Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Thailand’s most famous monk and one of the 20th century’s most influential ascetic-philosophers, was born Nguam Panich in Chaiya, Surat Thani in 1906. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk at age 20, taking the name ‘Phra Indapanno’. He spent many years studying Pali Buddhist scriptures before retreating to the forest for six years of solitary meditation. Returning to ecclesiastical society, he was offered a high rank but instead founded his own forest monastery, Wat Suanmokkhabalaram, in 1932 as an alternative to orthodox Thai monasteries. Here he developed an ecumenical philosophy that comprised Zen, Taoist and Christian elements as well as the traditional Theravada schemata. He changed his name to ‘Buddhadasa’ – Pali for ‘Servant of the Buddha’.
During Thailand’s turbulent 1970s, many Thai nationalists branded the monk a communist because of his sharp critiques of capitalism, which he saw as a catalyst for greed. Meanwhile, religious scholar Donald K Swearer compared Buddhadasa to the early Indian philosopher Nagarjuna for his reformist efforts. The great monk passed away in July 1993 after a long illness but his legacy lives on in the 120-hectare monastery and adjacent international meditation centre he founded in Chaiya.
In 2010, a private foundation opened Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives, an ambitious facility in Bangkok’s Vachirabenjatas Park – more commonly called Railway Park (Suan Rot Fai in Thai) near Chatuchak Weekend Market – to archive the monk’s prestigious literary legacy. The centre is sometimes referred to as ‘Suanmok Bangkok’.
In keeping with Buddhadasa’s penchant for Zen teachings, the archives feature clean and simple lines, alternating unpolished and polished concrete in grey and black. An artificial lake along one side of the building adds a cooling effect. The structure almost ‘floats’ on the pond and breezes from the water are drawn into open-side pavilions and verandas attached to the archives.
The only exterior decorative features consist of large terracotta plaques, facsimiles of didactic 2,000-year-old bas-reliefs found at the grand Buddhist stupas of Sanchi, Bharhut and Amaravati in India. On the day we visited, a traditional Thai music ensemble performed outdoors in an amphitheatre in one of the pavilions. The curved wall along the back of the amphitheatre is also decorated with terracotta bas-relief plaques, along with an over-sized copy of the famous Srivijaya Buddha figure from Chaiya.
Volunteers dressed in white stroll the grounds daily, natural approach to dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings). Printed publications are available in the ground-floor Dhamma Books & Media. In addition to many titles by Ajahn Buddhadasa, the shop carries books by Ajahn Cha, Ajahn Pasanno, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ajahn Jayasaro and Phra W Vajiramedhi. Most are in Thai, but there is a smattering of titles published in English, Spanish, French and German.
On the second floor are two meditation rooms with large windows that provide stunning views over the park. A veranda outside the meditation rooms is decorated with a collection of photographs and enlarged reproductions of verses composed and hand-written by Ajahn Buddhadasa. Other Buddhist art is also exhibited on the walls of this floor, including temporary exhibits.
The third floor is occupied by meeting rooms, reading rooms and the main archives, where a comprehensive collection of Buddhadasa’s original writings – including letters, poetry and journals – is archived. In total, it is estimated that the archives include 20,000 items classified as text, along with 50,000 drawings and 1900 gigabytes of voice recordings. The Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives Foundation is in the process of converting all the documents into digital format and storing them on a database that will be made available online to members of the general public.
Also on the third floor is a connected series of rooms containing large interactive exhibits. A pebbled walkway leads to the main room, dimly lit so that video projections – such as one showing drops of water going in and out of a pond – may be more comfortably viewed. The floor is strewn with meditation cushions and visitors are invited to sit down and quiet their minds while contemplating concepts of nibbana. A veranda accessed by automatic glass doors overlooks the lake, and is a good place for walking meditation.
Bulletin boards on the ground floor post upcoming activities and events. One of the most prominent regular events is the Sunday morning “Dhamma in the Park” series, consisting of dhamma talks by visiting monks, discussion sessions organised by the Buddhadasa Book Club, along with meditation, Tai Chi and yoga workshops.
Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives (BIA)
Kamphaeng Phet 1 Rd, Railway Park, Chatuchak District
02-936-2800 | bia.or.th