A Study of Buddhad?sa Bhikkhu’s Concept of Death before Death

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    Since ancient times, death is a mysterious problem that surrounds all human beings. In Buddhist teachings, dread of death can be defeated by facing and understanding the physical body as the characteristics of the Five Aggregates which are not our own selves, and then avoiding attachments by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. This thesis study proposes the concept of “death before death” taught by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu as a practice towards achieving the extinction of all defilements and suffering in this life here and now. This concept is known as “the death of attachment to the self-idea of I and mine.” The aim of this study is to study the real meaning of death (maraṇa), to analyze and criticize Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s concept of “death before death” as related to nirvana (nibbāna) the supreme goal of Buddhism; and also to compare his demythologization and his own hermeneutic method with the teaching that appears in Buddhist texts. This thesis study uses the descriptive and comparative method in order to reflect the ideas of various scholars of anthropology, sociology and phenomenology of religion through aspects of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s thought, in order to build bridges of intra-faith and inter-faith dialogues among people of different religions. In addition, this study also offers a practical method for adjusting our attitudes towards death taught by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu that is related to the pure nature of religious doctrine for delivering people of all religions from the world of materialism.


    Death before Death , Defilement , Dharma (Dhamma) , Nirvana (Nibb?na) , The Perfected One (Arahanta)

  • I. Introduction

    In every respect, this research has illustrated the relationship between the concept of death (maraṇa) and nirvana (nibbāna) the supreme goal of Buddhism, to enhance the understanding in the subject matter as well as apply the acquired knowledge of death to make a more worthwhile living in the current life. In addition, it reminds researchers to pay equal attention to all social classes. The reinterpretation of Buddhist texts by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu is the scope of this study, with an aim to compare various notions and opinions issued by different scholars.

    The contents are a discussion of the practical methodology of utilizing the Noble Eightfold Path as a way to overcome the fear of death and eliminate the attachment to self and become non-self. When a person truly conceives the definition of ‘self,’ which consists of matter (rūpa), sensation (vedandā), perception (saññā), mental formations (saṅkhāra), and consciousness (viññāṇa), it is proven that he or she can suppress self-adherence (attā) or the false idea of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ As a consequence, ignorance (avijjā) that is the main cause of suffering (dukkha) is quenched and liberation replaces it in life lived here and now.

    II. Buddhad?sa Bhikkhu’s Concept of Death Before Death

    According to Buddhist texts, “Herein, death (maraṇa) is the interruption of the life faculty included within (the limits of) a single becoming (existence)” (Ñānamoli Bhikku 1991, 225). Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu defines death based on his hermeneutic method designating two kinds of languages: everyday language (phasakhon), which is spoken by the ordinary people, and dharma (dhamma) language (phasatham), which is spoken by the people who learn dharma (dhamma). Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu explains the word death (maraṇa) through the two kinds of language as follows:

    Death is classified into two types, namely timely death (kālamaraṇa) and untimely death (akālamaraṇa). Timely death is determined by the accumulation of past merits, natural age and both. Significantly, volitional action (kamma) breaks it off. Thus, it is apparent that death happens to all lives anywhere, anytime and we are unable to avoid it.

    Accepting death as a normal part of life and understanding its distinctiveness requires heedful living. Buddha taught contemplate death at every moment of breathing in and out. Upatissa Thera, expresses his outlook on the Path of Freedom (Vimuttimagga), just as Buddhagosācāriya does in Purification (Visuddhimagga) that the benefits of mindfulness of death (maraṇasati) help those who contemplate constantly to enjoy the current benefits of living and confront their last moments in life with an untarnished mind.

    Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu unveils the proper method to contemplate death (maraṇasati), namely death before death (tai kawn tai) for commoners to adapt into their daily livings. Death before death (tai kawn tai) means the abilities to extinguish defilement (kilesa) and self attachment (atta) before the end of our lifespan. Ignorance (avijjā) is the source of arising self (atta). This self is illusory; however, it happens as the mind is being dominated.

    Today’s society in the world of globalization has become more materialistic hunger. People are strongly passionate (taṇhā) for wealth, success and etc. Controversially, people should understand the fact that satisfaction and dissatisfaction occur at times in life. When desire (taṇhā) is fulfilled unsuccessfully, it emerges as suffering in the mind. Moreover, when the mind is enslaved by the domination of materialism, it evokes greediness (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha). It thus is completely obsessed by self (atta). When craving or desire for a particular matter takes place, clinging (upādāna) plays a part. Therefore, the consciousness is considerably manipulated by the idea of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’

    Based on Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s viewpoint, when the sensing parts of the body, namely the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body are in contact with any forms of sound, vision, smell, touch and taste, the feeling (vedanā) is stimulated. Once the feeling starts to mark a level of satisfaction for something, the mind is developed into craving (tanhā) and overshadowed by the clinging thoughts (upādāna) of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’

    As a matter of fact, the false belief in the idea of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ cultivates the root of fear of death (maraṇa), which can be referred as the detachment from anything. However, what people fear most appears when they realize that they are going to be separated from their physicality, the so-called ‘I’ and ‘mine.’

    Two practical intuition methods are the resolutions to this problem: one is the natural method and the other is the organized system. Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu insists that all people are naturally given the ability to concentrate and develop peace of mind through the method of insight practice. This means that they ought to first realize that all matters and beings are worthless. Emptiness represents the remainder-less extinction of self. It is necessary to keep practicing the remainder-less extinction principle on a daily basis until the absolute remainder-less of self is continuously achieved. There is a possibility to prevail over death even if it is the person’s last second of life. If desire, passion, and feelings are all eradicated, peace and happiness will take place in the mind.

    Another insight to be elaborated is the organized training. Generally, this organized system for the insight training (vipassanā) includes nine steps of “the perfection of knowledge” in the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) and the Path of Discrimination (Paṭisambhidāmagga), all of which have been developed later-on by scholars.

    Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu pursues the methodical dimension offered in the Discourses of Mindfulness of Breathing (Ānāpānasaati Sutta) through practicing breathing meditation (Ānāpānasati-bhāvanā). This is undertaken with an emphasis on breathing in and out that is observed based on the sixteen stages of contemplation. When this type of meditation, called Ānāpānasati-bhāvanā is practiced, the threefold training that consists of morality (sīla), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā) will result.

    Both of these intuitively practical methods can help people to obliterate the ten fetters (saṁyojana), the mental impurities that bind human minds. The person who can destroy these ten fetters, grasp the noble path (magga) and fruition (phala) as well as reach the highest goal (nibbāna) is called the Perfected One (Arhanta).When the Perfected One (Arhanta) makes a contact with all forms of sound, smell, touch, sight and taste through his eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body, he is unaffected and all stimuli are ended at the moment of the contact (phassa). Hence, feeling (vedanā) does not develop craving (tanhā) but rather is capped. Despite being so, it is still concluded that no clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is no suffering (dukkha). The death encountered by the Perfected One (Arhanta) is without all sufferings (dukkha) and defilements (kilesa) as well as not being attached to physicality by the false conceptions of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’

    Melford E. Spiro, an American anthropologist who studied Theravāda Buddhism in Myanmar, proposes four systems of Theravāda Buddhism. They include Esoteric Buddhism, Apotropaic Buddhism, Kammatic Buddhism and Nibbanic Buddhism.

    The first system, Esoteric Buddhism, means the belief in a millennium of peace and happiness. The second system, Apotropaic Buddhism, means the use of magical and meritorious powers to avert and prevent evil. The third system, Kammatic Buddhism, means a religion of proximate salvation that is concerned with making and accumulating merits to better one’s next-life status or situation.

    These four systems are capped by Nibbanic Buddhism,considered to be a religion of radical salvation consisting of methods of achieving nibbāna within the current lifetime.

    Spiro claims that Nibbanic Buddhism can only be pursued by male and female monks who seclude themselves from the mundane world. However, the remaining three systems aim for most Buddhist target in the world. He insists based on his theories of Nibbanic Buddhism that there is a disconnection between Nibbanic Budhhism and the world; he claims that Buddha taught that the abandonment of worldly action is the way to achieve empty selfhood and the way to salvation (nibbāna):

    Based on Buddhadāsa’s notions, these systems are inseparable since there is a necessary relationship between Kammatic and Nibbanic Buddhism. He criticizes most Thai Buddhists for misconceiving the right approaches to making merits (Kammatic Buddhism); for example, they believe that donating money is good and it will bring them luck or take them to heaven or some better planets. Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu disagrees with the metaphysical aspects of this belief. He claims that heaven and hell can be identified through mental cognition that computes the happiness and suffering (dukkha) that a person experiences in their present life. Thus, it is theoretically believed that making merits will purify the mind and directs to salvation (nibbāna). He suggests that: “The meaning of giving dāna and donations is to relinquish, to end all grasping at and clinging to things as being I or mine” (Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu 1984, 41).

    Furthermore, he attributes that Buddha and the Perfected Ones (Arhanta) remain their contacts with the people in the secular society by inserting dhamma with the lesson of empty mind (suññatā) into their daily activities. Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu argues that:

    Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu emphasizes the natural process of mankind and the theory of emptiness of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ He describes the word ‘emptiness’ (suññatā) as freedom from all defilements (kilesa) and suffering (dukkha) and as nirvana (nibbāna). “The conditions of emptiness resulting from the complete and through eliminate of the self-idea is nibbāna. This can be summarized by saying, Nibbāna is supreme emptiness or Supreme emptiness is nibbāna(Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu 2007a, 99).

    The concept of emptiness (suññatā) of Mahayana and Zen Buddhism’s method of instruction, which is regarded as one of the core Buddhist lessons, draws our attention to find out why intra-faith dialogue are developed for different Buddhist schools. It is apparent that the dialogue is created with an aim to enhance their understanding of what Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu called “dhamma language.” He explains that Buddha gives a special gift to all laypeople in secular society: the lesson of valuing self-being as emptiness (suññatā). This is considered as an eternal benefit and welfare-enhancement for every householder. Nonattachment and envisioning the world as emptiness direct us to dispossession of ‘I’ and ‘mine’; as a subsequence, birth, senescence, illness, bereavement and whatsoever are no longer the tribulations for us. Minds without all defilements (kilesa) are extricated from suffering (dukkha).

    He defines that God, whom may be conceived as a person with power or as a condition, is not significant unless it is a beacon to end all sufferings (dukkha).

    This means that the tribulations that occur in different religions are unknown in the core education of their own religion and in the “dhamma language” (phasatham) that has reduced metaphysical aspects as it claims that ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are only perceived psychologically in accordance with how a person experiences happiness (sukha) and suffering (dukkha) in the mind at his present life. If this is understood and reaches the heart of all instructions, there will be no more differing formal religions but only the order of nature (dhamma). All religions have the same goal, which is to provide an intellectual and spiritual approach to helping people overcome suffering.

    III. Conclusion

    Although there are several viewpoints provided by scholars from different countries concerning the demythologization and the hermeneutic method presented as Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s theory of two kinds of languages, its actual purpose is to remind people to live their lives consciously with proper actions. The metaphysical aspects of religious doctrines are reduced and purified to prepare a way to improve the mental-quality of our contemporary lives.

    This teaching also helps people of all religions to denigrate materialism. The preacher’s objective presents a solution that directly solves the major problem of self-attachment that exists in all human lives. It becomes regarded as a stigmatization that leads the mind into struggles and makes us passionate for pride, selfishness, success, wealth and egoism. When the false idea of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is terminated and the person can envision the world as emptiness, he has mastered the core objective of the lesson. People can maintain their daily lives with happiness and mindfulness (sati) while benefiting others in their societies.

    In addition, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu proposes that feelings (vedanā) should be halted before it develops into craving (tanhā). However, prior to that, the contact (phassa) should first be prevented before it develops into feeling (vedanā). Moreover, there is a feasibility to overcome death despite of the last second of life. That is to prepare the mind and accept that death is the truth of life as well as abnegate the possession of self when death arrives. He suggests the principle of remainder-less extinction to be practiced on a routine basis until the absolute remainder-less of self is achieved. This has an aim to diminish the idea of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ Following is his supportive statement.

      >  Notes: Definitions of Terms Used


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