Theravada, the Way of the Elders
The Theravada Buddhist tradition looks to the original teachings of the Buddha as its main guide and authority. The collection of Dhamma discourses, sayings, stories, and monastic discipline known as the Tipitaka includes the oldest historically reliable teachings of the Buddha. These teachings and all-encompassing way of life gradually lead to a liberation of the heart called enlightenment, or Nibbana. This awakening of consciousness was described by the Buddha as the highest and most satisfying form of happiness possible. The path of the Buddha is built on the foundation stones of leading a pure and beneficial life, developing deep inner peace through meditation and freeing the mind with penetrating wisdom. (For basic information about Buddhism click here.) The Theravada Tradition is well established in the Asian countries of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Mayanmar, and from Theravada the style of Dhamma practice known as vipassana has emerged.
The Forest Tradition
Since the time of the Buddha there have always been monks and nuns who have retreated into the depths of forests, mountains and caves seeking physical isolation to aid them in the development of meditation and realization of the Dhamma, the truth of the Buddha’s teaching. Whether in solitude or in small groups, such renunciates lived a life of simplicity, austerity, and determined effort. They have included some of the greatest meditation masters since the Buddha himself. Far from cities and towns, willing to put up with the rigours and hardships of living in the wild for the opportunity to learn from nature, and uninterested in worldly fame or recognition, these forest monastics often remained unknown, their life stories lost among the jungle thickets and mountaintops.
The Thai Forest Tradition
The contemporary Thai Forest Tradition is a down-to-earth, back to the roots movement that models its meditation practice and lifestyle on that of the Buddha and the early generations of his disciples. The advent of the modern age notwithstanding, forest monasteries still keep alive the ancient traditions through following the Buddhist Monastic Code of Discipline, the training rules laid down by the Buddha, known as the Vinaya.
Until the mid-twentieth century most Buddhist monasteries in Thailand were the principle centres of education. Monks in the towns and villages taught school children and emphasised the scholastic study of the Buddhist scriptures. Performing ceremonies also played a large role in their lives. For the most part these village monasteries placed little emphasis on meditation, used money, and did not closely follow the monks’ and nuns’ training rules.
The Thai revival of the Forest Tradition in the nineteenth century was an attempt to return to the lifestyle and training that was practised under the Buddha. The two main figures in this movement were Venerable Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta and Venerable Ajahn Sao Kantasilo.
Their intention was to realise in their own hearts and minds the inner peace and wisdom of the Dhamma. The busy village monasteries were abandoned for the peace and quiet of nature. The Vinaya was followed strictly, emphasizing the importance of every detail. Monks lived without money, accepting whatever was offered and patiently enduring when nothing was. Ascetic practices recommended by the Buddha were incorporated into their lifestyle: e.g., eating only one meal a day from one’s almsbowl, wearing rag robes and living in the forest or in cemeteries.
The monks would often wander through the countryside seeking places conducive to meditation, carrying their few possessions: an almsbowl, three robes, a glot (an umbrella with a mosquito net, which was hung in the forest and used like a tent), and a few personal requisites.
From Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Sao and their numerous distinguished disciples, has come a legacy of powerfully relevant examples of an uncomplicated and disciplined way of life. Their teachings are directed towards those who wish to purify their minds by living the way of the Buddha. The very heart of the Forest Tradition is the development of meditation. By cultivating deep states of tranquility and systematically investigating the body and mind, insight arises as to the true nature of existence.
When entering a good forest monastery, the spirit of practice is evident everywhere. There is an air of simplicity. The buildings are clean and tidy. The remote setting supports an atmosphere of renunciation. Simple unadorned huts are individually nestled in small forest clearings. Monks or nuns mindfully and quietly do their chores or engage in sitting or walking meditation.
In developing meditation one may encounter many obstacles, and the forest masters were noted for their creativity in overcoming the hindrances and defilements of the mind. They were distinguished by their daring determination to realise enlightenment. The disciples of Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao gradually grew in number, and due to the excellent teaching they received and the intensity of their effort, many of them became great masters in their own right. Today the Forest Tradition is well established in Thailand and is beginning to take root in western countries.
Venerable Ajahn Chah
Thailand has been blessed with a great number of impeccable and profoundly wise Buddhist meditation masters, and one of the most eminent was Venerable Ajahn Chah. Born in 1918, in a small village in Ubon provence of North-east Thailand, he first studied and ordained in his local village monastery. Later he sought out and trained in remote forest monasteries with some of the most impressive teachers of his era – Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Kinaree, Ajahn Taungrut – before establishing his own forest monastery near his home village. Until his death in 1993 he guided and trained his disciples in the simple, austere, and peaceful ways of the Buddha.
During Ajahn Chah’s many years of wandering and practising in seclusion, he encountered numerous difficulties, and the qualities of patience and endurance that he developed became central to the teachings he gave to his own disciples. He was highly motivated in his Dhamma practice to discover the causes of worldly suffering and the source of true freedom. By his own account he held nothing back. He surrendered everything for the Dhamma. Although he encountered much hardship, suffering, illness, pain and doubt, he never gave up. Out of this resolute fearlessness and effort grew unshakeable peace, wisdom, and boundless loving-kindness.
Ajahn Chah taught in a direct, uncomplicated, and straightforward manner. He instructed with charm and humour and was a master at using everyday situations as opportunities for learning. He stressed that true insight can never arise from mere intellectual knowledge, but only through direct personal experience and transformation. Lasting happiness is a result of wisdom that arises naturally when the mind is still, quiet, and radiant.
He encouraged people to confront the mental defilements that poison their minds and to use the tools of renunciation, awareness, and perseverance to overcome them. He urged his followers to learn how not to get lost in moods and emotions but instead to train themselves to clearly see and directly experience the true nature of the mind and the world.
Ajahn Chah’s popularity grew steadily, both with Thais and Westerners. The number of his non-Thai disciples increased to the point that in 1975 he established a nearby branch monastery specifically for them. Ajahn Chah’s first western monk, Ven. Ajahn Sumedho, was invited to be abbot and the monastery was named Wat Pah Nanachat, The International Forest Monastery. Wat Pah Nanachat in turn has spawned monasteries throughout the western world. At present (including Thailand) there are more than 300 branch monasteries that look to Ajahn Chah’s teachings and example for inspiration.
Masters of the Forest Tradition:
“Patient-endurance is the supreme way to burn up mental defilements.”