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By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
Even though I slept twelve hours both Monday and Tuesday nights, I still felt sick on Wednesday, so I started taking the anti-biotics my family doctor back home had prescribed for me to take along.
I had learned from experience. Travelling is hard on my body. The previous year I had gotten sick with flu-like symptoms on my last day in Thailand. That trip had been only two weeks long, so I had decided that I would come prepared for two months away from home in a land where all sorts of different bugs might be entering my system. Within a couple of hours I began feeling better—not great but better.
I felt good enough to drag myself a block down Thanon Lamphun, which ran along side the Mae Ping River, to a coffee shop called Motto where a Nong Bua Sam member, whose nickname was Fon, was a manager. The anti-biotics plus the caffeine in an iced coffee woke me up enough to sit out on their porch and finish the book Bikkhu Buddha Dhatu had given me in the train station in Bangkok.
Much of the book, as it turned out, was critical of many monks whom my bikkhu (monk) friend charged with being lax and not adhering strictly to the 227 rules which members of Sangha (monastic community) promise to keep when ordained. His critique was interesting, but it didn’t answer many of the questions I had about Buddhism in general and meditation in particular.
So, with my energy coming back, the next day I flagged down a tuk tuk which took me to the Suriwong Book Center where I scanned the English book section for answers to my questions. What I was looking for, I thought, was a book on the different kinds of Buddhist meditation—sitting, standing, walking—but I couldn’t find any that looked good.
Now, it might sound strange for a Christian to say that the Holy Spirit helped me pick out the book I did. I’m not sure what attracted me to it, the title maybe or the face of the monk on the cover, but the book I picked out from the twenty or so English titles on the shelves was Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha’s Teaching on Voidness by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.
I say that the choice was inspired, because when I would tell Thai Buddhists that I was reading Buddhadasa, they universally approved of my choice and all agreed that he was one of the most respected, controversial and influential Thai teachers in the Twentieth Century. I also felt kind of led to the book, because even though it said almost nothing about meditation, it confronted with a Buddhist concept with which I needed to wrestle—voidness or emptiness.
Not knowing for sure what I had in my hand at that moment, I climbed down the stairs from the book center to street level, bought an iced coffee from the Wawee Coffee Shop, sat at a table under a tree on the sidewalk and started to read what the famous bhikkhu had to say.
Already in the foreword to the English edition, which was written by a farang, I knew I had something important in my hands. Whereas my monk friend in the Bangkok train station, Bikkhu Buddha Dhatu, focused on reforming the practice of Buddhism, Buddhadasa Bhikkuhu’s goal was to cut through all of the cultural accretions which had collected over 2556 years and get back to the core of the Buddha’s teaching—sunnata.
In the preface the translator, Santikaro Bhikkhu, described the context for Buddhadasa’s attempt to return to pure teaching or dhamma,
For the masses, moral teachings based on ancient—and not particularly Buddhist—beliefs about karma, rebirth, merit, heaven, and hell were considered appropriate and sufficient. Thus, the most profound teachings of the Buddha were left out of public discourse. . . .The Dhamma of this word had been lost. (pp. xvi-xvii)
Already on page four, I could see why Buddhadasa was criticized by many “mainline Buddhists” as an iconoclast. I read,
To call something “a fundamental principle of Buddhism” is only correct if, first, it is a principle that aims at the quenching of dukkha (pain, misery, suffering) and, second, it has a logic that one can see for oneself without having to believe others. (p. 4)
“Therefore,” he declared, “the whole question of rebirth [i.e. reincarnation] is quite foolish and has nothing to do with Buddhism at all.”
“The Buddhist teachings aim to inform us,” he continued, “that there is no person who is a self or belongs to a self.”
And just to make sure that this farang, whose dictionary at home (Random House College Dictionary) has 134 words listed with self as a prefix, got the point, the bhikkhu stated, “The sense of self is only the false understanding of the ignorant mind. . . .The matter of ‘I’ and ‘mine,” ego and selfishness is the single essential issue of Buddhism.” (p. 5)
I was beginning to understand—I should have realized that whenever I think I understand something in Thailand I’m at the door of trouble--that the core of Buddhist teaching was sunnata (sun atta, i.e. void of self). And, I thought to myself—pun intended—that this is looking at “reality” through a lens with which I’m not familiar.
For the last month I had been having internal debates with Bikkhu Buddha Dhatu about his assertion that all religions are the same. I only had to read through page fourteen to discover that Buddhadasa was my side of this particular issue. He wrote, “The difference between other creeds and Buddhism is that when they eradicated those feelings [self-centeredness, greed, hatred, delusion], they called what remained the ‘True Self,’ the ‘Pure Atman,’ the ‘Person.’” (pp. 13-14)
“I knew it,” I said to myself somewhat triumphantly. “All those liberal Parliament of World Religion types back home along with my monk friend are simply projecting their tolerant, simplistic world view on a reality that is complicated, diverse and often inscrutable.”
Then I thought about what I had read a few pages before—Buddhadasa’s contention that a concept can only qualify as a fundamental principle if it has “a logic that one can see for oneself”—and I said to myself(pun again intended), “This wise, good man is operating under the illusion that he or anyone else can see ‘reality’ as it is. That people can somehow rid themselves of all religious and cultural lenses and see things, at last, as they really are.”
For a minute or so, I felt like I was smarter than the highly respected monk I was reading.
The irony of my arrogance eventually dawned on me and put me in my place. I had chosen to deal with the suffering caused by whatever bug it was which was attacking my body with antibiotics, sleep and caffeine—a very Western response. And this, I had reasoned, was what gave me enough freedom from my suffering to wrestle with the elusive, difficult concept of sunnata. I realized that I was trying to read Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree through Western eye glasses, to grasp Buddhist concepts with Christian lenses.
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