Navigating between dichotomies and extremes
Bangkok Post, 23.9.2006
The late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu had much to say about finding a middle way to live in a world of conflicting polarities
STORY BY SANTIKARO
We human beings have long acquired the habit of creating dichotomies, the cutting of a whole into two mutually exclusive or opposed parts, starting with the identification of ourselves in terms of "other". This has played out globally in the West's attitudes and reactions towards Asia in general, and Buddhism more particularly.
The same pattern recurs as a convenient device for scholarly debate concerning Buddhist teachers such as Buddhadasa Bhikku.
We frequently find oppositions and dichotomies imposed, occasionally with backing from scriptural texts: Orthodoxy versus orthopraxy; tradition versus reform; meditator versus scholar, etc.
Some teachers may fall into such dichotomies; Ajahn Buddhadasa was one who did not. His own teaching and practice included too many contradictions for facile categorisation. For him, the middle way was more about finding the right course between dichotomies and extremes.
I will try to raise here a number of questions concerning Ajahn Buddhadasa and how he responded to these common dichotomies.
Tradition versus modernisation
Ajahn Buddhadasa grew up as Western civilisation and imperialism, having by that time acquired the transportation and communication technology necessary for that sort of ambitious domination, was aggressively confronting Asia. He grew up at a time of huge change in Thai society, change that has brought benefits such as roads, schools and improving health care.
There has been much destruction, too: The forest cover of Thailand diminished from over 90 per cent of the country to under 10 per cent; prostitution has become rampant; and traditional modes of life are disappearing. Many in Thailand responded to the pressure to Westernise by embracing and profiting from it. Others took the opposite approach, resisting and refusing what the West had to offer. Ajahn Buddhadasa sought the middle way between these opposing alternatives.
The organising element in his response to Western imperialism and modernisation was Dharma. This may seem self-evident, but it wasn't true of the political-economic elite or even of the majority of monks back then, especially senior monks who were often much more interested in maintaining tradition and privilege than in living from dharmic principles. What made Ajahn Buddhadasa great was his ability to hold the Dharma at the centre - not a bookish, memorised Dharma, but a living, creative expression of it. He was not, of course, the only one. There are others, such as Thich Nhat Hahn, who represent some of the healthiest Asian responses to the tremendous economic, political and military pressure coming out of the West, and out of our violent capitalism.
Faced with the dichotomy between slavishly following and stubbornly resisting the progress of Westernisation, Ajahn Buddhadasa felt that there were many things to learn from the West. Like the Dalai Lama, he was fascinated by science. When he was a young monk he cherished the typewriter given to him by an early benefactor. He experimented with radios and early recording equipment, and was an excellent photographer. He read Freud and other psychologists, plus philosophers like Hegel and, of course, Marx. He felt there was a way to use some Western developments constructively; instead of blindly rejecting them, one should learn how to adapt them. One must understand them and be mindful of potential dangers.
While he felt that Asian people could learn from what those in the West were thinking and doing, and from the technology they were creating, these things had to be understood without surrendering one's own core. Thai students in Europe or in Western-style educational systems were being told by their European teachers that they came from an "inferior civilisation". There were some who believed what they were being told. Fortunately, others were not so easily convinced. Ajahn Buddhadasa emerged as the main Thai voice of his generation saying that while the West may be economically and militarily more advanced, Europe did not have anything comparable to Buddhism. He began to present the view that Asian Buddhism has an attitude that fits much better with science than Christianity does, as well as having a kind of wisdom largely missing in the West.
Ajahn Buddhadasa's approach stressed that in order to wisely take in what is coming from the West, and filter out that which is unhealthy, we need to stay grounded in an understanding of Buddha-Dharma. In terms of Thai society, and especially of the progressive elite, this was one of his major influences. The meaning of this is a bit different for those born in the West, but we still face the same underlying dilemma: We live in a culture which is quite powerful, which has some healthy, creative aspects, and also a tremendous amount of violence and destruction. How are we going to sort through this? What principles can we ground ourselves in?
Conservative and radical
A second dichotomy is that between conservative and radical. Thai activist and scholar Sulak Sivaraksa coined the term "radical conservatism" to describe Ajahn Buddhadasa. There are certain ways in which the latter was conservative. He felt southern Thai culture was healthy, balanced and wise, and he wanted to help conserve it. He was conservative, in certain respects, regarding Buddhism. He felt that Buddhism needed to stay grounded in its past without being stuck there. The Pali canon had to be studied. He was rather strict about the monastic Vinaya (code of conduct for monks), as well.
At the same time he was radical. While honouring a tradition that had developed over 2,500 years, he recognised the many changes it had been through, and that not all of these changes were in keeping with its core. Some, while helpful at one time, no longer were. In trying to understand and preserve the tradition, he endeavoured to find the original and essential aspects of Buddhism through carefully reading and studying of the Pali suttas. He insisted on reviving core threads of Buddha-Dharma that were in danger of being obliterated by certain elements of traditional Theravada Buddhist teaching such as sunyata (emptiness) and tathata (thus-ness). Although this is technically a conservative activity, it seemed very radical to those who wished to maintain the status quo of the monastic hierarchy. Rather than end up on one side or the other of this conservative/progressive dichotomy, he was able to be progressively conservative and conservatively progressive, avoiding the ideological lock-down which so often happens in these realms.
Lay versus monastic
There were times when Ajahn Buddhadasa was asked by senior monks not to teach anatta (not-self) and paticcasamuppada (dependent co-origination) to lay people. He was told that he would just confuse lay people and was asked to desist. He replied that, in good conscience, he couldn't stop. Since these dharmas are core to Buddhism, and there are people who want to end suffering, they have a right to learn them. For him, suffering and the end of suffering wasn't a monastic issue, or even a Buddhist issue - it was a human issue. It didn't matter if one was lay or ordained, if one was Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh (he had students from all of these traditions). He took on the work of making the dharma available and intelligible to anyone who might be interested. He never turned down a sincere question about Dharma.
Meditation versus daily-life practice
There are many, both in the West and in Asia, who use the term "dharma practice" as a euphemism for "meditation". When they say "practice" what they mean is sitting on a cushion or doing walking meditation, sometimes specifically on retreat or in a formal setting. This has raised questions and created confusion about how to practise Dharma in one's daily life, and how to respond to the demands, complexities and needs of the world we live in.
A teaching central to Ajahn Buddhadasa's approach and hinging on one of the original meanings of the word "dharma" is, Dharma is duty; duty is Dharma. Dharma practice comes down to doing our duty, which inspires a further investigation into the nature of that duty. We may be told that our duty is something dictated to us by the family were born into. The government tells us about our patriotic duty. Capitalism tells us about our duty to consume to keep the economy strong.
In Ajahn Buddhadasa's understanding, duty must be discovered by and for ourselves. We should be mindful of what our family, government, culture and economic system suggest is our duty, but in the end it is essentially our own responsibility to discern.
From moment to moment there is something that circumstances - both internal and external - require of us. Just this capacity - to see the reality of the moment and do what needs to be done - is what duty is about. Sometimes it's about taking care of the body, sometimes it's about one's profession, sometimes it's about social action. Ultimately, the core duty is to let go of self and be free of suffering.
Spiritual versus worldly dichotomy
There are teachers of Theravada Buddhism who believe in a clear duality between samsara and nibbana, the worldly and the transcendent. And there is much in the West that dichotomises these as well, including leftist political traditions that want to abolish religion and be simply materialistic. There are others with the opposite bias: "Forget politics and forget social issues, all you have to do is practise, practise, practise and escape to nibbana."
While Ajahn Buddhadasa didn't take the full Mahayana Buddhist approach that nibbana and samsara are one and the same, he did insist that nibbana is found only in the midst of samsara, in the midst of the world. For him the only way to find the end of suffering was through suffering. He described nibbana as "the coolest point in the blast furnace". At times we feel that life is like a blast furnace. He taught us that "within that blast furnace, one should find the coolest point - that's nibbana".
The Dharma perspective that made all this bridging possible is an understanding, both intellectual and experiential, of idappaccayata as the law of nature: All things happen because of causes and conditions. Nothing is static, absolute or fixed. Seeing this, we avoid becoming trapped in ideology and positions, which is the usual course with these sorts of dichotomies. Instead, we accept that an approach which worked for a while may reach its limit. Then sometimes we move to the right, sometimes we move back to the left, but we don't need to stake out a position anywhere, no matter how strongly we argue a position that is valid for a time.
The more we understand that everything depends on causes and conditions, that nothing is fixed, the easier it will be to navigate the intellectual and ideological dichotomies of our world, to follow the middle way of non-suffering, in this life.
This is the first in a series of articles entitled 'Turning Wheel'; the next will appear in tomorrow's edition of 'Outlook'.