Book Review: "Forest Recollections"

by Kamala Tiyavanich
subtitle: Wandering Monks in Twentieth Century Thailand
1997, U. of Hawaii Press

This book is a fascinating study of the forest-monk movement in modern Thailand. It is structured around the biographies of ten of the most important of the forest ajahns, detailing their hardships and triumphs seeking the Dhamma in the ancient way of the wandering bhikkhu.

Kamala Tiyavanich has extensively researched these heroes of the Dhamma using both oral and written sources. In her presentation she goes a good step beyond the often hagiographic approach of most ajahn's biographies. The characters of Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Chah and the rest step off the page and come alive, inviting us to share their journeys through a vanished world.

There are significant chapters describing their struggles with the chief defilements faced in that life; physical suffering, fear and sexual desire. There are plenty of edifying anecdotes, many which have been previously unavailable to the English reading Buddhist public.

Even more groundbreaking, she has woven the lives of these monks into a seamless whole, detailing their encounters not only with each other but with the sangha authorities, the changing secular power structure, the village communities and the dwindling forests.

If this were all there were to this book, it would still be a very worthwhile effort but there is more. In a long introductory chapter and interwoven skillfully throughout is a history of Thai Buddhism in its social and ecological context.

Tiyavanich describes the development of Thai Buddhism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a relentless push toward what she calls "modern state Buddhism. " Starting with Mongkut's reforms and the creation of the Dhammayut Order she describes the steady encroachment of the values of the centralizing Bangkok elite and the consequent undermining of vital local traditions.

This centralizing trend is seen to serve the interests of the secular elites and the creation of a modern Thai nation-state. The tensions and conflicts are complex, it is no simplistic good-guys and bad-guys scenario that is presented here. Often very good intentions lead to disastrous results. For example, the movement to educate the villagers away from their fear of forest spirits, which was supported by many tudong monks, led in the long run to a disrespect of nature and consequent deforestation.

Interesting too, is the effects on the sangha of the changing winds of secular politics from the overthrow of the absolute monarchy through the dark days of the Sarit dictatorship (Sarit suppressed meditation monasteries and is quoted as saying " If everyone has their eyes closed meditating, who will watch out for the communists?" ) down to the present day.

The picture presented here is essentially a tragic one. The forest-monk movement is seen as a last great Dhamma flowering before the forests disappeared and the wanderers were " domesticated" in settled monasteries. This book is sure to stir controversy for some of its implications. Anyone interested in Buddhist history, issues of religion and politics, engaged Buddhism and forest preservation would do well to read it.

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