Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu (1906-1993), the founder of Wat Suan Mokkhabalārama, outside of Chaiya, Surat Thani Province, southern Thailand, established himself as the most creative and controversial interpreter of Theravāda Buddhism in the modern period.
Born on May 21, 1906, as Nguam Phanich, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu completed his lower secondary education in Chaiya and went to work at age 15 in his family's business after his father's untimely death. Ordained a Buddhist monk in 1927 at Wat Ubon, he rapidly gained a reputation for his intellectual prowess, interest in meditation, and ability as a preacher. Taking the name Buddhadāsa, Servant of the Buddha, he furthered his studies in Bangkok at Wat Pathum Khongkha, where he distinguished himself in Pāli and Buddhist studies. Returning to Chaiya to lead a more contemplative life, he settled down at a deserted monastery (Thai: wat; Pali: vasa) outside of town. After ten years, as farmers gradually took over the land around the temple, Buddhadāsa established his meditation and study center in a 150 acre plot of virgin jungle about five kilometers outside of town.
The new center of Suan Mokkhabalārama, or Suan Mokh as it was more generally known, combined aspects of early Buddhist monastic life with modern methods of propagating the Dhamma (the Buddha's teachings). The 50 to 60 monks residing at Suan Mokh at any given time lived in simple wooden structures with few of the amenities characteristic of monks who lived in large urban monasteries. While they observed the traditional precepts of the monastic life, most monks at Suan Mokh spent more time in meditation and study than the typical Thai monk. Moreover, many engaged in appropriate forms of manual labor such as casting bas-reliefs copied from such ancient Indian Buddhist sites as Sañchi and Barhut. These were then shipped to monasteries around the country.
While the setting of Suan Mokh and the life style of the monks residing there seemed close to the ideal associated with the Buddha and his disciples, other structures were quite modern. For example, there was a "Spiritual Theater" equipped to teach the Dhamma with modern audiovisual equipment. The walls were covered with mural paintings not only from the Theravāda Buddhist tradition of Thailand, but also from the Zen Buddhism of China and Japan and from other religious traditions including Christianity. The paintings taught the basic Buddhist precepts, in particular the importance of non-attachment, an attitude which frees one from egoistic preoccupations and the greed and hatred stemming from them.
Buddhadāsa's teachings from the 1950s on were collected and published in nearly 50 substantial volumes. They include his written work, as well as numerous talks and lectures which were recorded and transcribed. The oral nature of Buddhadāsa's thoughts tends to give the material an informal and contextual cast. Very little has been translated into English or other foreign languages, which accounts for the fact that he was not as well known as Buddhist interpreters who write in English. Part of Buddhadāsa's unique genius, however, stemmed from the fact that, with the exception of a pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in India, he lived exclusively in Thailand. He read widely, particularly in the Zen Buddhist tradition which he admired, and had rather extensive contacts with Americans and Europeans, several of whom were monks in residence at Suan Mokh. Many of the Thai monks associated with Suan Mokh were, furthermore, well educated, helping to make Buddhadāsa's monastery an outstanding place for Buddhist practice and study.
Buddhadāsa was controversial for several reasons. In the first place he was quite critical of conventional Thai Buddhism, which he saw as dominated by a desire to use religion for one's own personal, worldly benefit. In the Thai Buddhist context this is called "making merit" (Thai: tham puñña). Buddhadāsa found the preoccupation with the externals of religious rituals and ceremonials with the intent of bettering one's self in the world to be a kind of materialism rather than true religious practice. Buddhadāsa was equally critical of a kind of mindless philosophizing which has no transformative effect on one's attitudes and actions. Specifically, he thought that the memorization of endless categories of Abhidhamma philosophy was not only useless, but led one away from genuine religious practice and understanding.
However, Buddhadāsa was more than a critic of Thai Buddhism. His system of thought represented one of the most comprehensive interpretations of Theravāda Buddhism of the modern period, or, as some admirers claimed, ever since Buddhagosha standardized Theravāda doctrine in the 5th century A.D. It was an influence comparable to St.Thomas Aquinas in Roman Catholicism. The originality of his thought stemmed from a profound understanding of such seminal Buddhist concepts as interdependent co-arising (paticca samuppāda), impermanence (aniccā), not-self (anattā), and, of course, Nirvāna. His thought was characterized by the use of language in a way which provoked deep insight into these ideas. For example, he made the ordinary Thai term for "nature" (dhamma-jāti) into a means of understanding the difficult but fundamental concept of Theravāda Buddhism, interdependent co-arising (paticca samuppāda).
While Buddhadāsa should be seen as a reinterpreter of his own Theravāda tradition, he also studied and was influenced by other religions. At the deepest level, Buddhadāsa saw all religions standing for something quite similar. For example, he argued that terms like God, Tao, and Dharma all point to the same underlying truth which transcends all the ordinary distinctions on which conventional language is built. Hence, the religious journey or path should be toward an understanding of things the way they really are, a universal state of being in which we are able to realize our essential oneness with human beings of all kinds and persuasions as well as with the universe. This is a kind of religious socialism in which our own personal well-being is realized in terms of the good of the whole. It is an ideal, to be sure, but one which Buddhadāsa hoped would inspire people to work for the peace and harmony of the entire human community.
Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu suffered from heart attacks and strokes as he grew older, but his ardent desire to teach helped to keep him alive. He finally succumbed to a stroke just before his birthday celebration in 1993. Shortly before he died, he enhanced the Suan Mokkh center by establishing the International Dhamma Hermitage to foster principles of Buddhism among visitors to Thailand. The Hermitage provides instructional curricula for foreign students and meeting facilities for religious leaders from all nations. A final project which he conceived, and which was undertaken by his followers after his death, was the establishment of the small Dawn Kiam monastery (Suan Atammayatärämä). Dawn Kiam is a missionary training facility for monks from other lands.
Unfortunately, at the present time only a small portion of the extensive writings by Buddhadāsa have been translated from Thai into English. The most extensive collection has been translated under the title Toward the Truth, translated and edited by Donald K. Swearer (1971). Some of his shorter essays have been translated and published in English in Thailand but are not generally available in the West—e.g., Christianity and Buddhism, translated by B. Siamwala and Hajji Prayoon Vadanyakul (Bangkok, 1967). A major portion of Buddhadāsa's lectures on Christianity and Buddhism has been reprinted as a chapter in Donald K. Swearer, Dialogue. The Key to Understanding Other Religions (1980). Buddhadāsa has figured into some scholarly work on Theravāda Buddhism—e.g., Donald K. Swearer, "Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa on Ethics and Society," in Journal of Religious Ethics (July 1, 1979)—and has been the subject of several doctoral dissertations in German, French, and English—e.g., Patarporn Sirikanchana, The Concept of Dhamma in the Writings of Vajirañāna and Buddhadāsa (1985). □
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Following King Mongkut's disregard for the literal understanding of Buddhist cosmology, Buddhadāsa demythologizes many traditional beliefs. Thus gods and demons become states of mind, rebirth a moment-to-moment experience, and the doctrine of anatman (no-self) a statement of the need to move away from an existence characterized by ‘ego’ or ‘self-ness’ to nirvāna (Pāli), here and now.
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BUDDHADĀSA . Phra Dhammakosājān (1906–1993), better known by his self-designated monastic name, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu ("Servant of the Buddha"), was one of the most influential Thai monks of the twentieth century. Born on May 21, 1906, as Nguam Panich, Buddhadāsa spent three years as a temple boy at Wat Pum Riang, a monastery in his home town, where he learned to read and write and was introduced to Buddhist teachings and rituals. After completing his primary schooling and beginning lower secondary education in Chaiya, south Thailand, his father's untimely death forced him to work in his family's business at age sixteen. Ordained a Buddhist monk in 1926, by 1928 he had passed the third and final level of the monastic curriculum and was invited to teach at the royally sponsored Wat Boromathat monastery in Chaiya.
After two years residency in Bangkok to study Pali (1930–1932), he became disenchanted with rote learning, the noise and distractions of the city, and the lax behavior of Bangkok monks. He returned home in the spring of 1932, the year Thailand's government changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, where subsequently he established a forest monastery, Suan Mokkhabalārāma ("The Garden of Empowering Liberation"), known simply as Suan Mokkh. There, with the help and encouragement of his brother, Dhammadāsa, he founded a quarterly periodical, Buddhasadana, through which he captured the attention of the Thai Buddhist intelligentsia and rapidly gained a reputation for his intellectual prowess, his ability as a teacher, and his innovative interpretations of Theravāda doctrine. By 1937 his history of the Buddha's life was being used as a textbook at the Thammayut monastic university, Mahāmakut. In 1940 Buddhadāsa gave a series of lectures at the Buddhadhamma Association in Bangkok that attracted wide attention. His plain language unencumbered with technical monastic jargon, and his rational, demythologized interpretation of Buddhist teachings appealed to the growing urban, educated elites.
The Garden of Empowering Liberation
Suan Mokkh continued to expand, moving to its present site in 1944. The center combines aspects of early Buddhist forest practice with modern methods of propagating the dhamma. The resident monks live in simple wooden structures (kuṭī ) with fewer amenities than are found in wealthy urban monasteries. Monks observe the traditional precepts of monastic life (vinaya ), devote much of their day to study and meditation, and shun the ceremonial rituals that demand the attention of the typical Thai monk. In seemingly stark contrast to these traditions that emulate the lifestyle of the early saṅgha is the "Spiritual Theater" equipped to teach the dhamma using modern audiovisual technology. Copies of bas-reliefs from Sāñcī and Barhut adorn the exterior walls, while the interior walls are covered by mural paintings inspired not only by Buddhism but by other religious traditions as well. The building embodies Buddhadāsa's universalist vision that the highest goal of all religions is to transform selfish egoism into compassionate altruism.
In the decade prior to Buddhadāsa's death in 1993, he directed the establishment of a training center ancillary to Suan Mokkh, the International Dhamma Hermitage, where monthly meditation retreats are conducted in English. He also had plans to develop two other training centers, one for women (dhammamata ) and another to train monks from all over the world in the practical application of the Buddha's teaching to the solution of global problems.
NirvĀṆa, Rebirth, and the Buddha
Buddhadāsa's teachings have become the central platform of reformist Buddhism in Thailand for both monks and laity. Several noted Thai social activists, including Sulak Sivaraksa and Dr. Prawet Wasi, acknowledge their indebtedness to his example and interpretation of the buddhadhamma. His books are taught in monastic and secular universities, and he remains one of the most widely published and read Buddhist authors in the country. A severe critic of mainstream Thai Buddhism's self-serving preoccupation with merit-making rituals, he characterizes ceremonials whose intent aims at worldly personal gain as nothing but religious materialism. For Buddhadāsa, nirvāṇa is not an unachievable ideal but liberation from egoistic preoccupation, whether seen as a temporary cessation of the idea of "I" and "mine" (tadaṇga-nibbāna )—a mental peace that accompanies a state of meditative calmness—or a permanent state achieved through vigilant awareness that leads to the total elimination of the "I" idea.
Buddhadāsa's innovative teaching offers a counterpoint to the conventional Thai Theravāda understanding of rebirth (saṃsāra ) and nirvāṇa. For him both are mental events: saṃsāra the everyday mind conditioned by the repeated arising and cessation of the "I" idea, and nirvāṇa the total elimination of that condition. In a similar vein, Buddhadāsa argues that devotion to the person of the Buddha, either as a historical being or as represented in images and relics, distorts the true significance of the Buddha, namely, the truth (dhamma ) he realized at his awakening. Consequently, for Buddhadāsa, true devotion to the Buddha is the achievement of the mind of the Buddha, namely, the dhamma, not worshiping the person of the Buddha in the hope that the Blessed One will grant boons in the manner of a Hindu deity. Buddhadāsa's demythologized approach to the Buddha, nirvāṇa, rebirth, and other concepts is based on a Madhyāmikan epistemology that distinguishes between ordinary language (Thai, phassā khon ) and truth-language (Thai, phassā tham ). Within this framework, a phassā khon understanding of the Blessed One obscures the true meaning of the Buddha as the dhamma, namely, the universal law of causality (idapaccayatā ).
Personal Liberation, the Just Society, and the Natural Order
Buddhadāsa's lectures and writings, published in seventy-two volumes, span a period of sixty years and are so wide-ranging that they have yet to be systematized. However, the legacy of his ethical thought can be distilled into three broad themes: personal liberation (Thai, chit wāng ), the just society (Thai, thamika sankhom niyom ), and the natural order (Thai, kot thamachāt ). First and foremost, Buddhadāsa was committed to the central importance of the liberation of the individual from attachment to self. In his talks and essays he continually refers to the liberated mind and heart (chit wāng ), overcoming selfishness (Thai, mai hen kae tua ), and other Thai and Pali terms related to liberation from ego-centrism (Thai, tua kū khong kū ). He asserts that the core of the Buddha's teaching is epitomized not by the oft-quoted phrase, "Refrain from evil, do only good, purify the mind," or even the four noble truths, but by the statement in the Majjhima Nikāya (Collection of middle-length discourses), "Nothing whatsoever should be clung to" (sabbe dhammā nālaṃ abhinivesāya ).
In one of his seminal writings, Tu Kū Khong Kū (Me and mine) Buddhadāsa makes the provocative, iconoclastic claim that the realization of not-self (Pali, anattā ) negates the need to speak about the Buddha, the dhamma, the saṃgha, or any point of doctrine or event in the history of Buddhism. Where Buddhadāsa departs from conventional Theravāda wisdom is not in his emphasis on nonattachment and the liberation from craving (Pali, tanhā ), but in the unique way in which he formulates and universalizes it. In Buddhadāsa view, liberation is the business of all Buddhists, not just monks; it is not something that one achieves only after many lifetimes but is attainable here and now; and, in an even more radical vein, liberation (Thai, khwam wāng ) is the realization of our original condition unobscured by the taints or defilements (Pali, kilesa ) that result from our preoccupation with gain and loss, love and anger, hatred and fear. Our original mind freed from defilement is a state of emptiness (Pali, suññatā ), the normal or normative (Pali, pakati ) state of things. When the mind attains to this condition it is in a state of buddhahood; that is, the mind knows the true nature of things.
Armed with truth and nonattachment we are able to act in a manner of open mutual regard. Only when we transcend our own ego-centeredness are we able to realize the common condition of all beings, that we are subject to the same process of birth, old age, suffering, and death, and to perceive that everything in the world is conditioned by the same universal natural law (Pali, paṭicca samuppāda, idapaccayatā ). The just society that results is a dhammically governed society (Thai, thamika sangkhom niyom ), a community grounded in the dhamma in which all members restrain their acquisitive self-interests and act on behalf for the mutual benefit of all. Such a community operates according to three complementary principles: the good of the whole, restraint and generosity, and respect and loving kindness. A dhammically grounded, mutually cooperative society, then, promotes a lifestyle of simplicity, moderation, and nonviolence. Buddhadāsa contends that the Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way (Pali, majjhimā patipadā ) supports such a cooperative society, as does the example of the life of the Buddha and the early saṅgha.
Buddhadāsa's utopian vision of the just society includes not only the human community but also the total natural and physical environment (Pali, dhammajāti ; Thai, thamachāt). Everything is incontrovertibly linked together in the process of dependent co-arising; the human body, human society, and the entire cosmos operate according to this universal, dhammic, principle. The core of Buddhadāsa's ecological hermeneutic, consequently, is an identification of the dhamma with nature, and it was his sense of the liberating power of nature-as-dhamma that inspired him to found Wat Suan Mokkh. It is by understanding the natural order of things (dhamma -idapaccayatā, pakati ) that human beings are enabled to truly comprehend the lesson of self-forgetting. In Buddhadāsa's biocentric spirituality, being attuned to the lessons of nature is tantamount to being at one with the dhamma. By inference, conversely, the destruction of nature implies the destruction of the dhamma ; hence, caring for (Thai, anurak ) and conserving the natural world is, for Buddhadāsa, not only an environmental imperative but a profoundly spiritual act.
Buddhadāsa's death on July 8, 1993, was a significant event of national mourning. Although Thailand does not celebrate a "Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu Day," his birth and death anniversaries are commemorated with lectures and symposia, and in anticipation of the one hundredth anniversary of his birth in 2006, twenty-five workshops have been scheduled and dozens of publications planned. While Buddhadāsa is no longer physically present, he noted in his own poetic necrology that he will continue to live on in his teaching:
Even when I die and the body ceases,
My voice still echoes in comrades' ears,
Clear and bright, as loud as ever.
Just as if I never died, the Dhamma -body lives on.
Gabaude, Louis. Une herméneutique bouddhique contemporaine de Thaïande: Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. Paris, 1988.
Jackson, Peter A. Buddhism, Legitimation, and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism. Singapore, 1989.
Jackson, Peter A. Buddhadasa: A Buddhist Thinker for the Modern World. Rev. ed. Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2003.
Santikaro Bhikkhu. "Buddhadasa Bhikkhu: Life and Society through the Natural Eyes of Voidness." In Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia, edited by Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, pp. 147–193. Albany, N.Y., 1996.
Sivaraksa, Sulak, ed. Radical Conservatism:Buddhism in the Contemporary World, Articles in Honour of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa's 84th Birthday Anniversary. Bangkok, 1990.
Sivaraksa, Sulak, ed. The Quest for a Just Society: The Legacy and Challenge of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. Bangkok, 1994.
Swearer, Donald K. "Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa's Interpretation of the Buddha." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64 (1996): 313–336.
Swearer, Donald K. "The Hermeneutics of Buddhist Ecology in Contemporary Thailand: Buddhadāsa and Dhammapiṭaka." In Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryūken Williams, pp. 21–44. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.
Swearer, Donald K., ed. Me and Mine: Selected Essays of Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa. Albany, N.Y., 1989.
Donald K. Swearer (2005)
"Buddhadāsa." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/buddhadasa
"Buddhadāsa." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved November 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/buddhadasa