When a Buddhist hears the phrase “esoteric Buddhism,” they will most likely think of Tibetan Buddhism, or perhaps Japanese Shingon. Yet a new book uncovers a little known tradition of esotericism within the Theravada tradition, a lineage usually thought to eschew such practices. In Esoteric Theravada (Shambhala; December 22, 2020) Kate Crosby, a professor of Buddhist studies at King’s College, London, looks at a nearly forgotten Buddhist tradition in the Theravada world of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.
In these practices, which Crosby calls boran kammatthana, or “the old practice,” initiated practitioners aim to create an “enlightened body” through the manipulation of visionary experiences. Esoteric Theravada outlines the process of meditative self-transformation in this tradition as well as the circumstances of the tradition’s near disappearance, and serves as a requiem for a unique expression of Buddhist meditation that Crosby feels should be recorded for posterity—and maybe even revived. Tricycle recently spoke to Crosby about the book and how it might enhance our modern-day understanding of the Theravada tradition.
What is boran kammatthana? How do people practice it? In some texts this is referred to as “building a Buddha within the practitioner’s womb.” The practitioner starts by cultivating states of concentration that give rise to nimitta, or internal experiences of light, then incorporating the nimitta—sometimes in combination with visualized sacred syllables—into their body to build a Buddha. In some cases, the practitioner trains herself to visualize a series of crystal bodies representing different levels of attainment. Different Abhidhammic mental factors [cetasika], such as piti (rapture) and sukha (ease), are “invited” to arise in the body. The practitioner invokes her mental factor as if she were invoking temple gods, and addresses them like distinct and honored beings so as to transform body and mind, or in some cases to gain access to other words and occult beings.
You write that boran kammatthana was suppressed in the 20th century. People in Southeast Asia felt threatened by colonial incursion and wanted to strengthen Buddhist religious practice, but they also internalized the disembodied, rationalist, text-focused bias of the colonizers, which led them away from the more esoteric practices. In some cases it was actually suppressed. The reformer Prince Mongkut of Thailand (1804–1868), for example, sought to disempower a practice tradition that he himself had been trained in. Yet it was also about changes in culture. The previous technologies of alchemy and folk medicine based on Ayurveda [the ancient holistic medical tradition of India] changed with the introduction of Western medicine and science. After that backdrop fell away, there wasn’t the supportive, resonating cultural sphere for practices like boran kammatthana anymore. There was also a brief time when traditional medicine was made illegal, which cut off the livelihood of esoteric medical practitioners.
When [the] Vipassana [movement] came in from Burma, it presented meditation as a rationalistic practice, and promised a method to vivify Buddhism in the face of colonialism. Mainstream Theravada meditation guides were based on the model that one cultivated very deep states of concentration—jhana—and then used that tranquil, lucid mental state to study the nature of one’s experience with an eye to ridding oneself of delusion and attachment. Monastic seclusion was thought best for cultivating such deep meditation. The Vipassana movement, in contrast, cultivated only a minimal degree of the ability to focus the mind and then used various simple techniques to observe the body and mind and give rise to insight (which is what “vipassana” means). This was thought to be accessible to anyone, including laypeople. The processes in boran kammatthana are quite complicated and involved; they are also time-intensive and require initiation and personal attention from a teacher. So they are harder to popularize. All of these factors came together to cause the fading of boran kammatthana.
This practice is bound to strike many Buddhist practitioners as similar to Tibetan tantra or medieval Indian Hatha Yoga, but these practices appear to have developed primarily within Theravada culture. Can you say more about how it emerged? Yes, well initially it did strike many [scholars] that there might be Tibetan origins for boran kammatthana. But we have not found the kind of pantheon of meditation deities that typically surrounds a Tibetan tantric practice, and the vocabulary comes from the Pali Abhidhamma. Like Theravada Abhidhamma, boran kammatthana gets rid of unskillful mental states and brings in skillful ones, but the mechanism by which this is done is based on the relationship between mental factors and subtle materiality. That’s where boran kammatthana claimed to have real effects on the body of the practitioner and that of others. The rationale for how this works also draws on Ayurveda, which is not surprising given the proliferation of Indian medicine and thought throughout Southeast Asia. While we cannot trace boran kammatthana back to the Buddha—well, we cannot trace any modern meditation lineage that far back—we do know that the Thai boran kammatthana lineage dates to at least early 16th century Laos.
Someone with training in mainstream Theravada practices of concentration and insight is bound to wonder if the boran kammatthana practices are effective at working with the mind in the same way. Do you have any thoughts on that? Based on the modest experience of these practices I’ve had with surviving teachers from these lineages, I can say that on an initial level they have positive effects on the body and mind. It’s very hard to step back as an inhabitant of a post-Enlightenment, post-Cartesian world, and be open to the possibilities these texts suggest as being real. For me, an unenlightened person, thinking about the longer-term effects of any meditation is just an exercise in projection, isn’t it? I can accept that the practice of the beginning stages of meditation leads to some feeling of being changed, but whether any of the [more metaphysical] things tied to the higher stages actually happen, that’s a totally different thing. Also, different practitioners are using this practice in different ways. In Cambodia, for example, it gets used to guide somebody onto their next rebirth; others use it for medical or magical purposes.
What I find fascinating is that texts [about boran kammatthana] try to work out the full process of meditative transformation, so at the lower levels you might be taking the mental factors of meditative experience into the body—and how this works I don’t know—then at the higher levels you’re taking the traditional levels of Vipassana insight as outlined in the Visuddhimagga [an authoritative 5th century Sri Lankan meditation manual by Acharya Buddhaghosa] into the body. In that text there are sixteen levels of insight that occur on the higher reaches of the path, and in boran kammathana these levels are named, invoked, and visualized as being integrated into the body.
The Buddha is said to have emitted rays of light when teaching the Patthana (the Abhidhamma text most closely related to this tradition), and for these practitioners that’s not just a nice story. The light indicates a profound transformation, and how you express that and how it is experienced. As a practitioner, I’m agnostic, but as an academic, I am fascinated by how serious and committed they were about really working out how to bring about that change. And I mean it makes total sense, why not bring in every technology available for the highest goal of all?
Do we know how those levels of insight normally sought in Theravada meditation were cultivated and brought into the body in boran kammathana? We don’t have a clear idea. The texts that have been most revealing about the underlying Abhidhamma pathway in these practices were written in Sri Lanka in the 18th century after this system had been brought over from Thailand. These documents don’t actually describe the initial stages, presumably because everyone had enough experience that they didn’t need that. Also, for some of these traditions, to be told what to expect undermines the meditation process. So for the initial stages before the incorporation of them into the body, I’m reliant on recently documented traditions that have died out or on modernized traditions. Those that I’m aware of don’t follow this full pathway anymore. One temple I visited used these boran kammathana methods only for cultivating concentration and then for cultivating liberating insights—the Vipassana levels—they switched over to the techniques in the Visuddhimagga.
So for them the invocations and visualizations are really just an esoteric form of concentration practice, but then they switch over to mainstream Theravada approaches to cultivate insight? There are also vipassana aspects to the lower stages, however, as you go through the meditations you have lower-level insights. To really understand this we would need someone of higher-level practice who is willing to bridge the two worlds and explain what is the same and what is different between them.
Influential Thai teachers in the Forest Tradition, like Ajahn Chah, have emphasized meditation for the sake of psychological liberation as outlined in the Pali Canon and markedly rejected magical and esoteric practices. What would you say to people who might read about boran kammatthana and its disappearance and say, “good riddance”? The problem with being passive or even active in relation to any extinction is that one might not know what’s lost until one’s lost it—and even then, you might not know. What I find fascinating about this tradition is that it works at a very fundamental level—at the intersection of mental states and subtle materiality—so to dismiss it without trying it or experiencing it is very risky, because we risk losing something that’s been developed by very committed practitioners.
Would you like to see boran kammatthana revived? What can Western practitioners learn from the history of this practice? I would love to see this practice available and not lost. How possible that is, though, is a question I don’t know the answer to. Speaking from my own kindergarten-level of practice, it seems to have some interesting effects that I think are worth exploring. For any technology, you need a sufficient number of people with expertise to carry anyone who will just practice it a little bit. I don’t know if we’re there, or if it’s too late. Dhammakaya, [a popular but controversial Thai Buddhist group whose doctrines and methods are widely considered unorthodox] has popularized a simplified version. I haven’t seen strong practice lineages for any traditional forms of boran kammatthana outside of this group. But I’m hoping that by publishing this book, more practice lineages will show themselves, and we’ll finally be able to truly see what’s out there.