A revered monk who had the ear of the people

by Thanong Khanthong, The Nation, October 12, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- The death on Wednesday of 96-year-old Phra Panyanandha Bhikkhu, one of Thailand's most revered monks, reminded me of a recent incident.

About two weeks ago I had a brief conversation with the coffee shop manager near my office. She told me she had just received a Jatukham Ramathep amulet. But she was not very excited about it.

"How did you get it?" I asked curiously.

"Well, I went to place an order for one at a booth over there. The guy told me, 'Just bring me a cup of ice tea and you may take this Jatukham in exchange'," she said.

What a big fall from grace for the Jatukham amulet after all the craze and rumours over the past two years about its miracle ability to create instant supernatural power. Some of them used to sell for several hundred thousand baht, others tens of thousands of baht. Now, apparently, one is worth the price of a cup of tea.

Throughout his long and active life in the monk-hood, Phra Panyanandha witnessed, and fought against, all kinds of claims about supernatural powers, sacred amulets, auspicious stars, spirit houses and fortune-telling. Although he could not remove all the ignorance and the superstitious beliefs from Thai society, he helped revive wisdom among millions of Thais through his basic Dhamma teaching.

Unlike his mentor the late Phra Buddhadhas Bhikkhu, who focused on Dhamma teaching at the metaphysical level, Phra Panyanandha sought to educate common Thais about Buddhism at a community level through his oral teaching. He used easy language and his exceptional wit to both edify and enliven his audience.

Phra Buddhadhas, who passed away in 1993, was a reformist who interpreted Buddhism in its strictest and purest form. He studied thoroughly the Pali text of the Buddhist canon, the Tripitaka, and based his Buddhist teaching on its real essence. He advised Phra Panyanandha to follow suit by studying Pali and approaching the Buddhist canon in its original text.

While Phra Buddhadhas taught Buddhism at the highest level, Phra Panyanandha elected to focus on Buddhism as a community service. One needs to rely on the highest wisdom to understand Phra Buddhadhas's metaphysical teaching. But Phra Panyanandha's teaching was always straight to the point, easy to understand and never ambiguous.

He was the first monk to break the tradition of preaching on an elevated chair. He preferred to stand on a bench to preach before his audience and get closer to them.

Traditionally, a sermon is conducted with rich rituals. A monk will climb up to sit on a huge, beautifully crafted chair, which looks like a throne. He will hold a leaf, on which Buddhist texts are written, with both hands. A Thai orchestra will perform an overture. Before the real sermon takes place, a leader from the audience will say a prayer in Pali. Then the monk will start his sermon, beginning with several phrases or sentences in Pali. The monk will not hesitate to use a lot of difficult Pali words during the sermon.

Phra Panyanandha did away with all of this ritual. During the early period of his monkhood in Nakhon Si Thammarat, he organised a sermon behind the railway station there. He stood on a bench, dispensed with special rituals and spoke out loud to his audience in the ordinary language that they immediately understood. He continued this style of preaching and he quickly gained fame.

Phra Buddhadhas and Phra Panyanandha were not interested in rituals or traditional practices associated with Buddhism. They went right to the heart of Buddhism, interpreted the original text in its pure form and practised the Buddha's teaching with the highest discipline.

Phra Panyanandha had a unique style of preaching that at times offended some of his audience. When he preached to a village where there were a lot of owners of fighting bulls, he said: "They look after the bulls much better than they take care of their parents. They take the bulls for a bath and give them everything. But to their parents they never give anything at all."

Some of his audience was offended. They felt that Phra Panyanandha had lambasted them and did not spare their face. Yet Phra Panyanandha preached in line with Buddhism, which teaches people to look after their parents.

Phra Panyanandha's aim was not to lead Thais to redemption or nirvana. That would be too ambitious as well as impractical. While Phra Buddhadhas spoke to the learned, Phra Panyanandha spoke to the common people. Throughout his life he concentrated on restoring peace to society through the Buddha's teaching and correcting misunderstanding about Buddhism. Most important of all, he wanted to eradicate ignorance and superstition among Thais.

For this reason, Phra Panyanandha was a popular monk, who aimed for community service. His death has left a big vacuum in Buddhism in Thai society as Thais appear to be moving away from the essence of Buddhism to embrace superstitious beliefs and icons they believe will provide them with a quick fix to their present problems.