The fifth-floor murals inside Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon stupa at Wat Nong Wang temple tell forty Isan proverbs about living a happy, successful, and moral life that monks sometimes mention in their sermons.
Many of these English sentences are clunky, but they read more poetically in the original Isan. Explanations are given when needed, though a few are self-explanatory. Many of them are no longer widely used and some of the Isan language written below the paintings is antiquated, so thanks to Ajahn Chommanaad Boonaree, Ajahn Sutjai Boonaree, Ajahn Boontham Thongruang, Suttawan Bewer, Prapaporn Sompakdee, and Kru Thammarong Kaewboran (the painter) for helping with the translations and explanations.
The first picture is in the northeast corner, in front of the stairs. อ่านภาษาไทยที่นี่ (Click here to read a Thai version.)
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(1) “A sambar deer ate an Indian gooseberry, but the seed got caught in an Eld’s deer’s throat and made it constipated. Three days later a rabbit died and a civet corpse turned putrid.”
When someone does something bad, other people will also suffer the consequences, even if they were not involved.
(2) “When you are still a child, you must study hard. The merit from this can give you a high rank, and in the future you will earn money more easily than those who didn’t study hard. When you go to the forest you can take care of yourself.
If children study hard, they will have good lives as adults.
(3) “Taste a key lime and a citron. Different trees, different sours.
Don’t think one person or thing is always good; there could be something better. Key limes and citrons, for instance, are both sour and sweet, but taste different. You should try many different things.
(4) “Those with little knowledge shouldn’t think about politics. Those who wear saffron robes, shouldn’t get involved in secular matters. When near a bald man, you shouldn’t talk about storks”
Unless you really have good knowledge, avoid sensitive topics.
(5) “The tiger says it’s good. The bear says it’s brave. The deer says it’s fearless. The horse says it’s fast.”
Everyone thinks they are excellent and superior to others. However, no matter how great people are, they will all die. So don’t look down on others.
(6) “If someone who desires to be hard-working is in the middle of a forest, they feel like they are in a field. If someone who is lazy is in a village, they feel like they are in the middle of a forest.”
Intention is important. If you make a good effort when you are facing adversity, things feel good. But if you are discouraged, things that are easy will feel difficult.
(7) “If you get some money, you should use it as follows: 1) Pay off old debts. 2) Feed the cobra. 3) Loan it to others. 4) Throw it in a well. 5) Bury it in the ground.”
The first thing to do with money you acquire is give some to your parents; you are in their debt since they raised you. Then help your closest friends, who are compared to cobras because you might fight with them at any time. Loan it means take care of the children in your family; with children you don’t know if you will get your investment back or not, just like a loan. Throw it in the well means enjoy yourself without feeling guilty for wasting money. Finally, save what remains in the bank for future use.
(8) “Buffalo don’t eat grass. If you grab them by the horns and push their head toward it, their horns will break off. Pigs do not eat rice bran. If you hit them until their nose swells up, they will still not eat it.”
People have their own ways. Forcing people to do things a particular way does more harm than good.
(9) “Don’t get behind a person who is bloated. They will fart and the bad smell will make you scrunch your nose.”
Don’t associate with bad people, you will just get upset.
(10) ” If you have a rice field, don’t skimp on seedlings. If you do business, don’t skimp on financial matters.”
Do everything properly and to the full extent.
(11) “Poverty is not good. If you have money then people will say you are their relatives. Your uncle and aunt will admit that you are their nephew or niece.”
People don’t want to be friends with you if you are poor. Even your relatives won’t want to claim you as their own. Therefore, you must work hard to avoid it.
(12) “Homes near a salt pit lack salt. Homes near a pier have no fermented fish sauce.”
Some people have good things, but don’t make use of them.
(13) “Knowledge is candlelight. Perseverance is a compass. Ideas are the path.”
Knowledge, perseverance, and ideas are the most precious things in life.
(14) “We must know how to see ourselves, tell ourselves, and use ourselves. Right?”
We must know ourselves in order to control our lives and make them good.
(15) “If your feathers and wings are not fully grown yet, don’t run any races. Also don’t enter any competitions if your wings still don’t cover your butt.”
Don’t compete with anyone when you have limited knowledge.
(16) “If your water dipper doesn’t have a handle, then all you really have is a coconut shell and you can’t keep it atop the pot.”
If things don’t have all their elements, they are less useful.
(17) “If you’re unprepared, crouch down like a frog. When someone approaches, jump in the water.”
If you pretend to have some ability, there will be a bad result. It’s best to just stay humble.
(18) “If a farm field has good a crop, people ask about the seed. If a child is well behaved, people ask about the parents.”
Quality comes from good lineages.
(19) “Long eggplants don’t arise from selective breeding, they just happen.”
Some people inherit great natural ability from their family.
(20) “Throw a hammer at a mango.”
If you use too much strength, you’ll miss your target.
(21) “If you have enough, don’t gloat. If not, don’t be discouraged.”
(22) “Whatever you do, that’s what it is. Plant a watermelon and you’ll get a watermelon.”
If you do good, you get good. If you do evil, you get evil.
(23) “Food that goes uneaten rots. Old things that aren’t discussed are forgotten.”
If you don’t practice things, you will forget how to do them.
(24) “If you wear bright, wild clothing, dogs will bark. If you tell an old story, everyone will argue.”
If you do something unusual, you will get criticized. If you dredge up conflict from the past, people will not want to associate with you.
(25) “If you catch a turtle, don’t forget the dog. If you catch a fish, don’t forget the net.”
Remember to appreciate the people who help you succeed in life.
(26) “A tiger with or without stripes is still called a tiger. Quickly look for ashes on the bottom of a pot and draw a tiger pattern.”
Someone who is a tiger (meaning they have power) will always be seen as such, whether they show their stripes or not (i.e., display their power or not). Therefore, they should always act the part.
(27) “A young child with clear, round eyes and simple thoughts can only speak about being on a star, right?”
People who aren’t smart shouldn’t show off.
(28) “The law of nature: Drunkards eat sour. Tightwads eat salty. Nibblers eat slowly. Stoners eat sweet. Slackers eat often.”
Every human disposition has a related behavior, and we will often see people display them such as in the way they eat.
(29) “Baby owls address their mother’s eyes.”
Some people only look at others, not themselves. If you wonder why your mother’s eyes are so big you won’t notice that your own eyes are also big.
(30) “All monkeys try to grab the fruit, but the leaders are the ones who get it.”
Powerful people usually keep their dominant position over others.
(31) “When a mouse eats your silk worms, you think about a cat’s kindness. Holding your burdensome child on your waist makes you see you parent’s kindness.”
You most appreciate things when you are experiencing problems.
(32) “Carry an elephant balanced with a cat. Make jaew dipping sauce, then throw it in the river.”
Often you work very hard, but get little in return. Your work load is equal to the weight of an elephant, but your reward only amounts to the weight of a cat. Or if you make jaew dipping sauce diluted with tons of water there will be no flavor.
(33) “Nobles who ride elephants with umbrellas shouldn’t forget the poor who follow the elephants’ footprints.”
Successful people should not forget the people who helped them along the way.
(34) “Defeat suffering by being patient. Defeat poverty by being frugal.”
(35) “People who eat do so until they throw up. People who want to eat want to do so very much, but they can’t.”
Rich people always have more than they need, and poor people never have enough.
(36) “Don’t be embarrassed about working. Don’t be picky about food. Don’t look down on small sums of money. Don’t wait for luck to come. Don’t sit and wait for people to come help.”
(37) “When you have the opportunity to go to the forest, don’t come back empty-handed. Break off dry branches to put under the pot (as firewood).”
Try to see the benefits of different things.
(38) “Steamed fish must have a teacher. Grilled crab must have a strategy.”
To do things well, you need to have a process or strategy.
(39) “Water naturally flows downhill. It’s impossible to get it to flow up to the sky or the top of a mountain.”
People should accept reality. Some things just won’t happen no matter how hard you try.
(40) “To get jim jaew dipping sauce, flatter the person who made it by telling them that it tastes good. To get beef lahp, flatter the person who made it by telling them it is delicious.”
Saying positive things makes people feel good.