The Case of the Unfinished Pagoda

Extract from biography of Venerable Phra Acharn Mun
Compiled by Ven. Phra Acharn Maha Boowa Nyanasampanno


For several nights during his meditation, the Venerable Acharn saw in his vision a small samanera and a girl walking back and forth round the area. Uncertain as to what their purpose could be, he later asked them what they were doing. They replied that they had been building a pagoda but had died before they were able to finish it. The small samanera was the younger brother of that girl. Both were passionately attached to their former plan and that's why they had been walking around that area for so long a time. They were in fact not so much tormented by other suffering as by their own attachment, which was preventing them from taking birth in a higher plane.

Knowing this, the Venerable Acharn gave them a sermon saying, 'It is useless to worry about the past, which is already gone and is incorrigible. It cannot be made present, however earnest our wish. To linger on it will only produce depression and disappointment. The same is true of the future. Both should be left as they are. It is the present which must 'be made use of in the right way, since it is within our means to do so. This truth should also be applied to the building of the pagoda,' he said. 'Should it have been made to conform to your wish, you would have been able to complete it. The fact that you died before its completion shows you its impossibility. Now you are being troubled by your own regret that you died before it could be completed. This is your second mistake. And that you are worrying about it all the time, trying to complete it despite the fact that it can never be done is your third mistake. This threefold mistake or wrong thinking does not end here. It produces wrong birth and unprofitable suffering as a result. All this originates from your wrong attitude of mind. It is advisable that you change this wrong attitude for your own sake and not hope for any more impossibilities.

'The purpose of building a pagoda is the merit to be .obtained from it and never to carry around with you its bricks, stones or other building materials. What belongs to you in building the pagoda is merit [your wholesome thoughts and effort], but not the pagoda itself. Whatever merit is gained from it, be it much or little, is your rightful possession. Why should you be worrying about its bricks and stones ? All merit- makers carry with them merit, and never the bricks, stones or other things they have already given away.

'Just think of the building of a monastery, a road, or a water tank, the donation of money or various other things. Those things that were built or distributed freely are but the means by which to make manifest the motives of the merit-makers. They are not of themselves the merit, the happiness in a celestial realm or nirvana. After a time they are sure to deteriorate, decay and disappear. But the merit obtained .through their building or donation remains in the minds of those people. It is the mind [not the bricks, stones, or other material things] that experiences the merit, the Path, the Fruition, and Nirvana.

'There isn't anything more to be obtained from your unfinished pagoda  To worry about it is to be attached to it, although the thing you are attached to is a source of merit. That attachment is itself an un- wholesome state of mind. As a result you have been nailed to it instead of taking birth in a suitable plane and experiencing the fruits of your merit. If you had concentrated on the merit obtained from the pagoda, and not on the pagoda itself, you would have been well-gone through your merit by now, for that is the nature of the merit itself. It is time- less and unchangeable. It is you own mistake in clinging to what should be let go of. Your regret and worry are unprofitable because they are impossible.

'The amount of your merit is enough for birth in a better plane if you are not delayed by your own attachment. It is time now that you changed your state of mind and took birth in a suitable plane. Concentrate on the present, the real merit, for the sake of your advancement. It is a pity that you have made merit for your own progress and then have been retarded by your own attachment to bricks and stones. These things have blocked your progress for so long. Let them go out of your mind and before long you will be freed. Whatever plane of existence you are entitled to, that you can expect by virtue of your merit.'

The Venerable Acharn then explained to them the Five Precepts along with the benefits of their observance. 'Firstly, all living beings have a value and meaning of their own; there should not be the doing of any- thing that will hurt or destroy their value and meaning, for evil is sure to befall one who does so. Secondly, everyone's possessions are priceless to himself although they may seem to be of no value to others. Any attempt to violate -that ownership, in whatever way it is done, will certainly cause ill-will and a fight to protect those possessions. This a wise man should not do. Thirdly, a person's spouse or son or daughter is the apple of his eye. This feeling must be guarded with respect. To lure any of them from their owners is to have his or her eyes gouged out. Fourthly, to tell a lie is to betray another's confidence in the liar. No one, not even [the liar] or an animal, welcomes any falsehood. This is to be avoided. Fifthly, liquor is by nature an intoxicant which can drive a person out of his senses. It rids the drinker of his conscience and self- control. It should be avoided by those who do not want to be driven to insanity and the collapse of his health, both physical and mental.

. 'The .benefits of the observance of the Five Precepts are as follows:

1) longevity and good health, 2) financial security, 3) a happy and harmonious family life, 4) being always reliable and trustworthy in the eyes of others, being looked up to with confidence, loved by gods and men, and harmless to oneself and others, 5) being equipped with wisdom not being absent-minded.

'One who observes Precepts sows the seeds of happiness and harmless- ness to men and animals. He is not suspected. He does not resort to violence, since he always considers others' feelings his as own. One who observes Precepts and is truthful is sure to enter the realm of happiness in the hereafter since he is supported by morality and dharma. This you should bear in mind,' he said, 'and before long you will be blessed with what belongs to you through your merit.'

Evils of Attachment

At the end of the sermon, brother and sister were delighted in the dharma and asked him to give them the Five Precepts. He gave them the Five Precepts in compliance with their request and they look leave of him and suddenly disappeared. Due to their merit obtained from generosity and morality, they took birth in the celestial realm called Tavatimsa and later occasionally came back to listen to his sermons and to express their gratitude to him fur having given them helpful advice. It was because of his teaching, they said, that they were delivered from their own attachment, which had made them linger uselessly about the un- finished pagoda. They now knew how dangerous attachment is to the development of the mind, retarding a person's progress and preventing him from experiencing the happiness and peace which should have been his.

He then explained to them how such an attitude of mind is really a great obstacle to advancement. At the dissolution of the body a wise man should lake care of his own mind instead of the body or any other tiling. Otherwise, the mind will be overwhelmed by attachment or aversion to outside things. Irritation or anger [another aspect of attachment or desire] is but a self-consuming fire, and at the critical moment it can drag a person to any of the realms of woe, such as the hell realms, the reams of hungry ghosts, demons, and animals. These are realms of misery where suffering predominates. It is highly advisable that a person train his mind while he is in a position to do so, so that lie will be able to understand the workings of his own mind while there is still time for self-rectification or self-improvement. At the critical moment when the body is going to dissolve, the mind, having been trained and pre- pared, will be able to detach itself, at least to some extent, from the manifestation of suffering. At the most, it will remain an absolutely detached observer, not being involved in all the good and evil of the world. This is the practice superior to all others, being supreme and unequalled.

Wise men, realizing that the state or condition of the mind is of the utmost importance in the Three Worlds, always lake pains to train their minds and also urge others to do the same. It is the mind that enjoys or suffers results of karma, that experiences happiness or suffering, that produces gain or loss, that takes birth or undergoes death in the realms of bliss and those of misery. Thus it is of the utmost importance that a person treat, train, and guard his own mind in the right way, at present and in the future.

Brother and sister, now angels in the Tavatimsa heaven, were greatly impressed by his instruction, saying that they had never before heard such dharma. After that, they took leave of him, circumambulated him three times, drew back until they were outside the area where he was dwelling and then took to the air like wisps of cotton blown up by the wind.