The first Buddhist monastery I ever stayed in was Wat Suan Mokkh Balaram in southern Thailand, which was set up and was still being led at the time by one of Thailand’s foremost monks and thinkers during the 20th century, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (the Slave of the Buddha).
That was in late 1990 and it was in fact unintended. For around six months I had been living in Sri Lanka, mainly at the Nilambe Meditation Center, and planning to return to India. When I applied for my visa however, with just ten days to go, I was turned down as I hadn’t been out of the country for the required six months.
So then I quickly had to find another destination, and I knew something about Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and the monastery, and that they had held inter-religious dialogues and so forth, which meant they would probably be open to someone who, although doing Buddhist meditation, was still not a committed Buddhist at the time.
I arrived in Bangkok about a week later, made my way to the train station and booked my ticket, had a quick look around town, and within a few hours I was on the overnight train to Chaiya in Surat Thani.
The trip was uneventful, but I always remember disembarking very early the next morning, and seeing monks walking eerily through the ghost town looking for alms. It was probably the first almsround I had seen, as it is still very rare for monks to go out for alms in Sri Lanka.
I got a tuk-tuk out to the monastery and was given a space in the dormitory, along with a hotch-potch of other Westerners and backpackers, and was told that if I wanted to stay there on a longer-term basis I would have to join the 10-day retreat which was starting in a few days time.
The retreat was at the newly opened, but still not completed, International Meditation Center about two kilometres from the monastery, and was a set retreat based on Ajahn Buddhadasa’s graduated teaching of Breathing meditation, which was solidly based on the original discourses.
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s leading Western disciple, the American monk Ajahn Santikaro, led the retreat, and the first few days went very well, but after that it seemed to get into areas which more or less novices were not able to go, ending on the last day with nibbana, which I can confidently say none of us got.
During the retreat we would go to the monastery in highly-disciplined single-file fashion every couple of days to hear a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Buddhadasa himself. At that time he was in his 80s, but still quite hearty, if not altogether healthy, and it was a rare opportunity to hear the teaching from the Master’s lips.
The talks were translated by Ajahn Santikaro who imnpressed me with his fluency in the Thai language: Ajahn Buddhadasa would sometimes be speaking for up to ten minutes at a time, and Tan Santikaro would still have no trouble translating it all.
After the retreat I stayed on at the monastery for another month or six weeks, before I heard that a friend of mine had gone down with cancer on the remote Indonesian island of Flores, where she was teaching radiography.
I spoke to Tan Santikaro about the situation and he advised that as Flores was but a hop, skip and a jump away I had better go and see her. Well that was the longest hop, skip and jump I ever made in my life, around 5,000 kilometres by train, bus and a couple of planes. By the time I got there it was already clear it was not cancer at all, but some other, more curable, problem.
However, having got there at such great cost I stayed on in Flores for about a month, before making the return journey and eventually ending up back in Suan Mokkh, where I made my second retreat and stayed on again for another month or so.
This period was my first real exposure to monastic life, and later, when I returned to Sri Lanka, instead of staying at the lay meditation center at Nilambe as before, I decided to go and stay at the Mahasi-tradition Kanduboda International Meditation Center, where I was eventually to ordain some four years later.
The film which follows must have been made around the time of my visits, it reviews in fairly comprehensive fashion, the life history of the great monk, his thought, and his impact on Thai Society and Buddhism.
The documentary contains rare photographs and footage from his childhood, and of his family, his early years in the Sangha in Bangkok, before his return to his home town, and video of Ajahn in his old age, around the time I saw him.
Ajahn Buddhadasa’s legacy still lives on and his influence is still felt in the Buddhist world, while his message of Dhammic socialism has been taken up by Sulak Sivaraksa amongst others.
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Some Stills from the Documentary