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.