Remembering Loung Ta

Written by Ven Tathālokā Bhikkhunī at the personal request of friend Anagarika Kemanthie Nandasena in the year 2009, 
reposted in Eulogy to Loung Ta on January 30, 2011

In Remembrance of Acarya Loung Ta Maha Boowa Nyanasampanno


Ever since seeing the book Straight from the Heart i'd had an interest in Acarya Maha Boowa. Although i'd never met him then, i kept a photo of him on my small personal shrine in my kuti amongst a few images of those i revered as my teachers, and felt heartened in my ascetical practice to look at it, full of practice energy.

It was the time of "IMF" the economic crash. Earlier on that year walking on tour (tudong/carita) through Thailand's Northeast i'd heard of him many times, and seen his photo on a number of forest monastery sala and Bot walls together with the image of Loung Por Mun. There were many stories of him.

Then my heart was still like a tiger hunting, in search of food - the food of the present awareness and direct teachings of a Master - the hunger for freedom from ignorance and suffering. For one familiar with the strong, blunt and sometimes warrior-like ways of the Korean mountain forest meditation tradition as i was, this was part of the life of the practitioner, and Ajahn Maha Boowa certainly had a sense of that valiant warrior mood, or at least so he portrayed himself, and strongly so.

I regularly dedicated the time of the New Year to retreat, it being the anniversary of my inspiration and going forth into monastic life. So that year, after the time of wandering i returned to Bangkok, and a Thai lady friend there offered her companionship and service in 8-precept time for my aspiration to visit Wat Pah Baan Taad.

Phoning beforehand, she inquired as to whether it were alright for a bhikkhuni to come and whether there was a place to stay. Whatever devata she spoke with, to my surprise, they told her that this was perfectly alright and that there was a women's section of the monastery were nuns stayed on retreat. We were unequivocally welcomed and even told that other bhikkhunis had been there before. So we made the plan to go.

Arriving one dusty afternoon in December i was impressed by the Loung Ta billboards around town. Making our way in the road to the monastery, equally impressive were the dana stalls that lined the last mile and enormous bus shelter, under which there were several tour buses. We were told by friends who came and joined us in walking that this was a daily event, people there from around the country, and that many days there were many more. Entering the monastery, then under the shade of trees, we were led to a place that felt its heart and core nearby the large and simple sala. It was a small covered area with pot for washing and dying robes on woodfire, nearby lines for robe drying, and an elder western monk sitting on a chair relaxedly in amsa and sabong surrounded by younger international monks on low stools and a number of international Asian upasakas and upasikas. When the Elder gestured me to come, i came to greet him together with my nekkhama friend, and introduced myself and her. And i learned that i was speaking to Loung Por Pañña, who i had heard of before. He was the first Western monk ordained in Thailand.

A young monk was there who i'd seen a few months back at Wat Pah Nanachat who friendly and politely asked if i'd been wandering since then. But then Loung Por Pañña questioned me how i had come to be there, and mentioned that there must have been some mistake in the previous phone call. He told me that 3 bhikkhunis from Indonesia had written asking to come, but that they were not allowed. And he told me that his teacher was very prominent and well known, politically involved, that all this was highly sensitive, and sorry, but that i really couldn't be seen there and had to leave fast.

So, we began to shift, preparing to leave. It was mentioned that there was another maechee gana aways up the road that we would still have time to walk to and arrive before dark, that it would probably be alright to bunk with them, but not sure, because bhikkhunis were perhaps a sensitive issue among the nuns as well. So we apologized, and said "alright then." "Sorry about any mixup. The phone call must have gotten lines crossed up somehow..." And, as i was just about to rise to go, my companion meanwhile looking mortified, another young monk came in at high speed. Not a common site.

He had a message from Loung Ta he said, explaining to me quickly that Loung Ta often knew by his roaming consciousness and psychic power what was going on around, or by word of devas, or that someone had mentioned to him our arrival. Anyhow, he'd got word of it, he knew what was going on, and there was the message that i/we could stay on for a few days in the women's section. In fact, the exact number of days that had been spoken about on the phone days before.

The message unfolded further: i was told that there was to be an early evening Dhamma gathering, that everyone would get together in the sala to listen to the Dhamma teaching, and that Loung Ta had directed that it was proper, as in the Buddha's time, that the bhikkhus sit on the left of the teacher and the bhikkhunis on the right of center where the Buddha image sits . So, then i was directed to come to the sala to that place at that time. It was also mentioned to me that there would be filming that was broadcast daily live and that there was a fundraising event going on daily for supporting the charitable causes of the royal family for which gold was being collected and money would be offered. There was a great attempt to explain about this uncommon fundraiser.

I was also told that it was common for Loung Ta to take the opportunity of the afternoon/early evening talk to give a razing to any monks who were slacking in their practice or to directly address their practice and kilesas publicly, so as to teach all, but anonymously, so that only that monk would know himself that he was directly being spoken to. And this was in fact my experience, although there was no doubt to my mind who was being addressed.

When Loung Ta entered, i was impressed to see that all bowed completely down to the ground in respect. And i felt his consciousness and perception sweeping ahead of him, finding me were i sat, and investigating this creature, this lumped bundle of aggregates that had come. I felt his interest, and saw reflected in my mind's eye what he saw: a characature of a almost cartoon-like distinctly female form beneath the robes, ugly and disgusting in the grossness and dirtyness of its orifices, skin, hair, sweat, teeth, rotten, repulsive, worthy of disgust... And this came to me like the throw of a baseball, as a sort of a challenge and a question, like "who and what are you that you have come here, o, ye female mass of oozing orifices?"

And, as it was the first thing that rose to mind, my meditation object of hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth and skin, as i was comfortable and familiar with it, arose like the soft and well worn glove, and tossed back that ball, instinctually.

And then there was a feeling of momentary satisfaction, of relief and release, of being able to breathe, and having passed the first round. It was OK. So, we all sat then, everyone with folded palms. And soon, Loung Ta began to speak.

There were many people there, the sala full, and camera on. The money tree was prominent which i was not used to yet in Thai culture. My nekkhama friend sat a little back to my side to translate for me. Loung Ta specifically directed that the talk be translated for me, that i should understand it. And if my friend could not do so, that i should seek another translation afterwards which would be available to me.

But only very little was translated then or after. Still it was plenty to galvanize me, and change my life.

In the beginning, there was the cryptic broaching comment, that "the bhikkhunis of the past and the bhikkhunis of the present are not the same."

I noticed that as he said it, in his acknowledgement, that there was a sort of a ripple throughout the crowd of interest in his acknowledgement and a relaxing of some tension that i felt on my side of the sala amongst those who had observed the brown-kasaya robed female form in front of them.

He then went on to give a talk on sila and adhisila or abhisila, mentioning the difference between the stage of keeping sila and keeping Vinaya in terms of studying its numbers and letters in black and white and the lived monastic life of adhisila. How sad that my translator did not understand what he was saying other than that he was recommending this to me, that this was what i should be focussing on cultivating now, which was the path of his teacher and the path of the real kammatthana bhikkhu and of the ancient and contemporary lineage and way of Arahantas. That adhisila this was key and crucial for entry into that way.

I felt a bit uncomfortable as if my brains were being publicly plucked. In my then past 7 or 8 years of Comparative Vinaya study and writing of a "A Bhikkhuni Handbook," I had been quite wrapped up in the letters and numbers of Vinaya, and it was true, a part of my reason for being there was the heartfelt wish to move into really fully living that practice in its depth which i had heard these monks exemplified. But i also understood that there were other monks there, whether past or present, who were also being spoken to and admonished, not only myself. And laypeople as well, to know and appreciate this heart of the monastic path.

Loung Ta also mentioned his advocacy of Ajahn Pañña, saying that i and the other foreigners should know that he fully understood what Loung Ta taught, and was capable of sharing that with us, guiding us, and answering our questions. That we should speak with him about our meditation practice and any other questions about the lived practice life. And that if that was not enough, or there were any questions that Ajahn Pañña could not address to our satisfaction, that i was welcome to question Loung Ta himself.

Later i was told that Loung Ta's health was not strong then. And Loung Por Pañña too told me that previously he too had cured himself of serious illness with herbal medicine, but that it had returned. He did not expect himself to live so very much longer, but seemed light and at ease about that. 

I was shown a secluded platform out at the far reaches of the women's section of forest near the crushed glass-topped high concrete boundary wall, and told the daily schedule. Also told that Loung Ta had directed that if i wished to come in for talks and all that i could, or that if i wished for solitude and seclusion, that this was also alright. That this time was a gift to me for my practice, and that i should make best use of it. I was also warned that not only the forest chickens, but also Loung Ta's consciousness roamed at night to check up on the practioners, as well as regular nightly taking audience with the devas. It was mentioned that if i had any questions or needed assistance that he might also be directly supportive through his pervasion of consciousness.

The first morning early, someone came to bring me for pindapata, but they were confused and brought me to join the other maechees and laypeople amongst the stalls to offer food to the monks. I was amazed at the number of people there, compared to the not large number of monks who emerged for pindapat, hearing that many of the monks practiced fasting with allowables regularly, so as to avoid all the food and crowds and have seclusion. I excused myself from the offering line, explaining it was not proper for me as a bhikkhuni to join in the offering, to the confusion of many and sudden shift in understanding of a few.

Later i inquired about pindapata, and a message came to me from Loung Ta that the monks would share with me what they collected when they returned from their almsround, and that an 8-preceptor would bring that to me. She was also directed to tell me about Maechee Kaew, and another laywoman who came there, to Wat Pah Ban Taad, to acheive Arahanta and Arahanta Magga Phala with Loung Ta's dedicated helpful assistance before she died of cancer. That i should feel and know Loung Ta's great compassion to the nuns and completely dedicated female practitioners.

So, i came forth to a small sala in the women's section each morning were what the monks sent from their almsround was brought and offered. And then i returned to my platform where i found a comfortable routine of walking and sitting as the shadows, warmth and cold of day and night rotated. Other than the bitter cold at night on the platform, it was comfortable and peaceful. I felt well supported and developed seclusion. As this routine was conducive, i came only once to speak at length to Loung Por Pañña about meditation, which was interesting and cleared up a number of things, but other than that i utterly avoided the people and crowds and the women's sala and gathering places, preferring to stay quitely. I felt that this was with Loung Ta's blessing and appreciation. When this feeling and perception arose, someone suddenly appeared coming up to me in the forest from Loung Ta to confirm that this was so.

I left very quietly at the end of my scheduled retreat time, with appreciation. At the time of others' rest and the emptiness of the public space, going to pay my respects in the second floor of the sala to the relics and photos of the Arahantas, and then to Loung Por Pañña. And walked away very quietly and peacefully.

And that was all. There were attempts to draw me into controversial and debating conversation while i was there about various things: bhikkhunis, lay women's enlightenment, Arahants shedding tears, the gold and royal fundraising, the quality and change of the forest ascetic way of life, ect. I largely sought to avoid entanglement in all of these conversations during that time, but just took to retreat quietly. And it was a good retreat time, for which i still have appreciation.

My overall feeling and perception from Loung Ta Maha Boowa was, despite controversy and politics, and various things before and after that time, that then, in direct meeting, he engaged with me in an interested and respectful way as a practitioner, with respect for the upasampada ordination, as well as a reasonably-stated mention about the then modern state of affairs amongst the bhikkhunis that he percieved in general, as well as myself in particular. All other things aside, about that time, i had no complaint with him, but just the opposite. I also remember Ajahn Pañña with appreciation for his way, his long practice, and his extensively going over his knowledge of meditation practices with utter sincerity and dedicated goodwill despite his bodily pains.

Evam, for now. I hope that this may be useful.


In loving kindness,

Tathālokā Bhikkhunī

Northern California


Post Script. Loung Por Pañña passed away not so long after my return from Asia to the USA, as his perception of his own illness' final return was correct. Loung Ta Maha Boowa's health rallied once again; he now living around another decade more since then. I remember them both with great gratitude. My special gratitude to Loung Ta Maha Boowa for his respect for the practice, for his intrepitude, and for his no-holds-barred compassionate honesty. I credit him and his well-timed and well-placed words with my own shift and determination to move towards a new realm of not only study, but in depth and full practice of the monastic discipline of the Vinaya, to the development of the Adhisila that he so succinctly and pointedly recommended.