Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree - Preface

The Buddha’s Teachings on Voidness

The word suññatā has had a checkered history of interpretation and explanation since the Buddha’s time. Now that Buddhist books abound in English, and differing teachings and interpretations are offered as Buddhist, we need to bring the teaching of suññatā into its proper place at the center of Buddhist study and practice. This can only be done if we correctly understand the meaning and importance of suññatā. We hope that this little book will help. Here, we will explore it as it appears in the Pali texts of Theravāda Buddhism.

In the southern Thailand where Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu grew up during the early 1900s, Buddhism was inseparable from the culture. That traditional, peasant Buddhism provided the belief system that underlay conscious life, the moral structure that guided social relationships, and the answers to life’s difficult questions. The coming of rubber plantations, market economics, foreign experts, tourism, and modernism changed all that. The resulting capitalization and urbanization has all but destroyed the old social fabric and the moral belief system on which it was based. The old beliefs are not compatible with what is taught in the schools, on TV, and in government policies. Thai Buddhism has struggled ever since to remain true to its deepest spiritual roots and yet prove itself relevant to these modern realities. Even now, not enough people realize, as Ajahn Buddhadāsa did years ago, that only the timeless Dhamma of suññatā (and sister principles) can stand up to science and guide humanity in an era of great material and technological progress.

When Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu was a young monk (in the 1930s) senior monks discouraged sermons on principles and teachings such as not-self, dependent origination, thusness, and voidness (anattā, paṭiccasamuppāda, tathatā, and suññatā). Supposedly, these were too difficult for ordinary people to understand. For the masses, moral teachings based on ancient—and not particularly Buddhist—beliefs about karma, rebirth, merit, heaven, and hell were considered appropriate and sufficient. Thus, the most profound teachings of the Buddha were left out of public discourse, and few monks gave them much attention, although these words regularly cropped up in their chants and studies. Only a few free thinkers and curious young monks gave these terms much attention.

In his first year as a monk, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu spoke in his sermons of suññatā, because it was mentioned in his studies, but he did not fully grasp its significance. At that time, suññatā was generally explained as “vacancy, disappeared, nothingness,” and there were many superstitious beliefs associated with it. Only after coming across the Buddha’s many references to, and clear explanations of, voidness did Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu begin to understand its meaning and importance. He began to refer to it in talks more and more, even though senior monks had asked him to refrain from speaking about anattā, suññatā, and other “too profound Dhammas.”

In a 1991 conversation, Ajahn Buddhadāsa was asked why he found it necessary to go against the wishes of senior monks and teach suññatā. He replied, “Because this is the heart or nucleus of Buddhism: voidness of self (attā). It’s the essence, the quintessence of Buddhism, because most other teachings speak of attā. Buddhism teaches that there’s nothing that ought to be regarded as being attā.”

When asked whether anyone knew about suññatā, he answered, “We aren’t certain about that; terms have been used incorrectly. Suññatā was often translated into Thai as suñ plao (zeroness, vacancy, nothingness). Ordinary people and Abhidhamma fans liked to translate it as ‘emptyzero,’ as valueless or worthless. It was improperly translated because it was incorrectly understood. And because it was misunderstood, nobody gained any benefit from it. The Dhamma of this word had been lost. It ought to be understood simply as void of self, void from self.”

In this book, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu points out that the “heartwood,” the pith, the essence of the Buddhist teachings is the practice of nonclinging. It is living with a mind void of the feelings of “I” and “mine.” He masterfully shows us how to develop this practice and how to take voidness as our fundamental principle. When we do this, we have a wonderful tool for understanding and making use of every one of the many concepts and skillful means that lie within the Buddhist tradition. This tool also allows us to distinguish those things that are alien to Buddhism. Drawing fluently from material in the Pali Canon, Ajahn Buddhadāsa makes immediate and practical terms and concepts that often seem dauntingly abstract.

The text translated here represents the first time he took suññatā as the exclusive theme of a talk and spoke about it in great detail. At first, there was no controversy. Later, he began to explain suññatā in terms he thought anyone could understand; he began to speak of cit wāng, “void mind” (or “free mind”). Many traditionalists, scholars, and advocates of Western-style development took exception. As had happened before, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu was criticized in the newspapers and reviled from pulpits. “This is Mahāyāna, this isn’t Buddhism.” In the end, suññatā and cit wāng became well-known and, in many cases, correctly understood for the first time.

Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu has been branded a heretic, Mahāyānist, communist, and more. With these intended insults he smiles, confident that he is simply living up to his name—“Slave of the Buddha”—by carrying on the Buddha’s work. He knows that dogmatism and narrowmindedness cause dukkha, while suññatā frees beings from dukkha. The rigidly orthodox, thus, suffer themselves. Only those who are more practical and truly open-minded can serve the Buddha by teaching the Dhamma that quenches dukkha. Since his first unorthodox and controversial lectures in Bangkok during the 1940s, he has taught Buddha-Dhamma as he saw and experienced it, not as later traditions dictate. Instead, he has striven to remain faithful to the tradition of the Buddha’s original teaching. Unconcerned with narrow-minded sniping between Theravāda and Mahāyāna, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu seeks, rather, Buddha yāna, the Buddha’s vehicle, the original pristine Dhamma at the heart of all genuine and living Buddhist schools.

Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s method has been to search the Pali suttas (discourses of the Buddha) for the Buddha’s word. The task is not easy, for the scriptures are vast and the teachings many. Some of their contents seem out of place, or of temporary, limited value. Others fit together in a unified vision and practical understanding of human life that is timeless. This unitary Buddhism, which appears to be of the earliest date, can be uncovered through careful reflection and practice using certain key teachings as one’s guide. This book is about the most essential teaching of all, one which, when realized, will illuminate all teachings.

The book began as three Dhamma talks given in Thai by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu to the Buddha-Dhamma Study Club of Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok. The dates of the talks were December 17, 1961, January 7, 1962, and January 21, 1962. Later in 1962, they were transcribed and printed under the title Kaen Buddhasat (Heartwood of Buddha’s Teaching). This book has been reprinted many times since. In 1965, it was recognized by UNESCO as an outstanding book.

Kaen Buddhasat was translated into English in 1984 by an English monk who uses the pen name “Dhammavicayo.” This translation was then published by the Suan Usom Foundation in 1985 in honor of Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s seventy-ninth birthday (or “age teasing,” as he has preferred to call his birthdays).

This edition has been prepared with the permission and help of the original translator. The editor and various readers have made a number of small revisions, including some reorganization. In this process, the editor has consulted with Ajahn Buddhadāsa to better ensure the correct translation of his understanding of Dhamma.

A fresh look at the technical terms in this book has led to the inclusion of a number of Pali words in the text. We hope those readers who find this somewhat irritating or daunting will have the patience to stay with the argument and benefit from the points being made. In the past, it seems that a desire to make Buddhist works accessible to even the most general reader has led to unfortunate misunderstandings of even basic principles. Words like dhamma and dukkha have such a wealth of meanings and associations that no single English rendering could hope to do them justice.

We have included a glossary to help readers assimilate the Pali terms and more clearly understand Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s use of them. He has given a great deal of attention to the proper definition and practical explanation of Pali terms, and he often uses them with a new twist or insight. We hope that the glossary will help the reader to better appreciate his careful use of language.

Notes have been placed at the end of the book. We hope this supplemental information will aid the reader’s understanding of the text. In these notes, we have tried to give references to the Pali Canon where possible, following the designations of the Thai Tipitika. Unfortunately, we can refer to the Pali Text Society editions in some cases only, due to an incomplete reference library.

Finally, the editor would like to thank the friends who have helped with this new edition. First, to Dhammavicayo Bhikkhu, the original translator, for his help and support. Second, to Samanera Naṭṭhakaro for typing the manuscript and improving the editor’s grammar and punctuation. Then, very special thanks and anumondanā to Dorothea Bowen for her judicious and sensitive editing. Lastly, to Ven. Losang Samden, Nick Ribush, Kate Wheeler, and the other friends at Wisdom who have made this project a reality, more or less. And, of course, to Ajahn Buddhadāsa himself for the guidance of his teaching, the example of his life, and his patience in answering endless questions. Any errors are the responsibility of the editor, who begs the forgiveness of author, translator, and reader.

Santikaro Bhikkhu
Suan Mokkhabalārāma

How to cite this document:
© Evolution Liberation, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree (Wisdom Publications, 1994, 2014)

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