Sakon Nakhon’s Holy Monks

SAKON NAKHON PROVINCE: FOREST MONASTERIES AND VENERATED THUDONG MONKS
text and pictures©SJON HAUSER — posted February 2018

A large part of Sakon Nakhon Province in Northeast Thailand consists of the hills and sand stone formations of the Phu Phan Range. Until the 1950s extensive forests extended over the hills and lowlands. They were a favorite place of the thudong monks, a new generation of Buddhist monks that preferred wandering and meditation in remote caves and hill forests above studying the scriptures and passing the exams in the temples in the towns and cities. In the 1900s, these wandering monks were a rare sight in the countryside. They sometimes frightened the peasants of remote hamlets as these might believe that the lonesome figures clad in brown robes were roaming ghosts. But in the 1920s and 1930s the thudong tradition had become widespread. Many of these monks were of Lao descent and born in villages in the northeastern region of Thailand. And many of them were inspired by the examplary thudong way of life and the teachings of Achan Man Phurithat (1870-1949), a Thammayut monk from Ubon Ratchathani Province (for a biographical sketch of this legendary Buddhist teacher see: click here — in Dutch).
When in their forties or fifties, many of these monks settled in remote places and established a forest hermitage. Some of them attracted large numbers of disciples and became famous as meditation teachers. Others were much appraised for their help overcoming the many problems of the local people. Quite a number of these wise men were so widely respected that they became celebrities and were usually referred to as achan (teacher) luang pho (venerated father), or luang pu (venerated grandfather).
After the monks’ demise, the followers of the most famous of these great teachers built memorial stupas in honor of them, usually in the remote places where they once had settled in hermitages. Nearly all of these ‘stupas’ are mondop (hexagonal structures) or similar buildings with on top a tiered structure resembling a lotus bud. These buildings house a small museum dedicated to the exemplary life of the late monk—usually a gallery of old photographs of the monk and the thudong movement and an exhibition of the few attributes in the possession during his lifetime. Some thirty or more of these ‘famous monk museums’ are scattered over the Isan. In Sakon Nakhon Province alone, I came across at least five of such places. They are worth a visit, as it is interesting to learn more about their life and their struggle to find ‘the truth’ in the wilderness and their desire not to be reborn again. Moreover, most of these museums have a particularly fine location, e.g. at the edge of a sand stone cliff or amidst dense hill forest. In 2017, I visited four of these memorials in the province Sakon Nakhon.

Figure 1. Map of Sakon Nakhon Province. 1. Museum of Achan Man. 2. Museum of Luang Pu Thet. 3. Museum of Luang Pu Fan. 4. Museum of Luang Pu Wan.

1. MUSEUM OF ACHAN MAN PHURITHAT (BHURIDATTA) (1870-1949) IN PHANNA NIKHOM DISTRICT

Figure 2. A. The new Achan Man Memorial Stupa annex museum at Wat Pa Phurithatto in Phanna Nikhom District, Sakon Nakhon. B. An old picture of Achan Man on a wall of the stupa. C. A painting of Achan Man with a group of followers in a secluded forest setting—Man is preaching or teaching meditation. D. This painting depicts an event (or dream) that occurred to Man when he was staying at the Sarika Cave in Nakhon Nayok Province. Villagers had warned him that the cave was inhabited by a malicious, giant demon. One night that Man was suffering from fever the demon appeared and wanted to chase the unwanted intruder away, but Man refused to go. The demon then intended to destroy the monk with brute violence, but by concentrating on the Dhamma (the Truth, Buddha’s teachings) Man had become invulnerable, and the demon retreated. Man was about 40 years old when he succeeded to overcome the treat of this demon by merely concentrating the mind in the right way. It is believed that following this event he had become a ‘non-returner’ (anagami), a person who after his death will not be reborn again.

In 1945, Achan Man (1870-1949), then 76 years old, retired in the Nong Phue forest hermitage in Na Nai Subdistrict, Phanna Nikhom District, (western) Sakon Nakhon Province. A few years later, he fell seriously ill and he died in 1949 near the provincial capital of Sakon Nakhon. A memorial building annex museum dedicated to this great teacher was later established in Wat Pa Sutthawat in Sakon Nakhon’s Mueang District. As the name indicates, this is a forest monastery (wat pa), but when I visited it in 2002 the suburbs of the city had already engulfed the place (see: click here)
The Nong Phue forest hermitage became an official Thammayut monastery in 1982 and was named Wat Pa Phurithat (Phurithat Forest Temple) after Man’s Thai-ised Pali name ‘Phurithat’ (also the name of a legendary naga). Only recently a lotus-topped mondop had been completed in the forested compound of the temple. Decades ago this temple was situated amidst extensive forests, at present its surroundings mainly consist of paddies and rubber plantations. I visited the remote place in October 2017, and was delighted by the sober way the interior has been furnished with reminders of the important events that took place in the life of this great teacher.

How to get there?
From Sakon Nakhon City head in the direction of Somdet and Kalasin on Highway 213. From the intersection with Highway 223 (a few km outside the city) it is about 20 km to the turn off that leads to the museum. Turn right onto Rural Road Sakon Nakhon 2052 and follow it for about 25 km until you arrive at the entrance gate of Wat Pa Phurithat Thirawat where the new museum is surrounded by young forest. A visit to this forest monastry can be easily combined with a visit to Achan Fan’s Museum. Continue on Rural Road Sakon Nakhon 2052 for another 25 km until it ends at the junction with Highway 22. Turn right onto the highway and follow it for about 4 km to the town of Phanna Nikhom. There turn left into the town and follow the road sign to the Phiphitthaphan Achan Fan Acharo, less than 2 km away from the highway. To return to Sakon Nakhon just follow Highway 22 for less than 40 km. See also the map in Fig. 1.

2. MUSEUM OF LUANG PU THET RANGSI (1902-1994)

Figure 3. A. The Luang Pu Thet Museum at Wat Tham Kham. B. A portret of Luang Pu Thet in the memorial stupa of Wat Tham Kham. C. A picture of a meeting of Thet (left) with Luang Pu Waen (right). D. Some of the attributes thatThet used during his monkhood, including an alms bowl, a kettle for boiling water and brown yarn for repairing the robes and other garments of monks.

Luang Pu Thet is one of the best known and most influencial followers of Achan Man. When Man became the abbot of Chiang Mai’s Wat Chedi Luang, Thet was also in the northern region. He spent a number of years in the mountains, often living in close contact with the local ‘hill tribes’, in particular the Lahu. Interestingly, in his autobiography he also writes about having met the primitive Spirits of the Yellow Leaves people in the wilderness of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (probably different from the Mlabri in Nan and Phrae). Thet is the only of the well-known disciples of Achan Man who has ventured deep into the southern peninsula (he spent many years in Phuket). Thet is the author of a number of books on Buddhism, including an autobiography with first hand information on the history of the movement of the Isan thudong monks.
The last years of his life he was at Wat Hin Mak Peng along the Mekong in Nong Khai’s Si Chiang Mai District where he has been visited by King Bhumibol. In 1996, two years after his death in 1994, his cremation at the temple attracted hundreds of thousands people from all regions of Thailand—including members of the royal family. The place became a top destination for Thai religious tourists during the following years, but its popularity is now in decline. On the other hand, a more recently built stupa commemorating Luang Pu Thet at Wat Tham Kham in Phanna Nikhom District of Sakon Nakhon Province is receiving growing numbers of visitors. This temple is located at the edge of a sand stone cliff at about 500 m above sea level, and is surrounded by dense forest.

How to get to Wat Tham Kham?
From Sakon Nakhon City follow Highway 22 in the direction of Udon Thani. From the intersection with Highway 223 it is about 16 km to the turn off to Wat Tham Kham and Phu Phaek: turn left onto Rural Road Sakon Nakhon 2016. After about 5 km the road curves to the right. At his curve is the turn off (at the left) to Phu Phaek (3 km), but continue on Rural Road 2016—from the curve it is about 4 km to the junction with Rural Road Sakon Nakhon 5058. Turn left onto 5058, and it is another 4 km to the cliff where Wat Tham Kham is located.
A trip to Wat Tham Kham can be easily combined with a visit to the nearby ruins of the Prasat Phu Phaek, a 10th century Khmer-style sand stone shrine. At the curve mentioned above, turn left—it is an ascend of 2 km to Wat Phra That Phu Phaek, a temple at the foot of 200 m long stairs amidst impressive forest that lead to the Khmer shrine at the top of the hill.

3. MUSEUM OF ACHAN FAN AJARO (1898-1977)

Figure 4. A. The Achan Fan Museum in Phanna Nikhom District of Sakon Nakhon Province. B. A bronze image of Fan inside the museum. C. A picture of Fan in the early days of the ‘thudong movement’. D. A picture of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit bringing a visit to Fan on 14 October, 1975 (2518 BE).

Luang Pu Fan was born in a well-to-do Phu Thai family in the village of Ban Muang Khai in Sakon Nakhon’s Phanna Nikhom District. His father was a village headman and his grandfather was the Phu Thai ruler of Mueang Phanna Nikhom. The Phu Thai in the province were descendants of Phu Thai from Laos who had settled in (were deported to) the northeastern region in the early 19th century. They were governed by hereditary rulers like Fan’s relatives. But these rulers lost their power, prestige and economic independence during Fan’s childhood when King Chlalongkorn introduced a strong centralized administration in the region. Fan’s education started in the village temple, where he was ordained before Bangkok’s monastic education system spread to his village. King Chulalongkorn’s politics resulted in the rapid decline of Fan’s family. Fan observed how low many of the local nobles had fallen—a few had even become murderers and the sight of his relatives in prison had made such a strong impact on him that he took to the robes. Fan’s Phu Thai preceptor taught Fan to meditate as soon as he was ordained. At the end of the rains the abbot took Fan and other young monks on a thudong (a long foot trip).
Fan first met Achan Man in 1920, when Man stayed near Ban Muang Khai, Fan’s natal village in Phanna Nikhom District. Fan was impressed by Man’s clear articulation of the Buddha’s teachings. He wanted to become Man’s disciple, but lacking proper thudong gear, he could not follow him right away. Later Fan became a follower of Achan Sing, another important teacher in the early thudong movement.
Once Fan fell in love with an attractive young woman and knew he was in deep trouble. He confided his teacher, Achan Sing, that his mind was beyond his control. Sing locked Fan up in the ordination hall of the temple where they stayed and insisted that he meditate on the loathsomeness or impurity of the body until he overcame his sexual desire. After a week of intensive meditation practice, Fan came to the conclusion that the woman must have been his mate in a former existence, and once he realized this, he could detach himself and get her off his mind. This account also tells us about Fan’s (and nearly all Thai Buddhists’) belief in rebirth and the strong influence/impact of past karmas.
As a follower of Sing, Fan became involved with a chain of events that finally led to a ‘split’ in the movement of the Isan thudong monks. Uan Tisso, an academic monk and the Sangha head monthon Ubon (the southern part of the Isan) was as well known for his administrative skills as for his contempt for wandering meditation monks. He believed that a monk’s main duty was to teach and serve in a monastery. A group of thudong monks (including Sing, Pin, Thet and Fan) had been entrusted various administrative duties by Uan, but when Pin fell ill, they could not take up these duties and decided to spend the rains retreat at a forest temple. Uan saw this as unwillingness to study and an obstacle to the integration of the Isan Sangha into modern state Buddhism. After the rains Man arrived there with 70 monks and novices to see Fan. They held a meeting and discussed which mueangs they should go next. The majority wanted to go south toward mueang Ubon to spread the dhamma. They dispersed and, traveling along separate routes, eventually regrouped in a village in Ubon.
When Uan heard about their stay in Ubon, he ordered district officers to chase them away. Villagers could even face arrest if they gave food to the monks. When a district officer arrived, Sing, the senior monk of the group, and Fan negotiated in vain. All monks, including Sing, Pin, and Fan, and more than 100 pha khao (laymen and laywomen who were followers of the monks and clad in white) were detained. Later Fan had a vision in which he saw the land where he sat split wide open into two territories with no bridge between them. According to Kamala Tiyavanich (1997) this can be interpreted that the chasm between the thudong monks and the official Buddhism was too broad to cross. Later the conflict was compromised and Fan continued his wanderings. The incident had probably also triggered a schism among Man’s disciples, and had upset Man so much that he moved to Chiang Mai far away from the mainstream of the movement.
Sing, Fan and many other thudong monks were co-opted to promote Thammayut policy and to help sangha authorities in the Northeast. Once they entered into a working relationship with the local officials, many of them began to stay the rains retreats in temples in the cities. For instance, Fan spent 12 rains retreats in a row in Sattharuam Forest Monastery in the town of Khorat, and strayed away from the example set by Achan Man—Man later addressed them as “Dandy Venerables” referring to their bright new yellow robes and the lid of Fan’s new alms bowl, which was inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Fan was well versed in the medical value of indigenous herbs and the powers of concentration to cure illness. In 1944 he had to take care of the two elder, senior monks, Uan and Pin, who were ill. Until the early 1950s, the Thammayut elders in Bangkok did not really see the Lao thudong monks of the Northeast as a significant part of the Thammayut order. Local people began to support meditation monks in the 1950s because of the way Wat Mahathat, the center of the Mahanikai order, was promoting meditation practice. Seeing the success of the Mahanikai’s program of popularizing Vipassana meditation throughout the country, Wat Bowonniwet (headquarter of the Thammayut order) engaged in the counter campaign of popularizing and celebrating the achievements of the provincial forest meditation teachers like Achan Man, Achan Fan, Luang Pu Waen, and Achan Maha Bua, who are all of the Thammayut Sect.
In the mid 1970s, after the royal family visited some of Man’s disciples (among them Fan) and many forest monks became well known nationwide. The upper echelon of society began to seek them out. Writes Tiyavanich: ‘Within less than a century, thudong monks had risen from the bottom of the national sangha hierarchy to the top.’
Achan Fan’s Museum and Memorial Stupa is at a forest monastery in Phanna Sikhon District, not far from Fan’s natal village.

How to get there?
You can first visit Man’s new museum and subsequently head for Achan Fan’s museum and memorial. For directions see above in the section on Achan Man. If you want to skip Man’s memorial and want to go directly to Fan’s Museum, then follow Highway 22 from Sakon Nakhon in the direction of Udon Thani. It is less than 40 km to the town of Phanna Nikhom. There turn right into town and follow the road signs to the museum.

4. MUSEUM OF LUANG PU WAN UTTAMO (1922-1980)

Figure 5. Sign in front of the memorial stupa: Phiphitthaphan Atborikhan Phra Udom Sang Worawisutthithen Phra Achan Wan Uttamo.

Figure 6. A. A standing Achan Wan in gilded relief on the ouyer wall of the mondop. B. The cruciform building. C. A picture taken in 1979: King Bhumibol visiting Achan Wan.

Like Achan Fan, Achan Wan Uttamo (1922-1980) was from Phu Thai descent and born in a village in present day Sawaeng Daen Din District. His parents did not speak Thai, Wan learned it later. Wan was raised by his grandparents after his mother died. The land beyond was forested. Wan was ten when the first government school in his village was established. He was ordained as Buddhist monk before Bangkok’s monastic education spread to the village.
In 1945, when Wan was a 23-year old monk, he came across Achan Man by chance. Wandering in the northeastern provinces, he came to the deserted temple of the isolated community of Ban Nong Phue. The place was being restored and turned into a forest hermitage under the supervision of the monk Lui Janthasaro (1901-1989). Lui was a disciple of Achan Man, and Man, by then 76 years old, was invited to settle in the hermitage. After Man took up residence at the Nong Phue forest hermitage, Wan, who stayed at a nearby village temple, came regularly to the the great master’s sermons. And during the rain retreats of that year Wan was allowed to reside at the hermitage and Wan stayed there with the teacher until Man’s death in 1949.
Wan continued to live as a thudong monk and got a number of disciples. In 1961 Wan and his followers spent a few months in an isolated cave on the mountain Phu Lek in the western part of the Phu Phan Range (in Sakon Nakhon’s Song Dao District). Wan established a hermitage near the cave, not so far from Fan’s hermitage in Sawaeng Daen Din District.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Song Dao, Sawang Daen Din and adjacent Wanon Niwat District had become the most sensitive ‘pink areas’ of the Northeast that were dominated by communist rebels. Dictator and strongman Sarit Thanarat (1957-1963) started ruthless campaigns against all who appeared to show leftist sympathies. In 1961 (1960), Khraung Chandawong a former member of parlement from Sakon Nakhon Province, was executed in front of Sawang Daen Din’s police office as he was a suspected communist who wanted to make Thailand a communist state. Following the execution, Khraung’s widow and her three children fled into the jungle to join the comminist rebels. One of the children, a daughter, would later become a leader of the communists in that part of the Isan and known Rassamee (“Ray of Light”) she became the most wanted woman of Thailand.

Figure 7. (left) A road sign in Sakon Nakhon Province giving direction to the Achan Wan Museum.

In those years the presence of American advisers and air force steadily increased in the region. Half a dozen of large military air bases were constructed which were used to launch air strikes on Vietnam. Two important bases were near the towns of Udon Thani and Nakhon Phanom. A new highway, the Freedom Highway (Highway 22), was constructed to connect both bases by land. The new strategical road crossed Sawang Din Daen District. American helicopters were also employed to transport combat forces fighting the communist insurgents in Thailand.
The Phu Phan Range in Sakon Nakhon was one of the strongholds of communist insurgency during the war between the communists and the Thai army and police with the districts of Sawang Daen Din and Song Dao belonging to the hotbeds. Wan and many other monks in the area tried to keep low profile in order not to get involved with the civilian war. From 1961 tot 1974 they used to spend the rains retreats in the hermitage at the cave. In 1964, local administrators had become suspicious and they believed that Wan sympathized with the communists and that the samnak (hermitage) was in use as a depot for supplies for the insurgents. On the other hand, some communists suspected that Wan was a spy working for the government. Thudong monks, such as Wan and Chuan (for the latter see: post xxx, in Dutch), were suspicious because they lived in the same areas as the insurgents.
Moreover, Wan’s native village was on the government’s black list of villages sympathizing or cooperating with the communists. In general, villagers did not trust officials, such as policemen, army men or civilian administrators, as they used to looked down upon the villagers and exploited them. On the other hand, villagers respected monks such as Wan who sincerely tried to help them to improve their life. This also made the thudong monks suspicious in the eyes of the officials.
In the 1970s the king and other members of the royal family visited many of the famous Thammayut thudong monks. In 1975 Wan was visited in his cave hermitage by the King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. This was in the catastrophic year that neigbours countries Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia fell to the communists.
Wan was not sympathetic to Thailand’s corrupt bureaucrats and the violent way they suppressed the communism. He often stated that the kilesas (Thai: khilet, craving) was the true enemy
In a sermon in 1979, a few months before his death, Wan told his audience that in the ‘present wordly society dat in the people longe for revenge and know how they have to kill, exploit, extort, suppress and control—such people are hailed as genius. But according to the Buddhist teachings only those who are able to kill their kilesas and beat their greed and control their mind are considered intelligent.’ Many thudong monks, such as Wan, considered poverty, injustice, exploitation, intolerance, dictatorship, corruption, hate and discrimination as the disruptive forces in the society.
After Wan’s untimely death in 1980—together with Achan Chuan he was killed when on their way to Bangkok the helicopter crashed—a memorial stupa housing a museum was built on Phu Pha Lek Mountain, but a number of religious shrines had been built on the mountain earlier. The top of Phu Pha Lek is densely forested (oak forest), and at an elevation of over 600 m there is a fine view point (Pha Dong Ko). The place is off the beaten track, but definitely worth a visit.

How to get there?
Fast route: From Sakon Nakhon follow Highway 22 in the direction of Udon Thani. 82 km (north)west of Sakon Nakhon you will arrive at the town of Sawang Daen Din. There turn left onto Highway 2342. It is 19 km to the little town of Song Dao. There turn left on Rural Road Sakon Nakhon 2021, follow the road for about 2 km and then turn right onto a road that soon ascends to the top of Phu Pha Lek.
Slow route (more scenic and more complicated): From Sakhon Nakhon follow Highway 213 in the direction of Somder and Kalasin. At the town of Phu Pha, about 30 km southwest of Sakon Nakhon, turn right onto Highway 2218 and follow the road for 53 km until the town of Warit Phum. Before you reach this town you ‘ll arrive at a junction where you have to turn left onto Highway 227. Follow the road for about 5 km, then turn off onto Rural Road Sakon nakhon 2021. Follow the rural road for about 20 km. Just before arriving at the town of Song Dao is a turn off that lead up Phu Pha Lek (mountain).