In May of this year, UNESCO will be honouring the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ajarn Buddhadasa (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu) in their calender of ‘Great Personalities and Historic Events’.
Now, Thailand has had millions of monks come and go, so just what made Ajarn Buddhadasa “Recognized as one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in Thai history?”
‘Buddhadasa’ meaning ‘A Slave of the Buddha’ was born in May 1906 in Chaiya district, Surat Thani province to a wealthy local family of Chinese descent. Even though his mother had plenty of spare cash she was known for her frugality and ‘Buddhadasa’ was taught to work for his pocket money from a very young age.
As the eldest son, Buddhadasa in adhering to Thai tradition, ordained as a monk at the age of 20 at a local temple. No-one expected him to continue wearing the robes for that long but Buddhadasa soon made his wish well-known that his role as a ‘monk’ was to be taken seriously. Wasting no time at all Buddhadasa Bhikkhu travelled to Bangkok to further his education in Dhamma. Buddhadasa believed as a kid that Bangkok was “The Land of The Awakened Ones” and a hub of scriptures and enlightened gurus!
After 6 years in Bangkok, Buddhadasa returned to Surat Thani. He was supposedly very unhappy and completely disillusioned with the behaviour of the monks he met and knew in Bangkok. “They dined after midday, had sexual relations with women and engaged in hocus-pocus superstitious rituals”.
Disenchanted with life in the ‘Sangha’ he quit his studies and went to live ‘solitary’ at an abandoned monastery. Buddhadasa spent the next twelve years of his life alone at Wat Trapangjik while many of the local community and other monks in the area refered to Buddhadasa as “The Mad Monk”. They had never known of any other monk before who would sit in solitary meditation for hours on end and study Buddhist scriptures so diligently, he just had to be crazy!
In 1943, with the financial help of his mother and brothers, Buddhadasa founded ‘Wat Suan Mokkhabalarama’ (The Garden of Liberation) in Chaiya District. A decade or so after, Buddhadasa made a trip to India “To follow in the footsteps of The Buddha” and it was there that he realized for the very first time “A deeper understanding and practice of the true teachings, or dhamma, of the Lord Buddha”
One of Buddhadasa’s aims was to ‘teach dhamma to the world’ and established an ‘International Dhamma Heritage’ which brought in thousands of westerners over the years to learn dhamma and meditation. In fact, Buddhadasa became so well-known in the circle of western Buddhism that he was once “more popular with foreigners than Thais”.
In 1993, Buddhadasa left this world after previously surviving a series of heart attacks. Buddhadasa, during his 67 years as a Buddhist monk never once stopped ‘teaching’. Even though he had only a grade 9 education, Buddhadasa received five Honourary Doctorates and his books and transcripts fill an entire room at the National Library.
Teachings and Controversy
Throughout his life he was a monk of controversy, celebrated by some, and detested by others. He taught what he called ‘Pristine Buddhism’ and declared that Thai Buddhism as a whole was ‘Polluted by materialism, corruption, ritual and politics’. Buddhadasa known as a ‘reformist monk’ was never one for concealing his feelings and spoke out at Thailand’s Leaders. He took on a pro-environmental, anti-materialistic stance and taught what he called ‘Dhammic Socialism’
Buddhadasa said “Don’t believe that socialism is dead! This is just the material propaganda of neo-conservative diehard capitalists. Real Socialism has never been tried on a large scale. Socialism is the opposite of the individualism with which we are brainwashed today”. Buddhadasa quite simply taught that “We must live together and help each other”.
During the 1970s at the height of student revolts, Buddhadasa was denounced a ‘communist’ by the political leaders at the time and was very nearly imprisoned.
Buddhadasa didn’t just upset political leaders with ‘hard hitting facts’ he also caused a storm of controversy through Thai Buddhism Circles. He supported the teaching of women and the ‘Bikkhuni Order’ (Female monks) which were taboo subjects at the time. Buddhadsa did not just study Buddhism he spent his early life as a monk reading scriptures from all the world’s religions and upset even more people with the likes of….this, startling claim:
“If you go on a deeper understanding of the dhamma, until you finally realize the absolute truth, you will discover that there is no such thing called religion – that there is no Buddhism, Christianity or Islam”
Many monks and Buddhists saw this ‘universal’ claim of Buddhadasa’s as ‘undermining of Buddhist tradition’. Then, at the same time, Buddhadasa was criticized by some western Christian leaders “A Buddhist monk has no rights to interfere with our teachings”.
Buddhadasa was afraid of no-one and used the lowest possible form of Thai language such as the pronouns ‘tua goo’ (I) and ‘tua meung’ (you) with everyone he met. Many four star police and army generals were supposedly to have left Wat Suan Mokkh furious with the way Buddhadsa showed ‘completely no respect’ and looked down on them as if they were just no-bodies. This was exactly what Buddhadasa taught of “there is no I, my or mine”. Many political leaders stayed well clear of Buddhadasa and Wat Suan Mokkhe for exactly that fear of ‘the mouth of Buddhadasa’. He listened to the advice of no-one and even before he died, was said to have rejected HM The King’s offer of having him flown by The King’s own personal helicopter for medical treatment in Bangkok.
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu had always said:
“Buddha was born on the ground, he journeyed on foot to teach dhamma, and he died lying on the earth, i will follow him, i will always keep my feet on the ground”