The Theravāda Buddhist tradition is grounded in the discourses recorded in the Pāli Canon, the oldest Buddhist scriptures. Theravāda means “Way of the Elders” because of its strict adherence to the original teachings and rules of monastic discipline taught by the Buddha.
Within Theravāda Buddhism is a branch commonly known in the West as the Thai Forest Tradition a Monastic lineage closely linked to the Buddhas original teaching and discipline, the Dhamma Vinaya. The tradition is distinguished from other Buddhist traditions by its doctrinal emphasis on the notion that the mind precedes the world, its description of the Buddhist path as a training regimen for the mind, and its objective to reach proficiency in a diverse range of both meditative techniques and aspects of conduct that will eradicate defilements (Pali: “kilesas”) – unwholesome aspects of the mind – in order to attain awakening.
The tradition began circa 1900 with Ajahn Mun Bhuridatto and Ajahn Sao Kantasilo: two Dhammayut monks from the Lao-speaking cultural region of Northeast Thailand known as Isan. They began wandering the Thai countryside out of their desire to practice monasticism according to the normative standards of Classical Buddhism (which Ajahn Mun termed “the customs of the noble ones”) during a time when folk religion was observed predominately among Theravada village monastic factions. Because of this, orthopraxy with regard to the earliest extant Buddhist texts is emphasized in the tradition, and the tradition has a reputation for scrupulous observance of the Buddhist monastic code, known as the Vinaya.
Nevertheless, the Forest tradition is often cited as having an anti-textual stance, as Forest teachers in the lineage prefer edification through ad-hoc application of Buddhist practices rather than through methodology and comprehensive memorization, and likewise state that the true value of Buddhist teachings is in their ability to be applied to reduce or eradicate defilement from the mind. In the tradition’s beginning, the founders famously neglected to record their teachings. They often wandered the Thai countryside offering individual instruction to dedicated pupils. However, detailed meditation manuals and treatises on Buddhist doctrine emerged in the late 20th century from Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Sao’s first-generation students as the Forest tradition’s teachings began to propagate among the urbanities in Bangkok and subsequently take root in the West.
The purpose of practice in the tradition is to the ultimate end of experiencing the Deathless (Pali: amata-dhamma): an absolute, unconditioned dimension of the mind free of inconstancy, suffering, or a sense of self. According to the traditions exposition, awareness of the Deathless is boundless and unconditioned and cannot be conceptualized, so it must be arrived at through the aforementioned mental training which includes deep states of meditative concentration (Pali: jhana); and Forest teachers directly challenge the notion of dry insight. The tradition further asserts that the training which leads to the Deathless is not undertaken simply through contentment or letting go, but the Deathless must be reached by “exertion and striving” (sometimes described as a “battle” or “struggle”) to “cut” or “clear the path” through the “tangle” of defilements that bind the mind to the conditioned world in order to set awareness free.
Related Forest Traditions are also found in other culturally similar Buddhist Asian countries, including the Galduwa Forest Tradition of Sri Lanka, the Taungpulu Forest Tradition of Myanmar and a related Lao Forest Tradition in Laos.
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