Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 5

Old Buddhist Monk. Chiang Rai, Thailand

At Wat Bahn Huay, apart from the abbot who everyone called Luang Por (‘venerable father’), there was another old monk called Luang Poo Non (‘luang poo’ means ‘venerable grandfather’). Luang Poo had been a priceless inhabitant of the village ever since the days of our ancestors. Nobody knew when he had arrived in the village. He was a marvel in that he did not age as time went by. The people in the village had seen him in this physical state for decades and no-one knew his age. If one asked him he would say, ‘Sixty,’ but ten years later he would give the same reply. He was ageless.

The year that I was ordained I can remember that Auntie Dton, who was Luang Poo’s niece, was toothless and bent over with age. Whereas Luang Poo was her father’s older brother, his sight and hearing was still good. He walked with ease and descended the ten steps of his kuti without problem. One fine day he took his indispensable walking stick, carried his shoulder bag, and walked comfortably from Bahn Huay to Bahn Nong Nok Kian—a distance of ten kilometres—and back.

Close up of thick-leaved plant

‘Luang Poo possesses “horse herb”,’ remarked Nane Liam one day.

‘“Horse herb,” “dog herb”—I’ve never heard of it,’ someone in the group objected—I remember it to be Nane Boonkay.

‘It’s true. Tan Maha Sing said that if one carries this herb on one’s person one is immune to aging and can walk long distances without fatigue,’ Liam said describing its properties.

Translucent, colourful leaf

‘Seeing him grumbling every morning and evening, I think he’s been blessed by the devas,’ Boonkay added his opinion.

Complaining to oneself is fairly normal for old people but there was something unique in the case of Luang Poo. Generally, he wouldn’t lie down during the day, but would rather sit leaning against a triangular backrest chomping his mouth and reciting the morning and evening chanting, depending on whichever verses came to mind, irrespective of the time of day. If he forgot a chant halfway he would mutter to himself: ‘Where was I?’ If he couldn’t remember he would start from the beginning. He would chant back and forth this way all day.

Besides chanting, sometimes he would talk and answer in a serious way as if he was conversing with someone. This puzzled us so much that we once persuaded each other to go and ask him.

‘Who are you talking to, Luang Poo?’

‘Devas,’ Luang Poo answered with a blank expression, chomping away.

‘Luang Poo, do devas exist?’


‘Why do they come here?’

‘To speak with Poo.’

‘Oho, Luang Poo is the best,’ Liam laughed heartily. ‘They say that female devas don’t wear any clothes, right Luang Poo? You’ve probably seen that yourself, huh?’

Goddess Dharanee

‘What the hell—are you crazy? Get out, get out!’ Luang Poo rose from his cushion and sat upright waving his hands to drive us away. We naughty kids jumped away and fled just in time. Indeed, because of this scoundrel Liam we never found out if Luang Poo was truly talking to devas or not.

After I had moved to Bangkok, been ordained as a monk, and finished the highest Pali studies, I went back home and spoke with Luang Poo. I wanted to ask him about this matter but I didn’t dare—I was afraid I would be chased out of his kuti like when I was a young novice.

Since Luang Poo could not remember whether it was morning, afternoon, or evening, his eating was independent of time. Normally, his grandchildren would come by once a day to offer him food. Luang Poo would usually not eat right away. He would sit and chant and whenever he felt hungry he would take a handful or two of sticky rice from the bamboo container next to him, eat it, and continue chanting. This was his own moral discipline as he was considered beyond reproach (pāpa-mutta).

In fact, eating food after midday is a minor offence according to the monks’ discipline, classified as an ‘offence of expiation’ (pācittiya). A person who hasn’t spent much time in the monasteries will probably be unfamiliar with the word pācittiya—even some monks who are recently ordained don’t know this word.

You may remember Tahn Dtaw, the minister of dim-wittedness, from the last episode. He was reciting the ‘Instructions for Newly Ordained Monks’ (Navakovāda) and had reached the section on the expiation rules: ‘A monk who tells a deliberate lie must ‘pahjitty,’ a monk who ridicules another monk must ‘pahjitty’’ (i.e., he commits an offence of expiation—pācittiya). He recited further and then exclaimed: ‘Hey, what does this ‘pah-jitty’ look like?—I’ve never seen one in all my life!’ He thought this word was referring to some kind of fish (fish in Thai is ‘plah’).


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