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Buddhadasa Bhikkhu 100 YEARS ON

Story by Vasana Chinvarakorn, Bangkok Post, May 28, 2006

The work of the monk who built Suan Mokkh continues

Suan Mokh, Thailand -- The fine, greyish-white powder hung briefly in the air before descending into the cooling stream below. Thus were the ashes of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu returned to the embrace of mother nature, as he had specifically dictated in his will.

Thirteen years later, the spot remains as unassuming as ever. Buried deep in the jungle, the area is unmarked. There are no signs, no ostentatious display to indicate that it once played host to an historic event. Trees continue to grow and die, and in their places, new shoots spring forth. Wild elephants and other creatures still roam the National Park of Khao Sok, the origin of the Tapee River that serves the entire province of Surat Thani.

Buddhadasa chose this pristine forest as one of the three landmarks where his ashes were to be sprinkled. The other two, Khao Prasong and just off Koh Samui in the Ang Thong National Marine Park, are also located along or near the southern coast of Chaiya, his hometown.

What could have passed through the monk's mind as he made the request, a couple of months before his final departure? What could his disciples be thinking of as they trudged up the steep hills, or ventured out into the vast sea, to bid a last farewell to their teacher, one who chose to call himself the "servant of Buddha"?

"My coffin is the good deeds I have done in this world through propagating dharma; The graveyard for me is the rightful things I have done for the benefit of fellow humans; I would like to invite you all to follow the same rule: That our coffins are the good deeds we have done for the world; That our graveyards are the rightful things we have done for the benefit of our fellow humans."

With simple, but unwavering conviction, Buddhadasa spent 67 years in the robe following that very axiom. He built Suan Mokkh from scratch, the forest monastery now renowned for its meditation retreats by both Thais and foreigners. His numerous works have been studied, translated and reprinted probably more than any other Thai writer. His attempts at inter-faith dialogues have been commended as visionary; his warning of the danger of materialism as being far-sighted. And Buddhadasa's repeated urging to other Buddhists to seek the essence of their own religion has proved as relevant as ever to the present society.

Claiming no supernatural prowess, the late monk has been continuously revered far and wide. This year will see a wide range of activities to celebrate the centenary of his birth yesterday. Buddhadasa's name is already on Unesco's shortlist of people who have made lasting contributions to the world. Lectures are being held, more books, both about and by him are being published, statues sculpted, commemorative stamps issued and visits made to the places known to have been tied to the reformist monk.

Make one such "pilgrimage" and one can see the transience of life, though. The house where little Ngerm (Buddhadasa's lay name) was born has long since been sold and rebuilt. The house he grew up in now belongs to a distant relative, and only the upper floor still retains its original structure, dating back almost a century.

The same happened to his old school. For a while it was turned into a government office; now it is empty, run-down and counting its days. The temple where he was ordained has long been abandoned; only the main hall survives. The old Suan Mokkh, about 14km away from the present one, has shrunk by almost one-third of its original size. Some villagers have encroached on the land, turning part of it into shrimp ponds. At least a huge, ancient yang tree has been spared: It was reportedly here that Buddhadasa once greeted an acting Supreme Patriarch, one of the few senior monks who expressly lent support to the progressive-minded monk.

Where can one find the true spirit of Buddhadasa? What did he mean when he said, often in his later years, that "Buddhadasa still lives on, never to die"?

Surprisingly, Suan Mokkh has escaped largely unscathed over the years. It is as if the forest monastery has been trapped in a time capsule. Stepping through the main gate, where no cars are allowed, one leaves behind the bustling world of commerce, the rat race and the daily foibles of modern life.

Here the calm, resonant voice of Buddhadasa, on his dharma cassettes, can still be heard, played to an assembly of monks and lay people congregating in the crescent-shaped stone court. The intricately carved Avalokiteshvara statue stands undisturbed, amid other Indian-style stone sculptures Buddhadasa had made, following his visit there in 1955. The Spiritual Entertainment Hall, an innovation of his, maintains its collection of enigmatic Zen and other paintings imbued with spiritual messages. Also undisturbed are the "Beauty Queen" pavilion, that boasts three skeletons of a former pageant winner, a man and a child, and the Phutthong Hill with its unique open-air hall where "trees serve as walls, the earth as tiles and the sky as a roof".

An effort has been made to keep the founder's initiatives as they would have appeared decades ago. The lone coconut tree, on the islet in the famous Nalike pond, is one such example. Phra Singthong Khemiko, Buddhadasa's close aide, said the present tree was planted in place of its predecessors which had duly reached their time and died. In the well-known lullaby that inspired Buddhadasa to have the pond dug, the singular coconut can stay aloof, free from the "rains and thunders", the ups and downs of life. The tree is thus a symbol of nirvana, the land of no death. To actually reach the shore of liberation is another matter.

On another plane of being, the ability of the current administration at Suan Mokkh to adapt to new contexts is worth exploring. Phra Singthong said Acharn Pho, the abbot, is remarkable for his modest demeanour. He continues to lead a frugal life in pursuit of his master's "lowly living, noble doing" maxim. Offers of money and other valuables by the devout have been steadfastly spurned. Since Buddhadasa's passing, Acharn Pho declines to ordain any new monks. At the moment, Suan Mokkh has about 40 to 50 monks in residence, but the number can rise to up to 100 during Buddhist "Lent".

According to Phra Singthong, the abbot seeks to "build more humans than monks" - each year thousands of members of the public, both local and from overseas, have been through the retreat programmes run at another branch of Suan Mokkh, on the other side of the road.

And there have been new efforts to extend the life of Buddhadasa's teachings. Phra Manop Manito has recently led a month-long intensive training session for young novices. Boys in their teens, from rural and urban areas, have been recruited to spend time together, learning how to live in harmony and with respect to nature.

"We call them Yuwa-Phutthatat [Young Buddhadasa]. After the programme, I have learned of several remarkable cases of change. Some parents came back to tell me how their children are no longer addicted to computer games, snacks and air-conditioning. It confirms my belief that Lord Buddha's regime can indeed transform people.

"I'm trying to do a follow-up project to see what happens to these boys over the next year, how long can they withstand the influx of materialism, peer pressure, and so on."

In parallel to the training of novices was a similarly month-long camp for young girls held in April. Dr Sermsap Damrongrat has been running the programme as a special project for the Dharma-Mata retreat centre for women, an idea espoused by Buddhadasa when he was alive.

"You could say it is his last legacy for us," said Sermsap. "He would like women to have a place to practise dharma, to reap the fruits of Buddhism. When women have dharma, he often said, the whole world will have dharma too."

Buddhadasa's teachings are not restricted to temples. Aroon Srisuwan, a retired member of staff at the Khao Sok National Park, said Buddhadasa's choice of the forest as a place to keep his ashes could be considered a "blessing" to life here. The presence of relics respected by the villagers has somehow stopped further exploitation of the area.

It is now considered one of the most fertile in the whole country.

The old man still recalled the day, on October 17, 1993, when Buddhadasa's ashes were carried up the Khao Sok hills. Scores of locals, young and old, swarmed over the area just downstream from the ceremonial raft. Each wanted to save some of the monk's remains for personal worship at home.

"One managed to get a piece of bone," Aroon said. "A few others got some of the ashes. Most just collected the water from the stream, believing it to be holy.

"But most important of all is what he taught us: To be self-reliant, to respect and learn from nature, to eat simply, to live simply. I myself have kept a bottle of the water from that day, as a reminder of his virtues, a teacher whose footsteps I try to follow."

This article is based on a recent trip organised by Sathira Dhammasatan on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.

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