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?’

Yes.’

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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