Thai Forest Temples: Books Not Required; Internet? Pending…

IMG_0738Thai Buddhist ‘Forest Temples’ are not the saffron gilded air-conditioned temples of the cities and towns, but rustic temples of the woods, the outback and the heart, a tradition dating from a time when Thailand actually HAD forests and itinerant monks walking through them. This tradition dates back little more than one hundred years, but in that period of time has gained many adherents, both local and international, mostly due to the efforts of the late Ajahn Chah, who taught many foreign disciples, and set them loose upon the world…

‘Tam boon’ is the usual Thai term for Buddhist ‘merit-making’ and could just as easily be translated ‘doing good’, though that probably doesn’t convey the urgency with which most Thais accept the need for a showcase to display their gratitude, not simply submit silent offerings. The best deeds tend to be spectator sports to which all are invited, and many a belly is filled, spectacles and feasting more than introspection and fasting, which is a better goal for religion IMHO…

The Forest Temples continue this tradition, but with some healthy changes. First of all, you’re not likely to see any major ceremonies out there, if for no other reason than that the facilities for that simply do not exist there, which are usually small operations, by design and desire. They are mostly connected with each other, though, at least loosely, so they make up with affiliation, what they lack in ostentation (certainly no corporate-sponsored dancing girls)…

There is also an increased emphasis on the heartfelt nature of the offering over the ritual name-dropping which occupies so much of the blessing-time in the traditional ceremonies, apparently for Buddha himself (and all others) to hear. The Forest Temples rightly diminish this, as well as rejecting any ‘Tawai’ offerings which are simply not needed nor appropriate in a situation in which meals are collected every day, and there is little or no support staff. This is good, lean and well-meaning…

Unfortunately for most foreigners the number of English-speaking temples in Thailand itself are few, and the experience may not be as authentic as a more typical Thai-speaking one, in which I was allowed as a novice to help collect alms along with the fully-ordained priests on morning rounds in the far northern town of Mae Chan. This is a sublime experience, never to be forgotten…

My curiosity as to how the international temples conduct themselves will likely take me to one near San Diego, US, one day soon hopefully, and maybe elsewhere, also, though I do plan to attend a Tibetan-Buddhist internationalized temple in Kathmandu, Nepal next week. It should be interesting…

But in the Forest Temple ‘movement’, I actually see possibilities for a template to survival of the species. As governments stumble and crumble, people will look to religion to take up the slack. None is better equipped for this than Buddhism, largely conciliatory and non-aggressive, to help you make your own peace in a world with less than before, and the Forest Temples embody the new ethos of sustainability perfectly. Consider this scenario:

Communities could pass centuries in physical isolation from each other and still be connected by Internet, which costs little to sustain and operate. Unfortunately Forest Temples seem to have not only an anti-intellectual no-book attitude to their practice of religion, but Buddhism in general seems to be reluctant to embrace Internet and social media fully, treating it as a nuisance only to be (barely) tolerated…

Some Buddhist temples, centers and retreats seem to want to make a point of not allowing digital devices, much less providing WiFi for them, or at least requesting that you not do it out openly, in order to maintain appearances, I guess, but what exactly are those appearances that we wish to avoid: modernity, timeliness, and intelligence?

I see no contradiction between Buddhism and the Digital Age, quite the contrary, as it all depends on what you intend to do with it. Would you outlaw books? I read e-books. So why all the bluff and feint and prohibits and inhibits? If you want total inaccessibility, then you’d have to be out of range of all telephone signals, electric grid, and water pipes, too, I suppose, but what is the true Buddhist spirit—seclusion or enlightenment?

Just like the men-only specification, anti-tech is problematic. The Forest Tradition is anti-intellectual, got it, no problem. That’s a matter of taste and personal preference. But how can you be anti-technological and still be relevant? How much electricity is too much? Then why not WiFi? This is DIY Buddhism, got it. Nobody will slap your head to make you straighten your meditation posture in a Forest Temple. But I see no reason to cop a ‘tude on modernization. We aren’t Amish here…

Another thing I’d like to see would be self-sufficiency in agriculture. I don’t know what they do in temples too isolated to collect alms, but I intend to find out. Women are ordaining in Sri Lanka now, and coming to Thailand to practice the Dharma, and without the usual government support, so that should be facilitated, too, I feel, and ASAP. There is no time to waste. We’re playing for keeps here…

Author’s note: For those interested in testing their priestliness, the Thai Theravada tradition may be strict, in terms of lifestyle commitments while a priest, but it also allows for less-than-permanent ordinations, and many Thais don the robes at least once in their lifetime. This applies to both the forest temples and the city slickers. On the other hand, anyone can simply ‘practice dhamma’ at any temple that will accept you, with no further commitment or qualifications. That is what I did, for a week–and plan to go back.

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