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Thai Buddhism, Muay Thai aesthetics, and Thai animist culture

I have been involved in a very interesting conversation with Kevin von Duuglas Ittu, who is a scholar of Thailand’s Muay Thai, and his wife is a wonderful farang fighter and khru in Thailand (see http://www.sylviestudy.com/ ) . We’ve been discussing the connection between early 20th century Thai Buddhism, temple-based Muay Thai training, and the connection between the artistic, composed aesthetics of early Muay Thai (the Golden Age) and the influence of Thai Buddhism on Muay Thai aesthetics.

Part of the conversation is how in present days, Muay Thai has moved away from a more artistic, contemplative foundation toward a more power-based, damage-focused sport, perhaps in a way Thai society is moving away from its Buddhist contemplative roots toward a more aggressive, western consumerist society.

I share this conversation to see if anyone has any experience or thoughts on how Buddhism has shaped Muay Thai, and how there might be congruent elements between the Golden Age of Muay Thai and the Thai Forest tradition (including village animist practices). see Muay Thai Roundtable | 8LimbsUs Forum


As so many of our Golden Age fighters ( I say “our” and recognize that you and Sylvie opened this golden door for all of us) started their Muay Thai pathway as kids in the Thai wats, it’d be interesting for me to see if any of the Golden fighters and/or elderly abbots of some of these northern wats can draw a connection between Muay Thai aesthetics, animist traditions, and Buddhist Dhamma/practice.


Kevin: I wish we could have these kinds of conversations! (This mode of analysis, instinctively, feels far from Thai conceptualization about things, to me.) I would point out, also interestingly enough, that even though it is true that much of Muay Thai was transmitted through wat education, the State formalization of Buddhism that began with the turn of the 20th century, and extended through the time of the article above, did work to really narrow the diversity of Thai Buddhism (and likely Muay Thai) in that process. As King Chulalongkorn, for instance, named (and therefore ostensibly created the “schools” of Muay Boran in 1910, this has been seen by historians as an attempt to actually secularize Muay Thai in the country, by putting under State camp auspices. These two dates in our Modernization of Muay Thai bring this forward:

1902 – Religious Bangkok reforms outlawed non-Thammayut Buddhism mahanikai practices – these were often magical practices, but also boxing related activities were discouraged. It was a move towards orthodoxy that over decades would push muay teachings towards secular teaching (colleges, camps) and away from wat (temple) sources.

1909-1910 – King Chulalonkorn formalizes Muay (Boran) by awarding (in 1910, May 22nd) 3 muen (the lowest non-heriditary rank) to victors at the funeral fights for his son Uruphong Ratchasomphot (in 1909). The region-styles: Lopburi, Khorat and Chaiya.Daeng Thaiprasoet from Khorat (north-east) became Muen Changat Choengchok; Klueng Tosa-at from Lopburi (central plains) became Muen Muemaenmat; and Prong Chamnongthong from Chaiya (south) became Muen Muaymichue. Each were to set up kong muay to teach their styles. Boxers at such camps were except from military conscription and forced public labor.

The Modernization of Muay Thai - a timeline

It would be super interesting to know what animistic, magical practices were preserved throughout the century, and the wat pedagogy of Muay Thai itself, and how much the two came together if at all.

All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare. - Spinoza

follow my photography and thoughts on Instagram @kevinvonduuglasittu

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I just wanted to say I found this all fascinating. The extent of my knowledge of Muy Thai comes from a Mixed Martial Arts class I attended where I used to study Braziluan jiu jitsu. The artistic, aesthetic roots of Muy Thai were unknown to me. Thanks!

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Thanks for your comment, Jim! Yes, Sylvie and Kevin have done some very interesting things within their world of Muay Thai in Thailand, along with Sylvie’s Buddhist practice (often discussed in their Muay Thai travel vlogs) and Kevin’s scholarship with Thai and Muay Thai history. I’ve been geeking out a bit with their online and youtube essays, and I feel fortunate to have found them: a smart, charming, and interesting farang couple who share a passion for Muay Thai, its traditions, and the aesthetic and Buddhist foundations.

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