Book Review: The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka by MICHAEL CARRITHERS; The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets by STANLEY J. TAMBIAH

The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka:
An Anthropological and Historical Study.
Oxford university Press,1983.

The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets:
A Study in Charisma, Hagiography, Sectarianism and Millennia Buddhism.
Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Princeton University 1985

Michael Carrithers’s The forest Monks of Sri Lanka superby captures what cine might call “the spirit of Buddhism”: its radical soteriology, its preoccupation with the world’s impermanence and suffering, its concern with ethics and moral purity, and above all its fundamental ethic of compassion. It is well written in a simple, elegant prose. Now when I am asked by friends to recommend a book on Buddhism, I refer them to this work.

In Theravada Buddhism, for both layman and monk, the Buddhist way of life is embodied in the arahant ideal, as against the Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana. The arahant is a world renouncer who has achieved nirvana, but Theravada Buddhists everywhere believe that arahants are either extremely scarce or nonexistent in present-day societies. Nevertheless, popular and doctrinal texts constantly affirm the ideal. The enormous charisma of pious monks depends on the public consciousness of their approximation to this ideal. Laymen, involved as they are in the world, know they can never realize it but pay homage to the ideal by the veneration of the Sangha or monk order. The distinction between Buddhist monk and layman is fundamental to Buddhism: without the monk, Buddhist life and civilization would not be possible.

In the long history of Theravada Buddhism the monk order was split into two major categories: village monks given to learning and preaching, and a small contingent of recluses who isolated themselves in forests in a single-minded quest for salvation. Though they live in communities, each monk, be it the forest or the village monk, is a rugged individualist: ”Where Christian monks cultivate obedience, Buddhist monks cultivate independent (if orthodox) judgement” (p. 248). Piety and asceticism can exist among village monks, but the ideal of the arahant, according to public perceptions, is approximated in the world-renouncing forest monk. However, by the early 19th century the institution of forest monks had become moribund. A few individuals withdrew from the world and lived in caves but there were no communities of forest monks. Both Carrithers and Tambiah record the rise of these communities in the late 19th century and their dramatic increase after 1950 in Sri Lanka and Thailand. Carrithers persuasively argues that the rise of “hermit orders” was not produced by social and economic conditions as conventional anthropological analysis might suggest, but as a response to the revival movements of the 19th century culminating in the celebration of 2500 years of Buddhism in 1956. The intriguing question, then, is how could a social organization be recreated when the effective institutions were dead?

The answer: the idea of world-renouncing monks existed in popular Buddhist literature, and this idea was a reality in the minds of people. Consequently, laymen not only actively helped monks to recreate hermit orders but for the most part enthusiastically welcomed them. The essence of forest life was ”meditation,” but this practice, too, had died out. Fortunately the great 5th-century meditation text by Buddhaghosa, the Visuddhimagga (”the path of purification”), existed and monks could use it as their model and guide and thereby recreate the past in the present.

Both Tambiah and Carrithers document the history and ethnography of this movement in rich detail. To take the Sri Lankan case first, Carrithers starts off with a discussion of European Buddhist monks in order to render the movement and its ethos intelligible to Western readers and thereby masterfully records the history of various hermit orders, some successful and others partially so. Right through the account, the present movements are seen in terms of past history and models. The book focuses on the biography of leaders, for it is these extraordinary individuals who took the initiative in founding the new orders. The vicissitudes they had to face-the opposition from establishment monks and their personal travail and despair-are recorded in fascinating detail. The account culminates in the description of a “successful” community, under the leadership of Jinavamsa, that was able to institute 44 hermitages and training centers by 1972 with 104 fully ordained monks and 190 novices by 1975 (Chs. 10-12).

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