Buddhadasa’s Notion of Dhamma Language

By ROD BUCKNELL - July 10, 2017

In honour of the 111th birth anniversary of Buddhadāsa, keynote speech presented by Dr. Rod S. Bucknell (University of Queensland, Australia) 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.

Nearly half a century has passed since the period when I was translating booklets containing the teachings of Ajahn Buddhadāsa. At that time (1970–71) I was an ordained monk, based at Wat Umong, a quiet forest monastery located just outside of Chiangmai. Of the books in the Wat Umong library many were by Buddhadāsa. But when I first arrived there, all but one of them were inaccessible to me because I could not read even one word of Thai. That one exception was Towards Buddha-Dhamma, which had been translated into English by an Indian monk, Nāgasena, who was residing at the time at Wat Bencha in Bangkok.

Reading that book gave me some idea of how valuable such translations could be for students of Buddhism. It also helped me to understand why the teachings of Ajahn Buddhadāsa were so highly regarded by most Thai Buddhists. Before long I made a crucial decision. In order to provide access to that learned monk’s written legacy, I resolved that I would learn to read Thai and then go on to translate a selection of his works.

By the third year of my monkhood, I felt ready to begin actually translating. Deciding which of Buddhadāsa’s many published works to focus on had been made easy for me by Nai Chuen Sirorot, the elderly Thai layman who had long been the main supporter of Wat Umong. Wishing to encourage me in my translation project, he had presented me with six small books containing transcripts of Buddhadāsa’s tape-recorded talks delivered to various audiences over several decades. He had recommended them as a representative sample of the Ajahn’s principal teachings; and for each of them he had summarized for me the teaching in question. This introductory overview provided me with a basis on which to decide which of the books to translate and in what sequence.

As I pursued my translation project during the next two years, I learned more about Buddhism in both theory and practice, and I became progressively more familiar with Buddhadāsa’s characteristic way of explaining it. While I found all of those six books informative and appealing, two of them in particular aroused my interest. One of those two had a title that I translated loosely as Two Kinds of Language; the other was called Another Kind of Birth. What I found so interesting in these two small books I will attempt to communicate in the remainder of this paper.

First, however, a few words of explanation about the paper’s structure. I found that the Ajahn’s line of thinking followed very smoothly from Two Kinds of Language to Another Kind of Birth so smoothly, indeed, that it seemed to me natural to treat the two as if they were consecutive chapters of a single book, or as consecutive instalments in a unitary series of Dhamma talks. Consequently, this paper is in two sections, each devoted to one of these two talks/books.

Buddhadāsa introduces his talk on Two Kinds of Language by stating that it will deal with the special terms, phrases, and ways of speaking that are used whenever the basic principles of Buddhism are being taught or discussed. He refers to this as “Dhamma Language” (also written “Dharma Language”), that is, “the Language of Truth” (in Thai: phaasaa tham). It is a special kind of language that is distinct and different from the language we use when talking about everyday worldly matters, which he calls “Everyday Language” or “Language of [ordinary] People” (Thai: phaasaa khon). There exist, therefore, these two kinds of language: Dhamma Language and Everyday Language.

The Ajahn declares that if there is to be good communication on topics relating to Dhamma, the higher Truth, then one needs to be aware of these two different kinds of language and avoid confusing them. We are all familiar with Everyday Language; but most people are not so familiar with Dhamma Language and may easily fail to recognize it as such. To illustrate this distinction he gives a few simple examples.  

Perhaps his most vivid example is the word “hell” (naraka), referring to the first of the four “woeful states” recognized in the Buddhist tradition and often depicted in temple murals. Buddhadāsa explains “hell” in these words:

In Everyday Language hell is a region under the earth. It is ruled over by the god of death, who carries off people and subjects them to all sorts of punishments. It is a place where one may go after death.

Contrast this with hell as understood in Dhamma Language. Here hell is anxiety, anxiety which burns us just like a fire. Whenever anxiety afflicts us, burning us up just like a fire, then we are in hell, the hell of Dhamma Language. (p. 20)

Here he is saying that the hell depicted in temple murals, a physical place of fire and brimstone, needs to be understood as purely metaphorical, purely figurative. If we take it as a physical place of physical torment, then we are missing the point. We are mistakenly understanding it in terms of Everyday Language, which is a naïve and superficial way to see it. Understood in terms of Dhamma Language, hell is not a place. It is a mental state, the state that we call “anxiety.”

What Buddhadāsa is telling us here is not difficult to grasp. All religions make use of figurative language, the language of similes and metaphors. It can be a means of conveying a teaching graphically so that it grabs people’s attention and evokes an appropriate response. However, it succeeds in serving this function only if we recognize it as figurative language. If we take it literally, then we may miss the point entirely. This is why he is alerting us to the need to distinguish between these “two kinds of language.”

People with little understanding take it that the hell portrayed on temple walls is a physical location, an actual place of physical torment, where they may be punished after death for their misdeeds during this present lifetime. However, people with more understanding, people who know Dhamma, recognize that what these temple murals are depicting is a purely mental condition. It is a state of inner suffering that any of us may experience in this lifetime, here and now, at any time when we are overcome by anxiety.

Another of the four “woeful states” that Buddhists hear about is the realm of “hungry ghosts.” Buddhadāsa explains:

The term “hungry ghost” (peta) in Everyday Language refers to a creature supposed to have a tiny mouth and an enormous belly. He can never manage to eat enough and so is chronically hungry. This is another possible form in which we may be reborn after death. These are the hungry ghosts of Everyday Language.

The hungry ghosts of Dhamma Language are purely mental states. Ambition based on craving, worry based on craving to be afflicted with these is to be born a hungry ghost. […] Anyone suffering from a too intense craving, a pathological thirst, anyone who worries and frets excessively has the same symptoms as a hungry ghost. He can be said to have been reborn a hungry ghost right here and now. It is not something that happens only after death. (pp. 21–22)

Here again, it is necessary to distinguish between the two kinds of language. Taken as Everyday Language, a “hungry ghost” is a kind of sub-human being that one may be reborn as after death. Recognized as Dhamma Language, however, it is a state of mind that anyone may experience repeatedly, from time to time in this very life. Buddhadāsa encourages us to shift our attention away from the literal understanding of the term “hungry ghost” and toward the non-literal. Rebirth as a hungry ghost happens not only after death. It happens at any time during this present life when the mind becomes overwhelmed by craving and desire. To see it in this second way is to understand it in terms of Dhamma Language, the language of higher Truth. It shifts the focus away from the everyday, external side of life experience and toward the mental, inner side.

From the “woeful states,” Buddhadāsa moves on to apply the same distinction to their happy counterparts, the various heavenly realms that are spoken of in Buddhist texts. In Everyday Language these heavens are a vertically ordered series of celestial abodes into which an individual may be reborn in the next life, after the ending of the present life. Understood in terms of Dhamma Language, however, they are a graded series of mental states or attainments extending over a wide range: from infatuating pleasurable sensuality at the lower levels to increasing degrees of meditative bliss and peace at the upper levels.

As always, Buddhadāsa points out that viewing the Buddha’s teachings in terms of just Everyday Language is likely to yield a limited and distorted picture. One must learn to see them also in terms of Dhamma Language. One should heed this advice of the Buddha: “A wise person is one familiar with both modes of speaking.” (p. 3)

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Having introduced, with numerous varied examples, the widely applicable notion of Dhamma Language, Ajahn Buddhadāsa zooms in to focus on one particularly important example of it: the use of the word “birth” or “rebirth.” (As regards my translations, this zooming in amounts to moving from Two Kinds of Language to Another Kind of Birth, from the first to the second of the two books that I identified at the outset as having particularly interested me.)

Buddhadāsa begins this talk/book by quoting a saying of the Buddha: “Repeated birth is suffering” (in Pali: dukkhā jāti punappunaṃ). Then he asks: “What is meant here by the word ‘birth’?” After reminding us of the need to allow for possible interpretation in terms of Dhamma Language (or Dharma Language), he points out that interpretation in terms of Everyday Language is definitely not viable in this case. The reference can hardly be to physical birth from one’s mother. He says:

Physical birth is no problem; once born from his [or her] mother, a person need have nothing more to do with birth. Birth from a mother takes only a few minutes, and no-one ever has to undergo the experience more than once.

Now, we hear talk of rebirth, birth again and again, and of the suffering that inevitably goes with it. Just what is this rebirth? What is it that is reborn? The birth referred to is a mental event, something taking place in the mind, the non-physical side of our make-up. This is “birth” in Dharma Language. “Birth” in Everyday Language is birth from a mother; “birth” in Dharma Language is birth from ignorance, craving, clinging, the arising of the false notion of “I” and “mine.”  (pp. 4–5)

This is very like the interpretation that we saw earlier, in Two Kinds of Language. Regarding the traditional belief that a person might be reborn after death as a hungry ghost (peta), we found Buddhadāsa explaining that this has to be understood as Dhamma Language. The concealed meaning is that a person’s mind may at any time give rise to a state of craving or desire. Here, in the passage just quoted from Another Kind of Birth, we again find him explaining “birth” as being a disguised reference to the arising of a mental state. That is, Buddhadāsa identifies here two different occurrences of a single phenomenon: in both cases the term “birth” is being used to refer to the arising of a mental state.

The mental state in question may differ from case to case: craving, the idea of “I,” a sense of possessiveness, and so on. But all such mental events can be seen as sharing one feature in common: all of them are based ultimately on the mistaken perception that there is an “I,” a “self” that is thinking the thoughts and generating the mental states. For the occurrence of such events the process called “birth” (or “rebirth”) is clearly a very natural and appropriate metaphor.

Buddhadāsa asks us to recognize that this kind of event, this kind of mental “birth,” occurs repeatedly. In this sense one may be “reborn” many times in a single day. He also explains that this is what is meant by the Buddha’s statement quoted earlier: “Repeated birth is suffering (dukkha).” It can be seen as referring to the repeated arising of mistaken ideas in the mind, ideas that amount to “I am such-and-such”; for example: “I am a good person. I am not a good person. I am better than So-and-so. I am a millionaire. I am a beggar.” He points out that all of these are ultimately based on one overall delusion: the idea “I am.”   

Such talk about “rebirth” leads naturally to a bigger question: “What is saṃsāra?” As is well known, most practising Buddhists understand the Pali term saṃsāra as referring to the endless cycle of death and rebirth in which all deluded beings are said to be caught up. For such beings the ending of this present physical life will be followed by the beginning of another physical life. Every physical death is followed by physical rebirth in some other form – human or animal, divine or demonic – according to the moral quality of one’s past deeds. That is the saṃsāra of Everyday Language. But what has been said already about the word “birth” has automatic implications for the meaning of “death” as well. Simple extrapolation tells us that in Dhamma Language “birth and death” refers to the ever-repeated arising and ceasing of delusion-based thoughts and mind-states, which goes on from moment to moment throughout one’s entire waking day. This is, therefore, the meaning of saṃsāra in Dhamma Language.

Taking the reasoning a step further, one may ask: “What, then, is nirvāṇa (Pali: nibbāna)?” It may seem that the short answer ought to be “the ceasing of saṃsāra,” and consequently the ceasing of all thought and other mental activities. At the time of the Buddha some supposedly wise gurus were teaching precisely that. As Buddhadāsa points out, they were equating nirvāṇa with total mental silence, total inner stillness. They therefore urged the Buddha-to-be to practise attaining the “jhāna of neither perception nor non-perception,” which was the deepest level of concentration known to them. Provisionally taking their advice, the Buddha worked hard at the practice of deep concentration and mastered it. Having thereby attained a state of profound inner stillness, he reflected critically on the claim that this state was nirvāṇa, the ending of suffering. What happened next is retold by Buddhadāsa as follows:

But the Buddha did not accept this teaching; he did not consider this to be genuine nirvāṇa. He went off and delved into the matter on his own account until he realized the nirvāṇa that is the total elimination of every kind of craving and clinging. As he himself later taught: “True happiness consists in eradicating the false idea ‘I’.” When defilements have been totally eliminated, that is nirvāṇa. (p. 10)

To attain liberation from suffering it is not necessary to eliminate all mental functions. What needs to be eliminated is those mental functions that are the immediate cause of suffering, namely: delusion, craving, and clinging. These are the principal defilements. Their ultimate source is delusion, in particular the false idea “I. I am. I exist.” On this basis Buddhadāsa portrays the entire spiritual path to nirvāṇa as aimed at “eradicating the false idea ‘I’.” 

Ajahn Buddhadāsa tells us that the key to understanding all this lies in recognizing the distinction between the “two kinds of language.” Everyone knows what the words “birth” and “death” mean in Everyday Language. Not so many people are aware of the second layer of meaning that these words have in Dhamma Language. Few of us recognize the non-physical meanings these words acquire when they are used as technical terms in discussing the Buddha’s teachings. In Dhamma Language “birth” and “death” can refer to purely mental events. They can refer to the rapid arising and ceasing of thoughts, ideas, and states of mind such as any of us may experience briefly, from time to time in the course of our daily round.

As just discussed, allowing for this second possible meaning of “birth” and “death” can provide a very different slant on the notions of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa. It can thereby yield a very different understanding of the entire Buddhist path of practice and its purpose. Possible physical rebirth in a different realm of existence perhaps in some heavenly abode, perhaps in some painful hellish realm comes to seem less relevant. Much more relevant for us is the very real likelihood of experiencing pleasant or painful mental states right here in this present physical lifetime. For this reason Buddhadāsa urges us to be more aware of the consequences of our thoughts and deeds in this present existence, and less concerned about possible reward or punishment in some far-off future existence.

Now, it may appear that such a shift of emphasis from the next life to the present one might have negative consequences, that it might deprive people of a source of hope for better times to come. There is something attractive and comforting about the idea of physical rebirth, of another life to come after the present one ends. Also, it can be argued that the prospect of reward or punishment in a future life provides a strong motivation for being a good person in this life rather than a bad person. In other words, it can be argued that the traditional understanding of “rebirth” the “rebirth” of Everyday Language has much value and therefore should not be discouraged.

Buddhadāsa freely acknowledges this. That is apparent from another talk/book of his, entitled Concerning Birth (English translation by Bhikkhu Dhammavidū, 2015). In fact he does not say that one should discard, or even disregard, the widely held Everyday Language understanding of rebirth. What he says is that, whichever aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is under discussion, one should take account of how it is understood not only in Everyday Language but also in Dhamma Language. This is made clear near the beginning of Two Kinds of Language, where he says:

It is essential always to interpret the Buddha’s teaching in terms of Dhamma Language as well as in terms of Everyday Language. Both meanings must be considered. […] “A wise person is one familiar with both modes of speaking.” (p. 3)

By drawing attention to the existence of Dhamma Language Ajahn Buddhadāsa offers us an extra window on to the Dhamma, an alternative vantage-point from which to view the teachings of the Buddha. When viewed from this second angle of vision, the Dhamma is seen in a wider perspective. Its true depth becomes more clearly apparent.



Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu. Two Kinds of Language. Translated by Ariyananda Bhikkhu [(Roderick S. Bucknell)]. Bangkok: Sublime Life Mission. 1974.

––––. Another Kind of Birth. A lecture delivered at Phatthalung, Thailand, on 16 July 1969. Translated by [Ariyananda Bhikkhu] (R[oderick S.] B[ucknell]). Bangkok: Sivaporn. [c. 1975]. 

––––. Concerning Birth. A Dhamma lecture presented on 7 August 1982 at Suan Mokkhabalārāma. (= Commonly Misunderstood Buddhist Principles Series - No. 4) Translated by Dhammavidū Bhikkhu (Kenneth Croston). Bangkok: Buddhadāsa Indapañño Archives. 2015.


Rod bucknell 8th ibrs