issue 24 Autumn/Winter 04
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The Buddha in the Jungle

Kamala Tiyavanich
Silkworm Books
University of Washington Press, 2004 $22.50 / £17.50 p/b

Probably most rural monks in the East who practise in solitude have their snake stories. I can recall several 'encounters' with snakes. In 1973 I was meditating in the middle of the night on a rocky ledge outside a cave that became my vihara (spiritual dwelling place) for around nine months; this was part of my training and discipline as a Buddhist monk on the island of Ko Pha Ngan, some hours off the coast of southern Thailand. The moon revealed the coconut trees below me and beyond lay the tranquil sea of the Gulf of Siam. I was probably the only westerner living on the island.

Sitting in meditation, with straight back and eyes closed in the cool silence of the night, I heard 'shu, shu, shu.' My ears pricked up. I assumed it must be a villager who had walked up the hill to my remote dwelling. I opened my eyes. Right in front of me, I saw a two-metre long snake dangling from a branch above the rock, its head less than a metre from my face. Its tongue kept flashing in and out. It had clearly sensed the warmth of my body. I kept as still as a Buddha image and our eyes met in the shadowy night.

I knew the snake was either a cobra and deadly poisonous, or a rat snake (they look similar in the dark) and non-poisonous but probably hungry. Neither the snake nor I knew what to do, but I knew the snake had no ill will towards me. I kept sitting, and the snake kept dangling in front of me. Very, very slowly, I managed to ease my way back without letting my eyes stray from his attention.

The Buddha's teachings on patience, equanimity and mindfulness proved extremely beneficial. A few months later, I nearly died from a serious snakebite due to lack of mindfulness while crossing a rice paddy and stream at night, without a torch and relying on moonlight. But that's another story.

Kamala Tiyavanich's The Buddha in the Jungle is a heart-warming narrative of the wandering lifestyle of Theravada Buddhist monks in rural Thailand between roughly the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. It is full of accounts of monks and their relationships to lay devotees in the villages, as well as snakes, wild elephants, tigers and ghosts. It is one of those books that are truly welcome. Unlike their Zen and Tibetan brothers and sisters, generations of Theravadin monks have had little interest in writing their stories or having them written down by others.

This book is a sequel to Tiyavanich's Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks In Twentieth-Century Thailand and these two books are perhaps the only public record in English of the extraordinary and sublimely anarchic way of life of these monks living in and around the villages, jungles and hills of rural Thailand. I recall listening to breathtaking stories of monks past and present who lived a fearless and free existence.

1902 was arguably the most important year in the history of the Thai Buddhist Sangha, when all monks were compelled to adhere to the centralised controlling body of senior bhikkhus, mostly based in Bangkok, which insisted on the importance of learning Pali language, taking exams in Pali, chanting suttas and forming Buddhist schools for novices. Western models of education influenced senior abbots in the cities. Before 1902 an abbot was chosen by the consensus of people in the village, not a governing body. Mindfulness, kindness and wisdom mattered more than educational qualifications in a Buddhist university, or the ability to remember Abhidhamma studies.

The Buddha in the Jungle is a fascinating account of the lives of monks who refused to adapt to such edicts and instead wandered around the country imparting simple wisdom to the villagers and pointing the way to a relationship with all sentient beings focused on co-existence rather than killing and destruction. The book shows the central role of mindfulness and meditation in a non-violent way of life. One Dutch zoologist from a century ago is quoted as saying that westerners have developed the faculty of intelligence, and the restlessness that goes with it, at the expense of 'inner repose' that the monks teach.

Kamala relates how the monks frequently used the power of mantra meditation, such as reciting buddho or araham, to remain calm when faced by a deadly snake, wild buffalo or fearsome tiger. One monk, bathing in a stream, found a crocodile gliding towards him until its nose touched his stomach. His equanimity and stillness saved him from being ripped apart. It was noted that westerners preferred to hunt and shoot a threat, whereas the Buddhists preferred the power of loving-kindness (metta) as protection. Fear was overcome with kindness rather than the aggressive act of taking to the gun.

Reading this book, Buddhist monks and post-monastics could become nostalgic for this way of life of thudong (homeless wandering), now so much under threat from urbanisation, highways and the destruction of forests and jungles. One of the monks was asked the name of his monastery. He replied 'Two Step Monastery'. His vihara was where his feet were.

Though the rules (vinaya) of the monks prohibited farming, gardening and dealing in goods, the monks nevertheless used their skills to help build temples, make canoes, create beautiful religious paintings and sculptures, as well as giving teachings to the people. Layfolk cultivated the fields while the monks taught cultivation of the mind. Monks and nuns were woven into the fabric of Thai rural society, where men and women had an equal role to play. As monks in villages or temples, hermits, cave-dwellers or wanderers, they faithfully kept alive the spirit of the Buddha's teachings about leading a homeless lifestyle, and shaking off the dust of the household life.

There are stories about some senior monks of the 19th and 20th century, such as Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Khai, Ajahn Doem, Ajahn Panna, Ajahn Phu and Ajahn Pan - whose photos are still found in monasteries and homes of devout Thais. There is little reference in the book to two of the great forest masters of the last century, namely Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906 - 1993: one of my two teachers) and Ajahn Chah, who are revered among Thais and many western Buddhists, but more detailed accounts of the lives of some forest ajahns are found in Forest Recollections.

Ajahn Dhammadaro (Vipassana teacher) walked on thudong through all 72 provinces and districts of Thailand during the late 1950s and early 1960s. On occasions he took with him more than 100 monks walking in single file. His name is not mentioned in either book. But it is hardly likely that Tiyavanich could include everybody. The book also lacks an index, a surprising omission by a university publisher. Hopefully the book will reach a second edition in which an index can be included.

The Buddha in the Jungle captures the most authentic expression of Thai Theravada Buddhism in which wisdom, inner repose and freedom of being takes central place for the monks. I spent several hours joyfully reading this book and I hope it will be possible to write such a book about the free-spirited wandering lifestyle of rural monks in the 21st century. But I have my doubts...

Christopher Titmuss, a former Theravadin monk in Thailand and India, teaches the Dharma through insight meditation and Engaged spirituality