A lay practitioner and revered teacher, Kee Nanayon offers a female voice rarely heard in a tradition dominated by monks

Thai society, like most societies, has done little to support women in dharma practice, but nevertheless, laywomen and ordained nuns have played a crucial role in transmitting the Buddha’s teachings. As a result of the forest tradition, in fact, many more Thai women took up meditation than had ever before. Unlike scholastic Buddhism, which was the province of monks and male novices, the forest is open to everyone. The forest master Maha Boowa compared his tradition to a university that “covers a vast area, far longer and wider than any other secular university…and can accept more students, irrespective of nationality, caste, sex, age and prior academic qualities.” Dozens of nunneries were established by the disciples of Ajaan Mun. Ajaan Lee, for one, a well-known meditation master and disciple of Ajaan Mun, had twice as many nuns as monks at his monastery. Except for taking formal ordination vows, many laywomen, or pha-khaws, live the same spartan lives devoted to meditation as did monastics, and many have been recognized by “senior” monks as arahants.

Upasika (“laywoman”) Kee Nanayon (1901-1978) is considered Thailand’s foremost female dharma teacher of the twentieth century. As a child, she vowed never to submit to what she saw as the slavery of marriage, and by the time she reached adolescence, her life was devoted to meditation, studying dharma, and maintaining a small business that supported both herself and her father in his old age. Kee Nanayon taught her father meditation toward the end of his life, and after his death, in 1945, she established a tiny retreat in the forest outside Bangkok that grew to become the nucleus of a woman’s practice center that is flourishing today and where dozens of forest nuns have trained. In the beginning, when jungly wilderness still surrounded the capital, Kee Nanayon, along with her aunt and uncle, slept in an abandoned meeting hall and meditated in a cliff-face cave, observing the asceticdhutanga practices: “For food, we lived off the delicious bamboo shoots that grew in the bamboo clusters at the top of the hill. The bitter fruits and berries provided our medicine. Coconut shells made excellent bowls. We kept patching our old clothes and slept on old mats and wooden pillows. All sons of animals lived around the hill: wildcats, rabbits, moles, lizards, snakes, wildfowl. Throngs of bats lived in the cave, flying out at night and returning just before dawn.”

Her talks became renowned and drew hundreds of students to her center. In an excerpt from one, Kee Nanayon alludes to the mind-sharpening tools to be found in the forest.

One night I was sitting in meditation outside in the open air—my back straight as an arrow—firmly determined to make the mind quiet, but even after a long time it wouldn’t settle down. So I thought, “I’ve been working at this for many days now, and yet my mind won’t settle down at all. It’s time to stop being so determined and to simply be aware of the mind.” I started to take my hands and feet out of the meditation posture, but at the moment I had unfolded one leg but had yet to unfold the other, I could see that my mind was like a pendulum swinging more and more slowly, more and more slowly—until it stopped.

Then there arose an awareness that was sustained by itself. Slowly I put my legs and hands back into position. At the same time, the mind was in a state of awareness absolutely and solidly still, seeing clearly into the elementary phenomena of existence as they arose and disbanded, changing in line with their nature—and also seeing a separate condition inside, with no arising, disbanding, or changing, a condition beyond birth and death: something very difficult to put clearly into words, because it was a realization of the elementary phenomena of nature, completely internal and individual.

After a while I slowly got up and lay down to rest. This state of mind remained there as a stillness that sustained itself deep down inside. Eventually the mind came out of this state and gradually returned to normal.

From this I was able to observe how practice consisting of nothing but fierce desire simply upsets the mind and keeps it from being still. But when one’s awareness of the mind is just right, an inner awareness will arise naturally of its own accord. Because of this clear inner awareness, I was able to continue knowing the facts of what’s true and false, right and wrong, from that point on, and it enabled me to know that the moment when the mind let go of everything was a clear awareness of the elementary phenomena of nature, because it was an awareness that knew within and saw within of its own accord—not something you can know or see by wanting.

For this reason the Buddha’s teaching, “Sabbe dhamma anatta—All phenomena are not-self,” tells us not to latch onto any of the phenomena of nature, whether conditioned or unconditioned. From that point on I was able to understand things and let go of attachments step by step.

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