Thai Masculinity: Postioning Nak Muay Between Monkhood and Nak Leng – Peter Vail
Academic author Peter Vail is one of the few serious scholarly writers who have taken on Muay Thai as a field of study. You can find his articles in my Academic Resources post. Besides a general dearth of articles on Muay Thai in English, there is the added problem that they are very hard to find for the average sincere reader who wants to learn more about Muay Thai and Thai culture. Peter Vail’s PhD dissertation is perhaps most significant example of an important work that is largely hidden from western Martial Art readers’ eyes. Academics aren’t interested in Muay Thai, more or less, and academics largely are the only ones who can read the few articles that have been written.
Peter Vail’s 400 page dissertation Violence and Control: Social and Cultural Dimensions of Muay Thai Boxing (1998) Ithaca, Cornell University is perhaps the most in depth approach to Muay Thai and Thai culture in English, but it is also almost universally unread. I’ve excerpted an important section of the work because it makes a brilliant and important study of how Muay Thai fighters (Nak Muay) exemplify Thai masculinity in how they straddle two other Thai masculine ideals: Monks and Nak Leng. Peter Vail conducted his study over a few years, living in Buriram Isaan in the 1990s. I’ve given the excerpted piece an ad hoc title, you can download the PDF (link below) – and in what follows I give my personal reaction to this excellent article that was a real joy to read. My responses are immediate to my thoughts as I read the text – consider it something between marginalia and reading notes:
Download Full Article PDF: Thai Masculinity: Positioning Nakmuay between Monkhood and Nakleng.PDF
Nak Muay, Monks and Nak Leng – Marginalia and Notes
Certainly the dominant mode in which Thai behavior has been explained in anthropological works is by studying the social importance of Buddhism. Therevada Buddhism is the overarching moral and cosmological paradigm informing Thai behavior and values – and widely cited by both Western and Thai analysts. The explanatory potential of Buddhism in Thailand is great, and no cultural analysis that ignored it would be considered ‘complete.’ (p.2)
I have been asked “why [I] participate in Buddhist rituals.” I do not count myself among the devotees of any organized religion, but neither do I discount religious principles or teachings. In short, I participate in Buddhist rituals because those are the ones relevant to the rituals and practices of Muay Thai in Thailand. A number of the practices are not directly Buddhist, but because it is a Buddhistic culture these precepts, practices, behaviors, and social interactions are all woven into the fabric of Thai life and identity. The experiences I’ve had within my participation and investigation into rituals and teachings have had strong impact on me and I’m grateful for them. I also struggle with and against some of the traditions and beliefs, which is an experience that is endemic to being a critically-thinking person. I’m grateful for that part as well.
Monks are said to offer the laity a “field of merit”: by performing good deeds for monks and the temple, lay devotees are able to accrue bun, religious merit. Without overly belaboring a tenuous point, I would point out that boxers, during a performance, offer something structurally similar: the opportunity for spectators to bet, which, as I’ve suggested in chapter four, may be related to notions of power and karma. Wagering on boxing does for bettors what making merit does for lay practitioners: it provides them the opportunity to increase and test their power and merit. (p. 5)
For a long time I did not want to think about gambling in regards to my performance in fights because it was too much mental/emotional pressure to think that people were losing money if I failed… that the loss of a bet that was placed on the belief in me is an extension of my failure to win a fight. And that feeling probably was borne of an understanding of gambling being a signature of belief in a fighter, which ought to fill one with confidence or pride to some degree, and shame is appropriate when you fail. But I’ve become more acquainted with the importance and prominence of gambling in Muay Thai and so I’ve been forced to face it more directly. In the process, I’ve come to appreciate it. Gamblers placing their belief in a fighter, enough to offer a bet that’s more substantial than just giving a once-over glance at who looks better when entering the ring, is a social mechanism. As a fighter in a given area over a period of time, gamblers will learn how you fight, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and most importantly: whether or not you have “heart.” Gamblers will believe in a fighter who has heart, even if she has had a tough time in fights; even if she is up against a formidable opponent. And at the gym I’m training now, the discussion of money placed on fights is fairly open – Kru Nu will tell me how much money is being placed on a fight, how much was lost on a fighter, etc. It’s part of the discussion of the fight because it’s inseparable from the fighter’s performance. One of our gym’s top fighters lost a fight and with it a great deal of Kru Nu’s uncle’s money. Our fighter kind of choked in the fight – he didn’t fight hard – so the loss of money is misplaced belief and the shame is on the fighter. It doesn’t mean that they never trust in this fighter again, but if he had fought hard and done his all, then the loss of money is just the outcome of having taken a risk – it’s “bad luck.” But if you fight hard and you win, belief in you goes up, “stock” in you as a fighter goes up and confidence and pride that your team, coaches, gym, and gamblers have profited off of you is a very positive experience. Here I am inverting the “field of merit” concept Vail uses, making it reflexive. Not only is there is merit in building up a fighter, but the fighter his- (or her-) self becomes a karmic field, which can be harvested, a field of luck, which is then transferred to those who bet on him (her). The community participates and grows rich (spiritually, materially) through the boon of the fighter.
Later in the essay the topic of young boys being brought to gyms to learn how to fight in order to “learn to be a man” comes up. The money earned from fighting is part of this:
The primary reason they brought their sons to box was “for the experience”, an experience which inculcates the values I have been discussing: independence, composure, and the ability to cope with pain and confrontation. The same is true for boys who are brought to boxing camps. Boxing is deemed a career (or at least an experience, for non-professionals) that will build character (as well as earn cash–which is not unrelated). (p. 40)
The earning of money through Muay Thai is not incidental. From a Western standpoint, this feature of the Muay Thai way of life features heavily in disapproval of child-fighters. The “amateur” is regarded as the highest moral position in what we consider “sport” over a job, and children working – literally child labor – is heavily coded as being immoral from the Western position. In my article reviewing the documentary film following two 8-year-old girls who are professional Muay Thai fighters, “Buffalo Girls” by Todd Kellstein, I argue that earning money for the family is a point of pride and high self-esteem for children. In Thailand, due to the Theravada Buddhism and how it influences culture, earning money for one’s parents is a way of making merit – it is literally creating a more ordered world and giving good Karma to the earners. There’s no “down side” from this view point. For Thais who are introducing their children into Muay Thai camps – either peripherally or for the purpose of becoming career fighters – the fact that Muay Thai earns an income, even if it’s incredibly small, as is the case with the vast majority of fight money offered for young fighters, the act of earning even a single Baht that can be offered to the parental figure of the camp or actual parents is to the Karmic benefit of the fighter. This translates to the grander scale of a fighter who can earn money, through gambling, for their gym and for their family and gamblers in the crowd. Even if a kid is only making a pittance for what he’s paid to fight, a fighter “with heart” who the family and gym believes in can be an earner for the social community of the gym. It is akin to what the author calls the “field of merit” provided by monks.
Dangerous confrontation, and the self control it necessitates, both psycho and somatic, was a crucial method of developing mindfulness. It also forced the monks to be independent from their instructors. The key to surviving a confrontation with a tiger or a wild elephant was to maintain composure — a “cool heart” (jai yen). Thudong monks were thus pushed to actively seek out such confrontational situations: Ajan Man for example, often sent disciples out to face their fears alone, and suggested that “living among tigers and hearing them roar nearby was the best thign that could happen to a thudong monk.” Negotiating danger and fear was thus something of a rite of passage for forest monks, teaching them important lessons in meditation, self control, and independence. (p. 14)
This reminds me of the experience of being tattooed by Ajarn Pi. Both the act of getting in the ring (dangerous confrontation) and sitting for long hours in constant pain (self control) are meaningful in informing and forming the strength needed to be a mindful being. As I was being tattooed by Arjan Pi in my most recent session, the yant of Tigers and a Takroh on my back, I noted fairly early in the process that most pain that we come across in life is very brief. Apart from those of us who suffer chronic illness or chronic pain, the majority of us understand the sensation of pain as being like a flash of intense displeasure that then dissipates. Think of burning yourself, stubbing your toe, breaking a bone: intense pain that then fades over a period of time. Most often it is temporally very short. It is rare that we experience pain that we must sit in. I thought of this as I was entering into the second hour of my tattoo – pain that is considerable, to be sure, and constant. My mind could not be calmed with the mantra that “this too shall pass,” which is a good enough belief for most short-lived pain in my life. The reason it didn’t work was because the pain just doesn’t stop. Yes, eventually it will pass, but the mind doesn’t know when – it becomes impatient while waiting for the relief. Pain becomes tolerable because it is temporary, rather than accepting the pain itself. That was what I was trying to accomplish: acceptance. That, too, was difficult. To pull the mind and the experience of pain inward, to just focus on the moment as is often referenced in Buddhist teachings, meant that focusing on only this moment – only now- meant only pain; endless pain with no beginning and no end. But my mind did understand that this pain is temporary, that I must endure the pain in order to cement the lesson I learn from it into my being – the pain will end, but the tattoo and the lesson I take out of it will remain forever.
There’s an argument out there that psychadelics are a “shortcut” to mental states that, after being glimpsed with the aid of chemicals, must be strived for to reach through more difficult, dedicated means – meditation, yoga, spiritual pathways, etc. I get it: open the mind and see the possibilities by boat, but then you have to get out and swim those deep waters to ever actually touch those distant shores. My experiences of receiving yant from Ajarn Pi have been like this. The sak yant are themselves machines for protection, power, and luck among other things, but amulets and talismans and tattoos are aides to the larger processes of personal transformation, power and paths toward righteousness. The actual process of being tattooed, of sitting for hours in intense pain and finding mindfulness within it, is a “shortcut” that allows you to glimpse who you want to become – who you will become – when you have truly accepted the lessons revealed to you through that process. It won’t get you there, it just shows you where the landmarks are. And while I’m sitting in front of Ajarn Pi and feeling the needle and his hands as he works, I appreciate that he is my guide and my teacher in that moment, but to become something out of the experience is something I do alone, apart from the teacher. It’s the same with Muay Thai – a nakmuay has many teachers, but when we step into the ring we seal it from the inside. And that doesn’t mean I am without my teachers – I am never beyond them – but you have to step away from the guidance in order to make whatever you have learned real. Self-reliance and independence are highly-regarded qualities and ones which a man, in order to be a man (and a monk to be a monk, a fighter to be a fighter), must strive for. But cultivating independence is not, in fact, an independent act. Detachment is achieved through social connections, one does not eclipse or negate the other. I’m alone in the ring, but I didn’t get there by myself and the meaning of what happens in that space is not isolated to only me.
An example is given about a monk having an infection cut out of his leg, without anesthetic and only the power of meditation for the pain:
Endurance or perseverance (othon) were qualities highly praised not only by thudong teachers but also by laypeople of the Northeast, who were proud of their ability to endure difficulties and respectful of those who faced hardship with courage. (p. 15)
Such endurance (othon) constitutes another key code in masculine behavior, especially in the northeast, and it is often counterpoised to “softer” or “weaker” variants of masculinity associated with city life. Thus Ajan Man, perhaps the most famous of all thudong monks, berated a city monk suffering from malaria:
“You are called a maha… but where is the knowledge you studied from the scriptures, right now? … What a waste of time, your maha title! The purpose of learning is to make knowledge available in time of an emergency. But what kind of knowledge is yours? It’s practically useless… I am not a maha, I don’t even have the lowest grade. But what I do have with me are the five basic meditation themes taught to me by my preceptor on ordination day. It seems the more you learn, the weaker you become, weaker even than an uneducated woman. You are a man and also a maha. How could you be such a weakling? During this illness you have done nothing to justify your manhood and monkhood.”
The ability to negotiate confrontation, pain, sickness adn fear leads to self-reliance, which in turn leads to the Buddhist goal of detachment. Nor is it accidental that such behavior is specifically associated with masculinity. Only men (human men, even) are in the religious position to achieve enlightenment. According to the thudong tradition, certain qualities necessary for achieving elnightenment–mindfulness, courage, endurance, perserverance and the “cool heart”–are thus necessarily masculine qualities. Furthermore–and this is the important part–the codes of masculine behavior exemplified by thudong monks are thus religiously sanctioned. (p. 16)
So the religiously-linked experience of receiving sacred tattoos of religious images, magical spells and incantations, are part of the dedicated effort toward becoming a man insofar as the qualities of mindfulness, courage, endurance, perserverance, and “cool heart” – all of which are integral to the ability to endure the intense experience of the tattoo and to be a fighter in the aesthetic of proper Muay Thai – are masculine qualities. I receive masculine yant – the images, placement, size, and associations are all male-coded and Muay Thai is absolutely an expression and performance of Thai masculinity. And to learn this through the process of receiving the yant and then be infused by the yant itself – possessed by the power of the image or animal or spell – is the same as learning movements through training – and then all of these things must be accessible at times of duress, danger, and under pressure in order to truly be qualities of a person, a fighter, a man or a woman. In a way, the masculine markers of my yant are spiritual in the same sense that a tiger is spiritual, and the tattoo on my skin imbues me with the spirit or qualities of that beast, and just the same the qualities of a man. I am not a tiger; I am not a man; but the powers and protections of those qualities become accessible to me as if through magic.
…many younger boxers, in their first few bouts especially, often lose form adn box wildly (muai wai nam) [“swim boxing”]. If they resort to such flailing, they are chastised afterwards, ridiculed even. In future fights, they will work hard to control their form in order to conform to their peers’ standards of masculine deportment. Keeping boxing form demonstrates that one is in somatic control, and this is in turn also indicative that one is maintaining a “cool heart”. (p. 46)
This struck me as I read it. Kru Nu has consistently chided me for and corrected me from what he describes as meaningless strikes. It’s not quite flailing, but it’s what we call “brawling” in the west. He tells me to only strike when I am “sure,” and to do so with full power. Wait until you are sure, then throw with confidence – not the string of attacks that might land, the “button mashing” approach to combinations. I always smile when Kru Nu gets on me about this because I’m just not there yet. Internally, I think, “well, do you want me to strike at all or not?” Because if I only struck when I was perfectly sure, I’d likely throw two strikes in a whole round. But I see his criticism in a different light when reading this. I understand and understood already that composure and calm is paramount in Thai aesthetic of Muay Thai. It’s what makes the visual contrast between a Thai and a westerner in the ring look so disparate: the Thai looks like a floating fish until there is a burst of attack and then calm again; the westerner looks like a ball of tension with a burst of attack and then a loss of balance and back to tension. But what Kru Nu is saying to me, even though it’s beyond my current abilities, means a great deal to me in the context of what the cool heart means toward Thai masculinity and Muay Thai aesthetic because it means he is directing me toward something to which I don’t naturally belong. He’s telling me to “be a man,” in a way. And I believe he pushes me to be this way because of a degree of belief and acceptance that does not naturally belong to him and his views of women – it’s particular to me. When I first began training at Petchrungruang his impression of me was more tenuous. He marveled at my drive and would comment that I “train like a man,” but he also pressured me to pull way back after I received stitches in my face from a fight and he struggled with the devastation to feminine forms, protections, roles, etc. But in coming back to training, in urging him to find me fights and training with the boys and beyond the boys, he’s accepted something about me that allows him to cross the gender barrier and drives him to teach me to “be a man.” Wanting me to maintain poise and only strike when sure, to have the same demands of masculine aesthetic put on me means that he wants the same from me. It is in no small way a step away from the “good… for a girl,” dismissal of being a female fighter, or a western fighter.
Perhaps the most important reason to take nakleng seriously is because they offer a behavioral pattern that is, to varying degrees, emulated by males all over Thailand. (p. 20)
The nakleng is significant for me because of the patterns of modeled performances of masculinity. Upon seeing the film “Khun Chang, Khun Paen,” which is the epic tale of two men of opposite distinction, rivals because they are both in love with the same woman, I noted how strongly many men model themselves after Khun Paen, the womanizing bad-boy of the tale. He’s the hero, despite how horribly he betrays the woman at the center of the love-triangle… multiple times. But that’s “how men are,” and Khun Chang is an emphatic opposite of Khun Paen in that he is wealthy, whiny, a tattle-tale to authority and a Mama’s boy. Put shortly, he’s not a manly man. The appeal of the nakleng appears to be one of ethos – a loner, a bad-boy, a rebel, a criminal by necessity and an untamed spirit. I can see the attraction, and the association with volatility, while seeming to be at odds with the jai yen “cool heart” at the center of Thai masculinity, is actually a mark of high quality not because it is a lack of control, but rather a defense of honor. Imagine the nakmuay in the ring, poised and still, facing down his opponent with bravery and probably a lot of unflinching cockiness. But those bursts of action, a strike or a counter-strike to even the score, is exactly what the violence of a nakleng mirrors. It’s a matter of honor, and so it is swift and merciless.
Their reputations and social face–their masculine ethos–is wrapped up in their politicking as well. Reputation and face has everything to do with it, and thus many nakleng quickly resort to violence when they feel they have been insulted. (p. 28)
But the amulets are not a substitute for individuals charisma or power, they are aids. A nakleng is successful chiefly on his own merits, quite often by how successful he is at confrontation and negotiating violence. (p 26)
Sak yant and amulets do not create charisma or power, rather they amplify a pre-existing quality of a person. Likewise, donning the robes of a monk does not make a bad man good, but rather finds the righteousness that is within a man and draws it out, emphasizes and focuses it; channels it, perhaps. A nakmuay entering the ring asks for protection and chants kata for power, but she is not powerless without them. A nakleng is drawn to amulets or tattoos which protect against enemies or powers, or that offer favor and charisma because those are qualities that the nakleng already possesses but knows there are factors working in balance against his own aims. The entire world becomes like the ring: intention vs. intention. The nakmuay and the nakleng are similar, but the world is inside-out in their two realities. They borrow from one another, but the nakmuay keeps the ring as a space in which the challenges and dangers are focused – it’s a learning space, a meditation for growth – whereas the nakleng has no such enclosure.
I find the nakleng to be a fascinating figure and I see the ethos echoing through Thai masculinity among the Muay Thai set, both consistently and pervasively. There are pieces of the nakleng ethos in virtually every Thai man in Muay Thai I’ve ever met. The swagger of Big at Lanna Muay Thai, who was boyish but intensely self-reliant and protective of his loyal circle. Little Neung was, in terms of ideals, a little “hot headed” and jai rohn in opposition to the jai yen (“cool heart”) after which Thai-ness strives, but in this quality he completely represented the quick-to-correct-disrespect that is salient among nakleng. Some of the men at the periphery of Petchrungruang, namely those who raise chickens at the farm in the back and hold cockfights on a regular basis; they spend money as soon as they’ve earned it (mostly on the cockfights) and are deferant to nobody but intensely loyal and protective of the group of boys that make up the gym. Even the kids: 14-year-old Bank (the son of my trainer) stared down a grown man – probably drunk – who was yelling curses at a 12-year-old fighter from our gym at Lumpinee Stadium after a loss. This guy must have lost money on the fight and was shouting curses at our fighter for having not fought hard enough. This old jerk was, in some ways, illustrative of the messier side of nakleng – the drinking and gambling – but 14-year-old Bank’s response was the epitome of how I associate the nakleng title: he did not break his gaze as he stared this man down, a senior who in Thai social hierarchies and the non-confrontational way of social interaction would likely have simply been ignored by prudent public performances… but Bank stared him down, calmly but intensely. My oldest brother was like this at that age; my brother was very nakleng in his teenaged years.
Perhaps the nakmuay as vector point between the nakleng and monk is best illustrated in my current teacher, Kru Nu at Petchrungruang. He is notably suave and conscious of his outward presentation, both in physical appearance (it’s hard for former fighters to let go of their youthful chiseled forms!) but also in his quickness to defend his and his son’s honor – he’s regaled me with more than one story about having to go “correct” a teacher or school official who has disrespected him. I’ve agreed with his response, from an honor and manliness standpoint, on every occasion. But he’s also valiantly committed to the “cool heart” precepts of Buddhism, never showing short temper in public and taking time to explain to me the quotes that are hung around the gym, reminding humility, acceptance and equality from Buddhist teachings. The violence of the nakleng and the acceptance of the monk don’t feel at odds here; they feel balanced, just as they feel balanced in the art of Muay Thai.
For those interested in the Nakleng model, below is also an account of Khun Phan, the “last Khun” in terms of the official title given by royalty (like “Sir” in the British Knighthood, as a loose comparison) and one of the last nakleng-as-“law man.” (pictured below). He lived until he was 108, and bridged manliness born before the 1900s. He’s a brilliant archetype, and was practically a walking definition of the much overused contemporary term “badass”. He stands as a vivid example of how the nakleng figure informs Thai masculinity and notions of manliness, going back generations and generations, to this day; maybe it’s a bit like how the Malboro Man is an archetype of a cowboy masculinity, and that the real Wyatt Erp is someone upon whom that figure is based – in the American lineage. But all this said, I can’t yet unpack my thoughts or connections to the nakleng in the same way that I can respond to the portions of the text on monkhood and nakmuay. But I do strongly expect that those revelations will come to me as I continue down this path. You can read a PDF of that article below Khun Phan’s photo, you can just see it in his eyes.
If interested in the history of the Nak Leng archetype, and the story of the last nak leng mue prap Khun Phan read:
If you enjoyed this article you may like this resource on academic articles written in English on Muay Thai: