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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

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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.

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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! 

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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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    • I also think that we may run into some problems if we just define Thai hypermasculinity by the appeal to violence. In the West hypermasculinity is often strongly coded by shows of violence. I imagine you've read it but Sylvie's and my article Thai Masculinity: Postioning Nak Muay Between Monkhood and Nak Leng – Peter Vail is really good on this, taking the start from Peter Vail's chapter. We have to say that not only is the "nak leng" (prone to violence gangster tough) Thai hypermasculinity, but also so is the "monk". Both are exaggerated masculine ideals. And that's where the Muay Khao vs Muay Femeu battle plays out. Two models of hypermasculinity. I think the difficulty comes when we try to graft that historical duality onto let's say Greek mythology and Apollo & Dionysus, or even (Western) ideals of male and female. The graphic we made from that article:  
    • I think a really interesting place to start, and the metaphysically strongest foothold is your original appeal to Apollo as distinct, and the sense that (his/the) figure involves the movement from the inchoate (which in at least many societies is chthonic with female associations, though not categorically so). In at least the traditional aesthetics of Golden Age Muay Thai there is a powerful emphasis on distinction, readability, visibility, and even in contemporary Muay Thai you find the criticism of a fighter as muaymua which means indistinct, clouded. A very aggressive, flailing or windmilling fighter is fighting in an unreadable way. Muaymua. You find this in the importance of ruup, which you mentioned, which is ultimately taking the body as a sign, displaying posture, physical control, dignity, etc. A fighter who is off-balance, or who is bent over, or generally lacks readability has lost their ruup. This runs parallel to Buddhistic ideals of self-control. A fighter who cannot control their emotions also can't control their body-signification. This plays into your appeals to Heidegger's truth-event, art as visibility - though I personally feel that Heidegger got alethea somewhat wrong - which helps us understand that in a Muay Khao vs Muay Femeu (metaphysical) battle, both fighters are seeking to make themselves visible & readable. Distinct. I do think it is fair to say that Muay Femeu is further along the distinction spectrum, at least it does not risk lack of clarity quite as much in its style, as it often pays more attention to rhythm and timing (musical aspects of distinction and readability). And the burden falls upon the Muay Khao fighter to show distinction in his/her pressure fighting. Muay Khao legends are very insistent on this with Sylvie when they have instructed her. Do not rush. Find the rhythm, the beat. Make your strikes (which often are at close range) readable. Also, in this battle, the warfare that the Muay Khao fighter brings is to break the illusions of the Muay Femeu fighter's clarity and signified composure. You see this, for instance, in the two big fights that Samart lost (Dieselnoi and Wangchannoi). Once the spell is broken there is very little left. The Muay Khao fighter seeks to break ruup. But, I think it's a very complex thing to attempt to graft historical male and female expressions onto the inchoate>distinctness metaphysical spectrum, and arrive some beyond-history place. Yes, males (Patriarchy) have been placed at the top of most symbolic hierarchies, but Thailand itself in the 1920s-1950s adopted Western modes of gender distinction, specifically to appear more civilized, less deserving of colonization, more in step with "modernity". Siam was known to commonly not have strong visual distinctions between the genders. Westerners found this inchoate. You can see how historically contingent the application of distinction and gender may be. Also involved in Thailand is the basic tension between cosmopolitan (royal) distinction along those adopted and developed lines, and rural, provincial distinction which may have run along very different tastes and aesthetics. A male body of Bangkok princely signification may vie semiotically with the male body of Buriram signification. It's no easy thing to try and isolate some historical, yet transcendent "female" in this mixed history. In fact it seems like it is probably wrong to do so, or at least highly projective of one's own cultural history and presumptions.  The "ontology" that you appeal to in traditional Muay Thai, which is to say the ontology of win and loss, itself is conditioned and constructed historically. It relies on culturally developed aesthetics. Even if we grant that these aesthetics developed to reward distinctness over incoherence, the significations of that distinctness, what counts for distinctness, is to a large degree historically contingent. Thais say standing up straight is clear ruup, in Caipoeira it's the crouch. Also complexifying the distinctness measure, even or especially a great Muay Femeu fighter fights with deception and incoherence as a tool. Obscurity isn't only a weakness, it cloaks sudden readability. In some regard both Muay Khao and Muay Femeu are aesthetically mixing incoherence and clarity for effectiveness under that culturally expressive rule set.
    • I guess I may need to put some more thought into how I conceive of muay khao = female, because I'm having a hard time explaining it differently than I am, and it does not seem to be entirely convincing, haha. Yes, it is trying to set up a dichotomy for deconstruction, but it is also trying to conceive of dynamics of gender rather than cultural conceptions of gender. If the format of the presentation were different, I would have liked to establish the dichotomies of Ortner and Nietzsche first. I think that would have made for a more convincing case of muay khao being parallel to female, because it does seem to be more animalistic, and that would be considered closer to ''the female'' in the framework of Nietzsche and Ortner. Mainly it hinges on an understanding of gender as a continuum that constitutes it's pole through the immanent tension itself, rather than through substances at either end. I suppose that the way I see it outside of this attempt at establishing dichotomies for deconstruction is that muay khao and muay femeu both contend for the right to masculine identity, and both are at risk of being condemned as feminine; muay femeu for being too ornate and ''not having guts'', for not being aggressive and for not being strong enough; muay khao for looking like a dumb beast (many patriarchal societies consider and have considered women dumb, unfit for learning, see Aristotle), for not being able to play by the rules of man so to speak, for not being part of the order.   I agree with you that the strongest reading of muay thai is through your span of man-animality, but I wanted to try my hand at doing something similar with gender, because it seems to me (and to you) that there are strong currents of gender identities and dynamics in muay thai. As I mention in the presentation, I don't subscribe to an entirely social constructivist concept of gender, and so it seems to me that muay thai has something to tell us about gender that is more than how it is conceived at x time in y place.
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    • I also think that we may run into some problems if we just define Thai hypermasculinity by the appeal to violence. In the West hypermasculinity is often strongly coded by shows of violence. I imagine you've read it but Sylvie's and my article Thai Masculinity: Postioning Nak Muay Between Monkhood and Nak Leng – Peter Vail is really good on this, taking the start from Peter Vail's chapter. We have to say that not only is the "nak leng" (prone to violence gangster tough) Thai hypermasculinity, but also so is the "monk". Both are exaggerated masculine ideals. And that's where the Muay Khao vs Muay Femeu battle plays out. Two models of hypermasculinity. I think the difficulty comes when we try to graft that historical duality onto let's say Greek mythology and Apollo & Dionysus, or even (Western) ideals of male and female. The graphic we made from that article:  
    • I think a really interesting place to start, and the metaphysically strongest foothold is your original appeal to Apollo as distinct, and the sense that (his/the) figure involves the movement from the inchoate (which in at least many societies is chthonic with female associations, though not categorically so). In at least the traditional aesthetics of Golden Age Muay Thai there is a powerful emphasis on distinction, readability, visibility, and even in contemporary Muay Thai you find the criticism of a fighter as muaymua which means indistinct, clouded. A very aggressive, flailing or windmilling fighter is fighting in an unreadable way. Muaymua. You find this in the importance of ruup, which you mentioned, which is ultimately taking the body as a sign, displaying posture, physical control, dignity, etc. A fighter who is off-balance, or who is bent over, or generally lacks readability has lost their ruup. This runs parallel to Buddhistic ideals of self-control. A fighter who cannot control their emotions also can't control their body-signification. This plays into your appeals to Heidegger's truth-event, art as visibility - though I personally feel that Heidegger got alethea somewhat wrong - which helps us understand that in a Muay Khao vs Muay Femeu (metaphysical) battle, both fighters are seeking to make themselves visible & readable. Distinct. I do think it is fair to say that Muay Femeu is further along the distinction spectrum, at least it does not risk lack of clarity quite as much in its style, as it often pays more attention to rhythm and timing (musical aspects of distinction and readability). And the burden falls upon the Muay Khao fighter to show distinction in his/her pressure fighting. Muay Khao legends are very insistent on this with Sylvie when they have instructed her. Do not rush. Find the rhythm, the beat. Make your strikes (which often are at close range) readable. Also, in this battle, the warfare that the Muay Khao fighter brings is to break the illusions of the Muay Femeu fighter's clarity and signified composure. You see this, for instance, in the two big fights that Samart lost (Dieselnoi and Wangchannoi). Once the spell is broken there is very little left. The Muay Khao fighter seeks to break ruup. But, I think it's a very complex thing to attempt to graft historical male and female expressions onto the inchoate>distinctness metaphysical spectrum, and arrive some beyond-history place. Yes, males (Patriarchy) have been placed at the top of most symbolic hierarchies, but Thailand itself in the 1920s-1950s adopted Western modes of gender distinction, specifically to appear more civilized, less deserving of colonization, more in step with "modernity". Siam was known to commonly not have strong visual distinctions between the genders. Westerners found this inchoate. You can see how historically contingent the application of distinction and gender may be. Also involved in Thailand is the basic tension between cosmopolitan (royal) distinction along those adopted and developed lines, and rural, provincial distinction which may have run along very different tastes and aesthetics. A male body of Bangkok princely signification may vie semiotically with the male body of Buriram signification. It's no easy thing to try and isolate some historical, yet transcendent "female" in this mixed history. In fact it seems like it is probably wrong to do so, or at least highly projective of one's own cultural history and presumptions.  The "ontology" that you appeal to in traditional Muay Thai, which is to say the ontology of win and loss, itself is conditioned and constructed historically. It relies on culturally developed aesthetics. Even if we grant that these aesthetics developed to reward distinctness over incoherence, the significations of that distinctness, what counts for distinctness, is to a large degree historically contingent. Thais say standing up straight is clear ruup, in Caipoeira it's the crouch. Also complexifying the distinctness measure, even or especially a great Muay Femeu fighter fights with deception and incoherence as a tool. Obscurity isn't only a weakness, it cloaks sudden readability. In some regard both Muay Khao and Muay Femeu are aesthetically mixing incoherence and clarity for effectiveness under that culturally expressive rule set.
    • I guess I may need to put some more thought into how I conceive of muay khao = female, because I'm having a hard time explaining it differently than I am, and it does not seem to be entirely convincing, haha. Yes, it is trying to set up a dichotomy for deconstruction, but it is also trying to conceive of dynamics of gender rather than cultural conceptions of gender. If the format of the presentation were different, I would have liked to establish the dichotomies of Ortner and Nietzsche first. I think that would have made for a more convincing case of muay khao being parallel to female, because it does seem to be more animalistic, and that would be considered closer to ''the female'' in the framework of Nietzsche and Ortner. Mainly it hinges on an understanding of gender as a continuum that constitutes it's pole through the immanent tension itself, rather than through substances at either end. I suppose that the way I see it outside of this attempt at establishing dichotomies for deconstruction is that muay khao and muay femeu both contend for the right to masculine identity, and both are at risk of being condemned as feminine; muay femeu for being too ornate and ''not having guts'', for not being aggressive and for not being strong enough; muay khao for looking like a dumb beast (many patriarchal societies consider and have considered women dumb, unfit for learning, see Aristotle), for not being able to play by the rules of man so to speak, for not being part of the order.   I agree with you that the strongest reading of muay thai is through your span of man-animality, but I wanted to try my hand at doing something similar with gender, because it seems to me (and to you) that there are strong currents of gender identities and dynamics in muay thai. As I mention in the presentation, I don't subscribe to an entirely social constructivist concept of gender, and so it seems to me that muay thai has something to tell us about gender that is more than how it is conceived at x time in y place.
    • Okay. But you are the one who included "female" on one half of the bracket. It was your schema. You may be saying that this dichotomy cannot hold, but even at the level of description it doesn't seem to describe the cultural facts on the ground, to start with. But maybe I'm not following you. I just don't see why a starting place would be Muay Khao = female, unless one is just trying to set up a dichotomy that will then be deconstructed. Are we starting with something like: Muay Khao is rural, rural is of the land, the land is often seen as female in cultures? Or, why isn't Samart "Dionysian"? He is ornate. He is gender fluid (in some ways), He is theatrical. I guess I'm just having trouble with the starting point, which is a male vs female division. But I will admit I might not be following it clearly. I do really enjoy and even love the broad strokes of your thought. And the presentation with all the performance/example is really beautiful stuff. So good. I do love the way you have brought diverse ideas and theories together. It's very good.
    • [again, I see you have responded to the above while writing, I'll just post this blind.] I should say, I think that these contradictions in representation, the difficulty in just popping most Muay Femeu fighters into a "male" box, and Muay Khao fighters into a "female" box, actually comes from the attempt to move from what maybe we'd call ethnography (?) to metaphysics. The contradictions actually, don't mean that it's wrong to attempt the theorizing, but rather than that politics and ideology complexify the entire problem. You touch on this in your presentation when you suggest that provincial males might see the aristocratic boys as sissies (ie, unmanly). That entire inversion of what is manly is at tension here. But, being very broad about it...the "critique" of urban sophistication is that it is "feminine" and the critique of rural strength is that it is "animalistic" or "stupid" (not that it is feminine). Any approach would have to incorporate these poles I think.  
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