Translator’s Foreword

PHRA AJAAN LEE DHAMMADHARO was one of the foremost teachers in the Thai forest ascetic tradition of meditation founded at the turn of the twentieth century by Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo and Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatto. His life was short but eventful. Known for his skill as a teacher and his mastery of supranatural powers, he was the first to bring the ascetic tradition out of the forests of the Mekhong basin and into the mainstream of Thai society in central Thailand.

The year before his death, he was hospitalized for two months with a heart ailment and so took the opportunity to dictate his autobiography. He chose to aim the story at his followers—people who were already acquainted with him but didn’t know him well enough—and he selected his material with a double purpose, choosing incidents that made both for good stories and for good lessons. Some of the lessons are aimed at monks, other at meditators in general, but by and large they deal with issues he had not been able to include in his written guides to meditation and Buddhist practice in general.

As a result, the book contains very little on the substantive events in his own meditation. If you have come to this book in hopes of gauging the level of Ajaan Lee’s meditative attainments, you have come to the wrong place, for on this topic his lips are sealed. Most of what he wanted to say on the subject he had already included in his other books. As for his own personal attainments, he never mentioned them even to his closest students.

What he talks about here are the events that surrounded his life as a meditator, and how he dealt with them: the challenges, the strange characters, and the unusual incidents he encountered both in the forest and in the centers of human society. He presents the life of meditation as one of adventure—where truth is a quality of heart, rather than of ideas, and the development of the mind is a matter of life and death—and it is in this that a large part of the book’s educational and entertainment value lies.

Ajaan Lee’s method of drawing lessons from his experiences is typical of Thai meditations teachers—i.e., he rarely draws them explicitly. One notable exception is the fine passage toward the end where he discusses the benefits of living a wanderer’s life in the forest, but otherwise he leaves it up to his readers to draw their own lessons from the incidents he relates. Rather than handing you lessons on a platter, he wants you to be earnest enough in your desire to learn to search for and find useful lessons no matter where you look. When you get used to being taught in this way, the pay-off is that you can learn from everything. As Ajaan Lee says himself, there are lessons to be learned from animals, trees, and even vines.

Some readers will be taken aback by the amount of space Ajaan Lee gives to signs, portents, and other supranatural events. Things of this sort tend to be downplayed in the laundered versions of Theravada Buddhism usually presented in the West—in which the Buddha often comes off as a Bertrand Russell or Fritz Perls in robes—and admittedly they are not the essence of what the Buddha had to teach. Still, they are an area that many people encounter when they explore the mind and where they often go astray for lack of reliable guidance. Ajaan Lee had a great deal of experience in this area and many useful lessons to teach. He shows by example which sorts of experiences to treat simply as curiosities, which to take seriously, and how to test the experiences that seem to have important messages.

In my many conversations with his students, I have learned that Ajaan Lee limited his narrative to only the milder events of this sort. He often deals so much in understatement that it is possible to read through some of the incidents and not realize that anything out of the ordinary is happening. When the book was first printed after his death, many of his followers were disappointed in it for just this reason, and a number of them got together to write an expanded version of Ajaan Lee’s life that included many of the more amazing events they had experienced in his presence. Fortunately—from Ajaan Lee’s perspective at least—this manuscript soon disappeared.

To be frank, what first drew me to Ajaan Lee, aside from the clarity and subtlety of his teachings, were the tales I had heard of his powers and personality. My teacher, Ajaan Fuang Jotiko, was a close disciple of his, and much of my early education as a monk consisted of listening to his stories of his adventures with Ajaan Lee. For me, if the autobiography had lacked the drama of the event in Wat Supat or the panache of his encounter with Mae Fyyn (having her light him a cigarette as one of her first acts after he had cured her paralysis), it wouldn’t have been Ajaan Lee.

However, I should say something here about the miracles surrounding relics that play a large role in the latter part of the book. There is an old tradition in Buddhism that many of the bodily relics of the Buddha and his arahant disciples transformed into small pellet-like objects that come and go of their own accord. The Theravadan version of this tradition dates at least to medieval Sri Lanka and may go further back than that. There are old books that classify the various types of relics by shape and color, identifying which ones come from which parts of the Buddha’s body and which ones from which disciple. The tradition is still very much alive in Thailand, especially now that the bones of many of the dead masters of the forest ascetic tradition have turned into relics. As for relics of the Buddha, I have talked to many people who have seen them come and go, and I have had such experiences myself, although nothing as dramatic as Ajaan Lee’s.

I mention all this, not to make a case for the existence and provenance of the relics, but simply to point out that Ajaan Lee was not alone in having such experiences, and that the rational approach of Theravada Buddhism has its uncanny side as well.

At any rate, my feeling is that Ajaan Lee mentioned the issue of the relics for two reasons: 1) He was compelled to because it was part of the controversy that surrounded his name during his lifetime, and his students would have felt that something was seriously amiss if he didn’t provide some explanation of the topic. The incident at Wat Supat was not the only time that relics appeared while he was teaching meditation to groups of people, and in fact he once mentioned to Ajaan Fuang that the frequency with which this happened often irked him: Just as his students would be settling their minds in concentration, these things would appear and that would be the end of the meditation session.

2) As Ajaan Lee mentions in the autobiography, he felt that he had a karmic debt requiring him to build a chedi to enshrine relics of the Buddha and he needed to convince his supporters of the importance of the project.

So keep these points in mind as you read the relevant passages and be open to the possibility that throughout the book there are issues between Ajaan Lee and his audience that flow under the surface of the narrative and that you can only guess at.

Also bear in mind that the book was left unfinished. Ajaan Lee had planned to tack on a series of addenda dealing with events scattered in time and place throughout the body of the narrative, showing their connections and providing more details, but he left only a sketch of the first addendum, a piece explaining why he chose to name his monastery Wat Asokaram. The sketch is so disjointed and purposefully cryptic, though, that I have chosen to leave it out of this edition.

You will find, as you read through the book, occasional details of Thai culture and the rules of the Buddhist monkhood that might be unfamiliar to you. I have tried to anticipate these points, marking them with asterisks in the text and explaining them in the endnotes at the back of the book. Forgive me if I have missed anything you find puzzling. The endnotes are followed by a glossary of Pali and Thai terms I had to carry over into the translation. You might find it useful to read through Part I of the glossary—to get some sense of what is conveyed by a person’s name in Thai society—before jumping into the book itself.

Ajaan Lee as a speaker was always very conscious of his audience, and I suspect that his autobiography would have been a very different book if he had written it with a non-Thai audience in mind. My translating the book as it stands has been an act of trust: trust that the value of Ajaan Lee’s message is universal, and trust that there are readers willing to take the empathetic journey into another culture and mind set—to see what the possibilities of the human condition look like when viewed from a distant point in space and time, and to bring some of that new perspective back with them on their return.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

(Geoffrey DeGraff)