The Thai Forest tradition is one branch of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition. Theravāda Buddhism, also known as the Southern School of Buddhism, is present throughout Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia. The Theravāda tradition is grounded in the discourses recorded in the Pāli Canon, the oldest Buddhist scriptures. Theravāda literally means “the Doctrine of the Elders” and is named so because of its scrupulous adherence to the original teachings and rules of monastic discipline expounded by the Buddha.
The Theravāda Buddhist tradition within Thailand is composed of many different strands and types of monasteries. Most villages and towns in Thailand have at least one monastery, which might serve as a place for ceremony, prayer, cultural activity, education and medicine. Thai monasteries differ widely and express a range of functions and approaches to monastic life. Some monasteries focus on chanting and ceremonies; some on study and intellectual pursuits; some on healing and blessings; some on practice and meditation. In city monasteries, monks are often encouraged to focus on study and administrative duties, with a little meditation on the side. In addition to varying in their approach to monastic life, monasteries also differ widely in terms of how meticulously they uphold the Vinaya, the Buddhist code of monastic discipline.
The Thai Forest tradition is the branch of Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand that most strictly upholds the original monastic rules of discipline laid down by the Buddha. The Forest tradition also most strongly emphasizes meditative practice and the realization of enlightenment as the focus of monastic life. Forest monasteries are primarily oriented around practicing the Buddha’s path of contemplative insight, including living a life of discipline, renunciation, and meditation in order to fully realize the inner truth and peace taught by the Buddha. Living a life of austerity allows forest monastics to simplify and refine the mind. This refinement allows them to clearly and directly explore the fundamental causes of suffering within their heart and to inwardly cultivate the path leading toward freedom from suffering and supreme happiness. Forest monastics live frugally with few possessions. This fosters the joy of an unburdened life and assists Forest monastics in subduing greed, pride, and other taints that abound in the mind.
Forest monastics live in daily interaction with and dependence upon the lay community. While laypeople provide the material supports for the renunciant life, such as alms food and cloth for robes, the monks provide the laity with teachings and spiritual inspiration. Forest monks follow an extensive 227 rules of conduct. They are required to be celibate, to eat only between dawn and noon, and not to handle money. They also engage in a practice known as “tudong” (Thai; derived from the Pāli “dhutaṅga” meaning “austere practice”) in which they wander on foot through the countryside, either on pilgrimage or in search of solitary retreat places in nature. During such wanderings, monks sleep wherever is available and eat only what is offered by lay people along the way.
Origins of Contemporary Thai Buddhism
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Buddhism in Thailand had generally become corrupted with lax monastic discipline, teachings straying from the original texts, little emphasis on meditation, and a widespread belief that spiritual accomplishments were no longer possible. In the midst of this waning tradition, determined Buddhist practitioners returned again to the basics of forest living, moral discipline, and meditation in search of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. The spiritual determination and accomplishments of these forest practitioners led to the emergence of the contemporary Forest tradition in northeast Thailand. The northeast is one of the most remote and poor areas in Thailand, notable both for its harsh land and its remarkably good-humored people; and now for its wise meditation masters.
The emergence of the contemporary Forest tradition is associated largely with Ajahn Mun and his teacher and contemporary, Ajahn Sao. Both were the sons of peasant farmers in the northeast of Thailand. Ajahn Mun was born in the 1870s in Ubon province near the borders of Laos and Cambodia. He trained under the forest monk Ajahn Sao, vigorously practicing meditation, and then turned to a life of ascetic wandering and meditation practice in the wilderness. Ajahn Mun became a great teacher and exemplar of high standards of conduct. Almost all of the accomplished and revered meditation masters of twentieth century Thailand were either his direct disciples or influenced by him. One of these great meditation masters following in his example was Ajahn Chah.
Historical Significance of Forest Monasticism
The Forest tradition began in the time of the Buddha and has waxed and waned throughout Buddhist history. In one sense, the tradition even predates the Buddha, as it was a common practice of spiritual seekers in ancient India to leave the life of town and village and wander in the wilderness and mountains. The Buddha himself joined this tradition at the age of twenty-nine, giving up his life as a prince in order to seek the way beyond birth, aging, sickness, and death.
The Buddha was born in the forest, enlightened in the forest, taught in the forest, and passed away in the forest. Many of his greatest disciples, such as Venerable Añña-Koṇḍañña and Venerable Mahā Kassapa, were strict forest dwellers who maintained an austere renunciant lifestyle. The Buddha allowed determined forest-dwelling monks, such as these two, to cultivate thirteen special austere practices, called dhutaṅga (a word from the ancient Pāli language). Dhutaṅga literally means “shaking off,” as in shaking off those material and mental qualities which keep a person clinging and attached. These special renunciation practices limit a monk’s or nun’s robes, food, and dwelling places. The practice of dwelling in natural places provided the fundamental backdrop for Forest monasticism throughout Theravada Buddhist history.
The Buddha’s disciples who chose to undertake these dhutaṅga practices and live austerely in the forest did so for many reasons: because dwelling in the wilderness with its rugged and dangerous qualities provided an excellent arena for spiritual training and overcoming fear; because the wilderness with its simplicity, quietude, and natural beauty provided a place for pleasant, peaceful abiding and joyful meditative concentration; because basic forest living allowed the monks to be more easily taken care by the laity as opposed to monks who dwelled in cities; and because living in the forest helped these monks compassionately set an example for future generations.
The practices of these early forest dwellers epitomized the Buddha’s teachings and exemplified his path to liberation. Since the Buddha’s time, the discipline of the monastic order as a whole and the vitality and integrity of the Buddha’s teachings have experienced cycles of growth and decline, of deterioration and revival. Throughout these cycles, the original ethos of the Buddha’s teachings has been preserved and revitalized through the example of these early forest-dwelling disciples and through the efforts of later monastics who followed in their footsteps seeking to live lives focused on meditation practice, simplicity, and renunciation.
The way of practice, the teachings, and the code of monastic conduct which the Buddha expounded 2500 years ago, run deeply against the grain of worldly concerns such as material success, acquisition, wealth, power, fame, pleasure and status. The presence of a monastic order can be a great boon to a society by providing a source of wisdom, peace, and clarity that transcends these worldly concerns. Alternatively, worldly concerns can enter into and distort monastic life. One way this has happened in Buddhist history is that when monks and nuns became accomplished in their practice and became well-known teachers, they drew to their monasteries many visitors bearing gifts and offerings. The success and reputation of these teachers drew wealth, power, and fame to the monastery. Without constant heedfulness, the ways of the world could enter into the monastic order, generating corrupt monastic institutions. In such times, the practice of Forest monasticism by wise and charismatic teachers concerned with spiritual living, discipline, and meditation, rather than institutional rank and official responsibility, played a crucial role in revitalizing the original ethos of the Buddha’s teachings.