Her full title is Khun Yay Mahā Ratana Upāsikā Chandra Khonnokyoong. She is more affectionately known as’Kuhn Yay Acariya’ – a title meaning ‘respected lady master of advancing years’. It is always said that without Chandra Khonnokyoong, there would have been no Wat Phra Dhammakaya.
In 1908, Kuhn Yay was born in a farming family in Nakhon Pathom province, of Thailand. She never had a formal education, and although she worked hard in the fields she never learned to read or write. Kuhn Yay’s original reason for practicing meditation was to reach her late father in his afterlife realm to apologise to him for her childhood wrongs. She wanted to overcome the curse of deafness put on her by her drunken father. Her father died many years later, but without the opportunity for Kuhn Yay to ask him to lift the curse. Unperturbed, she searched for a way to reach her father in the afterlife.
In 1937 Kuhn Yay was overjoyed to hear that Phramonkolthepmuni had discovered the Dhammakaya School of Buddhism that included knowledge of heaven and hell. She entered domestic service in Bangkok seeking for someone who practised meditation at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen. Eventually, she discovered a family inviting a nun called Thongsuk Samdangpan from Wat Paknam, to teach meditation at their house. Kuhn Yay immediately applied to be a maid in their household, intending to practise meditation with the nun. Having practised meditation with Upasika Thongsuk for about two years, Kuhn Yay was able to attain the Dhammakaya. With the advice of the nun, she managed to harness the Wisdom of Dhammakaya in order to seek for her late father.
Deeply realised in the value of Dhamma, she decided to ordain as a nun. She was taken by Upasika Thongsuk to meet Phramonkolthepmuni. As soon as she paid homage to him, Phramonkolthepmuni’s first words to her were “what kept you so long?” and without further examination he allowed her to join the most highly experienced group of meditation researchers in the temple. The following morning Kuhn Yay was ordained..
In spite of illiteracy, she was able to absorb quickly. all the knowledge taught by the Great abbot. She quickly became his most outstanding disciples. As a result, the Great Abbot praised her as ‘first amongst his disciples – second to none’.
After Phramonkolthepmuni died in 1959, Kuhn Yay transmitted the Dhammakaya tradition to a new generation at Wat Paknam. Her teaching became so popular that when in 1975 the number of students exceeded the capacity of Wat Paknam she realized the time had come to establish a new temple.
When her young disciples graduated from university, Kuhn Yay allowed them to ordain as monks. The first was Phrarajbhavanavisudh. Kuhn Yay and her group prayed for a twenty-five acre plot of land, eighty acres of paddy-field were donated by a high-ranking lady, landowner for the purpose of building the temple. (It is this land which is now forms the Temple Compound of Wat Phra Dhammakaya.) Having only 3,200 Baht ($80) to their name, the group of ‘Descendants of Dhamma’ headed by Kuhn Yay began establishing the temple after making the vow:
‘We will devote all our flesh and blood, body and mind, intelligence and wealth to worship the lord Buddha in order to set up a meditation centre following the Way of Dhammakaya.’
The temple was first established on Magha Puja Day, the twentieth of February 1970, as the meditation centre called ‘Soon Buddhacakka Patipatdhamma’ (the Dhamma Practise Centre). Phrarajbhavanavisudh and Kuhn Yay took responsibility for the finance of the establishment, and the lay-supporter who is now Ven. Dattajeevo. took responsibility for the building taking place on the site. Every pioneer had towork hard. Every one of the canals in the Temple Compound needed to be dredged and excavated by the volunteers. Every tree in the temple needed to be planted by hand. Many of the saplings once planted withered in the intense heat and needed to be replaced-sometimes three or four times. Kuhn Yay worked so hard to plant the trees, that she became seriously under-nourished and at one time came dangerously close to death. Only with the medical attention of a doctor from Chulalongkorn University could she recover and continue to participate in the life of the temple community.
During the period of establishment, Kuhn Yay had to work hard not only seeking finance to support the centre but to set the regulations for life in the centre. Taking the Great Abbot’s organinsation as an example, she all the rules for the temple community. Nowadays a monk must receive guests in public rooms rather than in his cell and male and female meditators are segregated on either side of the Dhamma Hall, as a result of Kuhn Yay’s directives.
Even in her old age Kuhn Yay was still very active and took great concern in all activities of the temple. Those attending courses of spiritual training in the monastic community remain inspired by the tidiness of the temple sanctuary, the relevance to modern life and the high standard of education of the monastic community. Given the success of the temple, many people are stunned to discover that the person who gave rise to all these marvels is, in fact, was a small illiterate nun of advancing years. Without reading books, listening to to the radio or watching television, Kuhn Yay knew the world — but the way she knows the world is entirely through her depth of insight and understanding of the Dhamma. The Life of Kuhn Yay has been inextricably connected with her insight — and her Teaching which has endeared her to so many thousands of meditators allows them to follow in her footsteps on the road to Pure Happiness and Knowing.
Khun Yay died peacefully on 10 September 2000 at Kasemrat Hospital, Bangkok. When her funeral was held on 3 February 2002 100,000 monks from 30,000 temples throughout Thailand attended to show their final respects.