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The lone monk counsels a worshipper at Sumnuksong Para. Visitors are welcome and will receive some useful advice in English.

The Bounty of Buddha

Sunday, November 25, 2007
FOR ABOUT 20 years, the lone abbot of Sumnuksong Para has lived in solitude, sustained by meditation and an impressive library of religious books.

Crowds may come on festive days and passersby occasionally call in, surprised at signs of a Buddhist outpost in what is primarily a Muslim area.

Yet worshippers are at pains to make the point that Sumnuksong Para is not a temple, even though it has the appearance of one.

They say that's because the area is predominantly Muslim, so for that reason alone, Sumnuksong Para cannot be categorized as a temple.

A little tolerance and understanding seem to go a long way. This understanding of the need for balance is probably the main reason why Buddhists and Muslims live together on Phuket in peace and harmony.

Larger surprises are to come in this quiet Muslim corner on the eastern coast of Phuket.

Sumnuksong Para is a serene place, set among the trees on a bend in the road between Baan Para and the local fishing pier.

To the south-west, Wat Chalong, largest and richest temple on the island, houses a grand chedi that holds a sacred piece of bone from the Lord Buddha. Once, it was the only temple in southern Thailand to be so honoured.

Now, with the approval of the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, the island has another relic of the Lord Buddha . . . and it is being housed in a modest, newly-erected chedi in a place that is not even a temple.

The contrast between the two chedis housing the relics could not be greater. The Wat Chalong chedi is ornate and elaborate, guarded inside by scores of golden statues, reclining and standing.

The chedi rises several storeys, overlooks Chalong and, in the distance, the Big Buddha, and is visited by thousands on festive days.

At Sumnuksong Para, the chedi housing the relic of the Lord Buddha is a simpler concrete affair, attractive yet extremely modest by comparison.

The day we visit, a lone worker is mixing a little concrete for the chedi. He directs us first to a leafy glade, where we find a small wooden hut: house is too big a word for the structure.

Through the open door, we can see shelves of books. This, we are told, is where the lone monk sleeps and meditates.

We catch sight of him a little later. As the only monk on a property that stretches across woodlands and a small lake, he has plenty of daily tasks that involve more than simple meditation and contemplation.

He greets us warmly and leads a companion to the main building, which is similar in almost every way to a temple, except this one is home to a solitary abbot and therefore not a temple.

The English phrase that describes it, perhaps, is a sanctuary shrine.

The abbot is gracious, smiles a warm welcome and gives us several booklets about Buddhist philosophy, including The Buddhist's Discipline, by P. A. Payutto, a noted Thai Buddhist scholar.

The venerable P. A. Payutto's advice is printed in Thai and English, too.

He warns against overindulgence and calculates that there are four kinds of false friends: the out and-out robber, who gives just a little to gain a lot, the smooth talker, who offers help that is of no use, the flatterer who praises to your face but disparages behind your back, and the leader to ruin, a companion in drinking, nightlife and gambling.

He goes on to explain the signs that distinguish the helping friend, the friend through thick and thin, the good counselor, and the loving friend.

For more precise details on the good and the bad, you'll need to make your own contemplative visit and read the entire booklet.

Meanwhile, the lone abbot counsels my companion about the right path for her. Then he goes back to his practical task of cleaning.

Before we leave, he tells us that this tranquil little corner of Phuket is sustained by donations alone.

The grounds and the buildings certainly have the neat appearance of a place where one monk's work never stops.

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