Perhaps more than any other monk in Thai history, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (“Servant of the Buddha”) has tried to explain the nature of Nature (Pali, dhammajati; Thai, thammachat) and blend his own brand of learning with the forest meditation tradition. He was one of the first monks to express clear notions of ecological laws found in the Buddhist texts. It is not too surprising then that after a few years of study in the burgeoning city of Bangkok Buddhadasa Bhikkhu became convinced that purity was not to be found in the big city. He was ordained at the age of twenty in 1926 and was given the ordination name Indapanno (Wisdom of Indra), and by 1932, he had followed his inclinations to be closer to the forest and established Suan Mokkhabalarama (The Grove of the Power of Liberation) near his hometown of Phum Riang (now in Chaiya, Suratthani). At that time, it was the only forest Dhamma center and one of the few places dedicated to meditation in Southern Thailand. At that same time (in August 1932) he made the following vow:
I bestow this life and body to the Buddha. I am the servant of the Buddha, and the Buddha is my master. Thereby, I am named Buddhadasa. (Some disciples of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu maintain, however, that he was a servant of no one.)
The news of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, his work, and Suan Mokkh gradually spread over the years. The establishment of this Garden and the contemplation behind it can be described as one of the most influential events in the history of Buddhism in Siam.
Achan Buddhadasa worked painstakingly to establish and explain the correct and essential principles of what he called “pristine Buddhism,” that is, the original realization of Lord Buddha before it became buried under commentaries, rituals, clerical politics, and so on. His work is based on extensive research of the Pali texts, especially the Discourses (Sutta Pitaka), followed by personal experiment and practice with these teachings. Then he taught what he had learned to truly quench dukkha (dissatisfaction, suffering). His goal was to produce a complete set of reference materials for present and future research and practice. His approach was always straightforward and practical, yet offbeat (in the best sense of the word). For example, in the spirit of the early self-mortification of Siddhartha, Buddhadasa once related that some of the monks had experimented with different diets to see how they would feel — such experiments ranged from vegetarianism to eating only desserts.
Not only did Buddhadasa Bhikkhu seek the essential message in the Buddhist texts, but he was able to bring his own creative, colloquial approach to his talks in order to make Buddhism more alive. He often employed seemingly harsh terms and rather vulgar pronouns to refer to different states of mind. This use was initially criticized and then praised. Listeners were often shaken into a different frame of mind by this effective delivery.
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu also made a distinction between two levels of language needed to discuss ordinary concepts and concepts related to the higher points of the Dhamma: he called these “people language” (phassa khon) and “Dhamma language” (phassa tham). The Thai language is rich in terms for desire, probably since much of Buddhist contemplation relates to subtle distinctions of desire. On one occasion Buddhadasa was asked if the enlightened Arahant still has desire. “Hmmm....what exactly do you mean?” And the questioner had to relate a string of distinctions of needs and desire difficult to translate (kham yak, khwam tongkan, khwan wang, kilet). Finally, the questioner clarified that the Arahant must still have good wishes for society, the desire to do beneficial things, right? And then Buddhadasa cut to the chase: “Do these so-called desires cause dukkha for him or others? If the answer is no, then maybe we can concede that the Arahant still has some kind of desire or good will (chanda).” This is merely one example of how a Dhamma discussion with this monk could turn into an exercise in people language versus Dhamma language.
Although his formal education only went as far as the ninth grade and the beginning levels of Pali studies, five honorary doctorates from Thai universities have been bestowed upon this monk. The Sangha in Thailand has honored him with other ranks, but he continued to be known as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. His influential books, both written and transcribed from talks, fill a room at the National Library. Doctoral dissertations are still being written about him and his legacy. His books can be found in bookstores around the country and are favorites as gifts at cremations.
According to legend, the King of Thailand once wrote a memo to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu asking permission to visit Suan Mokkh. Given the accompanying retinue and security, this visit would be complex. Buddhadasa enjoyed maintaining simplicity and in a genuinely humble, Zen-like manner was said to reply: “I am not sure if we have anything that would interest you here; there are just rocks and trees.”
Progressive elements in Thai society, especially the young, have been inspired by his teachings and selflessness. Since the 1960s, activists and thinkers in areas such as education, ecology, social welfare, and rural development have drawn upon his teaching and advice. Most of the monks involved in nature conservation and community development have received inspiration from his brave approach to Buddhism. In many respects, he provided important connections between the scriptural tradition and engaged Buddhist practice today.
After the founding of Suan Mokkh, Buddhadasa delved into the study of all schools of Buddhism, as well as the other major religious traditions. This interest was practical rather than scholarly. He sought to unite all genuinely religious people in order to work together to help, as he put it, “drag humanity out from under the power of materialism.” This broadmindedness won him friends and students from around the world, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. His Sinclair Thompson Lecture, “Christianity and Buddhism” remains an important and challenging document for those involved in any Buddhist-Christian dialog.
His last project was to establish an International Dhamma Hermitage. He also left instructions for a small monastery in which foreign monks may train as Dhamma-duta (Dhamma missionaries). It now functions under the name “Don Kiam” or Suan Atammayatarama. A similar facility for nuns, Thai and foreign, awaits the women who will make it happen. He called it Dhamma-Mata (Dhamma Mothers, those who give birth to others through Dhamma).
Achan Buddhadasa passed away in 1993 after a series of heart attacks and strokes that did not deter his ability to teach. The final stroke occurred as he was preparing notes for a talk to be given on his birthday in two days (May 27th). Word has it, sensing the end, he hung up his keys and retired for the evening, and then the major stroke occurred. A strange irony: in the end, despite all of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s teachings on nature, as well as a wish to pass on naturally, a group of doctors flew him to Bangkok while in a comatose state and put him on life support to try and save him. In the end, these efforts failed and he was returned to Suan Mokkh and passed away in the forest he loved.
Suan Mokkh carries on in the hearts and actions of all those who have been inspired and guided by his example and words. The Garden of Liberation is not so much a physical place as a kind of liberation to be experienced in this life.