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Aug 2, 2022

The Legacy of the Forest Saṅgha

While the Burmese vipassanā lineage we looked at last month gave Insight Meditation its name, retreat structure, and primary meditation method, Spirit Rock is equally connected to a second stream of Buddhist practice: the Thai Forest Tradition, also called the Forest Kamaṭṭhāna tradition or Forest Saṅgha. We trace this lineage through our founder Jack Kornfield’s root teacher, the Thai master Ajahn Chah (1918-92; Ajahn means “teacher”). This month we explore the Forest Saṅgha, and its modern revival by a renowned wilderness-dwelling monk, Ajahn Mun.

Ajahn Mun & the Kamaṭṭhāna Tradition

Thai Buddhist culture in the 19th century was heavily ritualized, focused on study, precepts, merit making, and outer renunciation, but with few monks (bhikkhu) practicing meditation, and the women’s monastic tradition long lost. Many believed that nibbāna—the end of suffering—was no longer possible. Modern conditions seemed so unsupportive that it was thought to be impossible to achieve the highest levels of tranquility and clarity of heart. But in the early years of the 20th century, a reform movement began that sought to rediscover effective meditation practices and restore the power of monastic life as a skillful path to liberation.

As a young monk, Bhikkhu Mun Bhūridatta (1870-1949) had studied meditation with a teacher named Ajahn Sao, but though the two lived together for many years, Ajahn Sao was unable to give Bhikkhu Mun the precise meditation guidance he sought. Leaving Ajahn Sao and traveling alone in the jungles and forests of northeastern Thailand and Laos, Bhikkhu Mun developed a style of meditation and ascetic life he felt was similar to what the Buddha and the early Saṅgha had practiced, and eventually became a sought-after teacher (ajahn or ācariya), widely considered to have attained liberation and become an arahant, a fully enlightened sage. 

Ajahn Mun’s practice centered around living in the wilderness, focusing relentlessly on freeing the heart-mind (citta) from greed, hatred, and delusion. He merged tranquility (samatha) and investigation (vipassanā) into a dynamic inner process, tracking the movement of the mind closely in order to confront unskillful states as they arose. He had a tendency toward visions, and was said to be able to converse with spirits (devas) and animals, teaching them the Dhamma and being protected by them when he practiced in dangerous wild places.

Ajahn Mun’s form of practice came to be known as the Forest Tradition, or Forest Kamaṭṭhāna, meaning “place of practice,” in contrast to the more study and ritual-oriented activities undertaken by urban monks. Though the Forest Tradition and the more mainstream styles were in conflict for many years, respect began to be given to the forest monks when it became clear how strong their practice was.

Ajahn Chah & the Forest Saṅgha

Near the end of Ajahn Mun’s life, a young monk named Ajahn Chah studied with him briefly, inspired by his precise observance of vinaya, and the ascetic practices (dhutaṅga) that Ajahn Mun had revived. Ajahn Chah later described Ajahn Mun’s instructions to him:

Do not focus on the experiences of meditation, however beautiful or painful they are. Instead turn back to see who is being aware, become the One Who Knows, the pure awareness.

Although the teachings are indeed extensive, at their heart they are very simple. With mindfulness established, if it is seen that everything arises in the heart-mind, right there is the true path of practice.

These simple but profound instructions transformed Ajahn Chah’s practice. This approach became one of the legacies of the Forest Tradition, and you may feel echoes of it in the open, flexible style of mindfulness we practice at Spirit Rock.

Ajahn Chah wandered in solitude for seven years, following the example of his teacher, before settling down in 1954 in a “fever-ridden, haunted” forest near his home town of Pah Pong in the rural province of Ubon. A monastery grew up around him there, called Wat Pah Pong. Carrying the skill and wisdom he had learned surviving in the wild into communal life, Ajahn Chah focused on ordinary activities as the place of practice, and his community grew to be respected for their sincere, rigorous lifestyle.

The Forest Saṅgha in the West

In 1967, an American monk named Sumedho began studying with Ajahn Chah, and by 1969 there were a small number of Western monks practicing at Wat Pah Pong. The second of them was a young Jack Kornfield, fresh out of the Peace Corps. 

Over the years as the number of English-speaking monks grew, Ajahn Chah supported them to form a branch monastery nearby, called Wat Pah Nanachat, the “International Forest Monastery.” Ajahn Sumedho was its first abbot. In 1977, Ajahn Chah was invited to England, and in 1979 Ajahn Sumedho became abbot of the first Forest Saṅgha monastery outside of Thailand, called Cittaviveka, in the small Hampshire village of Chithurst. Other centers soon followed, including a larger monastery, Amaravati, branch monasteries elsewhere in the UK and Europe, and in 1995 Abhayagiri opened in Ukiah, the first US branch of the Forest Saṅgha, with Ajahns Amaro and Pasanno as co-abbots.

Ajahn Chah died from diabetes in 1992 after being paralyzed and silent for 10 years. Over a million people, including the Thai royal family, attended the funeral of this beloved teacher whose transmission already spanned the globe.

The Women’s Order is Restored

As the western Saṅgha grew, women began to arrive wishing to practice and ordain. The Theravāda women’s monastic lineage, however, had been broken for nearly 1000 years, due to political instability and lack of support. Powerful monks had long maintained that it could not be revived, so the Thai substitute was an order of female renunciates called maechī who kept 8 precepts rather than the full 311 of a fully ordained nun (bhikkhunī). When the Saṅgha put down roots in England, this limited ordination was continued with the first four nuns ordained in 1979, one of whom was Thanissara, now teaching at Spirit Rock. In 1984 the 10-precept sīladharā ordination was established at Cittaviveka.

Throughout the Theravāda world in the 1980s and 90s (as well as in some Tibetan Buddhist traditions), keeping women in inferior and less supported monastic roles was increasingly being challenged. After decades of organizing, a series of historic ordinations took place, most prominently in Bodhgayā, India in 1998, that reestablished the bhikkhunī lineage. The Thai monastic authorities rejected the ordinations as invalid, even as the nuns living within the UK monasteries, alongside lay supporters, were pushing back against the lack of autonomy and full recognition for nuns.

In 2009, in response to growing pressure for full bhikkhunī ordination, a small group of senior monks in the UK monasteries of Chithurst and Amaravati enacted legislation, known as the Five Points, that blocked all pathways for nuns in the Ajahn Chah lineage to take full bhikkhunī ordination. While some sīladharā remained, the impact was that most nuns left, including several founding nuns from Chithurst, including Ayyas Ānandabodhī and Santacittā. 

Ayya Ānandabodhī and Ayya Santacittā ordained as full bhikkhunīs at a historic ceremony at Spirit Rock on October 17, 2011, and established Āloka Vihāra Forest Monastery in Placerville, CA as a training monastery for bhikkhunīs. Though the Ajahn Chah tradition is the heart of their practice style, their ordination as bhikkhunīs was conferred by senior bhikkhus from Sri Lankan and Western lineages, with Ayya Tathālokā, the senior Western bhikkhunī, as their preceptor.

Though there is far to go for the new bhikkhunī communities to be fully accepted, their thousand-year absence is ending, and the women’s monastic order is on the way to being restored.

The Teachings of the Forest Saṅgha

Now international, the Forest Saṅgha preserves the teaching of Ajahn Chah and other important teachers in Ajahn Mun’s lineage. Other important Forest Tradition lineages are represented at Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego, and Wat Pa Baan Taad and Suan Mokkh in Thailand.

The heart of Ajahn Chah’s practice can be heard in his famous teaching, “A Still Forest Pool”:

Try to be mindful and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become quieter and quieter in any surroundings. It will become still like a clear forest pool. Then all kinds of wonderful and rare animals will come to drink at the pool. You will see clearly the nature of all things (saṅkhārās) in the world. You will see many wonderful and strange things come and go. But you will be still. Problems will arise and you will see through them immediately. This is the happiness of the Buddha.

Practicing in this way, we ourselves become what Ajahn Chah calls “the One Who Knows,” an awareness that is open and clear without contracting around any experience. When we bring this kind of presence to all our activities, not grasping at anything whether beautiful or difficult, we find what Ajahn Mun taught Ajahn Chah: “the true path of practice” that leads to the end of suffering.


Talks & Meditations from Forest Saṅgha Teachers at Spirit Rock

Honoring the Forest Saṅgha, our Dharma selections this month feature current and former monastics in the Ajahn Chah tradition who have taught at Spirit Rock. Beginning with Ajahn Sumedho and Jack, two of the first Western disciples, reflecting on their beloved teacher, we hear talks and meditations from Ayya (Venerable) Ānandabodhī, Thanissara, Kittisaro, Ajahn Amaro, and Ajahn Pasanno, showing the elegance of approach and deep wisdom of the Forest Saṅgha tradition. 

Spirit Rock cherishes our continued connection to the monastic Saṅgha, and encourages all who desire a connection to the roots of Buddhist practice to spend time with, and support, the monastics.


Ajahn Sumedho
June 9, 2008
The Point That Includes
Ajahn Sumedho
Jack Kornfield
June 11, 2018
Remembering Ajahn Chah
Ayya Ānandabodhī
May 12, 2016
Ecology of the Heart
November 23, 2021
Inner Peace is Not Apart from Activism
November 27, 2019
This is Peaceful: Reflections on Nibbāna
Ajahn Amaro
October 23, 1998
Opening Talk For The Monastic Retreat
Ajahn Pasanno
May 1, 2011
Stories of the Tudong Monks (Part 1 of 3)

Listen to Part 2 & Part 3. Luang Por Pasanno is guiding elder of Abhayagiri monastery, Ukiah, CA

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