|Midwestern Dhamma Refuge
grounded in contemplative practice
for a peaceful, just, & sustainable society
by Santikaro Bhikkhu
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This article was written in 1988, for Monastic Studies, a Catholic journal. Since then, Ajahn Buddhadasa has died & others have taken over leadership of the monastery he founded in 1932. There are some new directions, and the style is somewhat different, though it is still a fine place where many come to learn about & practice the Dhamma. Closer to mainstream Thai Buddhism than in the past, and with less attention to Ajahn Buddhadasa's reformist legacy, the ideals described below nonetheless still are valid & continue to motivate those who seek liberation through non-attachment to "I" & "mine."
1 Originally appeared in Monastic Studies (No. 18, Christmas 1988), The Benedictine Priory of Montreal, Montreal, Quebec. First electronic edition with kind permission.
This is written from Suan Mokkh, a forest Wat located near the bulge on the upper Malay Peninsula that is the heart of Southern Thailand. The Gulf of Siam is not far away. From the red sandstone cliffs of Nang E Hill at the back of the Wat, the ocean and its tourist-catering islands are easily visible beyond a swamp, rice fields, and coconut palm groves. When the wind is right, the ocean breezes cool us; sometimes they sweep dark rain clouds down upon us. The Asia Highway runs past our door, north to Bangkok and south to Singapore. Houses spread up and down along it, forming a loose village most of which grew up after the Wat. All around are small rubber plantings, the dominant economic activity in the area. Suan Mokkh moved here around 1940 after its first site was outgrown. Two kilometers across the highway, screened by two limestone hills, forty acres of coconut groves are being developed into an international retreat center. The main site, less land given for a school and a Boy Scout camp, covers 120 acres.
2 Bhikkhu (Pali) means "beggar" and was one generic term for mendicants in India at the Buddha's time. It also means "one who sees the fearsomeness and danger" of ordinary worldly existence with its constant ego-birth and -death. It is often translated by "monk," although originally more like the wandering friar than the settled cloistered monk. The female counterpart, called "bhikkhuni," no longer exists in Southeast Asia; however, a movement to re-establish the lineage has been developing.
A Wat is a residence for bhikkhus. Bhikkhus are men who have left home to take up the religious life within the teaching and training of the Lord Buddha. Our Wat, centered on Golden Buddha Hill, is officially known as "Wat Tarn Nam Lai," named after the "flowing stream" that runs down from Nang E Hill, which existed before Suan Mokkh came. The name Suan Mokkh can apply to the physical place also, and that is how most people understand it. Properly, it refers more to a place or state of mind that has realized the spiritual goal. The full name is Suan Mokkhabalarama, meaning "The Grove of the Powers of Liberation," which points to the heart of spiritual inquiry and practice: liberation from ignorance, selfishness, and misery. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu founded Suan Mokkh with the help of his younger brother and some of their friends in 1932 at a site about eight kilometers from here. He continues to head the community at the age of 85. Although much of Suan Mokkh's importance and uniqueness is due to the talents, inspiration, and controversy of its founder, this article will focus more on the community and the place itself.
3 Buddhadasa means "Servant of the Buddha." He took this name just before starting Suan Mokkh and prefers it over later titles and honors. Out of respect we usually call him "Ajarn Buddhadasa"; ajahn (Thai) means "teacher, master." His brother, who took the name Dhammadasa, still leads the Dhammadana Foundation, which supports Suan Mokkh and handles its business affairs. For more information on Ajahn Buddhadasa's life and work see The Life and Work of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a video documentary produced by the Foundation for Children, Bangkok, 1987; and a growing number of translations by this writer and others.
My understanding of Buddhism and Suan Mokkh is far from complete. I am just beginning to fathom the things I try to describe here. I have lived here only three and a half years and do not have direct experience of its early years. Further, I am a farang (foreigner of European descent). Although I came here after four years of service in the U.S. Peace Corps, which gave me a good start toward comprehending Thai language and culture, as well as time to adjust to subtropical weather and painfully spicy food, a farang never completely blends into Thai contexts. My perspectives and appraisals are likely to differ from those of my Thai Dhamma comrades, especially those of older generations.
The Buddha taught about Dhamma, rather than gods or a God.  He didn't describe the Supreme Thing, ultimate truth, the fundamental nature of everything, or whatever we might call it, in personal or anthropomorphic terms. Dhamma is an ancient Indian word of great importance and vitality still. The meanings of this word Dhamma are rich and many. For a start, Suan Mokkh emphasizes four primary meanings:
4 Dhamma is Pali spelling. Dharma is Sanskrit. It is variously defined and used in different traditions, schools, and sects.
- Nature (all reality and all things)
- Natural law (the law of conditionality, everything happens dependent on causes and conditions)
- Duty according to natural law (the duty of human beings at every step, stage, and moment of their living)
- Fruit from that duty (practiced in line with natural law).
If we wish, we can say also that Dhamma is the "Buddhist God," a non-personal god, neither mind nor body, is Truth, is The Law. A Buddha merely discovers the Dhamma, nothing can create or effect it. Through a thorough understanding of Dhamma, the Buddha came to the realization that is the highest potential of humanity, the fruit of duty done perfectly - that is, selflessly - the end of all misery and suffering. He then honored and worshipped only this Dhamma. Those who follow the Buddha's path must do their best to penetrate through their own experience to the heart of Dhamma. A good way to begin is to live close to nature.
Strictly speaking, everything is natural, is part of nature. But somehow the naturalness of asphalt, concrete, polyester, and air-conditioning do not awaken the heart in the same way that trees, termites, rain clouds, and mud can. If we are able, we try to live in an environment that brings us close to natural things, where man does not dominate leaving the stamp of his designs and desires, where natural forces work unimpeded, where natural laws reveal themselves easily to the patient and quiet observer.
Suan Mokkh is the first forest Wat in modern Southern Thailand. Trees and vines are everywhere, not planted; beautiful, fresh, surprising. They were here first, then the Wat with its structures fit in and around. It is a privilege to live among trees, rocks, streams, mouse deer, langur, and gibbons, birds singing unseen and suddenly flashing color-movement, snakes harmless and deadly, and untold insects (three inch grasshopper plops onto typewriter and springs off). In the old days, tigers and leopards used to come down when hungry to eat a dog. The privilege becomes poignant as I read how the world's forests are dying of poison, pillage, and war, or remember the chain-saws shrieking just across the Wat's fence my first year here.
I'm typing at a hut in the back of the Wat, one of about forty spaced 20 to 30 meters apart. I type mainly at night by kerosene lantern. Remnants of the afternoon rain drip from the tree leaves, various cicadas chirp and hum in their chosen crescendos, termites migrate (do they mimic big city commuters or vice versa?), the fading moon rises. Looking up from the keyboard there is darkness, tree shapes, shadows, everyone's home. Regularly, I go down from this porch (the hut is raised four feet off the ground) to tend a fire and pour its water for tea or to pace barefoot on the red sandy soil laid bare around the hut, attending to my breath as a kind of walking meditation. Other times, when there is light, I walk around, stand, stoop, to observe vine shoots, ferns, mushrooms, mosses, chameleons, puddles, and the geopolitics of various ant races. Events, transformations, patterns, cycles gently manifest to the heart that seeks to be at peace with nature. In human society we live in the complex world of language, ideas, beliefs, culture. But this more simple, this ego-less world, is for us to live in, too. Here are constant resources for reflection and contemplation about life, its meaning and purpose, the ways of living, peace. Am I worthy of this seventy foot tree? Will I listen to its Dhamma? What do this pair of thrush teach through their nest building on the porch? Who is the ancient monitor lizard basking regally in the sun?
To live our lives in peace with other people we must learn to dwell in natural silence. For only through an understanding of silence can we survive in the complex language worlds of human relationships, not getting lost and remaining sane, whole, healthy, unselfish. With trees we can easily enter a much freer dialogue where everything is open, where there are no games to put on, and each expression of Dhamma - including us - can be what it must be and do at that moment. Trees teach us how to look at each other without fear, desire, envy, conflict.
The woods and these little huts are ideal places for meditation. In the Buddha's time, the Bhikkhus were wanderers who settled down only for the three months of the rainy season. Generally, they stayed in the countryside and woods, not too near villages and towns. Such wandering is more difficult now; "civilization" takes up all the space. So we gather into monastic communities. Still, always, we must look into our own hearts and learn there the Dhamma, the truth of our lives and duties. At Suan Mokkh we use a system of meditation taught and practiced by the Lord Buddha both before and after his enlightenment. It is called Mindfulness with Breathing (anapanasati). The breath too is natural. It is soothing and vital with many lessons for revealing the secrets of life. No need for words and theories. Just learn from life itself, within ourselves.
5 For details see Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Mindfulness With Breathing: Unveiling the Secrets of Life, Bangkok, 1988. New edition published in the USA by Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1996.
Any large monastery must have a certain number of communal buildings, especially any center that is dedicated, as Suan Mokkh is, to teaching large numbers of visitors, lay and religious. Such buildings have been built out of necessity, in as functional and economical way as possible. Although some are a bit eccentric, they fit in with the forest, each giving space to the other. But whenever possible, no structure was built and nature's gifts used instead. The best example of this is our "temple" (uposatha), a consecrated area necessary in any full-fledged Wat. In Bangkok, the temples are rich, ornate, glittery buildings. At Suan Mokkh it is a hill scattered with rocks, with trees for pillars and the sky for the ceiling. A layer of sand was only recently added, as was the lone Buddha image, made for our fiftieth anniversary. It is washed by rain, cooled by the wind, and decorated by ceaselessly falling leaves. Lizards come and go as they please.
Suan Mokkh's main lecture hall is the slope leading from the gate to the base of Golden Buddha Hill with the temple on its top. Rocks have been moved, collected, and stacked to create a terrace - rimmed by a long curved seat for the monks - that acts as a "stage." As the auditorium spreads down the slope, boulders, benches, and bare sand provide seating space for thousands, although audiences usually range from a few dozen to a few hundred. The trees provide shade, background harmony, showers of leaves, towers for lights and electrical wires, and playgrounds for birds, monkeys, squirrels, and the cicadas that often compete with the sound system. Then, scattered throughout the Wat are clearings, circles of gathered boulders, nooks and crannies where we can chat, read, rest, meditate, and try to understand nature's law and our duty within it.
Visitors usually find Ajahn Buddhadasa sitting on a bench in front of his residence. He is surrounded by plants, potted and wild, and by lotus ponds. Guests are invited to take another bench and, if willing, engage in a discussion of Dhamma. Chickens, cats, and dogs wander in and out, no more the owners of the place than anyone. Ajahn Buddhadasa is aware of the contrast with those Wats and religious residences where more emphasis is put on ceremony, material splendor, and physical comfort than on the simplicity, poverty, and message of the great teachers in all traditions. Sometimes he teases the experts from the government, United Nations, and so-called charity organizations who meet in fancy hotels and air-conditioned halls to discuss the problem of the poor. Only strong rains chase his discussions here under a roof, but not so far as to go indoors.
6 This word is difficult to translate for nothing can be said about an enlightened being when the body dies. "Perfect, thorough coolness" suits Suan Mokkh's understanding of the word.
This appreciation for nature is one of Suan Mokkh's way of honoring all Buddhas (the Ones Who Know, the Awakened Ones). The man who came to be called "The Lord Buddha" was born outdoors, in a grove of trees, on the ground. All the major events of his life happened in similar circumstances: the Great Awakening under the Bodhi tree, the first sermon in the Deer Park at Isipatana, and the passing into parinibbana at his body's dissolution. Many hours of , untold miles walking through the Indian countryside, and forty-five years of tireless teaching mostly took place outdoor, beneath trees, on the earth (perhaps with a pile of leaves or grass covered by a simple cloth as a seat). Nor was the Buddha unique in this closeness with nature. Christ, Mohammed, Lao Tzu, and most of the "Ones Who Know" spent much of their time in the "desert" or "wilderness." And what of their disciples living in this world of petroleum derivatives, steel, and silicon wafers? The Buddha's advice remains the same. Bhikkhus, these bases of trees, these quiet places, you ought to practice diligently. Don't be careless, don't live as a person who will have regrets later. 
7 Samyutta-nikaya, IV, 145 and numerous other places in the Discourses.
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu had six Rains when he returned from Bangkok to found Suan Mokkh.  By then he had passed and subsequently taught the recommended basic studies and had begun the formal Pali studies necessary for status and advancement in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Although he was dissatisfied by the worldly atmosphere and trappings of those studies, by their conservatism, and lack of free thought, he gained from them a solid enough understanding of the Buddha's teaching to go independent. The decadence, busyness, filth, and noise of Bangkok - even sixty years ago - sickened him, so he sought a proper place to put the teachings into practice. He moved into an abandoned Wat in the woods near the town of his birth and began his exploration in earnest. When younger bhikkhus and novices heard of Suan Mokkh and came to stay there, he required that they too have enough study knowledge, commitment, and maturity to be self-reliant. Basic training was available elsewhere; Suan Mokkh sought a deeper practice.
8 The seniority of bhikkhus is measured in the number of three month long "Rainy Season Residences" (vassa) they have passed. Traditionally, after five rains a bhikkhu is considered experienced enough to live on his own away from teacher.
The Buddhist analysis of the human dilemma is that we bring suffering upon ourselves and others through our own ignorance. The naturally pure mind is deceived and lured by sensual experience. Things are taken to be permanent, satisfying, beautiful, ownable, and most profoundly, to be selves.  Viewing our lives and world in such a way, we pervert the basic experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and knowing (including all the mental processes such as thinking, feeling, remembering); along with the feelings (pleasant, unpleasant, and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant) that arise toward those experiences; into craving, lust, hatred, delusion, worry, fear, and all forms of selfishness. Such deluded thinking and acting is misery, all of which is rooted in our own blindness and misunderstanding. Ultimately, then, the solution is to remove that ignorance. And if that ignorance is within our own hearts-minds, how could anyone else remove it for us? To depend on outside help is childish; we must cure ourselves.
9 Pali, atta; Sanskrit, atman; Latin, ego; self, soul: The Buddha taught that "sabbe dhamma anatta," all things are not-self. He made no distinction between true self and false self, or between self and eternal soul. Life, experiences, phenomena exist, but nowhere is there to be found anything that can rightfully be called 'self,' there is no eternal substance or abiding, independent essence which can be taken as 'I,' 'mine,' or 'myself.'
This being the case, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu set off to cure himself and never fell under the delusion that he could cure others. He simply wanted to study, practice, and penetrate to the heart of the Buddha's Dhamma, and never had intentions to set himself up as a teacher. Others who shared the goal were welcome to use this garden for their spiritual studies and experiments, but only as friends and equals. Although he ended up being the older brother, due to his knowledge and experience, he didn't dominate or tell others what to do. That might give them an excuse to shirk their own responsibility and become dependent. Even as the role of teacher came to be necessary, as Suan Mokkh grew and became well known, he always demanded that people think and investigate for themselves, rather than just memorize and believe in teachings. When and where he could, he has been ready and willing to be a guide and friend, but he has no illusions of doing more. The Buddha himself said,
Striving is your own responsibility, the Tathagatas (Awakened Ones) only point the way. 
10 Dhammapada 276.
I emphasize this point because many monasteries, Buddhist and other, require strict obedience. While obedience helps to avoid selfishness and pride, and while obedience in worldly matters allows them to be taken care of simply and efficiently, there is no authority to obey in spiritual matters other than the Dhamma itself. One must hear and listen to Truth oneself, and obey it willingly. At Suan Mokkh, it is felt that one should start doing so immediately. If one must have it interpreted by another today, whenever will one learn to hear and live directly?
Rather than one person try to transform another, Dhamma-Nature-Law must be allowed to do the work, the shaping and transforming. Here, even the selfish and immature are given space to grow up into unselfishness. The more knowledgeable and experienced should be able to watch and encourage with kindness, compassion, and equanimity. If too much importance is placed on conforming to some external form, the heart will never conform to Dhamma. Once again, this is in line with the Buddha's example. Rather than call himself a teacher or divine messenger or god, he simply claimed to be a kalyana-mitta (good, noble friend).
This is not to say that one can do nothing to help another. The Middle Way avoids the extreme of indifference, non-caring, and insensitivity as much as it shuns bossiness and domination. Both extremes are forms of irresponsibility, or responsibility primarily to selfish impulses. True responsibility lies in between, in Dhamma. The spiritual guide, then, is first of all someone who has walked the way of Dhamma sufficiently to point out that way to others. The knowledge and experience gained from direct spiritual living can be expressed and explained in various ways to help others to discover how they too may live this life. And the presence of a truly unselfish, even selfless being shows beginners that it can be done, provides a tangible example of the teachings for those who have not yet found it deeply in themselves. So far, Suan Mokkh as been blessed with a spiritual friend who gives powerful and challenging teaching along with an impeccable example.
Self-reliance is not thrust on people, since few of us have been prepared for it. Anyone coming for a long stay is expected to have completed basic studies first. Once here, he has many opportunities to experiment, study, and occupy developing minds in useful ways. Depending on individual abilities, proclivities, and needs, one could build one's program from activities such as daily chanting of scriptures, meditation, scriptural study, translation, teaching visitors and school children, helping with traditional ceremonies, community service, construction work, painting and sculpture, transcribing tapes, publishing, looking after guests, lectures and classes, discussions, physical labor, mechanical and electrical work. No one pattern is expected. Everyone is free to use their knowledge and skills to benefit the Wat and practice Dhamma. And one can change, adapt, and experiment as one needs. In support of this Ajahn Buddhadasa gives frequent lectures and is available for advice to keep everyone straight on the fundamental principles of Dhamma that are applied through the various activities one undertakes, if one is sufficiently mindful and wise.
It does not take a very careful reading of the Buddha's discourses (or the words of Christ recorded in the Bible) to realize that religion nowadays is much different from when the Master lived. Some may say that the Religion doesn't begin until after the Great Teacher dies and that it's all down hill from there. Ajahn Buddhadasa, however, feels that the original spirit can be rediscovered or recaptured. To do so it is helpful to recreate the original conditions where possible and elsewhere adapt our modern ways to recollect and reflect how the Great Teacher lived and taught. Thus, many aspects of Suan Mokkh try to recapture the spirit and feel of "Pristine Buddhism." Important examples have been discussed above.
11 By "Pristine Buddhism" we mean the teaching and practice before the disintegration into differing sects and schools, with their polemics and dogmatics.
Amusingly, attempts to return to the way things were done in the early days are often viewed as unorthodox or heretical. People tend to take the status quo with which they are comfortable, rather than the original teachings, as their basis for comparison. They become so used to their own habits, beliefs, opinions, and traditions that they never stop to reflect, "Is my way the only way?" "Was it always like this?" "How did the Buddha do things?" Thus, many people were shocked that Suan Mokkh for many years had no public Buddha images and took the fact to be a sign of disrespect. The intention, however, was one of deep respect and understanding. Originally, Buddhists had the wisdom to realize that the real Buddha could never be portrayed in a physical medium or form. In the oldest Buddhist art, such as the stupas at Amaravati, Sanchi, and Barhut, there are no attempts to represent the Buddha as a human body. Instead, there are Bodhi trees, Dhamma Wheels, and empty spaces symbolizing the enlightenment, the Buddha's Dhammakaya (Truth-Body) and the voidness (sunyata, emptiness of self and soul, I and mine) realized and exemplified through perfect selflessness. It wasn't until Greek immigrants brought their modeling talents and religious materialism to India that the Buddha was turned into an image. While helpful for instilling faith in children, such images are the source of much confusion, which may never be outgrown. Thus, Suan Mokkh strives to instill a deeper understanding of Buddhahood from the start.
Suan Mokkh tries to heal the artificial and harmful fragmentation of Buddhist life into disjointed pieces and practices. Spiritual practice is life, an organic whole; to dissect it is to disfigure and even kill it. Yet monks have long distinguished between a study camp of scholars and urban monasteries, and a practical camp of meditators and forest dwellers (either as wanderers or in small forest monasteries). Such a distinction didn't exist in the Buddha's time, although different disciplines showed varying inclinations toward solitude and community life, learning and mental cultivation. Later, with institutionalization, growth of monasteries, and the formation of universities, it seems that bhikkhus chose one camp or the other, rather than integrating study and practice in a personally relevant way. The Commentarial tradition that became dominant centuries after the Buddha, and now exists under the name "Theravada Buddhism," has enshrined the distinction. A bhikkhu might take up the study approach in a city monastery for a while and then go off to meditate, or do the reverse, or never change. But mixing the two aspects of learning in the same person at the same time in the same place does not seem to have happened much, especially in Thailand.
When Buddhadasa Bhikkhu took up earnest and solitary practice, he soon found that he lacked sufficient understanding to practice thoroughly, and so his studies continued. He realized that study and practice must guide, support, and correct each other. The Pali scriptures are full of practical information on all aspects of meditation and spiritual living. The knowledgeable and reflective student can find in them all the advice he needs. Meanwhile, daily practice enables him to distinguish what is truly relevant to his needs from what is inappropriate, academic, and superstitious. What remains is a simple, straightforward, unified approach.
Suan Mokkh has reduced the number, extent, and elaborateness of traditional ceremonies. Rituals are not considered efficacious enough, in terms of spiritual development, to warrant much of the bhikkhus' energy and attention. They are not abandoned altogether, however, when they contain sufficient meaning, and in sensitivity to the feelings of those who depend on them. It is doubtful that the bhikkhus in the Buddha's time did anything more than simple observances on the Full and New Moon days. 
12 The uposatha, an ancient Indian practice, was adapted by the Buddha into a meeting for exhortation regarding the teaching and training (patimokkha), then later, for recitation of the growing training discipline (vinaya-patimokkha).
The Thai people, like all cultures in adopting a religion, have added on their own seasonal holidays, folk beliefs, and customs, some of which have nothing to do with the Buddha or his message, and others in which the original meaning has been forgotten. In the first case, Suan Mokkh refuses to participate. No crude superstitions are tolerated, although they're always trying to sneak in. In the latter case, the ceremonial aspects are simplified and the spiritual meaning and value stressed. Thai customs are of course followed, but in simple ways that can support Dhamma understanding rather than mere emotional gratification. Not only is this approach courageous and daring (in any time or culture), it takes much hard work. It is no easy matter to explain the deeper significance of holidays and traditions to "believers" more intent on warm feelings and fun. These explanations must be repeated year after year, not only for the local villagers, but for school teachers, soldiers, governors, academics, monks, and foreign scholars.
13 Imagine taking monstrous sporting events and their TV coverage away from Americans.
These are merely some superficial examples of Suan Mokkh's attempt to recover Pristine Buddhism. The most important aspect of the attempt involves taking a "new look" at the basic and essential teachings, especially those overlooked by traditionalists. This has stirred up the most controversy.