Saluting a pillar of buddhism

The Bangkok Post, Feb 1, 2011

Bangkok, Thailand -- For decades, Venerable Phra Brahmagunabhorn has offered a guiding light to Thai society through his writings on Theravada Buddhism

Although not in the best of health, Venerable Phra Brahmagunabhorn (P.A. Payutto) continues to write whenever he can summon up the energy, intent on pressing on with a mission that has consumed many years of his life: propagating a clearer understanding of the Buddha's teachings and of how followers can better integrate these into their daily lives.

<< Phra Brahmagunabhorn (P.A. Payutto)

For three months now, this revered intellectual, whom devout Thais usually address as Than Chao Khun Prayudh, has been afflicted with a severe stomach-related ailment. Doctors have so far been unable to come up with a definitive diagnosis. The elderly monk is receiving treatment for his symptoms but his stamina has suffered and he apparently finds it difficult to concentrate on his writing projects. Still, whenever he's having a good period he resumes the task and can often be found working at odd hours like 10pm or 2 o'clock in the morning.

During a recent two-day conference at Thammasat University, the deputy abbot of Wat Nyanavesakavan revealed how his superior has been coping with his condition.

''The sickness aside, he has a strong sense of determination to carry on his work,'' said Phra Khru Palad Suwattanaphrommakhun. ''There are so many things he would like to do. He said he does not have much time, so he'd better work against [with] the time he has.''

The conference at Thammasat was intended as a tribute to a man who is widely respected as the authority on contemporary Thai Theravada Buddhism. The low turnout, with only a couple of hundred participants attending the two-day event, does not reflect on the vast contribution the 72-year-old has made to Thai society and Buddhist scholarship. Over the course of several decades, Venerable Payutto has penned more than 300 titles on the relevance and applicability of Buddhism to numerous fields of study and current social issues.

Buddhadhamma, a comprehensive tome on the Tripitaka (Buddhist canon) which has been constantly revised and expanded since its first print run, is considered a classic of its kind. Phra Khru Palad Suwattanaphrommakhun revealed that his abbot is still considering whether to add two or three more chapters to Buddhadhamma and that he also wants to write a pocket-sized edition of the Tripitaka since this is the only one of three long-cherished book projects that he has yet to turn his hand to. The other two _ Thammanoon Cheewit (Constitution of Living) and Ammaritta Pojjana (Words of Wisdom in Buddhism) _ have already gone into several reprints. For these, as for all his other publications, the author has declined to accept any royalties.

The primary drive behind this prodigious literary output is clearly not financial reward; it is a strong desire to raise the institution of Buddhism and Thai society in general from the state of decay into which both have sunk. Every sector of our society, inside as well as outside monastery walls, has become steeped in moral decadence to the point of corruption. But neither his frail health nor his scholastic background has ever prevented Venerable Payutto from standing up for what he believes to be the correct interpretation of Buddhist tenets. During the course of several crises in the religion in years past, he has employed his profound knowledge of Buddhist scriptures to serve as a voice of reason and thus a guiding light for the parties at loggerheads with each other.

Jayasaro Bhikkhu, another much-respected monk, had this to say of him:

''The Venerable is a pacifist. He never shows any vengefulness. But in performing his duty to protect Buddhism, he has sometimes had to make statements that may displease some people. Like when he pointed out the distortions by certain schools [of thought] ... for that he had to adopt straightforward language. However, in all of his cautionary statements we can sense only his love of rightfulness. There is no hint whatsoever of condescension towards or abhorrence of those who have committed wrong deeds.

''His etiquette and proper choice of content and language make him a great communicator. As a representative of the Thai Sangha [Buddhist monkhood] in doing the analysis [of certain issues], he was occasionally subject to slander; however, he took it in his stride as some thing that may happen to those who perform their duty, and he did not retaliate and make things worse. For the Venerable, one's personal image is not as important as the [integrity of] Dharma.''

Another area which Venerable Payutto deems to be of the utmost importance is the manner in which the basic concepts of Buddhism are inculcated in lay people, especially the young. He has frequently decried the lack of religious instruction from a Buddhist perspective in the Thai education system. In several books and talks on dharma he has also called attention to the large number of Thais who profess to be Buddhist yet have a very poor grasp of the tenets of their religion _ not to mention an inclination to put the teachings into practice in their own lives.

For Venerable Payutto, education is key to human development and thus the betterment of society. But what he means by ''education'' is not just the amassing of knowledge, piecemeal, for reasons of personal advancement, often at the expense of others. In recognition of his outstanding contributions in this field, Unesco presented him with its Prize for Peace Education back in 1994, making him the first Asian to be so honoured.

During the recent conference at Thammasat, administrators from three Bangkok schools who have pioneered the incorporation of withee Phut _ ''the Buddhist way'' _ into the curriculum, took turns sharing their experiences and insights.

Prapaphat Niyom of Roong Aroon School conceded that the new generations have changed greatly in their outlook and way of life because many of them have become accustomed to material comforts and instant gratification of their every need. What her school has tried to do, she said, is instil in young minds an awareness of the interconnectedness between individuals and the world around them through real-life situations. She gave as an example the fact that, during the last major spate of flooding, her students joined a team of volunteers to help victims of the disaster. Every year, the older students are taken on an environment-themed outing to Chaiyaphum to raise awareness of the need to conserve the Lampathao watershed. There, they are exposed to the hardships endured by people living outside their immediate social circle, Prapaphat continued, and so they usually return from the trip with a better appreciation of things they used to take for granted.

An approach like this can work well if there is close collaboration between teachers and parents, noted Buppasawat Ratchatatanant from Thawsi School. Parents are expected to attend several dharma training sessions organised by her school every year and to play an active role in the long-term process of educating their offspring. Buppasawat pointed out that students absorb lessons better if the information is integrated in a natural way into their daily life and thus at her school every little detail has been designed to encourage pupils to be self-reliant while also being more ready to offer help to others. Even kindergarten tots are trained to take care of themselves, be it making up their own day-beds or feeding themselves at lunchtime. She observed that her young charges seem to have lots of fun but also exhibit more self-respect and self-discipline, especially when using modern technology.

Anintitra Posakrissna from Siamsaamtri School noted that it was a lot easier to take the withee Phut approach with younger than with older children. Very young children have the potential to learn even the highest level of dharma, she cited the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu as once saying. In Anintitra's view, a Buddhist approach to education would be the best way to develop a future generation of young people that will be able to withstand the tides of self-interest and consumerism and live peacefully with others. So far, she said, about 20,000 schools around the country have adopted the so-called Buddhist curriculum to varying degrees.

While children lie at the very heart of education, as Venerable Payutto once put it, the responsibility of shaping their future rests with the adults:

''We have to prepare our people to be ready: as Buddhists we must learn to lead the best lives possible even in the worst of societies. But it is not only for the sake of our own survival. We must be able to guide the change toward the good.

''The new dawn of children's education is the beginning of hope of every family, society and the entirety of humanity, since it will reassure us that a human who has been well developed will certainly be able to preserve the dharma and guide the world toward peace.''

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