Thai Buddhism and Buddhadasa’s Teaching under the Military Regime from 1958 to 1973: The Legacy

By TOMOMI ITO - July 1, 2017

In honour of the 111th birth anniversary of Buddhadāsa, keynote speech by Dr. Tomomi Ito (Kobe University, Japan), author of Modern Thai Buddhism and Buddhadasa, presented at The 8th International Buddhist Research Seminar & The 2nd International Conference on Buddhadāsa Studies held on 24-25 May 2017 at the Buddhadāsa Indapañño Archives, Bangkok.


It is my great honor to be invited all the way from Japan to this memorial seminar and conference in honor of Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa’s 111th birth anniversary. I am grateful to the organizer for finding my book, Modern Thai Buddhism and Buddhadasa, and calling me back to my starting point, the place where for the very first time I found an interest in Buddhism and contemporary Thai history. In the early 1990s, I read for the first time Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa’s book in Dr. Swearer’s English translation in Canada, where I studied as an exchange student from a Christian university in Japan. I thought something similar to the Protestant Reformation was going on in Thai Buddhism. I had little knowledge or experience of Thailand, so my hastily formed impressions did not easily convince the professors at my university. Their encouraging criticism drove me to retrace Tan Ajahn’s life and his teaching in the context of Thailand in his time. My book was the result of my field research in Thailand, done mostly during the late 1990s unfortunately, it was after Tan Ajahn’s passing, so I never had an opportunity to meet the great Buddhist sage of Thailand. Nevertheless, my research was benefitted not only from his sermons, but also from interviews with many people who were active when Tan Ajahn was alive and learned from his teaching. I owe so much to all the people who kindly related to me their amazing experiences of obstacles, struggles, passions, and inquiry, experiences which were essential sources of inspiration for my attempt to write an alternative history of the people who lived in the time of modern Buddhism in Thailand. Before I begin my talk, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all those people who introduced me to the exciting new world of Thai Buddhism.

In my talk at this conference, I would like to revisit some of the Thai Buddhist discussions in the Buddhist public sphere, focusing on the period under the military dictatorship from the 1958 coup up to the 1973 student uprising. I understand that the period was one of the three peaks of Thai Buddhist discussion in the Buddhist public sphere in the twentieth century, involving Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa and people who were inspired by him. I am going to examine three areas of the spirited Buddhist discourse and activities of that time, and consider the legacy to subsequent periods, up to the present.


The first type of Buddhist enthusiasm in this period originally arose for other than political reasons, but grew highly politicized in the political context of that time. The Abhidhamma studies, which emerged in modern Thailand in the early 1930s, rapidly gained popularity and by the early 1960s were equaling the Sutta studies in popularity at the Buddhist Association of Thailand. The Sutta studies, which were in aligned with Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa’s teaching, were probably so named to indicate their positioning as a contesting counterpart of the Abhidhamma studies. The two groups, in fact, responded extensively to Thai people’s increasing demand to learn more about Buddhist doctrines. Both provided keys to an understanding of Buddhism and stimulated more people to come to study of Buddhism.

The two groups did hold several different views on several points, including the interpretation of mind, rebirth and existence of supernatural beings such as spirits and deities, but the divisive issue which turned out to be the most controversial was not interpretational. Rather, the issue that triggered the conflict between the two groups was concerned with the public image of the Abhidhamma.

In January 1965, Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa gave a lecture at the Buddhist Association of Thailand. This lecture included his famous, most controversial statement, “The Abhidhammapitaka is composed of verses written in a later period.” After this lecture, according to Bunmi Methangkun, an Abhidhamma teacher at the Buddhist Association, Abhidhamma classes became very confused. Every day, the Abhidhamma teachers had to answer questions as to whether or not the Abhidhamma was the words of the Buddha. As a result, according to Bunmi, the Abhidhamma school in the Buddhist Association was almost ruined. Tan Ajahn’s lecture did seriously damage the Abhidhamma studies, which had just begun to flourish in Thailand.

The two groups, which had initially made positive contributions to increase public interest in Buddhism, developed a rather scary rivalry. The doctrinal argument was rather limited and obscure. Some, though not all, of the most radical Abhidhamma teachers ran sensational negative campaign against Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa. In handbills and radio broadcasts, they accused him of being a “communist,” through no evidence was provided. Under the anti-communist military regime, real communists could seldom show their true face, so anyone suspected of being a communist would have a hard time disproving it. In that atmosphere, even groundless charges or rumors could significantly damage a person’s reputation. The enemy spoiled Thai Buddhist enthusiasm for Buddhist thought and left a dark shadow for quite a long time.


The second form of Buddhist discourse that animated the Buddhist public sphere under the mid-century military regime was exhilarating social critique built around the notions of justice and truth inherent in Buddhism. As an example of this type of discourse, I would like to point to the activities of Pun Chongprasoet, a dedicated propagator of Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa’s teachings, especially among the urban masses in Bangkok. Although some of Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa’s close disciples found parts of Pun’s interpretation of Tan Ajahn’s teaching questionable, Pun’s writings and activities certainly contributed to the propagation of Tan Ajahn’s teaching, and also greatly animated the Thai Buddhist public sphere.

Pun Chongprasoet was a diplomat, but after meeting Tan Ajahn’s teaching in 1956, he abandoned his elite career and devoted himself to the propagation of Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa’s teaching through the publication and distribution of numerous booklets from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Pun’s arguments greatly entertained his audience. During the time of the dictatorship, it was too risky for him to explicitly criticize the corrupt dictators, so, armed with the insightful teachings of Tan Ajahn, he conducted amusing critiques of religious issues, such as corrupt religious authorities, “superstitious” religious beliefs, and inaccurate interpretation of Buddhist teaching. Obviously most senior monks took Pun’s outspokenness as insulting; in the end, Pun had to be banned from entering one of the liveliest Buddhist discussion arenas, Wat Mahathat in Bangkok. On the other hand, for his audiences his cynicism was glorious fun. Many people donated money to his publications and activities so as to hear further exciting, critical arguments.

In the period when few people dared to speak up and confront with the political authorities, Buddhism provided a small space in which people could see justice prevail, at least in debate in a boxing of speeches, a fearless man could fight for justice and achieve an overwhelming victory over evil. Clearly, in the midst of a society with widespread injustice, some of these Buddhist discourses in the Buddhist public sphere, not the Buddhism of the status quo, appeased people’s hunger for truthfulness through the dhamma, and through jokes, parodies, and playful talk.


While the second type of enthusiasm in Buddhist discourse was rather entertaining, the third one was a more serious and sincere pursuit of justice and righteousness in Buddhism, at the time of prevailing social injustice. The generation of Thai people who spent their student time in the late 1960s or early 1970s called that period the “exploration period” (Thai: yuk sawaeng-ha). It was a time when in their teenage years they searched for the direction of their lives; at the same time, it was the period when the young could explore alternative paths, especially those who did not appreciate the corrupted power, wealth and success under the military dictatorship. Access to Marxism was banned, so their alternatives had to be explored in some other way. No one in this period addressed young Thais’ moral concerns more aptly than Ajahn Sulak Sivaraka.

Through his famous journal, Social Science Review, and his renowned discussion group, Parithat Sewana, Ajahn Sulak introduced concerned young readers to several interesting alternatives, including the approach of New Left in the West, the thought and works of respected senior Thai intellectuals who represented the good old Thai traditional values, and Buddhism. The Buddhism that Ajahn Sulak looked at was not the conventional one, not that of the establishment supported by the corrupt authorities, but one perceived as representing real truth and justice. Ajahn Sulak often quoted Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa’s teaching in particular in his journal, and as a result many future student activists came into contact with Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa’s teaching. Some, if not all of them, explored Tan Ajahn’s books extensively during this time, and from his teaching they acquired principles to guide their lives so they wouldn’t simply drift along with the mainstream.

After the October 14, 1973 student uprising overthrew the military dictators, Marxism returned to the Thai public sphere and immediately had an overwhelming influence. Many student activists accepted communism and joined the Communist Party’s activities, abandoning Buddhism, Ajahn Sulak and even Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa. However, those who had seriously explored Buddhism during the time of the military regime, their experience of Buddhism continued to have strong significance in later period.

One group of Buddhist students, including Venerable Phra Phaisal Visalo before he was ordained, chose not to join the Communist Party’s armed struggle in the mid-1970s; rather they embraced the principle of non-violence and worked in the campaign for amnesty for those who had entered the jungle struggle, to allow them to return their ordinary civil lives. The group announced themselves as the “Ahimsa Group,” and they further explored new righteous approaches to social issues, such as rural development, protection of the natural environment, and inter-faith dialogue. Their activities became known as “engaged Buddhism,” along with many other similar respected efforts, such as the work of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam to apply Buddhist principles to the support of people who had suffered as a result of the Vietnam War.

Another group of students in the early 1970s went forth into the Communist Party’s armed struggle, for which they even abandoned Buddhism, since religion was considered contradictory to communist orthodoxy. Later, in the late 1970s and 1980s, many of the Thai students despaired the Party, left the jungle struggle and headed for home. Some of them came back to Buddhism with questions that had occurred to them during their time in the armed struggle. Once again, they read Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa’s books in order to learn about the true human nature, a topic that dogmatic Marxism almost ignored. Their return to Buddhism was a rather private one that attracted little public notice, but it is another significant example of how the earlier period of exploration constituted a very valuable legacy to those people.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, when Marxism lost its international influence due to the fall of the communist bloc, in Thailand once again many intellectuals searched for an alternative to Marxist principles, which had been taken as a definitive guideline for social change. Buddhism was in the spotlight, maybe together with, or maybe as a part of, the local wisdom that allowed materially underprivileged rural villagers to live happily and righteously. Along with the more intellectual work by Ajahn Chatthip Natsupha, Ajahn Seri Phongphit, and Dr. Prawase Wasi, there was networking by a group of engaged Buddhists to assist rural Buddhist monks to share with other communities their successes in raising villagers’ living standards. Even though Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa was involved little in these Buddhist rural development projects, his teaching was frequently referred to as the most authentic, universally relevant guideline for everyone. The ideological composition of the 1990s was quite similar to that of the earlier exploration period. In the context where Marxism had lost its previous place in the public sphere, Buddhism and the traditional Thai values were highly appreciated.


So far, we have reviewed the three kinds of spirited Buddhist teaching and activities centered around Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa, seen between 1958 and 1973, and examined some of the attendant results. Now, we would like to examine the legacy of that lively Buddhist discussion for us in the present time.  

In the academic world in the early 2000s, many Thai scholars talked extensively about postmodernism. According to that new theory, there is no absolute truth. Things have to be viewed relatively; in particular, close attention should be paid to difference of values and interests. The new intellectual current in the West grew out of disillusionment with the contribution of rigid Marxist doctrine to humanity and society. Even if it is not as overtly antagonistic toward religion as Marxism, the postmodernist tendency appears to have little to say about devotion to religion.

What is more, here in the mid-2010s, the world is experiencing the new current of “post-truth.” For example, some people intentionally spread inaccurate information in the form of tweets on the Internet, and less informed people tend to accept those false reports as true, even to the point where some act with violence towards certain targeted groups. In the end, the post-truth strategy has created a feeling of despair, i.e. that nothing can be taken as the truth. In the 21st century, faith in truth itself is a main victim of these cheeky manipulation of facts.

In my conclusion, I would like to say that even though Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa is no longer with us, he left us his insightful teaching, and there are still many people who, like us gathered here today, take up his teaching seriously. What we have to keep in mind in these confusing times is the notion that only the real truth can give rise to true happiness.

Thank you very much for your attention.


Tomomi ito 8th ibrs