Buddha Cariya “The 100th Anniversary of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu”
(Note: The year 2006 will be the centenary anniversary of The late Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. Many organizations, including the Buddhadasa Sukhsa Group, Sekiyadhamma group, Wongsanit Ashram, host a series of seminars on the Venerable’s masterpiece writings called “Dhammakosana Series”, containing more than 70 huge volumes on Buddhism. This paper summarizes the lecture by The Venerable Paisan Visalo in seminar on the Buddha Cariya, which is one of the series.)
Series of Lecture “The 100th Anniversary of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu”
Usually, dhamma teaching is quite abstract. Though it is very useful, may I remind, we should not forget the dhamma in forms of story. Stories, whether real or fiction, can inspire people to do good or to get some practical idea. Dhamma teaching, when too abstract, can communicate only at an intellectual level. On the contrary, when it comes in forms of legends or life stories, it is powerful, inspiring and impressive. Stories can also verbalize the inexplicable, concepts such as mind, nature, human nature, etc. can be understood through a process of personification.
Buddhadasa’s book “Buddha Cariya”, whether seen as a legend or historical fact, is always influential in that it provides a model or example to follow. I myself started reading Buddha Cariya a few months before the October 6th, 1976 student uprising against dictatorship and the resulting massacre. Although I adopted the Buddhist non-violent approach, I was caught between a rivalry of leftist and rightest ideologies. For the left wing, non-violence only delays the revolution, while the right is not much better in their practices against the opponent. Some part of the book talks about the Buddha who wins the heart of those with different ideas using compassion and non-violence. It inspires me. Normally, when we encounter people who think differently, we tend to see them as an enemy or rival. Moreover, if they attempt to challenge us, we get frustrated and angry. The late Buddhadasa put a strong emphasis that the Buddha never had a hostile attitude toward anyone, including those who intended to harm him.
In my own experience, I have been touched by many stories. One such story tells about four young girls competing in a race. Two runners take the lead leaving the other two behind. One of the first two accidentally stumbles. The other girl, instead of continuing, turns around and helps her. She could have won, if she went running on. Of course one of the two runners behind them wins the race. But the girl who helps her friend wins the heart of the people. She realizes that helping other is more important than victory, while others often perceive it the other way round. Preaching that helping other is good, that compassion and loving kindness is good, is not as powerful as telling stories. Stories make us feel that Dhamma is actually a daily matter.
Writing 32 years ago, Buddhadasa started the first part of Buddha Cariya with a question: What does the Buddha mean to people? The title “Buddha” has three meanings. Firstly, it means Buddha images or amulets, for the fool or the untrained. A step higher, the Buddha is a man in history, the Prince Siddhatha Gotama. The third level is the Buddha in its abstract meaning. It is not a person but rather attributes that make a person a Buddha, namely wisdom, compassion and purity. In this light, Buddha is not something remote. Any human being, after cultivating these attributes can become a Buddha. The Buddha himself said that, anyone who sees Dhamma or Paticcasamuppada, sees the Buddha. It means Dhamma is Buddha, and also means that the Buddha is not far from us, not the man who lives 2,500 years ahead of us.
What Buddha means or relates to us, according to Buddhadasa, can be summed up in three aspects:
Firstly, the Buddha is our friend in samsara. Before nibbana, he was our friend in samsara. After nibbaba he is still a good friend, showing us the way toward Lokuttaradhamma.
We normal people always see ourselves as “underwater lotus”, how can we reach Lokuttaradhamma. The Buddha said, everyone has a right to enlightenment. Stories in the Buddha’s time illustrate his word. The one who kills like Angulimala, who steals like Khujjutra, who is in extreme despair like Kisa Gotami, who is dull like Culapanthaka, who is greedy like Anathapindika’s son, all of them got enlightened at variety of levels. People of all kinds, even the one in the Buddha’s time who cut his own throat to commit suicide but in the last second could get enlightened. All stories encourage us that with effort and good friends, we, too, can be enlightened. So, the second aspect, the Buddha is our guide.
Thirdly, he is our teacher. He always urges us to pay attention to dhamma. He once expelled 500 young monks who were very naughty and noisy. But later he calls them back and teaches them. He then asks how Sariputra and Moggallana think of his action. Saribputra said, if the Buddha remains indifferent in this matter, he would also be indifferent, only practicing for his own happiness. But Moggallana said, if the Buddha remains indifferent, he and Sariputra will help sharing the Buddha’s burden. His answer is appreciated.
It is remarkable that nowadays many monks adopt the laissez-faire attitude like Sariputra when problems arise. But the Buddha has never agreed on such approach. Instead, he encourages his followers to take corrective actions.
The next part is what the Buddha means to himself. The main idea in this part of the book is that in fact, The Buddha is not any thing. Once there is a brahmin asking him who he is. Are you a deity, no. Are you a demon, no. Are you a man, no. Then, who are you?
To summarize The Buddha’s reply, he is not any thing because his kilesha that designates a deity, a demon or a man was all extinguished. And, he says, the brahmin can call him casually as “the Buddha.”
Almost everyone perceives oneself as something or another. Once such perception arises, birth (jati) occurs, followed by decay (jara), death (marana) and suffering (dukkha). In fact, it is not perception of “I” alone, but an attachment that comes along causes suffering. We can say that the Buddha overcomes the issue of identity because he does not attach to value to be anything, which is only conventional truth, not ultimate truth.
The next point is his relationship with other doctrine (titthiya) leaders. The Buddha’s teaching is simply one of numerous schools of doctrine in his time. Now in Siam, the word titthiya (pronounced in Thai as dirati) is a dirty word, which comparably means heresy or pagan. Buddhadasa emphasizes that in the time of the Buddha, the word does not imply any insult or discrimination. The Buddha’s attitude toward other religious leaders has never been adversarial. I think it is important to study the way that the Buddha relates himself to other faith communities, i.e. no hostility and no attacking response when engaging in dialogue. He only speaks of what he thinks and what the difference is. The Buddhist should learn and follow his example.
Then the book discusses on what the Buddha means to all beings. All beings here include trees, forest, animals, non-humans, and deities. Buddhadasa articulates that compassion of the Buddha is unlimited, without any exception.
Buddhadasa mentioned that the life story of the Buddha has two aspects, namely the physical and the spiritual. According to him, the “real” Buddha’s life story covers only 12 hours of time. It’s 12 hours, from 06:00 pm until 04:00 am, before attaining nibbana.
The majority of books on the life of the Buddha focus on his physical characteristics. While Buddhadasa points out that what is more crucial is instead the spiritual characteristics, that is the liberated mind or the void of self or sunyata. It is obvious that Buddhadasa tries to accentuate the abstract side. And the abstract characteristic has no limit to any particular person. That means, whoever assimilates such characteristics can become a Buddha. And that characteristic is also known as buddha gabha.
The next question is what the Buddha relates to his relatives. The Buddha puts that there are four kinds of relatives: relatives by blood, by familiarity, by work and by nature. The last one implies that we are relatives because all of us share the nature of birth, aging, decay and death.
The author includes a story of King Bimbisara. When Prince Ajatasatru and the chief monk Devadata’s plan of regicide fails, the king discusses the matter with his ministers. The first group of ministers advices him to execute the prince, the chief monk and the follower monks. The second group suggests to execute only the prince and the chief monk. The third group suggests no execution. What the king commands is to appropriate peerage of the first group, to demote the title of the second group and to promote the third group. It is remarkable. With common sense, the assassination must be paid with death. But the king, already attained a basic level of enlightenment, practices forgiveness and even punishes those who advise the death sentence. His response illustrates well a Buddhist attitude toward those who commit harm to us.
There are some miscellaneous stories that depict the relationship of the Buddha and the common people. One small story tells about a kid who wants to give alms to the Buddha. Having nothing, he pours sand into his bowl. This the Buddha allows.
At the end of the book, the Buddha is not anything to us, said Buddhadasa. I suppose he says this in order to shake us from attachment, and make us understand the reality. He argues that the idea of being this thing and that thing reflects attachment. Once the mind is liberated, it will feel not to be anything at all.
There is one interesting sutta that illustrates another approach of the Buddha. It’s Jora Sutta (teaching to the plunderer). Here the Buddha teaches that for plunderers to be prosperous, they should do no harm to those who cannot fight back, do no harm to women and girls, not plunder the ordained and state treasury, not rob completely but leave something to the owner, not plunder within one’s own vicinity, should be wise in savings and do some merit. It is remarkable that he employs the skillful means in teaching the plunderers. If he tells them to stop robbery, they would not listen. Instead, the Buddha’s advice is to reduce violence and to indirectly help them, e.g. by suggesting savings, which is more acceptable to them. The Buddha understands his audience, and knows how to approach them.
How could we apply his methodology in our time, e.g. in dealing with pharmaceutical transnational corporations? If we wish to enter their hearts, we need to get through their merit side. If we only reprimand them, they will create a wall against us. We should encourage them to do good things such as producing medicine the poor can afford. At the same time, in case of their abusive tactics such as excessive advertising to stimulate unnecessary consumption of medicine, we need to criticize them.
Some questions, the Buddha does not answer. The questions asked only out of curiosity, questions about metaphysics, and questions that are not beneficial to obtaining nibbana.
The Buddha’s approach is a holistic one. He sees a person as composed of threefold parts: body, heart and wisdom. For body, he teaches sila for normal relationships and behaviour, including consumption and lifestyle. For heart, he teaches quality of heart such as compassion, forgiveness, etc. which manifest also in behaviour and relationship. For wisdom, he gives many profound dhamma teachings such as trilakhana, etc.
In teaching Buddhism, teachers or monks may emphasize only one aspect. They may, for example, focus on meditation, but ignore wisdom, mindful consumption or simple lifestyle. Buddhist teachings for full development and to follow the example of the Buddha, must be in the holistic manner amid the community of good friends.