When the Dalai Lama visited Ajahn Buddhadasa…

Last week, I received an email from an organiser for a  network of travellers, who have spent time in Dharamsala, India. She suggested we send a recollection of any connection with the Dalai Lama to form a scrapbook to present to the Tibetan leader. I was happy to offer a lovely personal recollection.

In 1972, the Dalai Lama, aged 37, travelled to Chai Ya, Thailand, 12 hours south from Bangkok, to Wat Suanmoke (the Monastery of the Garden of Liberation) to pay respect and meet with the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa, aged 66, the foremost radical voice of Thai Buddhism for the 20th century.

At that time, I lived in the forest monastery of Wat Suanmoke as a Theravada monk and Dharma student of Ajahn Buddhadasa. I believed I was the only Westerner there at the time. I recall well the visit of the Dalai Lama along with his personal interpreter, and one of two lamas travelling with him. Ajahn Buddhadasa invited the Dalai Lama to give a Dharma talk to the monks, outdoors under trees in the area reserved for teachings. About 40 monks and novices of the Theravada tradition, some nuns and a handful of lay people came to listen.

We, the monks, were curious. We knew nothing of Tibetan Buddhism, took little or no interest in the concepts of Mahayana and Hinayana. We certainly wondered whether Tibetan monks observed any kind of Vinaya (disciplinary rules) comparable to the Theravada Vinaya. In his benign and kindly fashion, the Dalai Lama avoided any historical differences and asked us the question “Who is the Dalai Lama?” We were all ears.

He went on: “Is the Dalai Lama the robes? No. Is the Dalai Lama the voice? No. Is the Dalai Lama the face? No. Is the Dalai Lama the form? No. Is the Dalai Lama the name? No.” Where is the Dalai Lama? There is no such thing, no such being, as the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is a mental construct, a social agreement.”

At the end of his talk, all of us monks bowed down spontaneously to the Dalai Lama. It was a touching moment. His teachings dispelled any historical differences and went right to the heart of the Dharma.

Ajahn Buddhadasa, the master on the teaching of the emptiness of I and my, quietly smiled.