The religions that grew out of the Indian subcontinent – Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism – hold a certain fascination for us Westerners. Many of the practices associated with them are so distant from or own cultural norms that, often, we can scarcely believe that they exist.
You don’t find brightly-painted holy men wandering the streets of European or American cities, for example. Similarly, the millions-strong chaos of holy festivals like Kumbh Mela, held when certain astrological requirements are met, is something alien to Western culture.
I can remember the first time I heard about the “skyclad” Jain monks, ascetics who renounce all worldly possessions, including their clothes. I found the idea of a naked wandering seeker so far from normality as to be almost unthinkable. In a similar way, I was intrigued by stories of the Thai forest Buddhist monks. They are reclusive adherents of Theravada Buddhism, “the Way of the Elders”, that retreat to forests to focus on meditation and simple living.
Both of these traditions, as strange as they may sound to Western ears, hold lessons that are relevant to people like me and you. In this post I would like to look at some of them.
Who are the Jains?
Jainism, said by some to predate even Hinduism, was founded by Mahavira in the 6th century BCE. He was a contemporary of the Buddha and, like him, reacted against the heavily caste-based doctrines of Brahmanism, the dominant religion in India at the time. Brahmanism is based on the Vedas and the Upanishads.
It is a dualistic religion, meaning that it recognizes a distinction between soul and matter, but is also atheistic – at the core of Jain teachings is the assertion that there is no creator God. Rather, the world is seen as eternal and everlasting. As mentioned, followers of the Digambara (or “skyclad”) branch of Jainism are known mainly for their renunciation of all possessions, including clothing.
Who are the forest Buddhists?
Thai forest Buddhism represents a branch of Theravada Buddhism, which is the dominant religion in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. Translated directly, “Theravada” means “way of the elders” and is so-called because if its adherence to the original teachings of the Buddha. The Thai forest tradition is defined by strict monastic rules, an emphasis on meditation and a focus on enlightenment as the aim of spiritual life.
Let’s jump into the lessons themselves…