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.


Steve said...

Sounds like an amazing experience! I like your thoughts on what works for you with regards to approaching Buddhism in the post below - something I'm working through at the moment.

Hope you're well, Legendary!

- scubasteve4891 (Tactical Gaming)

Malcolm Gault-Williams said...

Good to hear from you, Steve, and thanks for the feedback. The year and a half I spent in TG was a fantastic time for me. Hope you are still in there, winning battles and developing comaraderie. Stay in touch! -