I was recently asked (by a prominent [British] Muay Thai practitioner) to write a short text about the cultural differences between ‘Western’ Thai Boxers when compared with ethnic ‘Thai’ Muay Thai counter-parts. He was particularly interested in the different cultural patterns of ‘effort’ that are in effect in the Thai Boxing ring in Thailand. He explained to me that he knows full well that many dedicated and very respectful Westerners travel to Thailand to compete in ethnic Thai Boxing competitions (not ‘adjusted’ to the sensitivities of the international community) - and as soon as they step-off the aeroplane suffer the beginnings of a psychological collapse and the development of tremendous feelings of doubt!
Furthermore, despite bravery and stoicism – as soon as the ‘smiling’ Muay Thai Warriors the ring and being the traditional ‘Ram Muay Wai Kru’ - an ancient ritual of respect that praise the Hindu God – Rama – as well as the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – a very strong sense of ‘alienation’ manifests. This sense of ‘cultural’ distinction is made even more pronounced as the Thai practitioner also ‘praises’ his or her family ancestors, parents, teachers and fellow students, etc. Perhaps this is one of its main purposes. This ‘dance’ is in fact a ‘secret’ martial art that only true Muay Thai Masters know how to interpret and use in combat. Muay Thai Masters have told me that it is a Thai manifestation of ‘internal’ martial art similar to the Taijiquan of China – which is often performed nowadays to ‘music’ as is the ‘Ram Muay’ (this is the shortened title my ethnic Thai friends us who live in the Warwick area of the UK).
I have had the privilege to train in the UK with students of Master Sken and Master Toddy over the years – despite never meeting these two experts in person. When some of these practitioners have passed through Sutton (South London) - they have come into our gongfu training hall on Sunday mornings and we have worked together. They have always been respectful, tough and very dedicated. Other than this contact with Muay Thai, my family frequent the Buddhapadipa Temple in Wimbledon, and on occasion, the Forest Hermitage (Wat Santidhamma) in Warwickshire – both of which serve the British ethnic Thai population and the Theravada Buddhism they practice. Years ago, when I lived in Hereford, I sparred full-on with ethnic Thai visitors and I was impressed with their ‘relaxed’ attitude and ‘fierce’ manifestation when fighting! I was inspired by how they live and breathe Buddhism first and foremost – and throw punches and kicks only after they have learned the Buddha’s Teaching fully! This is why I often seek-out special Theravada Bhikkhus living in the Buddhist temples in the UK. Unlike in the Thai villages and forests – this is not a common occurrence in the UK – but occasionally I get lucky!
I have also discovered that the Head Monks are often reticent to discuss this issue in the temple due to many Westerners developing the wrong attitude about Buddhism and Muay Thai. The way this works is that if the Head Monk wanted Westerners to learn Muay Thai – he would make its presence known and organise access. When I have discovered Muay Thai practice in the Buddhist temples – it has always been by mistake. This has also included incidents of special ‘tattooing’ sessions – whereby ‘sacred’ images and spiritually empowered mantras are ‘tapped’ into the skin – using a pointed-bone and coloured ink... These marks are considered ‘sacred’ and ‘divine’ as they grant the carrier with special spiritual powers. Interestingly, when I asked the Head Monk about how a person should begin their practice of Muay Thai? He answered that I should read the Pali Suttas about ‘correct breathing’, and about ‘stilling the mind’ - whilst living in an isolated meditation hut for at least three-years. Without this foundation of ‘Dhamma’ - I was told – I cannot practice ‘genuine’ Muay Thai.
Author’s Note: I have had the honour to train and spar with a number of very tough and yet very relaxed Muay Thai fighters over the years! All have been hardened fighters with a gentle spirit and respectful spirit. Muay Thai fighters (along with Goju Ryu Karate men) are amongst the few opponents in the world that I can trust with me hitting them ‘full-power’ with ungloved-hands during free-fighting. In return, their blows are sharp, powerful, decisive and repetitive! I have the utmost respect for this Thai Buddhist martial art! ACW (5.5.2021)
The deep-rooted foundation of Muay Thai – or ‘Thai Boxing’ - do not lie in the brightly and well-funded gymnasia of the modern Thai city, but exist in the poorest areas of the jungles and the remotest of Thai villages. Depending on where the art is still practiced, Muay Thai is often linked to an ancient local Buddhist Temple – with esteemed Buddhist bhikkhus (monks) acting as the instructors and preservers of the tradition. The cultural basis of Muay Thai represents the psychological and physical reality of what it historically means to be born ‘Thai’. Thai Boxing is form of ritual veneration for the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha – as well as the King of Thailand, the government and the Thai people. As a consequence, Muay Thai has no other purpose in its most traditional form.
Muay Thai is much more than preparing a fighter to compete in the modern ring. Muay Thai is a fully-fledged medieval military art designed to train Asian infantrymen as they advance into battle escorting battle-elephants (the infantry ‘protects’ the vulnerable underbellies of the elephant from enemy attack, etc). The male and female warriors are psychologically and physically ‘toughened’ so to produce effective and hardened soldiers fit to fight in prolonged hand-to-hand engagements on the battlefield. Through harsh and brutal training all day long – the mind is ‘calmed’ and ‘purified’ so that all greed, hatred and delusion are uprooted and eradicated in accordance with the Buddhist Vinaya Discipline. This is why a Muay Thai warrior is a ‘Buddhist’ warrior to venerates and applied the Buddha’s Teachings (‘Dhamma’) in every facet of his or her life. This activity is regulated by the educated eyes of the Sangha (or the ‘community of ordained Buddhist monks’).
We Take Refuge in the Buddha!
We Take Refuge in the Dhamma!
We Take Refuge in the Sangha!
We Take Refuge in the Triple Gem!
This is the ritualistic vow that every Muay Thai warrior repeats with a total and complete devotion early every morning as they rise from their simple straw mat which they use as a ‘bed’. After toileting and drinking a little water – the daily training begins by running two or three miles at a steady pace around the temple and local villages. The pace is slow but steady. Speed is not the purpose – but rather stamina, strength and endurance. Rubbing the shins and fore-arms with wooden rolling-pin type devices slowly develops into the anatomical weapons being sharply ‘struck’ by these heavy objects (at the advanced level – this includes striking different parts of the skull). This leads to rope-work (or ‘skipping) to work-up a sweat before body-conditioning begins.
After working on the strengthening of the bones it is time to strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments. Different Masters use different types of sit-ups, squat-kicks, back-raises, press-ups and loosening and stretching exercises. Relaxation coupled with strength and endurance is emphasised. All this voluntary suffering is designed to ‘burn-off’ the bad Kamma produced in the endless previous lives that have been lived by these Buddhist warriors. Next is the technique of striking, blocking, kicking, punching, head-butting and elbowing, etc. This includes groin-kicking and how to defend against groin-attacks. Devastating knee-attacks delivered at various (and unpredictable angles) are used to break ribs and paralyse the diaphragm of an opponent. This progresses to many different kinds of pad-work and bag-striking. Some bags are full of sand and others of small stones and the fighters must learn to punch and kick each with no injury or loss of stamina or will-power.
This leads to various forms of ‘sparring’ in the ring either with or without gloves. Nowadays, even the most traditional Muay Thai training temples usually ‘wrap’ the fighter’s hands early in the morning – although there are some traditional ‘hand-toughening’ exercises that involve punching trees, blocks of wood and various other objects. The hands are then treated with special (traditional) medicine. As violence is prohibited within Buddhism – greed. Hatred and delusion must be uprooted through long hours of seated mediation (usually in the evenings) and the reading of the Buddha’s Suttas. This distinctly ‘Buddhist’ training is the true foundation of Muay Thai and is the hidden conditioning ingredient to all the martial technique that this art involves.
Most people outside of Thailand only encounter the kick-boxing element of Muay Thai performed in a modern boxing ring. Traditional Muay Thai is fought on a raised stone disc or dais (after each performs a ritualised martial dance to the Hindu God Rama and the and the Buddha) Fighters have their hands wrapped by a thin and course rope (not Western bandage-wraps). Sometimes the hand-wraps are dip in a type of glue and then dipped into broken-glass – depending on the purpose of the fight. A rattan ring is worn around the top of the head as a form of skull-protection from the powerful round-kicks delivered with bare-feet, etc. For the King of Thailand, not only are his most trusted bodyguards all advanced Muay Thai warriors – but at least two specialise in the technique of double-swordsmanship incase a traditional ‘beheading’ is required of a convicted criminal.
As the Muay Thai warriors hold the status of ordained Buddhist monks – all are ‘celibate’ whilst they live and train in the Muay Thai Temple. There is no mixing with females allowed and certainly no girlfriends, or wives, etc. When not engaged in the actual physical training of Muay Thai – such a warrior-monk is expected to engage in studying the Buddhist Suttas, meditating, cleaning the temple and humbly serving the monks, etc. As they start training and fighting as young as 5 or 6-years old, a Muay Thai fighter could well in excess of two-hundred fights by the time he or she is 25-years old! Unless a Muay Thai fighter ‘retires’ and leaves his or her status as a Buddhist warrior monk – there can be no relationships with the opposite sex allowed.
Muay Thai is an ancient martial art that has been adapted to the modern, Western-boxing ring very well. I am of the opinion that it is one of the best all-round striking, grappling and throwing martial arts in the world today, that has retained its deep spiritual roots in modern times. Westerners, by comparison, possess a psychology and physicality that is all incorrect for Muay Thai. They do not possess the deep Thai cultural connection to the Buddha or to Buddhist culture. They have no understanding of Buddhism or any respect for the Dhamma, the Sangha or the Thai King. They know nothing about quietening the mind and uprooting greed, hatred and delusion. They think and move like a Western-boxer from a Judeo-Christian culture that has ‘secularised’.
This mentality is shot-through with the capitalist ideology and a one-sided effort defeats a multisided foundation. Westerners place all their and determination in the wrong place (as can be seen from the above video). When confronted with the best Muay Thai Masters – they incorrectly believe that if they just try harder – their inappropriate manifestation will somehow ‘work’ despite never working in the past during similar situations. They employ a lateral determination against the ‘deep’ and ‘profound’ training of a celibate Muay Thai warrior monk – as this is the case – why should they win? Why should this disrespectful and entirely incorrect interpretation of the Asian martial art of Muay Thai be allowed to succeed? This is where Western notions of ‘effort’ fall flat on their face – with no sympathy from me!
Shifu Adrian Chan-Wyles (b. 1967) - Lineage (Generational) Inheritor of the Ch'an Dao Hakka Gongfu System.