From that time on, the number of foreign people who came to Ajahn Chah began to steadily increase. By the time Venerable Sumedho was a monk of five ‘rains retreats’ and Ajahn Chah considered him competent enough to teach, some of these new monks had also decided to stay on and train there. In the hot season of 1975, Venerable Sumedho and a handful of Western bhikkhus spent some time living in a forest not far from Wat Nong Pah Pong. The local villagers asked them to stay on and Ajahn Chah consented. Wat Pah Nanachat (‘International Forest Monastery’) came into being, and Venerable Sumedho became the abbot of the first monastery in Thailand to be run by and for English-speaking monks.
In 1977, Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho were invited to visit Britain by the English Sangha Trust, a charity with the aim of establishing a locally resident Buddhist Sangha. Seeing the serious interest there, Ajahn Chah left Ajahn Sumedho (with two of his other Western disciples who were then visiting Europe) in London at the Hampstead Vihara. He returned to Britain in 1979, at which time the monks were leaving London to begin Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in Sussex.
During his second visit to Britain, Ajahn Chah once remarked that Buddhism in Thailand resembled an old tree which used to be strong and fertile. But now it was so old, that it would only produce a few fruits, and those were very small with a bitter taste. He compared Buddhism in the West to a young sapling full of youthful energy and potential for growth, but which was in need of adequate care and proper support for its development.
In 1980 Venerable Ajahn Chah began to feel more accutely the symptoms of dizziness and memory lapses which had plagued him for some years. In 1980 and 1981, Ajahn Chah spent the ‘rains retreat’ away from Wat Nong Pah Pong, due to his failing health and the debilitating effects of diabetes. As his illness worsened, he would use his body as a teaching device, a living example of the impermanence of all things. He constantly reminded people to endeavour to find a true refuge within themselves, since he would not be able to teach for very much longer. This led to an operation in 1981, which however failed to reverse the onset of the paralysis which eventually rendered him completely bedridden and unable to speak. This did not stop the increase of monks and laypeople who came to practise at his monastery, and for whom the teachings of Ajahn Chah were a constant guide and inspiration.
After remaining bedridden and silent for an amazing ten years, carefully tended by his monks and novices, Venerable Ajahn Chah passed away on the 16th of January, 1992, at the age of 74, leaving behind a thriving community of monasteries and lay supporters in Thailand, England, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.A (and more recently also in Portugal and Norway), where the practice of the Buddha’s teachings continues under the inspiration of this great teacher.
Although Ajahn Chah passed away in 1992, the training which he established is still carried on at Wat Nong Pah Pong and its branch monasteries, of which there are currently more than three hundred in Thailand. Discipline is strict, enabling one to lead a simple and pure life in a harmoniously regulated community where virtue, meditation and understanding may be skillfully and continuously cultivated. There is usually group meditation twice a day and sometimes a talk by the senior teacher, but the heart of the meditation is the way of life. The monastics do manual work, dye and sew their own robes, make most of their own requisites and keep the monastery buildings and grounds in immaculate shape. They live extremely simply following the ascetic precepts of eating once a day from the almsbowl and limiting their possessions and robes. Scattered throughout the forest are individual huts where monks and nuns live and meditate in solitude, and where they practice walking meditation on cleared paths under the trees.
Wisdom is a way of living and being, and Ajahn Chah endeavoured to preserve the simple monastic lifestyle in order that people may study and practise the Dhamma to the present day. Ajahn Chah’s wonderfully simple style of teaching can be deceptive. It is often only after we have heard something many times that suddenly our minds are ripe and somehow the teaching takes on a much deeper meaning. His skillful means in tailoring his explanations of Dhamma to time and place and to the understanding and sensitivity of his audience was marvelous to see. Sometimes on paper though, it can make him seem inconsistent or even self-contradictory! At such times one should remember that these words are a record of a living experience. Similarly, if the teachings seem to vary at times from tradition, it should be borne in mind that the Venerable Ajahn spoke always from the heart, from the depths of his own meditative experience.