Nobody knows when Wat Pho Ban Nontan began, but the many clay Buddhas found here show that it is very old. It was upgraded around 1789, when Khon Kaen city was founded on the other side of the lake. Up until the mid-20th century, it remained surrounded mostly by wilderness. Though the city has now engulfed it, the temple retains the wilderness connections as best as it can with some tall, old trees; statues of elephants and such to the east of the main gate; and the interesting Photisankhun Meditation Hall to the west with its colorful concrete sculptures surrounding the ground floor.
Wat Pho Ban Nontan is well known for meditation, and this building was built primarily for this purpose in 1971. It was designed to look like a cave hidden inside the forest, but besides the wilderness theme, there are paintings and relief sculptures imparting lessons from the older generations to remind the new generation about the past. They show Isan proverbs, Buddhist teachings, historical portraits, and natural scenes, plus a few random subjects thrown in for fun.
Three pictures tell the story of the building’s inspiration, Luang Pu Pho (Luang Pu Phra Kru Photisankhun), a revered former abbot of this temple who was a highly respected insight meditation teacher. In honor of him, the building is also known as the 72 Years Meditation Hall since this was Luang Pu Pho’s age when he died. His body is kept under the big Buddha image on the building’s top floor.
The bold text below are translations of the explanations (written in Isan) found next to some of the pictures at the temple. There is also a Thai version of these explanations and a downloadable pdf booklet.
Inspired by the life of Luang Pu Pho, who often went on pilgrimage into the wilderness to do meditation, the front entrance of the building represents the entrance to a cave. To reach a good meditation cave, monks had to pass through untamed wilderness full of dangerous animals and other hazards. So, just to reach a cave was to have already succeeded at something difficult. This nature theme continues all around the building. It’s quite fitting that many real birds, bats and wasps live on this building now.
“The snake eats the frog. The frog eats the snake.”
When you do something bad to someone, you can get the same result in your next life (if a snake ate a frog in a past life, it will be reborn as a frog and be eaten by a snake in its current life) and this cycle of retribution can continue forever unless someone chooses to break it. When something bad happens to you, just think “it’s okay” and let it pass. Then you can break the karma cycle.
“Otters eat fish, but fish stick in a vulture’s throat. Boats get stuck in rapids, but sink in deep water.”
When you do something bad, the negative results spread beyond just you; they can affect other people. For example, if a student misbehaves they will get punished by a teacher, but later their parents will be upset because when their neighbors hear about it they will think poorly of them as parents. Or if a worker provides bad service to a customer, later other people will hear about it and think everything about the store is bad, so they will go to a different store and the owner might lose his business.
“Even though termites fly in the sky, they can’t escape the bullfrog’s mouth.”
Nobody can avoid their karma. Do not be infatuated with what you have, instead think about uncertainty and decline. Illness, senility, and death come to all. Even though termites fly high, ultimately they cannot escape becoming frog food.
“Don’t lift logs looking for centipedes.”
Don’t engage in speech that finds fault with things from the past. In other words, don’t lift the log, which is the present, to look for centipedes, which are things from the past. Not only is digging up the past useless, it creates anger and conflict. Remember the saying that “speech coming from anger is the most powerful weapon.”
In ancient times there were many different types of dinosaurs in Khon Kaen.
This is a scene of village life in the past. The villagers here are planting rice at the start of the rainy season, usually in May. Women typically carried food baskets like these to the field to prepare lunch. Babies would ride in one basket and in those days children usually did not wear clothes.
This picture recalls Luang Pu Pho’s pilgrimages into big forests. While he traveled many people would come to meet him and pay respect. He would often get so devoted to his meditation that he did not look after his body. He’d become very thin and grow a beard. Luang Paw Phra Salathamunee, the chief monk in Khon Kaen at the time, thought that when this happened he looked like an Indian, so he called him Phra Ajahn Kaek, the “Indian Monk”.
One time while Luang Pu Pho was staying in the forest, he set up his net near a termite mound. In the middle of the night a mass of termites so large that he thought it was a snake crawled up on his net. When he looked outside he saw termites walking all around, so many that he could hear them moving. However, they left without doing anything to bother him because they could sense his kindness.
This is a scene of village life from the past during the rice harvest season, November-December. Villagers had several tasks to be done after harvesting the rice. First the seeds were removed from the stems by hitting the rice in one of two ways: The rice plants were laid on the ground and beaten with a stick or lifted with a stick and beaten on the ground. For the later, people used a tool called a mái dtii kâao (“rice-hitting stick”) or mái nûuat kâao (“rice-threshing stick”), two pieces of wood with a short rope between them that can be twisted around a sheaf of rice stalks. The unhusked rice (kâao bplèuak) was stored in each family’s stilted wooden silo (yúng kâao), as is still done today. Before the rice was eaten, the rice husk was cracked off using a step-driven pounder (krók grà-dèuang) that works just like a mortar and pestle and then the rice was separated from the chaff (fàt kâao) by putting the pounded rice inside a big shallow basket and tossing the rice up to let the wind blow away the husks. Finally, you pick out things like flower seeds, small stones, and weevils by hand.
“Long Kuang tradition and fawn dtia nontan.”
In the past, it was common for people in Isan villages to long kùuang (“come down to the village’s gathering place”) at night. People came to work and socialize together. There was music, dancing, and poetry. People grilled food like sweet potatoes, tamarind seeds, and kâao-jìi (grilled sticky rice in an egg batter). Women would work together on handicrafts such as spinning thread or preparing sedges for weaving sitting mats. It was an important time for courtship as young people could get to know each other while the adults were around. People would go back home about 10pm, but if a boy was interested in a girl he could escort her back to her house and they would continue to talk. One of the activities during long kùuang is fáwn dtîa nontan where people dance to lively kaen music and men and women sing verses to each other. Today fáwn dtîa is uncommon, but the community here still does it during Songkran, the Thai New Year.
“Turtles carrying books.”
People with knowledge and other good things who don’t use them, or don’t know how to put them to good use, are similar to turtles carrying books on their backs. There’s no benefit and it weighs them down.
“Holding a pestle while saying good things.”
A person is moral because their actions, thoughts, and words are proper; not because of their image. An old lady wearing white clothes looks like a moral person, and she tells people she is following the five Buddhist precepts, but she kills an animal without being afraid of the consequences.
“The stick supports the banana plant and the banana plant supports the stick.”
The banana plant and the stick can only stand up because they are supporting each other. This shows the importance of cooperation.
“You eat with your mouth. You are hungry because of your stomach. You walk to defecate often with your legs.”
We eat because we have desires. The desire to eat is caused by three routes: Our eyes (we want what looks good) our noses (a good smell can make us hungry) and our ears (We hear people say a particular food is delicious). But, when the tongue tastes the food, we often find that it is neither delicious nor healthy. We forgot that bad food can harm our stomachs, even give us diarrhea. Do not let your senses drive you, consider everything, even eating, with mindfulness. Mindfulness lets you choose things that are good for your life.
“The tiger says it’s good. The bear says it’s brave. The deer says it’s fearless. The horse says it runs fast.”
Tigers, bears, deer, and horses all believe they are excellent and superior to others. However, no matter how great they are, they will all die. So, don’t look down on other people.
“The bell is loud and the buffalo is full.“
The meaning is that someone does something, but someone else (the bell) receives the credit. For example, when a buffalo eats grass, the bell hanging on its neck rings. It seems like the bell makes the buffalo full and announces its importance. But really, the bell doesn’t have any benefit to the buffalo. The grass is what actually makes the buffalo full.
“Work until you’re finished. Dig until you find what you need.”
Whatever you are doing, see it through to the end, even if it’s difficult. For example, if you want to pick a mango, but you can’t reach it, do not blame your short arms and give up; get a stick to help you reach it. If you can’t reach the bottom of a hole, get a spade to dig it bigger. Don’t be like a frog in a coconut shell, believing that you are the best there is. Think about how you can overcome problems to improve the situation and be successful; go step by step until you reach your goal.
“The blind lead the blind. Those who can see lead the blind. Those who can see lead those who can see.”
The blind represent people with no experience in a particular situation. The blind leading the blind is obviously not helpful, but neither is those who can see (those with experience in the situation) leading those who can see. Those with experience should help those without it and those without experience should seek advice and assistance from those who have it.
“Carry an elephant balanced with a cat.”
How can we carry an elephant balanced with a cat? There are two meanings for this.
The first meaning is about boon and bàap [essentially merit and sin]. The elephant is boon. If you make a lot of boon your mind will be light and comfortable. The cat is bàap. If you make a lot of bàap your life will be troubled. The cat is small, but its weight is as great as an elephant – meaning just a little sin will have a big effect on your afterlife.
Second, the elephant represents material things and the cat represents mental things. If one is deeply materialistic and doesn’t do good things, the elephant will be heavier than the cat. But, if someone is selfish, the cat will be heavier than the elephant. Carrying things that are not balanced makes it difficult to go far. However, if one only focuses on obtaining the four essentials of life (food, shelter, clothing, and medicine); having an ethical career; helping people; not exploiting people; and developing wisdom, perseverance, and determination, then you will be on the Buddhist Middle Path and your life (the elephant and the cat) will be balanced and you can go further.
“There are two roads. You choose the upper or the lower road.”
As we grow up we are taught about doing good, but we can choose to accept or reject the advice. Nobody can force us to do something. Whatever we choose, the appropriate result is waiting for us.
If you are a bad person, you can become a bret (“hungry ghost”) after you die. These ghosts suffer because they have an insatiable hunger for food and merit from living people.
“A boat blocked by a rapids needs to use a cart. When a cart comes to water a boat can carry it.”
Don’t look down on other people just because you haven’t yet had the chance to work together. There will come a time when you can help each other.
“When your home is full of rats, you realize how important cats are. When you have a baby, you realize how important your parents are.”
You can’t understand the value of something until it is not there. And you can’t appreciate the kindness of someone who helped you until you are facing difficult situations by yourself.
“Make a boat for crossing bodies of water. Collect lac resin for future silk dying.”
Be prepared for what will happen in the future. If you don’t have a boat, you will suffer when there is a flood, and if you don’t have your dye made, you will not be able to start weaving when you want to. When you plan for the future you can work efficiently and do a good job.
“If you are going outdoors, take an umbrella. If you are making a long journey, pack a bag and money.”
If you plan for things you won’t encounter problems. An umbrella, for example, is handy for both rain and strong sun. While everybody knows to prepare for things in life, we must also remember to prepare for death. We can’t take anything from this life with us after we die, so being attached to material things does us no good. The only way to be prepared for death is to follow the Buddha’s teachings. We should try to make as much merit as we can.
“Bald men fighting.”
Hundreds of years ago this game was popular in Thailand, though now it is very rare. The men, who for unknown reasons must be bald, use their heads as weapons, like buffalo. There is not much hitting; the goal is to push your opponent out of the ring. In Isan this game was sometimes used to solve conflicts in the community. Two men who had a quarrel were made to fight like this and they, along with everyone else in the village, had so much fun that after the fight they would be friendly again.
“Water flows down, it never flows back up to the top.”
By the rules of nature, water flows down; it never flows back to its source. And time that has passed can never come back. Everything, including our bodies, is governed by the rules of nature.
“Get up early like a crow and work like a chicken.”
If you want to have plenty of food, get up early like crows and work all day like chickens. Hardworking people never starve.
“A caged bird is not happy, even if it has a golden roost. Birds never forget natural roosts.”
This applies to humans too. If you need to move away from your home, you will always miss it.
“Big fish eat small fish. Siamese mud carp eat minnows.”
People who are weak inevitably become victims of those with power.
“Dong Luang forest is very large. There are many animals. Birds are sitting on tree branches.”
Dong Luang means a vast forest full of wild animals. We should preserve this forest and this abundance forever.
“When the time is right, you can catch a fish and eat it like an egret. But when the time is not right, you can only sit and watch like a kingfisher.”
There is a right time and place for everything. When the situation is right, you can do things easily. When it is not right, you might try very hard, but there is no possibility that you can succeed. The egret has the good fortune to be big enough to catch this fish, but the little kingfisher can only look, it cannot catch it. Isan people say this phrase to make someone who doesn’t get what they want feel better. It means they should just let go of their disappointment because it wasn’t meant to be.
“If there is wilderness with no trees, how can you call it a forest? Birds depend on trees and tigers need forest.”
All the parts of nature depend on each other. If some parts are gone, nature’s abundance will be gone too.
“Do not follow your beliefs like a turtle head.”
The turtle head in this proverb refers to one going back and forth in and out of its shell. It represents someone who does not give 100% towards what they believe or respect. Whatever or whoever you have faith in, you should follow and support fully, don’t do it half-assed.
These people have been sent to the Buddhist Hell. Their punishments are specific to their misdeeds on earth. For example, adulterers must climb a thorny tree and people who hit their parents will have large hands.
The Buddha is teaching dharma to residents of heaven, and the spirits in hell (the picture below the stairs) also hear him and get some merit.
The Buddha spent one three-month-long Rains Retreat teaching dharma to his mother in Tavatimsa Heaven, the celestial realm of Indra. On the final day, he descended to earth on a grand staircase accompanied by gods and greeted on earth by worshippers.
Angulimala had studied under a brahmin priest who grew jealous of him. At the completion of his studies, the priest ordered Angulimala to collect 1000 fingers as the fee for his education in the hopes that he would die in the process. Angulimala went to live in a forest and there he ambushed and killed lone travelers, cutting off their fingers and wearing them as a garland around his neck. The Buddha became aware of this infamous murderer after he had already collected 999 fingers. He divined that Angulimala’s mother had just learned what her son was doing and had set off to confront him, and that she would become his final victim. So the Buddha went to see him before she got there. He tried to kill the Buddha, but no matter how fast he ran he could not catch up to the Buddha, who was only walking at a normal pace. So, he started to listen to the Buddha’s teachings and grew ashamed of his evil deeds. He laid down his weapons and finger garland and asked to become a monk, and the Buddha accepted him. Angulimala lived out his years righteously and mostly in solitude, and eventually reached enlightenment.
Luang Pu Pho had proper behavior for a monk, and followed the Buddha’s teachings faithfully.
Monks at Wat Pa Phu Kratae are collecting alms. This is a branch temple of Wat Pho Nontan located in Tambom Mueang Wan, Amphoe Nam Phong, Khon Kaen province.
“Someone lives near a river, but they don’t have drinking water. A potter doesn’t have a pot to use. A chicken farmer doesn’t hear the cock-a-doodle-doo. If someone wants to go to heaven, undress inside a temple.”
There are good things around you, but you have to pay attention to them for them to be useful. This is also true about the Buddha’s teaching. If you wish to go to heaven, you must learn from the books at the temple. In the past, when Buddhist scriptures were written on palm leaf pages, the books were wrapped in fabric for storage. So, “undress” means to remove the fabric from the books so you can read them.
“Respect the Buddha, not the gold. Respect the dharma, not the palm leaves. Respect monks, not because they are your relatives.”
Respect the essence of the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. When one is paying respect to the Buddha, they should think of the Buddha, not the gold the statue is made of. When one is paying respect to the dharma, they should think of the lesson, not the palm leaves they are written on. When one is paying respect to monks, they should think of their noble actions, not about them as your relatives.
“Merit is not something you can distribute. It cannot be split like a log. It’s like when we eat; we feel full, but other people don’t because they didn’t ingest the food.“
If you want to earn merit, you have to do it by yourself. You cannot get it from the good deeds of other people.
“Put big fish at the bottom of the string. Put small fish at the bottom of the stick.”
When you are carrying fish on a string, you hang the big ones at the bottom, then put the small fish above it. But, when you insert fish into a bamboo split for cooking, you put the small ones at the bottom and the big ones at the top. You need to do what is appropriate for each situation.
“Love for children is like a rope binding your neck. Love for a wife is like a rope binding your elbows. Love for property is like a rope binding your legs.”
Attachment is suffering. This is a core teaching of Buddhism.
“A spirit house in the forest.”
Isan people respect ancestor spirits and other spirits, including those living deep in the forest. They often build shrines next to big trees.
“Steam rice to get revenge on a dog. Grill fish to get revenge on a cat.”
Revenge is a pointless act. Seeking revenge will never benefit you, but sometimes your target will reap benefit. At the end, the dog and cat will eat the leftovers. For example, a customer at a clothing store who gets upset because the staff thinks he looks poor and so did not give him good service buys a dozen shirts that he doesn’t want or need to show them that he has money. This helps the staff more than him and he loses money.
“Four people carry. Three people join. One person rides in the middle. Two people walk behind.”
The four people represent our bodies being made of four “elements:” earth, water, air, and fire. The group of three joining represents Buddhism’s three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and non-self. The person riding the litter is the mind, which directs and cares for our bodies. And the two people walking behind holding candles represent our karma, the good and bad deeds we have done. If we want to have good karma, we need to focus on taming and controlling our minds and on not doing bad things. We need to train our minds to be aware at all times.
“If you want to finish fast, go slow. If you want to finish slow, go fast.”
To reach a goal, you should go carefully step by step. Concentrate, work hard, don’t skip steps, and don’t give up.
“When you see someone’s bag, don’t reach in and take anything. When you see someone’s rice-pounding mortar, don’t step on it. When you see someone’s crossbow, don’t shoot anything with it.”
This is basic manners. Don’t take or use someone else’s belongings before you get permission.
The Buddha meditating.
“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 the middle of a village, they feel like they are in the middle of a forest.”
Your attitude determines your results. When a situation is difficult, like trying to grow vegetables in a forest, the results will be good if you work hard. But if you are lazy, things will be difficult for you and you will not have success, even if you are in a comfortable place.
“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. For example, if students fight then parents might lose money, the school’s reputation will be hit, and friends might also get in trouble. Always think about your actions because doing bad things will bring problems to people close to you.
These birds are hongsa (pronounced “hong”) one of many animals living in the Himmapan Forest, which according to Hindu and Buddhist mythology surrounds Mount Meru, the home of the gods.
These are nariphon (“fruit women”) trees, which grow in the Himmapan Forest, a divine realm home to various creatures in Buddhist and Hindu mythology. These trees are mentioned in several Buddhist texts and also various Thai folktales. These magical, seductive fruits have the shape of young women and are picked by some low-level gods and highly advanced rishi who reside there. They emerge from the flowers fully formed and very human-like, except for lacking bones, and last for seven days.
“When you are leaving a place, take a look back. If there seems to be a problem, don’t go.”
If you are not careful before you depart you might forget to take or do something important. Don’t leave until you are sure that you are ready. What you do now will determine if you have a problem or not in the future.
“The duck lays eggs. The chicken sits on them. The worms feed the hatchlings. Who will receive the merit?”
This question is about people who make merit at a temple. Often one person prepares the food and another takes it to the temple. The answer is that everybody who happily assists in a project will get merit.
“White elephants are born in the forest.”
Wild white elephants are rare, and in Thailand, very auspicious. This reminds us that monks seek peace and quiet by traveling to forests to work toward reaching enlightenment. So we must remember to preserve forests because they provide good things for our lives.
“Even though vultures smell disgusting, they never do bad deeds, so they don’t have bad karma. It’s like comparing people who aren’t good looking but only do good things to good looking people who do bad things. The latter should be ashamed when they see a vulture.”
Your actions determine if you are a good or bad person, not your appearance.
“Fruit ripened on a tree is not the same as fruit picked early and ripened at home. Other people ripening fruit is not the same as us ripening it ourselves.”
Things turn out best when we do them ourselves rather than have someone else do them for us.
“Dong Luang forest never lacks bees, Dong Moon forest never lacks cardamom, Dong Saen forest never lacks barking deer, bear, porcupine, elephant, langur, and gibbon.”
In the past, Isan people preserved their forests and used them sustainably to get food and medicine. Communities knew how to find almost everything they needed in the forest, so they had good lives. When there were big forests around, such as Dong Luang, Dong Moon, and Dong Saen, people could collect what they wanted and know that the abundance would be available for their children in the future. But, now that most forests have been cut down, collecting forest food is rarely possible now.
“Don’t dip your rice in food that doesn’t look delicious. Don’t eat food that doesn’t seem right because it will give you a stomach ache. Don’t eat food that tastes sour but shouldn’t, because it will make you ill and you will have an upset stomach and need to use the bathroom all night long.”
Eating is the same as everything else you do in your life, it should be done mindfully, not carelessly. Food that doesn’t look or taste normal has probably gone bad. If you are suspicious about something, stop and think before proceeding.
“When you spit, look for a hole first. When you jump over a ditch, watch out for thorns. When you ask somebody a question, first consider who they are. If a machete is very sharp, don’t chop very hard. If someone cherishes something, don’t use it. If you are having good luck, don’t get used to it.”
All of these situations are examples reminding you that you should think about things before you do them. If you don’t do things carefully there can be problems.
“Don’t be envious of an elephant’s ivory. Be proud of the curved horns you inherited from your buffalo ancestors.”
Do not be envious of other people’s belongings. Be satisfied with what you have.
This project was a collaboration between Tim Bewer, Suttawan Bewer, and Prapaporn Sompakdee. Thanks to Luang Ta Grieang and Luang Ta Britsana, two senior monks at Wat Pho Ban Nontan, and our friend Naruwan Tungwanitcharoen for assistance and advice. I also want to acknowledge the building’s fantastic artists: Kru Thammarong Kaewboran, Somboon Samdang, and Taweesak Promrat.