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