Hi @cjmacie, Bhante @sujato and others,
it has been a while since this thread was active , but I felt the following might be interesting for you, especially because cjmacie seemed to say that forest monks didn’t seem to go to Myanmar much and then Bhante Sujato said there was travel to Burma within the Thai forest tradition but he couldn’t recall any names… so I immediately remembered the story of Ajahn Mun that I read in Forest Recollections, written by Kamala Tyavanich. He’s so famous that I was suprised others wouldn’t have known or recalled these stories… I’ll quote some passages below.
In that book there are plenty accounts of various Thai forest monks wandering into Burma, but rather mostly just into the bordering Shan State.
Shan Buddhism actually at that time had quite local Buddhist traditions, different from the Burmese (Bamar) tradition and only later the State sangha became more powerful and sent it’s educational examination system out into remote areas to standardize Buddhist thought in Myanmar in many ways, as was similarly the case for Thailand respectively.
As I’ll be quoting later, we shall see that there was also some exchange/influence on an institutional level from burmese into Thai practice, but this was mostly on the level of “vipassanā meditation”, known at that time in Thailand as “burmese satipatthāna”.
This was mostly from the Mahasi practice, and I think even nowdays Mahasi practice is quite popular in Thailand.
Besides meditation practice, the monastic traditions were quite isolated due to the historical division between the countries, as mentioned by cjmacie, but yes, not to forget that the Dhammayut lineage was inspired by a Burmese/Mon forest tradition. I don’t know much about Dhammayut but have heard some about their different chanting style compared to mahanikai, by giving importance to syntax and these things instead of chanting a non-stop text that doesn’t seem to have any sentences. Here I feel in Burma attention is given to reproducing the meaning of what is being chanted.
Something that has to be mentioned is that for several reason in Thailand lots of foreigners/westerners have been taking robes and elaborating translation of the Dhamma and Vinaya and monastic life/training into English, while in Burma only very few foreigners have taken up a life in robes and stayed there, let alone try to translate and export the Burmese monastic tradition as has been the case with the Thai forest tradition for example. This has first of all political reasons: until only around 6 years ago it was difficult even to get a visa for Myanmar, let alone living in Myanmar longterm as a foreigner… until now the country and culture is relatively closed, especialy so compared to Thailand.
Then also, while meditation tradition has been exported from Myanmar en masse (Mahasi and it’s several offshoots like Panditarama and all those new age meditation teachers in Spirit Rock and psychiatric mindfulness treatment research etc.; and Goenka), monastic tradition as well as history have been exported or translated very little. Online one can’t really find much at all about Burmese buddhism. Besides Mahasi, Pha Auk and Goenka(/IMC/Webu Sayadaw) the internet doesn’t seem to know anything about Burmese Buddhism of present or of the past. Just to give an example: The most popular and widely (among lay people) practiced meditation tradition in Myanmar is “Mogok” - but in the whole country there is only one center that has a Sayadaw who can instruct in English, so almost no foreigner knows about this technique…
The lack of information on the internet is also due to the country having been closed for so long, where until a few years ago only a few percent of the people had a mobile phone at all, forget about internet… and now people have facebook and facebook is the internet for them, so nothing much about websites etc… also living conditions and the level of modernization in Myanmar are still pretty basic compared to Thailand, so not that many foreigners are attracted somehow.
anyways now let’s have a look at the passages from the book “Forest Recollections”, which I like very much and find very rich in historical as well as practical information regarding forest monkhood.
(note that Ajahn Mun is called “Man” here…)
- “…Having practiced with Sao for several years, Man went wandering on his own in search of another meditation teacher. He wandered into Laos but found no one there who could solve his problems with meditation. Next he went to Burma, having heard there were many competent meditation masters there. On this trip Man was accompanied by another monk whom he had met in Bangkok ( in 1911 ) . From the Central Plains they walked toward the border, crossed the high mountains dividing the two countries, and entered Burma. Sometimes they would walk through the forest for as long as three days without seeing anyone. It took them eight months to reach the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, where they stopped to pay homage. On the way back they spent the rains retreat in Moulmein.
Man must have met some highly experienced meditation teachers in Burma . “I could have asked them deeper questions regarding mind development,” Man told one of his disciples, " but I couldn’t ask beyond my level " (M3 , 1 0 ) . Neither of Man’s biographers give the names of these teachers, however.
After returning from Burma, Man continued to use the months
between the rains retreats to wander on both sides of the Mekong
River. …” (p.71 f)
A pity that the names of the Sayadaws aren’t mentioned - it would be interesting to think about who these teachers could have been. A few of Ajahn Mun’s famous burmese contemporaries I would come up with now would be: Ledi Sayadaw, Masoyein Sayadaw, Kanni Sayadaw, Mohnyin Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Sīla and others…
I think partly a reason why the burmese masters could answer very “deep” questions may have been due to their high proficiency in applied Abhidhamma.
Also note that Ajahn Mun must have spent around one year in Burma, probably meeting many different teachers. but from the text it seems that he went only to Yangon and not Upper Myanmar, where many of the famous teachers of that day were staying, around Mandalay and Monywa.
"Thudong monks valued wandering as an ascetic practice, as a means of training the mind to face hardship and the unpredict· able . Whenever they wandered far from the relative comfort and security of the monastic life, they had to contend with fear, pain, fatigue, hunger, frustration, and distress; and sometimes they risked death. The areas in which they wandered were not confined by the political boundaries of Siam/Thailand. They often walked across national borders to the Shan states, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. In Man’s time a monk could wander freely into neighboring countries, and thudong monks willingly did so. Unlike academic and b ureaucratic monks in the sangha hierarchy, they had a keen interest in faraway places and thought nothing of walking great distances to reach them. "
- “During the first half of this century, many thudong monks wandered extensively in the northern region or crossed the border into the Shan states and lower Burma (see figure 6 ) . In their wandering, the monks had to face various kinds and degrees of deprivation and inconvenience. Of the thirteen ascetic practices, the hardest ones to observe were the rules requiring going out for alms, having only one meal a day, eating out of their bowls, and not accepting food presented afterward. But as Bua says, thudong monks were not afraid of places where food was scarce and comfort could not be expected.”
Now some history regarding religious exchange between Burma and Thailand:
- "During this period Phimontham (At Atsapha ),2 abbot of Wat Mahathat and the sangha minister of the interior under the Sangha Act of 1 94 1 , attempted to reform and revitalize modern state Buddhism by integrating meditation practice with book learning. Phimontham was convinced that the initiators of the sangha reforms of 1902 had made a grave error in promoting textual study at the expense of meditation practice. In his opinion " the essence of Buddhism . . . can only be found in meditation. " 3 In 1949 he invited skilled meditation masters of the local traditions from Nongkhai, Khon Kaen, Khorat, and Ubon Provinces to train monks and novices in samatha meditation at Wat Mahathat.4 To promote meditation practice among monks and laypeople he established the Vipassana Meditation Center in 1 95 1 . Phimontham’s reform was influenced by a religious revival in Burma and by Prime Minister U Nu 's support of meditation for monks and laity.s Phimontham felt that the Burmese style of vipassana meditation would be easy and useful for Thai urbanites. In 1 952 he sent Maha Chodok Yanasithi, a Thai-Lao Mahanikai monk from the Northeast with a ninth-level Pali degree, to learn vipassana meditation in Burma .6 When he returned to Thailand, Chodok brought two Burmese meditation masters ( one of whom was his teacher) to teach vipassana meditation. Maha Chodok supervised Wat Mahathat’s meditation center from 1953 to 960. This initiative by a Mahanikai administrator motivated the Thammayut elders to pay attention to their meditation monks and take advantage of this resource. In 1 95 1 the Thammayut leader of the southern region invited Sing (Man’s senior disciple) to teach meditation to monks and laypeople in Phetchaburi Province in the South. The following year the Thammayut elders recommended that ecclesiastical titles be awarded to Sing and Thet.
But Phimontham’s attempts at reform from within did not get very far. In 1 960, as we shall see, he was removed from his position, stripped of his title, and put in jail. His meditation center at Wat Mahathat was dismantled. As for the two Burmese meditation teachers, one of them returned to Burma and the other went to teach at a meditation samnak, Wiwekasom, in Chonburi (east of Bangkok ) . 1 1 What precipitated this collapse ? Political events of the late 1 95 0s produced fundamental societal changes in Thailand, a transformation that brought the Forest-Community Period to a close.
One reason behind Phimontham’s arrest as a communist sympathizer was his devoted effort to reform the modern state religion by p opularizing the practice of meditation. Ashe explains, "I came to realize that although the form, ritual and theory of Buddhism in Thailand was in good working order, the practice was not. It was my contact with monks from Burma, who have a strong tradition of practice that gets results, that led me to realize that the situation in Thailand needed reforming. For only when the theory and practice are combined is it p ossible to attain the stage of Arahant. "
Hope this was interesting for you and would be happy to hear some thoughts and perspectives, since I don’t know much about the Thai perspective.
best wishes from Southern Myanmar