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Emma Thomas found an interesting article by Sarah George. It's not long, only 12 pages: Dancing Under the Mongkhon: How Thailand's National Sport a Distinctive Moral Code (PDF) It presents ethical arguments and a framework for understanding how the violence and practice of Muay Thai indeed corresponds to, and even exemplifies Buddhist ethics. Scholar Peter Vail already had written how in Thai Society the Muay Thai fighter falls between the monk and the gangster, something Sylvie wrote about here: Thai Masculinity: Positioning Nak Muay Between Monkhood and Nak Leng, and George takes up some of the monk-like comparisons Vail talks about, as well as some others (including forms of breathing meditation). Most interesting in the article is a quote by a western photographer: ‘Despite the perceived violence of MT (it is very powerful and arguably the most effective system of stand-up fighting on the planet) there is another aspect to it that is internal. How the fighters approach the sport and their training offers glimpses into the personal, internal quest that could be seen as very similar to a monk's quest for enlightenment. They understand they have to endure the suffering of themselves to reach a goal (I personally believe that the goal is deeper than the promise of riches and escaping their plight - it's an internal struggle to better themselves continually)…This internal struggle of the fighter might have something to do with why many temples will host MT events (obviously it's to raise money too) but seeing the appreciation on the faces of some of the monks when the fights are on, you can tell that they're recognizing one of their own in the ring’ I have to say that having been to lots of festival fights with monks present - they are often out at the edges smoking like teenagers under the bleachers - this projection of them seeing fighters as "one of their own" seems pretty exaggerated as a proof of Muay Thai spirituality. Many monks seem pretty mundane at these events. But that doesn't eliminate the overall point that indeed Muay Thai as a way of life is a method and means of self-control and discovery, and that this process fits neatly into the aims and ways of life of Buddhism. I see this even in how Pi Nu teaches at Petchrungruang. I can see in his eyes that there is always something to benefit someone in them learning proper Muay Thai. There is a kind of ethical ballast to the calm aesthetic of what he sees as beautiful. And this goes from beginner on up. You can see the same in these opening scenes involving Kru Bah who ethically instructs children using Muay Thai (Kru Bah is referenced in the essay): George's technical arguments about non-violence and Buddhist ethics seem less convincing to me, though you may be more persuaded than me. At most she seems to argue that because Muay Thai violence is non-life threatening it does not violate Buddhist principles. This does not quite measure up though to the idea that it exemplifies them. But perhaps it does, in a way that George does not fully draw out. By the practice of equipoise, the exertion of what she calls "force" (morally neutral) in the artifice of combat Muay Thai's version of non-violence is simply not descending into the emotions of violence. And this is instructive. She also references Buddhist mediation techniques which she connects to Muay Thai breathing, and the reception of a student ceremony Yok Kru, which no longer really exists as prevalent in commercial Muay Thai as far as I know. These two feel like stretches to me, but still are interesting ethical orbits around Muay Thai and its heritage. Arguments about how camp Muay Thai improves the lives of children, seem to be on good footing, and go towards her larger view that Muay Thai itself, especially in its more traditional form, is somehow essentially good for the health of a Nation. Bottom line: there isn't a lot written about the ethics of Buddhism and Muay Thai and at the very least this seems like a great starting point for conversations about the moral force of Muay Thai as a heritage. for a collection of academic articles on Muay Thai see here
this is transposed from a Facebook conversation Hi Sylvie, finally getting to continue our Twitter chat! Those readings you sent me were very interesting – I don’t think we are disagreeing actually. You’re coming I think from an anthropological place describing the system, and I’m more asking is this system really providing the best outcomes for people. It’s a strong strain in Thai thinking, going back to the 1932 constitution, and carried on by people like Pira Sudham (Monsoon Country), Aed Carabao (protest singer, you definitely know him!) or Voranai Vanijaka (columnist). My issue with children fighting is not with the fighting it’s with the urgent need kids from some backgrounds have to earn money so their families can eat. I understand your point this fulfills the Buddhist precept of filial duty, but question the convenience of that construct in maintaining a very unequal society. If you are poor that’s your ‘bap’ or lack of merit speaking, so you and your children must fix this. If you are wealthy that’s your accrued merit speaking, and if you and your children continue to make merit you will stay rich. MuayThai has a role in this of course. It’s fascinating to see how BuaKaw’s success and foreign fighters like yourself have brought the upper levels of Thai society into gyms - but wealthy Thai children who train rarely compete. Their experience of MuayThai is not as an opportunity to make merit by paying their family’s rent. They find other less urgent ways of making merit. Even becoming a monk is dictated by finances –as it costs money for the ceremony and so on. (Women don’t have this option of course but that’s another story!) Buddhism is not alone here - Catholicism has ‘redemptive suffering’ which also encourages poor people to see difficulties as merit making. For poor boys and girls talented enough to make money from MuayThai of course they are going to do it, it’s life-changing! Just one example – an Isan boxer told me his dream is for his daughters to finish school, and not have to enter prostitution as his sisters did. He is proud of his stadium titles, proud he built a concrete home for his parents but he doesn’t want the same pressures for his children. I think we’re thinking about the same issues from different paths?"