|The Autobiography of a Forest Monk|
(Venerable Ajahn Thate)
Copyright © 1996 Wat Hin Mark Peng
First published: 1993
First electronic edition: 1996
Wat Hin Mark Peng
Sri Chiang Mai
Nongkhai, Thailand 43130
For free distribution only.
Since the time of the Buddha, more than two thousand five hundred years ago, monks have retreated into the depths of the forests, mountains and caves, seeking physical isolation to aid them in the development of meditation and realization of Dhamma, the truth of the Buddha's Teaching. Whether in solitude or in small groups, such monks live a life of simplicity, austerity and determined effort and have included some of the greatest meditation masters since the Buddha himself. Far from cities and towns, willing to put up with the rigours and hardships of living in the wild for the opportunity to learn from nature, and uninterested in worldly fame or recognition, these forest monks often remain unknown, their life stories lost among the jungle thickets and mountain tops.
This book is the autobiography of one such monk. Venerable Ajahn Thate recorded his own life story — it was first published for his seventy-second birthday celebration — so that it might be of benefit to those monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen following him. He recounts his life from his boyhood encounter with forest monks to his final status as one of the great masters of the modern era. Venerable Ajahn Thate passed away in 1994 aged ninety-two.
In his Autobiography, the author also takes the opportunity to record his gratitude to all those people — whether monks or lay — who had helped him over those years. Much of this is directed towards the ordinary rural villagers of the Northeast of Thailand who are Ven. Ajahn Thate's own stock. Although it is the poorest and most underdeveloped region, the people there are particularly devout Buddhists and it is from them that most of the Thai meditation masters have arisen. In later years, this Northeast-based Forest Kammatthana (Tudong) Tradition started to attract the interest of sophisticated city folk and he also describes and acknowledges this trend.
This book is not intended only a description of Ven. Ajahn Thate's experiences but is a narrative of a personal spiritual quest and contains advice and reflections on Buddhist meditation and practice. It also, incidentally, offers a unique, grassroots perspective on rural life spanning a period of unprecedented change in Thai culture. However, Ven. Ajahn Thate did not just stay in his native region, for he wandered through the forests to all corners of Thailand and even across its borders. He gives us therefore also glimpses of Laos and the Shan States, and notes that would be interesting even to the anthropologist. The descriptions of his journeys to Singapore, Indonesia and Australia are mainly for his Thai readers but even so they give a new reflection on 'developed countries'.
Lay disciples have sometimes written biographies of deceased meditation masters not knowing all the influential events in their teachers' lives. Some biographies have been idealized out of respect for the teacher. Ven. Ajahn Thate, however, writes with straightforward frankness, honestly relating the events that affected him most deeply and were instrumental in shaping his life. Ven. Ajahn Thate lived into his nineties and in the later years of his long life he was considered the most senior disciple of the 'fathers' of the contemporary forest tradition of Northeast Thailand, Ven. Ajahn Bhuuridatta and Ven. Ajahn Sao Kantasiilo. During his early years of practice he had enjoyed a privileged intimacy with these great teachers.
In writing his autobiography, Ven. Ajahn Thate assumes a familiarity with the Thai forest tradition and its ways of practice, so the following brief explanation of the lifestyle and its purpose may be helpful.
In former times, the monasteries in the villages and towns of Thailand were usually the principal centers of learning. The village monastery provided a spiritual center for the village, where rites and ceremonies could be performed and where local boys could become monks, learn to read and perhaps start to study the Buddhist scriptures. (Traditionally, all the boys in a family were expected to become novices or monks for at least one three-month Rains Retreat period.) In the more isolated rural areas, however, knowledge of the Vinaya (the monks' training rules laid down by the Buddha) was often only rudimentary and therefore standards were not very strict. Young monks who were interested in furthering their Buddhist studies could transfer to a monastery in a local market town, provincial center or even Bangkok. The programme there, however, would more usually be dedicated to scholastic study than strict observance of the monk's rules or meditation.
The revival of the forest tradition in Thailand during the last century was a grassroots movement to return to the lifestyle and training that was practiced in the time of the Buddha. Some monks abandoned the busy village and town monasteries for the peace and quiet of the forest. They followed the Vinaya Rule more strictly, emphasizing the importance of every detail. Such monks lived without money, living frugally on whatever was offered and patiently enduring when necessities were scarce. They integrated the extra austere practices (tudong) recommended by the Buddha into their lifestyle. For example, eating only one meal a day from their alms bowl, wearing robes made from discarded cloth, and living in the forest or in cemeteries — often using a krot (a 'tent-umbrella' with mosquito net) for shelter. These forest monks would often wander barefoot through the sparsely settled regions — Thailand's previously small population was scattered over quite a large country — seeking places conducive to meditation.
The very heart of the forest tradition is the development of meditation. By cultivating deep states of tranquillity and systematically investigating the body and mind, insight can arise into the true nature of existence. The forest masters were noted for their creativity in overcoming the problems, hindrances and defilements of the mind, and for their daring determination to realize Nibbana, enlightenment, the fulfillment of the spiritual path taught by the Buddha.
The reader is asked to remember that this work was written by a Thai for a Thai audience, with no thought of its being translated into English. It depicts and represents the lifestyle, social values and gender roles of a rural Asian culture at the beginning of this century. The experience of ultimate reality must necessarily be expressed through the conventional modes of a particular time and place. Furthermore, the author often wrote specifically for young monks, giving advice and warnings. Nonetheless, the timeless truths of Ven. Ajahn Thate's wisdom shine forth, bound neither by era nor culture.
Nearly all the tropical forest Ven. Ajahn Thate walked through and described had been destroyed during his lifetime. In an attempt to slow this destruction and save such forest as remains, forest monks have often been in the forefront of raising social awareness of environmental issues. In many areas the only patches of forest left are those protected behind forest monastery walls.
This book also includes two other examples of Ven. Ajahn Thate's Dhamma teachings, for those who want a practical guide on the path to serenity and insight: Steps Along the Path and The Meaning of Anatta, both translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. (Other English translations available are: Only the World Ends (translated by Jayasaro Bhikkhu) and Buddho (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.)
Ven. Ajahn Thate dedicated his life to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and from great compassion he taught and trained his followers in the practices leading to Nibbana. It is our sincere wish that the readers of his autobiography find it to be a source of inspiration and that they experience the deep peace, joy and wisdom that are the fruits of the Buddha's path.
Due to this memoir's uniqueness and importance, I have aimed for an accurate translation even at the cost of losing some of the original's spirit and inspiration. However, in some places with a wholly Thai context, material has been condensed and this is shown by ellipses (...).
All (parentheses) are from the original, [brackets] and footnotes have been added by the translators. The author had brought the book up to date with additions and the translation has kept to that structure, the section numbering therefore comes from the original. ???
Please see the Glossary for an explanation of many words and terms. (Note that there is a separate glossary for Steps Along The Path.)
??? Transliteration of Thai names and terms into the meager twenty-six letters of the English alphabet must always involve a compromise between consistency and readability. Pali names and terms are problematic because of type and diacritical restrictions in this electronic format. We have at least tried to show some long Pali vowels by following the convention of doubling up the English vowel, e.g., "Paatimokkha". The 'n tilde' is shown by an "ny". The glossary has extra indications where a 'period' indicates that there is a dot under\over the following letter, e.g., "Kamma.t.thaana". ???
Dates in the original are always given according to the (Thai) Buddhist Era (B.E.). We have converted them to the Common Era which began 543 years later; e.g., B.E. 2539 is C.E. 1996.
Titles and honorifics are important in Thai social interaction. I have tried to follow this convention, remaining faithful to the original, and hope that it does not prove too unwieldy.
Many people have helped in the realization of this completely new translation. (Mr. Siri Buddhasukh produced an early translation in 1978, which he entitled My Life.) This more thorough translation originated through the energy of Upasika Tan Bee Chun. Ven. Bhikkhu Ñaanadhammo put a great deal of work into assisting with the translation and then Jane B. and Steve G. in Cornwall, England, Barry (now Bhikkhu Santidhammo) in Australia, Khun V. and Khunying Suripan in Thailand, all helped to complete the task.
We ask forgiveness from the venerable author and our readers for any inadequacies or mistakes in the actual translation. Any translation must inevitably fall short of the original and in the end it rests with you, the reader, to complete the translation within yourself. Whether monk, nun or lay person, from East or West, may this 'life of Dhamma' inspire you to enrich your own life through the practice of Dhamma.
Most biographies are written by someone else, or when the person in question is already dead. There is the tendency to follow conventional writing sensibilities by eulogising the subject, in a way similar to what one hears at the funeral rites. Though one might know that the person had also committed some dark deeds, etiquette and decorum dictate what can be recorded. Good manners are exhibited in four ways:
I am someone who goes directly for the truth, and therefore I don't want anyone to write this sort of biography after I am dead. I know about myself so it is better that I do the job. After my death they can then write as they like about me. If they dislike me, this will influence what they relate, perhaps they will inflate the trifling cause of their displeasure beyond the truth. On the other hand, if they love me, they will magnify my good points out of all proportion.
In truth, I first wrote this Autobiography only for myself, to show my appreciation of a life wearing the saffron robe. There was no thought of publication because I would have felt rather ashamed at the idea, for an autobiography is self-promoting. Even when people asked to have it printed for me, I still wasn't happy with the idea.
When lay devotees arranged my sixth cycle [seventy-second] birthday celebrations on the twenty-sixth of April 1974, they also asked to print and to distribute my Autobiography at that time. I realized that if I didn't agree it would get written after I was dead anyway. I therefore quickly finished off the Autobiography that I had been writing so that it was ready for the celebration...
May readers forgive me if my Autobiography sometimes seems too self-congratulatory, and therefore offends against good taste. But if one doesn't write about what really happened what else can one include?
... Although I have brought this Autobiography up-to-date, please understand that the essential core has not been changed because the real subject of the book is still here...
My first name is Thate and I had the family name of Ree-o rahng. I was born at about nine o'clock, on a Saturday morning, 26 April 1902 (B.E. 2445). It was the fourth day of the waning moon1 in the year of the tiger. My birth place was the village of Nah Seedah, in the subdistrict of Glahng Yai, Bahn Peur District, Udorn-thani Province.
My father's name was Usah, and my mother's Krang. They were ordinary rice-farmers and both had grown up as fatherless orphans. After migrating from different regions they had met and married at the village of Nah Seedah. My father originally came from Darn Sai in Loei Province, while my mother was from Muang-fahng, (now a subdistrict) in the district of Lup-laer, Uttaradit Province. They established themselves in Nah Seedah Village and continued living there, producing ten children in all:
When I was nine, I went with all my friends to the village monastery for schooling, studying central Thai and the indigenous and traditional Dhamm' and Korm3 alphabets and scripts. There were many monks and novices at the local village monastery of Nah See-dah, and my eldest brother — who had ordained as a monk — was our teacher. He taught following the Mullabot Bapakit, the old fashioned reading primer and I studied there for three years. However, I was not very good at my lessons for I preferred to play rather than study.
In those days, the establishment of government schools had not yet spread throughout the country side. So while my eldest brother was a monk he had taken the opportunity to go out and travel and gain some wider experience. He also had a good retentive memory and was able to learn central Thai4 quickly and on returning could teach us. There were many of us studying under him — monks and novices as well as children. The numbers became so large that some people on seeing the situation, asked him whether it had already become an official school. We not only studied Thai script but also learned some religious chanting and how to read the texts written in the Dhamm' and Korm scripts. These lessons lasted for three years and then I had to leave the monastery because my elder brother withdrew from the monkhood. Most of my classmates also left because no one could take over the job of teaching.
Although I had left the monastery, my life continued to be involved mainly with the monks and novices. When my brother left the monkhood, no monk remained to take on the responsibilities of abbot. Occasionally, visiting monks would pass through and it was my job to act as liaison between these monks and the villagers. I regularly offered my services: in the morning, I went to present them with their food; in the evening, it was the fetching and filtering of their water; and then gathering flowers for the monks to use in their devotional offerings [puuja]. It was my job quickly to inform the village about how many monks had come and make sure that there was enough food to go round.
I conscientiously and unfailing took on these duties for a full six years. My parents gave me their full support and encouragement, and urged me on in my services to the monks. My undertaking of these duties caused my parents to show me even more love and affection. Nevertheless, whenever I was slow or tardy they would always make sure that I was put right. It was not just my parents who considered that I was successfully serving the monks, for all the villagers seemed to have a special affection and warmth for me. This was evident whenever business affecting the monks or the monastery came up, for then they would always seek me out.
About this time, I began thinking with increasing interest about good and evil, about virtuous and base deeds. Whenever any doubts or questions came up, I would always make sure to ask my father. Consequently, he started to take more interest in me. At night, when he was free, he liked to explain about things — about the ways of the world and about Dhamma. I can still remember some of his instructions. He taught me: "Having been born a son, don't be the son of a family cremated in the same cemetery". This means that a son should go and seek experience and knowledge away from his home village. One has to die, but one shouldn't lie down and die in one's birth place. This advice really appealed to me because my character already inclined in this direction.
I asked him: "If two people go and make merit through good deeds and generosity, and one is ordained as a monk while the other isn't, which one of them would gain the greater merit?". He replied that, "if a monk does this much merit," and he exhibited his thumb, "he will gain this much result" — lifting up two fistfuls in emphasis. "Whereas," he continued, "the non-ordained person might make this much — two fistful's — merit, but he would only receive one thumb's worth."
Although I probably didn't then fully understand his explanation, I still felt completely satisfied after hearing and seeing it through. This might have been because my character already naturally inclined towards the monastic life. I still remembered an occasion from my early days in the monastery, when I went with my elder brother to visit another monastery. There was a novice there whose demeanour and behavior were exemplary. He made such a strong impression on me, he was so inspiring and admirable, that I felt a special sympathy towards him. I found myself following his every movement, whether he was walking or sitting or going about his various duties. The more I gazed after him the stronger my faith and feeling grew. On returning to our monastery, I couldn't get his image out of my mind. I could think of only one thing: 'Oh, when can I ordain and become a novice like him?'. This was my continual preoccupation.
At this point, there is something that I feel must relate. It concerns the life story of my parents. This is something very special for me because I recall their love and kindness towards me with such immense gratitude. Particularly so concerning the time they spent teaching me about various things — especially about morality and religious values. It really seems as if they had a special love and concern for me. They also used to tell me about their younger days in quite some detail, so much so that listening to their trials and tribulations aroused sadness and a feeling of great pity and compassion for them both.
As I have mentioned before, both my father and mother were refugees and fatherless orphans. My father originally lived in the highlands of Darn Sai District, in Loei Province. He migrated from there to escape the privations of its hand-to-mouth existence and came down to the more fertile lowlands. People had told him that the region around the town of Nongkhai was fertile and abundant in rice and food. This was in stark contrast to his home region where, even though their occupation was the growing of rice, they never seemed able to produce enough rice to eat. The countryside there was mostly mountainous with little land available for normal paddy fields so planting supplementary fields up on the mountain slopes was necessary. This called for the cultivation of large areas to produce sufficient rice.
My father told me that because his father was already dead, the responsibility for supporting his four brothers and sisters together with his mother had fallen on him. Their fields had extended as far as the eye could see. When they paused in their work to have a meal, they would not bother putting up any shelter but would eat out under the open sky. This was done because my father was concerned that his younger brothers and sisters after eating their fill would become lazy and want to rest rather than getting on with the work. Despite all such effort, in years of inadequate rainfall there would not be enough to eat. Some families had no rice at all and so were reduced to consuming ma-gor5 fruits as a substitute. This might have had to keep people going for as long as a month at a time.
He trekked down to the lowlands with his four younger brothers and sisters and their mother. There was sister Boonmah, brothers Gunhah and Chiang-In, and sister Dtaeng-orn. The party expanded when many relatives and other people also elected to go. Their migration involved crossing several high mountain ranges — the Poo Fah and Poo Luang, for instance — and dense jungle tracts. People owning elephants or pack animals could more easily convey their belongings and so had an advantage over those who were forced to carry everything on their shoulders. Their own strength had to serve as their vehicle.
It took more than a week to reach the village of Nah Ngiew. On arrival, they established a temporary camp on the edge of a large lake, Nong Pla or Fish Lake, in Nong Dtao. Later, they moved on and made a permanent settlement in the village of Nah Ngiew, which is still there to this day.
My mother's side of the family was of the Lao Puan tribe. They had been forced out of Laos by the Thai army in the reign of King Rama III and were released in the region of Uttaradit. They later settled down in (the modern subdistrict of) Muang Fahng, Lup Laer District, Uttaradit Province. My mother told me that her mother had related the events of the migration down from the town of Chiang Kwahng to her. My grandmother was still too young to walk so the adults put her in a woven bamboo basket that they then suspended from one end of a bamboo carrying pole, the other end being balanced with their belongings. In this way they blazed a trail — penetrating dense jungles, fording streams and traversing mountain ranges until they reached Muang Fahng. When my grandmother grew up, she married and had two children and these were my mother and her younger brother.
Afterwards, her husband died and my grandmother was left alone with two children. At that time the surrounding regions had become infested with bandits and thieves, and the authorities seemed powerless and unable to deal with them. Under such conditions even ordinarily honest people were corrupted and became criminals. An example of such a person was the man Chiang Tong who had been a member of their migrant group. He joined the bandits and was constantly leaving home and going out to cause mischief. In the end, he had to flee from the threat of arrest by hiding out around Glahng Yai in Bahn Peur District. While there, he witnessed the good-naturedness of the local inhabitants and saw their peaceful ways with their abundant and prosperous life. He decided to go back to Muang Fahng and report, and try to persuade his relatives and friends to move on to Glahng Yai.
My mother told me that scores of people decided to join the party that was to journey on. They traveled on foot down through Phetchaboon, continuing to Loei Province and stopping to rest at the monastery in Hooay Port Village. It was there that people came down with smallpox and many died. The inhabitants of Hooay Port Village showed such good will and kindness in their help towards the needy at this time, that several of the party decided to stay on and settle down right there.
Those remaining in Chiang Tong's group struggled on down and eventually arrived at Glahng Yai Village. My grandmother with her younger brother and her two children — this was my mother and her younger brother, my uncle — had to remain dependent on older and senior friends in the group. When the time arrives for us to experience suffering, then odd things can occur. It happened that my grandmother's younger brother met a group of traveling Burmese traders and abruptly decided to go off with them. There had never been any argument or disagreement between them throughout the long journey, he simply left and was never heard from again.
On arrival at Glahng Yai Village, a group separated from the main party and moved on to settle in the village of Nah Bong Poo Pet, in the district of Pon-pisai. One of my mother's uncles on her father's side went away with this group, leaving my grandmother and her two fatherless children to depend on her elder companions.
Afterwards, when my mother had grown up she met my father and fell in love. They were married and settled down to live together in the village of Nah Seedah and produced ten children — as has been mentioned earlier.
My grandmother eventually married again, this time to the same Chiang Tong who had been their leader on the journey. They lived out their later years together until misfortune struck: a tree branch fell on my grandmother's head and fatally injured her. Chiang Tong was a person guilty of many wrong doings and kammic retribution soon caught up with him. After my grandmother's death, he again married a woman of the same migrant party, but this time his new wife committed suicide by hanging herself. He realized that he had much evil kamma and so decided to enter a monastery.
Chiang Tong wore white robes and kept the Eight Precepts6 of a Buddhist devotee and lived into old age, reaching almost a hundred years. Yet he didn't stay in the monastery, preferring to live with his grandchildren in their house in the village. However, when he chanted his daily devotions to the Lord Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, his grandchildren would become annoyed at the disturbance and would scold him. He was very old and had nowhere else to go, and he was also becoming senile, forgetting things such as whether he had eaten or not. His grandchildren became more frustrated and cursed and abused him, and not a day passed without them saying they wished he were dead. He returned the abuse and cursed them in endless ways, saying he hoped they turned out like him.
It was a pitiful state of affairs. Those people who have done evil will find that the consequences are liable to catch up with them before they die. Living amongst base people — those who are unprincipled and lacking in virtue and morality — tends to pass on such evil so that it corrupts most of the people involved.
This suffering of ours has no limits. We let go of one thing and grasp hold of something else. It goes on and on and on in this way, throughout our life. This is why the wise person becomes weary and tired of the suffering inherent in this world and seeks for a way to go beyond it.
After her mother passed away, my mother was able to find support from her husband and children, for their livelihood was now enough to get by on. Although they might only have as little as six baht7 to their name, they were not too concerned. Food and rice were abundant and money wasn't so necessary in those days. Rice farming alone produced enough food to last through the whole year, while the cultivation of too large an area meant there would be nowhere — no space left in the granary — to store the extra grain. Even farming a modest area still produced a large surplus of paddy rice.
After a time their third son died. My father had had a particular love for this son and he became so distraught with the loss that he almost went out of his mind. The child had been so loveable and intelligent; so well-spoken and articulate; so easy to teach. He had been obedient, had loved his parents and always listened to their instructions. Although there remained six children, besides his wife, it seemed to my father as if he had lost everything. He could see only as far as that lone dead child, while his despair enveloped everything else in darkness. With time, the dark clouds of sorrow gradually dissipated and the light of Dhamma — as found in the Buddhist teachings — began to illuminate his heart, allowing him dimly to see the way out. He thought that if he could distance himself from all concerns — by becoming a monk — it might somewhat assuage his grief. One consideration was that he could share the merit gained from such ordination with his dead son and that would certainly enable the son to take rebirth in a happy realm (Sugati). My father consequently took leave of his wife and children to be ordained, and stayed a monk for two Rains Retreats.
This going forth as a monk into the Buddha's religion does not automatically end any of the distress that a person might be feeling. Such suffering arises dependent on internal defilements and we have been accumulating these worldly defilements from the time of our birth. This is something that has been going on for innumerable lives and births so don't even try to disclose and count all those defilements. Someone lacking in wisdom can't possibly unearth those layers of defilements — laid down and accumulated already beyond counting — and spread them out to see. For that reason, they can't bring about their final elimination. (However, ordination is still helpful in that it at least enables one to begin to see something of the way to go.)
As the clouds of his sorrow gradually lifted, my father realized that he missed his six innocent children and his abandoned wife. They were fatherless, without friends or relatives and this moved him to leave the monkhood and become a householder again.8 This was good fortune for those of us who still had to take birth. My young sister and I were subsequently born into my parent's home, born to people who had founded their lives in goodness, (that is, they were filled with the refinement and grace of morality and virtue). I am proud to say that this birth place compares favorably with any other in this world, because from birth onwards I was always in contact with virtue and Dhamma. I was able to grow up and mature in the cool shade of the yellow robe of Buddhism, right until today.
The thing that I rejoice in most is that although I didn't support my parents in the normal lay manner, I could still sustain and foster their goodwill and kindheartedness. This was achieved by my following the holy life as a monk and by being able to help train their hearts in stages right up to the last days of their lives. Both my parents seemed well pleased with how I had turned out and were not disappointed in having brought me up. This was because I had fulfilled a son's filial obligations. That is to say, I had given them teachings and instruction concerning the practice of morality and virtue, which enabled what they already knew to develop progressively higher and higher. I am especially happy that I was able to help my father with advice and suggestions about his meditation practice, right until his last day. He was delighted and more than willing to receive my training methods and to put them into practice, until he was able clearly to see the results in his own heart. Eventually, he was able to exclaim that throughout all his seventy-five years he had never known such peace and happiness.
It gives me enormous joy to have taught my mother right through to her final day. When she was breathing her last, I was present caring for her, helping her to remember Dhamma. She was consciously aware and willingly took my counsel to heart, so that in her last moments her face became bright and radiant. There is a stanza of the Lord Buddha — if I remember it correctly — where he outlined how a son of good family, intent on repaying the kindness and virtue of his father and mother should act:
'If he were to administer to their every need in the best possible way, to a degree difficult to find in the world; even if he were to provide them with the treasure of a World Ruling Monarch (Cakravartin). as an offering — all this would still fall short. It still could not be considered full recompense for the kindness and excellence of one's parents. This is because all those things can only offer pleasure and happiness during their lifetime. Once they have died, there is no way they can take such things with them. However, if the son of good family instructs his mother and father, who are deficient in morality and virtue, to establish themselves in these wholesome and fine qualities; or if they are already established therein, he encourages and supports their further development, then that son can be considered one who has truly repaid his debt'.
The wealth of the Noble Treasure is priceless and can go with the individual wherever he or she may go. Therefore, saying that I have managed to practice following all the Lord Buddha's instructions is not incorrect. It is the complete fulfillment of one's obligations, even though a proper and formal contract may never have been made.
About this time in my life — perhaps it was because I was entering my teens or for another reason, I don't know — my father showed an extra special interest in me. After the evening meal, around seven o'clock, he was liable to bring up some topic and illustrate it with examples. He regularly taught me in this way, no matter whether it was concerned with spiritual or worldly matters.
Sometimes he would question me or ask my opinion. For example, he would enquire: "Do you like girls? And when you marry, what sort of girl will you marry?". This is how it proceeded. I can still remember my answer: "I like girls with a fair and light complexion, without blemish, courteous and well mannered in thought, speech and behavior. Her family background wouldn't pose any problem. However, if she came from a good, respectable family, all the better".
While asleep one night, I had a visionary dream:
There I was with a large group of friends, setting out from the house to go and play in the fields. This was typical boyish behavior for us in those days. Just then, two forest monks9 appeared, walking towards us with alms bowl and 'krot' over their shoulders. On seeing me, one of the monks rushed at me and I was so afraid that I fled for my life. Yet all my friends just stood there unconcerned, as if nothing untoward was taking place. The circumstances were such that I had to take the final resort, by seeking refuge at home with my parents. Yet it wasn't to be, for when I ran into the house yelling to mother and father for help, both remained impassive and unconcerned as if nothing unusual was going on. Meanwhile, the forest monk hadn't stopped chasing after me and was close on my heels. I ran into the bedroom and dived under the mosquito net. The monk burst in after me and yanked up the mosquito net. Then, using a whip, he lashed at me with all his strength. I was terrified and so startled that it woke me up.
When I came to my senses, I found I was still trembling and was soaked in perspiration from head to toe. My heart throbbed violently and where I had been whipped still stung. I really thought that it had all actually happened and even gingerly felt with my hand to check. It was so vivid that it seemed real. I then pulled myself together and mindfully went over what had happened. After careful consideration the mind eventually calmed down and my fear went away.
This episode gradually faded from my memory and was forgotten for a long time. It was only when I was out wandering in the jungle as a forest novice-monk with my meditation teacher that it all came back to me. That visionary dream from the distant past did truly seem to point out future events and to have been correct in every respect.
About this time another incident happened to me — but this was no dream or vision. I had been unable to get to sleep until late at night for I was taken up with recalling and reflecting on the great kindness and goodness of my parents. I allowed my thoughts to wander and pondered about them, seeing how they had raised and nurtured us ten children with great sacrifice and grinding toil until we reached maturity. Soon, their children would be grown up and married and have families of their own. They would all then disperse, going their separate ways. I reached that thought and felt compelled to consider what my parent's situation would then be like. Who was going to provide for and take care of my mother and father? I was considering all this according to the sensibility of a child, without real thought for the future. This made me feel very sad and despondent, grieving for the future destitute condition of my parents. It moved me so much that I began to sob and the tears soaked my pillow. I was in this state for a long time and the more I thought about them, the greater my despondency. I made the decision that when I was grown up I would not get married like everyone else. When everyone else left home I would take over the responsibility of caring for mother and father all by myself, and do it to the best of my ability. My heart was gladdened and contented after arriving at this resolution and as it was already very late into the night I fell asleep.
All dhammas exist here, within each of us and the one that knows Dhamma is the heart or mind. Whether it knows much or little, whether it knows in a course or more refined way, depends on one's present competence, one's aptitude and maturity (boon-paramii) and the training each person has received.
The resolution that I made then came from gratitude and appreciation of the goodness and virtue of my parents.
Another night a similar thing happened. I lay there reflecting on the condition of the ordinary village farmer and their routine working year:
The annual cycle begins during the months of March and April when forest needs to be cleared for new fields. The area is burned off, the remaining stumps and roots dug out and fences erected. When the monsoon rains arrive, the various crops have to be prepared and planted out, according to whatever is planned. Those families with few or insufficient members would have to decide how to divide their time between the various tasks.
There is the general plowing to do, and the sowing and preparation of the nursery-rice seedlings. This entails working and laboring continuously until the rice seedlings are ready for transplanting.10 There is then the replanting of each young rice plant into the plowed and ready fields. Of course, I am speaking here of a year with good and timely rain. A dry year means wasted time and effort with deprivation and loss.
It is mainly the housewife's task to have previously organized adequate supplies. This would include, for example, rice, chili-peppers, salt, pickled fish,11 and tobacco. Then when everyone gets down to work in the fields there is no need to be concerned about finding provisions. Normally, with favorable rainfall they will complete the rice planting by August or it might extend into September. With that done everyone turns to gathering food reserves to be put away ready for harvest time. Besides this, there is fishing gear to be repaired and readied for use in the coming dry season.
As the monks come to the end of their Rains Retreat, the villagers will usually begin harvesting the paddy rice. However, prior to this, they must first harvest any hill rice.12 Throughout the harvesting season there is still the added labor of picking the other crops and vegetables as they ripen in their fields. There may be chili-peppers, cotton and beans. In those days when the paddy crop was abundant the harvesting might not be completely finished much before late January. Then came the job of transporting the threshed rice to the storage granaries that might go on into February.
Even when harvesting was taking place during the day, at night the bamboo strips13 to bind the rice sheaves had to be fashioned. With the harvest over, there would then be firewood to find for boiling up the sugar cane to obtain the syrup.
About the boiling up of the sugar cane:
The daily process began in the early afternoon with entry into the sugar cane plantation. Sufficient cane had to be cut ready for the next morning's boiling. The cut cane was carried out of the fields and carted off — if one owned a cart14 — and stacked at the boiling shed. Getting up at first light one had to go and press the juice out of the cane and this would go on late into the morning. Inadequate help would bring delay so that someone would have to go off and prepare the meal. With the sugar cane all pressed, everyone could come together for a communal meal. After that, they would all separate and go about their respective duties leaving one person to watch over the cauldron of boiling sugar cane juice. Some farmers had so much sugar cane that they didn't finish processing it until March. By then it was time to start clearing the forest to make fields once more.
Well then. What was it on that night that led me to go over all this in such detail? All the different phases of the adult's working year. What was I after? It saddened me so, feeling for and sympathizing with the sort of life we are born into, deficient in opportunity or free time. After our birth there seems only to be actions and deeds to be done. Individual distinctions only appear because of disparate duties and difference in rank or status. The future leads on into a continuing doing, unless, that is, one is asleep or dead.
This way of thinking went directly against my juvenile views and perception of reality. I was intoxicated with the idea that 'this world is so much fun'. Remember, in those days children didn't have to go to school nor did they have any responsibilities to worry about. After having eaten there was only playing around and looking for fun with my friends. If sometimes we had to go and take the cattle or buffalos out to graze, we could also turn that into fun.
On that night, I clearly perceived all the suffering involved in being born into this world as a human being. I saw it for myself, right there in my own heart, previously never having given it any consideration at all. This time, however, my perception was only about seeing the suffering inherent in the struggle to fill one's stomach, with seeing that each day offered no free time, no break in the process. I could not see what I had to do to surmount and go beyond such suffering. That lack of understanding shows that it cannot be considered the Noble Truth of Suffering15 for it is only concerned with the ordinary, mundane truth of suffering.
It was during this period, that our part of the country became infested with brigands and cattle rustlers. These gangsters took over the whole region and even ten-year-old children and women engaged in the thieving. The authorities were impotent and so the villagers had to look after themselves. Each household kept a whole pack of guard dogs and at night everyone had to take it in turns to stand guard. Whenever cattle were stolen, the owner would have to go and pay an absurdly overpriced ransom for their return.
The stouthearted would go out after the thieves and hunt them down like wild animals. There would then be some peace and respite. The authorities seemed to approve and even actively encourage such retaliation.
I was still only small but I also had some big ideas about being famous. I did not want to become renowned as thief or robber but rather as the hero who conquered them, so I set my mind on one thing: 'What can I do to make myself invulnerable16 to all weapons?'. I could then go out and crush these hordes of brigands, wiping them all out.
At this time I was also helping to look after a very talkative and boastful monk — excuse me, but that is the description he deserves. His place of origin was the village of Muang Kai which is where the district of Varnorn-nivart borders on Bueng Kahn District. He shrewdly must have guessed my innermost thoughts because before long he was suggesting: "After the Rains Retreat, why don't you come back with me to my home village. I have there every sort of thing. If you want charms, arcane herbs, the whole range of accessories that give invulnerability, I have them all."
I was delighted with this. So as soon as the Rains Retreat ended, three older youths — my elder brother and two of his friends — with myself as a much younger fourth accompanied this monk back to his home village. We discovered on reaching our destination that the monk had really duped us into escorting him back home. None of the villagers in that area had any respect for him, because he had already ordained and disrobed numerous times. The last news I heard of him was that he had disrobed yet again, had got married and that both husband and wife were smoking opium. The two bigger youths who had gone with us still pleaded with him to learn about and obtain the various special things.17 But he was always evasive and beat around the bush and looked for excuses to extricate himself. We discovered the truth when we spoke to the other monks in that monastery, for really he didn't have anything remarkable or rare, his only accomplishment being that of bragging and talking big.
Our group stayed with him for about ten days before taking leave to return home with our hopes all unrealized. Every day while we had been staying with him, he had urged us to go out to find eels for him to eat.18 He really loved eels, although he didn't like any other type of fish.
It took us three days to walk home. I felt particularly humiliated and ashamed. On leaving home I had resolved to seek out and learn the occult knowledge of 'invulnerability' so that by my return I would be secure against any weapon belonging to anyone. When I reached home, my friends found every possible opportunity to make fun of me and this made me feel even more humiliated. However the experience did have its positive side for I became disillusioned with the whole thing and lost my foolish credulity in charms and magical powers. From that day forward, right up to the present, whenever anyone comes in and talks of their wondrous properties my mind remains wholly indifferent. When I later became a novice, my friends had tried to persuade me to go and study about such things. They were even willing to pay the customary 'teacher's fee' and sponsor the whole venture but I would not change my mind.
I consider myself particularly fortunate on this account: I had been born into a family of good moral conduct and virtuous behavior; I had been taught and prepared through living in a monastery with monks — who could be truly regarded as good monks. Whenever external conditions and surroundings coerced and pressured my mind, forcing it to turn towards what was low and base, it seemed that things never turned out as my base desires would have it. If they had, who knows what might have happened to me. Perhaps one can say that my good kamma and past merit guided and protected me.
That long journey was the first time in my life that I had gone away from home. We were all staying at Muang Kai Village when the news first came through about the outbreak of World War I. It was all anyone ever spoke about when they came to visit the monastery.19 I became so homesick that I cried every day. Some days I couldn't get to sleep until late into the night because of my constant pining for my parents.
When I arrived home again, I resumed my practice of serving the monks in the monastery as I had always done. However, I didn't always sleep at the monastery and had the duty of bursar or steward (Veyyavaccakorn) to the monks, being the intermediary and liaison between them and the villagers. This worked out very well. All the villagers seemed increasingly to appreciate my efforts because I had become adept and competent. Another consideration in their growing interest in me might have been that I was also entering adolescence. They would give me jobs to do and simultaneously tease me.
I had been going regularly to the monastery throughout an extended period of about six years and had become closely acquainted with the monks and novices. However, on no occasion did any of the monks teach me about keeping the Five or Eight Precepts. Strange as it may seem, this is quite understandable because the Sangha or Community of monks of that time was seriously deficient in learning.
In 1916, Ven. Ajahn Singh Khantayaagamo (the future Phra Ñaa.navisit'samiddhiviiraacaarn) and Ven. Ajahn Kham — disciples of the Venerable Meditation Master Ajahn Mun Bhuuridatta Thera20 — were out walking tudong.21 They were the first forest monks to reach the village of Nah Seedah. Although there were monks resident in the local monastery, they still came and asked to stay with us. It almost seemed to me as if they had aimed specifically at coming to see my father and me. We attended on them with deep reverence and faith because we saw that their way of practice was different from other groups of meditation monks. (My father had previously attended on Ajahn Seetut.)
In particular, the visiting monks taught me about their various obligations and duties. For example, I learned the 'do's and don'ts' in offering22 things to a monk and about meditation using the mantra- word 'Buddho' as an object of preliminary recitation. My mind was able to converge in samadhi23 to the point where I lost all desire to speak with anyone. This was where I first experienced the flavor of meditation's peace and stillness. It's something I've never forgotten. Later, when I was a novice studying with many others, I would slip out — unknown to anyone — into the cool and quiet of the night to meditate alone.
The venerable monks stayed with us for a little more than two months. At first they were also intending to spend the Rains Retreat but a previous malarial infection flared up again. Therefore, just before the start of the Rains Retreat, they left to stay at an abandoned monastery in the village of Nah Bong, Nahm Mong Subdistrict in the district of Tah Bor and I was able to go with them.
The monks were ill with malaria throughout the three months of the Rains Retreat. In spite of his illness, Ven. Ajahn Singh would still kindly use some of his free time to teach me reading and writing, with occasional training in religious matters. Towards the end of the Rains Retreat something came up in his mind — I don't know quite what — for he said that after the Retreat he would have to return to his home village and asked if I would go with him. "The journey will be long and tough," he added. My answer was an immediate, "Venerable Sir, I will go with you".
A few days before the end of the Rains Retreat, I asked his permission to go home to take leave of my parents. Both of the monks seemed pleased with the idea that I would be going with them and they quickly organized some flowers, incense and candles for me to go and offer to my parents. This is the traditional way of asking forgiveness and blessing. (They gave me excellent teaching about this custom. In fact even the first time I had fled from home, I had followed this practice.)
On the evening of that night, after seeking forgiveness and a blessing from my parents, I continued around and asked the same of all the family elders and the older people in the village. Whomever I went to see would weep with sorrow, as if I were going off to my death. I became a bit sentimental and could not hold back my own tears. At daybreak, my mother and aunt set out with me to where the Venerable Ajahn was staying and we all spent the night there. It was Pavarana, the last day of the Rains Retreat, and early the following morning, after the meal, the Venerable Ajahn led us off on our journey. Once again, my aunt and the villagers gathered there and shed some tears together.
It was perhaps unprecedented for a boy of that region and my age to venture away from home on such a long journey. It also meant being cut off from my relatives and friends who would have offered comfort and warmth. Not only that, it seems that I may well have been the first boy to venture off — without any worries or regrets — following after forest meditation monks. We set off walking from Tah Bor wading through water and mud, steadily pressing on through the forest and passing across the rice fields.24 Whenever one of the monks became feverish with malaria, he would climb up to rest in a field shelter25 or else under a tree that was shady and dry, out of the mud. At day break the venerable monks would still make the effort to go out on alms round and they were able to feed me too.
We walked for three days before reaching the provincial town of Udorn-thani, staying at Wat26 Majjhima-vat for ten nights before setting off again on our journey. We took the road to Khon Kaen Province and passed through the present provinces of Mahasarakam, Roi-et and Yaso-torn. This journey of ours — the two of us with the Venerable Ajahn — took just over a month before reaching Nong Korn Village of Hua Dtaphan Subdistrict, in the district of Amnart Charoen. This was the village where the Venerable Ajahn's mother lived. He stayed there for about three months so that he could teach and help her in spiritual matters.
While staying in Nong Korn Village, Ven. Ajahn Singh sent me to ask for novice ordination27 with the Venerable Upajjhaaya Loo-ee from the monastery in Keng Yai Village who would act as my Preceptor. I was about to enter my eighteenth year.
At this time, I was becoming somewhat more proficient in my reading and had been going through the Trai-lokavithan.28 This book describes the future degeneration and destruction of the world of the satthantara kappa time. Reading this moved me to deep sadness and my eyes were filled with tears for many a day. At meal times I had no appetite because my heart was lost in thoughts of the approaching degeneration and the calamity awaiting human beings and all creatures. It was as if all this would be unfolding before my eyes within just a few days.
Venerable Ajahn Singh took me to stay at Wat Sutat-narahm in Ubon town. It was a monastery where he himself had once lived. I now entered the monastery school at Wat See-tong to continue with my Thai Language studies. Having settled me there and with the Rains Retreat being over, Ven. Ajahn Singh turned back to his forest wandering. He returned by way of Sakhon Nakorn Province because a group of monks led by the Venerable Ajahn Mun was wandering in that region. The night before Ven. Ajahn Singh set out, he called a meeting of the monks and novices and informed us of his intentions. On hearing this news, I felt such an enormous reluctance to be parted from him that I began to sob — right there in the middle of that large gathering. Feeling self-conscious and embarrassed in front of my friends, I beat a hasty retreat and hurried outside to reestablish some mindfulness and try to compose myself. I remembered the occasion in the time of the Lord Buddha, when the Venerable Ananda wept on learning that the Lord Buddha was soon finally to pass away. By reflecting on this, it somewhat assuaged my own heart's grief and I could go back into the meeting. The Venerable Ajahn had meanwhile been teaching on various themes.
At the same time as learning Thai, I had to allocate time for memorizing Pali chanting and studying the General Dhamma Studies Course.29 I was very conscious that in spite of being so much older than the other students keeping up with them would be difficult. I was going through the third grade of the course but couldn't sit the final examination because the Ecclesiastical Head Monk of that Region (Chao Kana Monton) had made a rule that one had to be more than twenty years old. It therefore wasn't until my third year there that I could take the examination and was able to pass it that same year.
My memorizing of the Pali texts continued and I was learning by heart the Paatimokkha Rule.30 I applied myself to this because of my regard and admiration for the monastic discipline. My Thai language studies only extended to the completion of the primary education course (because government schools then only taught the three elementary grades).
On leaving the Thai language school I turned my full attention to studying Pali. However, in that year of my studies it so happened that Ven. Mahaa Pin Paññaabalo — who was the younger brother of Ven. Ajahn Singh — came back from Bangkok. He initiated a course in Nak Dhamm' Toh, Grade Two, which was the first of its kind in that administrative region of the Northeast. I therefore also enrolled for that course but I was never able to finish it, nor indeed the Pali, because Ven. Ajahn Singh returned to spend the Rains Retreat at Wat Sutat-narahm. After the Rains Retreat — and before I could take my examinations — he led Ven. Ajahn Mahaa Pin and me off on tudong.
It was the novice Thate who became the millionaire. Here, I am talking about the time when the government thought up the idea of creating one new 'millionaire' every year in Thailand. They thus brought out an annual lottery with a first prize of fifty or sixty thousand baht. In those days, this was considered a fortune large enough for a Thai millionaire. It was all done so that we Thais would not feel humiliated before other richer countries.
One night it so happened that Novice Thate was unable to sleep because he had just won first prize in the lottery. It was time to set about finding the site to build himself a grand and extensive three story mansion. This residence would be furnished to the most modern designs and be in the center of the commercial district. The employees and assistants would have to fill the shelves with every imaginable kind of merchandise. He would be at ease in body and mind without a worry in the world and spend his time lounging on a sofa, making eyes at the attractive young women who would come in to shop. Whoever chanced a glance in his direction and smiled, would receive a happy smile back. Throughout his life of eighteen to nineteen years, he had never known greater happiness.
He had indeed attained the rank of millionaire — just as the government had wished. Yet then, within the blink of an eye, with all the things still fresh and new, aniccaa or impermanence intrudes. Ah, impermanence! All abruptly breaks down and disappears from his heart and that's something he regrets so much.
Novice Thate comes to his senses and he realizes that it is already late into the night: 'It should already be time for sleep — Hey, what is this? Not only has the lottery yet to take place but I haven't even bought a ticket! How come I've already become a millionaire? I must be going crazy!'. That night he felt an unspeakable degree of mortification and shame. If any knowledgeable persons were to know about these fantasies what would they say? He finally fell asleep and awoke at dawn with guilty feelings from the night before and never told anyone about this occurrence.
Anyone can become this sort of 'millionaire' — not just Novice Thate. I described him as a millionaire only in the sense that in his mind's eye he could imagine possession of an abundance of property and wealth. Still, at least he was content with the amount that his imagination produced. This is much better than those people already possessing material wealth who fantasize about getting even more. They are forever dissatisfied with what they already have and thereby are always discontented and troubled. Of what benefit is all that wealth to such people? Wealthy or poor, the real question lies with whether one is happy or not. It is certainly not the case that the more one possesses the better it is. The Lord Buddha thus taught that contentment with what one actually has is a resource and wealth of great value.
I went forth as a monk through my faith in the Lord Buddha's Teaching — the Dhamma and the Vinaya Discipline. Then I sincerely followed the way of practice, clearly seeing the truth that he had indicated.
The Lord Buddha once pointed out a money bag to Venerable Ananda and explained that it was something poisonous. He added that it was not only poisonous to monks and nuns who involve themselves with it, but also to lay people who do not know how to handle it correctly. For lay people however it is a necessity, something that has to be used, for their condition and way of life is quite different from that of a monk or nun. Taking this further, anyone in possession of great wealth but unable to deal with it properly is in the same position as someone holding a firebrand. The fire will inevitably burn down from the ignited end to scorch the hand that grasps it.
I was a novice for five years before becoming a monk and having spent such a long time in a monastery gave me a considerable advantage over the other newly ordained monks. I was on old hand, so to speak, and knew very well how the monastery worked. It gave me a head start over those who were given bhikkhu ordination with me. For instance, I already knew the chanting and could recite the Patimokkha.
On the 16th of May 1923,31 at 11.48 ???A.M., I went forth as a monk in the ordination boundary32 of Wat Sutat'. I was approaching twenty-two years of age. My Preceptor33 was the Venerable Phra Maharat with Venerable Maha Pin Paññaabalo acting as the Announcing Ajahn.34
This was the year that my teacher, the Venerable Ajahn Singh Khantayaagamo, led a party of six — four monks and two novices — to spend the Rains Retreat at Wat Sutat'. It was the first time that a community of forest meditation monks stayed the Rains Retreat in the provincial town of Ubon.
Venerable Ajahn Singh came back to spend the Rains Retreat in Ubon because he learned that his younger brother, Venerable Maha Pin, had arrived back there from Bangkok. Ven. Ajahn Singh's plan was to take his brother out wandering for meditation in the jungle. Before Ven. Maha Pin had gone to Bangkok, he had promised Ven. Ajahn Mun that he would first go and study and then come back to take up the way of practice. Ven. Ajahn Singh had been delighted to hear that his younger brother had returned and thus came to spend the Rains Retreat at Wat Sutat-narahm.
Following the end of the Rains Retreat and the Ka.thina season,35 Ven. Ajahn Singh led a large group of us walking on tudong. Those of us new to tudong, apart from Ven. Maha Pin and myself, were Ven. Kam Phoo-ay, Ven. Torn and two novices. There were twelve of us all together.
(Ven. Mahaa Pin Paññaabalo had completed his fifth grade Pali studies. He can therefore be considered the first scholastic monk of Mahaa grade36 in Thailand at that time, to go off on tudong. Most of the academic monks considered the going off on tudong a disgraceful thing to do.37 It was due to Ven. Ajahn Singh being our leader that I was allowed to go along on tudong because without my presence my Preceptor was obliged to recite the Patimokkha Rule himself.)
I had been living at Wat Sutat' in Ubon, separated from family and close friends, for a full six years. While I was living there various people left their sons and grandsons under my care. Four boys lived with me as my 'disciples',38 of whom two were ordained as novices. They had been with me ever since my own novice days, right through to my ordination as a monk. We had developed a father-son relationship and so when it came time to separate, they all began to weep thinking how much they were going to miss me. I too was almost unable to hold back my tears. However, being their teacher it would have looked bad if I cried in front of them so I gritted my teeth and suppressed my sorrow, not letting my true feelings show. Even so, I found my voice hoarse with emotion.
At the time those feelings hadn't seemed too overpowering but later, after we had left, they seeped in and made me feel dull and listless for a remarkably long time. Whether I was walking, standing, sitting or lying down, even while talking or eating, my heart was preoccupied in gloom and sadness, longing for my 'disciples'. How will they manage? What will they eat? Will they have enough to eat or have to go without? Who will teach them? Or perhaps someone would come along to bully and boss them about. This was the first time in my life that I had ever experienced such depression.
I therefore had to think through and reflect on my situation: 'These boys are neither my children nor my grandchildren; they aren't blood relatives; they only came to rely and depend on me. I guided and instructed them to the best of my ability. Why is it that I miss and pine about them so much?' At this point, I pondered what it must be like for people with a wife and children of their own. There! If these 'disciples' had been my own sons, my own flesh and blood, how much greater would have been my grief. I now perceived the drawback and danger in such longing and yearning and this realization permeated right through to my heart. This understanding has never been lost.
Human beings are really no different from young monkeys that cannot live alone, separated from their mother. This caused me to become overwhelming fearful of sentimental attachment. Such yearning and longing lead to suffering both when one is united and when separated. What can we do to gain freedom?
Our party of twelve — eight monks and four novices — with Ven. Ajahn Singh leading, made our way out of Ubon town during November.39 We walked steadily on, never staying anywhere along the way for more than a single night until we arrived at the village of Hua Dtaphan. We rested there for quite some time before moving on to stay at Hua Ngoo Village where we readied our requisites40 before continuing our wanderings through the forest.
Our walking on tudong this time did not offer much solitude and seclusion because of the large number in our party. Nevertheless, it did give a fair taste of the experience of walking and wandering through forests and jungle. For instance, one night we arranged our resting places with krot umbrellas and mosquito nets in place. After we had chanted our evening puja,41 a storm broke on us with gale force winds and pouring rain. To lie down or even to sit became impossible as the area started to flood. We quickly gathered up our gear and fled, thinking to ask for shelter in the nearby village monastery. Besides everything else, we couldn't find the right path into the village,42 which meant we had to circle back and forth close to the village perimeter for many hours.
When we eventually reached the village monastery, we found that it was already occupied by sleeping lay people. These were the six traveling salesmen who had been walking with us for part of the journey. When they had previously spotted the mass of dark storm clouds building up on the horizon, they had announced that they were going to stay in the village rather than sleeping out. They now helped to arrange whatever sleeping places could be found for us. With the sleeping places arranged, we hurried back to escort the Ven. Ajahn in, with those seven or eight of our companions who had remained outside with him. Reaching the monastery and sorting out our things, we could then lie down and try to get some sleep. The hut43 though was absolutely soaked through and there were no mats or pillows available because it was an abandoned monastery. Yet our exhaustion enabled us to gain some brief sleep, even if everything was wet through. At daybreak, we went out on alms round to the village and received nothing more than plain cooked rice and a banana each.
After the meal we continued our journey. The Ven. Ajahn led us straight through dense jungles towards the provincial towns of Roi-et and Kalasin. We passed through Dong Ling and emerged in the district of Sahassakan, near Koomphavapee District of Udorn-thani Province. However, we didn't actually enter the main town but stayed to the west in the village of Chiang Pin. We went there to await the arrival from Bangkok of the Ecclesiastical Head [Monk] of that Region or Chao Kana Monton.
The Chao Kana Monton instructed our party to come and wait upon him in Udorn at this time with the aim of bringing Ven. Maha Pin to take up residence in Udorn. This was because Udorn town didn't yet have any monks of the Dhammayut' Community.44 However, things didn't turn out that way. When the Chao Kana Monton arrived from Bangkok, it was learned that Phraya Rachanukoon (later to receive the title Phraya Mukhamontri) had requested Ven. Mahaa Joom Bandhulo (later to become Ven. Phra Dhammachedi) to accompany him to Udorn, so that he could take up residence at Wat Bodhisomphorn there.
We all went to pay our respects to the Chao Kana Monton as soon as he arrived and found that there had been another change of plans. He now wanted to send Ven. Maha Pin to stay in the province of Sakhon Nakorn and to have me stay with Ven. Maha Joom in Udorn. His reasons being that there weren't any suitable monks in Udorn. Also, he thought that as I was a local and already had some academic training, I should stay and help see to the administrative business of the monks.
I instead requested that he allow me to go off to practice meditation to honor his authority and dignity. For meditation monks were few and far between, whereas scholastic and administrative monks were numerous and wouldn't be difficult to find. He gave his permission and recommended that I should stay and assist Ven. Maha Pin.
After these matters had all been settled, Ven. Ajahn Singh led our group off to pay respects to Venerable Ajahn Mun who was staying at Kor Village, in the district of Bahn Peur. Venerable Ajahn Sao45 also happened to be there at that time. So it came about that I was able to meet both Venerable Ajahns and pay my respects to them for the first time in my life. That evening Ven. Ajahn Mun wholeheartedly bestowed on us a Dhamma talk to mark the occasion of seeing us for the first time. This was especially so when he saw Ven. Maha Pin. It was Ven. Maha Pin who had previously committed himself — after listening to Dhamma talks by Ven. Ajahn Mun and Ven. Ajahn Singh while in Ubon — to return and practice after studying academically in Bangkok. As for me, Ven. Ajahn Mun probably only knew as much about me as Ven. Ajahn Singh had passed on to him.
That night, after the Dhamma talk was over, Ven. Ajahn Mun spoke more informally with us about Dhamma. He concluded the discussion by forecasting something about the various abilities and qualities of Ven. Maha Pin and myself. This made me feel extremely uncomfortable and abashed, for I was right there in the midst of the monks and was not only newly ordained but I couldn't see in myself anything special enough to interest the Ven. Ajahn Mun.
In fact, I had begun to feel very self-conscious from the moment we entered the monastery area in the early part of the evening — although I don't know how the others felt about it. I had looked over the place and noted the way the monks lived, similarly with the novices and right through to the lay people in the monastery. How could they all be so well mannered and orderly? Each seemed to be going about their personal duties and routine tasks. Then came the predictions about Ven. Maha Pin, and when he moved on to me it doubled my embarrassment. Venerable Maha Pin himself probably didn't feel much at all, apart from some introspective checking of his abilities with what Ven. Ajahn Mun had predicted.
The next morning after the meal, Ven. Ajahn Singh led our party off again on the trail to the village of Nah Seedah. We stayed there for four nights before retracing our steps back to spend another night with Ven. Ajahn Mun. Then we walked back to Udorn and carried on to Sakhon Nakorn, in line with what we had agreed with the Chao Kana Monton. However, subsequent events didn't work out as the Chao Kana Monton had planned because Ven. Maha Pin became ill and couldn't take up the duties entrusted to him. Therefore, for that year's Rains Retreat, the Ven. Ajahn Singh took our group of monks off to stay at the forest monastery of Nong Laht Village. This action made the Chao Kana Monton highly displeased with us, so we had to send Ven. Boon, who had completed the General Dhamma Studies Course, to stay in Sakhon Nakorn.
Before entering the Rains Retreat, I found an excellent Dhamma companion in a monk by the name of Venerable Glom, from Loei Province. We had twice gone up to the cave Tam Puang, on Poo Lek mountain, to develop meditation together. The first time we went up for four nights and the second time for six nights. The village headman named Orn-see — (later he became the Subdistrict Official Khun Prajak, and then he ordained and continued as a monk until his death) — arranged for someone to climb up to offer us food on a regular basis. I will always remember his kindness and goodwill. Ven. Ajahn Mun had remarked that this particular village headman was intelligent and astute about everything — from his quick-witted speech, to his work and social involvements in the community. He always seemed able to keep abreast of affairs. When it came to monks, his talents were remarkable for he was immediately and competently able to arrange whatever a monk might need, with nothing more than the barest hint by the monk.
The two of us were thus supplied with all four suitable things supportive of meditation practice46 and so were able to push strongly forward. The more we meditated, the more we felt grateful to the headman and the villagers for all their goodwill. Our daily meal consisted of one ball of glutinous rice about the size of a bael-fruit47 with some dried chili powder. This was enough to sustain us in our meditation practice without any harmful effects. Reducing food intake while increasing meditation exertion brings lightness to the body, clarity to the mindfulness and makes samadhi less difficult. I meditated with great diligence and my mindfulness improved and became more firmly established. While living in the cave, I trained my mindfulness to give it a constancy throughout the day and night. I refused to allow any lapse when my mind might heedlessly wander away following after external objects. Mindfulness became steadily and exclusively established in the body and mind. I even made sure that however my mind had been established before going to sleep, it would return to the same state on awakening. Although sometimes there was still a bit of absentmindedness during the meal.
Increasing my exertion also raised my appreciation for the villagers' goodwill — it seemed to follow like the shadow its subject. I was very much aware that being a monk my existence rested in the hands of the villagers and I therefore continued my meditation practice to repay my debt to them. I became certain that my meditation efforts during this time completely fulfilled the obligations of my indebtedness.
As the Rains Retreat approached, we went down to stay with Ven. Ajahn Singh in the monastery of Nong Lart Village. As I was still a newly ordained monk during this Rains Retreat, I didn't have to take on any responsibilities. Apart, that is, from attending to the needs of the senior monk48 and applying myself to the meditation practice. The Venerable Ajahn gave us special consideration in this.
Throughout the Rains Retreat I further developed my meditation practice following the scheme that I had observed while out on the mountain. On top of that, I added some yoga techniques as an experiment. By this I mean progressively reducing my daily food intake from seventy small lumps of sticky rice down to three mouthfuls. Then I gradually increased again to thirty mouthfuls before cutting back down to five mouthfuls. Each sequence of this would take some three or four days and I continued like this throughout the Rains Retreat. Although the longest period was when I ate only fifteen mouthfuls of food a day and then it was only vegetarian food. My build is naturally quite slim and so when that became quite emaciated the villagers started to notice. Everyone who saw me, asked what was wrong but I had the will power and the spirit to carry on as normal with my duties and meditation practice.
As soon as the Rains Retreat was over, I resumed eating some meat and fish again. But Oh! How foul they now smelled. We human beings consume their meat and make it into our own flesh. It's just as if we snatch away and steal something foul and then eat it. This is why the devas and other heavenly beings won't come close to humans — it's our offensive smell. Yet human beings themselves seem to find no difficulty in embracing and admiring these corpses of ours.
After the Rains Retreat I went up onto the mountain once more, but this time accompanied by Ven. Ajahn Singh himself. We had stayed up there for nine days when he became ill and asked me to go down and bring back the rest of our party of monks. When we saw that taking care of him there wouldn't be convenient, we all moved down to nurse him in the forest area of Nong Boo-a. (This is now a village.)
Ven. Ajahn Mun sent a message at that time requesting that I go and meet him in the district of Tah Bor. I complied with those instructions and took my leave of Ven. Ajahn Singh and, as it happened, met up with Ven. Ajahn Mun and Ven. Ajahn Sao along the way. They had received an invitation from Wat Bodhisomphorn, in the town of Udorn-thani. It was at this time that 'Grandmother'49 Noi (who was the mother of Phraya Rajanukoon) came to take part in the consecration ceremony for the laying down of the boundary stones (siima) of Wat Bodhisomphorn. This was her first meeting with Ven. Ajahn Mun. She had been able to listen to one of his sermons and her faith in him began. I was able to stay there with Ven. Ajahn Mun for many days before we both set out for Tah Bor.
During this Rains Retreat I resided near the village of Nah Chang Nam and not far from Tah Bor where Ven. Ajahn Mun was staying. Venerable Ajahn Oon and I conscientiously made the effort to go regularly to see him and listen to his Dhamma talks. This Rains Retreat I was again without any responsibilities except continuing with my own meditation practice. All other tasks, such as receiving any guests, I had handed over to Ven. Ajahn Oon. Previously he had been a teacher in the Mahaa-nikaya and a monk there for nine years, having only recently transferred to the Dhammayut' Nikaya.50
During this Rains Retreat a sad event concerning Ven. Ajahn Tah took place. He was one of the more senior monks and, I think I am right in saying, he was also Ven. Ajahn Mun's very first disciple. I think he had been a monk for about sixteen or seventeen years. Originally he had gone to undertake studies in Bangkok but was unable to complete them. He had heard of Ven. Ajahn Mun's good reputation from the frequent extolling by Ven. Chao Khun Phra Upali (Chan Siricando) and therefore left Bangkok to follow Ven. Ajahn Mun.
This year, Ven. Ajahn Tah had gone with Ven. Ajahn Khan to spend the Rains Retreat in the Pah Bing Cave in Loei Province. While there he had become unbalanced51 and had fled in the middle of the Retreat to see Venerable Ajahn Mun. Ven. Ajahn Tah said that he had committed the worst possible breach of the Monastic Discipline52 and that his distress was so intense that it felt as if his yellow robes were on fire. When a thorough inquiry into the circumstances and events in question was made, there was evidently no truth in the matter at all. It was just his own exaggerated doubts and anxieties over some trivial incidents that had thrown him into turmoil.
One of Ven. Ajahn Tah's tribulations concerned what had occurred some time previously, when he had gone to develop his meditation near the village of Pone Sawang. His samadhi had become strong and this had brought great brightness to the mind. Any Dhamma issue that he brought up for investigation seemed to be totally cleared up and then the heart would converge to one-pointedness. This made him believe that: "I have come to the end of the Holy Life".53 He later announced this claim in the midst of the community of monks. Afterwards, when that bright condition of mind faded, he began to suspect that he was guilty of boasting about obtaining supernormal states and had thus broken the monk's discipline in the worst possible way.
Although people explained to him that there was definitely no offence because he had made his claim through mistaken assumptions and misinterpretations, he wouldn't believe them. In fact, this guilt-ridden anxiety had already caused him many years of distress but he had previously endured it. However, with the arrival of this Rains Retreat it had become unbearable and he thought the only way left for him was to disrobe. Ven. Ajahn Mun was unable to cure him and so had to let him go, sending him to stay with Ven. Ajahn Sao. Unfortunately, the following year Ven. Ajahn Sao could no longer restrain him and the final result was that he did indeed disrobe. After that he completely vanished as if into thin air and no one has heard news of him right up to the present.
Witnessing all this really made my heart sink and I felt downhearted and saddened. I reflected that if such a senior, long-practiced monk could still become mentally unstable, what about me? What could I do to avoid such unbalance? These thoughts made me so apprehensive and fearful for my own well-being that I revealed my anxieties to Ven. Ajahn Mun. He told me: "That's right! You have to be careful of yourself. Don't stay too far away from a competent and knowledgeable teacher. When something comes up, then hurry to confer and consult with him."
After the Rains Retreat had ended, Ven. Ajahn Mun and his party set out to walk down towards Sakhon Nakorn.
I had been thinking of my mother and so I returned home in order to assist her. I think I was successful in this respect, for I recommended that she observe the Eight Precepts and dress in white. On this occasion, my aunt, uncle and my elder brother were also all inspired with faith and determined to keep the Eight Precepts and wear white. This was especially so with my elder brother, for he left his wife and a newly born son of only a few months to ordain as a monk. I had them leave their village and follow the senior monks so that they could become better acquainted with Dhamma companions and receive training from many different meditation teachers. I followed along later with my brother and uncle, catching up with them at the village of Plah Lo, Phannah Nikom District, where Ven. Ajahn Singh had spent the Rains Retreat. He led our group on to establish a temporary base near the village of Ahgaht Amnoy. Not long after our arrival there, Ven. Ajahn Mun came to join us and he had me go on with him to set up a base near the village of Sahm Pong.
Living in close association with such senior monks was very good for me. It forces one to be mindful and alert at all times. One day, the novice who regularly attended on Ven. Ajahn Mun was absent so I took over his duties (acariya-vat'). One of these included going to sleep on the veranda of Ven. Ajahn Mun's hut. Venerable Ajahn Mun was usually awake and starting to meditate at three o'clock every morning. On waking he would immediately reach for a box of matches to light a candle and they would make a slight rattling noise. I felt obliged to be up before him each morning so that I could be quick enough to go into his room and attend to his needs. After sleeping there and doing this for many nights, Ven. Ajahn Mun obviously began to think that it was unusual because he asked me: "Venerable Thate, don't you ever sleep?". I replied that I certainly did.
The climate54 in Sahm Pong did not seem to agree with my health and constitution. Although I still had quite a good appetite I seemed to lack energy and my body continually ached and was stiff and sore all over. My meditation exertion, however, never faltered. After the meal, I would go into the jungle to find a secluded spot to develop calm in solitude throughout the day. During the night time I would walk in meditation and then go up to listen to Ven. Ajahn Mun's Dhamma talk that lasted from eight until ten o'clock. If a large gathering of monks was present, his Dhamma talk might not finish until midnight or two o'clock in the morning. Ven. Ajahn Mun always made sure that he kept up this way of teaching and training, and it continually inspired his circle of dedicated disciples to be zealous in their meditation practice.
After Venerable Ajahn Mun left that place, Ven. Ajahn Sao took over for three years. I learned later that many monks who stayed on there had died. One was Ven. Ajahn Bhoo-mee who 'died' there only to recover.55
At the approach of the Rains Retreat, I made my way back to the district of Ahgaht Amnoy and stayed just north of the town in a cremation ground.56 Meanwhile, Ven. Ajahn Singh was spending the Rains Retreat to the south of that same district town. My elder brother, my uncle, mother and aunt, with a nun from Pon Sawang Village all stayed together for the Rains Retreat. I was the sole monk although there was a novice by the name of Chuen who was from Tah Bor. My uncle died nearing the start of the Retreat, which left just six of us.
During this time there was an outbreak of smallpox among the townspeople. Almost all of them scattered and fled into the surrounding fields and forests to escape the infection. Even the resident monks of the local monastery followed the same route as the lay people, leaving virtually nobody behind who could offer alms for us to eat. This occurred because the residents of Ahgaht Amnoy had never experienced an epidemic of smallpox before.
It was a town of more than a thousand households and only as few as five people had contracted smallpox. However, those who became infected pretended to be healthy to escape detection and by the time they were found out the disease was already well advanced. The procedure for anyone found with symptoms was to move them away into the forest. They were quarantined there in a small bamboo hut built for them, while food was sent out for them to eat.
It was indeed a happy chance that Ven. Ajahn Singh had some knowledge of forest herbs. He was thereby able to bring out some medicinal herbs to use in treating the disease and could tell the townspeople not to cast their sick away in the jungle. The result was that only a few people actually died. When news reached the authorities they came and inoculated everyone.
We were remarkably fortunate that the townspeople retained their deep respect for meditation monks. This meant that although the town had been completely abandoned, they would still stealthily come back in at four or five o'clock in the morning to prepare rice to put into the monks' bowls. When we went on alms round, they would come out to offer food and then rush off back into the forest.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks and appreciation for the generosity of the townspeople of Ahgaht Amnoy.
Such merit and goodwill go beyond life itself for they form a true refuge for the suffering people of this world and the next. When we suffer, if we can't rely on our virtue and past good deeds, what can we depend upon.
The people of Ahgaht Amnoy were more afraid of smallpox than the tigers of the surrounding jungle. Even neighbours and relatives wouldn't speak to each other. I asked them when they would start talking together again and they told me it would still be quite some time, after the end of the Rains Retreat, in January or February.
During this Rains Retreat I often went to listen to Ven. Ajahn Singh's Dhamma talks. This meant that I had to walk through Ahgaht Amnoy town and then on for a farther three kilometres. (The town was deserted and not even a lone dog was to be seen.) I received a Dhamma talk from Ven. Ajahn Singh that really shook me up. Perhaps he was making a show of it to unsettle me, or was it just that he didn't understand my true character? It's difficult to say. He said that I had an obstinate and unyielding sort of character; that I was stubborn and unwilling to accept anyone else. While he was saying this, I focussed my mind to check out how it was within my heart.
I really did have the utmost respect and reverence for Ven. Ajahn Singh and therefore was always ready to receive his teachings and instructions. Yet why did he say such things about me? Still, what he said about me — my not easily acquiescing to others — was certainly true. I had always been that sort of person, finding anything that seemed illogical or unreasonable difficult to accept. My own opinions were subjected to the same careful checking and if they didn't measure up or lacked foundation I would be absolutely intractable in not accepting them. That's how I was. (I will be explaining more about this character trait later in the book.)
I sat there listening to Venerable Ajahn Singh's Dhamma talk and also examining the state of my own mind. It caused an audacious boldness to spring up, like pouring fuel on a fire to put it out. I seemed to glide on the way back to the monastery, feeling so light because my mind was fully engaged on that point. That night, I redoubled my efforts in meditation thinking that:
"Here I am. I've been trying with my meditation practice as far as this. And yet why is it that I can't identify the defilements that must definitely be present, right there in my heart, while another person can turn around and know about them before me. This is really humiliating. Ven. Ajahn Singh is a human being, born of mother and father, nourished by mother's milk and weaned through spoon feeding. Just like me and yet he can perceive the defilements within me better than I can myself. Here, today, if I can't fathom out my own defilements then I should die in the attempt."
When I actually got down to my meditation practice, nothing in particular seemed to happen. I did, however, examine Ven. Ajahn Singh's assessments and the way he had used them — as he was supposed to — in giving his Dhamma talk and concluded: Even if I'm not as he seems to think I am, I can but continue to purify myself, for in the end, no one else can know better than I can myself. With that my heart became tranquil and unperturbed.
My accelerated exertions brought upset to the bodily 'humors',57 making me feel that I should lie down and rest. However, I couldn't really get to sleep for as I started to doze off I experienced what the country folk call a pee-um. Everyone knows about this phenomenon58 so there is no need to describe it fully here. The important question remained whether or not the pee or spirit of the pee- um actually exists. That night I was able to search out the truth in many ways.
At first, it felt as if some huge, looming black form came forward and seated itself on my chest, so that I couldn't breathe. My heart nearly gave out in the struggle to regain consciousness. Some people assert that the spirits of all the creatures that one killed59 reside in one's thumbs. Resting the hands on one's chest during sleep therefore allows the spirits to come out and suffocate one. So I now removed my hands from my chest and stretched them down by my sides. Nevertheless, it came back and suffocated me again: 'Hey, what's happening here? Could it possibly be because I'm sleeping on my back?' I turned over and lay on my side to see what would happen and the suffocating sensation came on again. This time the suffocating pressure was such that it felt as if I would smother and die.
I therefore turned to focus on the condition of those about to die:
The first time, I directed mindfulness so that it was keeping closely aware of the mind, following it to know what happens at death. Mindfulness stayed with the heart right up to the final moment when only the barest awareness remained. A feeling was present that to release that faint degree of awareness would be death.
At this point, the question became whether it would be better for me to let go and allow death to take place. I felt that my heart was currently quite pure and that if I were to let go, I wouldn't lose because of it. Although there also remained a delicate feeling that expressed the thought that: 'rather than letting go and die, by remaining alive, I could continue to be of benefit to other people. If it were all to finish here with my death, then it could only be to my own purely personal advantage. Also, people wouldn't know the full circumstances and causes of this death. If that's the case, it's certainly better not to let myself die.' I therefore attempted to wiggle and move my hands and feet, until I came around.
The second time it happened, I saw no bodily form but rather an enormous dark mass that loomed over me. I knew now for certain that it wasn't a ghost. The cause seemed more connected with the 'elemental winds' driving upwards. After trying to move my hands and feet, it all cleared up.
When it happened for a third time, it seemed less intense than before. It was more of a drowsy state and I just determined to get up. For all my readers in this situation, notice your state when you regain consciousness. There should be a heavy-headed dullness and lassitude present. At this point, if you don't take any medicine to balance these 'winds' before going back to sleep, it will happen again. In my own case, I've always found that the best and only cure is by smelling borneol crystals.60
At this same period, I tried to uncover and understand the condition that exists during the state of sleep. As a rule, we are never aware of the actual moment of falling asleep. It's only upon waking that we come to know that we fell asleep.
Before we fall asleep there will be the state of tiredness, weakness and drowsy dullness of body and mind. The chains of thinking processes become shorter and eventually all awareness of thought-objects is released and we quickly enter what they call sleep.
When we bring in mindfulness to focus on the current condition of that final moment before sleep, we will find that there is only the barest awareness left. It's almost impossible to fix on it, while no mental-objects are left at all. Only the most delicate mindfulness remains present to follow and watch the current condition of the mind arising in that moment. It is like when the mind drops into bhavanga.61 If, at this point, we don't wish to allow sleep to take over, an effort has to be made to look out for a single mental or emotional object. This can then be subjected and held to and taken up for thought-processing. As a result, the mind will brighten up and be refreshed, free from all fatigue and drowsiness. It will also have the beneficial effect equal to having slept for four or five hours.
On the other hand, if we wish to sleep, this is achieved by letting go of that final remaining trace of mindfulness and sleep will come with ease and comfort. This way is especially good because one only sleeps for a very short period, so there is no wasting of time. It won't last for more than five or ten minutes. If you have actually established and focussed mindfulness, as I have been explaining, you can rest assured that you won't be asleep for more than five minutes.
If, rather than going to sleep, you just want to rest body and mind, go and find a suitably quiet and peaceful place to rest in. It can either be somewhere completely secluded or among other people. Lie down, stretch out, relax and be comfortable without tensing any part of the body. Then settle the mind on a single object in that condition of letting go. Let it just remain alone in emptiness for a while, and, on getting up, you will feel in all respects as if you had been sleeping for four or five hours.
This word sleep. In truth, the mind doesn't sleep. It is rather that the body rests, without having to make any movements. Even those who enter the high state of meditation called the attainment of cessation62 can't be said to have gone into a state of sleep. This is really the state where the meditator supervises the heart with mindfulness to fix it on one mental object.
That object steadily becomes ever more refined — as does mindfulness and the heart — until all feelings and thoughts completely cease due to the strength of the meditator's skilled practice. Mindfulness no longer has anything to do and so fades out completely. Although bodily breathing continues, it has become so subtle and refined that one can hardly say whether it exists or not. In fact, it does exist but it no longer appears to move through the nose. One can compare it to an external breeze that while present is not enough to manifest in the stirring and fluttering of leaves. No one could then assert that no wind/breath exists for if there is no wind/breath there's no air and then all living-breathing beings in this world would be dead.
The Lord Buddha called this 'entering the attainment of cessation', for at this point the nervous system of the six sense doors63 will not receive any contact. This, however, is different from the state of sleep. When asleep, something may very well impinge on the senses so that one immediately wakes up. The attainment of cessation requires sufficient practice and preparation of heart so that it becomes competent and skilled. After attaining this state many wondrous things64 can occur. It's not possible to hurt the meditator who has entered into this state — even if someone set him on fire it would never touch him. On the other hand, after entering Nibbana, the body can indeed disintegrate.
The meditator can withdraw from the attainment of cessation through the power of a previously made determination.65 When they reach the determined time, the breath will gently start to become progressively coarser and coarser until all the bodily functions have reverted to their previously normal state.
Attainment of cessation is not Nibbana but a state of absorption.66 This is because absorption lacks the right-view wisdom (paññaa-sammaadi.t.thi) that can investigate the root causes of the defilements, such as those of the Sense Sphere (Kaama-bhava) and the Fine-material Sphere (Ruupa-bhava). This is rather the domain of insight-knowledge (vipassanaa-ñaa.na) and right-knowledge and realization of the Path (magga ñaa.na-dassana). All the absorptions are only instruments of encouragement and support, that smooth the Way and enhance energy.
Thus, before the Lord Buddha's Final Passing Away, (Parinibbana) he entered and progressed up through the various levels of absorption. He then returned to the Fourth Absorption, which forms the foundation for insight, and entered Nibbana from there. That was between the Sense Sphere and the Fine-material Sphere for that forms the base for the supra-mundane dhamma. (lokuttara dhamma).
The question might arise here: "So! Why is this old monk going on about the attainment of cessation, about Nibbana and states of absorption? Has he reached and realized these states or not?" The doubter might answer himself with: "Can't one say that this is really a matter of boasting about attaining to supra-mundane states?".
In truth, anyone who attains to the cessation of perception and feeling, or to Path, Fruit and Nibbana, or to the absorption of the attainment of cessation,67 does not make the assumption that, 'I have reached, entered or reside in such a state'. There is simply a proficiency with the necessary skillful means that leads to and connects with them. Just when the meditator is about to enter such a state, any remaining assumptions and suppositions about 'I' will bring him up short. Otherwise, the average sort of person everywhere, intelligent and knowledgeable about the Teachings and the Discipline, they could all go off together and attain to the Path and Fruit and Nibbana, to the absorption of the attainment of cessation. The whole town, the whole country would all be doing the same!
At the moment of realizing such states there is no hope of making up assumptions and formulations about them. Only after transcending those conditions can one recollect and systematically check back over their successive stages and development. Once having worked it out one will then be able to formulate and set out all aspects of these states.
It's not always necessary for the person who explains about these things to have actually reached those levels. When the Teachings have been set down and their essential meaning established, one has to explain about it to the best of one's own understanding. Sometimes this will be done correctly and sometimes it will be mistaken. If things had not been worked out in this way, how could the Teachings of the Lord Buddha have endured and continued down to the present day?
People listen, yet even though they all may be listening to the same theme, to the same points, many will understand in quite different ways, from different angles. Furthermore, those meditators who have attained to exactly the same stage, via an identical technique, will still find that their individual skill and ingenuity are quite different. This is why the Dhamma that one sees by and for oneself is so wondrous and amazing and why it's so difficult to achieve.
"So why do you come along finding fault and only condemning me? It's simply not fair."
Please excuse this digression into the nether realms.68 Now let us return to my autobiography.
With the end of the Rains Retreat, Ven. Ajahn Singh led our party to the village of Sahm Pong. It was the customary practice for us all to gather and pay our respects to the Ven. Ajahn Mun. On our way there, I related to Ven. Ajahn Singh all my recent experiences and thoughts about the pee-um and sleep. He made no response at all, remaining quite silent. When we arrived, however, he proceeded to relate this matter to Ven. Ajahn Mun. At that moment, I was sitting a little apart from them so I don't know what he said about my experiences — I couldn't hear. I thought that probably it was all considered inconsequential and beside the point, not being connected with the practice of the Noble Path. He therefore didn't pursue it any further, as he might have done with other issues.
Almost one hundred monks and novices gathered to pay their respects to the Venerable Elders and Senior Ajahns, and it was considered quite an event for those times. After it was over, Ven. Ajahn Mun had me, with one other monk and a novice, accompany him to the village of Kah Non Daeng. This was where the Ven. Ajahn Oon, Ven. Ajahn Goo and Ven. Ajahn Fan had spent the Rains Retreat. We stayed there for three days and Ven. Ajahn Mun related to the group about my practice with sleeping and not-sleeping. Everyone remained silent, without comment. This was particularly so with Ven. Ajahn Oon who previously had discussed this very topic with me, when I was still unable to do it.
During the time that Ven. Ajahn Mun resided at the forest monastery of Sahm Pong, he would give daily Dhamma talks. If anyone was feeling despondent or irresolute, or someone had fallen ill, he directed his talk like this:
"So then, it isn't fear of death that you have but a desire to die many times." (He meant by this, that if you continue meditating with dauntless strength and determination, the heart's purification will cut back the fear of death.)
As soon as Ven. Ajahn Mun departed, no one was left in the monastery to continue to give Dhamma talks. The morale and strength of heart of his disciples thereby drained away and no one was able to carry on living there. The 'air' at that monastery was particularly inhospitable and it was plagued with malarial fever. Everyone with poor health or weak constitution would be struck down with fever. The whole resident community of monks eventually followed along behind us. They said that it was so bad that they couldn't continue to live there any longer and that the air of Sahm Pong monastery was so heavy and oppressive that it made them feel drowsy and lethargic all day long.
When this group of monks caught up with us again, Ven. Ajahn Mun made an observation about our ranging farther afield through secluded places, so that we could spread the Dhamma even more widely. He continued by pointing out that we had already traveled throughout much of the three or four provinces of this region. These were Sakhon Nakorn, Udorn-thani, Nongkhai and Loei. He queried us about which provinces would be best to head for? The majority were for going down towards Ubon Province. But Ven. Ajahn Mun himself was not really satisfied with this suggestion because suitable jungle, mountains and caves were hard to find in that region. However, if there was a consensus for going there, then he wouldn't object. Having come to this collective decision, we made ready to set off, traveling in small groups.
It was necessary for me to accompany my mother on her journey back home and so I was not able to go with Ven. Ajahn Mun. It was on this trip that Ven. Ajahn Mun and his party encountered major upheavals. There were both good and bad results from this:
The good side was an increase in the number of forest monasteries for Kammatthana forest monks, which up to then had not existed at all. This was the occasion when forest monks for the first time permanently settled Ubon Province. From that time forward it has continued to spread out until today there are monasteries with Dhammayut' monks in virtually every district.
The negative side was the deterioration in the quality of the monks' practice. In fact, the decline this time...69 was unprecedented, until Ven. Ajahn Mun was finally obliged to turn away from the community there and leave for Chiang Mai Province.
I returned to spend the Rains Retreat for a second time at Nah Chang Nam Village. Meanwhile, my elder brother went for the Rains to Nah Seedah Village with our father. After the Retreat had ended, I took my brother and we went to develop our meditation practice in the cave called Phra Nah Phak Hork. Sometime after this, my brother went back down to find Venerable Ajahn Sao who had spent the Rains Retreat in Nakorn Panom Province. It was after this Rains Retreat that my brother went forth as a monk at Wat Srii Thep.
I brought my father to come and stay with me in the Phra Nah Phak Hork Cave. It was the first time in the eleven years since his ordination into white robes70 that he had come to spend the Rains Retreat with me. Furthermore, I had never stayed for the Rains so close to my home village as I did that year. I consider that it was an especially fortunate year, for it gave me the opportunity to support my father in the way of Dhamma practice. He developed his meditation to the best of his ability and achieved excellent results. So much so that he was forced to exclaim that it was the first time since his birth that he had begun to experience deeply the flavor of Dhamma. He could sit in meditation for as long as three or four hours at a time. I was delighted to have fulfilled my aspirations by being of aid and assistance to him.
Yet when circumstances come together and the time is ripe, untoward things can come upon us. That is to say, my father fell ill. His children and grandchildren saw only the hardship of his situation — when intense pain came during the night time, who would look after him? For there were only the two of us, father and son, staying up in the cave. So the family came and carried him off down to the village so that they could attend to him there. He refused, however, to go back to stay in the village monastery where he had been before. Instead, he had them set him up in his shack in the middle of the rice fields. I often went down to encourage his constant attention towards Dhamma.
That was the year when something quite miraculous arose connected with my father. The rice seedlings in the villagers' fields of that whole area were in very poor condition, despite the moderately good rainfall. All the stems had turned a reddish color with the startling exception of those in the patch surrounding my father's shack. These were a lush green and were so remarkable that the village people began to say that 'Father White Robe' would not survive the year.71 And this indeed proved to be the case.
On that particular day I had gone to instruct my father. I had reminded him of Dhamma and offered him strategies to use in his meditation and investigations, until he seemed quite pleased and contented. He still seemed quite strong and fit, so at the approach of night I made my way back up to the Nah Phak Hork Cave. He passed away in the middle of that night, possessed of mindfulness and a peaceful state of mind right up to the final breath. At dawn they came to get me and I arranged that his funeral and cremation rites were properly completed that same day. He passed away in August 1928, at the age of seventy-seven, having been ordained a white robe devotee for eleven years.
I had been living by myself in the cave before my father came to join me, and after his death I found myself alone again. To have the opportunity for this sort of solitude is rare and I determined in my heart to make the most of it: 'In the same way as someone offers flowers in reverence to the Buddha — may my life, may the flesh and blood of this body, may the tasks and duties I undertake, may they all become my offering and puuja to the Triple Gem.'
Thus resolved, I got down to intensifying my meditation practice with strength and determination. I established and set mindfulness within the heart, not allowing any thoughts or imaginings to be directed outside. Everything was to remain wholly within an inner calm and stillness, all day and all night. The setting of mindfulness before sleep should be the same on awakening.
Sometimes, it even happened that although I was asleep and aware of the fact, I was unable to get up. It took some effort on my part to move the body and by that come back to waking consciousness again. My own understanding at that time was that the stilled, one-pointed heart, didn't allow thoughts to careen away externally and so would definitely be able to transcend every bit of suffering. I thought that wisdom's only function was to purge the out-wanderings of the heart and return it to a state of stillness.
I therefore did not try to use wisdom in an examination of, for example, the body and sense impressions72 and so failed to come to an understanding about body and heart. These are still interrelated and interdependent, and whenever any material or mental object comes into contact in whatever way there must inevitably be disturbance. This causes the stilled and settled mind to be shaken up and agitated, following the influence of the defilements.
I applied myself to walking meditation until my feet were split and bloody. Then I came down with a fever that persisted throughout the Rains Retreat, but I wasn't going to slacken off my meditation efforts. I had once read accounts of some Elder-monks in times gone by who had walked in meditation until their feet had split and broken. However, I had found this quite hard to believe. I had supposed that the use here of this particular verb 'broken' suggested that their feet had been pounding down and striking against some hard object, which is what caused the abrasions. Walking with circumspection along a smooth and level meditation path — what was there to knock against?
Actually, the same Pali word is used to render both 'broken' and 'worn through' or 'perforated'. A monk is described as sick (or feverishly ill) through several causes: arising from kamma; from season; from bile disorders; from clashing with external things; and arising from striving in meditation. It was only then that I realized that my meditation exertions performed with a mind of such zealous energy were lacking in wisdom. Yet there I was, living alone without a competent Dhamma companion to give me advice. To be only bold and daring in one's striving while the heart lags behind in wisdom is not so good. This was what caused my fever.
When the Rains Retreat was over, I retraced my steps and went to find my brother and the Ven. Ajahn Sao in Nakorn Panom. I went because I had been separated from all my Dhamma companions and meditation teachers for more than two years. Ever since Ven. Ajahn Sao and Ven. Ajahn Mun and company had left Tah Bor District, I had been the sole monk of our group to remain in the area.
At that time, Luang Dtah Mun73 of Kor Village had come to spend the Rains Retreat at Nah Seedah, the village where I was born. He was the sort of character that liked to travel around disputing with less knowledgeable monks. He would challenge them with his supposed mastery of the religion and was ready to debate with anyone and beat them hollow. "Even all those forest meditation monks," he said, "when they see me coming they duck away. Just look for yourself, none of them can cope and they have all fled through their fear of me. The only one left now is this 'Mister Thate',74 but in a few days he'll be on his way too."
After continually hearing things like this, nobody could be bothered to speak to him anymore. If they did try, they couldn't get a word in edgeways for he always had to be 'the only one to get it right.'
It was during that Rains Retreat that a dispute arose between him and the monks in the monastery of Glahng Yai Village. These monks surreptitiously approached me with an invitation to come down from the cave to clear up and settle the conflict. As soon as I arrived, he reversed his position and dropped the quarrel. Yet he repeated this kind of dispute and prevarication so often that all the local monks were totally disgusted with him. Perhaps one can use the Southern Thai phrase: 'he had gone crazy for fame and celebrity'. They no longer bothered getting involved with him, for any discussion was becoming clearly pointless.
Then came the final day of the Rains Retreat, the Pavarana Day. This is a traditional time for ceremonial offerings so they went and invited Luang Dtah Mun to come and join in the sermon-giving. Likewise, they came and invited me, although they didn't mention that to him. By the time I got to the village there wasn't a person to be seen for they were all already waiting for me at the village monastery. This was unusual, for on a normal day when they knew I was coming, all the villagers tended to come out and wait, lining both sides of the road.75 Some people would even call out and make quite a commotion so that I became reluctant to walk through Glahng Yai Village.
When Luang Dtah Mun's sermon was over, I convened a meeting of all the gathered monks to discuss the points he had brought up. He had said that chanting our praise to the Buddha by starting with "Araha.m..."76 is wrong; that as we ourselves were not arahants we couldn't pay reverence to them. He gave his logic and reasons for this, and said that one must begin the recitation with "Namo" and then continue with "Namo [tassa Bhagavato] Arahato Sammaa Sambuddhassa". I pointed out to him that this formula pays homage to Arahato in just the same way, so perhaps Luang Dtah Mun — following his own logic — is already an arahant and enlightened?
It was at this point that Luang Dtah Mun exploded with anger and said, "If I wasn't an arahant, I certainly wouldn't carry on being a monk like this and would have disrobed and gone home to sleep with my wife... ". His language continued with more crudities and was offensive to everyone listening. I therefore came back and questioned what gauge he used in his assumptions about his own arahantship. He answered that 'to look at the earth' was the measuring standard. I replied that anyone could perceive the earth, even grazing cattle bent their heads and looked at the earth from morn 'till night — that must make them all arahants.
"This Luang Dtah has boasted of having attained to supernormal states." As soon as I had said this he was shocked and struck dumb, unable to say anything at all. I went on to refer to many issues. I announced, for instance, that if it was true that he had continually disputed with and challenged the local monks and the forest meditation monks, he should speak out now. But he absolutely refused to speak.
By this time, it was almost evening and the monks were preparing for the Pavarana Ceremony. Luang Dtah Mun went into the Uposatha Hall to join in the ceremony but the monks refused to allow him to take part77 and he therefore had to return to Nah Seedah Village alone. On that day most of the village had come to the monastery and nobody had been left behind to watch over the houses. Even the district headman, who had never previously set foot in a monastery, came that day. After that he continued with regular attendance for the rest of his life.
I didn't immediately return to the cave that evening, but went to sleep at the village monastery in Nah Seedah. Luang Dtah Mun came to see me, panting and gasping for breath, almost unable to put words together. He was sulking and felt so slighted that he was going to flee that very night. He said he was too ashamed and embarrassed to face people and had to leave. I requested him to think again and at least stay until the morning, saying that I had no ill will towards him and had only been speaking according to truth and reason. But he couldn't sleep all night, and at the crack of dawn went off to see the District Chief Monk and requested permission to disrobe. Although it had been only one day, the news of what had happened had already spread. The Chief Monk already knew about it and therefore told him that permission was not needed and for him just to go ahead and disrobe. He then went to the village of Kor to ask permission from his former Dhamma Studies teacher, but he too knew about the situation and likewise told him that permission wasn't necessary and to go ahead and take the robes off.78
Finally he did disrobe and quietly locked himself away in his former wife's bedroom. It was many days before he dared show his face again.
I've included these rather ancillary episodes in this autobiography to make it more comprehensive.
After relating those more tangential stories, I now want to get back to essential matters. Luang Dtee-a Tong In was originally from Korat Province, of the village of Koke Jor Hor. He moved to run a business in Tah Bor where he became a prosperous and prominent merchant, well known throughout the area. He and his wife were both pious Buddhists and the people of Tah Bor came to know about the keeping of the lay precepts through his influence. Luang Dtee-a Tong In donated an orchard to establish a monastery and named it 'Wat Ambavan' — the Mango Grove Monastery — which incorporated both their names: his wife's being 'Am' and his 'In'[dra]. Both eventually ordained as monk and white-robed nun for four or five years. Later, he became ill with some disease that caused his body to swell up and this confined him to bed.
Each year, Luang Dtee-a Tong In's children would gather to make merit and offer gifts to enhance his recovery. It so happened that they invited me to participate in the ceremony, even though I had never set eyes on him before. At that time I had five Rains as a monk and he had seven, making him senior to me by two years.
Luang Dtee-a Tong In told me that his condition made him feel as if he were already dead. I replied, "when the person's dead, that's good". He went on to say that he was not concerned about anything, that he had set his heart solely on the Four Paths, Four Fruits and One Nibbana [i.e., Enlightenment]. I told him that if such aspirations were still present he certainly couldn't yet be dead, for deadmen didn't have any desires. At this he was taken aback and responded by asking, "If I'm not to have any aspirations, what would you have me do?". I told him to meditate using "Buddho" as his only object of attention. By this time, I noticed that downstairs was already full of monks, so I quickly completed my part of the ceremony and went down allowing the monks from other monasteries to carry on with the proceedings.
(Normally, when he was feeling well, he was very diligent with his daily devotions, doing much chanting and reciting of Dhamma verses. It would take him a full seven days to complete a round of his Pali recitations. When senior meditation teachers came to visit, for example, Ven. Ajahn Mun and Ven. Ajahn Sao, he would go out to see them and upon coming away would urge his wife and children to make merit with offerings of gifts and food placed into the alms bowl. That was enough, he said, there was no need to go overboard. Yet his daughter could progress with her meditation practice very well.)
Early the following morning, someone came to invite me to go and see Luang Dtee-a who had something that he wanted to tell me. I said just to wait a few moments, for as soon as I had eaten my meal I would be on my way. On arriving there, he swiftly related to me his wonderful experience:
"Ajahn, I really had a strange experience last night. The roosters normally crow 'cock-a-doodle-doo...', but last night it wasn't like that at all. Instead they said, 'your-mind-is-one-pointed' 'your-mind-is- one-pointed...".79
(When the heart has only one object and is one-pointed, (Citt'ekaggataa or ekaggataarama.na) sounds can manifest in such a way.)
"Ajahn," he added, "before, the gecko lizards always cried, 'geck-o geck-o', but last night they said 'you're-already-old' 'you're-already-old'."80 (This becomes a Dhamma sermon for when any sound impinges with a similar phonetic sound it can immediately become a teaching instrument.) I reassured him that that was correct and that he should now be determined to further develop his meditation by making the heart well established and steady throughout the day and night. He should not allow any distractedness or carelessness to arise and he would then be ready and prepared for death.
Some days later a lay man came to request that I immediately go and see Luang Dtee-a, for he was about to disrobe. I was shocked. What on earth could this be about? Why ever would he want to disrobe, just as he was becoming proficient in meditation? I told the layman to ask him to wait and not to disrobe right away, that as soon as my meal was finished I would go and see him. His hut had two sets of balustrades and so when I arrived there I opened the outer gate and entered, while one of the boys helping to nurse him opened the next gate for me. His hearing my approach proved enough to dispel all his misgivings, "as if they were plucked away".
Luang Dtee-a explained to me what had happened. He said: "I related to my daughter all my various meditation experiences, just as I had told them to you. Then it hit me — Oh no! — I am guilty of the worst sort of offence by boasting of super-normal attainments to her. I became so anxious and distressed by this that I thought I would have to disrobe. But as soon as I heard the sound of your arrival, all that agitation evaporated. So I won't be disrobing now."
I explained to Luang Dtee-a that it certainly wasn't a case of claiming super-normal attainments, for he had not acted from a desire for praise or gain or fame. He had spoken to exchange Dhamma understanding and therefore there was no offence.
Later, I started to think back to my meditation teachers, and became concerned about my long — two year — absence from them. So I took my leave of him and went off to Nakorn Panom to visit Ven. Ajahn Sao.
Ven. Ajahn Sao generally did not give formal Dhamma sermons and when he did, it would be more in the way of a Dhamma consultation. My going to stay with him that year meant that there would be another monk available to assist him. Ven. Ajahn Toom was already resident there, so the two of us could contribute our energy in assisting Ven. Ajahn Sao in teaching and instructing the lay community.
It was this year when I begged Ven. Ajahn Sao to consent to have his photograph taken as a memento. At first he did not want to, but I pleaded and gave him reasons so that eventually he did acquiesce. I pointed out how essential it would be for his disciples and those of future generations always to have an opportunity to 'focus' on him and pay their respects. Previously, he would have had nothing to do with that sort of thing, so this was indeed quite a unique happening. Even so, I was concerned that he would change his mind and so I had to act quickly. I therefore crossed over the River Mekong into Laos to bring back a photographer to take the picture.
I was delighted at having been able to photograph Ven. Ajahn Sao and I gave copies to Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi and Phra Khru Siila-samban (who later was given the title Chao Khun Dhamma-saaramunii). The photograph of Ven. Ajahn Sao that I arranged at this time appears to have been the only one ever taken.
Ven. Ajahn Mun was much the same. He always refused to allow photographs to be taken of him for mementos or keepsakes. I had frequently beseeched him to do so but he would reply that the money would be better spent 'buying some cakes for the dogs'. Yet when I persisted with my pleas and pointed out my reasons, he finally relented. This was to be for the benefit of the following generations who would now have a picture of him to pay reverence and respect to.
After the Rains Retreat, Ven. Ajahn Sao went wandering, ranging over on the other side of the River Mekong and going to stay in the Som Poi Cave. This was the cave where he and Ven. Ajahn Mun had gone off together when they first went forth in search of solitude. It was a large cavern with a whole series of chambers and many interconnecting passages. There was also a special cabinet for holding the Pali Scriptures, but it was bare of books. I followed him there but by the time I arrived he had already left, going on to stay in another cave.
This was the Tiger's Cave, which was quite far away along torturously winding paths through circuitous, labyrinthine double ranges of mountains.81 A tigress had come and given birth to her cubs below the cave where Ven. Ajahn Sao was living. That is why they called it the Tiger's Cave. About forty metres above there was an elongated cavern extending right through the mountain to the far side. The local villagers said that it needed the lighting of five successive dtai-torches82 before one emerged at the other end.
Ven. Ajahn Sao lived in the mouth of this cave with a couple of monks and novices. There was also an old man who had accompanied them so that he could attend on Ven. Ajahn Sao. This old man used to light a fire at the entrance to the cave where he slept. In the middle of one night, he heard a loud wailing sound but couldn't see anything when he got up to look. This puzzled him, so at dawn he walked around to inspect the spot from where the sound had come. He came across paw prints — a tiger had been standing there. It had probably wanted to enter the cave but on seeing a person lying there had gone back.
Both side walls of this cave were completely smooth making it look something like the interior of a railway carriage. Water dripped down from stalactites into a pool deeper inside the cave and the monks could collect this for drinking. There was no need to filter it because it didn't contain any living creatures.83 One monk took me in to survey the inner reaches of the cave and our inspection lasted as long as it took half a wax candle to burn down. It was really pleasant without any feeling of oppressive stuffiness. The nearest village was about a kilometer away. I stayed there with the Ven. Ajahn Sao for two nights before walking back.
I heard news that during World War II, a company of Japanese soldiers had established a hidden camp inside these caves. When the Americans received intelligence reports about this, they went in and bombed the caves. A bomb landed on the cave entrance, sealing it off and causing the many Japanese inside to perish. No one has ever gone and excavated the site. How tragic that is — we have so devalued and wasted human life.
As the Rains Retreat was approaching, Ven. Ajahn Sao sent me to reside for the Rains at the village of Nah Sai, while Ven. Ajahn Poo-mee went to stay near Nah Kee Rin Village. This was in response to invitations from the lay devotees in both these places. During this Rains Retreat my health was not at all good but I refused to become discouraged or lax in my meditation exertions. I was so resolved that I would willingly have sacrificed my life as an offering to the Triple Gem.
It made me reflect upon the threats and hazards that might lie ahead for both me and for Buddhism overall. Would the order of monks I belong to be able to continue throughout? There might be political disorder, or perhaps enemy forces would invade the country. I might end up conscripted into the army and if not that, then the nation could be enslaved under foreign domination. How could I remain a monk under such circumstances? Even if I could carry on, conditions wouldn't be conducive to the practice of Dhamma and the monk's Rule. So what was I to do? Furthermore, although we now have many competent meditation teachers, when old age, sickness and death have taken their toll, who then will be guide and leader to the group of monks on this path of Dhamma practice? The radiant light of the Lord Buddha's Dhamma can only become increasingly dim'.
Such ponderings filled me with sadness and depression, so that I felt sorry for both myself and the future state of Buddhism. It seemed as if such a state of affairs was just around the corner, just a couple of days away. The more I thought of it, the more lonely and despondent I felt.
Having arrived at this junction, I turned my thoughts to my present situation. The current state of national and political affairs was still good and stable. Meditation Masters were still present and I had already received much training and instruction from them. Having such an opportunity I felt I must hurry and accelerate my meditation practice. Eventually, I would be able to understand the Lord Buddha's teachings and come to self-reliance. Whatever the future might then bring, whatever obstacles might arise either for me personally or for the general state of Buddhism, I wouldn't lose out.
As soon as I had come up with this skillful approach, my heart became resolute and ardent in its meditation exertion. During the Rains Retreat, although I could not actually sit in meditation due to my illness and had to concentrate more on using walking meditation as the main posture, it didn't affect my earnestness.
After the Rains Retreat came news that Ven. Ajahn Singh's group together with Venerable Maha Pin had returned from Ubon and had gone on to Khon Kaen. As I wished to go and pay my respects to both of them, I took leave of Ven. Ajahn Sao and set out.
This was the same year that the government issued a proclamation officially prohibiting spirit worship and other animist and occult beliefs. It urged people instead to take refuge in the Triple Gem. The provincial authorities had accordingly mobilized Ven. Ajahn Singh and his group of monks to help in taming the demons and spirits. When I arrived, I found that I too became somewhat involved in this.
I had organized the villagers of Phra Kreur Village in the relocating of their monastery from the bank of the village stream to a small rise in the fields on the edge of the Bahn A-ew Mong Lake. Afterwards, Ven. Ajahn Maha Pin came to join me in spending the Rains Retreat there. The other senior monks resident there for the Rains included Ven. Ajahn Poo-mee, Ven. Ajahn Gong Mah, myself and Ven. Ajahn Maha Pin as the head-monk.
Throughout this Rains Retreat, I regularly helped Ven. Ajahn Maha Pin by taking on some teaching responsibilities and sometimes receiving visitors. Every Observance Day84 all the monks, novices and visiting lay people would apply themselves to the development of their meditation as best they could, in line with their individual abilities. One has to say that they did achieve very satisfactory results. Some lay people meditated and came to see many different and diverse things, so that they became absorbed in the meditation and forgot all about their homes and families.
After the Rains Retreat, Ven. Ajahn Poo-mee and his party of monks, together with me, took our leave of Ven. Ajahn Maha Pin. We went off in search of seclusion in the direction of Jote Nong Bua Bahn Village, in the district of Kantara-vichai (Koke Phra) of Mahasarakam Province. At first we were invited to stay next to the school of Nong Waeng Village. While there we could give some Dhamma talks and instruction to the populace until the lay devotees from Jote Nong Bua Bahn Village came and requested us to return to their village. Eventually the site at Nong Waeng became a permanent monastery.
This time, when we returned to Jote Nong Bua Bahn Village, we set ourselves up in some dense jungle by the side of the Dtork Paen Lake. During this period, numerous people came for training in meditation, including many white robed nuns and lay men keeping Eight Precepts. Some of these people achieved quite astonishing results in their meditation. They would sit in meditation in the monastery and know that back in the village their children or grandchildren had been bickering and abusing each other. Those who could meditate would succeed marvellously. There were also some who couldn't meditate and only took the Precepts because that was what their friends had done.
One day, one monk saw a vision when he was meditating. It concerned a certain young nun who seemed to approach, wishing to touch his feet.85 I sent for the nun in question and instructed her about the need to perceive the harm in all sensuality because it was what would become a cause for suffering. I pointed out that physical form is the basis for innumerable attachments. This eventually enabled the nun to accept and understand the situation, yet she certainly must have wondered how I knew about it.
At the approach of the Rains Retreat, Ven. Ajahn Singh directed that I go and spend the Rains in Phon District. Ven. Ajahn Poo-mee was to take over from where I was staying by Dtork Paen Lake.
Venerable Gate, my elder brother, came to stay with me during this Rains Retreat. The teaching and instruction of lay people continued as normal, while my personal meditation practice and that of the resident monks and novices kept up a steady pace. An extraordinary incident did occur however, concerning a woman sorceress.86 She had ten or more disciples and she traveled around making a living by attending to the 'sick'. I advised her to forsake her spirit-worship and to come and firmly establish herself in the Triple Gem. Her belief in spirits, I pointed out, is based in wrong view and lacks virtue and merit, whereas going for refuge to the Triple Gem really is something of merit and wholesomeness. A person can then also be counted as a devotee with right view in the Buddhist Teachings.
She replied that 'what she had was good' and that when some spirit mediumistically possessed her, she could be directed to find buried treasure or enabled to leap into a clump of thorny bamboo without being gashed. I responded that that might be all very well for believers, but spirits had never taught their devotees to abandon evil and cultivate good, or to keep the Precepts. The only instructions they ever gave were for the person to make them an offering of the head of a pig, or a chicken or duck. After having prompted this animal sacrifice, they didn't even eat it. One has to kill the animal oneself and offer it to the spirits and when they don't come and eat it then one has to eat it oneself. The spirits will not have to accept the responsibility and the evil consequences of such killing, it will all come back on the one who kills.
In what way are these spirits supposed to help us? After the Lord Buddha had finally passed away, he wasn't reborn as a spirit. He bequeathed his Teachings that taught people to relinquish evil and cultivate what is good, for that is both for their own benefit and for the benefit of others. The Sangha conveys those Teachings to us all, according to the path laid down by the Buddha. We have thus been able to know what is wholesome or unwholesome, what is virtuous or harmful, right up to these present times. The teaching of spirits is not like that.
The sorceress made up her mind and agreed to abandon her spirit worship and dedicate herself to the Triple Gem. That night, she put the teaching I had given her into practice and obtained marvellous results. That is, before going to bed she chanted her devotions to the Triple Gem and then sat in meditation. She then saw two spirit-children, a girl and a boy. They were swinging on the hand rail of the rice mill pounder, at the bottom of the stairs leading up to her house.87 They didn't say or do anything at all. This vision was as vivid as if it were happening before her very eyes but they were actually closed in meditation. She then became convinced that the spirits could no longer come and take possession of her, and that the protecting virtue and power of the Triple Gem was indeed great.
Her husband was also a medicine man88 and was so devoted to his own powers that he refused to acknowledge and raise his hands in añjali to Buddhist monks. Before entering a monastery he would raise high his foot instead.89 (My apologies.) By strictly following his teacher's rules, he did indeed become invulnerable. One could slash or stab or hit him without being able to inflict any injury on him. That same night however, he was unable to get to sleep. Whenever he started to doze off, he would be startled awake and become fearful, as if something threatening was near. Consequently in the morning he asked his wife whether she had received anything 'special'90 when she had gone to see the Ajahn because he hadn't been able to sleep all night long. His wife confirmed that the Ajahn had indeed given her something 'special' and that she would take her husband to see him too. Finally, both these old folk gave up their sorcery and took refuge in the Triple Gem.
Such were the events of that Rains Retreat.
The forest meditation monks who were disciples of the Ven. Ajahn Mun had never ventured near the province of Nakorn Rajasima (Korat). They had heard reports that the people there were fierce and cruel and had therefore always held back through concern that it wouldn't be safe. Then Somdet Phra Maha Virawong, when he still had the ecclesiastical rank of Phra Dhammapamok, requested Ven. Ajahn Singh and Ven. Ajahn Maha Pin to go there.
Police Major Luang Charn Nikom, commander of the second company of the Korat town police force, found inspiration and faith in the monks. He donated a plot of land on which to establish a forest monastery beside the rail head at Korat.91 In consequence, Ven. Ajahn Singh called his disciples living in Khon Kaen to come down. I walked down with this group of monks and we stayed in Luang Charn's orchard. I organized the monks in building temporary shelters because Ven. Ajahn Singh was away in Bangkok and hadn't yet returned. When he arrived, I went and helped Ven. Ajahn Maha Pin to construct a place for the monks to stay in a cremation ground. This was the second site and I ended up spending that year's Rains Retreat there. This became (Wat Saddha'rahm).
Many senior monks were resident there for that Rains Retreat: Ven. Ajahn Fan, Ven. Ajahn Poo-mee, Ven. Ajahn Lou-ei, Ven. Ajahn Gong Mah and myself. Venerable Ajahn Maha Pin was the head monk. Throughout this Rains Retreat, Ven. Ajahn Fan and I were responsible for assisting Ven. Ajahn Maha Pin in receiving visitors and giving sermons and instruction to the laity.
This was the first time that any forest monasteries for meditation monks had been established in Korat. In fact, two were set up in that one year. This was also the year when historic changes took place in Thailand with the ending of the Absolute Monarchy and its replacement by democracy.92
After the Rains Retreat I left with a party of monks who were out seeking secluded places in the direction of Gra Tok District and Ging Cheh. We came back through Gra Tok District again and I supervised the building of a preliminary monastery at Dorn Dtee Klee with the help of the District Officer, Khun Amnart. But before it could be completed, it became necessary for me to return to spend the Rains Retreat in Tah Bor, in Nongkhai Province. I afterwards heard that Ven. Ajahn Singh had sent Ven. Ajahn Lee to spend the Rains Retreat at Gra Tok District in place of me.
The weather had been incredibly hot when I was organizing the building of shelters and meditation huts at Wat Pah Salawan in Korat. I don't like hot weather but I had gritted my teeth and endured, persevering in my meditation without let up. I had trained my mindfulness so well that there was stillness and calm throughout day and night. Sometimes it would converge and enter the bhavanga and totally disappear for many hours. This, however, is certainly not the way that allows wisdom to be born.
I had been trying to correct this tendency for a long time both by my own efforts and by asking others for help. It had never previously succeeded but this time I found a way out for myself. This was by being ready to apprehend the heart when it was right at the point of convergence into bhavanga. At that moment the condition of awareness becomes unmindful and there is the inclination towards indulgence in the pleasure of the tranquillity and happiness. When mindfulness fades the mind will converge into bhavanga. The thing to do is to apprehend it right at the point when it is fading towards indulgence in that refined tranquillity. Catch it there and swiftly set mindfulness on to a coarser object and focus and examine it more externally.
The problem will be immediately solved by not allowing the heart to converge towards that tranquillity and pleasure. Putting it simply: forestall the heart's convergence and totally focus one's examination on just one place, the physical body.
I had been subject to this state of affairs since I first went off into the forests to meditate and it was only at this time that I could cure myself. If one reckons it all up, that is more than ten years of practice to come to such understanding. Even so, when sense objects impinged on my mind it could still become agitated. What about those people who have no experience of the heart's peace and happiness, how will they make out when sense objects intrude?
I had some doubts about the Dhamma-Vinaya thinking that:
'The purity of the Path, Fruit and Nibbana — which form the culmination and ultimate goal of Buddhism — probably can no longer be attained. All that is presumably left now is the level of attainment to cessation, which is still a mundane state.' Nevertheless, I still carried my meditation forward, despite the mind-bending hot weather.
One day, my mind converged in an extraordinary way — it totally converged93 into bright radiance, being there alone. There was a clear and precise clarity of knowing, illuminating brilliantly that one point. When I turned to examine or focus on any theme or aspect of Dhamma — all my wavering and doubts about Dhamma-Vinaya seemed to disappear. It was as if I had already reached the ultimate point of all dhammas. I didn't, however, concern myself with that issue but fully resolved to know how to cleanse the heart to complete purity. Having already progressed as far as this, what was there to do now, how was I to proceed?
When I had the opportunity to ask advice from Ven. Ajahn Singh, he recommended that I concentrate my contemplation much more on the un-beautiful, loathsome aspects of the physical body.94 He told me to focus there until I could see its rotting away and decay and the final disintegration into the four elements. I broke in with my misgivings: "Surely when the mind has already let go of form [ruupa] and only name [naama] remains, isn't going back to bodily form too coarse an object of contemplation?" Well, at that point, he really made a loud noise, charging that already I was boasting of reaching supernormal attainments.
The truth is that I had never — right from the very beginning of my meditation practice — been skilled in examining the loathsomeness of the body. That's the truth. In my meditation practice I had always gone straight to focussing on the heart. I had deduced that because the defilements arise in the heart, if the heart doesn't venture outwards into disturbance but remains well set in a peaceful state, all the things of the world are left in their purity.
My interrupting by voicing these doubts brought forth a very loud reaction from Ven. Ajahn Singh, such a response showing the true expression of his character. So what was I to do? I stayed quiet and kept my 'self-satisfied' feelings to myself, pondering the reasons why his views didn't fit in with my own opinions. In this matter, it became obvious that only Ven. Ajahn Mun remained for me to consult and depend on.
After a while, Ven. Ajahn Singh softened his voice and he turned and asked me what I now thought.
I stood my ground and said that I still didn't agree. I insisted, respectfully, that he shouldn't take the idea that I had been bragging of supernormal attainments seriously. I genuinely submitted my deep veneration for my teachers with a pure heart. The reason I had come forward to open up my true feeling and express such an opinion was because I was totally at a loss about the way to go on. I explained that this was the first time that I had experienced such a condition of mind and that I didn't know if it were right or wrong, or whether it needed rectification, or how to proceed with it. I said, with due respect, that I didn't harbor any resentment towards my teacher and that if he had any further suggestion as to skillful means with which to resolve my uncertainties, then out of kindness and compassion, to please throw it all at me.
Ven. Ajahn Singh then soothed and comforted me, advising me to proceed slowly but surely, as that was the way if things were to develop. Well, that day my heart certainly felt as if it had totally lost everything upon which it could depend. It was as if all ties and attachment to the group were gone. One of Ven. Ajahn Singh's wishes had been that the group of monks not split up. He wanted us all to help each other in spreading Buddhism in that province. However, I had long desired — ever since I had joined up with the others while staying in Khon Kaen — to separate myself and go off to seek some solitude. This was because I was well aware that my meditation efforts and the necessary skillful techniques were still weak and ineffective. I had continually tried to detach myself but always in ways that would not give the impression to my teacher or companions that I didn't like them. I had not however, succeeded in this. It was on this occasion, after the Rains Retreat, that I got my chance.
It was during this Rains Retreat that I readied myself to go and seek out Ven. Ajahn Mun in Chiang Mai Province. Throughout this period I was developing my meditation with the same techniques and methods that I had used while staying at Wat Pah Salawan, in Korat. Although I firmly held Ven. Ajahn Mun in mind as the inspiration for my meditation efforts, my heart didn't seem as refined as it once had been. After the end of the Rains Retreat I mentioned to Ven. Ornsee (Sumedho, later Phra Khru Silakan-sangvorn) my intention to go to Chiang Mai Province, following Ven. Ajahn Mun. I asked him if he would like to go with me and that if he would, then we should lay down certain principles:
1. There should be no grumbling about hardships encountered along the way, for example, difficulties with the journey, food, or shelter. If either of us were eventually to fall ill then we would help each other to the best of our ability — 'together to the end'.
2. If one of us became homesick for family or friends — for example, for our parents — there should be no abetting or helping the other to go back.
3. We must be resolved to face death, wherever and however it came.
I told Ven. Ornsee that if he accepted and agreed to abide by these three principles then he could go. However, if he didn't feel able to follow them he certainly shouldn't even think of going. Going against this would only be the cause for his later regret and that might cause me anguish too.
He said that he was happy with the arrangement and asked to go along. There was also a white robed layman (chee pa-kao) who asked to travel with us.
We embarked from Vientiane95 by motorized-boat, going upstream towards Nakorn Luang Phra Bahng.96 Sometimes we spent the night in riverside villages and sometimes we camped out on river sand banks.97 It took three nights and four days to reach Nakorn Luang Phra Bahng. On the trip up, we admired the beautiful natural scenery on both banks of the Mekong River. That, together with the refreshing coolness of the local climate, aroused a sense of solitude and isolation filling us with great happiness. This was enhanced by so few fellow passengers — and they had all gone to sleep. Only the skipper and some of his deck hands were about.
The landscape, though empty of villages, was encompassed with vast stretches of virgin jungle, with rocky outcrops jutting out over the river. Occasionally animals such as monkeys and langurs would make spectacular leaps as they playfully chased each other through the trees. Whenever the boat came closer to the bank, they would all crowd together in troops and gaze down, scrutinizing us. Nowadays, such scenes are difficult to find but just recalling them still evokes in me a feeling of solitude.
On arrival at Nakorn Luang Phra Bahng we sought permission to stay at Wat Mai, the newly built monastery close to the royal palace of the King. This is where they enshrine the Phra Bahng98 — so greatly revered and cherished by the citizens of Nakorn Luang Phra Bahng. This also happened to be the day when the Queen [of Laos] came to ceremonially dedicate the restored plinth of the Phra Bahng. We therefore counted ourselves fortunate witnesses of these customs and merit-making ceremonies of the citizens of Nakorn Luang Phra Bahng. However, I won't go into further detail about them here.
After the celebrations were over, we took leave of the abbot and went across to stay at Wat Nong Sa-gaaw. This was situated on a high hill on the opposite bank of the Mekong River,99 directly across from Nakorn Luang Phra Bahng. We stayed there to await the boat that would take us upriver to the district of Chiang Saen, in Chiang Rai Province of Thailand. After waiting there for four nights we embarked again and the journey took another four nights. The journey upriver to Chiang Saen was thus of equal length to the previous stretch up from Vientiane. We rested in Chiang Saen for four or five nights before setting out overland for Chiang Rai and Lampang.
In Lampang, we stayed in the garden for visitors to Phra Bart Dtark Phah by the entrance way leading up to the mountain shrine. The chee pa-kao accompanying us fell ill while we were there. He had no fever but felt exhausted and weak, and his urine was thick and reddish like water that has been used to rinse meat. We were far from any doctors and so had to resort to the Lord Buddha's medicine100 and depend on ourselves. So we told him to drink his own urine, even though it appeared so clearly reddish. He drank it straight after urination, while it was still warm. It worked wonders! Within less than ten days he was back to normal. After his recovery, we set out walking for about the first thirty five kilometres and then continued sometimes on foot and sometimes catching a vehicle101 until we reached Lampoon and finally Chiang Mai.
When we arrived at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, we enquired about Ven. Ajahn Mun but didn't find out much. Worse than that, some of the monks there even referred to him with dismissive contempt.102
May I ask here for the indulgence of my readers for what I am about to relate concerns the risky encounters of a monk's life. You may be able to find in it some sort of significance.103 It makes me feel awkward and embarrassed but to leave it out would make this autobiography incomplete.
Once, when we were stopping over at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, I felt very fit and healthy — never before had my health been so good. I assume it was because of the cool climate, which I have always found agreeable. Anyway, I went and had my photograph taken as a memento. Two days later I went back to the shop myself to collect the prints. Just as I was picking up the photographs to examine them, a woman — I'm not sure what sort of person she was — walked up behind me. She asked — in a very familiar manner — for one of the photos and her suggestive behavior seemed flirtatious and provocative. Hearing her speak in such a way gave me a fright, for I had only just arrived in town and didn't know anyone. As soon as I had looked and taken in the situation, I made a completely negative response and she hid her face, turned away and fled.
Hearing such remarks and seeing such behavior came as a very big Dhamma lesson. It made me reflect in a wider way on my previous experiences with women for I had already encountered similar behavior from women many times. Yet I had never shown any interest because I was determined to live my life as a monk in the Dhamma-Vinaya of the Lord Buddha — viewing women only as a danger to the brahmacariya holy life.104 This latest incident then brought up all the previous episodes that had arisen during my life.
For instance, there was once a woman whom I respected as a pious person. She wasn't so young anymore, either. I instructed her about meditation in the same way that I taught other people. Later, she came and told me that whenever she came near to me it felt as if her heart were relieved of its sadness. Sometimes, when a large group of monks came to see me, she would still come and sit there with us for lengthy periods. At that point I realized what she was up to. I tried to teach her to remedy this by meditation, but without success. I then used more intimidating, forceful language in an attempt to make her angry with me, but also to no avail. One day around dusk she dashed up into my hut. She wouldn't heed anything I said to forbid it and once up in my hut listlessly sat down and wouldn't speak. I called for her relatives to come and pull her away and that made her furious.
In the morning, while I was walking meditation, she strode straight towards me and stopped not far away. She started screaming at me, saying: "Why do you teach meditation like this? You teach people to go crazy! It doesn't matter who the meditation teacher is, none of them will escape from lust". Then she turned her back and went away. It was a sight that made me feel very uneasy. Her relatives took her to a hospital where the doctor examined her and could find nothing wrong. From there she went to live in a center for white-robed nuns with whom she already had close connections. Three months went by and she returned to see me. She had by then realized for herself the mistake and error she had made, and came to confess that she had misconstrued the situation, having thought that I had some magnetic charm105 that had made her fall in love with me. She then asked for my forgiveness and that was the end of the first affair.
The second incident occurred a long time later. I was giving guidance and teachings to lay Buddhists in various places in the rural areas. It all came from a sense of kindness and good intentions with sincere concern, and I managed to ignore any hardship that this caused me personally. I would sometimes still be teaching late into the night — I could manage to go on until midnight or even as late as three in the morning.
I particularly felt sympathy for those young women present who were still without ties or obligations. I wanted them to see the stress involved with their gender, to see that if they kept the precept of chastity purely, after death they would be reborn in a higher realm; or in a male body, for that would allow them to ordain as a novice or monk.106 This rather naive and silly opinion of mine was a general one towards all women, not for any individual in particular.
It was this compassion that became my charismatic charm without me being aware of it. To explain, I had become so popular and respected by so many people that a lot of them — women and men, old and young — came and ordained with me in the forest. Some of them obtained wonderful results in their meditation, evident to themselves and the other members of the group. Those people who couldn't meditate, however, would instead find opportunity to increase their defilements.
One day I had to go off on some business and a nun came up and asked to accompany me on the journey. I wouldn't allow it and set out. After this, the nun fell into a state of stupefied confusion and wouldn't utter a word. Whenever anyone asked her something, her only response would be a smile. When I returned after many days away and saw her condition, I tried using forceful language to make her indignant and thereby shake her out of her brooding fixation, but she just kept on smiling. I tried using some Buddhist techniques to help bring her out of it but it was no use, so I had someone take her back to stay with her relatives. At that time, it didn't strike me as very significant and I just thought that these incidents arose solely from sexual desire.
Afterwards, I continued to train the local Buddhist laity in virtue and Dhamma with my efforts being founded on kindness and motivated by a sincere wish for their welfare. I had to pass through many similar minor incidents that might have endangered my following of the brahmacariya. However I neither paid them much attention nor thought anything untoward could happen; and I feel rather abashed about such incidents so I'll ask not to go on about them.
However, I will say something about an incident that was the most horrifying close call in my life of brahmacariya. It happened back when I was newly ordained.
Sometimes, if I had spare time, I would go with a boy,107 usually in the evening to visit my lay supporters. On one such evening, I went up into a house to call on one of the lay supporters. She came out and closed the door behind us. That gave me quite a fright. At that time, she was alone with her young child. Anyway, we began conversing about various things in the way that people who have regard for each other do. One thing she always seemed to ask me about was whether I wished to disrobe.108 Being both a straightforward sort of person and naturally shy, I would always just say, "No", and quickly go on to talk about religious topics.
This time was no different. She asked the usual question but then continued to talk about her past. She spoke about the time before her marriage when a monk had fallen in love with her but they hadn't married. The marriage to her present husband was an arranged affair, both families having thought it a good match. Their living together wasn't much more than that and she didn't know how much longer they would last together. I just sat listening, assuming that she was confiding in me like this because we were close friends and that she had no ulterior motive.
Yet her behavior did seem strange in the way she was gradually drawing herself closer to me, always edging in closer and closer. Light from the dtai-torch began to flicker and was about to go out so I told her to trim it, but she just smiled and did nothing. I began to feel uneasy and felt the inner-heat from some desire that was arising, mixed with a strong fear of wrongdoing and of being discovered. Even to this day, I find that moment difficult to explain. It was as if I was totally stupefied. As far as I could make out, she must have been feeling it as strongly if not more so — her facial expression seemed bereft of all mindfulness.
She couldn't stand it anymore and went out to get some water to drink and splash on her face and then came back into the room. This was repeated many times and on re-entering she would always sit herself even closer to me. Meanwhile, my disquiet grew and I felt completely befuddled. That made me irritable so I told her I was leaving to go back to the monastery. However, it wasn't that easy for when I turned to get the boy who had accompanied me he was sound asleep, slumped up against the wall. She pleaded with me to stay the night there in the house and return to the monastery in the morning. That increased my feeling of stupefaction together with an incredible attack of bashfulness. I told her to wake up the boy and when I asked her a second time, she complied.
When the boy was awake, we both climbed down the house stairs. As I left I still felt befuddled and extremely ashamed of myself. I was also afraid that my monastic brothers and teachers would get to know what had happened. We arrived back at the monastery about midnight but I lay sleepless right through till dawn, reflecting on what had happened and why. I had somehow escaped those perilous circumstances in a miraculous way.
That young woman stimulated all the remembered incidents from the past that I've been relating here, a stranger who asked for my photograph that day. She certainly gave me the equivalent of a powerful sermon to which to listen. "Ah, so these are the wiles and ways of women still lost in intoxication with the worldly realm of sensual desire." Therefore, may I here again offer her my great thanks for her lesson. The incident involving her was quite straightforward but the latter two affairs happened because I overlooked the nature of worldly ways; or some might say it was because of my naive foolishness. Yet I am willing to be an innocent simpleton about that sort of thing, for that is why I was willing to forfeit such a life and go forth as a monk. I went forth in the radical way of one truly being willing to offer his life in homage to the Buddha's Teachings. If however, I hadn't been such a simpleton, and if my merit and good kamma hadn't been so supportive, and if I had been reluctant to offer my life for Buddhism — I would probably have long ago become crows' bait.
Recollecting my escapes from such frightening situations caused an immense feeling of exhilaration and satisfaction to arise in my heart, so much so that my body was quivering for days afterwards. Later, whenever I was to mention these episodes, those same feelings would arise in me and such a reaction persisted for almost twenty years.
I find it very embarrassing and I don't want bluntly to declare that women pose a threat to the brahmacariya — after all, my mother was a woman and the Buddhist Teachings under whose cool shade I take shelter is still primarily dependent on the dedicated support of women. In the Buddha's time the lay woman, the Lady Visakha, was widely renowned as one of the pre-eminent devotees (Mahaa-upaasikaa) of the Buddha's Teaching. Nevertheless, when the Buddha cautioned his close disciples to be circumspect about their life of brahmacariya, for the most part he would warn them to remain vigilant concerning the opposite sex.
Take for example, one of the final sayings of the Lord Buddha. He was replying to Venerable Ananda's109 questions about how a monk should conduct himself with a woman after the Lord Buddha had finally passed away into Nibbana: "Not to see or hear them is good and safe; while if there is contact then don't become too close or chat with them; while if it becomes necessary to speak with them make sure that you take care and restrain your mind."
For women who would train their hearts to a purity that transcends all suffering, they should contemplate the dangers of the opposite sex, the male, which forms their object of desire.110 By seeing the fault and harm in this they will also come to dispassion. As with the Elder Upalava.n.na Bhikkhunii111 who once declared something to the effect that: "I have seen the harm of all sensual desires. Whenever sensual desire besets someone's heart, it obscures and blinds them — a father then becomes capable even of sleeping with his own daughter."
To summarize, acute danger to the brahmacariya holy life comes most seriously from worldly sensuality. However, this can't exclusively be about one gender because all humans and animals born into this realm of sensuality come to birth through both sexes, through father and mother. Whatever we do therefore, there can be no escape from contact with the opposite sex.
Any person wishing to go beyond all sensuality must first pick out that very sensuality as something fundamental and as an object of deliberation. This applies especially to the opposite sex who make up the material form on which one hangs the signs of sexual desire. Lust and sexual desire are mental qualities that exist in everyone's heart and when they arise one feels the need to fix on a physical form as a target and object for grasping hold of. The physical form fixed upon is inclined in every way to be able to respond to that lustful desire and passion. It can do this, for example, through: bodily form, sexual characteristics, complexion, shape and appearance, deportment, decorum and speech.
The opposite sex or any object stimulating sensual pleasure can thus be turned into something that promotes the conditions necessary for a person to discern the harm of all sensuality. We will then see them as great facilitators in liberating ourselves from the sensual realm.112 If that wasn't the case, all the Dhamma-vinaya, the Lord Buddha's ordinances and the way of practice of forest meditation monks — including all the various ways and faculties of wisdom — would be totally worthless and of no benefit.
All people — whether they are ordained113 or lay — having been born into this sensual realm are obliged to defy this sort of threat and danger. Even if they don't possess the latest armaments there is always the weapon that their parents fashioned for them (their fist),114 their basic constitution, so that they can handle it. The person who won't stand up and fight has totally wasted the life to which he was born. However, the strategy and tactics employed by the recluse and the lay person will differ, in that the recluse battles for victory while the lay person battles against defeat. While the person who does not try at all is already rotting away while still alive.
I have been discussing all this for the benefit of those who are ordained and who must safeguard their brahmacariya holy life. It is this that forms the basis for the future continuity of the Lord Buddha's Teaching. While women may be the greatest danger to the monk's holy life, they are also equally of the greatest benefit and good to the Teaching. Women furnished the form from which the Lord Buddha and all the Noble Disciples came to be born and they also offered the object of contemplation through which was born their Dhamma realization.
When I think about those monks who transgress the Discipline in the most offensive of ways, by involving themselves in things that are regarded as worldly sensuality, namely sexual desire and money.115 What can one say about such monks who are supposed to have already forsaken all that when they went forth to ordain? Even a lay person, still completely immersed in the five strands of worldly pleasure,116 would be considered base and sordid if they exhibited such behavior among morally principled people.
I have already led my readers away, cutting through a forest of potent dangers until they must be tired out. So now I'll return to the account of my search for Ven. Ajahn Mun.
We stayed at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai town for two or three nights and then took leave of the abbot to continue our journey in search of Ven. Ajahn Mun. After fruitless enquiries at the various small monasteries where he had once stayed, we decided to make absolutely sure and go farther afield beyond Thailand.
We crossed into Burma going via the towns of Muang Hahng, Muang Dtuan, Mork Mai and Rahng Kruer, heading on up to the Phah Hang Hoong Cliffs (Rang Roong) that are close to Muang Pan on the River Salwin. But our hopes were disappointed as there wasn't the slightest sign that he had been that way. The cold weather then proved too much for us and after spending two nights with the Palong hill tribes people we came down off the mountains. Such cold — right in the middle of the March and April Hot Season! We were forced to huddle for warmth around a fire throughout the day and night. What would it have been like in the actual Cold Season or during a particularly cold year?
Ven. Ajahn Mun disappeared into the jungle because of what occurred when the Ven. Chao Khun Phra Upali-gunuupamahjahn (Siricando Chan) felt that he didn't have much longer to live. Ven. Chao Khun Phra Upali' saw there was a need for a suitable senior monk to take charge of Wat Chedi Luang and because of his already great respect for Ven. Ajahn Mun he was inclined to hand over responsibility for the administration of that monastery to him. Ven. Ajahn Mun preferred peace and quiet. He did not wish to get involved in such matters but, in order to respond to Ven. Chao Khun Phra Upali's purpose, he did go and reside there for one Rains Retreat. After the Retreat he took his leave and disappeared into the jungle. Ven. Chao Khun Phra Upali' had already passed away in Bangkok during that same Rains Retreat.
For the next two years there had been no news of Ven. Ajahn Mun. That left the two of us, Ven. Ornsee and myself, to seek him out and our wanderings through the forests and mountains were all aimed at this. As long as we stayed within Thailand we felt at home with the various hardships we always had to put up, but as soon as we crossed over the frontier our frustrations and hardships increased a thousandfold. For example, there were different cultural traditions and customs, and the language barrier.
Although we were all supposed to be Buddhist,117 the customs were sometimes very different from what we were familiar with and sometimes they didn't seem even in line with the Dhamma-Vinaya that the Lord Buddha had set down. It was very trying and bothersome for us as we were their visitors and guests. This was especially so when we were with the various hill tribe villages that were particularly poor and undeveloped.
And the paths and trails! In some places we were forced to follow the streams up into mountain valleys, otherwise there were walks along the edge of precipices. On the descent from one such climb I slipped on some rocks and fell, badly gashing my knees. I forced myself to hobble on until we reached the village of Pong Pah Khaem on the Thai-Burmese Border. We then went to stay in the Plong Cave where I could nurse my wounds and recuperate for ten days.
While traveling in Burma118 we had seen many admirable features. The people there liked peace and quiet, and they were generous and open-hearted. There were no thieves or crooks, and no domestic animals — no poultry or pigs — because they wouldn't kill animals. Their diet was basically vegetables, seasoned with chili, salt, beans and sesame. Once in a long while some dried fish would be brought up from Cambodia for them to sample. I later heard that after the Second World War,119 Field Marshall Por120 compelled these people to raise domestic animals that caused them much distress. I really appreciated their sincere good will and religious faith, and their peaceful and orderly way of life. We would hear no disturbing noise at night even though village houses might adjoin the monastery's fence. It was just as if there was no village there at all.
When the wound in my knee had healed well enough for me to walk, the two of us set out across the mountains of the Morn Ahng Kahng range (where Kahng means hoo-ang or the 'Demon Possessed Mountain'). We trekked through them all day without reaching the hill tribe village, for this mountain was indeed extremely high.121 It had taken us until midday to reach the summit and then the descent proved so steep that darkness overtook us as we reached the mountain's foot.
We carried on walking and about half way along the trail we heard the roar of a tiger not far away from us. I was almost frightened to death by the idea of a tiger being so close but I didn't let on to my friend — he had been born and raised in an agriculturally developed area and so didn't know the sound of a tiger. If I had told him, I knew I would instantly draw him into my state of trepidation. Going beyond the range of the tiger's roar we lost the trail and so were forced to find a place to spend the night in the jungle. I was so afraid of the tiger that I lay sleepless throughout the night. There was a heavy dew and it was extremely cold yet my friend lay there snoring loudly all night. While I was terrified with the thought that the tiger might hear him and we would be killed — he blissfully slept through it all.
At the crack of dawn we packed our things, still soaking wet from the dew, and set off again. On the way, I told him that the noise he had heard the previous evening that sounded like the yelping of a dying dog was, in fact, a tiger. It was the roar a tiger makes just after having consumed a full meal, expressing its high spirits.
We carried on walking and by around eight o'clock in the morning we had reached a village where we could go on alms round. After eating our meal we set off again and reached the Dtap Dtow Cave, where we stayed for a time to recover our strength. Feeling refreshed, we then resumed our journey, heading in the direction of Phrao District.
Next, something unbelievable occurred — yet it happened. On that day, after having our meal, we were leaving the Dtap Dtow Cave when a barking-deer122 darted out from beside two houses and across our path. These houses had been built in the middle of an open grassy field close to the gate of the cave-monastery. The barking deer then strolled leisurely, almost lazily, in front of us but we didn't take any notice of it thinking that this was its territory and we were just passing through.
We continued through the rest of the village and were cutting across the fields to join the start of the main trail, when more barking-deer appeared. A pair, male and female, that were among the village herd of water buffalo, spotted us coming along and darted out in front of us again, and again we paid them no notice. However, not long after that we found that although we had started along the right footpath, we had somehow wandered away from it. How was it possible that we could have mistaken our way and ended up on an old neglected trail leading into a side valley?
For about ten hours we were forced to pick our way along the rocky stream bed for the steep mountain slopes rising on both sides forced the path down off the bank. As the climb progressed it became so narrow and the jungle so thick that no sunlight could penetrate. We didn't stop for rests, not even to have a drink of water. When exhaustion began to set in, I proposed to my companion that we retrace our steps and pick up the main path, but he would not agree.
I thought that the head of the stream we were following must be the main drainage source for the surrounding, more lightly forested ridges — just like the streams back in my home region of the Northeast. It certainly did not turn out like that for when we finally reached the source, we found a sheer cliff face confronted us. There were tracks of large deer and the wallowing holes of wild boar.
As there was no longer any path forward we had to turn back and almost straightaway I mis-stepped on a rock and fell so that it deeply gashed the sole of my foot. Night was approaching so I used my shoulder-cloth123 to bind the wound and we decided to scale the steep side slopes that were mostly of scree. Well, it was quite a scramble, for wherever one placed a foot it would slip and slide.
We reached the summit around seven o'clock in the evening and saw a rather indistinct footpath winding its way along the summit ridge line. We were glad of the path because it probably meant we were near a village. Suddenly nearby, "peep! peep!" — a stag, startled by the light of our candle lanterns,124 had cried out and stamped the ground in alarm. This startled us so much that my heart seemed to miss beats. On recovering our composure we realized that, " Ah! It's only the sound of a deer". Looking in the direction of the noise we could make out its white chest and knew then that it was just a stag. Afterwards, it let out another cry and jumped down from the ridge of the mountain and disappeared.
After seeing the flattened sleeping place of this wild deer so close to the path, it became obvious that we were still a long way from human habitation. As it was already late, we decided to spend the night there and so we each arranged a place to our liking in the thick grassy undergrowth. Yet all night long we were unable to get any sleep. The wind was too strong to hang the mosquito nets from our krots, while on the ground it wasn't just termites attacking us, for swarms of ants also came, attracted by the blood from my wound and the sweat of our bodies. We had to wrap cloths around our eyes to prevent the ants from getting in to drink from our tears.
As soon as it was light, we rose and looked back down on the way we had come. Far below we could see the paddy fields as tiny squares. We oriented ourselves and estimated that if we continued straight onwards along the present path, we would probably meet up again with the trail that we had lost. So we cut across jungle and more open forest, following our line of march. How my foot was hurting! Pushing on across the more open, rocky, pebbly ground was almost unbearable but I gritted my teeth for we had to press on as we were still a long way from any village. After quite some time, we did indeed strike the hoped for trail.
Walking along the trail, we eventually reached a village not much before nine o'clock in the morning. We arrived with feelings of some relief and could slip our requisites from our shoulders125 by the side of a landing stage of a stream, beside the houses.
A moment or two later someone came out to see us and we related the whole course of events. We thought to ask straight out for something to eat but were afraid this was something blameworthy. So instead we tried to explain indirectly by mentioning that we had not yet eaten anything and that as I had an injured foot going on an alms round wouldn't be possible. If we were to wait there, would we be able to obtain anything to eat? She said we would and as she went back into the house we assumed that she would bring some food for us to eat. We both therefore went to bathe ourselves in the stream.
When I had finished washing the pain in my foot grew so excruciating that I couldn't walk on it at all. During the previous night it hadn't been at all painful and even that morning's walk had been bearable, so why should it now suddenly hurt so much that I couldn't even stand up? Venerable Ornsee, my companion through all this suffering, felt faint and dizzy and couldn't stand up himself. All we could do was to wait for her to bring us something to eat — but there was no sign of that.
Hunger and fatigue now surged in on us. Fortunately I had some herbal medicine for dizziness with me in my shoulder bag and so was able to attend to Venerable Ornsee, but it was well after ten o'clock in the morning before he could get up. I suggested then that he go and ask what was happening. He only managed to find two young boys minding the house and discovered that all the adults had gone to work in the jungle. This village had only two houses and everyone made their living by cutting the young banana leaves and drying and smoothing them for sale as 'cheroot' or 'cigarette papers'.
When Venerable Ornsee informed me of the situation, I had him go and bring the two boys to see me and I asked them if they would exchange cooked rice for some matches — we had no other possessions. Each of us had a couple of boxes of matches, and in exchange we got two baskets of sticky rice, two dishes of chili and fermented soya bean paste with two small bunches of steamed vegetables.126 We had our meal and how good it tasted!
After the meal was over the pain in my foot grew much worse, so much so that my whole leg was inflamed and throbbing. I endured this until just after three o'clock in the afternoon, when we moved on. I hobbled along for about three kilometres before we reached another village where we stayed for eleven nights. We rested and recovered our strength and I was able to attend to my wound. From there we climbed over a Karen settled mountain, coming down into the district of Phrao in Chiang Mai, at Manora Village (Look San).
That evening we received some good news. Someone came and told us that Ven. Ajahn Mun was staying in the Pah Mi-ang127 of Maer Pung and that Ven. Ajahn Sahn was at the entrance to the trail going up to Khork Kham Cave. We were delighted and thought that this time our aspirations would be fulfilled. After the meal, we gathered our things and set out, arriving just as night was falling at the Khork Kham Cave where Ven. Ajahn Sahn was staying. We spent the night with him, discussing Dhamma and talking about this and that as was suitable. The next morning after the meal, he put us on the right path and Venerable Ornsee and I took our leave and set off.
We arrived at Ven. Ajahn Mun's place at about four o'clock in the afternoon. He was engaged in walking meditation but when he saw us coming he immediately recognized us and called out our names. He halted his walking meditation and went over to sit in his hermitage. We began to slip our things down from our shoulders and place them on the ground outside, but he wouldn't have it and insisted that we put them on the veranda of his hermitage. Doing so, we entered and bowed our respects to him.
Ven. Ajahn Mun opened by enquiring after our well-being. I then respectfully explained to him: "the reason it's become necessary for me to seek the Venerable Ajahn out this time, is that I need your help in sorting out my meditation. I have already learned a lot from others in our group, but I'm convinced that the Venerable Ajahn is the only one who can resolve it all for me."
I then proceeded to detail my meditation practice and experiences to him, starting from my very first endeavors right up to those experiences that I had related to Ven. Ajahn Singh in Korat. This led him to describe how he had previously instructed his disciples, in effect suggesting how I should assess the group of disciples whom he had taught:
"Any monk who follows my way of practice until he becomes skilled and firmly established in it, should progress well and will at least hold his own and succeed. If a monk doesn't proceed along this way, he won't last long and will eventually regress or disrobe. Even for myself, should I be burdened with many responsibilities and involvements with the group of monks, then my meditation development can't be consistently developed. My focussed investigation into the body wouldn't be refined, nor would the heart become clear and lucid."
"In your investigating, never allow the mind to desert the body for anywhere else. Whether or not it appears to be clearing and becoming more lucid, don't retreat from fixing your investigation there. You can examine the body's loathsomeness, or view it as made up from elements, or examine it to see it as aggregates, or by way of the Three Characteristics.128 Any of these methods can be used. But you really must fix your investigations within these, including all the four bodily postures. Yet this isn't to say that after looking you can stop with that — regardless of whether it is seen clearly or not, just continue with the investigation. When any of these aspects are fully and lucidly seen in one's heart, all other exterior things will clearly manifest there too."
He also told me not to allow the mind to enter the bhavanga.
As soon as Ven. Ajahn Mun had finished speaking, I made a resolution in my heart: From that moment I would start again and learn a new way of practice. Right or wrong, I would follow his instructions and let him be the only one to guide me and make the final decisions.
One can say that from that day forward, my mindfulness was solely directed towards investigating the body. Throughout the day and night, I was now viewing it as loathsome, as made up of the four elements and as a mass of suffering. I intensified my practice without let up or negligence for six months — (I stayed there for the Rains Retreat) — without wearying of it. As a consequence my heart received calmness and peace and a new understanding arose:
All things of this world are merely the four elements. But we make assumptions (sammati) about them and then go and fall into delusion about our own suppositions. That is why there has to be so much trouble and distress with all these things.
This new understanding gave great solidity and firmness to my heart, which was very different from how it had been. I became confident that I was now going along the right path but did not inform Ven. Ajahn Mun about this because the firm belief in my new understanding convinced me that I could do that any time.
The weather was so extremely cold that year that we had to sleep by the side of a fire. Although I got a splinter of wood in my hand, no blood flowed because it was so cold. After the Rains Retreat, Ven. Ajahn Mun went down to stay near the village of Toong Ma-khao. The two of us, Venerable Ornsee (now Phra Khru Silakan') and myself, stayed on up there but we swapped places. I went down to stay where Ven. Ajahn Mun and Ven. Ornsee had spent the Retreat, while Ven. Ornsee came up to my place on the mountain.
In the middle of one night a tiger approached and sat watching over Ven. Ornsee, who was lying asleep beside the fire. When the fire died down and he began to feel cold he stood up to stoke it up again, at which point the tiger growled and sprang off into the jungle. Being born among the fields he wasn't familiar with the sounds of the jungle tiger and I didn't enlighten him, being concerned that he would become frightened.
Sometime later Ven. Ajahn Mun sent a letter telling us to come down to see him. We went to help him with some task for ten days and — what happened? Ah! All my meditation schemes that had seemed so lucid and obvious before were no longer so clear. I was now seeing 'people' as the 'people' that arise from conventional suppositions.
When the task was completed, Ven. Ajahn Waen and I requested permission from Ven. Ajahn Mun to go off wandering in search of solitude again. Venerable Ornsee stayed behind to attend on Ven. Ajahn Mun. We set off on our journey and after about twelve kilometres129 turned off into the forest for some seclusion.
During the night I heard the roar of a tiger from a nearby mountain top and this helped to concentrate my mind in seclusion. I called up the virtues and qualities of the Lord Buddha as my meditation object130 and from this arose knowledge of a strange and marvellous nature, in different ways never imagined or experienced before. We stayed there for two nights before continuing on to meet with Ven. Ajahn Sahn in the district of Phrao. I didn't stay long with him however because of my yearning for solitude. So, taking leave of him, I climbed up the mountain to where the Moo-ser hill tribes lived and continued with my meditation exertions there for nine days.
I thought that by going to live with the Moo-ser and not having a language in common,131 I would be able totally to commit myself to meditation practice. I knew quite well that they were generous-hearted so that they would certainly give me enough food to eat.
I exerted myself in meditation to the extreme limit of my ability, until a misguided and distorted view (Vipallaasa) arose:
'There is no Lord Buddha, no Sangha. There is only the Dhamma. This is because the Lord Buddha or, in other words, the 'Prince Siddhatthakumaara' only became the Lord Buddha through knowing the Dhamma. Even the Lord Buddha himself was only ruupa-dhamma and naama-dhamma.132 The Sangha is the same, for they all, whether enlightened noble disciples or unenlightened ordinary disciples, are sustained by Dhamma. Their physical form is but ruupa-dhamma and naama-dhamma'.
This was my rock certain opinion. I was absolutely convinced it was true.
But I did review what the authorized version had to say about it and found, well, that they didn't agree with my opinions. I was unable to settle these two conflicting views and they continually disputed with each other over many days. It was certainly a good thing that I was unwilling to throw out the conventional wisdom, for if I had, the results would have created quite a song and dance.133
As it happened, Ven. Ajahn Sahn sent someone to invite me to come down to receive some offerings and gifts from the lay people. I was in two minds whether or not I should go. However, I then remembered the state of my lower robe. I had already been using it for three years and it might not last through the next Rains Retreat, so I decided to go. Accepting his invitation, I went to renew my robes so that my requisites would be complete and I could then return. On going down they offered me all the things I required and that distorted view seemed completely to disappear of itself.
When I had finished cutting, sewing and dyeing the robe, I again went up the mountain. But this time I didn't return to my original spot but went on to the Moo-ser hill tribe village of Poo Phayah. On my arrival, they were more than glad to see me and kindly came together to make a hut for my stay. First though — Ah! — my hopes that the language barrier would probably stop anyone coming to bother me were soon dashed.
When I first arrived, I stayed in one of their abandoned houses. These people had never seen forest tudong monks before and the whole village turned out, from the youngest to the oldest, to stare at me. They gawked from far and near, some coming so close as almost to tread on my toes. As one onlooker went, another one came to replace him and it went on from midday until around four in the afternoon. They stood there gawking, and then sat there gawking, then lay down gawking at me. They were dirty and smelled. It was all too much for me and made me feel quite dizzy.
The villagers made me a path for walking meditation. Yet I only had to go out on it for them all to throng after me, so that I ended with a long line behind me strung out the length of the path. This was more than I could handle, so I went inside and sat again. Meanwhile, they continued parading in groups along the path thinking it all great fun.
Afterwards, I was able to come to an understanding with their 'Chief' (Poo Phayah, or district headman). We agreed that trailing behind me wasn't proper and that if they wanted to make merit then whenever they saw me out doing walking meditation they should 'peu' (join their hands in the gesture of respect). That would certainly be meritorious. From then on, whenever they saw me going out to do walking meditation, they would all approach and standing together in a line 'peu'. Anyone missing would be called out to come and join the group.
On reflection, one couldn't help feeling sympathetic towards these forest people, who, though living far from material civilisation, were so honest and upright. In those days no one had come up to assist and teach them for decades, and — unless some serious crime had been committed — no government officials would ever show their faces up there. They were self-governing and strictly trusted and relied on their 'Chief'. Those bad characters who were trouble-makers and stubbornly ignored their Chief's admonition, were expelled from the village by the Chief. If the perpetrator refused to go, the villagers would all move away from him. You can be assured that nothing like stealing and thievery existed.
Whenever I was walking through these mountain ranges and saw one or two isolated houses, I could immediately surmise that I wouldn't be able to stay with so few people.134 The hill tribes in this region lacked sufficient rice after two successively bad harvests. There were twelve houses in the village where I was staying but only three of them had enough rice to eat. Yet they all had such a lot of faith. When I came on alms round only three people would come out to put food into my bowl, but each one gave so much that it was sufficient for me to eat.
Sometime later the Chief came to see me and explained that everyone had faith and wished to offer food on my alms round, but they were embarrassed because they had no rice to give.135 They had to eat boiled yams and tubers136 instead of rice. I felt sorry for them and since I rather liked steamed yams myself, I told him so. I said that that was why I was able to come up to live with them — if I hadn't liked them, I wouldn't have come. Once they all knew about this, they dug up wild yams to steam and offer into my bowl, which was consequently filled everyday. They also were delighted with the idea, laughing and smiling, their faces lit up in an endearing way. They did though, remain apprehensive that I wouldn't be able to eat their yams and so they followed me back to my hut to see for themselves. Having received their gifts I was determined to show my appreciation by letting them see me eat them.
That year the rice crop had been sown but poor rainfall had caused the seedlings to shrivel and turn a pale yellow. The villagers built my hut ten days before the beginning of the Rains Retreat and when it was completed, astonishingly, the rain started to pour down. They were all overjoyed, absolutely delighted to think that it was the result of the merit they had made in building a 'monastery' for me to stay in. The rice was transformed by the rain into a lush green, splendid crop. Their rice fields that year produced so much that they couldn't use it all and some of them were even able to sell the surplus.
Apparently no monks had previously spent the Rains Retreat with the Moo-ser hill tribes people, so that I may possibly have been the first monk in Thailand to have done so.
When they had completed the construction of my hut, I recalled that in the 'Life of the Buddha', Venerable Phra Siddhattha had been thirty five years old when his strivings had come to fruition in his Awakening. That year, I too would be thirty five years old, (having gone forth as a monk when I was entering my twenty-second year). I therefore resolved that I would offer my strivings in meditation during that year to pay homage to the Enlightenment of the Lord Buddha:
'I will wholeheartedly accept whatever way my meditation practice leads, even if my life should be lost because of it. May this life of mine be offered, as one would offer a lotus flower, in worship of him.'
Having made this resolution, I applied myself to my meditation throughout the Rains Retreat. Yet it didn't seem to be progressing and remained firmly as it was before. To bring it up to the level of my resolution, I decided to put myself through a trial by fasting for five days.
The Moo-ser had never seen such a thing and were afraid I would die. They came and pleaded with me to partake of food as usual, but I refused and continued for the full five days in accordance with my pledge. They took it in turns surreptitiously to come and watch over me. If I closed my door to sit in meditation inside the room they would call out and ask me to reply, and only when I answered would they leave.
Actually, fasting is not the pathway to Enlightenment. The Lord Buddha had already tried this method and subsequently said that it was more like self-mortification.137 All my meditation teachers had repeated that. Having already tried it for myself, I knew that it was merely a technique for tormenting the body, without leading to the arising of the wisdom to explore Dhamma and sharpen one's understanding. I had fasted as a test of my will-power, to see which was stronger — my attachment to life or my faith in the Dhamma qualities that I had already seen. When I had come to the truth within my own heart about this, I returned to eating as before. Yet I didn't take any rice for the first four or five days, eating just steamed yams and taro.138 When the Moo-ser saw that I was taking food again, they were all delighted.
During the Rains Retreat, some visions (nimit') arose in my meditation pointing to the strength and firmness of my meditation procedures. This brought me great satisfaction and contentment.
The Moo-ser would rejoice and boast that: "Your being with us is very good. Our hill-rice fields have produced a bumper harvest; some people will even be able to sell cattle" — (they graze them but don't use them as beasts of burden) — "which they have never managed to do before." (Usually raising pigs for sale provided the regular family income.) "Dried chili-peppers are another income source for us, but apart from these items we have no other means of making money. This year we have more than enough money and can put some aside. You came and taught us not to gamble and play pai, too-ah and be-er,139 so we have stopped. Previously, groups of townspeople would come up and dupe us into gambling with them, but now we've accepted your teachings and don't play any more."
At the end of the Rains Retreat, the Chief personally came to offer a tort phah pah140 from himself and gave a length of white cloth for robe material.
I had to bid farewell to the Moo-ser people so that I could go down to pay my respects to Ven. Ajahn Mun who was at the village of Toong Ma-khao, in the district of Maer Pung. They were all much grieved at my departure and began crying and pleading with me to return. I was still undecided so I told them I would first see what my Ajahn had to say. Perhaps I would then come back.
When I reached Ven. Ajahn Mun and related to him all what had happened while I had been living with the Moo-ser, he was pleased and suggested that we went back there. For the return trip all three of us — Ven. Ajahn Mun, Venerable Ornsee and I — went in a group together. However, when it came time to start climbing, Venerable Ornsee became ill so we told him to wait down below to recuperate first.
Returning to stay with the Moo-ser people this time made me feel somewhat uneasy because they were now more intimately acquainted with me than with Ven. Ajahn Mun. Moreover, Ven. Ajahn Mun found it difficult to adjust to cold weather. Coming up into the colder atmosphere had affected his health so badly that it appeared that he could probably not stay on. But through his strength of mind and fighting spirit, he was able to overcome this and spend the whole of the Rains Retreat there.
This time around, my meditation went very well because besides being able to use my own techniques, I now also had those of the Ven. Ajahn and I was able to learn from him all the time. Close to the start of the Rains Retreat the Ven. Ajahn sent me down to bring Ven. Ornsee back up to be with us. I was away for five nights and that left the Ven. Ajahn by himself. It was during this period of solitude that he strove in his meditation with absolute and fearless determination and achieved outstanding results. His illness also completely disappeared at the same time.
During this Rains Retreat period the three of us were all resolute in our meditation practice, each of us striving to the limit of our individual ability. We were all so attuned to each other that any happenings — whether concerning external things or connected with the understanding of Dhamma — that occurred to one of us, would seem to be known to all. It was during this Rains Retreat that Ven. Ajahn Mun foretold how long his life would last and this subsequently proved to be accurate.
Sometimes, he would bring forward the visions and 'knowledge' that had spontaneously arisen within his meditation as predictions about various things concerning certain of his disciples. Yet he would add that one must not blindly believe all such things, for they could be wrong. As for me, I maintained a balanced mind concerning the things he said about me because I understood that such things were very much an individual affair, each case being different. They should not be the ultimate aim and purpose of one who truly practices meditation. That should be rather the total eradication of the defilements.
This Rains Retreat saw Ven. Ajahn Mun teach us using 'canny' and shrewd means, as well as his various subtle and skillful techniques. I had never seen him do anything like this before. I immediately carried out his teachings in every respect and so quickly that he once exclaimed to no one in particular, that: "This Venerable Thate is hasty and impetuous!".141
Ven. Ajahn Mun frankly opened up his true character to us and I can only count my great good fortune to have been under the guidance of a Meditation Master who taught in such a way. I think it would be difficult to find any other times when he could train his disciples in this way. The appropriate conditions of the people involved, the place and the time could never again be quite so conducive. Although he might have given his blessing and encouragement for me to become an heir to his Dhamma, I have never been heedless and complacently accepted it. I always held that what is true remains true, whatever one might say. One can't go beyond the true state of things.
During this Rains Retreat I came across a tribe of forest people who were known as the Yellow Leaf Spirits.142 They themselves resented this name and asked that it not be used for they said that they too were afraid of spirits and it was better to call them 'forest people'.
The Moo-ser people said that although they had lived in that place for over fifty years, they had never seen this tribe come near them. They were considered a tribe of 'ancient' Thais, and their language and accent sounded very similar to what I had heard when talking with the people from the towns of Yong and Ruang, located to the north of Chiang Dtoong.143 These townspeople had migrated southwards and settled down in Chiang Mai Province. They had made their living as wicker-workers, weaving trays144 known as kern trays (because they are the handiwork of the Kern Tribe). They had told me about these forest people, relating how originally the tribe had consisted of about sixty but smallpox had later killed some of them. At that time, only about thirty men and women remained. I can offer here some brief, collected notes about their way of life:
Their existence didn't rely on any permanent settlement. They cut a few small tree trunks to act as posts, then covered those with branches, leaves and whatever they could find. It was enough to sleep in and find some shelter from rain and dew. Sometimes they would sleep in caves or under rock overhangs or trees. The base of a tree sufficed for them even if it offered only a little shelter.
These forest people had no clothing except a few items that they had solicited for covering their nakedness when they entered a village.145 They lived together in groups and were afraid of spirits and tigers. Once they were in their shelters, other people rarely noticed them. If by chance they were seen, the women folk had to run away and if they weren't fast enough they would drop to the ground and roll away. Any men of the tribe would immediately come out with their spears to fight. (I think this all happened because of the women's lack of clothes.) They believed it was so inauspicious for a woman to see a stranger that it would end with her being eaten by a tiger.
The tribe would stay for a long time wherever there was a plentiful food supply but once the food ran out they would migrate elsewhere. That is why they were known as the Yellow Leaf Spirits, for when the leaves covering their shelters turned yellow they would move on.
Their food and diet were based on animal meat, wild forest yams and tubers, and honey from wild bee hives. They wouldn't eat certain species of animals — snakes for example — and meat had to be cooked or roasted in the fire before it could be eaten.146 Rice or wheat did not make up their staple food unlike ordinary people. If they collected honey, they would first mix it with rotted wood pulp or earth to give it some solidity before eating it.
They lit their fires by striking a piece of iron against a stone — (what we call the 'hunter's flint') — otherwise, they would rub two sticks together. I gave them a box of matches but they were afraid to use them because of the sudden ignition and hissing flare when struck.
Their way of hunting used spears, the ends of which were poisoned (with toxic sap).147 These forest people would stealthily follow any animal tracks they had observed until they saw the animal lying down for its day-rest. Then they would stalk in closer and hurl their spears directly at it. If the animal they sighted was still foraging for food, they would stealthily find cover and creep in as close as possible before sending their spears arching up through the air to fall on their prey.
They said that within a range of twenty to thirty metres, they could be sure of their meal. A superficial penetration of the spear meant they could eat the meat but if it went in more than one inch all the meat would become contaminated by the poison and be rendered inedible.
They once came and offered us some of their meat. It had an offensive, rank smell arising from the smoke where it had been roasted. They put it in the fork of some tree branches about ten metres away and its rank and putrid smell almost kept us awake the whole night. Ven. Ajahn Mun told the Moo-ser to take it and try boiling it, but nearly half of it proved to be dirt and so it couldn't be eaten.
Their tradition and customs were based in the forest and they never really left it. The only time people ever caught sight of them was when they ventured out to ask for clothing, rice, salt or iron for their flints. The ancestors of this tribe, as I understand it, were probably fugitives148 who had long ago fled from their lords and masters into the jungle. We may deduce this from their taboo against crossing any open areas or cultivated fields. No matter how wide the fields or how difficult the route around, they would avoid and bypass any signs of habitation or agriculture — even though nobody had actually forbidden them from crossing. This shows how the tribal elders had misled them away from going into open areas, being afraid that someone would spot and take them.
This also applies to what I've already said about the women — that if they should catch sight of any stranger a tiger would eat them. When the men came in to ask for rice, wheat or yams and taro, they would immediately eat everything without leaving any. I told them to take some back to share with their women folk. However, they replied that they couldn't do such a thing, for if the women ate such foods they would become addicted to the taste and be spoilt.
Whenever they came among the Moo-ser their behavior betrayed their inherent fear of strangers, especially of important people or officials. They walked slowly and cautiously, always wary and alert in a quite pitiful way. However, when they entered the jungle they became so swift and agile that following them was difficult for the eye. All one would see and hear were the stirring and rustling of the leaves.
Their marriage customs gave individual freedom to both the women and the men. For example, as elsewhere, it was common that when a man had good luck and was prospering through successfully bringing in meat and food, any woman attracted to him would go and stay with him and become his partner. I forgot to ask whether there was any dowry involved. The raising of children was the sole responsibility of the woman.
They had come to see me sometimes. I then had an opportunity to question them about many aspects of their lifestyle and so was able to develop a good understanding about them. Whenever I saw these forest people, I felt sympathy and pity because they were also of the same Thai tribe. I could understand every word of their conversation and their physical features were the same as ours in every way. The thought arose deep down in me to find some way to help them to become established in some stable livelihood, or at least to assist them to reach the subsistence level of the Moo-ser and the other hill tribes up in the mountains. If they were willing to receive assistance, I intended to inform the appropriate Government authorities so that they could bring in aid such as tools and supplies — including everything all the way to seedlings and seeds.
When they later came to see me, I sounded them out: "What do you think of the rice, the maize, the taro, the chili and the salt that you have been given to eat? Was it delicious?". "Yes," they replied, "it was all very tasty". "So," I continued, "if that is the case, why don't you come and make a settlement like these Moo-ser people. You could then plant rice and taro for your own consumption — wouldn't that be good?".
That was as far as I got, for they immediately started to protest that they were a forest people and that they couldn't do such a thing. If they did 'the ground would be turned upside down'. (This is an old fashioned expression indicating absolute opposition and disagreement. Their meaning being that such an idea was impossible. If it were to come to pass then the underside of the earth would be flipped over on to the top.) When I heard these objections, all my aid plans and projects ceased right there.
What a shame. Although these people were endowed with priceless humanity, they were unable to take full advantage of it because of their birth in an unsuitable environment. More to be pitied though are some of the people born in an affluent and pleasant environment. They have everything, including education opportunities, yet heedlessly lose themselves through indulgence in pleasures that are without real substance. Meanwhile time consumes their life so that it isn't used for anything worthwhile. There are so many people like this.
In this Rains Retreat, Ven. Ajahn Mun not only foretold various things but also spoke of the responsibility he would have to shoulder concerning the group of Kammatthaana forest monks. He spoke of establishing a meditation monastery in the Chiang Mai area and asked if I had any suggestions to offer. I was delighted to hear that he was thinking of resuming responsibility for our group. So I remarked that the people of the Northeast of Thailand were more suited to Dhamma practice than the people of other regions. This was especially so, I pointed out, in this Northern region where the results had been minimal.
"Look," I said, "Venerable Ajahn has been in this region for seven or eight years now but who has left their home to follow you and the way of practice? Those who do follow you are all, without exception, your old disciples from the Northeast. At this very moment the people there, both monks and lay people — including Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi — are always yearning for you. Everyone pleaded with me to come and invite Ven. Ajahn to return to the Northeast. They are happy to make all the necessary travel arrangements and said that all I had to do was to tell them what was required."
Ven. Ajahn Mun then recalled a mountain range towards Nah Kaer District of Sakhon Nakorn Province that would certainly make a good and suitable place to stay. He favored those sort of mountains and so declared that it would be the place for us all to go. But he also said that it would have to be my job to act as 'doorkeeper' for him. If someone came to visit him whom I considered unsuitable, he told me that I was not to allow them in to see him.
After the Rains Retreat, Ven. Ajahn Mun went down to the district of Phrao again. (Where, my friends later explained to me, he had also mentioned his plans to the group of monks there.) For our part, Ven. Ornsee and I had requested permission to remain in that area to continue our meditation efforts to our heart's content. Not many days later Ven. Ajahn Mun returned, bringing Ven. Ajahn Sahn, Ven. Ajahn Waen and Ven. Ajahn Khao up to see us. He mentioned again about establishing a meditation monastery for the group and I maintained my previous opinion that I didn't agree with it being set up in the North. Nevertheless, if Ven. Ajahn did go ahead and establish something in this region, after three years I would come and wholeheartedly help. Ven. Ajahn Mun and his group stayed with us for two nights before departing, with Ven. Ajahn Sahn, Ven. Ajahn Waen and Ven. Ajahn Khao returning to Phrao. Meanwhile, Ven. Ajahn Mun and Ven. Manoo went off towards Maer Sai District of Chiang Rai Province, where they eventually spent the coming Rains Retreat.
Venerable Ornsee and I remained meditating in that place until everybody had gone, then we also went our separate ways. Ven. Ornsee staying on there while I went over to another mountain.
What I am about to relate makes me feel quite embarrassed but it will put even greater shame on the defilements. What was it? Well, it happened when I left Ven. Ornsee and went off to stay alone. One day I heard a tiger roar and became so terrified by its noise that I began to tremble and shake so much that I couldn't sleep and my meditation wouldn't settle down at all. Some local people helped to chase it away by firing threatening shots with their guns and by hurling firebrands at it. It fled for a moment but then came back again. In the early morning, when the villagers were going out to work in the fields, they would sometimes spot the tiger crouching in the jungle ahead of them. They would then run away — although I never heard that it had done any harm to anyone.
No matter how I tried to sit in meditation, it just didn't seem to come together. At that point I was still unaware that it was all to do with my fear of the tiger. My whole body would be soaked in sweat. "Hey!", I thought, "what's all this about then? I'm cold and yet I'm still sweating". I tried removing the blanket wrapped around me and saw that I was still trembling. I felt exhausted with not being able to progress with my meditation. Then I thought of lying down to rest a little and refresh myself, ready for future efforts. At that very moment, I heard the tiger roar out and my whole body started shivering and shaking, as if I had a malarial fever. It was then I realized that this was all due to my fear of the tiger's roar.
I sat up and established mindfulness, settling the mind in stillness on a single object and ready to sacrifice my life. Hadn't I already accepted death? Wasn't that the reason for my coming to live here? Aren't tiger and human both a fabrication of the same four elements? After death, won't both end in the same condition? Who eats whom — who is the one who dies and who is the one that doesn't die? When I was willing to relinquish and investigate in this dauntless, single-minded way, I could no longer hear the noise of the tiger.
Whenever I afterwards heard the tiger's roar, my mind remained quite unconcerned. I now saw it just as air reverberating from a material form, causing sound. Ever since childhood, I had had a natural tendency to be easily upset, being of a rather nervous disposition. The sound of the tiger had brought up some past conditioning that had caused my unconscious fear.
It is these latent defilements149 lying submerged in the depths of the heart that are so extremely difficult to dispose of. To conquer the defilements is absolutely impossible without a willingness to relinquish one's attachment and grasping for these conditioned things. There has to be an exchange of things wholly devoid of value for the taste of the deathless — that is only found within the heart. Although Venerable Sariputta, the right-hand disciple of the Lord Buddha, could abandon these things when he became an arahant, his character traits150 remained — unlike the Fully Enlightened Buddha.151
During this period, when I was fearlessly pressing forward with my practice, something disagreeable came up as a meditation vision. It's something that should be revealed to my readers so that some of the shameful tendencies of the defilements can be exposed. Recognition of the harm of this type of defilement might then perhaps serve as a caution for their future restraint.
The image that appeared was that of a middle-aged woman, someone whom I well remembered from about five or six years previously. She had then been a lay supporter of mine, full of faith and sincere intentions. I considered her a good person, a person of Dhamma, courteous and refined, someone suitable for me to be associated with and a fine example of a genuine upaasikaa152 of the Buddhist Teachings. Her physical appearance was rather ordinary, or so it seemed to me. Apart from that, I had never given her much thought except recalling her kind support to me as a monk — for a monk lives dependent on others.
When the image appeared in my meditation, she seemed to be sitting close to me on my right, in a rather familiar way. There then arose in my heart a spontaneous feeling as if the two of us had been living closely together for what seemed like decades. Yet there was no lust or desire involved in it. This shocked me. I withdrew from meditation and examined my heart but I couldn't detect any feelings of attachment towards her. Furthermore, I hadn't given her a moment's thought over the previous five or six years. Why then should I have such a vision?
After a more thorough investigation, I came to understand the nature of the latent defilement of sensuality (kaama-kilesaanusaya). This lies deeply submerged in the 'ocean bed', beyond the reach and understanding of the negligent person.
— A person possessing wisdom but lacking faith, energy and dauntless perseverance, will be incapable of searching out and confronting it.
— A person possessing faith, energy, and dauntless perseverance but lacking wisdom, will still be incapable of eliminating it.
— A person possessing faith, energy and dauntless perseverance together with wisdom; and someone who develops meditation by steadily cultivating those virtuous qualities without lapses will be able totally to eliminate the latent tendencies.
I then proceeded to reflect further about those meditators who had successfully achieved all the absorptions153 yet could still be deceived and fall down badly because of the defilements of sensuality and lust. They take the sort of vision that I have just mentioned as genuine, as truly signifying that they had been husband and wife in a previous life.154 This leads to the arising of tenderness and affection, sexual excitement and desire that develop as is their wont into the searching out of that 'vision'. There is then a meeting and a frank telling of what should not be revealed. The twin live wires already run side by side and if some metal object comes too close it has to be attracted and pulled in. They make contact and that is why it's possible for so many meditators, particularly monks — sometimes they have even been senior Teachers — to fall into the abyss. On seeing such a vision, instead of being alarmed and seeing it as a threat and danger — and therefore arming themselves for victory over it — they submit and ally themselves with it. What a waste!
The Lord Buddha recounted how human beings and animals born into this world, one and all, have been mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives. They have all been relatives to one another — in one or another birth. Perhaps even the poultry and pork that we eat might be the flesh of our father or mother from a previous birth. We still have defilements and so are liable to die and take birth, to die and be born through countless lives. Yet what sort of case is it when a seductive vision arises just once, and one is lured away and goes after it.
Well, now that we have already exposed and shamed Maara,155 the defilements, I would like to relate another instance. This concerns an attractive young woman. She and her parents and relatives held me in deep regard and I tried to help by advising and instructing her in morality and virtue. I particularly wanted her to see the hazard inherent in the feminine condition and to keep to the brahmacariya precepts all her life. Yet events didn't turn out that way for instead she went and lost her virginity in a very unfortunate way. When she came to her senses, she was overwhelmed by tearful remorse. I happened to hear about this and felt a deep weariness with all such gullibility and credulousness. Afterwards, she both respected me and felt ashamed before me. All I could think of was: 'how could things have come to this pass?'. Looking at her, I felt that although her form might appear human, her mind-state was that of an animal. The more I thought about it, the more it made me feel sick and tired about her and the whole matter — almost to the point of nausea. This state of mind persisted for many years afterwards and that nauseous feeling would arise whenever I recalled the incident. There was such a strong feeling of weariness — I had never felt anything quite so deeply before — yet it certainly was not the correct way of practice. However, that had all happened in the past.
Afterwards, I came to reflect on the harm of sensuality, pondering the extent of its fierce severity. When it arises in the underlying personality of anyone it can vent its power and devour its victim. This may happen regardless of whether the person has moral principles or is delinquent, or whether they are seasoned meditators who have reached the highest levels of absorption. The only exceptions being the Lord Buddha and the arahants. Sensuality is totally lacking kindness or consideration, being like a tiger pouncing on a defenceless puppy and cold-bloodedly consuming it.
This made me feel a lot more sensitive and open towards that young woman. She had always had wholesome intentions, had hoped to be good yet passion can be so very destructive. It pounces without caring whom its victim is. It is this sensual desire that must bear so much of the blame and is unforgivable. This increased my sympathy and compassion for her.
Those who are still sunk in the depths of the flood of sensual desires must come to birth in the sensual realm. This sensual realm or sphere is a place to develop spiritual virtues.156 For those who want to progress in the way of the heart it is the field of battle where one can fight for victory. While for miscreants, it can become their graveyard.
The sensual realm or plane of existence is endowed with a full complement of natural resources, and all the outer and the inner ones are complete. Persons of wisdom can take advantage of this in whatever way they want. If there are no trees in the forest, where will one go to find herbal medicines? If there are no doctors then such medicines remain useless. If there are medicine and doctor, but the sick patient refuses treatment or will not take the prescription, they cannot cure their illness.
Those who see any 'worth'157 in the sphere of sensuality and engross themselves in its array of sensual delights are called 'worthies of sensuality'.158 Those whom the poison of sensuality has infected and are aware of its virulence are called 'handicapped by sensuality' (Kaama-tote). Those who have totally relinquished all sensuality are called 'freed from sensuality'.159
Returning to where I had stayed before, I exchanged places with Ven. Ornsee. It was then that I really did have quite an encounter with a tiger. One night a tiger came and pounced on and began to eat a water buffalo close by my hut. I tried to drive it away by striking a bamboo160 and shouting loudly but the tiger would have none of it. It refused to let go of its prey and succeeded in dragging it away to eat. This time I was not afraid but I didn't dare leave my hut and go over to aid the water buffalo in case the tiger decided to gobble up a man too.
As the two of us had spent enough time meditating in that place, we moved on to other Moo-ser villages scattered along those mountains. After we had spent some time introducing them to Dhamma and inspiring them with faith, we returned down to the district of Phrao. Then we looked around the region of Chiang Dao before returning to Maer Dtaeng District.
The small forest monastery at Pong Village was where Ven. Ajahn Mun had once stayed for the Rains Retreat. Ven. Chao Khun Phra Upaaliigu.nuupamaacaariya (Chan Siricando) had also spent some time there. The lay people of this village were quite clever and had a reasonably good understanding of Dhamma. That year's Rains saw five of us staying there: Ven. Ajahn Boon-tham, Venerable Kheung, a monk from Loei Province (whose name I can't recall), Ven. Ajahn Chorp and myself. I was the head monk and so had to choose suitably skillful means to use in my Dhamma talks to the group so that they would gain a solid basis for their future individual Dhamma practice.
In this group it was Ven. Ajahn Chorp who was the most strict in his dhuta.nga161 practices. While including all the monks gathered for that Rains Retreat it would be difficult to find a better group of Dhamma companions (Kalyaa.na-mitta). I gave a Dhamma talk almost every night and throughout the instruction my companions would willingly listen with calm and attentive minds. Afterwards, I would give them an opportunity to bring up any questions or problems and to air whatever views they had. Besides Ven. Ajahn Chorp, Ven. Kheung was particularly gifted in the faculty of knowing another person's mind (Parassa ceto-pariyañaa.na). If something was preoccupying anyone's mind or if someone had committed any breach of the monastic Rule, one of these two monks would detect it.
In our group, the monk whom I felt most sorry for was Ven. Ajahn Boon-tham (from Surin Province). He had been a monk for many years but still couldn't meditate very well. Ven. Ajahn Chorp and Venerable Kheung were able to follow everything he was thinking and doing which concerned matters in which he certainly shouldn't have been indulging. Whenever his companions cautioned him about it, he would readily admit his faults and would even humbly bow to them even though they were his juniors. His feelings of inadequacy and shame in front of the group went with his having missed meeting Ven. Ajahn Mun — although he had once been a disciple of Ven. Ajahn Singh. He really wanted to hear a sermon by Ven. Ajahn Mun and believed that he was already knowledgeable enough instantly to understand and gain insight into Dhamma. I was continually warning him not to be presumptuous and to be careful when he did come to meet and listen to Ven. Ajahn Mun's Dhamma talk. His overconfidence might make him unreceptive and cause him to feel negative towards the Venerable Ajahn.
After the Rains Retreat was over, Ven. Ajahn Mun returned to visit us again and Ven. Ajahn Boon-tham was able to listen to a Dhamma talk. That was all it took, for regrettably it had the opposite effect to what he had expected and he became dissatisfied with the methods of training offered by Ven. Ajahn Mun. Later, perhaps because he felt so let down, he deserted the group and went off wandering alone. However, he met with misfortune and contracted cerebral malaria. Ven. Ajahn Ree-an found him and helped to bear him back to Chiang Mai where he died in the hospital, without any relatives or disciples being around to help nurse him.
After staying to receive teachings from Ven. Ajahn Mun for a suitable length of time, Venerable Kheung and I took our leave to go off in search of solitude and secluded places by following the Maer Dtaeng River upstream. We stayed in a secluded spot near a mountain area of tea plantations. I left Venerable Kheung to watch over our belongings in an abandoned monastery at the foot of the mountain, while I climbed the ridge to find a suitable place to stay above. It happened that a young woman came strolling by flirting with some local young men. Venerable Kheung saw this and he too became intensely excited. When I came back down from my place on the mountain and saw the state he was in I tried to counsel him and recommended various ways he could use to still the emotion — but without success.
I had had an intimation of such a possibility ever since he had first come to stay with me. At that time, he had told me about a vision that he had experienced while staying with Ven. Ajahn Mun in Maer Suay District. He said that hearing about me had inspired him so much that he wished to meet me. He had then had a vision:
'A road appeared that led straight from him to where I was. He made a trouble-free journey along the road that ended right at the foot of the stairs leading to my hut. He then seemed to catch hold of the stairs and started climbing — they seemed extremely high — up to me. After bowing to me three times, I offered him a complete set of robes but he refused to accept them.'
It seemed that circumstances were beginning to fit in with his vision. I also felt as if our sympathetic association had reached its limit. That morning during the meal, he had lost his temper with me over some insignificant issue. By the evening, he had come to see me and admitted his fault. He related his experience of the previous evening when lust had overcome him at seeing the flirtatious young woman. His meditation throughout the following night had not been successful and he came to take his leave and go off wandering alone.
About three months later, we met again and I encouraged him to make a fresh start with his meditation: "If you have enough determination, it's still possible for you to succeed. Please, just have done with it and start afresh".
Nevertheless, he wouldn't accept this advice and afterwards I learned with great regret that he had disrobed. He was a strong-willed individual and did nothing in half measures, but he was also very opinionated and even Ven. Ajahn Mun's Dhamma talks didn't always convince him. He had once been a 'tough guy' back in his home village before ordaining and leaving without any real goal in mind. He originally came from Nam Gam Village in the district of Taht Panom.
The Six Higher Psychic Powers162 — one example being 'knowing the minds of other beings' — are not something common to every person. They will not necessarily arise in the practice of everyone who meditates. With some people no matter how refined their mind becomes no higher powers will arise. While other people meditate and when the mind converges into momentary or access concentration (kha.nika- or upacaara-samaadhi) these powers develop.
Venerable Kheung was adept at training his mind to enter tranquillity and he could remain in such a calm state all day and night. While walking around in seemingly quite an ordinary way, in his mind he would feel as if he were walking on air. While at other times he might feel as if he had penetrated into the interior of the earth. Although Ven. Kheung's mind didn't withdraw from concentration he lacked the wisdom to investigate the Three Characteristics.163 His powers were therefore only of the mundane sort, arising out of mundane absorption.164 Let alone Ven. Kheung, just consider Venerable Devadatta165 who had been able to consult with Prince Ajaatasatthu by flying in through the palace window — that is until his abilities failed.
Nong Doo was a Mon166 village. The monks of the village seemed quite strict with their keeping of the monastic Rule. However the villagers also said that their abbot was supernaturally quite powerful.
Whenever the villagers went to a festival or fair he would consecrate and empower some sesame seed oil and give it to them to drink and rub on their bodies. This would make them invulnerable to stabs and blows. When they went to neighbouring village fairs, the other village folk would have to watch out for them very carefully. The villagers from Nong Doo were confident in their Abbot-teacher's power and so started to consider themselves superior, without fear of anyone else. The nearby villages gathered together, laid out a plan and arming themselves to the teeth came en masse to invest Nong Doo Village, intent on taking their revenge by wiping it out. When the resident menfolk there realized what was happening, they had taken to their heels and hid themselves in the jungle to save their skins.
The Abbot-teacher was already eighty years old when he was converted from such practices by the teachings of a wandering meditation monk who stayed at his monastery. Remarkably, he was able to gain some insight into the truth of the Dhamma teachings of the Lord Buddha. He then felt such faith in the meditation monk that he could give up his conceited opinions and offer himself as a disciple of the younger monk.
Later, the whole monastery supported by the lay people, decided to change over to become part of the Dhammayut' community. Somdet Phra Maha Virawong (Pim), when he was still Phra Ñaanadilok and acting abbot of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, requested that I become the first abbot of the re-established Wat Nong Doo with Ven. Palat Tong-sook as deputy abbot. It was during this Rains Retreat that Ven. Mahaa Kan learned to give his first sermon and taught Dhamma studies.
I instructed the lay community during this Rains Retreat. This inspired their faith so much that on the Quarter Moon Days they came to the monastery to observe the Eight Precepts in unprecedented numbers. Whole households would lock up the house and come to observe the Eight Precepts and spend the night in the monastery.
Traditionally, Mon young women were not expected to observe the Eight Precepts. For the young men it was the opposite. When the young men disrobed after their temporary ordination, they would unfailingly continue to go every week to the monastery and keep the Eight Precepts. These people were really exemplary, for despite their far from easy living conditions they were extremely devout. I also taught them to establish themselves steadfastly in the Three Refuges167 and to abandon their wrong views and beliefs in spirit-worship. Many agreed to this and willingly renounced their Mon spirit worship and came to request the Three Refuges instead. Unfortunately, after the Rains Retreat I had to leave them and travel back to the Northeast so things had to be suspended there.
Being a millionaire or a pauper does not stand in the way of gaining the Noble Treasure of one endowed with faith and wisdom. This is why this Noble Treasure surpasses all other wealth.
Before leaving the North I went to pay my respects to Ven. Ajahn Mun. He had spent the Rains Retreat at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, at the request of Somdet Phra Maha Virawong. I again took the opportunity to invite him to return to the Northeast, having already submitted one invitation before the Retreat had started. He remarked that he had also received a letter of invitation from Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi. In fact, I had been the one who had written to Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi suggesting that such an invitation be sent. I had done this after sounding out Ven. Ajahn Mun and sensing that there was a chance that he might be willing to return. When I enquired again about his going back, he said that he would go at the right time.
I then respectfully informed him of my own plans to go back and took leave of him. I explained that I had already been in the Northern region for quite a long time and felt that however things might turn out, I would be able to take care of myself. After writing another letter to Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi explaining the situation, I set out.
This time they arranged for a boy to accompany me on my journey, but Ven. Ornsee stayed behind with Ven. Ajahn Mun. When I reached Tah Bor, in Nongkhai Province, I was determined that the group of monks there be trained to be rigorous and conscientious in their practice. However, after attempting this for around three or four years the results were only about 30 or 40 per cent of what they could have been. Later they seemed even less.
I therefore turned more to integrating the study aspects into the practice. Together with that, I also led all the monks in the daily chanting, and afterwards we would practice the rhythmic styles of both mokot-sangyok and roy-gaaw chanting. We would regularly finish by chanting the Patimokkha Rule and by that I was able to produce many expert chanters. The benefits became so obvious that I have continued this way of practice right up to the present.
After I had stayed two Rains Retreats in Wat Araññavaasee — from 1941 to 1942 — I led the lay supporters to build a small monastery on the western side of Glahng Yai Village. It is now a permanent monastery and has continued to have resident monks and novices through each Rains Retreat. They have now named it Wat Nirodha-rangsee.
It was during this period that Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi began to take a greater interest in meditation practice and in Venerable Ajahn Mun. In truth, when Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi was still a novice — before he had gone off to Bangkok to study — he had been a disciple of Ven. Ajahn Sao and Ven. Ajahn Mun. At that time, however, he had shown no interest in the way of practice.
I think it was probably at the time of the boundary-stone laying ceremony at Wat Bodhisomphorn168 that he became more closely acquainted with the two venerable Ajahns. They so aroused his interest that he was always questioning me about their way of practice and about their character and qualities. He would sometimes ask me to give him a sermon based on what I had heard from the two Ajahns. When I recounted such teaching, he would silently listen with great attention and respect.
Afterwards, Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi sent Ven. Ajahn Oon Dhammadharo to Chiang Mai to invite Ven. Ajahn Mun to return but without success. Ven. Ajahn Oon reported to Ven. Ajahn Mun about his vegetarian practices and this eventually led to quarreling and discord in the group. Ven. Ajahn Mun said that none of the arahants had ever quarreled over food and excrement, so why were those present now doing so. Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi had to go to Bangkok on Sangha affairs and when they were completed he carried on to Chiang Mai and made the invitation himself. Ven. Ajahn Mun said: "Hey, what's this, you've come with the 'big letter'". (Meaning that he was making the invitation in person.)
I remained at Wat Araññavaasee in Tah Bor for a period approaching nine years. This was a record for my ordained life until then. I had never taken any interest in building work because I considered it an interference and not the task of a recluse. Thinking that one ordained should rather concentrate all his energies on the duties of a recluse.
When I arrived in Wat Araññavaasee I realized that all the dwelling places there were an inheritance from the previous generation of senior monks. They had constructed them and we all lived in them. I then reflected on those clauses in the monastic Rule where permission is given to repair any existing dwelling places. This led me to feel rather ashamed of myself, for I seemed to have been so busy making use of these resources and merely monitoring this heritage from the previous Teachers.
This was when I began to guide the lay supporters in building projects and I've continued right up to the present day. However, at no point have I gone out and solicited donations for this work. I have always been extremely sensitive about this — if the resources were available the work went forward, if they weren't then we simply stopped the work. I never allowed myself to become bound to any project so that if it couldn't be finished or was underfunded I could easily abandon it without any feelings of attachment. While I was at Wat Araññavaasee I directed the lay supporters in the construction of two new huts, a large study hall and many other smaller structures.
Before this extended period at Wat Araññavaasee, I can't remember ever staying anywhere longer than three Rains Retreats. It may have been due to the long period of my stay or perhaps for some other reason that my neurological disorder recurred. However I still forced myself to endure it so that those who wanted to study and practice there were given a good opportunity.
In 1946, Venerable Gate (my elder brother) came to spend the Rains Retreat with us. He died during the Retreat from appendicitis. He had been ordained for fourteen years and was forty-eight years old. Since his ordination — (he was the next eldest to me) — we had never before stayed together for a Rains Retreat. It now seems that our coming together was not a good omen.
When he came, I wasn't giving many sermons to the lay devotees and instead had them meditating quietly on their own. My neurological disorder had grown so much worse that after I took the Dhamma seat to give a sermon, I had no idea what I was talking about — but I could still speak all right. When I finished my sermon, I would ask the listening lay people what I had been speaking about and whether it had made sense. They answered that they could understand it very well. It was just as it had always been.
One day I had a dream in which Venerable Gate and I were walking on tudong together through the jungle. We came to a stream and started following the stream bed. The water wasn't very deep, only reaching our waists, yet it didn't appear to wet our robes. I noticed how fresh the water looked and felt like scooping it up in my hands to rinse my mouth out. When I did take a mouthful, I gargled with it and then spat it out — and all my teeth came out with the water! Waking up, I thought that it had really happened. I had to feel in my mouth before I knew it was only a dream.
I had never really believed in the absolute truth of dreams.169 I thought that dreams occurred through our not attending to the activities of the mind, so that it dithers when we fall asleep and then trails after its preoccupations. If we were to take care of the heart then there would be no dreaming. If however we did dream, we would be aware of the dreaming though we couldn't get up because the body remained still. When the body was able to move again and could get up, the mind would no longer be asleep. Dreaming would occur when the heart wasn't asleep but was vacillating and dithering.
When I refused to believe in the dream, a vision appeared to my inner sight (in the heart). As I've mentioned above, I became ill about four or five days before the full moon of the tenth lunar month, [around September]. It was the time of the traditional festival of Khao Boon Salahk-pat,170 and I was feeling so unwell that I couldn't stand up without vomiting. I lay down with closed eyes and when I opened them again I found myself gazing at the sky with clouds passing across the sun. It hurt my eyes and I vomited.
It happened to be an Observance Day but I couldn't manage to go and give a sermon so instead they invited Venerable Gate. He gave a sermon for one and a half hours. The people listening were quite amazed at this, not expecting him to be able to do so much. The next morning my nervous disorder seemed to have cleared up and I was invited away to a meeting.
At around eleven o'clock in the morning, someone came to tell me that Venerable Gate had stomach pains and so I returned to the monastery. When I arrived, all I could do was look at him, for we had no medicines and I didn't know what else to do. More than ten years before he had been ill with similar symptoms. Sometimes, if medicine were available, he would take it and get better, while at other times it seemed to clear up even without medicines. He had once been ill for five days and nights at Nah Seedah Village (our home village) without being able to lie down or eat. The illness had then cleared up after he had used his finger to remove three or four small lumps — I don't know what they were — from his anus.
In those days modern-style doctoring had yet to spread widely. If one's stomach was painful, one found some stomachache pills to swallow. We didn't know anything about the appendix. If the stomach pains came from food poisoning or from fermentation and flatulence, they would clear up. If they came from appendicitis they wouldn't, and countless people died of it. This time Venerable Gate really did have appendicitis — and we had no medicine.
The pain was almost beyond bearing so that he was tossing about but I never heard him cry out. Finally, he managed to get out a few words. He said that he certainly wouldn't be able to carry on in that way. He thought that trying some walking meditation might help so he asked us to assist him up to the meditation path where he took about four or five steps before collapsing. The monks and novices who were attending him saw his condition and brought him back to lie down where he had been before.
At that time I had begun to feel so weak after caring for him for such an extended period that I had asked leave from everyone to go and rest. A novice then came to call me with news that Venerable Gate had become very weak and fainted. I rushed to see and found that he was lying there without speaking. Coming closer I reminded him of Dhamma and asked if he could hear what I was saying. He replied that he could and this continued until about eight o'clock that night, when he died.
Venerable Gate had been a person of great endurance in times of both sickness and health. It wasn't just the one illness either, for he had also suffered from appendicitis, kidney stones and malaria. Even when his appendix became infected for many days, he neither complained nor troubled anyone. He would quietly lie there alone. If he were able to eat, he would eat, and if he couldn't he would just continue quietly to lie there. He had always eaten only a small amount and had never been fussy about food. Once he had managed on plain rice and salt for more than ten days. All the meditation teachers had praised his great qualities of endurance.
After I had arranged his funeral and finished the Rains Retreat of 1947, my mother also passed away. That year had seen the whole village and town come down with infected sores and ulcers and this included my mother who had an ulcer on her shin. Those who were affected had gone for treatment and were all cured except my mother. I fetched the particular medicines that should have been effective in treating her but the problem didn't clear up. The flesh started festering and was suppurating so much that it fell away exposing the bone. There was no pain however.
While my mother was ill in Nah Seedah Village, Glahng Yai Subdistrict of Nongkhai, I had spent the Rains Retreat in Tah Bor District of Nongkhai Province. The block that had made me so incredulous about the validity of my dream abruptly cleared up. The morning after dreaming that all my teeth had fallen out I felt certain that I would have some traveling to do that day. I returned from my alms round and saw someone waiting for me with news that my mother's condition had seriously deteriorated.
Those who mark dreams down as unbelievable, useless affairs — well, they can think what they want. But I accept them with 100 percent certainty. If one dreams that one's teeth fall out then it definitely means that one's father or mother or one of one's brothers or sisters is very ill or has died. It might otherwise relate to a very close friend or acquaintance.
I nursed my mother as much as I could with both spiritual medicine171 and with medication but her body was already extremely aged. She was eighty-two years old. Whatever medicine we brought no longer seemed to help for she could no longer take it and her condition continued to deteriorate. This went on until things could no longer hold together and just as an old brown leaf falls, she withered away and sank. Nevertheless, I ministered to her heart and mind, supporting her mindfulness and settling her in full tranquillity right up to the final moment, when little breath remained.
I thus fulfilled the obligations necessary for an ideal son. When her condition had still been stable, she had always thought of me as an adviser. She would consult me if she wanted for anything or if she had any problems, and would adopt any opinion I offered. When she was unwell, I had supported her mindfulness so that sometimes she wouldn't need to take any other medicine. She had often recovered through her trust and faith in my teaching. It was the same when she was approaching death and perhaps it was due to this that the wound in her leg was not painful.
26. Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh Rains
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