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Article Author : Chris Jones

Phra Uppakhut, Bua Kem, Arahat Upagutta  

The Buddhist monk Upagupta, (Phra Uppakhut in Thai) who preached and taught meditative practices in Northwest India over two thousand years ago, is venerated today as a protective figure endowed with magical powers


In Thailand he is also being called ‘the Lotus Buddha’ or ‘the Buddha of the south’. In north Thailand the name is ‘Bua Khem’.

Most of the time he is seated in the Vajrasana position with the hands in the Bhumisparsha mudra, the gesture of touching the earth.  However you will often note some unique iconography showing the saint not looking up into the air, but in the act of getting ready to bind mara and is either still in meditation or just awakening from it.

Underneath the throne upon which the Buddha is seated there often is a stylized decoration, in high relief, of waterplants or the lotus and in many examples also a fish.
These fish, in connection with the Lotus Buddha, refers to a legend which describes the origin of this Buddha from the sea.

The contemporary Thai belief  is that Phra Upakut is still  lives in nirvana at the bottom of the sea. Every holy day on the full moon he would disguise himself as a novice to accept food offerings at dawn. Whoever had a chance to offer him food would prosper and become a rich.

Wat Uppakhut in Changmai was built with the permission of the Sangkha Act of 1902 (B.E. 2445) A unique tradition performed at the temple is the offering presentation on full moon Wednesdays called the “Peng Put” rites. This came from the belief that whoever gets to present offerings to Phra Uppakhut will be blessed and become rich in a short time.

Loi Krathong” is traditionally performed on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month. The floating of a ‘Krathong’ – a banana–leaf cup – is intended to float away ill fortune as well as to express apologies to Khongkha or Ganga, the River Goddess. Some believe that the ritual is meant to worship the Buddha’s footprint on the bank of the Narmada River, while others say that it is to pay respect to Phra Uppakhut.

One of his key roles is also to provide protection on the occasion of major Buddhist festivals (poi luang) when he is taken from the river and installed in a temporary pavilion in the temple grounds.

The famous Phi Ta Khon Festival or Ghost festival for example held annually in the northern province of Loei usually starts with a procession carrying Uppakut, special white pebbles from the river to the temple.

A saint (arahat) in the Sanskrit Buddhist tradition he is said to have lived in the time of King Asoka about  100 years after the death of the Buddha. He was the third Buddhist patriarch and disciple of Ananda,  who himself was the closest disciple of Buddha.

Upagupta is associated with miracles and supernatural powers and phenomena, also a great teacher through action and insight.

He was the legendary tamer of Mara, a feared deity, the ''evil one'' of  Buddhist tradition. In mythology Mara symbolizes the notion of death in its broadest metaphorical sense, that is anything likely to keep an individual from nirvana or within the realms of death and rebirth.


References:

The legend of the Arahat Upagutta can be found in Somdet Phra Maha Samana Chao Kroma Phra Paramanuchit Chinorasa’s Pathama sombodhi katha.
A story about Upakhut is also mentioned in Kingkeo Attagara’s The Folk Religion of Ban Nai, p.59
The Legend and Cult of Upagupta - John S Strong