Spiritual Friendship

Tan Chao Khun Upālī Guṇūpamājahn and Luang Pu Mun Bhūridatto had been true friends for a long time, helping each other along successive levels of the Noble Path. Chao Khun Upālī, 14 years senior, had first been Luang Pu Mun's teacher – Luang Pu Mun is said to have attained the second path and fruit, of sakadāgāmī, while walking on the streets of Bangkok (in front of the Wat Pathumwan School, which now lies in the shadow of Bangkok's great mecca of materialism – Siam Square!) while returning from listening to a Dhamma talk from Chao Khun Upālī at Wat Boromniwat. Shortly afterwards, Luang Pu Mun made further progress on his own, attaining to the stage of anāgāmī, or once-return, at the Sārika cave in Nakhorn Nayok, and returned to Bangkok to help Chao Khun Upālī.

At this point, Luang Pu Mun returned to northeast Thailand and began attracting many, many disciples. During this first phase of his teaching career, which lasted about 13 years, he developed so much renown that it started to become an obstacle for him in his practise. During this time, Chao Khun Upālī had managed to finish his own practise at Doi Tung, in the Shan states of Burma. When Luang Pu Mun decided to temporarily abandon his teaching role, he safeguarded his disciples with Luang Pu Singh Khantayāgamo, and headed back to Bangkok to receive more instruction from Chao Khun Upālī.

At this time, an extraordinary man had become the ruler and administrator in the northern province of Chiang Mai, a man named Gaew Nawarat. Looking to reinvigorate Chiang Mai's illustrious Buddhist history, he had invited the greatest monks in the land to come and restore the most venerable temples in the city. He invited a northern monk, the highly respected and wildly popular Kruba SiVichai Sirivijayo, to stay and rebuild Wat Phra Sing. He also invited Tan Chao Khun Upālī to come help bring Wat Chedi Luang back to its former glory.

In the many discussions they had in Bangkok during the rainy season retreat that year, Chao Khun Upālī praised the northern areas to Luang Pu Mun – with their forests and mountains, they had been an environment which had been very suitable for him in finishing his own practise. Why didn't Luang Pu Mun come up to Chiang Mai with him? He could stay at Wat Chedi Luang for a while, and then be free to wander through the great wild forests of the north...

Luang Pu Mun agreed, and it was in late 1927 that three of the greatest monks in modern history took up residence within a few blocks of each other in the city of Chiang Mai.

Once in Chiang Mai, Chao Khun Upālī and Luang Pu Mun began hearing glowing reports of Kruba SiVichai, living just down the road. Twice, in his mind, Chao Khun Upālī thought of going to visit Kruba SiVichai – not telling anyone yet of his plans – and twice Kruba SiVichai showed up on his doorstep to pay his respects, explaining that Chao Khun Upālī was such a respected monk, and so senior, that he could not let such a great monk come to visit him. Kruba SiVichai had thus rushed over to visit Chao Khun Upālī before he could arrange his own travel.

After that, Luang Pu Mun began 'checking out' Kruba SiVichai and started to announce publicly to devotees that Kruba SiVichai was a Bodhisatta. He was a real Bodhisatta and had already developed the perfection of patience to such a degree that people should take him as their model in that regard. A friendship began between Kruba SiVichai and Luang Pu Mun that some people started to take notice of.

Luang Pu Mun shortly took leave of Chao Khun Upālī, however, and began his search for the full, final attainment of arahantship in earnest.

After a few years had passed, Kruba SiVichai had moved a few blocks east to begin restoring Wat Suan Dok, and Chao Khun Upālī was getting ready to return to Bangkok. Much of the restoration had been done, but he wanted his work in spreading true Dhamma to continue. He wanted Luang Pu Mun to take over as abbot of Wat Chedi Luang. Luang Pu Mun came into the city to pay his respects to Chao Khun Upālī, and out of respect, agreed to become the abbot. Chao Khun Upālī would go down to Bangkok and obtain a royal title for Luang Pu Mun, 'Phra Khru Vinayadhorn', and have him appointed as an official preceptor. Luang Pu Mun had a request of his own:

"Tan Chao Khun, something is going to happen to Kruba SiVichai in five years' time. You and I both know the nature of his heart and that he is impeccable and pure. Some powerful people are going to try to destroy him. I'd like you, when you go down to Bangkok, to tell all the high-ranking senior monks about it now so they know. It's going to happen like this..."

Chao Khun Upālī returned to Bangkok. Shortly afterwards, while on a teaching invitation to Lopburi, he stumbled and broke his leg. It turned out that his leg was broken so easily because he had late-stage bone cancer. His leg never fully healed and he passed away about eight months later.

Meanwhile, Luang Pu Mun had continued his seasonal wandering and returned to take up his duties as abbot of Wat Chedi Luang just before the rainy season retreat. By the end of the rainy season, he was convinced that his time was better used elsewhere. Perhaps he also felt that, with Chao Khun Upālī's passing, he was no longer bound to any promises made with him. One early morning, he simply walked away from the monastery and returned to his wandering and his search. He headed up to Phrao district, where he would remain for several years. He spent two consecutive years in the Dok Kham cave, where he realised the full goal of the holy life – the complete ending of suffering.

Right at this time, Kruba SiVichai was finishing the restoration of Wat Suan Dok. He was visited by a high-ranking official who offered him a proposal and a request: Doi Suthep, the high mountain on the western edge of the city, had a Chedi that was considered one of the holiest in the area – historical chronicles trace the arrival of genuine relics of the Buddha coming to the area and being enshrined in the Chedi there. On the full and new moon nights, it was a common sight to see coloured lights, understood to be devas, floating down through the sky and circumambulating the Chedi. It was highly revered in Chiang Mai, but access for pilgrims was difficult – there was only a rough walking track up the mountain. Several attempts to build a road had been started but then aborted because of the difficulty. The governor of Chiang Mai wanted to know: could Kruba SiVichai help to build a road up the mountain to the Chedi?

Kruba SiVichai replied that he would think about it overnight and let him know the next day.

The next day, Kruba SiVichai replied that he could do it. The governor asked him how long he thought it would take. "Six months", he replied. The administrator stared at him in disbelief. This was Chiang Mai in 1936 – there were no bulldozers, no steamrollers, no mechanized equipment of any kind. The road was going to be built by hand, with hoes and shovels. "Six months! I can't tell the governor... Really? Six months?! Are you sure?"

Kruba SiVichai closed his eyes in meditation for a minute. When he opened them, he looked directly at the administrator. "Six months", he repeated.

Preparations were made and the route up the mountain was surveyed. The road was going to be a total of 11 kilometres long, with countless switchbacks. On the day work began in earnest, the administrator came to see how things were going. What he saw was about two dozen people scratching the earth with hoes and picks. He kept his face impassive, but inwardly he was panicking. "This isn't going to take six months – it's going to take six years!" As he stood there watching, Kruba SiVichai walked up to him: "Don't worry, your excellency. By the end of the week there will be plenty of people to work." The next day, there was a hundred people. The day after that, there was 500. The day after that there was over a thousand... By the end of the week, 30,000 people from all over the north of Thailand had come to help build the road.

As more and more people came, the administrator, who was in charge of facilitating the project, was satisfied. At first. As people kept coming, he started to panic again. One day, as he was looking out at all the people working, the fear rose in his mind: "So many people! Where are we going to get the tools for them? How are we going to feed them?!". The city of Chiang Mai itself may not have exceeded 30,000 people at that time. As he stood there, carefully keeping his expression impassive, Kruba SiVichai once again approached him. "Don't worry, your excellency. The people who can't come and work themselves will send food." At that point he turned and told a large group of workers to start building two storehouses, one for rice and dried goods, and one for fresh foods.

The next morning, several caravans arrived. The owners of all the hardware stores in Chiang Mai, as well as many others all over the north of Thailand, had gotten together to offer Kruba SiVichai a massive supply of tools – shovels, hoes, picks, all kinds of things that were needed. And crowds and crowds of people started arriving with food – rice, sticky rice, dried fish, fruit – anything that people could bring. By the end of the day, both storehouses were completely full.

The next morning however – there were 30,000 people to feed – every bit of that food had been used up in preparing meals for the day. But once again, crowds and crowds of people would flock to the base of the mountain, where Kruba SiVichai would sit and receive visitors. They all had something to give. People who worked on the road have said that it was the most amazing thing. Every morning those two storehouses would be completely emptied to feed everyone, and every evening they would be completely full again. This went on, without exception, every day for six months. And sitting calmly at the base of the mountain, receiving every group and every gift, was Kruba SiVichai.

Up in Phrao district, Luang Pu Mun had been enjoying the bliss of his full liberation for some time. He put out the word among his network of disciples: anyone who considered themselves a disciple of Ajaan Mun should come to see him – he now had more to teach them.

I honestly think Māra nurses a sore spot in his heart regarding the small monastery near Goi village, now called Wat Pah Ajaan Mun, where the disciples all gathered around Luang Pu Mun for further instruction. As long as the Dhamma is not absolutely pure in someone's heart, Māra stills claims some kind of dominion, however small. But here, Luang Pu Mun began disclosing the full, pure Dhamma of arahantship and the way to realise it – and his disciples began to practise according to his skillful means. In no long time many of them realised the same level of Dhamma that Luang Pu Mun himself had realised.

The rest of the world was not completely irrelevant for them, however. Despite the fact that there were no radios or newspapers to be had, Luang Pu Mun always seemed to know exactly what was going on down in Chiang Mai at Doi Suthep. He would tell his disciples that Kruba SiVichai had incredible reserves of patience: "He sits there at the base of Doi Suthep all day, every day, receiving people and their offerings – and he gives a blessing to all of them. 'Yathā vārivahā pūrā, paripūrenti sāgaraṃ...' – how many hundreds of times a day he chants that, I don't know! He really has a lot of patience!" He encouraged all of his disciples to join with his efforts in spreading mettā – loving kindness – to Kruba SiVichai and to all the people and devas all over the area...

The people who worked on the road have often said that it was the best time of their lives. An amazing atmosphere of harmony and happiness seemed to pervade the whole mountain. They would work throughout the day, and as evening fell, campfires would form the backdrop for makeshift parties. Those who could play a musical instrument would play; those who could sing would sing; others would put on shows for each other and everyone would eventually drift off happily to sleep.

As they worked throughout the days, something strange became more and more clear to them – all of the animals had gone. Doi Suthep was a wild mountain teeming with life. Even elephants and tigers were common. But as they continued their construction, they would find that even the ants' nests in their path were empty. Rumours began to spread that Kruba SiVichai had spread mettā all over the mountain, and had asked the animals to leave while they built the road.

Strangely enough, after the road was finished, the animals came back. Things went smoothly and progress was continually made. One day a car appeared at the base of the mountain. There were only two cars in all of Chiang Mai at the time, and the owner had sent it to receive Kruba SiVichai. That day, exactly two days short of six months since the project had began, Kruba SiVichai got into the car and was driven up to the top of the mountain. People thought that their hearts would burst with joy and pride! The road was done. Kruba SiVichai went up to the top of Doi Suthep and payed his respects to the Chedi, and the entire city of Chiang Mai erupted into the biggest party it had ever seen. It lasted for two or three weeks.

Nowadays, Chiang Mai has become a very popular tourist destination, with thousands of people coming every year from all over the world. There are all sorts of attractions and things to do. But to this day, the locals still say that you can come and do whatever you like in the area, but if you haven't yet paid your respects to Kruba SiVichai's shrine at the base of the mountain, and driven up to the Chedi at the top – Phra That Doi Suthep – you still haven't been to Chiang Mai. Eighty years later, it remains Chiang Mai's defining story – the moment it entered the modern era.

At the time, it seemed as if all the currents of society, all the currents of the culture, and all the currents of religion in the area were swirling around this great achievement. And at the centre of it all was Kruba SiVichai. But there were other currents on the move, as well. These were dark currents swirling in the jealous hearts of the most powerful monks in northern Thailand. And just as the festivals in Chiang Mai were hitting their stride, they started to boil over...

Word came out from the Saṅgha authorities that Kruba SiVichai was to be apprehended and detained. A number of charges were levelled against him, including destroying forests and performing illegal ordinations. The picture they painted was of a charismatic monk gone completely rogue. The charges weren't completely made up – there was just enough of a slippery element of truth to make them stick. The charge that he had destroyed forests was based on the trees that had been cut down in the immediate path of the road up the mountain. The charge of illegal ordinations was more complicated.

Saṅgha authorities for years had been out to destroy Kruba SiVichai. They would pick up his disciples and interview them, 'inquisition' style, ultimately forcing them to disrobe when they would fail to denounce Kruba SiVichai or accuse him of wrongdoing. Many of these disciples, forcibly (and unjustly) disrobed, would continue to live the monastic life wearing white robes. White robes in Thailand signify the status of a renunciant layperson.

A number of these disciples were with Kruba SiVichai during the building of the road, including one particularly saintly one known informally as 'Kruba Khaow-Pea' ('Venerable White-Year'). He would be helping in the construction alongside the laypeople, and the laypeople would come complaining to Kruba SiVichai: it hurt their hearts to see him working alongside them – they knew he was really a monk. Couldn't Kruba SiVichai re-ordain him?

Kruba SiVichai put in a request with the proper administrative channels of the Saṅgha. It was a normal, straightforward kind of request that would normally be responded to within a day or two. But the issue dragged on for weeks, with no answer and no hope of getting one. One of the things that enraged the authorities about Kruba SiVichai over the years is that he wouldn't stand to be bullied by corrupt means. If the situation was clearly corrupt, he would defy it. And this is what he eventually did with 'Kruba Khaow-Pea' – he got enough monks together and simply had him re-ordained right on the mountain.

Being wildly popular on the one hand, and defying the corrupt bullying meant to reign him in on the other, had the Saṅgha authorities livid. They had him imprisoned in a monks' cell in Chiang Mai while they waited on a decision about what to do with him. Kruba SiVichai's supporters were extremely worried as rumours of an assassination spread throughout the city. Devotees would surround Kruba SiVichai's cell day and night for protection. Eventually, word came out that he was to be sent to Bangkok to face his charges. Everyone in the area knew that the accusations were trumped up, but for a monk at the time they were very serious. With only the word of the Saṅgha authorities in the reports, Kruba SiVichai's future looked very much in doubt...

After weeks of delay, Kruba SiVichai was finally sent by train down to Bangkok. Once in Bangkok, he was given simple quarters and told to wait for his hearing. Within a few days, he was summoned.

He was seated in a large room before the highest ranking monks in the land – the Somdets and Chao Khuns of the Council of Elders. He sat impassively as the charges were read against him. The senior monks began their investigation with a few perfunctory questions. After this, surprisingly, they all began to fold up their papers and put them away.

One of them explained: "Yeah... O.K. We know all about this. Ajaan Mun told us all about this years ago. Everything has happened exactly the way he said it would. Look: we're not going to do anything with these charges. But we would like to make a request of you. We want you to re-ordain in the Dhammayuttika sect. And even though you will be newly ordained, we will make you the highest ranking monk in northern Thailand. That way no one will ever mess with you again."

Kruba SiVichai sat for a moment and then raised his hands palm-to-palm in front of his heart in añjali: "Venerable Sirs," he said, "I have been practising this way for a long time already. Let things go according to kamma."

He was politely telling them that he wouldn't accept their protection, and he wasn't in need of a refuge. He already had a refuge.

Kruba SiVichai returned to the north of Thailand, but he kept a low profile. Many people wanted him to return to Chiang Mai. Instead, he quietly took up residence in his home village in Lampun province. While he was there, Luang Pu Mun slipped down through the mountains and forests to visit him.

When they sat down together, Luang Pu Mun addressed the issues that Kruba SiVichai had recently been through. "Little brother, this world is on fire with greed, hatred and delusion. Your spiritual faculties are very mature already. Why don't you come and study samatha and vipassanā with me? You will quickly be able to make a complete end of suffering."

Kruba SiVichai held up his hands in añjali. "Hearing the Venerable Ajaan talk about the complete ending of suffering, I feel so much happiness and bliss... But what you ask is beyond me. I am practising the path to full Buddhahood, and I have already received a confirmation, in the presence of a Buddha in the past, that I will succeed. So I am sorry, Ajaan, but I can't do as you ask. At this point there is nothing that can stop me from realising my aim."

Luang Pu Mun appraised his friend for a moment, and then he raised his hands in añjali. "Little brother, what you are doing is the absolute pinnacle of human achievement – something very few beings could ever hope to accomplish. If that is how it is with you, then fulfill your vows with complete determination!"

Luang Pu Mun slipped away back into the forests, and within 18 months Kruba SiVichai Sirivijayo had passed away. He died at the age of 60. In his 40 years as a monk, he restored an incredible 118 monasteries and Chedis all over the north of Thailand. He is universally known there as the saint, or 'nak-boon', of Lanna.

Very shortly after Kruba SiVichai's death, Luang Pu Mun accepted an invitation to return to the northeast of Thailand. As he came down to the city of Chiang Mai to begin his travels, he was invited to give a Dhamma talk at Wat Chedi Luang on Vesākha Pūjā. The reports of that talk are unclear. Did he talk for 6 hours, or was it 8? Or was it 10? Was it dawn as he was finishing, or was it already past dawn? No one seems to remember clearly. All that is certain is that Luang Pu Mun held nothing back, enrapturing people with his flow of Dhamma throughout the night. At the end he apologised for keeping everyone so long: he explained that he was leaving for the northeast of Thailand and would not be returning, so this would be the last time they would ever hear a Dhamma talk from him. He didn't come right out and say it, but a few guessed his deeper meaning: he was going back to live out the rest of his life in Isaan, and after his death, he would never, ever come back to take rebirth again – in this or any other world. This would truly be the last Dhamma talk he would ever give to the people of Chiang Mai.

People have asked why Luang Pu Mun spent so long in the north of Thailand. Most of his disciples and connections were in the northeast. But others, who have looked into his relationship with Kruba SiVichai, say that the timing of his departure was not a coincidence. One of the things that kept him in the north for so long was his wish to look out for his 'little brother'. An arahant quietly helping a bodhisatta: a true story of spiritual friendship at the highest level.