The Ancient Guardian Monk –
Luang Pu Thuat
Luang Pu Thuat
Part I: The Life and Legends of Luang Pu Thuat
People all over Thailand know the stories of Luang Pu Thuat – Thailand’s most famous monk. Until recently, most stories of the highly revered monk were not written, but only passed down through oral tradition. I will relay a few stories of the legendary monk for those who aren’t familiar with him. I will tell my own story about how the monk protected me on two separate occasions in an upcoming post.
The legend tells that, as an infant, baby Pu’s1 parents put him in a hammock while they worked a rice paddy. While they were gone, a large reticulated python coiled around him. When his parents returned, they pleaded with the snake to spare the child. They suspected that the snake was supernatural, so they decided to pray and make offerings to it. The snake was appeased and spit up a glowing crystal onto the baby’s chest while it slithered away. As long as his parents had the crystal, their fortune improved dramatically. When a local lord demanded the crystal from the parents, the lord’s fortune turned sour until he returned the crystal back to Pu’s parents.
His parents took him to a local monastery when he was a boy so that he could be educated. The boy studied diligently. He later ordained as a novice monk and, through continued diligence, quickly received full ordination. He traveled to several monasteries in the south of Thailand, and eventually got permission from his abbot to travel to Ayuttaya, an ancient capital of Thailand. On the trip there, the ship he was on encountered rough seas. Some legends also say that he caused the storm to subside around the ship. The ship couldn’t get through the storm, but this kept the ship from being destroyed by it. The crew was stranded for 7 days when they began to run out of food and water. Luang Pu Thuat got into a row boat and then stepped his foot on to the ocean water. Legend says that the water all around the little boat began to sparkle. Some sailors tasted it, and discovered that the water had turned from salty sea water to fresh water, which saved the crew.
Luang Pu Thuat got to Ayuttaya. However he looked too disheveled and most monasteries refused to accept him, save for an old and run down one. He continued his diligent study of Buddha’s teachings in the shadows of the great monasteries of the capital city. Eventually, one of his greatest challenges would come to him in this city.
The Great Puzzle.
At the time, Thailand and Sri Lanka were political, cultural, and religious rivals. The King of Sri Lanka was considering invading Thailand, but then came up with an alternative. The King of Sri Lanka had gold coins melted down and shaped like leaves. Then he had the Abhidharma (the Buddhist bible) imprinted, one letter at a time, onto these leaves, of which there were 84,0002 in all. The leaves were divided into 7 great big baskets. The king had seven of his Brahmins take the baskets, along with 7 shiploads of fine silks and other valuables, to the Thai king. The Brahmins relayed this challenge from the Sri Lankan king: “My Brahmins have brought all the letters to write the Abhidharma in these baskets, and each basket spells a certain section of the Abhidharma. If your sages can put these 7 puzzles together in 7 days, then you keep these golden letters, the silks, and everything else on the ships. However, if they fail, then I replace you as king and Thailand becomes part of Sri Lanka!”
(A Cultural Note.)
To give some background for westerners, there are a lot of cultural ideas at play in this particular story. The Buddha taught to avoid not just killing people, and not even to also avoid killing animals. He taught to avoid causing suffering to any living creature. Emperor Ashoka, from India, converted to Buddhism after winning a very nasty war. After converting, he never went to war again, declared that animals were no longer to be used as food in the royal kitchens, and undertook building schools and hospitals for his people. He was a role model that Buddhist king’s were taught to respect and try to live up to.
There is also the concept of “losing face” – not causing another person unnecessary embarrassment3. That means not engaging in unnecessary conflict that could put a person in a situation where they might be embarrassed. In contrast to non-violence, the idea of losing face could be played with a little bit. Thailand and Sri Lanka had an unspoken contest between them as to which nation preserved the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) better. Here, the Sri Lankan king strategically put the Thai king between a rock and a hard place. If he refused the challenge, then it would be seen as a loss by default. If he accepted and lost, then there would be even greater loss of face (and the kingdom!) The king would lose face either way. If he brushed it off as a ploy and challenged the Sri Lankan king to come battle for Ayutthaya, then the Thai king would still lose face for failing to live up to the Dharma and Ashoka’s example. The only way out was through. The only way to not lose face was to accept the challenge and win.
Confronting the Challenge.
So, the Thai king accepted the challenge and had his most erudite monks begin working on the puzzle. To their embarrassment, they were stuck and unable to solve a single puzzle in the first 4 days. That night, the Thai king dreamt of a white elephant coming from the west into the palace and trumpeting throughout the palace with his trunk. One of his advisors said that it meant help would come and bring victory for the Thai king. With only a couple days left, the king reasoned that the help he needed would come from a monk who was probably already in the capitol city, and sent senior monks to find this monk.
Luang Pu Thuat was found late on the 6th day. A devout Buddhist homeowner told him about the challenge, what was at stake for Siam (as Thailand was called then), and how the senior monks had been thwarted by the puzzle. The homeowner who told Luang Pu Thuat about the challenge begged him to hurry to the king’s mansion immediately. However, the young master told the homeowner not to worry and that he would go to the king in the morning.
On the final day of the challenge, Luang Pu Thuat arrived at the king’s mansion after his morning meditation and study. The king had already been alerted to the young monk’s arrival and had him brought in immediately. The young master began to work and had all 7 nearly complete by the end of the day. Each puzzle was missing one single piece to complete them. The young master recited a simple phrase. The phrase was a teaching acronym that helps young monks organize the Amithaba as they learn. The young master then turned to the Brahmins and asked them for the remaining pieces. Much chagrined, each Brahmin admitted that they had individually decided to retain one piece of their puzzle in order to ensure victory for their king. The young monk took each coin and arranged them to make the acronym that he just said. By this, he showed his deep understanding of the Dharma. Thus, the young Luang Pu Thuat preserved the sovereignty of the nation and the nobility of the Dharma teachings at once. The king was very grateful and offered the monk riches, land, and the right to be king for a week. Luang Pu Thuat stayed true to his monastic vows and declined them all.
| The biggest statue of Luang Pu Thuat (born 2125 BE (1582 CE), died 2225 BE (1682 CE)) |
Wat Huai Mongkhon, Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand
Years later, there was a horrible plague in Ayuttaya. The illness began to spread ever rapidly the city’s doctors were unable to find a cure. Finally, it was brought to Luang Pu Thuat’s attention. He meditated and then recited some prayers over a vat of holy water. He took the water all around the city, blessing the entire city. The plague stopped spreading immediately, and those who were ill began to recover.
Shortly after that, the revered monk decided that he needed to return to his home province. His hometown monastery had become quite dilapidated, and the monk began to work to restore the temple. Word reached back to the Thai king who sent several ships full of building supplies and the king’s personal architects to restore the temple. Some time later, a provincial governor sought out the master monk to help build a new temple. The master monk obliged, and eventually settled down to become the abbot of that temple, named Wat Changhai.
Luang Pu Thuat eventually passed away when he was 120 years old. His students began to see the monk in their dreams, helping them to learn the Dharma and grow spiritually. This phenomena grew over the years. Eventually, monks began to make amulets in the image of the revered master, and the amulets are reported to have great powers that protect the wearer from evil spirits, black magic, accidents, and even gunfire4!
1This was his original name, which means “Crab”. Sources show that he was given the name Pu in different contexts, even after being given a new religious name as a monk. This happened a few times during his life, and Pu seems to be he most recognized part of his name.
2The numbers 84 and 108 are special numbers in Buddhism, and they come up repeatedly.
3Losing face is more broadly cultural as opposed to being part of Buddhism in particular.
4 It is said that the holy monk cannot protect someone from their own bad karma, so don’t confuse an amulet with a kevlar vest!