Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree - Foreword

The Buddha’s Teachings on Voidness

Foreword by Donald Swearer

Dhamma is acting as we should act in order to be fully human throughout all the stages of our lives. Dhamma means to realize our fullest potential as individual human beings. What is most important is to realize that the Dhamma is not simply “knowing,” but also “acting” in the truest sense of what it means to be human.
—Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, “The Right Action To Be Human” (“Kankratham Thi Thukdong Kae Quam Pen Manut”)

The Challenging Vision of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu

As the above quotation and the essays included in Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree amply demonstrate, Phra Dhammakosacarya Nguam Indapañño, better known as Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu (May 27, 1906–May 25, 1993), was one of the most creative twentieth century thinkers in Thai Theravāda Buddhism. Only a small portion of the extensive Buddhadāsa corpus has been translated from Thai into English and other European languages, hence the importance of this volume of essays that elucidate one of major foundational themes in Buddhadāsa’s thought—namely, “That nothing whatsoever should be clung to as ‘I’ and ‘Mine.’” Or, as Buddhadāsa reiterates in one of his favorite Pali phrases, “Sabbe dhammā nālaṁ abhinivesāya” (Nothing whatsoever should be clung to). The concept that epitomizes nonclinging for Buddhadāsa is suññatā, translated in this volume as “voidness.” But it is equally true for Buddhadāsa that nonclinging is the essential meaning of the Four Noble Truths, no self, interdependent coarising, Nibbāna, and even of Buddha. The heart of Buddhism is the quenching of suffering, a condition that cannot be achieved without overcoming clinging to the self brought on by blind attachment and ignorance.

The core of Buddhadāsa’s teaching might be summarized as follows:

The individual is not-self. As such s/he is part of an ongoing conditioning process devoid of self-nature, a process to which words can only point. This process functions according to universal principles we call nature. It is the true, normative, and moral condition of things. To be not-self, therefore, is to be void of self, and hence to be part of the interdependent co-arising matrix of all things, and to live according to the natural moral order in a community voluntarily restrained by other regarding concerns.

The release of this new edition of Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree from Wisdom Publications offers an opportunity for reflection on the challenging vision of Dhamma and its place in the world that Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu made his life’s work. A dynamic, critical thinker who eschewed the Buddhist Sangha mainstream, Buddhadāsa rejected all absolutisms in a manner consistent with his foundational principle of nonclinging. He was especially critical of ideological absolutism and religious idolatry and was an advocate for environmental preservation and social justice.

The Challenge of Ideological Absolutism

Buddhadāsa’s theory of two languages or two levels of language—an outer, physical, literal, conventional dimension and an inner, spiritual, symbolic dimension—challenges textual and doctrinal literalism, and simplistic, doctrinaire ideologies.

In his essay “Everyday Language / Dhamma Language” (Phasa Khon / Phasa Tham), Buddhadāsa analyzes the meaning of many terms, some specifically religious, such as Buddha, Dhamma, nibbāna, and God, but ordinary words, as well; the word “person,” for example. In everyday language “person” refers to the outer form, as in the sentence, “We see a person walking down the street.” But in Buddhadāsa’s view, to limit our understanding of “person” to the superficial, outer form ignores the profundity of the Dhamma-level meaning of the word. At the Dhamma level “person” refers specifically to special qualities implied by the word—in particular, to the mental qualities of a lofty mind or high mindedness.

Buddhadāsa’s teaching about everyday language / dhamma language resonates with similar ideas from Thích Nhât Hanh, one of the founders of socially engaged Buddhism during the Vietnam War. During that time, Nhât Hanh organized the Tiep Hien Order or Order of Interbeing. The first of the fourteen precepts of the Order of Interbeing is the following:

Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are only guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

To explain the precept, Nhât Hanh points to the well-known metaphor that the Buddha’s teaching is a raft to cross to the farther shore of the river of samsara; the raft is not the shore, and if we cling to the raft we miss everything. In Being Peace, Nhât Hanh writes, “The Order of Interbeing was born in Vietnam during the war, which was a conflict between two world ideologies. In the name of ideologies and doctrines, people kill and are being killed. If you have a gun, you can shoot one, two, three, five people; but if you have an ideology and stick to it, thinking it is the absolute truth, you can kill millions.” Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu and Nhât Hanh are constructive critics of ideological absolutism and scriptural literalism.

The Challenge of Religious Idolatry

Buddhadāsa also held the view that the world’s great religions, while historically different, share a common ground. In his provocative Dhamma talk “No Religion!” (Mai Mi Sasana), Buddhadāsa startled his Thai Buddhist audience by saying:

The ordinary, ignorant worldling is under the impression that there are many religions and that they are all different to the extent of being hostile and opposed. Thus one considers Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism to be incompatible and even bitter enemies. Such is the conception of the worldly person who speaks according to ordinary impressions. Precisely because of such characterizations there exist different religions hostile to one another. If, however, people penetrate to the fundamental nature of religion, they will regard all religions as essentially similar. Although they may say there is Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and so on, they will also say that essentially they are the same. If they should go on to a deeper understanding of the Dhamma until finally they realize the absolute truth, they will discover that there is no such thing called religion—that there is no Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. Therefore, how can they be the same or conflicting?

He expressed a similar point of view in his Sinclair Thompson lectures delivered at McGilvary Theological Seminary, Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1967 (BE 2510):

Christianity and Buddhism are both universal religions; they exist wherever truly religious people practice their religion in the most perfect way. If religious persons show respect for each religion’s founder and for the Dhammatruth at the core of each religion, they will understand this interpretation. Devotion to a religion results in the cessation of self-interest and self-importance and therefore leads to a realization of the universality and unity of all religions.

Buddhadāsa’s inclusive universalism is an expression of his conviction that nonattachment lies at the heart of Buddhism and all religions. Preoccupation with the external trappings of religious institutions and their ritual ceremonies represents a particular form of attachment and, consequently, obscures the true meaning of religion, which is to transform egoism into altruism. In the case of conventional Thai Buddhist practice, Buddhadāsa directs especially sharp criticism at the practice of merit-making rituals:

The perception of most adherents of Buddhism is limited to what they can do to get a reward.... The heart of Buddhism is not getting things but getting rid of them. It is, in other words, nonattachment.

For Buddhadāsa, when we cling to external, outer, physical forms we see everything in dualistic terms—good or evil, merit or sin, happiness or unhappiness, gain or loss, is or is not, my religion versus their religion. Such dualistic thinking is at the heart of religious conflict. Buddhadāsa’s universalism counters such a view.

The Challenge of Environmental Destruction

Buddhadāsa’s concept of nature as Dhamma (thamma pen thamma-chat) challenges conventional attitudes and actions regarding the care of the earth. Buddhadāsa’s perception of the liberating power of nature as Dhamma inspired him to found the Garden of Empowering Liberation (Wat Suan Mokkh) as a center for teaching and practice in Chaiya, southern Thailand. For Buddhadāsa the natural surroundings of his forest monastery were nothing less than a medium for personal transformation:

Trees, rocks, sand, even dirt and insects can speak. This doesn’t mean, as some people believe, that they are spirits or gods. Rather, if we reside in nature near trees and rocks, we’ll discover feelings and thoughts arising that are truly out of the ordinary. At first we’ll feel a sense of peace and quiet that may eventually move beyond that feeling to a transcendence of self. The deep sense of calm that nature provides through separation from the troubles and anxieties that plague us in the day-to-day world serves to protect the heart and mind. Indeed, the lessons nature teaches us lead to a new birth beyond the suffering that comes from attachment to self. Trees and rocks, then, can talk to us. They help us understand what it means to cool down from the heat of our confusion, despair, anxiety, and suffering.

For Buddhadāsa, it is only by being in nature that the trees, rocks, earth, sand, animals, birds, and insects can teach us the lesson of forgetting the self—being at one with the Dhamma. The destruction of nature, then, implies the destruction of the Dhamma. The destruction of the Dhamma is the destruction of our humanity.

The Challenge of Social Justice

Time and again in his writings Buddhadāsa challenges conventional, literal, narrow understandings of Buddhism and all religions in favor of universal principles of human development. Buddhadāsa challenges us to go beyond simply identifying ourselves as Thai Buddhists, American Christians, or Iranian Muslims, to identify ourselves as human beings. His interpretation of the Four Noble Truths as nature, the laws of nature, the duty of humankind to live according to the laws of nature, and the consequences of following the laws of nature reflects his view that all human beings share a common natural environment, and are part of communities imbedded in the natural order of things. This interconnected universe we inhabit is the natural condition of things. To act contrary to this law of nature is to suffer, because such actions contradict reality. Consequently, the good of the individual parts is predicated on the good of the whole, and vice versa.

The ethical principle of the good of the whole is based on the truth of interdependent co-arising. Nothing exists in isolation; everything coexists interdependently as part of a larger whole whether human, social, cosmic, or molecular:

The entire universe is a Dhammic community (dhammika sangh khom). Countless numbers of stars in the sky exist together in a Dhammic community. Because they follow the principles of a Dhammic community they survive. Our small universe with its sun and planets including the earth is a Dhammic community.

Buddhadāsa’s view of a Dhammic community reflects his persistent emphasis on overcoming attachment to self, to “me-and-mine” (tua ku khong ku). Fundamentally, both personal and social well-being result from transforming self-attachment and self-love into empathy toward others and sympathetic action on their behalf. A Dhammic community, then, is a community based on the fundamental equality of all beings that both affirms and transcends all distinctions, be they gender, ethnicity, or class. Such a view does not deny the existence of differences among individuals or groups. But all people, regardless of position and status, should understand that their own personal well-being depends on the well-being of all.

The themes that I have highlighted in this foreword point to, but in no way exhaust, the breadth and originality of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s interpretation of the Buddha-Dhamma. Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree is a superb introduction not only to one of the key aspects of Buddhist philosophy but to one of the most original Theravāda thinkers of the modern era.


Foreword by Jack Kornfield

In all of contemporary Buddhism, a handful of figures stand out for their remarkable and uncompromising teachings, their clear transmission of the timeless heart of the Buddha. There is no Theravāda master of our time whom it gives me greater pleasure to see more widely available and read than Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu. Had he lived in Japan, he would have been declared a living national treasure, and, indeed, at the end of his life he was among the best known and most respected of the masters that Thai Buddhism has produced in many centuries.

Ajahn Buddhadāsa was not interested in the ceremonial practices of Buddhism nor the common religious forms and conventions that make up most of Buddhist life in Asia. He was interested in one thing and one thing alone—the truth, at any cost. When one visited him, he received his guest as a true spiritual friend. Unlike traditional Buddhist masters, he did not want visitors to bow to him but invited them to sit next to him, speaking with great depth and heartfelt sincerity about spiritual life, questioning together as with a close friend.

His forthrightness and teaching are renowned throughout Thailand. He did not mince words. He described the busloads of visitors who stop at his monastery as its fame has grown. Decrying many who walk around as if visiting an amusement park, he said, “sometimes I think many of these people just stop here because they have to visit the bathroom.” Yet when visitors were sincere, Ajahn Buddhadāsa did everything possible to translate the Dhamma, the laws of life, in the most direct and immediate fashion. He called good Dhamma teachings a “great public health measure” and deeply believed that the sublime Dhamma can be taught for all: from grandfathers and grandmothers to the youngest of students. He believed that all who wish to do so can understand the end of sorrow and awaken the great happiness of the Buddha. Even if you cannot understand non-self, he said, perhaps you can understand non-selfishness. In this simple concept, he said, the freedom and happiness of the Buddha is also to be found.

From the beginning, in the monastery that he founded just over sixty years ago, Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s actions have exemplified his courageous commitment to truth. He forbade all statues of the Buddha and all the popular forms of worship and merit-making. Instead of building a large temple for the monks to meet for ceremonies, he placed great stones in a circle under the trees to create a holy place as it was in the forests of India over 2,500 years ago. He created a Dhamma hall as a theater that shows even the most uneducated villager, through pictures and words, the essence of the true teachings of the Dhamma.

When one enters his monastery, called the “Garden of Liberation,” it is like finding a Zen garden surrounded by a great and ancient forest. This still and beautiful forest was chosen by Ajahn Buddhadāsa years ago because it evokes both peace and joy. Just as the Buddha invited his followers to enjoy “the happiness of life in the forest, the happiness of the life of Dhamma,” all who enter the Garden of Liberation are invited to receive a quenching drink for their spirit.

In his eighties, Ajahn Buddhadāsa sat outside his cottage on a bench under the trees with restful and joyful ease. He took tremendous delight in the Dhamma, in speaking the Dhamma, in walking the Dhamma, in breathing the Dhamma. Visiting him recently after many years’ absence, I found his mind as clear as ever, as light as a cloud, as open as the sky.

Ajahn Buddhadāsa spoke of the healing power of the trees and walkways of Suan Mokkh. When I asked him how so many Westerners who begin spiritual life with deep inner wounds, pain, and self-hatred can best approach practice, he replied simply with two suggestions. First, their whole spiritual practice should be enveloped by the principles of mettā (loving kindness). Then they should be taken out into nature, into beautiful forests or mountains. They must stay there long enough to realize that they too are a part of nature. They must rest there until they too can feel harmony with all life and their proper place in the midst of all things.

In the center of Suan Mokkh there is a lotus pond and, nearby, a Dhamma teaching hall designed in the shape of a huge boat to carry us across the stream of sorrows to the freedom of awakening. With a natural simplicity, Ajahn Buddhadāsa offers us the boat of the Dhamma, teaching the laws of life. In this book, he calls it “a handful of leaves,” and, as the Buddha did, he offers us this handful of leaves as the essence of the teachings. All that we need in order to understand sorrow and freedom, to understand the whole nature of our lives, is in this handful of leaves. In these teachings he does not emphasize Theravāda, nor Mahāyāna, nor Vajrayāna, but the core or heart that transcends all Buddhist schools. The essence of Dhamma that he teaches, Ajahn Buddhadāsa calls Buddhayāna, the great vehicle of the Buddha.

This remarkable book, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree, is an example of this essence. He teaches us beautifully, profoundly, and simply the meaning of suññatā or voidness, which is a thread that links every great school of Buddhism. He shows how a teaching that becomes central to Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna is also profoundly expressed in the earliest words of the Buddha. He teaches us the truth of this voidness with the same directness and simplicity with which he invites us into his forest. To understand voidness, he says, is to understand all dhammas, to understand voidness is to see what brings ease and peace, to understand voidness is to know that all is well.

In teaching, Ajahn Buddhadāsa used a precision and care with language, inviting us to discover deeper and deeper meanings for voidness. In this book, Ajahn Buddhadāsa bids us to investigate and consider the nature of voidness in life. Notice the simple and remarkable things he says. He reminds us that through voidness, nibbāna, complete liberation, can be experienced by people in their daily life. He shows that voidness is a deep, yet common, experience for us and that whenever we experience voidness, there we find freedom. He speaks of how the Dhamma of voidness is beyond all good and bad, gain and loss, not to be cultivated or grasped, nor found through special practices and states. Instead, he shows how these most profound teachings of the Buddha are to be found within our own intimate and immediate experience.

Ajahn Buddhadāsa invites us to inquire into our true nature, to go beyond the duality of self and other, and to discover that which leads to the selfless and the deathless. In this, he teaches that voidness is the truth that underlies all things, irrespective of purity and defilement. He reminds us that the Buddha breathed with voidness and that supreme voidness is the dwelling place of all great persons. Then he brings his teaching back to earth, admonishing us each individually to realize nibbāna here and now.

Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s teaching is based on an exquisitely careful scholarship. He has systematically extracted from all the volumes of the Buddha’s words, the very heart, the essence, the pith of the Dhamma. His scholarship challenges many contemporary interpretations and throws out, as later misunderstandings, teachings of past and future lives and the whole complicated study of the Abhidhamma. He demonstrates that all of the Buddha’s teachings can be directly experienced by us in each moment. When asked how we can know what is the true Buddha word, he says “the true Buddha word always speaks of voidness, rings of voidness, and anything that does not ring of voidness is not the word of the Buddha.”

Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s clarity and his teachings on the heart of the Buddha’s awakening have inspired many of the best teachers of this generation. My first teacher, Ajahn Chah, and Ajahn Buddhadāsa would often exchange affectionate gifts back and forth when monks would travel between their forest monasteries. This book and the teachings within it are Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s affectionate gift to you. It is a great and compassionate treasure that he offers. If you read and understand the deep meaning of voidness in yourself, you will discover the freedom of the deathless. And then, as the Buddha himself stated, by living rightly we ensure that the earth will not be without enlightened beings.

How to cite this document:
© Evolution Liberation, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree (Wisdom Publications, 1994, 2014)

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