Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pilgrimage trail of Phramongkolthepmuni (Luang Pu Wat Paknam)

On 19 November, exactly one month ago, I joined an informal pilgrimage organised by my temple friend, Kalyanamitra P' Jo. It was to visit the major sites associated with Bhikkhu Sodh Candasaro, widely known as the great meditation master, Luang Phor Wat Paknam (or Luang Pu Wat Paknam), who rediscovered the Dhammakaya method of meditation. (Luang Phor is a respecful term of address, something like "Revered Father"; Luang Pu simply extends by one generation: "Revered Grandfather").

I was picked up at my apartment along the Taksin Road, near to Wongwienyai. As it is in Thonburi, the first stop was arranged as Wat Paknam, which is only two or three miles away.

Exhibition Poster of Luang Pu Wat Paknam

This wat continues to develop and on this occasion there was an exhibition of its history, centred around its most famous abbot. As is the general custom, we went up to pay respects to Luang Pu in his shrine room, where his body lies in state. I've been there quite a few times and on each occasion I've noticed people sitting in meditation around the edges; its atmosphere is conducive to focusing the mind.

Whilst there I was wondering if anyone might know about my mother or, at least, her teacher, Ajahn Gaew. After a while we found a maechi, who kindly received us in between her various other guests. She had been at the Wat for over 60 years and so was there at the time of the late abbot and knew about all the well-known teachers, including Khun Yay Jan and Ajahn Gaew. Despite her years, she had tremendous energy and I felt her meditation practice was highly developed.

Ever since Luang Phor Wat Paknam took charge and remained incumbent until his passing in 1959, the temple has flourished in various ways. In recent decades it has been under the direction of Somdet Phramaharajamongkolajarn, who has been particularly active in the field of education, but the temple still continues to promote the Dhammakaya method. The abbot has given a lot of support to programmes at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, including the annual rains retreat ordination, over which he presides.

We proceeded to Nakhon Pathom, famous for Phra Pathom Chedi (for which I've made notes from an earlier visit, but we were already running behind schedule, and needed some sustenance: next stop lunch! We made our way to the 'floating market' of Don Wai, a very popular destination with locals, which is usually exceedingly crowded at weekends. It's not really floating, but just looks over the river. The growing prominence of environmental concerns has been having an impact on festival celebrations: hence the following bio-degradable floats for the Loy Kratong festival, produced by a bakery:

Kratongs: bakery edition

We continued the pilgrimage to Wat Bot Bon Bangkuwien, the small temple where Luang Pu first attained to Dhammakaya. It's located in Nonthaburi. It's now quite well known, so is well maintained, but it is still takes a bit of effort to locate: one of my cousins and her husband live in Nonthaburi, not far away from this Wat, but they had never managed to find it until I assured them that it was nearby. I couldn't remember the route to direct them, but there was enough impetus for them to make a renewed effort and we could duly reach it safely.

Back to the present pilgrimage, the main chapel has an interesting array of Buddha rupas, conveying the sense of pervading all directions:

Wat Bot Bon Bangkuvien

We paid respects, sat briefly in meditation, offered a garland, and continued on our way.

The next leg took us to Suphan Buri province and two sites. The first was Wat Songphinong (literally the temple of the two siblings), where the young man Sodh Mikaewnoi ordained as Bhikkhu Candasaro and so began his quest in earnest to search for the heart of the Buddha's teaching.

It's another flourishing temple with a new vihara and uposatha:

New Vihara, Wat Songphinong, Suphan Buri

Uposatha, Wat Songphinong, Suphan Buri

The temple itself is on a site that has Buddhist roots going back more than 1,000 years, with the ruibs of a Khmer chedi from around the 8th century - according to a study guide of the Central plain.

As previously, we paid respects, leaving a garland at the shrine of Luang Pu:

From Wat Songphinong it was a short hop to the birthplace of Luang Pu, though it required a bit of careful navigation as there was still quite a lot of flooding in the area:

Suphan Buri flooding

Fortunately the waters had receded sufficiently to enable us to keep to our itinerary and after walking across some sandbags, we reached the memorial grounds of the birthplace. The Mikaewnoi family home has gone, but at that spot there is a candle or beacon situated at the centre of a circular pool, evoking the symbol of radiating light.

Memorial Candle for Luang Pu's birthplace

Nearby is another symbol, very familiar to meditators, that of a giant sphere:

Luang Pu memorial sphere, Songphinong

Beyond the sphere lies the memorial hall, though it was not yet complete:

Luang Pu memorial hall, Songphinong

There was one other destination for us in Suphan Buri: Wat bangpla, Banglain, where Luang Pu first gave teachings on the Dhammakaya method. As with the other Wats, it appears to be prospering and retains a mixture of old and new

Wat Bangpla

After 4 months there it was said that 3 monks and 4 lay people attained Dhammakaya and from there Candasaro Bhikkhu continued to spread the teaching and the tradition grew.

To complete the day, we proceeded to Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani, where I helped a monk practise his English, taking the opportunity to ask him a few questions that have arisen during the course of my academic studies.

I was ferried back to Thonburi and so ended a full and fulfilling day of pilgrimage in honour of a great meditation master, the founder of the present Dhammakaya tradition.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

WCBS Paper on Sustainable Social Networking

In addition to the invited plenary speeches, the 3rd World Conference on Buddhism and Science scheduled three tracks on the second afternoon (2 December), one for each theme (Buddhism + Natural Science / Cognitive Science / Social Science) with 4 presentations in each. The conference organisers very kindly gave me the opportunity to present a paper in the section on Buddhism and Social Science; it's only through the generous support they gave that I decided to make the journey to Thailand just a year after my last visit.

I was listed as the first speaker after lunch, something of a mixed blessing with feelings of gastronomic contentment and the body's tendency to want a siesta! Sectional presentations were given up on the 4th Floor in the College of Religious Studies, a building nicely designed around a quad, and for my talk I think there were 40-50 people who wandered in, including a substantial number of bhikkhus, sitting towards the front. Mahidol University has many members of the Sangha as students on its courses, a feature that makes me imagine scenes from Oxford's early days when it's academic spaces was full of monastics also.

The title of my paper was Supporting Kalyāṇamittatā Online: New Architectures for Sustainable Social Networking, a theme that I've had in mind for several years. In my blog post On 'Friends' and other associations, I had already proposed as core to new designs the implementation of multiple relationship types for making a connection - at present, the norm is just the one, 'friend', which places colleagues and closest family members in the same basket. The key inspiration is the Buddha's teachings in the Sigalovāda Sutta, guidance to the householder Sigala, on how to cultivate true friendship. How one behaves should depend on the kind of relationship that one has and the Buddha divides these into 6 separate categories, one category for each cardinal point (N,E,S and W) plus above and below. There's an excellent diagrammatic representation of this in Phrabhavanaviriyakhun's book, Man's Personal Transformation, enough to get my onto my feet to explain it!

Paul Trafford describing the 6 directions of the Sigalovada Sutta at the 3rd World Conference on Buddhism and Science, Mahidol University

[photo credit: Mananya Pattamasoontorn]

I tried to emphasize the contrast these 6 directions with the single direction operative in most social networking sites today. That's a rather parlous state of social affairs, is it not? (In fact I even received assistance from Matthew Kosuta, the chair of the session, who provided a further illustration of the blackboard.)

Furthermore, the Buddha gives advice on how to cultivate each type of relationship, which suggests in application that the services available for each relationship type should vary accordingly.

A copy of my slides below:

In the Q&A and subsequent feedback, one question raised the underlying issue of control over online activities - there were several representatives of grassroots organisations who were concerned about being restricted in communications. My response was to suggest that it may depend upon how social networking sites are implemented - whether a single site [run by just one organisation] or distributed [in the manner of Diaspora]. Another key issue is the level of guidance - whilst most people that some is needed, there would be great resistance to any heavy-handedness whereby people are told what to do online, particularly in a way that takes away their freedom to choose.

I'm keen for the ideas to be shared, so I'm pleased that the paper itself is also available for download from the conference papers section (or a pre-formatted copy from my site). Please let me know if you have problems with access.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Interacting Processes at the 3rd World Conference on Buddhism and Science

The deep yearning for knowledge, particularly solutions to the problem of suffering, are stimulating many kinds of dialogue, particularly between and among Buddhism and Science. Thus the 3rd World Conference on Buddhism and Science that took place 1-2 December 2010 at the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol University (Salaya), provided a good opportunity to facilitate such activity. A prime mover behind this kind of meeting space is Dr. Alan Wallace, who is actively promoting the scientific analysis of meditation and its benefits.

I was able to join this conference series for the first time and find out about some of the recent developments in this field and present ideas of my own. The 2 day event was compact, with about 20 speakers in all, allowing for closer discussions. In fact, quite a few of them can be seen on the following brightly-decorated open air shuttle bus (or 'rail car' as it's known locally)!

Mahidol Salaya shuttle bus taking speakers to conference venue

That was taken shortly before 7am on the first day.

The conference was formerly opened by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand, who arrived right on schedule at 9am to give a supportive speech, highlighting the qualities of compassion and the importance of ethics for human well-being, an underlying goal for this conference. Her Royal Highness subsequently stayed on to listen to 4 keynote speakers (and meet them afterwards), taking notes at a desk placed close to the speakers. One of my cousins informed me that at the end of the year the Princess compiles a book from the notes taken, indicating considerable conscientiousness.

The presentations were very diverse, covering various aspects across the three themes of Buddhism and Natural Science, Buddhism and Cognitive Science, and Buddhism and Social Science. I'll only touch on a few here, but very conveniently a complete set of papers is available for download. Despite the diversity, there appeared to be some common patterns in much of the research articulated. The scene was very well set by a fluent presentation from Professor Denis Noble who gave a few notes, as it were, from his book, the Music of Life. I attempt to paraphrase what he said (I have studied very little biology!) As a systems biologist he emphasized interaction of processes as the characteristics of life, rather than any genetic code or other building blocks. For him, the human being needs to be treated as a whole, with no control centre; changes are effected in multiple directions, so you can't predict human behaviour by unravelling the human genome - such DNA provides only templates for proteins. This has led to reflections on the Buddhist concept of anatta, though I think it can only be properly understood through meditation at an advanced level.

Process-oriented views were repeatedly echoed by speakers in neurological reports, particularly neuroplasticity arising from meditation practice. Although it was observed that many presentations about science came from a particular Western epistemological perspective, at least the encounters with Buddhist teachings were generally encouraging more 'plasticity' in the research approaches. It is only early days. One speaker applauded the fact that in Thailand the integration of scientific methods with traditional Thai medicine is formally recognised at the national level, contrasting it with the rather constricted approaches in Britain and the United States - often treating symptoms, not causes. Some of what was presented I had heard before, particularly the work by Prof. Ian Stevenson at Virginia's Division of Perceptual Studies, relating to recollections by children of previous lives. Whilst the evidence continues to accumulate and I've long been persuaded myself, I wonder how much traction they are getting in general amongst the skeptical elements in the scientific community?

I don't have much formal training in the sciences (apart from computer science), but I have been practising meditation for quite a while and keen to see it adopted universally. So I was very keen to hear Rasmus Hougaard of the Potential Project, which provides mind training (meditation) for corporations. This looks like a recipe for success that has the right ingrediences: a programme that draws multiple meditation traditions (including the Thai Forest Tradition of Ven. Ajahn Chah), teachers experienced in meditation and the corporate world, training that applies throughout the day in whatever activities are engaged, a language that business people can relate to and the development of local facilitators to ensure continuity of practice. One limitation still to be addressed, and an important one in view of increasing movements between jobs, is that of supporting someone when they leave the company. At present it seems they're on their own...

It was fitting then that we could join in two meditation sessions - both courtesy of the jovial Malcolm Huxter, who had previously been a bhikkhu. Coupled with monks chanting the metta sutta (and excellent food), the conference had a very pleasant feel, though some of the organisation was a bit 'just in time', which is not unusual for Thailand!

There was another personally significant aspect. In 1993, Fuengsin Trafford, my mother, had helped organise a joint conference on 'Death and Dying' between Mahidol University and Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham. With her language skills (Thai and English), she was responsible for many of the communications; she also presented on Thai death rituals. So I was very pleased to be able to visit the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol, particularly to meet Dr. Pinit Ratanakul, who had been a member of the group visiting the UK.

For a cosmologist's perspective, you can read the thoughts of keynote speaker, Adam Frank, who writes on Buddhism And Science: Promise And Perils.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

New PDFs for an Old Ph.D. in formal methods

I completed my Ph.D. in 1997 on The Use of Formal Methods for Safety-Critical Systems. Happy to share the findings, I put copies of thesis online, but whilst LaTeX -> dvi -> postscript may have been routine practice for users of UNIX systems running X Windows, it was not very Web friendly for many others (much as Ghostview is good, it doesn't have such a popular appeal!) Finally I've got round to converting to PDFs and have added them to my PhD page. I tried a few years ago, but my initial attempts generated huge files and I couldn't work out why; fortunately ps2pdf.com's settings were far more reasonable and the entire thesis would almost fit on a 1.4MB floppy disk!

As to the subject matter, I was unable to progress the research as I wished; the small group at Kingston University soon petered out and there were relatively few openings elsewhere, so that's when I moved more towards I.T. from computer science (they are very different activities). In the '90s there were growing hopes that formal methods would gain a more general foothold, but when I glance at FM sites now, it seems their use remains very niche; references to LOTOS, the process algebra that I used to model a communications protocol for medical devices, point to materials that are rather old - the World-wide Environment for Learning LOTOS is indicative of this. There are still research activities, typically in compilation, but overall it's a bit surprising and disappointing. Yet given the greater computing power on tap, particularly cloud computing, perhaps this area may yet develop a lot further...?

Friday, October 01, 2010

Installing MySource Matrix on a Win XP Netbook (for evaluation)

Among the crop of open source content management systems that are deployed at Oxford, I recently had my first encounter with MySource Matrix, developed by Squiz, which is released under GPL. I decided to take a closer look by installing it on a netbook running Windows XP Home, just to have a poke around. The official requirements are a UNIX-like operating system, but this is a Web application, so in principle I think it ought to work, just as I can be confident in installing WordPress or Drupal. This should be the case, even though MySource Matrix is definitely a more substantial proposition in that a default install seems to gives you 'the kitchen sink'. The following is a screenshot after I had created my first page:

screenshot: MySource Matrix admin panel

As I couldn't find anyone else writing about it I thought I'd share an outline of the process I went through in case others would like to evaluate on this platform. I apologize in advance for not offering any support or follow-ups because I've since moved on/back to other systems for now, so for queries I think the best place would be the support forums.

Requirements

I carried out the installation at the beginning of September 2010, mainly following the steps in the installation guide provided by Squiz. The first thing that I'd stress is that it doesn't support the latest version of PHP. I really should have read the requirements more carefully as I did try 5.3.x and progressed only so far until I hit an issue reported on the forum. Afterwards I dropped back to version 5.2.14.

For the Web server I am running Apache 2.2 and this appears to be the recommended choice for working with the other components.

For the database back-end, MySQL is not supported, but there is a Windows distribution of the freely available PostgreSQL.

Installation

Apache (preliminary): A standard install should be fine as a basis to work with installing PHP and its libraries. For the Matrix config itself, see later.

PostgreSQL: For reference, I used Squiz's page on database installation. I installed Postgres 8.4.x using the Windows easy installer, accepting the defaults. Then for the installation of the Squiz database I used pgadmin, specifically pgAdmin III (v. 1.10.3). From the command line I issued the following commands to create two users: $ createuser -SRDU postgres matrix
$ createuser -SRDU postgres matrix_secondary
where -S: NOT a superuser, -R NOT allowed to create roles, -D NOT allowed to create databases, -U connect as username.

Then I created the database: $ createdb -U postgres -O matrix -E SQL_ASCII mysource_matrix, where -O owner, -E encoding. Note that it's important that the right template database is used — template0.

Comment: pgAdmin warns that storing data using the SQL_ASCII encoding means that the encoding is defined for 7 bit characters only. So it is dependent on the Web application to do the conversions (since content served to the Web is typically 8 bit UTF. I wonder if this is an indication of the longevity of the software...?

At some stage, you need to create the PLPGSQL language for Matrix. I did this in pgAdmin once I had run from the command line: C:\PostgreSQL\8.4\bin>createlang.exe -U postgres -d mysource_matrix plpgsql, but for a while I had some difficulties and needed some guidance.

PHP: When installing PHP (I did this via the MSI installer), I did the custom configuration to ensure support for PDO. There are other bits, like SMTP support, that should be included also, but selecting everything is not a good idea because, for instance, it will then expect that an Oracle client is installed. The most immportant of these is the PEAR Package Manager since MySource Matrix depends a lot on the additional PHP libraries that PEAR provides.

I actually did the PEAR installation separate from the main PHP installation, by running the gopear.php script from within a browser and subsequently installing packages through its Web front end. A lot of modules are needed and I'm not sure that my list is complete, but for what it's worth, here is a list of what I've installed so far from the channel pear.php.net: Archive_Tar, Auth_SASL, Cache_Lite, Config 1.10.11, Console_Getopt, HTML_Template_IT, HTTP, HTTP_Client, HTTP_Request, I18N, Image_Canvas, Image_Color, MIME_Type, Mail, Mail_Mime, Mail_Queue, Mail_mimeDecode, Math_BigInteger, Math_Stats, Net_SMTP, Net_Socket, Net_URL, Numbers_Roman, Numbers_Words, PEAR, PEAR_Frontend_Web, Structures_Graph, Text_Diff, Text_Highlighter, XML_HTMLSax, XML_Parser, XML_RPC, XML_Tree. Note that all these are marked 'stable' apart from Image_Canvas (alpha); Numbers_Words and PEAR_Frontend_Web (beta).

Basic Config Settings

With everything in place, I was ready to run the php install scripts. Here I emphasize that the PHP PDO and PDO_PGSQL modules must be installed for this to complete. For step 2, you need to ensure that there is the right access to Postgres. by editing pg_hba.conf to have lines roughly like:

host    all         all         your_local_IP/24          trust

Then at the end of running the script it should report at end: all secondary and tertiary user permissions fixed.

For step 3 I found I needed to specify a locale like: C:\www\home\websites\mysource_matrix>c:\PHP\php.exe install\compile_locale.php c:\www\home\websites\mysource_matrix --locale=en.

Apache (config for Matrix): a virtual host needs to be created, which for my setup of Apache is in conf/extra/httpd-vhosts.conf. I created a named virtual host for Matrix with the lines:

  NameVirtualHost site1.local
  NameVirtualHost 127.0.0.1
(apparently using localhost won't be sufficient).

The installation directories are a matter of personal preference, but as I could see some long directory paths, I've set the Matrix Home directory to C:/www/home/. This allows a fairly close following of the suggested config for UNIX, though file paths still need to be edited to cater for Windows directories. The relevant virtual container starts:

<VirtualHost 127.0.0.1>
 ServerName site1.local
 DocumentRoot "C:/www/home/websites/mysource_matrix/core/web"
 Options -Indexes FollowSymLinks

I also found that I needed to insert another alias into the Apache httpd.conf for asset_types: Alias /asset_types "C:/www/home/websites/mysource_matrix/data/public/asset_types" Alias / "C:/www/home/websites/mysource_matrix/core/web/index.php/"

I then followed a quick start guide and was able to complete the steps there.

Conclusion

Not a 5 minute install like WordPress, but it is fairly straightforward, at least in hindsight!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Textual origins of the Ten Good Deeds

In the course of my investigations for the M.St. dissertation, I read from Richard Gombrich’s Precept and Practice, which provides much illumination into traditional Buddhist practices in Sri Lanka. He discusses in some detail Ten Good Deeds (Dasa kusala karma), which are still highly valued (see, for instance, the post on Contentment in the recluse life by Ven. Wellawatte Seelagawesi Thero and Rituals in the Theravada Tradition by Ven. Bhikkhu Praghyalok).

A list of the deeds is as follows (Pāli followed by English translation taken from Gombrich):

  • dāna — giving (material)
  • sīla — keeping morality (i.e. the precepts)
  • bhāvanā — meditating
  • patti[dāna] — giving (transferring) merit
  • pattānumodanā — rejoicing in (another's) merit
  • veyyāvacca — giving service
  • apacāya — showing respect
  • desanā — preaching
  • suta — listening to preaching
  • diṭṭhiju — right beliefs

[Note that these are distinct from the dasa kusala karma patha, Ten Good Paths of Action].

You may have noticed that there seems to be some variation and interchange: one sometimes sees dasa kusala karma and elsewhere dasa puñña karma - the former usually translated as ‘wholesome’ or ‘skilful’, whereas the latter are usually translated as ‘meritorious’. The use of ‘good’ seems to cover both cases reasonably well and one could argue that skilful implies meritorious and conversely. :-) However, whichever term you settle on, Prof. Gombrich indicated that the source of these good deeds had not been established in the academic literature.

It’s in such situations that the present crop of electronic tools is a real boon and since I’ve spent a lot of time composing phrases for search boxes, I thought I’d take a look. For searching the Pāli canon I used the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana (Sixth Council) Tipitaka CD (version 4), a digitised presentation of the Burmese canon. One thing I find particularly interesting and useful about this edition is that it has some underlying TEI text encoding, which should help in determining meanings.

And, sure enough, I found a listing in commentary to Abhidhamma, namely the Abhidhammasaṅgaho of Anuruddhacariya: Abhidhammatthavibhāvinīṭīkā: Section 5. Vīthimuttaparicchedavaṇṇanā: Kammacatukkavaṇṇanā: Verse 65.

65. Dīyati etenāti dānaṃ, pariccāgacetanā. Evaṃ sesesupi. Sīlatīti sīlaṃ, kāyavacīkammāni samādahati, sammā ṭhapetītyattho, sīlayati vā upadhāretīti sīlaṃ, upadhāraṇaṃ panettha kusalānaṃ adhiṭṭhānabhāvo. Tathā hi vuttaṃ ‘‘sīle patiṭṭhāyā’’tyādi (saṃ. ni. 1.23, 192). Bhāveti kusale dhamme āsevati vaḍḍheti etāyāti bhāvanā. Apacāyati pūjāvasena sāmīciṃ karoti etenāti apacāyanaṃ. Taṃtaṃkiccakaraṇe byāvaṭassa bhāvo veyyāvaccaṃ. Attano santāne nibbattā patti dīyati etenāti pattidānaṃ. Pattiṃ anumodati etāyāti pattānumodanā. Dhammaṃ suṇanti etenāti dhammassavanaṃ. Dhammaṃ desenti etāyāti dhammadesanā. Diṭṭhiyā ujukaraṇaṃ diṭṭhijukammaṃ.

I have very little idea about dating, but I understand this is only Medieval commentary.

However, on searching phrases taken from that text, I subsequently came across a verse in the Itivuttaka Atthakatha, specifically the commentary on the Puññakiriyavatthu sutta (Tikanipāto. Dutiyavaggo Puññakiriyavatthu suttavaṇṇanā), which includes a list of ten good deeds, though the term used here is puññakiriyavatthu. Kiriya is a special word, being the actions of an Ariyan being, that is of one who is assured of nibbāna. Such actions have no karmic fruit.

Anyway, there are certainly ten good deeds here – listed as three and then seven more:

Ekamekañcettha yathārahaṃ pubbabhāgato paṭṭhāya kāyena karontassa kāyakammaṃ hoti, tadatthaṃ vācaṃ nicchārentassa vacīkammaṃ, kāyaṅgaṃ vācaṅgañca acopetvā manasā cintentassa manokammaṃ. Annādīni dentassa cāpi ‘‘annadānādīni demī’’ti vā dānapāramiṃ āvajjetvā vā dānakāle dānamayaṃ puññakiriyavatthu hoti. Vattasīse ṭhatvā dadato sīlamayaṃ, khayato vayato kammato sammasanaṃ paṭṭhapetvā dadato bhāvanāmayaṃ puññakiriyavatthu hoti. Aparānipi satta puññakiriyavatthūni – apacitisahagataṃ puññakiriyavatthu veyyāvaccasahagataṃ pattianuppadānaabbhanumodanadesanāmayaṃ savanamayaṃ diṭṭhijugataṃ puññakiriyavatthūti. Saraṇagamanampi hi diṭṭhijugateneva saṅgayhati. Yaṃ panettha vattabbaṃ, taṃ parato āvi bhavissati.

Again, I don’t know about the date, but according to a Pali Text Society page (section on the Itivuttaka Commentary), this commentary is considered to have been authored by Dharma around the 6th century CE.

Note that a few of the words are slightly different, but the construct seems congruent with each pair having essentially the same meaning.

  • dāna : dāna — giving (material)
  • sīla : sīla — keeping morality (i.e. the precepts)
  • bhāvanā : bhāvanā — meditating
  • patti[dāna] : pattianuppadāna — giving (transferring) merit
  • pattānumodanā : abbhanumodana — rejoicing in (another's) merit
  • veyyāvacca : veyyāvacca — giving service
  • apacāya : apaciti — showing respect
  • desanā : desanā — preaching
  • suta : savana — listening to preaching
  • diṭṭhiju : diṭṭhiju — right beliefs

With an eye on electronic tools and exegesis, perhaps this is where semantic encoding would help – specifically marking up texts to show equivalence of meaning…? The assistance that could be provided is only at the very early stages!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Personal Diary Of Fuengsin Trafford - in 10 volumes!

Fuengsin Trafford, 29 Alpine Close: inside cover of first volume of diary

My mother, the late Fuengsin Trafford, kept a personal diary, covering the years B.E. 2512 to 2517 (1969 to 1974). At the start, my family was in Southampton (Alpine Close), and then we moved to Strood in Kent in 1970 when I was just a toddler, staying there until 1975. I don't know what prompted my mother to maintain the diary - whether it was something she chose to do to help her adjust to British life or whether she was following some advice from a friend.

The diary is mainly in Thai and occupies a varied collection of notebooks, ten in all, most of them fairly small (bit less than A5 in size). There's an entry for almost every day, sometimes running to only a few lines, at others to more than a couple of pages. I estimate that there are 1500-2000 pages in total, but I can barely make out any of my mother's handwriting. :-(

Yet I can extract some simple patterns because there are many names in English (most of which I can decipher, but not all!) These include circles of friends and places visited (many mention Strood, Chatham, and Rochester, all places in the Medway area that are collectively seeking city status). Also recorded are literary works that she enjoyed reading, including a succession of French novels: Préséances (Mauriac), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier), La Porte Étroite (André Gide), L’Assommoire (Zola) and unspecified works by Balzac and Flaubert. There are also contemporary events that hit the national and international headlines, which could be an interesting complement to her collection of scrapbooks.

But how am I going to be able to make more than superficial use? I would dearly like to be able to read the handwriting, but for the moment I am dependent on others and so I'm inviting a few Thai friends to transcribe small portions to gain a better idea of what my mother wrote. I hope that these samples will help me to be able to read on my own.

Even then as there's so much material I shall have to target particular portions for reading, transcribing and translating. I could choose passages where certain people are mentioned etc., but perhaps there are more ingenious ways of delving into the text. Any suggestions would be welcome...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Invitation to a Middle Way retreat in Surrey

The UK has just welcomed the prospect of summer as it enters 'British Summer Time' - the clocks have just been set forward one hour ('spring forward ... fall behind' is how I remember it), which means that the evenings are extended bringing a greater opportunity to enjoy the natural environment after work :-)

This summer there's a special opportunity to learn meditation over a long weekend - a 4 day retreat (2-5 July 2010) organised by the Middle Way team, which has for several years successfully run meditation retreats for Westerners in Northern Thailand. I've been helping with its organisation: the location is the Ladywell Retreat centre, which was recommended by a friend, and I think it will be an excellent venue.

It's aimed primarily at those who have some experience of meditation, particularly in the dhammakaya tradition, but I think it's open to anyone who is in reasonably good health and keen to learn. For those who have continued practising since attending sessions organised by one of our temples, it will be a great opportunity to intensify the practice under the guidance of experienced monks. Even if you haven't been able to continue meditating or not as much as you would have liked, then this will be an excellent way of getting back into the practice, purifying and calming the mind, finding inner peace and giving you a firm basis for further spiritual development.

Interested? You can find out some details in an accompanying leaflet and obtain instructions on how to join from Wat Phra Dhammakaya (London) (Not many Thais have heard yet of Woking!)

UPDATE: Further details, including photos from the retreat centre, have been posted in the Wat's blog.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Translating Thai with help from electronic tools

With the advent of various electronic tools translations from one language to another should be greatly facilitated, improved, and made faster. However, I’ve found the initial preparation is no trivial matter. Furthermore, as I hope to show, when it comes to attempting a reasonably reliable translation, you need to draw on your wits and whatever knowledge you’ve tucked away in the recesses of your memory – so having a good memory is a good start!

I’ll indicate some particular issues with respect to Thai, with a few comparisons with other languages. I make no claims about my general linguistic ability and with Thai I consider myself a novice both in speaking and writing, though I’m gradually acquiring more skills – without any language aids I would not be able to get very far at all! Even so, having heard my mother speak to me as a child, I have some sense of how Thai ‘sounds’ and its structure.

Assuming that an electronic document is available, like humans, automated assistants have to content with the following general problems:

  • There’s no punctuation in Thai – it means that there’s more effort required in parsing the text and, particularly chunking, working out where divisions lie between clauses and sentences. I’ve struggled with this and sometimes depend on the tools’ suggestions.
  • There are no tenses in Thai apart from a few designators (token words added in) – it’s not always obvious what mode of voice to use and if making an arbitrary choice, then consistency is needed across the text as a whole.
  • Phonetic transcriptions are helpful for aiding a quicker reading, but there’s no single standard – I think it’s partly because Thai is tonal, and Romanised phonetics either look clumsy or just omit the tones; it’s also partly because of the sound combinations, many of which could be transcribed in more than one way.

A Suite of Translation Tools

But let’s not be too pessimistic – as Benny the Irish polyglot would say, the language cup is half full! Having created an electronic document, perhaps via scanning, OCR, and manual corrections, it’s time to find the tools to help you read it!

When it comes to electronic assistants, the temptation is take the easiest route: locate one tool, preferably free and on the Web, and just use that. However, it’s essential to have at least a second opinion! The first electronic tool that I have used in earnest is Lingvosoft Talking Dictionary Thai to English, though the pronunciation even in the 2010 version is still only in English. :-( This is basically a large conventional dictionary with a simple interface – you type in your word letter by letter, and if you’re not sure of the ending, then it will list words that start with that combination. I originally bought the Windows CE version thinking that it would be handy to have with me on my travels in Thailand, but I’ve not really got used to inputting on a small screen.

I’ve found this the most useful tool amongst all those I’ve tried is Thai2English. There’s a version of the software is available on the Web site http://thai2english.com. I have purchased the full copy, though it should be noted that it only runs on Windows. You can see from exploring the Web site that it goes well beyond a simple dictionary and has quite an array of pedagogic building blocks that supports those who are learning Thai.

However, the first thing that can be done is to get a quick sense of what the text is about and it’s here that I’ve turned to the Web by uploading content into Google Translate. This free service, which has only been available since January 2009, provides a very convenient interface offering a number of ways to get content translated automatically – technically it’s called machine translation. You can enter text into the box, upload a document or enter the URL (Web address) of a page that you’d like translated. You specify what language to which you’d like it to be translated and then just press the [Translate] button. You can also bookmark combinations, e.g. Thai to English:
http://translate.google.com/?th&tl=en#
(For newcomers, you can get a flavour from a quick overview provided by Google, which covers a lot of ground in a little over a minute, but you can pause, rewind and replay to take it all in...)

Google Translate does set a limit of a few pages per go, so if you have more than a slender booklet, you’d need to repeat this process a number of times, but for most purposes I don’t think that’s going to be very troublesome.

TIP: When running MS Windows (XP), I notice that there’s much better support for Firefox than Internet Explorer, especially when copying from the browser Window into a Word Processor, even to MS Word, when I intuitively expect more information to be retained from IE.

An example

I’ll consider the title and opening paragraph from my mother’s article about her experience of the Hampshire Buddhist Society. The URL is: http://www.chezpaul.org.uk/fuengsin/dhamma/hants60s.htm.

Here is what Google currently makes of it (click on the image to see the full size version):

Google Translate's translation into Thai of a title and paragraph of English

Room for improvement, yes? I think it’s quite instructive of the challenges facing language learners, so let’s take a closer look at this paragraph.

You can do this using the text box entry form or alternatively, you can actually enter the above URL into Google and ask for English to be returned. Wherever it encounters what it thinks is Thai, Google has a go at translating, so it generally leaves the English untouched, though not completely(!) In this interface, moving my mouse pointer over the translated title reveals the original Thai, ส่วนหนึ่งของชาวพุทธในอังกฤษ:

Google rollover revealing source text in Thai

Here is the phonetic transcription provided by Thai2English:

Phonetic transcription of a sentence generated by Thai2English

Right at the start there’s a lot of scope for differing translations. Let’s compare what Google and I make of it. I’ll do this chunk by chunk:

Title:
ส่วนหนึ่งของชาวพุทธในอังกฤษ
Google’s English:
Part of the Buddhist in England.
Paul’s English:
Some Buddhists in England.

Comments:

  • With Thai, there is no written designation for plural – here Google has interpreted ชาวพุทธ (chaao put) as singular, but should it be in the plural?
  • It opens with a figure of speech ส่วนหนึ่ง (suan neung), a construct recognised by Thai2English:
    Thai2English parsing Thai, recognising a phrase
    Lingvosoft also lists it as a phrase:

    Lingvosoft definition of ส่วนหนึ่ง

However, it’s still grammatically correct to assume that the two words are distinct: ส่วน หนึ่ง. Then a whole host of meanings are possible for ส่วน, which could be one of a number of parts of speech. Lingvosoft indicates:

Adverb.
Apropos;
Conjunction.
As for, as to
Noun.
Fragment, denominator, form, lineament, member, part, portion, proportion, quota, region, section, segment, while, zone, bit, body
Preposition.
As of

Thus it could be translated: Concerning a Buddhist ... , i.e. about a [single] Buddhist’s experiences in the UK.

So I’ve had to weigh up these alternatives. How to home in on the right meaning? One approach I adopt is to shorten the phrase, which should draw on a larger statistical sample so that the translation is based on more occurrences. Thus I can try ส่วนหนึ่งของชาว (sùan nèung kŏng chaao). Google renders this as 'Part of the people.' This helps persuade me to settle on 'Some people' as the main sense. Yet even with some more pointers it’s still largely guesswork until I’ve had a native or fluent speaker to check it for me.

Having pondered enough over just the title, let’s move onto the first sentence(!)

Sentence 1

นับตั้งแต่ข้าพเจ้าออกจากบ้านเมืองมาอยู่ในประเทศอังกฤษเป็นเวลาเกือบ ๕ ปีไม่มีโอกาสไปวัดทำบุญตักบาตรและฟังพระธรรมเทศนา

Google:
Since I come from homes in the UK for nearly 5 years, no opportunity to measure merits, and put listening preaching.
PT:
Ever since I left my homeland to be in England nearly 5 years ago I have not had the opportunity to go to a temple to make merits, to put almsfood in a monk's bowl, or to listen to the Buddha's teachings.

Comments on Google’s effort:

  • The subject of the sentence almost gets lost at ไม่มี – literally ‘there wasn’t’, but in English it’s clearer to turn this into the first person
  • Google omits the translation of ไป วัด (go to the temple), yet it’s a very common activity.
  • There’s a lack of contextual awareness with “measure merits” – it just doesn’t make sense here!
  • Google translates ตักบาตร as just ‘put’, but it’s a construction, which Thai2English renders as “to put almsfood in a monk's bowl” and Lingvosoft offers: “give food offerings to a Buddhist monk.” Perhaps the latter is safer, but the former really conveys the Thai tradition!
  • The resulting sentence offered by Google is grammatically very poor. If you look at it, there’s a distinct absence of Buddhist-related vocabulary, which suggests a significant gap in the corpora (assuming it is using statistical methods).

Afterwards I made a few more stylistic changes such as changing ‘home’ to ‘homeland’ to emphasize the change in culture.

Sentence 2

ข้าพเจ้ายังมีความเลื่อมใสในพุทธธศาสนาอยู่เสมอ

Google:
I also have a sequin. Enter the Buddhist religious path always.
PT:
Yet I still have faith in the Buddha's teachings.

Comments:

  • Whereas Thai2English translates ความเลื่อมใส as a phrase meaning ‘faithfulness, believability, conviction’, Google errs in its chunking and decides to apply a full stop in the middle of a word, i.e. after ความเลื่อม which literally means ‘glossy things,’ hence ‘sequin’!
  • Google doesn’t retain a single voice – it jumps from first person indicative to imperative(?)
  • The phrase พุทธธศาสนา is just the Thai transcription from the Pali of Buddha Sasana, which just means ‘teachings of the Buddha’. Although ‘Buddhist religious path’ sounds okay, to use the word 'religious' arguably brings with it a lot of unnecessary cultural baggage.

Sentence 3 (first part)

ในยามว่างได้พยายามอ่านหนังสือเกี่ยวกับธรรมนั่งสมาธิวิปัสสนา

Google:
The guard was busy trying to read books about the fair. Insight meditation.
PT:
In my free time I am always trying to read books on Dhamma, sit and practise Vipassana meditation.

Comments

  • Google has split this into two sentences.
  • Google has not recognised that ยาม ว่าง is a phrase; Lingvosoft confirms that on it’s own ยาม means ‘gatekeeper, guardian, ...’, but Thai2English both defines it as ‘time; hour; period’ and groups this word with ว่าง (‘free, empty, vacant’)
  • Google renders ธรรม as ‘the fair’, but that’s completely out of context. Thai2English helpfully offers amongst others: ‘dharma’ or ‘[to be] natural, lawful, normal.
  • It has taken นั่ง สมาธิ วิปัสสนา as just the practice (noun) of insight meditation, rather than as a verb. I’ve emphasized the activity by a longer rendering.

Sentence 3 (second part)

และปฏิบัติธรรมเท่าที่สามารถจะทำได้ในใจนั้นเฝ้าแต่คิดว่าคงจะได้พบกับชาวพุทธเข้าสักวันหนึ่ง

Google:
and practice as they can do but keep in mind that think that would be found to be a Buddhist one day.
PT:
and practise the Dhamma to the best of my ability. I keep these in mind, thinking that I might yet some day get to meet with other Buddhists.

Comments:

  • I found this a difficult clause and am not really sure about the translation.
  • Google’s clause is all over the place
  • Google again fails to translate the key word of ธรรม

As you can see, at present Google’s rendering is very variable, not coherent, and doesn’t make much sense. It seems to chop up sentences and make clauses into short sentences, giving a staccato effect! I’m guessing that Thai is not one of its stronger languages.

Evaluation

I have found that the most helpful translation tool is Thai2English and I copy chunks of Thai there. It gives meanings and phonetic transcriptions word by word, together with help concerning Thai grammar. Occasionally it also fails to chunk correctly and sometimes lacks some vocabulary, but most of the time is does a good job so that where there are doubts or blank spaces, I have often found that there are typographical errors in the original text (or mistakes in the OCR/copy typing).

Google Translate is quick and useful for giving some features, but it’s not fit for translating anything substantial. I’ve found that close-reading is required, for which Thai2English, supplemented by another electronic dictionary – here Lingvosoft – is far more productive.

Whilst Google struggles to provide accurate translations, it does provide a very useful template structure for working on documents: it splits up translations into bite-sized segments of Thai followed by English. At the moment I don't pay too much attention to its translation, but retain it whilst I’m working since sometimes it does offer useful clues. I'm sure that it will improve quite rapidly as it's an important project for them.

At the end of the day the notice pinned onto the board would be: "All translations may be subject to change!"

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Translating Thai: Some Experiences of Digitisation

Is it possible to produce a reasonably accurate translation from Thai into English with only a basic knowledge of the language and the aid of electronic tools? I’m not going to make great claims as my experiences are from home-grown experimentation over a few months. However, having recently completed a few translations, I think there are promising signs. At least I’m quite satisfied with a translation of my mother's article concerning Buddhism in Hampshire in the '60s, which runs to about 2,000 words. So there may be some pointers that others find helpful.

Setting this post in the context of biographical research, I’ll first describe some broad considerations and then discuss digitisation (scanning and optical character recognition). One tip I’d offer is that there needs to be attention to detail – rough and ready methods won’t yield very much that's of value. Certainly, there’s been more involved than I anticipated!

I’ll start with a list of very basic questions - as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s :-)

  • What are you trying to learn? Why is it significant? Even when carrying out research entirely in one’s native language, time often forces choices with regard to the materials that you examine closely. If they are in a foreign language, then that imposes further constraints.
  • Is there anyone who can help? It may be that you can effectively form a team.
  • Of the materials available, which ones are going to shed most light in key areas?
  • Among these materials, which ones are amenable to analysis? Are they easy to access physically? Are they printed or hand-written?

All these points apply to any language, but then each language has further characteristics that can make the situation more or less difficult.

With regard to Thai, its alphabet (44 consonants and 28 vowel forms) is much more elaborate, particularly with the use of diacritics. Even Thais will tell you that looking up words in a dictionary can be quite a chore. Yet, if the letters are clearly formed then actually reading it is not so hard because it’s generally phonetic. As someone with a limited vocabulary, needing to look up many words, I soon decided that it’d be much more convenient to have an accurate transcription in electronic form so that I can use software-based dictionaries.

A note on reading handwriting

So what about Thai handwriting?! In the Thai education system, primary school children learn to write by copying individual Thai printed letters – I’ve seen one of my cousins do this repeatedly when she was 5 years old. When they leave primary school they then learn cursive script and that stage can mark a huge departure. It’s a similar approach as I learnt for English, but I don’t know whether children develop their own style or are guided to adopt one of a number of standard styles. I’ve shown sets of photos to relatives and friends with Thai writing on the back – quite often there is a struggle to read what’s written, so it appears to be no easier than English. It’s a daunting prospect, but assuming that the writing is consistent, then it becomes a question of recognising patterns and perhaps understanding its topology will help. So for a given author, it may suffice for someone to translate a sample for me and I can try to figure out the rest.

Anyway, at the moment I can’t read much beyond the printed word, which means I have to ask others to copy type what I can’t read. For general documents concerning work that’s quite feasible, at least for someone in Europe the costs of getting this done in Thailand are affordable. However, a biography containing personal items (which are often of greater interest) requires more care – until their contents are known they should be read only by people you can trust.

So in the remainder of what I share here I’ll confine my attention to printed documents as I indicate a methodology I’m adopting for their translation.

Copy type or scan for OCR?

Technology-assisted translations often start with flatbed scanners that can convert the physical page into an image that then gets ‘read’ using optical character recognition software (OCR). In theory, since the printed word generates letters uniformly, software can accurately interpret them. In practice, results are imperfect for most kinds of sources and can take longer than expected. It may be better simply to copy type.

So when should OCR be used? Whatever language you are trying to read, the utility depends upon the nature and condition of the original document – if it is a fragile pocket volume with hundreds of faded pages with tiny letters in an obscure font, then even if you manage to safely scan the page, you may find OCR yields very poor results.

However, this kind of discussion assumes that there actually is some decent software for any language, when in fact for languages that don’t use Roman script, the situation seems to be very varied...

Available OCR options for Thai (very few!)

For Thai the available options have been very few. On asking a few Thai friends, I drew only blanks and when I carried out a quick investigation it seemed that until only a few years ago, the options were not far out of the university laboratory and didn’t look very amenable. An example is NEC-0006 อ่านไทย เวอร์ชัน 2.5 (OCR), which is inexpensive, but it doesn’t get very good experience reports from a Thai OCR discussion thread..

The larger well-established commercial products such as Omnipage and Abbyy seemed for a long time to have ignored Thai until a couple of years ago when additional language support for Abbyy FineReader Pro was introduced for Thai in version 9. Trusting the claims of accuracy I took the plunge and bought a copy - quite an investment, even with an educational discount.

I’m glad I did as the results are generally good, although its accuracy is inferior to that for languages based on Roman script. For someone like me who types Thai very slowly it is a useful start, but unless the lettering in the documents is very clear so that the accuracy is close to 100%, its utility will fall away for anyone who can type reasonably quickly and accurately.

(In case you are wondering, there have been efforts to recognise handwriting, but it’s a much harder task – I was interested to note, though, that a fairly recent paper, Maximization of Mutual Information for Offline Thai Handwriting Recognition, in IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, makes use of a toolit that is primarily used for speech recognition research. It prompts the question of the relationship of Thai speech to writing. From my very rudimentary knowledge of Thai linguistics I gather that it has roots in Sanskrit, where the letters of the alphabet are placed according to where in the throat/mouth/lips they are formed. Thai reflects this ordering quite substantially, though not completely.)

Undertaking the OCR.

I think getting the best results is an art and worth persevering to make improvements. For all but a few cases with one or two small documents, the whole scanning workflow ought to be considered as a successful process requires a good rhythm. Washington State Library has a useful checklist and there are some good tips on the OCR process provided by About.com. These cover physical aspects including the selection of the scanner itself, keeping it clean, the placement of the source document, the scan settings (resolution, colour contrast, expected language(s)), and how the scanned image is divided up for the actual process of scanning.

One particular aspect that many software packages provide is training. For text recognition this is basically the process of chopping up the scanned image into a sequence of glyphs (character elements) and assigning glyphs to character names – see e.g. Wikipedia for a detailed entry. As you feed in multiple samples and specify the assignments, it learns how particular characters should be interpreted. There’s a training tutorial for a software library called Gamera, which I found very helpful in explaining the concepts.

I’ve not yet used training, probably because I’ve been a bit lazy to make the effort to learn how to make it learn!

Finereader’s Thai OCR Performance and Correcting the OCR.

Here’s a sample of FineReader's output.

Thai OCR in Abbyy FineReader Pro 9

As you can see, it’s a long way from perfection! Here it obviously doesn’t handle the English. I actually set it to interpret everything as Thai – although I could have included English as an additional language, it seems to have a net effect of adversely affecting the Thai rendering, so since English is easy for me to recognise and type, I prefer to let it get that part wrong.

A Thai person might well be dissatisfied with the results, but overall I was quite happy given my very slow Thai typing speed. There were one or two characters that FineReader seemed to really struggle with, but correction was not difficult as the suggested match was often a character used here and not elsewhere – so I could do a ‘search and replace.’ More challenging was the handling of the small diacritical marks – in Thai they are all glyphs since they each contribute towards meaning, either as vowel sounds or tone marks. Instances where there are two such marks on a single letter are common and FineReader often struggled to pick out -่ ไม้เอก (mai ek) – it looks like a hyphen, but its placement varies a lot. If you look at the screenshot carefully, you can see that FineReader simply omits quite a few of these, perhaps because the original source document was not clear enough.

Even if you train an OCR package, there will still be imperfections, so the output needs to be corrected. This process is tedious, but helpful – not least in learning to read! It helps you to familiarise yourself with the alphabet and especially pay attention to the way letters are formed.

If you have a large screen, particularly with widescreen dimensions, then it’s probably easiest to use the scanned image, set the zoom as needed, and place it next to the OCR’ed version that you’re editing.

Conclusion

Although a quick and perfect system is far away, for printed texts a few OCR options are emerging that I find helpful in digitising printed Thai texts. Alternative suggestions are very welcome – I’m keen to improve what I’m doing, even though it’s already been quite an effort and I haven’t yet started talking about the translation itself...!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Hampshire Buddhist Society in the late '60s

I've recently started translating from Thai into English some documents authored by Fuengsin Trafford (formerly Sarayutpitag), my mother. I'm pleased to make available a draft of Some Buddhists in England, being a translation from the Thai of ส่วนหนึ่งของชาวพุทธในอังกฤษ.

The article describes the early days of the Hampshire Buddhist Society, which was founded in 1966. It organised some lectures at Southampton University, but it really developed at Crabwood Farmhouse, near Winchester, where core members of the Society met regularly. I found it particularly interesting to read about the format of the sessions since I attend a group in Oxford, where we follow a very similar procedure. This is no coincidence since our group used to be led by Freda Wint, who, I gather, was one of the early members of the Society. It's a wonderful feeling to know this sense of continuity.

I'll write separately about the process of translation itself, but just comment here that I think this would have been far more difficult for me even 5 years ago, but current electronic tools have really helped. However, I still need a Thai person to make corrections!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Golden Jubilee celebrations at KMUTT

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the official founding of King Mongkut's University of Technology, Thonburi - it was established originally on 4 Feburary 1960 as Thonburi Technology Institute (TTI). It's now a substantial research-led University building up an international profile.

KMUTT Campus; photo credit: KMUTT Welding research and consulting center

I've been fortunate to get in touch with the University as my mother used to work there as a lecturer in English. She would refer to her former place of work as "Bangmot," which is the colloquial shorthand and was one of the first members of staff, joining around the time it was founded - I'm currently trying to establish exactly when. The following photo was taken in 1964, when there was (as far as I know) just this two storey building!

The developments are extraordinary, so congratulations to the university on its achievements! I think my mother would have been delighted to see its progress.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The significance of Dhamma eye in Buddhavacana

[updated: 22 January 2010]

In earlier drafts of my Master's dissertation I started exploring a number of avenues as I tried to trace the historical development of certain concepts insofar as they might have had a bearing on the understanding and practice of the Fifth Precept. Along the way I considered the concept of Buddhavacana in relation to what might be accepted as an utterance of the Buddha, but largely omitted my ideas owing to lack of space. So I would like to take the opportunity of sharing here an observation about this concept. It's a concept that's largely treated in Mahāyāna Buddhism, where using Sanskrit spellings is the usual convention and where discussion concerns Mahāyāna sūtras I'll use these spellings. However, I'm more at home with Pāli and as the discussion proceeds to draw on early canonical materials, I shall switch to mainly using the Pāli forms. I hope this doesn't cause much inconvenience.

In my dissertation I quoted the Pāli-English dictionary to translate the term vacana as 'speaking, utterance, word, bidding' (Rhys-Davids and Stede:1921-5). I made reference to investigations carried out almost 30 years ago by Graeme MacQueen (1981,1982), which has established itself as a key work in scholarly discussions about who and what the Buddha might have authorised as regards his teaching. Its currency, at least for the study of Mahāyāna, is evident from the way Paul Williams cites from it in the second edition of Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations.

The interpretation of Buddhavacana can vary according to whether it is regarded historically or ahistorically. Is it legitimate to trust more than what the historical Buddha Gotama (or Sakyamuni) is recorded as having taught? What about his disciples? Were they necessarily Arahants? Or is the criterion more on the speech itself? So is there an ongoing process of 'revelation'?

One of the initial clarifications MacQueen makes is that taking even the Pāli canon as the primary text Buddhavacana becomes not merely what the Buddha uttered, but also what some disciples uttered (1981:306). MacQueen then leads us into an analysis of pratibhāna ('inspired speech') and the other prati-bhā constructions (1981:310-314). He discerns two categories: “Someone is invited (usually by the Buddha) to have something 'occur' or 'be revealed' to him, whereupon he gives a doctrinal, prose discourse” (310) and “Something spontaneously 'occurs' or 'is revealed' to someone and he gives notice of this; after having been invited (usually by the Buddha) to give expression to his inspiration he gives a verse of praise” (311). Even with this latitude, MacQueen remarks towards the end of his first paper that the sūtra-piṭaka “was in fact established as a stable body of literature quite early” (315). In conclusion he states, “Hence it is fair to say that the concept of buddhavacana, historically understood, put strong limits on the contribution people's pratibhāna could make to the corpus of religious truth. By and large, then, the religious community did indeed see itself as belonging to a closed tradition.”

However, with some of the early Mahāyāna sūtras, the interpretation was changed – “a closer look reveals a startling break with traditional Buddhism”(1982: 49). MacQueen analyses especially the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, “generally considered the earliest of the existing sūtras of the Perfection of Wisdom group and, in fact, one of the earliest of the existing sūtras we possess.” The very mention of perfect wisdom in the title indicates a new emphasis – the source of what the Buddha expressed, thereby legitimating further expression as long as it came from that source. MacQueen quotes the opening dialogue in which Venerable Subhuti advises Ven. Sariputra that “Whatever, Venerable Sariputra, the Lord's Disciples teach, all that is to be known as the Tathagatha's work” (49). MacQueen highlights that Subhuti thus gives voice to extended Buddhavacana and it comes from his own mind. As he notes, there is a process whereby what is authoritative is “not so much that which has been spoken by a particular individual at a particular time as it is that which is of the highest value from the religious point of view.” Such a view lends itself very much to an ahistorical interpretation of Buddhavacana (51). MacQueen goes on to present a broad twofold division between roughly faith-based and wisdom-based traditions, the latter of which is central to the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. where “The function of a Buddha is precisely to make known such [liberating] wisdom [or prajñāpāramitā] to others” (52).

Furthermore the importance of the wisdom is enforced by quotes indicating that the Buddha refused to appoint a successor saying that the dharma would succeed him, for which MacQueen gives several canonical references (53). One of these is the following: “And the Lord said to Ānanda: 'Ānanda, it may be that you will think: “The Teacher's instruction has ceased, now we have no teacher!” It should not be seen like this, Ānanda, for what I have taught and explained to you as Dhamma and discipline, will, at my passing, be your teacher” (DN II 154). This naturally and readily legitimises succession in a way that reduces the primacy of the historical context of the Buddha and all his disciples.

The key word here would appear to be Dharma, but rather than discussing this term, MacQueen just states: “the essence of Dharma is again liberating wisdom” and has a footnote referencing verses 460-4 of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. Yet Dharma has many meanings in the canon – for instance, the Pāli-English Dictionary devotes four pages to its entry, so it's this term that I want to explore here.

In one sense Dharma may be maintained by the teachings that are kept through recitation and this appears to be the fundamental meaning with regards to transmission. The sūtra records that having stressed to Ānanda the importance of memorising this sūtra exactly word for word, the Buddha explains: “For as the dharma-body of the past, future and present Tathagatas is this dharma-text authoritative” (Verse 462 translated by Conze (1994: 267)).

(Now I switch to Pāli spellings :-).

The emphasis is on preserving the text, but the text serves only to point to that Dhamma, and not the basis of insight alone. If Dhamma is what needs to be preserved, then what is said about it in the canon to make it so special? Rather than talking about Dhamma as an object that has been produced, we can focus on the action or faculty of Dhamma realization; in terms of liberating wisdom, it makes sense therefore to specify these in terms of seeing. I'd suggest that such a Dhamma faculty is fittingly conveyed by the formula the “pure spotless Dhamma eye,” (viraja vītamala dhammacakkhu) which is the eye that can see things as they truly are. If one is to argue that inspired utterances are legitimate Buddhavacana, then this statement indicates some support for that Dhamma eye to be a necessary requirement.

So it's worth investigating this formula further. Such an attainment is characteristic of breakthrough as mentioned early on in the Vinaya accounts of the Mahāvagga (Great Division) with reference to the first lay disciple, Yasa in Mahāvagga 1.15 verse 9 (a passage that also includes the ubiquitous formula: "as if set upright something that had fallen; lit a lamp so that those with eyes might see shapes ...") It's mentioned further in many descriptions as the basis for subsequent progress to the eight Aryan states. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a practitioner in the Therāvāda tradition, who himself addresses issues of authenticity and authority in ‘When you know for yourselves...' The Authenticity of the Pali Suttas, makes the statement:

“Traditionally, the texts state that uncertainty about the Dhamma ends only with the attainment of stream-entry, the first of the four levels of Awakening.”

Ven. Thanissaro has also written a two part article discussing stream entry, and indeed there's no mention of in the first part (before Stream Entry), which includes developing the Seven Factors of Awakening. However, in Part 2: Stream-entry and Beyond, Thanissaro indicates its profound significance:

“This standard formula — it is repeated throughout the Canon — may not seem that remarkable an insight. However, the texts make clear that this insight is not a matter of belief or contemplation, but of direct seeing.”

I think it adds weight to the value of the Dhamma eye (and the need to attain it). Another view echoes this, coming from my own tradition of Dhammakāya. This is what the founder, the late Chao Khun Phramonkgolthepmuni had to say on the matter:

“Now the virtues of the Sangha. The Order of disciples is twofold. That is, ordinary disciples, and Noble Ones. Ordinary disciples differ from the Noble Ones in that they do not possess the dhamma eye, which the Noble Ones do. Here, therefore, only the virtues of the Noble Ones are implied. There are four pairs, eight in all. The stream enterer path and fruit, the once-returner path and fruit, the non-returner path and fruit, the emancipated path and fruit.”

(from a book on his life and teachings by Terry Magness ).

It's echoed in contemporary teachings from the temple on the Four Noble Truths:

Such Buddhist nobles have overcome craving, even though some have not yet attained Nirvana - they have seen and known Nirvana via their Dhamma eye i.e. by meditational insight.

(The Buddha's First Teachings: The Cessation of Suffering by Phrabhavanaviriyakhun)

Are all utterances of equal value among those who hold the Dhamma eye? There might be different levels of response to this question. In terms of secular or historical authority, we might expect a process of 'graceful degradation' whereby the greatest authority (from whom there are no doubts about proclaiming Buddhavacana) are the utterances from a Buddha; these are followed by utterances of a Chief Disciple, then the Arahat in general, then Anāgāmi (Non-Returner), Sakadagami (Once Returner) and finally the Stream Enterer (Sotāpanna). Recall both lay and ordained can be members of the Āriya Sangha, though it's said that a lay person can't survive as an Arahat without ordaining very quickly.

If we assume the necessity of the Dhamma eye, then for the historical context we should consider questions regarding the sustenance of its practice. Did the Buddha make any remarks about its prosperity? If we consider this, then we may find a historical override to perpetual argumentation in the Buddha's prediction that his dispensation would be limited: “...now, Ānanda, the Brahma-faring will not last long, true dhamma will endure only for five hundred years.” (Vinaya: Culavagga X: I.6, I. Horner trans.). It is made in the context of the establishment of the bhikkhuni order and the recorded detrimental affect (halving the time of dispensation) grates against modern sensitivities, but it should not be dismissed out of hand as the account makes clear that gender is no barrier to attaining nibbāna.

What might the impact be on Buddhavacana? If this statement is true historically and we assume the necessity of "true dhamma" for the extensions to Buddhavacana, then it would appear to restrict such extensions to no later than the 1st century CE and it would imply a more conservative view of what constitutes early Buddhist texts. It would certainly negate assumptions that the transmission of any text per se legitimates or supports in perpetuity the extension of Buddhavacana.

However, this statement does not imply that henceforth there will be no new Buddhavacana. The statement about "true dhamma" is made only with respect to Buddha Gotama's dispensation since, at the very least, it is recorded that there is Buddha Metteya still to come in this world cycle, who in turn will set forth "true dhamma". But again, we may ask what is this "true dhamma"? Some scholars have interpreted this only as a historical material corpus of texts (transmitted orally or in written form). Yet I think it likely that the present canon is substantially a reliable record of what was originally said, so it seems unlikely to me that this is what the Buddha was referring to. A more pertinent interpretation in my view is that the Buddha is referring to dhamma practice, sublime practice, difficult to discern, that is essentially based on the Dhamma eye. Thus the statement is more fundamental: it states that the core of what he taught as practice (i.e. the 'Middle Way' etc.) would be lost.

At first glance, pondering the implications of this can be discouraging, but if we continue to focus on the faculty of the Dhamma eye in relation to "true dhamma", we can ask is it sufficient to proclaim Buddhavacana (as well as necessary)? If it is sufficient, then there arises the possibility of new Buddhavacana if the Dhamma eye is re-discovered without the historical material presence of a Buddha.

References

Rhys-Davids and Stede, Pāli-English Dictionary, Pali Text Society, 1921–5. [Available online at: http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/pali/]
Conze, Edward trans. 1994[1973]. The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 lines [Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra], Sri Satguru Publications
MacQueen, Graeme. 1981. Inspired Speech in Early Mahāyāna Buddhism I. Religion 1981 vol. 11, Academic Press, 301-319
MacQueen, Graeme. 1982. Inspired Speech in Early Mahāyāna Buddhism II. Religion 1982 vol. 12, Academic Press, 49-65

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Master's Dissertation on Buddhism: On the Fifth Precept as Avoiding Heedlessness

สวัสดี ปี ใหม่! Even if you don't read Thai, I think you can guess this annual greeting. :-)

The customary celebrations have been accompanied by the usual over-celebrations with adverse consequences reported in familiar headlines such as Rising alcohol addiction costs 'could cripple the NHS'. So it may be an appropriate time to share some research into the Fifth Precept in Buddhism, which I undertook as part of my Master's in the Study of Religion.

Observing this precept is an undertaking to avoid intoxicants. So what was the original meaning of this precept? How is it interpreted today, particularly in social contexts? Do practitioners from different traditions have the same attitudes or are there variations? I explored these and other issues in my Master's dissertation on Avoiding pamāda: An analysis of the Fifth Precept as Social Protection in Contemporary Contexts with reference to the early Buddhist teachings. The exploration is essentially concerned with just the one Pali word, pamāda, which can be translated as 'heedlessness.'

As with my essays in Christianity, I was being a bit ambitious, perhaps trying to bite off more than I could properly chew. It's commonly known that there are variations, but I'm not aware of research that has shown this empirically. So I've made a little step in this direction by carrying out a survey, looking at people's understanding of the precept in theory and how they put it into practice in particular social scenarios. I wrote this up as a separate piece of work as it was too big to fit into the dissertation (but since all Master's work was marked anonymously, I had to make cryptic references so that the author of the dissertation wasn't made explicit).

I was able to establish with reasonable confidence that there were indeed variations in attitudes among practitioners in different traditions, so how did the variations arise? In my background reading I made use of quite a few Mahāyāna texts, especially those relating to the Bodhisattva ideal. Along the way, Graeme MacQueen's fascinating study of Buddhavacana prompted some reflections. Again, owing to space limitations, I couldn't write much about this in the dissertation, but at least there are some notes that I could write up at a later date.

Just one other observation. Although pamāda is most commonly connected with alcohol and mind-altering drugs, the Buddha indicated a more general scope in his guidance to avoid the intoxicated mind. I found this in the early texts when I came across the compound, jūtappamādaṭṭhānānuyoga, which I've translated as 'gambling, a yoke that is the cause of heedlessness.' I think it's apt to point to this now as I think it is this mentality that has contributed in no small measure to the global financial crisis where trading on the financial markets has been - as far as I can tell - a kind of gambling. The more I explore the texts, the more I see how fundamental heedfulness is to developing one's practice.

I hope the dissertation is interesting and helpful. Any feedback - comments, suggestions, critiques - would be welcome, either by email or as comments to this blog. I think there's a lot more research that could be pursued in this area, especially in relation to physical and mental health.