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Forest Recollections

Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand

Kamala Tiyavanich
Copyright Date: 1997
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    Forest Recollections
    Book Description:

    "I stayed [in the forest] for two nights. The first night, nothing happened. The second night, at about one or two in the morning, a tiger came--which meant that I didn't get any sleep the whole night. I sat in meditation, scared stiff, while the tiger walked around and around my umbrella tent (klot). My body felt all frozen and numb. I started chanting, and the words came out like running water. All the old chants I had forgotten now came back to me, thanks both to my fear and to my ability to keep my mind under control. I sat like this from 2 until 5 a.m., when the tiger finally left." --A forest monk During the first half of this century the forests of Thailand were home to wandering ascetic monks. They were Buddhists, but their brand of Buddhism did not copy the practices described in ancient doctrinal texts. Their Buddhism found expression in living day-to-day in the forest and in contending with the mental and physical challenges of hunger, pain, fear, and desire. Combining interviews and biographies with an exhaustive knowledge of archival materials and a wide reading of ephemeral popular literature, Kamala Tiyavanich documents the monastic lives of three generations of forest-dwelling ascetics and challenges the stereotype of state-centric Thai Buddhism. Although the tradition of wandering forest ascetics has disappeared, a victim of Thailand's relentless modernization and rampant deforestation, the lives of the monks presented here are a testament to the rich diversity of regional Buddhist traditions. The study of these monastic lineages and practices enriches our understanding of Buddhism in Thailand and elsewhere.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6256-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. x-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    David K. Wyatt and A. Thomas Kirsch

    Some years ago, when the first paper of her first semester’s graduate work was due, Kamala Tiyavanich phoned me to ask for an extension. I thought she might be having trouble writing, and so when the paper appeared a week later, I was overwhelmed with a superb paper on provincial Thai Buddhism around the turn of the century that ran to more than one hundred pages.

    That incident should have prepared me for her final dissertation, but nothing could have done so. In thirty-plus years of teaching, no other work in Thai history has so completely caused me to think...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Thai Names and Romanization
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    Although the tradition of wandering meditation ascetics has become a victim of Thailand’s relentless modernization and rampant deforestation, during the first half of this century the forests of Thailand, or Siam as it used to be called,¹ were home to numerous ascetic monks. The Thai term for such monks isphra thudong(ascetic wandering monk) orphra thudong kammathan(wandering ascetic meditator monk). A thudong monk is one who observes at least some of the thirteen ascetic practices mentioned in the Buddha’s discourses, in particular the practice of eating only one meal per day, sleeping outdoors in a forest or...

  8. CHAPTER 1 Buddhist Traditions in Siam/Thailand
    (pp. 18-46)

    During the first half of the twentieth century many regional monastic traditions still existed in Siam. Although these traditions differed from one another as much as they did from modern state Buddhism, they shared common features. Surveying these features will give us an initial understanding of wandering meditation monks and their religious path. We shall begin with a discussion of the geography and culture outside Bangkok during the years when sangha officials—monks from Bangkok or appointed by Bangkok—traveled to inspectwat(monasteries) for their superiors. The discussion includes a range of Buddhist customs and practices that the Bangkok...

  9. CHAPTER 2 The Path to the Forest
    (pp. 47-78)

    During the late nineteenth century and early decades of this century, it was customary for young men to ordain in their local traditions to learn the dhamma and acquire practical knowledge relevant to rural communities. Those who were committed remained in the robes and eventually became village abbots. Most young men, however, left monastic life after a number of years to become householders. The ten monks who concern us became lifelong monastics and lived a wandering life for several decades. These monks chose a route that most others (lifelong monks included) found too distasteful or difficult: an austere life in...

  10. CHAPTER 3 Facing Fear
    (pp. 79-105)

    During the Forest-Community Period, the North and Northeast were sparsely populated. Paved roads were few. Vast tracts of the land were covered by forests that were home to elephants, tigers, clouded leopards, black panthers, bears, wild buffaloes, gaurs,¹ bantengs, boars, and snakes. These animals ruled not only the wilderness but also the fears and fantasies dwelling in every monk’s and villager’s imagination. As Ajan Man told his disciples, until a monk actually faces these animals, he will never know how much or how little he fears them. In the North and Northeast, too, spirit worship was a major part of...

  11. CHAPTER 4 Overcoming Bodily Suffering
    (pp. 106-126)

    Although fear forced many an inexperienced monk off the thudong path, the ten monks under study here all passed this obstacle, some easily and others after much difficulty. But even more daunting than fear was the risk of catching jungle fever and other diseases. It was not uncommon for monks or novices to die from illness during their early years of wandering. Whether the ailment was serious or minor, we see the same pattern of response. Sometimes monks sought cures through traditional remedies and native healers. When these failed, they sought to heal themselves through meditation or relied on their...

  12. CHAPTER 5 Battling Sexual Desire
    (pp. 127-142)

    Judging from the thudong monks’ accounts, sexual desire may have been an even bigger obstacle than illness or fear of death. Many monks found such temptation more difficult to resist than hunger, loneliness, and illness. All feared the female power to undermine the rule of celibacy, a fear that was reinforced by seeing many fellow meditation monks, young and old, meet defeat in their battle against sexual desire. A monk’s ability to keep his mind under control was the true test of the strength and depth of his meditation practice.

    Of the ten monks discussed here, only Man, Dun, and...

  13. CHAPTER 6 Wandering and Hardship
    (pp. 143-171)

    Thudong monks valued wandering as an ascetic practice, as a means of training the mind to face hardship and the unpredictable. Whenever they wandered far from the relative comfort and security of the monastic life, they had to contend with fear, pain, fatigue, hunger, frustration, and distress; and sometimes they risked death. The areas in which they wandered were not confined by the political boundaries of Siam/Thailand. They often walked across national borders to the Shan states, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. In Man’s time a monk could wander freely into neighboring countries, and thudong monks willingly did so. Unlike academic...

  14. CHAPTER 7 Relations with Sangha Officials
    (pp. 172-197)

    During the Forest-Community Period, the same wandering monks who had little difficulty communicating with villagers or coping with wild animals frequently had problems relating to certain administrative Thammayut monks, who viewed them either as outlaws or just lazy. The relationship between the wandering monks of Man’s lineage and the urban-based Thammayut administrators was complex and ambiguous. After the passage of the 1902 Sangha Act, wandering monks were under the control of sangha officials in the major towns of the Northeast or in Bangkok where their preceptors resided. Three senior Isan monks are most often mentioned in thudong monks’ accounts: Jan...

  15. CHAPTER 8 Relations with Villagers
    (pp. 198-225)

    Sangha authorities, once suspicious of and hostile toward thudong monks, eventually recruited them. Thudong monks were no longer outlaws; they became effective promoters of the Thammayut presence in the countryside. The question now is, Why were they so effective? We shall see that the monks’ exemplary lifestyle, which included both austere individual meditative practice and a willingness to work hard with others, won the villagers’ respect. Furthermore, because these monks had overcome their own fear of ghosts and spirits, they were able to convince villagers that the dhamma could protect them as well. Often the villagers transferred their allegiance from...

  16. CHAPTER 9 The Forest Invaded
    (pp. 226-251)

    Wandering meditation monks led lives on the margin. They frequented sparsely inhabited forests, and they conducted their meditative practice either in solitude or in the company of others like themselves. The outside world for them consisted, for the most part, of frontier villages, occasionally provincial towns, and rarely, and only when necessary, Bangkok. Thudong monks were quite willing to let mainstream society go its way. During the Forest-Community Period they were, for the most part, able to retain their autonomy and wander unimpeded.

    But Bangkok had an agenda for them. Even during the Forest-Community Period, sangha authorities in the Northeast...

  17. CHAPTER 10 Many Paths and Misconceptions
    (pp. 252-290)

    Ajan Man and disciples, a lineage of peripatetics whose rise paralleled the ascent of modern state Buddhism, found themselves drawn into the turmoil of national affairs despite their wish to live secluded lives. They gradually lost their autonomy during the Forest-Invasion Period and became settled monastics. Examining their lives in detail has made it possible for us to identify and dispel some of the misunderstandings that have arisen about Buddhism in Thailand and particularly about this regional tradition.

    Buddhism in Thailand has often been thought of as monolithic, that is, uniform throughout. This view derives from the fact that those...

  18. Conclusion
    (pp. 291-298)

    The wandering forest monk tradition, whose history spans three generations from the formation of the modern Thai state until the present, developed within a specific natural and sociocultural ecosystem. When that ecosystem changed—when the forests disappeared and the forest communities vanished or were transformed—the tradition could no longer persist. Those forest monks of Ajan Man’s lineage who survived into the 1990s were all settled in monasteries. No longer were they encountering opposition from “mainstream” Buddhism; instead they were receiving ample material support, high status, and frequent praise. This loss of autonomy and isolation had an impact on the...

  19. Abbreviations
    (pp. 299-300)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 301-380)
  21. Glossary
    (pp. 381-386)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 387-400)
  23. Index
    (pp. 401-410)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 411-411)