- Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand
History and anthropology professors at Cornell University were very impressed with this Ph.D. dissertation written by a student of Southeast Asian history at this prestigious institution. And rightly so, for Forest Recollections is a valuable study of twentieth-century wandering ascetics in northeast Thailand.
The author includes minibiographies of Ajaan Man Phurithat (1871–1949) and nine of his disciples, who also are now no longer in this world. The nine, all ethnic Laotians from the Isaan, are Waen Sujinno, Dun Atulo, Fan Ajaro, Thet Thetrangsi, Li Thammatharo, La Khempatato, Cha Photiyan, Juan Kulachettho, and Wan Uttamo. Her account of the lives of these holy men is woven into a history of Siam, beginning in the middle of the Fifth Reign as King Chulalongklon implemented a series of sweeping reforms, including centralization of the bureaucracy. The increase of central authority over outlying regions of the kingdom had a direct impact on the Sangha (the community and hierarchy of Buddhist Monks) and the forest tradition (which is a fusion of Buddhism, animism, and local customs that had been practiced for centuries). The book provides a background account of how regional Buddhist traditions were affected by various Sangha reforms in the twentieth century and is divided into three sections: forest communities prior to 1957; the “forest-invasion” [End Page 235] period (1957–1988); and the “forest-closure” period (1989 to the present).
For centuries, wandering monks had acted as both physical and spiritual healers for villagers they encountered on their travels. The changing political situation, however, resulted in wandering monks being co-opted and used by the elite. In the name of development, monks endorsed the construction of dams and wide modern roads, the wearing of Buddhist amulets, and the erection of ever more elaborate temple buildings. Many were eventually to lose the influence they had once exerted over rural people. With the notable exception of Ajaan Man Phurithat, however, most of them did not realize the very real threat posed to their way of life by an increasingly powerful centralized administration.
Tiyavanich has utilized Thai-language sources extensively, an effort that is hardly matched by any previous Western scholar. But despite the excellent research and the obvious care she took in writing her dissertation, Tiyavanich has failed to fully grasp the complexity of the Sangha order and the reality of the wandering monks themselves. What we get instead is a wide-angle portrait that lacks depth. It is rather unfortunate, for example, that she did not interview wandering monks who are still alive, such as Ajaan Maha Bua and Ajaan Viriyang, or foreign-born monks who are practicing in this same tradition, such as Pannavaddho Bhikkhu (of English birth) and Ajaan Sumedho Bhikkhu (an American). Some important figures have been left out, too. There is no mention, for instance, of Ajaan Bunnag, and this is a great pity for his life story reflects the failed attempts of a wandering monk to gain independence from the centralized power of the state. Conservationist monk Phra Prajak Khuttajitto gets only a brief mention, and even the world-famous Buddhadasa Bhikkhu receives scant attention. If the author had been acquainted with the Sekiya Dhamma group of monks or if she had ever read Sanitsuda Ekachai’s excellent Seed of Hope, her account would have been strengthened. Another weakness is that her English spellings of Thai Buddhist names for monks are often not true to their Pali origins.
Nonetheless, reservations aside, Forest Recollections is to be commended because it provides a lucid introduction to an influential Buddhist tradition, which may now well be on its way out, to those with little or no background knowledge of the subject.