Thai Forest Tradition

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Portraits of selected Thai Forest Ajahns
Left: Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, Ajahn Chah Subhaddo, Ajahn Maha Bua Ñanasampanno, Ajahn Lee Dhammadaro, Ajahn Khamdee Pabhaso, Ajahn Liem Thitadhammo

Right: Ajahn Sao Kantasilo, Ajahn Thate Desaransi, Ajahn Dune Atulo, Mae Chi Kaew, Ajahn Sim Buddhacaro, Ajahn Pannavaddho, Ajahn Sumedho
Thai Forest Tradition (Dhutanga Kammatthana)
Novices on thudong.jpg
Formation c. 1900 ; Isan Province, Thailand
Key People Mun Bhuridatta, Phra Ajahn
Sao Kantasilo, Phra Ajahn
Chah Subhatto, Phra Ajahn

The Kammatthana Forest tradition of Thailand (from Pali: kammaṭṭhāna ['käməʈänä], meaning 'meditation subject' [literally 'station of exercise' [1] or 'Place of Work'], see Kammatthana), commonly known in the West as the Thai Forest Tradition, is a lineage of Theravada Buddhist monasticism[2] which emerged from a modern revival of the forest austerities of Early Buddhism.[3] Practitioners find seclusion in the wilderness or sparsely populated areas as an aid to meditative development.[4] Kammatthana practice emphasizes the cultivation of meditative concentration,[5] and the tradition's adherents assert the absolute necessity of meditative absorption to develop both calm abiding and insight into the nature of things.[6][7][8] In addition to these, the tradition gives a strong weight to scrupulous ethical observance,[9] and has a reputation for strict adherence to monastic code.[10][page needed][11][page needed]

The Kammatthana tradition began circa 1900[12] as a grassroots movement led by Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta and Ajahn Sao Kantasilo.[13] Disillusioned with an increasingly scholastic culture being imposed on the Thai clergy by state religious authorities under Rama V, Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao both took to the rural frontier of Northeast Thailand. Their departure from the ecclesiastical mainstream was — initially — a rejection of the popular notion held by their contemporaries that the true Buddhist path to nirvana was lost to mankind.[14]

As word spread of Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao's nonconformist endeavor, like-minded monks left their stations in the cities to study from them, many travelling long distances and enduring great hardships.[15][16] These meditation masters of the Kammatthana tradition, known as the Forest Ajahns,[17] are known for rumors of their supernatural abilities,[18] and respected for their reputations for noble attainments.[19]

In the second half of the 20th century the Kammatthana tradition took root in the West, having attracted the most Western students of any wilderness meditation tradition.[20] In spite of deforestation in Thailand, Kammatthana practice continues on the outskirts of cities.[21] Visitors come to study meditation under the guidance of these forest practitioners in the seclusion offered in forest monasteries.[22] Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes: "Kammatthana monks came to represent, in the eyes of many monastics and lay people, a solid and reliable expression of the Dhamma in a world of fast and furious modernization."[23]

Thai Forest Tradition (Dhutanga Kammatthana)
Thai Squiggle.png

Kammatthana Meditation

Forest Austerities



Buddhism itself began as a forest tradition. The Buddha gained Awakening in a forest, and throughout his life his teachings were at odds with what established brahmin priests were teaching. While the Buddha was alive, he mentioned that the teaching he expounded would only survive in the world incorrupted for 500 years, after which point if one wished to reach arahantship they would have to tease out the impurities themselves, and fill in the blanks of the aspects of the Dhamma which had been lost through their own efforts.[24]

Since then, the caliber of monastic practice in Theravada Buddhism has followed a cycle. As monastic practice grows lax in a Buddhist region, the governing body of that region may bring more disciplined monks in from another region to elevate the level of practice,[25] or one or more individuals may disengage from the larger sangha to revive the spirit of the Buddha's teaching.[26]

The tradition grew out of a reform movement known as the Dhammayut (literally: In accordance with the Dhamma) order. Dhammayut was an attempt to renovate the existing Thai Customary Buddhism, which was so infused with Thai folk beliefs as to not be recognizable as what the Buddha actually taught. While the greater Dhammayut order was primarily concerned with academic reflection, Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao — the two monks who began the tradition — were more concerned with the practices that the Pali Canon outlined as leading to arahantship.

Because of this difference, the Kammatthana tradition has been organizationally defined throughout its history by its relationship with the state-sponsored ecclesiastical hierarchy. Pioneers of the Kammatthana tradition lived at a time of cultural and religious assimilation in Thailand, and would experience alienation throughout this process for giving priority to classical Buddhist practice. For the better part of a century the tradition battled to maintain it's niche among a myriad of flavors of Buddhism in the region, all during precarious times for the region as a whole: a period in Thailand's history when the state's urgent priority was uniting Thailand as a nation to face imminent threats of becoming absorbed into a Western empire.

Establishment of the Dhammayut Order[edit]

Vajirañāṇo Bhikkhu, later King Mongkut of the Rattanakosin Kingdom, founder of the Dhammayuttika Nikaya
Main article: Dhammayutika Nikaya
See also: Rama IV

The Dhammayuttika Nikaya or Thammayut began in 1833 as a reform movement led by Prince Mongkut, son of King Rama II of Siam. It remained a reform movement until passage of the Sangha Act of 1902, which formally recognized it as the lesser of Thailand's two Theravada denominations.[27]

Prince Mongkut was a bhikkhu (ordination name: Vajirañāṇo) for 27 years (1824–1851) before becoming the King of Siam (1851–1868). After the then 20-year-old prince entered monastic life in 1824, he noticed what he saw as serious discrepancies between the rules given in the Pāli Canon and the actual practices of Thai bhikkhus and sought to upgrade monastic discipline to make it more orthodox.

Desiring a deeper practice, Prince Mongkut reordained among the Mons. His brother complained about his involvement with an ethnic minority, so a monastery was built for Prince Mongkut on the border of the state of Bangkok. This was at a time when the region that is now Thailand was a loosely organized group of city-states.

In 1836 he became the first abbot of Wat Bowonniwet Vihara. Mongkut also made an effort to remove all non-Buddhist, folk religious, and superstitious elements which over the years had become part of Thai Buddhism.[28] Dhammayut bhikkhus were expected to eat only one meal a day (not two) and the meal was to be gathered during a traditional alms round.

Ajahn Mun's Search[edit]

Originally ordained in a local monks order which practiced a flavor of Buddhism infused with traditional Thai folk beliefs, Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta reordained in the Dhammayut order.

Ultimately not satisfied with Dhammayut's scholastic ideal, Ajahn Mun left the wat of his preceptor and went to study with Ajahn Sao Kantasilo in a small monastery just outside of the town.

Studying for several years with Ajahn Sao, Ajahn Mun left on his own in search of any teacher who may have found the noble attainments, travelling as far as Laos and Burma, as well as central Thailand. Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:

Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta

In the long course of his wilderness training, Ajaan Mun learned that — contrary to Reform and Customary beliefs — the path to nirvana was not closed. The true Dhamma was to be found not in old customs or texts but in the well-trained heart and mind. The texts were pointers for training, nothing more or less. The rules of the Vinaya, instead of simply being external customs, played an important role in physical and mental survival. As for the Dhamma texts, practice was not just a matter of confirming what they said. Reading and thinking about the texts could not give an adequate understanding of what they meant — and did not count as showing them true respect. True respect for the texts meant taking them as a challenge: putting their teachings seriously to the test to see if, in fact, they are true. In the course of testing the teachings, the mind would come to many unexpected realizations that were not contained in the texts. These in turn had to be put to the test as well, so that one learned gradually by trial and error to the point of an actual noble attainment. Only then, Ajaan Mun would say, did one understand the Dhamma.

A Grassroots Following[edit]

Thai Forest Ajahns Seated.jpg

In the years following Ajahn Mun's arahantship, he attracted a following of monks desiring a more disciplined approach to Buddhist practice. Ajahn Mun's style of teaching has been described as "a warrior's approach",[29] putting his students in situations where they would develop practical skills needed to advance on the path. Rather than a single meditation technique, he taught skills that related to meditation practice.

At this time, a new state religion was in development that was a compromise between Customary Buddhism and the Dhammayut's Reform Buddhism. The Dhammayut monks, being the best educated, were drafted to teach a new Bangkok curriculum based on "Victorian notions of reason and utility"[30] in outlying areas.

Respect Among the Mainstream[edit]

Tension between the forest tradition and the Dhammayut administrative hierarchy escalated in 1926, when Somdet Mahawirawong (Tisso Uan) ordered Ajahn Sing Khantiyagamo and his following of 50 monks and 100 nuns and laypeople to leave a forest under Tisso Uan's jusrisdiction.

This changed in the 1950's, when Tisso Uan had become ill. When Ajahn Lee Dhammadaro had come to visit him one day, he simply walked in and sat quietly in a corner of the room. When asked by Tisso Uan what he was doing, he said 'giving you a gift of stillness'.

In the following months Tisso Uan recovered, and a friendship between Tisso Uan and Ajahn Lee began that would cause Tisso Uan to completely reverse his opinion of the Kammatthana tradition. In his autobiography, Ajahn Lee Dhammadaro talks about his time teaching Tisso Uan:

From then on I never had to give him any more long talks. As soon as I’d say two or three words, he’d understand what I was referring to. As for me, I was pleased. One day he said, ‘People who study and practice the Dhamma get caught up on nothing more than their own opinions, which is why they never get anywhere. If everyone understood things correctly, there wouldn’t be anything impossible about practicing the Dhamma.’

As I spent the rains there with the Somdet, my mind was at ease as far as having to explain things to him was concerned. He told me, ‘In the past I never thought that practicing samadhi was in any way necessary.’ Then he added, ‘The monks and novice—and the laypeople as well—haven’t benefited enough from having you here. If you can, I’d like you to find the time to teach them too.’

From that point on the Kammatthana tradition would have advocacy among the Dhammayut administration.

Cold War Period[edit]

Red Scare[edit]

Tensions arose between the dictatorial Thai government and a newly formed communist party in Thailand. During this period, several if not all of the major figures in the Kammatthana tradition alive at the time were accused of communist sympathies.

Ajahn Juan talks about his encounter with a border patrol agent in 1962:

"What's a communist like ? " Juan asked the policeman who was probing him for possible pro-communist sentiments.

"Among communists there is no religion, no suffering, no rich people. Everyone is equal. No private property. Only communal property," replied the policeman.
"What kind of clothes do they wear? What do they eat? Do they have a wife and children? " asked the monk.
"Yes, they have a family. They eat normal food. They wear shirts and trousers like villagers. "
"How often do they eat? " Juan asked.
"Three times a day."
"Do they shave their heads?"
"So," Juan concluded, " If a communist has a wife and children, wears a shirt and trousers, eats three meals a day, does not shave his head, and carries a weapon" then how can I, who have neither a wife nor children, eat once a day, shave my head, wear robes and carry no weapon be a communist?"


Thailand's borders with Laos and Cambodia are reflected by the brown on the Thai side in this true-colour satellite image, which shows the effects of heavy deforestation in the country.

In the last half of the 20th century, the vast majority of Thailand's rainforest were lost. Millions of villagers in the forest were (sometimes violently) driven from their homes as villages were bulldozed over to make room for eucalyptus plantations.

Kamala Tiyanavich writes:

The final closure of the forest began after devastating floods

occurred in southern Thailand. In November 1988 floods and landslides, triggered by rain falling on denuded hillsides, wiped out several southern villages and killed hundreds of people. For the first time the Bangkok government was forced to face the con sequences of uncontrolled exploitation of the forest. Responding to an intense public outcry, the government suspended and later b anned all logging activities in the country. It is no surprise that such ecological disasters have struck Thailand. Three decades of rapacious land clearing had wiped out 82 percent of Thailand's forests, and in places the countryside had become a dust bowl. In this context, many wandering monks decided that they had to hold their ground when they found a suitable forest. They knew that if they retreated, they risked losing it forever.

Forest monks in Thailand were on the front line in the battle against logging companies and eucalyptus farmers to preserve Thailand's rainforests. In spite of their efforts the areas around what were once forest wats in wilderness areas have now been largely developed.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:

Buddhist history has shown that wilderness traditions go through a very quick life cycle. As one loses its momentum, another often grows up in its place. But with the wholesale destruction of Thailand's forests in the last few decades, the Kammatthana tradition may be the last great forest tradition that Thailand will produce. Fortunately, we in the West have learned of it in time to gather lessons that will be help in cultivating the customs of the noble ones on Western soil and establishing authentic wilderness traditions of our own.

The Tradition in the West[edit]

The Thai Forest Tradition is one of the major monastic orders of Theravada Buddhism in the West.

United States[edit]

The first monastery catering to Western practitioners was Wat Pah Nanachat (Thai: 'International Forest Monastery'), founded in Thailand for the training of western bhikkhus in 1975.

Another monastery is Abhayagiri, about 13 miles (21 km) north of Ukiah, the monastery has its origins in the 1980s when the UK-based Ajahn Sumedho, foremost western disciple of the Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah, started getting requests to teach in California. Visits by either himself or one of his senior monks or nuns resulted in the Sanghapala Foundation being set up in 1988. The monastery's first 120 acres (0.49 km2) were given directly to Ajahn Sumedho by Chan Master Hsuan Hua, founder of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Talmage, before he died in 1995. Currently, the monastery rests on 280 acres (1.1 km2) of mountainous forest land.

A well-known American monk, Thānissaro Bhikkhu, also known as Ajaan Geoff, (born 1949) is an American Theravada Buddhist monk of the Dhammayut Order (Dhammayutika Nikaya), Thai forest kammatthana tradition. He is currently the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu is a notably skilled and prolific translator of the Pāli Canon.[31] He is also the author of many free Dhamma books.[32]


Chithurst Buddhist Monastery was the first English monastery. In 1976, Ajahn Sumedho met George Sharp, Chairman of the English Sangha Trust. The Trust had been established in 1956 for the purpose of establishing a suitable residence for the training of Buddhist monks in England. By the 1970s, the Trust possessed a property in Hampstead that was not yet deemed suitable for what was desired. During a brief stay in London in 1978, Ajahn Sumedho, while undertaking the traditional alms round of Theravada monks (on Hampstead Heath), encountered a lone jogger who was struck by the Bhikkhu's outlandish attire. The jogger had, by chance, just acquired a piece of overgrown woodland in West Sussex. After expressing an interest in Buddhism, the gentleman attended a ten day retreat at the Oaken Holt Buddhist Center near Oxford after which he offered the forest as a gift to the Sangha. In 1979 George Sharp purchased Chithurst House (a property adjacent to the wood) on behalf of The English Sangha Trust. Chithurst House gained legal recognition as a monastery in 1981. The monastery was named Cittaviveka, a Pali word meaning "the mind of non-attachment".

Harnham Buddhist Monastery, Aruna Ratanagiri was founded in June of the same year. Amaravati Buddhist Monastery (now the main headquarters of the U.K. monasteries) was established in 1984 and formally opened in 1985. A fourth location is The Forest Hermitage (Santidhamma & Bhavanadhamma) (founded by Ajahn Khemadhammo).

Other western countries[edit]

The Thai Forest Tradition also exists in:



Meditation is a central component in the Thai forest tradition. Methods of meditation are numerous and diverse.

Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera and Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta[edit]

Meditation methods frequently used by Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera and his student, Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, are the walking meditation and the sitting meditation. Outside the sitting meditation session, the practitioner must be aware and mindful of his or her body and mind movements in all positions: standing, walking, sitting and lying. During sitting meditation, the mind is calmed with traditional practices such as mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati). The mental intoning of the mantra "Buddho" is used in order to maintain attention on the breath (in-breath is "Bud", out-breath is "dho") or the contemplation of the 32 body parts. The meditator goes through three levels of samadhi (concentration). In khanika-samadhi the mind is only calmed for a short time. In upacara-samadhi, approach concentration lasts longer. And in appana-samadhi, jhāna is attained. When sufficient concentration has been established, the three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering, and non-self) are contemplated, insight arises and ignorance is extinguished. No distinction is made between samatha meditation and insight (Vipassanā) meditation; the two are used in conjunction.

Vassa (Rains Retreat)[edit]

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.

Precepts and Ordination[edit]

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 samaneras (male) and samaneris (female), novice monks and nuns. The Patimokkha is the basic Theravada code of monastic discipline, consisting of 227 rules for monks (bhikkhus) and 311 for nuns (bhikkhunis).

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.


A prominent characteristic of the Forest Tradition is great veneration paid toward Sangha elders. As such, it is vitally important to treat elders with the utmost respect. Care must be taken in addressing all monks, who are never to be referred to solely by the names they received upon ordination. Instead, they are to be addressed with the title "Venerable" before their name, or they may be addressed using just the Thai words for "Venerable," Ayya or Than (for men). All monks, on the other hand, can be addressed with the general term "Bhante". For monks and nuns who have been ordained 10 years or more, the title Ajahn, meaning "teacher", is reserved. For community elders the title Luang Por is often used, which in Thai can roughly translate into "Venerable Father".

In Thai culture, it is considered impolite to point the feet toward a monk or a statue in the shrine room of a monastery. It is equally considered impolite to address a monk without making the anjali gesture of respect. When making offerings to the monks, it is considered inappropriate to approach them at a higher level than they are at - for instance, if a monk is sitting it would be inappropriate to approach that monk and stand over them while making an offering.

In practice, the extent to which this cultural code of behavior is enforced will vary greatly, with some communities being more lax about such cultural codes than others. The one element which the forest monastic community are not lax about is the standard Theravada monastic code (vinaya).

Although Forest monasteries exist in extremely rural environments, they are not isolated from society. Monks in such monasteries are expected to be an integral element in the surrounding society in which they find themselves.



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  4. ^ The Mindful Way - Buddhist Monks of the Forest Tradition in Thailand with Ajahn Chah [Video File].BBC Open University [Thomas Field]. (retrieved May 02, 2015).
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  8. ^ Different Views on Vipassana Meditation [Video File].Ajahn Sona [Read, Pray, Love - Only Positive Things]. (retrieved May 02, 2015).
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  11. ^ Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand, by Kamala Tiyavanich. University of Hawaii Press, The (1st edition). April 1997.
  12. ^ "Theravada Buddhism: A Chronology". Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, (retrieved May 02, 2015).
  13. ^ "The Customs of the Noble Ones", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 7 June 2010, (retrieved May 02, 2015).
  14. ^ Venerable Ācariya Mun Bhuridatta Thera: A Spiritual Biography. Ajahn Maha Boowa Nanasampanno. Forest Dhamma Books. May 2004.
  15. ^ Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand, by Kamala Tiyavanich. University of Hawaii Press, The (1st edition). April 1997.
  16. ^ "The Customs of the Noble Ones", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 7 June 2010, (retrieved May 02, 2015).
  17. ^ Book Review: "Forest Recollections". Kamala Tiyavanich. U. of Hawaii Press. 1997. retrieved May 02, 2015 from .
  18. ^
  19. ^ "The Customs of the Noble Ones", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 7 June 2010, (retrieved May 02, 2015).
  20. ^ "The Customs of the Noble Ones", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 7 June 2010, (retrieved May 02, 2015).
  21. ^ Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand, by Kamala Tiyavanich. University of Hawaii Press, The (1st edition). April 1997.
  22. ^ The Buddha Comes to Sussex [Video File]. Everyman [Ajahn Chah Documentary]. (retrieved May 02, 2015).
  23. ^ "The Customs of the Noble Ones", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 7 June 2010, (retrieved May 02, 2015).
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ The Customs of the Noble Ones, Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy).
  27. ^ Buddhism in Contemporary Thailand, Prof. Phra Thepsophon, Rector of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University. Speech at the International Conference on Buddhasasana in Theravada Buddhist countries: Issue and The Way Forward in Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 15, 2003, Buddhism in Thailand, Dhammathai - Buddhist Information Network
  28. ^ Ratanakosin Period, Buddhism in Thailand, Dhammathai - Buddhist Information Network
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  31. ^ Chah 2010.
  32. ^ Orloff 2004.


  • Chah, Ajahn (2010), Not for Sure: Two Dhamma Talks, Abhayagiri Foundation , translated from Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
  • Chah, Ajahn, (1991), A taste of Freedom. Bung Wai Forest Monastery.
  • Kornfield, Jack, (1986), A Still Forest Pool. London, Theosophical Publishing House.
  • Orloff, Rich (2004), "Being a Monk: A Conversation with Thanissaro Bhikkhu", Oberlin Alumni Magazine 99 (4) 
  • Taylor, J.L., (1993), Forest Monks and the Nation-State: An Anthropological and Historical Study in Northeastern Thailand. Singapore: ISEAS, 1993 [1996]. ISBN 981-3016-49-3 (original study of forest monks in Thailand)
  • Tiyavanich, Kamala (1997), Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in 20th Century Thailand. University of Hawaii Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8248-1781-8.

External links[edit]