Some time after his views had just started to change about ‘forest monks’, Somdet Phra Mahā Wirawong embarked on one of his periodic duties to survey the state of Buddhism throughout the northeast of Thailand. In touring around the area, he saw with his own eyes that hundreds of forest monasteries had been started in affiliation with the Dhammayut sect.
At that time, the Dhammayut reform movement still comprised a tiny minority of the monks in Thailand, and, even with royal patronage and support, was still mostly based in Bangkok. Its outreach throughout the country in the one hundred years since it began consisted of only a handful of monasteries in northeast Thailand, all of them located in the major cities of the various provinces. They had never managed to spread into the smaller towns or the countryside.
All of the forest monasteries had been started by Luang Pu Sao, Luang Pu Mun and their disciples. But what really surprised him was that whenever he went through the towns and villages where forest monks had stayed and where the forest monasteries had started, the villagers and townspeople conducted themselves in a really admirable way.
The laypeople knew how to practise in relation to monks and how to receive monks, they knew what was appropriate and inappropriate to offer, they understand the basic foundations of the Buddha’s teachings, they knew how to do all the chanting, they asked for and kept the precepts of virtue, they meditated and were humble and unpretentious. He realised that they were being taught and trained, and were practising, in exactly the ideal ways of the Buddha’s dispensation. It also slowly dawned on him the vast differences between these places and the behavior of people in places where Luang Pu Sao, Luang Pu Mun and their disciples had not been.
He began to realise the enormity of his error in opposing these forest monks. When he returned to Bangkok, he proclaimed in the midst of a Saṅgha meeting that the spread of the Buddha’s teachings in Thailand should be promoted through the special support of these practising forest monks.
This was the sea-change that entirely transformed the relationship of the Thai Saṅgha towards the forest tradition. After this, Somdet Mahā Wirawong became the greatest and most influential supporter of Luang Pu Sao, Luang Pu Mun and their disciples. He had a monastery built in Ubon Ratchathani to be offered to Luang Pu Sao – and it was built near the Somdet’s home village so that his family and relatives could benefit from having this great monk as their teacher. He would often take instruction in meditation from Luang Pu Singh or Tan Por Lee Dhammadhāro, bringing them to Bangkok to teach all the monks and laity at his monastery. During one rains' retreat, when Tan Por Lee was staying and teaching him at his monastery in the early 1950's, Somdet Phra Mahā Wirawong removed any remaining internal doubts or reservations he had about the forest monks' way of practise and teaching. He was fully 'converted'.
Although, for a period of time, he had created a lot of bad kamma against good monks, Somdet Phra Mahā Wirawong did an incredible amount in service to the religion in his lifetime. In the early years of his administrative duties, he promoted the study and learning of the scriptures very widely. Once he realised the error of his opposition, he championed and supported the forest monks in bringing an emphasis to practise and meditation into the mainstream of Thai Buddhism. And in the final years of his life, he studied and practised meditation intensively under the guidance of Luang Pu Singh and Luang Pu Fun Ācāro.
Luang Pu Singh and Luang Pu Fun had come specifically to help look after the Somdet in his old age and failing health in the last years. For all the opposition they faced, the monks in the tradition of Luang Pu Sao and Luang Pu Mun bore no grudges and respectfully cared for the Somdet and helped him to progress a lot in his personal practise. Altogether, it is an inspiring story of real harmony and a victory for the principles of Dhamma and Vinaya.
But it is worth noting that for all the greatness of these monks, it was actually the inspiring example of the lay-practitioners, and the integrity of their practise, that finally broke down the walls of official resistance – paving the way for the forest tradition to really blossom and flourish in Thailand.