Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Why did he say that.

By Donald K. Swearer

Venerable members of the Sangha, organizers and sponsors of this event, panelists, distinguished guests, and friends:
 It is a great privilege for me to be here with you today to remember and honor Buddhadasa Bhikkhu on the occasion of his 100th birth centenary. It was my good fortune to be introduced to the writings of Than Buddhadasa nearly fifty years ago. On the eve of returning to the United States after more than two years as a teacher of English at Bangkok Christian College and Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidayalai, several Mahachula students I was tutoring kindly gave me a Dhammadana gift of Than Buddhadasa’s published books. My reading of Buddhadasa beginning at that time has had a lasting influence on my thinking and my life. Subsequently, I had the good fortune of meeting Than Buddhadasa several times at Suan Mokkh. Discussing the Dhamma with him as we strolled through the natural surroundings of the Garden of Empowering Liberation (Suan Mokkhabalarama) is an experience that continues to linger in my memory.
      The topic of “Buddhism and The Challenges of the Modern World” suggested by Phra Phaisal is very timely but also very broad. It is timely because the global challenges confronting us today seem to be countless. Everywhere we look there is a crisis: the crisis in the Middle East, the global environmental crisis, the global AIDS crisis, the cultural crisis created by global capitalism; the political crisis in the United States, the political crisis in Thailand, the crisis in the Thai sangha, and so on. On this occasion honoring Than Buddhadasa it is appropriate to look to Than Ajaan for help and guidance in the face of these challenges and crises.
     Buddhism teaches that all things are subject to change. This truism has two important implications for the challenges we face today. First, with right knowledge, right mindfulness, right intention, and right effort we can improve our own lives, our societies, and the global community. The law of karma is not a fatalistic doctrine even though it has been interpreted that way. Rather, karma teaches that we are conditioned but not determined by the past, and that we can influence our future by our actions in the present. Second, we should realize that although the today’s global challenges are unique, other people, in other times and places, have also faced challenges that may have seemed equally daunting. If we are to solve the problems of the present we must learn from the past if we are to have a future.
        It is a truism that economic, political, social, and cultural changes over the past half-century associated with globalization have profoundly affected Thailand (as well as other countries). In several areas, including religion, it has creataed greater diversity and fragmentation. Different visions of Thai Buddhist identity are competing with one another today: some within the national sangha; others semi-independent such as Wat Dhammakai; still others outside the national sangha such as Santi Asok; and, Buddhist based NGOs led by laity.
      Than Buddhadasa has been a seminal influence on the development of Thai modernist Buddhist thought and socially engaged Buddhism in Thailand. Phra Phaisan, Phra Payom, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, Dr. Prawet Wasi, S. Sivaraksa, and many others, have expressed their indebtedness to Than Buddhadasa. Some such as S. Sivaraksa identify with the international, ecumenical perspective of socially engaged Buddhism associated with H.H. the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Socially engaged Buddhist leaders emphasize universal Buddhist values and principles: wisdom, compassion, mindful awareness, peace, non-greed, non-violence, and the inter-dependent, inter-becoming nature of all things. These values and principles constitute what some scholars see as a new form of international (global) ecumenical Buddhism with which Than Buddhadasa has been identified.
       This afternoon I shall not be looking at Than Buddhadasa specifically within the competing voices of contemporary Thai Buddhism—that will be the subject of an October panel honoring Than Ajaan at the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions in October. Rather, in this context I want to emphasize the universality of his vision (wisayathat sakhon) as a major contribution Buddhism can make to addressing the challenges of the modern world, and an antidote to narrow understandings of personal, communal, 
and national identity that have contributed to the anger, hatred, violence, and conflict not only in the Middle East but globally. (A year ago, the Center for the Study of World Religions convened a conference on religion and nationalism. As the twenty-five conferees discussed in depth the various political, economic, and historical factors that contributed to conflict in Iraq, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and the Sudan, it became readily apparent that narrow, contentious views of religion and ethnicity were two major factors in these volatile situations. Unfortunately, in these and other contexts, progressive, inclusive, nonviolent religious views are too often overshadowed by opposing sentiments--sometimes associated with the term, “fundamentalism”--be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and even Buddhist.)
 To address the theme, “Buddhism and the Challenges of the Modern World,” I propose to focus on four topics of Than Buddhadasa’s thought that are relevant to four major global challenges of the 21st century. The four topics are: (1) thammika sangkhom that I translate as the “righteous community;” (2) thamma pen thammachat (the dhamma as nature); (3) phassa khon/phassa tham (everyday language/truth language; and (4) mai mi sasana (no religion!). The four challenges they address are the challenges of social justice, the environmental crisis, ideological absolutisms, and religious violence.
Although I shall discuss each topic separately, they are closely interrelated because Than Buddhadasa’s thought is a unified system. Different concepts such as phassa khon/phassa tham and thammika sangkhom are closely interrelated even though they may appear not to be. Than Ajaan’s thought is unified because it is grounded in the concept of dhamma, and the dhamma is nothing other the principle of co-dependence and co-arising (paticca samuppada). All dhammas, i.e. everything, are interrelated. Nothing exists independently and in isolation. For example, in his essay, “Phraphutacaw Ku’ Krai?” (Who Is the Buddha?) Than Ajaan states that at a superficial level of understanding Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, are separate; however, at a deeper level of understanding they are one. For the average Thai Buddhist (if there is such a thing as an average Thai Buddhist!), Than Buddhadasa’s statement that Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha are one, must be startling and confusing.

Phasa Khon/Phasa Tham: The Challenge of Ideological Absolutism

Those who predicted the demise of ideology with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War were sadly mistaken. Political and religious ideologies flourish today as does the scriptural literalism of fundamentalist religion in many forms and manifestations—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and even Buddhist. Ideological fervor often leads to absolute distinctions: “My belief is absolutely true; therefore, your belief must be false. My way of life, my religion, my nation is good; therefore, your way of life, your religion, your nation is an ‘axis of evil’.” Ideological absolutism always leads to intolerance, an “ends justifies the means” mentality, and often to violence.
Than Buddhadasa’s theory of two languages or two levels of language--an outer, physical, literal, conventional dimension and an inner, spiritual, symbolic dimension challenges textual and doctrinal literalism, and simplistic, doctrinaire ideologies. As such, it can be seen as one antidote to today’s ideological battles.Because Than Ajaan’s views were novel, he was attacked as a Mahayana heretic by some Theravada critics for several of his teachings such as Nibbana is in Samsara, and the true Buddha is not the historical person but the Dhammakaya who is with us here and now. To his critics, the distinction between Phasa Khon/Phasa Tham, was a Mahayana doctrine--the two truth theory. Whether called a Communist, as he was in the 50s, or a Mahayana heretic, Than Ajaan was not bothered by labels. He recognized labels as a source of attachment that blind us from seeing the truth. Labeling Than Buddhadasa as a Communist or a Mahayanist is a way of rejecting him, and ignoring the power and complexity of his thought.In his essay, “Phasa Khon/Phasa Tham,” Than Buddhadasa analyzes the meaning of many terms, some specifically religious such as Buddha, Dhamma, Nibbana, God, but ordinary words, as well: for example, the word, “person,” As a word from common discourse we use, ‘person,” all the time without thinking about its meaning. Similarly, we often use the name of person in a mindless way. The name becomes merely a label that hides the complex nature of the 
Likewise, in everyday language, “person” refers to the outer form as in the sentence, “We see a person walking down the street.” But, in Than Buddhadasa view, to limit our understand of “person” to the superficial, outer form ignores the profundity of the Dhamma level meaning of the word, For Than Buddhadasa, “person” refers specifically to special qualities implied by the word, “human;” in particular, the mental qualities of a lofty mind or high mindedness. To illustrate his point, Than Ajaan uses the example of someone who criticizes a friend by saying, “You’re not a person!” What is implied by “person” in this case is not the superficial, outer form but, rather, that the individual lacks the special qualities of what it means to be human, that is, the deeper or Dhamma level of meaning of the term.
What about the word, “enemy”? From an ideological perspective we label the enemy as the “Other,” someone we reject, hate, or want to destroy. For Than Buddhadasa that is the conventional or everyday level interpretation of the word, but from a Dhamma level of understanding the “enemy” is our mind, a mind deluded by ignorance and misguided by blind attachment: “With the mind well-directed and fixed on Dhamma, the enemy is absent and the friend is there instead.” In today’s ideological wars, Than Buddhadasa challenges us to the difficult task of transforming “enemy” into “friend.” His challenge may be idealistic but even Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!!”

Than Buddhadasa’s teaching about phasa khon/phasa tham reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the founders of socially engaged Buddhism during the Vietnam war. During that time, Nhat Hanh organized the Tiep Hien Order (“being-in-touch/present time”) or Order of Interbeing. The first of the fourteen precepts of the Order of Interbeing is the following: “Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are only guiding means; they are not absolute truth.” In explaining the precept, Nhat Hanh points to the well-known metaphor that the Buddha’s teaching is a raft to cross the river of samsara to the farther shore; the raft is not the shore and if we cling to the raft we miss everything. He continues, “The Order of Interbeing was born in Vietnam during the war, which  was a conflict between two world ideologies. In the name of If you have a gun, you can shoot one, two, three, five people; but if you have an ideology and stick to it, thinking it is the absolute truth, you can kill millions.” (Being Peace)

Nhat Hanh and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu are constructive critics of ideological absolutism and scriptural literalism—a urgent, crucial message for our times.

Mai Me Sasana (No Religion): The Challenge of Religious Idolatry

Unfortunately, religion has become a major contributing factor to violent conflict globally. The examples are manifold: Sinhalese Buddhist vs. Tamil Hindu in Sri Lanka, Shi’a vs. Sunni in Iraq, Protestant vs. Catholic in northern Ireland; Hindu vs. Muslim in India; Catholic vs. Eastern Orthodox vs. Muslim in Bosnia; and so on. To be sure, violence and conflict in these and other situations has many causes but religion, along with ethnicity, place, and nationalism, are among the main culprits. Transforming intra-and inter-religious divisions and hatred, into a positive, reconciling force to resolve conflict and violence is one of the major challenges of the modern world. Such reconciliation requires open, inclusive, tolerant attitudes towards one own religion as well as the faith of others.
Than Buddhadasa held the view that the world’s great religions, while different historically, share a common ground. In his provocative Dhamma talk, No Religion! (Mai Mi Sasana) Than Ajaan startled his Thai Buddhist audience by saying:

The ordinary, ignorant worldling is under the
impression that there are many religions and that they
are all different to the extent of being hostile and opposed.
Thus one considers Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism as
incompatible and even bitter enemies. Such is the conception
of the worldly person who speaks according to ordinary
impressions. Precisely because of such characterizations there
exist different religions hostile to one another. If, however,
people penetrate to the fundamental nature (dhamma)
of religion, they will regard all religions as essentially similar.
Although they may say there is Buddhism, Christianity,
Islam, and so on, they will also say that essentially they are
the same. If they should go on to a deeper understanding of
the dhamma until finally they realize the absolute truth, they
will discover that there is no such thing called religion—that
there is no Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. Therefore, how
can they be the same or conflicting? (Mai Mi Sasana)

He expressed a similar point of view in his Sinclair Thompson lectures delivered at McGilvary Theological Seminary in 1967 (B. E. 2510):

Christianity and Buddhism are both universal religions; they exist wherever truly religious people practice their religion in the most perfect way. If religious persons show respect for each religion’s
founder and for the Dhamma-truth at the core of each
religion, they will understand this interpretation. Devotion to a religion results in the cessation of self-interest and self-importance and therefore leads to a realization of the universality and unity of all religions. (Buddhism and Christianity)

    Than Buddhadasa often used similes and metaphors to illustrate his points. His discussion of religion was no exception. In Mai Mi Sasana he illustrates his inclusive universalism with the simile of water:

Let us consider a simile, something very simple—water.
Most people think there are many different kinds of water
and will view various kinds of water such as rainwater, well 
water, water in swamps, water in toilets as if they have
nothing in common. This judgment is based on external
criteria. A person with more knowledge, however, realizes
that regardless of type or kind, pure water can be distilled
and filtered out of it. If we proceed further in our analysis
we shall conclude there is no water—only two parts of
hydrogen and one part of oxygen. What we have been calling
water is void, empty. (Mai Mi Sasana)

     It is the ethical implications of Than Buddhadasa’s understanding of religion that I wish to emphasize. What I characterize as Than Ajaan’s inclusive universalism is an expression of his conviction that nonattachment lies at the heart of Buddhism and all religions. Preoccupation with the external trappings of religious institutions and their ritual ceremonies represents a particular form of attachment and, consequently, obscures the true meaning of religion which is to transform egoism into altruism. In the case of conventional Thai Buddhist practice, Than Buddhadasa directs especially sharp criticism at the practice of merit-making rituals: “the perception of most adherents of Buddhism is limited to what they can do to get a reward. While supporting the temples or monks and observing the precepts, they have only the objective of getting more in return than they give. …The heart of Buddhism is not getting things but getting rid of them. It is, in other words, nonattachment…” In the area of inter-religious relationships, Buddhadasa believes that those for whom religion is a matter of external form and practice will have a narrow, exclusivistic understanding of their religion that inevitably leads to inter-religious conflict. Here Buddhadasa makes a connection between the terms “outer” and “outsider.” Those who see their religion in terms of outer form fail to understand its essential nature. Consequently, “they look down upon other religions while praising and supporting their own, thinking of themselves as a separate group. Outsiders are not part of our fellowship. They are wrong; only we are right.” For Buddhadasa, when attached to external, outer, physical  forms we see everything in dualistic terms--good or evil, merit or sin, happiness or unhappiness, gain or loss, is or is not, my religion versus their religion. Such dualistic thinking is at the heart of religious conflict. Buddhadasa’s universalism counters such a view.

Thamma Pen Thammachat (The Dhamma Is Nature): The Challenge of Environmental Destruction

     The news media and television coverage confront us daily with the extent and complexity of the environmental crisis: global warming, draught in Africa, the melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, erratic temperature change, increase in violent storms, ocean and water pollution, and so on. For over 50 years science has made enormous contributions to our understanding of many aspects of environmental problems. Without collaborative scientific research we would be unaware of the nature of global warming, species extinction, or the effects of pollution on health. However, despite our increasing knowledge about the facts of environmental problems, they have not altered the kind of human behavior that is exploiting nature nor have the facts affected human habits of addictive consumption. Environmentalists increasingly realize that science and public policy are not sufficient to transform human consciousness and behavior for a sustainable future. Ethics, religion, and spirituality must be engaged to transform our understanding, attitudes, and actions in regard to our patterns of consumption and care for the earth.
      Than Buddhadasa’s concept of nature (thammachat) as the Dhamma can contribute toward transforming our understanding, attitudes, and actions regarding the care of the earth. It was Than Ajaan’s perception of the liberating power of nature-as-dhamma that inspired him to found Wat Suan Mokkh as a center of teaching and practice. For Than Buddhadasa the natural surroundings of his forest monastery were nothing less than a medium for personal transformation:

"Trees, rocks, sand, even dirt and insects can speak. This doesn't mean, as some people believe that they are spirits (phi) or gods (thewada). Rather, if we reside in na
and thoughts arising that are truly out of the ordinary. At first we'll feel a sense of peace and quiet (sangopyen) which may eventually move beyond that feeling to a transcendence of self. The deep sense of calm that nature provides through separation (wiwek) from the troubles and anxieties which plague us in the day-to-day world serves to protect heart and mind. Indeed, the lessons nature teaches us lead to a new birth beyond the suffering (qwam thuk) that results from attachment to self. Trees and rocks, then, can talk to us. They help us understand what it means to cool down from the heat of our confusion, despair, anxiety, and suffering."
(Siang Takong Jak Thammachat)

For Than Buddhadasa, it is only by being in nature that the trees, rocks, earth, sand, animals, birds, and insects can teach us the lesson of self-forgetting. In what I call, Than Ajaan’s “spiritual biocentricism,” being attuned to the lessons of nature is being at one with the Dhamma The destruction of nature, then, implies the destruction of the Dhamma, and the destruction of the Dhamma is the destruction of our humanity.
     Toward the end of his life the degredation of the natural environment became a matter of great concern for Than Buddhadasa. One of his talks at Wat Suan Mokkh in 1990, three years before his death, was titled, "Buddhists and the Care of Nature" [Buddhasasanik Kap Kan Anurak Thammachat]. This essay provides insight into both the biocentric and ethical dimensions of his environmental concern. The essay might be read as Than Ajaan’s plea for nature conservation and sustainability.
     From an environmental perspective, I render the Thai term, anurak, as "conservation." As you know, many Thai monks are involved in efforts to stop the exploitation of forests in their districts and provinces. They have been called "forest conservation monks" (phra anurak pa). Wat Suan Mokkh exemplifies Than Ajaan’s dedication to preserving a natural environment. Anurak, as embodied in his life and work, moreover, conveys a rich, nuanced meaning close to its Pali roots: to be imbued with the quality of protecting, sheltering, and caring for. By the term, anurak, Than Buddhadasa intends this deeper, dhammic sense of anu-rakkha, an intrinsic, active "caring for" that
ture near trees and rocks we'll discover feelings 
issues forth from the very nature of our being. Caring, then, is the active expression of our fundamental empathy for all creatures and the earth that we discover by hearing the Dhamma in the “voices of nature.” One cares for the forest because one empathizes with the forest just as one cares for people, including oneself, because one has become empathetic. Anurak, the ability to be in a state of empathy, is fundamentally linked to non-attachment or liberation from preoccupation with self which is at the very core of Than Ajaan’s thought. Caring (anurak) in the Dhammic sense, therefore, is the active expression of our empathetic identification with all life forms--sentient and non-sentient, human beings and nature.

Dhammika Sanghom (Righteous Community): The Challenge of Social Justice

Than Ajaan’s teachings challenge mindless attachment to parochial religious practices directed toward self-aggrandizement, e.g. his critique of merit-making and the veneration of amulets; simplistic doctrinal literalism, e. g. his distinction between phasa khon/phasa tham; and the making of Buddhadhamma into a self-serving, exclusivistic ideology, e.g. his universalizing of the concept of dhamma. Than Ajaan’s vision of dhammika sangkhom offers a global, cosmopolitan understanding of what it means to be not only a Thai Buddhist in the 21st century but to be fully and truly human.
Time and again in his writings Than Buddhadasa challenges conventional, literal, narrow understandings (quam kawcai thi pen thamniem, tam tua nangsu’, khap) of Buddhism and all religions in favor of universal principles of human development (lak sakon qwam charoen pen manut)--not just identifying oneself as a Thai Buddhist, an American Christian, or an Iranian Muslim but as a human being. For example, in his essay, “The Technik (Technique) of Being Human,” (Technik Haeng Pen Manut) he reinterprets the Four Noble Truths as: nature (thammachat), the laws of nature (kot thammachat), the duty of humankind to live according to the laws of nature, and the consequences of following the laws of nature. His interpretation reflects his view that all human beings share a common natural environment, and are part of communities imbedded in the natural order of things (kot thammachat). This interconnected universe we inhabit is the natural condition of things (pakati). To act contrary to this law of nature is to suffer (qwam thuk) because such actions contradict reality. Consequently, the good of the individual parts is predicated on the good of the whole and vice versa. Practically speaking it means that a just, equitable, peaceful, and happy society must balance (tham hai somboon) the good of the individual and the good of the whole (qwam di suan ton lae quam di suan ruam).
The ethical principle of the good of the whole is based on the truth of interdependent co-arising (paticca samuppada). Nothing exists in isolation; everything co-exists interdependently as part of a larger whole whether human, social, cosmic, or molecular: “The entire universe is a dhammika sanghkhom. Countless numbers of stars in the sky exist together in a dhammika sangkhom. Because they follow the principles of a dhammika sangkhom they survive. Our small universe with its sun and planets including the earth is a dhammika sangkhom.”
Than Buddhadasa’s view of a dhammika sangkhom reflects his persistent emphasis on overcoming attachment to self, to “me-and-mine” (tua ku khong ku). Fundamentally, both personal and social well-being (qwamcaroen khong tae la khon) result from transforming self-attachment and self-love to empathy toward others and sympathetic action on their behalf. A dhammika sangkhom, then, is a community based on the fundamental equality of all beings that both affirms but transcends all distinctions be they gender, ethnicity, or class. Such a view does not deny the existence of differences among individuals or groups; however, all people, regardless of position and status, should understand that their own personal well-being depends on the well-being of the everyone. Thus, for example, a person of wealth should not be a capitalist (nai thun) who hoards wealth for his own pleasure, but a sresthi, one whose high position enables him to be a benefactor to laborers, workers, and common folk. 

         In Lokawiparit: Hua Kho Loi Ayu 2519 Laew Raw Ca Yu Nai Lok An Saen Wiparit Ni Kan Yangrai, a collection of Than Buddhasa’s thoughts published for his centenary, Than Ajaan spells out dhammika sangkhom in ordinary, common sense terms. Because all of us inhabit the same world (chaw lok) we have a responsibility to act for the benefit (prayot) of everyone, not just one person, group, or nation. To solve today’s challenging problems we must realize that fundamentally all people share a common human nature (tuk khon mi thammachat khong qwam pen manut muankan). To be sure different members of a family, groups, or nations will disagree about many things. For example, for the standpoint of religious belief some may believe in not-self (mai me atta); others that there is a self; that one dies and is reborn (tai lae kert) or that one dies and is not reborn; however, these beliefs need not result in conflict. These are mere differences in views (pien dithi khad yang kan). When different beliefs and ways of life become the cause of conflict it is a consequence of being so blinded by our own self-interest that we ignore the deeper truth of our shared humanity (yu ruam kan santi).
Than Buddhadasa saw conflict among individuals and groups based on religion as especially heinous (laew rai). He considered it to be a rejection of the fundamental truth of the world’s religions which is to overcome acquisitive self interest, to respect others, and to act out of loving kindness (metta) for of the well-being of all. In other words, religion in an ideal sense should be at the foundation of dhammika sangkhom. (Were he living today, Buddhadasa would be deeply saddened by the increasing intensity of religious conflict globally.) Than Ajaan recognized the validity of different religious worldviews. He argued for the freedom of religious choice on the grounds of a person’s background (phu’n than dae la khon), nature (lakhana sua tua), heart and soul (duang cit, duang winnyan). Although for Than Buddhadasa the democratic principle of the freedom of religion was an important personal, social, and ethical value, the freedom of religious choice reflects the pluralism of human diversity (lak lai qwam tak tang kan khong manut) which is the nature of reality (pen pakati). Respecting the religious traditions of others is an ethical value, but it is also consistent with Than Ajaan’s understanding that diversity—in this case diversity of religious choice and expression—is in the nature of things.
In the face of political and religious conflict and violence around the globe, Than Buddhadasa’s vision of a thammika sangkhom challenges not only Thai Buddhists but each of us to commit ourselves to the task of living lives in ways that benefit all, not simply ourselves individually, our group, our religion, or our nation; lives that are dedicated to peace and reconciliation, and to building righteous communities (dhammika sangkhom) on which the future of humankind (manut) depends. 
Let me close my remarks this afternoon with Than Buddhadasa’s admonition from Lokawiparit: “tha raw tham mai samret to, kert qwam khaw cai su’ng kan lae kan dai, raw mai me wang thi ca kae khai wikritakan nai lok ni. Kho hai phayayamkan phu’a ca tham qwam khaw cai su’ng kan lae kan nai rawang sing thi kamlang mai khaw cai kan ying khu’n”.

Thank you again for this opportunity to participate in this event honoring Than Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.


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