A few months ago I was in Chiang Mai for an almsgiving ceremony and our group visited the ‘Beehive Buddha’ in Hang Dong. This Buddha image is remarkable in many respects. To begin with, it was carved more than 200 years ago and has been exposed to the elements ever since. It was carved into the trunk of an enormous living teak tree, in a way that caused the tree no significant damage. Eventually, the tree died from natural causes. But because a banyan tree had begun to climb up its trunk and enveloped it in its embrace, the original teak tree was held securely in place. Because the banyan tree has a diameter of more than 8 metres, however, the teak tree may have easily been completely engulfed and disappeared from view. But most unusually, the banyan tree grew around the Buddha image, in a way that resembles a curtain parted to reveal what lies beneath. Here is the story of the origin of this precious image, recounted by Paisan Sanchai.
As we were walking Venerable Krubah Gandhā our guide spoke about events in the world of human beings. For the most part he spoke about worldly affairs and matters of Dhamma arising as a result of people’s mental impurities; of how people are enticed by material possessions, honour, and praise. Human beings under the sway of greed, hatred, and delusion proceed similar to the way ants are lured by sugar. The ants seek out the sugar only to drown in the sticky sweetness, from which only very few escape.
When he had finished speaking, a smile settled on the corner of Krubah Gandhā’s lips, and he sighed deeply: ‘Oh, the world of human beings!’ He then turned to face me as a way of urging me to listen carefully to what he was about to say next.
He then continued speaking to me: ‘Paisan, being born in the world of human beings is fraught with suffering. Some people, however, say that the human realm is full of happiness, because they delight in their material possessions, in power and good fortune, until they forget themselves. This is similar to a dog gnawing on a bone devoid of any meat, but still finding it delicious. In fact, the dog is revelling in its own saliva.’ Having finished speaking, Krubah Gandhā chuckled. Lord Bingarāja laughed in turn, and said: ‘I was exactly as Krubah Gandhā just described.’ The two of them then continued laughing.
‘Some people, before they go and observe precepts at the monastery, get into squabbles and arguments because they have unfinished work to do at home. Paisan, if you meet such people, tell them that the true monastery exists within one’s practice; it doesn’t exist in outside buildings. Whichever building or dwelling we reside in, if we allocate our time well, develop loving-kindness, practise virtuous conduct, concentration, and wisdom, that residence automatically becomes a monastery.’
Krubah Gandhā went on to say: ‘Some people, in order to observe moral precepts, go and request the precepts from a monk or holy man. This is a pitiful and laborious form of morality, because it requires one to beseech someone else. If one is not compelled to ask for precepts from another, but rather one is aware of moral principles and applies them, this is called being rich and prosperous in morality.’ Having finished speaking, he turned to me with a smile.
I followed Krubah Gandhā and Bingarāja along the path for quite some distance. They stopped when we met three middle-aged men sitting at the side. It appeared to me as if these three men were waiting for us. After the three men had greeted us, one of them said: ‘Our names are Janta, Gambhira, and Nyana. We wish to tell you about an important and sacred event that occurred in the city of Chiang Mai—the city of Piṅga—in the past, in particular, in the district of Hang Dong. This is the story of Phra Jao Nang Gone—‘the Buddha Image Sitting on the Beehive.’ The speaker, Janta, turned to me and asked: ‘Have you ever heard of this Buddha image?’ I replied that I had. He then asked me whether I knew its history, and I replied that I did not. He asked me whether I would like to hear it. I said: ‘Yes, that would be grand. I can tell others, and they in turn can tell their children and grandchildren.’ On hearing this, Janta laughed contentedly. He then began this story:
Phra Jao Nang Gone originated during the time of King Kavila, who ruled Chiang Mai from 1781-1813. At that time the king had travelled to Chom Thong in order to pay respects to the Buddha’s relics. He was establishing a township and secretly meeting with villagers at Wang Sagang Village near the mouth of the Lee River. When he had finished these activities, he led his soldiers and royal officials back towards Chiang Mai.
While travelling, he met with people and asked them to support him as faithful subjects in order to salvage and restore the state. He eventually reached the spot where Phra Jao Nang Gone is now located. He decided to stop and rest here because he felt tired and weak. The king observed that this area was peaceful and calm, surrounded by mature forest. He took a nap here while his retinue also took the chance to rest. When he awoke feeling refreshed he said to his followers: ‘This place is so tranquil. What should we build here as a tribute or as a sign of devotion?’ His followers answered: ‘Let us make a Buddha rupa!’
King Kavila was delighted with this idea, and he thus consulted with his retinue about what sort of Buddha image to make and how it would be possible to cast gold in this location. They decided that to ask the local villagers for gold would cause them hardship, because they were in a state of impoverishment and destitution. (The Burmese armies had defeated Chiang Mai in 1771. They had been driven out several years later, but continued their attacks on the city until about 1800.) The war had decimated villages, which had turned into wilderness. Rice paddies had become wasteland, the home of wild elephants and tigers.
The king then spotted an enormous tree—precisely the tree that is now the site of Phra Jao Nang Gone. He thought of cutting this tree down and cutting out a large piece from which a Buddha image could be sculpted. When he shared his idea, one of the members of his retinue dissuaded him, saying that such a large tree shouldn’t be cut down, since surely it has a resident deva protecting it. He suggested that the image be carved in situ, directly into the trunk of the tree. The king along with the rest of his retinue agreed with this proposal. They thus built a scaffolding in order to carve the image into the middle of the trunk, as is seen today. They began this carving on the full-moon day of November, 1782.
Janta went on to tell us that during this event King Kavila was accompanied by twenty-one royal officials. Moreover, he had five villagers in his company, all of whom were afflicted with illness. All of these individuals, both the officials and the villagers, each selected a nearby tree in which they too sculpted a Buddha image. Today, however, the only tree remaining is the one containing Phra Jao Nang Gone. All of the other images were stolen and sold for money by evil-minded people.
‘Paisan,’ Janta continued. ‘When the local villagers saw King Kavila climb up onto the scaffolding in order to carve the Buddha image, they took pity on him and decided to offer him an elephant, so that he could stand on its neck while he worked. Marvellously, that elephant permitted the king to stand on its neck the entire time without resisting or moving.’
All the people present were faithfully devoted to this task of carving the Phra Jao Nang Gone, and they helped out without receiving any monetary reward. It took ten days for this Buddha image to be completed. When the task was complete, King Kavila organized a consecration ceremony, by inviting Venerable Ratanasirivaṁso from Wat Wiang Dang to be the master of ceremonies. Four more revered monks were invited, namely: Ven. Sīlavaraṇa, Ven. Dhammapaññā, Ven. Pintā, and Ven. Sudhammā.
When the consecration ceremony was complete, King Kavila bestowed this name on the Buddha image: the Sirimahāvanākāvīla Buddha. Before Ven. Ratanasirivaṁso gave a blessing to conclude the proceedings, he turned to the members of the royal entourage and to the villagers and said: ‘Whatever it is that you wish for, make a mental determination.’ The members of the royal entourage made the following determination: ‘May we all be reborn in the next life as humans endowed with intelligence and wisdom, and may we possess both inner and outer wealth.’
The villagers made this determination: ‘May we be reborn as humans with beautiful and clear complexions, loved and cherished by humans and devas.’ When Ven. Ratanasirivaṁso heard these determinations, he was pleased and chuckled. He then gave a blessing, wishing that everyone present would find fulfilment in this life and the next.