Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailandby Kamala Tiyavanich
“I stayed (in the forest) for two nights. The first night, nothing happened. The second night, at about one or two in the morning, a tiger came—which meant that I didn’t get any sleep the whole night. I sat in meditation, scared stiff, while the tiger walked around and around my umbrella tent (klot). My body felt all frozen and numb. I started chanting,and the words come out like running water. All the old chants I had forgotten now came back to me, thanks both to my fear and to my ability to keep my mind under control. I sat like this from 2 until 5 A.M., when the tiger finally left. "
—A forest monk
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.
About the Author
KAMALA TIYAVANICH holds a Ph.D. in the history of Southeast Asia and is a visiting fellow at the Kahin Center for Advanced Research on Southeast Asia, Cornell University. Her present research focuses on village abbots of Siam’s regional Buddhist traditions.