I have always had a special affinity with the forests. When I’m feeling fanciful I can imagine that this is due to my genes. I know that many of my countrymen like to imagine our ancestors as mighty Celts but I prefer to see myself as a descendant of simple people who lived in the forests. There is just something so magical about walking through a wooded area – it touches me somewhere deep down. This is probably why the idea of the Thai forest monks appeals to me so much.
The Golden Ages of Buddhism
Buddhism has had many golden ages; a time where it has been particularly fruitful in one part of the world or another. According to the texts, the Buddha only believed his teaching would last for a few hundred years. He knew that the truths he had found were eternal but claimed that the teachings were only a vehicle; he always warned his disciples not to mistake his teachings for the ultimate truth. One of the most important ideas in Buddhism is anicha – the idea that all compounded things are impermanent. The Buddha foresaw that his teachings too were impermanent and in some ways he may have been right about this.
Buddhism originated in India and for hundreds of years it dominated the thinking on the continent. The golden age was probably under Ashoka; the first king to rule India as a single entity (Asoke BTS Station is Bangkok is named after him). Ashoka was once a vicious warlord but he discovered Buddhism and changed his ways. He is credited with causing Buddhism to flourish and during this time it spread as far as Afghanistan – this was the golden age for this religion in India but it later died out with the arrival of the Muslims from the west.
The next golden age for Buddhism probably occurred in China with the growth of Chan Buddhism (later to be called Zen Buddhism in Japan). This mixed elements of Confucianism and Taoism with the teaching of the Buddha to create something new. It took hundreds of years for Chan to develop but over that time enlightened masters felt confident enough to make changes to the original teachings. A similar thing occurred in places like Tibet with the growth of Vajrayana (the Diamond Vehicle) Buddhism.
The Golden Age of Buddhism in Thailand
The golden age of Buddhism in Thailand was probably during the time when the forest monks roamed the country – at least that is my view anyway. These monks gave up the relatively comfortable life of temples to go thudong; wander the forests and live like ascetics. It seems that these monks became disillusioned with just learning from books and wanted to find the truth for themselves. They felt that the way to do this was by meditating constantly and facing their fears. These monks took on new vows such as no longer sleeping under a roof and only keeping those possessions that they could carry with them through the forest. This was a time when the Thai jungles were teeming with all types of dangerous wildlife including tigers and snakes. Many monks died in their search for enlightenment but those who survived went often achieved great things – some famous teachers like Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Mun spent a lot of time travelling in the forests.
These wandering monks would travel everywhere; in those days there were no real borders. You hear tales of them wandering in Laos, Vietnam, or into Burma; it was all just jungle with villages here and there. When these wandering monks appeared in a village they would be greeted with a lot of respect but also often a bit of fear – it was believed that there long stints at meditation had given them magical powers. The biggest fear for the villagers would be ghosts and the thudong monks liked to demonstrate the power of the teachings by sleeping in places where spirits were believed to roam – areas such as charnel grounds.
The End of the Thai Forest Monks
Although there are still technically forest monks in Thailand they are on the decline; just like the forests are disappearing. Those monks who wear the brown robes are part of this order but most of them now live in monasteries; although they may occasionally still go on Thudong. The golden age of the Thai forest monks had ended by the 1960s.