Wednesday, June 06, 2018

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

[Updated on 23 June 2019: fixed some typos and inserted a few missing diacritics]

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 where, shortly after his Enlightenment, the Buddha encounters a group of princes, searching for a woman who is suspected of having made off 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 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 a mere 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; when 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 attā.

There were many skeptics in his day, but 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.


Jessica W said...

Thank you for this interesting explanation of Luong Por's teaching. The different bodies you explained here remind me of the etheric body, emotional/astral body, lower, higher mental body, buddhic body etc explained in A Powell's book the Etheric Double. I will certainly look into other writings of Luong Por.

Paul Trafford said...


Thank you for your reading the post and for your response mentioning 'The Etheric Double' by [Arthur] Powell. I had not heard of him or the book, but searching online I read that he was active in the Theosophical Society and a copy of the book is available online.

Is there in theosophical teachings a concept of a central or middle way as a path of practice that one continues along until nirvana?

Best wishes,


lp Sander Khemadhammo said...

Excellent write-up. Luang Pu also used the metaphor of a tall and short person standing next to each other. This has not yet been translated from his sermon in Thai, but is paraphrased in a translated biography about Luang Pu:

"Luang Por used to question his students “Why did the Lord Buddha emphasize on anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta (non-self)?” Then, he revealed that, after pondering completely, he found that the Lord Buddha wished to make His disciples think further and discover by themselves with their wisdom. For example, He taught about the ‘impermanence’ in order to let people search for the ‘permanence.’ This is similar to ‘suffering’ which motivates people to search for the ‘true happiness,’ and the ‘non-self’ that urges people to look for the ‘true self.’

The wise ones who have wisdom will foresee the Lord Buddha’s guideline towards the solution. We may compare to two persons standing together, one of them is tall and another one is short. When someone questions us if we know the two persons, we can reply that we know the tall one. Then, the questioner will know automatically that the one whom we do not know is the short one, and there is no need to explain this. Likewise, the Lord Buddha’s teaching on impermanence, suffering, and non-self imply about the permanence, true happiness, and true self to be attained, which are altogether the qualities of Dhammakaya."

Source: For attribution, see over there.

Paul Trafford said...

Dear Venerable Sander,

Thank you very much for reading the articles and for sharing the further teachings on this matter from Luang Pu together with the link to Khun Treetar's account. As ever, I find his reasoning sound and convincing; it would be good if more of his teachings could be translated into other languages and widely distributed so that they may be given proper consideration by practitioners and scholars alike.

Yours sincerely,