BUDDHADASSA BHIKKU was one of the great Buddhist masters of meditation, a forest master who lived a hermit-like life, went back to first principles of Buddhist scripture and came to be visited by large numbers of spiritual seekers from the West.
He was born Ngeurm Panich, the eldest son of a Chinese/Thai grocery-store owner and a Thai mother in a religious-minded village in Chaiya Surat Thani province in the south of what is now Thailand in 1906. He was ordained as a bhikku (Buddhist monk) as Phra Dhammakosacharn at the age of 20 in 1926.
Full of youthful zeal and innocence, he headed for Bangkok which he thought was a city full of arahants (enlightened people) but returned disillusioned after a year to his home village. He gained Grade 3 in Pali (the language which Buddha spoke), passed his exams in Buddha Dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha) and gave his first sermon in his home village at the age of 23.
Defying the idea that monks should live in a beautiful temple, he chose a half-ruined one, in imitation of the temples of the Buddha's time. He was determined to observe Buddhism in its pure state. This temple was in about 50 acres of land; while there, he was supported by his aunt and, with only a hurricane lamp and simple roof, he studied for many years Pali and the Tripitaka (the Buddhist equivalent of the Bible, the first compilation of the Buddha's teachings after his death).
During this time Buddhadassa's younger brother Dhammadassa started missionary work for him by printing a quarterly Buddhist book of Buddhadassa's writing. This book was very famous as it consisted of three sections and was a new phenomenon in Thailand. It was about eight pages long and was read mainly by intellectuals in Bangkok. It had translations from Pali literature and free practice of Vipassana (mental cultivation). It was the first magazine in Thailand in those days to look closely at the original teachings of the Buddha.
Buddhadassa then produced several books in Thai including Following the Footsteps of Arahants, The Life of the Buddha from his Own Words, The Four Noble Truths from the Buddha's Own Words, and The Heritage of the Buddha from his Words. All this work was done in the old temple before the Second World War.
In 1932 he established Suan Mokkhabalarama (the Grove of the Power of Liberation) near his home town. At that time it was the only forest Dhamma centre, and one of the few places dedicated to Vipassana (mental cultivation) leading to 'seeing clearly' into reality in southern Thailand. At that time he began to call himself Buddhadassa, meaning the slave of the Buddha.
He further challenged tradition by studying the Buddha's teachings directly from the Tripitaka, instead of studying the commentaries by prominent monks of later times, and explaining it in simple language that ordinary people could understand.
Because of his unorthodox ways and his habit of wearing a black robe, Phra Buddhadassa was ridiculed by some as a 'mad monk'. Going back to the Buddha's fundamental teachings and simplicity Phra Buddhadassa's works gradually gained respect amongst post-war intellectuals who found popular Buddhism, intertwined with animism, unacceptable.
Before Buddhadassa, Buddhism in Thailand was normally treated as a system of moral conduct. It was Buddhadassa who began questioning the heart of Buddhism, forgoing ceremonial frills for the essence - that is suffering and the eradication of suffering. He writes in his Handbook of Mankind: 'Buddhism points out to us that all things are devoid of self. They are just a perpetual flux of change, which is inherently unsatisfactory because of the lack of freedom, the subjection to causality. This unsatisfactoriness will be brought to an end as soon as the process stops, and the process will stop as soon as the causes are eliminated so that there is no more interreacting. This is the heart of Buddhism.'
Buddhadassa was a reformist monk who was highly respected for being able to combine and balance Buddhist learning with meditation practices. He said that a thorough understanding of the anatomy of the mind would lead to viewing likes and dislikes in a new light. There is no 'me' or 'mine' involved only the natural process of mental reaction, freed from illusion. In this sense every human being is one and the same trapped by the prison of illusions, and the way to the end of the cycle of suffering is to transcend likes and dislikes. This insight naturally leads to compassion and tolerance for others.
'Practising Dhamma, therefore,' Buddhadassa wrote in his handbook, 'means doing one's duty in accordance with goodness without a sense of self, benefiting oneself and others at the same time, to the best of one's ability and with full awareness.' He called it 'Nirvana here and now', challenging the traditional ideas of heaven and hell.
Breaking further from tradition, Buddhadassa Bhikku also applied Mahayana Buddhism, the sect dominant in the Far East, to his teachings; as he said, 'The heart of every faith is the same; that is the eradication of selfishness and greed.'
Three years ago Buddhadassa said that people should cease coming each year to celebrate his birthday on 27 May, as the concept of age was really not important and that therefore there should be 'no ceremonies performed, no food consumed, no accommodation provided'. Visitors would be asked to take part in a three-day fast, to sleep on the earth under the shade of trees and meditate on the non-selfhood of all beings.
At Suan Mokh, where life and death are viewed with detachment, the problem will be to keep Phra Buddhadassa's funeral as simple as possible without the ceremonial that he has been preaching against all his life. The monastic order, after decades of frowning at his teachings, has finally given him an official title which means that his funeral will be a formal occasion appropriate to his rank. Buddhadassa recently told monks at Suan Mokh that his last wish was that his remains should be buried behind his house under a slab of concrete with a life-sized Buddha image placed on top with the minimum of ceremony and that his remains should be left there for at least a year. Anticipating what could happen, he then added that after that time it was up to his devotees and disciples to carry out any ceremonies they felt appropriate.