By CHRISTOPHER TITMUSS - August 30, 2017
This interview, conducted by Christopher Titmuss (www.christophertitmuss.net) in 1988 at Suan Mokkh, was originally published in Freedom of the Spirit (London, Green Print, 1991, pp. 68-75). This electronic edition was prepared by the Buddhadāsa Indapañño Archives in 2017 with the kind permission of the author.
In 1970, I went to visit Ven. Ajahn Buddhadāsa in his unfenced 250-acre forest monastery in Chaiya, Surat Thani Province, twelve hours on the train south of Bangkok, Thailand. I asked him a question about meaning and purpose in life. I remembered he laughed and then said, “If you really want to know, then you have to first understand that there is nothing whatsoever worth grasping onto in life, nothing worth clinging to.” He then took hold of his monk’s robe, which was draped across his left shoulder, pulled it off and said, “Not even this robe and the idea of being a monk is worth grasping.” He then called a novice over to take me to a hut deep in the forest and told me to reflect on what he had said.
Ven. Ajahn Buddhadāsa (ajahn means “teacher” and Buddhadāsa means “servant of the Buddha”) was ordained in 1926 when he was 20 and chose to live in a forest several miles from the present monastery. He engaged in both meditation and personal study of the talks of the Buddha recorded in the Pāli Canon, which amounts to some twenty volumes. For the most part, it was a very solitary life. He once told me that his only teacher and friend was the Buddha.
Nearly fifty years ago, he moved to another forest which was only accessible by a dirt track and was several miles from the nearest village. The people in the villages provided him a hut, and each morning he would receive rice, coconut, and vegetables from the homes of the farmers not far away.
As time went by, word got around about this solitary monk of Thai-Chinese origin living in the forest. Other monks came and requested permission from Ven. Buddhadāsa to live near him in the forest. Nuns also came, so more huts were built. Lay people, first from the immediate area and then from all over the country, began to visit him. People began to record his talks which touched on every conceivable aspect of Dharma, the teachings that deal with human existence. As the years went by, his discourses were transcribed into countless numbers of books. Some of them were translated into English, including Handbook for Mankind, Heart-Wood from the Bo Tree, Towards the Truth, Mindfulness of Breathing and Why Were We Born?
By the late 1980s, the number of visitors to Suan Mokkh Monastery had reached a staggering 300,000 per year, as coachloads of pilgrims visited the monastery, having travelled on the new trunk road just outside the forest. The number of huts for the monks had risen to more than a hundred, and a huge spiritual theatre hall and concrete ark had been built for the pilgrims to learn Dharma on their visits. On a 50-acre nearby site, a cloistered international meditation centre and a centre for inter-religious understanding is being built.
Meanwhile, Ven. Buddhadāsa, Thailand's foremost religious speaker, poet, and teacher continues to reside in the same spot as he did when he first arrived in the forest in the early 1940s. His hut has been replaced by a concrete building for him to receive guests. The Dalai Lama has paid him several visits.
In a traditional society like Thailand, Ven. Buddhadāsa has always been regarded as both radical and controversial, although a number of us who have lived with him in the forest regard his teachings as a valid inheritance of the Buddha’s message. He has never permitted a temple to be built in the forest.
If the ultimate truth returns, the world will be bright; if it doesn’t return, the world is dark. But now the darkness has become ordinary.
The more incense and candles lit, the more it becomes superstition; at best, it’s Buddhism for thumbsucking kids.
The more material progress, the more insanity with the material; the more insane, the more believing its progress.
The heart of Buddhism is on page one of the Bible.
Fools say that only time eats us and that we can’t eat time.
Buddha can be anyone who awakens.
When I arrived at Wat Suan Mokkh, it was 6.45 a.m. The dawn had just broken through. Outside the room of Ajahn Buddhadāsa were a party of some seventy college students seated on the ground. The Ajahn was seated cross-legged on a concrete bench talking to the students about education. He continues to sit there and talk as the people continue to come every day. He is 82 years old. A servant of the Buddha.
Christopher Titmuss: What is the essence of Dharma?
Ajahn Buddhadāsa: When we speak of Dharma, we speak of three things: natural phenomena, the law of nature, and duty in accordance with the law of nature. Duty means taking the responsibility to solve the problems of life. It means engaging in right conduct to solve all problems of living.
CT: If a person is experiencing suffering or is faced with problems, what must he or she consider in order to engage in right conduct?
AjB: Right conduct is to find out the cause of the suffering. This is the duty of each person. This duty must be practised in accordance with the law of nature. Even the planet suffers the effect of impermanence, the effect that everything is changing all the time, and so everything has to be regarded as not self, as only nature. The concept of self is instinctive. Living beings have the instinct of self within.
CT: This instinct of self is so strong that it seems very difficult to see through.
AjB: Instinct deceives humanity into believing that it has a real self. When instinct no longer deceives, then the concept of self has no reality in the mind. A different kind of knowledge is then present in the mind. We can change from suffering to awakening. The instinct is neutral but it easily becomes defiled.
CT: Do we need to follow a gradual path of changing ourselves, from being trapped in harmful and destructive instincts to enlightenment?
AjB: It can happen suddenly.
CT: In spiritual teachings, there is often an emphasis that desire and craving is the cause of suffering. In Western analysis, causes for human suffering are often regarded as political, social, and economic. These are two different ways of understanding suffering.
AjB: We have to know blind wanting. If the wanting is not blind but is simply to provide and sustain the basic requisites for life, then it is not desire. This unenlightened ignorance creates desire and suffering. Desire for more and more gives birth to the concept of “self” – “I” want, “I” have. The “I” is blind wanting. Blindness wants. Ignorance wants. Ignorance wants more of itself. We have to be clear that it is this ignorance that wants all these things too, even Nirvana.
CT: What do you think of social, political, and economic wanting?
AjB: Right wanting does not lead to selfishness.
CT: There are a growing number of people who are unhappy with property, power, and possessions, but they cannot see an alternative to that. They are also unhappy with religion.
AjB: The question “what is religion?” is an important one. I like to use an old definition of religion. Religion is observation and right conduct in order to bind a human being to the supreme thing. The supreme thing can be described as God or Nirvana. But now religion is full of ceremony and superstition; it is the religion of the fool, so it is not true religion. True religion is the same everywhere. In Christianity, there is an important sentence at the beginning of the Bible. We must not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That means we must not attach to good and evil and discriminate in that way. There is this very high level of teaching in Christianity, but today Christianity has forgotten that instruction.
CT: I first came to see you eighteen years ago and initially spent two or three weeks here. I said to you that I wanted to become a monk and you said, “Anybody who changes their religion does so because they haven’t understood their own.” Would you still say the same?
AjB: The desire to change one’s religion is ignorance at work. By means of wisdom, one will change oneself. Follow the steps of spiritual training of virtuous action, meditation, and wisdom. This is called sikkhā in the Pāli language. It means look inside, see inside, and know inside. It is to know yourself within, to know what is what. It is to know this “I” and to know what this problem of “I” is, the problems of life. The true contentment is realizing that “self” is truly “not self.” “Self” is “not-self” already.
CT: This faith and wisdom you speak of seems to be of a different order. Often in religion, faith seems to be directed towards a God out there, or it is faith in the guru, or a methodology. What you seem to be saying is that faith is present when we look within.
AjB: Yes. Faith inside – look inside, see inside, know inside, know what is simply mental, emotional, physical activity and know it as just that. See into unwholesome activities of the mind. See into the suffering.
CT: Faith and sikkhā contribute to wisdom?
AjB: When we see and know what is what, then there is wisdom. Wisdom is to know things directly and to know what to do and what not to do. What is especially important is to know this elusive “self.” The “self” is not to be regarded as a real “self.” Only ignorance makes it seem to be a real “self.” There is only body-mind and observation at work, and any aspect of the human process can do its duty without “self,” without “I.” There is no need to believe in “self” or have a “self.” Every aspect of mind-body is not “self,” not “I.” But this is not nihilism.
CT: Does love and compassion come naturally when every aspect of life is seen to be void of “self”?
AjB: You have to know that even in love and compassion there can be “self.” There is the “self” who is the giver and there is the “self” of the receiver. There may be love and compassion, but this is not the supreme instruction, not the supreme thing. Love and compassion alone does not give emancipation or liberation. This was taught in India before the time of the Buddha. In love, there is a small scale “self.”
CT: You have lived in this same spot for nearly fifty years. There was only the forest when you came. And today this enormous monastery without walls has built up around you while you have been sitting here. Why do you choose to give your life and your time to receiving countless numbers of people and teaching them Dharma? What allows you to do this? You could have gone into the forest and never seen anybody. You could have lived as a recluse, but you have chosen to live and welcome all these people.
AjB: By means of wisdom. Not by means of attachment to “self.” It is to know what to do and what not to do.
CT: But couldn’t some other monk say, “By means of wisdom I choose to live in solitude.” Your life has been very available for people to come to see you.
AjB: It’s convenience only. [Laughing.] Some friends or some people come for some instruction.
CT: Isn’t that love and compassion?
AjB: One does not have to attach oneself to love and compassion. There is simply duty through wisdom.
CT: One of the criticisms of Buddhism is that we can spend so much time engaged in looking within that we forget about nuclear bombs, we forget about the destruction of the rainforests and poverty and pain elsewhere.
AjB: If we do not see the reality of the mind-body then we cannot stop false and harmful views, harmful thinking, and ignorance. We then cannot know the right way of living. We become too much attached to good and evil. Don’t use the word “detached.” To be detached is another kind of attachment. This only makes a new problem.
CT: Yes. I can understand that.
At the present time there is a lot of discussion between people of different religions. What does Buddhism have to learn from Christianity, and do you think that Christianity can learn from Buddhism?
AjB: Both can learn from each other to discover mutual understanding. I learnt the utmost important principle from one single sentence in the Book of Genesis: God commanded the couple not to eat of the Tree of Good and Evil. That sentence is the essence and heart of Buddhism. That means not to be enslaved by the value given to good and evil. It is to go beyond the influence of good and evil, beyond positivism and negativism and thus be free and emancipated. That is the heart of Buddhism. Christians did not understand this. They became attached to the instruction of Jesus Christ to love one another. Owing to attachment to good and evil, selfishness occurs. We give up selfishness by not being attached to good and evil. Then in the end of this attachment, we love others automatically.
CT: Some people might say, for example, that the work to save the rainforest, the work to save animals from the laboratories, the work to help people’s struggle for peace and justice is doing good as opposed to evil.
AjB: If they are attached to doing good, they have not realised that ultimately there really is not good nor evil, only suchness. Out of wisdom comes action where events are not interpreted as good and bad. First, be beyond good and bad.
CT: Let me give one example where wisdom and action is required. At the present time in Thailand, there is the possibility of a huge dam being built. The authorities say the dam will provide electricity to many people, but the protestors say that the dam will destroy thousands of acres of forest. This seems to be an issue of right conduct. What is your response? Do we have a dam or do we protect the rainforest?
AjB: Not correct. This is surplus knowledge.
CT: Surplus knowledge?
AjB: Material progress will destroy everything. They think they are doing good, but it is selfishness of human beings. Selfishness destroys sentient beings, through the support of ignorance. The problem is inside, so that is where we have to look. The selfishness, the suffering, the cause of suffering, and the cessation of it is within.
CT: What do you see in contemporary society as the role of the monk or nun?
AjB: Their role is to be an example of living a life beyond all problems so that others will look within and live in the same way. Selfishness in the world is to be destroyed, otherwise the world will be destroyed. Now selfishness rules the world.
CT: How do you feel about the destruction that is happening on the earth?
AjB: No need to be unhappy or happy. We do our duty by means of wisdom and abide in suchness, not in good and evil, not in positive and negative thinking. To help our friends in the whole world to know the Dharma is to direct them beyond the influence in the world of positive and negative. So that our friends have a free life, an emancipated life, a liberated life. May all our friends in the world know this.
CT: These days I travel extensively giving Dharma teachings. I feel grateful to you for your teachings. For many years, you have emphasised seeing through “I,” “me,” and “mine” and the discovery of suchness.
AjB: To be beyond the influence of positive and negative, we have to be void of “self.” We must know the concept of “self.” To see “self” is to know that it is not a real thing but a concept. We come from the mother’s womb. After that, the senses make contact with this or that and then the wanting takes place in the mind, which is positive or negative. This takes place more and more and more. Then the “I” arises; this delusive appearance is believed to be more than a concept. The emancipated mind is emancipated from this delusion of the reality of “self.” “I” is not a real thing; the “I” is only language. Even the Buddha uses the concept “I” or “he” or “she” but without attachment to giving any meaning to the term. The concept is used just to speak with people in the street because that is the language used. It is to make sense of speaking and thinking.
CT: What is the difference between the two? The “I” arises when speaking and the “I” arises when thinking.
AjB: [People] language is for the person who has “self” and [Dharma] language is for the person who knows “not-self.” Spiritual teachings need to be in harmony with natural truth. I prefer to see Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions as a natural truth to serve sentient beings, to solve the problems of suffering through not being under the control of positivism and negativism.
CT: Can I make a small suggestion? Could the title of your book Handbook for Mankind be changed to Handbook for Humankind? In the West now, we do not use the word “mankind” much at all. We are all human beings.
AjB: Is human being better than sentient being? [Laughing.]
CT: We have forgotten we are human beings and we have become human havings and human wantings.
Ajahn Buddhadāsa: Then we are not yet human beings, not yet human. We have the wrong system of education in this nation and in the whole world. Education only teaches young people to be clever. They learn knowledge in order to command cleverness, cleverness in selfishness. The teachers cannot govern their own cleverness. The world will be destroyed by cleverness. Teach them to know selfishness, the demon, the satan of human life. It is peculiar that the human world has much more selfishness than the animal world. It is rather funny. We say we are civilised; we are always saying we are more civilised than animals, but we have much more selfishness. Teach there is “not-self” so that there is “not-selfishness.”
Christopher Titmuss: Thank you, Ajahn.
Photograph: "Christopher Titmuss with Ajahn Buddhadāsa" taken on 4 February 1992 at Suan Mokkh, from the collection of the Buddhadāsa Indapañño Archives (Ref. S-324)