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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 1 (1994)


Forest Monks and the Nation-State: An Anthropological and Historical Study in Northeastern Thailand. By J. L. Taylor. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993. xii + 377 pp. 6 plates.


Reviewed by William Galloway, University of Washington.

Those whose lives have been more than superficially touched by Thailand will recognize the image of wandering forest monks, "walking by themselves or in small bands in single file... patched ochreous robes the colour of burnt mustard," meditation umbrellas over their shoulders and attention focused a "plough length" ahead. Taylors study meticulously traces the historical process by which "monks residing on the fringe of organized space and domesticated order" could be transformed into "the heart of Thai religiosity." This account will be of considerable historical value to JPE readers as the forest monks are apparently unwitting participants in their own demise, turned to instrospection as the forests of northeastern Thailand rapidly disappear. The monastic career and pupillary lineage of Ajaan Man Phuurithatto, founder of the modern "kammathaan" (ascetic meditation) forest tradition, forms the exemplary center around which Taylors analysis unfolds.

While there have been wandering ascetics since the time of the Buddha, this type of forest monk first appears in the context of religio-political reforms integral to the process of Thai state-building during the reigns of King Mongkut (1851-68) and King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910). Taylor asserts that many such monks were "effectively frontiersmen for the nation-state in the outer provinces, caught in the nexus of prevalent social and political conditions" (136). The changing status of Mans revivified forest tradition at the periphery in relation to the still-expanding influence of the centralized Thammayut order, linked to "a pervasive patronage system with the royalty in the capital," provides the particular circumstances within which Taylor explores the universal dynamics of a doctrinal Buddhism in its most "primitive" mode of expression, "a living system of beliefs and ritual practices set in their historical and sociocultural context."

Northeastern forest monks, in their conscious attempt to regain "the mystical source of normative religion" are seen as the cynosures of change in a traditional dialectic between theory and practice, embedded in the complex increments of reform. Historic and contemporary features of forest monasticism in Thailand are understood not as expressions of "an undifferentiated, ossified, or impervious movement" but as "segmentary pupillages sharing common features," whose existence attests to the vitality of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia today. Segmentary pupillages show a distinct evolutionary trend from radical social critique to social domestication as the secluded meditator comes to be recognized as "the very image of purity through self-mastery" and so the object of "profuse patronage, especially and importantly by the royalty," in a process Taylor calls "the routinization of individuated charisma."

Paradoxically, the more a monk withdraws into the periphery, the more sought-after he becomes. Taylor traces this "clear processual pattern" through four phases from the first points of "impact" through the construction of a jedii (traditional burial mound) in memory of the teacher. Practicing meditators will have by this time "hived off elsewhere" and been replaced at the forest monastic center by "institutional" monks from the town and village.

While Taylor bemoans "the last resort... selling cheap artefacts, blessed water, pictures of the deceased master, medallions, and the like," he notes that in a wider sense such popular devotions have long been a feature of Buddhist Southeast Asia, "where the landscape is potted with jedii, indigenous Buddhalogical sacra." The ecological impact of this evolutionary process is less sustainable. The northeastern forests were effectively domesticated by the early 1960s and are now disappearing at an alarming rate, together with the remaining forest monks. The implications of Thailands entrance into the world economy and the penetration of capital and state into "these patternless distant provinces" are hauntingly clear as Ajaan Thui Chanthakaro remembers, "less than twenty years ago the forest monks dwellings were the only cleared part of the primal forest... today the forest monastery is the only forest in the cleared surrounding countryside."Although some forest monks evince concern with matters of ecology and the environment, Taylor reports that most of his monastic informants felt that wider social, political, and economic changes, while leading to their own demise, were, as "kammic consequences," inevitable and thus "stressed introspective mental cultivation."

As the forest monk tradition reaffirmed and reinvigorated by Man fast recedes with the nations forests and the spoiling of Mans remaining first-generation pupils through "perfervid attention from the laity," it becomes increasingly problematical and is beset with contradictions and distortions. Speculating on a conscious need for revitalization, Taylor notes that in Thailand potential reformers like Man have tended to work within the establishment, though "undoubtedly on the fringe of social acceptability," emerging "from time to time in response to particular historical conditions." The current rise of the predominantly urban and fundamentalist Santi Asoke movement springs immediately to mind. Taylors "oral accounts, interviews... published and unpublished textual accounts... monastery histories and early tamnaan (Buddhist legendary tales)," in part collected during his own experience in the meditative vocation as a monk in 1982, have yielded a wealth of data on this modern inflorescence of the forest monk tradition.

While he claims to have assessed critically all material "along with its mode of transmission," noting in particular how "doctrinal themes are internalized, reinterpreted, and expressed by the actors," the personalities of these "actors" or "catalysts" of historical change haunting "charnel grounds" and "the taboo-loaded zone" at "the purlieu and interstices of social order," remain elusive. Individual practitioners, pupillages and segmentary lineages differ widely in their ability to maintain their status "at the terminus of civilization," in the world but not of the world. Taylors detached perspective on the subjects of his study may be necessitated by respect for his informants, who justifiably fear excessive publicity and the risk of "spoiling," but this perspective gives the work its theoretical flavor, despite the attention to detail. It is widely believed that Ajaan Man, in life "an enigma to the authorities," attained release from the conventional world and entered "nipphaan" (nirvana) upon his death in 1949. His ultimate release coincided with a surge of national attention for "the old vagabond monk" and "infusion into the stream of orthodoxy." A compelling image of Man, as "arahan" (saint), is the still core of this book. For the reader, this book is his jedii. The irony is that he cannot be eulogized without it.