I step out of the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives to the muggy dusk of Bangkok’s rush hour. I am blissful right now for the opportunities PacRim effortlessly hands out, for the way it is changing my thinking.
I negotiate with a taxi driver in front of the building in hopes of a quick lift to the nearest sky train station, so that I may commute alongside Bangkok-ites in the cross-city trek back to the hostel. We had only one full day in Bangkok, and as a large part of my Independent Research Project concerns Thailand, I figured I would use the day for some final in-country research collection before we move along to Indonesia.
My research is on wilderness monks in Buddhist traditions in Japan and Thailand, how these traditions emerged within each country’s cultural and religious climate, how they have transformed and sustained, and how varying forms of asceticism have materialized in a religion that was born as a departure from the Hindu asceticism of Brahmins, with the Shakyamuni Buddha as exemplar of a new Middle Way that equally avoided the extremes of indulgence and severe austerities. In this seeming inconsistency of Buddhist ascetics who take to mountains and forests lies my interest. While research in Japan and Thailand has taken me to some of the sacred natural areas in which these Buddhist ascetics practice, in following the threads of Buddhism’s wilderness traditions, I have also found myself in museums, city temples and monasteries, university departments, and now, an archive in the northwestern corner of Bangkok.
In both Japan and Thailand my research has roughly organized itself into the wilderness traditions themselves, and the monks and historical figures within these traditions that cannot be overlooked. The latter categorization explains my visit to the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives, which would be the only opportunity for my own direct research concerning Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, arguably the most influential Thai Forest Tradition monk in the 20th century. Suan Mokh, the monastery he established, is south of Bangkok on the Malay Peninsula, unfortunately too far out of reach for me to pay a visit during our time in Thailand. Buddhadasa revived the Forest Tradition through his teachings, which he based on his own experiences wandering through the forest on meditative retreats.
With art displays, a small museum exhibit, and an extensive reading room including not only every written work by Buddhadasa, but also related works, the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives brought attention to the forest origins of Buddhadasa’s teachings. The archive building sits on the edge of a park, with a forest garden and a series of wall sculptures recounting the story of Buddhism’s arrival in Thailand skirting the entrance. Another garden sits on a second story terrace of the archive building, with a Buddha image framed by two rows of trees. The exhibit on Buddhadasa’s contribution to Buddhism in Thailand leads to an open space overlooking the park’s lake, with meditation pillows scattered and natural wood vertically lining the room, in emulation of the forest meditators’ settings. I sit down to meditate, overlooking the lake and the forested park beyond it.
Buddhadasa found resonance between Buddhism and his deep reverence for the natural world. He based Buddhist teachings as well as education philosophies off of his love of the forest. He popularized the ordination of trees, an initially radical practice that ordained trees as monks so that they would not be cut down. He later came to the forefront of Buddhist socialism, and is regarded by most all Buddhists as the founder of socially engaged Buddhism. Buddhadasa not only revivified the Thai Forest Tradition in Thai society, he also rendered Buddhism more engaged in the dilemmas of contemporary human existence.
My day spent pouring over volumes at the archive center pulled me into research bliss again, as I have also found in interviews and adventures to sacred natural spaces at other points in my research process. While I have so much gratitude for the classes we’re taking on PacRim, I also find myself wishing I could pour all my time into following my research findings to new places and pursuing new ideas to great extent. The compromise, of course, is ideal, to explore the realm of individual research while also having the more structured learning of our PacRim courses. What I have found, in particularly valuable hikes or interviews, is the excitement to pursue this type of learning, and a deep appreciation for my exposure to it in the moment.