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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

The Foundations of the Thai Nation Included Temples & Muay Thai

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Reading a really good essay on how the very National identity of Thailand, a modern conception born out of engagements with the colonial West, was established by creating 4 spiritual centers geographically spread across the country. Read that here:

National_Identity_and_the_Geo_Soul_Spiri.pdf

National Identity and the Geo-Soul: Spiritually Mapping Siam 

It traces the logic of the establishment of 4 spiritual centers by the anti-Royalist spirit of Prime Minister Phibunsongkhram, creating a constellation wats that helped define the national borders of the country. Saplings of the original Bodhi Tree of the Buddha's meditation were planted at each of these wats, in the early 1940s. What is interesting to me is that as Phibunsongkhram was carving out a new national identity, it was also in these years that Rajadamnern was being built. And, in these years as well that Phibunsongkhram and magazines celebrating Muay Thai started lauding a new kind of hero, every-men like the much feared Suk. The point being, just as the foundations of the Spiritual conception of a "whole" Thailand was being developed, a people's Muay Thai, along with the first National stadium, also was developed. When people think about what Muay Thai means to the identity of Thailand itself, it was poured into the foundation from the very beginning.

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Construction of Wat Phra Sri Mahathat Woramahawihan, the centerpiece of Prime Minister Phibunsongkhram's Spiritual Identity project, began on 20 March 1941 in commemoration of the government victory over the Boworadet rebellion in 1933. The foundation stone of Rajadamnern stadium was laid first, on March 1st of that same year.

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Kevin, thanks so much for this essay, and for including the Ricks article: National Identity and the Geo-Soul: Spiritually Mapping Siam

Quote

The geo-soul that Phibun wrought has evolved into the religio-national identity which exists in Thailand today. Through linking Buddhism geographically with the body of the Thai state, the religion became an inherent part of the Thai identity which would develop over the next decades.

You've illustrated an aspect of Thai history of which I was not aware; I loved reading this.  I am also mindful of the elements of Buddhist thought that flow through the veins of both the country of Thailand and Muay Thai, and this strikes a chord with me, having spent time as a monastic in Chiang Mai and as a practicing Thai Forest Buddhist. Thai Buddhism influences so much of Thai culture and behavior, and you and Sylvie's scholarship in the field of Muay Thai has helped me to appreciate other facets of Muay Thai that resonate with themes from Buddhist meditation and practice.  

Without going down a rabbit hole too much, there's a congruence between modern millennial Thai aggressive consumerism and abandonment of Buddhist practice, and the abandonment of the Femur-like and mindful aesthetics that have informed the Golden Age of Muay Thai, in favor of a more aggressive and combative model.   It's so good to be reminded that the golden history of Thailand includes the congruence of Buddhism, Buddhist architecture and culture, and Muay Thai.  Interesting as well that both Muay Thai and Thai Buddhism have suffered more recently with the growing influence of greed, aggression, and corruption.  Your scholarship reminds and informs us that the Thailand has a rich and deeply valuable history that should never be forgotten or set aside, especially in these increasingly difficult modern times.

Edited by buddhasoup
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On 5/23/2020 at 2:39 AM, buddhasoup said:

Without going down a rabbit hole too much, there's a congruence between modern millennial Thai aggressive consumerism and abandonment of Buddhist practice, and the abandonment of the Femur-like and mindful aesthetics that have informed the Golden Age of Muay Thai, in favor of a more aggressive and combative model. 

This to me is really unclear...or, maybe involves multiple forces at work. Most of the arguments regarding the State and Buddhism in Thailand, including those in this article, work along the lines of seeing the systematic institutionalization of Buddhism, organized around Bangkok power, as distinctly modernist. A homogenization of belief and practice, and one could imagine that these trends toward homogenization that work against the variety and detail of "femeu" Muay Thai are rooted in that very homogenizing, modernist project. Erasing differences, and localization. These forces, if I'm not mistaken, also worked against the forest tradition you are practiced in, and against some of the animist traditions that lay beneath Buddhism in the country. This is to say that Buddhism and State power seem like they are possibly quite at work in rooting these same commercializing, globalizing forces that currently are degrading Muay Thai. On the other hand, I would totally agree that the "aggro" fighting of international kickboxing and MMA, that aesthetic, is powerfully opposed to the Buddhistic philosophy that grounds Muay Thai in what it is. It really boils down to just "what" is the source of femeu diversity and development? Is it the proliferation of de-centralized locations of power and knowledge, a kind of Garden of Eden, Amazon Rain Forest of ecosystems of fighting, village by village, festival by festival? I see that as an attractive thought. If so, then perhaps Buddhism has had a kind of push-pull effect on that art.

Maybe it is worth while drawing comparisons between magico-practices of spiritual belief and femeu fighting diversity, both in terms of State Buddhism and capitalism/consumerism?

I say this all in appreciation of your thoughts.

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Kevin, thanks so much for taking the time to respond, and to respond with such an intriguing answer.  I welcome this kind of exchange...This is a subject that might take hours to study and contemplate; for now I'll just express thanks on a Sunday afternoon, and think on this some more. Your perspective of the pre-Buddhist and co-Buddhist traditions of village and Hill Tribal animist influences is excellent; this opens a door of thought for me that I am going to take some time to explore.  As so many of our Golden Age fighters ( I say "our" and recognize that you and Sylvie opened this golden door for all of us) started their Muay Thai pathway as kids in the Thai wats, it'd be interesting for me to see if any of the Golden fighters and/or elderly abbots of some of these northern wats can draw a connection between Muay Thai aesthetics, animist traditions, and Buddhist Dhamma/practice.   Such a great subject you've introduced: a person could cultivate a truly compelling Ph.D. just on this subject alone! 

Edited by buddhasoup
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On 5/25/2020 at 4:33 AM, buddhasoup said:

As so many of our Golden Age fighters ( I say "our" and recognize that you and Sylvie opened this golden door for all of us) started their Muay Thai pathway as kids in the Thai wats, it'd be interesting for me to see if any of the Golden fighters and/or elderly abbots of some of these northern wats can draw a connection between Muay Thai aesthetics, animist traditions, and Buddhist Dhamma/practice. 

I wish we could have these kinds of conversations! (This mode of analysis, instinctively, feels far from Thai conceptualization about things, to me.) I would point out, also interestingly enough, that even though it is true that much of Muay Thai was transmitted through wat education, the State formalization of Buddhism that began with the turn of the 20th century, and extended through the time of the article above, did work to really narrow the diversity of Thai Buddhism (and likely Muay Thai) in that process. As King Chulalongkorn, for instance, named (and therefore ostensibly created the "schools" of Muay Boran in 1910, this has been seen by historians as an attempt to actually secularize Muay Thai in the country, by putting under State camp auspices. These two dates in our Modernization of Muay Thai bring this forward:

Quote

 

1902 – Religious Bangkok reforms outlawed non-Thammayut Buddhism mahanikai practices – these were often magical practices, but also boxing related activities were discouraged. It was a move towards orthodoxy that over decades would push muay teachings towards secular teaching (colleges, camps) and away from wat (temple) sources.

1909-1910 – King Chulalonkorn formalizes Muay (Boran) by awarding (in 1910, May 22nd) 3 muen (the lowest non-heriditary rank) to victors at the funeral fights for his son Uruphong Ratchasomphot (in 1909). The region-styles: Lopburi, Khorat and Chaiya.Daeng Thaiprasoet from Khorat (north-east) became Muen Changat Choengchok; Klueng Tosa-at from Lopburi (central plains) became Muen Muemaenmat; and Prong Chamnongthong from Chaiya (south) became Muen Muaymichue. Each were to set up kong muay to teach their styles. Boxers at such camps were except from military conscription and forced public labor.

 

The Modernization of Muay Thai - a timeline

It would be super interesting to know what animistic, magical practices were preserved throughout the century, and the wat pedagogy of Muay Thai itself, and how much the two came together if at all.

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Kevin, I hope you don't mind, but I shared part of our conversation with the forum at Sutta Central, to see if any monastics, or any of the Dhamma scholars/student on that site (of which I am a member), have any thoughts on this most compelling subject.  see https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/thai-buddhism-muay-thai-aesthetics-and-thai-animist-culture/16140  

I'm going to continue to do some informal research on my own...your question: It would be super interesting to know what animistic, magical practices were preserved throughout the century, and the wat pedagogy of Muay Thai itself, and how much the two came together if at all.  is captivating and worthy of study. 

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