Than Phor Lee Dhammadharo (1907 – 1961)
The following short biographical account is extracted from the Introduction written by Phra Ajaan Ṭhānissaro to the Autobiography of Than Phor Lee. The reader is strongly encouraged to read this book in full, as it is Than Phor Lee’s personal account of his life. It helps the reader to fully appreciate the trials and tribulations of the true practitioners of the Kammaṭṭhāna tradition, who put their lives on the line in order to attain the goal of the deathless, as taught by Lord Buddha himself.
Than Phor Lee was one of the foremost teachers in the Thai forest ascetic tradition of meditation founded at the turn of the twentieth century by LP Sao Kantasilo and LP Mun Bhūridatta. His life was short but eventful. Known for his skill as a teacher and his mastery of supranatural powers, he was the first to bring the ascetic tradition out of the forests of the Mekhong basin and into the mainstream of Thai society in central Thailand.
The year before his death, he was hospitalized for two months with a heart ailment and so took the opportunity to dictate his autobiography. He chose to aim the story at his followers — people who were already acquainted with him but didn’t know him well enough — and he selected his material with a double purpose, choosing incidents he encountered both in the forest and in the centers of human society. He presents the life of meditation as one of adventure — where truth is a quality of heart, rather than of ideas, and the development of the mind is a matter of life and death — and it is in this that a large part of the book’s educational and entertainment value lies.
Than Phor Lee’s method of drawing lessons from his experiences is typical of Thai meditations teachers — i.e., he rarely draws them explicitly. One notable exception is the fine passage towards the end where he discusses the benefits of living a wanderer’s life in the forest, but otherwise he leaves it up to his readers to draw their own lessons from the incidents he relates. Rather than handing you lessons on a platter, he wants you to be earnest enough in your desire to learn to search for and find useful lessons no matter where you look. When you get used to being taught in this way, the pay-off is that you can learn from everything. As Than Phor Lee says himself, there are lessons to be learned from animals, trees, and even vines.
Some readers will be taken aback by the amount of space Than Phor Lee gives to signs, portents, and other supranatural events. Things of this sort tend to be downplayed in the laundered versions of Theravada Buddhism usually presented in the West — in which the Buddha often comes off as a Bertrand Russell or Fritz Perls in robes — and admittedly they are not the essence of what the Buddha had to teach. Still, they are an area that many people encounter when they explore the mind and where they often go astray for lack of reliable guidance. Than Phor Lee had a great deal of experience in this area and many useful lessons to teach. He shows by example which sorts of experiences to treat simply as curiosities, which to take seriously, and how to test the experiences that seem to have important messages.
In my many conversations with his students, I have learned that Than Phor Lee limited his narrative to only the milder events of this sort. He often deals so much in understatement that it is possible to read through some of the incidents and not realize that anything out of the ordinary is happening.
When the book was first printed after his death, many of his followers were disappointed in it for just this reason, and a number of them got together to write an expanded version of Than Phor Lee’s life that included many of the more amazing events they had experienced in his presence. Fortunately — from Than Phor Lee’s perspective at least — this manuscript soon disappeared.
To be frank, what first drew me to Than Phor Lee, aside from the clarity and subtlety of his teachings, were the tales I had heard of his powers and personality. My teacher, Than Phor Fuang Jotiko, was a close disciple of his, and much of my early education as a monk consisted of listening to his stories of his adventures with Than Phor Lee. For me, if the autobiography had lacked the drama of the event in Wat Supat or the panache of his encounter with Mae Fyyn (having her light him a cigarette as one of her first acts after he had cured her paralysis), it wouldn’t have been Ajaan Lee.
However, I should say something here about the miracles surrounding relics that play a large role in the latter part of the book. There is an old tradition in Buddhism that many of the bodily relics of the Buddha and his arahant disciples transformed into small pellet-like objects that come and go of their own accord. The Theravadan version of this tradition dates at least to medieval Sri Lanka and may go further back than that. There are old books that classify the various types of relics by shape and colour, identifying which ones come from which parts of the Buddha’s body and which ones from which disciple. The tradition is still very much alive in Thailand, especially now that the bones of many of the dead masters of the forest ascetic tradition have turned into relics. As for relics of the Buddha, I have talked to many people who have seen them come and go, and I have had such experiences myself, although nothing as dramatic as Than Phor Lee’s.
I mention all this, not to make a case for the existence and provenance of the relics, but simply to point out that Than Phor Lee was not alone in having such experiences, and that the rational approach of Theravada Buddhism has its uncanny side as well.
At any rate, my feeling is that Than Phor Lee mentioned the issue of the relics for two reasons:
1) He was compelled to because it was part of the controversy that surrounded his name during his lifetime, and his students would have felt that something was seriously amiss if he didn’t provide some explanation of the topic. The incident at Wat Supat was not the only time that relics appeared while he was teaching meditation to groups of people, and in fact he once mentioned to Than Phor Fuang that the frequency with which this happened often irked him: Just as his students would be settling their minds in concentration, these things would appear and that would be the end of the meditation session.
2) As Than Phor Lee mentions in the autobiography, he felt that he had a kammic debt requiring him to build a chedi to enshrine relics of the Buddha and he needed to convince his supporters of the importance of the project.
Here is some further information extracted from The Autobiography of Phra Ajaan Lee.
Than Phor Lee was born at 9pm, on Thursday, 31 January 1907, Baan Nawng Sawng Hawng (Double Marsh Village), Yaang Yo Phaab township, Muang Saam Sib district, Ubon Ratchathani province. His original name was Chalee; his parents were Pao and Phuay Nariwong. He had five brothers and four sisters. His mother passed away when he was eleven, leaving him and a little sister whom he had to care for. The rest of his siblings had already left home to look for work. He and his sister had to help his father in the rice fields. He started school at twelve and learned enough to read and write. He failed his elementary exams but kept on studying until he was seventeen. He left school to look for work, his main aim in life at that point being to earn money.
At age 20, he returned home to ordain, receiving ordination in his home village with nine others on Visakha Puja day. However, whenever he compared the level of behaviour at his home village monastery with what he was reading in the books on the Dhamma and the discipline, he grew discouraged. In his words, “Comparing what I was studying with the life I and the monks around me were leading made me feel ill at ease, because instead of observing the duties of the contemplative life, we were out to have a good time: playing chess, wrestling, playing match games with girls whenever there was a wake, raising birds, holding cock fights, sometimes even eating in the evenings.”
After two years, he met a student of LP Mun, Phra Ajaan Bot, who had greatly impressed him. As he said, ”What I saw — his way of life, the manner in which he conducted himself — really pleased me. I asked him who his teachers were, and he answered, ‘LP Mun and LP Sao. At the moment, LP Mun has come down from Sakhon Nakhorn and is staying at Wat Burapha in the city of Ubon.’ Learning this, I hurried home to my temple, thinking all the way, ‘This must be what I’ve been waiting for.’ A few days later I went to take leave of my father and preceptor.” Initially his father and preceptor were reluctant to let him go, but he insisted on going and finally they gave their permission.
He stayed with LP Mun for two short periods, including one rains retreat in Chieng Mai where he was LP Mun’s attendant and only student.
Than Phor Lee lived a short but extremely illustrious life. Among the disciples of LP Mun, he was the most prolific in putting the Kammaṭṭhāna tradition’s teachings in writing (see The Teachings of Phra Ajaan Lee Volume 1 : Collected Writings). He wrote a total of ten books on various aspects of the teachings and practice of the Dhamma and meditation. He was also the first of the Forest Masters to bring the teachings of the tradition to mainstream Thai society in central Thailand. After founding Wat Paa Khlong Kung in in Chanthaburi in 1935, and Wat Asokaram, just outside of Bangkok, in 1954, he was given the ecclesiastical rank of Chao Khun, with the title Phra Suddhidhammaraṅsī Gambhīramedhācariya in 1957. He passed away on the night of 25 April 1961, at the age of 55.
Even though he set up large monasteries, he continued to retreat regularly into the forest during his last years. As he explained, “Living in the forest, as I like to do, has given me a lot to think about… It’s a quiet place, where you can observe the inﬂ uences of the environment. Take the wild rooster: If it went around acting like a domestic rooster, the cobras and mongooses would make a meal of it in no time… So it is with us: If we spend all our time wallowing in companionship, we’re like a knife or a hoe stuck down into the dirt — it’ll rust easily. But if it’s constantly sharpened on a stone or a file, rust won’t have a chance to take hold. So we should learn always to be on the alert…
“Living in the forest, the mind becomes confident. The Dhamma you’ve studied — or even that you haven’t studied — will make itself clear, because nature is the teacher. It’s like the sciences of the world, which every country has used to develop amazing powers: None of their inventions or discoveries came out of textbooks. They came because scientists studied the principles of nature, all of which appear right here in the world. As for the Dhamma, it’s just like science: It exists in nature. When I realized this, I no longer worried about studying the scriptures and I was reminded of the Lord Buddha and his disciples: They studied and learned from the principles of nature. None of them followed a textbook.’
“For these reasons, I’m willing to be ignorant when it comes to texts and scriptures. Some kinds of trees sleep at night and are awake during the day. Others sleep by day and are awake by night.”
A frequently recurring theme in Than Phor Lee’s Dhamma talks was that the Dhamma is a skill to be mastered, in the same way that a manual skill is to be mastered, through using one’s powers of observation and ingenuity. Here, for example, is an example of how he developed this analogy:
What does discernment come from? You might compare it with learning to become a potter, a tailor, or a basket weaver. The teacher will start out by telling you how to make a pot, sew a shirt or a pair of pants, or weave different patterns, but the proportions and beauty of the object you make will have to depend on your own powers of observation. Suppose you weave a basket and then take a good look at its proportions, to see if it’s too short or too tall. If it’s too short, weave another one, a little taller, and then take a good look at it to see if there’s anything that still needs improving, to see if it’s too thin or too fat. Then weave another one, better-looking than the last. Keep this up until you have one that’s as beautiful and well-proportioned as possible, one with nothing to criticize from any angle. This last basket you can take as your standard. You can now set yourself up in business.
What you’ve done is to learn from your own actions. As for your previous efforts, you needn’t concern yourself with them any longer. Throw them out. This is a sense of discernment that arises of its own accord, an ingenuity and sense of judgment that come not from anything your teachers have taught you, but from observing and evaluating on your own the object that you yourself have made.
The same holds true in practicing meditation. For discernment to arise, you have to be observant as you keep track of the breath and to gain a sense of how to adjust and improve it so that it’s well-proportioned throughout the body — to the point where it ﬂ ows evenly without faltering, so that it’ s comfortable in slow and out slow, in fast and out fast, long, short, heavy, or reﬁ ned. Get so that both the inbreath and the out-breath are comfortable no matter what way you breathe, so that — no matter when — you immediately feel a sense of ease the moment you focus on the breath. When you can do this, physical results will appear: a sense of ease and lightness, open and spacious. The body will be strong, the breath and blood will ﬂ ow unobstructed and won’t form an opening for disease to step in. The body will be healthy and awake.
As for the mind, when mindfulness and alertness are the causes, a still mind is the result. When negligence is the cause, a mind distracted and restless is the result. So we must try to make the causes good, in order to give rise to the good results we’ve referred to. If we use our powers of observation and evaluation in caring for the breath, and are constantly correcting and improving it, we’ll develop awareness on our own, the fruit of having developed our concentration higher step by step.
When the mind is focused with full circumspection, it can let go of concepts of the past. It sees the true nature of its old preoccupations, that there’s nothing lasting or certain about them. As for the future lying ahead of us, it’s like having to sail a small boat across the great wide sea: There are bound to be dangers on all sides. So the mind lets go of concepts of the future and comes into the present, seeing and knowing the present.
The mind stands firm and doesn’t sway. Unawareness falls away.
Knowledge arises for an instant and then disappears, so that you can know that there in the present is a void.
You don’t latch on to world-fabrications of the past, world-fabrications of the future, or dhamma-fabrications of the present. Fabrications disappear. Avijjā — counterfeit, untrue awareness — disappears. ‘True’ disappears. All that remains is awareness: ‘buddha… buddha…’
Bodily fabrication, i.e., the breath; verbal fabrication, i.e., thoughts that formulate words; and mental fabrication, i.e., thinking, all disappear. But awareness doesn’t disappear. When bodily fabrication moves, you’re aware of it. When verbal fabrication moves, you’re aware of it. When mental fabrication moves, you’re aware of it, but awareness isn’t attached to anything it knows. In other words, no fabrications can affect it. There’s simply awareness. At a thought, the mind appears, fabrications appear. If you want to use them, there they are. If not, they disappear on their own, by their very nature. Awareness is above everything else. This is release.
Meditators have to reach this sort of awareness if they’re to get good results. In training the mind, this is all there is. Complications are a lot of fuss and bother, and tend to bog down without ever getting to the real point.
The thirteen-spired Phra Dhutanga Chedi symbolising the thirteen ascetic practices at Wat Asokaram, Samut Prakaan, Thailand.