The forests of North-East Thailand have for many years been the training ground for bhikkhus undertaking dhutanga practices for the sake of following the Buddha’s escape from Samsara. These are continual practices, undertaken at every conscious moment, by day and by night, aiming at eliminating all defilements on the path to nibbana. On January 30th 2011, there was the passing of a well-known exponent, Venerable Acharn Maha Boowa Ñanasampanno, Abbot of Wat Pah Baan Taad , Udon Thani. Popularly revered as Luang Ta Maha Boowa, he was viewed by many as one who had achieved that goal of achieving what has to be done, attaining to arahantship.
Luang Ta Maha Boowa considered as his principal teacher, Luang Pu Mun Bhuridatta, under whose wise guidance he learnt directly and with full commitment the dhutanga practices. (Luang Phor is a respectful term of address for a revered father; Luang Pu and Luang Ta are similar, for grandparents). After the passing of Luang Pu Mun, Luang Ta continued to promote these teachings and wrote a number of books. These and much other background information have been published and are available from the monastery web site, www.luangta.com luangta.com, with indices in English and German.
I feel it’s important to have respect for those who practise sincerely and earnestly for the Buddha’s sake, as did Luang Ta. I’ve learnt this from my mother, Fuengsin Trafford, who, together with a friend from Bangkok, accompanied Jane Browne, one of his disciples on a visit to Wat Pah Baan Taad in 1972. There are many people who have had much closer contact than myself with Luang Ta and his Wat, but I’d still like offer a few reflections here on a few personal connections and influences.
Although the Wat was already expanding significantly by the turn of the ‘70s, at that time there were only a few tables for offering food to the monks, so there was ample opportunity to personally place offerings in the bowls of every bhikkhu as they processed by:
[Phra Maha Boowa being offered food by Jane Browne (far left), standing next to her are Fuengsin Trafford and, I understand, Dr. Pensri Makaranon. I’m unable to identify the other Sangha members].
On the back of this photo was written a simple description: คุณเจนกำลังตักบาตร ท่านอาจารย์มหาบัว ที่หน้าวัดป่าบ้านตาด จ.อุดร ประเทศไทย พ.ศ.15. Translated it reads: "Khun Jane is offering alms food to Tan Ajahn Maha Boowa. At the front of Wat Pah Baan Taad, Udon Province, Thailand, B.E. ‘15 [1972CE]." On the back of another photo, which showed the entrance to the Wat, my mother wrote about the trip in general: "An opportunity to go back and visit all the family in Thailand and to go and cultivate moral virtue [sīla] in Udon Province, Thailand (2515)." She already knew quite well about the Forest Tradition – in her account of Hampshire Buddhists in the late ‘60s she recounted seeing Phra Maha Boowa’s photograph on Mrs. Browne’s mantelpiece.
Luang Ta paid fulsome tribute to his teacher in various ways. One of which was write the life story of Luang Pu, which was first translated into English in 1982 with the title The Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhūridatta Thera Meditation Master by Mr. Siri Buddhasukh. I found this book fascinating and greatly inspiring. There are many wonderful accounts of specific obstacles that Luang Pu Mun confronted and overcame. I particularly enjoyed the encounter with a chief of terrestrial devas, who had taken a dark demon form. By the power of his Dhamma, Luang Pu converted his heart and the deva gave up terrorising and instead took refuge in the Triple Gem. Yet my abiding recollection is simply the descriptions of how the Acariya "kept pounding the defilements," bringing full mindfulness to everything that came into his awareness and discerning therein with razor sharpness. For him, "a split-second with mindfulness absent is enough to allow defilements to whisk back in again." This determined and uncompromising approach was a great source of encouragement for his disciples, to pursue the practise with great urgency and vigour to eliminate the causes of the human predicament.
The biography carried an open license, so anyone could copy it freely. In late 2001 I felt the desire to make this book available online. Co-incidentally, around that time I had some correspondence with Lee Yu Ban, a Buddhist in Malaysia. He told me about a Singaporean friend, Lee Chun, who was typing in the entire book and asked whether I’d like to help. So I got in touch with Mr. Lee and he explained that he and his wife, Lee Lin, were indeed starting the translation. We came to an agreement to share the workload and we proceeded to carry out scanning, OCR and proof-reading. For my portion I was given a great boost by Kalyanamitta Mananya Pattamasoontorn, who arranged for a copy of the book to be photocopied, which I could collect whilst I was in Thailand early in 2002. By spring the task had been completed and the result was a new PDF version.
Shortly afterwards another translation was provided by Tan Ajahn Dick Silaratano, available from the Wat’s Web site (book section), but I already found Mr. Buddhasukh’s translation very accessible.
Luang Ta also introduced in some of his other writings some of Luang Pu’s disciples, adding their experiences as sources of inspiration. This is especially the case in Paṭipadā or The mode of practice of Venerable Acharn Mun, a weighty tome, translated by Phra Ajahn Paññavaddho, his first Western disciple. I first picked up a copy at the Birmingham Buddhist Maha Vihara and then was surprised to be presented with another copy in Thailand – by Luang Phor Sanong Katapunnyo at Wat Sangathan, Nonthaburi.
These teachings often mention working with the citta, the mind-heart, as fundamental to developing understanding and concentration. Similarly, when reading one gains by reading with the citta. That way practice becomes reinforced as one receives theme and variation – if it is read only with the head, then it will appear that there is a great deal of repetition, boredom will ensue and the time wasted. Texts like this should not be read merely linearly; rather, consider the evolution of practice as a spiral; each time you are progressing you can understand the same facets in an increasingly refined way.
When thinking about the Thai Forest Tradition, many Buddhists in the UK will call to mind Wat Amaravati and Luang Phor Chah, another disciple of Luang Pu Mun. However, the foundations of Wat Amaravati lie in the English Sangha Trust, and Wat Pah Baan Taad and Luang Phor Paññavaddho are part of that earlier history.
I would like to thank especially Jane Browne, a long-time lay supporter of the Thai Forest tradition, who was the one who originally lent me a copy of Luang Pu Mun’s biography. Her sustained dedication as a follower is evident in her essay, What is the goal of Buddhism?, where the interpretation of ancient texts comes alive through her relating them to the instructions of her teachers.