The servant of the Buddha: the spiritual side of the social teachings of Ajahn Buddhadasa

- through Francois Leclercq

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Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906-1993) was a well-known and respected Thai ascetic-philosopher. Buddhadasa means "Servant of the Buddha". Buddhadasa promoted a reform of traditional religious perspectives in his country and abroad. He was renowned for his creative reinterpretations of Buddhist doctrine.

Buddhadasa was born as Nguam Panitch in the reign of Chulalongkorn (Rama V of the Royal House of Chakri). His mother, a devout Buddhist, was the one who first sparked his interest in Buddhism. His mother's friends and monks would frequently meet in his shop to discuss religious matters, including the existence of heaven and hell, the nature of good and evil, and the observance of the precepts. During their conversations, Nguam reportedly began to wonder why so many people had clung to these beliefs for so long if they weren't all really true.

When Nguam was 10 years old, his parents took him to live at the monastery of Wat Pum Riang, where he spent three years as a temple boy. Many times later in life, Buddhadasa would have fond memories of time spent with other temple boys as he learned the virtues of selflessness, cooperation, hard work, punctuality, and patience. responsibility. In his book One bowl of sauce solves all the world's problemshe suggested that this simple way of traditional education for boys could be a way to overcome the immorality and greed that is ravaging the planet.

After spending a few years studying as a bhikkhu in Bangkok, he became convinced that, in his own words, “purity is not found in the big city”. This led him to live closer to nature in order to study the Buddha Dhamma. Near his village of Pum Riang (now in Chaiya district), he founded Suan Mokkhabalarama (the Liberation Power Grove) in 1932. Over the years, the reputation of Buddhadasa, his writings and Suan Mokkhabalarama grew and became one of the most influential Buddhist centers in Thailand.


Buddhadasa was by no means insular. He was aware of the "Protestant" fever that swept through religious scholars of different traditions in his day. There was an urge to "get back to basics" and return to an original ur-faith hidden beneath the many layers of culture, superstition and politics that had accumulated over millennia and had misled the sincere believers. The precise and fundamental elements of the Buddhist teachings were what Buddhadasa called "primitive Buddhism", the initial realization of the Buddha before it was obscured by commentary, ritualism, clerical politics and other factors. His work was based on an in-depth analysis of Pali texts, in particular the Sutta Pitakawhich contains the Discourses of the Buddha, as well as his own experimentation and application of these teachings.

Buddhadasa performed the Tipitaka in accordance with what he considered to be the foundational teachings the Buddha was most likely to have preached in one form or another: the Four Noble Truths, Selflessness, and Dependent Co-appearance. He felt that all of these fundamental teachings were more coherent and made more sense in relation to each other. This meant that he deviated from the dogma of traditional Thai doctrine. He emphasized the present moment and the spiritual aspects of daily life, a healing of the lay-monastic divide, greater compatibility with science, increased intellectual rigor and the reintegration of political and social issues within 'A dhammic view of the world of non-self.

Buddhadasa studied all branches of Buddhism in addition to other major world religions. This interest was not academic but rather practical. As part of the dramatically formulated strategy of "bringing humanity out of the power of materialism", he aimed to bring together all sincere religious people. Due to his openness, he made friends with people of all faiths, including Christians, Muslims and Hindus.


Buddhadasa used the term "spiritual" in a way that included the material, the physical, and the social. Spirituality does not reject the body, society, economy, politics or any other aspect of existence, but rather includes all of its facets in the context of Dhamma. He noted:

Buddhism is neither materialism nor mentalism, but the rightness between the two or both in the right proportions. The religion which can be considered the best social science must not be a slave to materialism nor mad about mental things.

(Bhikkhu Santikaro 1996, 155)

Buddhadasa defined dukkha (suffering) as the experience of anxiety, arguments, ugliness, dissatisfaction, meaninglessness and imperfection. He asserts that only by letting go of all selfishness and attachment dukkha be permanently eliminated. There will be no more dukkhano more birth and no more death when we have no thoughts of "me" or "mine" towards anything in the universe, including our consciousness.

Achieving peace in our society also requires giving up selfishness and selfishness. Socially beneficial actions provide the greatest spiritual benefit. As he says,

Some people tend to misunderstand that Buddhism has little to do with society or that the connections are only at a lower level. Some people misunderstand that those who train strictly according to Buddhist principles find it difficult to do anything tangibly beneficial to society. I feel that such an understanding is not yet consistent with the truth. However, there is a way for us to develop the kind of understanding through which our socially beneficial actions also become the greatest spiritual benefit for ourselves. So, I tried to distinguish which are our socially beneficial actions that also become the greatest spiritual benefit for ourselves. So, I tried to distinguish and make evident the social benefit…. Furthermore, I try to point out that social goods and acting for the benefit of society are prerequisites for traveling beyond nibbana.

(Bhikkhu Santikaro 1996, 155)

The Buddhist goal of eliminating suffering should not be misinterpreted as a supernatural goal. Nibbana can be achieved in the present moment here and now. Therefore, Buddhadasa was referring to both individual and societal issues when he spoke of ending dukkha.

The collective of “all people together” is called society. According to Buddhadasa, socialism can be compared to liberal democracy and individualism in this way because they both have selfishness as their common root.

For Buddhadasa, the term "democracy" has a special meaning. Because Buddhism respects the universality (or "equality") of equitable sharing of the universal experiences of birth, aging, illness, and death, it has the spirit of democracy. In other words, since everyone suffers, everyone is equal and therefore possesses the spirit of democracy. According to him, Buddhism is democratic because the Buddhist sangha live together in a democratic system, so it can be interpreted as the Buddhist ideal of communal existence.

In his essay "Answering the Priest's Questions" (1939), Buddhadasa strongly challenged the theistic notion of a personal God. This was in response to a priest from Italy serving as a missionary in Thailand. Buddhadasa was not attracted to the teachings of Christian missionaries at the time, especially what he heard on the radio. The simplistic and superstitious nature of what he had heard was exactly what he was trying to combat through Thai Buddhism.

Buddhadasa read the Bible personally and discovered that Christian traditions went beyond what he had previously heard on the radio. In the end, he came to the conclusion that it was pointless to criticize the superstitious views of some Christians. Working with open-minded Christians would be much more beneficial. He argued that materialism was the common enemy of all religions. Buddhadasa made several calls for interfaith harmony beginning with the Thompson Memorial Lectures in Chiang Mai (1957), which he delivered as the first non-Christian speaker. He was the most important advocate of interreligious dialogue in Thailand.


Teachers and education officials also took Buddhadasa's views seriously and continue to do so today. In 1955, he gave a speech on "The ideals of teachers from the Buddhist point of view" in front of teachers from all over Thailand. He often spoke about education because he thought it was crucial for young people to receive a good education which paves the way for the development of spirituality, of Dhamma.

One of his last projects was to establish an international Dhamma hermitage for foreigners to learn Buddhist doctrine and practice. The hermitage would also host meetings of Buddhists from around the world to find ecumenical agreement; and interfaith encounters between religious leaders to work together to liberate the world from materialism. In addition, he founded a small monastery where foreign monks could train in dhammaduta (Buddhist missionaries). A similar facility for women was built, with the name Dhamma-Mata (Dhamma Mothers).

Buddhadasa never completed a formal education, leaving school in the ninth grade. However, Thai colleges awarded him five honorary doctorates due to his vast knowledge and contribution to Thai society. His written works and transcripts of lectures are kept at the National Library. His guidance and selfless example served as an inspiration to the younger generation and other progressive elements in Thai society. Its teachings have been used by activists and thinkers since the 1960s in areas such as education, ecology, social welfare and rural development. He also established a powerful link between contemporary committed Buddhism and the scriptural tradition, which remains Thai Buddhism's best hope of remaining relevant.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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