americans have craving — “never enough.” We need a balance of both. We have two levels of problems that cause suffering, physical problems and spiritual problems. When we help solve the physical problems of hunger and sickness and pain, the spiritual problems still remain. We have suffering in the mind. So if we can relieve our minds, this is a lasting benefit.
Santidhammo: What should Americans know about Buddhism?
Ajahn Ritthi: Americans have many good qualities that are conducive to hearing the Dhamma. They are very open-minded. This is very good. Buddhism is very open minded – not to cling to a particular view.
Also Americans are very inquisitive, and like to read and learn about things. They have open minds, and they want to know new things. Americans are very interested in meditation, and this is a very good sign.
They should meditate every day for even ten minutes. Everyone needs to learn to meditate.
Santidhammo: Why is meditation important?
Ajahn Ritthi: It is very important because American people are so busy all the time. They have so much to do. They work very hard. But they never stop to consider what they are doing. They are looking around outside, rushing around, coming into contact with all these outside phenomenon all day long – sights, sounds, images. But they never sit down and take a moment with themselves. They are “out” of their minds.
In Buddhism we look to the mind. Because when you are sitting in meditation then your mind is calm, wisdom will arise automatically. You can see things more clearly. Wisdom comes at the moment of contact – eye contact with the phenomenon – they don’t have any problem. The eye is seeing color, light, but don’t attach with desire to the object. But if the mind is unaware at the moment of sense contact with phenomenon, then we become attached with craving.
Santidhammo: Atammayatarama Buddhist Monastery was established in Woodinville about a year ago. Why did you choose that name?
Ajahn Ritthi: When the people from Seattle wanted to form this monastery, I was trying to think of a name of the temple, and I thought about it for several days. It came to me in meditation. I was thinking about Buddhadasa’s teaching. Toward the end of his life he began teaching about Atammayata, fifteen taped Dhamma talks on this one term. It is a very important idea. The meaning is that we are not concerned with anything that creates more suffering. It means “cutting off.” It is not difficult to understand, but is complicated to explain. It was used only a few times in the Buddhist scriptures.
Santidhammo: You are committed to distributing printed material and audiotapes about Buddhism.
Ajahn Ritthi: I have three major projects. We distribute books and tapes, and do Dhamma work. We go visit Dhamma groups and encourage them in different places – “Going with the Dhamma.”
When I came here, I saw how Americans like to read everywhere, like standing at the bus stop. In the entrance of buildings, they often give away brochures and pamphlets. I thought there should be some pamphlets about Buddhism.
When I saw that Americans like to read, I got the idea that I would distribute Dhamma literature for them to read. This is a good way of contacting people with Dhamma. Buddhism has such a wealth of information, but we are not very good about presenting it in the mass culture. There is a cultural difference (from Christianity) in that we usually wait until we are asked a question before we teach.
That’s why I started to do this project. For example, I realized there are about 3,000 Thai restaurants in this country. American people go to the Thai restaurants. Thai people don’t go there because they have Thai food at home. I’ve watched American people, and realized that they like to pick up reading material and brochures while they are waiting for a table. Instead of getting impatient and angry, they can occupy their minds with reading.
So I make Dhamma talks from Buddhadasa available to people who visit the restaurants. I have about 200 restaurants where I distribute literature.
Along with the printed material, we also distribute audiotapes. The people in America have no time. They are so busy; they have no time to come visit the temple. But I’ve found that they have the opportunity to listen to a Dhamma tape while they are sitting in traffic in their cars or while they are preparing their dinner. We have 4,000 tapes, including many in English by Buddhadasa, Santikaro (Buddhadasa’s primary English-speaking student), Amaro, and Sumedho.