Buddhadasa on No Religion… and language

Biographical notes

[from his Wikipedia page]

He was born Nguam Phanit (Thai: เงื่อม พานิช; RTGS: Ngueam Phanit) in 1906 in Ban Phumriang, Chaiya District, southern Thailand. His father, Sieng Phānit, was a shopkeeper of second generation Thai Chinese (Hokkien) ancestry and his mother, Klaun, was Thai.

Buddhadasa renounced civilian life in 1926. Typical of young monks during the time, he traveled to the capital, Bangkok, for doctrinal training but found the wats [temples] there dirty, crowded, and, most troubling to him, the sangha corrupt, “preoccupied with prestige, position, and comfort with little interest in the highest ideals of Buddhism.” As a result, he returned to his native rural district and occupied a forest tract near to his village, founding Suan Mokkh in 1932.

In later years, Buddhadasa’s teachings attracted many international seekers to his hermitage. He held talks with leading scholars and clergy of various faiths. His aim in these discussions was to probe the similarities at the heart of each of the major world religions. Before his death in 1993, he established an International Dhamma Hermitage Center across the highway from his own retreat to aid in the teaching of Buddhism and other yogic practices to international students. The area of Suan Mokkh was expanded to approximately 120 acres of forest.

However, Buddhadasa was skeptical of his fame; when reflecting on the busloads of visitors to Suan Mokkh he would say, “sometimes I think many of these people just stop here because they have to visit the bathroom.”

Buddhadasa strove for a simple, pristine practice in an attempt to emulate Gautama Buddha’s core teaching, “Do good, avoid bad, and purify the mind.” He therefore avoided the customary ritualism and internal politics that dominated Siamese clerical life. His ability to explain complex philosophical and religious ideas in his native Southern Thai attracted many people to his wooded retreat.

His primary teaching mainly focused on the quiet awareness of one’s breathing pattern called anapanasati. However, his personal practice was very much grounded in advanced research and interpretation of early Pali texts on the one hand and on his radical private experimentation on the other.

Buddhadasa rejected the traditional rebirth and karma doctrine, since he thought it to be incompatible with sunyata [emptiness, voidness], and not conducive to the extinction of dukkha [suffering, dissatisfaction, etc.]

Buddhadasa, states John Powers – a professor of Asian Studies and Buddhism — offered a “rationalist interpretation” and thought “the whole question of rebirth to be foolish”. [Dang it Buddhadasa — just as I was getting my head round the idea!!. -__-;;] According to Buddhadasa, the Buddha taught ‘no-self’ (Skt anatman, Pali anatta), which denies any substantial, ongoing entity or soul. Powers quotes Buddhadasa’s view as, “because there is no one born, there is no one who dies and is reborn”. Therefore, states Buddhadasa, “the whole question of rebirth has nothing to do with Buddhism… in the sphere of the Buddhist teachings there is no question of rebirth or reincarnation”. [Fair enough though.] Its goal is nibbana, which Buddhadasa describes as a state “beyond all suffering that also transcends ordinary conceptions of happiness.”

Buddhadasa’s views have been “strongly criticized” and rejected by many of his fellow Theravada Buddhist monks with a more orthodox view of the Buddhist Dhamma. For example, Bhikkhu Bodhi states that Buddhadasa’s approach of jettisoning the rebirth doctrine “would virtually reduce the Dhamma to tatters… the conception of rebirth is an essential plank to its ethical theory, providing an incentive for avoiding all evil and doing good”, summarizes Powers.

“No Religion”

[full text available here]


Buddhadasa Bhikkhu sincerely believes that world peace is
possible, if humanity would only conquer the selfishness which is the
cause of all our conflicts and troubles.  Moreover, he insists that
the world’s religions are the most important vehicles for propagating
unselfishness.  In this book, he digs into the heart of selfishness,
namely, attachment to “I” and “mine,” and points to the unselfish
remedy. (…)
“No Religion” was originally a talk given to a Bangkok Buddhist
group in 1967.  (…)

The original talk was delivered spontaneously and informally.
While on some occasions Buddhadasa Bhikkhu prefers a more formal
style, when speaking with Dhamma friends and students he prefers to be
informal.  We have tried to maintain some of the flavor of the talk’s
style, for example, by using contractions and retaining some Thai

The Venerable Ajarn assumed that his audience was familiar
with the principle of not-self; however, this may be unfamiliar to
non-Buddhist readers. From the highest to the lowest forms and
phenomena of nature, nothing can be found which is truly a self, that
is, a lasting, separate, individual being.  All things–except for
Nibbana–are transient, conditioned, inherently unstable, and
liable to decay. Thus, everything is not-self (anatta) and void of
inherent selfhood.  Although this fact isn’t explained directly in the
talk, there are numerous examples which should help readers to deepen their
understanding of this key aspect of reality.

A key expression used in all of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s talks to
grab the attention of  Thai audiences is “tua-goo.”   Tua-goo” must be
translated as “I”, but the full connotations of the Thai word does not
come through.  Thai has literally dozens of forms for the first person
pronoun.  Of these, “tua-goo” is one of the most colloquial and in
many cases is considered vulgar.  Its use often implies anger on the
part of the speaker.  Its frequent use by the Venerable Ajarn strikes
the audience with great impact.  This impact is felt on many levels.
When he says “Suffering is caused by attachment to tua-goo” or
requests us to eliminate tua-goo,  it leads the listener to see how
the ego is an emotional reaction to stimuli and how selfishness always
results from it.  Finally, the listener may realize that ego is
basically a misconception and illusion.  Hence, the Venerable Ajarn’s
use of the word “tua-goo” can often startle the listener into a new
perspective, something that could never happen if he were to use any
of the more neutral first person pronouns.  As English has only one
form of the first person singular pronoun, all of these many shades of
meaning are lost in translation.  The translator has resorted to using
as many different words as possible (“I”, “self”, “ego”, etc.) in the
hope that perhaps one of them will stimulate the reader to a fresh
view of himself or herself.

                              ON VOIDNESS

             Do work of all kinds with a mind that is void
            And to the voidness surrender all of the fruits;
             Eat the food of voidness as the holy ones do,
           You’ll have died to yourself from the very start.

                                        Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

                            * * * * * * * *

                              NO RELIGION
                            27 January 1967
                     Suan Usom Foundation, Bangkok

I didn’t come here today to give any formal sermon or lecture,
but to have an informal chat among friends.  I hope that you all agree
to this, so that we can speak and listen to each other without
formality and rituals, even if our talk here becomes somewhat
different or unusual.  Further, I intend to speak only about the most
essential matters, important topics which people consider to be
profound.  Therefore, if you don’t listen carefully you may find it
difficult to follow and might misunderstand, especially those of you
who haven’t heard the previous talks in this series.  (As a matter of
fact, it’s also difficult for me, for with each new talk I must
maintain a connection with the previous ones.)

The last talk was called “What To Do To Be Void.”  This time I
intend to talk about “No Religion.”  If you find the subject strange
or incomprehensible, or if you don’t agree, please take the time to think
it over.  But remember, it isn’t necessary to believe or subscribe to
what I say right away.

When we meet together like this, I feel there is something
which prevents us from understanding each other and this thing is
simply the problem of language itself.  You see, there are two kinds
of language.  One is the conventional language that ordinary people
speak, what I call “people language.”

People language is used by the ordinary people who don’t
understand Dhamma very well and by those worldly people who are so
dense that they are blind to everything but material things.  Then,
there is the language which is spoken by those who understand reality
(Dhamma), especially those who know and understand reality in the
ultimate sense.  This is another kind of language.  Sometimes, when
only a few words or even just a few syllables are uttered, the
ordinary listener finds Dhamma language paradoxical, completely
opposite to the language he speaks.  We can call it “Dhamma language.”
You always must take care to recognize which language is being spoken.

People who are blind to the true reality (Dhamma) can speak only
people language, the conventional language of ordinary people. On the
other hand, people who have genuinely realized the ultimate truth
(Dhamma) can speak either language.  They can handle people language
quite well and are also comfortable using Dhamma language, especially
when speaking among those who know reality, who have already realized
the truth (Dhamma).  Amongst those with profound understanding, Dhamma
language is used almost exclusively, unfortunately, ordinary people
can’t understand a word.  Dhamma language is understood only by those
who are in the know.  What is more, in Dhamma language it isn’t even
necessary to make a sound.  For example, a finger is pointed or an
eyebrow raised and the ultimate meaning of reality is understood. So,
please take interest in these two kinds of language–people
language and Dhamma language.

To illustrate the importance of language, let us consider the
following example.  Ordinary, ignorant worldly people are under the
impression that there is this religion and that religion, and that
these religions are different, so different that they’re opposed to
each other.  Such people speak of “Christianity,” “Islam,” “Buddhism,”
“Hinduism,” “Sikhism,” and so on, and consider these religions to be
different, separate, and incompatible.  These people think and speak
according to their personal feelings and thus turn the religions into
enemies.  Because of this mentality, there come to exist different
religions which are hostilely opposed to each other.

Those who have penetrated to the essential nature of religion
will regard all religions as being the same. 
 Although they may say
there is Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Islam, or whatever, they will also
say that all religions are inwardly the same.  However, those who have
penetrated to the highest understanding of Dhamma will feel that the
thing called “religion” doesn’t exist after all.
  There is no
Buddhism; there is no Christianity; there is no Islam.  How can they
be the same or in conflict when they don’t even exist?  It just
isn’t possible.  Thus, the phrase “No religion!” is actually
Dhamma language of the highest level.  Whether it will be understood
or not is something else, depending upon the listener, and has
nothing to do with the truth or with religion.

I’d like to give a simple example of people language, the
language of materialism.  “Water” will suffice.  A person who doesn’t
know much about even the simplest things thinks that there are many
different kinds of water.  They view these various kinds of water as
if they have nothing in common.  They distinguish rain-water,
well-water, underground-water, canal-water, swamp-water, ditch-water,
gutter-water, sewer-water, toilet-water, urine, diarrhea, and many
other kinds of water from each other.  Average people will insist that
these waters are completely different, because such people take
external appearances as their criteria.

A person with some knowledge, however, knows that pure
water can be found in every kind of water.  If you take rain-water and
distill it, you will get pure water.  If you take river-water and
distill it, you will get pure water.  If you take canal-water,
sewer-water, or toilet-water, and distill it, you will still get pure
water.  A person with this understanding knows that all those
different kinds of water are the same as far as the water component is
concerned.  As for those elements which make it impure and look
different, they aren’t the water itself.  They may combine with water,
and alter water, but they are never water itself.  If we look through
the polluting elements, we can see the water that is always the same,
for in every case the essential nature of water is the same.  However
many kinds of water there may seem to be, they are all the same as far
as the essential nature of water is concerned.  When we look at things
from this viewpoint, we can see that all religions are the same.  If
they appear different it’s because we are making judgments on the
basis of external forms.

On an even more intelligent level, we can take that pure water
and examine it further.  Then, we must conclude that there is no
water, only two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.  There’s no water
left.  That substance which we have been calling “water” has
disappeared, it’s void.  The same is true everywhere, no matter where
we find the two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen.  In the sky,
in the ground, or wherever these parts happen to be found, the state
of water has disappeared and the term “water” is no longer used.  For
one who has penetrated to this level of truth, there is no such thing
as water.

In the same way, one who has attained to the ultimate truth
sees that there is no such thing as religion.  There is only a certain
nature which can be called whatever we like.  We can call it “Dhamma,”
we can call it “Truth,” we can call it “God,” “Tao,” or whatever we
like, but we shouldn’t particularize that “Dhamma” or that “Truth” as
Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, or
Islam, for we can neither capture nor confine it with labels or
concepts.  Still, such divisions occur because people haven’t yet
realized this nameless truth for themselves.  They have only reached
the external levels, just as with canal-water, muddy water, and the

The Buddha intended for us to understand and be able to see
that there is no person, that there is no separate individual, that
there are only dhammas or natural phenomena.  Therefore, we shouldn’t
cling to the belief that there is this religion and that religion.  We
added the labels “Buddhism,” “Islam,” and “Christianity” ourselves,
long after the founders lived.  None of the great religious teachers
ever gave a personal name to their teachings, like we do today.  They
just went about teaching us how we should live.

Please try to understand this correctly.  When the final level
is reached, when the ultimate is known,  not even man exists.  There
is only nature, only Dhamma.  This reality can’t be considered to be
any particular thing; it can’t be anything other than Dhamma.  It
can’t be Thai, Chinese, Indian, Arab, or European.  It can’t be black,
brown, yellow, red, or white.  It can’t be eastern or western,
southern or northern.  Nor can it be Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, or
anything else.  So please try to reach this Dhamma, for then you will
have reached the heart of all religions and of all things, and finally
come to the complete cessation of suffering.

Although we call ourselves “Buddhists” and profess Buddhism,
we haven’t yet realized the truth of Buddhism, for we are acquainted
with only a tiny aspect of our own Buddhism.  Although we be monks,
nuns, novices, lay devotees, or whatever, we are aware of only the
bark, the outer covering which makes us think our religion is
different from the other religions.  Because we have failed to
understand and haven’t yet realized our own truth, we look down upon
other religions and praise only our own.  We think of ourselves as a
special group and of others as outsiders or foreigners.  We believe
that they are wrong and only we are right, that we are special and
have a special calling, and that only we have the truth and the way to
salvation.  We have many of these blind beliefs.  Such ideas and
beliefs show that we are still ignorant,  very foolish indeed, just
like little babies who know only their own bellies. 
Tell a small
child to take a bath and to wash with soap to get all the dirt off;
the little child will scrub only her belly.  She doesn’t know to wash
all over.  She will never think of washing behind her ears or between
her toes or anywhere like that. She merely scrubs and polishes her
tummy vigorously.

In this same way as the child, most of the adherents of
Buddhism know only a few things, such as how to take and how to get.
Even while doing good, supporting the temples and monks, and observing
the precepts, their only objective is to get something, they even want
to get more in return than they gave.  When they make offerings, some
people expect back ten times what they gave, some a hundred times,
some a thousand, and some even more.  In this case, it would be more
accurate to say that these people know nothing at all, for they are
acquainted only with how to get and how to take.  That isn’t Buddhism
at all.  It’s the religion of getting and taking.  If ever they can’t
get or can’t take something, they are frustrated and they suffer.
Real Buddhism is to know how to get without getting and take without
taking so that there is no frustration and no suffering at all.

The word “die” provides another example.  In people
language, “to die” means that the bodily functions have stopped,
which is the kind of death we can see with our eyes.  However, “die”
in the language used by God has quite a different meaning, such as
when he spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden telling them not
to eat the fruit of a certain tree, “for in the day that you eat of it
you shall die” (Gen. 2:17).  Eventually, Adam and Eve ate that fruit,
but we know that they didn’t die in the ordinary sense, the kind that
puts people into coffins.  That is, their bodies didn’t die.  Instead,
they died in another way, in the Dhamma language sense, which is a
spiritual death much more cruel than being buried in a coffin.  This
fate worse than death was the appearance of enormous sin in their
minds, that is, they began to think in dualistic terms–good and
evil, male and female, naked and clothed, husband and wife, and so on.
The pairs of opposites proliferated making the pain very heavy, so
much so that their minds were flooded by a suffering so severe that
it’s impossible to describe.  All this has been passed down through
the years and inherited by everyone living in the present era.

The dualistic pairs are the basis of all attachment, so don’t
fall for their tricks.  Don’t attach to any of them.  Try to
understand that these things can never be seized and held onto because
they are impermanent, lack any real substance, and are not-self.  Try
to go about your business with a mind that is unattached.  Work with
a mind that clings to nothing and is free from all forms of
attachment.  This is called “working with a void mind.”

–The fourth, final, and most important line of the verse is”You’ll have died to yourself from the very start.”  We already have
died to ourselves–that precious inner “me” is gone–from the
very first moment.  This means that when we re-examine the past and
reflect upon it with clarity, mindfulness, and wisdom, we will know
for a fact that there never was a “person” or “individual.”  We will
see that there are only the basic processes of life (khandha), the
sensory media (ayatana),  the elements (dhatu), and natural phenomena
(dhammas).  Even the things we had previously clung to as existing no
longer exist.  They died in that moment.

Everything has died at the moment of their birth.  There never
was an “I” and there never was a “mine.”  In the past, we were stupid
enough to lug “I” and “mine” around all the time.  Now, however, we
know the truth that even in retrospect they never were what we took
them to be.  They’re not-me, they’re not-mine, the me-ing and my-ing
died from the very start right up to this moment.  They’re finished,
even in the future.  Don’t ever again fall for any “I” and “mine” in
your experiences.  Simply stop thinking in terms of “I” and mine.  So
you see, we needn’t interpret this verse to mean that we must
physically kill ourselves.  One has to be trapped in one’s ego to
understand it in such a way.  Such an interpretation is too physical,
too superficial, and too childish.

This “I,” this ego, is just a mental concept, a product of
thought.  There is nothing substantial or permanent upon which it’s
based. There is only an ever-changing process flowing according to
causes and conditions, but ignorance misconstrues this process to be a
permanent entity, a “self,” and an “ego.”  So don’t let attached
thoughts and feelings based on “I” and “mine” arise.  All pains and
problems will end right there and then, so that the body becomes
insignificant, no longer a cause of worry.  It’s merely a
collection of the five aggregates (khandha), functioning according
to causes and conditions, pure in its own nature.  These five
aggregates or component processes of life are naturally free of
attachment and selfishness.  As for the inner aspect, those
habits of desire and selfishness, try to do without them.  Keep
striving to prevent them from being born until the defilements and
selfishness have no more opportunities to pollute the
heart.  In this way, we force ourselves to die, that is, we die
through the elimination of polluting selfishness and defilements

Just don’t allow any egoistic consciousness, that’s
the meaning of “death” in Dhamma language.  Without anything
masquerading as “I” and “mine,” where can suffering take place?
Suffering can only happen to an “I” and its “mine.”  So you see,
possessing “I” and “mine” is the heart of suffering.  Should there be
some happiness, as soon as clinging comes in the happiness becomes
painful, yet one more way to suffer.

Ignorant people are always attaching to something; they don’t
know how to live without clinging to “I” and “mine.”  As a result,
even beneficial things are converted into causes of suffering.
Happiness is turned into pain; goodness is turned into pain; praise,
fame, honour and the like are all turned into forms of suffering.  As
soon as we try to seize and hang on to them, they all become
unsatisfactory, painful, and ugly.  Among good and evil, virtue and
sin, happiness and unhappiness, gain and loss, and all other dualistic
pairs, suffering inevitably happens whenever we attach to either pole
of one pair or another.  Clinging to one pole also traps us in its
opposite partner.

When we are intelligent enough not to cling or be attached to
any form of dualism, then we will no longer suffer because of these
things.  Good and evil, happiness and suffering, virtue and sin, and
the rest, will never be painful again.  We realize that they are
merely natural phenomena, the ordinary stuff of nature.  They all are
naturally void and so there is no suffering inherent in any of them.

These are the consequences of not having an ego, of not having
any “I” and “mine” in the mind.  Outwardly, we may say “I” and “my”
according to social conventions, but don’t let them exist in the  mind
or heart.  As St. Paul said, “Let those who have wives live as though
they had none, and those that mourn as though they weren’t mourning
. . . and those who buy as though they had no goods.”

Externally, we should behave the same as others do:  eat like
they eat, work like they work, and speak like they speak.  Speak in
their people language: “this is my house, this is mine.”  There’s
nothing wrong in using these words when necessary, but don’t let the
mind fall for them.  Leave such words outside, don’t let them into the
mind, don’t believe them.  We ought always to train ourselves this
way, that is, “mouth is one and mind another.”  The mouth says one
thing, but the heart knows otherwise.

Actually, this phrase is usually an insult used to
condemn liars and conmen, not something to be encouraged.  In the
end, however, it can be turned around and applied to a person who
really practices Dhamma, that is, whose external behavior conforms
with worldly conventions but whose internal reality is another
story.  While the external expressions actually take place, they don’t
manifest in the mind.  We call this, “mouth is one and mind another”
or “external and internal do not correspond.”  A behavior that we
used to condemn and try to abandon because of its dishonesty and
crookedness becomes the most noble and excellent form of speech.
Sometimes Dhamma language seems rather strange!

To be honest in both mouth and mind, that is, speech and
thought, is people language, not Dhamma language.  Ordinary people
demand that our words honestly reflect our thoughts, but when it comes
to the Dhamma language of the Buddha, we practice in the manner called
“mouth is one and mind another.”  In other words, the outside appears
one way, while the inside is the opposite.  Outwardly, in our speech
and actions, we may possess all the things that others possess, but in
the mind we possess nothing.  Inwardly, we are broke and bankrupt,
without a penny to our names.  So please remember this saying   –
“mouth is one and mind another” — in its Dhamma language meaning
of course, not in the people language understanding.  Please give it
some thought. 

Non-attachment, the highest Dhamma, is wonderful precisely
because anyone seeking it need not invest anything.  No money, gold,
or jewels are needed, not even a single penny.  According to people
language, nothing can be obtained without an investment.  If they
listen to people language, those who wish to gain merit, goodness,
or whatever must pay in money, silver, and gold, or invest their
labor.  If they listen to Dhamma language, however, the reality is
quite different.  The Buddha said that Nibbana is given free of
charge.  Nibbana–the coolness and peace experienced when
there’s no attachment–doesn’t cost a penny.  This means that we
can practice for the sake of Nibbana without spending any money along
the way.  Jesus said what amounts to the same thing.  He invited us to
drink the water of life for which there is no charge.  He said this at
least three times.  Further, he called us to enter eternal life, which
means to reach the state where we are one with God and therefore will
never die again. 

If we look carefully, we will see that the pinnacle, the most
excellent of things, which we get for free, is called “Nibbana” (as
well as by many other names).  Jesus called it “Life.”  This state in
which we currently exist is death.  Because everyone is dying, they
don’t reach God, they don’t reach the Ultimate.  Yet, if we follow the
teachings of Jesus we are born again at once.  After dying for so
long, we need to be reborn.  When we are born anew, we are born into
eternal life, which is true life.  The Buddha spoke in the same
fashion.  He said that we don’t realize that this existence is like
being dead, that is, that it’s suffering.  We must make the required
knowledge, we must awaken into a new world, newly born.  Then there
will be no more suffering.  To understand this is a fundamental