Monday, January 03, 2011

Ajahn Gaew and the first Western Bhikkhus at Wat Paknam

A few days after my pilgrimage to pay respects to the late Abbot of Wat Paknam, Chaokhun Phramongkolthepmuni, I went with my cousin, P' Laem, to visit the family home of one of his disciples, Ajahn Gaew.

Ajahn Gaew Potikanok (from the cover of his memorial book)

Ajahn Gaew was my mother's primary meditation teacher of vijja dhammakaya (advanced meditation using the method of the Middle Way) and my mother had huge respect and admiration for him, being fulsome in her tribute at his passing. Now I had the opportunity to learn more about his legacy from some of his children. I am particularly grateful to his daughter, Khun Darunee, and his son, Khun Goo, for sharing recollections and materials with me relating to their father.

Ajahn Gaew had become a respected lay meditation teacher at Wat Paknam in the 1950s - certainly known, for instance, by the maechi I had visited only days earlier. Among his students were monks, nuns and lay people and he subsequently continued to give teachings for many years. In a manner that seemed to predict the interfaith work of my mother, his outlook was very broad in terms of building bridges. He was fluent in Chinese and helped the Wat by translating Dhamma teachings into Chinese for there was a significant Chinese community; he did a great deal to persuade them to support Wat Paknam and thereby share in meritorious deeds.

As he had knowledge of English, he got to know a Western ordinand by the name of William Purfurst, who took bhikkhu ordination as Kapilavaddho (among the various materials I was shown a signed photograph). As Khun Goo gradually produced various publications, it was evident that Ajahn Gaew had taken considerable interest in Venerable Kapilavaddho, echoing my mother's remark that Ajahn Gaew often described this monk's activities in detail. It didn't matter that Ajahn Gaew was a lay person - the circle of meditators would know each other. In fact Ajahn Gaew did later take bhikkhu ordination for a rains retreat before returning to take care of his family.

I hope to describe the various items in more detail in a separate post, but here I just mention one that particularly caught my eye: a booklet, in Thai and Chinese, presented at the bhikkhu ordination of the three Western disciples of Ven. Kapilavaddho:

[Cover] Commemorative booklet for 1956 Ordination of Westerners at Wat Paknam

An English translation:

The English Sangha Community

The Buddha Bhavana Association
A publication to commemorate the ordination ceremony of the English [ordinands]

We bow to offer respects to
Luang Phor Phramongolrajmuni
Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, Thonburi

For distribution
Donated to
Those who come to share in the merit of the ordination ceremony.
10,000 copies.

This book contains quite a few photos of the Western disciples — including samanera ordinations and their arrival as a group at Don Muang Airport. I think most of the photos have already been circulated in other publications, but I hope to translate some of the text as this may provide further details that can help shed light on the activities at the time. The booklet also includes photos of the Chinese Association, including a group photo showing the Abbot welcoming visiting Chinese bhikshus (of the Mahayana tradition). These may be the same bhikshus who actually attended the ordination and remarked upon in the cine footage that was taken (with, I understand, commentary by Kapilavaddho himself):

And so this little bit of history continues to unfold...

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