Forest Monks In Buddhism

Reviving the Spirit of Early Buddhism

Buddhist monk walking towards one of the three Buddhist meditation hermitages at Udawatta Kele Sanctuary, Sri Lanka.
Asanka Brendon Ratnayake / Getty Images

The Forest Monk Tradition of Theravada Buddhism could be understood as a modern revival of ancient monasticism. Although the term "forest monk tradition" primarily is associated with the Kammatthana tradition of Thailand, today there are many forest traditions around the world. 

Why forest monks? Early Buddhism had many associations with trees. The Buddha was born under a sal tree, a flowering tree common to the Indian subcontinent. When he entered final Nirvana, he was surrounded by sal trees. He was enlightened under the bodhi tree, or sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa). The first Buddhist nuns and monks had no permanent monasteries and slept under trees. 

Although there have been some forest-dwelling, mendicant Buddhist monks in Asia ever since, as time went on, most monks and nuns moved into permanent monasteries, often within urban settings. And from time to time, teachers worried that the wilderness spirit of original Buddhism had been lost.

Origins of the Thai Forest Tradition 

Kammatthana (meditation) Buddhism, often called the Thai Forest Tradition, was founded in the early 20th century by Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta Thera (1870-1949; Ajahn is a title, meaning "teacher") and his mentor, Ajahn Sao Kantasilo Mahathera (1861–1941). Today this best-known forest tradition is spreading around the world, with what might loosely be called "affiliate" orders in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and other western countries. 

By many accounts, Ajahn Mun had not planned to begin a movement. Instead, he was simply pursuing a solitary practice. He sought out secluded places in the forests of Laos and Thailand where he could meditate without the interruptions and schedules of community monastic life. He chose to keep the Vinaya strictly, including begging for all of his food, eating one meal a day, and making robes made of discarded cloth

But as word of this reclusive monk's practice got around, naturally he drew a following. In those days monastic discipline in Thailand had grown loose. Meditation had become optional and didn't always conform to Theravada insight meditation practice. Some monks practiced shamanism and fortune telling instead of studying the dharma. 

The Modern Forest Monk

However, within Thailand, there also was a small reform movement called Dhammayut, begun by Prince Mongkut (1804-1868) in the 1820s. Prince Mongkut became an ordained monk and began a new monastic order called Dhammayuttika Nikaya, dedicated to the strict observance of the Vinaya, Vipassana meditation, and study of the Pali Canon. When Prince Mongkut became King Rama IV in 1851, among his many accomplishments were the building of new Dhammayut centers. (King Rama IV is also the monarch portrayed in the book Anna and the King of Siam and the musical The King and I.) 

Sometime later young Ajahn Mun joined the Dhammayuttika order and studied with Ajahn Sao, who had a small country monastery. Ajahn Sao was particularly dedicated to meditation rather than the study of scriptures. After spending a few years with his mentor, Ajahn Mun withdrew to the forests and, after some two decades of wandering, settled in a cave. And then disciples began to find him. 

Ajahn Mun's Kammatthana movement differed from the earlier Dhammayu reform movement in that it emphasized direct insight through meditation over the scholastic study of the Pali Canon. Ajahn Mun taught that scriptures were pointers to insight, not insight-in-itself.

The Thai Forest Tradition is flourishing today and is known for its discipline and asceticism. Today's forest monks do have monasteries, but they are away from urban centers.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "Forest Monks In Buddhism." Learn Religions, Sep. 6, 2021, O'Brien, Barbara. (2021, September 6). Forest Monks In Buddhism. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Forest Monks In Buddhism." Learn Religions. (accessed March 27, 2023).