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 (Pali: kammaṭṭhāna [kəmːəʈːʰaːna] meaning "place of work"), 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. The tradition is distinguished from other Buddhist traditions by its doctrinal emphasis of the notion that the mind precedes the world, its description of the Buddhist path as a training regimen for the mind, and its objective to reach proficiency in a diverse range of both meditative techniques and aspects of conduct that will eradicate defilements (Pali: "kilesas") — unwholesome aspects of the mind — in order to attain awakening.

The tradition began circa 1900 with Ajahn Mun Bhuridatto and Ajahn Sao Kantasilo: two Dhammayut monks from the Lao-speaking cultural region of Northeast Thailand known as Isan. They began wandering the Thai countryside out of their desire to practice monasticism according to the normative standards of Classical Buddhism (which Ajahn Mun termed "the customs of the noble ones") during a time when folk religion was observed predominately among Theravada village monastic factions in the Siamese region. Because of this, orthopraxy with regard to the earliest extant Buddhist texts is emphasized in the tradition, and the tradition has a reputation for scrupulous observance of the Buddhist monastic code, known as the Vinaya.

Nevertheless, the Forest tradition is often cited 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.

The purpose of practice in the tradition is to the ultimate end of experiencing 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, so it must be arrived at through the aforementioned mental training which includes deep states of meditative concentration (Pali: jhana); and Forest teachers directly challenge the notion of dry insight.[citation needed] The tradition further asserts that the training which leads to the Deathless is not undertaken simply through contentment or letting go, but 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.[1][2]

Etymology[edit]

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,[3] 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.[4]

Background[edit]

For more details on this topic, see History of the Thai Forest Tradition.

The decline of the Buddha's Dispensation[edit]

According to Buddhist texts, the Buddha stated that his teachings would only survive uncorrupted for 500 years after his death. After this point, if one wanted to reach nirvana, 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.[5]

Over the centuries, a doctrinal tradition has grown in Sri Lanka that states that because of a human's innate degeneracy, the noble attainments have been lost to humankind, and the human realm will have to wait until the next dispensation, wherein the Pali Canon prophesizes that the next Buddha will "open the door" to the noble attainments once again.[5] The primary implication from this tradition, that there are no modern day arahants — saints in Theravada Buddhism who are considered to have reached nirvana, has guided a long-standing doctrinal ethic that the primary aspiration a monk is obligated to is textual study, and any attempt to the training which the canon outlines is a futile pursuit.[4]

Mongkut's Dhammayut reforms[edit]

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

Before the 19th-century reforms that eventually led the Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao's forest meditation tradition, Buddhism in Thailand consisted of several regional Buddhist traditions. Though certain practices differed from village to village, and some villages had their own local deities, they all had a set of popular Mahayana and Tantra-infused folk magic practices, known in Thai as Khatha Aakhom. These traditions took interpretations of the Buddhist monastic code (Pali: Vinaya) that allowed for certain activities (such as eating food after noon, associating with women, etc.).

When Prince Mongkut (Rama IV of Siam) lost to his brother (Jessadabodindra, Rama III of Siam) in a bid for the throne, he decided to remain a Buddhist monk. Mongkut became dissatisfied with the caliber of Buddhist practice around him, and sought to reform Buddhism in Thailand. Monkgut eventually found better practice among the Mon people in a neighboring area, and decided to re-ordain with this community. Thus the Dhammayut (meaning In accordance with the dhamma) began.

The Dhammayut movement focused on a few key areas: textual study of the Pali Canon, the earliest extant Buddhist scripture; close adherence to the letter of the Vinaya; and revival of the Dhutanga ascetic practices. Mongkut continued to advance his reforms throughout his life, using his influence as prince — and later, as king.[6][7]

The question of modern day saints[edit]

According to Thanissaro, the Dhammayut reform movement, founded by Mongkut, aimed to put claims about the possibility of reaching the noble attainments to the test. Some efforts to meditate and practice the authentic ascetic practices (Pali: dhutanga) from the Pali Canon were carried out. However, the reform movement ultimately became focused around study, and none of the adherents to the movement could make claims to any states of deepened meditative consciousness (Pali: jhana), much less that they had reached a noble level.[4]

Left to right: Ajahn Mun Bhuridatto and Ajahn Sao Kantasilo, founders of the Kammatthana Forest lineage.

Thanissaro asserts the Kammatthana lineage of Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao was focused on addressing the same two matters as Mongkut's reform movement: the matter of overcoming adulterations in the Pali Canon, and the matter of discovering the full accessibility of the noble attainments in modern times. By Ajahn Mun's claim of his own noble attainment he answered the latter of these two questions: "the noble attainments were still reachable, and the primary duty of a monk ordained in the Buddha’s dispensation was to exert every effort to attain them."[4] However, Ajahn Mun agreed with Mongkut that adulterations had accumulated in the Pali Canon over time. Ajahn Mun's methodology to weeding out these adulterations was taken from the Kalama Sutta: If the practice worked to eliminate the defilements of a persons mind (Pali: kilesas), that result then becomes the indicator that the teaching is genuine.[4] And once a practitioner had reached the Deathless (Pali: amata) for themselves for the first time, they would be in a position to immediately tell which teachings are authentic and which aren't, based on a comparison of their own experience of release with what is said in the texts.[4]

The Forest Tradition asserts that because reaching this experience is the entirety of the Buddha's teaching, the implication is that without this direct meditative experience, any attempt to relay the Buddha's teachings to others is entirely speculative. Thus, the forest traditions assertion of the sainthood of Ajahn Mun and his students guide their doctrine, just as traditions that reject the possibility of the noble attainments in modern times guide theirs. The main priority of Ajahn Mun's disciples in this case is to follow the path of practice Ajahn Mun described to reach the elusive Deathless dimension, and only then will a practitioner know which of the texts are authentic — hence the aphorism from Ajahn Mun: "Practice is what keeps the true dhamma pure".[4]

Struggle for niche[edit]

However, by the time that Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao had begun their monastic careers, Mongkut's original vision for the Dhammayut order had been wiped out in mainstream circles. His successor, Chulalongkorn, strove to do away with all practical applications of Buddhist practice. The Thai Clergy was molded into an educational powerhouse as part of a campaign to prevent Thailand from being colonized.

In the subsequent decades, Thailand would successfully thwart all attempts at colonization — the only Southeast Asian nation to maintain its independence.[8] However, these sangha reforms sought to obliterate all monks' practices which weren't in line with the scholastic ideals of Chulalongkorn's reign, and targeted a broad group of monks both in outlying villages and the wilderness monks that included Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao's students. Crackdowns on homelessness and vagrancy targeted monks who couldn't be easily regulated by the new Dhammayut authorities, and monks in forests and villages were often arrested on technicalities and trumped up charges.

Mainstream acceptance[edit]

The animosity between the Kammatthana lineage and the mainstream Dhammayut ecclesia escalated in 1926, when Tisso Uan unsuccessfully ordered Ajahn Mun's senior student, Ajahn Singh, and his group several dozen monks, nuns, and lay people to disperse. Tisso Uan continued to be hostile towards the tradition for the next three decades, continuing to insist even after Ajahn Mun's death that the latter was unqualified as a teacher of Buddhist doctrine since he hadn't participated in the Dhammayut's formal education program.

The relationship changed in the 1950s when a student of Ajahn Mun's, Ajahn Lee Dhammadaro, taught meditation to Tisso Uan when the latter was sick. Ajahn Lee's biography relates Tisso Uan's change of heart: "I used to live near Ajaan Mun and Ajaan Sao, but I never benefited from them the way I’ve benefited from having you stay with me. There seem to be a lot of surprising things that occur when I sit in meditation.’"[9]

Mainstream popularity culminated in the 1970s, when a cultural fetishism of medallions worn as neckpieces became popular. Busts of popular forest ajahns have been featured, and they are often ritually blessed to provide some supramundane charm to the wearer. Tambiah writes that General Kriangsak Chanaman distributed amulets to his troops, and ordered that white cloths with mystical yantra designs which were blessed by Luang Pu Waen be bound to the Thai National Flag and flown at the top of ship's masts for protection from communist vessels.[10]

Cold war tensions[edit]

Tensions arose between the dictatorial Thai government and a newly formed communist party in Thailand. Several of the major figures in the Kammaṭṭhāna tradition alive at the time were accused of communist sympathies.[11]

Ajahn Chah Subaddo

Out of a concern for the potential spread of communism, Ajahn Chah Subhaddo, a Mahanikai monk who practiced with a community of like-minded Mahanikai students of Ajahn Mun, emigrated to the United Kingdom along with his senior student, the American monk Ajahn Sumedho. The two, with a growing circle of senior students in later decades, formed a monastery network that has spanned all over the western world, now known as the Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah.

Forest Closure[edit]

Further information: Deforestation in Thailand
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 driven from their homes as villages were bulldozed over to make room for eucalyptus plantations. Tiyavanich 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 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.[12]

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", and constitutes the majority of Thailand's original rainforest still in existence.[4][13]

Save the Nation campaign[edit]

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.[4]

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.[14]

Meditation Practice[edit]

Overview[edit]

Choosing an object[edit]

According to Ajahn Maha Bua, the work of kammatthana means the work one does in eradicating "(future) births, kilesas, taṇhā, and the removal and destruction of all avijjā from our hearts." This work is done by taking an object (Pali: arammana) which one chooses according to one's temperament.[15]

Ajahn Maha Bua writes that a meditator can choose whichever supporting object they believe suits their individual characteristics. He states that once a support has been chosen though, the meditator should stick with that support until they are either able to see the benefits, or until they can clearly see that the support doesn't suit their character before changing to another support. Tambiah writes that the supports Ajahn Maha Bua prefers are "contemplation of the thirty-two parts of the body; contemplation of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha; and awareness of breathing."[16]

Of the 40 meditation objects enumerated in the Visuddhimagga, Thanissaro Bhikkhu specifically warns against 10 of the objects which compose a category known as the kasina meditations. He specifically refers to these meditations as leading to what he calls "wrong concentration".[17][18]

Concentration (samadhi) and Discernment (panna)[edit]

Ajahn Thate on what samadhi is like:
When you first enter concentration [samadhi], this is what it's like: You'll have no idea at all of what concentration or one-pointedness of mind is going to feel like. You're simply intent on keeping mindfulness firmly focused on one object — and the power of a mind focused firmly on one object is what will bring you to a state of concentration. You won't be thinking at all that concentration will be like this or like that, or that you want it to be like this or like that. It will simply take its own way, automatically. No one can force it.

At that moment you'll feel as if you are in another world (the world of the mind), with a sense of ease and solitude to which nothing else in the world can compare. When the mind withdraws from concentration, you'll regret that that mood has passed, and you'll remember it clearly. All that we say about concentration comes from the mind that has withdrawn from that state. As long as it's still gathered in that state, we aren't interested in what anyone else says or does.

source: Buddho, by Ajahn Thate Desaransi

According to Ajahn Maha Bua, if one perseveres with their practice on one or another of these supports, the mind will become tranquil and find a conventional level of happiness "in this life and the next". Tambiah writes that sometimes an image or vision (Pali: nimitta) may appear. If this happens, then — according to Ajahn Maha Bua's instructions — one should put it aside, and when one has developed samadhi as a skill then they can follow the nimitta to investigate its nature.[19]

The happiness that Ajahn Maha Bua describes occurs in levels, beginning with calm for "only a few moments; after some practice the meditator can sustain this level of calm for a moderate duration; and finally, the meditator can master samadhi to enter into it for as long as one wants to rest, and to withdraw from it as one wishes.[20] Once the mind has reached this point of stillness one should continue to work to purify the mind, or else the mind will regress.[21] Ajahn Sao teaches that there will be an interval where the mind begins to stir out of samadhi, where an individual will be able to sense that the mind will take up an object. The individual should examine the moment that this stirring takes place.[22]

Common methods[edit]

The Buddho method[edit]

A method unique to Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao's lineage is the internal mantraization of the meditation word buddho. In this method, the meditator will take the word buddho as their support, and mentally recite the word during meditation (dedicated practitioners will keep internally repeating the word every waking moment of every day). Typically this means connecting the first syllable bud- with the in-breath and the last syllable -dho with the out breath. During walking meditation the meditator may connect the syllables with individual steps.[23]

Ajahn Thate asserts that the advantages of working in this way is that the meditator doesn't have to worry about thinking about the complex ideas associated with the jhana model for getting the mind into samadhi. Ajahn Thate writes:

To have the defilements gradually disappear with the method I've just explained is better than trying to arrange things, entering the four levels of absorption, abandoning directed thought, evaluation, rapture and pleasure, leaving just one-pointedness and equanimity; or trying to arrange the first stage of the path to nibbana by abandoning self-identity views, uncertainty, and attachment to precepts & practices; or by looking at your various defilements, telling yourself, "With that defilement, I was able to contemplate in such-and-such a way, so I've gone beyond that defilement. I have so-and-so many defilements left. If I can contemplate in such-and-such a way, my defilements will be finished" — but you don't realize that the state of mind that wants to see and know and attain these things is a defilement fixed firmly in the mind. When you finish your contemplation, the mind is back in its original state and hasn't gained anything at all. On top of that, if someone comes along and says something that goes against the way you see things, you start disagreeing violently, like a burning fire into which someone pours kerosene.[24]

The classical jhana model[edit]

Ajahn Lee, another first generation student of Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao, developed his own method of meditation based on the traditional jhanic model in the Pali Suttas for getting the mind into samadhi. In his meditation guide Keeping the Breath in Mind, he maps his method of spreading and adjusting breath energy throughout the entire body. Thanissaro asserts that in this method, Ajahn Lee effectively combined awareness of the breath with awareness of the body, and compares this to the Buddha's fusion of the two in the Anapanasati Sutta.[citation needed]

Ajahn Lee advocates the importance of this adjusting and spreading the breath, which he maps as the evaluation (Pali: vicara) component of jhana. Ajahn Lee warns against leaving evaluation out of one's meditation practice. Ajahn Lee writes:

There was once an old monk — 70 years old, 30 years in the monkhood — who had heard good things about how I teach meditation and so came to study with me. The first thing he asked was, "What method do you teach?"

"Breath meditation," I told him. "You know — bud-dho, bud-dho."

As soon as he heard that, he said, "I've been practicing that method ever since the time of Ajaan Mun — buddho, buddho ever since I was young — and I've never seen anything good come of it. All it does is buddho, buddho without ever getting anywhere at all. And now you're going to teach me to buddho some more. What for? You want me to buddho till I die?"

This is what happens when people have no sense of how to adjust and evaluate their breathing: They'll never find what they're looking for — which is why adjusting and spreading the breath is a very important part of doing breath meditation.[25]

According to Thanissaro, Ajahn Fuang — one of Ajahn Lee's senior students — would consistently tell his students that "the best state of concentration is one which encompasses a whole-body awareness". Ajahn Fuang would warn against times when a meditators awareness would drift away from the breath and to a feeling of pleasure itself, which he dismissed as a wrong form of concentration that he called delusion concentration.[4]

Other practices[edit]

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.[2]

Morning Alms Round

At Thai monasteries the monks will go for alms early in the morning, sometimes around 6:00 AM,[3] although monasteries such as Wat Pah Nanachat and Wat Mettavanaram start around 8:00 AM and 8:30 AM, respectively.[4][5] At Dhammayut monasteries (and some Mahanikai forest monasteries, including Wat Pah Nanachat),[6] 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.[26]

Anumodana

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

1. (LEADER):

2. (ALL):

3.

Dhutanga[edit]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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).[10]

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.[11]

Customs[edit]

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.[12]

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."[13] 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.[14] When making offerings to the monks, it is best not to stand while offering something to a monk who is sitting down.[15]

Notes[edit]

^ 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

References[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

A - C

D - I

K - P

Q - S

T

Z

  • 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]

Monasteries

About the Tradition

Dhamma Resources