In Mahayana Buddhism which developed in China, Tibet and Japan there are Bodhisattvas who defer Nirvana so as to help others, as the Lord Buddha did. It has been traditional to say that Theravada Buddhism which developed in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Ava (Burma), Angkor (the Khmer Empire) and Siam has no such semi-divinities. It would be more helpful to simply recognize that one of the factors that distinguish many schools of Buddhism is how individuals are venerated who have attained or are surely about to attain enlightenment. In some ways these venerable ones are similar to Christian saints as far as their status is concerned.
Here in Thailand great reverence is paid to a special religious elite group. They are given veneration reserved for very few others. Two elements combine to generate the esteem they receive: life and legend. The lives of these venerated monks must reflect remarkable achievement and their stories must be elevated into legends. It must be unquestionable that these monks have accomplished what ordinary human beings cannot, and their importance to the general welfare is essentially incomprehensible.
Luang Phu-waen Sujinno was a mendicant. He resided in a little known, nearly derelict temple on a wooded hillside a hundred kilometers north of Chiang Mai. He appeared to be neither a scholar nor an activist and thrived, in his own way, by staying almost isolated. That all changed, so the legend says, when a pilot of a small plane was scouting the hills and swears he saw a monk in a half-lotus position floating in mid-air. This impressed the pilot so much that he went looking for the monk on the ground and found Luang Phu-waen very near where he had seen him floating. The pilot recognized the monk and paid him reverence. The pilot’s story spread and people began to make their way to that rather inaccessible place not far from the small town of Prao. When HM the King planned to visit, a road was hastily built and then the crowds began regular daily audiences. Even when the monk developed geriatric disabilities he was a person of veneration and his funeral was a national event under royal patronage. Donations in the monk’s memory helped build the central building of the region’s main medical center. It contains a shrine featuring a life-size statue of Luang Phu-waen covered in gold leaf.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.