Kamala Tiyavanich

Kamala Tiyavanich

Kamala Tiyavanich is a Thai Buddhist with a PhD in Southeast Asian history from Cornell University. She is the author of Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand.

Kamala Tiyavanich

Kamala Tiyavanich is a Thai Buddhist with a PhD in Southeast Asian history from Cornell University. She is the author of Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand.

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Theravada Buddhism: A Guide for Readers

Over the past few years we at Shambhala Publications have been focused on bringing the depth and richness of the traditions of Theravada Buddhism more into the light.  Modernist and secularizing processes have been the lens through which many see "Theravada".  A consequence of this is that some people's understanding of the traditions it encompasses are often either  oversimplified ("it's  Insight Meditation with a lot of the cultural paraphernalia"), incomplete ("Its vipassana as taught in Thai temples"), or incorrect ("it's for one's own liberation only").  These biases mean many miss out on the full story which is that the highly varied practices and teachings form a vast, creative, and immensely powerful tradition for transforming the mind and gaining liberation.  Here are some of our books, recent as well as classics, that explore some of these topics.

A host of new books in this area will be published in 2023.  Check back soon!

Latest and Upcoming Releases

Living Theravada
Demystifying the People, Places, and Practices of a Buddhist Tradition
By Brooks Schedneck

An illuminating introduction to the contemporary world of Theravada Buddhism and its rich culture and practices in modern mainland Southeast Asia.

Theravada translates as “the way of the Elders,” indicating that this Buddhist tradition considers itself to be the most authoritative and pure. Tracing all the way back to the time of the Buddha, Theravada Buddhism is distinguished by canonical literature preserved in the Pali language, beliefs, and practices—and this literature is often specialized and academic in tone. By contrast, this book will serve as a foundational and accessible resource on Theravada Buddhism and the contemporary, lived world of its enduring tradition.

Brooke Schedneck has done extensive research on topics such as religions of Southeast Asia, contemporary Buddhism, gender in Asian religions, and religious tourism. Narrowing in on topics such as temples, monastic lives, lay Buddhists, meditation, and Buddhist objects, Schedneck highlights the thriving diversity of Theravada Buddhists today. Exploring Theravada as a lived religion reveals how people apply various expressions in everyday life. She presents to readers the most important practices and beliefs of Theravada Buddhists, illustrated through contemporary debates about what represents proper Theravada practice within Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand in the twenty-first century. Additionally, practical information is provided in appendices about what temples and practice centers readers can visit as well as a temple etiquette guide offering tips for being a respectful visitor. While academics will benefit from and appreciate this overview, the writing offers a refreshing introduction to a complex tradition for readers new to the subject.

Until Nirvana’s Time
Buddhist Songs from Cambodia
By Trent Walker

Until Nirvana’s Time presents forty-five Dharma songs, whose soaring melodies have inspired Cambodian Buddhist communities for generations. Whether recited in daily prayers or all-night rituals, these poems speak to our deepest concerns—how to die, how to grieve, and how to repay the ones we love.

Introduced, translated, and contextualized by scholar and vocalist Trent Walker, this is the first collection of traditional Cambodian Buddhist literature available in English. Many of the poems have been transcribed from old cassette tapes or fragile bark-paper manuscripts that have never before been printed. A link to recordings of selected songs in English and Khmer accompanies the book.

Jhana Consciousness
Buddhist Meditation in the Age of Neuroscience
By Paul Dennison

An interdisciplinary deep dive into traditional Buddhist jhāna meditation and how it can transform our understanding of self and consciousness.

For centuries in Southeast Asia, oral yogāvacara (yoga practitioner) lineages kept traditional jhāna practices alive, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reforms in Theravāda Buddhism downplayed the importance of jhāna in favor of vipassanā (insight) meditation. Some began to consider the jhānas to be strictly the domain of monastics, unattainable in the context of modern lay life. In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in the jhānas, and as researcher Paul Dennison shows, the esoteric and sometimes “magical” pre-reform practices of Southeast Asia hold powerful potential for modern lay practitioners living in a more scientifically minded world. Drawing on traditional Buddhist doctrine, teachings from lesser-known meditation texts such as the Yogāvacara’s Manual, and findings from the first in-depth, peer-reviewed neuroscience study of jhāna meditation, Dennison unpacks this ancient practice in all its nuance while posing novel questions about perception, subjectivity, and the nature of enlightenment.

Meditations of the Pali Tradition
Illuminating Buddhist Doctrine, History, and Practice
By L.S. Cousins, Edited by Sarah Shaw

Drawing on a lifetime of research, scholar L. S. Cousins untangles the complex history of meditation practice from the traditions rooted in the Pali canon and commentarial literature. With authoritative explication of a range of Buddhist texts preserved primarily in the Pali language—canonical discourses, commentarial treatises, and rare meditation manuals—Cousins explores a multiplicity of meditation practices that have developed over the past two and a half millennia, from the jhāna (absorption) and vipassanā (insight) methods that constitute the core of modern Theravāda practice to lesser-known, esoteric practice lineages of Central and Southeast Asia that were nearly lost to history.

The Art of Listening: A Guide to the Early Teachings of Buddhism
Exploring the Dīghanikāya–the Long Discourses of the Buddha
By Sarah Shaw

The Dīghanikāya or Long Discourses of the Buddha is one of the four major collections of teachings from the early period of Buddhism. Its thirty-four suttas (in Sanskrit, sutras) demonstrate remarkable breadth in both content and style, forming a comprehensive collection. The Art of Listening gives an introduction to the Dīghanikāya and demonstrates the historical, cultural, and spiritual insights that emerge when we view the Buddhist suttas as oral literature.

Theravada Buddhism, often understood as the school that most carefully preserved the practices taught by the Buddha, has undergone tremendous change over time. Prior to Western colonialism in Asia—which brought Western and modernist intellectual concerns, such as the separation of science and religion, to bear on Buddhism—there existed a tradition of embodied, esoteric, and culturally regional Theravada meditation practices. This once-dominant traditional meditation system, known as borān kammaṭṭhāna, is related to—yet remarkably distinct from—Vipassana and other Buddhist and secular mindfulness practices that would become the hallmark of Theravada Buddhism in the twentieth century. Drawing on a quarter century of research, scholar Kate Crosby offers the first holistic discussion of borān kammaṭṭhāna, illuminating the historical events and cultural processes by which the practice has been marginalized in the modern era.

Seeing with the Eye of Dhamma: The Comprehensive Teaching of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

By Buddhadasa Bhikku, translated by Santikaro Upasaka and Dhammavidu Bhikkhu

In this comprehensive set of teachings, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, perhaps the most influential Thai Buddhist of the twentieth century, introduces the Dhamma to lay practitioners in a relatable and powerful way. Beginning with an extensive discussion of spiritual practice and moving into specific teachings on Dhamma, this book will be an indispensable resource for Theravada Buddhists, Insight Meditation practitioners, and all readers interested in a profoundly committed modern approach to the Buddhist path.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Buddhadasa and This Work

In the Cool Shade of Compassion

In the Cool Shade of Compassion: The Enchanted World of the Buddha in the Jungle

by Kamala Tiyavanich

This work ingeniously intermingles real-life stories about nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Buddhist monks in old Siam (today’s Thailand) with experiences recorded by their Western contemporaries. Stories of giant snakes, bandits, boatmen, midwives, and guardian spirits collectively portray a Buddhist culture in all its imaginative and geographical brilliance. By juxtaposing these eyewitness accounts, Kamala Tiyavanich presents a new and vivid picture of Buddhism as it was lived and of the natural environments in which the Buddha’s teachings were practiced.

Published in Thailand under the title The Buddha in the Jungle.

Epic of the Buddha

The Epic of the Buddha: His Life and Teachings

By Chittadhar Hrdaya
Translated by Subarna Man Tuladhar and Todd Lewis

A translation of the modern Nepalese classic and winner of both the Toshihide Numata Book Award in Buddhism and the Khyentse Foundation Prize for Outstanding Translation.

This award-winning book contains the English translation of Sugata Saurabha (“The Sweet Fragrance of the Buddha”), an epic poem on the life and teachings of the Buddha. Chittadhar Hṛdaya, a master poet from Nepal, wrote this tour de force while imprisoned for subversion in the 1940s and smuggled it out over time on scraps of paper. His consummate skill and poetic artistry are evident throughout as he tells the Buddha’s story in dramatic terms, drawing on images from the natural world to heighten the description of emotionally charged events. It is peopled with very human characters who experience a wide range of emotions, from erotic love to anger, jealousy, heroism, compassion, and goodwill. By showing how the central events of the Buddha’s life are experienced by Siddhartha, as well as by his family members and various disciples, the poem communicates a fuller sense of the humanity of everyone involved and the depth and power of the Buddha’s loving-kindness.

For this new edition of the English translation, the translators improved the beauty and flow of most every line. The translation is also supplemented with a series of short essays by Todd Lewis, one of the translators, that articulates how Hṛdaya incorporated his own Newar cultural traditions in order to connect his readership with the immediacy and relevancy of the Buddha’s life and at the same time express his views on political issues, ethical principles, literary life, gender discrimination, economic policy, and social reform.

Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha's First Teaching

By Ajahn Sucitto


Buddhist teachings like the eightfold path, the four noble truths, and karma pervade Buddhist literature—but how often do we read what the Buddha himself had to say about these topics? Here is an accessible look at the Buddha’s First Discourse, which contains the foundation for all further Buddhist teaching.

Ajahn Sucitto offers a new translation of this revolutionary teaching, known as The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth. He then walks us through the text, offering engaging and practical point-by-point commentary that makes the Buddha’s words come alive and reveals how the text’s wisdom can inspire our own liberation.

Jhana Practice

While vipassana often takes center stage in presentations of Theravada in the west, this emphasis belies a wider set of practices, in particular the practice of samatha, or concentration.  Known as jhana practice for the extraordinary states these practices bring, the are the emphasis in some traditions of teaching and in themselves lead to insight.


The great jhana master, Pa Auk Sayadaw. From Practicing the Jhanas

Practicing the Jhanas: Traditional Concentration Meditation as Presented by the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw

by Tina Rasmussen, Stephen Snyder, with a foreword by Pa Auk Sayadaw

This is a clear and in-depth presentation of the traditional Theravadin concentration meditation known as jhāna practice, from two authors who have practiced the jhānas in retreat under the guidance of one of the great living meditation masters, Pa Auk Sayadaw. The authors describe the techniques and their results, based on their own experience.

Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas

by Leigh Braisington

The jhānas are eight progressive altered states of consciousness that can be identified with the aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path called Right Concentration. Training in concentration leads to these states, each of which yields a deeper and subtler state of awareness than the previous one. The jhānas are not in themselves awakening, but they are a skillful means for stilling the mind in a way that leads in that direction, and they are attainable by anyone who devotes the time and sincerity of practice necessary to realize them. Leigh Brasington’s guide to navigating the jhāna path is deeply informed by the view of them transmitted to him by his teacher, Ven. Ayya Khema, a view based on the Pali suttas.

Ajahn Chah and the Thai Forest Tradition

It would be hard to overestimate the appreciation people in Thiland and beyond have for Ajahn Chah (1919–1992).  This beloved Thai Buddhist master presented teachings that were refreshingly uncompromising in their clarity and certainty—the certainty of a meditator who has achieved deep understanding of the Buddha's teachings. He was an important influence and spiritual mentor for a generation of American Buddhist teachers.

Being Dharma: The Essence of the Buddha's Teachings

by Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Chah offers a thorough exploration of Theravadin Buddhism in a gentle, sometimes humorous, style that makes the reader feel as though he or she is being entertained by a story. He emphasizes the path to freedom from emotional and psychological suffering and provides insight into the fact that taking ourselves seriously causes unnecessary hardship.

Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away: Teachings on Impermanence and the End of Suffering

by Ajahn Chah

Some books by Ajahn Chah have consisted of collections of short teachings on a wide variety of subjects. This  book focuses on the theme of impermanence, offering powerful remedies for overcoming our deep-seated fear of change, including guidance on letting go of attachments, living in the present, and taking up the practice of meditation. Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away also contains stories and anecdotes about this beloved master's life and his interactions with students, from his youth as a struggling monk to his last years when American students were coming to study with him in significant numbers. These stories help to convey Ajahn Chah's unique spirit and teaching style, allowing readers to know him both through his words and the way in which he lived his life.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya

Sayadaw U TejaniyaSayadaw U Tejaniya teaches insight or “vipassana” meditation at Shwe Oo Min Dhamma Sukha Forest Meditation Center in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar. He's unique among the more high-profile monastic teachers of his tradition in that, though he began practice under his teacher at age thirteen, he didn't enter monastic life till he was nearly forty—after an active career in his family's business. His teaching emphasizes the application of awareness to every aspect of life, de-emphasizing the centrality of practice forms even as he teaches them rigorously—and his style is relaxed, funny, and informed by his intimate knowledge of the workaday world.

Relax and Be Aware: Mindfulness Meditations for Clarity, Confidence, and Wisdom

By Sayadaw U Tejaniya

Since mindfulness is known to be so physically, mentally, and spiritually beneficial, why not practice it right now? Why not in every moment? Burmese Buddhist master Sayadaw U Tejaniya writes that we can indeed practice in this way, and the key is not forceful effort but rather a continuous gentle remembering of our intention to renew our awareness. Thirty-one short chapters—“A Month of Daily Life Meditations”—show precisely how to build a daily life meditation practice that steadily develops relaxation, refreshment, and enlightenment.

When Awareness Becomes Natural: A Guide to Cultivating Mindfulness in Everyday Life

by Sayadaw U Tejaniya

The flame of wisdom can be kindled in the midst of any life, even one that might seem too full of personal and professional commitments to allow for it. Such is the teaching of Sayadaw U Tejaniya, who himself learned to cultivate awareness in the raucous years he spent in the Burmese textile business before taking his final monastic ordination at the age of thirty-six. Train yourself to be aware of the clinging and aversion that arise in any situation, he teaches. If you can learn to do that, calm and deep insight will naturally follow. It’s a method that works as well for sorting the laundry or doing data entry as it does in formal sitting meditation. “The object of attention is not really important,” he teaches, “the observing mind that is working in the background to be aware is of real importance. If the observing is done with the right attitude, any object is the right object.”

Continue Reading >>

Elephants and Thai Monks | An Excerpt from In the Cool Shade of Compassion

The Art of Elephant Training

An excerpt from In the Cool Shade of Compassion: The Enchanted World of the Buddha in the Jungle about the wandering monks and adepts of the village temples, hills, and forests of Thailand.

An In the 1920s, when [George] Orwell and Campbell were working in Muang Ngao forest, there were still a few village abbots skilled in handling elephants in musth. These meditation masters had mastered the Khotchasatra, a collection of palm-leaf texts on elephants containing information about the personalities, habits, and behaviors of elephants; instructions on how to train them, care for them, heal them, and handle them in musth; and advice on how to train domestic elephants to capture wild elephants.

One such elephant master was Ajan Doem Buddhasaro (b. 1861), abbot of Bodhi Pond Monastery (Wat Nong Pho) in Paknam Pho, Nakhon Sawan province. Ajan Doem, sixty years old when Orwell’s elephant, Pukamsen, went on a rampage in the jungle, would have been able to subdue the elephant without having to use poison arrows.

Ajan Doem

Venerable Grandfather Doem, abbot of Wat Nong Pho, Nakhon Sawan

Ajan Doem taught a large number of monks, but he did not teach the Khotchasatra to just anybody. In 1948 a young monk named Charan Thithadhammo, who was from Singburi, south of Paknam Pho, found his way to Ajan Doem’s wat. During that year Phra Charan (b. 1928) had been ordained as a monk to make merit for his parents. It was his intention to remain in the robes for only one rains retreat. After he passed the middle level of the Nak-dhamma, Phra Charan decided to wander in the forest for a while before disrobing. He wanted to see the north and felt sure he would find an abbot there who would perform the disrobing ceremony for him. Just before he was ordained, Charan’s grandmother urged him to do the right thing. “The timing of your disrobing is very important. If the time is bad, after you disrobe you might get killed or end up in jail. Some people’s lives have been ruined. Remember, choose the time to disrobe carefully.” Perhaps his grandmother, who had raised him since he was a young boy, tried to warn him because she knew that Charan was very stubborn and determined to do things his own way.

Ajan Charan, who is now abbot of Wat Amphawan in Singburi, recalled that it was his good karma that brought him to Venerable Father Doem. After getting permission from his preceptor to leave his home wat, Phra Charan traveled to Lopburi and bought a train ticket to Phitsanulok, intending to get off there and wander in the nearby forest. On the train he met several laypeople who were going to visit Ajan Doem of Bodhi Pond Monastery (Wat Nong Pho).

The pilgrims said they were getting off at Bodhi Pond, a very small station, and they asked Phra Charan if he would like to accompany them. He accepted. The pilgrims called Venerable Father Doem “the bodhisat of Four-Stream Muang.” The four streams refer to the Ping, the Wang, the Yom, and the Nan rivers that join together at Paknam Pho to form one single river. From Chainat southward these streams combine with tributaries of the Tha Chin on the west and the Chao Phraya on the east.

Phra Charan followed the pilgrims on foot along the road to Bodhi Pond Monastery. At the gate of the wat the pilgrims invited the young monk to walk before them so that he would be the first to pay respect to Ajan Doem. When Phra Charan entered Ajan Doem’s kuti, he was immediately struck by the abbot’s appearance. “Venerable Grandfather Doem sat on the floor with his back straight. Graceful. Big and tall. Reddish dark complexion. His body was all wrinkled. He was very old, yet his eyes sparkled, unlike ordinary old people’s eyes. I could feel the power, the energy, and the mystery. When my eyes met his I felt as if I was drawn into this mysterious energy. It made me afraid.”

Phra Charan, feeling renewed faith, prostrated himself before the abbot. The young monk thought, “So this is the Venerable Father Doem, whom people respect so much! He is very old, yet I can feel his inner strength and power. Why is that? Is it because he is an ascetic monk strongly grounded in sila, samadhi, and pañña?” When Ajan Doem asked Charan which monastery he was from, Phra Charan noticed that the abbot’s voice was loud and clear, unlike the voices of most people over ninety. Before Phra Charan could answer the first question, Ajan Doem fired off another one. “Have you traveled all the way here merely to disrobe?” he asked. Deeply disturbed, since he had not told any of the pilgrims about his decision, Charan wondered, “How did Venerable Father Doem know? Better be honest with him!” After Charan told Ajan Doem that he was from Wat Phromburi in Singburi and asked him to perform the disrobing ceremony for him, Ajan Doem replied, “All right. Stay here with me for a while. Today is not a good day to discuss disrobing.” Ajan Doem then called a lay leader to take Phra Charan to a kuti reserved for guests.

One of Phra Charan’s good qualities was that wherever he stayed he offered a massage as a way to reciprocate the kindness of his host. While living in Ajan Doem’s wat, Phra Charan attended the abbot by giving him a massage at night. While giving the massage, young Charan had the opportunity to ask the abbot about local Buddhist customs and practices that puzzled him. Ajan Doem had a way of explaining things, Phra Charan tells us, that made him want to know more.

At the monastery Charan noticed that there was a steady stream of people, all day long, coming to see the abbot. Young and old asked the ajan to blow on their heads, an ancient form of blessing usually performed by a meditation monk or abbot. As Phra Charan describes it, “Venerable Father Doem blew the sounds ‘om [the mantra syllable Om] phiang [the noise made by the expulsion of the breath], om phiang, phiang di [good], phiang di’ over each supplicant while holding their heads with both his hands. I was afraid he might lose his strength.” Performing such a blessing a few times is one thing: doing it all day would be exhausting.

People brought amulets and knives for Ajan Doem to bless, which he did by chanting mantras into the objects. Luang Pho never turned anyone away. The laypeople then returned home with these sacred objects, fortified with the belief that the items that Venerable Father had blessed had the power to protect them from bad spirits. “Luang Pho was already too frail to walk around much,” Phra Charan reports, “yet he still accepted invitations to travel by oxcart to laypeople’s houses to perform ceremonies for them. When his disciples tried to stop him, he told them that he wanted to serve people until the day he died.”

One night, while massaging the abbot, Phra Charan asked, “Venerable Father, your phiang di, phiang di, can it really bring good things?”

Ajan Doem smiled before replying, “I can’t tell you now what good it will bring. You must stay with me longer to find out.”
Outside the monk’s bedroom Phra Charan saw a collection of several kinds of swords and wooden sticks used in warfare as well as in dramatic presentations, and a musical instrument called a ranat, made of wood with bamboo keys and played much like a xylophone. One evening Charan gave Ajan Doem a massage as usual. Out of curiosity, Charan asked, “Venerable Father, these swords and wooden sticks, why do you keep them here? Do monks know how to use them?”

Upon hearing Charan’s questions, Ajan Doem laughed, saying, “Be patient! Be patient, young man. You have only been ordained for one rains retreat, and already you are in a hurry to disrobe. Listen carefully and think about the things I’m telling you.” In Phra Charan’s words, Ajan Doem explained that “in the old days the monasteries were schools for all kinds of knowledge. These monasteries were like the famous Samnak Thisapamok and Samnak Taksila in India during the Buddha’s time. Laypeople came to the monasteries not only to make merit but also to seek knowledge from the monks.”

Phra Charan asked, “What’s the difference between ordaining for one year and several years?”

Ajan Doem again laughed as he replied to Charan’s innocent question. In central Siam, he explained, “It is said that ordaining for three years is the equivalent of studying for a bachelor’s degree. Spending seven years in the robes is like training for a master’s degree. After ten years in the robes you earn the equivalent of a doctorate. Monks who disrobe after only one or two years in the robes are not called thit.” The Thai word thit, derived from the second syllable of the Pali word pandit (scholar), is an informal term of respect applied to disrobed monks who had been in the robes for many years.

Phra Charan then got to the point. “What about these krabi-krabong [steel swords and wooden sticks]? What are they for, Venerable Father?”

Ajan Doem replied, “The krabi-krabong were at the heart of fighting.” Luang Pho then went on to explain the traditional role of monks in old Siam: “The monasteries in the kingdom of Ayutthaya taught statesmanship, law, economics, arts and crafts, medicine, music, astrology, and swordsmanship. Monks in those days had all kinds of skills; they could teach anything. Sons of the nobility who studied the art of government at the monastery learned to discipline themselves as well as to lead people.” Ajan Doem reminded his young pupil that “living in the wat teaches you to master yourself and to live in harmony with others in the community. You learn self-discipline that can guide you when you disrobe to live a householder’s life.”

Ajan Doem then explained the importance of swordsmanship and the prestige that once attached to those who studied it. The sword was the weapon of choice in the days before guns. Warriors fought in order to protect the people in their kingdoms. In ancient times every man who was not a slave had to serve as a soldier when called upon, and every man had to learn how to use the sword. Bodhi Pond Monastery had once been famous for teaching the art of swordsmanship. Monasteries were known for the specialized training they offered. One wat might be famous for teaching Pali scripture. Another wat might be known for carving, casting, and sacralizing potent amulets or for the teaching of music. Young people went to a particular wat to train in those skills that interested them. The monasteries were truly schools for all subjects. There were no secular schools until the very end of the nineteenth century, and even after the Bangkok government’s education reforms changed the way things were taught and what was taught, local monasteries continued to offer both primary education and special skills. Parents knew which monasteries were good at what subjects, and they took their sons to be ordained and trained according to the local monks’ specialty. If a young monk mastered one skill at a certain monastery and wanted to have training in another field, he could go elsewhere for further study.

Ajan Doem went on to tell his pupil that Ajan Thao, the first abbot of Bodhi Pond Monastery, had been one of the generals in Taksin’s army. In 1766 Taksin was serving as the Governor of Tak, a principality northwest of Ayutthaya, when he was summoned to the city of Ayutthaya, which Burma’s troops had surrounded. Thao was among the officers in Taksin’s army when the governor-general marched his forces south. Thao fought alongside Taksin when the army reached the battleground. Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, Taksin escaped with his troops just before Ayutthaya fell in April 1767. The men made their way southeast toward Chanthaburi, near the Cambodian border today.

When Taksin settled in Thonburi, where he established a new center for Siam and became its king (r. 1767–82), Thao resigned from the army. As a soldier he had killed many people; in old age he wanted to devote his life to the Dhamma. The retired warrior then traveled north from Thonburi to ordain at a monastery in Paknam Pho, a journey of some ten days by boat.
Ajan Thao had been living as a monk in Paknam Pho for some time before he discovered the ruins of Bodhi Pond Monastery. He restored the old wat and became its abbot. There Ajan Thao established a school of swordsmanship called the Sword School of Bodhi Pond (Samnak Dap Nong Pho). Ajan Doem told Phra Charan that “Ajan Thao wanted to impart the art of swordsmanship to the next generation so that knowledge of the martial arts would not disappear. Future men would thus know the art of swordfighting, be able to protect themselves from their enemies, and avoid becoming war captives.” The ajan reminded Phra Charan, “Before King Taksin could liberate the kingdom of Siam he had to struggle. He lost a large number of soldiers. Remember that Ajan Thao was one of the officers closest to the king.”

Ajan Doem next described how Ajan Thao trained his disciples. “Before he taught the techniques of swordsmanship, Ajan Thao first laid the foundation by teaching each young man to practice meditation. To be trained as a soldier, a young man first had to learn to master his mind. Only then could he master the art of swordsmanship.” In the monasteries the sons of the nobility, as well as the sons of commoners, lived a spartan life: they rose early, practiced their skills daily, and lived frugally. Monastic discipline helped prepare future soldiers for life on the march and on the field of battle. The aged ajan spoke from experience. He was one of the last living teachers in Siam of the ancient art of swordsmanship.

After some weeks had passed, Charan reminded Ajan Doem that he wanted to disrobe. The abbot replied, “You should wait. It is not the right time yet.”

For a while Charan did not dare bring up the subject again, thinking, “While I’m still in the robes I might as well learn a metta mantra from the ajan. After I disrobe I can use the mantra to court women. I want to get a pretty woman to marry me.”

Charan next asked Ajan Doem to teach him metta mantras of the kind that would make women fall for him. Ajan Doem laughed and told Charan to bring him a pencil and several pieces of paper. “Luang Pho then wrote down all kinds of mantras, good for a lot of different situations that I might encounter in everyday life. I’d never run out of mantras to recite. In order to learn each mantra by heart, I had to recite it every day.” Looking back, Ajan Charan realized that “this was Luang Pho’s way of dealing with a person like me. I wanted the mantras, and he gave me so many mantras that my mind became completely preoccupied with mastering them, so much so that I forgot that I came here to disrobe.”

Phra Charan noticed that when people came to Ajan Doem’s kuti to ask the abbot to blow on their heads, “Luang Pho did not recite any mantra for them, yet he gave me all those mantras to learn. I wondered if I was wasting my time reciting these mantras.”

When Charan expressed his doubt about the value of learning all the mantras, Ajan Doem explained, “By themselves the mantras are meaningless. They are used as a means to focus the mind to be at one point. A mind that is constantly wandering is a weak mind; it has no power. Reciting the mantras keeps the mind focused. It is difficult to walk across a swift-running stream. The focused mind is like a bridge that helps you cross the stream to the other shore. Once you cross, you no longer need the bridge. A mantra serves as a bridge to get the mind to samadhi. Once your mind knows how to get to samadhi you no longer need to recite the mantra, because the mind has already gained incredible strength due to your power of concentration. Once you have reached this attainment you can blow on people’s heads, breathing ‘om phiang, om phiang’ while wishing that good things will happen to them. Do you understand? Now go back to reciting the mantras until your mind can cross to the other shore.”

After six months had passed by, Charan realized, “The more I talked with Venerable Father, the more I enjoyed learning from him. It seemed like he knew that I was like a wild horse that needed to be tamed.” While learning to keep his mind focused by reciting the mantras, Phra Charan had been meditating all along, although he did not call it that.

One day Ajan Doem told Charan, “You have been with me long enough. Are you ready to learn meditation practice? I will teach you. Do not disrobe. A man like you is better off in the ocher robes. You will make greater progress by living the monastic life rather than a lay life.” Seeing that Phra Charan was still dead set on disrobing, Ajan Doem sighed, “Please don’t go away. I will die within the next three months. You are the first person to know this. Stay with me. This is the most important time in your life.” Phra Charan saw that many monks and laypeople came to visit Ajan Doem, and yet Luang Pho had never told any of them that he was going to die soon.

One day, while getting his massage, Ajan Doem told Phra Charan, “I want to pass on an important body of knowledge to you. I have been observing you, and you are well suited to be the recipient of this knowledge.” Phra Charan was elated to hear such praise, but his heart sank when he heard what Ajan Doem had in mind for him. “The knowledge that I want to give you is from the Khotchasatra, on how to subdue elephants in heat, rut, or musth. Not everybody can master this knowledge. Only people with parami, and you are one of them. I learned the Khotchasatra from my grandparents, who learned it from my great-grandparents. My ancestors were skilled elephant trainers. My great-grandfathers told us that they once captured two white elephants in a forest in Kamphaengphet that they presented to the king of Ayutthaya.”

Feeling disappointed, Phra Charan told his teacher bluntly, “I do not want to learn elephant lore. I would rather learn a mantra that will make women fall in love with me or one that will enable me to envision the Buddha entering me.”

In an instant Ajan Doem, who had been lying down, sat bolt upright. Pointing a finger at Charan and speaking in a firm voice, the abbot said, “Listen to me. You are too young to know what you want or do not want. When an elder offers you something, just take it. Why refuse the knowledge? You are too stubborn.” Ajan Doem then cited a Thai proverb: “Knowledge is not something lugged around on the shoulders.”

"Still," the stubborn Charan argued, "what is the use of learning how to train a domestic elephant to capture a wild elephant in the forest? We live now [in 1949] in a modern society; we no longer need wild elephants. Besides, learning how to subdue elephants in heat or in rut is not my business. I am never around such animals."

To get to the young monk, Ajan Doem, who had never owned a shirt in his entire life, used a modern analogy. He asked Charan, "Which would you prefer? Having one shirt or ten shirts?"

Phra Charan replied, "It’s better to have ten shirts."

"That’s right. If you are not wearing the spare shirts, you can iron them and hang them in a cupboard ready to be used any time you need them. Our ancestors gave us many kinds of knowledge. Why not keep this learning? Some day it might come in handy."

Finally, with a heavy sigh, Ajan Doem revealed his true feelings. "Listen to me carefully. The elders have vision that the young do not have. They think carefully before they do anything. I want to teach you the Khotchasatra because you have taken good care of me. I have never given this knowledge to anybody, not here in Nong Pho or anywhere else. I want this knowledge to live on after I die. Do you understand?"

Before learning how to subdue an elephant in musth, Charan first had to be skilled in meditation. It was at this time that the ajan taught Charan a method of meditation called kasina. This meditation method consists in focusing one’s full and undivided attention on one object related to earth, water, wind, or fire or on a disk of a blue, red, yellow, or white color.

The kasina meditation could only be learned under the guidance of an experienced teacher, and Ajan Doem began by supervising the young monk. After weeks of sustained effort Phra Charan was able to see the meditation object as clearly with his eyes closed as he could when they were open. While still persevering in his concentration upon the object, Charan reached a state of mind where all sense activity was suspended, where there was no more seeing and hearing, no more awareness of the body, no more feeling. In this state the truly focused mind is calm and completely serene, and the practitioner has achieved the one-pointedness known as "purity of mind." It is not easy to attain this first mental absorption. It can take weeks, months, or even years.

It was only from such a state of mind that Phra Charan would be able to see the deities that guarded the elephant. At this stage Phra Charan and the deities would become one. No longer would there be any distinction between the observer, the meditator, and the observed, the meditation object—that is, the image of the elephant’s deity. It was at this point that the meditator would be able to radiate metta to the deities.

As he watched Phra Charan make progress in meditation, Ajan Doem reminded him, "See? If you had refused to learn the Khotchasatra, you would never have mastered the kasina meditation practice. You entered the monastic life empty-handed. [By quitting too soon] you’d be leaving it empty-handed. Don’t be stubborn like a scorpion. The elders know what they are talking about."

Phra Charan became so absorbed in the practice of the meditation that the thought of disrobing no longer entered his mind. Once Charan demonstrated his skill in kasina meditation, Ajan Doem imparted knowledge of the Khotchasatra to Charan by oral transmission. "Most elephants have divine ears. Using kasina meditation you will find out if the elephant has devata [deities] who guard him. Then you will know that the elephant has divine ears. To subdue an elephant that is on a rampage, you must first visualize the deities who are guarding the wild elephant. Then you radiate metta to the deities. Once the deities receive the metta radiated by you, the deities will convey this to the elephant and then guide the animal away from you so that it will not harm you."

Ajan Doem emphasized the importance of maintaining a still, empty mind: "While radiating metta, your mind has to remain absolutely still for a long time; otherwise the metta will not reach the deity, who must be relied upon to convey the metta to the elephant. Make sure that your concentration is at least 80 percent powerful; a weaker concentration could be fatal. The most important thing is to focus on the deity, not the elephant. An elephant in musth is unable to receive metta. If you focus on the elephant it might step on you."

The aged ajan warned Phra Charan to take extreme caution. "From jhana [a state of deep meditation] you will be radiating metta far and wide, in every direction, not only to the deities who guard the wild elephant but also to all sentient beings. If your concentration is weak, you’d better not go near an elephant in musth. Such an animal is ferocious. If you make a mistake, you will be dead. When a male elephant is in musth, even the mahout who has cared for him for a long time could be killed, never mind a stranger. This is not a method recommended for beginners. Many thudong monks have been killed by being stepped on by elephants while trying to spread thoughts of metta to them." It was not all that long ago, Ajan Doem continued, that a thudong monk went wandering in the Great Mountains (Khao Yai), claiming that he was unafraid of elephants. "One day he encountered one in musth. Having been a wandering monk for a while, he thought he could handle the situation. Not knowing anything about the behavior of elephants, the monk walked toward the animal for a closer look. The elephant trampled the monk and gored his body with its tusks."

By the time Phra Charan mastered the knowledge he received from the Khotchasatra and the ten kasina meditations, his character had also been transformed. He no longer wanted to leave the monastic life. Teaching the young monk an ancient skill meant imparting more than knowledge, he was also passing on an aspect of the history of his lineage. After he had completed the transmission, Ajan Doem became visibly ill, and his condition quickly deteriorated. He died in 1951 at the age of ninety-one. He had been a monk for seventy years. Ajan Doem was one of the last elephant masters in Siam, and the last master swordsman of his lineage. His death marked the end of the sword school at Bodhi Pond, and the few other remaining schools of swordsmanship vanished as well. Swords—and the art of swordsmanship with its discipline and spiritual training—gave way to guns, cannons, bombs, and tanks requiring nothing of the modern warrior other than obedience and technical know-how.

Phra Charan was twenty-three when Ajan Doem died. It was then that the young monk vowed to remain a monastic for the rest of his life. Ajan Charan laments, "It’s a pity I did not meet Luang Pho long before this. But due to my karma, Luang Pho died just six months after I became close to him."

After the seven-day wake for his teacher was over, Phra Charan went wandering in search of another meditation teacher. Although young monks usually had company when they went on such trips, Phra Charan chose to risk going alone. "I went on wandering on my own to train myself. When I was walking in the forest one day, a huge elephant spotted me and came charging head on, ears cocked, trunk up, screaming with rage, intending to trample over me. I immediately focused my mind firmly in kasina meditation as Luang Pho Doem had taught me. From the mind unified in a single point, I radiated metta to the deity who guarded the elephant. Just before he reached me, the big bull halted and turned away." To Phra Charan’s relief, "The deity was able to restrain the elephant. It told the elephant not to harm the monk who had no intention of harming the elephant."

In this terrifying situation Phra Charan could have been killed. When he experienced the truth of Ajan Doem’s teachings and realized that his teacher had saved his life, Phra Charan felt immense gratitude. He could still hear Ajan Doem’s words ringing in his ears: "Do not turn down knowledge that the elders offer you. Some day it will come in handy." Until he met Ajan Doem, Phra Charan’s life had no direction. As Phra Charan came to discover the power of the unconditioned mind, all his doubts began to dissolve.

Fortified with the power of metta parami, Phra Charan continued his wandering in search of meditation masters. Within a decade after Ajan Doem’s death, Phra Charan had met some of the most revered Buddhist masters of the twentieth century. Among the village abbots under whose guidance Phra Charan practiced in the 1950s were Ajan Chong (1872–1964) of Wat Natang Nok in Ayutthaya and Ajan Chat of Wat Ban Sang in Prachinburi. The latter passed away a year after Charan met him. Phra Charan also learned from other thudong monks such as Venerable Father Dam, whom he met by chance in a forest, and Ajan Li Dhammadharo (1907–61) of Wat Asokaram in Samut Prakan. Phra Charan spent three months practicing meditation in the wilderness with Ajan Li. Phra Charan also studied with Ajan Techin, a Burmese master in residence at Bell Monastery in Thonburi.

In the late twentieth century Ajan Charan became a meditation master in his own right. At Wat Amphawan in Singburi the abbot has trained a large number of children as well as adults in vipassana meditation practice and in living virtuous lives. In a tribute to his teacher Ajan Charan wrote, "Venerable Father Doem was a great master. It is rare nowadays to find a master like him. He gave me my monastic life. Every day during the daily chant, after I pay respect to the Buddha, I prostrate myself to Ajan Doem with deep gratitude for making me what I am today."

In the Cool Shade of Compassion

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By: Kamala Tiyavanich

Kamala TiyavanichKamala Tiyavanich is a Thai Buddhist with a PhD in Southeast Asian history from Cornell University.

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Temple Boy and Spitting Cobra | An Excerpt from In the Cool Shade of Compassion

A Lesson on Revenge

In the Cool Shade of Compassion

Ajan Ngoen was born in 1890 in the Village of Grandma Hom’s Knoll in Nakhon Pathom, a province about sixty kilometers west of Bangkok. Ngoen’s father was a farmer and herbal doctor who taught him mantras and medicine from palm-leaf texts. In 1910 Ngoen (which means “silver”) was ordained as a monk at the Monastery of Grandma Hom’s Knoll (Wat Don Yai Hom). Not long after his ordination he took up the thudong practice and left the village. When he returned, the villagers asked him to remain, since the current abbot was getting on in years. In 1923, when the village abbot died, Ajan Ngoen was appointed abbot of the wat. He was revered for his compassion, incredible patience, and ability to treat the sick with medicinal herbs and mantras. During the dry season the abbot was often invited to other villages to officiate at ceremonies, such as the shaving of topknots, the ordinations of monks and novices, and chanting at funerals. Since there were no paved roads connecting his village to other settlements or nearby towns, he usually traveled on foot, walking along the low dikes of earth that surrounded the paddy fields.

On a day in the 1930s Ajan Ngoen was invited to perform a bhikkhu ordination at Wat Takdat, south of Nakhon Pathom. He took a temple boy named Chuen along with him. Chuen was not yet ten years old. After two hours of walking along the dikes in the stifling heat, Chuen recalled, “The sun got hotter and hotter. My body was soaked with sweat. I got dizzy from the heat, so I got off the dike.” Chuen began walking instead through the tall weeds at the edge of the dike, using his teacher’s shadow to shield him from the sun. Chuen recalls: “When Venerable Father stopped, I stopped, too. I was small then. When Luang Pho saw what I was doing, he looked at me with metta. I could tell that he was hot, too. His skin turned as red as a tamleung [a fruit]. But he tried to walk in such a way that his shadow always covered me. For the rest of the trip I felt cool.”

The monastery to which the two were going was located in a village on high ground above the surrounding paddy fields. As they approached, Chuen recalls, “I continued to walk through the weeds. At the time I did not know that the area in the vicinity of the village was full of snakes, particularly spitting cobras. Many farmers and passersby who had been bitten by the cobras had died. Suddenly I heard a hissing sound fuuuu, like the sound a cat makes when it is threatened. Instinctively I began to run, and as I took off I saw a cobra spreading its hood just where my foot left the ground. The snake missed my ankle by only an inch. I could feel it.” Once he realized what happened, Chuen became furious with the snake, muttering to himself, “I was walking peacefully and you just wanted to bite me. If you had not missed, I would be dead.” Chuen then snatched up a stick from the ground and was about to hit the snake when the abbot stopped him, saying, “Don’t harm the snake.” Chuen was puzzled, and began wondering, “Why did Revered Father forbid me to hit the snake when the damn snake almost killed me?” Just at the point when the question came into Chuen’s mind, the abbot said to him, “Do not take revenge. It is a good thing that the snake missed you. This indicates that in a previous life you did not kill the snake. Do not create a karmic link. Let the snake go. And extend metta to the snake.”

Do not take revenge. It is a good thing that the snake missed you. This indicates that in a previous life you did not kill the snake. Do not create a karmic link. Let the snake go. And extend metta to the snake.

The abbot explained Dhamma to Chuen, but the temple boy could not forget that the snake threatened him with its fuuuu. “Watch out, you arrogant snake.” Chuen thought. “If Revered Father were not here I would have beaten you.” In recollecting the event, Chuen said, “I did not know how to extend metta to the snake when I knew it wanted to harm me. I thought if I threatened it with a stick it would go away. Instead it attacked me and made me run up the dike. The damn snake then slithered over toward Luang Pho, but it did not harm him. Instead it went into a hole in the dike.”

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Kamala TiyavanichKamala Tiyavanich is a Thai Buddhist with a PhD in Southeast Asian history from Cornell University. See more about her here.

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