Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 14

Forest Monk at Wat Pah Nanachat

Luang Pee Muan could be considered a distant uncle of mine. He was greatly inspired by Luang Por’s discourse on the ascetic practices. He made a vow in front of Luang Por that very morning, saying: ‘From now on I determine to eat only one meal a day, and in addition to this I will eat only vegetarian food, refusing to eat meat and fish from this day forward.’ ‘Really?!’ Luang Por exclaimed. It’s not surprising that Luang Por made this exclamation—in the boondocks back then even without choosing one’s food there was almost not enough to go around. Here Luang Pee Muan got the uncommon idea to become a vegetarian—it would be very difficult for him to find vegetables, beans, and sesame seeds to sustain himself. He stood firm in his resolve, however, to keep a strict ascetic practice.

From then on our strict Luang Pee withdrew from others, would not socialize, and practised meditation each night. In the morning he would go on almsround alone, and then return to eat his meal alone. After this he would retreat quietly to his room. Some of the villagers, when they heard that Luang Pee Muan was keeping such strict practices, supported him well. Some of them even made special trips to the market to buy beans and seeds to offer him on his almsround. In the circle of monks and novices, however, there was a feeling of displeasure and an impression that Ven. Muan was bluffing or showing off. He was thus given the secret nickname Arahant Muan.

‘Hey, Arahant Muan has really flattered himself this time!’ said Luang Pee Dtaw, who was usually quiet and reserved.

‘In what way?’ asked Nane Boonkay.

‘Last night Arahant Muan told me that the food offered to the monks of Wat Bahn Huay is given in vain. After death they are likely to be reborn as water buffalo and required to pay their debts by ploughing the laypeople’s fields!’

Children Playing on Water Buffalo

‘Has our arahant become this barefaced?!’ Luang Pee Lan (former Nane Lan, the diviner—see chapter 3) shouted enraged. ‘He is now disparaging Luang Por as well. If he wants to munch on vegetables, let him eat—but he doesn’t have to go around insulting others!’ he continued in a disgruntled tone. Luang Pee Sing saw that the situation was getting tense and thus cautioned:

‘Hold on, I don’t want to see a fistfight between an arahant and an oracle. Maybe he has a reason for saying what he did. What did he mean by enrolling the monks to be buffaloes used to plough the villagers fields?’ he asked turning to Ven. Dtaw.

‘He said that the monks who don’t meditate and eat the laypeople’s food build up a debt that they won’t be able to pay back. When they die they’ll have to be reborn as buffalo with crooked horns and plough the fields.’

‘Actually, it’s he himself who will have to be reborn as a buffalo,’ Luang Pee Sing chuckled in his characteristic style. ‘He’s butting in and taking the leaves and vegetables away from the cows and buffalos. Next life they’ll get their own back!’

Luang Pee Muan had a part to play in the increasingly vehement reaction in the monastery to his conduct. No-one would have been bothered had he quietly kept the strict practices of eating once a day and being a vegetarian. But blowing his own trumpet and criticizing others was something the other members of the saffron forest could not tolerate.

A person in any community who is unable to adapt and conform to the other members will not be able to remain in that community for long. This is true in the case of Ven. Muan, who considered himself superior to the other monks. After the rainy season he left Wat Bahn Huay for another place. The story went that he walked tudong through various provinces of the Northeast. He disappeared for three or four years, until he was almost forgotten. Then without warning he resurfaced in Bahn Huay Village, in the guise of a meditation teacher who refuses to stay in a monastery and sets up his mosquito net on the outskirts of the village instead. The villagers asked him why he wouldn’t stay in the monastery. Ven. Arahant replied: ‘True monks don’t live in monasteries and houses; they seek tranquillity in the forest.’ This utterance was later broadcast to the residents in the monastery. Luang Por listened and didn’t say anything; he simply chuckled. But those other monastic residents who remembered what had occurred in the past were incensed.

Corpse with Garland

It was during this time that Uncle Terk was organizing a merit ceremony in honour of his late wife Som. Auntie Som was Luang Pee Muan’s elder sister. Luang Pee Muan went and took care of all of the planning and organization by himself. He called for a meeting of all the relatives, and forbid everyone from killing any animals for this merit ceremony. Moreover, he forbid the serving of any meat or fish, even that which was purchased in the market. Finally, he forbid any form of entertainment or festivities.

Think about how deeply engrained these village traditions are. It seemed a bit crazy for him to try and force the villagers to abandon them. His relatives, however, obeyed his wishes. They ground up Indian gooseberries and myrobalan fruit, mixed these with chili and salt, and set them in bowls to feed the monks. When the monks and laypeople who were invited to the funeral tasted this strange concoction of Arahant Muan, they made wry faces and grumbled. Uncle Jan, a friend of Terk’s, couldn’t endure it and spoke out loudly: ‘Hey, Terk. You have such a nice, big house. I didn’t think you were so poor that you are forced to honour your late wife with gooseberries!’ Terk was very embarrassed and didn’t know where to hide his face.

The next morning news spread through the village that Luang Poo Non, the revered old monk from our village, had had a terrible case of diarrhea due to eating Arahant Muan’s food. Uncle Terk rushed to visit him and asked him out of concern about his symptoms.

Luang Poo Tawng-In

‘Venerable, I bow at your feet. How are you?’

Luang Poo propped himself up wearily and replied: ‘My feet are perfectly okay. It’s my stomach that has the runs so bad I almost died because of your arahant’s food!’




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