Mae Chee Kaew was a Thai villager who overcame enormous obstacles to leave home and follow the Buddha’s path, and went on to be recognized as one of the few known female arahants of the modern era. As Bhikkhu Silaratano recounts in Mae Chee Kaew: Her Journey to Spiritual Awakening and Enlightenment, before she died in 1991 at the age of 90, Mae Chee Kaew had the good fortune to meet Thailand’s most renowned 20th-century meditation masters. Here, in a brief biography adapted from his book, Bhikkhu Silaratano traces Mae Chee Kaew’s determination to ordain and to cultivate a mind of clear awareness.

From time to time in the dry and hot seasons of the year, wandering forest monks passed through Mae Chee Kaew’s farming village, Baan Huay Sai, searching for places to camp and meditate in solitude. The mountains and forests surrounding the village were areas of vast wilderness, forbidding and inhospitable, where wild animals roamed freely and malevolent spirits were said to hold sway. Out of fear, the villagers stayed away, making it an ideal place for the monks to practice their ascetic way of life in seclusion.

In 1914, the arrival of Ajaan Sao Kantasilo—a renowned master in the Thai forest tradition—transformed the spiritual landscape of Baan Huay Sai forever. Crossing the Mekong River from Laos, Ajaan Sao led a small band of disciples through the tropical heat and arduous terrain, reaching the vicinity of Baan Huay Sai just as the annual rains were beginning. Following the Buddha’s instructions, forest monks cease wandering and reside in one location for three months of intensive meditation during the monsoon season.

Ajaan Sao entered Baan Huay Sai one humid, misty dawn, leading a column of monks in ochre-colored robes. Barefoot, with alms bowls slung across their shoulders, the monks made their way through the village to receive whatever generosity the inhabitants had to offer: rice, pickled fish, bananas, smiles, respectful bows. Stirred by the monks’ serene, dignified appearance, the residents of Baan Huay Sai scrambled to make offerings to them. By the time Ajaan Sao and his monks walked past Mae Chee Kaew’s childhood home, her whole family was standing expectantly on the dirt track out front, waiting to place morsels of food in the monks’ bowls in the hope of accumulating special merit.

Eager to discover the identity of the new arrivals, Mae Chee Kaew’s father and a few friends followed the monks to their temporary campsite in the nearby foothills. Although Ajaan Sao was venerated as a supreme master throughout the region, the villagers had never met him face to face. Surprise turned to joy and excitement when they discovered who he was. Mae Chee Kaew’s father resolved to make sure that Ajaan Sao settled in the area, if only for the duration of the monsoon season. He guided the venerable master through the local terrain of fast-flowing streams and winding rivers, overhanging caves and rocky outcrops, open savannah and dense jungle, proposing various retreat sites. He was overjoyed when Ajaan Sao chose an area of flat sandstone boulders near Banklang Cave, only about an hour’s walk from the village.

Once the monks were settled, Ajaan Sao gave teachings to the villagers. To instill faith, he encouraged them to replace the custom of sacrificial offerings to local spirits with the practice of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. To inspire virtue, he encouraged them to observe the five moral precepts for lay practitioners, refraining from killing, stealing, lying, committing adultery, and taking intoxicants. To help them overcome fear of the local deities, Ajaan Sao taught them the protective power of meditation. First, he guided them in paying homage to the Buddha by chanting the Blessed One’s virtues. Then, once their hearts were calm and clear, he taught them to repeat the mantra buddho, buddho, buddho.

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