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.