by Barbara Yen
This article is written by Barbara Yen in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.
Thailand – Mae Chee Kaew (1901-1991), a reputed female arahant in modern times
This is an inspiring story of the trials and tribulations of a simple village woman from a pious family in Baan Huay Sai in northeast Thailand. She is the youngest of 5 children, all of whom had no formal education. Her mother passed away when she was five years old.
At the age of 17, she was compelled to marry. She did not have a happy marriage as her husband became unfaithful to her. Unable to have children, they adopted a daughter from a relative.
She was weary of the suffering of life and each year, she pleaded without success for her husband’s permission to allow her to join a three month meditation retreat. It was only after her uncle’s intervention, that her husband relented. After her first taste of temporary renunciation, Maechee Kaew decided to pursue her life-long path for enlightenment.
Bliss of Going Forth
At the age of 37, after 20 years of marriage, her husband consented to a divorce after she agreed to relinquish all her property to him. She also arranged for the care of her daughter before she renounced. The challenges she faced of being a female renunciant are evident here.
Her Meditation Experience
Mae Chee Kaew was very fortunate to have learnt meditation from great meditation masters like Ajahn Sao in 1914 and Ajahn Mun in 1917 when they came to stay near her village. The methods and techniques they taught her was the repetition of the word ‘buddho’ to enter into Samadhi. After that she was advised to turn inwards to investigate her mind, to remove the layers and layers of defilements until what was left was the pure mind.
Ajahn Mun could see that she possessed uncommon psychic abilities and had great spiritual potential. Even as a beginner, her mind easily went into deep absorption for many hours. Ajahn Mun, himself an arahant and with psychic powers, could see that she sometimes experienced frightening episodes in her meditation. He would request to see her the next morning to report to him so that he could guide her.
When she knew that Ajahn Mun decided to stay on for his three months rains retreat, Mae Chee Kaew donated twenty acres of her land to build a monastery, Wat Nong Nong for him and his disciples to stay. After the retreat, before Ajahn Mun left, he requested her to be his disciple as he saw her potential for arahanthood. She was 16 years old then and her father did not give consent. Ajahn Mun then advised her to stop meditating, as without a teacher the amazing capacities of her mind might cause her more trouble than realisation. He asked her to wait for another master to arrive.
After her renunciation, Mae Chee Kaew learnt meditation under various bhikkhus and she was given a 20 acre land to build her monastery.
Disciple of Ajahn Maha Boowa
In 1951, Ajahn Maha Boowa arrived into her village and became her master. Ajahn Maha Boowa who was an arahant, also saw her potential for enlightenment, but also saw the danger of her being distracted by the external phenomena and remained attached to them, therefore unable to progress. He advised her to turn her energy inwards to investigate the nature of her mind and body.
When she experienced bright explosive lights and a feeling of total emptiness, she mistook it as Nirvana. She did not believe her master’s advise that there was still an element of self and subtle defilement. When all explanations and advice failed, Ajahn Boowa demanded her to leave.
Attainment of Arahantship
Realising her folly and her stubbornness, she apologized to her master and then went into long, silent retreat. She practiced with diligence, taking very little sleep and on some days, went without food. She first identified the falsity of forms, then thought, and the steps of breaking down the self. She finally experienced a supreme radiance and investigated it until she reached the final goal.
Like the experience of the Buddha and Ajahn Maha Boowa after their attainment, Mae Chee Kaew recalled her past lives and reflected on the impossibility of teaching others on how to attain the same achievement. Yet quickly, she realised that if she could attain liberation, others could too.
She went on to motivate the nuns in her monastery. She was requested by Ajahn Maha Boowa to teach his mother in his hometown which she did for 14 years, in gratitude to her Master, before she returned to her Monastery.
Unusual Psychic Powers
When Mae Chee Kaew was 7 years of age, she already experienced unusual psychic abilities of communication with unseen beings – celestial deities, nagas, animals and hungry ghost of Buddhist cosmology. She was often invited to visit them in the different heavenly and hell realms. She could even see the past lives of these beings. Her father discouraged her from talking about these phenomenon.
As an adult, while meditating, she had a few episodes of animals which complained to her as they were brutally killed by farmers. Once a wild boar told her to be compassionate and eat its meat so that it could be reborn as a human being. The night before, a farmer name Dun, who had killed it, would offer them her meat the next morning, which he did.
Mae Chee Kaew had skills in predicting events, mind read and some healing abilities. During a drought season, she was able to lead her monastic community to hidden water sources which had come into her vision one day while meditating.
She surprised her master Ajahn Boowa who was living a few kilometers away from the nuns, by knowing through a chilling sensation, when he was leaving the vicinity. His entourage would wander into another jungle for the next few months. She knew exactly when they return, by feeling a warm sensation and would ask the nuns to prepare alms food to offer him and his disciples the next morning. It was a few kilometers walk to their camp.
Once when she and her nuns were meditating in a cave, a naga (mythical dragon) threatened to harm them if they did not leave. She reasoned with it after which it left them alone.
(I have seen photographs of two nagas captured by an Australian bhikkhu one early morning, on the banks of the River Ganges)
Death of an Arahant
In 1977, she was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, diabetes and cancer but she survived till 1991. At her death, upon cremation, her bones turn into relics of different colours and in the shape of pearls and crystals. It was the final proof of her highest spiritual attainments, arahantship.
Ajahn Maha Boowa, at her eulogy, declared that there was no need for any funeral chanting because as an Arahant, there was nothing more they could add for her. He also said that whether we were man or woman, we were equally capable of attaining enlightenment, no matter what lineage or tradition we were practising, so do it well. He had a stupa erected in her memory.
Mae Chee Kaew left a legacy to inspire the future generations. She had proven that attaining Arahantship was not impossible, for both women and men, even in modern times. So we should not underestimate the power of our spiritual potential and need to aspire and strive hard.
“If you neglect to cultivate your inherent mindfulness and wisdom, striving only half-heartedly, the obstacles in your path will multiply until they block all sight of the way, leaving the end of the road forever in darkness.”
~~ Mae Chee Kaew ~~
President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia
Bhikkhu Sīlaratano, Mae Chee Kaew: Her Journey to Spiritual Awakening and Enlightenment, A forest Dhamma Publication, 2009. (The author, an American, is one of Ajahn Maha Boowa’s disciples).
President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia