Biography of Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta Mahathera

Biography of Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta Mahathera

Venerable Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta Mahathera was born into a traditional Buddhist family on Thursday, January 20, 1870, the Year of Goat. His birthplace was the village of Ban Khambong in the Khongjiam district of Ubon Ratchathani province, near the Mekhong River, Northeast of Thailand.

His father’s name was Khamduang; his mother’s Jun; and his family surname Kaenkaew. He was the eldest child of eight siblings, though only two of them were still alive when he passed away. A child of small stature with a fair complexion, he was naturally quick, energetic, intelligent, and resourceful.

Wat Liab , Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

He began his early education with his uncle, learning Thai and Thai-Lao alphabets, reading fluently in Thai and Loa languages as well as the Dhamma scripts, and knew some rudiments of ancient Khmer scripts. Ordained as a Buddhist novice at age of 15 for two years, he disrobed in order to help his parents work in the family's farming.  At 23, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk on 12 June, 1893 at Wat Liab Monastery  in the provincial town of Ubon Ratchathani, and was given a Pali monk-name: “Bhuridatto”, meaning “Wisdom giver” . His presides over the the ordination was the Venerable Ariyakawi. He took up the Dhamma Vinaya (The Bhikkhu’s rules and the books containing them) study as well as meditation with Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo at Wat Liab. Soon he became proficient in the Dhamma knowledge and steadfast in his meditative practice.

Monk's Identification Card of Phra Ajaan Mun
Venerable Ajaan Sao Kantasilo (1859-1942)

In the early years, he wandered in the “Dhutanga-Kammatthana” manner in the company of Phra Ajaan Soa , his mentor, 9 years his senior, who had more knowledge and experience in the “Forest Monk Tradition” or “Phra Dhutanga”.  Phra Ajaan Mun meditated intensively, unrelenting in his efforts to constantly repeat “buddho” as he conducted all his daily affairs. At the same time, he very carefully observe the austere dhutanga practices which he undertook at the time of his ordination, and continued to practice for the rest of his life.

Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo (center) and his dhutanga-kammatthana disciples, circa 1937

The “dhutangas” he voluntarily undertook were: wearing only robes made from discarded cloth-not accepting robes directly offered by lay supporters; going on almsround every day without fail-except those days when he decided to fast; accepting and eating only food received in his alms bowl-never receiving food offered after his almsround; eating only one meal a day-never eating food after the one meal; eating only out of alms bowl-never eating food that is not inside the one vessel; living in the forest-which means wandering through forested terrain, living and sleeping in the wilds, in the mountains or in the valleys; some time spent living under a canopy of trees, in a cave, or under an overhanging cliff; and wearing only his three principal robes-the outer robe, the upper robe, and the lower robe, with the addition of a bathing cloth which is necessary to have nowadays.

Phra Ajaan Mun also observed the remainder of the thirteen dhutanga practices when circumstances were convenient; but, he upheld the above seven routinely until they became integrated into his character. They became so much a part of him that it would be difficult to find one who is his equal these days.

They “dhutanga” into Thai and Lao forested terrain along the Mekhong River (in 1893). Phra Ajaan Soa focused singularly on practicing meditation in isolated forests in order to attain freedom from “Samsara” (the total sphere of all the realms of existence), rather than reciting the Buddhist scripts or minding the temple business.  Later, he advised Phra Ajaan Mun that though they both pursuaed the same goals, it was better, due to the differences in their age and experience as well as their inclination, that  the young monk should wander and learn on their own  in order to progress further.  However, the two monks subsequently remained in constant contact and worked together, mostly though separately, through their students.

Phra Ajaan Mun went to Bangkok to study the Dhamma at Wat Pathum Vanaram in 1914 (or Wat Sra Pathum) and entered the retreat there. During the rains retreat he made a point of regularly going to seek advice from Chao Khun Ubali Kunupamajarn (Phra Ajaan Chan Sirichandho) at Wat Boromaniwas Monastery to gain more extensive techniques for developing wisdom.  However he was more inclined to wandering as a “Dhutanga monk”. In this temple, he was written the famous poetry “Khandha Vimutti and Samangi Dhamma”. Phra Ajaan Mun was returned to Wat Sra Pathum Monastery for second time in 1928.

The later, Phra Ajaan Mun spent about 3 years wandering into remote areas in the central plain searching for isolated and peaceful locations to meditate, such as at Sarika Cave within Khoa Yai Forest in Nakorn Nayok Province, and at Phai Kwang Cave, Khoa Phra Ngarm, and Tham Singto (Lion Cave) in Lopburi Province (in 1912), where he gained many insights and spiritual experiences.

In 1917, Phra Ajaan Mun was returned to the Northeast of Thailand, such as at Tham Pa Bing (Loei Province), Ban Kor (Udonthani Province) and began teaching Dhamma and meditation to many followers, both monks and lay peoples. After that, Phra Ajaan Mun was returned to Wat Sra Pathum Monastery for second time in 1928.

Wat Che Di Luang, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The later, he went to Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai Province in 1932, accompanying his teacher, Phra Ubali Kunupamajarn, from Bangkok. In Chiang Mai, he was made abbot of Wat Chedi Luang for one rain retreat. He soon relinquished this responsibility, admitting that temple administration was not his goal, and sought instead to wander off as a “dhutanga monk” to practice meditation in isolated forested mountains in the Chiang Mai areas, such as at Chiang Dao Cave, Phuang Cave, and Dok Kam Cave, Wat Phra That Chomchang at Chiang Rai Province (in 1937).

The later, he went to Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai Province in 1932, accompanying his teacher, Phra Ubali Kunupamajarn, from Bangkok. In Chiang Mai, he was made abbot of Wat Chedi Luang for one rain retreat. He soon relinquished this responsibility, admitting that temple administration was not his goal, and sought instead to wander off as a “dhutanga monk” to practice meditation in isolated forested mountains in the Chiang Mai areas, such as at Chiang Dao Cave, Phuang Cave, and Dok Kam Cave, Wat Phra That Chomchang at Chiang Rai Province (in 1937).

After 11 years of conscientiously wandering and meditating in the forested mountains and caves of Chiang Mai Province and in neighboring areas, he returned to his homeland in the Northeast of Thailand (in 1940) to meditation teaching to his disciples and to an increasing number of disciples comprising monks and the lay people. In 1940, Phra Ajaan Mun was settled at Udon Thani (Wat Pa Nhon Niwes) where he spent the rains retreat. Chao Khun Dhammachedi, the abbot of Wat Bodhisomphon Monastery, was an influential monk with a large following of monks and lay supporters. He praised Phra Ajaan Mun’s preeminence, encouraging them all to make his aquaintance, offer donations and, above all, hear his teaching. Since his ordination, Chao Khun Dhammachedi had been a devoted disciple, and Phra Ajaan Mun reciprocated by showing unusual kindness and affection toward him – thus, his willingness to stay several years in Udon Thani. Later, Phra Ajaan Mun moving to Sakon Nakhon and living at Ban Nong Phue and Ban Na Mon, Phra Ajaan Mun met an elderly, white-robed nun (Koon Yai Kung) who ran a small convent in the village. She was a major reason why he remained there as long as he did: her meditation was exceptionally good. She had developed a firm basis in Dhamma, so Phra Ajaan Mun gave her regular instructions on practice. He said it was rare to find someone so accomplished.
Phra Ajaan Mun's residence at Wat Pa Nong Phue, Sakon Nakhon
The meeting hall at Wat Pa Nong Phue (where monks assembled for the morning meal and evening meetings)

The last 5 years of his life, Phra Ajaan Mun’s lengthy residence at Ban Nong Phue (in 1945) was prompted by both the significance of the location and the people living in the village. The place was centrally situated in a very broad valley, completely surrounded by mountains, making it an ideal environment for the dhutanga life , founded by one of his students ( Phra Ajaan Lui Chandhasaro and Nong Phue villagers), because of Phra Ajaan Mun never long stayed at anywhere of his lifetime. This temple became the centre of the forest tradition of monasticism which was rapidly gaining greater acceptance. Many of Phra Ajaan Mun's students who congregated here during that period soon emerged as the second generation leaders in propagating the forest monastic  and solitary meditation teachings, not only in the Northeast of Thailand, but also in greater Bangkok and in many countries in the West.

(left to right) uncertain, Phra Ajaan Khoo Dhammadinno, Phra Ajaan Kwa Sumano, Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridhatto, uncertain

From The Left side :- Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridhatta Mahathera, Phra Ajaan Lui Chandhasaro,Phra Ajaan Khao Analayo, Phra Ajaan Maha Buawa Nanasampanno, in respectively

In 1949, Phra Ajaan Mun became seriously ill at Wat Pa Nong Phue Na Nai, and having resolved that medicine could not cure him. Despite failing health, Phra Ajaan Mun did not neglect his teaching obligations. His compassionate concern for his disciples never diminished, though he was no longer able to expound the Dhamma in such detail as before. Having finished his talk, he briefly answered questions and then promptly adjourned the meeting to return to his hut for a rest. He gave a long farewell sermon to all his disciples on Magha Puja, a full moon day evening of February 1949, for emphasizing the importance of mind training and development of mindfulness. He began expounding Dhamma to the assembled monks at eight p. m. and did not finish until midnight, speaking for a total of four hours. The power of the Dhamma he delivered that night truly amazed the whole assembly of dhutanga monks who were gathered for that occasion. To those listening, the entire universe appeared to have vanished without a trace, replaced in their awareness by the flow of his all-encompassing Dhamma, radiating forth in every direction. He began by paying tribute to the 1,250 Arahants who had come together spontaneously on this full moon day in the time of the Buddha.

When he came to his last stage of illness, he asked to be taken to Sakon Nakhon so as in to die at Wat Pa Sutthawas in Muang district where he and his mentor, Phra Ajaan Sao, had spent a meditation retreat before the temple was built with funding support from 3 devout ladies in the region.

The journey to Sakon Nakhon was planned in 2 stages. The first day, the convoy  were walked as far as Ban Phu or Wat Pa Klang Non Phu Monastery in Phanna Nikhom district where the convoy were to rest for a few days, allowing Phra Ajaan Mun a chance to recuperate before moving on to Sakon Nakhon. Leaving Ban Nong Phue at nine o’clock that morning, the procession eventually reached Ban Phu Monastery shortly before dark. The journey had taken all day because we followed the more circuitous route, skirting the edge of the mountains, to make it easier for him and the many elderly men and women determined to follow him all the way .

Phra Ajaan Mun was very adamant the last night at Ban Phu – he absolutely refused to sleep that whole night. At seven o’clock the next morning, several trucks from the provincial highway department arrived to escort Phra Ajaan Mun to Sakon Nakhon. Mrs. Num Chuwanon, as head of the escort, invited him to ride in one of the vehicles. He readily agreed and asked only whether there were enough vehicles to carry all of the many monks who were scheduled to accompany him. He was informed that three trucks had come. If these were not sufficient to transport all the monks who wanted to go, a return trip would be made to pick up the rest. Understanding the arrangement, Phra Ajaan Mun remained silent. After the monks had eaten their meal, a doctor injected him with a sedative so that he would not be disturbed by the bumpy ride. In those days, the roads were quite rough – full of potholes and in generally poor condition. Having received the injection, he was placed on a stretcher and carried out to one of the trucks parked at the edge of the field, there being no road into the monastery. Soon after, he began to fall asleep. The convoy of vehicles then began the trip to Sakon Nakhon, arriving there at exactly noon.

Wat Pa Sutthawas Monastery had a vast and green wooded area with a market nearby. Wat Pa Nong Phue Monastery on the contrary is in a small remote village, with very limited resources, and if he should die there he would create a huge burden to the Nong Phue villagers to host and feed a great number of guests coming to his cremation, and since there was no market, the villagers would be forced by circumstances to slaughter many farm animals for feasting.

Phra Ajaan Maha Buawa Nanasampanno, at the Phra Ajaan Mun’s crematorium, Wat Pa Sutthawas, Sakon Nakhon Province in January 1950

A group of lay supporters in front of Phra Ajaan Mun's funeral pyre.

Monks and lay supporters attending Phra Ajaan Mun's funeral at Wat Pa Sutthawas, Sakon Nakhon. January, 1950.

A group photograph of some high-ranking monks and Phra Ajaan Mun's disciples taken during his funeral in 1950.

His disciples duly complied, and amidst the sorrow of the villagers he was brought in a cart to a hut at Wat Pa Sutthawas Monastery where he passed away quietly at 2 am. on 11 November, 1949.  His body, bathed and wrapped in layers of white cloths, was laid for public veneration for 3 months, accompanied by the chanting of Sutta (a thread , the discourses of the Bhuddha) each night, with 400-500 monks and numerous lay people visiting each day bringing gifts of rice, sweet and woven cloths. The cremation held in January 1950, a simple but open ceremony, was fired by scented woods from Lao and his relics and ashes were distributed among his disciples . At his cremation site, an Ubosoth has been subsequently built (see Picture 19) and the hut that he was last laid and died has now been turned into a museum (see Picture 20) dedicated to his life and work.

The Ubosot of Wat Pa Sutthawas, Sakon Nakhon, built on Phra Ajaan Mun's crematorium site.

Phra Ajaan Mun’s museum at Wat Pa Sutthawas, Sakon Nakhon Province, was built in 1972

Throughout his 57 years of monkhood, Phra Ajaan Mun strictly adhered to the three principles of the Buddhist education: --a) morality (Sila); b) concentration (Samadhi); c) wisdom (Panna). His ultimate goal was to liberate himself from all defilements and achieve the spiritual peace and freedom from “Kilesa” (mental defilement) which caused all sufferings, call Arahanta (a fully enlightened one). He very predominately in rigorously followed the “dhutanga” meditative method, known in traditional Buddhism as “The Kammatthana tradition” or “the wandering forest tradition”, adhering to  the thirteen rules of “dhutanga” (ascetic) practices, such as living off alms food, wearing three pieces of robes made of discarded cloths, dwelling in the forest, eating only one meal a day from the begging bowl, and wandering in search of secluded and peaceful places in the wilds to practice long, undisturbed meditation. Such ascetic observances was in fact the way that Lord Buddha conducted his life  more than 2500 years ago, for Buddha became “Enlightened” in the forest, preached most of his sermons in the forest, and passed away into Mahaparinibbhan in the forest.  These strict ascetic observances were also aimed at promoting simplicity, humility, self-restraint, vigilance, and introspection in a monk's everyday life.

Phra Ajaan Mun continued this method throughout his life, wandering alone into various remote forests and mountainous areas in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

During that time, the Northeastern terrains of Thailand and most of the Lao area across the Mekhong River where Phra Ajaan Mun wandered in his extensive “dhutanga” were all densely forested, infested with Malaria, and inhabited by wild and fierce animals such as tigers, big snakes, wild boars, bears and monkeys.  He would often trek up the mountain to find a quiet cave where many local villagers believed to be dwelled by evil and haunting spirits, and used the cave as his meditation retreat.  He also often visited and stayed in the cemeteries to contemplate death, to comprehend dying and conquer his pride and fear.  In many of these areas where he wandered, the villagers were poor and suffering from illnesses and the devastation of wars that erupted in a sporadic series all around.  Phra Ajaan Mun nevertheless steadfastly continued his “dhutanga” practices alone in extreme austerity.

Living deep in the forest, Phra Ajaan Mun regarded all the wild animals living around him – dangerous or harmless species– with compassion rather than with fear or suspicion, recognizing that all animals were his equals in their cycle of birth, aging, sickness, and death (circle of life). Human beings, he considered, were only superior to animals by virtue of their moral awareness without which men would be no better than animals. He also recognized that even among humankind, humans could not avoid hating and harassing each other, constantly waging conflicts and wars, while the animal world was troubled because humans tend to do the same to them. Consequently, animals were instinctively wary of human beings and sought refuge in the area where the monk meditated because the spirit of harmlessness that prevailed in the area was not offensive to any living being in this world.
Phra Ajaan Mun considered that life in the forest provided unlimited opportunities for thought and reflection about one's own heart, and its relation to many natural phenomena in the external environment.  Anyone earnestly desiring to go beyond sufferings or “dukkha” can find endless inspiration and incentive in the forest to constantly intensify his efforts towards freedom and peace.

His reclusive and exemplary nature gradually attracted a larger number of disciples-- monks as well as lay people along the way. Whenever he stopped to settle in one place for some time during the Buddhist Rain Retreat, scores of monks gravitated to live with him and to listen to his Dhamma discourse every evening. Having set up a temporary monastic community in the forest, sixty to seventy monks would gather there, while many more stayed close by in the surrounding area. Phra Ajaan Mun always tried to keep his disciples spread apart, living in separate locations that were not too close to one another, yet close enough to his residence so that they could easily seek his advice when they encountered problems in their meditation. This arrangement was suitable to all, for when too many monks lived in close proximity, it could become a hindrance to meditation.

On the Uposatha observance days, when the Pãtimokkha 15 was recited, dhutanga monks came from various locations in his vicinity to assemble at his residence. After the recitation of the Pãtimokkha, Phra Ajaan Mun addressed the whole assembly with a discourse on Dhamma, and then answered the monks’ questions, one by one, until their doubts cleared up and everyone was satisfied.  Sometimes, it seemed apparent to the gathering that non- human beings were also present during the Dhamma session.  In this case, Phra Ajaan Mun would end the discourse and afterwards entered into a deep meditation to preach the Dhamma for the benefit of those beings.

One prominent aspect of Phra Ajaan Mun’s teaching which he stressed continuously during his career was the Dhamma of the five powers: faith, diligent effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. He said the reason for emphasizing these five factors was that a person who possessed them would always have something worthwhile to count on, no matter where he went; and, therefore, could always expect to make steady progress in his practice. Phra Ajaan Mun separated them according to their specific functions and used them to inspire an indomitable spirit in his disciples.

Phra Ajaan Mun was regarded nationwide and region wide, not only as a role model Kammatthana monk but lay people also, and a respected meditation teacher, dedicated to maintaining an austere meditative lifestyle, steadfast in uprooting greed, hatred, and delusion from the heart, and accomplished on “demolishing all bridges linking the mind to the cycle of repeated birth and death”, call Arahanta or Nibbhana.

Internationally recognized as “The Great Master” in the contemporary Kammatthana tradition. From the day he first ordained until the day he passed in 1949 (aged 80) at Wat Pa Sutthawas Monastery, Muang Sakon Nakhon District, Sakon Nakhon Province, Thailand, his entire way of life, and the example he set for his disciples, were modeled on the principles incorporated in these practices. He is thus credited with reviving, revitalizing, and eventually popularizing the “Dhutanga Kammatthana Tradition” in Thailand. Through his life-long efforts, dhutanga monks (or kammatthana monks) and the mode of practice they espouse became, and still remain, a prominent feature of the Buddhist landscape there.