The Buddha in the Jungle by Tiyavanich

Kamala Tiyavanich.The Buddha in the Jungle. Foreword by Stanley O’Connor. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books/Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. Paperback, xxiv + 380 pages.

If you love stories, as do most people, and are curious about Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand, this book will not disappoint you. It portrays “Southern” Buddhism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in what was formerly known as Siam (remember Deborah Kerr and Yul Brunner in The King and I?).

Kamala Tiyavanich, who also authored Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand, has a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history from Cornell University and is a Thai Buddhist herself. Her present work revolves around the lives of a number of senior Buddhist masters, who lived in what environmentalists call the “Jungle-Village era” of Thailand prior to 1957, which year marks a new beginning in the country’s economic development and the rapid destruction of its environment.

The Buddhist masters featured in Tiyavanich’s book, most of whom were abbots, freely mixed with the rural population and acted as jacks of all trades—teachers, counselors, storytellers, healers, miracle workers, astrologers, psychologists, and artists. For part of the year, they sought out the jungle wilderness for solitary meditation practice.

The author has done a fine job in embroidering the stories and recollections, as told to her by the Buddhist monastics, with illuminating observations about the larger context of Thai history, society, and culture.

Evidently, Thailand has produced many extraordinary adepts. Some shared a cave with wild beasts, including king cobras, without ever being harmed. Others willingly gave up the peripatetic lifestyle they loved because their monastic disciples and lay followers begged them to do so. Yet others were apparently able to recall their past lives or make the hides of oxen impenetrable to a misguided hunter’s arrows, or clairvoyantly determine the escape route of bandits who had plundered a village. Some masters were greatly accomplished in mantras for all occasions, while others taught the art of swordsmanship or how to subdue a mad elephant.

Tiyavanich succeeds in vividly evoking a bygone age.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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