Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Teachings at Wat Paknam (Attā and Anattā: Part Three)

Continuing with the theme of attā and anattā raised by Horner, having indicated some of the scholarly response (or lack of), I turn now to some views from Thailand.

My own Buddhist background comes mainly through my mother, the late Fuengsin Trafford, who belonged to the Dhammakaya tradition; she used to practise meditation at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen in Thonburi, Thailand. It was she who introduced me to the teachings of Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni (Sodh Candasaro), or simply Luang Phor Sodh, as he was popularly known, who was its Abbot from 1916 until his passing in 1959. (Luang Phor means something like ‘respected father’; he is also popularly referred to as Luang Pu —‘respected grandfather’.)

Luang Phor Sodh delivered many sermons, some of which, mainly the later ones, were recorded, and quite a few of these have been translated from Thai into English. Most of my reading has ben from two volumes published by the 60th Dhammachai Education Foundation, part of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. The title is ’Visudhivācā: Translation of Morradok Dhamma’, where Morradok is a Thai word that means something like 'legacy' or 'inheritance' (but the book link above is incorrect — Volume II can be read online / downloaded at Unfortunately, Volume I, from which I will quote, is out of print and I can’t find any copy online.

I shall focus on one particular sermon by Luang Phor entitled 'Self as Refuge', which he gave on 13th September B.E. 2496 (1953), so it is contemporaneous with Horner’s article. It also includes several of the passages that Horner cites. Further, in Luang Phor’s main treatment of the topic of attā, we may discern a pattern of teaching that mirrors Horner’s gradual approach, i.e. Luang Phor starts by reviewing what is compounded and mundane before moving onto the supramundane. In both cases he asserts there is attā, respectively conventional and transcendent. However, whereas Horner relies on study of the texts, the main basis of Luang Phor’s teachings is his meditation experience — which has been verified by many of his disciples and their disciples (of which my mother was one).

As a warm-up Luang Phor recounts the episode shortly where, shortly after his Enlightenment, the Buddha encounters a group of princes, searching for a woman who is suspected of having made of with some precious jewellery. The Buddha addresses them, recorded in Pali as:

“taṃ kiṃ maññatha vo, kumārā, katamaṃ nu kho tumhākaṃ varaṃ — yaṃ vā tumhe itthiṃ gaveseyyātha, yaṃ vā attānaṃ gaveseyyāthā”ti? “etadeva, bhante, amhākaṃ varaṃ yaṃ mayaṃ attānaṃ gaveseyyāmā”ti. “tena hi vo, kumārā, nisīdatha, dhammaṃ vo desessāmī”ti.

(Vin. Mahāvagga i.23, i.e. 1. mahākhandhako, 11. bhaddavaggiyavatthu])

Horner translates (p.32):
“What do you think of this, young men? Which is better for you, that you should seek for a woman or that you should seek for the self?”
“Truly this were better for us. Lord, that we should seek for the self."
"Well then, young men, you sit down, I will teach you dhamma."

The account describes relates that the princes were given gradual instruction on sense restraint and magga (the meditative path of liberation) so that in due course:

“having seen dhamma, attained dhamma, known dhamma, plunged into dhamma, having crossed over doubt, having put away uncertainty, having attained without another's help to full confidence in the teacher's instruction,’ spoke thus to the Lord: May I, Lord, receive the going forth in the Lord's presence, may I receive ordination?'

(It’s the same formula as used for Venerable Aññata Kondañña, one of the Pañcavaggiyā (Five Ascetics), p.18).

Luang Phor proceeds to give his main teaching to connect attā and dhamma based on the following passage from the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta (DN 16), which is also quoted by Horner

attadīpā attasaranā anaññāsaranā
dhammadīpā dhammaasaranā anaññāsaranā

[D. ii. 100, DN etc.]

Luang Phor explains this word by word:

attadīpā means having the self as an island.
attasaranā means having the self as a refuge.
anaññāsaranā means having nothing else as a refuge.
dhammadīpā means having Dhamma as an island.
dhammaasaranā means having Dhamma as a refuge.
anaññāsaranā means having nothing else as a refuge.

So the Abbot’s repeated translation as ‘self’ adds cumulative weight; it is more than merely a conventional reference to oneself or ourselves. He then goes on to elaborate on what this ‘self’ means by reference to successive stages in Dhammakaya meditation.

Each stage makes reference to a body and that body is to be regarded as ‘self’. There is a succession of bodies, so there are various levels of ‘self’. Each ‘self’ is what one works with in practice, what is to be thoroughly known and — went bringing the mind to a standstill — it dissolves, allowing the next body to arise at its centre. (This bringing to a standstill is what the Buddha meant when declaring he had stopped to Angulimāla).

The succession starts with manussakāya (the human physical body). That’s self. It dissolves and then so too is panīta-manussakāya (the refined human body, ‘astral’ or ‘dreaming’ body), this is self. The process repeats for increasingly refined bodies, hence: dibbakāya (celestial body), panīta-dibbakāya (refined celestial body), rūpabrahmakāya (form Brahma body), panīta-rūpabrahmakāya (refined form Brahma Body), arūpabrahmakāya (formless Brahma body), panīta-arūpabrahmakāya (refined formless Brahma Body).

There are eight of these bodies. Luang Phor explains:

These are all 'selves’, bodies within bhavaloka (the three planes of becoming)... The various selves of the three planes of becoming are conventional; they are not real, and will remain only for a certain period of time. Such bodies are transient.

There are more bodies beyond those planes and Luang Phor proceeds to enumerate them, but I will change the order by bringing forward what he says about conventional Dhamma and relate this to self. Likewise there are various levels of Dhamma:

Dhamma is a dwelling-place for the self; the self could not exist without Dhamma. The human body, the refined human body, the dibbakāya, the refined dibbakāya, the rūpabrahmakāya, the refined rūpabrahmakāya, the arūpabrahmakāya; the refined arūpabrahmakāya; all possess Dhamma. Without Dhamma, such could not survive.

Luang Phor teaches that each body (self) has Dhamma, where the Dhamma is located at the centre of the respective body and that it is a sphere, hence Dhamma-sphere. However, for these 8 bodies, these Dhamma-spheres are conventional; Luang Phor quotes the Buddha: “The Great Lord said: Sabbe dhammā anattā ti; ‘all dhammas are not-self’.” To clarify he states: “Self is not Dhamma — self is self — Dhamma is Dhamma”, but the Dhamma-sphere is what makes self possible.

I suspect that all these stages would have already been attained before the Buddha’s Enlightenment and the beginning of his dispensation. The Brahmajāla Sutta, which describes a long list of false views includes the belief held by eternalists that loka (the world, be it form-filled or formless) and the highest self are the same. This erroneous view could be reached by those who had surveyed through considerable efforts in meditation cycles of universes over many aeons, including numerous past lives, but without seeing beyond the three planes.

Given the Buddha’s refutation of a permanent self in all that, it’s perhaps not so surprising that many scholarly interpretations will stop at ‘all dhammas are not-self’ and conclude that this includes nibbāna, but this would contradict the Buddha’s utterance in the Udana 8.3 and bind us all to the lower shore.

Descriptions of the path to liberation typically involve purification with the abandonment of the kilesas (the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion) and proceed to the destruction of the asavas (deep-seated taints). Today there are many explanations about the process but references to magga (path or way), specifically the Middle Way are often vague or not made explicit.
Yet, it could only be from outside the three planes of becoming that the appropriate insight could be gained.

In contrast, Luang Phor gives these terms explicit meanings and proceeds to show how the mode of practice through the centre of the body continues to apply. This is the vehicle for the Middle Way, a process of body within body, performed repeatedly (an approach I’ve tried to express by using the image of microscopes.

But are there canonical references for this? Yes, in the Mahāsatipatṭhāna Sutta (The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness), the Buddha uses the phrase kāye kāyānupassī viharati (dwells contemplating body in body), and similarly for vedanā, citta and dhamma. This is explained by Luang Phor in another sermon dedicated to that sutta, also translated into English in Visudhivācā Volume I. Further, in the Samaññaphala Sutta (on the Fruits of the Contemplative Life) the Buddha describes the relationships of ‘body in body’ through imagery: like a reed being pulled from a sheath or a sword from its scabbard. Without understanding the mode, kāye kāyānupassī has been mistranslated, often with reference to external bodies and even as ‘contemplating the body in and of itself’. No, it means ‘body in body’ (two bodies, one inside the other).

Continuing with the sermon on attā, Luang Phor goes on to introduce 10 further kāyas, all transcendent, by this mode. The first of these is the entry point to the ariyan states, the dhammakāya-gotrabhū. Gotrabhū means ‘transition of lineage’. It’s referenced in AN 9:10 (the sutta on those worthy of offerings), but Gotrabhū is often weakly translated as “member of the spiritual clan or family”. Luang Phor is indicating that it’s specifically the Ariyan family, the stage of entry or threshold, as defined by Nyanatiloka in his Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines.

There follows the refined dhammakāya-gotrabhū, the dhammakāya-sotapanna, the refined dhammakāya-sotapanna, the dhammakāya-sakadāgāmi, the refined dhammakāya-sakadāgāmi, the dhammakāya-anāgāmi, the refined dhammakāya-anāgāmi, the dhammakāya-arahatta, the refined dhammakāya-arahatta, making 10 transcendent bodies in all, each of which possess spheres of Dhamma successively larger in dimension in which the respective bodies (selves) dwell. Thus there are pairings throughout — the body, which is perceived, and the Dhamma on which that is based, without which it cannot exist. Both are of two kinds: the conditioned and unconditioned, 8 and 10 in number respectively.

After describing the qualities of each stage from the point of view of a practitioner Luang Phor revisits the Pali phrase attadīpā attasaranā anaññāsaranā, explaining first how self is an island:

How is it that the body or 'self’ is an island, and how is it our own refuge? To start with, picture a vessel that has been attacked by a storm and wrecked in the ocean. The passengers are forced to swim to reach the shore. They surely need something to rest on, such as an island. What if, whilst swimming, they suddenly see in the distance an island? You can imagine how pleased they would be. That island is their refuge; they now have a place upon which to rest, to take a break from swimming, which is very tiring. Once they find they have an island they can reach, they are no longer tired; their difficulties and hardship are alleviated...

Then explaining how self is a refuge:

What does it mean to say body is a refuge? How come you have your self as a refuge? What happens when you see the island? The answer is that you are happy because you can stay on that island, you can rest on that island. Since you have nowhere else to go, you take that island as your refuge.

Luang Phor goes on to provide a further explanation based on practical reality:

At present, we human beings take our own bodies as the place in which we live. If we do not depend on the human body as an island, then why don’t you let go of it? When a human has no material-form that could be called a body, the refined body is unable to exist. Others would not be able to see you, which would mean that you were dead. This supports my explanation that the human body is truly an island.

There is further elaboration in the sermon, but I think that’s enough for this post.

In summary, the late Abbot of Wat Paknam's teachings on attā and anattā are emphatic and nuanced; whereas many scholars make reference to just one (physical) body with which to work with, Luang Phor indicates that there's a notion of 'body' at each level and that is to be regarded as 'self'. Each such 'self' is to be paired with Dhamma, which for the mundane levels (corresponding with the first 8 kāyas up to the formless Brahmakayas), are actually anattā, but for the 10 supramundane kāyas they are anattā.

There were many skeptics in his day, but the Luang Phor never wavered in his conviction and he eventually convinced many of his detractors once they practiced themselves or sometimes when they faced difficulties that they could not resolve, but Luang Phor could.

I’ll just finish by relating an episode from my first stay in Thailand, during which I had my fourth birthday. I don’t remember very much apart from a dream in which I was on board a ship, out at sea. There was a storm and I fell overboard and was washed up on shore. As I walked along the shore a hole appeared and I fell into it. Maintaining my awareness I observed it getting larger, but I don’t recall being afraid. And then it morphed into my room and I was awake.


I have been unable to locate the original Thai transcription of Luang Phor’s talk, though I have found an extract from a Thai collection of Luang Phor's sermons (Vol. 1), page 33, which corresponds to page 40 of Visudhivāca I. It has its own title of กายในภพ-กายนอกภพ ('Body in the world — body outside the world'). It contrasts the conventional with the supramundane. I include a portion below along with my own translation, which I carried out partly to confirm the English in Visudhivāca I (it seems fine, likely better than mine).

เพราะฉะนั้นจะต้องเรียนให้รู้จักกายของตัวเสียก่อน ว่ากายมนุษย์นี่ แหละเป็นตัวโดยสมมุติ ๘ กายที่อยู่ในภพนั่นแหละเรียกว่า อตตสมมุติ เรียก ว่าตัวโดยสมมุติทั้งสิ้น
So we must study and get to know initially the self of the world. About this human body (manussakaya) it has a conventional self. There are 8 sammuti [conventional] bodies in the world [bhavaloka]. These [bodies] are called attāsammuti, that is they are all called conventional self.

ส่วนธรรมล่ะ คือธรรมที่ทำให้เป็นกายมนุษย์น่ะ ก็เรียกว่าธรรมสมมุติ เหมือนกัน สมมุติชั่วคราวหนึ่ง ไมใช่ตัวที่พระองค์ทรงรับสั่งว่า “สพุเพ ธมมา อนตฺตาติ” ธรรมทั้งสิ้นไม่ใช่ตัว ตัวทั้งสิ้นไม,ใช่ธรรม ตัวก็เป็นตัวซิ ธรรมก็เป็น ธรรมซิ คนละนัย
As for Dhamma it is Dhamma that causes the human body. So it is called sammuti dhamma as well — being sammuti it is temporary; it’s not a permanent dwelling place for self. Of this it is said “Sabbe dhammā anattā ti”. None of these dhammas are self. Self is not this Dhamma. For self is self and Dhamma is Dhamma — they are different from one another.

มีตัวกับธรรม ๒ อย่างนี้เท่านั้น กายมนุษย์ก็มืตัว กายมนุษย์ก็มืธรรมที่ ทำให้เป็นตัว ตลอดทุกกาย ทั้ง ๑๘ กาย มีตัวกับมีธรรมที่ทำ'ให้เป็นตัว แต่ว่า ตัวทั้งหลายเหล่านั้น ทั้ง ๘ กายในภพ เป็นอนิจจํ ทุกขํ อนตฺตา หมดไม่เหลือ เลย ทั้ง ๑๐ กายนอกภพ เป็น นิจฺจํ สุขํ อตฺตา หมดไม่เหลือเลย ตรงกันข้าม อย่างนี้เป็น นิจฺจํ สุขํ อตฺตา เป็นของที่เที่ยงของจริงหมด แด,ว่าในภพแล้วเป็น ของไม่เที่ยงไม,จริงหมด
There is self and Dhamma. Merely these two things: there is human body and there is self. The human body has also dhamma which makes it have self. Each and every body, all 18 bodies, have self and dhamma, which makes it [possible to] have self. But the self across all 8 groups in the world are aniccam, dukkham and anattā, all of them. On the other hand all ten bodies outside the world are completely niccam, sukham, attā. They are all the same in this way niccam, sukham, attā; they are completely certain and true, but regarding those [bodies] in the world they are transient, not real at all.

Contextualising attā (Attā and Anattā: Part Two)

Having introduced Horner's essay on Attā and Anattā and related some of the (more) open questions around the meanings of attā, we now consider the third and final part, where Horner presents various passages containing ‘attā’ (or more, exactly, “the logical opposite of an-attā”, which she regards as “too much overlooked”.

For example, from S. i. 140. [SN 6.2.2] Gārava Sutta (Respect):

Tasmā hi attakāmena,
Saddhammo garukātabbo

Horner translates as (my italics):

So he to whom the self is dear,
Who longs for the great self,
Should homage to true dhamma pay.

Yet Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as (again, my italics):

Therefore one desiring his own good,
Aspiring for spiritual greatness,
Should deeply revere the true Dhamma.

and Bhikkhu Sujato renders it:

Therefore someone who loves themselves,
aspiring to transcendence,
should respect the true teaching.

There is considerable variation in these, but the second and third translations both avoid using the word ‘Self’, though Ven. Sujato does assign to mahattama transcendence, which is not the conventional. My knowledge of Pali is not sufficient to be clear on this, but the key to the translation of the second line is how one deals with 'mahattam' (or 'mahatta[m]') - the PTS dictionary translates 'mahattam' as 'greatness' (from the Sanskrit mahattva). So technically Horner's translation of this line looks erroneous, though they may well share linguistic roots. However, I think the key point is that the second line reinforces the first one, so the sense is actually correct.

More generally, I notice that other modern translations of some of these passages replace references to 'self' by something vaguer, with conventional meaning, or otherwise gloss over the words. Whilst in some cases this may be closer to the intended meaning, it seems to me that more often it’s rooted in a particular limited view of self, entailing some aversion to writing ‘self’ without qualification. Sometimes there’s even an insistence in the footnotes that any reference to attā can’t be metaphysical, as is the case for the following famous passage that Horner includes in her list:

tasmā attadīpā attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā

Horner translates this as:

Wherefore fare along with self as island, with self as refuge, and no other, with dhamma as island, with dhamma as refuge, and no other. (D. ii. 100, etc.)

But in a footnote Walshe is adamant it can’t be other than a reflexive pronoun.

Yet Horner was not convinced by the conclusions of Walshe and those with similar views and I believe that by reprinting the essay in the ‘70s she purposely wished to re-express her view:

As the idea of brahma in the Pali canon has been overlooked—in spite of the ever recurring brahmacariya, the Walk to or with Brahma, the Sublime—so has that of attā. Both were of the utmost significance in the Upanishads. Both have a significance, even if we have not yet assessed it, in the Pali canon.

Substantially, she proposed a philological basis to glean the meanings, but she indicates it would require far-reaching studies across the Vinaya and Nikayas and furthermore a proper understanding of Indian cultures and beliefs at that time.

She starts us off with a selection of quotes around the use of “brahma” and “dhamma”, suggestive of affinities with. They include:

He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.

[S iii 119 [SN 22.87] Vakali Sutta]

And a teaching to Vasettha where the Buddha referred to himself using the terms dhamma kaya, brahma-kaya, dhammabhûta, and brahmabhûta. The passage is from D. iii. 84 [DN 27] Aggañña Sutta, and is as follows:

He whose faith in the Tathagata is settled, rooted, established, solid, unshakeable by any ascetic or Brahmin, any deva or mara or Brahma or anyone in the world, can truly say: “I am a true son of Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma.” Why is that? Because, Vasettha, this designates the Tathagata: “The Body of Dhamma” [dhamma kaya], that is, “The Body of Brahma” [brahma-kaya], or “Become Dhamma” [dhammabhûta], that is, “Become Brahma” [brahmabhûta].

Academic Response

So what has been the response to Horner’s paper? When I search online I can find few citations; in fact, it seems to be little known, not even listed in Google Scholar.

Even so there have been a few scholars who have delved into the subject matter. Among them was Joaquín Pérez-Ramón, who made a bold attempt to explore at length in his thesis, Self and Non-self in Early Buddhism (De Gruyter), which is partially accessible via Google Books.

A general sense of his position is expressed in his reflection about the Buddha:

Is it not far better to say that what he affirmed and what he denied were not one and the same thing? When he affirmed the existence of attā against the materialists, he affirmed the reality of something objectively true. When he denied the attā against the eternalists, he did not deny the true attā, but the attā of the eternalists that is wrongly identified with the khandhas.

(from Pérez-Ramón's concluding section, page 302)

I find this a fair assessment, but his work was considered controversial; reviews found aspects useful, but seem to be critical — it seems that whatever the philological analysis, if it came to conclusions that challenged prevailing views it would not be regarded favourably and might just be dismissed as intellectual speculation (see e.g Vijitha Rajapakse’s review for the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies).

The book is a reworking of the author's doctoral thesis at the University of Bombay under the title: 'The Anattavada in the Suttapitaka' (page v). At 1810 pages it seems that the institution had a very liberal attitude to limits, but I feel sorry for the examiners! The considerable length may explain why the author has seemingly inverted the presentation by devoting the first half of the book to numerous references containing attā: part one (of only two) is entitled ‘The Existential Self’ before treating — in part two, ‘The Metaphysical Self’ — attā and anattā more together. However, with Horner starting mainly with anattā, I find the ordering odd; I think a more balanced approach to treat them alongside each other all along, a more natural process to show how there might be complementarity instead of apparent contradictions or inconsistencies.

It would have been interesting for Pérez-Ramón to have disseminated his ideas more widely and continued with his research, but he passed away only a few years after its publication [In memoriam]. However, it looks like Arthur Wells took up the baton with his Master’s thesis: The Early Buddhist Affirmation of Self (Atman) in the Logic, Parables and Imagery of the Pali Nikāyas.

I was only made aware of his work very recently; it seems not so widely circulated. At least it has been considered and cited in the academic literature and it does get occasionally mentioned in online discussions. I wonder why Pérez-Ramón went to such great lengths in his research. It may be due to his own religious convictions; he was a Jesuit who explored interreligous dialogue, especially mysticism - among his other publications is Misticismo Oriental y Misticismo Cristiano, Caso Típico: Teresa de Jesús. Having studied some of the imagery of St. Teresa of Avila, I add this to my reading list. Other Buddhist scholars have also been interested in this mystic; Lance Cousins wrote a paper about her, suggesting parallels with the path of purification as expressed by Buddhagosa.

More recently, Chanida Jantrasrisalai’s PhD thesis has examined in depth the meaning of language in the Indian context — around terms such as Brahmacariya, Brahmakāya and Dhammakāya. It’s entitled, Early Buddhist dhammakāya: Its philosophical and soteriological significance and available to download from the University of Sydney. It's the Dhammakāya tradition that I wish to explore next.

Attā and Anattā (Part One)

The title of this post is copied from an essay written by the Pali scholar, Isaline Blew Hornerattā means ‘self’; an- means ‘not, without’; hence anattā means ‘not self’ or ‘without self’. I. B. Horner had been working on this topic for quite a while with some earlier drafts (IH A/12) dating to Nov 1948 and the publication of a similar paper in French, 'Attā et Anattā dans les Textes du Canon Pali’ in La pensée Bouddhique, Bulletin des Amis du Bouddhisme, Jan. 1949. pp. 6-13. But it seems it wasn’t until 1952 that it appeared in English, in The Golden Lotus (Philadelphia) and The Middle Way (the journal of the Buddhist Society in London). About 20 years later it was reprinted for Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Winter 1973).

It’s quite an unusual essay: whilst Horner presents some philological analysis, as befits her professional background, her main point is that there’s a major gap in terms of research, though she doesn’t really reveal her intentions until the second half of the paper. Her argument, or plea, is that passages mentioning attā have been relatively neglected and should be given closer attention. She appears to be demonstrating this in the title by placing attā alongside anattā, from which we may infer that these two terms should be studied in tandem. However, being a major undertaking, it is beyond the scope of such an article to provide the detailed analysis, so she cites a number of passages where attā could be usefully explored further, an open invitation to the community.

Horner felt strongly that this was needed: she included a similar call in her introduction to her Pali Text Society translation of the Mahavagga in the Khandhaka, the second book of the Vinaya, the book of monastic discipline, where she writes (in 1951), "Various passages in the Pali canon, including the Attavagga of the Dhammapada, should not be ignored in estimating the position of attā as a philosophical concept in Early Buddhism." (p. xxiv)

I was quite struck by the article, hence this post. After summarising her approach and selective quotes, I indicate how it has been received and responded to, and then offer some response from my own tradition in light of the teachings of the late Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni, the late Abbot of Wat Paknam, and re-discoverer of the Dhammakaya tradition. The aim is to show how the teachings can be harmonised, setting these concepts in the framework of a path of practice. Originally intended to be a single post, I’ve split it into three owing to its length, but they should ideally be all read together. If there’s sufficient interest and time, I may tidy up my writing and put together a more formal article.

References are made to the Pali canon in the conventional way, i.e. first to the Pali Text Society edition of the Pali original, using the PTS abbreviations, i.e. a Roman numeral for a book number and then the Arabic numeral; then the Arabic number and section for the translation, as used by popular websites such as Access to Insight. For example: S iii 119 [SN 22.87].

Towards a More Nuanced View of attā

Horner opens by expressing the problem:

It is becoming more and more general to think and to say that Buddhism teaches not-self, anattā...

[It’s certainly a general view today.]

However, based on her extensive readings of the Pali canon (which probably only a handful of scholars could match), she perceives this all-encompassing view as invalid. Choosing her words carefully, she observes:

But Early Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Vinaya and the Suttapitaka, does not exactly teach not-self, except in so far as it says that certain definite things are not-self; therefore put them away, they are not yours (S. iii. 33-34; M. i. 140-141).

She was well aware that her position could (and would) be seen as controversial, so she makes her case gradually, in three parts. Initially, she cites a number of passages relating to anattā, how they are variously framed. She provide explanations that few scholars would disagree with — the five khandhas (aggregates) of grasping, namely rūpa (form), vedanā (feeling), sañña (perception), saṅkhāra (mental formations) and viññāna (consciousness), are of the nature to be impermanent and thus not-self. She goes on to describe how an ordinary worldling is bound by this grasping through the senses, giving rise to a wrong view about oneself. Such false views are to be got rid of. So far, so good.

In addition to establishing the common ground, for the next step Horner intimates in various ways how the meaning of attā is not so clear-cut. And in fact one of her first quotes, from the Vinaya, specifies a condition for attā:

Had they been self: rupam (etc.) c'idam attā abhavissa (Vin. i. 13), there would have been power of disposal over them: Let my body be such, let it not be such. But as they are not self, one cannot alter them.

This could be argued as hypothetical as it doesn’t say whether there really are such attā. However, Horner follows up with a statement by the Buddha that is more direct:

"What is not self, that is not my self" (yad anattā . . . na meso attā) (S. iii. 45, iv. 2) [Anicca Sutta].

This is a strong statement that seems to posit attā: besides the fact that it’s contained in the attādīpa Vagga (‘Self as Island’ section) of the Samyutta Nikaya, the context of eradicating the asavas (taints) across each of the khandhas to obtain final release points to the non-conventional.

To further indicate that there may be more subtle meanings to attā Horner relates the Buddha’s encounter with a wandering recluse called Vacchagotta, to whom the Buddha remains silent when asked in turn: “Is there Self?” and then "What then, is there not self?"(S. iv. 400-401).

Evidently there was no definitive statement that the Buddha could make in this instance. When questioned by his disciples the Buddha made reference to false doctrines that were prevalent at the time (and there were a vast array, including eternalism, as described in the Brahmajāla Sutta). Giving an answer depended not only on the context of the question and what the Buddha knew as true, but also on the questioner's state of mind and frames of reference, which in this case could not support right understanding. Nevertheless, the questioner was asking about ultimate truth and in this context the Buddha would not make a general denial about attā. I think it is this matter of context operating at various levels is what Horner wishes to draw to our attention, though I do not agree with her parenthetical comment about all things (dhammas) being not-self include nibbāna.

Here I would insert a quote attributed to the Buddha from Udana 8.3, which, although not using the term attā, is an affirmation of what likes beyond the khandhas, pointing to a higher sense that may be related:
There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

[Translated by John D. Ireland]

When I was 15 years old the head master at my school required every pupil to write about their spiritual beliefs. Even though I had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, I wrote about ‘God’ in terms of energy and superconsciousness. By the time I had reached my early 20s I had reflected intellectually on the recursive dissolution matter into smaller and smaller parts, finding it inherently formless and devoid of self. At the same time I also intuited superconsciousness with effects in the world of form, but, confining my view of such agency to experience I queried the anthropomorphism, and could not perceive anything beyond a kind of supramundane awareness.

Then, as though reading my mental state, my mother casually remarked, “Apparently there is a realm of Buddhas.” My mother practised a lot of meditation, it was not a statement I could ignore. Very soon my view changed radically as I ceased being annihilationist (from the Latin ad + nihil. literally: to/towards nothing). I’ll try to intimate this in the next two parts.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Retracing Steps in Glasgow

For my job at Oxford University Museums and Gardens, now part of GLAM, I attended the Axiell User Group Conference 2018 in Glasgow; we have two museums (MHS and MNH) that use the EMu collections management system,

I took the opportunity to spend a few extra days revisiting the city where I had been a postgrad between 1990 and 1992.

Glasgow memorabilia

I arrived back in Glasgow on Sunday evening. At Glasgow Central station I bought a weekly Zonecard before proceeding on my way, anticipating quite a lot of travel around the city, reasoning that it should be more convenient than repeatedly buying tickets and I might save some money. Then I towed my luggage along St Vincent Street and Arygll Street to reach the Sandyford Hotel in Sauchiehall Street, where I had booked 5 nights’ accommodation.

A few minutes later under greyish skies, but dry at least, I headed for the waterfront, which was easy to reach from the hotel, using the SECC tunnel walkway

SECC walkway

There were many passersby wearing conference lanyards with a great diversity of ethnicity, so I stopped one of them to ask. He explained that they were attending a congress of the World Federation of H[a]emophilia. It seemed a very laudable gathering, but seeing the multitude I soon guessed that was probably why accommodation prices seemed elevated. Soon I emerged by the river and proceeded to cross towards the Prince’s Dock, where once mighty ships would berth, supported by an array of cranes, warehouses and railway yards.

River Clyde

Now this has faded away, with much of the waterway reclaimed (the BBC Scotland occupies some of this area). The area has been redeveloped, but some vestiges of the old practices remain, including the Clyde Puffer.

Clyde Puffer

The next day, fuelled by a substantial cooked breakfast, I set out to explore at length, starting with Kelvingrove Park and then up to Gilmorehill, the location of the imposing Gilbert Scott Buildings, which form the central areas of the University of Glasgow.

View across Kelvingrove Park

A lady doing the polishing at the entrance to the Hunterian Museum explained that it was now quiet as the exams were over and the graduation ceremonies were yet to begin.

Gilbert Scott Building: quad

Gilbert Scott Building: Clock Tower

Around the corner, in Professors’ Square, was a distinctive sculpture in the form of an urn made of slate. It was produced by Andy Goldsworthy, a donation from a former Principal and his wife, Sir Graeme and Lady Davis:

Slate Amphora

I then headed downhill to Church Street, but whereas the view used to be of the Western Infirmary, now I saw this:

Western Infirmary is no more


It’s a huge development site for the University (similar to the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter redevelopment in Oxford). Some ragged remnants still remain adjacent to the street:

Western Infirmary is no more

I returned to the main campus via Byers Road and then continued down University Avenue to University Gardens, where I used to receive instruction at the Maths Department at no. 8 and study at no. 11. Now it looked like this:

13,11 University Gardens


At least they hadn’t knocked down the villa, a listed building from the 1880s, where I used to share a sparsely furnished office with other Maths postgrads at George Service House (number 11).

Next door, no. 13, was Hetherington House, home of the Hetherington Research Club, the scene of a student protest in 2011 “against cuts to higher education within Glasgow University and nationwide” (the Hetherington Research Club was closed in 2010). It got widely reported, including BBC coverage and a Wikipedia article.

Seeing that the Maths Department building, a block constructed in the late ‘60s in the Brutalist style, had been demolished I quizzed a security person (I assume) who was standing nearby. He said it was knocked down at the beginning of the year and the completion of the new construction was planned for completiion in 2 years’ time. I expect few would mourn the loss of the old structure.

The flat I shared in Church Street was appropriately described by my flatmate as "a hovel”; cheap, but not so cheerful. So after a few months I moved again and finally found a generally comfortable and affordable place to live, still close to the Maths Department, in Hillhead Street. So on my return I carried on, using a shortcut that I still remembered by Queen Margaret’s Union, to get onto Hillhead Street. And memories started to return…

Miss Macaulay, the landlady, was retired. She had previously run a rest home there, which was apparently particularly popular with Americans. As part of my induction she pointed to the Macaulay clan’s crest with its motto, ‘Dulce periculum est’, which she obligingly translated — “Danger is sweet!”. However, whilst she was proud of her heritage, her tone was not menacing and I was offered two rooms at a generous rate.

I don’t recall having taken any photos, but it’s not so hard to find glimpses of the interior. A few months after I had moved a production company came to do some filming for The Bogieman, a BBC Scotland Comedy Drama from 1992 starring Robbie Coltraine, Midge Ure et al. Here we see the detective approaching the home

Most of the flat was need for the filming, i.e., the entrance hallway, the two front rooms and the kitchen at the back (where they kept all the turkeys). Apparently when it came to finding the right location they reviewed 8 properties and this one won hands down; I don’t think they needed to use so many props for beyond the red door at the entrance was a plentiful supply of tartan, chandeliers, stags heads and especially brass, frequently augmented at weekends by new acquisitions from The Barras.

The BBC wrote to us individually advising what was going to happen. They very kindly allowed me to come and go as I pleased during the filming and I could stay there overnight as my rooms were not used (this also helped them in that I could watch over their equipment). On one occasion as I was making my way through the hallway I bumped into Robbie Coltraine coming out of the front room. Seeing me he immediately remarked in an affected voice, “Don’t go into show business!” and then carried on his way.

Now revisiting, I could barely recognise the flat — gone were the tartan curtains, the front door had been repainted; there was little sign of the distinctive colour from the past. I tried to strike a conversation with a resident outside, but she didn’t want to know (and looked at me with suspicion). So it was soon time to move on, down the hill, past The Mackintosh House

The Mackintosh House

As it was Monday, I knew it would be closed, so next stop was the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum,

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

It’s a fabulous museum, with a rich mixture of displays, some quite unexpected, particularly the multimedia object cinema, which I found quite immersive. However, I spent most of my time at ‘Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style Gallery’, a permanent display of work by members of the Glasgow School, particularly the Group of Four. Actually, there is also a special exhibition to celebrate 150 years of the birth of the leading light: Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style. My only disappointment was not being able to see Dali’s Christ of St John on the Cross, which is currently on loan.

After coffee in the Centre Hall, I wandered along Argyll Street, past Kelvin Hall, where I remember watching international athletics. Its redevelopment is bringing together disparate Hunterian collections of the University. Its website includes a beta service with integrated online access to search the collections.

I had planned to explore Pollok Country Park on the south side, so it was on to the Underground, where the turnstile rejected my ticket first time I tried it and then again and again. The staff in the ticket office was watching on and gestured to hand over my card. He studied it and with furrowed brow concluded it was meant for buses. Not to worry as he could fix the problem if I waited 10 minutes. So I did and I continued on my way and emerged safely at St Enoch’s. But when I came to the platform where I was to catch the train for Barrhead, the turnstiles there rejected it also. “It’s the magnet”, explained the rail staff cheerily as he let me through. “Och well…”

Disembarking at Pollokshaws station, I headed for Pollok Country Park, passing by Pollokshaws Railway Viaduct, which spans White Cart Water. Built in 1847 and subject to a lot of rail traffic, it must need quite a lot of maintenance.

Pollokshaws Railway Viaduct

This scene somehow felt like a metaphor for working in an IT team.

A few yards along Pollok Avenue one finds Shawmuir Lodge, built in 1891, as the stone relief indicates (I guess):

Shawmuir Lodge

The grounds are part of an estate that belonged for many centuries to the Maxwell family until it was handed over to the Glasgow Corporation with the condition that it remained a public park. The stately home is Pollok House, maintained by the National Trust of Scotland. It’s currently featuring a photography exhibition, Harry Benson: from Glasgow to America, which I found really impressive — he vividly captures many aspects of life with a perfect sense of timing. And lunch was very good too.

The park was delightful with many blooms and I felt no need to investigate the Burrell Collection, though it’s actually ‘temporarily closed’ for refurbishment (estimated until 2020).

Pollok Country Park

Pollok Country Park

I returned to the hotel greatly contented with what I had seen.

The following day I explored towards the east, aiming for St Mungo’s, Glasgow’s cathedral. I took a slight detour to see what was happening with the refurbishment of the Glasgow School of Art following the fire of 2014.

Glasgow School of Art: Mackintosh Building

According to the information boards it will reopen in 2019 "as a base for all first year students from across all disciplines: architecture, design, fine art, innovation, simulation and visualisation". Using my map from 1990, I carried on, but lost my way when I hit Buchanan Galleries, a large shopping mall, but eventually I reached my destination and quickly made my way to the shrine of St Mungo. Similar to what happened in Oxford, the shrine gained special attention during the medieval period (in Oxford in the 12th Century, the relics of the patron saint, St Frideswide, were transferred to a special new shrine, and a miracle collection was authored by Prior Philip, detailing miraculous healings, on which I wrote an essay. This was formerly the Roman Catholic mother church of the Archdiocese of Glasgow, but following the Scottish reformation it has been under the Church of Scotland.

I gazed at leisure from the cafe in the nearby Mungo Museum of Religious Art and Life.

Glasgow Cathedral and Zen Garden

I found the museum itself unassuming and quite a lot larger than expected; it seems to unfold, floor by floor. As it doesn’t overwhelm, it lends itself to measured absorption; one can linger on the displays. Its exhibitions are planned in interesting ways, particularly the one space where world religions were introduced in the centre and around it were the stages in life (and death), bringing together different perspectives from the various faiths. There are good education facilities for youngsters and It feels like there’s been good involvement from local communities. And they didn’t shy away from difficult topics such as mission and conversion - it included material on Billy Graham, including a photo of him preaching at Celtic Park in 1991. I went along to listen; he was certainly dedicated to his fath and charismatic, but I didn’t feel a calling to go to the front.

As I left the museum I took a closer look at the Zen garden, which was designed by Yasutaro Tanaka and entitled “Where We Are”. I don’t claim any background, but as I observed the grass growing around the edges, it struck me that it needed maintenance. The few gardens I have seen have all been very precisely arranged with not a stone out of place. Perhaps it needs some specialist maintenance?

Emerging, I continued towards the Necropolis, a bold statement of a Victorian cemetery, as though “from the other side”, about the city’s great and famous in the form of memorial stones. Looking back there were impressive views of the cathedral next to the Royal Infirmary:

Glasgow Cathedral

Commanding a central position in the Necropolis and visible from afar is a tall column, a monument to John Knox, who was a leader of the country's Reformation.

Glasgow Necropolis

Glasgow Necropolis

Glasgow Necropolis

Having meandered and tiptoed along, I descended and started my return, came across unexpectedly a touching work of street art: a Glasgow High Street mural, by Sam Bates, aka Smug. It seems very fitting and is said to relate to St Mungo.

Glasgow High Street mural, by Smug

I could have ridden on a bus with the Zonecard, but I felt roaming on foot was generally much more pleasant and kept going through Merchant City and onwards until I was back at the hotel. There was much to observe and entertain, but I felt a sense of loneliness, perhaps an echo of similar feelings I had experienced whilst living here.

The next two days were dedicated to the conference, which was packed with many informative sessions and conversations; I took hardly any photos.

Then I resumed my explorations on foot after the conference had closed, mainly along the River Clyde, taking snaps quite frequently.

The giant Finnieston Crane:

Finnieston Crane

And an unexpected horizon that reflects the evolving nature of belief (religious and secular):

Spire, Dome and Towers of Glasgow

Then across the Clyde Arc:

Clyde Arc Bridge

Clyde Arc bridge

past some rather dilapidated piers

Small Pier

The weather having improved since the beginning of the week offered nice views.

Clyde Waterfront walk: looking west to the Clyde Arc Bridge

A lot of blocks sprung up in the centre:

Blocky urban development in the city centre

And greater traffic loads to support.

Kingston Bridge: pin bearings

It was a very pleasant strolling along at leisure. A nice way to end the tour of the city.

One place I didn’t get round to revisiting was Hillhead Underground station. This was where I bade farewell to my research supervisor, Prof. Robert (“Bob”) Odoni. Alas he passed away about 10 years later; he was highly regarded by colleagues. (I remember colleagues sharing their mathematical problems with him and a few days later he might go up to them and suggest: “Have you tried this …?”)

Since then Glasgow has undergone far-reaching development; although this dynamism had already started when it was European Cultural Capital in 1990, it feels more international now. However, as with many other cities, I heard about some aspects of modernisation, particularly student apartment blocks, which are changing the nature of some districts and, I suspect, the expectations of its inhabitants.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On ‘Middle’ and ‘Way’ in Majjhimā Paṭipadā, the Buddha’s path

Edited on 5,14 May 2018 (clarified reference to majjhimaŋ).

This post, where I am counting on the blog's schedule facility, has been published at the precise moment of the spring equinox — the midpoint in duration between night and day. It’s a moment of equipoise and fine balance, as marvellously captured by the NOAA environmental satellite image above.

A fitting occasion then to reflect on an experience of perfect balance expressed by the Buddha Gotama [recorded in Pali]:

Dve’me, bhikkhave, antā pabbajitena na sevitabbā. Katame dve? Yo c’āyaṃ kāmesu kāmasukhallikānuyogo hīno gammo pothujjaniko anariyo anatthasaṃhito, yo c’āyaṃ attakilamathānuyogo dukkho anariyo anatthasaṃhito.

Ete te, bhikkhave, ubho ante anupagamma majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñāṇakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati

These two extremes, bhikkhus, should not be adopted by one who has gone forth from the home life. Which two? On the one hand, the devotion to sensual indulgence, which is inferior, the cause of erecting houses, full of defilements, unable to be rid of them, and of no benefit; and on the other hand the devotion to self-mortification, which brings suffering, unable to be rid of defilements, also of no benefit.

The practice that does not go to either of these two extremes, bhikkhus, is the Middle Way awoken to by the Tathāgata through his great insight. It produces vision, knowledge, and leads to appeasement, to superknowledge, to awakening, to Nibbāna.

This is is a quote from the famous Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, SN 56.11, ‘Setting in motion the Wheel of Dhamma’, for which numerous translations are available, e.g. from Ñanamoli Thera. (The Tathāgata is how the Buddha referred to himself.)

So what did the Buddha mean by ‘Middle’ and ‘Way’? The Buddha proceeds to state the following:

katamā ca sā, bhikkhave, majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñāṇakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati? ayameva ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, seyyathidaṃ — sammādiṭṭhi sammāsaṅkappo sammāvācā sammākammanto sammāājīvo sammāvāyāmo sammāsati sammāsamādhi. ayaṃ kho sā, bhikkhave, majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñāṇakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati.

And what, monks, is the Middle Way, awoken to by the Tathāgata? It is the Eightfold Noble Path that is to say, right view, right intention; right speech, right action, right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the middle way discovered by a Perfect One, which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and which leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery, to nibbana.

So the Buddha informs us that a necessary aspect of the Middle Way is the avoidance of the extremes of sensual indulgence and austerity, but it's not way itself; that way is precisely the Eightfold Noble Path.

But what is the ‘middle’ in all this, especially in the mode of practice? A couple of points are worth noting about the context. First, the Buddha was speaking to advanced practitioners, so he only taught in brief; some aspects are taken as read. Also many of the Pali terms we have to consider have multiple senses, including majjhimā. If we consult one of the standard references, the Pali Text Society dictionary (see e.g. the DSAL Pali dictionary entry online), one of the meanings of the noun majjhimaŋ is ‘the waist’, denoting a natural anatomical position by which to make reference to the central region of the physical body. Although it's not precise as the actual centre varies depending on factors such as body shape, it might be used as a general marker.

Exploring along the Centre

It was along these lines that the Middle Way was entered upon and explored in depth by the late Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni (Sodh Candasaro), the one who re-discovered this practice, popularly known as Dhammakaya Meditation. This great Abbot of Wat Paknam realized that the mind has an exact centre of gravity at which everything comes into balance and from that naturally arises a direction of travel along a path that is successively at the centre of the centre. In this way the centre acts as an anchor and natural axis, around and along which to follow and develop the Eightfold Noble Path at increasingly advanced levels. It's an axis for all the core teachings, especially the Satipatṭhāna Sutta (Four Foundations of Mindfulness). The path naturally resolves what might otherwise appear paradoxes such as kāye kāyānupassī, which means 'contemplating body in body' — for all the teachings have the right focus.

As the Satipatṭhāna Sutta indicates, the Path itself is long, but proceeding along the Middle Way is the way to keep steering in the right direction. It’s a bit like driving from one end of the country to the other — we can take any road, but the side roads require extra effort and energy as there are more obstacles, navigation and delays; if one doesn’t know the way can easily get lost, and generally it will take much longer. It’s much more efficient to take the motorway.

In focus

The path of practice requires looking closely at things and making them clear, but especially bringing the right things into view. At each step the path continues along the Middle Way, but the practice becomes steadily more refined

We may use here the analogy of a microscope with a number of lenses. We start by bringing an object under the microscope, which we wish to examine, under the least powerful lens. As we zoom in, we use a new higher quality lens with an increased level of magnification for which we need to make finer adjustments to keep the object in view. If we keep the object at the very centre of our view it will remain in view under our lens, but if we start to deviate, then it can quickly disappear. In any case, our focus needs to be sharper and more precise to observe the object clearly at that magnification. The direction of travel comes from successively zooming in and seeing with increasing clarity and insight — a motion for which we may use the Pali term opanayiko (leading onwards or inwards).

These aspects to Middle Way meditation are nicely described in a guided session by Venerable Burin (please excuse YouTube's still image, which is not-so-well focused!):

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Seven): Conclusion

[Updated on 21 April 2018 with a couple of additional paragraphs suggesting multilingual subtitles for TV productions uploaded to YouTube and a few minor edits.]

Welcome to the final instalment of a series of posts in which I am reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. Congratulations if you've managed to read through the other posts! Here I will offer some reflections on the work as a whole set within the context of its original publication and how it might be received today. The analysis is based on the publication by Silkworm Books.

Cultural Transmission

In his preface, M.R. Kukrit relates how, when he was preparing the series of columns for Siam Rath, the story arose out of a natural urge to “set down in writing the modes of mores of a disappearing age”. It came naturally, he says, without pre-meditation, with characters gradually emerging as the plot seemed to develop. And that is how the narrative felt to me — there’s a pleasant rambling flow, consistent with a series of regular newspapers columns tumbling off the top of his head, resulting in a wonderful story.

However, also naturally, the work reflects the deeply held views of the author. This is historical fiction, not merely a story, and marshals a considerable amount of factual details. History, despite its emphasis on objectivity, requires interpretation and this is subjective, not neutral, with intentions dependent upon one’s background, views, personality and so on. As such, beyond the intricate descriptions, Four Reigns comes over as gently didactic, with implicit guidance on how to behave as a model citizen centred on the main character, Phloi. The author deploys clever use of language and imagery; humour is used to cultivate reverence for royalty, even to elevate it beyond mortal grasp: any commoner who would rashly compare themselves with them is destined to have “lice on their heads”.

Yet the appreciation is not uniform; it’s not an unqualified paean. After Phloi gets married and lives outside the Inner Court, the author lets slip that her life in the palace was restrictive:

“For she had felt lost on countless occasions ... like a released cage bird who does not know what to do with its newfound freedom. She had longed for some boundaries, some restrictions, ...”

Nowadays the ability to make choices is generally regarded as fundamental to the rights of the individual, though for the spiritual life there’s a different view: monastics voluntarily commit themselves to numerous rules of training that largely remove such freedom of choice. In this way, the training and lifestyle in the Inner Court has a sense of a spiritual discipline, though without the material austerity.

There are also variations between the monarchs, as seen principally through Phloi’s eyes, through vague allusions to the need for modernisation or puzzlement as to particular royal interests. But a constant is Nai Luang (an affectionate reference to the monarch) as the blessed glue holding together Muang Thai (in this context there’s no mention of “Phrathet Thai”, the political term used for the nation as declared after the country had become a constitutional monarchy.)

As the narrative unfolds the characters are generally well developed. Naturally the spotlight is mainly on Phloi, the central figure throughout, whose qualities are summed up by her son, Ot: “honesty, loyalty, fair-mindedness, compassion towards our fellow beings, all this and more.” However, whilst Phloi is admirable as a paragon of virtue, it is Ot I find the most intriguing: gentle in his manners, he appears as the most benign and easily contented — very low maintenance! He has the least status of all of Phloi’s children, but as far as the narrative is concerned, he has an important role in defining Phloi from the close mother-favourite son relationship. He thus acts as a lens or filter, whilst also having complimentary characteristics; Phloi and Ot affirm each other and hence support each other in promulgating certain values to the reader. His views are more serious than those of Choi, Phloi’s very close lifelong friend and hearty antidote to modernity, and in respect of the overall message they are more significant.

Ot himself is sagacious and resourceful; immediately after his father’s death he is the one who gains authority and able to direct affairs. His savoir-faire reminds me of the Admirable Crichton, a butler taking command of a household he serves when they are stranded on an island. At the same time he can be incorrigible in his humorous digs, sometimes unable to hold back from witty and very astute observations. Just taking his conversation on its own merits, without the commentary, I’d find his remarks cutting, tending towards the sardonic, but the text generally relates that it’s all harmless. One wonders: is that the author speaking? Similarly, Ot smiles a lot, but they’re not all the same smiles, a few are “odd” — there are many kinds of smile in ‘the land of smiles’! Similarly, when I ask myself with whom would the author most identify, I notice that the closest by year of birth is Ot, who displays the keen art of observation, just like the author. (It might be fun to have a readers’ poll!)

The details of gossip (chat about relationships) are extensive and could be shorter, but that’s authentic and it’s done in a light and airy way. M.R. Kukrit’s delightful sense of humour prevents gloomy passages from being sustained: even when encounters are cold and malicious, he adds a little comment such as “Thus ended the dialogue — if that was the right term for such a lopsided exchange.” It’s a measured response, I think, to the immense upheaval, seeking to prompt reflection on noble traditions that are eroding or have been lost and to appreciate how they have contributed to a more harmonious society.

Modern literary criticism would subject the author’s intentions to closer scrutiny; is it a mere coincidence that the son who is most like his father is On, a royalist, whilst the argumentative one, An, is the one who pushes through with the modernisation programme? It’s also noticeable that in relation to political dispositions, the characters portrayed in particularly glowing terms are the most loyal to the royal traditions; they are calm, wise and benevolent, whereas some of the most radical proponents of change are shown as rather hot-headed. Was this really the case? Well, Ot’s slightly frightening description of the countenance of radical French intellectuals are strikingly vivid; we know the author could draw on many contemporary accounts, though, of course, this depended on who were the informants!

Some might wonder about those who have no royal connections — how did they fare? Was the absolute monarchy at their expense? The descriptions include various fads that were sparked by the monarch, such as King Chulalongkorn’s comment on the patina of a particular ivory box; then the fashion was for ivory boxes as collector’s items and this being interwoven with poetry. A commonly accepted historical viewpoint considers that the monarchy was a huge drain on financial resources, leaving many in poverty, made stark in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet, this was nothing new. In the 17th Century Simon de la Loubère, special envoy of King Louis XIV, concluded that the locals, though having few possessions, appeared to generally exhibit a greater sense of well-being than those in the West.

Poverty did affect some of Phloi’s relatives who lost their wealth; the author narrates how this affected her half-sister:

Khun Choie talked of being poor as something ordinary, as nothing shameful or repellant. Certainly nothing terrible like, say, an incurable disease. She talked with characteristic frankness and naturalness ... Khun Choei resented nothing.

Whether rich or poor, it’s still the same family and Phloi’s faith was affirmed.

The descriptions of the landscape and natural environment are, I expect, spot on; some passages contain descriptions similar to those I’ve heard concerning my Thai relatives, especially when they first moved to Thonburi. In the narrative, we read that to get to Choi’s family home required walking down a lane then along planks to cross mud. Similarly, when the family first moved to a plot off the Taksin Road, they had to pull up their trousers and sarongs and walk around the edge of fields to reach it.

The accounts of education also tally with what I’ve heard: the wealthy have traditionally sought to have their children educated at a Christian missionary school. My mother related that when she was a child it was generally considered that these schools provided the best education, especially in English language, but they were expensive, so although her parents wanted to send her to one, they couldn’t afford it. At the same time the fear about conversion “to the farang church” was and is strong — for Thailand is predominantly Buddhist and most want to keep it that way.


And what of the patriarchy? It’s obviously there and is often picked up in more recent reviews, but I shall say only a few words as I feel I’m not best qualified to comment.

Ahead of Phloi’s wedding, her royal sponsor, Sadet, advises:

“Your husband’s happiness, your children’s happiness, the good name of the family — all this should come before your personal comfort.”

However, the author is aware of changing attitudes, even in his day, as he conveys Phloi’s views shortly after getting married to Prem:

Phloi ... came to be aware of the way she felt about him. She would not call it love; it struck her as not being at all similar to that love which she had once experienced. I feel myself as belonging to him. This is something absolute and unarguable. I belong to him completely and absolutely. I take him as my owner, as centre and mainstay of my life, forever, unless and until he himself should wish to cease being so. Some women may prefer to stay free of such a tie, but Phloi happened to be that feminine type who finds assurance in it, and happiness in that assurance.

Phloi’s role is well-defined and intentionally so as one who derives happiness from service to others. And as one seeking always to give more than she receives, Phloi’s status actually rises in tandem with that of Prem, her husband, until she becomes a Khunying (“Lady”), though she remains the same person and carries out her life as usual. At the same time, whilst Phloi’s responsibilities are confined to the family, the narrative makes clear that in general this doesn’t preclude the highest responsibilities from women. There are extended passages describing Queen Saowabha acting as Somdet Regent whilst her husband, King Chulalongkorn, is in Europe.

My mother came to the West in the ‘60s when the rights of individuals were being asserted more strongly. She herself had a fiercely independent nature (reflected in a large, varied and entertaining group of friends), rather different in character from Phloi. Yet, when interviewed for a local paper in 1981 she retained views distinctly rooted in Thai tradition:

“... Buddha taught us to do things in moderation, and there is a strong accent put on family life — I feel it is important for me to do what is best for my family, whether it be cooking, cleaning or whatever. All the time I have to think of others and try to get rid of any selfishness. “
(Thursday’s Lotus: The Life and Work of Fuengsin Trafford, p. 164).

Whatever one’s views, the narrative describes how Phloi’s attitudes fostered mutual respect, as her husband, Prem, remarked:

“You owe me nothing. It’s the other way round. You could have found a husband a thousand times better than this one. If there should be any debt at all, then it is I who owe it. I’ll make it up to you, Mae Phloi. I’ll try in every way to make myself worthy to you.”

He remains ever faithful and attentive to her needs, particularly in difficult times, as in Phloi’s final life-threatening pregnancy. In a recent academic paper presented by Kanchana Witchayapakorn and Todsapon Suranakkharin at Naresuan University, ‘Dignity in Humility: The Representation of Central Female Characters in Thai Literary Works’, the authors emphasize Phloi’s character in fulfilling a role of complementarity and argue that she is extolling a cultural feminist perspective that is both dignified and vital in giving strength to the family and society as a whole.

Translation or Adaptation?

The text of Four Reigns is coherent, generally polished and even eloquent. It readily stands alone; although aware of Si Phaendin, I didn’t feel the need to consult the original. In the English version, M.R. Kukrit still paints vivid pictures of the outside world through the domestic situation with a flowing narrative and a great sense of timing, rather like a stage play. The translation particularly succeeds in conveying this flow, allowing passages to convincingly convey the tone even if the English is not perfect, for example: “the two men, their voices heavy and low, their faces clouded with anxiety and hurt and shame.” I understand that the name of the translator, ‘Tulachandra’, is actually a composite for a husband and wife team, Tulaya and Chaemchand Bunnag, with the latter being the primary translator. Chaemchand Bunnag was a professional translator of English literary works into Thai and the quality shows: her handling of idioms and turns of phrase is impressive, making the text sound convincing. And I’m sure that belonging to the extensive Bunnag family is also helpful in knowing the author's intentions.

However, I was curious about the original Thai and chanced across the text of Si Phaendin online, though I’m not sure about the copyright. Then I came across ‘Analysis of the Thai-English translation [of] ‘Four Reigns’ by Abhiradee Rungsirichairat, M.A. thesis, Thammasat University, 2005. This scholarly work reveals that the translation is indeed very liberal, reordering sentences, paraphrasing, omitting details and even one or two characters; the thesis also claims that Four Reigns contains many mistakes, yet even so it still conveys the essence.

To investigate briefly, I looked at the Thai source from which the above quote about Phloi’s sense of belonging to Prem (p.199) was derived, which happens to be just beyond the selection used in Rungsirichairat's analysis. The corresponding Thai is as follows:

ความรู้สึกอย่างหนึ่ง ที่ไม่เคยมี ก็เกิดขึ้นมาในใจ พลอยไม่ยอมรับว่าความรู้สึกนั้นเป็นความรัก เพราะไม่เหมือนกับ ความรักที่เคยมีมาครั้งหนึ่ง ในกาลก่อน แต่ความรู้สึกที่เกิดใหม่นั้น เป็นของแน่นอนไม่มีวันเปลี่ยนแปลง หรือหวั่นไหวไปได้คือ รู้สึกว่าคุณเปรมนั้นเป็น เจ้าของๆตน เป็นหลักที่ตนจะต้องยึดมั่นไว่ในชีวิตนี้ ไม่มีวันที่จะผละออกได้ นอกจากคุณเปรมจะไม่ต้องการตนอีกต่อไป คนเราที่เกิดมาทุกคนย่อมมีจิตใจแตกต่างกัน มีใจที่รักความอิสระ โดยไม่มีข้อผูกพันกับใครบ้าง หรือมิฉะนั้นก็มีใจที่ ต้องการจะอยู่กับคนอื่น หรือเป็นของคนอื่น จะอยู่ด้วยตนเองแต่เพียงคนเดียวนั้นไม่ได้ พลอยเป็นผู้หญิงทั้งกายและใจโดย สมบูรณ์จึงมีใจอย่างประเภทหลัง เมื่อรู้สึกว่าตนมีเจ้าของก็เกิดความมั่นใจ และได้รับความสุขจากความมั่นใจนั้น ความรู้สึกว่าตนเป็นของคุณเปรม นั้นผิดกับความรู้สึกที่พลอยเคยมีต่อแม่หรือเสด็จ เพราะความใกล้ชิดสนิทสนมต่อคน ต่างเพศถึงเพียงนี้ พลอยมิได้เคยมีมาแต่ก่อน

Here is my attempt at a literal translation (with the help of Thai2English and Longdo):

She had a feeling in her heart like she never had before. Phloi did not accept that this feeling was love because it wasn’t the same as the love she had [felt] once before. But this new feeling, she was sure, was of belonging; it could not be changed and was unshakeable. She felt that Khun Prem was in that respect her owner. He was the guiding principle to whom she must hold fast in this life. There was to be no day when she would flee apart from the day when Khun Prem would no longer need her anymore. Since birth our minds naturally all bud [and flower] differently: there’s the mind that loves independence by not having any commitment with someone; or else there’s the mind that must live with or belong to someone else — they cannot live only with that one person. Phloi was a complete woman in body and mind. Consequently, her mind was of the following type: when she felt herself to have an owner then confidence arose and she obtained happiness from that confidence. Those feelings about her belonging to Khun Prem were unlike the feelings which Phloi had towards her mother or Sadet, for Phloi had not come to as intimate closeness as this towards someone of the opposite sex before.

Even allowing for mistakes in my translation, which are quite likely, it's evident that there’s a significant amount of paraphrasing as "happiness in that assurance", with the imagery of the bud and the several clauses omitted. Whilst this may help to maintain the flow of the text, I wonder whether this was in part done to be more palatable to a Western audience. In any case, some of the nuance has definitely been lost, similar to the way a high resolution image is stored with some compression — generally it looks fine, but on closer inspection some of the details cannot be discerned.

As regards issues raised in the thesis about meaning, I think a few of these are invalid as they are actually addressed in the text. For example, in the Silkworm Books publication the issue about lice is indeed brought up twice — i.e., there is first the story, as already alluded to above, “and commoners who tried to imitate them were only inviting the lice of ill luck upon their heads...”, and then Phloi seeks an explanation about the story: “Phloi did not laugh because her mind was on something else. She wanted to question father on those lice of ill luck ...” (p.28 [of the thesis]) Further, some of the use of English language is unnecessarily questioned, such as the idiom, “Are you well?” (p.44), which is perfectly natural. But this is quibbling for the research usefully illustrates how a body of work can be deemed an overall success whilst deviating significantly from a literal translation. At the same time, it should also prompt further close scrutiny of key passages in Four Reigns by reference to the original.

I’d also add that Rungsirichairat appears to have used a different printing or edition as whilst I can find the quotes, the page numbers referenced are generally higher than in my copy. (Actually, the copy that arrived on my doorstep had some defects. The printing process seems to have had a few hiccoughs as there are 5 or 6 leaves either missing or incorrect duplicates and throughout the text there are many soft hyphens that have not been removed, as though the original print run was for a different page setup and then someone forgot to clear them before sending to the printers a second time.)

There are just a few other minor issues that I noticed. For example, Ot address his mother as "my darling”, a term of endearment that I find odd — I’d expect it to be used for couples, between husband and wife, or possibly between a mother and her child, not by a son speaking to his mother, but it might be a term that is used in rarefied circles and/or was in vogue at the time. There are also a few spelling and typographic mistakes, such as “Bali" instead of ‘Pali’ and “Brama chaloka” instead of “Brahma ca loka”, but the explanation is helpful in this latter case. Also, whilst the spellings are in British English, some of the idioms appear to be North American, such as, “I’ll write him”.

Taken as a whole, there is evidently scope for other translations and one was already being prepared by Marcel Barang, but apparently his proposal was rejected and so we have to wait a long time, it seems, for the copyright to expire before any other version is permitted (see footnote below).

Or do we? Whilst watching episodes of Channel 3 TV's 1991 production on YouTube (starting with the first episode), I realized that an alternative avenue might be possible online via subtitling. There are actually at least two TV productions, but so far only Channel 3 has made every episode from its series freely available. All episodes have been uploaded to YouTube (conveniently via a playlist at: If the production follows the original text closely, then it should be straightforward (for Thais or those fluent in Thai) to improve accessibility by adding Thai subtitles. The text from the original could be applied directly in the creation of YouTube subtitles, as explained on their help page for subtitles and closed captions. Any literal translations into other languages, such as that by Marcel Barang, would be equally amenable to transcription in this way.

There’s great potential in reaching new audiences via such online services and working with Channel 3 (or whichever TV company made the film) should at least avoid potential issues in copyright associated with third party captioning. (See e.g. Blake E. Reid's paper on ‘Third Party Captioning and Copyright’ for the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (G3ict). It would be considerable work, so would need a team — perhaps a candidate for crowdsourcing?


This is a literary classic that I really enjoyed. It has explained quite a lot about attitudes prevailing among my Thai relatives, especially of the older generation. It's also valuable as a historical and educational resource: nowadays references can be easily checked with enhanced appreciation through various multimedia archive material available even in English.

M.R. Kukrit’s treatment of Phloi’s character is very sympathetic; as it emerges in her private reflections and interactions with a broad range of people, it is very fine; she is beautiful inwardly and outwardly, drawing the deepest respect from all family members. The characters around her further enrich these qualities, especially Ot with his wisdom. Altogether this goes beyond any particular theme and is perhaps the main reason why the book is easy to read. It also contributes to the continued reverence with which the novel is held. Seeing the world today, we may reflect that Phloi’s qualities, rooted in metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion) are much needed to promote reconciliation and harmony.


For other translations, copyright needs to be observed for both the original newspaper articles and the book, Copyright Act B.E. 2537 (1994), superseded Copyright Act B.E. 2521 (1978)
 , which in turn replaced the The Act for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, B.E. 2474 (1931)
, as reported in a useful presentation; the general 
principle is explained (at USLegal, the first site I consulted via a Google search).