Thai Forest Tradition
The Kammaṭṭhāna Forest Tradition of Thailand (Pali: kammaṭṭhāna; [kəmːəʈːʰaːna] meaning "place of work"), commonly known in the West as the Thai Forest Tradition, is a lineage of Theravada Buddhist monasticism.
The Thai Forest Tradition started around 1900 with Ajahn Mun Bhuridatto, who wanted to practice Buddhist monasticism, and its meditative practices, according to the normative standards of pre-sectarian Buddhism. After studying with Ajahn Sao Kantasīlo, and wandering through the north-east of Thailand, Ajahn Mun reportedly became a non-returner, and started to teach in North-East Thailand. He strived for a revival of the oldest Buddhism, insisting on a strict observance of the Buddhist monastic code, known as the Vinaya, and teaching the actual practice of jhāna and the realisation of Nibbāna.
Initially Ajaan Mun's teachings were met with fierce opposition, but in the 1930s his group was acknowledged as a formal faction of Thai Buddhism, and in the 1950s the relationship with the royal and religious establishment improved. In the 1960s western students started to be attracted, and in the 1970s Thai-oriented meditation groups spread in the west.
The purpose of practice is to attain the Deathless (Pali: amata-dhamma), c.q. Nibbāna. Forest teachers directly challenge the notion of dry insight, and teach that Nibbāna must be arrived at through mental training which includes deep states of meditative concentration (Pali: jhāna), and "exertion and striving" to "cut" or "clear the path" through the "tangle" of defilements, in order to set awareness free.
Before authority was centralized in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the region known today as Thailand was a kingdom of semi-autonomous city states (Thai: mueang). These kingdoms were all ruled by a hereditary local governor, and while independent, paid tribute to Bangkok, the more powerful central city state in the region. Each region had its own religious customs according to local tradition, and substantially different forms of Buddhism existed between mueangs. Though all of these local flavors of regional Thai Buddhism evolved their own customary elements relating to local spirit lore, all were shaped by the infusion of Mahayana Buddhism and Indian Tantric traditions, which arrived in the area prior to the fourteenth century. Additionally, many of the monastics in the villages engaged in behavior inconsistent the Buddhist monastic code (Pali: vinaya), including playing board games, and participating in boat races and waterfights.
In the 1820s young Prince Mongkut (1804–1866), the future fourth king of the Rattanakosin Kingdom (Siam), ordained as a Buddhist monk before rising to the throne later in his life. He travelled around the Siamese region, and quickly became dissatisfied with the caliber of Buddhist practice he saw around him. He was also concerned about the authenticity of the ordination lineages, and the capacity of the monastic body to act as an agent that generates good karma (Pali: puññakkhettam, meaning "merit-field").
Mongkut started to introduce innovations and reforms to a small number of monks, inspired by his contacts with western intellectuals.[web 1] He rejected the local customs and traditions, and instead turned to the Pali Canon, studying the texts and developing his own ideas on them.[web 1] Doubting the validity of the existing lineages, Mongkut searched for a lineage of monks with an authentic practice, which he found among the Burmese Mon people in the region. He reordained among this group, which formed the basis for the Dhammayut movement.[web 1] Mongkut then searched for replacements of the classical Buddhist texts lost in the final siege of Ayutthaya. He eventually received copies of the Pali Canon as part of a missive to Sri Lanka. With these, Mongkut began a study group to promote understanding of Classical Buddhist principles.[web 1]
Mongkut's reforms were radical, imposing a scriptural orthodoxy on the varied forms of Thai Buddhism of the time, "trying to establish a national identity through religious reform."[web 1][note 3] A controversial point was Mongkut's belief that nibbana can't be reached in our degenerated times, and that the aim of the Buddhist order is to promote a moral way of life, and preserve the Buddhist traditions.[web 1][note 4]
Mongkut's brother Nangklao, King Rama III, the third king of the Rattanakosin Kingdom, considered Mongkut's involvement with the Mons, an ethnic minority, to be improper, and built a monastery on the outskirts of Bangkok. In 1836, Mongkut became the first abbot of Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, which would become the administrative center of the Thammayut order until the present day.
The early participants of the movement continued to devote themselves to a combination of textual study and meditations they had discovered from the texts they had received. However, Thanissaro notes that none of the monks could make any claims of having successfully entered meditative concentration (Pali: samadhi), much less having reached a noble level.
The Dhammayut reform movement maintained strong footing as Mongkut later rose to the throne. Over the next several decades the Dhammayut monks would continue with their study and practice.
The Kammaṭṭhāna Forest Tradition started around 1900 with Ajahn Mun Bhuridatto, who studied with Ajahn Sao Kantasīlo, and wanted to practice Buddhist monasticism, and its meditative practices, according to the normative standards of pre-sectarian Buddhism, which Ajahn Mun termed "the customs of the noble ones".
While ordained in the Dhammayut movement, Ajaan Sao (1861–1941) questioned the impossibility to attain nibbana.[web 1] He rejected the textual orientation of the Dhammayut movement, and set out to bring the dhamma into actual practice.[web 1] In the late nineteenth century he was posted as abbot of Wat Liap, in Ubon. According to Phra Ajaan Phut Thaniyo, one of Ajaan Sao's students, Ajaan Sao was "not a preacher or a speaker, but a doer," who said very little when teaching his students. He taught his students to "Meditate on the word 'Buddho,'" which would aid in developing concentration and mindfulness of meditation objects.[web 2][note 5]
Ajaan Mun (1870–1949) went to Wat Liap monastery immediately after being ordained in 1893, where he started to practice kasina-meditation, in which awareness is directed away from the body. While it leads to a state of calm-abiding, it also leads to visions and out-of-body experiences. He then turned to his keeping awareness of his body at all times, taking full sweeps of the body through a walking meditation practice, which leads to a more satisfactory state of calm-abiding.
During this time, Chulalongkorn (1853–1910), the fifth monarch of the Rattanakosin Kingdom, and his brother Prince Wachirayan, initiated a cultural modernization of the entire region. This modernisation included an ongoing campaign to homogenize Buddhism among the villages. Chulalongkorn and Wachiraayan were taught by Western tutors, and held distaste for the more mystical aspects of Buddhism.[note 6] They abandoned Mongkut's search for the noble attainments, indirectly stating that the noble attainments were no longer possible. In an introduction to the Buddhist monastic code written by Wachirayan, he stated that the rule forbidding monks to make claims to superior attainments was no longer relevant.
During this time, the Thai government enacted legislation to group these factions into official monastic fraternities. The monks ordained as part of the Dhammayut reform movement were now part of the Dhammayut order, and all remaining regional monks were grouped together as the Mahanikai order.
After his stay at Wat Liap, Ajaan Mun wandered through the Northeast. Ajaan Mun still had visions,[note 7] when his concentration and mindfulness were lost, but through trial and error he eventually found a method for taming his mind.
As his mind gained more inner stability, he gradually headed towards Bangkok, consulting his childhood friend Chao Khun Upali on practices pertaining to the development of insight (Pali: paññā, also meaning "wisdom" or "discernment"). He then left for an unspecified period, staying in caves in Lopburi, before returning to Bangkok one final time to consult with Chao Khun Upali, again pertaining to the practice of paññā.
Feeling confident in his paññā practice he left for Sarika Cave. During his stay there, Ajaan Mun was critically ill for several days. After medicines failed to remedy his illness, Ajaan Mun ceased to take medication and resolved to rely on the power of his Buddhist practice. Ajaan Mun investigated the nature of the mind and this pain, until his illness disappeared, and successfully coped with visions featuring a club-wielding demon apparition who claimed he was the owner of the cave. According to forest tradition accounts, Ajaan Mun attained the noble level of non-returner (Pali: "anagami") after subduing this apparition and working through subsequent visions he encountered in the cave.
Ajaan Mun returned to the Northeast to start teaching, which marked the effective beginning of the Kammatthana tradition. He insisted on a scrupulous observance of the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code, and of the protocols, the instructions for the daily activities of the monk. He taught that virtue was a matter of the mind, not of rituals, and that intention forms the essence of virtue, not the proper conduct of rituals. He asserted that meditative concentration was necessary on the Buddhist path, and that the practice of jhana and the experience of Nirvana was still possible even in modern times.
Ajahn Mun's approach met with resistance from the religious establishment.[web 1] He challenged the text-based approach of the city-monks, opposing their claims about the non-attainability of jhana and nibbana with his own experience-based teachings.[web 1]
His report of having reached a noble attainment was met with very mixed reaction among the Thai clergy. The ecclesiastical official Ven. Chao Khun Upali held him in high esteem, which would be a significant factor in the subsequent leeway that state authorities gave to Ajaan Mun and his students. Tisso Uan (1867–1956), who later rose to Thailand's highest ecclesiastical rank of somdet thoroughly rejected claims to the authenticity of Ajaan Mun's attainment.
Tension between the forest tradition and the Thammayut administrative hierarchy escalated in 1926, when Tisso Uan attempted to drive a senior Forest Tradition monk named Ajaan Sing—along with his following of 50 monks and 100 nuns and laypeople — out of Ubon, which was under Tisso Uan's jurisdiction. Ajaan Sing refused, saying he and many of his supporters were born there, and they weren't doing anything to harm anyone. After arguing with district officials the directive was eventually dropped.
In the late 1930s Tisso Uan formally recognized the Kammatthana monks as a faction. However, even after Ajaan Mun died in 1949, Tisso Uan continued to insist that Ajaan Mun had never been qualified to teach because he hadn't graduated from the government's formal Pali studies courses.
With the passing of Ajaan Mun in 1949, Ajahn Thate Desaransi was designated the de facto head of the Forest Tradition until his death in 1994. The relationship between the Thammayut ecclesia and the Kammaṭṭhāna monks changed in the 1950s, when Tisso Uan had become ill, and Ajahn Lee went to teach meditation to him to help cope with his illness.[note 8]
Tisso Uan eventually recovered, and a friendship between Tisso Uan and Ajaan Lee began, that would cause Tisso Uan to reverse his opinion of the Kammaṭṭhāna tradition, inviting Ajahn Lee to teach in the city. This event marked a turning point in relations between the Dhammayut administration and the Forest Tradition, and interest continued to grow as a friend of Ajaan Maha Bua's named Nyanasamvara rose to the level of somdet, and later the Sangharaja of Thailand. Additionally, the clergy who had been drafted as teachers from the Fifth Reign onwards were now being displaced by civilian teaching staff, which left the Dhammayut monks with a crisis of identity.
In the tradition's beginning the founders famously neglected to record their teachings, instead wandering the Thai countryside offering individual instruction to dedicated pupils. However, detailed meditation manuals and treatises on Buddhist doctrine emerged in the late 20th century from Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao's first-generation students as the Forest tradition's teachings began to propagate among the urbanities in Bangkok and subsequently take root in the West.
Ajahn Lee, one of Ajahn Mun's students, was instrumental in disseminating Mun's teachings to a wider Thai lay audience. Ajahn Lee wrote several books which recorded the doctrinal positions of the forest tradition, and explained broader Buddhist concepts in the Forest Tradition's terms. Ajaan Lee and his students are considered a distinguishable sub-lineage that is sometimes referred to as the "Chanthaburi Line". An influential western student in the line of Ajahn Lee is Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Ajahn Chah (1918–1992) was a central person in the popularisation of the Thai Forest Tradition in the west.[note 9] In contrast to most members of the Forest Tradition he was not a Dhammayut monk, but a Mahanikai monk. He only spent one weekend with Ajaan Mun, but had teachers within the Mahanikai who had more exposure to Ajaan Mun. His connection to the Forest Tradition was publicly recognized by Ajaan Maha Bua. The community that he founded is formally referred to as The Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah.
In 1967, Ajahn Chah founded Wat Pah Pong. That same year, an American monk from another monastery, Venerable Sumedho (Robert Karr Jackman, later Ajahn Sumedho) came to stay with Ajahn Chah at Wat Pah Pong. He found out about the monastery from one of Ajahn Chah's existing monks who happened to speak "a little bit of English". In 1975, Ajahns Chah and Sumedho founded Wat Pah Nanachat, an international forest monastery in Ubon Ratchatani which offers services in English.
In the 1980s the Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah expanded to the West with the founding of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the UK. Ajahn Chah stated that the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia motivated him to establish the Forest Tradition in the West. The Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah has since expanded to cover Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and the United States.
With the passing of Ajaan Thate in 1994, Ajahn Maha Bua was designated the new Ajaan Yai. By this time, the Forest Tradition's authority had been fully routinized, and Ajaan Maha Bua had grown a following of influential conservative-loyalist Bangkok elites. He was introduced to the Queen and King by Somdet Nyanasamvara Suvaddhano (Charoen Khachawat), instructing them how to meditate.
In recent times, the Forest Tradition has undergone a crisis surrounding the destruction of forests in Thailand. Since the Forest Tradition had gained significant pull from the royal and elite support in Bangkok, the Thai Forestry Bureau decided to deed large tracts of forested land to Forest Monasteries, knowing that the forest monks would preserve the land as a habitat for Buddhist practice. The land surrounding these monasteries have been described as "forest islands" surrounded by barren clear-cut area.
In the midst of the Thai Financial crisis in the late 1990s, Ajaan Maha Bua initiated Save Thai Nation—a campaign which aimed to raise capital to underwrite the Thai currency. By the year 2000, 3.097 tonnes of gold was collected. By the time of Ajaan Maha Bua's death in 2011, an estimated 12 tonnes of gold had been collected, valued at approximated 500 million USD. 10.2 million dollars of foreign exchange was also donated to the campaign. All proceeds were handed over to the Thai central bank to back the Thai Baht.
The Thai administration under Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai attempted to thwart the Save Thai Nation campaign in the late 1990s. This led to Ajaan Maha Bua's striking back with heavy criticism, which is cited as a contributing factor to the ousting of Chuan Leekpai and the election of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister in 2001. The Dhammayut hierarchy, teaming-up with the Mahanikaya hierarchy and seeing the political influence that Ajaan Maha Bua could wield, felt threatened and began to take action.[note 10]
In the late 2000s bankers at the Thai central bank attempted to consolidate the bank's assets and move the proceeds from the Save Thai Nation campaign into the ordinary accounts which discretionary spending comes out of. The bankers received pressure from Ajaan Maha Bua's supporters which effectively prevented them from doing this. On the subject, Ajaan Maha Bua said that "it is clear that combining the accounts is like tying the necks of all Thais together and throwing them into the sea; the same as turning the land of the nation upside down."
In addition to Ajaan Maha Bua's activism for Thailand's economy, his monastery is estimated to have donated some 600 million Baht (19 million USD) to charitable causes.
Throughout the 2000s, Ajaan Maha Bua was accused of political leanings—first from Chuan Leekpai supporters, and then receiving criticism from the other side after his vehement condemnations of Thaksin Shinawatra.[note 11]
Ajaan Maha Bua was the last of Ajaan Mun's prominent first-generation students. He died in 2011. In his will he requested that all of the donations from his funeral be converted to gold and donated to the Central Bank—an additional 330 million Baht and 78 kilograms of gold.
The purpose of practice in the tradition is to attain the Deathless (Pali: amata-dhamma), an absolute, unconditioned dimension of the mind free of inconstancy, suffering, or a sense of self. According to the traditions exposition, awareness of the Deathless is boundless and unconditioned and cannot be conceptualized, and must be arrived at through mental training which includes states of meditative concentration (Pali: jhana). Forest teachers directly challenge the notion of dry insight, arguing that jhana is indispensable. The tradition further asserts that the training which leads to the Deathless is not undertaken simply through contentment or letting go, but that the Deathless must be reached by "exertion and striving," sometimes described as a "battle" or "struggle," to "cut" or "clear the path" through the "tangle" of defilements that bind the mind to the conditioned world, in order to set awareness free.
The practice which monks in the tradition generally begin with are meditations on what Ajaan Mun called the five "root meditation themes": the hair of the head, the hair of the body, the nails, the teeth, and the skin. One of the purposes of meditating on these externally visible aspects of the body is to counter the infatuation with the body, and to develop a sense of dispassion. Of the five, the skin is described as being especially significant. Ajaan Mun writes that "When we get infatuated with the human body, the skin is what we are infatuated with. When we conceive of the body as being beautiful and attractive, and develop love, desire, and longing for it, it's because of what we conceive of the skin."
Advanced meditations include the classical themes of contemplation and mindfulness of breathing:
Mindfulness immersed in the body and Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing are both part of the ten recollections and the four satipatthana, and are commonly given special attention as primary themes for a meditator to focus on.
Ajaan Lee pioneered two approaches to breath meditation wherein one focuses on the subtle energies in the body, which Ajaan Lee termed breath energies.
There are several precept levels: Five Precepts, Eight Precepts, Ten Precepts and the patimokkha. The Five Precepts (Pañcaśīla in Sanskrit and Pañcasīla in Pāli) are practiced by laypeople, either for a given period of time or for a lifetime. The Eight Precepts are a more rigorous practice for laypeople. Ten Precepts are the training-rules for sāmaṇeras and sāmaṇerīs (novitiate monks and nuns). The Patimokkha is the basic Theravada code of monastic discipline, consisting of 227 rules for bhikkhus and 311 for nuns bhikkhunis (nuns).
Temporary or short-term ordination is so common in Thailand that men who have never been ordained are sometimes referred to as "unfinished." Long-term or lifetime ordination is deeply respected. The ordination process usually begins as an anagarika, in white robes.
Monks in the tradition are typically addressed as "Venerable", alternatively with the Thai Ayya or Taan (for men). Any monk may be addressed as "bhante" regardless of seniority. For Sangha elders who have made a significant contribution to their tradition or order, the title Luang Por (Thai: Venerable Father) may be used.
According to The Isaan: "In Thai culture, it is considered impolite to point the feet toward a monk or a statue in the shrine room of a monastery." In Thailand monks are usually greeted by lay people with the wai gesture, though, according to Thai custom, monks are not supposed to wai laypeople. When making offerings to the monks, it is best not to stand while offering something to a monk who is sitting down.
All Thai monasteries generally have a morning and evening chant, which usually takes an hour long for each, and each morning and evening chant may be followed by a meditation session, usually around an hour as well.
At Thai monasteries the monks will go for alms early in the morning, sometimes around 6:00 AM, although monasteries such as Wat Pah Nanachat and Wat Mettavanaram start around 8:00 AM and 8:30 AM, respectively. At Dhammayut monasteries (and some Maha Nikaya forest monasteries, including Wat Pah Nanachat), monks will eat just one meal per day. For young children it is customary for the parent to help them scoop food into monks bowls.[incomplete short citation]
At Dhammayut monasteries, anumodana (Pali, rejoicing together) is a chant performed by the monks after a meal to recognize the mornings offerings, as well as the monks' approval for the lay people's choice of generating merit (Pali: puñña) by their generosity towards the Sangha.[note 13]
Dhutanga (meaning austere practice Thai: Tudong) is a word generally used in the commentaries to refer to the thirteen ascetic practices. In Thai Buddhism it has been adapted to refer to extended periods of wandering in the countryside, where monks will take one or more of these ascetic practices. During these periods monks will live off of whatever is given to them by laypersons they encounter during the trip, and sleep wherever they can. Sometimes monks will bring a large umbrella-tent with attached mosquito netting known as a crot (also spelled krot, clot, or klod). The crot will usually have a hook on the top so it may be hung on a line tied between two trees.
Vassa (in Thai, phansa), is a period of retreat for monastics during the rainy season (from July to October in Thailand). Many young Thai men traditionally ordain for this period, before disrobing and returning to lay life.
When Ajaan Mun returned to the Northeast to start teaching, he brought a set of radical ideas, many of which clashed with what scholars in Bangkok were saying at the time:
Ajaan Lee emphasized his metaphor of Buddhist practice as a skill, and reintroduced the Buddha's idea of skillfulness—acting in ways that emerge from having trained the mind and heart. Ajaan Lee said that good and evil both exist naturally in the world, and that the skill of the practice is ferreting out good and evil, or skillfulness from unskillfulness. The idea of "skill" refers to a distinction in Asian countries between what is called warrior-knowledge (skills and techniques) and scribe-knowledge (ideas and concepts). Ajaan Lee brought some of his own unique perspectives to Forest Tradition teachings:
Ajaan Mun and Ajaan Lee would describe obstacles that commonly occurred in meditation but would not explain how to get through them, forcing students to come up with solutions on their own. Additionally, they were generally very private about their own meditative attainments.
Ajaan Maha Bua, on the other hand, saw what he considered to be a lot of strange ideas being taught about meditation in Bangkok in the later decades of the 20th century. For that reason Ajaan Maha Bua decided to vividly describe how each noble attainment is reached, even though doing so indirectly revealed that he was confident he had attained a noble level. Though the Vinaya prohibits a monk from directly revealing ones own or another's attainments to laypeople while that person is still alive, Ajaan Maha Bua wrote in Ajaan Mun's posthumous biography that he was convinced that Ajaan Mun was an arahant. Thanissaro Bhikkhu remarks that this was a significant change of the teaching etiquette within the Forest Tradition.
The mind (Pali: citta, mano, used interchangeably as "heart" or "mind" en masse), within the context of the Forest Tradition, refers to the most essential aspect of an individual, that carries the responsibility of "taking on" or "knowing" mental preoccupations.[note 14] While the activities associated with thinking are often included when talking about the mind, they are considered mental processes separate from this essential knowing nature, which is sometimes termed the "primal nature of the mind".[note 15]
No longer intoxicated,
no longer feverish,
its desires all uprooted,
its uncertainties shed,
its entanglement with the khandas
all ended & appeased,
the gears of the three levels of the cos-
mos all broken,
overweening desire thrown away,
its loves brought to an end,
with no more possessiveness,
all troubles cured
Original Mind is considered to be radiant, or luminous (Pali: "pabhassara"). Teachers in the forest tradition assert that the mind is an immutable reality and that the mind is indestructible; the mind simply "knows and does not die." The mind is also a fixed-phenomenon (Pali: "thiti-dhamma"); the mind itself does not "move" or follow out after its preoccupations, but rather receives them in place. Since the mind as a phenomenon often eludes attempts to define it, the mind is often simply described in terms of its activities.[note 16]
Ajaan Mun further argued that there is a unique class of "objectless" or "themeless" consciousness specific to Nirvana, which differs from the consciousness aggregate. Scholars in Bangkok at the time of Ajaan Mun stated that an individual is wholly composed of and defined by the five aggregates,[note 17] while the Pali Canon states that the aggregates are completely ended during the experience of Nirvana. This presents a logical problem regarding the nature of mind when Nirvana is reached. According to Ajahn Mun, who had experienced that the mind precedes mental fashionings, Ajaan Mun asserted that the mind sheds its attachments to its preoccupations, yet is not itself annihilated during the Nirvana experience, and the mind of one who has attained Nirvana continues.[note 18]
The twelve nidanas describe how, in a continuous process,[note 19] avijja ("ignorance," "unawareness") leads to the mind preoccupation with its contents and the associated feelings, which arise with sense-contact. This absorption darkens the mind and becomes a "defilement" (Pali: kilesa), which lead to craving and clinging (Pali: upadana). This in turn leads to becoming, which conditions birth.
While "birth" traditionally is explained as rebirth of a new life, it is also explained in Thai Buddhism as the birth of self-view, which gives rise to renewed clinging and craving.
The Forest tradition is often cited[according to whom?] as having an anti-textual stance, as Forest teachers in the lineage prefer edification through ad-hoc application of Buddhist practices rather than through methodology and comprehensive memorization, and likewise state that the true value of Buddhist teachings is in their ability to be applied to reduce or eradicate defilement from the mind. In the tradition's beginning the founders famously neglected to record their teachings, instead wandering the Thai countryside offering individual instruction to dedicated pupils. However, detailed meditation manuals and treatises on Buddhist doctrine emerged in the late 20th century from Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao's first-generation students as the Forest tradition's teachings began to propagate among the urbanities in Bangkok and subsequently take root in the West.
Related Forest Traditions are also found in other culturally similar Buddhist Asian countries, including the Sri Lankan Forest Tradition of Sri Lanka, the Taungpulu Forest Tradition of Myanmar and a related Lao Forest Tradition in Laos.