Thai Forest Tradition

Thai Forest Tradition

The Thai Forest Tradition is a tradition of Buddhist monasticism within Thai Theravada Buddhism, which uses remote wilderness and forest dwellings as the training ground for their spiritual practice. Maha Nikaya and Dhammayuttika Nikaya are the two major monastic orders in Thailand which have their own Forest Tradition. It emphasizes direct experience through the practice of meditation and strict adherence to the monastic rules ("vinaya") over scholastic study of the Pali Tipitaka. It originated in Thailand, primarily among the Lao-speaking community in Northeastern Thailand. The adherents of this tradition model their practice and lifestyle on that of the Buddha and the early generations of his disciples. The monks are often known as forest monks because they keep alive the practise of the historical Buddha who according to the records of the Pali canon spent long hours dwelling in forests as part of his spiritual endeavours. Forest monks are considered to be specialists in meditation. The forest tradition is usually associated with the attainment of certain supernatural powers ("abhiñña"). The Forest tradition is widely known among Thai for their orthodoxy, conservatism, and asceticism, because of that it has garnered a great deal of respect and admiration from the Thai people.

Outside of Thailand the Thai Forest Tradition exists in the United States (Thanissaro Bhikkhu and also the community of Abhayagiri), Australia (Ajahn Brahm, Bodhinyana Monastery, Bodhivana Monastery), New Zealand, Switzerland, United Kingdom (The Forest Hermitage, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, Harnham Buddhist Monastery and Chithurst Buddhist Monastery), Germany (Muttodaya Monastery) and Italy with the monastery of Santacittarama. Perhaps its most widely known representative was Ajahn Chah.


The Buddhist forest tradition draws its inspiration from the teachings contained in the Pali Canon, where the Buddha is frequently seen to dwell in the forest [In this sutta, the Buddha dwell in the forest: MN 105, MN 122, AN 3.34, AN 5.30, AN 5.34, AN 5.121, AN 5.180, AN 6.42, AN 8.53, AN 8.86, SN 7.18, SN 36.7, SN 36.8, SN 55.30, SN 56.31, SN 56.45, This list is not exhaustive as there are many more related sutta.] . In the Pali Canon discourses, the Buddha frequently instructs his disciples to seeks out a secluded dwelling (in a forest, under the shade of a tree, mountain, glen, hillside cave, charnel ground, jungle grove, in the open, or on a heap of straw) [In this sutta, the Buddha intructs the monk to stay in the forest in order to aid their meditation practice DN 2,DN 11,DN 12,DN 16, MN 4,MN 10, MN 27,MN 39,MN 60,MN 66,MN 101, MN 105, MN 107, MN 125, AN 4.259, AN 5.75, AN 5.76, AN 5.114, AN 10.60, Sn 1.12, Sn 3.11, SN 11.3, SN 22.80, This list is not exhaustive as there are many more related sutta.] . The Buddha himself achieved Awakening in a forest, under the foot of a Bodhi tree. In the "Bhaya-bherava Sutta", the Buddha explained that the mental challenge he faced during his stay in the forest has aided his quest for AwakeningCite web|url=|title=Bhaya-bherava Sutta|accessdate=2008-10-03|publisher=Access to Insight] . There are many suttas in the Pali Canon, where the Buddha instructs the monk to practice in remote wilderness, here is some sample:

In the "Andhakavinda Sutta": [Cite web|url= |title=Andhakavinda Sutta|accessdate=2008-09-29|publisher=Access to Insight] :'Come, friends, dwell in the wilderness. Resort to remote wilderness & forest dwellings.' Thus they should be encouraged, exhorted, & established in physical seclusion.

In the "Dantabhumi Sutta": [Cite web|url=|title= Dantabhumi Sutta|accessdate=2008-09-29|publisher=Access to Insight] :Come you, monk, choose a remote lodging in a forest, at the root of a tree, on a mountain slope, in a wilderness, in a hill-cave, a cemetery, a forest haunt, in the open or on a heap of straw.

In the early 1900s, the forest tradition was revive in Thailand, the revival movement is led by Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera and his student, Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta. Theravada Buddhists regard the forest as part and parcel of the monastic training ground, as such this training method need to be revive and maintain for the benefit of one-self and future generationsCite web|url=|title=Jinna Sutta|accessdate=2008-10-03|publisher=Access to Insight] . Myanmar and Sri Lanka have had their own forest tradition.

In Thailand, Buddhism plays a central role in social life. In the early 1900s, the urban monasteries often served as centers of scholastic learning. Monks usually receive their education in monasteries and earn the rough equivalent of "graduate degrees" in the studies of Pali language and Tipitaka scriptures, without necessarily engaging in the meditative practices described in the scriptures. During that period, it was also generally believed that it is no longer possible to achieve awakening. Because of the tendency in urban monastic life towards scholarship, debate, greater social activity and so on, some monks believed the original ideals of the monastic life ("sangha") had been compromised. It was in part a reaction against this perceived dilution in Buddhism which led Ajahn Sao and Ajahn Mun to the simpler life associated with the forest tradition and the practice of meditation. Forest monasteries are situated far away from urban areas, usually in the wilderness or very rural areas of Thailand. One finds such monastic settings in other Buddhist countries as well such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Myanmar. The revival of the Forest Tradition is, then, an attempt to reach back to past centuries before modernization to reclaim the old standards of discipline, an attempt to stave off increasing laxness in contemporary monastic life.

It was later spread globally by Ajahn Mun's student, Ajahn Chah and several western disciples among whom the most senior is Luang Por Ajahn Sumedho.


"The household life is close and dusty, the homeless life is free as air. It is not easy, living the household life, to live the fully-perfected holy life, purified and polished like a conch shell. What if I, having shaved off my hair & beard and putting on the ochre robe, were to go forth from the home life into homelessness?"'

The Tradition in the West

The Thai Forest Tradition is one of the major monastic orders of Theravada Buddhism in the West. The western order (if one can speak of such a distinction) was founded by an American monk, Sumedho Bhikkhu (Robert Jackman), at the request of his teacher Ajahn Chah. The first monastery (Wat Pah Nanachat;'International Forest Monastery') was founded in Thailand for the training of western Bhikkhus in 1975. In 1976, Sumedho Bhikkhu 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 1970's, the Trust possessed a property in Hampstead that was yet deemed insufficiently suitable for what was desired. During a brief stay in London in 1978, Sumedho Bhikkhu, 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. Chithust 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 Centre (now the main headquarters of the U.K. monasteries) was established in 1984 and formally opened in 1985.

Since then, branches of the Thai Forest Tradition have been established in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany and Italy.



Meditation is a central component in the Thai forest tradition. Methods of meditation are numerous and diverse. The meditation method frequently used by Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera and his student, Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta is the walking meditation and sitting meditation. Outside the sitting meditation session, the practitioner must be aware and mindful of their body and mind movements in all positions: standing, walking, sitting and lying. During sitting meditation, the mind is calmed with traditional practices such as mindfulness with breathing ("Anapanasati"), the mental intoning of the mantra "Buddho" is used in order to stay with the breath (in-breath is "Bud", out-breath is "dho") or the contemplation of the 32 body parts. The meditator will goes through three levels of samadhi (concentration). In "khanika-samadhi" the mind is only calmed for a short time. In "upacara-samadhi", approach concentration lasts longer. And in "appana-samadhi", jhana is attained. When sufficient concentration has been established, the three characteristics (impermanence, suffering and non-self) are contemplated, insight arise and ignorance is extinguished. No distinguish is made between samatha meditation or insight ("vipassana") meditation, the two are used in conjunction.

Luangpor Teean Jittasubho was a forest monk and a contemporary meditation master. He developed a meditation technique called Mahasati Meditation. This method is a short cut to cultivate awareness. The practitioner pays attention to his or her body movements in all positions: standing, walking, sitting and lying. If the practitioner is aware of him or herself, then "moha" (delusion) will disappear. Mahasati Meditation does not call for reciting "in" or "out". There is no need to know that it's a long/short exhalation or inhalation or it's a fine or coarse one, no need to follow any rituals. This practice has frequently been called "satipatthana" (the grounds of awareness), but whatever people call it the point is to be aware of oneself. When thought arises the practitioner sees it, knows it and understands it. When he or she sees it, thought stops by itself. When thought stops, "panna" (knowing) arises, and she or he knows the source of "dosa" – "moha – lobha" (anger – delusion – greed). Then "dukkha" (suffering) will end.

Vassa (Rains Retreat)

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

There are several precept levels: Five Precepts, Eight Precepts, Ten Precepts and the Patimokkha. The Five Precepts (Pañcaśīla in Sanskrit, or 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 samaneras (male) and samaneris (female), novice monks and nuns. And the Patimokkha is the basic Theravada code of monastic discipline, consisting of 227 rules for monks (bhikkhus) and 311 for nuns (bhikkhunis).

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," "Tahn" or "Ayya" (if they are female). 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.

Important Figures

* Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera
* Luang Por Mun Bhuridatta
* Luang Por Waen Sujinno
* Ajahn Plien Panyapatipo
* Ajahn Li Thammatharo
* Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
* Luang Ta Maha Bua
* Ajahn Chah
* Ajahn Sumedho
* Ajahn Khemadhammo
* Thanissaro Bhikkhu
* Ajahn Sona
* Ajahn Ganha
* Ajahn Pasanno
* Ajahn Brahm
* Ayya Tathaaloka
* [ Luangpor Teean]

* Luangpor Thong

* [ Senior Nuns in the Thai Forest Tradition]
* Ajahn Sundara
* Ajahn Candasiri


* A taste of Freedom, Ajahn Chah, Bung Wai Forest Monastery, 1991
* A Still Forest Pool, Jack Kornfield, Theosophical Publishing House, London, 1986
* J.L.Taylor. "Forest Monks and the Nation-State: An Anthropological and Historical Study in Northeastern Thailand", Singapore: ISEAS, 1993 [1996] . ISBN 981-3016-49-3 (original study of forest monks in Thailand)
* Tiyavanich, Kamala. "Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in 20th Century Thailand". University of Hawaii Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8248-1781-8.

External links

* [ An essay on the origins of the Thai Forest Tradition by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]
* [ Forest Sangha Website]
* [ List of Figures]
* [ Muttodaya Forest Monastery]
* [ santifm1.0: Santi Forest Monastery website]
* [ Abhayagiri Monastery] :* [ The Thai Forest Tradition]
* [ Wat Aranyawiwake]
* [ Saranaloka Foundation - Nuns in America]

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