A Turning Point - part 1

Updated: Feb 13

Nowadays, it seems inconceivable that Luang Pu Sao and Luang Pu Mun were once considered pariahs by the Thai Saṅgha, but that was indeed the case.

In the early days of the fledging ‘forest tradition’, the monks faced serious and considerable opposition from the Saṅgha authorities in Bangkok. Chief among them was Somdet Phra Mahā Wirawong (Uan Tisso), who was the head ecclesiastical monk for northeast Thailand and who was staunchly opposed to Luang Pu Sao, Luang Pu Mun and their disciples. He was the one who personally ordered villagers to burn down Luang Pu Sao’s hut in Ubon Ratchathani.

Seeing that this opposition was an obstacle to spreading the practise and teachings of the Buddha, and with the Somdet making some very bad kamma, Luang Pu Mun Bhūridatto wanted to find some skilful means to settle the problems. In 1926 or 1927, he entrusted this burden to Luang Pu Singh Khantayāgamo (who had then been a monk for 18 rains’), sending him to attend on Somdet Mahā Wirawong. He chose Luang Pu Singh for several reasons: – Luang Pu Singh was his closest and most trusted disciple at that time. – Somdet Mahā Wirawong was actually Luang Pu Singh’s preceptor. – Both of them were from Ubon, having a shared sense of local experience and upbringing. – And Luang Pu Singh would often go to Bangkok to pay his respects to his preceptor: they knew each other well and could talk freely and openly with each other. In the past, Luang Pu Singh had tried to bring up these problems with him, but the Somdet had refused to discuss the issue – going so far as to tell his monks and novices not to receive him or accept him into the monastery. On this occasion, however, the Somdet allowed him to stay and invited him to come along to a meeting of the Mahā Thera Samakhom the following day. Somdet Mahā Wirawong was chairing the meeting with the proposed theme of discussion, ‘The Heart of Buddhism’. The Somdet invited him to come along and listen so that Luang Pu Singh could learn something – since he was an ignorant forest monk who spent all his time meditating with his eyes closed and his ears shut off to the world. The meeting was composed of high ranking monks and government officials who all had a thorough understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. They took turns discussing things and offering their reasoning for certain arguments, quoting the scriptures throughout the day, but they were unable to agree on any specific and concise summary of the heart of Buddhism. Luang Pu Singh, there as an attendant monk, was the only one who sat quietly and just listened the whole time. In the end, he raised his hands in a gesture of respect and asked to present his opinion to all the venerable monks, saying, “About the heart of Buddhism, which all the esteemed elders have been discussing – may I, Phra Singh Khantayāgamo, a forest monk and disciple of Phra Ajaan Sao and Phra Ajaan Mun, respectfully offer my opinion?” “What the Venerable elders have been saying, in my view, is more like the bark or the sapwood – like the simile of the blind men describing the elephant: each correctly, but in isolation from each other and only from their particular point of reference. It can’t yet really be said to be the true heart of Buddhism. “Everything in this world – if we talk about its heart, it has to be a singular thing. This is the point at which it is most ultimately correct. “The heart of Buddhism, correctly and truly, has to be singular in the same way. That singular thing I am talking about is recollection (sati). “If we don’t have recollection, what will we be able to do? For us to do good or evil, or even to become awakened, we have to have recollection supervising things so that we can do them. “Because of that, I thus see that the heart of Buddhism is recollection. Things apart from that constitute the bark or the sapwood.” After that, Luang Pu Singh elaborated further, giving examples and various similes, including passages in Pāli from the scriptures for comparison and support, in order to make things clear. The whole time Luang Pu Singh was speaking, all the senior monks sat in absolute silence, intent upon listening. The exception was Somdet Mahā Wirawong, who was so humiliated he couldn’t speak, thinking that he had brought his disciple here to listen, not speak, and that he was insulting the entire meeting. But the thing was, nobody interrupted him as they all sat listening attentively. After the meeting, the Somdet was furious, thinking that forest monks were completely shameless. But inwardly, his heart was shaken and he began to soften his attitude towards them. Reflecting on the fact that all of the learned monks in the meeting had sat listening attentively, with nobody inclined to disagree with Luang Pu Singh’s opinion or his reasoning, it led him to say publicly:

Even though they just sit in the forest with their eyes closed and their ears shut off, they have some kind of knowledge – where it comes from, I don’t know. All I know is that the monks who are diligently studying in the city temples don’t really get that knowledge.

After this incident, the powerful monks in the halls of Bangkok began to shift their opinion towards ‘forest monks’.

Read A Turning Point - part 2