Thai Forest Tradition

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Thai Forest Tradition (Dhutanga Kammaṭṭhāna)
Novices on thudong.jpg
Formation c. 1900 ; Isan, Thailand
Founders Mun Bhuridatta
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 Pali kammaṭṭhāna [kəmːəʈːʰaːnə], meaning either "meditation" or "meditation subject", literally "station of exercise",[1] 'basic occupation',[2] or 'place of work', see kammaṭṭhāna), commonly known in the West as the Thai Forest Tradition, is a lineage of Theravada Buddhist monasticism[3] that claims to be a revival of early Buddhist practice.[4][page needed] The tradition follows a nikāya-based doctrine, central to which is the importance of samadhi as a requisite for paññā (wisdom), and the tradition distinguishes itself with the teaching of awakening as an awareness of the deathless dimension of the mind following release from saṃsāra rather than an annihilation of awareness.[5] Kammaṭṭhāna teachers describe this pure awareness as one transcending both the five aggregates and mere mental stillness, which can be distilled only through intense mental exertion to "cut" or "clear the path" through the tangle of kilesas (mental defilements) that bind an ordinary persons mind to this process.[6] The tradition gives a strong weight to scrupulous sīla (ethical observances),[7] and has a reputation for strict adherence to the Vinaya (monastic code).[5]

The Kammaṭṭhāna tradition began circa 1900[8] as a grassroots movement led by Mun Bhuridatta and Sao Kantasīlo.[9] Disillusioned with Thaification being imposed on the Thai clergy by state religious authorities under King Chulalongkorn, Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao both took to the rural frontier of Isan. 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.[10] According to social anthropologist Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, there was a consensus among Thai Buddhists of Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao's noble attainment; and since the tradition began, two generations of Kammaṭṭhāna practitioners who've followed their path of practice have subsequently been acclaimed as arahants — receiving a nationwide respect that traverses geographical and social boundaries, including ecclesiastical decoration from the Chakri Dynasty, the Thai royal family.[11][12]

In the second half of the 20th century the Kammaṭṭhāna tradition attracted Western students and took root in the West.[13] In spite of deforestation in Thailand, the Kammaṭṭhāna tradition continues on the outskirts of cities.[14]

Thai Forest Tradition (Dhutanga Kammaṭṭhāna)
Kammatthana Yantra.png





The Thammayut Reform Movement[edit]

Prince Mongkut — 20 years old at the time — ordained as a bhikkhu or monk (ordination name Vajirañāṇo, pronounced in Thai Wachirayan), following a longstanding Thai custom that young men should become monks for a time. The year of his ordination, his father, Rama II of Siam, passed away. Although Mongkut had hereditary rights to the throne, the peers in his dynasty instead supported his influential half brother — Prince Jessadabodindra (later, Nangklao, Rama III) — in spite of his illegitimacy.[15]

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

Giving up aspirations to the throne, Mongkut devoted his life to religion. In his travels around Siam as a monk, he became dissatisfied upon seeing low caliber of monastic practice around him. Mongkut saw discrepancies between the conduct of the monks and the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code.[citation needed]

Mongkut also disapproved of certain quasi-tantric and animistic practices known as khatha akhom or wicha akhom, meaning "incantation knowledge" or "magical knowledge",[16] taught by these monks.[17] "Magical knowledge was highly valued in environments where spirit worship was prominent."[16]

Because these practices were heavily influenced by Thai folk beliefs, they were seen by Mongkut as an adulteration of canonical Buddhist doctrine.[18] For these reasons, Mongkut was concerned about the validity of the ordination lines as well as the capacity of the Thai sangha to act as the field by which merit is made.[19]

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.[20] In particular, he met a monk named Buddhawangso, a monk who he admired for his discpline and praxis with respect to the Pāli Canon. After reordaining with this group in 1833, he began the Dhammayuttika Nikaya (in accordance with the Dhamma, Thai Thammayut).[15]

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. Thammayut 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.[citation needed]

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.[21][22]

In the following years Mongkut was visited 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. 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."[15]

Establishment of the Thammayut Order[edit]

While abbot of Wat Bowonniwet Mongkut had other monks who were close to him reordain among this lineage of Mon bhikkhus. Among these monks were Vajirañāṇavarorasa, Mongkut's son; and Somdet Phra Wannarat "Thap", a grade Nine Pali scholar.[23]

According to Vajirañāṇa's autobiography, dissention in the movement caused the Thammayut movement to split into four competing factions, 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 became so estranged from each other that each of the branches developed their own styles for chanting, interpretations and translations of Pali texts, and differed on issues related to the monastic code.[24]

It wasn't until Vajirañāṇa took control of a new phase of sangha reforms in 1892 that the administrative Thammayut hierarchy would begin to form a cohesive vision. While he was not the official sangharaja, the holder was a figurehead.[25] During this period, power was consolidated in Bangkok and an emphasis on institutionalized modern education escalated. This reached a culmination when the Ecclesiastical Polity Act of 1902 was passed, officially recognizing the Thammayut movement as a monastic order. Freedom of monks to exercise the dhutanga practices and wander the Thai wilderness was restricted, and Mongkut's Vinaya reforms were replaced with a watered down state recognized code — a compromise between the Pali Vinaya and the lax discipline of the regional traditions, which were now united as the Maha Nikaya (Thai: Mahanikai).[citation needed]

According to Thanissaro, this second wave of reforms that centralized the Thammayut ecclesia rectified the Thammayut order into two distinct groups: The central Thammayut administration led by Prince Vajirañāṇa's reforms under Rama V, and Ajahn Sao and Ajahn Mun's Kammaṭṭhāna lineage.[citation needed]

Beginning of the Kammaṭṭhāna Lineage[edit]

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 Sao Kantasīlo in a small monastery just outside of the town.

Postcards of thudong bhikkhus in the early 20th century

Sao trained Mun in monastic discipline and the meditation practices from the Thammayut's Pali translations. According to the Forest Tradition, Sao wasn't sure that these practices would lead to arahantship, but he was convinced that they "headed in the right direction".[27] Sao wandered as a thudong (dhutanga-practicing bhikkhu) with Mun for several years before stating Mun should go out on his own. Mun left on his own in search of any teacher who may have found the noble attainments, travelling to Laos, Burma and Central Thailand.[28] Ajahn Mun would later talk about the lack of interest among Thais in the dhutanga lifestyle. Tambiah writes:

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.[29]

Thai Forest Ajahns Seated.jpg

The Forest tradition maintains that Ajahn Mun attained anāgāmi (non-returner) status in 1915.[30] The next year, he came back to Isan to instruct his old teacher, Sao; and in the years following, he attracted a following of monks desiring a more disciplined approach to Buddhist practice.[31]

At this time, a new state religion was in development that was a compromise between traditional practices and Thammayut standards. The Thammayut monks, being the best educated, were drafted to teach a new Bangkok curriculum based on "Victorian notions of reason and utility" in outlying areas.[32]

Respect Among the Mainstream[edit]

Tension between the forest tradition and the Thammayut 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. Thanissaro mentions that 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 to teach.[33]

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.[34]

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, and Tisso Uan grew to become an accomplished meditator. 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: "The monks and novices — 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."[35] Thanissaro claims it was this relationship between Tisso Uan and Ajahn Lee and the subsequent invitation that would bring the teachings of the forest tradition into mainstream society.[36]

All sources agree that from this point the Forest tradition would have respect among the Thammayut ecclesia,[citation needed] however the dynamics and causes of tensions between the Thammayut and forest monks — and the eventual reconciliation — are not agreed on among scholars. Kamala Tiyavanich cites cynical motives for the Thammayut's acceptance of Kammaṭṭhāna practice, saying that the Thammayut was experiencing tensions with Maha Nikaya monks, and that the Thammayut began to associate themselves with forest monks because of an incline in the forest monks popularity.[37] however Thanissaro criticizes this thesis, saying it "simply does not accord with the facts".[38] According to Thanissaro's thesis, the Thammayut support was based on respect for the Forest Tradition's ideals and their role in converting a significant number of communists in Isan.[39]

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[40]

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.

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, founded in Thailand for the training of western bhikkhus in 1975.

Another monastery is Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery, about 13 miles (21 km) north of Ukiah, California, 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, California, before he died in 1995. Currently, the monastery rests on 280 acres (1.1 km2) of mountainous forest land.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, also known as Ajaan Geoff, (born 1949) is an American Theravada bhikkhu of the Dhammayuttika Nikaya in the Kammaṭṭhāna tradition. He is currently the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, California. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu is a prolific translator of the Pāli Canon and the author of many free Dhamma books.[41]


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:


Recitation of the mantra "buddho"[edit]

The recitation of "buddho" is sometimes used as a secondary aid when one is practicing kāyagatāsati or anapanasati meditation.[42]

Ajahn Phut Thaniyo notes how Ajahn Sao would give the meditation word "buddho" with very limited preliminary instructions:

If the person asked, "What does 'Buddho' mean?" Ajaan Sao would answer, "Don't ask."

"What will happen after I've meditated on 'Buddho'?"

"Don't ask. Your only duty is simply to repeat the word 'Buddho' over and over in your mind."

That's how he taught: no long, drawn-out explanations.[43]

Using "buddho" as a meditation object, once the mind gets settled into samadhi the meditator is instructed to drop "buddho" to pursue deeper jhana.[44]

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]

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).

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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  33. ^ . Page 1
  34. ^ . Page 60.
  35. ^ . Page 60.
  36. ^ . Page 1
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  38. ^ . Page 4
  39. ^ . Page 1
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  41. ^ Orloff 2004.
  43. ^ "Ajaan Sao's Teaching: A Reminiscence of Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo", transcribed from a talk by Phra Ajaan Phut Thaniyo, translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013, .


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