Dhammakaya meditation is a method of Buddhist meditation developed and taught by the Thai meditation teacher Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro (1885–1959).[note 1] In Thailand, it is known as vijjā dhammakāya, which translates as 'knowledge of the body of truth'. It is the meditation tradition that is at the center of the Dhammakaya Movement. The Dhammakaya meditation method has become very popular in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, and has been described as a revival of samatha (tranquility) meditation in Thailand.
The method was discovered by Luang Pu Sodh in the 1910s. Followers of the Dhammakaya Movement believe the method was the same as the original method the Buddha used to attain enlightenment. According to Luang Pu Sodh, the Dhammakāya, the core concept of the tradition, can be found within every human being. The most important aspect of the meditation method is the focus on the center of the body. As of 2008, there was still scholarly debate as to the origins of Dhammakaya meditation. Scholars refer to the Yogavacara tradition as a possible source, or that the method might be new or partly new. Dhammakaya meditation is taught at several temples of the movement, and consists of a stage of samatha (tranquility) and vipassana (insight), following the structure of the Visuddhimagga, a standard fifth-century Theravāda guide about meditation. In the method, the stages are described in terms of inner bodies (Pali: kāya), but also in terms of meditative absorptions (Pali: jhānas).
Dhammakaya meditation has been the subject of considerable discussion among Buddhists as to its authenticity and efficacy, and also has been the subject of several scientific studies.
In the 19th and early 20th-century Thailand, public perception of the practice of Buddhism changed. Originally, Thai people saw meditation mostly as a personal and quite esoteric practice. In response to threats of colonial powers, the Thai kings and the reformed Dhammayut fraternity attempted to modernize Buddhism, and strip Buddhist practice of its ritualized and mystical appearance. In this process, meditation was devalued among monastics as study was more valued. Education in Buddhist doctrine was standardized and centralized, as local meditation lineages gradually died out. Meditation traditions responded by reforming their methods, and referring more to scripture in an attempt to establish orthodoxy and survive. Meditation became less esoteric, as temples were pressured to practice the uniform meditation practice considered orthodox.
Temples that refer to Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro as their teacher have published several biographies about him. According to these biographies, the principles of Dhammakaya meditation were discovered by Luang Pu Sodh at Wat Botbon, in Nonthaburi Province on a full-moon night of the tenth lunar month, sometime in the 1910s.[note 2] Though he had practised several other forms of meditation in Thailand with well-known meditation teachers, he felt he had not yet accomplished the enlightenment which the Buddha had experienced. That night, he decided to take a vow to meditate until he could at least accomplish some part of what the Buddha had once attained. He then experienced what followers consider a breakthrough in meditation.
This breakthrough is described in the biographies as a deeper meaning to the Middle Way, a teaching described in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, an early Buddhist discourse. This deeper meaning involves meditation technique. Essential in this process is the "center of the body", which Luang Por Sodh precisely describes as being at a point two finger widths above the navel of each person: whatever technique someone might use to meditate, the mind can only attain a higher level of insight through this center. This center is also believed to play a fundamental role in the birth and death of an individual. According to Luang Pu Sodh, the Dhammakaya, the core concept of the tradition, can be found within every human being. It has the shape of a Buddha sitting within oneself. Followers of the Dhammakaya Movement believe that the Buddha became enlightened by using this method, and believe that knowledge of the method was lost five hundred years after the Buddha's death. Temples of the movement refer to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta or the Visuddhimagga among others for Dhammakaya meditation's theoretical foundations.
Since the 2000s, scholars have brought forward new evidence that Luang Pu Sodh's approach may have roots in the Yogavacara tradition (also known as tantric Theravāda; not to be confused with the Yogacāra School in Mahāyāna Buddhism). During the revival and modernization of Thai Buddhism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century CE, Thai temples in the Mahānikāya fraternity were forced to adjust to new reforms, including the meditation method used and taught. In particular, leading monks in the Mahanikaya fraternity promoted the New Burmese method of U Nārada and Mahasi Sayadaw. The Dhammakaya meditation method managed to survive despite these pressures to reform. Therefore, Dhammakaya and Yogavacara meditation are both meditation forms that date back before these modernization efforts, and scholars have theorized that the two disciplines may share a common ancestry. This ancestry would be related to Wat Rajasittharam, the temple where Luang Pu Sodh used to practice before he went on to develop Dhammakaya meditation. An alternative theory suggests an origin in Tibetan or other forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism, but scholars C.S. Newell and Phibul Choompolpaisal believe a Yogavacara origin to be more likely. Newell notes that some aspects of Dhammakaya meditation cannot be found in Yogavacara practices, and theorizes that Dhammakaya meditation could have been "grafted onto an existing, preparatory system of concentration" and further developed. Theologian Rory Mackenzie does not draw any conclusions about the matter yet; he states that a Tibetan origin is unlikely, that a Yogavacara origin cannot yet be proven, and it is also "quite possible" that Luang Pu Sodh developed his approach through his own "psychic experiences".
Development to the present day
After discovering the method of Dhammakaya meditation, Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro first taught it to others at Wat Bangpla, in Nakhon Pathom Province. Luang Pu Sodh was given his first position as abbot at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, a temple that has been associated with Dhammakaya meditation ever since. Luang Pu Sodh devoted the remainder of his life to teaching Dhammakaya meditation. In 1931, he set up what he called a 'meditation workshop' (Thai: โรงงานทำวิชชา, translit. ronggan tham vicha) with meditation practitioners meditating in six-hour shifts throughout the day. According to a textbook of one temple, the meditation workshop was reserved for gifted practitioners able to practice Dhammakaya meditation on a higher level. The purpose of the workshop was to use meditation to study certain subjects, which included understanding the nature of the world and the universe, "to learn the truth about the worlds and the galaxies".
Since Luang Pu Sodh's death in 1959, Dhammakaya meditation has been taught by his students at several major temples, including Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani, Wat Luang Por Sodh Dhammakayaram in Damnoen Saduak District, Ratchaburi Province, and Wat Rajorasaram in Bang Khun Thian District, Bangkok, as well as in branch centers of these temples across and outside of Thailand. Of these, Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Wat Luang Por Sodh Dhammakayaram have published instructive books on Dhammakaya meditation in English. Both also offer training retreats for the public. The method has become very popular in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, and has been described as a revival of samatha (tranquility) meditation in Thailand.
According to Newell, Dhammakaya meditation is taught more or less the same by each temple. However, the emphasis differs, with some temples being more esoteric about the method than others. For example, Wat Luang Phor Sod Dhammakayaram is more specific about the higher stages of meditation in their publications than Wat Phra Dhammakaya, while Wat Phra Dhammakaya emphasizes the calm and concentration the method brings.
Dhammakaya meditation is also known as vijjā dhammakāya, which translates as 'knowledge of the body of truth'.
The samatha stage
There are several techniques which can be used by practitioners in focusing the attention on the center of the body. Practitioners may visualize a mental image at the center of the body–characteristically, a crystal ball or a crystal clear Buddha image. This has been compared with meditation on a bright object in the Visuddhimagga. Temples in the tradition often use crystal balls in meditation teaching, to the extent that the crystal ball has become a sacred symbol of the meditation tradition. Practitioners then visualize this image in front of themselves, and then move the mental image inwards through seven bases of the mind, that is:
- the nostril,
- the corner of the eye,
- the center of the head,
- the roof of the mouth,
- the center of the throat,
- the middle of the stomach at the level of the navel and
- two finger breadths above the previous point, where they keep their attention.
In this context, the center of the body is often called the "seventh base". In the tradition, the other six bases have a minor role, as they only function as reference points for the visualization. In this respect, the tradition's approach differs from the extensive symbolism of the cakras as found in Tibetan Tantric tradition, for example.
At the same time, practitioners may use a mantra (Thai: บริกรรมภาวนา, translit. borikam-phavana), that is Sammā-Arahaṃ, which refers to the Buddha who has 'perfectly' (sammā) attained 'perfection in the Buddhist sense' (arahaṃ), as can be found in the traditional Tiratanavanda chant. This is a form of Buddhanussati, i.e. recollecting the Buddha qualities. This mantra has also been used by monks from Northern Thailand. Alternatively, according to Wat Phra Dhammakaya, practitioners can also place the attention at the center of the body directly, and can even do so without visualizing or using a mantra.
The types of practices, such as use of a mantra and use of a bright object, are not unique to Dhammakaya meditation, but the details of the technique are. As with many forms of Buddhist meditation, Dhammakaya meditation has both samatha and vipassana stages. As is common with traditional samatha practice, the goal of Dhammakaya meditation at the samatha level is to overcome mental hindrances to concentration. When the mind becomes peaceful and stable during samatha, it overcomes those hindrances and reaches a state of concentration. The indication of reaching this stage is that a bright light will arise at the center of the body. The mind should then be directed continuously at the center of this sphere helping to transport the mind towards an inner path with several stages. During these stages, the practitioner may experience goose bumps or other physical responses. Known as pīti, this phenomenon is understood to be temporary.
The process of concentration in Dhammakaya meditation correlates with the description of samatha meditation in the Visuddhimagga, specifically kasina meditation. Once the mental hindrances are overcome, the visual image imagined is transformed. The first stage of this path Luang Pu Sodh simply called the 'beginning of the path' (Thai: ปฐมมรรค, translit. pathommamak). After that, Luang Pu Sodh would usually describe the level of attainment in terms of inner bodies (Pali: kāya) within every human being, which are successively more subtle, and come in pairs. Mackenzie compares this with Russian dolls nestled within each other. These bodies indicate to what extent the practitioner has attained in meditation practice. Each of these bodies is preceded by several spheres of light. In total, every human being consists of nine types of bodies, each of which has a normal and refined form. The first four pairs of these bodies are equated with the orthodox jhāna meditation attainments. The final four of these inner pairs are called the Dhammakayas and are equated with the four stages of enlightenment, leading to the final stage of enlightenment (arahant). In between is the 'change-of-lineage' (Pali: gotrabhū) intermediary Dhammakaya state: this is the intermediate state between not being enlightened yet and the four stages of enlightenment.
The attainment of the Dhammakaya (or Dhammakayas) is thus described as the result of many steps of practice, culminating in the cessation of the defilements in the mind, or, in positive terms, as the highest happiness. The Dhammakaya is considered the "purest element" within every human being, which is permanent and essential, and is equated with Nirvana. The purest element has the shape of a luminous Buddha figure sitting within oneself. Besides the unorthodox definition of Nirvana as true happiness, permanent and essential, it is also described by the movement from a more orthodox perspective, as the absence of greed, hatred and delusion. Religion scholar Rachelle Scott, however, has argued that the positive description of Nirvana as happiness, permanent and essential, is what has contributed to the popularity of the method and its proponents.
|Meditation state (kāya)||English translation||Equated with|
|Manussakāya||Crude human body||The meditator's own body|
|Panīta-manussakāya||Refined human body||First absorption (jhāna)|
|Dibbakāya||Crude celestial body||Second absorption (jhāna)|
|Panīta-dibbakāya||Refined celestial body||Second absorption (jhāna)|
|Rūpabrahmakāya||Crude form Brahma body||Third absorption (jhāna)|
|Panīta-rūpabrahmakāya||Refined form Brahma Body||Third absorption (jhāna)|
|Arūpabrahmakāya||Crude formless Brahma body||Fourth absorption (jhāna)|
|Panīta-arūpabrahmakāya||Refined Formless Brahma Body||Fourth absorption (jhāna)|
|Dhammakāya-gotrabhū||Change-of-lineage||Traditional term for being on the brink of the first stage of enlightenment|
|Dhammakāya-gotrabhū (refined)||Refined Change-of-lineage||Traditional term for being on the brink of the first stage of enlightenment|
|Dhammakāya-sotapanna||Stream winner||First stage of enlightenment|
|Dhammakāya-sotapanna (refined)||Refined stream winner||First stage of enlightenment|
|Dhammakāya-sakadāgāmi||Once-returner||Second stage of enlightenment|
|Dhammakāya-sakadāgāmi (refined)||Refined once-returner||Second stage of enlightenment|
|Dhammakāya-anāgāmi||Non-returner||Third stage of enlightenment|
|Dhammakāya-anāgāmi (refined)||Refined non-returner||Third stage of enlightenment|
|Dhammakāya-arahatta||Arahant||Final stage of enlightenment (arahant), anupādisesa-nibbāna (Nirvana)|
|Dhammakāya-arahatta (refined)||Refined Arahant||Final stage of enlightenment (arahant), anupādisesa-nibbāna (Nirvana)|
The vipassana stage
Dhammakaya meditation begins with the vipassana level at a later stage than some other meditation schools in Thailand. In Dhammakaya meditation, a distinction is made between "seeing the Dhammakāya" and "being the Dhammakāya". Only the latter is equated with having attained the stages of enlightenment at a stable level. It is believed that the further practitioners progress through the successive stages of the practice, the more their mind will become more pure and refined. After practitioners have attained the Dhammakaya, they can gain insight into the reality of life through observation of their own physical and mental processes. It is believed they can understand birth, death and suffering at a deeper level, when they see the literal essence of these phenomena through meditative attainment. The practitioner can accomplish a purification of the mind until an end can be reached, that is Nirvana. Nirvana is described as a subtle sphere (Pali: ayatana) and, controversially, as "true self" (Pali: attā). Orthodox teachings on not-self (Pali: anattā) are regarded as methods to let go of what is not the true self.
Dhammakaya meditation at the higher levels is believed to bring forth abhiñña, mental powers. Through such powers practitioners are believed to be able to see different realms of the cosmos following Buddhist cosmology. These powers can also be used for the benefit of society at large. Dhammakaya meditation is believed by some practitioners to have been used during the Second World War to prevent Thailand from being bombed, and used to extinguish the negative forces in the cosmos (Māra). This belief that Dhammakaya meditation can be used to extinguish negative forces has strongly affected the attitudes of practitioners at Dhammakaya movement temples, who therefore hold that Dhammakaya meditation is not only important for the individual, but also for the cosmos at large.
Discussion and research
Scientific research done on Dhammakaya meditation at the samatha level has shown that it reduced serum cortisol level and blood pressure, while increasing serum protein level. Systolic pressure, diastolic pressure and pulse rate were also reduced, as well as tidal capacity, tidal volume and maximal voluntary ventilation. Finally, reaction time was reduced. Psychologically, Dhammakaya meditation reduced clinical depression.
According to Scott, in the time of Luang Pu Sodh the method was criticized by some for being extra-canonical, although Asian studies scholar Edwin Zehner downplays this, stating there was no widespread criticism. Discussion within the Thai monastic community led to an inspection at Wat Paknam, but no fault could be found in Luang Pu Sodh's method. More recently, Dhammakaya meditation has been depicted as a fast and effective meditation method for competitive professionals with little time. Mackenzie does remark, however, that the method is not simpler than other methods, but that its appeal is that its benefits can be more readily experienced than more orthodox models. As with other meditation methods emphasizing samatha, opponents writing from a modernist standpoint have criticized the method. These critics point at the emphasis on pleasant feelings as opposed to insight. They argue against the mystical dimension of meditation practice, saying that bliss in meditation is a hindrance to insight. On the other hand, practitioners of the method often argue how the method is capable of changing people for the better, and has positive effects in all aspects of the practitioner's daily life. Religion scholar Donald Swearer calls the meditation method "a unique method of meditation which involves a visualization technique not unlike that associated with certain yogic or tantric forms of meditation, and is easily taught to large groups of people". Meditation in large groups, as is common in the activities of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, contrasts with the emphasis of most Thai temples on meditation in solitude. The temple stresses the importance of meditating as a group to counterbalance the negativity in the world.
The interpretations of the true self by the Dhammakaya movement have been criticized by orthodox Thai scholars such as Phra Payutto, and have led to considerable debate in Thailand.  The word dhammakāya in its orthodox sense is commonly understood as a figurative term, meaning the "body" or the sum of the Buddha's teachings. The idea of a body of spiritual attainment can be found in the early Buddhist scriptures, though, but this is described as a "body accomplished by the mind" (Pali: manomayakāya) and not directly connected with the attainment of Nirvana. However, in a later Sinhalese Pāli text, Nirvana is described as a "body of emptiness", which is a similar concept. Finally, the concept of the Dharmakāya has been much further developed in Mahāyāna Buddhism. The interpretations of the Dhammakaya movement with regard to true self have been compared with Mahāyāna ideas like the Buddha Nature, but such influence has been rejected by the movement itself. Proponents of the movement cite several Pāli texts, such as one text stating that Nirvana is true happiness, and argue that the true self is a logical conclusion that follows from these texts. Other proponents feel that the problem is a matter of practice more than debate.
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