Ajaan Mahā Boowa
Venerable Ajaan Mahā Boowa was born on August 12, 1913 in the small village of Baan Taad, near the town of Udon Thani, in the Northeast region of Thailand. After finishing three years of primary school education, he spent most of his formative years helping his parents work the family rice fields. From early childhood, he exhibited a resolute nature and took his responsibilities very seriously. Of all of his parent’s 16 children, Boowa was considered the most dependable.
When he reached the age of 21, his parents, in keeping with Thai tradition, asked him to enter the monkhood. He reluctantly agreed out of a deep sense of respect and gratitude. He was ordained at Yothanimit Monastery in Udon Thani province on May 12, 1934 with Venerable Chao Khun Dhammachedi as his Preceptor. His Preceptor gave him the Pāli name Ñānasampanno, meaning “one endowed with wisdom.”
His early monastic life followed the long-held tradition of studying Buddhist teachings in the Pāli scriptural language. As he focused his energies on studying the Pāli scriptures, he was amazed at how thoroughly the teachings of the Buddha caught his attention. The more he read about Dhamma, the more that message seemed to fit in with his resolute nature. When he read the life stories of the Buddha and his Arahant disciples, he became so impressed with their lives that feelings of faith and confidence arose within him, followed by a desire to gain the same attainments that they had.
He decided to first study the ancient Buddhist texts in order to better understand the way of Dhamma leading to the ultimate goal, Nibbāna. At the same time, for fear he would forget himself and the true goal, he made the solemn resolve that he would not study past the third level of Pāli studies. After that, he intended to take off for the forest to practice meditation just as the Buddha had done. This was the vow he used to discipline his monastic life.
During this period, he spent most of his time studying Dhamma and Vinaya in the ancient Pāli language. While studying Pāli, he sometimes passed his exams and sometimes failed. He persevered, and after seven years he eventually succeeded in passing the third level of Pāli studies together with the highest level in Dhamma and Vinaya studies. Having completed his studies, his focus was then turned solely to the practice of Dhamma.
Although reading the scriptures instilled in him a deep sense of faith, and a feeling that he would like to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps, he wondered if it was still possible in this day and age to duplicate the same exalted results that the Buddha attained and so gain enlightenment in this very life. Or were the criteria for attaining enlightenment no longer valid, thus rendering any effort to do so frustrating and useless? It was for the purpose of fully resolving that issue that he hoped for an opportunity to study directly with Venerable Ajaan Mun Bhūridatto, one of the most renowned meditation masters at that time. He had heard of Ajaan Mun’s excellent reputation while still a youth, and Ajaan Mun’s renown as a teacher had only increased with each passing year.
When Ajaan Mahā Boowa finally passed his Pāli exams, he abandoned his studies and headed out to the countryside to practice meditation in line with his vow ― trekking alone, sleeping in forests and gathering almsfood in the villages along the way. When he eventually caught up with Ajaan Mun in the jungles of Sakon Nakhon province, Ajaan Mun told him that although he had studied extensively and gained some proficiency in the Pāli scriptures, he would have to put that academic knowledge aside for the time being and focus exclusively on the practice of meditation. Ajaan Mun made it clear to him that the Paths and Fruitions leading to Nibbāna were still attainable by anyone who practiced the Buddha’s teaching wholeheartedly in the correct way.
Ajaan Mun taught him the Dhamma as if it came straight from his heart. Ajaan Mahā Boowa was so impressed that he made a solemn vow: As long as Ajaan Mun was still alive, he would always consider him his teacher. No matter where he went, he would have to return to Ajaan Mun. With that determination, Ajaan Mahā Boowa accelerated his efforts in meditation. Although he often went into solitary retreat in the mountains and jungles of northeast Thailand, he always returned for help and advice from Ajaan Mun. He stayed with him for many years, right until the day Ajaan Mun passed away.
It was during his years with Ajaan Mun that Ajaan Mahā Boowa put forth his most intensive effort in meditation. In all his life, he never made a more vigorous effort than he did during that period. The mind went all out; and so did the body. From that point on, he continued making progress until his mind became solid as a rock. In other words, he became so skilled in samādhi that his mind was like as unshakeable a slab of stone. Soon he became addicted to the total peace and tranquility of that samādhi state; so much so that his meditation practice remained stuck at that level of samādhi for five full years.
Thanks to the hard-hitting Dhamma of Ajaan Mun, Ajaan Mahā Boowa was able to get past his attachment to samādhi, and turn his full attention to examining the nature of his mind. When he began investigating with wisdom, progress came quickly and easily because his samādhi was fully prepared. From that point on, the path forward was wide-open and spacious.
By the time Ajaan Mahā Boowa reached his 16th rains retreat, his meditation had progressed to the point where mindfulness and wisdom were circling around all external sensations and all internal thought processes, meticulously investigating everything without leaving any aspect unexplored. At that level of practice, mindfulness and wisdom acted in unison like a Wheel of Dhamma, revolving in continuous motion within the mind. By then, the current of Dhamma that flowed through his meditation had established an irreversible momentum. He began to sense that the attainment of his goal was close at hand.
In May of 1950, his meditation arrived at a critical phase, so he pushed his efforts to the limit. In the moment when his mind’s fundamental delusion flipped over and fell away, the realization of Dhamma he experienced transcended all conventional boundaries. In that moment, Ajaan Mahā Boowa had finally reached the island of safety in the middle of the great wide ocean.
In 1955, after years of living a wandering lifestyle, he returned to his home village of Baan Taad to care for the spiritual needs of his ageing mother. He settled with some disciples in a nearby forested area, which became the focal point of a new monastic community. This enabled his mother to come and live as a nun at the monastery. The vigor and uncompromising determination of his Dhamma practice attracted other monks dedicated to meditation. The training at Baan Taad Forest Monastery in those days was quite harsh and forbidding. Ajaan Mahā Boowa often pushed his monks to their limits, testing their powers of endurance so that they would develop patience and resolve. He placed a special emphasis on strict observance of the Vinaya.
While studying with Venerable Ajaan Mun, Ajaan Mahā Boowa learned the meditation methods that he taught, which were based on essential Buddhist principles and guided by the code of monastic discipline. Practicing thus, with diligence and perseverance, he succeeded in establishing an unshakeable spiritual foundation in his own heart. Consequently, he continued to follow these same methods of practice in teaching and training his own disciples. In this way, Ajaan Mahā Boowa soon became a central figure in efforts to maintain continuity within the Thai Forest tradition and so preserve Ajaan Mun’s unique mode of practice for future generations. He helped to spearhead a concerted attempt to present Ajaan Mun’s life and teachings to an increasingly wider audience of Buddhist faithful.
Owing to the deep respect and admiration he had for Venerable Ajaan Mun—whom he likened to a father and mother to his students—he was inspired to write a biography of Ajaan Mun aimed at documenting his exemplary character and explaining his methods of practice for the benefit of future generations. Furthermore, as testament to his reverence for Ajaan Mun’s legacy, he authored many books on Buddhist meditation practice, usually based on tape-recordings of his Dhamma teachings, so as to give practicing Buddhists a clear path to follow in their efforts.
In 1963 an English monk came to stay at Baan Taad Forest Monastery. Bhikkhu Paññāvaddho spent his first six years as a monk living in a small vihāra in London. Realizing that he needed a teacher who could train him in all aspects of monastic life, he left for Thailand. By chance, Bhikkhu Paññāvaddho met Ajaan Mahā Boowa in Bangkok and asked for permission to stay with him at Baan Taad Forest Monastery. He was accepted on the condition that he eat the same simple alms food and practice the same ascetic lifestyle as all the other monks.
In the years that followed, the many Western monks who came to Ajaan Mahā Boowa were able to share wholeheartedly in the unique experience of the Thai Forest tradition. In 1974, Ajaan Mahā Boowa traveled to London with Bhikkhu Paññāvaddho at the invitation of the English Sangha Trust. Residing in the Hampstead Vihāra, he gave a daily series of formal Dhamma talks and informal question-and-answer sessions on wide-ranging topics to groups of his lay followers in London.
As the years passed, Ajaan Mahā Boowa became an outstanding and distinguished figure in contemporary Thai Buddhism. He was well-known and respected by people from all walks of life for his impeccable wisdom and his brilliant expository skills. By aptitude and temperament, he was the ideal person to record for posterity Ajaan Mun’s life and teachings. Spiritually, he was one of Ajaan Mun’s exceptionally gifted disciples; didactically, he was one of the Thai Forest tradition’s truly masterful spokesmen. His no-nonsense, resolute character, his extraordinary charisma, and his rhetorical skills have established him as natural successor to Ajaan Mun.
Gradually, little by little, his teachings began to spread until they extended far and wide. Many people from across Thailand and around the world came to hear Luangta Maha Boowa expound the Dhamma. Some traveled to Baan Taad Forest Monastery to hear him talk in person; some listened to recordings of his Dhamma talks that were broadcast throughout Thailand on the radio and the Internet.
As he grew older, he tried his utmost to minister to the spiritual needs of Thai society. His attempts to assist the public were an expression of a powerful loving compassion. When an economic crisis hit Thailand in 1997, Luangta (the affectionate name, meaning maternal grandfather, that he became known by) stepped in publicly to encourage Thais to come together to lift the nation from the depths of recession. He wanted Thais to focus on the causes of the crisis so that, by recognizing the causes within themselves, they could change their behavior to prevent such an event from recurring.
As he approached the age of 97 his health began to deteriorate rapidly. From then on, his devoted disciples diligently and lovingly nursed and attended him, grateful for the opportunity to offer service to a teacher who so patiently and compassionately had shown the way of Dhamma to so many people.
Highly revered at home and abroad, Luangta Mahā Boowa remained, until his death in 2011, actively engaged in teaching both monks and laity, elucidating for them the fundamental principles of Buddhism and encouraging them to practice those bold and incisive techniques that masters of the Thai Forest tradition have used so effectively. He stressed a mode of practice in which wisdom remains a priority at all times. Although ultimately pointing to the ineffable mysteries of the mind’s pure essence, the teaching he presented for us is a system of instruction that is full of down-to-earth, practical methods suitable for everyone desiring to succeed at meditation. Studied carefully, it may well offer direction to persons who otherwise have no idea where their practice is taking them.