Relevance of the Forest Tradition

This week we have two of the longest serving ‘Forest Tradition’ teachers and inspirations giving a talk in Bangkok. One might wonder what exactly is the forest tradition?

The ‘Forest Tradition’ does not just mean rural temples, or those in a forest. Some 50+ years ago there was a lineage that looked to Luang Phor Man for inspiration. He travelled around staying in jungles and practising/teaching meditation (Tudong). He became a renowned master, and many of his disciples set up meditation temples around Thailand. One of these was Luang Phor Chah, who though he only spent a few days with Ajahn Man, very much followed the style.

These temples tended to focus not on study (many openly eschew study), but on mindfulness in temple life, and meditation. You will not find scholar monks, or Pali experts. Often the monks are not very familiar with the traditional ceremonies and other temple roles. And they will also place less emphasis on formal practise than many lay-inspired centres (e.g. Goenka style). Thus visitors are often left much to their own devices,  and find themselves participating more in daily temple living than formal meditation.

These forest temples distinguished themselves from ‘urban’ or ‘town’ temples with their emphasis on keeping the vinaya (monks rules) strictly, and trying to put the teachings to practise in very simple settings much as monks did in the time of the Buddha. They would look down to some extent on the ‘decadent’ urban temples, with their ceremonies, lax vinaya, and emphasis on study rather than meditation.

Of course, the reality is not so clear cut. First, most forest temples are pretty decadent too. It is only a small percentage of rural temples that really are characterised by the ‘Forest Lineage’ style. In fact, if you go to most remote temples they will be populated by a few tattooed, betel nut chewing old monks who do very little of anything, especially ardent meditation or study.

Similarly you can go to many urban temples where the vinaya is followed well, and there is a lot of meditation and study going on.

Generally, the Thai Sangha feels that study is important. They feel the monks should be educated to a similar secular level of the regular people, which these days means a degree. There is also a feeling that temples should serve the people more, which is why there are often the ceremonies, car blessings, and organised meditation retreats for the lay people over national holidays. Many Westerner monks these days feel quite at home in urban temples these days, as a room with a kettle, lights and working screens (not to mention a computer and air-con!) is more conducive to the study and practise of Dhamma and meditation.

So which style is ‘best’ ?

The style that suits. It is up to the individual to find a niche and contribute/pracitse in their own way. Some monks are more involved in the education side, some in meditation. Some are good organisers and others good builders. Variety is the spice of dhamma aswell as life. The only trouble is, with the forests all but gone, those old simple temples of the forest lineage are likely to be well within ear shot of the big roads that now carve the rural landscape, and worse, within earshot of the ubiquitous Karaoke bars and village loudspeakers. There might not be as much choice of temple style as there once was.

3 replies on “Relevance of the Forest Tradition”

  1. What’s interesting about the Thai Forest Tradition is how much it has lost. The stand-out practice of Ajahn Man according to his biography and Ajahn Boowa’s Patipada was the utilization of fear. You spent long periods alone in the most dangerous places in the mountains, in caves frequented by tigers and evil spirits, and you tamed your citta through fear.

    Even tudong is a walk in the park these days, the tigers are almost all gone, and I suspect the devas and yakkhas too.

    Tudong and living close to death were the hallmarks of the Ajahn Man’s Forest Tradition until around the 60s (before foreigners came on the scene), but you don’t hear about it much now and Ajahn Chah replaced the suffering of jungle tudong and sleeping in charnel grounds with the suffering of “long and seemingly boring work projects.”

    Ah, well, nothing lasts forever…

  2. I asked Ajahn Pasanno about this last night – was the hardship of the 70’s Isarn area a benefit to the practise? One suspects that it probably was, but still not many (least of all the monks) would want to creat it artificially.

    1. In one of the books on Ajahn Chah (possibly “Venerable Father”) it’s mentioned that as soon as Ajahn Sumedho was made abbot of Wat Pa Nanachat he changed the regime to more meditation and less work projects because he felt it was more appropriate for Westerners (whatever that means). 🙂

      But Ajahn Man and his students back in the 20s and 30s come across as tough as nails and ready – as they often said – “to die for the Dhamma.” I wonder how important that attitude is in attaining arahantship? The risks of the jungle must have been very similar in the time of the Buddha.

      The same kind of dicing with death is present in Lama Govinda’s description of practising in Tibet in the 1930s (“Way of the White Clouds”) – one wrong turn in the mountains and you could freeze to death in an hour.

      BTW, good talk last night. Ajahn Amaro’s MP3 talk on anatta is one of the best explanations out there.

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