It's not about the next life
Published on May 26, 2006
The late Buddhadasa Bhikku, named by Unesco one of the World's Greatest Personalities, offered mankind a key to end suffering here and now
We were on a 10-day meditation, and everything had been pure simplicity, so it came as a jolt when, on Day 8, an extravagant two-metre-tall painting hung behind Phra Medhi.
The image incorporated some 20 separate illustrations of people and animals neatly arranged in a pattern of four concentric circles that appeared to form the body of a giant.
Phra Medhi motioned for us to sit closer, making it clear that today's talk was going to be special.
"This image represents the heart of Buddhism," he declared. "This was the most valuable teaching given by the Buddha."
Not mentioned, however, was that the message we were about to hear was tantamount to an earthquake rumbling through centuries of longstanding Thai Buddhist doctrine when it was first presented by his teacher, the late Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikku.
Known as Paticcasamuppada - the Law of Dependent Origination - it showed how ignorance of the natural interdependence of all things feeds an ongoing cycle of suffering in our lives.
If life is understood in this context, however, the cycle is broken. Suffering ceases.
Like other monks at the time, the young Buddhadasa learned that this law of existence involves an 11-stage cycle spanning one's past, present and future. It is critical to the belief that karma - the ramifications of one's actions - flows from one life to the next.
To Buddhadasa, this explanation made little sense. "How can there be a means [within one lifetime] of extinguishing suffering when the cycle is broken up, with the cause in one life and the result in another?"
He felt the prevailing interpretation of this teaching was incorrect.
Studying the words attributed to the Buddha in the original Pali of the Tripikata, he found no reference to karma flowing between lives.
"The word jati - to be born - must refer to birth in the moment of one revolution of Dependent Origination in the daily lives of ordinary people," Buddhadasa decided. "It's easy to know: When greed, anger or delusion arise, then the self is born in one life."
Nor do the various references to heaven and hell, he pointed out, pertain to eternity, but rather the pleasant and unpleasant mental and physical states we actually know in this life.
These are, he wrote, "more real than those believed experienced after entering the coffin".
The misconception, Buddhadasa said, arose from the amalgamation of various commentaries on the law, not the root text of the Buddha's sermon.
He speculated that the error - which even appears in the 2,300-year-old Tripikata - could have occurred either because the Buddha's original teachings were complex or because the interpretations were influenced by the eternalism of Brahminism and Hinduism.
"It wasn't Buddhadasa's intention to disregard the prospect of physical rebirth entirely," notes Od Baramee of Suan Mokkh, the temple founded by Buddhadasa in 1932.
"But since this can be neither proved nor disproved, he stressed that we should be focusing in this present life on the relevance of what the Buddha taught about how to end suffering."
Teachers at Suan Mokkh offer a simplified form of the 11-stage cycle to underscore how willing we are to let our senses evoke emotions. These we cling to - and suffer as a result, in a cycle that can repeat many times in a single day.
Our eyes see a diamond ring and, believing it would enhance our attractiveness, we suddenly feel desire and pride. Such emotions are self-replicating and become part of our "self", our "ego-me" - as does the ring itself.
From "can I afford it?" the questions multiply. "Will my friends like it?" "Will I become a greater person?"
Instead, at the moment we see the ring, we should see it for what it truly is - a piece of metal and a stone mined from the earth, with no real function. In this way we're unlikely to get trapped in the cycle of emotions that leads to suffering.
"Even the Buddha admitted this is a complex issue, but by practising mindfulness through meditation, everyone can understand it," Od says. "This is why it's taught at Suan Mokkh, and why Buddhadasa worked so hard to introduce it to people."
Buddhadasa, she stressed, believed individuals should take responsibility for their own suffering now, not blame it on past karma or rely on the delusion that it will all disappear in the next life.
Scholars correctly point out the Buddha did refer to other lives, but Phra Sripariyatmoli, vice rector of Maha Chulalongkorn University for monks, notes that birth and rebirth never became a theme in his teachings.
"Buddhadasa's interpretation is taught here," he says of the university, "but still not so much, mainly because - even for monks - the Law of Dependant Origination is difficult."
Buddhadasa stated that his interpretation was not necessarily unique but, as Phra Sripariyatmoli asserts, "It was Buddhadasa who was willing to speak and write about this, to endure the extensive criticism from conservative Buddhist groups, and in the end, make it available for all to
This is second in a three-part series marking the centenary of Buddhadasa's birth. The first article appeared on Wednesday. The last, "Buddhasada and the future of Buddhism", will be published tomorrow.