The Forest tradition is a branch of Theravāda Buddhism. Theravāda, “the Way of the Elders,” is also known as the Southern School of Buddhism, and is present throughout Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. It is grounded in the discourses recorded in the Pāli Canon, the oldest Buddhist scriptures.
The Forest tradition most strongly emphasizes meditative practice and the realization of enlightenment as the focus of monastic life. Forest monastics live in daily interaction with and dependence upon the lay community. While laypeople provide the material supports for their renunciant life, such as almsfood and cloth for robes, the monks provide the laity with teachings and spiritual inspiration.
Forest monks follow 227 rules of conduct. They are required to be celibate, to eat only between dawn and noon, and not to handle money. The way of practice, the teachings, and the codes of monastic conduct which the Buddha expounded 2500 years ago, run deeply against the grain of worldly concerns such as material success and sensual indulgence.
Historical Significance of Forest Monasticism
The Forest tradition began in the time of the Buddha and has waxed and waned throughout Buddhist history. Actually, the Forest tradition even predates the Buddha, as it was a common practice of spiritual seekers in ancient India to leave the life of town and village to wander in the wilderness and mountains.
The Contemporary Thai Forest Tradition
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Buddhism in Thailand had generally become corrupted with lax monastic discipline and a widespread belief that spiritual accomplishments were no longer possible. In the midst of this waning tradition, determined Buddhist practitioners returned to the basics of forest living, moral discipline, and meditation. The spiritual vigor and accomplishments of these forest practitioners led to the emergence of the contemporary Forest tradition in northeastern Thailand.
Almost all of the accomplished meditation masters of twentieth century Thailand were either the direct disciples of, or influenced by, Ajahn Mun, who was born in the 1870s in Ubon province near the borders of Laos and Cambodia. One of these great meditation masters following in his example was Ajahn Chah.
Ajahn Chah was born into a large, comfortable family in a rural village of northeast Thailand. After several years as a novice (samanera) he took full bhikkhu ordination at the age of twenty. As a young monk, Ajahn Chah studied Buddhist teachings and scriptures but eventually yearned for meditation guidance and became dissatisfied with the standard of discipline at his monastery. Taking on the life of a wandering monk, he sought out the guidance of various meditation teachers, including Ajahn Mun.
In 1954, after many years of travel and practice, he was invited to settle in a dense forest near his birth village. Over time, a large monastery, Wat Pah Pong, formed around Ajahn Chah, as monks, nuns, and laypeople came to hear his teachings and train with him.
Ajahn Chah was remarkable for his integrity, humor, and wisdom; for his sense of surrender to spiritual practice and the present moment; and for his ability to connect with people from many backgrounds in a spontaneous and straightforward manner. He taught in a simple, yet profound, style and emphasized practice in everyday life. As disciples gathered around Ajahn Chah, branch monasteries also began to be established. New branch monasteries continued to be established even after his death in 1992. At present there are more than three hundred branch monasteries in Ajahn Chah’s lineage spread throughout Thailand and in many countries around the world.
The Forest Tradition Goes West
Many foreigners came to learn from and ordain with Ajahn Chah. The first of these was the American-born monk, Ajahn Sumedho. In 1975, a group of Ajahn Chah’s foreign disciples were asked by villagers not far from Ajahn Chah’s monastery to start a new branch monastery. Ajahn Chah agreed, and established Wat Pa Nanachat (International Forest Monastery) near the village of Bung Wai. As a monastic training center, Wat Pa Nanachat currently includes under its umbrella monks from dozens of nationalities.
In 1976 the English Sangha Trust invited Ajahn Sumedho to establish a Theravada monastery in London. Accompanied by a small group of monks, Ajahn Sumedho heeded the request and established the first branch monastery in Ajahn Chah’s lineage outside of Thailand. Since that time, a number of Ajahn Chah branch monasteries have been created in the United Kingdom as well as Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. These monasteries, under the guidance of many of Ajahn Chah’s senior Western disciples, are allowing the profound benefits of the Buddha’s original teachings, preserved in the Forest tradition for 2500 years, to accompany Buddhism as it spreads throughout the Western world.
These monasteries provide centers for monastic training, as well as teaching and practice for the lay community. Tisarana Buddhist Monastery is part of this group of monasteries.
View details of some of the other monasteries of the Ajahn Chah tradition.