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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Arguments for Buddhist Ethics and Moral Guidance from Muay Thai

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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.
 
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This is so interesting! I don't know enough yet to comment really, but just love reading this type of post!

In reference to the photographer's quote you included, I really can relate to that notion of the 'internal quest' that Muay Thai seems to instigate in people. I had no idea about MT when I started, and yet I find the 'quest' I've now embarked upon to be so intoxicating and addictive actually. I do feel misunderstood when I try and express the passion I feel for it haha!

From the outside, I suppose it does seem violent etc and obviously can be about combat but from the 'inside' (or my personal experience of the 'inside', keeping in mind I've never fought) it really does set you off on the most amazing journey of self-discovery and self-knowledge, of strength, of character, of challenge and discipline, achievement, persistence....I could go on and on and on. For me, it is about so much more than violence or even sport - so much so I struggle to find the words to describe how and why I've become so obsessed by it. Overall, my path of learning Muay Thai has been so empowering and personally enlightening.

Although not religious myself, it's fascinating to read how it ties in with Buddhism.

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Something that really struck me an has stuck with me since reading it, is when Vail posits that the self-control within the "violence" of ring Muay Thai is the crux of the whole thing. A kid who flails wildly is acting out jai rohn violence, whereas the kid who can maintain composure while striking and being struck in return is jai dee

There is a lot of oi! oi! with clean strikes, powerful strikes, devastating strikes, all of which are the aesthetic violence of Muay Thai, but it's the fighter's balance and self-control and awareness that really sets the Thai aesthetic apart from the western fighters' aesthetic. And that ethic/aesthetic, to me, exemplifies the same values of Theravada Buddhism that is primary to a lot of "Thainess."

Honestly, I've never seen a contradiction between Thai Buddhism and Thai boxing.

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