Life stories, both autobiographical and biographical, are an important part of the forest lineage of Ajahn Mun. This began with the popularity of Luangda Mahabua’s biography of his teacher, Ajahn Mun, and later his biography of another student of Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Kao. Recently, Ajahn Dick Silaratano has written a creative, narrative biography of a student of Luangda Mahabua, Mae Chee Kaew. I will use these three biographies as well as Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Mahabua’s dhamma talks that recount their meditation practice to understand how the forest tradition describes moments of realization. It is difficult to put into words the experiences of one who has achieved the final goal of liberation, so it is interesting to see how this is recounted in life stories. Through these illustrations, forest master life stories inspire faith in the Buddhist path and relate that even in the modern period, through much effort, one can reach this goal of the Buddhist tradition.
These biographies and autobiographies also reenact a crucial scene from the life story of the Buddha. As is related in many of the accounts of the Buddha’s life, after his Enlightenment, he found it difficult to see the point in teaching his findings to others. Until he saw some of his former colleagues in meditation practice who were close to the same achievement did he feel that his experiences could be taught. The same is true with many of these forest masters after they achieve liberation. They wonder how they can possibly convey these amazing experiences and how they got there to others, but quickly realize that some people are able to learn and through their compassion decide in the end to teach others.
Mae Chii Kaew
Toward the end of Mae Chee Kaew’s biography, Ajahn Dick relates how, after much diligent practice following the advice of Luangda Mahabua, Mae Chee Kaew, was left with one lingering attachment to the self through the experience of her ‘radiant mind.’ This state of luminosity she experienced seemed like nibbana but when discussing this with Ajahn Mahabua he informed her this was not nibbana but one final clinging to let go of. After this meeting, Mae Chii Kaew worked ceaselessly to rid herself of this final view of self. She found that the radiant mind actually had a dull quality and was filled with dissatisfaction and uncertainty. After this Ajahn Dick describes her moment of realization:
“Then, aware but knowing nothing in particular, suspended in emptiness, the crystal-clear radiance of mind she had treasured for so long suddenly turned and dissolved—revealing a pure, all-knowing presence that filled the heart and pervaded the entire universe. The knower was everywhere, but nothing was known. Without characteristics and without source, emanating from no point in particular, knowing was simply a spontaneous happening of cosmic expanse. The radiant awareness had dissolved in an instant, leaving only purity of mind and the essential freedom of pure Dhamma—an absolutely unconditioned knowing that entirely transcended all forms of human conception.” (200).
Mae Chii Kaew’s moment of realization is thus couched within the defeating of this last inkling of self, this ‘radiant mind’ that she had cultivated. When this dissolved she was left with the pure mind or ‘citta,’ that is much emphasized in the forest tradition. Therefore this description of realization is also placed within this context of the forest lineage of Ajahn Man. It is illustrated as a stripping away of the defilements that cloud the mind and Mae Chii Kaew is left with the pure mind, and an empty knowingness.
After this moment of awakening, and even though she had always been a compassionate person she wondered: “How could she possibly explain the true nature of that Dhamma to others? Even if she tried, ordinary people, steeped in delusion, could never hope to comprehend such extraordinary purity of mind. She was unlikely to find enough receptive ears to make teaching worthwhile” (205).
But then the change of mind occurs after further reflection on the Lord Buddha and his abilities as a teacher. “Reconsidering the transcendent Dhamma and the path she took to uncover it, she finally recognized herself in everyone else: she too was a person like them. Certainly others with strong spiritual tendencies were equally as capable as she was. Reverently reviewing all aspects of the Buddha’s teaching, she saw its relevance for people the world over, and its potential rewards for those who were willing to practice correctly. Those insights gave her a renewed desire to help every living being that was willing to listen” (206). Thus like the Buddha, Mae Chii Kaew realized that she was not so different from others and that there were some who were close to the same achievement and just needed more guidance. This gave her the impetus to teach.
Luangda Mahabua recounts his own moment of realization in one of the dhamma talks in his book Arahattamagga Arahattaphala. In the talk titled “Shedding Tears in Amazement with Dhamma,” Mahabua recounts his final achievement during one meditation practice.
“No one sat in judgment at that decisive moment. That natural principle arose on its own and passed its own judgement. The universe then collapsed on its own. Originating from a neutral state of the citta, the happening took place all so suddenly: in an instant the entire cosmos seemed to flip over and disappear. It was so brilliant! Oh my! Really and truly magnificent! Too extraordinary to be captured in words. Such the amazing nature of the Dhamma that I now teach. Tears flowed when I experienced it” (74).
Here again the purified citta is emphasized as the result of the experience. But with Ajahn Mahabua there is more of a description of the metaphysical experiences such as the cosmos collapsing and later he describes the world as completely vanishing. He relates the emotion of the experience, such that it is difficult to convey it in this dhamma talk.
Like Mae Chii Kaew he has reservations about teaching this supreme dhamma to others. He writes “How will I ever be able to teach people this Dhamma? What is the point of teaching? Since true Dhamma is like this, how can it possibly be presented so that others will be able to know and understand it?” (78). But then he ponders further about his own realization and how it was the same path of the Lord Buddha, and admitted that the same path could help others we well. He writes of his change of mind: “Maybe there were only a few, but there definitely were some who could make it. I could not deny that. The awareness that it would benefit at least some people encouraged me to begin teaching those who were worthy to be taught” (80). So again like the Buddha, Ajahn Mahabua, immediately after his achievement felt that no one else could understand the teacher. But then upon further reflection, he realized that there were some people who would be able to learn and so decided in the end, to teach.
A similar story of Ajahn Chah’s moment of realization is recounted in dhamma talks within A Still Forest Pool and An Unshakeable Peace. In these talks, Ajahn Chah describes himself during walking meditation one day when something different happened. He was able to see the separation of mind and its object, and with this connection broken, there was peace. When he stopped formal meditation on this day, only the sitting stopped but mindful tranquility remained. Because of this he felt his mind turn inward with extreme awareness. He observed this awareness and then turned to his normal state of mind again. After this, his mind turned inward a second time and he could feel his body break into fine pieces and then his mind once again returned to normal. The third and final time his mind turned inward, the whole world broke apart with nothing left. The mind stayed inward and abided as long as it could. When the mind finally emerged. In the next section Chah illustrates the after effects of this moment as he describes that after this moment, one’s whole world has turned upside down, one’s understanding of reality is different, people appear different, everything changes, thoughts are transmuted so one thinks and speak differently than others, and one is no longer the same as other human beings.
This moment of realization does not use the citta as much to describe the experience. Instead he illustrates three moments of awareness where he systematically released himself from his body and then the world. After this he feels different from other human beings and not able to relate to them in the same way anymore. The removing of the defiled mind here could be described as these moments of the body being broken apart- leaving him with the pure state of mind, similarly to the description of Mae Chii Kaew and Ajahn Mahabua. Because this moment comes from an excerpt of a translated dhamma talk, and not a full biography, there is no mention of Ajahn Chah’s feelings of teaching after liberation. Thus we do not know if he had similar reservations as the others but he certainly did end up teaching many disciples.
Ajahn Mahabua recounts what he remembers of Ajahn Mun’s account of the moment of his realization.
“Seated in meditation late that night, the crucial moment had arrived. The battle lines were drawn: supreme-mindfulness and supreme-wisdom – the razor sharp weapons – against avijjã [ignorance], an enemy especially adroit at repulsing their advances then counterattacking, leaving its opponents in total disarray. Since time immemorial no one has dared to challenge its might, allowing avijjã to reign supreme and unopposed over the ‘kingdom of birth and death’ inside the hearts of all living beings. But at three a.m. that night when Ãcariya Mun launched his ﬁnal, all out assault, the result was the total destruction of the king’s mighty throne and the complete overthrow of his reign in the kingdom of birth and death. Suddenly impotent and deprived of room to maneuver, the king could not maintain his sovereignty. At that moment avijjã perished, victim to a lightning strike of magniﬁcent brilliance. Ãcariya Mun described how that fateful moment was accompanied by a tremor that appeared to shake the entire universe. Celestial beings throughout this vast expanse immediately paid tribute to his supreme accomplishment, roaring an exclamation of approval that reverberated across the sentient universe, and proclaimed the appearance of another disciple of the Tathãgata in the world” (156).
Here as in Ajahn Mahabua’s account there is a resonance with the outside world at the moment of realization so that the universe shakes and reverberates as celestial beings pay respect to this achievement. The actual realization is described as a battle against ignorance which Ajahn Mun wins, crushing the opponent and reigning as the king of his body and mind.
He too has reservations about being able to teach people what he had learned and has thoughts of living in solitude for the rest of his years. But then he realizes the potential of human beings that the Buddha saw. “Eventually, his thoughts gathered on the Lord Buddha’s guiding role in revealing the correct path of practice. Reviewing his attainment of Dhamma and the path he took, he saw that he, too, was a human being in the world just like everyone else, and undistinguished from others by any special characteristic that would make him the only person capable of understanding this Dhamma. Certainly, others with strong spiritual tendencies were capable of this understanding. By failing to broaden his perspective, his initial outlook had tended to disparage the spiritual tendencies of his fellow human beings – which was unfair” (158).
Ajahn Mahabua recounts what he remembers from another account of realization, this time from another disciple of Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Kao. While walking on almsround Ajahn Kao describes how he was overcome with metta for the villagers in the forest where he was wandering. While eating his food he recalls: “Since the day I was born this was the first time that I had ever experienced the body and mind in perfect harmony with the citta, which is something quite impossible to explain. All I can say is that it was a most wonderful and unique experience that became the most outstanding event of my life, leaving a deep and lasting impression on my heart. After this world-shaking event occurred, when the sky and ground collapsed and the ‘wheel of samsãra’ . . . broke up and disappeared, all the elements and khandhas as well as every part and aspect of the citta were all free to conform to their own natural state. They were no longer enslaved or forced into service by anything. . . The disputes within the citta, which are far more numerous and disturbing than those externally in the world, all stopped at the moment the ‘court of justice’ was finally established within the heart” (90-91).
For Ajahn Kao the impetus before this moment of realization was feelings of metta rather than formal sitting or walking practice. It is described in terms of the citta as well, but not as removing defilements from the pure citta but instead having the citta in harmony with body and mind. The citta thus resides in a natural state, no longer enslaved by avijja like Ajahn Man recounted. Again this moment brings about external resonance as he feels the sky collapse.
The similarities of some of these accounts shows the consistency of the forest tradition as well as how life stories of the arahants are modeled after the life story of the Buddha and yet also localized and personalized for the individual and their context. The forest masters talk about their citta being in a purified and natural state as this is a central concept for the forest tradition. And like the Buddha many recount a reaction from the earth at this moment of realization so that the sky collapses or the world seems to shatter. These are ways of recounting that signal to the audience that this person has achieved liberation and give faith in this possibility in modern times.
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