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Venerable Phra Achan Man Bhuridatta Thera
Phra Achan Man was the best-known meditation master of his time, being genuinely revered by all his close disciples. From his sermons and instructions on Dhamma, it was clear to his close disciples that his attainments were considerable. His disciples included lay followers as well as other monks from different parts of Thailand as well as from neighboring Laos. So flawless was his life that a diamond or any other gem cannot compare with its matchless rarity and purity. He was born into the family of Kankaew with Nai Kamduang as his father and Nang Chan as his mother, both being Buddhists by tradition. He was born on Thursday, January 20, 1870 (B.E. 2413) in the northereastern town of Ubon Rajathani. Of his eight brothers and sisters, however, only two were still alive on the day of his passing away. He was the eldest, of small stature and fair complexion. He was from childhood, agile and full of vigor, and intelligence. At fifteen he was ordained as a novice (samanera) in the village monastery of Khampong. Since he was genuinely interested in the study of Dhamma, it did not take him long to become well versed in the various suttas taught to him by his teacher. His character and behavior were also consistent, never posing any problems to his friends and superiors. After two years as a novice, it was necessary for him to leave the order, as his father had requested it, but the ordained life had had a profound effect on him. He never forgot it and resolved that sooner or later he would return to it. This may have been because of the power of a firm, unshakeable confidence (saddha) deeply embedded in his character. Later at the age of twenty-two, the call of the ordained life seemed irresistible. He took leave of his parents, who readily gave their consent. They enthusiastically prepared all of the requisites for him and had him ordained at Wat Liap in the town of Ubon Rajathani on June 12, 1893 (B.E. 2436). He was given the ordination name of Bhuridatto (Gifted with Knowledge). After his ordination he went to practice vipassana/insight meditation with Phra Achan Sao Kantasilo of Wat Liap.
His Prophetic Dream
In the early days of his vipassana practice with Achan Sao, he chose to use the mantra buddho as the preferred theme of meditation. It did not at first produce the peace he expected, which sometimes made him doubtful of its value, but he continued his efforts, which in time resulted in enough peace to cool his heart. Then one night he had a dream: He felt himself walking out of the village and right into a dense jungle with trees and undergrowth almost impenetrable in many places. But he managed to go through them all, and finally emerged to find a clear meadow stretching before him all the way to the horizon. Again he continued his journey with persistent effort. On the way he came across a huge felled log. The log had been felled so many years before that it was partly submerged in the ground with part of the bark and inner layer rotting away. He then climbed up and walked on it, contemplating the log as no longer capable of growth. He knew that birth for him in this cycle of births and deaths was to be finished. He equated the felled log with his previous births and deaths. He felt this symbolic — if his efforts were steadfast, this birth would be his last. The meadow extending to the horizon in all directions was the infinity of rebirths and deaths succeeding one another like a snake eating its own tail.
While he was standing there contemplating these symbolic meanings, there appeared a great white horse walking towards him. He was moved to mount it, and at that moment found himself astride the horse and galloping off at full speed. He had no idea where he was going nor why, but felt that he must have been carried quite a long way in that vast, measureless terrain. On the way he happened to glance at a glass case with the Pali canon (Tipitaka) in it. The case was intricately designed and was a beautifully silvery white. As if in response to his feelings, the horse carried him to the Tipitaka case. He dismounted, hoping to open the case and look at the Tipitaka within, while the horse, having fulfilled its mission, disappeared instantly. This spot was at the end of the vast, open land. From there could be seen a steaming, uninhabited jungle made impassable with thorny, twisted bushes. He then made his way to the case, but before opening it to have a look at the Tipitaka inside, he woke up. This prophetic dream gave him the assurance that he would be able to achieve his goal within this lifetime, provided he did not give up his efforts. From then on he committed himself to more rigorous practice, with the mental recitation of budhho controlling every moment and movement day and night. He continued to practice the ascetic (Thai, thudong; Pali, dhutanga) practices that he had strictly observed from the time of his ordination: wearing rag robes; refusing robes offered to him by hand; going out for alms rounds, except on the days he decided to fast; accepting only food put into the alms bowl during his alms round; having only one meal a day, refusing food offered later; eating directly out of the alms bowl; wearing three robes; and dwelling in forest areas, which may be under trees, in valleys, within caves or under cliffs (except for any brief periods he may be invited to a town). His observance of these ascetic practices was outstanding and can hardly be equaled by anyone at present. He was always steadfast and determined, never being fickle in whatever he had set his heart upon, be it “external” practices (rules and observations) or “internal” practices (meditation). His chaste life was entirely devoted to the goal of deliverance, with all his movements continuously checked by his efforts to eradicate the defilements. Little chance was there for pride and vanity to intrude into his mind, in spite of the fact that he had yet to enter the stream of enlightenment. He was different from others, however, in that he was constantly on the alert against defilements, always putting up a fight and attacking them with courage. This we know from his later accounts of his practice.
When Achan Man felt that his mind was firmly established for contemplative activity, he recollected his prophetic dream and came to realize that the life of a householder is the conglomeration of all kinds of suffering, like being in an immense thicketed forest where all kinds of dangers may lurk; whereas the ordained life, supported by efforts of renunciation, would serve to carry him through that dangerous land to the vast, open meadow, the place of security with an unobstructed view. The great white horse, then, was the mode of rigorous practice that would take him to deliverance and to the intricately designed Tipitaka case. However, due to his own imperfections, he was not able to open the Tipitaka case and was therefore not to be well versed in the academic side of the doctrine. Thus he was not to be equipped with the four-fold patisambhida nana (fluency of analysis), which is required of one who is unfailingly resourceful in the means and methods of teaching, with the heights and depths of wisdom like those of the sky and ocean, being thereby able to teach all sentient beings in the Three Realms. According to his own account, his accumulation of past merit (barami) was not sufficient, and that was why he was given only a chance to look at the outside of the Tipitaka case and was not able to go through its contents. This interpretation indicated that his strength would be teaching others what to do, but that he may not be able to put his reasoning into formal references to the Buddhist canon. Whether this is true or not, one thing is clear to those close disciples who had been instructed by him and who had practiced under his guidance: so wonderful and impressive was each and every theme of his instructions and sermons that it is beyond the power of words to describe them. Where on earth in modern times could one find such a never-to-be-forgotten way of instruction in Dhamma?
One day, while using buddho in his meditation practice at Wat Liap, Achan Man’s mind became calm. There appeared an image of a bloated, festering corpse, with vultures, crows, and dogs scrambling after it in front of him, tearing it to pieces and scattering it all over. He felt a strong feeling of disgust and weariness. After his mind had withdrawn from this meditation image, he regularly kept it in his mind’s eye while walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. The meditation sittings that followed were also based on the corpse. Continued contemplation on the corpse transformed it into a glass disc floating in front of him. With further contemplation of the disc came an endless panorama of a variety of objects and scenes, there being apparently an inexhaustible pattern of changes as a result of his “pursuit” or curiosity, his insatiable desire to see what would come next. One moment he appeared to be climbing a high mountain, then he saw himself carrying a sword, wearing a pair of shoes, walking back and forth on the mountain. At another moment there appeared before him a wall with a door; he opened the door and saw a few monks meditating inside. Then the scene widened to show cliffs and caves nearby, some with hermits inside. Still at another moment he saw what seemed to be a cradle or basket being lowered from the cliff. He saw himself get into the basket and be lifted up the precipice and there he saw a big boat with a square table in it. The mountain was surrounded by a bright light. He then saw himself having a meal on the mountain. This was how the ever-changing panorama unfurled itself before him, leading him nowhere.
For three months an endless and indescribable pattern of change occurred during meditation, with seemingly no end in sight. The inward result was far from satisfactory. After such a sitting the mind was just as susceptible to intruding and distracting influences driving him to spasmodic joys and sorrows as before. He could gain no poise or balance from his meditation. He was then convinced that this certainly was not the right path leading to deliverance. Otherwise, poise and peace of mind, not this emotional sensitivity, would have been the result. He concluded that this pursuit or directing attention towards external objects and events was against the principle of mind development, thus depriving him of inward bliss and peace. From then on, he reversed his focus of attention, bringing it back to the body, making it traverse the whole body in different planes or dimensions — vertically and horizontally, upwards, downwards, and sideways — always under the scrutinizing eye of mindfulness (sati). But most of his time was spent in walking meditation. During his occasional meditation sittings he did not allow the mind to retreat to the condition of one-pointedness but had it regularly contemplate the various parts of the body.
The Right Method Discovered
Having tried this method for several days, he began his sitting meditation using the nature of his body as the central theme, this time allowing the mind to retreat to the condition of one-pointedness in order to see what would then happen. Since his mind has been properly trained and tamed for several days, but had not yet gained its well-earned rest, the expected retreat came unexpectedly fast and easily. At that instant the body seemed to break into two parts, with the simultaneous and automatic knowledge that beyond doubt, this is the right way. This condition of one-pointedness was characterized by the firm establishment of the mindfulness of the body, thus preventing the mind from wandering aimlessly outside. It was this introspective method that he adopted and later adapted and modified for higher practices and efforts. This was the vital turning point of his life of earnest practice. The previous three months had been spent in curiosity’s chase after visions, a drawback of not having a competent meditation master’s guidance and supervision.
The Declining Situation at that Time
At the time that Achan Man embarked on the practice of mind development, there was little interest in this important aspect of Buddhism. To lay disciples, the practice of mind development seemed to be something strange, something alien to Buddhism. People were often frightened at seeing a wandering monk (Thai, phra thudong; Pali, dhutanga) in the distance. Some villagers would run for cover at the sight of this monk. In an instant, the monk would be left all alone. Sometimes the monk came across some women and children collecting vegetables or fishing in a mountain stream. At the sight of the approaching monk, the women would be horrified and scurry for the nearest hiding place. The children, now being left alone after the shrieking of their mothers, would be struck with horror. They would run this way and that, not knowing where to go, while their mothers, hiding, would still be too afraid to come out and help them. Faced with this commotion, the monk had no other choice but to go on his way. Any attempt to console the children would aggravate the situation, resulting in louder shrieks and more fright. Such was how the people in the region viewed wandering forest monks. However there were understandable reasons for this: first, he was always strictly self-controlled, not easily known except after long association and understanding; second, his set of robes, together with his other requisites were of a rather dull color. Superficially he looked more awe-inspiring than delightful and pleasing to the eye. During his wanderings, he wore yellowish-brown robes dyed with the gum extracted from the heartwood of a Jackfruit tree. Slung across one shoulder was his klot (umbrella/tent used by wandering monks). Across the other shoulder was his alms bowl in its bag. When traveling together, wandering monks walked one after the other in a long line. For those who had never seen such a sight, their dull, yellowish-brown robes, blackened water kettle hanging by their side, appearing quite extraordinary. Many eventually grew to respect and admire Phra Achan Man, and they were continually impressed them with his instructions. They were affectionately drawn to him as their dhamma instructor, helping to establish them on the right path of the Buddhadhamma. This is how a wandering monk who genuinely follows the path of righteousness can approach people, quietly performing social and humanitarian services.
Mindfulness Always Present
It is customary for phra thudong to wander forth, seeking places of seclusion in remote areas in order to devote themselves entirely to the eradication of defilements, and so it was for Phra Achan Man, who, after the three-month Rains Retreat each year, made it a rule to head for the mountains and forests with a group of houses or a small village nearby in which he might go for his alms food. He spent more time in the northeastern region than in any other part of the country, since this region abounds in mountains and forests near such towns as Nakhon Panom, Sakhonnakhon, Udonthani, Nongkhai, Loei and Lomsak, and in the Kingdom of Laos in such towns as Tha Khaek, Vientienne and Luang Prabang, where there are great forests and high mountains. For him the eradication of defilements was foremost. Never had there been in his mind any thoughts of temple building. All his efforts were devoted to eradication and mind development. For this purpose, he therefore always preferred seclusion, living and going places alone, with deliverance as his sole aim. He was always steadfast, this being characteristic of all his efforts. Ever since his discovery of the right method, his progress was steadily strengthened by its repeated exercise. The body was repeatedly analyzed and then dissolved by the Eye of Wisdom until experience and expertise were attained. The mind reinforced by uninterrupted effort, was increasingly blessed with poise and peace. According to him, every one of his movements was never divorced from the eradication of defilements, no matter where he stayed. Whether in going out for alms food, sweeping the floor, washing a spittoon, sewing or dying robes, having a meal, walking to and fro either within or without the monastery his mindfulness was always present as a controlling factor behind such movements and positions of the body, which served as instruments from which great benefit could be reaped. Only during sleep was such mindfulness absent. Once he felt himself wake up, he would never continue lying down, since that would have bred a habit of laziness and indulging in sleep. Instead he would instantly get up, wash his face, and begin his efforts to eradicate defilements. If after washing a feeling of sleepiness still persisted, he would defer his meditation sitting for a time, fearing he should unwittingly fall asleep. To counteract sleepiness he resorted to walking meditation, the speed of which would be increased to drive away that persistent feeling of sleepiness. When the desire for sleep had subsided, or when the body was fatigued and needed a rest, he would then resume his sitting meditation. In the morning when it was time to go for alms food, he dressed himself in his three robes. With his alms bowl in its bag slung across one shoulder, he went into a village with mindfulness always present, making the walking to and from the village another exercise in mindfulness, the mind continually under control. Returning to where he was then staying, he would take the food from his alms bowl and sort it out. He generally refused food offered him later, accepting only the food that was put into his alms bowl during the alms round. Only later when he was very old, did he allow himself the leniency of food offered afterwards.
Phra Achan Man always taught his disciples to sacrifice whatever they thought belonged to them, including this body and mind, but to never abandon the Dhamma. Whatever is to happen, let it happen, for that is its natural course. Whatever is born must die. It is impossible to resist death. That is against the law of nature. No benefit can be derived from such a perverse attitude of mind. The right way is to be courageous and determined and not to worry about death. With regard to the place for mind development, the wilder such a place is — abounding with ferocious beasts and tigers — the better. In such a place, he said, the mind will be developed in meditation and wisdom. The tigers will help implant Dhamma into the mind, for when a person does not believe in the Buddha and is not afraid of him, but believes in tigers and is afraid of them, it can be a good thing after all. The fear of tigers, the picturing of oneself being devoured by tigers, may be able to drive the mind to Dhamma. Knowing that it is helpless, such a mind will fix itself on a theme of meditation or recitation until it is absorbed in Dhamma. Then it will see the wonders of the Dhamma and believe in the Buddha. The tiger, however, will help lift the weight off the coward's shoulders, so that he may be unloaded to some extent, and will not have to tremble wherever he goes or stays.
The life and passing of Achan Man is full of accounts of encounters with tigers and other forest creatures, stories of overcomig fear, and miracles. His biography paints a vivid picture of his ascetic life close to nature and how he was revered by the people. In Thailand, regional pride takes various forms. The story of Achan Man is not only an archetypical story of a forest monk but also a picture of a major figure who emerged from the Northeast (Isan).