Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thung Yai 1.3

 … In truth, we did not stop long enough to appreciate but a small fraction of all the flora, fauna and mammals we travelled amongst and certainly saw no tigers. Particularly striking for me were all the trees with flowers growing on numerous branches.

Why were we here? We were on a “forced march” of sorts in order to get to the temple at Washuku in time for the anniversary of our head monk’s mentor Ajan Satien’s passing. Due to some unforeseen delays, we only had three days of hard riding to get in on time, with expected progress points to reach each day no matter if we rolled into camp at midnight – which happened once.

This was the ostensible reason for us to be in Thung Yai, but Ajan Boon Long had other reasons why he takes a different group into this remote area of Western Thailand each year at this time.

As he explained to me after our return to the village, there are actually five reasons for the annual trek thru Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, to Ajan Satien’s temple and chedi erected in his honor. Ajan Boon Long never directly mentioned these to us at any time, but these are certainly things we learned in our own separate ways:

1) To honor and show respect for the work that Ajan Satien did in this remote area; 

2) To develop teamwork and cooperation amongst ourselves; 

3) Learn to overcome obstacles and be good problem solvers; 

4) Develop strength and practice hard work; and 

5) Develop determination by struggle to achieve our goals. 

I’ll add here that the trips also forged a closer bond between those who struggled together. Friendships were strengthened and new ones forged…

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Thung Yai 1.2

Continuing excerpts from my travel journal into Thung Yai...

Thung Yai Naresuan (Thai: เขตรักษาพันธุ์สัตว์ป่าทุ่งใหญ่นเรศวร) is located at the western national border of Thailand to Burma (Myanmar), in the southern area of the Dawna Range. It and the adjacent Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (Thai: เขตรักษาพันธุ์สัตว์ป่าห้วยขาแข้ง) constitute the core area of the Western Forest Complex, totaling about 6,200 square kilometers: the largest conservation area in Mainland Southeast Asia.

Interest in protecting the two areas was sparked when Asiatic Buffalo – extinct in all other forests in Thailand – were found roaming these areas in 1965. A Royal Forest Department exploration team and Thai media people were on their way from southern Huai Kha Khaeng to the Pong Naisor salt lick when they came across a number of wild water buffalos.

Both Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1991, after initially being set aside as protected wildlife sanctuaries in 1974 and 1972. Besides the prestige, the functional importance of such a designation is that UNESCO pays the costs associated with the areas being wildlife sanctuaries as long as Thailand sets aside the land as such. This arrangement is important as there still remains illegal logging and wildlife hunting. Another threat to the sanctuaries is continual agricultural land conversion by displaced tribal communities – mostly Karen and Hmong.

Largely a mountainous wilderness of dry tropical forest, with rivers and streams separating lowlands and valleys, Thung Yai boasts an incredible range of flora and fauna. It is one of the last natural habitats for around 700 tigers (Panthera tigris) and has a wide variety of wildlife. There is little research on the biodiversity in the sanctuaries, but at last count there were 400 species of birds, 96 reptiles, 113 fish and 120 mammals, including leopards, gaur, bear and possibly Javan rhinos. Thirty-four internationally threatened species call Tung Yai home.

I was feeling like a member of an endangered species, myself: Homo Falang. Thais call all Westerners “Falang.” Riding in truck beds most of the time, over one of the most difficult overland routes in all of Thailand, it was rough going for this 63 year-old. Exacerbating the discomfort was the need to double-lock myself with both arms and hands holding onto roll bars horizontally and vertically, to keep from falling out or hitting my head against the roll bars themselves. This meant that my arm muscles were constantly tensed. Worse, I was facing backwards most of the time, so I could not anticipate which way the truck was going to suddenly jerk; up, down, left or right.

The first couple of days travelling from Thung Yai’s southern-most entry point on to the northwest certainly proved my initial misgivings justified. I had almost not gone on this trip. Now, toward the summit of our toughest climb, I was almost wishing I’d stayed at home. Yet, if I had not gone, I would have missed out on experiencing a habitat that few Thais and even fewer Falang got to be part of.

Part 2 of 4 (possibly 5) parts, showing video and still shots of our trip into one of the remotest areas of Thailand, Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, April 2012:

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Thung Yai 1.1

As I've mentioned for a while, my greatest adventure in Thailand so far has been our trip through Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, in Western Thailand, this past April 2012. The following is a portion of a draft I've written about the trip. This is part one of four:

We were reaching the top of the toughest climb of the six days travelling into one of the remotest areas of Thailand: Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. This section of the dirt road was somewhere around a 45-degree climb, pock-marked by huge boulders of varying height and depth relative to the dirt track itself. It really was more a “track” than a “road” and to have called it a road would have been a very big exaggeration.

Travelling as a caravan of seven 4-wheel drive trucks, all vehicles sported winches on the front and some had electric winches both front and back. We needed them all a half dozen times on this climb alone. I lost count long ago how many times we had deployed the winches thus far on this trip.[1] Even with them, I don’t know how we made the climb that leads to a small outdoor temple. Then again, I don’t know how I ever agreed to go on this grueling trek in the first place.

As a retired American married into the biggest family in a small Thai-Lao village in Northeastern Thailand, I had been invited to travel as part of our village temple’s annual pilgrimage in to Thung Yai and the temple near the Mynmar (Burma) border begun by Ajan Satien, the teacher of our head monk, Ajan Boon Long. My wife assured me it was quite an honor, as many people in our village every year wanted to go and each year were not chosen. Well, three long days skirting danger – maybe not at every turn, but certainly every tenth – I didn’t feel very honored.

Our group comprised four of the seven trucks, lead by Ajan Boon Long. We were a group of around 25 Kamattan Buddhist monks, boy novice monks, women “carrying” and a few guests, like me.

[1] Estimate of approximately 90 times during the course of six days.

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[1] Estimate of approximately 90 times during the course of six days.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gam Gnon

Awhile back, I mentioned the solid day and a half of celebration of our headman’s promotion from Poo-yai Bann (headman) to Gam Gnon (leader of a group of headmen). Well, I finally finished the video (9 minutes in length):

During the party where several hundred people filtered in and out, I tried not to think of how much the party was costing Gam Gnon and also did my best to stay away from the Thai whiskeys and the foods I had no prior experience with. I was almost completely on my own, as Thip was caring for her mother most of the day, only a couple of stone throws away. As has been the case all along, I am amongst a people whose language I do not know, but am accepted by and made welcome.

Three separate weekend events in the space of a month (March) attest to not only the lack of “normal” days, but also the Thai proclivity for social gatherings and just plain partying. Even Ajan Boon Long’s gold smelting event was laden down with free food, non-alcoholic drinks of many different kinds – few you would recognize – and lots of opportunity for people to socialize. Thais are very much a social people.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Kamattan and Thai Buddhism

Kamattan Buddhist monks are different than the more numerous Thai Buddhist monks. I’ll do my best in trying to explain the differences...

Thung Yai, April 2012/2555

Nearly 95% of Thailand's population is Buddhist of the Theravada school. Thai Buddhism is based on the religious movement founded in the sixth century B.C. by Siddhartha, later known as the Buddha, who urged the world to relinquish the extremes of sensuality and self-mortification and follow the enlightened “Middle Way.” The focus of the religion is on man, not gods; the assumption being that life is pain or suffering, which is a consequence of craving, and that suffering can end only if desire ceases. The end of suffering is the achievement of nirvana (in Theravada Buddhist scriptures, nibbana), often defined as the absence of craving and therefore of suffering, sometimes as enlightenment or bliss.[2]

By the third century B.C., Buddhism had spread widely in Asia, and divergent interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to the establishment of several sects. Theravada Buddhism reached what is now Thailand around the sixth century A.D. Seven centuries later, Theravada Buddhism was made the state religion with the establishment of the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai in the thirteenth century A.D.[2]

By the nineteenth century, and especially with the coming to power in 1851 of King Mongkut, who had been a monk himself for twenty-seven years, the Sangha (the Buddhist monk aggregate) – like the kingdom – became steadily more centralized and hierarchical in nature and its links to the state more institutionalized.

Thailand has a strong Southeast Asian tradition of Buddhist kingship tying the legitimacy of the state to its protection and support for Buddhist institutions. This connection has been maintained into the modern era, with Buddhist institutions and clergy being granted special benefits by the government, as well as being subjected to a certain amount of government oversight.

The Thai Forest Tradition (Kamattan) is a form and practice of Buddhist monasticism within Thai Theravada Buddhism. It uses remote wilderness and forest dwellings as training grounds for spiritual practice. The Thai Forest Tradition emphasizes direct experience through the practice of meditation and strict adherence to the monastic rules (vinaya) over scholastic study of the Pali Tipitaka.

Kammattan (alternatively spelled Kammatthana, Kamattan, Kammatan, Kammattan) refers to the Thai Forest Tradition. It originated in Thailand, primarily among the Lao-speaking people of the Isaan – Northeastern Thailand. Monks who adhere to this tradition are often known as forest monks because they keep alive the practice of the historical Buddha who, according to the Pali canon, spent a great deal of time dwelling in forests as part of his spiritual endeavors. Forest monks are considered to be specialists in meditation. The Forest Tradition is usually associated with the attainment of certain supernatural powers (abhiñña). It is widely known among Thai people for its orthodoxy, conservatism, and asceticism. Because of this, it has garnered a great deal of respect and admiration from the Thai people.

The Forest Tradition was revived in the early 1900s by Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera (or simply Lungpu Sao) and his student, Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta (or simply Lungpu Mun). Theravada Buddhists regard the forest as part and parcel of the monastic training ground. As such, this training method needed to be revived and maintained for the benefit of oneself and future generations.[7]

In the early 1900s, the urban monasteries often served as centers of scholastic learning. Monks usually received their education in monasteries and earned the rough equivalent of "graduate degrees" in the studies of Pali language and the Tipitaka scriptures, without necessarily engaging in the meditative practices described in the scriptures.

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. Thai’s Forest Tradition was later spread throughout Thailand and countries on its border, as well as globally by Ajahn Mun's students.

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 interaction wit all monks. For instance, 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 (wai). When making offerings to the monks, it is considered inappropriate to approach them at a higher level than they are at.

In practice, the extent to which this cultural code of behavior is enforced varies greatly, with some communities being more lax about such cultural codes than others. In our family village and surroundings, the code is closely followed and I have been admonished numerous times by my wife for doing stuff I had no idea was impolite. I’ve learned, as time has gone on and experience gained.

Although Forest monasteries exist in remote locations and rural environments, they are not isolated from society. Monks in such monasteries are an integral element in the surrounding society in which they find themselves, as is Ajan Boon Long.

Some important figures in the Thai Forest Tradition (Kamattan):

Luang Por Mun Bhuridatta

In my estimation, one of the best writings about what the Thai Forest Tradition is all about is “The Customs of the Noble Ones,” written by Thanissaro Bikku.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

4 + 8 = 11

By the way Buddhism plays such a major role in Thip’s and my daily life – and our Thai family’s and, in fact, the whole village – you might get the impression that I am a devout Buddhist. No, no. I would give devout Buddhists – no matter what branch or sect – a very bad name.

My Buddhism is much like what my Christianity was: minimalistic; just to the basics. Although I admire the forest monks (Kamattan), Theravada Buddhism just contains too many rules for me to get into. When I was in college, I was very interested in Zen Buddhism (Mahayana), but over the course of my life, I’ve found that what works best for me is what I think of as “stripped down Buddhism”, just the basics; those basics being the initial teachings of Gautama Buddha: The Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. Nothing more, nothing less.

Country Roads Took Me Home

Four Noble Truths:

1) Life as we know it ultimately is or leads to suffering/uneasiness in one way or another.

2) Suffering is caused by craving. This is often expressed as a deluded clinging to a certain sense of existence, to selfhood, or to the things or phenomena that we consider the cause of happiness or unhappiness. Craving also has its negative aspect, i.e. one craves that a certain state of affairs not exist.

3) Suffering ends when craving ends. This is achieved by eliminating delusion, thereby reaching a liberated state of Enlightenment;

4) Reaching this liberated state is achieved by following the path laid out by the Buddha (The Noble Eight Fold Path).

The Noble Eight Fold Path:

The Noble Eightfold Path—the fourth of the Buddha's Noble Truths—is the way to the cessation of suffering.

Prajña is the wisdom that purifies the mind, allowing it to attain spiritual insight into the true nature of all things. It includes:

1) Viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be;

2) Intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness.

Sila – code of conduct – is the ethics or morality, or abstention from unwholesome deeds. It includes:

3) Speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way;

4) Acting in a non-harmful way;

5) A non-harmful livelihood.

Samadhi is the mental discipline required to develop mastery over one's own mind. This is done through the practice of various contemplative and meditative practices, and includes:

6) Making a constant effort to improve;

7) Awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness, being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion;

8) Correct meditation or concentration, explained as the first four jhanas.

The practice of the Eightfold Path is understood in two ways, as requiring either simultaneous development (all eight items practiced in parallel), or as a progressive series of stages through which the practitioner moves, the culmination of one leading to the beginning of another.