A century of spirituality
Published on May 24, 2006
Even 13 years after his death, Buddhadasa Bhikku's teachings continue to rattle the underpinnings of religion in Thai society
This Saturday, Phra Ajarn Pho, the abbot of Suan Mokkh will rise at 4am to meditate and chant with other monks as he does every day. However, despite his wishes to the contrary, this day will be unlike any other at the now internationally renowned forest monastery in Surat Thani Province.
Saturday marks the birth centenary of the late Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikku, the founder of Suan Mokkh or the Garden of Liberation. Thirteen years after his death, his ideas and teachings continue to rattle the underpinnings of Buddhism in Thai society and also further his domestic and international acclaim.
"Celebration is not what Ajarn Buddhadasa would have wanted, so we've asked people not to come, but we know thousands will turn up anyway," Phra Ajarn Pho said. "However, there won't be any celebrations held at Suan Mokkh."
It is not simply that Buddhadasa Bhikku was humble and shunned the idea of celebrity status, but the renunciation of such rituals and idolising stood at the very heart of his teaching.
In one of his most famous books, "Handbook for Humankind", Buddhadasa heavily criticised a major pillar of Thai Buddhism - the making of merit at temples in the hope of bettering one's present life, or improved standing in a perceived future life - as contradictory to the Buddha's teaching.
He quotes the Buddha as saying, "If man could eliminate suffering by making offerings, paying homage and praying, there would be no suffering left in the world at all, because anyone can pay homage and pray. But since people continue to suffer despite the various acts of obeisance, homage and rites, this is clearly not the way to liberation."
Since founding Suan Mokkh in 1932 at the age of 23, Buddhadasa devoted his whole life to understanding and reinterpreting Theravada Buddhism consistent with the words attributed to the Buddha in ancient Pali scriptures. He emphasised that many beliefs and practices associated with Buddhism in Thailand are not rooted in the Buddha's own words, but have evolved from third-party commentaries within the Pali scriptures, which he found inconsistent with what the Buddha taught.
More than 300 books, translated into more than 10 languages, have been published under Buddhadasa's name, deriving from his more than 4,000 recorded talks and mountains of manuscripts.
Despite his disapproval of rites and rituals, Buddhadasa's centenary will be marked by a three-day national celebration along with many other private events throughout May.
His devoted follower, Dr Bancha Pongpanich, is convinced that although Unesco's recent recognition of Buddhadasa as one of the world's "Great Personalities" has prompted public interest in the revered monk, for most Thais this does not extend to the understanding of his teachings.
"We have only just managed to rescue Ajarn Buddhadasa's centenary from becoming a tourist attraction," Bancha explains. "In his hometown of Surat Thani, there were plans for a boxing championship and even a trade fair to 'celebrate' Buddhadasa's 100th birthday. Senior monks from all over the country have also offered to come and organise a major chanting ceremony at Suan Mokkh."
Phra Ajarn Pho said he had instructed them about Buddhadasa's wishes, but humbly noted that Suan Mokkh could not stop them if they choose to proceed.
"We have our own simple way of doing things, and we did make two requests. We asked that there be no soliciting of, or creating of worship materials in the name of Ajarn Buddhadasa," Bancha said.
Buddhadasa stressed that Buddhism in Thailand has become overlaid by ceremony, and wrote that "[the] whole objective of Buddhism has been obscured, falsified and changed. This tumour has been spreading constantly since the day the Buddha died, expanding in all directions".
"The Buddha did not teach us to seek lottery numbers, have parties to solicit money for temple expansions, or for monks to receive new robes," added Bancha. "All of this has been made up over time, and reinforces the distance between lay peoples' understanding of the Buddha's Dhamma teachings."
It was part of Buddhadasa's mission to eliminate the practice of excluding lay people from the real substance of the Buddha's message, which historically had been made available only to monks and a limited number of scholars.
Buddhadasa emphasised that instead of praying at temples, people should learn to seek an end to suffering in the course of their daily lives as taught by the Buddha: practising a strong moral code and looking within oneself to understand how suffering arises and passes away with each thought travelling through one's minds.
Practising in this way can allow us to put an end to the cycle of suffering in our present life, as opposed to seeing this objective as a benefit that may come in some future life - a life which Buddhadasa observed, we have no proof exists.
"Unfortunately, Buddhadasa's wisdom has yet to spread much further than intellectual circles and the middle class," said Phra Ajarn Supan, the abbot of Wat Rampoeng in Chiang Mai.
"We know that many people who come to the temple are still too grounded in the rituals that have defined Thai Buddhism for so long, so we don't fight against it. But neither do we nurture or take advantage of it, trying to keep our activities simple and our focus on teaching mediation, as both the Lord Buddha and Buddhadasa emphasised."
Hundreds of years of merit-making provide the foundation and are at the heart of Buddhism in Thailand, and this can't be expected to disappear within just 60 years of Buddhadasa's teaching, if ever, notes Phra Ajarn Supan.
Even in Buddhadasa's hometown of Chaiya, just a few kilometres away from Suan Mokkh, the local people have yet to absorb the teachings of their most famous native son. "We respect Buddhadasa very much, and often pray for his spirit to grant us safety before taking long trips," said Siriporn Ketanan, a Chaiya resident. "Many of us plan to go to his temple next Saturday."
There are some indications that the influence of Buddhadasa's teachings may have actually reduced in recent times. In the 1970s and 1980s, Buddhadasa's interpretations inspired many college students and young activists, but is less apparent now.
"We give alms twice a week and try to learn meditation to help improve our study habits, but Buddhadasa's teachings and the dhamma are too complicated for us," said Wichai Yaowalak, chairman of Thammasat University's Buddhism Club, which, like its counterparts in many other colleges, subscribes to Dhammakaya Temple's teaching.
Evan at Suan Mokkh, Ajarn Pho notes that he has had to stem internal pressures to transform Suan Mokkh's very spartan grounds to include all kinds of ornate buildings common at other famous Thai temples. "We have a few Buddha images, and our main hall is a clearing under the trees; but it's still more than the Buddha had."
On Saturday, even though visitors will be welcomed, they will not find any food, added Phra Ajarn Pho.
In his final years, Buddhadasa asked that those who wanted to remember his birthday should fast for 24 hours, or just go about their day as any other, spreading the dhamma as best they could.
Friday: "The Truth about Rebirth" will appear in the Trends section on the back page)
Saturday: "Buddhadasa and the future of Buddhism"