Phra Ajaan Mun Bhūridatta Thera was born in 1870 in Baan Kham Bong, a farming village in Ubon Ratchathani province, northeastern Thailand. Ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1893, he spent the remainder of his life wandering through Thailand, Burma, and Laos, dwelling for the most part in the forest, engaged in the practice of meditation. He attracted an enormous following of students and, together with his teacher, Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasīlo, was responsible for the establishment of the forest ascetic tradition that has now spread throughout Thailand and to several countries abroad. He passed away in 1949 at Wat Suddhāvāsa, Sakon Nakhorn province.

Much has been written about his life, but very little was recorded of his teachings during his lifetime. Most of his teachings he left in the form of people: the students whose lives were profoundly shaped by the experience of living and practicing meditation under his guidance. One of the pieces that was recorded is the first piece translated here. A Heart Released (Muttodaya) is a record of passages from his sermons, made during the years 1944-45 by two monks who were staying under his guidance, and edited by a third monk, an ecclesiastical official who frequently visited him for instruction in meditation. The first edition of the book was printed with his permission for free distribution to the public. The title of the book was taken from a comment made by the Ven. Chao Khun Upāli Guṇūpamācariya (Jan Siricando) who, after listening to a sermon delivered by Phra Ajaan Mun on the root themes of meditation, praised the sermon as having been delivered with 'muttodaya’—a heart released—and as conveying the heart of release.

The unusual style of Phra Ajaan Mun’s sermons may be explained in part by the fact that in the days before his ordination he was skilled in a popular form of informal village entertainment called maw lam. Maw lam is a contest in extemporaneous rhyming, usually reproducing the war between the sexes, in which the battle of wits can become quite fierce. Much use is made of word play: riddles, puns, metaphors, and simple playing with the sounds of words. The sense of language that Ajaan Mun developed in maw lam he carried over into his teachings after becoming a monk. Often he would teach his students in extemporaneous puns and rhymes. This sort of word play he even applied to the Pali language, and a number of instances can be cited in Muttodaya: in §3, the pun on the word dhātu, which can mean both physical element and speech element (phoneme); the use of the phonemes na mo ba dha (the basic elements in the phrase namo buddhāya, homage to the Buddha) to stand for the four physical elements; the play on namo and mano in §4; the use of the Paṭṭhāna as an image for the mind in §5; the extraction of the word santo (peaceful) from pavessanto in §13 and §16; the grammatical pun on loke in §14 and santo in §13; the threes in §12; the eights in §16; and so on.

This sort of rhetorical style has gone out of fashion in the West and is going out of style today even in Thailand, but in the Thailand of Ajaan Mun’s time it was held in high regard as a sign of quick intelligence and a subtle mind. Ajaan Mun was able to use it with finesse as an effective teaching method, forcing his students to become more quick-witted and alert to implications, correspondences, multiple levels of meaning, and the elusiveness of language; to be less dogmatic in their attachments to the meanings of words, and less inclined to look for the truth in terms of language. As Ajaan Mun once told a pair of visiting monks who were proud of their command of the medieval text, The Path of Purification, the niddesa (analytical expositions) on virtue, concentration, and discernment contained in that work were simply nidāna (fables or stories). If they wanted to know the truth of virtue, concentration, and discernment, they would have to bring these qualities into being in their own hearts and minds.

The second set of selections translated here—The Ever-present Truth—are drawn from a collection of sermon fragments appended to the book A Heart Released as part of a commemorative volume distributed at Phra Ajaan Mun’s cremation in 1950. The collection was drawn from notes of Ajaan Mun’s sermons taken by two of his students during the last two years of his life, covering a wide range of topics, including some standard accounts of the Buddha’s life. The selections included here comprise all of the passages dealing directly with the practice of virtue and meditation.

Some of Ajaan Mun’s direct students have commented that the fragments both in A Heart Released and The Ever-present Truth would have been more subtle and insightful if the students who recorded them had been more advanced in their own meditation practice. As a result, we can only guess as to what the original sermons were like. Still, the fragments that have been recorded are worth reading and putting into practice, and so they are offered here.

As for the third piece translated here: Ajaan Mun’s students generally believed that he himself never wrote down any of his teachings, but at his death a poem—The Ballad of Liberation from the Khandhas—was found among the few papers he left behind. As he noted on the final page of the poem, he composed it during one of his brief stays in Bangkok, at Wat Srapatum (LotusPond Monastery), probably in the early 1930’s. He was apparently inspired by an anonymous poem on the theme of meditation composed and printed in Bangkok during that period, inasmuch as both poems share virtually the same beginning—the 39 lines in the following translation beginning with, “Once there was a man who loved himself.…” Ajaan Mun’s poem, however, then develops in an entirely original direction and shows by far a deeper understanding of the training of the mind.

Translating the poem has presented a number of difficulties, not the least of which has been getting a definitive reading of the original manuscript. Ajaan Mun wrote during the days before Thai spelling became standardized, some of the passages were smudged with age, and a few seem to have been “corrected” by a later hand. Another difficulty has been the more general problem of finding the proper English style for translating Thai poetry, which depends heavily on rhyme, rhythm, and a stripped-down syntax, somewhat like that of telegrams and newspaper headlines. This style gives Thai poetry a lightness of style combined with a richness of meaning, but frustrates any attempt to pin down any one precise message for the sake of translation—an excellent lesson for anyone who feels that the truth is what is conveyed in words.

The translation here is meant to be as literal as possible, although I have fleshed the text out when it seemed necessary to make the English intelligible. Because the original alternates between two poetic forms—klon and rai—I tried to create a similar effect in English by alternating blank verse and free verse. The result is probably too literal to be poetry, but I felt that anyone reading it would be more interested in the meaning than in verbal effects. The instances where I have taken the most liberty with the text have been included in square brackets, as has one passage—ironically, dealing with the error of being addicted to correcting things—where the reading of the original seems to have been doctored.

The reader will notice that in a few places the poem seems to jump abruptly from one topic to another. In some cases these shifts were dictated by the rhyme scheme, but in others they are not really shifts at all. Keep in mind that the poem operates on several levels. In particular, two parallel themes run throughout: (1) an analysis of the external error of focusing on the faults of other people instead of one’s own, and (2) a discussion of the mind’s internal error of viewing (and criticizing) the khandhas as somehow separate from its own efforts to know them. Statements made directly about one level apply indirectly to the other as well. Thus the poem covers a wider range of the practice than might appear at first glance. It’s a work that rewards repeated readings.

I would like to express my gratitude to Phra Ajaan Suwat Suvaco (Phra Bodhidhammācariya Thera) for the invaluable help he gave me in untangling some of the knottier passages in the poem. Any mistakes that may remain, of course, are mine.

I hope that all three of these translations will help to make Ajaan Mun’s teachings available in English in as effective a way as possible.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

Metta Forest Monastery