Cambodian Forest Monks
The Forest Traditioin is still practiced today in some regions of Cambodia, such as Phnom Sruoch in Kampong Speu, Phnom Tbeng in Preah Vihear, and Phnom Bokor in Kampot. These places are as popular now as in the past among Forest Monks and white-robed ascetics.
The forest monk of Cambodia, known as lok thudong, was a potent protector, adept, or a “magician.”
In Cambodian Buddhism, the monk is expected to apply himself to the Trisiksa (threefold practices), of sila (morality), Samadhi (meditation), and panna (wisdom), also gantadhura (study-traditions) and vipassanadhura (meditation-traditions). The monks practiced the two dhuras according to local traditions, but not in a formal centralized manner. They studied Pali, Dhamma and Vinaya, on palm leaf manuscripts under the guidance of a dhammacarya (Dhamma-teacher), who could be a monk or a lay teacher. The monk practiced vipassanadhura whether individually in the form of Samadhi kammatthana, or in group retreats usually during the Rains Retreat (vassa).
The Thudong monk, or forest monk, way of life includes certain ancient traditions that emphasize (1) Presence and attention to observance days; (2) discussion of Dhamma on observance days; (3) Meditation (bhavana) on a daily basis; (4) destroying the impediments; (5) searching for suitable places for meditation; (6) searching for Kalyanamitta (teacher); (7) Learning the 40 khammathana meditation subjects.
The thirteen dhutanga (ascetic practices) are practiced by forest monks in Cambodia, though now the austere practices are no longer as prevalent as before. The civil war in Cambodia was devastating to the forest monks tradition of Cambodia. Also, young men often become monks to attain an education or escape poverty, and are not interested in the ascetic practices and meditation traditions today.
“According to Cambodian beliefs, this type of monk is called Thudong (Lok Tudong) if they live in the forest, mountains, or far from the cities. People believe that Tudong monks are obliged to practice austerity, one of which is to be honest, and as a result of that are protected from harm if they encounter by chance any wild animals such as tigers, elephants, or poisonous snakes. Thanks to purity in practice and conduct they are assisted and protected by the divinities and ‘honest’ spirits (neak saccam). Also, if practice Thudong, one must have a calling and must renounce the world, paying no heed to one’s own life.”
Traditionally, the thudong monks would gather at a well-known wat which specialized in meditation and study under a specialized meditation teacher. They practiced either samathakhammatan or vipassanakhammatan.
Sometimes the practice of Samadhi happened in the forest wilderness or in the mountains far from cities, calm and quiet places conducive to the practice of vipassanadhura.
In traditional custom, the three-month Rains Retreat was dedicated to meditation; not retreats throughout the year as is the practice today. Wat Ang Praleung in Oudong District, Kompong Speu, was one such meditation center formerly covered with dense forests, the abode of many kinds of wildlife such as elephants and tigers. However, the jungle cover has disappeared and meditation can no longer be practiced there today.
Samadhi (concentration) as Khmer tradition defined it, means “not falling into carelessness, concentrating one’s mind, and collecting one’s thoughts.”
“Samadhi aims at purifying one’s mind, making every effort to eliminate all defilements attached to one’s self which is the enemy of pure sila. Samadhi is generally not structured like kammathana (analytic meditation) as even concentrating one’s mind for ten to fifteen minutes is regarded as basic Samadhi, until Tacapancakakamatthana and Paccavekkhana."
"Kammathana is a very complex and sophisticated activity compared with Samadhi, focusing mainly on controlling one’s emotions. Kammathana consists of Samathakammathana and Vipassanakammathana. Samathakammatthana is defined as simple and basic meditation that aims to cultivate the mind and avoid defilements such as kamachanda (sensual pleasure). Vipassanakammathana is more detailed and practiced to improve one’s understanding, freeing onesself from defilement, including attachment to aggregates. Sometimes Samadhi and Kammatthana are combined in one word.”
Samadhi is of two kinds:
1) Lokiya samadhi – a kind of concentration for puthujjana (ordinary people) and
2) Kokuttara sammadhi - a king of meditation for people of higher aspiration (sotapanna, sakadagamin, anagamin, arahant).
There are three parts to Samadhi: 1) citta – mind as focus; 2) sila – moral endeavor as its root; 3) forty kammathana
In addition to the 40-kammathana as meditation subjects, Cambodians also meditate on (1) ten palibodha (impediments); (2) four jhana; (3) five-step jhana; (4) five nivaranadhamma (hindrances); (5) five vasi (mastery states); (6) six carita (types of temperaments).
Vipassana forms as taught in Burma (Goenka, Mahasi) are widespread in Cambodia today. Traditional practices are not widespread, though they continue in certain places, mostly in remote and inaccessible places such as Wat Kamphaeng (Battambong) and Wat Phnom (Stung Treng).
The attitude toward meditation practices in contemporary Cambodia are ambivalent. Some say vipassanadhura is needed in Cambodia, although others think it is only an individual practice and not in the common interest.
Many recognize that vipassana raises social consciousness in a time of moral-social crisis, such as a present decline in morality due to war and western materialism, leading to vice including sexual misconduct, drunkenness, drug addiction, gambling, joining gangs, leading to social instability. Meditation can contribute to the common good by helping to solve these social problems. People who practice meditation cultivate self-awareness of body, speech and mind. The custom in Cambodia of temporary ordination (Buos Abrum) includes meditation teachings for young men.
The Khmer-Lao wandering monks were revered by the traditional people as especially potent “fields of merit” or powerful spiritual presences. In their bodies, they contain potency, vitality.
The sacred knowledge (Dhamma) is held in their bodies, through memorization of chants and ceremonies, and observations of precepts.
The memorization of gata is more than simply magic spells. It is the inward transformation that comes from learning “by heart” – “embodying” – the words of the Buddha, Dhamma. The chants, words, teachings give “protection” (paritta) – invulnerability. The invulnerability and protection of the Dhamma is Nibbana.
“…It is based on a kind of ‘equilibrium theory’ of the notion of the body. They believe that a person’s physical and spiritual health depends on the soul (khwan) being settled inside the body in a stable condition. Men who possess panna (wisdom) dhamma, therefore, are people who not only generate layers of wisdom/dhamma but also maintain balance between external knowledge and internal souls.” [Hayashi Yukio, Spells and Boundaries.]
Knowledge is built up in layers within the body – for example through traveling to distant places, pilgrimages, visiting gurus (teachers), ordination as Buddhist monks who have time and opportunity to accumulate attainment – Enlightenment.
Monkhood is attainment of knowledge as experience, knowledge is power.
Traveling masters (lok thudong) have attained much more potency and knowledge (vijja), and are able to influence and benefit others. The adept must have not only rational knowledge, but be attained, i.e. be transformed by that knowledge, be virtuous by observing the Buddhist precepts. The adept maintains balance between mind and external objects (equanimity, equilibrium). He is able to embody, incarnate, enlightenment.
These were not written scriptures. They were spoken sounds in Khmer-Pali. They were heart-to-heart (mind-to-mind) transmissions. Theravada Buddhist monks are united not by a written scripture, but by a chanted sound.
In the body of the adept thudong monk, this sacred knowledge (enlightenment) can cross boundaries, is portable. The Lao Ajahn Lee, for example, was a deeply informed by this “potency” vitality aspect of Buddhist practice.
Phra Paisal, abbot of Sukhato Forest Monastery in Chaiyaphum Province of Thailand criticized the modern attitude that dismisses the ancient traditions. He criticized that modern-rationalist Buddhism has a lot of information, but lacks the sacred (saksit). This word saksit comes from Sanskrit sukti meaning status and siddhi (power). As Phra Phaisal explains, “The sacred here refers to that which is beyond the five physical senses, and it is inaccessible and unexplainable by more rationality, but which, nonetheless, can be attained or realized by the mind. It is a quality of power that those who access it can receive and benefit from. It is a refuge or security for those who believe. Its dynamism is beyond social codes and is comprehensible to the untrained mind. The ways to realize it are diverse, just as there are many ways of conceiving of it.”