Ajahn Mun shrine at Wat Pa Sutthawat

Ajahn Mun shrine at Wat Pa Sutthawat

The legacy lives on

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One of the most highly revered monks in Thai history, Ajahn Mun Bhuridato revitalised the Thai Forest Tradition by living as closely to the way the historical Buddha lived as possible — and many believe that enlightenment was his reward. Today his legacy lives on at a shrine and museum on the grounds of Wat Pa Sutthawat.

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Depiction of Ajahn Mun contemplating before the day's only meal.

Depiction of Ajahn Mun contemplating before the day’s only meal.

Born and ordained in Ubon Ratchathani province, Ajahn Mun (1870-1949; sometimes spelt Man) spent his life wandering the forests of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma as a thudong monk. He frequently stopped to practise seated meditation, often focusing on mindfulness of the body, one of the four Satipatthana. Experiencing the insight that mind and body are separate entities, he is believed to have realised Nibbana on a mountain slope in Northern Thailand.

As “side effects” of his sharp intuition born from years of meditation, Ajahn Mun supposedly developed the ability to read others’ minds, and to communicate with an array of spirits, from horrific hungry ghosts to angelic devas. It’s believed that he uprooted fear — among other “defilements” like greed and anger — while living in the forest and often encountering ghosts, tigers and cobras. A talented orator and uncompromising teacher, he later guided dozens of younger monks who helped to carry his wisdom into the 21st century.

Parting from the typically lackadaisical monastic lifestyle of his day, Ajahn Mun strictly observed the Vinaya (monastic code of discipline) while also practising the 13 dhutanga observances. These included living out in the open forest, eating just one meal a day, never lying down and using discarded cloths for robes. Some of his few possessions, such as an 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.

Aware of his coming death at the age of 80, Ajahn Mun requested to be carried from a forest camp near the village of Baan Nang Pheu to the nearby city of Sakhon Nakhon in an effort to spare the local farm animals from slaughter. Sakhon was large enough to provide the necessary food without having to kill livestock specifically for the cremation, which was attended by thousands. Right up until his last breath, Ajahn Mun strove to ease the suffering of other beings, be they human, ghost or animal.

Ajahn Mun died at Wat Pa Sutthawat and was later cremated in an elaborate ceremony. A handful of his bone fragments are now on display in a shrine/museum erected in his honour. These have inexplicably transformed into shiny opaque objects, a phenomenon that believers argue only occurs in the remains of the enlightened. Surrounded by lotuses, a life-size bronze statue of Ajahn Mun overlooks the hall.

One of the few existing photographs of Ajahn Mun.

Ajahn Mun was known for patience and compassion together with controlled ferocity.

In the decades following Ajahn Mun’s passing, Thailand entered a period of modernisation that left much of the country deforested. The modern Forest Tradition has been forced to largely give up the thudong lifestyle in favour of settled forest monasteries like Wat Pa Ban Tad and Wat Nong Pah Pong. The late abbots of these two temples, Ajahn Maha Bua and Ajahn Chah, both rank among modern Thailand’s most beloved monks and are also thought to have been enlightened. Along with many others, both were students of Ajahn Mun.

Wat Pa Sutthawat also contains a shrine dedicated to another of Ajahn Mun’s students, the late Ajahn Lui, as well as a simple ordination hall among a handful of other temple buildings and some old trees displaying the odd orchid. It’s still a working monastery where forest monks donning earthy ochre robes — still dyed with boiled 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 monk removes wax from candles offered by visitors at Wat Pa Suthawat.

If interested in learning more about Ajahn Mun and the Thai Forest Tradition, dhammatalks.net and accesstoinsight.org are both outstanding resources. Written by Ajahn Maha Bua and filled with riveting recollections from Buddhist life in the forests, Ajahn Mun’s entire biography may be downloaded for free at forestdhamma.org. Ajahn Mun also features prominently in Kamala Tiyavanich’s The Buddha in the Jungle, a fun-to-read academic study on the Thai Forest Tradition.

Transport information

Wat Pa Sutthawat is located to the southwest of town, across from the police station on Suk Kasem Road. It’s about a 15-minute walk southwest of the fresh market.

Reviewed by

David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.

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