8 Jun 2009

Lersi Initiation and the Thai Forest Hermit Tradition

Anybody who visits rural Thailand, and especially the temples up in the mountains or close to caves, will come across shrines dedicated to Lersi, a mystical hermit. Last weekend I had what I can best describe as a tantric initiation into a Lersi teachings.

Firstly, had a look online and found very little information. One problem with many Thai words is the variability in their transliteration into the Latin alphabet - the most common spelling I've found is Lersi although my dictionary gives 'Lussi' and 'Russi'. This is, of course, the forest hermit (or hermits rather) with long beard and tiger skin. Have had an attraction to these hermits since coming to Thailand although strangely have never found a statue I liked to add to my collection.

I have also often wondered why I've not come across any esoteric teachings in the style of Tibetan Buddhism and, more particularly, tantric or even vajrayana teachings. No Thai I've met, or even monk, has a clue of what I'm talking about so I have assumed nobody teaches this stuff. At the weekend I was proved wrong.

I was in a village half way between Korat and Buriram for a weekend festival to mark the recent deaths of some family members of my Thai friend. It's a village of some 300 houses yet has an impressive temple complex. Not in itself unusual but it did have living quarters for far more monks than I could see and two temples.

My friends were all excited because a particularly well-respected monk was there for just a couple of days before going for his own retreat into the forest. I spotted him walking around and he had a very different air and demeanour than the other monks, apart from also standing out as he was not in the customary saffron robes but a dark red, rather similar to the Tibetan Gelupta order. His name was Luang Phor Toh (or Tho?) - I'll have to check the name at some point - and we ended up spending about an hour together. (Again on transliteration, the Thai 'Luang Phor' is probably best pronounced 'lonpo'.) I had my wife there with me for about half this time so managed to get a little bit translated but I suspect that some of the finer points of Buddhism are outside of her English vocabulary, and of my Thai. Luckily, I have had initiations before so I knew more or less what was going on.

With a big smile he said that I reminded him of Lersi and asked me if I knew about the hermit. I obviously had and he turned to look for something on the altar behind him. Typically Thai in its syncretism, the altar had a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist deities. Flanking the central image of a huge rainbow-coloured butterfly were two striking statues of Lersi; one in traditional head-dress, long beard and tiger-skin, the other with what seemed to be a leonine head (I thought with the tiger symbolism this would have been a tiger but it really looked like a lioness, smiling in meditative posture). The Luang Phor can't find what he's looking for and gets up to go into his office next door. I'm told he's looking for a statue of Lersi to give me! And indeed, he quickly emerges with a huge statue that must be about 18 inches tall. He hands it to me and it's really heavy – I thought it was made of painted plaster but feels more like stone or concrete.

The statue is of Lersi seated in meditation on top of a coiled snake, with the stylised head of a snake coming out of his head, rather than the more traditional head-dress. The monk inscribed the back of one shoulder so that this was now my own personal Lersi. I was asked to move closer as the proper initiation was about to begin. At the very back of the altar were two large golden face-masks, as can often be seen in Thai plays and parades. He picks one of them up and sits down to recite some dedicatory prayers. He then places the mask on my head as, in pure tantric tradition, I was to become Lersi. Now, this bit ended up being funny as the mask is obviously designed to fit onto a Thai head, but being European I have a long nose! I have the same problem with standard Thai motorcycle helmets – they seem to assume one has a cue-ball shaped head – that often hurt if worn properly. Anyway, as my head was now firmly stuck inside this Lersi mask we were all having a good laugh. I was wondering what life would be like walking around as a famous hermit. Eventually I managed to prise my head out of the mask; as of writing I still have a bruised nose bridge. I was also given a short mantra and after a bit of discussion figured out how the meditation was supposed to be done. My first initiation in Thailand was done!

I was given various other objects and asked to sit to one side with the Luang Phor as he held court to Thais who had been waiting patiently. They all wanted some goodies too! But collecting trinkets wasn't the point and he was jovial but firm with anyone begging for things they didn't need. Thais are very respectful towards monks, and famous monks in particular have a halo of reverence around them that is not especially relaxing or conducive to having any meaningful discussion. Perhaps I've been around Tibetans too much, but this teacher reminded me more of that tradition than the stiff protocols that I'd seen before. Respect and courtesy go without question, but to be paralysed by reverence is, I feel, counter-productive to a teacher-student relationship. When I was a teacher, I wanted my students to understand what I was teaching, not to just parrot what I was saying.

As I looked around to take in the symbolism of the altar it struck me that I had stumbled upon a school that was not traditional Theravada. Indeed the main symbol was this butterfly I had previously mentioned. One large poster had variations on this butterfly theme as if they all had subtle shades of meaning, but the border was formed of tiny yin-yang symbols. The yin-yang icon is Taoist in origins, not Buddhist, although in Tibet a triadic version of the yin-yang is popular. Unfortunately I was unable to make much headway in finding out the origins and philosophy of this butterfly cult. I have seen this symbol before, but that was up near Chiang Rai and my wife bought a poster which at the time I just assumed was a mere work of art.

Word spread quickly around the village that this falang (foreigner) had been initiated by their beloved teacher. Soon those people who had also been taught by the Luang Phor and had gone into the jungle with him on retreat were showing me their butterfly amulets and their own Lersi images. The master had also extended an invitation for me to go into the jungle too one day. But that will be another story.

Image from Thailand Amulets.


  1. You recieved Khorb Kroo
    you can follow the english language infos and also in thai as we develop the first extensive information website about the Lersi.

  2. Lucky u ; in many ways, don't u think so. Go in there n have fun n u will learn n discover many things.