Than Phor Fuang Jotiko (1915 – 1986)
The following short biographical account of the life of Than Phor Fuang Jotiko was written by Phra Ajaan Ṭhānissaro as part of his introduction to the book, Awareness Itself, a collection of Than Phor Fuang’s teachings. The book contains many insights relevant to the lay practitioner of Dhamma and is strongly recommended to readers keen for guidance on how to apply Dhamma to their daily lives.
Than Phor Fuang Jotiko, my teacher, was born in 1915 to a small farming family in the province of Chanthaburi, near the Cambodian border of southeastern Thailand. Orphaned at the age of eleven, he was raised in a series of monasteries and received ordination as a monk when he turned twenty. As he began to study the monastic discipline, though, he realized that the monks of his monastery were not really serious about practicing the Buddha’s teachings, and he longed to find a teacher who would give him a training more in line with what he had read. His chance came during his second year as a monk, when Than Phor Lee Dhammadharo, a member of the forest ascetic tradition founded by LP Mun Bhūridatto, came to set up a meditation monastery in an old cemetery just outside of Chanthaburi.
Taken with Than Phor Lee’s teachings, Than Phor Fuang re-ordained in the sect to which Than Phor Lee belonged and joined him at his new monastery. From that point onward, with few exceptions, he spent every Rains Retreat under Than Phor Lee’s guidance until the latter’s death in 1961. One of the exceptions was a five-year period he spent during World War II, meditating alone in the forests of northern Thailand. Another was a six-year period in the early fifties when Than Phor Lee left Than Phor Fuang in charge of the Chanthaburi monastery and wandered about various parts of Thailand in preparation for finding a place to settle down near Bangkok. When in 1956 Than Phor Lee founded Wat Asokaram, is new monastery near Bangkok, Ajaan Fuang joined him there, to help in what was to be the last major project of Than Phor Lee’s life.
After Than Phor Lee’s death, Than Phor Fuang was generally expected to become abbot at Wat Asokaram. The monastery by that time, though, had grown into such a large, unwieldy community that he did not want the position. So in 1965, when the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, in residence at Wat Makut Kasatriyaram (The Temple of the King’s Crown) in Bangkok, asked him to spend the Rains Retreat at his temple, to teach meditation to him and to any of the other monks at the temple who were interested, Than Phor Fuang jumped at the chance.
He spent a total of three Rains Retreats at Wat Makut, wandering about the countryside looking for solitude during the dry seasons. Although he had immense respect for the Supreme Patriarch as an individual, he grew tired of the politicking he saw at the higher ecclesiastical levels and so began looking for a way out. It came in 1968, when a woman named Khun Nai Sombuun Ryangrit donated land to the Patriarch for a small monastery in a mountainous region near the coast of Rayong province, not far from Chanthaburi. Than Phor Fuang volunteered to spend time at the new monastery, Wat Dhammasathit, until a permanent abbot could be found. The monastery, though, was in a very poor area where the local people were not enthusiastic about the idea of a strict meditation monastery in their midst, so no one could be found to take on the position of abbot. Thus, shortly before the Supreme Patriarch’s death in a car accident in 1971, Than Phor Fuang accepted the position of abbot at Wat Dhammasathit himself.
It was soon after this that I ﬁrst met him, in April of 1974. Wat Dhammasathit had the look of a summer camp down on its luck: three monks living in three small huts, a lean-to where they would eat their meals, a kitchen with room for a couple of nuns, and a small wooden structure on top of the hill — where I stayed — which had a view of the sea offto the south. The land had been donated shortly after a fire had stripped it of all its vegetation, and the hillsides were covered mostly with cogon grass. Yearly fires still swept through the area, preventing trees from taking hold, although the area on the mountain above the monastery was covered with a thick, malarial forest.
In spite of the poor conditions, Than Phor Fuang seemed to have a clear-eyed, down-toearth wisdom that allowed him to transcend his surroundings — an inner peace, happiness, and stability that I envied and admired. After spending a few months practicing meditation under his guidance, I returned to America and then found my way back to Thailand in the fall of 1976 to be ordained as a monk and to begin training under him in earnest.
In my absence, he had begun to develop a small but devoted following of lay meditators. In early 1976 the new abbot of Wat Makut had invited him back to teach there on a regular basis, and for the rest of his life — until his death in 1986 — he split his time evenly between Bangkok and Rayong. Most of his students came from the professional classes of Bangkok, people who were turning to meditation for spiritual strength and solace in the face of the fast changing pressures of modern Thai urban society.
During my ﬁrst years back in Rayong, the monastery was an incredibly quiet and secluded place, with only a handful of monks and almost no visitors. Fire lanes had begun to hold the fires in check, and a new forest was developing. The quiet atmosphere began to change, though, in the fall of 1979, when construction began on a chedi at the top of the hill. Because the chedi was being built almost entirely with volunteer labour, everyone was involved — monks, lay people from Bangkok, and local villagers.
At ﬁrst I resented the disruption of the monastery’s quiet routine, but I began to notice something interesting: People who never would have thought of meditating were happy to help with the weekend construction brigades; during breaks in the work, when the regulars would go practice meditation with Than Phor Fuang, the newcomers would join in and soon they too would become regular meditators as well. In the meantime, I began learning the important lesson of how to meditate in the midst of less than ideal conditions. Than Phor Fuang himself told me that although he personally disliked construction work, there were people he had to help, and this was the only way he could get to them. Soon after the chedi was finished in 1982, work began on a large Buddha image that was to have an ordination hall in its base, and again, as work progressed on the image, more and more people who came to help with the work were drawn to meditation.
Than Phor Fuang’s health deteriorated steadily in his later years. A mild skin condition he had developed during his stay at Wat Makut grew into a full-blown case of psoriasis, and no medicine — Western, Thai, or Chinese — could offer a cure. Still, he maintained an exhausting teaching schedule, although he rarely gave sermons to large groups of people. Instead, he preferred to teach on an individual basis. His favourite way of getting people started in meditation was to meditate together with them, guiding them through the initial rough spots, and then have them meditate more and more on their own, making way for new beginners. Even during his worst attacks of psoriasis, he would have time to instruct people on a personal basis. As a result, his following — though relatively small compared to that of Than Phor Lee and other famous meditation teachers — was intensely loyal.
In May 1986, a few days after the Buddha image was completed, but before the ordination hall in its base was finished, Than Phor Fuang ﬂ ew to Hong Kong to visit a student who had set up a meditation centre there. Suddenly, on the morning of May 14, while he was sitting in meditation, he suffered a heart attack.
The student called an ambulance as soon as he realized what had happened, but Than Phor Fuang was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Because he had requested a few years earlier that his body not be cremated, plans began immediately to build him a mausoleum. I was given the task of assembling his biography and any tape-recorded talks that might be transcribed and published as a commemorative volume. I found, to my amazement, that I knew more about his life than anyone else. The people with whom he had lived when he was younger had either died or grown so old that their memories were failing them. All of a sudden the anecdotes he had told me during my first years back with him — of his youth and his years with Than Phor Lee — became the substance of his biography. How much I probably missed, given the fact that my abilities in Thai and familiarity with Thai culture were still developing, was disconcerting to think about.
Even more disconcerting was to discover how little of his teachings were left for posterity. Ordinarily, he refused to let people tape-record his instructions, as he maintained that his teachings were intended for the people listening to put into practice right then and there, and might be wrong for other people at other stages in their practice. The few tapes that were made came from simple, introductory talks that he gave to first-time visitors who had come to give a group donation to the monastery, or to people who were just getting started in meditation. Nothing of a more advanced nature was on tape.
So after we printed the commemorative volume, I started a project of my own, writing down what I could remember of his teachings and interviewing his other students for similar material. The interviewing took more than two years and involved a fair amount of editing to extract teachings that would be helpful for people in general and would work in a written format. The result was a small book entitled, The Language of the Heart. Then, shortly before I returned to the States to help start a monastery in California, another Than Phor Fuang tape was found, a sermon in which he was giving more advanced instructions to one of his students. I transcribed it and arranged to have it printed as a small booklet named, Transcendent Discernment.…
In putting this book together, I have had the opportunity to reﬂ ect on the student/teacher relationship as it exists in Thailand, and in Than Phor Fuang’s dealings with his disciples, both lay and ordained. He provided an atmosphere of warmth and respect in which his students could discuss with him the particular problems of their lives and minds without being made to feel like patients or clients, but simply as fellow human beings to whom he was offering a solid reference point for their lives. Since coming to the West, I find that this sort of relationship is sadly lacking among us and I hope that as Buddhism becomes established here, this sort of relationship will become established as well, for the sake of the mental and spiritual health of our society as a whole.
A group of Thai people once asked me what was the most amazing thing I had ever encountered in Than Phor Fuang, hoping that I
would mention his mindreading abilities or other supernatural powers. Although there were those — his knowledge of my mind seemed uncanny — I told them that what I found most amazing was his kindness and humanity: In all our years together, he had never made me feel that I was a Westerner or that he was a Thai. Our communication was always on a direct, person-to-person level that bypassed cultural differences.
I know that many of his other students, although they would not have phrased the issue quite this way, sensed the same quality in him.
I offer this book as a way of sharing some of what I learned from Than Phor Fuang, and dedicate it, with deepest respect, to his memory. He once told me that if it hadn’t been for Than Phor Lee, he would never have known the brightness of life. I owe the same debt to him.
The following additional information regarding the life of Than Phor Fuang (also referred to as Than Phor Fuang in the tradition of Chantaburi Province) is extracted from various sources:
Than Phor Fuang was born on Tuesday, 5 May 1915, the year of rabbit. He was named Fuang Chyasai, a son of Mr. Tian and Mrs. Lyam Chyasai. He was ordained in Wat Bodhi Bang Kraja, Chanthaburi, in 1935, at the age of 20. During his second rains retreat, he met Than Phor Lee Dhammadharo, who had established his first forest monastery in Chantaburi in the area of an old mass grave at Khlong Kung (Shrimp Canal). Impressed with Than Phor Lee’s teaching and strict adherence to the Vinaya, Than Phor Fuang contemplated joining him at Wat Paa Khlong Koong. After a trial tudong trip on his own after the end of the rains retreat that year, he decided that he wanted to lead the life of a forest monk under Than Phor Lee’s guidance. So in May 1937, he was re-ordained in the Dhammayut sect at Wat Chantaram, Chantaburi Province, with Phra Khru Naatsamajaan (Sian) as his preceptor and Phra Khru Pipatwihaarakaan (Cheuy) as his Announcing Teacher.
After his third rains retreat, Than Phor Fuang and LP Jia Cundo left Chantaburi for Chieng Mai in order to pay respects to LP Mun. Arriving at the forest area where LP Mun was residing, they were surprised by how cold the weather was. That evening, LP Jia went to ask Than Phor Fuang to return to Chantaburi as it was freezing cold and he could not endure it. Although Than Phor Fuang was suffering from the cold as well, he dared not respond to LP Jia’s suggestion. The next morning, when LP Mun saw the two of them, he said, “People with no endurance should leave this place. No one invited you to come here. Go away!” They both realized that LP Mun had read their minds the previous night and so, instead of retreating, they decided to stay put and study with him.
Than Phor Fuang stayed in the Chieng Mai area for five years and followed in the footsteps of Phra Ajaan Phrom Jirapuñño to wander on thudong in the forests of northern Thailand. Later, he wandered to Chieng Dao caves with Phra Ajaan Sim Buddhācaro. He also spent some time alone, living in dependence on a village of Muser hilltribes people.
Shortly after his time in Chieng Mai, Than Phor Fuang went to the Northeast to study with LP Mun one again at Baan Nong Paa Phue.
Than Phor Fuang related that once, after cleaning the monastery grounds in the evening, he was the only monk to attend the evening Dhamma talk by LP Mun. LP Mun shared with him details about the Buddha’s relics, i.e., which relics came from which different parts of the Buddha’s body. However, as Than Phor Fuang was not much interested in relics at that time, he did not take note of what LP Mun was telling him. Just prior to that conversation, a layman had happened to give some of the Buddha’s relics to Than Phor Fuang, which he kept in his hut. He was surprised by the fact that LP Mun was able to know that he had been given the relics in the first place. Later, though, whenever he had the opportunity to help in any activities relating to the Buddha’s relics, as during the building of the chedi at Wat Asokaram and the chedi at Wat Dhammasathit, he would always regret that he didn’t remember what LP Mun had told him concerning relics. The only point he could remember was that clear relics are from the Buddha’s brain.
Than Phor Fuang noted that LP Mun was very subtle when it came to teaching. For example, when a monk fell sick, LP Mun would ask if he anchored himself with Dhamma or medicine. What was his religion: “medicine-ism” or Buddhism? However, when medicine was available and yet the monk refused to take it, LP Mun would scold him, “Why do you have to be stubborn? The medicine’s there, why won’t you take it?” LP Mun wanted his disciples to use their discernment to contemplate dukkha, at the same time having an appropriate sense of time and place: when it would be burdensome on others to insist on medicine, when it would be burdensome to refuse to take it.
After staying at Nong Paa Phue for three months, Than Phor Fuang realized that his health was suffering because he could not adjust to the food and weather there. He also felt a greater rapport with Than Phor Lee than with LP Mun — even though he respected LP Mun immensely — so he decided to move back to Chantaburi.
In December of 1976, Than Phor Fuang received his highest ecclesiastical title, that of the top level of Phra Khru, with the name, Phra Khru Ñanavisit. He passed away on 14 May 1986, while sitting in meditation, at a disciple’s meditation center (Dhammarangsi) in Hong Kong. He was 71 years old, having spent 48 years in the Saṅgha.
Towards the end of his life, Than Phor Fuang gave very few Dhamma talks, preferring to answer Dhamma questions one-on-one. Here are some excerpts from one of those few talks:
This practice is said to be akāliko — timeless. The Buddha’s teachings are timeless. The fact that there are no developments in our practice is because we have times. The Buddha says, “timeless”; we say there are times. Our times are more than many. Time for this, time for that, times for walking, times for sitting, times for sleeping, times for eating, times for talking — there are lots of them. Our life turns into nothing but times. So now let’s try practicing in a way that it becomes timeless. The truth will then appear in our minds — each and every one of us. Everything that’s ready to develop is already there. We don’t have to get it from anywhere else. Awareness itself — the “knowing” in the mind — is already there within us. So use your mindfulness to keep the breath in mind so that what’s already there will appear clearly, continually — and developments in the mind will appear as well.
We’ve got to be observant as much as possible. Use your mindfulness to keep the breath in mind — the breath that’s already there within you, that’s been there from the day you were born up to the present. The effort lies in taking what’s already there and keeping it continuous, without break, so that it grows, so that it’s steady and constant. It’ll then gain momentum. There will be strength in the breath. Developments will appear. Our in-andout breath will become timeless. It will appear continuously to our awareness. …
Other people can teach you only the outer skin, the rind, but as for what lies deeper inside, only you can lay down the law for yourself. You have to draw the line, being mindful, keeping track of what you do at all times. It’s like having a teacher following you around, in public and in private, keeping watch over you, alerting you, telling what to do and what not to do, making sure that you stay in line. If you don’t have this sort of teacher inside you, the mind is bound to stray offthe path and get into mischief, shoplifting all over town. That’s the way it is with the mind. So we have to draw the line to keep it in place. We can make it stay in place from morning to noon, or from noon to late afternoon — whatever the boundaries we set for it, we have to make it stay in line, to make it stay in school. Like a child in a schoolroom: We give it directions and set a goal for its work so that the results will be substantial and solid.
We have to keep training the mind in line with the path of our practice, and as a result it’ll get gradually more familiar with the work, bit by bit. It’ll keep getting more tractable, more tame, so that it wanders offonly occasionally, only once in a long, long while. It’ll rarely get lost. If we strap it down too tightly, it may struggle to get away. So we may have to put it on a long leash. But whether you keep it on a slack leash or a tight leash all depends on which technique you find works for you. The strategies needed for training the mind aren’t the same for everyone. Some people really have to force the mind, come down hard on it, go without water and food. But it all comes down to whatever works in keeping the mind within its proper bounds. …
Now, how do you use your powers of observation to get acquainted with the breath? Ask yourself: Do you know the breath yet, or not? Is the breath truly there, or not? If you can’t see whether the breath is true, look further in until it’s clearly there. There’s no trick, no mystery to it. It’s always true, right there. The important thing is whether or not you’re true.
Then that’s all there is to it — this little, tiny point. There aren’t a lot of complications.
Once that awareness is true, you simply maintain it, maintain that truth, your truth, continually. Keep it constantly in mind, and the developments in the mind will be able to continue developing. They’ll gradually grow stronger, and the mind will grow calm. Just be clear about what you’re doing. Don’t have any doubts. If you can doubt even your own breath, then there are no two ways about it: You’ll doubt everything. No matter what happens, you’ll be uncertain about it. So being true in this way is what will solve the problem of vicikicchā, the hindrance of uncertainty.
So reﬂect, ponder, investigate what’s going on inside yourself, as you’re sitting here practicing, to see why the mind isn’t experiencing any peace, why there’s no sense of physical or mental pleasure. Why is it? Why is the mind still restless and distracted? Set your mind on what you’re doing. Don’t let yourself have any doubts. Be straightforward and true in whatever you do, for everything comes down to whether or not you’re true.
The Chedi of Wat Dhammasathit, Rayong, and the Sīmā Hall with the Buddha seated on top of it.