Two similar karmic stories between a Thai Forest Ajaan and a Chinese Zen Monk

I came across two different accounts, one told by Ajaan Maha Boowa about the life of the Venerable Ajaan Khao, a renowned forest monk of Thailand, and one told by Zen Master Xuyun about a 15th century Chinese monk. And how similar they were! So I have translated into English the account told by Master Xuyun, in The collection of Master Xuyun’s Dharma Talks, to share with everyone here, and the other account is in the biography of Ajaan Khao, written by Ajaan Maha Boowa, translated by Bhikkhu Paññavaddho.

A little note that, the Chinese monk was from Yunnan province, which in 14th century had just been incorporated into China from a previously Thai Kingdom, so my wild guess here is that the monk was probably of Thai ethnicity, his surname was also very suggestive, because I was aware that some foreign monks when they came into China, had a surname that was also the name of their origin country. But still, in Chinese culture, to mention only the monk’s last name is a sign of great respect. And Yunnan was also the original home of modern day Thai-Laos people.

Master Xuyun:

Today I will relate to you folks a legend. At the time of the Ming Empire, there was a man whose surname was Tai, lived outside the city wall of Xiaodong, in Kunming. When his parents passed away, they left him with farms and abundant property, so life was comfort. But regardless of this, he still laboured and worked dilligently, growing vegetables by himself, and sold them to the market to make a living. His wife was young and pretty, but was wanton and slothful, continually with a man named Ye Hanzi that she had a secret relation with. He knew about this, but didn’t mention a word. After a while, the wife wasn’t afraid anymore, day and night commited adultery with Ye Hanzi, and didn’t even care for her husband. One day, he went selling vegetables at the market, but then bought meat and wine, and came back home very early. At that time, Ye Hanzi was sleeping with the wife, and had yet left, so he had to hide under the bed. Going into the house, he went to the kitchen preparing the meal. The wife felt that something went wrong, but pretended to wash her face, and went to the kitchen, helping husband cooking the meal. Having finished cooking, he told the wife to arrange the dishes. When the wife put on the table two bowls of rice, he said:

-Please put another bowl of rice, I have a guest to entertain today.

And just right after she had put down the bowl, he told the wife to invite the guest out to eat and drink. She made an astonished face and said: Where is the guest? —In the room—He told her.

She trembled and murmuring: Husband…Don’t say anything silly… there’s no guest in the room.

–Fear not! Nothing shall happen! Please invite him out. If he doesn’t come out, I’ll strike him with this machete.

She had no choice but to call Ye Hanzi to come out. He then invited Ye Hanzi to sit on the high seat, treated him respectfully, and gave him wine to drink. Noticed that Ye Hanzi was hesitating, because was afraid that there might be poison in the wine, he then picked up the glass and drank it first. By then, Ye Hanzi was relieved. Having eaten fill, he got up, paid homage and bowed to Ye Hanzi three bows, then said:

– What an auspicious occasion today! My wife is young and beautiful, but no one has ever bothered, but now sir, what a great fortune that you have even considered her. Here are my wife and my family fortune, now I give them all to you. Please accept it!

Ye Hanzi and the wife didn’t dare to say anything. He then picked up the machete and said:

-If not agreed to, I’ll take you all’s lives!

They two didn’t know what to do, just obeyed and accepted awkwardly. From then on, with his hands now freed and by himself, he left home and headed to Changsong Mountain, Xilin Forest Hermitage, to ordain as a monk. In that place, he both cultivated the Way as well as growing vegetables to live. Afterwards, he had made quite a progress in the path.

And about Ye Hanzi, after receiving wealth and beauty, was just busy eating and drinking, dissipating and indulging in pleasure. Day and night he beat and abused the wife. With life now in hell, the wife felt an extreme remorse, she ran to Xilin Hermitage, begging the old husband to come back, thought that he would have been glad, but he paid no attention to her. In the end, Ye Hanzi squandered away all the family fortune, making the wife now no place to depend upon. Remembering back to the kindness of her old husband, she intended to reciprocate. Before, he used to like to eat golden-tailed fish in Kunyang. The wife then bought some and roasted them, and brought to Xilin Hermitage. He took them and said:

—I will receive your gift, but shall release these fish.

The wife said:

—They have been roasted, cannot be release!

He then put the fish into water, they all came back alive. Nowadays, in the folktales they told at Heilongtan in Kunming, there have been mentioned of that sort of fish. Mr Tai, even though when he was a layman, but with his wealth, wife and children, was able to let them all go, because of that he had success in the path of cultivation. Now my advice to you, let go of all conditioned things, practice diligently, and the fruit of the noble path shall be soon revealed one day!

Ajaan Maha Boowa:

Ajaan Khao later explained his predicament like this: “As a lay man I worked very hard to support my family. But the fruits of my labour were just barely sufficient to meet our needs. Often we had to go without. So out of concern for my family I decided to travel to the Central Plains region and hire myself out as a farm labourer. I worked hard and saved my money; then I returned home. Unfortunately, upon my return I discovered that my wife had a lover. At that moment I nearly lost control of myself. I found them sleeping together. Having been forewarned by some of my friends in the village, I crept up on them in the middle of the night with a machete in my hand. I raised the machete over my head, ready to strike them both with all my strength. But, by chance, her lover saw me first. Trembling with fear, he raised his hands and pleaded with me to spare his life. He admitted that he had done something terribly wrong. At that very moment the thought arose: ‘He’s admitted his guilt. Don’t do it! Don’t do it! It will only make matters much worse. Nothing good can come out of it.’
“I felt pity for that man who was so terrified of dying, and my anger subsided. I quickly called the other villagers to come and bear witness so that no one would have doubt as to the truth of the situation. In front of the entire assembly, which included the village headman and all of my relatives, I pressed serious charges against my wife’s lover. He responded by publicly confessing everything, and agreed to pay a fine. I then announced for all to hear that I was ceding my wife to her lover.
“Having cut off the urge for revenge, I felt relieved; although I remained deeply dismayed by what happened. I had lost faith in life, and I felt no motivation to pick up the pieces and start my worldly life over again. I thought only of how I wished to become a monk so that I could escape these circumstances and transcend this wretched world. Going beyond the world to attain Nibbāna following the Lord Buddha and his Arahant disciples was the only course I was willing to contemplate. It was for this reason that I ordained, and it is for this reason that I have practised Dhamma diligently all my life. I became a Bhikkhu in great haste because I was so disgusted and dismayed that it weighed heavily on my heart. Nothing could have stopped me at that time.”


An attempt is made to draw a connection between Mahayana and Theravada in showing some similarity in these two stories. While in central Vietnam, I noticed some monks dressed and behaved like Theravada monks, while others appeared like Mahayana. Can you explain what the understanding is in Vietnam of Theravada or if there is no distinction made between the two, and what would cause monks to adopt one mode or the other.

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Speaking of convention, there are nowadays two Buddhist traditions co-exist together peacefully in Vietnam. Theravada has just been fairly recently introduced to the Viet people’s (the dominant ethnic group in Vietnam) community, but now is a fast growing minority. Mahayana on the other hand, has been introduced to Vietnam since 3rd century AD, and is a far outnumber majority compared to Theravada. Mahayana in Vietnam has two traditions also. There almost used to be only Zen monasteries in medieval Vietnam, hence the old and formal word for Buddhist temples in Vietnamese literally means “The gate of Zen”. But nowadays, most Mahayanists are Pure Land. Theravada and Mahayana in Vietnam may be different outwardly on the rites, rituals, styles of clothing, or on the liturgy language they use, but from my observant, some Mahayana monks practice like a Theravadin, and some Theravada monks practice like a Zen monk, and in both traditions, there are some who just practice the outward form of their respective traditions, and some who don’t even bother to practice at all. And why people choose one tradition over the other, I must say that it is probably because of their karma :slightly_smiling_face:


I don’t think that they are the same person. Anyway, wife committing adultery might be a major similarity, but many details in the stories doesn’t seem to match.

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Xuyun! An incredible practitioner! His life story is very inspiring. It’s a shame that there hasn’t been a comprehensive English translation of his works. Years ago I heard that an Italian PhD student was translating all of his works, but she was probably translating them into Italian.

We probably know at least one such monk, participating in this forum :slight_smile:

There is a significant difference in the two stories of the OP. Tai forged his departure and the bond between his former wife and her lover by threatening their death, while Ajahn Khao achieved the departure and bond by broadcasting it before the village community.

From talking to Vietnamese I learned that Mahayana focuses on stories and qualities of “saints” as has been done in the OP, rather than teachings of the Buddha, in other words the bodhisattva ideal. Bikkhu Bodhi is a Theravada schloar-monk who was first ordained a samanera in the Vietnamese tradition, but later full ordination in Sri Lanka:

There are Theravada “saints,” but they seem to be far fewer in number than in the Mahayana. I think that doesn’t say anything about preferring the ideal of the arahant or Buddha over that of the bodhisattva, though. I think it just reflects that Theravada failed to consistently produce saints that inspired people enough to pass down their life stories. One could easily argue that for the hundreds of years that Theravada existed in a degenerate state where serious meditation practice had largely been lost, and Buddhist practice consisted almost exclusively of textual study and rituals, in the Mahayana countries there were still people diligently cultivating and inspiring others through their practice. Of course, it’s possible that there were once more stories of past Theravada saints, but that these were lost.

Whatever one might think about Vajrayana Buddhism, there is still a strong tradition of spending years, sometime a whole life, in retreat in caves and other remote places. When these practitioners come out of retreat and begin teaching they are major sources of inspiration for people. The stories of these great practitioners are naturally shared and written down for posterity. It’s quite natural, I think, for people to do this.


There is also the Minh Dang Quang order. They wear robes in a Theravada style, while practicing much of the same practices you’d find at any other Mahayana monastery. There’s not too much info on them last time I checked, but I did work with a MDQ monastery here in the US. From what I understood, they believe Minh Dang Quang became an Arahant and tried to re-merge (I don’t know if that’s the right term, though) Theravada and Mahayana, but then disappeared. Other than that, it was general Vietnamese Mahayana practices- Amitabha, Great Compassion Mantra, all that.


For a Zen-Pure Land practitioner as myself, I found that Zen and the Thai Forest Tradition are extremely similar. And the Practice of reciting Amitabha Buddha and the Buddho practice, not much a difference to me, and Pure Land even developed a quite systematic teaching about that practice.

For Example, you cannot be more Zenness than this: Ajahn Dune Atulo (Phra Rajavudhacaraya or Luang Pu Dulaya "Dun" Atulo) - Atulo

BTW, The Arahant’s smile