Jan. 19, 2023

The Thai Forest Tradition: A Modern Buddhist Renaissance | Steven Towler

The Thai Forest Tradition: A Modern Buddhist Renaissance | Steven Towler

One of the most impactful traditions of Buddhism in the modern world is one that isn’t very good at publicity - but is very dedicated to practice. Despite it’s strict adherence to the principles of monastic discipline and the principles of Buddhist e...

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One of the most impactful traditions of Buddhism in the modern world is one that isn’t very good at publicity - but is very dedicated to practice. Despite it’s strict adherence to the principles of monastic discipline and the principles of Buddhist ethics, like for instance never selling the teachings, it has gained a huge grass roots following in many Western countries where people are drawn to its plain, simple honesty and dedication to the original principles of set out by the Buddha. I’m referring to the Thai Forest Tradition, and to help us understand the origins and practices of the Thai Forest Tradition I have as our guest, Steven Towler, who, at the age of 19 left his home in the UK to travel to Thailand to ordain as a bhikkhu in 1972. This was a time in which the Thai Forest Tradition was in full bloom, and the first Westerners were travelling to Thailand to practice and even ordain. Steven ordained at Wat Bovornives with Phra Khantipalo, and we on to have many great teachers, including the renowned meditation master Ajahn Thate. He’s still dedicated to the Thai Forest Tradition and practicing to this day, and he has translated several Dhamma books from Thai to English for the benefit of the community. He’s kindly joined us on the Treasure Mountain Podcast to offer his knowledge and insights into this tradition that continues to grow in popularity to this day.


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Thank you for listening to the Treasure Mountain Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode please share it with you friends. If you'd like to support me to produce this type of content in future, you can support my work by offering a tip via the Ko-fi payment applet.



May you be happy!




monks, ajahn, practice, dhamma, tradition, thai, stay, ordained, enlightened, thailand, people, buddhism, sangha, monastery, forest, set, reclusive,


Sol Hanna 00:00

Welcome to Treasure Mountain, the podcast that inspires and guides people to find the treasure within human experience. I'm your host. So Hanna, one of the most impactful traditions of Buddhism in the modern world is one that isn't very good at publicity, but it is very dedicated to practice. Despite its strict adherence to the principles of monastic discipline, and the principles of Buddhist ethics, like for instance, never selling the teachings, it has gained a huge grassroots following. In many Western countries, where people are drawn towards plain, simple honesty and dedication to the original principles set out by the Buddha himself. I'm referring to the Thai Forest Tradition. And to help us understand the origins and practices of the Thai Forest Tradition. I have as our guest, Steven Taylor, who, at the age of 19, left his home in the UK to travel to Thailand to ordain as a bhikkhu in 1972. This was a time in which the Thai Forest Tradition was in full bloom. And the first Westerners were traveling to Thailand to practice and even ordain, Steven ordained what for one way, and for many for a while, Prague county Paulo was one of his mentors. Stephen went on to have many great teachers, including the renowned meditation master John tett. He's still dedicated to the Thai Forest Tradition and practicing to this day, and he has translated several Dharma books from Thai to English for the benefit of the community is kindly joined us on the Treasure Mountain podcast of his knowledge and insights into this tradition that continues to grow in popularity to this day. So join us as we seek for a treasure with.


Sol Hanna 02:33

Welcome to Treasure Mountain. Steven, how are you today?


Steven Towler 02:37

Thanks for having me. So yes, very good. Given that every day is dukkha.


Sol Hanna 02:46

Never a truer word. But I'm really pleased that you've joined us. I've kind of had some contact with you a little bit in the past. But I've heard lots about you. And I'm really pleased that you come to join us to share your experience and knowledge today. Look, our first question today is kind of a bit of a big one. I wanted to just give some context and say that when we hear in the West, we think of Thailand, we often think of it as being a devoutly Buddhist country. However, if we go back 100 150 200 years, there were a lot of problems with the way Buddhism was being practiced. Often, the monastic discipline wasn't being followed very rigorously. There was lots of giving horoscopes and lucky charms and etc. And then a renaissance movement got underway. And it started with a crown prince who became a monk and sought to get the Sangha back to basics. Could you give us a bit of background as to what was going on in Thai Buddhism, from about the late 19th? Century?



Yeah, sure. Look, back then, in Thailand, there was basically one sect, which was the golden Mahanikai sect, the greater sect basically. And you're right, they'd fall and into, really, the practice of the Vinaya had really almost passed away. There were reports of monks who had mistresses monks who would eat all day long, you know, so they wouldn't, they'd eat after midday and handle money. And they'd have possessions that you know, they own their own plots of land and things like that, all which are against the Vinaya and the real the real problem with that It was that in the Vinaya, when a monk ordains, there are certain rules which have to be observed. And that also one of those rules is there has to be a quorum of baghouz. A quorum of monks that are present at the time and they have to sit with a naturopath or they have to sit within a forearms and have each other during a particular part of the ceremony. And also, the ceremony has to be done within a column on what you could, I guess, consider consecrated ground. Now, what the problem with that is that if one of those monks that is part of the quorum, during the time of ordination is himself not a monk, because he's committed one of the something like Karateka, which is one of the four defeats for a monk. So for example, he's had sexual intercourse, so he's like, so a monk who's had a wife, we've got a wife or a mistress, clearly would fall into that sort of category. So if there what that means is, that's automatic excommunication from the monk called regardless of whether the monk or the person stays with his head shaved, and wears orange robes. From a sangha perspective, from the order of monks perspective, that particular person is no longer a monk. So when that monk then or when that person then sits in on the ordination of another person, that ordination becomes invalid, because the quorum is corrupt. And then the person who thought that he was a monk isn't actually a monk, and then he goes and sits in on another ordination of someone else. And because he's not ordained properly, then the ordination, the ordination of a third person is not valid either. So you end up with a lot of men wearing saffron, shaving their heads, who aren't actually ordained according to the principles of the Vinaya. And so effectively, you're getting people who are taking arms from laypeople, and taking gifts from lay people who are entitled to them, even under the Thai law at the time. So this was a real problem. And King Mongkut well, he became king Mongkut. famous, famous through the King and I movie, which is banned in Thailand, because it's so inaccurate. Anyway, before he became before he became king, he did ordain he was ordained, I can't remember how long now, but 20 years or something like that. And he saw that this was this kind of practice just wasn't what he wanted for his own practice. So, he decided that he would go and seek ordination from monks in Sri Lanka. And the not only took ordination there, but he learned all about how to make ground consecrated ground to set up what we call a Sima, which is the area in a monastery set aside for doing religious practices like ordinations. And then he went to ordain also with the Mon, because the Mon culture is arguably the first Buddhist culture in Southeast Asia from which the Buddhists for which the Burmese Buddhist tradition comes and from which the titration comes. So we re Ordained with them. So he had several ordinations. And just to try and make sure that at least one of them was accurate, and according to the Vinaya and then he came back to Thailand when he established the dhamma Utomi Gaya, which was the reforming sect, that with the idea, that ordinations would be pure, that the monks who practice the Vinaya the rules of training, keep their precepts. And then he could then be fairly confident that those monks that were ordained were, were truly ordained and part of the Sangha. And that set the WT nicaya, apart from the MaHA nicaya. And that sort of tradition still continues to today.


Sol Hanna 09:49

So that reform movement really kind of was like tidying up the behavior and training of the Sangha. And I guess in one sense, it was a wreck rededicate. addition to the original principles of the vinyasa, however, there was still I believe, a lot of people in Thailand to kind of believe that getting enlightened wasn't really even possible. What changed? All that?


Steven Towler 10:18

Yeah, look, certainly they, I mean, obviously, I wasn't around at the time. But the the Tradition has it that back then, that most Thai people didn't really believe that full enlightenment was possible anymore. And that's largely because the practice of the monks was so bad. You know, they, the practices that some of the monks had were, were just so far off, where they should be that it led to laypeople in particular being having no confidence in the monks. And of course, it's, the monks lifestyle is supposed to be one of a recluse, so that you have little distractions from the practice. But of course, if you're living life like a householder, but you just happen to be wearing saffron, then it doesn't inspire confidence that you're going to attain enlightenment. So when the W was established, one of the early followers of the W two as a teacher called Ajahn, sow, and He is credited with starting the what became the Thai Forest Tradition, but also what what he's really credited with, we're starting the practice of the do tangga, which are the ascetic practices, which also means that he set up the tradition, the ancient tradition of monks wandering around the forest, going from village to village and seeking arms, and practicing solitude going to the foot of the tree going to into caves, you know, when the Buddha passed on ordination to the monks, because in the beginning, he used to do all the ordinations and set up the the tradition and the process. One of the things in the ordination procedure, it says, it tells the, the newly ordained monk to go and live at the foot of a tree rock and roller, say in our salon, go and live out in the in the country go and live and seek solitude. And so Ajahn Sal was credited with starting that tradition again. And then his follower Ajahn Minh is well known in the Thai Forest Tradition. When with him, and started to learn the tradition, and of course, they, they were very strict in their practice, they would only eat one meal a day, they would always eat before noon, they would only eat food that went into their bowl, so they wouldn't eat food that came afterwards. And there were a whole range of other practices which set them apart even from the study monks who were living in the city, where most of the dhamma ute monks were located in cities and towns that he started that end sale and then gentleman together started the forest tradition, which was one, which was a little bit more reclusive.


Sol Hanna 13:49

Right, right, so in one sense, you could say that Prince mancha when he was a monk, kind of got the Sangha reestablished in the Vidya. And then Arjun Sal, and perhaps also Ajahn. Man, we're looking at, well, how did the Buddha practice? And what did the Buddha praise and say that monks should do? And of course, as you pointed out, they say it again and again, and again, you know, there are these roots of trees and so forth. So in one sense, you'd say that this was like getting back to the roots of what Buddhism was supposed to be about.


Steven Towler 14:23

That's absolutely correct. It was. It was also, of course, the time which was fairly turbulent politically as well. Because it was a time between two world wars and in fact, Ajahn man was, was walking through the forests, practicing When the Japanese invaded Thailand and you know, so there was not there was a lot of social upheaval that was going on during that time as well. And so I guess people were also looking for inspiration. And when laypeople saw the way that Ajahn man practiced, he became quite popular, and his name started to become quite famous. And so he started to attract a range of other monks who wanted to practice strict Vinaya and also to practice, meditation. And Ajahn Minh was reputed to be an arahant, an enlightened being. And he had a quite a large following overcrowding a number of years. And some of his early teachers are sorry, some of his early pupils are Ajahn Ajahn, fun, Ajahn Tet. And then, towards the end of his life, he had Hmong monks, like Ajahn, mahabhava, and Ajahn, one who were much younger than Ajahn, fan Ajahn, Ted, but there are a wide range of others, Longbow when I 10 Cow, though all followers of agenne, man, and many of those are still alive when I was in Thailand. So I actually got to be, I had the good fortune to be able to meet them. And because I could speak Thai, the good fortune of being able to talk to them, too. So that was quite inspiring in its own right.


Sol Hanna 16:34

And I'm looking forward to asking you about your personal experiences in a short time. But I did want to just follow up and ask about the tradition. I mean, I should point out that Ajahn man isn't like trying to set up something special or different. It comes to be identified as the Thai Forest Tradition. But actually what he's trying to do is practice as best he knows how, according to the Vineya, according to what's in the sutras, and I guess also his own experience, you've given us some ideas about how this tradition is distinctive, particularly in its strict adherence to Vidya. Did you want to add anything else about what is, you know, what can we identify in terms of practices and say, well, that's characteristic of the Thai Forest Tradition?


Steven Towler 17:28

Well, Thai Forest Tradition, excuse me, is very much focused on developing one's own citta. One developing one's own self first, if you can, if you can use that word loosely. So it's really it's really all about practicing. It's really all about sila, Samadhi. And banya is really all about setting up a firm foundation of being generous of practicing morality, and having that firmly and solidly established, so that you can build on that by developing concentration by developing your meditation, and then developing wisdom on top of that, so it's really, it's there for one to, I guess, develop personally before you can before you then go on, and then help others to tread the path. So it's all about practicing, building internally, doing internal building, building one's mind building, goodness, and forsaking all those things, which are the opposite of goodness. And the Thai tradition. The Thai Forest Tradition is very much about seeing the dhamma within one's own being. It's not so much about reading about dharma. It's not about you about study. It doesn't say don't study, but after you've learned the basics, the real Thai Forest Tradition is all about practicing meditation, it's all about being reclusive, going retiring to quiet places, having Gaya we waker which is basically the being in a quiet place and cheetah we wake up having calmness of mind, having having your mind in a reclusive state, if you like one that was withdrawn from the senses, one that doesn't go out seeking things in the world seeking sensual pleasure. This is really the the core of the of the practice with a view to becoming enlightened. And that's really where the Thai teachers came from. They teach away excuse me, they teach away, which was goes all the way to fall. was the tradition right the way back as you pointed out right away back to the time of the Buddha. So they're really trying to just incorporate in today's world, the same practices that were there at the time of the Lord Buddha.


Sol Hanna 20:17

I wanted to ask how did the Sangha hierarchy react to these intrepid and nonconformist monks, who were shooed living in a monastery or temple and instead sought the wild jungles or remote parts of Thailand, at least for a part of the year without go on to Dong, which is like walking around the country in having no fixed abode. Today, of course, the teachers that you mentioned are revered in Thailand. But at the time, how were these monks considered by the Sangha hierarchy in Thailand?


Steven Towler 20:53

It's, well, if you look at the original Sangha hierarchy at the time, one of the I mean, there was the really then only demonic guy. So this reforming sake wasn't very well received. The downside for them Monaco monks, was that it was the king, oh, the, the the prince, a member of the royal family, who was highly revered, who was starting this up. So there's, there's hardly anything that they could really say about it. And so the dhamma ute had its own hierarchy. And the Mahana chi had its own hierarchy. And later on, they would come to coalesce and former a sangha Council. But in the early days, it was the Thai Forest region set up by Ajahn, man, and sorry, by Ajahn, Sal and Ajahn, man. Even some of the study monks in the inner city that were dhamma, you didn't always react too well to them, because they were seen as being a little bit more ascetic and a little bit more dedicated than some of the monks who wanted to study and lived in cities and towns and cities. But yeah, so some of the monks from the opposite sect from the Maharani guy, some of those had quite severe adverse reactions to the monks turning up. I recall stories from told to me by Ajahn 10, who spent who was asked by the then sanka Raja, who had become dhamma ute in those days, that's back in the 50s 1950s. And the then sanka, Raja asked Ajahn tip to go down south, then ran the areas around Phuket. And because there were the sun garage, I'd heard that there were some monks not practicing well, and the lay people were getting quite despondent. And so he said, Would you go down there and show them how monks should practice? So tender chanted set off with just a couple of months, I think at a novice initially. And when he started to establish a small monastery, down in the south, the he had all sorts of things happen. Monks from the opposite set from the money guy would lie on the streets and throw stones at him. When he was going on arms round in the morning. They tried to persuade laypeople not to give the damn monks food. They set fire to his committee. It wasn't. But they poisoned his food.


Sol Hanna 24:13

Unbeliev unbelievable.


Steven Towler 24:15

Yeah, because he showed them up because of the strict practice that he had, that they were there with their women friends, and they were, you know, going out at nighttime drinking and smoking and having a good time. And then, when lay people saw him Hmong should practice, they of course started to fall in behind Ajahn Ted, and fortunately for Ajahn, Ted, at that time, some because Phuket was a very wealthy province because of mining. There were some workers come down from the northeast and intelligentsia was from the northeast. And so he had a small group of laypeople who weren't tainted by the same. Bad practice, if you like that had been encouraged by the local residents. And eventually, he, as he calm the situation down and got lay people supporting him, and he was quite a diplomat, brought them 100 Chi monks eventually online if you got in line. And it was a it was a difficult time for two or three years. But eventually, he went through. But I mean, does that give you some indication as to how, how those Morris marks were treated in some of the places that they went?


Sol Hanna 25:54

Yeah, and I get the impression it wasn't so much the Sangha hierarchy, but more, that certain groups of monks who weren't behaving themselves very well, were felt threatened by this reform movement. But I also wanted to ask you, like, a lot of the time the monks of the forest tradition, were going to remote or rural areas. How were they received by the regular people, you know, through that early period, you know, the 40s 50s, through to the 70s.


Steven Towler 26:30

Yeah, because they didn't often stay very long. They would, they would turn up to a small village for a day or two, and find somewhere to stay at the foot of a tree under the umbrella under the mosquito net. So they were because they were monks entirely people, were all have always been generous by nature. They would look after them. But the problem became exacerbated if you like, when monks decided to stay off for the rainy season. For example, when monks can't travel around, they have to spend three months in a monastery in a more secure dwelling. So that's when things started to become a little bit more difficult, and also with allocation of land and money. But of course, that started to be sorted out centrally through things like the Sangha Council, which was became a combination of, of Barney guy and dummy monks. And now the tradition is that the Sangha Raja alternates between the two Nick Ayers, so you have Maharani Kai sanka Raja for a while and that center, it dies. The next one, excuse me, is dhamma ute, and then followed by Mahana. Guy. And so there is that the two have come to coexist. But it's not always been a comfortable coexistence. For example, even when I was ordained nevermind times before, if Amani Chi Minh came to stay in a damaged monastery, he would have to sit at the end of the of the line of monks no matter how senior he was, he could have 50 bands are and it still have to sit at the end of the line, because he would not be treated as if he was a monk. He would be the dominant monks always heard on the on the side of caution. So that would never be allowed to participate in any ceremonies. And generally speaking, they there was still some some friction when I was there in the 70s. Perhaps it's still there today to some extent. But yes, the there's there's probably a little bit more commonality now between those in the forest tradition, like the followers of Ajahn char, who is Marnie guy, and he was one of the only Maharani guy followers of Ajahn Minh, and the story is that he went to Ajahn man and said, You know, I'm happy to disrobe and Rio Dane, as a dhamma ute monk, like the rest of your followers, if you want me to and Ajahn man said no, you want somebody on in the money guy tradition, who also follows my teachings. And so he allowed Ajahn char to remain as a honeycomb monk. But the even the followers of Ajahn char would have difficulty in my day. Staying in a W monastery, but now it's a closer affinity between Ajahn chars groom and the Thai Forest Tradition of the W. Then there is between the dhamma youth from the city and the dam mute from the forest.


Sol Hanna 30:01

Yeah, that's a really interesting story, I think. And I think it kind of points out that it was yes, it was about strict adherence to the video with the dhamma ute star. But it was more than that it was, for a Thai Forest Tradition was about a way of life or practice and dedication. And I, I've always wondered about that, obviously, I don't know the mind of a gentleman. But the fact that he made those exceptions at all, like without John Cha, kind of speaks to like, there's something else that's important about what he was trying to teach is my impression.


Steven Towler 30:40

Yeah, it's all about learning about one's one's being. It's all about learning about body and mind. Yeah. If you, if you practice purely and truly, then some of the other things, I guess, become a little bit less significant.


Sol Hanna 31:00

Well put, look, I did want to ask you about your own personal experience, to see if that can really highlight what the Thai Forest Tradition was about in a, perhaps a little bit more of not too much a historical sense, but in a, you know, a lived experience. So you were deigned, as a bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk in the 1970s. What led you to become a bhikkhu in Thailand in the first place?


Steven Towler 31:27

Well, I've been a Buddhist since I was 16. Kept Five Precepts since that time. And I became interested in Buddhism because I studied other religions as well, though, there was something driving me, I was looking for something for some meaning in life, if you like. And I read about Islam, I read about Judaism, obviously live, it lived in a Christian country. So I was taught Christianity at school. But none of excuse me, none of those things seem to seem to make sense. There seem to be something lacking. And when I came across Buddhism, I read about, read the Dharma for the first time, something just clicked, it just became so obvious that, you know, birth, old age, sickness and death, they're the only things that are certainly in life, and they're all suffering. And so that just, you know, it was just rang a chord with me. And then the Four Noble Truths. You know, if the, if everything is suffering, those must be a cause of suffering. And if you eliminate the cause, then you eliminate the result. And if there's a path of doing it and the path look great, you know, you look at it to be a virtuous person loving. If you aspire to, to have a good heart yourself, then you look at the eightfold path, you can't fault it. For those who are looking, it just stands out. So boldly. So I went to the local Buddhist society. And there I met a woman, Jane Brown, who had been to Thailand several times, because she had Western teacher some years prior, who was Ajahn Pena whereto, who stayed with Tana Tenma humbler? And so she said, when I decided that I wanted to ordain, she said, Well, why don't you go to Thailand and go and stay with that? venue, eight or 10 chama boys monastery. So that was originally my intention. And Jane wrote letters, and sort of got me some introductions. And then I went to London to meet some of the Sri Lankan monks that were there just to get some idea as to what was involved. And I also met in 1971 10, Canty, Paulo, who was back in the UK at that time, because he'd had poor health, and he was back recuperating, and he just happened to be staying with some friends of James and myself. And Don Casson, who was the first president of the WA Buddhist society was was the foundation or the founding president if you like. He was there as well. So that was the first time I met Don in 1971. And we went down to Somerset to stay with with county Barlow there for a weekend and you That's where it all told me to go in ordain in what born and I guess the rest was there in history I flew out to Thailand on a one way ticket. And because I was only 19 I couldn't go down immediately as a monk. So I ordained as a novice and stayed as a novice and ordained just before the start of the Penza in July of 1972 attained as a full beacon. And then at the time, I had nowhere to stay, because I was determined not to stay at what my worn because that was not going to be conducive to anything in by way of personal development, because it was just so noisy, a typical city monastery. And as it turns out, another English another English monk, attend on. He had some sympathy for me a bit of compassion. And he said, If you want to come with me, you can stay with Ajahn fan. So just days before the start of funds, we left Bangkok. And I went to stay at Tom Tom calm with Ajahn fan who was in residence there, because a gentleman at that time had two monasteries, one on the flats and one in the mountains. And I went up to stay with him in the mountains, and spent one pants are there with with Ajahn fun. And that was a really good experience. You know, it, it was tucked away on top, on a on top of a mountain with with forest everywhere you looked. And it allowed me to, to practice allowed me to sit, walk, sit and walk and sit and walk. And then I couldn't speak Thai at the time. But 10 Dong did some translating. And, yeah, neither. I then went to NBN. And then later on to Ajahn 10.


Sol Hanna 37:08

So I mean, this is a pretty huge transformation. Because in the 1970s, in the western in the UK, there weren't really very many Buddhists at all, and to become a Buddhist was seen as a bit weird. And you've not just done that you've flown out to Thailand and become a big boo and taken on all the video. So this is a big culture shock. What was your memory of that first year? With Ajahn? Fun? Like, if you've got anything that stands out, in your mind was a real struggle like adapting like coloring the language, quinoa? Or was it? What was your experience?


Steven Towler 37:52

For me, it was just like coming home. It was it just felt so natural. Just everything just seemed to fit in place. It was difficult because I didn't speak the language immediately. But the ties were quite helpful. And yeah, it was, it was just that's probably the best way to describe it. It's just like coming home. To chat and fun was wonderful. So, I mean, I could talk to him through turned on, which was okay, it wasn't as satisfactory as it might have been. But nevertheless, talent and fun. He His personality was such that he just you just felt warmth. He just it just radiated Mehta, who is just an amazing human being. And just, it was just a wonderful experience. I mean, you know,


Sol Hanna 39:05

I'll be able to ask that, if you could, I mean, if started to answer my next question, which is to kind of like relate, what were some of those salient memories of being with like, Ajahn fun, I jump in. And Ajahn Ted, these are amazing people to be around. For those of us who never got to meet them, can you give us a summary of what was what was the like, or maybe a salient memory of what was like


Steven Towler 39:36

when I was when I turned 21 on my 21st birthday, was staying at the dhamma JT with Ajahn Ben and I went down to the cars in the morning, as soon as it was, as soon as it was done. We were up before dawn and Dawn we would go down to the to the meeting hall where we at meal, and we would clean that up, polish the floor and sweep and get a chance things ready. And we would, we would get ourselves prepared for going out on our arms around. And on this particular day, my 21st birthday. And I bear in mind, I could speak some Thai then I turned up with my bowl, and I was quite happy and jolly, and intelligent and said to me, What are you so happy about? And I said, Well, today is my 21st birthday. And in the West when you're 21 Then you become a man. So you you're no longer a boy, you're a man. Until the turn Ben turned around to me. And he said, Are you enlightened yet? And I looked at him a bit perplexed. And I said, No. So what are you doing down here then, if you're a man, you should be sitting in meditation, they should be there practicing until you're enlightened, you shouldn't be coming down here to feed your face. And then he turned around to the rest of the monks and he said, The Westerner prep for an entire prepper westerleigh Chicken ship is chicken ship. It come here they're supposed to be a man and he's not enlightened he comes down here to eat is there's nothing to his chicken ship. So I said, right. Okay. So the very that day I did eat when I've been divided came back. And then I got a novice to help me set up a little place out, which was away from my, my dwelling from my cookie from my, my, my hat. And where I could hang my hang my umbrella. I have mosquito net. And it was just enough to sit and there was a place a place to walk. And I made a determination that I wasn't gonna leave that place until I was enlightened. And I sat, I sat there walked, sat walks and walks out and walk right the way through the night. And then dawn came, I wasn't going down to the salah wasn't gonna go binder. But if I hadn't become enlightened, I wasn't going to move from that spot. So I stayed there. And then I was I was in just just between sitting and walking. And the novice came up. And, and he said, Ah, you've got to come down. Because at that time, I'd also been very sick. I'd had I was do bad past blood. I had 18 months of problems with my digestive tract, I passed blood. So I wasn't well, and I'd lost a lot of weight. But anyway. I said to I said to the novice, no, I'm not going to the chances are, you've got to you've got to come. And I said no, you can't you tell telogen that I'm staying here. I'm not enlightened, and I'm not moving. So tell him no. And so the novice went off, and I was just gonna sit in meditation, just getting comfortable. And the novice comes back, and he says our teller chances you've been passing blood. You can not eat you've got to eat. And I said, Are you sure that teller chan says that I can come back? And he said, Yeah, teller challenge has made it clear that he's telling you, he's ordering you to come back. So I said, all right. I'm only leaving. Because tener Chan is ordering me to come back. I'm not leaving of my own accord. And he said, Yeah, and I was said, yeah, come back. And when I went back, quiet, not a word. Not a word. Not this for this Westerners chickenshit nothing, just complete quiet. I just walked in, put my ball down. And I had had the meal with it with the rest of the monks. But they were all quiet. Oh, shut them all up. So John didn't say a word afterwards. And I was I was I was no longer chickenshit


Sol Hanna 44:13

Yeah, right. That's amazing. Did you have any memories? I mean, you've it's wonderful to hear these stories. And we don't really have time to hear them all. But do you have any memories of your time with Ajahn Ted?


Steven Towler 44:29

Ah. He came to when he came to Australia. And when he came to Australia, I came with him as his interpreter. And I'll share a personal story with you that I don't share with me. Thank you. We went to we came to Perth. We went to Melbourne. We went to Sydney If Telecentre wanted to see prep maximize he was then is there chalcones Am I at the temple in Randwick. It wasn't, hadn't been long established and telogen Tate wanted to see that they had everything that they needed and just wanted to see how Buddhism was developing. And we stayed there. And one evening I had a I was when I was practicing, in deep concentration. I had, I had this vision appear to me. And it said that it was a vision of of me, basically. And to cut a long story short, it basically said that, over 100 years ago, 10 Ajahn, Tate and I were brothers, we were both members of the royal family, and Thai royal family, of which there were umpteen children, because back then, there were lots of lots, the timelinex had lots of kids. And and basically, they that what came through was that telogen was saying to me, my as my elder brother, that I being him, I am the first one in that family that has become enlightened. And then he turns to me, and he says to me, when are you going to be the second? And so I went to tell Ajahn. And I said, I told them exactly what I had what had happened to me. And I asked him if he if there's this true, you know, where we brothers in our life, and you're enlightened now. And you're asking me when I'm going to become second? And he just smiled and didn't say anything? Totally. Totally non committal because that you Yeah, it wouldn't have been wrong for him to respond. But he wasn't. He wasn't particularly like that. Because it if I'd have been a layperson, it would have been wrong for him to respond. Because I was a man he could have said something but didn't. Then when I was going into the kitchen the following morning, because we were getting ready for a meal telogen was was sitting down with a laser Porter there who'd come with us. And he, he knew I was he knew I was coming down. And and he said to me, he said to the layperson, he said, you know that 10 Steven, wherever we go, he can always meditate truly. So I knew I heard him. So he there was absolutely no way that that layperson had any understanding what he was talking about, that he was just, he's just simply saying to me, indirectly, that what I'd said was right. Wow. And so he was just, he was just a wonderful teacher. He he knew the dhamma inside out and back to front. He knew how to practice it. He'd read the dhamma as well, he could relate to a parley passages to to the practice. He could answer any question that you might anyone might ask about dhamma. He was just a wonderful human being, and a wonderful teacher of dhamma.


Sol Hanna 48:39

And it sounds like click in great detail. And it sounds like he had a great deal of sensitivity, based on his meditation that he was able to read his students quite well, and to offer the advice that they needed was that would that be true?


Steven Towler 48:54

I think that's absolutely spot on. Yeah.


Sol Hanna 48:58

Thank you for sharing that story. Look, I have just a couple more questions that I want to ask. And it's kind of more I've asked you so far to look backwards, I kind of want you to look, based on your experience and look forward a little bit, because in recent decades, Buddhism has moved into the West, including it's got hundreds of offshoots now Thai Forest Tradition in terms of monasteries and so forth. However, really, it is early days for Buddhism in the West, and there's so much more that needs to be done for it to become well established. What do you think, are some of the main strengths and weaknesses of Buddhism in the west at this time?


Steven Towler 49:46

I think one of the problems that you have with Buddhism in the West because there isn't a Buddhist culture as such, is the lack of faith. SAT is one of the five powers, one of the five Barla and I think it's lacking in the West because we're not brought up with it. And also, faith has a different connotation. Because of exposure to Christianity in the West, you know, we have to have faith that there's a God, faith in, in Buddhism faith in in dhamma, has a slightly different connotation. Because, you know, I always say that faith and banya sat down Bunya are on the same continuum, you have faith in the beginning. But as you practice, and you learn more, and you understand more, and faith gets converted into knowledge, and wisdom, and so, in the end the things which you had faith for faith about in the beginning, you now realize for yourself, so you see for yourself, so faith is replaced by knowledge by wisdom. And that's different, so to, like faith in a God, which you never, you never know whether it's true or not. You only have the, if you don't have that faith, though, it's then difficult to practice. Because the other, the other thing is that without faith, then it's difficult to reconcile the role of the Sangha. Because without, you know, the, it's a Triple Gem. It's a Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. And so you have to have monks and laypeople who to support the the monastic community, it's the monks who have a lifestyle, which is more reclusive, who's more conducive to becoming enlightened, and so they're, therefore, if they practice properly, then they can teach the lay people. But if you don't have people who practice properly, if you don't have monks who do practice, some are more reclusive lifestyle or less hindered lifestyle, then, who's going to teach? You end up with a situation which I see frequently on the internet, where you have the blind leading the blind people who don't know what they're talking about? telling others? And only compounding, misinformation? or outright inconsistency or you know, something's not not factual, not true. And so that's, that's then difficult. And where do you go to find what is right and what is wrong? What is the way to practice difficult in the West, because you've got so many different people who will tell you where to practice and how to practice. So the the the problem really is therefore, how do you actually sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of what is what is real Buddhism, and what what is the best way to practice? That's very, that was


Sol Hanna 53:16

that that was one of the key features of the Thai Forest Tradition is that they kept on emphasizing, you know, if you were a monkey in a tie, for tradition, the emphasis was practice. Don't worry about teaching, practice, practice, practice, until you've got something, some personal insight that makes it worthwhile you teaching because until that point, you know, you could easily teach the wrong thing, through not having clear understanding and personal insight. And I think you've made a really important point and that, you know, without faith, you can't get started. You've got to have faith in a teacher who's keeping a good standard. But also you've got to have faith in the Dharma, the teaching and faith in your ability to to get there. I guess what you're saying with like, what's happening on the internet is a lot of Buddhist teachers are just telling people what they want to hear, rather than, which is very convenient. But I guess the point of Thai frustration is that it's not about doing what's convenient. It's about doing what's worthwhile. And what's going to lead to true liberation.


Steven Towler 54:26

See it for me personally, I would avoid any association with anyone who wants to charge for dharma. Hmm.


Sol Hanna 54:40

That's a good point.


Steven Towler 54:41

Dharma Dharma should be free to whoever wants to listen to it, whoever wants to practice it. More importantly, and it shouldn't be a matter of how much money you pay. And so although All the books that I translate are all for free. And there's always a sentence in the introduction, which says that the books can't be sold. Because like telogen, Marvel used to say dhamma is not to be traded like goods in the marketplace. It's there for, for the liberation of human beings, it's there to help people become free from suffering, and it shouldn't be chargeable. So that will be my thing. Anyone who wants to charge for it, in my opinion, is not a true practitioner, they might want my practice, and they may meditate, and they may do a lot of things. But if they can't see that the damage should be given away for nothing, then that, that doesn't sit well with me, because my whole my whole tradition has been the demos for free.


Sol Hanna 55:51

I guess going back to your previous point, I think, as a teacher, you've got to have a lot of faith, that when you give away your teaching, and your time and your effort, and your knowledge, you're gonna have a lot of faith that people are going to give and support you. So the whole basis of this tradition is, is not its faith, but also giving. Everything is given. And that's the one thing that really struck me is that everything is being given away. Which is incredible. Yeah. And I've always been inspired by the generosity of people, like yourself, you know, you're giving your time to translate these teachings, because you don't get paid for that. That's just everything is started. It really is priceless.


Steven Towler 56:43

Yeah. And so, you know, if, if a Westerner is looking for way, a way of practice, then they should really compare what they're looking for now with the way that the Buddha practiced in his day. He didn't charge for dharma.


Sol Hanna 57:11



Steven Towler 57:14

and He wandered from place to place even though you know, he lived till he was 80 years of age, he Easter wandered around, even when he was an elderly person, from village to village town to town. And did he keep strict Vinaya? Yes, of course, he did. So did he did he have lay people set up as, as teachers, very rarely, very few laypeople became enlightened and those that did became ordained. So where were his main teachers, his main teachers, people like Harry Potter mogul honorees is right and left hand lieutenants ordained. But Westerners tend to look for teachers that are all themselves lay people. And in amongst, if you had a strong Sangha, then the laypeople could look to the Sangha for their teachings. And so this, like I said, Before, you have to have monks, and laypeople have to support the monks. And the monks have to be dedicated to rote practice, and not just dedicated to learning the Scriptures from the books. Because dhamma isn't dhamma isn't words on a page, it's not books in the cabinet. dhamma is here within us within our being within our body and mind. And if we want to read the dhamma, we just have to read our body and our mind, and we don't have to go far to do that. But if we can't, then you have to learn a little bit of dhamma, which is in the books first. But if you then spend all your time reading the books, you don't have enough time to actually read, read, you're being where the real dhamma is. Real dhamma is reading what's in inside, not really what's on the page.


Sol Hanna 59:11

Right. I just want to wrap up with one more question just read it's really a speculative question, because no one really knows the answer. But, you know, do you think it's possible that, you know, you know, like a forest tradition, which is, you know, a back to basics back to the roots of the practice, tradition could really get established in Western countries. And if so, what's what really is do we need to focus on whether we're lay people or whether ordain what's what do we need to focus on developing to make that kind of thing happen?


Steven Towler 59:51

Yeah, it's a difficult question to answer to be honest. Because I think it goes, we've almost come full circle. Go back to Ajahn man and Ajahn, Sam. And I think what it will really take is will really take a monk or two monks, that take on that same sort of practice in that same sort of role, go through that same process and become enlightened themselves. And then let others see what that kind of practice can do. It's by it's by example. And yeah, I think that's very difficult these days to find. Because because of the fact that you like in the West, it's not the difference. The difference between today in the west and back then with Ajahn Minh, is that wherever Ajahn Manuel like people will give him some food. But going back to your point of generosity, there has to be that sort of ethos within the community that will allow monks to be a setting, or not, not necessarily ascetic, but, but be more reclusive, and still get support so much so that they can develop their own practice. And then when they finished that practice, become an example. It's all by example, really, you have to have all who are exemplars.


Sol Hanna 1:01:23

So I'm gonna take a positive spin on that I'm gonna say implicitly, in your answer, and tell me if I'm wrong, is that we both need monastics who are really dedicated, and going to try and give it their all and really stick to the good standards that were set by the Buddha. But also, you need to have, like people who are willing to support you know, I guess what are really are the heroes of, of Buddhism,


Sol Hanna 1:01:54

who are going to live in that way of, of, it's quite an austere way of living, really. So it's both both of those things are needed. Is it? Yeah,


Sol Hanna 1:02:05

that's what I'm taking. What you're saying is monastics who are absolutely dedicated, but also like people who are willing to support them.


Steven Towler 1:02:13

Yes. Because that's what the community is. to, that's what a Buddhist community is. It's monks, nuns and laypeople.


Sol Hanna 1:02:25

Absolutely. Look, I'm gonna leave it there. Steven, look, I really enjoyed talking to you. I hope at some stage in the future, we can talk again on a similar topic, but for the time being, I'm just going to leave it there but and say thank you very much for giving your time and experience and knowledge about the Thai Forest Tradition. You're welcome. And thank you to all our listeners for joining us for this insightful episode of Treasure Mountain, in which Steven Taylor, who was a big group in Thailand for seven years during the 1970s shared his knowledge and experience of the Thai Forest Tradition. If you'd like to hear more of Stephens talks, you can find links in the description below his podcast episode. If you enjoy this podcast, I'd appreciate it if you could share this episode with your friends. Rather people who you think could benefit from its insights. Treasure Mountain podcast is part of the everyday Tom and network. You can find out more about Treasure Mountain podcast by going to the link in the description below this episode. Or you could do a web search for everyday dhamma network. You can also find out on the Treasure Mountain podcast website, information about all previous episodes and guests, as well as transcriptions are rare interviews. If you go back to everyday dhamma.net to the homepage, you can discover more about the three other podcasts on the network, and links to subscribe to any and all of them if you'd like to. I think you might like them. But tell me what you think by contacting me via the contact page on the website. I'd appreciate your feedback. I hope you will join us again on the next episode of Treasure Mountain podcast as we seek for the treasure Within

Steven TowlerProfile Photo

Steven Towler

I first became interested in Buddhism at the age of sixteen. I started to attend the Hampshire Buddhist Society shortly thereafter. I have kept five precepts since that time. At the age of nineteen, I left the UK and travelled to Thailand to ordain as a monk. I was directed to Wat Bovornives by Phra Khantipalo. There I ordain as a novice and later as a monk. This was in 1972.
In Thailand I practised as a forest monk. I studied with Ajahn Fun. Ajahn Baen and Ajahn Tate. When Ajahn Tate travelled overseas, in 1976, I travelled with him as his interpreter.
After several severe bouts of Malaria, I decided to disrobe. I took up residence in Western Australia where I live today.
I have translated several books from Thai to English for the benefit of the non-Thai speaking Buddhist community.