The Beehive Buddha

Phra Jao Nang Gone – the Beehive Buddha

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.

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Sign in front of the Phra Jao Nang Gone – Hang Dong (the Beehive Buddha)

 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.

Phra Jao Nang Gone – Hang Dong (the Beehive Buddha)

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.

Phra Jao Nang Gone – Hang Dong (the Beehive Buddha) & the great Banyan

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