Green Koans Case 38: Ajaan Lee Refuses to Bow

Clark Strand

Ajaan Lee

Case 38: Ajaan Lee Refuses to Bow

    Phra Ajaan Lee once passed the rainy season among the remote hill tribes of central Thailand. One night when he was feeling ill, he dozed off for a moment. A woman dressed in white appeared, followed by two girls and carrying a white flag covered with Chinese characters.
    “I am the queen of the deities,” she told Ajaan Lee. “If you live here, you have to bow down to me.”
    “I wasn't willing to bow down, seeing as I was a monk,” Ajaan Lee wrote later. “Still, she insisted. We had a long argument, but I stood firm. Finally she left the hut, climbed the hill and disappeared. I meditated in comfort for the rest of the night.”


Phra Ajaan Lee        Phra Ajahn Lee Dhammadharo (1907-1961) was one of the most important teachers in the Thai Forest tradition, founded at the turn of the last century by his teacher Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta. Ajaan Lee was instrumental in bringing that tradition into the mainstream of Thai society.

NOTE:    Ajaan Lee’s autobiography, along with many of his teachings, have been translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and can be read at


What kind of monk refuses to bow? And yet, it makes sense when you think about it. Queens belong to capitols, and capitols belong to kingdoms. A monk doesn’t belong to either.

Besides which, what’s the queen of the deities doing so far from home? Her appearance in the forest is suspicious to say the least. What’s in it for her, getting a skinny backwoods monk to put his forehead on the ground?

Once upon a time
The goddesses lived in groves.
Now they’re city girls.
Wonder what this monk would do
If the trees asked him to bow.

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avalmez's picture

So, okay, I returned to the story and what follows is my take on the same…
Ajaan Lee lies down because he is feeling ill - something is making him feel sick. He falls asleep, and he dreams. He dreams about the Queen accompanied by two girls carrying flags emblazoned with Chinese characters, and of the confrontation he has with the Queen over her demands that he bow (submit), to her.
Ajaan Lee is eventually victorious in that confrontation. Feeling better after having defeated the Queen, he is then able to sleep warmly and cozily the rest of the night.
First, the confrontation with the Queen takes place in a dream. Second, the dream is ripe with symbols (as dreams are apt to be, I guess) - a sovereign, symbols of sovereignty emblazoned with foreign characters, and lots of females – well, three females.
Not meaning to offend, but the story does need to be taken in the context of the culture and time in which it was written, a time when the word vanity was considered synonymous with the word woman. And, vanity, of course, is a type of pride. Taken together with symbols of sovereignty (the Queen, the flags), I think pride is a focus of the story – vanity, patriotism.
So, to me, the story is really Ajaan Lee confronting pride, the source, in fact, of what made him feel sick. Having defeated pride in his dream, Ajaan Lee cures what ailed him and is able to sleep well the rest of the night. Actually, he is able meditate in comfort the rest of the night.
I may be reading too much into the story, but, in any case, that is my reading.

ClarkStrand's picture

Fascinating, Avalmez. I choose these koans for their ecological content, but am always happy to find other levels in them. Lot of psychoanalysts in mine and my wife's family. I'll have to put Ajaan Lee on the couch and see what they come up with. Although you've done a fine job already. I'm wondering about the "Vanity, thy name is woman" angle in early to mid-20th century Thailand, but I think on the whole it probably applies as you have said. Certainly that seems to be the default position in male celibate societies east and west.

avalmez's picture

I had a similar reaction to the story. However, in my case, I wondered if standing firm and resolute and not bowing because Ajaan Lee was a monk was not somehow - pride.

ClarkStrand's picture

I had the same thought, avalmez. But in this case, I think not. The reason is subtle. He didn't bow because he was a monk, not because he was the monk Ajaan Lee. This goes back to that little formula I've mentioned from time to time in recent koans and columns. That formula says "t/e = 1" where "t" is the value of theology (interpreted very broadly to refer to any cultural philosophy, ritual, practice, or idea), and "e" is the value of ecology (the planetary ecosystem or the Earth).

The mistake we human beings have made most often over the past few thousand years--especially since the Industrial Revolution--has been to inflate the value of "t" so that, effectively, "t > e". This leads to everything from species extinction to global warming. But it is also possible to err in the other direction, by finding in our own human nature something less than equal to the Earth (which would be "t < e"). That is the real temptation here. In this case, I believe that Ajaan Lee is simply "standing with the trees"--equal to, but not greater than or less than, the Earth. According to my "green understanding" of Buddhism, that is what a monk (and, for that matter, a human being) really is.

Does this make sense to you as I've explained it?

avalmez's picture

What you write makes perfect sense and, being new to the site as i am, thanks for the discussion regarding t/e=1. however, as i read the story about ajaan lee, your reply doesn't quite seem to resonate fully with the story - and i hasten to add, from my perspective.

ajaan lee states very plainly he did not bow seeing "as how [he is] a monk" and that, as a result, he slept warmly and cozily that night (which reads like a smug ending to me).

now, i am sure i am missing the point of the story entirely and so will think more on it. to be honest, i was distracted by my first reading of the story and need to return to it.

however, while what you explain does makes sense, how it relates to the story is not clear to me - in fact, to the point, forgive me for writing, that the reply seems more apologetic than clarifying.

again, i will contemplate further. thanks for your remarks!

A Babe on the Path (hopefully, "on" :)

ClarkStrand's picture

Well, I'd hate to be known as an apologist for...what...monkish pride? Especially since I'm not a monk anymore. LOL
Anyway, I think Keith gave a better, and much simpler, answer above. Check it out.

mlemon's picture

Is there something in here about being a woman? What about the buddha in her? Couldn't he bow to the buddha in her? Or do we imagine that "city girls" don't have buddhas in them?

This male/female thing keeps getting in the way of so much - separating us unnecessarily. Could it be that Ajaan Lee was a bit caught up in the old male superiority ritual? Or maybe he was identifying a bit much with his identity as a monk.

A bow is just a bow. That's the ending part, where he sleeps well and she disappears.

To me this is a story of how Ajaan Lee was like the rest of us - not always so.

ClarkStrand's picture

I'm of two minds, mlemon. On the one hand, the Theravada tradition has a long way to go on that score (then again, the Zen tradition does too, as does the Vajrayana and so forth). On the other, I think it is the imperiousness of the character that is the issue here, and the authoritarian aspect of her demand.

As far as Buddha Nature goes (the Buddha in her, or any of us for that matter), the Theravada tradition does not include that intrinsic Buddha-leaning teaching. I do find it interesting, however, that this authoritarian figure comes to Ajaan Lee in female form (triply so, no less). Perhaps that does say something about his psychology, and about the psychology of male celibate orders in general.

Temptation (in this case, the temptation to bow down to a principality) comes in female form. Which, as you point out, is very interesting. The result might have been the same if the deity had come in male form, but one wonders if the battle would have needed to last so long...if you know what I mean. The quality of a pitched battle (an actual argument) with demons and female temptresses has a long tradition in many male monastic traditions. The tales of the Desert Fathers are full of them.

By the way, "a bow is just a bow" is a perfectly good teaching from a Zen point of view, but isn't a point of view most Theravada monks would appreciate. In that tradition a bow cannot be divorced from its symbolic meaning and seen as a "pure action" all its own. It's the difference between a sutra-based approach (Theravada) and one that--traditionally, at least--does not rely upon written texts (Ch'an/Zen).

ClarkStrand's picture

I'll add just one further point, since the topic is so important. If what you say is true, I would suggest that there is nothing very special or distiguishing about it--this being a collective blind spot (call it prejudice if you will) of virtually all male monastic orders. What is special about these Thai Forest monks, and special about Ajaan Lee perhaps more than most, is their ecological consciousness and the degree to which that consciousness completely informs their understanding of Buddhism. Naturally, one might wish that they could find a way to integrate the female, symbolically and literally, into that understanding. As I said, the tradition still has a ways to go on that score.

Richard Fidler's picture

Ajaan Lee, I expect, did bow down to the toads of the forest--not because they deserve the honor of a deity but because they are toads.

sanghadass's picture

and if the queen of the deities had kissed one of them toads they may have turned into a prince that married a city girl and lived happily ever after.

ClarkStrand's picture

I think you're right. I'll ask Than Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) for his opinion on this when next we speak.

ClarkStrand's picture

Something I wish I'd added to the commentary...although maybe it's too obvious to mention. Namely, that Ajaan Lee "stood firm" a tree. A forest monk through and through.

Keith McLachlan's picture

Buddhist monks usually don't have a problem with bowing, as it diminishes their egos.

In this case, the woman has set herself up as being a deity and thus superior to the monk. If Ajaan Lee had bowed to her, he would have abetted her delusion. It is she who needs to bow and realize the equality of all things.

gansanta's picture

A Theravadi Buddhist monk cannot bow down to a lay person, or to a junior monk. Buddha forbade it. According to monastic rules, (Cullavagga 6th chapter) a monk cannot bow down to a king, president, parent, or to a god. A monk can only bow down to the senior monks and to a Buddha. Ajaan Lee is a theravadin monk. So he did what he was supposed to do.