Jul 29 2012

Ajahn Mun shrine at Wat Pa Suthawat, Sakon Nakhon

Published by at 12:53 pm under Northeast Thailand


One of the founding fathers of the Thai Forest Buddhist Tradition, Ajahn Mun Bhuridato (1870-1949) revitalised Buddhism in Thailand by living in a way that reflected the historical Buddha’s lifestyle as closely as possible, and many believe enlightenment to have been his reward. Throughout his years, Ajahn Mun wandered in untouched jungles while devoting himself to self-discipline and meditation. On a trip to northeast Thailand, I recently stopped by Ajahn Mun’s final resting place at Sakon Nakhon’s Wat Pa Suthawat to experience the legacy of one of Thai history’s most revered monks.

The Ajahn Mun museum and shrine as seen from outside.

The Ajahn Mun museum and shrine as seen from outside.

Going against the grain of the institutionalised monastic traditions of his era, Ajahn Mun never had a single “home base”, choosing instead to spend most of his life wandering as a thudong monk. Practising walking meditation as he journeyed on bare feet through the forests of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma, Ajahn Mun would stop along the way to practise a particular style of sitting meditation through which he is said to have gained the experiential insight that the body and mind are separate entities. Eventually, he is believed to have fully uprooted ignorance, craving and attachment, realising Nibbana on a mountain slope in northern Thailand.

A depiction of a wandering thudong monk at Wat Phra Phrathat Choern Chumphon.

A depiction of a wandering thudong monk at Wat Phra Phrathat Choern Chumphon.

As “side effects” of his heightened awareness born from years of meditation, Ajahn Mun is believed to have developed the ability to read others’ minds and communicate with spirits. He is also said to have overcome his deepest fears while living in the jungle and regularly encountering wild tigers, elephants and other potentially deadly animals.

Along with his dedication to the Vinaya (monastic code of discipline), Ajahn Mun also practised some or all of the 13 dhutanga observances throughout his life, which include living out in the open forest, eating just one meal a day, never lying down, and using discarded cloths as robes. Ajahn Mun’s possessions were few and simple, and his rigorous austerity helped to gain him profound respect from all classes of Thai society, although this was most likely not one of his objectives. Now more than 60 years old, a handful of his robes and basic possessions such as his alms bowl and pieces of flint for sparking fires are on display in the museum.

A handful of the objects used by Ajahn Mun.

A handful of the objects used by Ajahn Mun.

Apparently aware of his oncoming death at the age of 80, Ajahn Mun requested to be taken from the small forest camp near the village of Baan Nang Pheu to the nearby city of Sakon Nakhon in an effort to spare the village farm animals from slaughter (Sakon Nakhon had enough markets to provide the necessary food for the thousands who would come to Ajahn Mun’s cremation).

Ajahn Mun breathed his last breath at the once ordinary Sakon Nakhon temple of Wat Pa Suthawat, and here he was cremated in an elaborate ceremony. In the impressive shrine/museum that’s been erected in his honour, a handful of Ajahn Mun’s bone fragments are on display. These have inexplicably transformed into shiny opaque objects, a phenomenon that believers argue only occurs in cremated remains of the enlightened. Surrounded by lotuses, a life-size bronze statue of Ajahn Mun also looms over the hall.

An orchid in the trees at Wat Pa Suthawat.

An orchid in the trees at Wat Pa Suthawat.

Upon entering the shrine, I immediately noticed glittering white splotches in the dark marble floor, and a cool, peaceful atmosphere. When I knelt to pay my respects to Ajahn Mun by offering a flower, I was overcome by a sense of calm, clarity and strength. Perhaps this was due to some actual unseen forces surrounding Ajahn Mun’s relics, or perhaps to the fact that I happen to be particularly inspired by this monk and the example he set. In any case, Ajahn Mun was known for simultaneously possessing patience and compassion along with strength and ferocity, and I experienced all of these in a single moment while inside the shrine.

One of the few existing photographs of Ajahn Mun.

One of the few existing photographs of Ajahn Mun.

In the decades following Ajahn Mun’s passing, Thailand entered a period of modernisation that saw almost total deforestation in most parts of the country. With most of Thailand’s forests cleared to make way for agriculture, resorts and golf courses, the modern Forest Tradition has been forced to largely give up the wandering lifestyle in favour of settled forest monasteries such as Wat Baan Taad near Udon Thani and Wat Nong Pah Pong outside Ubon Ratchathani. In light of this, the handful of imposing old trees that still stand inside the grounds of Wat Pa Suthawat are as much a dedication to Ajahn Mun as the shrine itself.

Wat Pa Suthawat also contains a shrine to one of Ajahn Mun’s students, the late Ajahn Luei, as well as a simple wihaan and a handful of ordinary temple buildings. It’s still a working monastery where Forest Tradition monks donning the basic earthy brown-orange robes — which are still dyed the old way with boiled down fibres of jackfruit trees — may be seen sweeping the grounds or giving advice to locals.

A Forest Tradition monk removes wax from candlesoffered by visitors at Wat Pa Suthawat.

A Forest Tradition monk removes wax from candles offered by visitors at Wat Pa Suthawat.

If in the Sakon Nakhon area and interested in Buddhism, the Ajahn Mun shrine and museum at Wat Pa Suthawat is worth a visit. Across town, the large white chedi and ancient temple of Wat Phra That Choern Chumphon is also worth a peek. The latter is a short walk from the Sakon Nakhon bus station, and a tuk tuk can take you to Wat Pa Sutthawat, which is located off Sook Kasem Road to the west of town and is clearly marked by signs. If interested in learning more about Ajahn Mun and the Thai Forest Tradition, dhammatalks.net and accesstoinsight.org are both outstanding resources, and Ajahn Mun’s entire biography may be downloaded for free at forestdhamma.org.

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