Comments on “The King of Siam invents Western Buddhism”

Add new comment

Greg 2011-07-05

It’s way too much to to say that Ajahn Mun “invented” Vipassana meditation. Perhaps you could say that he “invented” the Thai Forest tradition, but even that would be problematic. Sharf writes “The practice of what is now known as vipassana can be traced to early twentieth-century teachers such as Phra Acharn Mun (1870-1949) in Thailand, Dharmapala (1864-1933) in Sri Lanka, and U Narada (1868-1955) and Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) in Burma.”

In my opinion, Sharf can get a little weasily in his choice of words. “Traced to” is fair, as long as one understands that to mean “traced back through” rather than “originated by.”

I’ve looked quite a bit but I’ve never seen any convincing evidence that, at the very least, the Burmese on this list originated their practices rather than inherited them from a long line of meditators, as they in fact claim to have. Sharf states “Prior to this time, bhavana (meditation, or mental development) consisted largely of . . exercises [that] are closer to what we might call devotional practices than to meditation.” Sure, it is likely that that is what most monks were “largely doing,” but that is certainly not evidence that there has not always been a much smaller lineage of monks doing what we understand to be vipassana practice today, in Burma if not in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

David Chapman 2011-07-05

Hi, Greg,

I agree that there’s some uncertainty about this. I’m going to lay out what I’ve learned about it in detail in another post. Sharf isn’t my main source; I do think he sometimes overstates his case. If you still disagree after I go through my sources, you may be able to change my mind.

In the case of Ajahn Mun, people in his lineage do say he invented his vipassana method. His biography, by his student Ajahn Maha Bua, goes into a fair amount of detail about Mun’s inability to find a vipassana teacher, and the way he developed his own method.

Records from the late 1800s / early 1900s are sketchy, so it’s impossible to prove that there was no one meditating. On the other hand, for all the extant vipassana lineages, there is pretty good evidence that they were invented (with reference to scripture) by specific people at that time.

Thanks for the comment. Please do push back if you think I’ve got it wrong, after reading the details later this week.


Greg 2011-07-05

Very well, I look forward to your later post concerning the various Burmese lineages.

Jayarava 2011-07-05

This is a great post - I love the tone which is quite playful even though the subject matter is fairly serious. I had no idea of any of the facts in this, and I’m fascinated to learn another chapter in the history of modern Buddhism. I have read about the role of the Rhys David’s in promoting the rationalism of Buddhism - I believe we have TW to thank for translating bodhi as ‘enlightenment’. This would make a great TV documentary I think!

Have you got any similar material on Dharmapāla the Sri Lankan Buddhist?


David Chapman 2011-07-05

Hi Jayarava, nice to see you here!

I’ll write a little about Dharmapala when I do the detailed history of the reinvention of vipassana. He’s the best-documented case, actually, but less significant than the Thai and Burmese ones because Sri Lankan Buddhism hasn’t had much influence on the Consensus. My main source is Gombrich and Obeyesekere’s Buddhism Transformed. If you know of other good source(s), please do let me know.


Sabio Lantz 2011-07-07

(1) I am very weak in Buddhist Western History. But in my head, Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) Buddhist [eg, Anagarika Dharmapala in the late 1880s] brought large vipassana traditions here. He changed his local Buddhis too, of course, but was his and S.N. Goenke’s (Burmese) influence not as strong as the Thai influence through Kornfield in forming US Vipassana?

(2) You said, “Taking scripture, not oral tradition, as religious authority was a new idea in Buddhism. “
In Christianity, this debate was right out there in the open with the reformers. Do we have records of this debate out in the open as a doctrinal issue in Buddhism? Or is this a retro-analysis? Weren’t Oral Tradition and Scripture simultaneous and not separate in the early years?

(3) You said, “I don’t have an opinion—my own Buddhist lineage is totally non-monastic, so I don’t care what monks do.”
In your tradition you may not care what Monks do, but I know that monastic vs non-monastic Buddhism is a controversy among American Buddhists. Do you feel “Consensus Buddhism” leans one way on this? How about you? If the benefits of Dharma are to survive for generations to come, what benefit or harm do you see in these.
In other words, I can’t really imagine you don’t have an opinion! :-)

(4) You said, “Mongkut was just a Totally Awesome Dude. I want to be him when I grow up.”
I love your fun writing style. But now, looking back, I am not sure what parts of this were sarcastic. What did you value & disvalue of Mongkut’s input? I realize you are just trying to be descriptive of the phenomena, but, to me, there is always a taste of the evaluative in your writing that I get fuzzy on. Thanx.

Sabio Lantz 2011-07-07

Oooops, sorry, I had your post’s window open since last night and did not see previous comments which touch on some of my questions. Great comments.
PS, I love the word “Bogosity” !

David Chapman 2011-07-07

(1) Dharmapala made a big impression in Chicago in 1893 but he didn’t leave behind an organization or lineage. Yes, the Burmese influence (more from Mahasi than Goenka) is probably as great as the Thai influence, though. Maybe I’ll get a clearer picture of this when my reading reaches the 1960s and 70s.

(2) I meant “new in the late 1800s relative to the past few centuries.” That’s well-documented, I think. I don’t know a lot about early Buddhism. Uncharacteristically, I have an ignorant opinion, which is that most of what people think they know about it is probably mythology, not fact. I might be totally wrong about that, though; I just haven’t read much.

(3) The Consensus folks seem to be ambivalent about monasticism. It’s an open question for them, as far as I can tell from the outside. It’s obvious that very few Westerners want to be monks or nuns. Based on that, I think non-monastic ordination systems like the Triratna Order and the ngak’phang lineage are important. About the future, who knows? Maybe in thirty years, Western culture will have changed in some way so that lots of people want to be monastics. Or maybe monasticism will be effectively dead in both Asia and the West. Better not to put all our eggs in one basket, maybe.

(4) I do hugely admire Mongkut. I’m just totally impressed with him. And, everything he did made excellent sense given the circumstances. Later, I will suggest that the Buddhism he constructed is not the Buddhism we need now, because our circumstances are different. He was at the leading edge of modernity, and we’re a little past its trailing edge.

A general point: I don’t seem to hold opinions as strongly as many people. Especially, I don’t tend to judge people as “good” or “bad.” That isn’t because I’m “nice”—I’m not—but because I find complexity everywhere. So in the case of Consensus Buddhism, the problem is not that its leaders are “bad” or “wrong”, or even that it is “bad” or “wrong.” It was a sensible—brilliant, even—response to a particular set of circumstances. But, like everything, it has complex consequences. Some of those are problematic, particularly because circumstances have—once again—changed.

Sabio Lantz 2011-08-04

@ David
You wrote:

Currently, in Thailand, most monks pay attention to only 19 of the 227 vinaya rules, and take only eight really seriously. Maybe there are good reasons for that. These might be sensible changes, due to circumstances being different than in the Buddha’s time.

Do you know of a source (preferably on-line) that categorizes the vinaya and illustrates where “sensible” changes might be good?

David Chapman 2011-08-04

I don’t know of one… The 19/8 statistic comes from Strong Roots, but it doesn’t say which they are. If you find anything, or other readers know of something, a link would be great.

Sabio Lantz 2011-08-05

Thank you for pointing me to the free on-line book by Jake Davis: Strong Roots: Liberation Teaching of Mindfulness in North America.

The Vinaya was made for monastics, and thus few non-monastics follow them (thank Amida). I was curious if there was a nice condensed list like this one for the Jewish 613 mitzvot (commandments) which few Jews follow (thank G-d!).

The only on-line source I have for the rules is Thanissaro’s translations but it is a huge undertaking to read those, so I was hoping for a condensed version like the Jewish mitzvot above. So if anyone finds one, please let me know. Hope the links help others.

Meanwhile, reading a bit the Monastic Codes, I found the following choice items:

No dancing, cracking knuckles or wiggling fingers or toes. (Sekhiya 10:5-6)

No laughing loudly (Sekhiya 10:11-12)

I will not slurp when I eat (Sekhiya 10:51) = ouch, most for most of Asia

I will not defecate or urinate while standing (Sekhiya 10:53)

Tickling with the fingers is to be confessed (Pācittiya 52)

The act of playing in the water is to be confessed. (Pācittiya 53)

Should any bhikkhu bathe at intervals of less than half a month, except at the proper occasions, it is to be confessed. (Pācittiya 57)

Intentional emission of semen, except while dreaming, entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.(Sanghādisesa 5:1)

roni 2011-08-05

@ Sabio Vinaya texts tanslated by Rhys Davids & Oldenberg (as far as I know the full text, but a kind of outdated translation): Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

roni 2011-08-05

@ Sabio Sorry, the other way round :), the condensed version by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

David Chapman 2011-08-05

I need to learn more about this—especially because one of the main characters in my Buddhist vampire romance is a monk. Since it is a Tantric Buddhist vampire romance, and Tantra is all about sex, I have been doing a little research.

Excerpts from an old email conversation, offered purely in fun:

Celibacy is the essence of Buddhist renunciation. I don't think Western Buddhists get this at all. If you look at vinaya, it goes like this: Rule #1: No sex. Rule #2: Especially not with women. Rule #3: Definitely no sex at all. Rule #4: Not with sheep, either. Rule #5: Did we mention that you can't have sex? The penalty for violating this is extremely severe. Rule #6: There is no rule #6. 'Cuz we've pretty much covered it. Rule #7: There's some other stuff you shouldn't do, either, but don't sweat it.

And another one:

Due to the fact that I am rather drunk, I feel certain that you want to know all about the rules concerning sex between monks and corpses. Unfortunately, according to one source, this matter is "controversial", so the details are uncertain. It appears that a great deal of intellectual energy and brilliance has been devoted to the subject, due to its pressing importance. There are diverse opinions, with extensive scholarly examinations of scriptural sources and arguments pro and con. A "thullaccaya offense" is one that is sufficiently minor that it's not explicitly mentioned in the central vinaya sutras. According to one source, if "a bhikkhu attempts intercourse with the decomposed mouth, anus, or genitals of a corpse", that is a thullaccaya offense. Another source enumerates a large number of categories of things bhikkhus are not to have sex with. Of course, women are right out; everyone agrees on that. Ditto female animals. But what about female ghosts, demons, and goddesses? Here we enter the realm of controversy. This particular source insists that they are definitely Not OK. Just in case anyone was thinking of finding loopholes, it explicitly enumerates the (many) subcategories of female ghosts, demons, and goddesses. AND the categories of corpses, which are also NOT OK. Specifically, fresh corpses are not OK, partially decomposed corpses are not OK, and mostly-decomposed corpses are not OK. No mention is made of skeletons. It might, therefore, be OK to have sex with a female pelvis, so long as the bhikkhu cleans it thoroughly first. I am sure that someone would argue to the contrary, however, if you raised the point. You may (or may not) also wish to know that a bikkhu commits thullaccaya "by introducing his sex organ in one of the following: the sex organ of a female living being where this is narrower than that of a cat or a chicken; in the eye orifice, the nostrils or the ear of a human being; in the corpse of a being through an opening made with a knife or into a fold; in the nose of the corpse from an elephant, horse, buffalo, cow, etc." Also, "if a bhikkhu eats human flesh, wears the robe of an heretic sect in wood bark, a robe made out of owl feathers or from a cloth made with human hairs, or if he cuts his sexual organ, he commits a thullaccaya." Systematically reading the vinaya is infinitely tedious, but browsing it can be a lot of fun!

Some other entertaining rules:

  1. When a bhikkhu is making a skin-eruption covering cloth, it is to be made to the standard measurement. Here the standard is this: four spans – using the Sugata span – in length, two spans in width. In excess of that, it is to be cut down and confessed.

  2. I will not teach Dhamma to a person with an umbrella in his hand and who is not ill: a training to be observed. (“According to the Commentary, this rule applies regardless of whether the umbrella is open or closed, as long as one’s listeners has his/her hand on it. If, however, the umbrella is on the listener’s lap, resting against his/her shoulder, or if someone else is holding it over the listener’s head, there is no offense in teaching him/her any Dhamma.”)

  3. I will not teach Dhamma to a person wearing non-leather footwear who is not ill: a training to be observed.

  4. I will not teach Dhamma to a person wearing leather footwear who is not ill: a training to be observed. (“Wearing means any one of three things: placing one’s feet on top of the footwear without inserting the toes; inserting the toes without fastening the footwear; or fastening the footwear with the toes inside.”)

  5. When a bhikkhu is building a large dwelling, he may apply two or three layers of facing to plaster the area around the window frame and reinforce the area around the door frame the width of the door opening, while standing where there are no crops to speak of. Should he apply more than that, even if standing where there are no crops to speak of, it is to be confessed.

I imagine all these made good sense in context.

Erick 2011-11-20

Mongkut is a much more ambiguous figure regarding ‘modernization’ and ‘rationalization’ than you imply. He is also famous for creating new state Brahmanical rituals as well as a national deity to protect Siam. I suggest you read the following: Paul Johnson, “‘Rationality’ in the Biography of a Buddhist King: Mongkut, King of Siam (r. 1851-1868), in Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, ed. Juliane Schober (U of Hawaii Press, 1997).

Also, as in the case of Japan, these modernist teachings and practices in Siam, as ambiguous and contradictory as they were, had limited reach beyond urbanized political and economic elites. But most important is that these reforms were much more ideologically contradictory and sociologically ambiguous in their implications for Siamese than you seem to recognize.

David Chapman 2011-11-20

Hi, Erick,

Thanks for the pointer! I have read as much of Johnson’s essay as I could find on the web. (Nearly all of it is available on Google Books.)

As I understand it, Johnson’s point is that “rationality” is a “negotiable” category, and Mongkut’s “rationality” was not exactly that of Western science. Both true; but neither seems to contradict any of what I said. (Johnson did not discuss “modernization”, at least in the portion available on Google.)

Yes, his reforms had limited impact outside the urban elite. His Dhammayuttika order, despite special state privileges, has never been more than a small minority of monks.

But, what I am tracing here is the history of Western Consensus Buddhism. And that was—unarguably, I think—hugely influenced by Dhammayuttika, and the rationalist-scripturalist-Protestant flavor of Mongkut’s Buddhism.

Similarly, in Japan, the New Buddhism of Imakita Kosen and D.T. Suzuki, and the Sanbokyodan School of Yasutani, had limited impact outside Westernized urban centers. But these were almost the sole basis for Zen in the West.

Best wishes,


vikman1246 2016-07-11

Frankly I have a less fond opinion of him. One thing you learn in life is that there’s a lot of stuff not explicitly found in writing and certain complexities that might go over ones head. I have seen desire destroy people, but I have also seen it save them. I think he was wrong to try and rid Buddhism of those customs and folk practices. People in different situations have different needs and ways of connecting to the sacred. Those teaching surrounding Gods, magics, and demons may very well be the path to someone becoming a better, more compassionate person. I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t even believe in reincarnation, so my understanding may be imperfect, but I find that sticking strictly to scripture isn’t necessarily a good idea. Wisdom, tranquility, and goodness are often found in places one does not expect to find them and even the wisest among mortals lack understanding or knowledge in some aspect. There is much one discovers from experience. Where abstaining saves some, it wounds and hurts the souls of others. Where ecstatic methods draw many closer, some must withdraw. Furthermore, oral tradition often carries truths that cannot often be found in books.

David Chapman 2016-07-11

Thanks, vikman1246, these are excellent points, well-stated!

I think if one is to evaluate Mongkut, it has to be in the context of his time and place. Siam was in a very tricky position, caught between colonializing powers on all sides, and he worked out a skillful approach to avoiding colonial domination through modernizing. The terms of modernization were partly dictated by the colonial powers, so Mongkut had limited room for maneuver. He had to turn Siamese Buddhism into a version of Victorian Protestant Scientistic Modernism. Given that, I think he did an extraordinarily good job.

Victorian Protestant Scientistic Modernism was the most advanced religion of the day, but it’s wrong in all the ways you point out. I don’t know very much about what the consequences of imposing it were for the Thai people. I do know that contemporary American Buddhism is mainly based on Mongkut’s vision, and therefore on Victorian Protestant Scientistic Modernism. And that is a poor fit for Americans in 2016; and so contemporary American Buddhism is largely preposterous.

Much of what I have done on this blog has been to point out ways that what Americans think of as “Buddhism” is indeed Victorian Protestant Scientistic Modernism, and why that doesn’t work. I’ve detailed many of the same points you make. For example:

“I have seen desire destroy people, but I have also seen it save them” — This is the essential insight of Buddhist Tantra, which Mongkut apparently rejected because it was incompatible with Victorian Christianity. I have written many posts about Tantra and why it may be a better starting point for a contemporary American Buddhism than Mongkut’s Victorianized Sutrayana. This might be one starting point.

“I find that sticking strictly to scripture isn’t necessarily a good idea” — See Problems with scripture

“I think he was wrong to try and rid Buddhism of those customs and folk practices” — I have written about them sympathetically here

“People in different situations have different needs and ways of connecting to the sacred” — Yes; see this

“Wisdom, tranquility, and goodness are often found in places one does not expect to find them” — For example, here :-)

Several points you make about the limits to systematic, rational understanding — the fluid mode concerns this.

john allan 2016-09-02

Interesting post. I was ordained in Mongkut’s Dhammayut order in the early 70’s for about a year. ordained Wat borvorniet in bangkok ant spent some time with Ajahn maha Bowa visited Some others of his generation Ajhans Fan, Tet etc. ( for the past 16 years I have run 3 Dhamma conversation and meditation groups every week ) Yes Mongkut was a renaissance man and its largely due to him that Siam didn’t get colonised by Western countries. Seeing the drift of things he set about all manner or social reforms that would give western powers less opportunities to ‘compassionately invade’ He banned slavery and even sent an offer of help to President Lincoln as the Civil war stepped up ..Mongkut offered to send a group of battle elephants…His offer was politely refused!

I think that the ‘vipassana’ brand most know in the West is largely of Burmese Abhidhamma Mahasi sources and traditions. The Thai Forest styles I came across seem generally less ‘systematic’ and structured compared to many burmese ‘vipassana’ methods. ( An exception is Pa Auk sayadaw who’s approch seems more sympatico too me from my reading seems based largely in citta upassana, whereas most techniques are largely based in Kaya upassana Approaches and methods are necessarily different , Most misunderstandings and reductionism around ‘meditation’ arises from wrongly applying the attitudes and approaches of kaya upassana to development in other modes . One size does not fit all.)
Though commentarial sources and attitudes are in evidence, at the expenses of the Buddha word in the Nikayas - the load is not quite as oppressive and mechanist as the Burmese Mahasi approch seems to me. The major flaw in ‘western Buddhism’ for me is the reduction of the Sasana to only ‘meditation’ usually meaning some technique or method touted as the best. The Buddhas developmental approch engaging behaviour, speech and mental aspects. Every day insights and the potential to integrate emerging understandings into practical ‘embodiment’ often get short shift in favour of ‘approved’ insights’......and jargon. Of course a bit of chewing on more suttas than the Satipatthana sutta would help a lot.
cheers John Allan Australia

Add new comment:

You can use some Markdown and/or HTML formatting here.

Optional, but required if you want follow-up notifications. Used to show your Gravatar if you have one. Address will not be shown publicly.

If you check this box, you will get an email whenever there’s a new comment on this page. The emails include a link to unsubscribe.