Obituary: Buddhadassa Bhikku

Ngeurm Panich (Buddhadassa Bhikku), monk: born Chaiya Surat Thani province, Siam 1906; ordained a bhikku 1926 as Phra Dhammakosacharn; died Suan Mokh, Thailand 8 July 1993.

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own