Two new books look at the impact made by the late pioneering reformist monk
Bangkok Post, 3.6.2006
To celebrate the centenary of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's birth, several magazines recently ran cover stories on the life and work of this reformist monk; these publications included `Sarakhadee' (Art and Culture), and `National Geographic' (May, 2006 editions)
How things have changed over the past century. In a letter dated February 24, 1943, Prince Naris mentioned to his half-brother, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, that a newspaper had announced that a monk from Chaiya, Surat Thani was to give a talk at a Buddhist university in Bangkok.
ROI KHON ROI THAM ROI PI BUDDHADASA (100 People, 100 Dharma _ Centenary of
Edited by Niphon Jaemduang
Sukkhapab Jai (2006), 736 pages
There might have been a typo in the article, wrote the prince, who went on to suggest that "Buddhadasa" would have been correctly spelt as the more traditional-sounding "Buddhatat". In reply, Prince Damrong further speculated that the monk might be the same individual who, a soldier had informed him, had travelled to Tibet and Assam state in India. It was possible, Prince Damrong added, that the talk was going to focus on the ascetic's expeditions to distant lands, and would not be an "ordinary dharma discussion".
In retrospect, this misunderstanding by the two royals was understandable. The name "Buddhadasa" (literally meaning "servant of Buddha") sounds unconventional and rather provoking - then as now. And yet, Prince Damrong's surmise was partly correct: Buddhadasa's dharma talks were never ordinary. They radically questioned established Buddhist practices and, since they combined the original Buddhist canon with other religious traditions, were later considered an historic breakthrough for Thai Theravada Buddhism. Some people have even declared the reformist monk's works to be the equivalent of a "fourth basket" of the Tripitaka.
Roi Khon Roi Tham Roi Pi Buddhadasa (100 People, 100 Dharma - Centenary of Buddhadasa) is a most ambitious work, a genuine labour of love.
For more than a year, a team commissioned by Sukkhapab Jai publishing house did research and interviewed people who had known of, or were personally associated with, Buddhadasa, the founder of Suan Mokkh forest monastery. The inclusion of the correspondence between the two princes shows to what extent the name Buddhadasa has come to mean different things over the years.
It is not uncommon nowadays to hear certain politicians claiming to have read books by the monk (whether they really understood them is another matter). The editorial team should be commended, however, for soliciting the opinions of a wide group of people, not all of whom are celebrities. The book includes interviews with senior monks and female Buddhist practitioners, academics, artists, writers, social activists and teachers. True to the spirit of Buddhadasa, Roi Khon Roi Tham Roi Pi Buddhadasa also reaches out to followers of other religions in Thailand and overseas.
BUDDHADASA JAK YOO PAI MAI MEE TAI
(Buddhadasa Will Live On, Never To Die)
By Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Orasri Ngarmwittayapong
Amarin Publishing (2006), 186 pages, 295 baht
One touching chapter is about Buddhadasa's friendship with a Muslim devotee named Hajji Prayoon Watanyakul. Their first meeting, in 1955, lasted for eight hours and was to be followed by decades of contact, ended only by their deaths, incidentally in the same year. Hajji Prayoon noted how Buddhadasa helped him to better understand the essence of Islamic and Buddhist teachings. True, he said, the two religions differ significantly in their day-to-day practice, but at the fundamental level of truth, they are one and the same.
"I'd like to say that I never see him [Buddhadasa] as a Buddhist, nor does he see me as a Muslim," Hajji Prayoon said. "He usually says I don't belong to any one particular camp, that I truly understand him. It becomes a matter of two human beings [living together]."
How did he come to profess such an open, transcendental view?
In the preface to Buddhadasa Jak Yoo Pai Mai Mee Tai (Buddhadasa Will Live On, Never To Die), Ekkawit Na Thalang cites a note in one of the monk's journals: "If we were to combine the Christian's confidence and diligence with the Muslim's courage and resoluteness and the Buddhist's mindfulness and wisdom, what would that religion be like? Wouldn't it be the most marvellous for the present world?"
While more compact than the first book mentioned, Buddhadasa Jak Yoo Pai Mai Mee Tai is also a worthwhile purchase. Orasri Ngarmwittayapong succinctly retells the monk's life story - how he strove to "sell" a version of dharma that crosses the boundaries of nationality, beliefs and even time. Buddhadasa produced a prodigious amount of prose work and, as one of the few individuals well-versed in it, Orasri thoughtfully includes samples from his early and later years. "The First Ten Years of Suan Mokkh" offers rare insights into the period when the young Phra Ngerm Intharapanyo decided to start a small religious-reform movement in his hometown of Chaiya, in 1932, the year that saw Siam's absolute monarchy replaced by a constitutional monarchy. "My Legacies For You to Keep" lists the elder Buddhadasa's visions and his advice to other Buddhists: "Anyone can be Buddhadasa - as long as they sincerely want to serve Buddhism - by setting examples, living happily until other people want to follow."
Thirteen years have passed since his departure. Has he really made any impact on our society? For how much longer will that last? To some, Buddhadasa's works have very limited appeal; they mostly interest the educated segment of the population. Some conservative Buddhists continue to disdain his radical approach to the Buddhist scriptures. On the other hand, as both volumes note, what was originally intended as a humble endeavour has proved more fruitful than anyone could have expected.
There have been calls of late for religion to keep up with the times. Buddhadasa himself experimented with various innovations - setting up a "spiritual entertainment" hall, doing away with conventional temple styles, reinterpreting old Buddhist texts and trying to incorporate aspects of other creeds.
Some former students interviewed for Roi Khon Roi Tham discuss how they try to put moral messages into modern forms, be it songs, plays or novels. Such efforts should extend the lifespan of Buddhadasa's, and Buddha's, teachings so that they never die.