“Sons of the Buddha,” by Kamala Tiyavanich
In Sons of the Buddha Kamala Tiyavanich shows how the early experiences and upbringing of three Thai boys led to their developing into powerfully influential figures in the Theravadin world.
All Buddhist masters were once children, just like you and I. In Sons of the Buddha Kamala Tiyavanich shows how three prominent Thai Buddhists of the 20th century — Ajahns Buddhadasa, Panya, and Junmien — were shaped by the social, religious, and political standards of their youthful years.
Using their own words and other source material (listed at the end of the text) Tiyavanich crafts three parallel stories to provide readers with an engaging portrait of southern Thai Buddhism before the modernization and Westernization of Thailand. The introduction sets the stage by providing a significant view of each Ajahn’s (Bhikkhu’s) impact on the modern state of Thai Buddhism. We see how each became an active teacher, took a stand for greater morality, and how each reinvigorated the use of everyday experience in teaching the Buddha-Dhamma.
Starting with Ajahn Buddhadasa, likely the most well known 20th century Thai bhikkhu to those of us in the West, we learn of his parents, their place in society, his childhood in the village, and something of the social structure of that period on the southern Thai peninsula.
Junmien’s father insisted he practice meditation while still a young boy, intent on teaching him the mental discipline he believed necessary for success in life
As an infant Buddhadasa was named Ngaum (“cave high up on a mountain”) by a respected monk. We learn that young boys often spent a significant amount of time at the local Wat (monastic temple) and often lived there for a significant amount of time, working to help maintain the Wat by cooking and cleaning. This was often the boys’ first opportunity to get any formal education. It was only later, when Ngaum had become a Bhikkhu that he was given the name Buddhadasa (servant of the Buddha). As with most young men at the time Ngaum entered the monastery for a temporary period at age 20. Yet, because of his parents being shopkeepers and having books, Ngaum was already well read and practiced in debating Dhamma when he entered the monastery. He found life as a monk suited him, and his Dhamma talks were very well received by the elder residents.
Ajahn Panya (boyhood name Pan) was still a young monk when he came to Ajahn Buddhadasa’s forest monastery for the rains retreat in 1936. The two bhikkhus became friends and maintained their friendship until Buddhadasa’s death in 1993. His boyhood was filled with stories told by his grandmothers, and in this way he learned a great deal of “folk wisdom” which, at that time was full of tales illustrating morality (sila). As a young man he tried making his fortune in the world outside his village and wherever he would find work he would quickly learn that this was not for him. Time and again his path would lead him to the local monastery of the region. Eventually, he learned that the life of a monk was what best suited him.
The author does not indicate that Ajahn Junmien’s life path crossed that of Buddhadasa or Panya except in that his story shares many parallels with that of the others. Junmien’s father insisted he practice meditation while still a young boy, intent on teaching him the mental discipline he believed necessary for success in life. He also taught Junmien many gathas (invocations) that could be used to see the him through difficulties in life. Because of his father’s strong influence Junmien developed great courage and ability at whatever he undertook. At one point the author relates that Junmien was singled out by his parents from his five siblings, for they felt he had the greatest potential of all their children. Their expectations of him where much higher and they pushed him much harder than the other children. From age eight Junmien began studying any books available at the local monastery, eventually working his way through much of the Tripitika before becoming ordained.
There is humor, sadness, and an abundance of lessons in this seemingly simple narrative.
The stories are engaging, and while reading Sons of the Buddha the pages flew by. I was continually brought to consider my own rural boyhood, to compare my early experience with that of Ngaum, Pan, and Junmien. Their family relations, their trials, and their mischief are all related to who they became as Buddhist monks. I too find that in looking back to my boyhood there were formative conditions and experiences that are still producing fruit now that I’m walking the Buddhist path.
Sons of the Buddha is not an overtly didactic book. There is humor, sadness, and an abundance of lessons in this seemingly simple narrative. Kamala Tiyavanich weaves three life-stories together, not always gracefully or with the polish of a seasoned storyteller, but effectively showing the salt and grit of three boys’ rough-and-tumble experience. It is an enjoyable read pointing to the value of reflecting on one’s upbringing — pointing to the Dhamma that is in each of our lives if we take the time to look and consider how we’ve come to be who we now are.
Title: Sons of the Buddha: The Early Lives of Three Extraordinary Thai Masters
Author: Kamala Tiyavanich
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, 2007
Priyamitra was ordained in the Western Buddhist Order/Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana in 2005.
He lives in Spokane, Washington where he is active as a prison Dharma volunteer.
In February and March 2009 he will be fulfilling a life-long ambition of going on pigrimage in south Asia.