Articles:   

  • Biography of Ajahn Chah. 
  • State Funeral of Luang Por Chah (January 1992).
  • The Politics of being Luang Por Chah.
  • How I met Ajahn Chah.

                

Life of Ajahn Loom Por Sah (Subaddho)

(Chao Koon Pra Bodhinyana Thera)

Short Biography of Venerable Ajahn Chah * (referred to as Luang Por Chah in Thai and Loom Por Sah in his native Lao language).

Venerable Ajahn Chah was born on June 17, 1918 in a small village (Ban Gor) near the town of Ubon Ratchatani, North-East Thailand.

After finishing his basic schooling, he spent three years as a novice before returning to lay life to help his parents on the farm. At the age of twenty, however, he decided to resume monastic life, and on April 26, 1939 he received upasampada (bhikkhu ordination).

Ajahn Chah’s early monastic life followed a traditional pattern, of studying Buddhist teachings and the Pali scriptural language. In his fifth year his father fell seriously ill and died; a blunt reminder of the frailty and precariousness of human life. It caused him to think deeply about life’s real purpose, for although he had studied extensively and gained some proficiency in Pali, he seemed no nearer to a personal understanding of the end of suffering. Feelings of disenchantment set in, and finally (in 1946) he abandoned his studies and set off on mendicant pilgrimage (dhutanga or toodong in Thai).

He walked some 400 kilometres to Central Thailand, sleeping in forests and gathering alms food in the villages on the way. He took up residence in a monastery where the Vinaya (monastic discipline) was carefully studied and practised. While there he was told about Venerable Ajahn Mun Buridatto, a most highly respected meditation master. Keen to meet such an accomplished teacher, Ajahn Chah set off on foot for the North-East in search of him.

At this time Ajahn Chah was wrestling with a crucial problem. He had studied the teachings on morality, meditation and wisdom, which the texts presented in minute and refined detail, but he could not see how they could actually be put into practice. Ajahn Mun told him that although the teachings are indeed extensive, at their heart they are very simple. With mindfulness established, if it is seen that everything arises in the heart-mind then, right there is the true path of practice. This succinct and direct teaching was a revelation for Ajahn Chah, and transformed his approach to practice. The Way was now clear.

For the next seven years Ajahn Chah practised on the style of the austere Forest Tradition, wandering through the countryside in quest of quiet and secluded places for developing meditation. He lived in tiger and cobra infested jungles, using reflections on death to penetrate to the true meaning of life. On one occasion he practised in a cremation ground, to challenge and eventually overcome his fear of death. Then, as he sat cold and drenched in a rain storm, he faced the utter desolation and loneliness of a homeless monk.

In 1954, after years of wandering, he was invited back to his home village. He settled close by, in a fever-ridden, haunted forest called ’Pah Pong’. Despite the hardships of malaria, poor shelter and sparse food, disciples gathered around him in increasing numbers. The monastery which is now known as Wat Pah Pong began there, and eventually branch monasteries were also established elsewhere.

In 1967 an American monk came to stay at Wat Pah Pong. The newly ordained Venerable Sumedho had just spent his first vassa (Rains Retreat) practising intensive meditation at a monastery near the Laotian border.

Although his efforts had borne some fruit, Venerable Sumedho realized that he needed a teacher who could train him in all aspects of monastic life. By chance, one of Ajahn Chah’s monks-one who happened to speak a little English- visited the monastery where Venerable Sumedho was staying. Upon hearing about Ajahn Chah, he asked to take leave of his preceptor, and went back to Wat Pah Pong with the monk.

Ajahn Chah willingly accepted the new disciple, but insisted that he receive no special allowances for being a Westerner. He would have to eat the same simple alms food and practice in the same way as any other monk at Wat Pah Pong.

The training there was quite harsh and forbidding. Ajahn Chah often pushed his monks to their limits, to test their powers of endurance so that they would develop patience and resolution. He sometimes initiated long and seemingly pointless work projects, in order to frustrate their attachment to tranquility. The emphasis was always on surrender to the way things are and great stress was placed upon strict observance of the Vinaya.

In the course of events, other Westerners came through Wat Pah Pong. By the time Venerable Sumedho was of five vassas, and Ajahn Chah considered him competent enough to teach, some of these new monks had also decided to stay on and train there.

In the hot season of 1975, Venerable Sumedho and a handful of Western bhikkhus spent some time living in a forest not far from Wat Pah Pong. The local villagers there asked them to stay on, and Ajahn Chah consented. Thus Wat Pah Nanachat (International Forest Monastery) came into being, and Venerable Sumedho became the abbot of the first monastery in Thailand to be run by and for English-speaking monks.

In 1977, Ajahn Chah was invited to visit Britain by the English Sangha Trust, a charity with the aim of establishing a locally-resident Buddhist Sangha. He took Venerable Sumedho and Venerable Khemadhammo along, and seeing the serious interest there, left them in London at the Hamstead Vihara (with two of his other Western disciples who were then visiting Europe).

He returned to Britain in 1979, at which time the monks were leaving London to begin Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in Sussex. He then went on to America and Canada to visit and teach.

After this trip, and again in 1981, Ajahn Chah spent the Rains away from Wat Pah Pong, since his health was failing due to the debilitating effects of diabetes. As his illness worsened, he would use his body as a teaching, a living example of the impermanence of all things. He constantly reminded people to endeavour to find a true refuge within themselves, since he would not be able to teach for very much longer.

Before the end of the Rains of 1981, he became seriously ill, with what was apparently some form of stroke and was taken to Bangkok for an operation. It however, did little to improve his condition. Within a few months he stopped talking, and gradually he lost control of his limbs until he was virtually paralysed and bed-ridden. From then on, he was diligently and lovingly nursed and attended by devoted disciples, grateful for the occasion to offer service to the teacher who so patiently and compassionately showed the Way to so many.

He remained in this state for the next ten years, his few areas of control diminishing slowly until, by the end, all voluntary movement was lost to him. With his mortal kamma finally expunged Loom Por’s khandhas dispersed on January 16, 1992.

His passing triggered an incredible celebration of his life and teachings. Ten days of talks and group meditation by the most renowned teachers in the country followed. Six thousand monks, one thousand nuns and ten thousand lay people camped in the forest at Wat Pah Pong for the ten days while throngs of people estimated at one million paid their respects. On the day of his cremation four hundred thousand people, including the King and Queen of Thailand, attended – a pretty impressive send off for someone who had come from such humble beginnings.

Today at the entrance to Wat Pah Pong a special mausoleum has been constructed honoring the life of the great teacher. It contains his coffin, personal belongings, his life story and, on the third floor, a life size wax figure of Loom Por sitting, as he so often did, under his kuti receiving guests and delivering teaching for all eternity.  His ashes are now interred in a magnificent stupa built at Wat Pah Pong for that purpose. Each year on the anniversary of his passing special commemorations take place at Wat Pah Pong. The Wat pays host to a remakable scene. Thousands of lay followers camp out in tents among the trees of the forest, practice meditation, attend services and celebrate the life of Luang Por in the best possible way, with practice. This goes on for five days and culminates in a huge candle procession (wien tieng)   around the pathways of Wat Pah Pong to the Golden stupa. People from all walks of life and from around the world attend what has become one the great Buddhist pilgrimages.

*This version of his life story is taken from Seeing the Way , an anthology of teachings by prominent disciples of Ajahn Chah, Amaravati Publications, 2007, and The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah, Aruna Publications, 2011.


 April  1993  2536  Number 24 
THIS ISSUECover:
Articles:


 Luang Por Chah's Funeral; Ajahn Sucitto
 Reflections on Luang Por Chah's Funeral; Sangha
 The Lotus Falls Silent; Sister Candasiri
 The Still Point of Change; Amaravati Community 
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This is a special commemorative issue in honour of the passing away of Luang Por Chah and featuring reflections and reports from those who attended his funeral in Thailand in January.


The State Funeral of Luang Por Chah

It is difficult for us to imagine the level of devotion of the Thai people towards such a teacher as Luang Por Chah. Though his love and compassion touched only a limited number of people in person, his recorded Dhamma talks, together with the practice exemplified by his disciples, have allowed his teaching to live in the hearts of millions. Ajahn Sucitto takes us back to the historic occasion of The State Funeral of Luang Por Chah which took place in January, one year after his passing away.

We knew that the funeral of Luang Por Chah would be a special event: it had been a frequent topic for discussion at Wat Pah Pong during the last few years of the Master's illness; it would bring disciples from all over the world and it would (most likely) be presided over by either H.M. King Bhumipol, H.M. Queen Siriket, or even both.

These three factors seemed to heighten both the auspiciousness of the occasion and its potential difficulties: who would attempt to organise such an event - and amongst so many possible views, how would one plan emerge to accommodate such an indeterminate but certainly large multitude of visitors with their needs for food and shelter? What kind of style and standard - given Wat Pah Pong's noted and principled austerity - would be appropriate for a Royal Funeral?

The Sangha in Europe were not involved in any of the negotiations and decision-making. We only heard that Ajahn Liam (the acting Abbot of Wat Pah Pong) and Ajahn Passano (acting Abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat) were devoting all their time to making the arrangements, that Sangha gatherings at Wat Pah Pong were held to ensure harmony and mutual support, that a new sala, dining hall and chedi (stupa) were being constructed, that monks at Wat Pah Pong were labouring for 10-12 hours per day on building projects, that bhikkhus were coming from branch monasteries to help with the work, and that the tentative estimate of 200,000 guests, itself staggering for a forest monastery that might accommodate 100 or so in a full Rains Retreat, could turn out to be an underestimate.

 
The mind stretched to accommodate the superlatives as smoothly as the monastery stretched day-by-day to accommodate 1,000 ... 1,500 ...3,000 ... 5,000 bhikkhus.
 
On arriving at Ubon, the Western bhikkhus and siladhara (Luang Por Sumedho, Ajahn Khemadhammo, abbots and senior monks from the branch monasteries in the West; Ajahn Viradhammo and the entire Sangha from New Zealand; Ajahns Jagaro and Brahmawangso from Western Australia; Sisters Sundara and Candasiri) were taken to Wat Pah Nanachat, about 10 kilometres from Wat Pah Pong. Residents gave up their kutis to the gathering of 60 Western bhikkhus, samaneras and nuns, opting to sleep out on bamboo platforms under their mosquito net umbrellas. Graciousness, quiet hospitality and ease were the order of the day and the dark forest absorbed everyone. After morning chanting brought us together, alms rounds introduced us to the local villagers who provided ample food, enthusiastically, for all their new guests. Things seemed capable of stretching beyond rational expectation.

On the 9th, the first day of funeral proceedings, the Sangha of Wat Pah Nanachat travelled to Wat Pah Pong to join in the occasion of moving Luang Por Chah's body to the chedi. It was another time for the mind to stretch. After the buses dropped us off at one side of the monastery and we had walked through the gate, we were stopped by the spectacle of a large and extremely graceful pure white chedi. Its inverted bowl base straddled a broad grass mound and its tall sinuous column climbed into the bright blue tropical sky - with broad avenues proceeding from it in four directions.

The stupa is modelled on two of the most sacred shrines of Thailand; the base echoes that of Wat Phra Pathom Chedi, the oldest stupa in Thailand and the spire is a replica of Wat Phra That Phanom in Nakhon Phanom, the major shrine of the North East. The entirety - 32 meters high, 50 meters broad - was constructed in six months, mostly by the Sangha at Wat Pah Pong. The gold-painted domed ceiling inside the chedi was supported by two concentric circles of pillars, also painted in gold; the inner circle of four pillars representing the Four Noble Truths, the outer of twelve representing the structure of Dependent Origination. In the centre of these circles was the crematory, a large metal box covered with boards which were decorated with gold wax arabesques and floral designs that gave it the appearance of a giant candle.

In front of the crematory was the shrine which would bear a life-size painting of Luang Por, his bowl and robes and later, his relics. The floor on which we knelt to pay our respects was of polished black granite whose mirror-like surface reflected the pillars so that one seemed to be suspended inside the matrix of a Dhamma mandala. This mandala was to be the setting for Luang Por's funeral casket. For a week people would be filing through this sacred place paying their last respects; here a round-the-clock meditation vigil would be held and his body would finally return to the elemental state. After the cremation, when the crematory was dismantled, a new shrine bearing his relics in a crystal bowl would be established in its place as a lasting memorial, a focus for devotion, reflection and meditation.

About 900 bhikkhus were present in the huge new sala - and how many nuns and lay people? The effect of so much uniformity made it impossible to count. There were only two colours in this vast devotional mural - the ochre brown of bhikkhus and samaneras, and the white of the nuns, anagarikas and lay disciples - it was almost hypnotic, with features like the occasional head of hair, or the dark brown robes of our two nuns almost reassuring the eye that it was not fixated in some surrealist trance.

After the chanting and the asking of forgiveness, the casket was borne out by two groups of 16 disciples, laymen who had shaved their heads and taken the Eight Precepts for the entire event. The casket - a fantastic creation of polished dark wood spangled and braided with mother-of-pearl nagas, devatas, and Buddhas - was made, fantastically enough, by a man serving life imprisonment in Ubon, as an act of devotion to Luang Por Chah. With Ajahns Liam and Pasanno carrying a life-size portrait of Luang Por Chah at the front, followed by a gathering of the most senior monks, the casket was carried out of the sala and around the centre of the monastery followed by the rest of the assembly, and brought into the shrine in the chedi.

And so it began. The mind stretched to accommodate the superlatives as smoothly as the monastery stretched day-by-day to accommodate 1,000 ... 1,500 ...3,000 ... 5,000 bhikkhus: bhikkhus being bused off to surrounding villages for alms rounds, eating en mass, bowl washing en masse, chanting and meditating en mass and peacefully abiding. And there were about 1,000 nuns, and over the days nearly a million lay visitors (500,000 on 16th January alone) passing through, filing into the chedi to bow three times to the shrine, or camping out in their thousands in the grounds under umbrellas, and gathering as a congregation around the chedi for the evening chanting, meditation and Dhamma talk. Thousands of books were given away: over forty free-food kitchens provided food for everyone. (Any form of buying and selling was firmly but politely forbidden as inappropriate within the monastery grounds.) First-aid posts were established and nurses were freely available for anyone who felt ill or faint in the 30 degrees plus heat.

At times it seemed that everyone one had ever even thought of in this Sangha life was there - particularly on the cremation day itself. On the 16th of January the gathering included the Sangharaja (the Supreme Patriarch, Somdet Nanasamvara) Somdet Buddhajahn, Tan Chao Khuns Debvedi, Pannananda, Dhammarajanidesa; Ajahn Maha Boowa and all the teachers and abbots of Wat Pah Pong's 130 branch monasteries; occasionally even the face of a lay disciple from England would catch one's eye in the flowing stream of humanity. By 4 pm bhikkhus, nuns, former bhikkhus, villagers and ministers were seated silently around the chedi; then a distant fanfare, a ripple of excitement in the crowd, and eventually two figures walking under ceremonial black umbrellas, well attended by men in uniforms, ascended the steps into the stupa to initiate the ceremonial climax of the occasion. Their Majesties the King and Queen had come to pay their respects; having presented ten sets of robes to ten Tan Chao Khuns, they offered candles, incense and flowers, knelt on the granite floor of the chedi and bowed.

After the royal couple it was everyone else's turn; from the Sangharaja, senior Mahatheras, government officials, and the bhikkhu Sangha, to the nuns and the laity. Evening meditation at 6pm was followed by chanting, meditation, and desanas from Ajahn Maha Boowa, Ajahn Sumedho and Tan Chao Khun Debvedi. At midnight, the majority of the bhikkhu Sangha managed to squeeze into the chedi to ask forgiveness of Luang Por, to take the coffin from the casket and commit it to the flames. We stood back to open our hearts to this final moment.

But the actions of humans, however superlative, are never final. Chance and circumstance have a way of surpassing us. And so it was - the effect of all the offerings of sandalwood on the coffin, and maybe too much charcoal, caused the fire to burn too fiercely - scorching the wiring that was to open the vents in the chimney; the heat was therefore all contained in the crematory which split open ... flames licked out to catch the wax decorations, smoke billowed out and filled the chamber, the boards crashed down ... people stood back, some began to bring water, fire trucks appeared.... From outside the chedi as it glowed in the spotlights against the dark sky, the spectacle had the quality of a vision - the Four Elements dramatically manifesting within the place of purity as some final image of the life of a Master.

But everyone remained cool and peaceful; the fire was extinguished, people began mopping up, some found places out of the cold night wind to meditate, some began to walk home. The mind was allowed to contract to more mundane considerations. All those people - following a routine that began at 3 am with morning chanting, a day filled with meditation sittings and Dhamma talks until 10 pm; hours sitting on the hard concrete or the hard earth, not in rigid order, but peacefully, reflectively. Reading the moment-by-moment stabbing twinges running through this soft Western body, watching the Thais huddling under blankets in balaclavas in the cool night wind, contemplating the amount of effort put in by the organisers of the ceremony, one recognised the common quality that even a monarch bows to. We all had a chance to unhook in some small way from the persistent nagging of desire. Here were the remains of a person who let go of a lot more - of all of it, some believe. This point is not worth debating - but there is no doubt that he did enough to show us that that was the Path and that it could be consistently and beautifully practised.

After three days, a chosen number of bhikkhus presided over the extraction of the relics from the crematory. Most were locked up for safe keeping; three large relics, white and honeycombed like coral, were placed on the shrine for public view. When we left, the Sangha were still using the chedi for their group meditation practice.

The politics of being Pra Bodhiyana Thera

When Luang Por finally passed away in 1992  a great celebration of the event took place over several days during which time hundreds of thousands of people from all around Thailand and the world and from all walks of life filed past his coffin at Wat Pah Pong. Among them were the political rulers of the country and members of the Royal family including the King and Queen of Thailan. King Bhumipol himself anointed the body of Luang Por before cremation, such was the height of esteem that Luang Por had reached within his country of birth. He already had the great honorific title of "Chao Khun Pra Bodhinyana Thera" bestowed upon him by the king in 1979. Counted among his supporters were elite government officials, commanders of the armed services and the captains of enterprise. The wealthiest woman in Thailand and owner of the Bank of Bangkok was a great lay supporter of  Luang Por. These esteemed dignitaries would often make the journey from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchatani to consult and confer with Luang Por on all sorts of matters, not always related to points of Dhamma.

Luang Por's esteemed position in Thai society hadn't been gifted to him but rather evolved as a consequence of his dedication to the Buddha Sasana, his commitment to practice, his depth of wisdom and the incredible charisma he exerted on all who knew him. He was well aware of the social responsibilities which came with such recognition. He knew where he stood in the elite Thai society which now wanted to claim him as one of theirs. But he also had a responsibility to the Lao people of Isahn to ensure they were not marginalized and show that they were loyal and worthy citizens of Thailand. Throughout the last ten years of his debilitation during which he never communicated at all, his fame escalated and his Sangha grew. Whatever he said or did could no longer be regarded with suspicion as he resided in his wheelchair seemingly oblivious to all that was happening around him. He was safe from scrutiny and apolitical. He was now regarded as a saint awaiting mortal departure.  

After his death the king's anointing of Luang Por's body was greatly symbolic of the complex paradigm that has sustained Thai nation. From an early age the Thai people learn of the three pillars that constitute a stable Thai nation. They are The King, The Religion and the People. (Some may argue that there is a fourth pillar, the Military, such has been its influence in the development of the modern Thai nation). The inter-relationship of the three pillars is interesting to observe from outside and marvel how well it has served the nation. The King supports the people and takes counsel from the Sangha. The Sangha in turn upholds the royal authority, the social order and fulfils the spiritual needs of the people. The people in turn honour the King and are devoted to the Sangha. The military and the King are also very close. Over the many years of the King's reign he has assuaged the power of the military with a reciprocal relationship, bestowing prestige and honours on the military ruling class. In return at times, the military have served the King's purpose as well. The most recent incidence of  this was in 2006 with the military coup that ousted the powerful elected Prime Minister, Taksin Shinawatri. The Generals of the army are also often seen taking counsel from the Sangha hierarchy. In this way the inter-relationship of the pillars has served the country well over the decades. The main impediment to this symbiotic relationship continuing has been the development of democratic institutions and as a consequence, the increasing participation and representation of the people of Isahn. Isahn is the name given to the North East region of Thailand generally covering an area from Nakon Ratchasima East to Ubon Ratchatani and the Mekong River and North to Nong Kai. The region generally covers the Korat plateau. The people of the region are predominantly Lao in race and in culture. 

Taksin Shinawatri rose to power on the support of the populace of the North and North East homeland of his now famous Red Shirt supporters. He was ousted amid fears by the Royal family and the traditional ruling class that the balance power was shifting away from its traditional base in Bangkok and Central Thailand. After the 2006 coup extensive and often violent Red Shirt demonstrations ensued. When democratic elections were restored the Red Shirt eventually won a majority of seats and the current Prime Minister is Taksin's sister and head of the party, Yingluck Shinawatri. Taksin, however, remains in exile in Dubai whence he was sent after the 2006 coup. The King's support for that military coup is well known and has become a source of resentment for the people of the North East. Recently (November 2013) Yiingluck has attempted to have an amnesty bill passed in parliament. This bill would provide a pardon to all political convictions and transgressions of the last 10 years. The act would pardon the generals who are on trial for killing 90 Red Shirt protesters in 2010. It would also pardon Taksin and allow him to return to Thailand and presumably re-engage in public life. At the time of writing the Yellow Shirts, the king's supporters,  have mobilized themselves in protest of this and are occupying government buildings. This may ironically lead to Yingluck using the same military force which dispersed the Red Shirt protests three years ago. The future of democracy in Thailand is once in doubt and may see yet another military takeover.

In recent years, the Thai people, have gradually been drifting away from the three pillars principle, particularly in respect to their relationship with the royal family and particularly in the North and North East. Historically and culturally power in Thailand has been the domain of the people of Central Thailand around Groong Tayp (Bangkok). The people of the North and North East of the country have long been disempowered politically, marginalized economically and generally regarded with suspicion by Central Thais. The population of the Isahn region is racially different to Central Thai. Isahn is populated by people of Lao origin. Lao is their natural language. Though it is akin to Thai it is quite different in pronunciation and in the colloquial usage to the extent that a natural Thai speaker would regard it as a foreign language even though over a third of the nation speaks Lao as their first language.

Luang Por hadn't always been an insider, quite an outsider in fact. He was born in this poorest part of Thailand, into a Lao farming family. He had only a basic education by today's standards. No one could have guessed at that time what a magnificent career he would have and what influence his teachings would exert. Luang Por Chah was born near Ubon in Isahn. He first learnt to speak in the Lao language. He grew up in Lao culture in a different era, a time when the people of Isahn had no power. It was an era when Isahn was a remote and impoverished buffer state between Thailand and the encroaching communism emanating from China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. From the late 1940's communism was advancing in East Asia. The USA and before them, France, had fought a long, futile containment war in the 1950's and 60's. By 1975, however the communists had prevailed. Not content with remaining within their new borders, the regimes of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia mounted insurgency campaigns aimed at destabilizing Thailand which had supported the US. It was feared that Thailand would be the next domino to fall and the government in Central Thailand was determined to stop the communists from advancing any more. Isahn was the sand where the line was drawn.


The main focus for the communist insurgency was the Lao speaking North East which shared a common border with the newly formed Lao PDR. The communists believed that Isahn was amenable to Communist ideology having been neglected for so long by the Thai ruling class. When the Pathet Lao took control the old Lao royal family was imprisoned or exiled and eventually subjected to re-education and death in remote jungle detention centres. The Central Thais feared a similar fate may await their royal family as well. The Thai military patrolled the North North East fighting the guerilla campaign. Villagers suspected of aiding the communists were rounded up and interned. Skirmishes occurred continuously in the years following the US withdrawal from South East Asia.   

The esteem and recognition that Luang Por received brought with it great social and political responsibility, of which he was very aware. The Norh East region of Thailand (Eesahn) has always been politically sensitive to Central Thai authority and remains so to this day. It has long been regarded by the hierarchy with suspicion as potentially rebellious and the achilles heel of the hegemony of Bangkok authority in Thailand. This is partly because of its remoteness from Bangkok but mainly because of the race of people who populate this region and how, historically they came to be there. 

The people of Eesahn are ethnically Lao. They speak a different (though similar) language to Thai. They eat different food. Sticky rice is their staple and defines them culturally. If you are Lao, you eat Kao Neo. They retain the traditions and festivities of their Lao heritage. They reside in the poorest sector of Thailand. They have deep religious faith in Buddhism and are very respectful of the Sangha. They also have a great tradition of producing famous Buddhist teachers, meditation masters whom they revere above any secular authority.  The great forest Ajahns of the North East have an incredible amount of adulation bestowed upon them during their own life. They also have great influence among the ordinary populace of the region who place their unwavering faith in their wisdom and guidance. Prominent in a long tradition of great monks over the centuries are Ajahns like A. Sow, A. Mun, A. Ginali, A. Maha Bua and A. Chah.             ARTICLE UNFINISHED

How the Lao people came to populate Isahn

The origins of the Thai and Lao people are similar. They were probably once one people living in tribal groups. There is some mystery about their origins. The official Thai history has long taught that the Thai came from in Southern China near modern day Vietnam though culturally and linguistically different from the Chinese.

The Isahn that Luang Por grew up in was on the outer regions of the Thai nation. But the region had once formed part of the mighty Lahn Xahng Empire of Laos. At its height the Empire of a million Elephants extended from Chiang Mai in North Thailand, East to Laos and the borders of Vietnam, then South to include Isahn and parts of Cambodia. The Thais, Lao, Khmer, Vietnamese and Burmese were intense rivals through the period dating from 14th Century until the late 19th Century when the colonial interests of other Empire builders such as Britain and France began to dominate the region. At its peak Lahn Xahng had defeated and annexed the Northern Thai kingdom based at Chiang. It also took the national talisman, the Emerald Buddha as its own. For centuries a tug of war went on with first one nation then another taking ascendancy. Burma at one stage defeated the Lahn Xahng and the fledgling Thai nation, sacking the royal city of Ayutthaya. The Lahn Xahng Empire eventually had its power an influence reduced through internal division and it was divided into three nations each with its own king. One was based at the Holy Northern city of Luang Pra Bang, a second had his capital in Vientiane and a third in Southern Laos at Champasak.

Although parts of Isan were settled and were part of Lanxang, many of the Lao were forcibly settled in the lesser populated southern and western regions or sent to boost the populations of Lao mueang loyal to the Siamese. The area was relatively isolated from the rest of Thailand by the Petchabun mountains until the beginning of the 20th century, when a direct rail link was built to Nakhon Ratchasima. The region's isolation from Central Thailand and the large population of people in Isan, who were still attached to their cultural heritage, helped preserve Lao culture.[18]

The boundaries of Lao dialects also extend into the North-East of Thailand, known as Isan, but the Lao spoken in Thailand as a whole can be differentiated by adoption of much Thai vocabulary and code-switching. The language is not taught or used in schools, government, and most media outlets. Thaification policies removed the alphabet and now the language is written in the Thai alphabet, if at all, and the name changed to Isan to sever the political connection with Laos. Despite this, the Lao language is spoken by 20 million people,[24] almost a third of the population of Thailand, and is the primary language of 88% of Isan households. It continues to serve as an important regional language and a badge of Isan (hence Lao) identity, but it is experiencing a decline in the advance of Thai[25]

Though Isan is a multi-ethnic region containing a mixture of Lao, Vietnamese, Cham, Mon, Khmer, and other Tai groups, Central Thais' perceived threat of Lao cultural and political dominance in the Isan region[19] resulted in various Thaification policies being enacted to finally integrate the multi-ethnic Isan people into Thailand. Since Lao dominance was seen as the greatest threat in the region, 'Lao' was removed as a category in the census, and heavy-handed policies were enacted. References to Lao people or its past were removed and the language was banned from schools and books.[20]


Out of the humiliation of the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767 a new Thai nation began to emerge, one bent on revenge and conquest. It arose rapidly via a Thai general of Chinese descent, named Taksin. He managed to  escape from Ayutthaya and began to rally troops. and retake the old capital and push the Burmese out of Thailand. What was left of the Thai royal family were divided, some supported the general bestowed administrative authority on him as he consolidated his victories. Others in the royal family were more suspicious of him. However in 1768 with the defeat and retreat of the Burmese invaders Taksin had supreme military authority and was given the title of King. He set about to  create a new, safer capital at Thon Buri near what is now Bangkok. Taksin, a military leader, became the model for many such future military takeovers in the two and a half centuries since. Taksin was emboldened by his success began to expand and strengthen a resurgent Thai nation. He was like a pre-Napolean dictator with grand ambition. Like Napoleon he transitioned from military commander to royal title. He wanted to build an empire. He wanted to be an emperor. He first defeated the Thai warlords and united the country. Then he looked further to satiate his ambition.

His armies began to conquer territories of the Thai traditional enemies. In 1769 he sent the first of several expeditions to subdue the Kingdom of Cambodia. Though his army passed through Eesahn on route there was little interest in holding this sparsely populated, flat, dry and under-developed region. Simultaneously another army campaigned against the Lanna kingdom of Chiang Mai which had come under Burmese influence. Taksin fought one war or insurgency after another against the many city-states to the North and the South East as far as Cambodia. By 1778 he had subdued the Burmese and consolidated control in North and Central Thailand. Inevitably this ambition would bring him into conflict with his Lahn Sahng neighbour to the East. The first Lahn Sahng kingdom to fall was Champasak. 

General Chakri was in command of the Thai army which captured Champasak 1777 and beheaded its rulers bringing the South of Laos and SE Eesahn under Thai control. Ubon Ratchatani was founded soon after by defectors from the royal family in Vientiane. It became the largest city and administrative centre for the region. After the Thai army withdrew from the area the king of Vientiane sent an army to punish the deserters and take back the land. Taksin was affronted by this action and when it was reported to him that the King of Lahn Sahng Vientiane had disparaged Taksin's Chinese heritage he used it as a pretext and avenged his honour by marching his army supported by his vassal state of Luang Prabang into Vientiane smashing the Lahn Sahng in 1778.

The Siamese did not come to Laos as liberators. Vientiane (Vieng Jun) was thoroughly looted, and its most sacred treasure, the Emerald Buddha, was taken to Bangkok, where it remains to this day. The King of Vientiane escaped but died soon after, and thereafter Siamese puppets occupied the throne. Many leading Lao families were deported and many thousands forcibly resettled in Siamese controlled areas of Isan. This forced diaspora of Lao people reached as far as Korat and would have a lasting impact on Lao-Thai relations as well as the ethnicity of the population of Isan. Though Lao people had migrated onto the Korat plateau as early as the 11th Century the current concentration of Lao people in the region resulted primarily from this and later forced resettlements by the Thai conquerers.  In 1792 the Siamese occupied Luang Prabang, but the ancient capital was treated more kindly than Vientiane had been. It was not looted, it was allowed to kept the Phra Bāng, the talisman symbol of  Lahn Xang Empire and its king kept his throne after due submission to Siam. By 1780 the once mighty Lan Xang Empire had been reduced to being dependencies of the victorious Siamese.

In less than 15 years Taksin had taken the Thai people from the ruins of Ayutthaya and transformed them into an Empire that included Cambodia, Laos,  Chiang Mai, Isahn and Central Thailand. A series and vassal kingdoms paid tribute to Siam among them was Luang PraBang and Vieng Jun in Laos. The latter was allowed to restablish the monarchy so long as they pledged allegiance to Siam. Taksin had deep belief in his own destiny. He became obsessed with Buddhist doctrine. He collected relics and Buddhist symbols from all the lands he conquered and took them to his capital believing they would give him more power. He began to believe he had special powers to levitate and walk on water. He went into seclusion and live like a monk, a mad monk. His behaviour began to disturb those in authority. General Chakri organized a coup and Taksin was executed. The General assumed the title of King and the current Chakri dynasty began. What Taksin had created would be the task of future monarchs to sustain in the face of revolt and encroaching European colonialism in the region.

In the early 1800s Vieng Jun began to renew itself under a dynamic king named Jow Anou. He had lived in the royal court at Groong Tayp, the new Siamese capital, and was thought to be loyal to Siam. Whilst he maintained loyalty he was allowed to undertake his program of renewal. Anou rebuilt Vieng Jun and strengthened his army. He also paid tribute to the Vietnamese hoping to gain their protection should Siam wish to invade again. Anou harboured a long resentment of what Chakri and Taksin had done to this kingdom and looked for an opportunity to take revenge. He wanted to free the Lao people living in Isahn and reunite them under a resurgent Vieng Jun Lahn Xang. His opportunity came in 1828 when Burma was engaged in a war with England and Siam was in a weakened state fearing English ambition.

Anou marched an army into Isahn and quickly captured a large amount of territory including Ubon Ratchatani. He marched on towards Korat hoping to rally the Lao people of the area to his cause.   ARTICLE UNFINISHED


How I met Loom Por / My time in the Sangha

I was an angry, restless young man. I started to take stock of myself after the premature death of my older brother in 1975. I took a course at university on Comparative Religions of which Buddhism was one and began reading anything by Hermann Hesse that I could get my hands on. I closely related to Harry Heller in the "Steppenwolf" but it was after reading "Siddhartha" that I first realized that the Buddha was a real person not a demi-God and I imagined being alive in the 6th Century BCE, a remarkable period. I would have been able to sit with Him and listen to Him. I could also have slipped over to China and sat with Confucious, and Lao Tzu, then to Persia to be with Zoroaster, on to Greece to hear Heraclitus speak, then to Babylon and the desert Prophets and so on back to India to listen to Mahavira. Of course that wasn't possible but as it turned out I was lucky to have lived in the era of Loom Por Chah.

While studying the section of the course on Buddhism I was rapt to have Pra Khanti Palo, and English bhikkhu, come to our class and outline the basic tenets of Buddhism. He was the first bhikkhu I ever saw. It all made so much sense and he explained much of what had been inexplicable. He invited students to come and see him later that afternoon in his rest room. I was late and thought there would a big queue waiting. It turned out that I was the only one of about 200 students at the lecture who had bothered, so I was lucky really.

 I set my mind upon travel to Asia where all the action was and as so many of us were doing back then. I worked two jobs for a year and saved up $3000 and took off overland to Asia in early 1977. After some hedonist adventures in Bali, Phuket and Koh Samui, I met a Lao refugee who lived in Australia. He had just returned from a trip to NE Thailand. I asked him if there was some place a Westerner could go and learn about meditation. He recommended Wat Bah Pong. I had bought a one way ticket to Kathmandu but, luckily, had a few days before I could fly and I hated being in Bangkok in Summer so I caught the night train to Warin, Ubon Province. I arrived  the next morning and found my way to Wat Bah Pong.

It was like falling into a well. Set in a quiet and serene re-growth rainforest the huts and buildings were camouflaged, even hidden amongst the trees. There were very few people around, not many monks and just one Westerner, Pra Arranya Bo. How lucky I was. Loom Por wasn't there. He was in England with Ajahn Sumedho on his first trip overseas that would eventuate in the transference of the Western Sangha to England. I was lucky that Arannya Bo was there. He was perfect for what I needed. He explained the practice and the Dhamma in the most clear, compelling and humble way. He talked at length about Loom Por's 'Five Year Plan'. Five years is an eternity when you are twenty-four. After talking with him all day I said I had better find a hotel somewhere. He said I could stay there on the floor of the sala. It would be almost six years before I returned to normal life again out of the Sangha.

As it so happened Loom Por was returning from his first trip abroad the following morning. I went to the station with Arannya Bo to meet him. It was an event!. There were thousands of people and scores of monks waiting for him at the station. When he finally emerged from the carriage I got my first sight of Loom Por. He was short, rotund and jovial looking as he meandered ever so slowly amongst the crowd chatting to all and every one. People were kneeling down, wying, bowing and so happy to see him as he passed. He seemed to know everyone and talked to everyone with a familiarity that I found hard to comprehend. The thought came to my mind,  'what was going on here!' When we finally got back to Wat Pah Pong I was a little disappointed when told by Arannya Bo that I had to go and stay at the Westerners' monastery at Bung Wai but I was also quietly pleased that he knew I existed amidst all the chaos that was my introduction to the great teacher.

I started at he bottom at Wat Pah Nanachaht which had been established about eighteen months before. Everything happened in stages, little renunciations that would go on for years. After a week I shaved my head and took eight precepts and became a Pa Kao and spent the pansah of 1977 at Nanachaht. I cleaned spitoons, cleaned toilets, washed monks feet, swept leaves, drew water from the well and sat at the end of the long queue for food distribution. There wasn't much left by the time it got to me. I hated the place and was desperate to get out into the Lao sahkahs (branch Wats) where I could really practice and learn the language:) I knew nothing about practice.

 The first pansah (rains retreat0 was hell, constant pain in my knees as we sat forever on concrete floors with knees up under my armpits, listening to boring talks in  an alien language that went on for hours or so it seemed. I committed for three months, then a year. I ordained as a Samanera after 5 months and then Loom Por sent me to famous Wat Tum Saang Pet where I stayed more than a year. I took full ordination with Loom Por as my Uppacchaya just prior to the 1978 pansah. Loom Por gave me a new name to signify my rebirth in the Sangha, Sudhiro or Sutiro in Thai.I spent that first pansah as a monk at Tum Saang Pet, where I was the only Westerner for a hundred kilometres. Malaria struck during that retreat. There were five monks and novices and one Pa Kao, a 10 year old brother of one of  the novices. Sadly he died an agonizing death when the dreaded virus went to his brain. Everyone on retreat at Tum Saang Pet got malaria and went to hospital for treatment except me who took the least care to avoid mosquitoes. As an addhitthana I slept without a net for the pansah. The "Mad Falung" they called me. How lucky I was.

Luang Por was at ease with people from all walks of life. He was able to converse and relate with skill and wisdom with the village farmer and  VIPs of Thai society often at the same time as he received them under his kuti.   His Bangkok supporters often tried to entice him to base himself there particularly when his illness became more advanced. He spent most of the period from 1981-82 in Bangkok receiving dubious treatments, none of which were for diabetes. But he remained loyal to the Lao people of his native Eesahn and spent the last 10 years of his life at Wat Pah Pong. In 1980, an Air Marshall in the Thai Airforce donated land, a barren paddy field near Dorn Muang International Airport, to build a branch temple close to Bangkok. This barren, treeless plot of about an acre, has since developed into amazing Wat Citta Bhavana, the main headquarters for the Pah Pong sangha in Central Thailand. The Bangkok support has been very generous and the Wat is well serviced.  It is now surrounded by urban development and high density apartment blocks. (Luang Por sent me to stay there just before the Pansah of 1980. I lasted a month on my own in a little wooden sala which vibrated as the jumbo jets flew low on their landing approach, so close that I felt I could reach up and touch them. I was supposed to spend the Vassa there but couldn't face it and  asked to return to Eesahn and spend it instead at Wat Pah Pong for what was to become  Luang Por's last effective retreat). 


I spent future pansahs at Suan Goo-ay, Nanachaht, and another remote Wat of forgotten name. Loom Por always sent me to the roughest places, including a sala in a paddy field near Dorn Muang Airport, right under the flight path of the Jumbos. Try meditating there!  But it was the 1980 pansah that I was able to spend with Loom Por at Wat Bah Pong. I had enough language, spoken and written, a tape recorder, dictionaries and I was the second most senior Western bhikkhu there. How lucky I was that Loom Por would be at the top of his teaching prowess before he was gradually overcome with creeping diabetes. I taped and translated everything I could. I sat under his kuti with him at every opportunity. He took ill towards the end of the retreat and had to go to Bangkok. But it was still the most rewarding experience of my spiritual life.

Later that year I returned to Australia for six months. I spent time with Pra Khanti Palo at Wat Buddha Dhamma in 1981 before returning to Ubon for my fourth pansah as a monk at a remote village Wat called Suan Guay, (Banana Garden). My final and fifth retreat was spent at Nanachaht in 1982. Big things were happening in the West. The Western Sangha at Chithurst in England had been a success. There was an invitation from Perth to set up a Wat in Western Australia and other places around the world and an interesting career beckoned.

I completed my fifth pansah and with it, the famous 5 Year Plan. I went Toodong (dhutanga) as is the tradition when you become and Acariya or Ajahn. A bhikkhu is allowed to wander alone and perform the twelve dhutanga practices. It was during this time that I decided to disrobe and return to a new life in Australia. I made arrangements and then returned to Bah Pong to do the deed. Loom Por was now just a shell of the great man that we knew and loved. It was sad to see him that way but such is the lot of all conditioned things. He never taught again and finally died in 1992.

I had to go and face Ajahn Liam, who now had the duties of abbot. It was something I wasn't looking forward to, as I always found him to be mysterious. But I was lucky. He was very amenable and asked me if I was sure, which I was. He wished me all the best and with a few short words my Sangha life was over.

I had many excuses for disrobing : I'd done my five pansahs, I believed the Sangha life had one purpose only to seek enlightenment, I didn't want to become a career monk in the West, Loom Por would never teach again, I could do wonderful things with my life now that I had my stuff together, but there was really only one reason. I knew that I just wasn't up to the task. I marvel when people say they cannot see Kamma at work in their lives. I saw it working as luck.

That was nearly thirty years ago. I have a great marriage, have raised a family, and have had a good career but it leaves a strange feeling inside as you get older and realize that you did the most important thing you will do in your life when you were only 25.

Sadhu. 



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