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Dhammakaya meditation is an approach to Buddhist meditation developed and taught by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro in the early twentieth century. In Thailand, it is known as vijja dhammakaya, or 'higher knowledge of the body of Dhamma'. It is the meditation tradition that is at the center of the Dhammakaya Movement. According to Luang Pu Sodh, the Dhammakaya can be found within every human being, which has the shape of a Buddha sitting within oneself.
In teaching Dhammakaya meditation, Luang Pu Sodh commonly would use the terminology used in the Visuddhimagga, a fifth-century Sri Lankan guide about meditation. The most important aspect of the meditation approach is the focus on the center of the body. The approach 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, although the approach consists of both samatha and vipassana (insight) stages.
The principles of Dhammakaya meditation were discovered by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro on the full-moon night of September 1916 at Wat ฺBotbon, Bangkuvieng, Nonthaburi. Though he had practised several other forms of meditation in Thailand with well-known meditation teachers, he felt he had not yet accomplished the purpose for which he had ordained, nor discovered the core of the Buddha's teachings. That night, he decided to take a vow to give his life in meditation until he would discover that core. That night, he experienced what followers consider a breakthrough in meditation and discovered something he would later describe as a deeper meaning to the Middle Way, about which the Buddha spoke in his first teaching. Besides the original meaning of avoiding two extreme ways of living, Luang Pu Sodh believed there was also a deeper meaning of an inner Middle Way, which could only be discovered through stilling the mind through meditation. Moreover, the center of the body is essential in this process: whatever technique someone might use to meditate, the mind can only attain to a higher level through this center, which Luang Por Sodh precisely describes. This center is also believed to play a fundamental role in the birth and death of an individual. Thus, followers of the Dhammakaya Movement believe that the Buddha became enlightened by using this method, and believe that knowledge of this (equated with Saddhamma in the Dhammakaya Movement) was lost five hundred years after the Buddha passed away into Parinirvana. As its theoretical foundations, temples of the Movement refer to the Satipatthana Sutta or the Visuddhimagga, among others.
Since the 2000s, new evidence has been brought forward that Luang Pu Sodh's approach might originate from Yogavacara tradition (also known as tantric Theravada; not to be confused with the Yogacara School in Mahayana Buddhism). During the revival and modernization of Thai Buddhism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century CE, Thai tempels in the Mahanikaya 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 Narada 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 there is a common ancestry to be found, related to Wat Rajasittharam, the temple where Luang Pu Sodh used to practice before he went on to develop Dhammakaya meditation. However, Luang Pu Sodh did prohibit magical practices at Wat Paknam, and such practices are associated with the Yogavacara tradition. In one biography, he is quoted as saying that magic was not part of the core of the Buddha's teaching. As of 2008, there was no scholarly consensus yet as to the relation between Yogavacara and Dhammakaya.
Development until present
After discovering the Dhammakaya meditation approach, Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro first taught it to others at Wat Bangpla, in Nakhon Pathom Province. After Luang Pu Sodh was given his first position as abbot at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, Dhammakaya meditation has been associated with this temple ever since. Luang Pu Sodh devoted his time from 1916 to 1959 teaching Dhammakaya meditation. In 1935, he set up what he called a "meditation factory" (Thai: โรงงานทำวิชชา) with meditation practitioners meditating in shifts for the entire day. According to a textbook of one temple, this was reserved for gifted practitioners able to practice Dhammakaya meditation on the vipassana level. The brief was to use the meditation to research the underlying nature of reality. Since 1959, Dhammakaya meditation has been taught by Luang Pu Sodh's students at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Wat Luang Por Sod Dhammakayaram in Damnoen Saduak District, Ratchaburi Province, as well as at Wat Rajorasaram in Bang Khun Thian District, Bangkok. Of these, Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Wat Luang Por Sod Dhammakayaram have published instructive books on Dhammakaya meditation in English. Both also offer training retreats for the public. Guided meditations are broadcast by the Thai satellite channel DMC, owned by Wat Phra Dhammakaya. Dhammakaya meditation is also taught in branch centers of the temples mentioned, outside of Thailand.
The samatha stage
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 the five hindrances. When the mind becomes peaceful and stable as the result of successful practice for tranquility, the mind will overcome the five hindrances and reach a state of one-pointedness (ekaggata). This is also known in Dhammakaya Meditation as the standstill of the mind (i.e. to a state where it is free of thought). The indication of reaching this stage is that a bright clear sphere will arise spontaneously 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, for which Luang Pu Sodh used the word ekayanamagga ('the sole path'), a term found in the Satipatthana Sutta and the Dhammapada.
- Visualizing 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 aloka-kasina. 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 the seven bases of the mind, that is 1) the nostril, 2) the corner of the eye, 3) the center of the head, 4) the roof of the mouth, 5) the center of the throat, 6) the middle of the stomach at the level of the navel and 7) 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".
- Repetition of a mantra (Thai: บริกรรมภาวนา), that is Samma-Araham, which refers to the Buddha who has 'perfectly' (samma) attained 'perfection in the Buddhist sense' (araham), as can be found in the traditional Tiratanavanda chant. This is a form of Buddhanussati, e.i. recollecting the Buddha qualities. This mantra has also been used by monks from the Thai Forest Tradition.
- Alternatively, practitioners can also place the attention at the center of the body directly, and can even do so without visualizing.
- 'Preliminary sign' (parikamma-nimitta): the practitioner visualizes an image, which will still appear vague, incomplete or not detailed. This indicates momentary concentration (khanika-samadhi).
- 'Learning sign' (uggaha-nimitta): this is when the practitioner is able to perceive the image they have imagined with hundred per cent of the clarity and vividness of the external image it is based on.
- 'Counterpart sign' (patibhaga-nimitta): once the mind comes even closer to a standstill, so that it is no longer distracted by external things or thoughts, but is focused on the image at the center of the body, the practitioner can expand or contract the image at will. The image will change from an image that is opaque to one which is transparent. The acquired image and the counter image both indicate a state of mind on the threshold of the first jhana ('absorption'), called 'neighbourhood concentration' (upacara-samadhi).
The process of concentration in Dhammakaya meditation correlates with the description of samatha meditation in the Visuddhimagga, specifically kasina meditation. Although the practitioner may start out with different types of practice, once the mental hindrances are overcome, all methods converge into a single inner path, which ultimately leads to meditation at the vipassana level. The first stage of this path Luang Pu Sodh called simply the "First Path" (Thai: ปฐมมรรค). After that, Luang Pu Sodh would speak about meditation in terms of jhanas (states of absorption), as is common for Buddhist meditation. However, he would more often describe the level of attainment in terms of inner bodies (Pali: kaya) within every human being, which are successively more subtle, and come in pairs. Each of these bodies is preceded by several spheres of light. The final four of these inner pairs are called the Dhammakayas and correspond with the four stages of enlightenment, leading to enlightenment (arahat). In total, every human being consists of eighteen bodies.
The attainment of the Dhammakaya (or Dhammakayas) is thus described as the result of a 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.
The vipassana stage
Dhammakaya meditation begins with the vipassana level at a later stage than some other meditation schools in Thailand. In Dhammakaya meditation, insight relies on purity of seeing and knowing: only a mind that is stable can develop penetrative insight into the reality of life and the world. After practitioners have attained the Dhammakaya 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 sequential shedding of the mental defilements until an end can be reached, that is Nibbana. Dhammakaya meditation at the higher levels is believed to bring forth abhinna, mental powers that can be used for the benefit of society at large. The technique 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 (Mara). This final aspect 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 on the samatha level has shown that it reduces 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 also reduced. Psychologically, Dhammakaya meditation reduces clinical depression while increasing self-development.
In the time of Luang Pu Sodh the method was criticized by some for being extra-canonical, but this was not widespread. Discussion within the Thai Sangha led to an inspection at Wat Paknam, but it was concluded that Luang Pu Sodh's method was correct. More recently, Dhammakaya meditation has been criticized as being a simplistic meditation method for busy working-people with little time. Some scholars object to this, saying that the appeal of this meditation type is rather that its benefits can be more readily experienced than more orthodox models, and noticing that it is a method with increasing levels of difficulty. Swearer calls the meditation form "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 temples on meditation in solitude. The temple stresses the importance of meditating as a group, however, because this will produce a more positive force to deal with the negativity in the world. As is common with all meditation techniques that emphasize samatha, the technique has been commented on mostly from a modernist standpoint, criticizing an emphasis on pleasant feelings as opposed to wisdom. In response to this, practitioners of the technique often underline how the technique is capable of changing people for the better.
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