It has been said that it is never an easy task to translate the discourses on Buddhist Dhamma by the Most Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikkhu into foreign languages. There may be some truth in that notion especially when one brings into consideration that how different a language may sound when compared to that of another, for instance, I am sure many people would agree with me that Chinese language definitely sounds different from Arabic, or even Japanese which is the language closest to Chinese. Well, it is not my task here to dwell on the difficulties involved in trying to translate the discourses by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, I would rather leave it to the so-called experts or experienced translators to make whatever sound judgement as they see fit as I am only an ‘amateur’ in the field of translation. However, I try as best as I could to stick to the original words of Buddhadasa and in some inevitable cases, I may supply a few words of my own which I include in brackets.
The content of this book was delivered about thirty years ago in front of a group of university students who joined the monastic life for only a temporary period of time. It was a time when western culture and modern technology and even political ideological concepts were beginning to exert their respective influences on the Thai thinking and way of life, causing some young people to become western-orientated and seemed to pay no heed to the traditional concepts of values from their own culture.
It was a time of political uncertainties and many university students, being young, idealistic but impulsive, could not hide their discontent which resulted in political demonstration which, on some occasions broke out in violence and ended in bloodshed.
Thus, the mid-seventies saw a more democratic political system surfacing but of course in the so-called ‘Thai-style’ and some western aspects of life like individualism, consumerism and materialism began to make their way and crept into Thai psyche. People became glued to their television screens and many of them, especially those in the country or rural areas even believed everything they saw in the advertisements from the screens. A booming consumer culture was the inevitable result. Young people, particularly those in Bangkok, were quick to pick up ‘Farang’ or western ideas and some superficial aspects of the western life-style. Thirty years ago the transitional changes were not so rapid and obvious as they are now. Wise people such as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu could not help feeling alarmed at young people’s indifference and disregard for traditional and religious values.
Buddhadasa was not at all blind to the benefits of western science and technology, but he could see how infatuated and deluded the young Thai people could be with western values, and this could lead to a senseless quest for material consumption, turning people into materialists with no lofty interest and high regard for their own cultural and national heritage. Thus he delivered a discourse on Dhamma to a group of university students in which he used the ploughing method of the old days as a way of drawing a parallel between how the smooth ploughing of a rice-field could be accomplished and how a balanced life could be maintained by wisely applying technological knowledge for the benefit of mankind while at the same time not neglecting the inner spiritual development which is a significant criterion for a happy and harmonious life.
For some western readers, the content of this book might seem to suggest that Buddhadasa was being anti-westerners or anti-Western technology. In addition he seemed to be speaking in a provocative tone and style with regard to things western. I use the word ‘seemed’ because in reality or actual fact, Buddhadasa was not anti-westerners, nor was he anti-Western technology. Instead he appreciated the inquisitive mind of western people and he knew the benefits of science and technology. What he wanted people to do was to realise that technology ought to be wisely used for both the material and spiritual well-being of human beings. The two buffaloes used in farming are symbolic of technological power and spiritual wisdom. We need these two to strike a balance in our lives. To be short of either one of the buffaloes would cause an imbalance. Life would not be harmonious. Buddhadasa did point out that if we were to possess only one buffalo, the one called ‘tua ru’ which knew and took orders, it would still be possible to plough the field although the work done might not be as much as when there were two buffaloes. This means that with wisdom alone, it is possible for us to get on in this world more or less moderately well but not excessively well or comfortable ; but if we were to possess only the second buffalo which has only strength but is ignorant of orders, then the rice-field could not possibly be well-ploughed, the buffalo might be running wild on the rice-field instead of properly performing its job. It would be too dangerous to be using this kind of buffalo alone. We would have to use the first buffalo as its working companion to lead it to the right path of the field that must be ploughed. This is the same as saying that technological power in the absence of wisdom is very dangerous. Historical facts have proved that. We invented deadly bombs and we had used them in Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the consequences were terrible.
That means, we need wisdom to restrain our material and technological innovations. We need to be awakened spiritually ; we need spiritual enlightenment. In fact we have gone too far in our technological accomplishment. We have unscrupulously interfered with nature, exploited it and destroyed a lot of it. It all started with the Industrial Revolution which began in Britain in the mid eighteenth century (around 1760s) during which many things were invented to facilitate production and promote an industrial economy. This era brought about a lot of social ills and also the beginning of the environmental pollution which threatens the world ecological system till this day. Even when pollution still remains a problem, we are now facing new problems existing in our present information technological era which is marked by the introduction of the Internet — something which is very useful in conveying information. But Internet can be used by people with ill intention for carrying out their criminal activities and the world so far has not yet come up with effective solution and measures for curbing or preventing possible abuses of the Internet; so long as this situation remains, privacy will be jeopardized. Then we have this so-called bio-engineering technology (by which we even manage to clone an animal, alter the genetical structure of plants, etc., that we have bioengineered). In 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson managed to identify the double-helix structure of a DNA. Biotechnology was then at its gestation period and now it is in the growing stage. In the next twenty or thirty years, it will be fully matured. Even now it is said that the basis of what makes a smell can be captured molecularly, and digitized on a cheap chip. However, is it all that necessary? Will this extraordinary technological accomplishment bring peace to us? Will it mean happiness and harmony for all nations on earth?
Buddhadasa believed that peace could not come from technological accomplishment. On the contrary, human beings could destroy the entire human race with our own technology. That is why Buddhadasa said that besides the second buffalo (which has strength and is thus symbolic of technological power), we also need the first buffalo (which is symbolic of wisdom) to lead us as well, in order to bring us to the right path — the path leading to spiritual awakening, enlightenment and eternal life — a life that knows no death.
The two buffaloes — one means wisdom while the other stands for technological power — are just the essential factors necessary for the building of peace and harmony in the world of today. Buddhadasa was aware of those wonderful things technology could bring to mankind, but he was even more aware of the perils which could be incubating within the sinister potentiality for destruction of technology, and men are always driven by their greed and ambition or even hatred into very reckless and irresponsible actions. History always repeats itself because mankind never seems to have learnt from history.
People are always chasing after material goods, and yet inspite of the abundance and availability of material things, they never seem to have enough. They have not found the happiness they dream of. They discard family values and cultural traditions. They abandon their religions or faiths and declare themselves atheists. Many of them find it hard to conform to any existing cultural and religious or moral values. They believe in their own selves and set up their own values. When problems arise, they often find it not possible to solve their problems and they suffer emotionally. Then they take drugs as a way out. Some people look for happiness in piles and heaps of material goods. They search for it in the neon lights of the big cities, in bars, in casinos, in restaurants and even in brothels, but they find none and in the end they are back to their starting point — loneliness, misery and suffering.
Thus, Buddhadasa reminded the university students that peace and harmony in life could only come true by attaining spiritual awakening and enlightenment. Sheer secular education and knowledge would not be enough to enlighten US, to lead US safely through the entire journey of life and to bring peace to the whole world. We need to develop ourselves spiritually. Technology is good but it has to be applied with wisdom, otherwise it will bring only troubles and chaos.
Information technology is so advanced these days and free market economies are embarking on a globalization process ; Thailand finds it hard to evade the impact of western technological and economic influences. In fact western influences are creeping into many aspects of Thai people’s lives. Bangkok is a big city of big shopping malls and young people prefer to drink a can of Coke instead of some coconut water which was popular with their forefathers. Many choose to lunch at KFC or the Pizza Hut instead of taking some traditional Thai food from some small stalls. This is a new, modern and western trend, according to some wry observers. Yes, western style is everywhere. A trifling example can be witnessed from those melodramas or soap operas which many Thais love to watch. The popular trend these days is to employ actors and actresses born of Thai mothers and western fathers. The audience seem to prefer their heroes and heroines with some Caucasian or western look, so those Eurasian actors and actresses are in popular demand. Ironically, some years ago, in the attempt to ‘preserve the Asian identity’, a neighbouring country forbade its advertising companies from employing people with ‘Caucasian look’ to appear in their television advertisements. However, in Thailand, to wear a Caucasian look or to be a Eurasian Thai is not something to be frowned upon, after all, Thailand had never been colonised during those colonial days. The Caucasian-looking Thai actors and actresses may or may not have an identity problem is one matter, but the important thing is this appreciation of Eurasian look or beauty reflects the impact of Farangs’ (or westerners) influence on the Thai concept of beauty. It also reflects on the Thai people’s kind tolerance of people of other races.
At present, Thailand is undergoing a lot of transitional changes — politically, economically, socially and culturally. The world too, is subjected to big changes and the changes are on a global scale. No matter to which direction we choose to go, we should heed the advice of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu that our lives should be harnessed by two buffaloes — one with great wisdom and the other with great technological power.
If we were to have a good scrutiny at the present situation of many countries (including even the rich and powerful ones), we could conclude without any doubt that almost all nations on earth have only one buffalo, that is the second buffalo which has only strength but no true wisdom, and all these nations are badly in need of the first buffalo — the one with intelligence and wisdom. Therefore we need two buffaloes. We need our knowledge of science and technology, but we also need spiritual knowledge and enlightenment to guide us so that we will not stray into the path leading to chaos and wars. Since the last millennium, mankind has been talking about making peace for centuries, but wars still predominated the world stage, and now we are bringing the unfinished wars and human suffering into the beginning of this new millennium. Is it not time for us to stop our petty quarrels, put aside our ideological, racial and religious differences and embrace the only true message of all religions — to be truly good to each other, to love each other and to love and protect the world we live in?
We have been straying too far from the path leading to peace and harmony. We tend to act on our impulses instead of wisdom. We bring too much unnecessary sorrow, pain and sufferings to ourselves, to other people and even to other living beings or creatures on earth. So, it is time to heed the advice of Buddhadasa, let our lives be harnessed by two buffaloes so that we will have the wisdom to walk the Middle Path — a path which avoids the extremes of life and leads us to peace and harmony. Yes, we need to avoid extremism and practise moderation. Extremism creates fundamentalism and fanaticism which only help to promote intolerance. This intolerance is the basic cause of all oppression, persecution and massacre. Technology has led to the invention of deadly weapons of mass destruction, and when such weapons fall into the hands of fanatics, the consequences are not something to be cheerful about.
Human thinking and actions often tend to become extremes. We always experience extremes of emotions which either make us extremely happy or sad (or even angry). We have exploited natural resources of this earthly world to the extremes. As a result we have excessively contaminated the streams, rivers, seas and even oceans. We have polluted the air and we have driven some species of animals and birds into extinction. We are destroying the whole ecological system bit by bit and finally we may end up in slowly destroying our human existence too. If we fail to rein our so-called technological advancement properly, it is only a matter of time before we will finally be ‘wiping ourselves out from the surface of the earth’.
Therefore, we need moderation to bring about some kind of harmony to this topsy-turvy world of ours. We need to walk the Middle Path to attain this much-forgotten concept of ‘moderation’, and we need those two buffaloes to lead us through this Middle Path so that in the end we will be at peace with ourselves, at peace with our neighbours, at peace with all people on earth and at peace with our dear, old Mother Nature. By then, we will have found peace — true peace in the strictest sense of the word.