Author Topic: The Spiritual Biography of Phra Ajaan (Chao Khun) Keng  (Read 878 times)


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The Spiritual Biography of Phra Ajaan (Chao Khun) Keng
« on: February 25, 2023, 05:11:37 pm »
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Today I'd like to share the story of a Singaporean Gaeji Ajaan of the Thai Forest Tradition, foremost amongst us Singaporeans. I am penning this piece not merely because of his kindness to me, to which I am grateful for, but as part of propagating the Dhamma to the international audience outside of Thailand. It is rather long, but I hope that you will continue reading.

There are very few forest monks who can converse in English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese etc. And there are even fewer of such teachers who teach not solely based on the suttas, but from their own experience of jhana and samadhi. Ajaan Keng’s samadhi is so strong that beings of other realms, such as the Devas and Petas (hungry ghosts), are able to make themselves known to him. Even the great Luang Pu Thuad paid Ajaan Keng a visit. Despite his abilities and monastic titles, Ajaan Keng remains as down to earth and humble as a man could be, and carries himself in a manner befitting that of your friendly Singaporean uncle. 

For those who have spent time in rural or forest temples in Thailand, you will notice that the life of a monk in a city is very different. I don't want to go into detail for fear of offending others, but you will notice how much more comfortable it is. Despite this, and being close to the "retirement age" (62 in Singapore), Ajaan Keng still prefers to go on tudong in forests and caves, and to do community work with rural tribes and Dhamma propagation. 

But why would a Singaporean become a monk, and a forest monk at that? This is his story, (compiled from my memory of conversations with Ajaan Keng, his talks, and also various sources. I apologise unreservedly in advance for any inaccuracies).

Phra Ajaan Keng was born Ong Kah Keng on the 13th of May, 1963, at a time when Singapore was still a Crown Colony of Britain. He was trained in jungle survival skills as a Commando when he was in National Service, which served him well for the time which he would spend on Tudong, living in forests and caves. After his compulsory stint in the army, which all Singaporean men had to go through, he worked as a chef, and if my memory serves me right, cooking Italian food.

Unfortunately (or fortunately for us), he did not last long as a cook. His parami (spiritual qualities and merit) ripened, and he developed a terminal illness in his youth. He went to the doctors, who could not provide him with any solution, and instead told him he'd probably be dead in 2 years. Desperate for a cure, he went around to various temples seeking spiritual assistance, but nobody could help him. Without external support, he was forced to focus his attention inwards, and, using a room at Wat Palelai, he spent his time meditating. When he finally attained samadhi, he gained full faith in the teachings of the Buddha Dhamma. He knew that ordination was the right path ahead. 

And hence, Ong Kah Keng became Khemako Bhikkhu on 29 July 2530 (1987), at Wat Asokaram, Samut Prakaan Province, Thailand. Phrakhru Sunthorn Dhammarangsee (Abbot of Wat Phayaprap,Phra Padaeng), was his Preceptor, Phrakhru Suvanna Dhammajoti (late Abbot of Wat Asokaram) was his Kammavācācariya, and Phrakhru Nanda Dhammakhun (Deputy Abbot of Wat Asokaram), his Anusāsanācariya.

Immediately after his ordination, he headed to Wat Dhammasathit, Rayong, Thailand to begin his monastic training under Phra Ajaan Thānissaro Bhikkhu, who was a Westerner and could speak English. After the first three years of monastic and meditation training, he felt that he had gained enough spiritual strength and grounding in Dhamma-Vinaya and was ready to undertake the dhutanga practices (tudong) and to go on pilgrimage in the deep forests for even more intensive training in meditation. As he had often heard of the beauty and tranquility of the forests in the Kanchanaburi province from Phra Ajaan Thānissaro, he decided to head to that location for his first tudong pilgrimage.

He spent a very fulfilling and eventful period of intensive meditation, living in the open forest alongside Phra Ajaan Sathien Samācāro.This first tudong experience gave him the confidence and conviction that newly ordained monks should live in forested areas to develop their meditative skills. As a result, he decided to spend time in the deep forests and mountains of Thailand, preferring the forest contemplative lifestyle of the forest monk to that of living in urban centers.

The intention to live the forest contemplative life saw him spending the next five years (from 1989) in the deep forests of Mae Sot and Chiang Mai, living on the kindness and support of the hill tribes. Around the year 1993, he crossed paths with Luang Ta Ma Wiriyatharo, the principal disciple of Luang Pu Doo, when he was tudong-ing northwards, as Tham Muang Na was known to be a suitable cave for tudong monks to take rest in while moving upwards. I spoke to Luang Ta Ma and he said that he also remembers the Dhammayut tudong monks who stopped by the cave then.

While Phra Ajaan Keng was residing in Mae Sot, he was under the tutelage of Phra Ajaan Den Nandiyo, another disciple of Than Phor Fuang and Luang Puu Jia. Phra Ajaan Keng began studying under the tutelage of Luang Puu Jia in 1988 - he first met Luang Puu Jia on the occasion of the transfer of Than Phor Fuang's body back to Wat Dhammasathit.

Phra Ajaan Keng was also trained to recite the Bhikkhu Pātimokkha (the Therevada monks' 227 rules of conduct) by Luang Puu Oonla Thitadhammo, Abbot of Wat Paa Kaew Chumpol, located in Tambon Kho Tai, Amphur Sawang Daen Din, Sakhon Nakhon Province. Luang Phuu Oonla is considered a specialist in the Pāțimokkha recitation by his peers in the Forest Meditation Tradition. Pātimokkha recitation is an important monastic skill, as the reciter of the Pātimokkha has to be able to remember all 227 rules by heart and to adhere strictly to the procedures for doing so.

Phra Ajaan Keng subsequently went to live at Metta Forest Monastery, San Diego county, USA, on the invitation of Phra Ajaan Thānissaro. Wat Metta is located in the hills outside of San Diego county and was founded by Phra Ajaan Suwat Suvaco in 2533 (1990). Phra Ajaan Keng spent three Rains retreats in Wat Metta, assisting Phra Ajaan Thānissaro in teaching the members of the growing Sangha and lay community.

Upon returning from the USA, Phra Ajahn Keng spent time in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. With a growing following of monastic and lay supporters, he founded Santi Forest Monastery in the Ulu Tiram area of the State of Johor, Malaysia. While working on the project to set up Wat Santi, he continued to look for secluded forests in Thailand to continue his practice. This took him to a tribal village in Omkoi, in Chiang Mai Province. After four years in this area, he decided to help the villagers by setting up a monastery there. He named this monastery Wat Paa Doi Charoentam.

His intention in setting up a monastery in this remote village was twofold: 1) to create a conducive environment for the training of monks in the forest contemplative tradition, and 2) to show gratitude and compassion for the villagers, giving them the opportunity to make merit for a better life here and hereafter. He considered the younger generation of monks not mentally tough enough, and because most of them used to live in city areas, as he had, they were not prepared for the harsh conditions of living in impoverished conditions. The villagers were mainly surviving on sticky rice and salt in addition to chillies, so that was all that they could offer to the monks during their alms round.

However, Phra Ajaan Keng felt very strongly, through his own experience, that practicing under such conditions would create a strong foundation for the monks. The founding of the monastery in Omkoi helped not only the monks. The lay community from Singapore and Malaysia also benefited from hill tribesmen had to live in. A member of the Management Committee of Wat Santi once visited Omkoi and commented that he realised how rich he was, when compared to the poor the villagers, to Phra Ajaan Keng, such harsh conditions were the perfect places for developing the quality of Khanti parami (patient endurance).

Although he kept to the forest contemplative lifestyle, preferring to dwell in forests and caves, Phra Ajaan Keng was still active in propagating the teachings and practice of Buddhism to the Peoples of Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. He has acted as a mentor and guide to other monks from Singapore and Malaysia. Over the years, he has helped more than 150 men obtain ordination in the Thai Buddhist Sangha and is continuing to do so.

To give more Singaporeans and Malaysians the opportunity to obtain ordination and to enable the Sangha of Wat Santi to conduct their official duties in accordance with the Dhamma- Vinaya, Phra Ajaan Keng established the ordination hall in Wat Santi, the first ordination hall of a Dhammayut monastery in both Singapore and Malaysia. The consecration of the hall was attended by 135 monks from both the Dhammayut and Maha Nikaya sects of the Thai Buddhist tradition, along with more than 1,000 lay people from all three countries. Immediately after the consecration, 68 men were ordained as monks in the ordination hall, this is testimony of Phra Ajaan Keng's sphere of influence and is indeed a first on all counts, in the history of Malaysia and Singapore.

In 2015, in order to celebrate Singapore's 50th Anniversary of Independence, Phra Ajaan Keng organised a mass ordination of 58 men in Singapore. As there was no appropriate sīmā hall to ordain these individuals, a 'water sīmā' was used to conduct the ordination, with a rented yacht dedicated to the purpose. This was followed by nine days of monastic training for the newly ordained bhikkhus. Together with the lay community, the new monks participated in an overnight chanting of protective discourses on the eve(8th August 2015) of Singapore's National Day. Phra Ajaan Keng also arranged for the minting and consecration of a special-edition amulet of the Buddha blessing the island of Singapore to commemorate this special occasion.

Phra Ajaan Keng's compassion is not just towards those who are ordained or seeking ordination. He has also helped many individuals in facing the challenges of daily life. One example is that of a lady named Patricia from Singapore. She had contracted cancer for about six years and although it was in remission, it returned to attack her in 1991. As she was a close friend of Sis. Wendy (Bro Sebastian's wife), Brother Sebastian advised Patricia to seek out Phra Ajaan Keng. Together with her brother, Kelvin, Patricia sought him out while he was residing near a hill tribe village called Huay Pla Lod, in Maesot, Thailand. He was on a retreat in an area called Saam Meung Thung, Doi Puu Kaa, which was a branch of Luang Phor Daen.

When Patricia arrived at Luang Phor Den's main monastery and told him of her purpose, Luang Phor Den sent a jeep with her brother Kelvin to fetch Phra Ajaan Keng. After meeting at Huay PlaLod and being briefed on Patricia's condition (terminal cancer), he decided to help her out of compassion. He encouraged her to constantly meditate to prepare for the final stage when she had to face death. Subsequently, a fellow monk of Phra Ajaan suggested that Patricia consult his uncle (who is also a monk), a reputable holistic medicine practitioner who has been treating cancer patients for a long period of time.

Together with his brother monk, Than Pok, and two other laymen (Mr Toi and Mr. Chumphon), Phra Ajaan took Patricia to Wat Khamyak, located at Tambon Khamyak, Amphoe PhoThong, Ang Thong Province. Phra Ajaan attended to Patricia with the help of the local people for 45 days, until her death. After her death, he contacted Patricia's family and made the necessary arrangements for her funeral.

Exhausted from the long stretch of having to attend to Patricia earlier and then to her funeral, Phra Ajaan decided to go into seclusion and stayed alone in the forest of Pang Ng at Tambon PaPae, Amphoe Mae Taeng, Chiangmai Province. One night, during this period of seclusion, while he was doing his walking meditation at about 2 a.m., a glow of light brightened up the forest near the end of his walking path. Phra Ajaan walked towards the light and discovered that it was Patricia. He was delighted to see her and quickly asked her what realm she was residing at. She told him that she was among a group of Dhamma emissaries and she came to thank Phra Ajaan for tending to her while she was sick. Because her friends were waiting for her, she had to leave. She vanished in an instant, and the whole forest was darkened again.

Her taking rebirth in the celestial realm may be partly attributable to the fact that she had a very compassionate heart for others. For example, even though she was suffering from cancer, she continued to volunteer her time to bring old folks (who had no family support) for their medical appointments and to help them communicate with doctors and nurses. Even though Patricia was a total stranger, Phra Ajaan was willing to help her tackle her illness. Such indeed was the extent of his compassion for a fellow human being facing the last days of her life.

Somdet Phra Wanarat of Wat Bovornnives Vihāra, in Bangkok, commented to one of his lay supporters that Phra Ajaan Keng impressed him by the fact that he came from an urban and materially rich society yet was able to undertake severe ascetic practice, keeping strictly to the tradition of the forest masters.

This is something that a majority of modern-day monks find so challenging that many of them never even attempt it. The Somdet was also present at the ordination hall consecration ceremony and had confirmed for himself the extent to which Phra Ajaan Keng had motivated and aroused the faith of the laity.

In recognition of his contributions to the Sangha, the lay community, and his missionary work for the promotion of Buddhism, Phra Ajaan Keng was appointed a Thananukrom (Assistant) to Somdet Phra Wanarat of Wat Bovornnives, with the title of Phrakhru Phalad Samphiphathanasudhajaan Yanakosol Vimonseelajaan Mahakhanatikan Nayok Bidoethammarakkhit on 17 September 2556 (2013), at Wat Bovornnives Vihara.

Later that year, on 5 December, Phra Ajaan Keng received the ecclesiatical title of "Chao Khun" from the King of Thailand and was given the name, "Vinaya Dhamma Videsa." This was further recognition of his deep devotion to the practice of the Buddhist path, his leadership of both ordained and lay members of the Buddhist community, expressed in his mentorship and support to his fellow monks and his propagation of Buddhism to the lay community as a whole.

Just over a year later, in 2558 (2015), Phra Ajaan Keng attended a training course for Preceptors (Upajjhāya), to gain the necessary skills and certification to conduct Bhikkhu ordinations. With this certification, Phra Ajaan has the authorisation of the Thai Sangha to ordain monks in the Southeast Asia region outside of Thailand.
In recent years, he has also been invited to many parts of Malaysia, China (Fujian Province), India (Andhra Pradesh) and various cities in Indonesia (Jakarta, Medan, Pekan Baru) to teach the lay and ordained communities. There is a growing interest in the teachings of the Forest meditation tradition in these countries, and Phra Ajaan has been very motivated by their keen interest to study and practice the Dhamma, Phra Ajaan has indeed been living for the welfare and benefit of devas and human beings.

Ajaan Keng currently resides in Wat Samphanthawong Geelong.

Cr: Wat Palelai Source, Ted who provided the softcopy version, Kelvin for getting the Palelai book, original photo sources
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