Thai Forest Tradition

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Thai Forest Tradition
Kammatthana Yantra.png
Type Dharma Lineage
School Theravada Buddhism
Formation c. 1900 ; Isan, Thailand
Founders Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, Ajahn Sao Kantasilo
Leader Ajahn Maha Bua (d. 2011, de-facto incumbent)
Founding Maxims

The customs of the noble ones (ariyavamsa)

The Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma (dhammanudhammapatipatti)

The Kammaṭṭhāna Forest Tradition of Thailand (from Thai: พระกรรมฐาน – Phra Kammatthaan [pra kəmːəʈːʰaːn], see #Etymology for details), commonly known in the West as the Thai Forest Tradition, is a lineage of Theravada Buddhist monasticism, as well as the lineage's associated heritage of Buddhist praxis. In the tradition, practitioners take on one or more objective supports (Pali: kammaṭṭhāna) — meditation subjects which are held in mind during meditation practice.[1] These supports are used both to get the mind into samadhi (states of concentration or absorption) and for investigation which cultivates paññā (wisdom or discernment: a major division of the Noble Eightfold Path that represents the insight which arises from Buddhist practice). Additionally, monks in the tradition usually adopt a certain number of optional ascetic practices, known in Pali as dhutanga (Thai: ธุดงค์ – thudong). Orthopraxy with regard to the earliest extant Buddhist texts is emphasized in the tradition,[2] and the tradition has a reputation for strict adherence to the Buddhist monastic code, known as the Vinaya.[3]

The tradition teaches that the goal of Buddhist practice is an awakening to the deathless dimension of the mind,[3] which is related to what the Forest Ajahns refer to as the Original Mind (Thai: จิตเดิม – Cit Deim; see also: Luminous mind).[4] According to Ajahn Maha Bua, the deathless can be realized by reaching and examining the Original Mind, which Maha Bua says is a feature of the minds of ordinary beings. This deathless awareness is described as one which transcends the Buddhist characterization of the mind's functions of sentience, known as the five aggregates, and is also distinct from mental stillness, emptiness, or notions of an annihilation of awareness. Kammaṭṭhāna teachers assert that awareness of the deathless can be realized not simply through contentment or letting go, but rather through intense mental exertion (sometimes described as a "battle" or "struggle") to "cut" or "clear the path" through the defilements of an ordinary person's mind, known as kilesas.[3][5]

The Kammaṭṭhāna tradition began circa 1900,[6] as a grassroots movement led by Ajahns Mun Bhuridatta and Sao Kantasīlo — two Thai monks from the predominantly Lao–speaking cultural region of Thailand known as Isan. They were ordained in a 19th-century reform movement known as Dhammayut (Pali: Dhammayutika, meaning In accordance with the dhamma), the eponymous reform movement for which the modern monastic order is named, founded by Mongkut (Rama IV of Siam) while he was ordained as a Theravada monk. Disillusioned with an increasingly scholastic culture beginning to be imposed on the Thai clergy by state religious authorities under Mongkut's son Chulalongkorn (Rama V of Siam) in the late 19th Century, Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao both took to the rural frontier of Northeast Thailand, with Ajahn Mun traveling abroad to neighboring regions for a time.[7] According to Mun, the primary motivation for their departure from the clerical mainstream was a rejection of the popular notion held by their contemporaries that the path to nibbana was lost to mankind.[8] They eventually attracted their own following, and began their own tradition from within the newly formed modern Dhammayut order at the beginning of the 20th Century, in spite of a second wave of clerical reform measures in Thailand being implemented from Bangkok by the Dhammayut monk–prince and half-brother to Chulalongkorn named Vajirañāṇa (Thai: Wachirayan), which were intended to thwart western imperialism.[7]

In the early 20th century the tradition struggled to maintain its niche in Thailand among attempts to domesticate its following. Beginning in the 1950s though, the tradition would gain respect among the urbanities in Bangkok, and receive widespread acceptance among the Thai Sangha. Many of the Ajahns were nationally venerated by Thai Buddhists, who regarded them as arahants — living Buddhist saints in Theravada Buddhism.[2] Because of their reputations, the Ajahns have become the subject of a cultural fixation on sacralized objects believed among lay followers to offer supernatural protection. This cultural fixation was referred to by social anthropologist Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah as a cult of amulets, which he described during a field study in the 1970s as "a traditional preoccupation now reaching the pitch of fetishistic obsession".[9] During this time, the tradition found a significant following in the West; particularly among the students of Ajahn Chah Subhatto, a forest teacher who studied with a group of monks in the Mahanikai (Pali: Mahanikaya, meaning Great Collection) — the other of Thailand's two monastic orders alongside the Dhammayut — many of whom remained loyal to their Mahanikai pedigree in spite of their interest in Ajahn Mun's teachings.[10] However, in the final decades of the 20th century the tradition experienced a crisis when the majority of Thailand's rainforests were clear cut. In spite of this deforestation in Thailand, the Kammaṭṭhāna tradition continues presently in sparsely populated areas on the outskirts of cities, in Thailand and around the World.[11]


The Thai word kammatthaan originates from the Pali kammatthana. This reflects a tendency of Thai words to have Pali and Sanskrit roots. The Pali kammatthana is a compound word which is constructed from the bases kamma (Sanskrit: karma), meaning "action" or "work"; and thana, meaning a "place" or "abode". The monks are interchangeably referred to as Dhutanga Kammatthana monks,[12] due to their tendency for practicing the dhutanga ascetic practices.

The word kammatthana began to be attributed to Ajahn Mun's lineage because of the tradition's custom of handing down rudimentary meditation instructions from preceptor to ordinand during a new monk's full ordination, known as upasampada. The practice came to be known as the kammatthana, or the basic occupation of a monk (also translated as the place of work), and the monks were referred to as kammatthana monks to distinguish them from forest-dwelling monks who belonged to other meditation lineages.[13]


Third and Fourth Reigns (1824-1868)[edit]

19th Century regional Thai Buddhism[edit]

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. (see History of Thailand) 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.[14] These monks practiced (and some still do to this day)[citation needed] a group of tantric practices known as Khatha Akhom, or Wicha Akhom.[a] Thanissaro writes that these monks would lead sedentary lives in village monasteries; take occupations as doctors and fortune tellers; and occasionally take leave on "a pilgrimage they called 'dhutanga' which bore little resemblance to the classic dhutanga practices."[7] Additionally, these regional traditions differed in the degrees to which they followed the Buddhist monastic code (Pali: Vinaya). Later the regional traditions would be criticized by the central Bangkok ecclesia for not properly adhering to the Vinaya. Tiyavanich writes:

People in villages and towns saw nothing wrong with monks participating in boat races, throwing water at women, or playing chess because they knew the monks and were in fact often their relatives. Many of the monks were sons of villagers who had been ordained at least temporarily, and their lay providers were their parents, aunts and uncles, or acqu aintances. But for outsiders — sangha inspectors, Christian missionaries, and Western travelers — the regional monks' behavior was, to say the least, questionable. "In many wats the monks do not behave properly," is a typical remark of a sangha inspector; McCarthy puts it more strongly: "in view of the celibacy of the priesthood the circumstances tend to scandal." Although sangha authorities forbade monks to follow these customs, in remote areas these practices persisted for several decades after the imposition of modern state Buddhism.[15]

Early monkhood of Prince Mongkut[edit]

Vajirañāṇo Bhikkhu, later King Mongkut of the Rattanakosin Kingdom, founder of the Dhammayuttika Nikaya

A 20 year old Prince Mongkut took full ordination (ordination name Vajirayan, Pali: Vajirañāṇo) as a Theravada Buddhist monk (Pali: bhikkhu) , following a longstanding Thai custom that young men should become monks for a time. The preceptor who conducted Mongkut's ordination was perhaps the most widely known monk in 19th-century Thai history — Mongkut's older half-brother Phra Toh, later known as Somdet Toh.[16][17] The year of Mongkut's ordination, his father (Buddha Loetla Nabhalai – Rama II of Siam) passed away. Although Mongkut was senior to his half-sibling Prince Jessadabodindra (later, Nangklao, Rama III of Siam), the peers in his dynasty instead supported Jessadabodindra to succeed Rama II as the Thai monarch.[18] Giving up aspirations to the throne, Mongkut devoted his life to religion.

In his travels around Siam as a monk, Mongkut quickly became dissatisfied with what he saw as discrepancies between the conduct of the monks and the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code.[7] For this reason, Mongkut was concerned about the ability of the ordination lines to be able to trace back to Gautama Buddha, as well as the capacity of the Thai sangha to act as the field by which merit is made among lay people.[19] Mongkut would subsequently seek out a tradition which met his standard of Buddhist practice.

Mongkut eventually found a higher caliber of monastic practice among the Mon people in the region, where he studied Vinaya and traditional ascetic practices or dhutanga.[7] In particular, he met a monk named Buddhawangso, a monk who he admired for his discipline and praxis with respect to the Pāli Canon — the most authoritative Buddhist text in Theravada Buddhism, believed to contain the words of the Buddha and his disciples. Jessadabodindra complained about Mongkut's involvement with the Mons — considering it improper for a member of the royal family to associate with an ethnic minority — 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.[20][21]

The Dhammayut Reform Movement[edit]

After reordaining with this group in 1833, he began a reform movement which he named Dhammayut (meaning in accordance with the Dhamma, Thai Dhammayut), a name which he chose to contrast with the regional Buddhist traditions that drew their customs from values which emerged from their respective local cultures.[18] In the founding of the Thammayut, Mongkut made an effort to remove what he understood as non-Buddhist, folk, and superstitious elements which over the years had become part of Thai Buddhism. Additionally, Dhammayut bhikkhus were expected to eat only one meal a day instead of the two permitted by the Vinaya, and the meal was to be gathered during a traditional alms round and eaten together in the monks' single alms bowl; practices usually reserved as optional dhutanga observances.[22]

In addition to seeking out what Mongkut saw as a more valid ordination lineage, Mongkut sought to find the most reliable version of the Pali Canon still available. Thanissaro asserts that Mongkut did this out of an attempt to make accessible to the Thai sangha successive levels of enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism (known as the noble attainments) which culminate in the experience of Nirvana, after which one becomes an arahant. This motivation was a reaction to an idea which grew out of Sri Lanka, that because of the degeneracy of the human race, the noble attainments were lost to mankind after the first few generations immediately following the Buddha.[13] On his reasons for asking for better versions of the Pali Canon, Mongkut wrote the following in a missive to the Sangha of Sri Lanka:

“Good people should not stay fixed in their original beliefs, but should give their highest respect to the Dhamma-Vinaya, examining it and their beliefs throughout. Wherever their beliefs are right and appropriate, they should follow them. If they can’t practice in line with what is right, they should at least show their appreciation for those who can. If they encounter beliefs and practices that are not right and appropriate, they should judge them as having been remembered wrongly and then discard them”.[13]

In the following years Mongkut was visited at Wat Bowonniwet by Western missionaries and sailors, and would learn Latin, English, and astronomy. He would have a close friendship with Vicar Pallegoix of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Bangkok, a friendship which would remain after Mongkut became king. Pallegoix visited Wat Bowonniwet regularly to preach Christian sermons. Though Mongkut admired the vicar's presentation of Christian moral ideals, he rejected Christian doctrine, saying: "What you teach people to do is admirable, but what you teach them to believe is foolish."[18]

While abbot of Wat Bowonniwet Mongkut had other monks who were close to him reordain among this Mon lineage. Among these monks was the current Somdet Phra Wannarat "Thap", a grade Nine Pali scholar, and Dhutanga ascetic practicing monk. According to Taylor, Thap was praised as an exemplary Dhammayut monk, and practiced ascetic practices vigorously, as well as contemplations of the foul nature of the body by going to charnel grounds to see decaying corpses in person (a practice which was suggested in the Pali Canon, as an aid to spiritual progress). [23]

Kromma Phraya Vajirayanavarorasa(2).png
Prince Vajirañāṇa, the monk in charge of King Chulalongkorn's fifth-reign educational sangha reforms.

Fifth Reign (1868-1910)[edit]

Establishment of the Thammayut Order[edit]

According to the Dhammayut monk-prince Vajirañāṇa (Thai: Wachirayaan)'s autobiography, dissention in the Dhammayut caused the movement to split into four competing factions (temporarily, albeit for several decades), in part because Thap had irreconcilable differences with some of the more "worldly" monks affiliated with Wat Bowonniwet. In the mid-nineteenth century these branches began to diverge from one another — each developed their own styles for chanting, interpretations and translations of Pali texts, and differed on issues related to the monastic code.[24] During this time, Mongkut passed away, and Prince Vajirañāṇa's elder half-brother Chulalongkorn (Rama V of Siam) succeeded Mongkut to the throne.

Of the four main monasteries that corresponded to the four competing factions were Thap's own Wat Somanat, and Wat Bowonniwet itself, which would have Prince Pawaret — official Dhammayut head in the mid-to-late 19th century, appointed by King Chulalongkorn — as abbot. Prince Pawaret would be unable to reconcile the separate Dhammayut lineages. This separation would continue until Thap and Pawaret both passed away in the early 1890's. Prince Vajirañāṇa succeeded Prince Pawaret in 1893, and took control of a new wave of fifth reign sangha reforms under orders from Chulalongkorn. At this time, Vajirañāṇa was able to reunite the stray Dhammayut lineages that had been so estranged decades earlier.

While Vajirañāṇa was not the official leader of the Sangha (Thai: Sangharaja), the current Sangharaja was a figurehead, and Vajirañāṇa's reforms became the primary focus of the Dhammayut's agenda. Power was consolidated in Bangkok and an emphasis on institutionalized modern education escalated. These scholastic reforms aggressively sought to replace both the regional mysticism practices and Mongkut's sentiment of Buddhist orthodoxy, in favor of a curriculum based on "Victorian notions of reason and utility"[7] which were taught to both King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and Prince Vajirañāṇa by western tutors (among which was Anna Leonowens — details of which were dramatized in the 1951 musical The King and I). In 1896 King Chulalongkorn wrote a letter to Prince Vajirañana after visiting a secular school founded by the prince:

“Having looked at everything, I am very satisfied and I ask your forgiveness for the disdain I have held in my heart. It’s not that I have felt disdain for the Buddha, for the Dhamma he taught, or for the Sangha of those who have practiced to the point of purity. I’m speaking here of ordinary monks who study the texts and meditation or chant simply for the sake of their own personal happiness. Those who study the texts do so for the sake of their own knowledge, without a thought to teaching others to the best of their ability. This is a way of looking only for their own happiness. Those who meditate are even worse, and those who devote themselves to chanting are the worst of all. This is the disdain that I’ve felt in my heart. But now that I have gazed at what you have accomplished, I see that the elders and their followers in the committee have redeemed themselves from my disdain, and I ask your forgiveness. What you have established is a blessing to the religion, an honor to King Rama IV [Mongkut], and a benefit to the people, from the King on down”.[13]

This sentiment would begin to ratify in legislation when the Ecclesiastical Polity Act of 1902 was passed. The Dhammayut movement that King Mongkut began in the fourth-reign was now officially recognized by the Thai government as a Theravada monastic order, and remaining regional traditions not of the Dhammayut lineage were now united as the Maha Nikaya (Thai: Mahanikai). However, Mongkut's fourth-reign Vinaya reforms were to be replaced with a new state recognized code — a compromise between the Pali Vinaya and the traditional Thai disciplines of the regional traditions.[13] Tambiah writes: "The Thammayut brand of Central Thai Buddhism was to be the criterion of pure Buddhism, and regional traditions of Buddhist practice, worship, and identiy were to be obliterated in favor of a Bangkok orthodoxy and of Central Thai language as against variant languages . . . ".[25] Concurrent with these administrative groupings were steps to consolidate clerical power in Bangkok. Also, with the 1902 act, an attempt was made through legislation to restrict the freedom of monks to exercise the dhutanga practices and wander the Thai wilderness; ecclesiastical authorities would work to suppress this form of extended countryside wandering with subsequent legislation throughout the 20th century.

A memorial to Ajahn Mun at Wat Liap in Ubon Ratchatani, Thailand, the monastery where Ajahn Mun first learned kammatthana meditation from Ajahn Sao.

Ajahn Mun's Early Years with Ajahn Sao[edit]

Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta's first involvement with the Sangha was ordination as a sāmaṇera (novitiate monk) when he was 15 years old. After two years, his father asked him to leave his sāmaṇera status to help out with the family. Having fulfilled his obligations, his parents provided him with his requisites for upasampada and he ordained as a bhikkhu at 22 years old with his parents blessing in 1893.[26] Ajahn Mun left the wat of his preceptor and went to study with the meditation monk Ajahn Sao Kantasīlo at Wat Liap, a small meditation temple just outside Ajahn Mun's hometown.[27]

Little is known of Ajahn Sao Kantasilo, and he left nothing behind in the way of meditation manuals.[28] Taylor writes: "Sao typifies the reclusive somewhat introverted loner. Man [Ajahn Mun] was recorded as saying that Sao's gentle personality was an expression of great metaa [sic]. He would only speak on occasions and with short pithy utternaces."[29] Ajahn Sao began his monastic career in a regional pre-reform tradition practicing khatha meditation, and would later re-ordain in the dhammayut order.

For first three months that Ajahn Mun trained under Ajahn Sao, Ajahn Mun struggled to find a proper meditation subject. Ajahn Mun began by contemplating the foul nature of the body, then received haunting visions of a corpse being picked at by scavengers. Upon investigating these visions, a translucent disk nimitta appeared before him, and when he focused on the translucent disk he would be taken on journey's in his meditation. After three months of following the disk to these visions over and over again, Ajahn Mun decided that there was likely no end to the visions the translucent disk which appeared in his meditation would produce, and concluded that it was a largely unproductive tangent in his meditation practice. He then resolved to keep his awareness in the body at all times.[30]

Countryside wandering with Ajahn Sao[edit]

Sao wandered on dhutanga (Thai: thudong) with Mun for several years. Ajahn Mun talked about how during this period, people in the villages were afraid of dhutanga monks who wandered the countryside. Ajahn Maha Bua writes: "Back then, a dhutanga monk, walking in the distance on the far side of a field, was enough to send country folk into a panic. Being fearful, those still close to the village quickly ran home. Those walking near the forest ran into the thick foliage to hide, being too scared to stand their ground or greet the monks. Thus, dhutanga monks, wandering in unfamiliar regions during their travels, seldom had a chance to ask the locals for much needed directions." Tambiah writes:

A group of dhutanga monks in early 20th century Thailand.

Such monks apparently provoked feelings of fear and apprehension among the rural folk. Their strictly controlled behaviour and avoidance of unneccessary contact with laymen; their wearing of yellowish-brown robes dyed with gum extracted from the wood of the Jackfruit tree; their carrying a large umbrella (klot) slung over their shoulder, the almsbowl in the other, and a water kettle hanging on the side; and their custom of walking single file — all these features inspired awe as much as respect.[31]

After Ajahns Sao and Mun wandered dhutanga for some years, Ajahn Sao told Ajahn Mun that the latter should go out on his own to progress further. Mun left on his own in search of any teacher who may have found the elusive noble attainments, travelling to Laos, Burma and Central Thailand, and once again he visited his old preceptor Chao Khun Upali for meditation advice. He eventually settled in the mystical Sarika Cave, a subject of many local folk legends, for a period of three years.[7][32]

Sixth Reign (1910-1925)[edit]

Ajahn Mun at Sarika Cave[edit]

After Ajahn Mun spent the rains with Chao Khun Upali, he headed to Sarika Cave in the Khao Yai mountains, on the border of Central and Northeast Thailand. At first, the local villagers wouldn't take Ajahn Mun to the cave because of a local spirit legend that a terrestrial deva was occupying the cave and killing intruders. This was substantiated by serial accounts of monks who had resided in the cave and subsequently been stricken with fatal illnesses.[33]

Sarika Cave in Nakhon Nayok province, Thailand, where Ajahn Mun reputedly attained anagami (non-returner) status.

Ajahn Mun wasn't dissuaded from staying in Sarika Cave, and saw it as an opportunity for development. On the fourth night staying there, Ajahn Mun developed a severe stomachache, and was unable to digest food and passed blood. Taking a traditional medicine regimen of local herbs for a while, he finally resolved to stop taking them and instead to resort to the "therapeutic power of the Dhamma alone", surrendering fully to his confidence in the Buddhist path to provide a positive outcome, even if he were to die.[34] After a battle with the illness which went on from dusk until midnight, Tambiah writes that Ajahn Mun's mind "realized the nature of the aggregates, and their formations, including the gripping pain, and 'the illness totally disappeared and the mind withdrew into absolute, unshakable one-pointedness'".[35]

When Ajahn Mun's mind emerged to a less absorbed level of concentration, he received a vision where an ethereal demonic giant visited him, black in color and about ten meters high. Tambiah writes: "Ajahn Mun thus was finally confronted with the apparition of the club-wielding demon owner of the cave.[35] In the vision, the demon was made to concede through discourse that it's powers didn't match those of the Buddha, the "power of eradicating from his own mind the desire to dominate and harm others".[35] The demon subsequently transformed it's appearance into a "gentleman with a mild, courteous manner" and,[36] approaching Ajahn Mun, asked for forgiveness, saying he would reform himself. The spirit revealed himself as chief of a group of terrestrial devas in the region, and offered to serve as Ajahn Mun's guardian for as long as Ajahn Mun stayed.[37]

Ajahn Mun spent the next three years in Sarika Cave. According to Ajahn Maha Bua's spiritual biography of Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Mun received visions where he was visited by a troop of monkeys, and Ajahn Mun understood their grunts and gestures "as clearly as if they had been conversing in human language".[38] In the biography, Ajahn Mun told his students that he finally attained anāgāmi (non-returner) status in 1915 in Sarika Cave.[39][13] The next year, he came back to Isan to instruct his old teacher, Ajahn Sao; and in the years following, he attracted a following of monks desiring a more disciplined approach to Buddhist practice.[7]

Seventh and Eighth Reigns (1925-1946)[edit]

Tension between the forest tradition and the Thammayut administrative hierarchy escalated in 1926, when Tisso Uan attempted to drive Ajahn Sing Khantiyagamo, along with his following of 50 monks and 100 nuns and laypeople, out of a forest under Tisso Uan's jusrisdiction. Tisso Uan also arranged to have a public notice set up telling villagers not to offer Ajahn Sing and his monks alms. Taylor writes that even after the monks refused to move on a "District Officer came to see Sing, saying that he came on behalf of a provincial directive (from Tisso's office) and again told them to leave. Sing adamantly refused, saying that he was born in Ubon and did not see why he, or his band, had to go as they were causing no problem to anyone." After Ajahns Fun, Orn, and Maha Pin sought advice from Ajahn Mun on the situation (who told them to simply "consider the consequences carefully before acting"), they appealed to the Provincial District Head of Ubon (Chao Khana Changwat). The Provincial District Head "disclaimed any involvement in this dispute. He then gave them a letter to take to the district officer to try to compromise, and the directive was eventually dropped."[40]

This tension would remain for two decades, and Tisso Uan would maintain even after Ajahn Mun's death in 1949 that Ajahn Mun was unqualified as as a dhamma teacher without having undergone formal Pali studies.[41][42]

Ninth Reign (1946-)[edit]

Respect among the mainstream[edit]

According to Ajahn Lee's autobiography, the relationship between the Thammayut ecclesia and the Kammaṭṭhāna monks changed in the 1950s, 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'. Tisso Uan was moved by the example that Ajahn Lee had set, and began to study meditation with him.[43] Tisso Uan eventually recovered, and a friendship between Tisso Uan and Ajahn Lee began that would cause Tisso Uan to completely reverse his opinion of the Kammaṭṭhāna tradition. Ajahn Lee Dhammadaro writes about what Tisso Uan said to him: "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."

Tisso Uan would then invite Ajahn Lee to teach in the city. This event marked a turning point in relations between the Dhammayut administration and the Forest Tradition. Thanissaro notes that widespread acceptance from the Dhammayut ecclesia would come in part because the clergy who had been drafted as teachers from the Fifth Reign onwards were now being displaced by civilian teaching staff.[13][44]

Cold War Period[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 Kammaṭṭhāna tradition alive at the time were accused of communist sympathies.[citation needed]


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.

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 consequences of uncontrolled exploitation of the forest. Responding to an intense public outcry, the government suspended and later banned 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.

— Kamala Tiyanavich[45]

In the 1990s, Members of the Forestry Bureau deeded tracts of land to forest monasteries in an effort to preserve wilderness. These monasteries along with the land surrounding them, have turned into sort of "forested islands".[13][46]

According to Thanissaro, with the accreditation of their education system to administer graduate programs, Dhammayut authorities in Bangkok began to feel that its ties with the Forest tradition were no longer necessary, and the Dhammayut hierarchy would align itself with the economic interests of the Mahanikai hierarchy.


In 1997, Ajahn Maha Bua began a program to underwrite the Thai Currency with gold bars donated by Thai citizens, raising some 12 tonnes of gold bars and 10 million in currency.[1] The government under Chuan Leekpai tried to thwart Ajahn Maha Bua's efforts, and the political fallout from Ajahn Maha Bua's successful campaign would influence the 2001 general election in Thailand, when Ajahn Maha Bua endorsed Thaksin Shinawatra.[13]

Ajahn Maha Bua would appear to have reversed his support in 2005, when portions of a sermon from Ajahn Maha Bua were published in Manager Daily, a thai newspaper, accusing Prime Minister Thaksin of aiming for a Thai Presidency calling his administration a "savage and atrocious power". According to Taylor, Ajahn Maha Bua was incited by an anti-Thaksin group that runs Manager Daily, who presented his words out of context to attack Thaksin's political party in order to posture themselves for a coup d'état in 2006.[47]

Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah[edit]

The Early Mahanikai Forest Tradition[edit]

Ajahn Thongrat

Ajahn Jayasaro relates that while many Mahanikai monks would reordain in the Dhammayut order as an act of devotion to Ajahn Mun, Luang Por Thongrat, along with a handful of other followers of Ajahn Mun, would choose to stay Mahanikai monks, and Luang Por Thongrat would be the de facto leader of this Mahanikai group of forest monks.[2] Ajahn Jayasaro relates that Ajahn Thongrat was considered "Zen Like", in the sense that he was very "Vigorous and outspoken — and outrageous — in his behaviour. Which of course in Thai monastic idiom, where etiquette and good behavior is so stressed, it quite made him stand out."[3]

Little is known of Ajahn Chah's relationship with Ajahn Thongrat, though Ajahn Chah relates a story about the first time he had met Ajahn Thongrat. Upon hearing of Ajahn Thongrat's whereabouts, Ajahn Chah traveled a long distance to meet Ajahn Thongrat. When Ajahn Chah walked into the monastery where Ajahn Thongrat was staying, Ajahn Thongrat looked at Ajahn Chah for the first time and said "Oh, Chah! You've arrived at last!", which surprised Ajahn Chah, because there should have been no way that Ajahn Thongrat knew who Ajahn Chah was or that he was coming.[4]

Ajahn Chah's Early Training[edit]

Ajahn Kinnari

Ajahn Chah met Ajahn Kinnari while wandering dhutanga. Ajahn Jayasaro talks about how when dhutanga monks encounter each other, they will sometimes relate information about good spots to meditate, or good monasteries or meditation teachers.[5]

Establishment of Wat Pah Pong

Prior to establishing monasteries, Ajahn Chah wandered dhutanga for 7 years, practicing in wilderness areas, caves and cremation grounds. After that period, he settled in a "fever ridden, haunted forest" known as "Pah Pong", and drew a following from there. A monastery was formed in the area, known today as Wat Pah Pong, in spite of poor living conditions and sparse food.[6]

In 1967, Venerable 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".[48]

Taking root in the west[edit]


The first Thai monastery run by and for English-speaking monks was Wat Pah Nanachat, founded in 1975.[49]


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".[7]

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).[8]

United States

About 13 miles (21 km) north of Ukiah, California, In the 1980s Ajahn Sumedho 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. A plot of 120 acres (0.49 km2) about 13 miles (21 km) north of Ukiah, California was given directly to Ajahn Sumedho by Chan Master Hsuan Hua, founder of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Talmage, California, before he died in 1995, would become Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery. Currently, the monastery rests on 280 acres (1.1 km2) of mountainous forest land.[50]

Other western countries

The Thai Forest Tradition also exists in:[51]

The Order of Siladhara[edit]


A siladhara is a Theravada Buddhist female monastic established by Ajahn Sumedho at Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, England.[52] In 1983, he obtained permission from the Sangha in Thailand, to give a ten-precept pabbajja to the women, making them officially recognized female renunciants trained in the Ajahn Chah lineage. The reasons for its establishment are due to the historical loss of the bhikkhuni (nun's) ordination in Theravada Buddhism.

The female monastic community began in 1979, when Chithurst Monastery admitted four Western women as anagārikās. From 1979-1983 the women lived in a cottage a short walk from the main house, on the edge of Chithurst forest. In 1983, Ajahn Sumedho ordained the nuns as 10 Precept sīladhārā nuns at Chithurst. In 1984 the order outgrew the cottage, and the nuns community moved to Amaravati. According to the Forest Sangha newsletter: "Some years later a small group of nuns returned to Chithurst Monastery to establish a second sīladhārā community there."[9]

Milntuim House

In 2012, another center for the Siladharas was purchased in Perthshire, Scotland, known as the Milntuim House. Ajahn Candasiri writes:

The intention is for Milntuim eventually to be a place

where sīladharā and anagārikās can live in community for periods of time following a monastic routine, hope - fully, without some of the complexities of the larger double communities. There would also be facilities for individual sīladharā to spend up to several months in solitary retreat. In addition I would hope that it can sup - port the practice of lay friends near and far and – as far as our monastic discipline permits – integrate with the local community.[10][11]

2009 Ordination at Bodhinyana[edit]

On 22 October 2009 Brahm facilitated an ordination ceremony for bhikkhunis where four female Buddhists, Venerable Ajahn Vayama, and Venerables Nirodha, Seri and Hasapanna, were ordained into the Western Theravada bhikkhuni sangha. The ordination ceremony took place at Ajahn Brahm's Bodhinyana Monastery at Serpentine (near Perth, WA), Australia. For his actions of 22 October 2009, on 1 November 2009, at a meeting of senior members of the Thai monastic sangha, held at Wat Pah Pong, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, Brahm was removed from the Ajahn Chah Forest Sangha lineage and is no longer associated with the main monastery in Thailand, Wat Pah Pong, nor with any of the other Western Forest Sangha branch monasteries of the Ajahn Chah tradition.[53][54][55][56][57]


Daily Routine[edit]

Morning and Evening Chanting

All Thai monasteries will 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.[12]

Morning Alms Round

At Thai monasteries the monks will go for alms early in the morning, sometimes around 6:00 AM,[13] although monasteries such as Wat Pah Nanachat and Wat Mettavanaram start around 8:00 AM and 8:30 AM, respectively.[14][15] At Dhammayut monasteries (and some Mahanikai forest monasteries, including Wat Pah Nanachat),[16] 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.[58]


In the Forest Tradition, 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. Among the thirteen verses to the Anumodana chant, three stanzas are chanted as part of every Anumodana, as follows:

1. (LEADER):

2. (ALL):



Novices meditating under crot umbrella tents.

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.[18] 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 hanged on a line tied between two trees.[19]

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.[citation needed]

Precepts and Ordination[edit]

Main article: patimokkha

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).[20]

Temporary or short-term ordination is so common in Thailand that men who have never been ordained are sometimes referred to as "unfinished."[citation needed] Long-term or lifetime ordination is deeply respected. The ordination process usually begins as an anagarika, in white robes.[21]


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.[22]

According to THE ISAAN - Life in a Thai-Lao Village: "In Thai culture, it is considered impolite to point the feet toward a monk or a statue in the shrine room of a monastery."[23] In Thailand monks are usually greeted by lay people with the anjali gesture, though, according to Thai custom, monks are not supposed to wai laypeople.[24] When making offerings to the monks, it is best not to stand while offering something to a monk who is sitting down.[25]


^ Khatha Akhom (Thai: คา-ถา-อา-คม, Lao: ຄາຖາອາຄົມ, IPA: [kʰaːtʰǎːʔaːkʰom]) – translated as witchcraft, or Wicha Akhom (Thai: วิชา อาคม, IPA: [wíʔtɕʰaːʔaːkʰom]). Components are as follows:

Akhom literally means magic, spell, charm.
Khatha literally means incantation (from Pali: Gatha, meaning verse, as in a verse of the Pali Canon)
Wicha (from Pali: vijja) literally means study, knowledge, branch of study


  1. ^ Maha Bua 1995, p. 3.
  2. ^ a b Taylor 1993, p. 15.
  3. ^ a b c Johnson, Robinson & Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu 2005, p. 167.
  4. ^ Sujato 2008.
  5. ^ Taylor 1993, pp. 16-17.
  6. ^ Access to Insight 2013.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Thanissaro 2010.
  8. ^ Maha Bua 2004.
  9. ^ Tambiah 1984, p. 3.
  10. ^ Jayasaro 2008, p. 11.
  11. ^ Tiyavanich 1997.
  12. ^ Maha Bua 2010, p. 1.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i Thanissaro 2005.
  14. ^ Tiyavanich & 1993 p. 2-6.
  15. ^ Tiyavanich & 1993 p. 29.
  16. ^ Thanissaro 2006-2.
  17. ^ McDaniel 2011.
  18. ^ a b c Bruce 1969.
  19. ^
  20. ^ Lopez 2013, p. 696.
  21. ^ Tambiah 1984, p. 156.
  22. ^
  23. ^ Taylor 1993, p. 42.
  24. ^ Taylor 1993, p. 45.
  25. ^ Tambiah & 1984 p. 162.
  26. ^
  27. ^ Tambiah 82.
  28. ^ Tambiah 83.
  29. ^ Taylor p. 103.
  30. ^ Maha Bua p. 10.
  31. ^ Tambiah 1984, p. 84.
  32. ^ Tambiah 86.
  33. ^ Tambiah p. 86-87.
  34. ^ Tambiah 87.
  35. ^ a b c Tambiah p. 87.
  36. ^ Maha Bua p. 30.
  37. ^ Tambiah p. 87-88.
  38. ^ Maha Bua p. 34.
  39. ^ Tambiah 88.
  40. ^ Taylor 137-138.
  41. ^ Thanissaro & 2005 Page 1.
  42. ^ Taylor 138.
  43. ^ Lee, Ajahn 1994.
  44. ^ Taylor p. 139.
  45. ^ Tiyavanich 1997, p. 245.
  46. ^ Schuler & 2014 p. 64.
  47. ^ Taylor & 2008 p .120.
  48. ^
  49. ^ scott & 2012 p. 282.
  50. ^ Abhayagiri Foundation 2015.
  51. ^ Harvey & 2013 p. 443.
  52. ^ Ajahn Sucitto 2007.
  53. ^ "news". Retrieved 2010-01-24. 
  54. ^ ASIA: WA Buddhist temple banned after ordination of female monks. AAP News, 21 December 2009 Financial Times Ltd., 21 December 2009
  55. ^ "WA Buddhists expelled over women". The West Australian. Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  56. ^ "Monastery rebuked over ordination of women". The West Australian. Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  57. ^ "WA monastery faces expulsion". WAtoday. Retrieved May 15, 2013. 
  58. ^ Thanissaro 2003.


A - C

D - I

K - P

Q - S



  • Zhi Yun Cai (Fall 2014), Doctrinal Analysis of the Origin and Evolution of the Thai Kammatthana Tradition with a Special Reference to the Present Kammatthana Ajahns, University of the West 

External links[edit]


About the Tradition

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