Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo was one of the foremost teachers in the
Thai forest ascetic tradition of meditation founded at the turn of
the century by Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo and Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatto.
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 in mind,
choosing incidents that made both for good stories and for good
lessons. Some of the lessons are aimed at monks, others at meditators
in general, but they deal primarily with issues he had not been able
to include in his written guides to meditation.
As a result, the book contains very little on the substantive events
in his own meditation. If you have come to this book in hopes of
gauging the level of Ajaan Lee's meditative attainments, you have come
to the wrong place, for on this topic his lips are sealed. Most of
what he wanted to say on the subject he had already included in his
other books. As for his own personal attainments, he never mentioned
them even to his closest students.
What he talks about here are the events that surrounded his life as
a meditator, and how he dealt with them: the challenges, the strange
characters and the unusual incidents he encountered both in the
forests and in the centers of human society. He presents the life of
meditation as one of adventure -- where truth is a quality of the
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.
Ajaan Lee's method of drawing lessons from his experiences is
typical of Thai meditation teachers -- i.e., he rarely draws any
explicit lessons at all. 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 that you will search for and find useful lessons
no matter where you look. When you get used to being taught this way,
the payoff is that you find you can learn from everything, for as
Ajaan 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 Ajaan 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.
Ajaan Lee had a great deal of experience in this area, and has 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
Ajaan Lee limited his narrative to only the milder events of this
sort, and 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 going on at all. 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 Ajaan Lee's life that included many of the more
amazing events they had experienced in his presence. Fortunately --
from Ajaan Lee's perspective at least -- this manuscript has since
To be frank, one of the things that first drew me to Ajaan Lee,
aside from the clarity and subtlety of his teachings, were the tales I
had heard of his powers and personality. My teacher, Ajaan 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
Ajaan 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
the 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 back at least to medieval
Sri Lanka, and may go much further back than that. There are old
books that classify the various types of relics by shape and color,
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 Ajaan 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 Ajaan 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 Ajaan Lee mentioned the issue of the
relics for two reasons:
1) He was compelled to because it was a part of the controversy that
surrounded his name during his lifetime, and his students would have
felt that something was amiss if he didn't provide some explanation of
the topic. The incident he mentions 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 Ajaan 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 Ajaan Lee mentions in the book, he believed he had a karmic
debt requiring that he build a chedi to enshrine relics of the Buddha,
and he needed to convince his supporters of the importance of the
So keep these points in mind as you read the relevant passages, and
be open to the possibility that throughout the book there are issues
between Ajaan Lee and his audience flowing under the surface of the
narrative that you can only guess at.
Also bear in mind that the book was left unfinished. Ajaan Lee had
planned to tack on a series of addenda dealing with events scattered
in time and place throughout the body of the narrative, showing their
connections and providing more details, but he left only the sketch of
the first addendum, a piece explaining why he chose to name his
monastery Wat Asokaram. The sketch is so purposefully disjointed and
cryptic, though, that I have chosen to leave it out of this edition.
You will find, as you read through the book, occasional details of
Thai culture and the rules of the Buddhist monkhood that might be
unfamiliar to you. I have tried to anticipate these points, marking
them with asterisks in the text and explaining them in the footnotes
at the back of the book, but forgive me if I have missed anything you
find puzzling. The footnotes are followed by a glossary of Pali and
Thai terms I had to carry over into the translation, and you might
find it useful to read through Part I of the glossary -- to get some
sense of what is conveyed by a person's name in Thai society -- before
jumping into the book itself.
Ajaan Lee as a speaker was always very conscious of his audience,
and I suspect that his autobiography would have been a very different
book if he had written it with a Western audience in mind. My
translating the book as it stands has been an act of trust: trust
that the value of Ajaan Lee's message is universal, and trust that
there are readers willing to take the empathetic journey into another
culture and mind set, to see how the possibilities of the human
condition look when viewed from another side of the globe, and to
bring some of that new perspective back with them on their return.
Metta Forest Monastery
Valley Center, CA 92082-1409
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