The Thai Forest Tradition is a loosely organized movement within Thai Theravadin Buddhism, emphasizing meditation and strict adherance to the vinaya over intellectual pursuits. As the name suggests, it originated in Thailand, primarily among the Lao-speaking community in Northern Thailand. Perhaps its most widely known adherent was Ajahn Chah. Outside of Thailand it exists most prominently in the United States (Thanissaro Bhikkhu and also the community of Abhayagiri) and the United Kingdom (Amaravati Monastery and Cittaviveka). Ajahn Chah’s teacher was the widely venerated Ajahn Mun Bhuridatto, whose teacher was the famous Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera.
In Asia, Buddhism plays a central role in social life. Monasteries are often seen in cities, and such urban locations serve as the centers of scholastic learning. Monks often receive their education in monasteries and earn the rough equivalent of “graduate degrees” in the studies of Buddhism. This highly intellectual approach is characteristic of the larger urban monasteries generally. Yet it was reaction against this backdrop which led to the simpler life associated with the Forest tradition, which again as the name suggests includes monasteries situated far away from urban areas, usually in the wilderness or very rural areas of Thailand.
Because of this abstract tendency in urban monastic life, some monks believed the original ideals of the Sangha had been compromised. The Forest Tradition is, then, primarily an attempt to reach back 25 centuries to the time of the Buddha himself to reclaim the old standards of discipline, an attempt to stave off perceived corruption of the monastic life. Exactly when the movement began is not clear, but it is believed to have existed for quite some time, undergoing a revival led by Ajahns Mun Bhuridatta and Sao Kantasilo Mahathera.
Followers of the Forest tradition believe that their lifestyle most closely resembles what it would have been like to live in India during the time of the Buddha as a monk in his Sangha. Because of this reaching backward in time, the Forest tradition is widely perceived as “ultra-orthodox”, “conservative”, and “ascetic”, all of which is added onto the fact that Theravada is generally and on the whole perceived as an orthodox and conservative branch of Buddhism. Yet the tradition has garnered a great deal of respect and admiration from Thai culture.
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 by the Thai word “Tahn” (Venerable). All monks, on the other hand, can be addressed with the general term “Bhante”. For monks 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”.
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 code of behavior is enforced will vary greatly, with some communities being more lax about such codes than others. The one element which the communities are not lax about is the Vinaya, which is very strictly maintained according to the Pali Rescension version, the standard of Theravada.
Because the Forest tradition in part is a reaction against a highly intellectual approach to Buddhism, the Dhamma is studied in a much simpler fashion. Members of the tradition, like those found in Zen, are widely known for their suspicion of any attempt to convey the Dhamma in an overly intellectual fashion. The Forest tradition, again like Zen, favors a more direct approach to understanding the Dhamma in everyday life. Yet it places a great deal of value on meditation, and followers of the tradition are also generally perceived to be excellent meditators.
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. Again, this is in part a reaction against the huge urban monastic communities which were primarily concerned with scholarly study and scriptual translation, which thus effectively shut their communities off from the surrounding environment.
- Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera
- Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta Thera
- Ajahn Li Thammatharo
- Ajahn Chah
- Ajahn Sumedho
- Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu
- Ajahn Pasanno
- A taste of Freedom, Ajahn Chah, Bung Wai Forest Monastery, 1991
- A Still Forest Pool, Jack Kornfield, Theosophical Publishing House, London, 1986
- Tiyavanich, Kamala. Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in 20th Century Thailand. University of Hawaii Press, 1997. ISBN 0824817818.