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  • Buddhadāsa: Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand
  • Steve Odin
Buddhadāsa: Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand. By Peter A. Jackson . Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2003. Pp. 375.

Buddhadāsa: Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand by Peter A. Jackson is a splendid work that critically examines the life and thought of Buddhadāsa Bikkhu (1906-1993), modern Thailand’s most profoundly original and influential, as well as controversial, Buddhist philosopher. Yet one of the most valuable contributions of this volume is how it discloses the radical influence of Zen Buddhism on the otherwise conservative Theravāda Buddhist teaching and practice of Ajahn Buddhadāsa. Jackson’s study comes as a revelation when it discusses Buddhadāsa’s endeavor to reinterpret Theravāda Buddhist theory and practice based on the Pali canon from the standpoint of Zen teachings from China, Japan, and Vietnam. Furthermore, he considers the strong critical reactions to Buddhadāsa’s Zen reformulation of Theravāda doctrine by more traditional Thai Buddhist monks and scholars. The focus of Jackson’s study is to show, by using his Zen-inspired reinterpretation of Theravāda thought based on the idea of chit wang or “void mind,” how Buddhadāsa sets forth a new vision of Thai Buddhism as a socially, politically, and intellectually progressive force leading to modernism, reform, and socioeconomic development.

‘Void Mind’ and Buddhadāsa’s Zen Reinterpretation of Theravāda Buddhism

Throughout his study Jackson underscores how one of the most distinctive contributions of Buddhadāsa to Theravāda scholarship is to have immersed himself in the Pali canon, searching for the Buddha’s own teachings on suñña or “void,” and suññatā or “voidness.” He thereby attempts to demonstrate how the fundamental doctrine of Theravāda Buddhism, like Mahāyāna Buddhism, is the doctrine of voidness. However, Jackson then makes clear that the cornerstone of Buddhadāsa’s original reinterpretation of Theravāda Buddhist philosophy is the Zen-inspired notion of chit wang, void mind:

The theoretical pivot of Buddhadāsa’s reinterpretation of Theravada doctrine is the notion of chit wang, “voided-mind” or “freed mind”. . . . But while Buddhadāsa’s interpretation of chit wang is based on notions found in the canonical literature, in particular the notion of suññatā or “voidness,” it has not historically received much attention in Theravada Buddhism. Suññatā or chit wang has in general been a secondary concept used to explain more central notions such as anattā, nonself, and anicca, impermanence.

(p. 69)

It is explained that suñña, or void, and suññatā or voidness, rendered by Buddhadāsa into Thai as chit wang or void mind, itself denotes a liberated buddha mind freed of egoism. Because of the peripheral character of the notions of voidness and void mind in the traditional reading of the Pali canon in Thailand, Buddhadāsa cannot justify his [End Page 221] emphasis on them by referring to either the Thai tradition of scriptural interpretation or the later commentary literature used to support that tradition. He therefore goes on to clarify the Zen justification for this emphasis on the doctrine of void mind to reinterpret Theravāda doctrines:

In placing chit wang at the centre of his presentation of Theravada doctrine, Buddhadāsa has in fact drawn heavily on Mahayana and Zen Buddhist teaching.

(p. 69)

Hence, in chapter 7 of this volume, “Chit Wang and Zen,” Jackson expounds in detail how Buddhadāsa uses Zen to reformulate the Theravāda doctrines of Thai Buddhism in terms of void mind (pp. 177-200).

As will be examined below, Buddhadāsa’s middle-way notion of chit wang or void mind, like the Buddha’s own notions of suñña or void and suññatā or voidness, resists any form of eternalism or substantialism in that it designates a psychological void, not an ontological void functioning as a substratum underlying all things. Moreover, again like the Buddha’s own notions of suñña or void, and suññatā or voidness, in their specific meaning of anattā or nonself, Buddhadāsa’s Zen-inspired idea of chit wang as void mind does not signify...