Thudong: Forest Monks and Hermits of Southeast Asia
orest monks of Southeast Asia, also called ascetic monks or meditation monks because they embraced thudong or ascetic austerities, revived the Theravada Buddhist tradition directly linked to the historical Gautama Buddha. This thudong tradition emphasizes meditation and ascetic practice over scholarly and literary pursuits. It celebrates the forest and wandering monks and hermits as opposed to the coenobitic, urban and institutionalized monks of the centralized national sanghas.
The forest monk tradition, originating in India, spread to historical Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Sri Lanka. Its revival, however, was a nineteenth-century reform movement intricately related to its forest setting. The tradition essentially passed out of existence with the destruction of its natural setting. Nevertheless, the thudong tradition represents a rich heritage of eremitism.
The origins of the forest monk tradition is traced to Asoka, the third-century B.C.E. Buddhist emperor of India whose state-sponsored codification of Buddhist practice and patronage of missionaries to neighboring states signaled the invigoration of Buddhism outside of the land of its birth.
The main literary source of forest monk ascetic practice, however, is the Visuddhimagga of fifth-century C.E. Buddhaghosa. The Visuddhimagga -- which means "Path of Purification" --introduced the vinaya or ascetic discipline, the groundwork of a meditation method within the context of a compendium of doctrine. This comprehensive document became what one authority calls the "unitary standard of doctrinal orthodoxy for all Theravada Buddhists."
But as centuries passed, its influence ebbed and flowed. Thee conscious revival of the vinaya in the nineteenth century rescued an important resource that provided the impetus for a renewed eremitical practice.
The origins of forest monk practice can be identified in part in the terminology used. As one scholar states:
Ascetic and meditating monks may be referred to variously as forest-dwelling monks, ascetic monks, or meditators, depending on which facet of the life is to be emphasized Significantly, forest-dwellers are sometimes referred to as tapassi. ... This term is usually applied to non-Buddhist ascetics who practice self-mortification, and suggests the extent to which Buddhist asceticism had acquired the fascination in itself which asceticism holds in other Indian traditions.
The outward similarity of the forest monks to Hindu and Jain sadhus suggests a vibrant culture of asceticism in ancient and medieval India. In twelfth-century Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Mahakassapa of Dimbulaga offered a definitive revival of Buddhist asceticism in publishing his Mahavamsa, a meditation manual, plus a set of governing vinaya rules or katikavatu to govern sangha practice. Mahakassapa further recommended to the Sri Lankan king the creation of a national sangha. The tenuous relationship between secular ruler, ecclesiastical authority and ascetic practice was, however, to plague the ascetic tradition throughout southeast Asia in a way that did not affect the non-Buddhist sadhus of India.
Another source of forest monk asceticism was based on the traditional portrayals of the Buddha in previous lives as found in the Jataka stories. The Jataka stories were an immediate source of inspiration to Pannananda in late nineteenth-century Sri Lanka, a more literary and folkloric source versus either the Visuddhimagga or formal suttas or sutras.
Jataka asceticism was continued in Sri Lanka by Pannananda's disciple Subodnanda, who developed a village asceticism wherein a discipline for laity was not based on scholarly or monastic models. Subodnanda also introduced the notion of self-ordination when the sanghas of cities and towns refused to cede their authority. From village-based asceticism in Sri Lanka came the later break to the creation of small monastic communities based on non-authoritarian decision-making and dwelling in the forests. These small communities of monks (largely self-ordained) were conceived of as a primeval sangha in a style that the historical Gautama would have approved, according to its Sri Lankan champion Ratanapala Asmandale, who lived through the mid-twentieth century.
The Visuddhimagga presents three essential components of asceticism: 1) virtue or discipline (sila), 2) concentration or meditation (samadhi), and wisdom or insight (panna). These methods are pursued both consecutively and simultaneously.
The ultimate goal of the path is purification (visuddhi). Purity is the essential metaphor of practice: purity of mind, heart, and body. At the same time, the ascetic path here recommended is marked by a psychological pragmatism that emphasizes concrete results versus speculation and metaphysics.
This emphasis on achieving purification through practice rather than through scholarship and learning seems consistent with the probable intention of the historical Gautama, but also suggests a disengagement from the ecclesiastical and monastic institutionalization that fostered what were aptly called in Thai pariyat, or "pundit monks."
Additionally, the Visuddhimagga saw the optimum physical setting for the path of purification as isolation, seclusion, or reclusion (viveka). As the Sutta Nipiti states:
Unfettered, like a deer in the forest,
Which browses wherever it will,
A wise man minds his freedom;
Like the one-horned rhinoceros: wander alone!
The Visuddhimagga recommends thirteen dhutangas or ascetic practices. These were not originally Buddhist practices but represent an evolution of thought, represented in the documents ascribed to the body of Buddha's discourses. The practices became emblematic of Buddhist asceticism by the time of the influential Questions of Milinda or Milindapanho (12th century). The thirteen dhutangas are:
- wearing rag robes
- using only three robes
- begging alms
- not omitting any house when begging
- eating only once a day
- eating only from the bowl
- eating no second helpings
- eating in the forest
- eating at the foot of a tree
- living in the open air
- living in a cemetery
- being satisfied with whatever dwelling one receives
- sleeping in a sitting position and never lying down
The forest monk was to use discarded cloth to make his robes, only secondarily accepting cloth deposited at his dwelling or along his daily path. Overall, the monk was to make and maintain three robes.
The monk does not store or cook food but daily enters the nearby village (which could be several miles distant) and begs. This entails visiting each house in succession; he is not to go to the wealthiest house or the most generous household first but to each in order. The monk presents his bowl in silence; Sri Lankan monks held a fan to their faces, like Japanese Zen monks whose large headgear effectively covered their faces. The food was to be from householders' excess, not specially prepared for the monk's coming or prepared for them upon being sighted. These latter precriptions correspond to the practice of Hindu and Jain sadhus.
The monks' routine was to set off for alms at midmorning, giving them time to return to their dwelling places by about midday. If they formed an organized hermitage, the forest monks would assemble in a separate edifice or dining hall (sala), redistribute the food as need, and eat from their bowl in silence, without utensils and without taking a second helping. If they food was in excess it was to be given away. The typical Thai fare was rice, often with a sauce of chilies, and some vegetable, and occasionally fruit -- whatever a typical household happened to have, which was often only rice. The monks normally had a well or stream as a source of water. The midday meal was the only meal, but an afternoon tea from gathered herbs was acceptable.
Where the ascetic monk lived was representative of his practice. Developed hermitages followed a pattern known in the west among Carthusian monks: individual dwellings in proximity to one another. In Thailand, the individual hut was called a kuti, made of bamboo, palm, or other already-fallen wood. In Sri Lanka, the huts were often concrete and wood, with concrete floors. When a master and discipline dwelt together it was in a single edifice. When a monk was a hermit, he might live in a previously occupied hut but more likely a cave if he was stationary for any period. In every case the dwelling must be in a forest with no village or other habitation visible or readily accessible.
Individual practitioners would pursue more rigorous settings. In Thailand, wandering monks carried a klot or modest tent-like cloth and mosquito netting, which could be set up in the open air, a cave, at the foot of a tree, or in a cemetery. The wandering monk was not complain about whatever setting he pursued, discovered, or was obliged to use. That he never lay down to sleep but only sat was a common ascetic practice throughout Buddhist tradition in later centuries. Only a monk who was sick lay down.
A typical schedule for the forest monk was to sleep from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., meditate from 2 to 6 a.m., wash up, clean, and sweep until going out for alms, then returning to eat, rest, attend to other chores, and spend another four hours in meditation, usually 6 to 10 p.m.
One set of chores pursued by village monks -- those who lived close to villages in open air as well as those who lived in hermitages -- was manual labor to assist villagers in times of need such as well-digging, house-building or harvesting. Village monks did not refrain from contact with people when the purpose was well-defined and a helpful means of expressing compassion and loving-kindness.
Additionally, wandering elders or masters with one or two disciples or younger monks, might take up a months-long regimen of travel, sometimes without a particular itinerary, following rivers, forest highlights, mountains, valleys, and the thread of isolated villages for their food, though sometimes wandering monks went without food for days when they lost their way. Such monks could readily pursue the practices of sleeping in the open air under trees and in caves or in cemeteries, all the while adhering to a discipline of meditating in the wilderness.
And meditation was, indeed, the core of their practice, in vivid contrast to the pundit monks. One observer summarizes the motivation of the ascetic monks thusly:
They knew that if they studied the dhamma without practicing it, they would remain unaware of its deeper meaning. They realized that the value of the dhamma was not to be found in reading and studying but in training the mind through the thudong life. Finally, they understood that the best place to study the Buddha's teachings was not in a comfortable monastery but in their own school, their own university: the heart of the forest, a grove, the shade of a single tree, the cemetery, the open air, the slope of a mountain, the foot of a mountain, a valley. They believed that such places were recommended by the Buddha as the supreme university.
The forest was valued as a natural setting for solitude and seclusion, and many thudong monks became hermits for selected periods of time, dwelling deeper within the isolated landscape of mountainous caves and secluded forest cover. While the three-month rains retreat often attracted temporary and visiting monks and meditators, the rigors of this period were intensified for regular monks. But the advantages of the forest setting for mindful meditation, for demonstrated faith in a master's directions, and for the well-being of the forest monk sangha and animals were motivating sources.
Fear accompanied many wilderness newcomers, due in part to the insecurity of daily life and survival but especially fear of wild animals, sickness and injury, and -- given the accretions of cultural lore -- ghosts.
Many forest monks record their encounters with wild animals, namely tigers, elephants, and snakes. Tigers often lurked around hermits in their open air klots at night, and the monks learned to face fear directly. While with a master, the monk learned to listen and observe not only rituals and discipline but what to do and not do around tigers, thereby conquering fear. Some masters deliberately traveled at dusk or slept on trails in order to train their mind against the fear of animals, especially since they wanted their disciples to experience eremitism, to wander alone, and to live in mountains, caves and under trees.
Where tigers and elephants were typical of Thailand forests, snakes were common in Sri Lanka as well. In one anecdote, a preaching monk sat speaking for half an hour while a poisonous snake came up and lay unmoving at his side. The snake left only teaching was finished, convincing listeners of the powerful truth of the dhamma.
In such settings the training of the mind was invaluable. As one master, Ajan Man, put it:
From such a mind an attacker will draw back, be it a tiger, a snake, or an elephant. The aspirant may even be able to walk right up to it. His attitude towards animals is based on metta [loving-kindness], which has a mysterious but real and profound influence ...
A second fear that masters bade their disciples overcome was fear of corpses and spirits. The Visuddhimagga teaches the corpse meditation as a way of inculcating a spirit of impermanence but also as a practical way of conquering sexual temptation, and fear of illness and disease. But spending the night in a cemetery, whether in the open air or in a klot, could be the source of great fear.
The cemeteries of southeast Asia were not the tombstones and spacious lawns of the Western world. Corpses were brought and deposited in shrouds on the ground, make-shift cremations incomplete or left unfinished with nightfall. One monk records being in a cemetery at dusk when villagers brought a shrouded body and left the smoldering corpse on the ground where the monk could see it from his klot. As in any such case, the odor was overwhelming and the monk's imagination stirred. The monk was taught to recognize and observe fear, to control it with mindfulness, and ultimately to transcend it. But that seldom happened without considerable experience.
The third fear was fear of bodily suffering. The widespread contraction of malaria by forest-dwellers called for perseverance, especially when palliative drugs were unavalable in isolated locales. Despite suffering malarial fever, some monks did not deviate from their discipline, walking in pain or sitting stolidly in the open air during rain storms. The conviction that pain is rooted in the mind was a strong motivation to discipline.
In terms of physical hardship, the forest-dwelling monks contrasted their wilderness context to the cozy, rarified atmosphere of the monastery. To the forest-dwelling monks and hermits, book learning could not overcome bodily suffering. A strong intellect might mask emotional weakness, undermining mindfulness. Ajan Man, who passed a rains retreat while suffering severe stomach pains, would sometimes enter towns and villages in order to test himself against temptations of food and sensual desire. Mastering sense stimuli would guard against viewing the forest as an escape.
Historically, the forest-monks and hermits of southeast Asia were unregulated and adhered to the discipline of tradition and practice. The Sangha Act of 1902 was the first formal attempt by the the state and ecclesiastical bureaucracy of Thailand to centralize monastic practice. The act designated the king as "Patron of the Sangha" overseeing a Supreme Patriarch in charge of ecclesiastical affairs.
The practical effect of the Act, however, was to reign in the forest monks by curtailing the power of their abbots to ordain new monks or to establish hermitages, privileges the Act centralized in key urban monasteries and their abbots. In Sri Lanka, similar legislation led to a "self-ordination" movement, with several village temple abbots and charismatic figures breaking away from the central government and ecclesiastical establishment with the support of key laity. But here, too, the movement was short-lived.
A second Sangha Act in 1962 ushered in what one authority calls the "Forest Invasion Period" in Thailand, running through the late 1980's. A military dictatorship in the early sixties promoted economic development in the countryside, which mean centralization of rural and agricultural lands and resources. Industrialization and deforestation destroyed the habitat of the forest-dwelling monks (as well as of wild animals), finishing off what the Buddhist hierarchy in Bangkok could not achieve through rules and pressure.
Forest monks were labeled pro-Communist by the government, and the forests were seen as hiding places for insurgents, a view held by the Thai government throughout the Vietnam War era. The particular targets of repression were the wandering and village laboring monks. Most hermitage monks reluctantly moved to centralizing monasteries. All the forest monks were vilified as "monks with their eyes closed" because they practiced meditation in contrast to urban monks.
But it was the loss of the forests that was the most obvious result of this period. One scholar summarizes thusly:
Forced by the turmoil of the 1960's and 1970's to come out of their secluded retreats, the thudong monks attempted to teach others about the binding link between humans and the natural world. They were unable, however, to counter the tremendous forces of modernization. People in contemporary societies seem basically insensitive to the larger meaning and value of the environment.
For the thudong monks ... the remote wilderness was a sanctuary in which they could train their minds. When they chose, they could withdraw deep into the bush where no one would be able to find them. The forest was home to wandering monks: it was their school, their training ground, and their sanctuary, and life there it was safe provided the monks were mindful.
The last generation of forest monks were placed in controlled monastic settings where they received "ample material support, high status, and frequent praise" but had lost their autonomy and their wilderness setting for zoo-like conditions. Urban dwellers and visitors expected the monks to tell fortunes and peddle amulets. Visitors showed no interest in their teachings or practices. The last of the original generation of notable Thai forest monks was Ajan Chah, who died in 1994. He reports how he felt like a monkey on a string. People came to gawk at him, poke at him, watch him jump. "When I get tired," he once remarked, "maybe they throw me a banana."
The interconnection between practice and setting was essential to the forest monk. As one scholar observes,
The wandering forest monk tradition ... developed within a specific natural and sociocultural ecosystem. When that ecosystem changed -- when the forests disappeared and the forest communities vanished or were transformed -- the tradition could no longer persist.
Despite the pleas of the thudong monks, the forests of Thailand have been mostly clear-cut. And with this loss, the rich tradition of the forest monk and hermit is virtually extinguished from its natural setting. But the principles of the Visuddhimagga continue to inspire Theravada Buddhism and those fortunate enough to encounter the legacy of vipassana and the meditation tradition bequeathed to the modern world by the thudong tradition.
- Tiyavanich, Kamala. Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
- Carrithers, Michael. The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka: An Anthropological and Historical Study. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.
- Mendelson, Michael E. Sangha and State in Burma: A Study of Monastic Sectarianism and Leadership. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.
- Buddhaghosa. Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli. Seattle, WA: Pariyatti Publishing, 2003.