Whence comes the sound of the bell?

Story by VASANA CHINVARAKORN, Bangkok Post, May 29, 2005

Religions have a lot in common in their teachings on the original source of all things, said Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, the late reformist monk

Bangkok, Thailand -- It is all and it is one. It existed before everything else and will last long after every existence. It has neither shape nor form, but from it arises immeasurable phenomena. There are countless words to describe what comes out of it, but it is, in itself, beyond name, space, time.

Back in 1973, as part of his Saturday Dharma Talk series at Suan Mokkh forest monastery, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu initiated a new weekly discussion on ``kaivalya-dharma'', a term he coined using the Sanskrit word kaivalya (kevala, in Pali) to connote an idea that encompassed the gist of his teachings on lokuttara-dharma (dharma for the supra-mundane level). The Sanskrit word has curious, almost self-contradictory meanings. As a noun, it evokes the image of heaven but used as an adjective it refers to something pervasive, absolute or singular.

So what's so special about kaivalya-dharma? The timing of the talks (April to July, 1973) was suggestive: the reformist monk had come up with the concept against the background of growing political turmoil in the early '70s. Only a couple of months after the talks ended there was an historic mass uprising against the dictatorial military regime of the day.

In October 1992, Buddhadasa returned to the same subject again, having an assistant take dictation as he expounded on the significance of the concept. (Apparently, the respected senior monk was meticulous to the point of telling his assistant which words to put into bold font). But the ``explanatory note'' project had to be suspended after only two days' work, due to Buddhadasa's frail state of health. He passed away less than a year later.

This note, however, reveals Buddhadasa's concerns about world peace. ``We must include kaivalya-dharma in every dialogue and endeavour,'' he stressed. ``We must seek kaivalya-dharma in the history, found the land of kaivalya-dharma, guide the entire universe with kaivalya-dharma, let kaivalya-dharma lead our lives, the everlasting life, one consisting of boundless kaivalya-dharma.''

At one level, the association between Buddhism and anything that implies eternity sounds paradoxical. Doesn't ``impermanence'' figure prominently in one of Lord Buddha's main teachings on the Three Universal Characteristics of Existence (Ti-Lakkhana)? And what about adherence to the one ``Force'' that is said to give birth to all beings and non-beings? Isn't Buddhism supposed to be the antithesis of belief in a monolithic Supreme God? Or consider the theological questions about the beginning of the world not relevant to the pursuit of enlightenment?

During his talks on kaivalya-dharma, Buddhadasa admitted that he had been wrong in the past to attack ``God'' from a traditional Theravada Buddhist point of view. ``Regarding God, I used to be ignorant and I will confess [that] here. I used to take the meaning literally, and take [God] to be a person. I used to hear only the phasaa-khon [everyday language] but not the phasaa-tham [dharma language]. I am now offering my apology.''

Some religious scholars would say that Buddhadasa's interpretation of God, for instance, has glossed over significant differences. For devout Christians, the historic narrative of their relationships with (a personified) God, in particular the salvation of Jesus Christ, is part and parcel of their existence. For Buddhists, their individual life histories are considered secondary to another mission: the meditative contemplation of one's own spiritual being.

For this progressive monk, however, inter-denominational dialogue counted for far more than proving which religion was superior to which. The world was (and still is) in flames, Buddhadasa repeatedly cautioned, and religion is the very last stronghold from which to address global crises.

How could this treatise on kaivalya-dharma help? Essentially, Buddhadasa proposed that all beings and non-beings are one and the same - labels, physical appearance and discrimination (beautiful versus ugly, virtue versus evil, etc) are later constructs and subject to myriad, ever-changing causes and conditions. Indeed, all phenomena arise, sustain, and end under a certain kind of law, which is neither good nor bad. Call it what you will: God, Brahman, Tao, the Big Mind, or just ``law''. (Buddhadasa commented on the intriguing similarity between the sound of the Sanskrit word for ``law'' and that of the English word ``god''.)

Even Lord Buddha accepted the everlasting presence of this universal ``order of nature''. ``Whether or not Tathagata [Buddha] will be born, the `law' has always been in place - that of impermanence, suffering, and non-self.''

But unlike the modern, scientific scheme of things, there is an element of compassion to be found. Objects do not exist simply to serve human.