Aspiring to Right Liberation
Robert D. Larson was a recent university graduate when he joined the U.S. Peace Corps in 1980 and went to Thailand. He was later ordained there, in 1985, as Santikaro Bhikkhu. He studied under the late Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-93), the most eminent Theravada monk-teacher in Thailand, translating his discourses and writings into English, leading meditation retreats, and participating in socially engaged Buddhist activities. After his teacher's death, he returned to America and began a Dhammic community named Liberation Park outside Chicago, where people can pursue the realization of the essence of Buddhist teachings, thus bringing spiritual values back into the modern world. Although he has left the monkhood, Santikaro remains committed to helping transmit Ajahn Buddhadasa's teachings as true guidelines for human life. Santikaro was recently in Japan, where he spoke of his experience in Thailand and his hopes for sharing the Dhamma among his fellow Americans.
Many people come to Liberation Park for reasons related to healing. In America, as elsewhere, physical stress and psychological suffering continue to increase, in large part due to worsening polarization: the rich are getting richer; the middle class is being left behind; and the poor are being abandoned. Two million people are in prisons across the United States--often the result of merely using drugs, without crimes against people. We also have problems of obesity, an unhealthy diet, social problems, and so forth. Many Americans cannot now afford modern health care. And we are immorally and illegally at war. The problems in America look very bad these days.
One of the reasons people come to us is that we are a small haven of sanity for them. People are unhappy with stress and fear: fear of losing jobs, fear of terrorism, fear of a family member dying in Iraq, and now there is the fear of bird flu. People have to work harder to maintain their lifestyles, which is strange considering how unhealthy those lifestyles can be. And now, after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, many people have been made aware of global warming, government incompetence, and the racism that permeates our society, though not as blatantly as before. We also face gender injustice between men and women, as well as toward gays and others.
Thus, Americans badly need places where we can explore healthy living, which I believe requires mature spirituality. For such people, we offer Buddhist meditation training, Dhamma teachings, discussions concerning how to practice in the current reality, qigong and yoga practice, Thai and cranial-sacral massage, and friendship. Soon we will offer the opportunity for people to join us on a farm outside the city where we can practice organic gardening, simplicity, and land stewardship. We hope to learn from friends who are experienced in these areas so that we can provide opportunities to practice a well-rounded life within a Buddhist setting.
We also use the Enneagram, a system of understanding personality types that supplements our Buddhist teachings. We find it useful in understanding how people act, think, feel, communicate, and see differently. While we use the Buddha Dhamma as our core path in transforming our heart-mind, cultivating wisdom, and acting compassionately, the Enneagram helps us in specific applications because people vary in their temperaments, worldviews, and motivations. It also offers an understanding of how we need to adjust ourselves in different situations and is a wonderful tool for understanding each other.
Most of the people who work with us have social involvements of one kind or another. Unitarians are among our friends, and they bring the social awareness central to their tradition. One good friend is finishing his studies at Meadville/Lombard, the nearby Unitarian seminary. Other friends are active through the Chicago chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship that a Zen teacher and I helped organize a couple of years ago. Others simply come for meditation or some peace and quiet amid their busy, stressful lives. Some come for deeper study of the Dhamma. I hope that those people who are participating in spiritual training and are also involved with social work will spread the Dhamma at the same time that they serve society. We want to support people who are working for a peaceful world. For us, the universe is where we must practice, whether in the woods or in the city.
Following Ajahn Buddhadasa's example, we try to support others without making them subservient to us. Those who are active in other groups--Buddhist and others--do so freely. I hope that we are able to help them bring more Dhamma into what they do and how they do it. As Buddhists, perhaps we have something special to offer. Buddhism has great riches that must be shared with whomever can benefit from Buddhist approaches. At the same time, we should also cooperate with other groups. Different Buddhist groups need to cooperate with one another. That is very important. And then we should also cooperate with other religions or other movements that aim for peace, for a healthy environment, and for the foundation of a real democracy.
Although I decided to become a monk in Thailand when I was twenty-seven, I was always interested in social issues. Fortunately, I found a teacher who spoke about Dhammic Socialism. My life has been largely guided by a sense of responsibility, obligation, and what is right. Especially after 1989, it was clear to me that there were problems in the world and that America had a big role in causing them. So I asked myself what I should do if I really wanted to work for peace and as someone who feels a responsibility to serve. After many years of trying to do work for peace in Thailand, I decided that I should return to my country in order to do something for Americans by transmitting the teachings of the Buddha as a primary vehicle for the sake of right liberation from suffering. Ajahn Buddhadasa's approach to those teachings has great potential in the U.S. I figure that less suffering in America will lead to America's doing less damage in the world.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer
I was raised in a Christian family. We belonged to a denomination called the Disciples of Christ, which originated in the United States about 180 years ago. On Sundays, I went to church fairly regularly, though I also tried to escape frequently. My parents are still very active in that church. During my college time, I first became interested in other traditions of Christianity, and later in Oriental philosophies and religions. My interest in the latter began rather superficially among friends with whom I dabbled in the I Ching. While majoring in English literature, I became interested in mythology and read books written by Joseph Campbell, as well as by his teacher Heinrich Zimmer, a great German scholar of mythology and religion. Around that time, I started to read the Bhagavad Gita and a few other Indian texts. My interests at that time were more about Hinduism than Buddhism, though I read a little about that as well.
When I graduated from college, I had no job. However, I must admit that I did not much want a job. In college I wanted to write fiction, primarily short stories, maybe novels. But I did not want an ordinary job. I had no interest in making money; I have never considered it very important. But I realized just before graduating from college that I would have to feed myself. So I thought about the Peace Corps. I wanted to do something that was good and worthwhile, and I thought that through the Peace Corps I could do something helpful as an American, experience other cultures, and learn about the world. Though it was more complicated than I first thought, in my naivete, I believe I did more good than harm.
An important reason for deciding to join the Peace Corps was the impact of the Vietnam War that was raging while I was a teenager. Though I did not follow it in any depth, because of my age, an awareness that something was very wrong began to affect me. I began to question the stories we learned as children, which were more or less centered on how great our country is, how good we are, how everyone should like us. This led me to study literature, philosophy, psychology, and religion, even if each of them was difficult for me at that time. Deep down, I wanted to understand why people do not do the things that they could do to make the world better and often do harmful, even horrible, things. I could not fully understand that, but I realized that something really bad was going on. I was beginning to realize that not everything is so wonderful with America. There is a simplicity to this that sticks with me even though the issues are so complex. Why is it so difficult for us to follow the examples of the Buddha and other great teachers?
Being Ordained a Monk
Before I became a Peace Corps volunteer, I had a few months of Thai-language training in Thailand and also underwent a preparation course to be an English teacher. My Peace Corps assignment was to be both an English teacher and an advisor on small agricultural projects for my Thai students and their families. About a week after arriving in Bangkok, I was sent with three of my colleagues to a village in Supanburi province, which is the primary rice basket in the center of the country. In the temple of the village that was chosen for us, we used an open-air hall for our daily Thai language class while staying in the homes of rice farmers for a month. Everyday--six days a week--I went to the temple with the others. Because I studied seven hours a day and then went home to a Thai family that did not speak English, I got lots of practice. I went to sleep at eight o'clock simply because I was exhausted. But it was a wonderful experience indeed. My family and other villagers were so kind and generous.
We also participated in the weekly Buddhist observance ceremony called wan phra. All the villagers came to the temple; dogs also followed the people along the roads and paths to the temple grounds; children sat together with their parents and grandparents in the hall, some of them either playing on their grandparents' laps or playing in groups. My first impression was "how informal this all is" compared with an American church. I really appreciated their way of life and how truly relaxed and joyful they were about religion. And I, too, became more relaxed in such an atmosphere.
Most mornings we were invited to have tea with the abbot, who was very friendly. He received us with a warm smile, glad to see how our daily training in the Thai language was going. One day, toward the beginning of our language training, the abbot said to us: "In Thailand there is a custom of temporary ordination, so before you go home you should become Buddhist monks for a time." One guy said, "No way," and the other said, "Maybe," but I replied, "That sounds great!" So simply, I got the idea in my mind that "it's not a big deal to be a monk; it's something I should do, so I'll give it a try." I decided at that moment that before I went back to the United States I would be a monk for a while. Later I began to study Buddhism more seriously, and also began to meditate, so I planned to be a monk for perhaps three to six months, to learn more about Buddhism and meditation.
An English Translator of Ajahn Buddhadasa
As my mission as a Peace Corps volunteer was wrapping up, I began planning to enter the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and obtain a Ph.D. in the history of religions. After being ordained and going to stay at Suan Mokkh, where Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was the founder and main teacher, I noticed that people were coming from Europe, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere to study with him. Some wrote Ph.D. theses about him. I started to wonder, "Where is the best place to study religion--secondhand in a university or more directly where it is being lived?" I enjoyed the first six months of life living in the woods and practicing Dhamma. I was learning many new things and had many pleasant challenges. Also, it was considered poor form to disrobe just before the rainy-season retreat, so I delayed my plan. Then I waited another three months, till the new year. And then I decided a few more years were needed, and then five years, and then I stopped thinking about it until much later, after some important changes began to happen.
When I started to work on translating Ajahn Buddhadasa's teachings, I had the chance to discuss the Dhamma with him directly, which has meant a great deal in my life, continuing to this day. He and I developed a good relationship around translating, both books and orally. He trusted me, as I did him. For me it was a wonderful experience, and unique. Although he was usually available, hardly any of the other monks would go to him with questions because of a cultural tendency to greatly respect, even fear, teachers. For the sake of the translations, however, I could talk with him regularly, and as an American I wasn't afraid. To be honest, I was too bold at times. He prepared me as an interpreter, making sure that I understood the Pali terms he was using and the teachings he wanted to get across. We both enjoyed discussing important terms to seek the best way to translate them. For me it was like having a good friend and a teacher together; in a way, it was also like having a grandfather, since he was about the same age as my grandfathers, both of whom were dead. This experience with him became very important for me. He became my primary inspiration and role model.
Even after Ajahn Buddhadasa died in 1993 I stayed at Suan Mokkh for another six years, largely because I was very much involved in the monastery and felt responsible for its future. I was considered one of the main teachers there, for Thais as well as foreigners. People wanted me to stay, and thus I was very involved, especially with the foreign community of monks and practitioners. At the same time, I felt a strong sense of commitment to carry on my teacher's work, because I had concerns that others might not do so, especially regarding his social teachings. After Ajahn Buddhadasa died, his more controversial teachings were downplayed by some of the senior monks. To me, something important was being lost, which disappointed and frustrated me. Eventually the winds changed further and I came to feel that my place was no longer at Suan Mokkh. That was a difficult and painful decision.
Things had changed at this beloved monastery, and I was pressured to stop doing things that I believed were important, even things that Ajahn Buddhadasa had encouraged me to do. I believe that many of the monks were afraid of social involvement because of long-standing government interference. The issue is rather delicate.
In Thailand, Buddhist monks are privileged, especially teachers. Furthermore, not only was I a monk, I was a leading student of perhaps the most important Thai teacher of the century. Further, Thailand is a country where Americans are liked, so being American scored me special points. For example, I doubt I will ever be invited to be on a TV talk show in my own country, while I was invited to appear on some of the best intellectual talk-show programs in Thailand. As a foreigner in an Asian country like Thailand, I received such privileges. And privileges, I believed, carry responsibilities. And I felt responsible to repay what I could. At the same time, one always undergoes stringent tests. Thai hospitality is very nice, it is true, but the average guest does not understand the feelings of the Thai people. To give any help to them, you have to do things in the Thai way, and feelings are all-important. This is the cultural reality. Obviously, my responsibilities could never be the same as those of my Thai colleagues. In America I would have more freedom but less access and support. In America I must take responsibility for things that Thai Buddhism provides culturally and start from scratch.
So when it was time to move on, I considered various options--other monasteries in Thailand; other Asian countries such as the Philippines, India, and Japan; and America. Then Ajahn Buddhadasa's words struck home. I always believed that he intended for me to go home someday, because he thought that the best thing for foreign monks was to teach Buddhism in their own cultures and not hang around Asia too long. At first I did not fully agree with him. I wanted to stay at Suan Mokkh and be close to him. But I also had a strong commitment to help transmit the Dhamma and my teacher's message to Americans and eventually decided that America was the place to do so.
Buddhism as a Way of Life
We hear that about 3 percent of the U.S. population regard themselves as Buddhists. I think the figure must be much higher, but it is difficult to estimate and perhaps not important. What concerns me is whether or not Buddhism takes root in America as a true way of life. Being a Buddhist in America can mean various things. For many, the main thing sought in Buddhism is meditation in pursuit of some peace of mind. For some, meditation seems to be a form of psychotherapy. It often takes place within the values of consumerism and a certain amount of American salesmanship. For me, this is the crux of the problem. Meditation is over-emphasized and often taken out of its proper context. First of all, being a Buddhist means being a practitioner of the Way, which is a way of life, not just a way of meditating or becoming peaceful. Of course, practicing meditation is an important aspect of the Middle Way. But it seems that the most important thing is neither understood nor accepted. A lot of people seem to do Buddhist practice according to their personal tastes and desires. The Buddha taught the Middle Way of ending suffering through letting go of selfishness, egoism, and "me."
Contrarily, Ajahn Buddhadasa's approach to the core of Buddhism is considered unique even in Theravada Buddhism. I believe that his teachings can break through some of the barriers between Theravada and Mahayana. Most Theravadins think that Theravada is original and that Mahayana is a debased form. But Ajahn Buddhadasa did not put it in this way. In his perspective of Buddhism, there was an original Buddhism, which he called Pristine Buddhism. Both Theravada and Mahayana developed, more or less simultaneously, out of the original Buddhism. For instance, many people believe that emptiness is a Mahayana teaching. In fact, teachings on emptiness are recorded in the original Pali scriptures. Later, Theravada came to ignore this vital expression of reality. Of course, I reject the Mahayana idea that Theravada is a lesser, or inferior, vehicle. That is an unfortunate Mahayana prejudice. While it is natural that differences appeared as Buddhism diffused among different parts and cultures of Asia, eventually being separated by geographic and linguistic barriers, there is no benefit in looking down on each other. Mahayana teachings primarily moved into central Asia and China; Theravada teachings took root primarily in Southeast Asia. Historically speaking, both Theravada and Mahayana moved away from the core of early Buddhism. Therefore, I believe that it is necessary to go back to early Buddhism, or original Buddhism, in order to find out what was, and still is, central to Buddhism--in other words, the spiritual practice that brings about the liberation of all beings from ignorance, selfishness, and suffering. I further believe that almost all of the current traditions carry on this core of Buddha Dhamma, as well as the accumulations of sociocultural adaptation, many of which are limited and temporary.
But there is another thing that needs to be mentioned. Going back to original Buddhism means to see not only our own lives but also modern society--with its political, economic, and social issues--through the Dhamma. Ajahn Buddhadasa was the first major Theravada teacher to speak of these aspects of the Buddha Dhamma with any rigor and consistency. While he did not use the words "engaged Buddhism," he insisted on seeing Buddhism in ways that supported social engagement as the practice of Dhamma.
Through realizing this, Buddhism becomes the Way of Life. Thus he presented the idea of Dhammic Socialism. Back in the 1960s and the 1970s, when Thailand was torn by disputes between capitalism and communism, he said that Buddhism is basically socialist. He did not mean the socialism of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, which he called bloodthirsty socialism because of its penchant for class revenge and violence. (Of course, capitalist colonialism has been equally violent.) Buddhism, he taught, offers a different kind of socialism, one guided by the Dhamma, nonviolence, and spiritual maturity. So Ajahn Buddhadasa tried to respond to the concerns of modern society through Buddhist principles.
The Need for Conversion
My dream is to build a spiritual community where various groups of people will cooperate and have a place to meditate, study Buddhism, and support one another, because the Sangha is crucial. We need to learn from the experience of other people--Buddhists, Christians, and other movements and traditions--to find valid ways to live in a deeply troubled world. We need sacred communities to express the Dhamma most meaningfully, because everything is interconnected and nothing can exist independently.
I have the impression that after 9/11 people are more inclined to fearful, rigid, and narrow interpretations of religion. Especially, Americans seem to be too concerned with narrow understandings of justice and morality that they want to impose on others. We must pay careful attention to the influence of conservative Christians who have a very narrow and rather immature kind of morality. I agree with whoever said that America is a Christian-dominated country in which religion plays an important part in fostering a sense of morality. This has healthy potentials, and dangerous possibilities as well. Further, we must question how genuinely Christian America actually is. In my view, Christianity is much confused with capitalism, which I consider to be the dominant structure of greed and violence. The Buddha Dhamma teaches that violence is a byproduct of people being swept up in cravings and selfishness. Is that Christianity?
Ajahn Buddhadasa put forth these three resolutions:
- to help everyone penetrate to the heart of their own religions,
- to create mutual understanding among all religions,
- and to work together to drag the world out of materialism and selfishness.
I think we now have to change the course of modern society through metanoia, a radical revision and transformation of our whole mental process, in order to achieve self-liberation and world peace.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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