Ajahn Mun Conquering the Monster of the Sarika Cave

From the Autobiography of Ajahn Mun

Ajahn MunÃcariya Mun spent three years living and practicing in Sarika Cave. His entire stay there was filled with the most unusual experiences, making it a memorable episode in his life. To the best of my recollection, he first arrived at Ban Gluay village, the village nearest the cave and thus close enough to be convenient for almsround. Unfamiliar with the area, he asked the villagers to take him to Sarika Cave. Straightaway they warned him that it was a very special cave possessing numerous supernatural powers, insisting that no monk could possibly live there unless his virtue was pure. Other monks who had tried to live there quickly fell ill with a variety of painful symptoms – many had even died before they could be brought down for treatment. They told him that the cave was the domain of a spirit of immense size possessing many magical powers. It also had a very foul temper. This giant spirit guardedthe cave from all intruders – monks being no exception. Unexpected occurrences awaited all intruders into the cave, many of whom ended up dead. The spirit delighted in testing any monk who came bragging about his mastery of magic spells for warding off spirits. Invariably, the monk would suddenly fall ill and die a premature death. Fearing that Ãcariya Mun might die likewise, the villagers pleaded with him not to go.

Curious about the talk of a huge, malevolent spirit with supernatural powers, Ãcariya Mun asked and was told that a trespasser usually saw some sign of those powers on the very first night. An ominous dream often accompanied fitful sleep: An enormous black spirit, towering overhead, threatened to drag the dreamer to his death, shouting that it had long been the cave’s guardian exercising absolute authority over the whole area, and would allow no one to trespass. So any trespasser was immediately chased away, for it accepted no authority greater than its own, except that of a person of impeccable virtue and a loving, compassionate heart, who extended these noble qualities to all living beings. A person of such nobility was allowed to live in the cave. The spirit would even protect him and pay him homage, but it did not tolerate narrow-minded, selfish, ill-behaved intruders.

Finding life in the cave a very uncomfortable experience, most monks refused to remain for long; and fearing death, they made a hurried departure. Generally, no one managed a long stay – only one or two days at most, and they were quickly on their way. Trembling and almost out of their minds with fear as they climbed back down, they blurted out something about a fierce, demonic spirit. Scared and chastened, they fled, never to return. Worse still, some who went up to the cave never came down again. Thus, the villagers worried about the fate that awaited Ãcariya Mun, not wanting him to become the next victim.

Ãcariya Mun asked what they meant by saying that some monks went up there never to return: Why hadn’t they come down again? He was told that, having died there, they couldn’t possibly come back down. They recounted a story of four seemingly competent monks who had died in the cave not long before. Prior to entering the cave, one of them had assured the villagers that he was impervious to fear, for he knew a potent spell that protected him against ghosts and other spirits, plus many other potent spells as well. He was convinced no spirit could threaten him. Warning him repeatedly about the dangers, the villagers tried to discourage his intentions, but he reiterated that he had no fear and insisted on being taken to the cave. The villagers were left with no other choice, so they showed him the way. Once there, he came down with a variety of afflictions, including high fevers, pounding headaches, and terrible stomach pains. Sleeping fitfully, he dreamt that he was being taken away to his death.

Over the years, many different monks had tried to live there, but their experiences were strikingly similar. Some died, others quickly fled. The four most recent monks died within a relatively short period. The villagers couldn’t guarantee that their deaths were caused by a malevolent spirit; perhaps there was another reason. But they had always noticed a powerful presence connected with the cave. Local people weren’t so bold as to challenge its power, for they were wary of it and envisioned themselves being carried back down in critical condition – or as corpses.

Ãcariya Mun questioned them further to satisfy himself that they were telling the truth. They assured him that such things happened so often it frightened them to think about it. For this reason, they warned any monk or lay person who came to search the cave for magical objects or sacred amulets. Whether the cave actually contained such things is another matter; but, the fact that some people liked to claim their existence meant that those with a penchant for sacred objects inevitably went there to search for them. The villagers themselves had never seen such objects in the cave; nor had they seen those seeking them encounter anything but death, or narrow escapes from death. Thus, fearing for Ãcariya Mun’s safety, they begged him not to go.

Ãcariya Mun gave the villagers a sympathetic hearing, but in the end he was still curious to see the cave. Live or die, he wanted to put himself to the test, and so discover the truth of those stories. The scary tales he heard didn’t frighten him in the least. In truth, he saw this adventure as a means to arouse mindfulness, an opportunity to acquire many new ideas for contemplation. He possessed the courage to face whatever was to happen, as befits someone genuinely interested in seeking the truth. So in his own unassuming way, he informed the villagers that, although the stories were very frightening, he still would like to spend some time in the cave. Assuring them that he would hurry back down at the first sign of trouble, he asked to be escorted to the cave, which they obligingly did.

FOR SEVERAL DAYS, Ãcariya Mun’s physical condition remained normal, his heart calm and serene. The environment around the cave was secluded and very quiet, disturbed only by the natural sounds of wild animals foraging for food in the forest. He passed the first few nights contentedly; but on subsequent nights he began to suffer stomach pains. Although such pains were nothing new, this time, however, the condition grew steadily worse, eventually becoming so severe that he sometimes passed blood in his stool. Before long his stomach refused to digest food properly – it simply passed straight through. This made him reflect on what the villagers had said about four monks dying there recently. If his condition didn’t improve, perhaps he would be the fifth.

When lay people came to see him at the cave one morning, he sent them to look in the forest for certain medicinal plants that he had previously found beneficial. They gathered various roots and wood essences which he boiled into a potion and drank, or else ground into powder, drinking it dissolved in water. He tried several different combinations of herbs, but none relieved his symptoms. They worsened with each passing day. His body was extremely weak; and though his mental resolve was not greatly affected, it was clearly weaker than normal.

As he sat drinking the medicine one day, a thought arose which, prompting a self-critical examination, reinforced his resolve: I’ve been taking this medicine now for many days. If it really is an effective stomach cure, then I should see some positive results by now. But every day my condition worsens. Why isn’t this medicine having the desired effect? Perhaps it’s not helping at all. Instead, it may be aggravating the symptoms and so causing the steady deterioration. If so, why continue taking it?

Once he became fully aware of his predicament, he made an emphatic decision. From that day on he would treat his stomach disorder using only ‘the therapeutic properties of Dhamma’. If he lived, so much the better; if he died, then so be it. Conventional types of treatment proving ineffective, he determined to stop taking all medicines until he was cured by Dhamma’s therapeutic powers, or else died there in the cave. With this firm resolution in mind, he reminded himself: I’m a Buddhist monk. I’ve certainly practiced meditation long enough to recognize the correct path leading to magga, phala, and Nibbãna. By now my practice should be firmly anchored in this conviction. So why am I so weak and cowardly when faced with a small degree of pain? It’s only a slight pain, after all, yet I can’t seem to come to grips with it. Becoming weak all of a sudden, I now feel defeated. Later, when life reaches a critical juncture – at the moment of death as the body begins to break up and disintegrate – the onslaught of pain will then crush down mercilessly on body and mind.

Where shall I find the strength to fight it so I can transcend this world and avoid being outdone in death’s struggle? With this solemn determination, he stopped taking all medicines and began earnestly focusing on meditation as the sole remedy for all spiritual and bodily ailments. Discarding concern for his life, he let his body follow its own natural course, turning his attention to probing the citta (mind) – that essential ‘knowing nature’ which never dies, yet has death as its constant companion. He set to work examining the citta, using the full powers of mindfulness, wisdom, faith and perseverance that he had been developing within himself for so long. The seriousness of his physical condition ceased to interest him; concerns about death no longer arose. He directed mindfulness and wisdom to investigate the painful feelings he experienced, making them separate the body into its constituent elements, and then thoroughly analyzing each one. He examined the physical components of the body and the feelings of pain within it. He analyzed the function of memory which presumes that one or another part of the body is in pain.22 And he analyzed the thought processes which conceive the body as being in pain.23 All such vital aspects were targeted in the investigation conducted by mindfulness and wisdom as they continued to probe into the body, the pain, and the citta, relentlessly exploring their connections from dusk until midnight. Through this process, he succeeded in fully disengaging the body from the severe pain caused by his stomach disorder until he understood, with absolute clarity, just how they are interrelated. At that moment of realization, his citta ‘converged’ into complete calm – a moment that saw his spiritual resolve immeasurably strengthened, and his bodily illness totally vanish. The illness, the pain, the mind’s preoccupations – all disappeared simultaneously.

Remaining only briefly in complete stillness, his citta withdrew slightly, reaching the level of upacãra samãdhi. This ‘luminous’ citta then left the confines of his body and immediately encountered an enormous, black man standing fully thirty feet tall. The towering figure carried a huge metal club – twelve feet long and thick as a man’s leg. Walking up to Ãcariya Mun, he announced in a menacing voice that he was about to pound him right into the ground. He warned Ãcariya Mun to flee that very instant if he wished to remain alive. The metal club resting on his shoulder was so huge that a single blow from it would have been enough to pound a large bull elephant into the earth.

Ãcariya Mun focused his citta on the giant spirit, asking why he wanted to club to death someone who had done nothing to warrant such brutal treatment. He reminded the giant that he had harmed no one while living there; that he had caused no trouble deserving of such deadly punishment. The giant replied by saying that he had long been the sole authority guarding that mountain and would never allow anyone to usurp that authority. He felt compelled to take decisive action against all intruders.

Ãcariya Mun’s response was reproachful: “I did not come here to usurp anyone’s authority. I came to carry on the noble work of spiritual development, for I aim to usurp the authority that the kilesas (negative mental states or habits) exercise over my heart. Harming a virtuous monk in any way is an absolutely despicable act. I am a disciple of the Lord Buddha, that supremely pure individual whose all-powerful loving compassion encompasses the whole of the sentient universe. Does the great authority you boast give you power to override the authority of Dhamma, and of kamma – those immutable laws that govern the existence of all living beings?”

The creature replied: “No, sir.”

Ãcariya Mun then said: “The Lord Buddha possessed the skill and the courage to destroy those insidious mental defilements that like boasting of power and authority. Thus, he banished from his heart all thoughts of beating or killing other people. You think you’re so smart, have you ever given any thought to taking decisive action against the kilesas in your heart?”

The creature admitted: “Not yet, sir.”

“In that case, such overbearing authority will just make you a cruel, savage individual, resulting in very grave consequences for you. You don’t possess the authority needed to rid yourself of evil, so you use the fires of magic against others, unaware that you’re actually burning yourself. You are creating very grave kamma indeed. As though that weren’t bad enough, you want to attack and kill someone who represents the virtues of Dhamma which are central to the world’s wellbeing. How can you ever hope to lay claim to laudable virtues, when you insist on engaging in evil behavior of such unparalleled brutality?

“I am a man of virtue. I have come here with the purest intentions – to practice Dhamma for my own spiritual benefit, and the benefit of others. Despite that, you threaten to pound me into the ground, giving no thought to the consequences of such an evil deed. Don’t you realize that it will drag you into hell where you will reap the terrible misery you have sown? Rather than feel concerned for myself, I feel very sorry for you – you’ve become so obsessed with your own authority that it’s now burning you alive. Can your potent powers withstand the effect of the grave act you are about to commit? You say you exercise sovereign authority over this mountain, but can your magic powers override Dhamma and the laws of kamma? If your powers really are superior to Dhamma, then go ahead – pound me to death! I’m not afraid to die. Even if I don’t die today, my death remains inevitable. For the world is a place where all who are born must die – even you, blinded as you are by your own self-importance. You are not above death, or the laws of kamma that govern all living beings.”

The mysterious being stood listening, rigid as a statue, the deadly metal club resting on his shoulder as Ãcariya Mun admonished him by means of samãdhi meditation. He stood so completely still that if he were a human being we would say that he was so frightened and ashamed he could scarcely breath. But this was a special nonhuman being, so he didn’t in fact breathe. Yet, even though he managed to do so admirably, his whole manner clearly showed him to be so ashamed and fearful of Ãcariya Mun that he could barely restrain his emotions.

Ãcariya Mun had finished speaking. Suddenly, the contrite spirit flung the metal club down from his shoulder and spontaneously transformed his appearance from a huge, black creature into a devout Buddhist gentleman with a mild, courteous demeanor. Approaching Ãcariya Mun with heartfelt respect, the gentleman then asked his forgiveness, expressing deep remorse. Here is the gist of what he said: “I was surprised, and felt somewhat frightened, the first moment I saw you. I immediately noticed a strange and amazing radiance extending out all around you, a brilliance unlike anything I had ever seen. It created such a profound impact that in your presence I felt weak and numb. I couldn’t do anything – so captivated was I by that radiant glow. Still, I didn’t know what it was, for I had never before experienced anything like it.

“My threats to kill you a moment ago didn’t come from my heart’s true feelings. Rather, they stemmed from a long-held belief that I possess unrivaled authority over nonhuman beings, as well as humans with evil intent who lack moral principles. Such authority can be imposed on anyone, at any time; and that person will be powerless to resist. This arrogant sense of self-importance led me to confront you. Feeling vulnerable, I didn’t want to lose face. Even as I threatened you, I felt nervous and hesitant, unable to act on my threat. It was merely the stance of someone accustomed to wielding power over others. Please be compassionate enough to forgive my rude, distasteful behaviour today. I don’t wish to suffer the consequences of evil anymore. As it is now, I suffer enough. Any more, and I won’t have the strength to bear it.”

Ãcariya Mun was curious about this: “You are a prominent individual with enormous power and prestige. You have an nonphysical body, so you needn’t experience the human hardships of hunger and fatigue. You aren’t burdened having to make a living as people here on earth are, so why do you complain about suffering? If a celestial existence isn’t happiness, then which type of existence is?”

The spirit replied: “On a superficial level, perhaps, celestial beings with their ethereal bodies do actually experience more happiness than humans, whose bodies are much grosser. But speaking strictly in spiritual terms, a celestial being’s ethereal body still suffers a degree of discomfort proportionate to the refined nature of that state of existence.”

As a result of the discussion, the mysterious celestial being, showing great respect for the Dhamma he heard, affirmed his devotion to the three refuges: Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. He let it be known that he considered Ãcariya Mun to be one of his refuges as well, asking Ãcariya Mun to bear witness to his faith. At the same time, he offered Ãcariya Mun his full protection, inviting him to remain in the cave indefinitely. Had his wish been granted, Ãcariya Mun would have spent the rest of his life there. This being cherished the opportunity to take care of him – he wanted to ensure that nothing whatsoever disturbed Ãcariya Mun’s meditation.

In truth, he was not some mysterious being with a huge, black body – that was merely a guise. He was the chief leader of all the terrestrial devas living in that region. His large entourage lived in an area that centered in the mountains of Nakhon Nayok and extended over many of the surrounding provinces as well.

Ãcariya Mun’s citta had ‘converged’ into calm at midnight, after which he met the terrestrial deva, communicating by means of samãdhi meditation until four a. m., when his citta withdrew to normal consciousness. The stomach disorder that was troubling him so much when he sat down at dusk had completely disappeared by that time.

The therapeutic power of Dhamma, administered by means of meditation, was the only remedy he needed to effect a decisive cure – an experience that Ãcariya Mun found incredibly amazing. Forgoing sleep, he continued striving in his practice until dawn. Instead of feeling tired after a night of exertion, his body was more energetic than ever.

He had passed a night full of many amazing experiences: He witnessed Dhamma’s powerful ability to tame an unruly spirit, transforming arrogance into faith; his citta remained in a serenely calm state for many hours, savoring that wonderful sense of happiness; a chronic illness was completely cured, his digestion returning to normal; he was satisfied that his mind had acquired a solid spiritual basis – one he could trust, thus dispelling many of his lingering doubts; he realized many unusual insights he had never before attained, both those that removed defilements and those that enhanced the special understanding which formed an intrinsic part of his character.

During the months that followed, his meditation practice progressed smoothly, accompanied always by indescribable peace and tranquillity. With his health back to normal, physical discomforts no longer troubled him. Sometimes, late at night, he met with gatherings of terrestrial devas who came from various places to visit him. Devas from the surrounding area had all heard of Ãcariya Mun, for the mysterious deva who had engaged him in a war of words was now announcing his presence to others, and escorting groups of them to meet him. On nights when no visitors came, he enjoyed himself practicing meditation.

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