Before They Were Ajahns

Review of Sons of the Buddha by Kamala Tiyavanich.

Guy Armstrong
1 September 2007

Sons of the Buddha
By Kamala Tiyavanich
Wisdom Publications, 2007
304 pages; $18.95 (paperback)

Kamala Tiyavanich’s latest work, Sons of the Buddha, is the third in her series exploring Buddhism in Thai culture from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. This volume examines the early lives of three famous monks from the south of Thailand: Ajahns Buddhadasa (1906–93), Panya (short for Paññanada, b. 1911), and Jumnien (b. 1936). The author lovingly reconstructs their childhood and adolescent years as an evocation of the unique dharma strengths of each man. At the same time, she illuminates the culture of rural southern Thailand in those years, which was grounded in both Buddhism and what today we would call environmental values.

I found the book fascinating, in part because I have known all three men as teachers while understanding little of their backgrounds. Arriving at Wat Suan Mokkh in 1982 as a young monk, I found its abbot, Ajahn Buddhadasa, surprisingly attuned to Western sensibilities. He was open-minded, ecumenical, and critical rather than dogmatic in his thinking. My friends and I, still tinged with back-to-the-land yearnings from the 1960s, marveled when he told us, “Let nature be your teacher.” We had come from suburbia seeking this connection, whereas Buddhadasa had rejected Bangkok monastic life to establish his forest monastery near the town where he was born. Tiyavanich explores the close connection that each of these three men had to nature.

Growing up in a small town so close to nature, Buddhadasa learned early on about the uses of many local herbs and plants. In fact, during his childhood, many rural monks were expert herbalists, a skill that strengthened the bonds between the monks and the laypeople. As Buddhadasa explains, “All the local abbots…had to know about herbal medicine. No matter how late at night, if someone arrived to tell the abbot that somebody had this or that, he had to go, even if it was pitch black outside.…Naturally, people loved and respected them. If there was work to do at the wat [temple], people helped without questioning.” Sadly, Tiyavanich relates, “By the time of Buddhadasa’s death…two thirds of the dense forests in Thailand had been destroyed and many primary sources for herbal medicines had disappeared.”

It is probably coincidence, but it seems that each of the three ajahns profiled exemplifies a different aspect of the eightfold path. Ajahn Buddhadasa best represents pañña, or wisdom, through his clear and original review of the Buddha’s words, while Ajahn Panya represents sila, or conduct. Tiyavanich tells an amusing story about Panya as a young laborer. His work crew was going to celebrate by spending their wages in a nearby town. They crowded into a brothel and urged Panya to join them, but he was uncomfortable and wandered off to spend the night in a nearby temple. The next morning, he helped the monks by hauling water and washing dishes. When Ajahn Panya ordained me in 1982, I spent almost two months in his monastery near Bangkok. His presence was like that of good conduct: reliable, straightforward, and protective.

The third aspect of the eightfold path is samadhi, or meditation, and this is clearly Ajahn Jumnien’s domain. When Jumnien was not yet four, his father, an ex-monk of some accomplishment, forced him to learn meditation using the mantra Buddho. The child strongly resisted this training, preferring instead to daydream about playing outdoors. Most of us can relate to this mind in our own practice! But in Jumnien’s case, when his mind wandered to fantasies of flying his kite, his father would command sternly from across the room, “Jumnien! Don’t go thinking about flying a kite, or I’ll slap your head!” This training must have been effective, because it didn’t take long before Jumnien spontaneously entered a meditative absorption lasting about eighteen hours. His father understood the state his son had entered, but he couldn’t draw the child out. Jumnien was finally enticed to leave the absorption only by the sweet pleadings of his beloved mother. From then on, his father trained him in both meditation and shamanic healing, and by the age of eight he was already quite an accomplished herbalist and healer.

I have observed Ajahn Jumnien teach many times at Spirit Rock in California, where he comes every spring. You can feel his meditative attainments through his qualities of abundant joy and effortless energy. He has even been known on occasion to offer healing to a practitioner in the dharma hall.

Another common thread uniting the three childhoods seems to have been the presence of a loving or supportive relative in their lives. For Buddhadasa this was his easygoing father, who had a slightly dreamy, poetic temperament. For Panya it was his “two grandmothers” (in fact, one was his maternal grandmother and the other was her sister). These two women seemed to dote on Panya, and as a child he often slept between them in their bed. Their pet name for him was Doggie. They taught him to put his palms together and bow to his pillow before he went to bed every night. This instilled in him, he realized much later, the feeling of devotion that one comes to have for the Buddha and the dhamma. Once again, in a few brief sketches such as this, the author outlines the ways in which the dhamma, the family, and the culture worked together to train its young people in skillful ways of feeling and acting that serve both the individual and the community.

The move to monkhood seems to have been a natural step for each of these three young men. All three had spent time as temple boys, living in wats, serving monks, and learning to read and write. They were comfortable in the temple setting. Panya remarks that the temple, with all its rituals and festivities, was his “playground” as a child. Buddhadasa “never drank, never smoked, and never chased girls.” Jumnien walked barefoot and never wore a pair of sandals until he was thirty-six. Clearly renunciation was easier then, in part because there was less to renounce prior to GameBoys and MTV. In these times of increasing materialism in Thailand and the West, where will we find another generation of monks as dedicated as these?

Overall, Sons of the Buddha is very well researched and provides information not available elsewhere in English. However, I had two minor regrets while reading it. First, I wish that Tiyavanich had included some information on the meditation training of Buddhadasa and Panya, especially since Buddhadasa eventually became known as much for his meditation teaching as for his scholarship and writings. Second, I found Tiyavanich too unrelentingly critical of the Dhammayut reforms, which began in 1902 and brought temples nationwide under a Bangkok bureaucracy. One of those reforms, for which I felt some sympathy, banned the sport of Thai boxing from the wats, which at the time was practiced by many monks and abbots in the south.

While this book is a detailed and beautiful recreation of three notable lives, it is equally a song of praise for the culture of that time and place, one based in nature, community, ethical conduct, generosity, and close ties to the monastery, which has now been lost to the forces of development and commercialism. Tiyavanich skillfully traces the steps that led to this change, from the state’s takeover of Sangha control in 1902 to the forces of economic growth, captured in a government slogan from 1961: “Work is money. Money is work. This brings happiness.” This book is a joy to read and an inspiring reminder of our cultural possibilities; at the same time it is heartbreaking, because the path to the recovery of those deep values, in Thailand or elsewhere, is not at all apparent. Still, as a whole, Sons of the Buddha is uplifting and, at times, magical. It strengthens one’s faith in our human potential.