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Why such distinct Thai and Burmese monastic traditions?


#1

I’ve often wondered. Many contemporary Western monastics seem to associate (by lineage) with either Thai Forest tradition (mostly via AjaanChah), or the Burmese Mahasi tradition. With those monastics whoparticipate in online forums, one can often sense which group they fall in, even without their explicitly mentioning it. One notable exception being “Bhante Jag” (Jaganātha), who was initially trained by V. Sujato (Thai Forest line) but thenordained at the Pa Auk Monastery (Burma). (He participated briefly onDhammaWheel last year, after someone launched a thread about his take on euthanasia. I was impressed with his teaching and demeanor, at one point defending him against a rather intemperate attack by an avowed Mahasi follower.)

Then, last month, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, as an aside during a two-day talk on
the parami-s, digressed at one point to relate the story of the legendary “Elephant Battle” between the Thai king and national hero Naresuan and the Burmese crown-prince, which Naresuan won, helping repel a Burmese invasion of Thailand (they had other names then, more feudal kingdoms than modern nations).

That aroused my interest, leading to some Wikipedia research, which revealed that Thailand (Siam) and Burma (also named otherwise then) were locked in almost continuous bitter warfare over 3 centuries, from 1547 to 1855, conquering each other off and on, and annexing or losing various bordering provinces back and forth. In fact, the article on the 1765-1767 war mentions: “On 7 April 1767, the Burmese sacked the starving city [Ayutthaya, Thai capital at the time] for the second time in history, committing atrocities that have left a major black mark on Burmese-Thai relations to the present day.”

Little wonder, then, that the Buddhist establishments in each country, which are closely tied into the governmental structures, seem to have little to say to each other.

Also, in recently reading Than-Geoff’s translation of Ajaan Lee’s autobiography, I noted that Ajaan Lee spent his career wandering through most of Thailand, and once through parts of Cambodia and Vietnam, apparently getting along with monks and lay people there just like at home, but no mention anywhere of Burma, which has extensive border with Thailand on the East and North. (Those countries in “Indo-China”, with the exception of Cambodia, all have rather oddly thin north-south extending and bordering territories.)

The upside may be that the two Buddhist traditions – Thai and Burmese – exhibit rather clearly demarcated different emphases in dhamma interpretation and teaching methods. This, IMO, enriches the scope of possibilities for learning and practice across the range of individual temperaments and preferences. I’ve worked a lot on both sides of the divide, and find the approaches essentially complementary rather than conflicting.


#2

Thanks for the perspective, it’s not something we think about very much.

One thing I’d say as someone who has stayed along the border in various locations, it’s some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen, but boy is it rugged. Mountains, thick jungles, tigers, snakes, malaria, wild tribes, predatory beasts screeching in the night, cannibalistic demons … Well, okay, I didn’t see any demons, but it’s still rough territory. And I’m speaking as an Aussie! A lot of the region is dominated by local tribes or people who are neither Thai nor Burmese, and you can understand why travel was rare.

But as a counterpoint, the modern Dhammayut ordination lineage was based on a Burmese lineage, the so-called kalyani sima ordination lineage. This is because then-prince Mongkut believed that all Thai ordination lineages were hopelessly corrupted.

As for the forest tradition, it’s true that travel to Burma was fairly rare, but there are some stories of forest monks going back and forth. Sorry, I can’t recall any names. Of course the languages are completely different, so it would have been hard to have any meaningful Dhamma exchange.

In Chieng Mai, I have met some Burmese monks staying in Thai temples, so there is some exchange these days. The border regions there are dominated by the Shan people, who have their own distinctive Theravada Buddhist culture. But there have been intermittent wars going on along the border, almost entirely unreported, since WW2, fueled by drugs and lumber.


#3

That is an interesting subject. It does seem like, at least to me (American, Thai Forest Tradition follower) like we just hear less about what is going on in general in Burma (and Laos, and Cambodia). Mostly governmental/political related probably and geographically like Bhante was mentioning-- rugged land. What I have read about Burma is quite impressive though. There are some great practitioners and teachers there and I really do respect how intensive and committed they seem to be. I know much less about Laos (other than adjacent regions in the Isan region) and Cambodia, and I’ve even heard Vietnam now has some significant theravada presence.


#4

Most of these regions have struggled desperately with political issues. Laos was massively bombed during the Vietnam war, and the communist govt entirely suppressed Buddhism for many years. It was illegal to meditate. In the last couple of decades it’s opened up a bit, but it’s still far from free. Cambodia likewise was devastated by war, and the subsequent corruption and instability has decimated a generation of Dhamma practitioners. They can practice freely there, and there are efforts to improve things, but it is an uphill battle. In Vietnam there is a small percentage of traditional Theravada, and in addition a significant body of reformists interested in serious meditation practice. But the communist govt suppresses the Sangha. As in China, monasteries are infiltrated with government spies, so it is difficult to maintain any sincere Dhamma practice.

Let me tell a little story. A monk friend of mine in Australia, Ven Thich Quang Ba, suffered for many years in Vietnam before fleeing as a refugee. He told me what had happened in his monastery in Vietnam. One of the monks who had lived there for many years came to the abbot one day, and bowed to him in great distress, tears streaming down his face. He said, Bhante, I have to make a confession. I am a spy. I was sent here to work for the government, and for the past years I have been watching everything that happens here and sending reports back to the government. But I can’t do it any more. Ever since I’ve been here, I have never seen anything wrong. No-one is committing crimes or trying to take down the government. All I see is kind people, helping each other, reciting the scriptures, serving the community, and practicing the Dharma. Now all I want is to be a monk for the rest of my life so I can learn the Dharma and find the same peace and happiness. But I know, as a spy who entered the Sangha fraudulently, I can never be a monk. That is why I am so sad!


#5

What a heartbreaking story, but uplifting at the same time as a testament to the power of the Dhamma and those who practice well!

:anjal:


#6

Hi CJ Macie,

Yes, the warfare is very much part of the Thai psyche. My wife’s family live in northern Ang Thong (the province north of Ayuttaya), so I’ve visited a some of the places you see in Wikipedia or in the movies.

There’s a monument to Naresuan in Suphanburi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Chedi_District
Bang Rajan, the Thai version of the Alamo, where a village made a last stand against the Burmese army, is in Sing Buri: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bang_Rachan
There’s a reasonably recent movie: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bang_Rajan_(film) which is good, but not for the faint-hearted.

Apart from the furious fighting, and the villagers harvesting rice on the scorching central-Thailand plains, one of the memorable (but presumably made-up) scenes for me involves the village Bhikkhu, whose spiritual power they see as a protective influence. Some of the men approach him, wanting arm bands to protect them. Paraphrase from memory:
“You know those don’t work, don’t you?” he says.
“Yes, but If it’s all the same to you, bhante, can we just take that mat you’re sitting on?” they reply.


#7

That is truly a heartbreaking story Bhante, but also touching that he was so inspired. The pervasiveness of government spies really is sad to hear about.

It does make me think of my mentor at work, who was a soldier during the Vietnam war-- special forces. Instead of Vietnam, he spent his time in Cambodia and Laos. His main job was to arm, train, and enlist ethnic minorities in those countries in fighting communists. I began to understand after hearing his story that the “secret war” as we call it in the US (which was much more than bombing), was really a part of a wide-scale war across SE Asia which in many ways is ongoing today. There are still refugee camps in Thailand with huge numbers people in them fleeing conflicts that started all those years ago.

I hope the Sangha is able to be revived/resuscitated once these governments do change or fall away. I can only hope one of the other countries will come and help as has been the tradition when one of the other Theravada countries has had problems of this nature.


#8

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


#9

Thanks for these information about present-day state of Buddhism in Myanmar and some of its recent history.

Could you indicate a reference for this please?

Yes this has always struck me as very surprising indeed.

:anjal:


#10

There are some references to the Mon connections in the Wikipedia article, though I’m sure someone could suggest some more scholarly ones…


#11

It was discussed in fair detail in Somdet Nyanasamvara’s Buddha Sasana Vamsa, translated by Khantipalo and published by Mahamakut. This gives a very nice account of the origins of the Dhammayut order. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any copies on the internet. If anyone comes across it, do us a favour, scan and upload to internet archive!


Sects & Sectarianism & the Kalyani Sima
#12

This is all really interesting, I wasn’t aware of the historical conflicts between Thailand and Burma.

In addition to everything written here, I would highlight something @dhammosadha touches on. At least in the States, two of the largest Theravada Buddhist organizations are IMS in Barre, MA and Spirit Rock in California. The early core teachers at IMS were Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jacqueline Mandell, who were students of Ajahn Chah, SN Goenka, and Mahasi Sayadaw (/Munindra, Dipa Ma, Sayadaw U Pandita), as well as Taungpulu Sayadaw (also Burmese).

These teachers, and their colleagues and associated centers, became very popular. And Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction was inspired, at least in part, by Jon Kabbat-Zinn sitting a retreat at IMS - that also became very popular! So at some point it’s a feedback loop; the stuff that’s popular gets attention (because it’s popular), which in turns makes it even more popular. So when, say, a mainstream magazine is writing about Theravada, they are writing about these folks, their teachers, etc., and the popularity increases.

So, to me, it’s not so much why are Thai and Burmese meditation so popular, but why are the methods of Mahasi Sayadaw, SN Goenka, and Ajahn Chah so popular. For Euro-Americans, at least, the story is informed by the fact that our “famous” Euro-American teachers were all students of these lineages. It’s not that we here in the States actually know about the range or nuances of Burmese meditation – as pointed out by @dhammosadha, Mogok Sayadaw’s method is incredibly popular in Burma, but virtually unknown to English-speaking practitioners.