Throughout its history, Buddhism has worked as a civilizing force. Its teachings on karma, for instance—the principle that all intentional actions have consequences—have taught morality and compassion to many societies. But on a deeper level, Buddhism has always straddled the line between civilization and wilderness. The Buddha himself gained awakening in a forest, gave his first sennon in a forest, and passed away in a forest. The qualities of mind he needed in order to survive physically and mentally as he went, unarmed, into the wilds were key to his discovery of the dharma. They included resilience, resolve, and alertness; self-honesty and circumspection; steadfastness in the face of loneliness; courage and ingenuity in the face of external dangers; compassion and respect for the other inhabitants of the forest. These qualities formed the “home culture” of the dharma.

Periodically, as Buddhism adapted to different societies, some practitioners felt that the original message of the dharma had become diluted. So they returned to the wilderness in order to revive its home culture. Many wilderness traditions are still alive today, especially in the Theravada countries of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. There, mendicant ascetic monks continue to wander through the remaining rain forests, in search of awakening in environments similar to that in which the Buddha became awakened himself. Among these traditions, the one that has attracted the largest number of Western students, and is beginning to take root in the West, is the Kammatthana (Meditation) forest tradition of Thailand.

The Kammatthana tradition was founded by Ajaan Mun Bhuridatto (Ajaan is Thai for “teacher”) in the early decades of this century. Ajaan Mun’s mode of practice was solitary and strict. He followed the Vinaya (monastic discipline) faithfully and also observed many of what are known as the thirteen classic dhutanga (ascetic) practices, such as living off almsfood, wearing robes made of cast-off rags, dwelling in the forest, and eating only one meal a day. Searching out secluded places in the wilds of Thailand and Laos, he avoided the responsibilities of settled monastic life and spent long hours of the day and night in meditation. In spite of his reclusive nature, he attracted a large following of students willing to put up with the hardships of forest life in order to study with him.

Ajaan Mun also had his detractors, who accused him of not following traditional Thai Buddhist customs. He usually responded by saying that he wasn’t interested in bending to the customs of any particular society—as they were, by definition, the customs of people with greed, anger, and delusion in their minds. He was more interested in finding and following the dharma’s home culture, or what he called the customs of the Noble Ones: the practices that had enabled the Buddha and his disciples to achieve awakening in the first place. This term—the customs of the Noble Ones—comes from a story in which the Buddha’s father upbraids his son for living in the forest and going for alms, things that the customs of their family regarded as shameful. The Buddha’s response: “I now belong, not to the lineage of my family, but to the lineage of the Noble Ones. Theirs are the customs I follow.”

forest feature 60 winter 1998Ajaan Mun devoted most of his life to tracking those customs down. Born in 1870, the son of rice farmers in the northeastern province of Ubon, he was ordained as a monk in 1892. At that time there were two broad types of Buddhism available in Thailand. The first can be called Customary Buddhism—the mores and rites handed down over the centuries that, for the most part, taught monks to live a sedentary life in the village monastery, serving the local villagers as doctors or fortunetellers. Monastic discipline tended to be loose. Occasionally, monks would go on a pilgrimage they called “dhutanga,” but which bore little resemblance to the classic ascetic practices. Instead, it was more an undisciplined escape valve for the pressures of sedentary life. Moreover, monks and laypeople practiced forms of meditation that deviated from the path of tranquility and insight outlined in the Pali canon. Their practices, called vichaa aakhom, or incantation knowledge, involved initiations and invocations used for shamanistic purposes, such as protective charms and magical powers. They rarely mentioned nirvana except as an entity to be invoked in shamanic rites.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.