Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Religious Studies

First Advisor

Guy R. Welbon

Second Advisor

Donald K. Swearer


Dhamma is one of the most important and most difficult concepts in Pali Buddhism. Its significance lies in the fact that the term points to both the essence and the goal of Buddhism. Its ambiguity, however, results from the variety of the term's interpretations depending on its contexts. This dissertation analyzes the concept of dhamma in the writings of the two foremost interpreters of Thai Buddhism in the modern and contemporary periods, Vajiranana (1860-1921) and Buddhadasa (1906- ), who, in differing ways, attempt to recover the original teaching of the Buddha's dhamma. The study first describes the range of meanings of the term in the Pali canonical materials, and selected western interpreters, before focusing on its normative and popular significance in Thai Buddhism. After discussing the historical context in which Vajiranana and Buddhadasa have worked, the dissertation then provides a detailed exposition of their interpretations of dhamma. Through an analysis of their institutional roles and written corpus, the dissertation establishes the distinctive nature of the substance and method of their teachings. We find that Vajiranana closely follow the Theravada scholastic tradition as epitomized by Buddhaghosa; and that his strong emphasis on dhamma as moral norm is consistent with the efforts of the Thai government of his days to use religion to help build a strong nation-state. Buddhadasa breaks away from traditional Theravada exegetical methods and attitude toward scriptures. Advancing a theory of religious language/truth not unlike Madhyamika, he emphasizes the ontological nature of dhamma. In particular, he interprets dhamma in terms of the Thai term for "nature," dhammajati, which he equates with "the normal" (pakati), dependent origination (paticcasamuppada), and emptiness (sunnata).

In addition to analyzing the content of their thought to get at their distinctive interpretations of dhamma, the dissertation also contrasts the styles of Vajiranana and Buddhadasa in terms of Weberian-type categories, viewing Vajiranana as a charismatic priest and an ideal of the Buddha's right-hand disciple--a scholar-administrator (ganthadhura) monk--while Buddhadasa is a charismatic prophet and an ideal of the Buddha's left-hand disciple--a forest-dwelling meditator (vipassanadhura) monk.

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