|Forest Sangha Newsletter||April 1996|
Elements: The Funeral of Luang Por Jun
A few scattered remains in the area, dating back to the time of the Dvaravati period more than 1300 years ago, show that the place has been used as a Buddhist sanctuary for a long time. More recently, in the earlier part of this century, Luang Por Sao, one of Ajahn Mun's teachers, used to stay and practise at this same spot. And some thirty years ago the youthful Krooba Jun, returning to his home village nearby, wandered through here and hung up his glot (umbrella and mosquito net) on the site of the dilapidated brick stupa, behind the remains of an old monastery. He liked the place and stayed on. The stupa is still here today: ancient, frail, yet still shapely, listing slightly to one side under the burden of years. Around it, though, most of the sleepy environment has changed. Under Luang Por Jun's guidance villagers, monks and maechees have built up a large monastery and today Wat Beung Khao Luang is once again a thriving monastic community.
Three days before the ceremony Wat Beung Khao Luang is bustling with activity. A whole eight months of preparations finally come to a head. During the past months, several of Ajahn Chah's many branch monasteries have sent monks to help: over a hundred and thirty bhikkhus and more than two dozen maechees currently live here. They have been working hard to bring a number of building projects to completion in time for the ceremonies. Pickup trucks full of food and other requisites have been sent by many branch monasteries to support the community here - which has now grown to five times its usual size. The major piece of work, and the focus of all the last months' building efforts, is the artificial island that has arisen in the monastery's large pond. It is cast in concrete, completely circular and some 30 meters in diameter. Two broad and stately bridges link it to either side of the pond. The centre of the island is formed as a slightly elevated platform of two concentric steps and it is this area that will serve as the actual cremation site. Later on, after the ceremony is over, it will be used as the base of Wat Beung Khao Luang's memorial stupa for Luang Por Jun.
Life is unpredictable, death is certain - my dying is inevitable.
|Over the last few days people have arrived in large numbers at the monastery; the trickle of pickup trucks and minibuses full of people doesn’t seem to stop. The Sangha at Wat Beung has done a great job preparing the place for the tide of visitors. All the open spaces in the monastery have been covered with a thick layer of rice straw and people simply spread their mats on the ground. Many who come here to stay for the whole five days hang their glots and the monastery gradually fills with clusters of people. Life is very much in the open, and one corner after another gets gradually taken over by scenes of colourful camping life. This is clearly not an occasion for grieving: it is a big and joyous reunion of people who gather to pay their last tribute to Luang Por Jun, and who come to listen to many of Ajahn Chah's disciples expounding the Dhamma.|
Rows of huts, their walls made of split bamboo sticks and carefully torn cement bags, provide shelter against the sun and serve as makeshift kitchens and free restaurants for the many thousands of visitors. A couple of shacks made of corrugated iron with water tubs serve as bathing places. Groups of people have come from all over the country having gathered food and resources to help with the catering: little pieces of cardboard show the names of the monastery they are associated with and the districts they are from.
The number of monks inches up too; after the third day there are a thousand of us: too many to simply walk for alms in the next village. Before dawn, we bundle, almsbowls strapped on, into cars and pickup trucks. Daily there is a fleet of local drivers, waiting to take us through the crisp morning air, to different towns and villages of the surrounding area for pindabat.
The Sala at Wat Beung is a large, T-shaped building, some 30 meters wide and a good 60 meters long: whitewashed stonewalls, large windows, and a grey asbestos roof with its red metal frame showing on the inside. Front centre, above the monks' platform, is a sizeable Buddha statue against the mural colourfully painted landscape. What really catches the eye, though, is the shrine just to the left of centre of the room: a beautifully painted portrait of Luang Por Jun amongst flowers, and the ornately carved red and gold coffin where his body lies in state, carefully covered in tea and tobacco leaves to prevent decomposition. Mounted on boards are several photographs of his quiet and peaceful features, taken shortly after he died. A caption in Pali reads: "Life is unpredictable, death is certain - my dying is inevitable". A few visitors come up, quietly pay their respects and, after a moment's sitting, leave again in silence.
|A few days later, the same Sala is one whole sea of bodies - waves of bowing monks and nuns ceremonially take leave from Ajahn Jun and, one last time, ask for his forgiveness - which his unmistakable tape-recorded voice poignantly bestows upon us. The coffin is then raised from the shrine in the Sala, and sixteen shaven and white-clad men carry it to the pyre on the island. It is followed by the four-fold community, and the whole procession moves slowly on its way through the monastery, past thousands of people who wait in the open under the scorching sun, while an unruly breeze barges its way to the fore and stirs up clouds of dust and ruffles the flags posted along the path.|
During the week there is a full schedule of meditation sessions through the day, along with the regular morning and evening chanting. After night-fall, everybody gathers under canvas roofs on the farther and slightly elevated side of the pond. The island with the pyre and the walkways are lit up by a maze of lanterns, which illuminate the night and reflect themselves upon the water. The Puja ends with the sound of squeaky samanera voices hurrying through their daily recitations; then the nights are given to Dhamma talks. As the wind gathers momentum, monks wrap themselves in their outer robes and people sit huddled in blankets while all listen to the cicadas and the Dhamma desanas - some in Thai, many in Isahn dialect, none in English - far into the night.
The burning of the body takes place on full-moon night of February the 4th. During that afternoon, once the entire assembly has gathered and has settled itself in place, a few limousines pull up and a delegation of smartly uniformed, official-looking people processes to the base of the pyre, where one of them lights a small torch. A little further up from there, on top of two steps, lies the coffin in a small but colourful wooden and polystyrene structure (brazenly cheerful and looking remarkably like an oversized birdhouse). The people who have assembled around the pond try to follow the distant proceedings on the island. They listen to the announcements and bask in the ocean of goodwill that such grand gatherings of the Buddha's disciples engender. Between meditation and chanting folks disperse for a quick bath and a cup of tea or a Pepsi before the sun sets. Night falls rapidly, and after Luang Por Sumedho's talk the monks walk over to the island where a gigantic umbrella hangs suspended a few metres above the brightly lit bier. It sways in the evening breeze, its white cloth lining swelling and ballooning. Beneath it a few final, hasty preparations are going on. There is a sudden and unmistakeable smell of diesel in the air and, shortly before ten o-clock, smoke begins to erupt from under the funeral canopy where the actual furnace is hidden. The pyre is burning. Minutes later, under scrupulous control, the decorated polystyrene awnings and the majestic umbrella have caught fire and have gone spec-tacularly up in flames. Meanwhile, the moon has risen and the Sangha is standing as close to the fire as heat and smoke will allow. The fire-element is at work with all its fury - and Ajahn Jun's body goes on its final journey.
|My thoughts turn to some of the forms and the symbols around elements, stupas and cremation places. In Thai language, the expression for 'crematory' (mehn) is borrowed from Sanskrit. The same word, pronounced a little differently, is also the name for Meru - the mythical mountain which in Buddhist cosmology holds together the four great continents and forms the centre of the universe. It is this image of Mt Meru that is echoed by the shape of stupas throughout the Buddhist world. Some of the lower parts of a traditional stupa symbolise the four great elements of fire, water, earth and air; and the entire edifice can be seen as an image of the relationship between the conditioned and the unconditioned realm. The theme of the identity between Meru, the mythical mountain and the burning place - mirrored so clearly by Thai language - is often taken up by Buddhists in quite a literal way: the burning place for Luang Por Jun's body is set up on the foundations of the stupa which will arise on this island in the middle of the pond. The allegory is thus.|
Shortly after midnight I clamber up to the fire. The decorations and the finery have all burnt down. The row of intently gazing faces, of monks and tiny novices packed together around the open burning-chamber, are painted a fierce orange. The body lies there in the blaze: charred flesh and bones, but recognizable clearly enough as a human frame to drive home the knowledge that this is not just a world of metaphors.
On the next morning, the light of dawn bathes the empty patches of rice straw in pink hues. People are packing their bags and rolling up their mats. After a cup of hot chocolate, monks, a few maechees and layfolk gather on the island and cluster around what is now a naked steel brazier with ashes and still glowing charcoal. Three of the elder monks of Wat Pah Pong carefully sift the remains of the fire, pick out pieces of bone and place them on cloth-covered receptacles standing by the side. I am moved by the whole experience of these last few days. In contrast to the solemn and institutionalised efficiency of other funerals, Luang Por Jun is seen through all this by friends - they preserve his body, build him a crematory, arrange a memorable ceremony for all those whose lives have been affected by him, burn his body carefully through a whole night and finally sift through the ashes to collect his few remains. How much more can friends do?
A little further away, under the communal tent is the sight of empty rows of chairs. People bundle their belongings onto pickup trucks, and exchange goodbyes with hands folded in anjali. Cars full of smiling faces pull out of the monastery. A small boy walks by, clutching Luang Por Jun's biography. The island now stands empty, the base in the middle awaiting the stupa, the yet invisible descendant of Mt. Meru, which will enshrine Luang Por Jun's physical remains. But as I pack my bowl and roll up my mosquito net, I reflect that it is the Sangha and the thousands of laypeople slowly filing away that house his true remains the down-to-earth, humorous and practical approach to the Deathless with which he has inspired so many.