Weekly Local Biography

  Dr. Louis Gabaude

Dr. Louis Gabaude modestly describes himself as a member of the French School of Far Eastern Studies and is based here in Chiang Mai, having been in Thailand for 25 years. He once wanted to be a missionary to impart the knowledge of his religion to the world, but instead became a student of the world’s religions, and Buddhism in particular.

He was born in a hamlet in the middle of a forest in the south of France’s central mountains. He was the youngest of five children, raised in post-war rural France, but was lucky in that his father firmly believed that to mature, this required going to foreign countries, and experiencing life outside of one’s home. To this end, he arranged for all his sons to go overseas as part of their compulsory national army service when they became 20 years old.

While awaiting his posting overseas, the young Louis Gabaude went to university to study Philosophy and Theology. “I wanted to be a missionary. I didn’t like maths, though I almost became a geologist because I loved rocks, my home being in a rocky region of France.”

By the time Louis was taken into army service, France was no longer involved in anyone’s wars, but French President Charles De Gaulle, who liked the American concept of the ‘Peace Corps’ sent young men overseas as National Volunteers. “We were soldiers without being soldiers,” Louis explained, and he chose Laos as his posting, working as a teacher in a secondary school 150 km down the Mekong from Vientiane. “This experience gave me a ‘virus’ for this region,” he said.

The ‘virus’ also included some realizations. One of these was to make him look critically at some concepts that had been for him basic ‘truths’ up till then. “In Laos I discovered the fact that people did not need to become Christians to be good.” He also found the monks were easy to approach and talk with. “I found the same basic honesty in Laos people as I had with the peasant people in France.”

As a young adult, we have all gone through the period of ‘knowing’ just how things should really be, but without the knowledge base or the experience base to put all the enthusiasm into worthwhile action. Louis was no different, and after his period in Laos, returned to France to re-enter university and then to the Sorbonne to study comparative religions.

He emerged from the hallowed halls of academia with a better base, and an enquiring mind primed to look further into how religions and living became compatible. “Buddhism and Christianity are ways to cope with life. The Buddhist message is ‘We are alive, and (now) what are you going to do with this life?’ I was interested in just how Buddhists cope,” said Louis.

To understand more, he immersed himself in the SE Asian cultures, coming back to Laos and Thailand and learning the Thai language (and Pali, the language of Buddhism). While he was doing this, he also taught French at Chiang Mai University, while preparing his thesis for his Doctorate of Philosophy, gaining his PhD in 1979 to become Dr. Louis Gabaude.

Dr. Louis then went on to allow me to have a greater understanding of the academic body to which he belongs, the French School of Far Eastern Studies (EFEO). “The EFEO is a French peculiarity,” said Dr. Louis, filling me in on the background of an institution which celebrated its centenary in the year 2000, but whose roots and antecedents go back much further. “We have an interest in the cultures of the past, and the present culture - and how it has been affected by the past,” he said.

So Dr. Louis has devoted his life to SE Asia and understanding the religious basis of everyday life in this country. This understanding is not something that he will selfishly take to the grave, but is an understanding that he is giving to the world, through the French School of Far Eastern Studies, and through the many tomes that he has written, as well as smaller monographs. Most are in his native tongue, though some he has translated into English, and I was honoured to receive some of these. They are not light bedtime reading, but articles to savour and ponder upon their significance. One such is ‘Buddhadasa’s (a much revered monk in Thailand) Contribution as a Human Being, as a Thai, and as a Buddhist.’

There is no doubting the fact that Dr. Louis is a philosopher. “Everybody has something to teach you. This is why I am never tired of meeting people.” He applies that philosophical approach to religion as well. “Religion has an important role in the world. But not perhaps the role you would imagine. People need something - you have to be a realist - you will never erase religion from the earth.” He went on, “The best thing I can do is ‘try and understand’. This has been the rationale of my life.”

I asked him what was his religion now, having looked at Buddhism to a much greater depth than most of us? “I don’t know,” he chuckled, “Perhaps I am both Christian and Buddhist and perhaps a little bit Atheist too!” He went on, “Buddhism is a very humble religion. Western religions would benefit from humility, to give a betterment for the society.”

He has a few hobbies, with the dominant one being cycling, and he pedals to Doi Suthep every week. A case of keeping his physical body in shape, while immersing himself in the Buddhist milieu?

I asked if he had any unresolved aims, but he does not really have anything of pressing importance. “I would like to see the Borabadur and India, but I’m pretty happy with what I have done. My life has been totally unpredictable. This is what makes life so interesting.”

And if anyone has a handle on what life really is, it is Dr. Louis Gabaude.