How Buddhadassa Tried to Save Thai Buddhism

Buddhadassa often claimed that the teaching of the Buddha could be reduced to the simple phrase; “do good, avoid bad, and purify your mind”.

Buddhadassa was one of the Thai monks that I’d read about even before first arriving in Thailand. Many of his books have been translated into English; in fact he is quite well known around the world. During my early days in Thailand I’d speak to local people about Buddhadassa but nobody seemed to know who I was talking about. This surprised me because I’d frequently see his face on Thai TV – even though he’d been dead a few years. It turned out though that the problem wasn’t lack of recognition of him but the fact that the way his name is spelt in English bears little resemblance to how the Thais pronounce this name. They say Pu-Ta-Tad Pi-Gu (พุทธทาสภิกขุ); the Pi Gu is the Thai version of the Pali word Bhikku and this means monk.

Buddhadassa Bhikku is viewed as a controversial figure by some in the Thai Buddhist community. He was a reformer who believed that there are many things that needed fixing within Thai Buddhism. His views often brought him in conflict with those with power in the Buddhist community. When he died in 1993 he had accomplished a lot. His vast collection of writings contains many ideas which are important for anyone wishing to understand Thai Buddhism in twentieth century.

The Life and Times of Buddhadassa Bhikku

Buddhadassa Bhikku was born in 1906 in Surat Thani province. His name prior to becoming a monk was Nguam Panitch. After ordaining his name was changed to Buddhadassa which means ‘slave to Buddha’. Inspired by the forest monks (see here) he left the city to live a simple life and develop his spiritual practice. He began to think that those monks living in the city temples were at best misguided and at worst corrupted. He developed the opinion that Thai Buddhism has gone wrong somewhere along the way and he devoted the rest of his life trying to correct these wrongs.

One aspect of Thai Buddhism which he found wanting was the fact that so many folk beliefs had been allowed to corrupt the religion. He believed that a system of thought that could free people had degenerated to mere rituals with few people understanding the original purpose of the teachings. He also felt that the Thai Sangha (community of monks) had become too involved in political maneuvering.

The Legacy of Buddhadassa

Buddhadassa often claimed that the teaching of the Buddha could be reduced to the simple phrase; “do good, avoid bad, and purify your mind”. He believed that at heart all religions were pointing in the same direction. Buddhadassa also claimed that the worth of any religion could be judged on its ability to make people behave positively – he did not believe that the religions themselves were that important. He enjoyed inter-faith talks and spent a great deal of his life devoted to understanding how other people made sense of the world.

Buddhadassa died in 1993 at the age of 86. He left behind his writings and his monastery Suan Mokkh (The Garden of Liberation). This temple is situated in Surat Thani and people from around the world visit to learn about meditation and Buddhism. It is doubtful that he would be completely satisfied with the current state of Thai Buddhism, but he inspired many people to continue pushing for change.

Photo of Buddhadassa from Wikimedia Commons

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8 thoughts on “How Buddhadassa Tried to Save Thai Buddhism

  1. Paul, he sounds like a great man to have known. From what my Thai friends tell me, and the books I’ve read, seems Buddhadassa is right about Buddhism in Thailand. It sort of reminds me of early Christianity where it absorbed previous beliefs and timetables into the religion to make it palatable to the ‘heathen’ population they were aiming to attract.

    1. Hi Cat, I think a big problem is that Buddhism isn’t that useful to people unless they are willing to follow the principles; it is not really something you are but something you do. Buddhism is not a religion that people can convert to on their deathbed and be saved; there is also no benefit in just calling yourself a Buddhist. Most people seem to have no real interest in following such a path; they just want something that is going to offer them reassurance. Over the years these people have added other beliefs to make it more applicable to their own life. The historical Buddha was mostly focused on teaching monks who had given themselves fully to his path.

    1. Hi Zentient, that story is upsetting – I don’t know what the solution is for this. Abortion is a topic that is too complex for me. I do find it equally disturbing though that Thailand has capital punishment.

  2. Hi Paul,

    Back in 1995 I read a couple of books from Buddhadasa Bhikku. One was “No Religion”. The other, hmm, I forget. Lol. I enjoyed his way of looking at Buddhism. More of a – Buddha said, and did this… why all the extra fluff? Buddhadasa angered many of the monks in Bangkok. As you said, the politicalness of Buddhism, he didn’t agree with. He addressed everyone the same – at the lowest level of respect – King or pauper. That enraged quite a few people.

    There was an American monk, Santikaro, that spent about 20 years with Buddhadasa. He has since moved back to America, disrobed, and is fighting cancer with chemotherapy at the moment.

    Santikaro was the main monk that ran the International Dhamma Hermitage across the road from Suan Mokkh’s main temple for years.

    I’ve been to Wat Suan Mokkh (main and retreat sides) many times, it’s a great place for walking meditation up and down the long dirt paths. There are a couple of places to meditate there where you are likely to be undisturbed – except by chickens. The mosquitoes are thick – so you might bring some lotion.

    I have many videos of Suan Mokkh – but they are scores of minutes long… just walking through the grounds. Guess I should put those up on one of my sites.

    Have you been there Paul?



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