Kamala Tiyavanich, the introduction to Forest Recollections informs us, is nothing if not thorough. Setting out to produce a grad school paper, she produced her first publishable work, much longer and more detailed than the assignment called for. Setting out to write her Ph.D dissertation, she produced an authoritative and insightful book tracing the history, practices, and personalities of the Thai Forest Tradition in the 20th Century.
Forest Recollections, through interviews with forest-dwelling monks in Thailand, surveys of literature, and perusal of the recorded Dhamma talks of Forest Tradition masters, traces the rise and growth of the 20th Century Thai Forest Tradition, the latest reform-minded religious movement to sweep through Thai Buddhism.
Dealing with the history of the Forest movement, Tiyavanich places it firmly in the context of the rise of the urban-centered, reform minded Dhammayut Order founded by Thailand's most revered king Rama IV. While the Dhammayut Order aimed to restore Thai Buddhism to its textual roots in the Pali Canon, and to eliminate the breaches of discipline that plagued the early 20th Century Sangha, in its zeal to produce a uniform and centrally controlled religious order, it shoved roughly aside many of the local innovations that had made it possible for monks in some of Thailand's most remote areas to bring Buddhism to the local people, and to support themselves in sub-optimal conditions (places where lay supporters lacked both the time and the material wealth to support monks in the manner that the Dhammayut order mandated).
Out of this distress and the gradual stagnation and government co-opting of the Dhammayutt Order, the Thai Forest Tradition was born, or rather reborn, only the latest in a series of Theravada reform movements that sought to restore the spirit and essence of Buddhist practice by returning to the lifestyle of the wandering begger-monk.
Tiyavanich's work embraces both wings of the Forest Tradition movement- urban and well-educated monks who went to the jungle consciously seeking purer discipline, and a practice more focused on spiritual development and meditation than on book learning, as well as monks from rural areas that desired to find a Buddhist teaching outside the Dhammayutt that would enable them to make the teachings relevent to their own lives and the lives of the rural poor.
But Forest Recollections is more than a history; it is a study of the teachings, the lives, and the thoughts and emotions of forest monks and their followers. Tiyavanich interviews monks who lived in jungle caves, while tigers prowled outside, trusting that they would be protected by their spiritual aims and the Triple Gem. She talks with monks who lived and meditated in graveyards and cremation grounds, who were menaced by visions of the dead rising and the predations of evil spirits. The monks talk about the fire of passion that arises with the sighting of a village woman from afar, and the grim discovery of the corpse of another monk in the middle of the jungle- a reminder of the transitory nature of life, and the very real dangers of the life of a forest monk.
Forest Recollections goes beyond the doctrine, dogma, and theory of most religious and scholarly works. While it remains an invaluable source for scholastic research into the Thai Forest Tradition, it is even more fascinating in that it reveals the inner lives and thoughts of monks who staked their lives and their reputations on their adherance to a legacy of ancient practices that stretch back to the Buddha himself. Their frank discussion of their fears, temptations, and motivations provides rare insight into the mind of the mendicant reformer.