The Floating Nun of Kanchanaburi
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Kanchanaburi, a few hundreds of kilometres west of Bangkok, is a popular place to visit for tourists visiting Thailand from around the world. They come principally to visit two historical landmarks which owe their notoriety to events dating back to the Second World War: the ‘Death Train’ and the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’. But for many, the temple of Wat Tham Mongkon Thong is the most important destination, a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.
Eyes closed, hands clasped together at chest level, legs crossed in the traditional Lotus position, Anong Lanong, tilts her head to the heavens with an expression of utter serenity and plenitude emanating from her face. She has been sitting in a pool of ice-cold water carved directly into the stone for the past 15 minutes, wearing nothing more than the thin fabric of her religious garments. More than just resisting the low temperature of the water, Sister Anong Lanong defies all laws of gravity, as though by miracle, in holding her meditative position.
Other members of the congregation have tried to float as she does, but few manage to stay afloat for more than just a few seconds. For about three-quarters of an hour, Sister Anong Lanong, balances her bodyweight while floating on her back, without even the slightest effort.
Contributing even more to the spectacle of her magnificent state of utter peace, her body appears completely relaxed, and a subtle smile on her lips suggests that she is in a deep sleep, profoundly inspired by a marvellous dream. She is totally free of all physical and material attachment to her immediate surroundings.
Through this unusual and beautiful position, which she adopts several times every day, Sister Anong Lanong says she has discovered the means of accessing the kingdom of the Gods and communicating directly with them.
Unburdened by the weight of her body, with unlimited abandon, she assumes the sacred Lotus position, the position of the Enlightened One.
Nothing – neither the murmurings of the fascinated crowd nor the prayers of the faithful – can interfere with her direct communion with the celestial entities, which remain a mystery that only she can penetrate. No one knows precisely what extraordinary visions of supernatural revelations come to her when she is in this state of divine oblivion, and even the Sister herself is not entirely sure as to which supreme forces possess her when she is entranced in the pool of the Wat Tham Mongkon Thong temple. In fact when she emerges from the state of trance, she has absolutely no recollections.
After emerging from the pool, it takes Sister Anong Lanong a few moments to regain her senses and return amongst fellow mortals, many of whom watch spellbound as she climbs out of the pool.
These are mostly people who have come from all over Thailand in the hope of receiving the blessing of Buddha’s privileged interlocutor. Each person who comes to see Sister Anong Lanong has a special request, either for themselves or for a loved one who could not make the trip. In an atmosphere thick with the penetrating incense smell, Sister tirelessly treats every individual with infinite tenderness, softly placing her hands over the ill or the ailing. Her fingers caress a poorly sutured scar, or run down the spine of a man suffering from a back injury or the legs of a person unable to walk.
The renown of her healing abilities has travelled like wild fire, far and wide, well beyond the borders of the Kanchanaburi province. Thousands of people come every year to see for themselves the manifestation of her miraculous healing.
Although many just visit the pool out of curiosity and remain mostly sceptical about her ability to communicate directly with the ‘other world’ , there is nonetheless a great inflow of new pilgrims every day, astounded to witness her ability to float effortlessly on water, a performance which is unique in the world. Some 15 novices at the temple, men and women alike, have made numerous attempts to imitate Sister, as if concentration alone could make it possible, but each of them has invariably emerged from the pool disillusioned and on the verge of frostbite.
Anong Lanong is not the only nun of her genre. Anong Lanong, in fact, took over from another floating nun – the venerable Anchalee – who initiated such practice nearly half a century ago, from the temple of Wat Tham Mongkon Thong, also known as ‘The Cave-Temple of the Golden Dragon’. Located south of Kanchanaburi province, on a narrow strip of land where the rivers Kwae Noi and Mae Khlong meet, this temple is the gateway to a labyrinth of chalky caves inhabited by hundreds of bats. It was in the pitch-blackness of one of these underground pools that Sister Anchalee received the revelation, which from then on made the temple reputation. Unfortunately, it took 30 years before a sister came along to replace Sister Anchalee.
For the past two years the tradition of the temple is back in place, a kind of blessing for the sisters and the temple itself. Thanks to concentration, determination and prayer, Sister Anong Lanong is able to perform the floating prodigy, which she explains in her own disarmingly simple and logic words: “First of all, I called upon Buddha and asked him to allow me to be able to float, and all His angels agreed to grant me this marvellous gift”.
Sister Anong Lanong quickly gained the approval of her fellow sisters, and soon became not only the temple’s Mother Superior, but a true national hero. She tries with all her will to teach the other sisters the miraculous method of meditation that she alone, for now, possesses. What you need most of all, she tells them, both in life and for the floating practice, is a great deal of patience and spiritual awareness. Her experience speaks for itself, it took her 40 years of discipline and prayers before she received the supreme gift of being able to imitate the floating Buddha.
Since the days of the temple’s first ‘floating nun’, the cave has been adapted to accommodate a sizable number of visitors, who sit in circle around the great poll, carved into stone, in which Anong Lanong performs her miracle every day. The circular shape and the scene in general remind more of a circus ring than a religious sanctuary, with the spectators being an odd mix of Chinese and Japanese tourists and true pilgrims. But despite the lack of homogeneity among the ‘audience’, Sister Anong Lanong has no qualms: for her, it is neither a matter of sacrilege or contradiction. Quite to the contrary, she hopes that the harmony among the different visitors will contribute in a positive way to her flock. In particular, Sister Anong Lanong would like to see more of the many Western visitors that come to Wat Tham Mongkon Thong eventually converted to Buddhism. In addition to these spiritual aspirations, Sister Anong Lanong, as Mother Superior and Director of the temple, which must function on a daily basis in just about the same way as any commercial activity, strives to upkeep her little domain at its best, contributing to the survival and prosperity of the temple with demonstrations of ‘aquatic meditation’ and healing sessions.
Entrance to Wat Tham Mongkon Thong is free, but donations are welcome and usually abundant: every night big amounts of coins and notes are poured out of the offering boxes. Perhaps one day not too far away, the temple will need to build another pool for the next generation of floating nuns. Of course, only with the approval of Buddha…
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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