Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993), one of the modern Thai sangha’s most provocative interpreters of Buddhist thought, formed a wilderness tradition all his own. He was ordained as a monk in 1928, but two years later, fed up with the prevailing monastic system, he founded Wat Suan Mokkhabalarama—the Garden of Empowering Liberation Monastery—in the forest near Chaiya in southern Thailand. For Buddhadasa, the city represented the imposition of artifice on the natural. To conform with nature meant to let go of our defilements—wild nature, he taught, must be conserved in order for beings to attain nirvana. And society, by extension, must be reformed before human beings will have the wisdom to conserve and unite with nature. This approach has made Buddhadasa the inspiration for social and environmental protest worldwide, and the engaged Buddhists of today such as Thailand’s Sulak Sivaraksa have modeled their activism on his teachings.

While Buddhadasa is known as a “forest monk,” and insisted that his monks live in the forest, his view departed from that of the monks in Ajaan Mun’s tradition, and his teachings were decidedly less orthodox. The Kammatthana monks view the wilderness as an indispensably good teacher, but essentially dangerous—part of samsara and something to be transcended—whereas Buddhadasa saw nature as dharmic perfection. He promoted the integration of the scholarly and practice aspects of the Buddhist path, and during his twenties retired to the jungle for six years armed with Buddhist scriptures. Moreover, unlike the Kammatthana monks, Buddhadasa believed practitioners had to hone right understanding before any successful attempt at meditation practice could be undertaken. Ajaan Mun, by contrast, insisted on practice over study.

Whereas Kammatthana monks entered the forest in search of personal teachers, Buddhadasa sought no teacher: the transcriptions of his hundreds of dharma talks are his legacy, and while several monasteries in Thailand and around the world align themselves with his teachings, he has no formal lineage.

In an excerpt from a dharma talk on conservation, Buddhadasa lays out his notion of nature as dharma, the fundamental goodness of the wilderness, and explains how, through right view and conforming ourselves to nature, we can end suffering.


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