Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand
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During the first half of this century the forests of Thailand were home to wandering ascetic monks. They were Buddhists, but their brand of Buddhism did not copy the practices described in ancient doctrinal texts. Their Buddhism found expression in living day-to-day in the forest and in contending with the mental and physical challenges of hunger, pain, fear, and desire. Combining interviews and biographies with an exhaustive knowledge of archival materials and a wide reading of ephemeral popular literature, Kamala Tiyavanich documents the monastic lives of three generations of forest-dwelling ascetics and challenges the stereotype of state-centric Thai Buddhism. Although the tradition of wandering forest ascetics has disappeared, a victim of Thailand's relentless modernization and rampant deforestation, the lives of the monks presented here are a testament to the rich diversity of regional Buddhist traditions. The study of these monastic lineages and practices enriches our understanding of Buddhism in Thailand and elsewhere.
the burden of work should fall on the lay community. In the countryside, however, monks often were expected to work the land because villagers feared the spirits believed to inhabit the fields. Villagers considered it auspicious to begin the new agricultural cycle by having the monks plow the paddies. Plowing was an acceptable activity for monks because it was done not for personal gain but to benefit the whole community. Villagers respected monks who performed this task. One such village (today
fell ill and Cha went back home to look after him. He ended up losing both an opportunity to take the exam (given only once a year) and his father. Cha eventually passed the highest level of naktham in 1945, after six years of study. J u a n K u l a c h e t t ho ( 1 9 2 0 – 1 9 8 0 ) Juan was born in Lao Mankaew Village in Modyang Forest Commune (today within Amnat Charoen District, Ubon Province). He was the next youngest of seven children (six boys and a girl). His parents’ ancestors were Lao
herself. Observing her behavior, I became convinced that her presence would be harmful to my purity. An hour or so later, she quietly walked away. What a relief! I did not have to face her in such a risky situation. I thought about my teachers with gratitude for their teachings. My faith in the meditation practice must have saved me” (W, 63). Here, visual contact with an attractive woman had only a minor impact. Wan remained mindful, so sensual desire could not move him. Although he entered
customs as well as the language barrier. Referring to Shan Buddhists, for example, he comments, “Although we were all supposed to be Buddhists, the customs were sometimes very different from what we were familiar with and sometimes they didn’t seem even in line with the Dhamma-Vinaya that the Lord Buddha had set down. It was very trying and bothersome for us as we were their visitors and guests.”18 But for Kongma and Wiriyang, differences in custom and language proved only minor inconveniences.
wives. To all these questions Ajan Man replied yes. He then showed them how to look for buddho— that is, how to concentrate their minds: “If you really want to find buddho, you must sit or walk repeating to yourselves buddho, buddho, buddho. During this time you must not think of anything else. Let your thought dwell in buddho inside you. If you can do this, then you might be able to find buddho.” “But how long shall we sit or walk to find buddho?” “At the outset, fifteen to twenty minutes is