'Life as a Siamese Monk' by Richard Randall
A review and appreciation of Kapilavaddho Bhikkhu
In 1993 I found and read a copy of Life as a Siamese Monk. I was visiting Bath for the day and wandered into a bookstore, homing in quickly on the title. I read the description on the sleeve which mentioned an ordination of an Englishman at Wat Paknam, and was intrigued.
Wat Paknam is where my mother and teacher, Fuengsin, had been taught her practice: Dhammakaya. On returning home I showed her the book. Mum was surprised and immediately pieces of a jigsaw filled into place for her. Her teacher, Ajahn Kaew, a disciple of the abbot there, 'Luang Phor Sodh', often related to her stories about a fellow monk called Kapilavaddho Bhikkhu - evidently he was a source of great interest at the temple. Mum had thought he was Thai! Then she realised how it came to be that the Hampstead vihara, which she had visited decades ago, had on its walls a picture of Luang Phor...
'Tan William' Purfurst was middle aged and not in the strongest health when he began his training as a samanera in a distant land in 1954. He describes in the initial pages how he had for many years been acquainted intellectually with the Buddha's teachings, and how gradually his internal longings bring him one day to the crunch - that to really know he needs to practise. His tremendous need takes him all the way to Thailand, a country which he knows has such a foreign culture, yet at the same time where he feels very much at home!
Right from the beginning in his account he writes so honestly about his thoughts and feelings, and in a very measured manner. The book is a very rich account which describes a journey in Dhamma where he had to face many obstacles, many trials. So it is such a pleasure to read how he persevered with admirable commitment. I have no doubt that Luang Phor was very happy and impressed by his efforts.
And what efforts! He memorised for his ordination ceremonies considerable Pali texts and had to change these at short notice when he learnt that the version required was different from that which he had practised. Yet he recited them flawlessly. However, it was his efforts in bhavana (mental cultivation), especially his periods in sitting meditation, where he gave it his all. Reading through the descriptions of intense practice, you can see how he was very attentive to his teacher, really taking advice to heart.
For instance, shortly after Kapilavaddho's full ordination, Luang Phor taught him to bear in mind the story of Bahiya, where the Buddha taught, "In the seeing just the seen, in the hearing just the heard, ... " Soon after the new bhikkhu voluntarily shut himself up in a cell to practise without relent, uncovering "layer after layer" of his mind. Not satisfied by observing a mental process just once, he trains himself to repeat the observations again and again until fluent and clear in understanding.
He suffered enormously - he describes how he physically became very ill, how he acted just in time to save himself from death from a poisonous spider, and how he had frightening experiences in his meditation. Nevertheless, he knew this was the right path for him and you can see how he ripens into fruition.
Throughout he acknowledges the wonderful support given to him by Luang Phor, his teacher, and Thitavedo Bhikkhu, his interpreter and companion, who watched over him like a brother, frequently offering advice and support, with the occasional stern words to correct the Englishman when he sees him heading off in the wrong direction.
Kapilavaddho is very appreciative of support from wherever it comes - he writes particularly warmly about the Thai community, to whom he is very respectful. This attitude is evident throughout the book, despite his brain's frequent attempts to rationalise in unhelpful ways.
For instance, early on he shows his gratitude to his confidants and mentors in the UK, who helped him to eventually take the plunge and travel so far. One of them is a Christian, who himself shows commendable acceptance,
"Laddie, you are one of those who must find your own way through the mystery we call life ... I came to terms with myself through Jesus. You, I know, cannot do that. So you must continue to search. Go your way, and remember: keep on climbing, no matter how often you fall."
And so he did.
In conclusion, my wish is that the reader of this frank account will come to learn about Kapilavaddho Bhikkhu and the key role he played in laying the foundations of the English Sangha, successfully realised from the '70s onwards by disciples of Ven. Ajahn Chah, particularly Ven. Ajahn Sumedho. I also wish readers to see how much support Kapilavaddho received from Luang Phor Sodh, his Upajjhaya, and other monks at Wat Paknam. Most Buddhists in the UK know about Amaravati and the Forest tradition, but there is [still] little mention these days of Kapilavaddho and his background in dhammakaya. So it is good that Aukana have salvaged his writings and kindly published it themselves!
- Paul Trafford
Originally authored in 1998, this page was last updated on 20 April 2017