A Buddhist reform tradition in Thailand that emphasizes meditation over study of the Pali cannon.
Traditionally, there has been perceived to be a division in Theravada Buddhism between 'city monks' and 'forest monks'. City monks are primarily scholars and civic figures; they study, translate, and teach the Tipitaka, and preside over ritual occasions. Forest monks, on the other hand, focus more on the study of meditation, and often undertake some of the traditional ascetic practices known as the 10 Dhutanga. The forest practitioners have, in many cases, been seen as more 'pure' in their discipline and devotion, and when monastic standards are in decline the forest tradition is seen as a source of revival and rebirth.
The modern forest tradition in Thailand was created by monks discontent with the state of Buddhism in Thailand who went into the jungles and rainforests of the Thai countryside to practice meditation as the bhikkhus of the Buddha's day had. During the early 20th Century, many of the more serious members of the Thai monastic establishment believed that the true Dhamma had been lost; knowledge of the Pali scriptures among the Sangha had waned, monastic discipline was lax and often varied greatly from temple to temple, and certain traditional techniques of training and meditation had been entirely lost. Some Thai reformers looked to forest monks among the minority Burmese and Mon speaking peoples, while the centralized reforms initiated by the Dhammayut Order attempted to return to textual orthodoxy by encouraging study of Pali, and tightening monastic discipline through the enforcement of a uniform code of Vinaya.
The originators of the Thai forest tradition regarded city life as ill-suited to living a proper monastic life. The politics of the religious establishment encouraged monks to pursue intellectual learning and social ties over the traditional monastic goals. The realities of life in large cities like Bangkok necessitated modifications to traditional monastic discipline (try begging for alms door to door in rush hour traffic when most of your supporters live in apartment buildings) that, while useful, seemed to some to be a softening of the monastic life style.
These idealistic monks sought out the elder teachers who continued to practice in the traditional manner. They established monasteries in relatively isolated jungle communities, or took to living alone in caves, cremation grounds, or forest hermitages. They practiced intense meditation for the greater part of the day, and ate only a single meal provided by begging in local villages. A few slept in the open, wore only cast-off rags. A few such monks met their untimely end, succumbing to disease in isolation, or, if the rumors are true, eaten by tigers. Others lived full lives, and died in meditation; such an occurrence, sometimes labeled in the West a 'samadhi suicide' is considered to be very auspicious- a cave where the relics of a monk thought to have died in meditation are discovered is considered to be a sacred site.
Eventually, these monks began to attract more followers, particularly from among Westerners eager to learn Buddhism primarily because of their interest in meditation. Forest tradition teachers continue to teach meditation to Westerners as well as Thais from their forest viharas. More recently, advocates of the forest tradition have become involved in ecology, worried that the declining state of the Thai rainforests may put an end to the tradition prematurely.
Access to Insight carries a lot of information on the teachings of the Thai forest tradition. An excellent source of information is the book Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in 20th Century Thailand.