May 272014


Today is the birthday (1906) of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu an influential Thai ascetic-philosopher of the 20th century. Buddhadasa fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in general, not just within the Buddhism in which he was trained and ordained as a monk. Buddhadasa developed a personal view that rejected specific religious identification and considered all faiths as principally one. His ground-breaking thought inspired such people as Pridi Phanomyong, leader of Thailand’s 1932 revolution, and a group of Thai social activists and artists of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Buddhadasa was born Nguam Panitch in Ban Phumriang (Chaiya district), southern Siam. He renounced civilian life in 1926. Typical of young monks during the time, he traveled to Bangkok for doctrinal training. But he found the wats (temples) there dirty, crowded, and, most troubling to him, the Sangha (monastic community) corrupt, ‘preoccupied with prestige, position, and comfort with little interest in the highest ideals of Buddhism.’ As a result, he returned to his native rural district and occupied a forest tract near to his village. He named it Suan Mokkh, from Thai suan, ‘garden’ and Vedic moksha, ‘release, liberation.’ He strove for a simple, pristine practice in attempt to emulate the Buddha’s core teaching, “Do good, avoid bad, and purify the mind.” He felt that the original teaching of the Buddha had been completely overlaid with layer upon layer of interpretation over the centuries. He therefore avoided the customary ritualism and internal politics that dominated Thai clerical life. His ability to explain complex philosophical and religious ideas in his native southern “Pak Tai” vernacular (Southern Thai language) attracted many people to his wooded retreat. However, Buddhadasa was skeptical of his increasing fame; when reflecting on the busloads of visitors to Suan Mokkh he would say “sometimes I think many of these people just stop here because they have to visit the bathroom.”


From the earliest period of his religious studies, Buddhadasa used a comparative approach and sought to be able to explain “Buddhist teachings through other doctrines such as Tao, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Natural Science.” Through such a methodology he came to adopt a religious world-view that rejected exclusionary religious identification. In his No Religion (1993) Buddhadasa famously remarked, “in advanced perspectives there is no religious identification whatsoever. Those who have penetrated to the highest understanding will feel that the thing called ‘religion’ doesn’t exist after all. There is no Buddhism; there is no Christianity; there is no Islam. How can they be the same or in conflict when they don’t even exist?” Words to live by.


To celebrate Buddhadasa I offer you a great Thai soup – tom yum — characterized by its distinct hot and sour flavors, with fragrant herbs generously used in the broth. The basic broth is made of stock and fresh ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce, and crushed hot peppers. It can be hard to get these ingredients but it is reasonably easy to get a base paste that includes all them. Commercial tom yum paste is made by crushing all the herb ingredients and stir frying in oil. Seasoning and other preservative ingredients are then added. The paste is bottled or packaged and sold around the world. Tom yum flavored with the paste is somewhat different from that made with fresh herb ingredients. Many households in SE Asia use commercial pastes because of convenience.

As with other soups that I have given to you that have as many varieties as there are domestic stoves, I’ll just give you the basic idea of tom yum. The essence of the soup is the broth itself. Start with a stock of choice (depending on the main protein), bring it to a gentle simmer, and then add tom yum paste to suit your taste. Then take your pick of ingredients. I tend to use rice noodles as a base, with some chicken (cooked and sliced thin). Shrimp are also good, and very popular these days. After that I throw in whatever I have to hand – mushrooms, sliced Chinese cabbage, tofu – whatever suits my fancy. Remember it is the hot and sour, spicy broth that makes tom yum what it is, not the other ingredients.

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