A newly published book, Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-century Thailand, reveals a face of Theravada Buddhism that is unfamiliar to most people. Author Kamala Tiyavanich has uncovered evidence of a vital and colorful Buddhist world that existed before today’s Thailand, Laos and Burma were consolidated into nation-states in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A scholar and practicing Buddhist, Ms. Tiyavanich traveled to remote areas in the region that is now part of Thailand to collect accounts of the Buddhism that thrived there before modernization. She says, “If one could have studied in Southeast Asia one hundred years ago, the richness offered by our elders would have seemed similar to Tibetan Buddhism.” In particular, Western students of vipassana meditation may be surprised and delighted to hear of the diverse practices and earthy wisdom that flourished in the homelands of their tradition until very recent times. The following is a conversation among author Kamala Tiyavanich, Ajahn Amaro, Abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California, and author and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield, addressing some of the issues raised in the book.
Jack Kornfield: People who have studied vipassana in America think of Theravada Buddhism as austere and silent, even dry sometimes. Yet as your research shows, Kamala, silent meditation is only a small part of the tradition. Much of Thai and Burmese Buddhist culture, at least historically, has been communal, devotional and even celebratory.
Kamala Tiyavanich: There are many misconceptions about Theravada Buddhism. Throughout Southeast Asia there were scholarly, meditative and socially-engaged traditions; lay ascetics, monastics and laypeople; town, village and forest monks. Though some wats (temples) may have been known for scholarship or meditation or the creation of palm-leaf manuscripts, virtually all abbots and ajahns were involved with their local communities as teachers, healers, psychologists, astrologers, artists and givers of practical advice.
Ajahn Amaro: When I first went to Thailand, it struck me as strange that there was this division between the academic monks and the meditation monks. I thought, what is the point of being a monk if you’re not going to meditate and guide your life toward liberation? Everything the Buddha said seemed to be pointing to that.
So I was very happy to read in your book that meditation practice was very widespread in Thailand before the modern era and the standardization of Thai Buddhism. You say that one of the motives behind the reforms by King Mongkut was to prove the rationality of Buddhism to the Christian missionaries. The emphasis was on making Buddhism nonmystical and presentable to European academics. How many of the regional traditions survived those reforms?
KT: In the early decades of this century, a wide range of regional traditions continued to exist side by side with the form of Buddhism favored by those in Bangkok. It took time for the centralizing Sangha Act of 1902 to have an impact on monks and villagers living in remote areas. Gradually, regional lineages were assimilated into Thai state Buddhism. Nonconformist monks and other religious figures were arrested; those that could not adapt or adjust died out. The dharma did not die out, but the vehicles that were used to teach dharma did. The essence of the teaching is always the same, it’s only the vehicles that change. The use of folktales, theater and debate to teach dharma has almost entirely disappeared.
AA: With the consolidation of Buddhist authority in Bangkok, it appears that meditation practice for lay people was de-emphasized. The lay people used to go to the temples on full moon and quarter moon days, take precepts and practice meditation. But the nation-state Buddhism became centered around the needs of the monks in the monastery. As you say in your book, the value of the laity became based on wealth and one’s ability to donate material goods to the monastery in order to “make merit.” It reminds me of the indulgences that were sold by priests in the Catholic Church in medieval Europe.
JK: The emphasis on monetary donations as a main source of merit has changed the face of Buddhism in Thailand, especially for lay people.
KT: Also, the monks used to offer dharma to lay people in so many inventive ways. In the past, many local ajahns even used “magic” as a vehicle to teach dharma. If a villager had to travel through a forest, the abbot might give him an amulet to protect him from evil spirits. Then the ajahn would remind the villager that the amulet wouldn’t work if he drank alcohol and wouldn’t protect him if he verbally abused people. So the ajahn taught the precepts through the protective amulet.
JK: I was delighted to read about Thai (Lao) forest masters going from village to village and subduing the local ghosts and demons and teaching them the dharma. That’s exactly what the great yogi Milarepa did in Tibet. I love the story about Ajahn Fan, who went and stayed overnight in the spirit shrine, and the villagers wanted to kill him because they thought he was going to bother the spirits. Then he showed them that he had cleaned the shrine and that he cared for the spirits enough to teach them the dharma. Or the story about Ajahn Wiriyang, who went into some villages where he was told about vampire spirits and forest ghosts causing deaths in the region. So Ajahn Wiriyang meditated in the forest, and all the people in the village had the same dream in which hundreds of ghosts were fleeing because they couldn’t fight Ajahn Wiriyang and the dharma.
KT: The guardian spirits used to live in the big trees, and in the old days nobody dared cut them down. In the northeast region, each village used to erect an ancestor shrine at the edge of the forest. Now the forests have been cut down. People who still believe in guardian spirits think the reason the weather is so dry and the soil is so hard is that the spirits are gone or are unhappy. They are unhappy because their habitat is gone, the trees are gone.
AA: In Udon province, they realized the only way they can preserve the forest is to give it to Ajahn Mahabua. Apparently he has made large tracts of forest part of branch monasteries so that the land can be preserved. Many of Ajahn Chah’s branch monasteries are also functioning as forest preserves. Even so, the trees are poached, but much less than at places looked after by the government forestry department, which is more keen on cutting down trees than anybody else.
JK: You have wonderful tiger tales in your book, Kamala. One ajahn was leading his monks in chanting and became so annoyed by the tigers growling that he yelled, “You tigers, stop being so loud. The monks are trying to practice the dharma!” Many teachers said it was important to enter the wilderness, to learn from the cycles of life in the forest, and to discover one’s place in the natural world.
KT: We may think the socially engaged monk is a phenomenon of the twentieth century. But village abbots and local ajahns have always been socially engaged, except that such a concept didn’t exist for them. Environmental and community involvement was just their way of life.
JK: You talk about the fact that in the old times, local ajahns were also great healers. I remember that Ajahn Chah had this whole bag of roots and herbs, corals and stones, and he would make herbal medicines for the monks.
KT: Prior to the centralization of the sangha and the introduction of secular education, the local temple was a repository of all kinds of knowledge. Monks were teachers in various subjects. When two Siamese monks ran into each other, they would ask which temple the other came from because your temple formed your character as well as provided whatever special knowledge you might possess. One temple produced great storytellers; another demonstrated great skill in martial arts; another was known for its sculpture, paintings or astrological knowledge; yet another was known for herbal medicines. I survived many childhood fevers by drinking herbal medicines given to me by a local village ajahn.
AA: I haven’t lived in Thailand for some time, but I go back to visit occasionally, and certainly the mindset of the people in the village has changed radically. The young want to move to a big city. Some Buddhist teachers are trying to set up programs that will encourage the young people to stay in the village and learn the local arts and crafts. In fact, it’s rather ironic that Western monks are leading this movement.
KT: The kind of apprenticeship monks used to undergo, which included long stretches of living and working side by side with their local ajahn, is no longer appreciated. Young monks now want to go to a temple that offers modern monastic education in a classroom setting.
AA: The dharma teaching of the forest ajahns is full of humor and word plays and is incredibly lively. A great dharma talk is one in which you’ve got the whole assembly laughing and everyone is focused on the teaching. The forest ajahn’s dharma talks are full of local folklore and point to village life. Ajahn Chah’s talks were filled with analogies and similes having to do with rice farming, looking after water buffaloes, and making fish traps.
KT: People in Thailand today think of listening to sermons as making merit. They regard going to hear dharma talks as a chance to get a break from their work and maybe catch a nap. In the past the dharma talk was both education and entertainment. Villagers looked forward to listening to sermons, and that’s how the dharma was offered to them.
JK: In your book, Kamala, you reveal a well-established tradition of lay Buddhist teachers in Southeast Asia, both men and women. I find that especially significant since, in the West today, the dharma of the Path of the Elders is being taught primarily by lay teachers. What is most unique to the West, perhaps, is the fact that Buddhism is in the hands of the community rather than the state. In that regard, what advice would you give to our teachers and community in the West at this time?
KT: The advice I would give to lay teachers, based on my study of the history of Thai Buddhism, is to show more interest in what local ajahns historically have done in their communities. The majority of Western Buddhists did not grow up in a Buddhist society, so they tend to dismiss traditional expressions of dharma. Many claim, “We want dharma; we don’t want Asian culture.” But they have yet to come up with a Western Buddhist culture of their own. Consequently, many are lost, disoriented. It will be helpful if Western teachers explore the relationship between the dharma and culture.
Historically, Theravada traditions rooted in the local community were rich in human connections. We can at least get examples of what has worked in the past. Whatever the local ajahns called them—aspects of life that today we call environmental, political, economic, sexual, family-related, psychological, moral, and spiritual—they developed practices that helped guide people to live with consideration and generosity, to extend themselves to those beyond their immediate families, including strangers. Americans interested in Theravada Buddhism are very far from this. Most of them live a disembodied Buddhism. It is not rooted in places, in the community, in the culture or in ancestors. All these things that for millennia have given people meaning have been lost. Meditation by itself is not Buddhism.
The important thing is that if there is ever going to be an American Theravada Buddhism it has to begin to address cultural issues. Otherwise, what good is it for children of Buddhists or the next generation of Buddhists? What are we going to pass on? Buddhist parents won’t be able to help their children until their kids are old enough to meditate. Jack, why don’t you write a Buddhist version of Dr. Spock—bringing up children Buddhist style? In the traditional community the local ajahn was Dr. Spock! Sometimes I think that Americans do not know what culture is anymore. Human ties are brushed aside so quickly.
In the West, Buddhism is still in the hands of the community rather than the state. It is advisable to keep it that way. But we should not allow Buddhism to ossify into a single Theravada tradition, especially if it is one that follows the narrow confines of the bureaucratic state Buddhism currently practiced in Thailand. There is no one right way to be a Buddhist. If people could understand the many-sided tradition of Theravada Buddhism, their sense of the possibilities of what it means to be a Buddhist would be greatly expanded. They then might be inspired to create new forms of spiritual communities.