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77 posts categorized "Buddhism"

01 August 2022

Disfigured Ghosts and Gory Tortures in Phra Malai Manuscripts and Thai Cosmological Parks

This guest blog is by Roni N. Wang, a Ph.D. candidate at SOAS, University of London, focusing on contemporary Thai Buddhism. Roni’s research looks at Buddhist Cosmological Parks in Thailand.

Within the Buddhist cosmic scheme, birth in the realm of hell is the lowest level possible and undeniably the most horrific outcome of negative karma. Illustrations of these gory dwellings - lit by the reddish glow of blazing fires and echoing with spine-tingling screams of tortured denizens - can be found in Phra Malai manuscripts at the British Library. The story of Phra Malai tells of the arahant (one who attained enlightenment) Malai who, through accumulated merit and meditation, manifested the ability to travel to different realms of existence, and witnessed the horrors of the hells.

Paired illustrations in a paper folding book depicting Phra Malai’s visit to hell
Fig. 1. Paired illustrations in a paper folding book depicting Phra Malai’s visit to hell. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, f.4  Noc

Inspired partly by this imagery are sculptural depictions of these scenes which can be found in Thai cosmological parks. Housed within Buddhist temple precincts, these parks are spaces in which different cosmic realms, local scenes, historical figures and events, and anecdotes from the Buddha’s life story come to life via three-dimensional imagery. Most popular amongst park visitors are the hell sections, some depictions of which will be explored here in relation to the Phra Malai manuscripts.

Before delving into the imagery of the monk’s hellish visions, it is vital to distinguish between two life forms that appear in the hells: hells’ denizens and hungry ghosts (Pāli: peta). The first, the hell dwellers, are creatures who were born in one of the hells, and are afflicted with myriad torturous punishments. The second group are the hungry ghosts, who are born into a realm of their own, usually due to lighter offenses or after having served one or more life spans as hell dwellers. The physical dwellings of these ghosts are varied. Some may roam the hells, and these are indeed the creatures we encounter in the depictions discussed here. Others wander the human realm, and some populate a ghostly town said to be situated above the hells. These ghosts differ in physical appearance and characteristics, but share the same grim fate, leading futile lives of constant unattainable craving, which is often expressed by ceaseless hunger and thirst.

Phra Malai with hell dwellers illustrated in a Thai folding book, dated 1875
Fig. 2. Phra Malai with hell dwellers illustrated in a Thai folding book, dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630, f.10  Noc

Now let us begin our exploration of the manuscripts’ depictions and their counterparts in the parks. One notable scene that can be found in Or 6630 (fig. 2) portrays Phra Malai seated amongst hell dwellers who ask him for meritorious assistance. As the story goes, the monk gave a sermon, after which the inhabitants of hell asked him to pay a visit to their living relatives back in the human realm to request them to perform merit on their behalf. The narrative that this image conveys emphasises the importance of merit performed by relatives for their deceased ancestors, as well as the notion that salvation is dependent on an inter-realm relationship that is communicated by ascetics.

Phra Malai amongst hell dwellers at Wat Saen Suk, Chonburi
Fig. 3. Phra Malai amongst hell dwellers at Wat Saen Suk, Chonburi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

This scene is replicated in Wat Saen Suk Park in the eastern province of Chonburi (fig. 3). As in the 1875 manuscript, the creatures that surround Phra Malai here include naked and emaciated hell denizens and ghosts. Also noticeable are those with human bodies and animal heads. These creatures are dwellers of a hell called Saṇghāta, birth into which is a result of killing or burning animals.

These creatures also appear in OR14664 (fig. 4), displaying different animal heads, with one impressive rooster being positioned in the centre.

Inhabitants of hell with animal heads
Fig. 4. Inhabitants of hell with animal heads, illustrated in a Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f.26  Noc

Amongst these disfigured creatures, Or 15257 (fig. 1) displays ghosts with no head but with facial features on their abdomen. This ghostly existence is the fate of robbers or thieves who used violent methods to obtain property that belonged to others. This type of headless ghost makes an appearance in the park discussed above, Wat Saen Suk. Here, it is seen holding a spear in its hand (fig. 5). It is said that the spear was given to it by Yama, the king of death, to keep away the lurking crows that tended to prey on it.

The headless ghost at Wat Sean Suk
Fig. 5. The headless ghost at Wat Sean Suk. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Another odd creature, portrayed in Or 14710, is a male ghost with extremely large testicles, which he carries on his shoulder (fig. 6). This horrific creature was born into this state after serving a life span in hell. When he was a human, he was an evil judge who took advantage of his powerful position.

A hell dweller carrying large testicles over his shoulder
Fig. 6. A hell dweller carrying large testicles over his shoulder in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, dated 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f.2  Noc

This same being is represented in Wat Mae Keat Noi, a park located in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Here, this monstrous creature is seen with his testicles dangling below him, pulling him down as he struggles to carry them (fig. 7).

A male ghost with extremely large testicles at Wat Mae Keat Noi
Fig. 7. A male ghost with extremely large testicles at Wat Mae Keat Noi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

While the manuscript illustrations and their counterparts in the parks introduce a wide array of grotesque hell dwellers, the hellish backdrops also contribute to the Dantesque atmosphere, and help to convey some of the punishments that are inflicted in this horrid realm. Notable in the background scenery, both in the manuscripts and in the parks, are two images that have become widely associated with hells in the Theravāda tradition: the flaming cauldron and the towering thorn trees.

Let us begin with the cauldron. This horrific punishment is represented in Phra Malai manuscripts in two forms, each associated with a different hell. Thus, the cauldron scene in Or 14710 (fig. 6) portrays the punishment in the Lohakumbhī hell, where the denizens of hell are held by their feet and cast into these flaming iron cauldrons, which are as huge as mountains. Birth in this hell is the result of hurting monks or ascetics.

Depiction of a cauldron with decapitated heads
Fig. 8. Depiction of a cauldron with decapitated heads in a Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16007, f.29  Noc

The cauldrons in Or 16007 (fig. 8) and Or 14664 (fig. 4) contain decapitated heads and represent yet another hell, the Lohakumbha. In this hell, the guardians chase the inhabitants of hell with flaming iron ropes, which they twist around their necks until their heads fall. They then insert the heads into the boiling cauldrons. Then, a new head appears on the hell dweller’s body and the torture is repeated again and again. This punishment is the result of killing living beings by slashing their throats.

In the parks, these cauldrons have also taken on a cautionary role relating to alcohol abuse. Similarly, in Wat Pal Lak Roi Park (fig. 9) in Nakhon Ratchasima, north-eastern Thailand, two cauldrons are situated amid the hell section of the park. One of these cauldrons depicts several hell dwellers being scorched within it. Next to the cauldron, there is an image of a female who is being forced to drink beer by a hell guardian. The second cauldron has an inscription on it that reads ‘Lost one’s way in liquor’. In reference to this imagery, the park’s booklet notes that “This is the fate of those who…drank alcohol, until they lose consciousness… he who drinks alcohol will be met by Yama’s squad… please stop! For your children, your wife, and for a good society.”

Hellish cauldron at Wat Pal Lak Roi
Fig. 9. Hellish cauldron at Wat Pal Lak Roi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Another cauldron representation can be found at Wat Po Chai Sri (fig. 10), in the north-eastern province of Udon Thani. Here this hell is referred to as Narok Mo Tong Deang – literally, copper cauldron hell, and is also described as the destination for those who indulged in intoxicants. In addition, some denizens are seen being force-fed fiery melted copper, a punishment that is said to be inflicted in the Thamaphkata hell, which is indeed the destination of those who indulged in intoxicating beverages.

Copper Cauldron Hell Wat Po Chai Sri
Fig. 10. Copper Cauldron Hell Wat Po Chai Sri. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

It is curious that the cauldron became recognized as a punishment for alcohol consumption. It is tempting to assume that this is a linkage constructed through the association with liquid; however, this is just a hypothesis.

Another famous image synonymous with the hells, can be found in Or 14838 (fig. 11), Or 14731 (fig. 12) and Or 16007 (fig. 8). In these daunting depictions, we are introduced to the hellish thorn trees, upon which the poor dwellers are forced to climb endlessly whilst being pierced by thorns, whilst being trapped between large dogs who bark at the stumps below and peckish crows who await at the tops.

Illustration of a hellish thorn tree
Fig. 11. Illustration of a hellish thorn tree in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f.8  Noc

These trees can be found in the Lohasimbalī hell which is composed of a forest with countless trees. Somewhat misogynistic, it is the punishment inflicted on female adulterers who betrayed their husbands, or those who have had an affair with another man’s wife.

Depiction of hell dwellers being chased up a thorn tree
Fig. 12. Depiction of hell dwellers being chased up a thorn tree in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14731, f.4  Noc

These trees appear in Wat Santi Nikhom (fig. 13) in the northern province of Lampang. This park has a unique layout as it is situated vertically in a building that simulates the cosmos. The hell section is situated in the basement, creating the sense of descending into hell. Here the trees are scattered around the hellish area. Naked male and female inhabitants of hell are seen climbing them, while dogs wait for them at the bottom and crows at the top, as similarly seen in the manuscripts. Adding to all these visual effects, a sensory-operated recording of the dogs’ barks and the hell dwellers’ spine-tingling wails are played as visitors arrive in the area.

Hellish thorn trees at Wat Santi Nikhom
Fig. 13. Hellish thorn trees at Wat Santi Nikhom. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Whilst this is only a small glimpse into the rich imagery of Phra Malai’s journey to the hells, and its manifestation within contemporary cosmological parks, this account will hopefully shed light on how these imageries of the hells not only provoke thoughts about morality and mortality, but also support the relevance of these issues today, crossing both space and time.

Roni N. Wang Ccownwork

Further reading
B.P., Brereton, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint. Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995.
F.E. ,Reynolds, and M.B.,Reynolds. Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology. Berkeley, California: University of California, 1982.
Unebe T. Two Popular Buddhist Images in Thailand. Buddhist Narrative in Asia and Beyond. 2012; 2:121-42.

04 April 2022

Ariya Metteyya, the Buddha of the future

Ariya Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya), the future Buddha, is at the centre of some of the most beautiful illustrations in Thai Buddhist manuscripts. According to canonical scriptures, Ariya Metteyya is the fifth in the lineage of Buddhas (Tathāgata) of the current aeon, and successor of the 28 Buddhas of the past. Ariya means “noble”, and Metteyya is derived from the Pali word mātreyya which refers to “one's mother” and “motherloving”. The previous Buddha Gotama predicted in the Cakkavatti-sῑhanāda-sutta that Ariya Metteyya will be the Buddha of the future, following his rebirth in the human realm, renunciation of worldly life and attainment of enlightenment under a Naga tree (cobra saffron, Lat. Mesua ferrea).

The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven
The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven, illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the story of Phra Malai, central Thailand, 1875. British Library Or 6630, f. 43  Noc

The story of the future Buddha appears in another canonical source entitled Buddhavaṃsa (chronicle of Buddhas) in the Khuddaka Nikāya. It gives details of the life of Buddha Gotama and the 24 Buddhas before him, as well as Ariya Metteyya.

An extra-canonical source that mentions the future Buddha is the Mahāvaṃsa (“Great Chronicle” of Sri Lanka), attributed to the monk Mahānāma. In this text, written in the 5th or 6th century CE, it is stated that Ariya Metteyya currently resides in the Tuṣita heaven as a deity called Natha-deva awaiting rebirth in the human realm.

Another source that describes the life, meritorious acts and attainment of enlightenment of Ariya Metteyya is known under the title Anāgatavaṃsa (account of the future), a work attributed to Ashin Kassapa (1160-1230 CE).

The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right
The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right) in a folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Add MS 15347, f. 48  Noc

The above-mentioned sources brought knowledge of Ariya Metteyya from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia. In the Thai Buddhist tradition, the future Buddha is also known as Phra Sri An. Exquisite paintings of him, often lavishly decorated with gold leaf, can be found in manuscripts containing the popular legend of Phra Malai, a monk-saint who was able to travel to the Buddhist heavens and hells as a result of his accumulated merit. The story is often included, among extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka, in Thai funeral and commemoration books from the 19th century. The oldest known extant manuscript containing this legend is a palm-leaf book in Northern Thai (Lanna) Dhamma script, dating back to 1516 CE (Brereton, 1993, p. 141)

Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven
Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven to pay reverence to the celestial stupa. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Or 14115, f. 59  Noc

One episode in this legend elaborates on Phra Malai’s visit to the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he meets the god Indra (Sakka) at the celestial stupa Chulamani Chedi. While the two are conversing, myriads of devatā (deities) and finally also the future Buddha appear from another heaven, Tuṣita, to pay reverence to the stupa. Ariya Metteyya then gives Phra Malai a message about the future of mankind, and advice to make merit and to listen to recitations of the Vessantara Jātaka for those who wish to be reborn in the era of the future Buddha.

The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left)
The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left) in a folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library Or 16101, f. 51  Noc

Although most illustrated Phra Malai manuscripts include the standardised pair of paintings showing the scene at the celestial stupa, Thai artists of the 19th century used many other options to depict Ariya Metteyya. In the image above one can see the future Buddha in an elaborately decorated red aura with two deities partially hidden in clouds (right), whereas on the left side the artist decided to paint male withayathon (Pali: vijjadhara, “keepers of knowledge”, in Thai also “scholars of magic”) as flag-bearers announcing the arrival of Ariya Metteyya.

Painted in a similar manner, but with more attention to detail and in extraordinary artistic quality, are the illustrations below showing the future Buddha in a red aura with six deities (right), and two female deities as flag-bearers (left).

The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left
The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left). Folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1849. British Library Or 14838, f. 57  Noc

In the same manuscript, dated 1849, there is another - very unusual - illustration of the scene in Tāvatiṃsa heaven (shown below): as expected, on the left side is Phra Malai in conversation with Indra and another deity at the celestial stupa. However, on the right side, where normally the future Buddha appears, there is a female figure in a large red aura, floating on clouds in the sky. Like the future Buddha on the preceding folio, she is holding a lotus bud, symbol of imminent enlightenment, and she is accompanied by female deities – just in the same way Ariya Metteyya is usually depicted. We do not know if the painter aimed to express the thought that the future Buddha could be a woman, or whether they may have drawn inspiration from the idea of female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in esoteric Buddhism. Or perhaps it may have been the wish of the patrons, a mother and her two children, who commissioned this manuscript to make merit on behalf of the mother’s parents, and who expressed in the colophon their hope to attain enlightenment.

Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities
Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities. Folding book from central Thailand, 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 58  Noc

The story of Phra Malai concludes with Ariya Metteyya’s prediction of the deterioration of Buddhism and degeneration of mankind 5000 years after Buddha Gotama. This is then followed by the birth of the Buddha-to-be in an era in which the earth flourishes and humans are living meritorious lives free from suffering. The future Buddha promises to help all people to transcend saṃsāra - the cycle of birth, death and rebirth - through liberation from greed, hatred and delusion. Sometimes depictions of the blissful life in the future are included in Phra Malai manuscripts, like the example shown below where people are plucking gold jewellery from a wishing tree (left) and enjoying sweets while resting in the shade of a blossoming tree (right).

Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya
Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14115, f. 75 Noc

Indeed, the hope of encountering Ariya Metteyya is frequently mentioned in a colophon on the last folio of Thai Buddhist manuscripts. The example below shows a detail from a colophon in a folding book dated 1882, which contains extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the legend of Phra Malai. The future Buddha is mentioned twice here: once called Phra Sri An (underlined orange) and once called Phra Sri Anriya (underlined red), both times referring to Ariya Metteyya.

Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book
Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book. Central Thailand, 1882. British Library, Or 15207, f. 91 Noc

The idea of Ariya Metteyya still enjoys great popularity among Buddhists in Thailand today, not least because it is part of the Thai Buddhist concept of a perfect world. It describes an idealised future state of society with prosperity, health, happiness, justice, righteousness and peace which is symbolically expressed through images of Ariya Metteyya in temple murals and sculptures. The examples below from three different Thai manuscripts show that depictions of the future Buddha are easily recognisable because they are highly standardised, although minor variations can be visible like the size of the aura, background, the number of accompanying deities and objects held in the hand of Ariya Metteyya.

Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books
Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books, from left to right: British Library Or 6630, f. 56 (dated 1875); British Library Or 14838, f. 42 (dated 1849); British Library Or 16710, f. 39 (19th century) Noc

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork

Further reading
Aphilak Kasempholkoon, Phra Sri An (Maitreya) as a hero: A structural analysis of Phra Sri An myths in Thai society. Manusya 14/3 (2011), pp. 21-32 
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Some comments on a northern Phra Malai text dated C.S. 878 (A.D. 1516). Journal of the Siam Society 81 (1993), pp. 141-5
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995 
Saya U Chit Tin, assisted by William Pruitt, The coming Buddha Ariya Metteyya. 2nd revised ed. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992
Phramaha Inwong Issaraphani, Chantras Tapuling, Metteyya: The Concept of Ideal World in Buddhism. MCU Haripunchai Review 2/1 (2018), pp. 35–45.

07 February 2022

A puzzling fragment from a Thai meditation manual

Yogāvacara meditation practices, also known as borān kammathāna, were an integral part of Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia until monastic reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries discouraged esoteric meditation practices. Yogāvacara manuals incorporate teachings from canonical and post-canonical Buddhist literature: for example, meditations on the foul, kasiṇa meditation, contemplation of Ten Forms of Knowledge etc. This article introduces a manuscript fragment (Or 14447) from 18th-century Ayutthaya (Central Thailand), which has puzzled our Thai curators, past and present, because of its unusual illustrations, painting style and format.

Complete view of the illustrated (front) side of the Yogāvacara manual at the British Library, Or 14447
Complete view of the illustrated (front) side of the Yogāvacara manual at the British Library, Or 14447 Noc

The lavishly illustrated manuscript fragment consists of just three complete and two half folios with Pali and Thai text in Khmer and Khom scripts (a Thai adaptation of Khmer script) on the front side. Short passages written in black ink contain instructions for the person called Yogāvacara (spelled yogābacara in the manuscript). The back side contains only text in Thai language written in Thai script. It was purchased from Hentell Ltd Hong Kong in 1989.

The fragment is in the format of a paper folding book (samut khoi) in portrait orientation, which in the Thai manuscript tradition is mostly used for divination manuals (phrommachāt), medical treatises, yantra manuals or poetry books (konlabot).

The illustrations relate to Yogāvacara meditations on the Ten Forms of Knowledge which are briefly mentioned in the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha, a Pali text attributed to Ācariya Anuruddha who is thought to have lived between the 8th to 12th century. In its essence the content is based on Buddhaghoṣa's Visuddhimagga, which mentions only Eight Forms of Knowledge, but elaborates in detail on graphic descriptions associated with them. The Ten Forms of Knowledge describe stages of insight that a meditator passes through on the path to nibbāna.

The illustrations are in the Ayutthaya painting style with a strong Mon influence. The minimal use of gold and liberal use of orange, the execution of mountains and rocky outcrops in the “Chinese” style with a light watery wash, the use of the Krajang Pattiyan pattern, and the depiction of a round halo around the monk’s head distinguish the painting style as Ayutthayan of the late 17th to early 18th century.

However, the style is not entirely Thai due to features often found in Mon/Shan/Burmese inspired paintings like the voluminous tail of the hamsa bird, the depiction of the monk in side view, the flow of the monk’s outer robe, and the monk’s umbrella (personal communication with Irving Chan Johnson, 11.6.2021). It is possible that the artist was Mon, or the manuscript was produced in a local Mon community in the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

If we assume that the order of the paintings illustrating the Ten Forms of Knowledge is consistent with the order of descriptions in the known Pali text sources, this manuscript must be viewed from right to left. The manuscript had previously been foliated with pencil starting with “1” in the top left corner, as one would usually read a Thai folding book in portrait orientation; however, this is incorrect.

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 first folio [wrongly foliated “5”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 first folio [wrongly foliated “5”] Noc

The illustrations on the first folio, of which only one half survives, relate to the first two Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of calm and insight (sammathadassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of rise and fall (udayavyayādassana-ñāṇa).

Knowledge of calm and insight is represented in the bottom illustration by a monk with a red halo, holding a staff and pointing towards a man with a red halo, sitting on the floor. The Thai-Pali text on this folio is incomplete. At the top is an illustration related to Knowledge of rise and fall, represented by a monk with red halo holding a flame.

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.2 [wrongly foliated “4”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.2 [wrongly foliated “4”] Noc

The illustrations on the next folio represent the third and fourth Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of disruption (bhangānudassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of what is to be feared (bhayatupaṭṭhāna-dassana-ñāṇa).

At the bottom, representing the Knowledge of disruption, is a monk with a red halo facing a corpse by the riverside. The monk is touching the corpse with his staff. The illustration at the top represents Knowledge of what is to be feared. A monk with a red halo crosses his hands in front of his chest while facing a corpse and a lion emerging from a cave. The Thai-Pali text above says: "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the bhaiyavipasanāñāṇa sees saṃsāra as scary, just like a man who goes to rest in a cave where a rājasīha [mythical lion] resides. When the man leaves, he sees the rājasīha and is very scared and seeks to escape the rājasīha" (translation by Trent Walker).

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 fol. 3
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 fol. 3 Noc

In the middle of the manuscript (foliated “3”) two illustrations relate to the fifth and sixth Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of of evil (ādīnavanudassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of disgust (nibbidānudassana-ñāṇa).

The image below is related to Knowledge of evil, depicting a monk with a red halo, who is pointing towards a burning house. The Thai-Pali text reads: “The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the ādinaviñāṇa sees saṃsāra and flees, just like [someone in] a burning house seeks to escape the house".

At the top is a monk with a red halo pointing towards a bird; behind him are an alms bowl, meditation umbrella of a forest monk and a water vessel. It represents the Knowledge of disgust, and the Thai-Pali caption says "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the nibhidāyañāṇa sees saṃsāra and is very disgusted by it, just like a royal swan that was formerly in a clean forest but one day flies and ends up in a village of [evil-doers?]… like the royal swan who is disgusted and seeks to escape from there" (translation by Trent Walker).

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.4 [wrongly foliated “2”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.4 [wrongly foliated “2”] Noc

The illustrations on the fourth folio represent the seventh and eighth Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of desire for freedom (muccitukamyatādassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of reflection (paṭisaṅkhānupassanā-ñāṇa).

Shown below is a monk with a red halo pointing towards Rāhu, the demon swallowing the moon, which relates to the Knowledge of desire for freedom. The Thai-Pali text reads: "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the muñcitukāmāyañāṇa seeks to be freed from saṃsāra, just like the moon seeks to be freed from Rāhu" (translation by Trent Walker).

Above is a monk with red halo, sitting under his umbrella, pointing towards a man with a red halo, who has caught a snake and is putting it into a fishing basket. This relates to the Knowledge of reflection. The Thai-Pali caption of this illustration in the manuscript states: "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the paṭi[saṅ]khārañāṇa has the means of seeking to be freed from saṃsāra, just like a man... [illegible] …. a cobra and grasps its neck and seeks to be freed from that snake" (translation by Trent Walker).

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.5 [wrongly foliated “1”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.5 [wrongly foliated “1”] Noc

Only half of the last folio survives, and the illustrations and captions are only partially visible and in very poor condition. The illustrations are related to the last two Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of indifference towards all conditioned formations and Knowledge of contemplation of adaptation.

The Visuddhimagga mentions two scenes that are depicted in the illustrations on this folio: below showing a divorced wife finding a new lover while the former husband remains equanimous; and above there are traders on a ship using a land-finding crow when the ship has gone off course, comparing this scene with the meditator’s finding of nibbāna through rejecting the occurrence of all formations.

The paleography of the text in Khmer/Khom script accompanying the illustrations suggests that it was written towards the end of the 18th century, especially the less rounded shape of the letter ว, which in the early 18th century and before usually looks very much like modern Khmer វ (Trent Walker, personal communication 1.7.2021).

Yogāvacara manuals, mostly from the 19th century, survive in manuscript collections in Thailand, but in library catalogues and publications they are often called Pritsana Tham, meaning “Dhamma puzzle” (H. Woodward, 2021). The method of reading Yogāvacara manuals from right to left - which in the Thai tradition appear as if they were read from back to front - may have brought about the description “Dhamma puzzles”. However, the format and direction of reading Yogāvacara manuals is similar to folding books found in the East and Central Asian traditions, where manuscripts from earlier periods survive, like for example the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, a 9th-century folding book with text in Chinese and Tibetan, or a Tangut folding book dating back to between the 10th to 13th century containing the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Yogāvacara manuals may be a central piece in the puzzle that is trying to explain how paper folding books and esoteric meditation methods came to mainland Southeast Asia.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

I would like to thank Trent Walker (Stanford University) and Irving Chan Johnson (National University of Singapore) for their invaluable advice and support with translations. This blog post is an extract of a full article published in the SEALG Newsletter 53.

 

13 December 2021

Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 2)

The previous blog post on Khmer manuscripts at the British Library focused on traditional Khmer manuscripts - palm leaves (sleuk rith) and folding books (kraing). In addition to these, the British Library holds documents containing text in Khmer script that were made by foreigners who travelled or lived for some time in Cambodia and Thailand, or who exchanged written correspondences with Cambodia.

Of special interest is a small collection of epigraphic notes by Henri Mouhot, dated 1860-61, together with Mouhot’s visas issued by the Siamese authorities that permitted him to travel in the country. These documents were initially given to the British Museum in 1894 by Mrs Mouhot, over 30 years after her husband’s death, and were transferred to the British Library after 1973 (Or 4736). They contain a “sacred Khmer alphabet” for Pali texts together with a short text sample, an “ordinary Khmer alphabet” with two text samples, copies of ancient Khmer stone inscriptions, together with Lao alphabets and text samples.

The copies of Khmer inscriptions that Mouhot produced are particularly interesting as some of the original stones may not exist anymore. They include copies of inscriptions at Angkor Wat, at Phanom Wan near Korat, at a temple ruin near Phimai, at Khamphaeng Phet, Battambang, Chaiyaphum, and Angkor Thom.

Henri Mouhot’s copy of a stone inscription found on an unspecified terrace at Angkor Thom
Henri Mouhot’s copy of a stone inscription found on an unspecified terrace at Angkor Thom. From the collection of epigraphic notes of Henri Mouhot; date of the copy 1860-61. British Library, Or 4736, f. 14 Noc

Another interesting manuscript is a European-style bound book with the title “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word”. It contains thirty folios of handwritten Khmer text with English translations, and it is not actually a dictionary, but a glossary. The Khmer text is written below the line, following South and Southeast Asian writing traditions, whereas the English translations were added above the Khmer text. An introductory note says that “This dictionary wants the insertion of about 4000 words and a fuller explanation in English, which will be done, if the work is to be printed.” However, it does not seem as if the work was ever completed or printed since the last nine folios were left blank. Nonetheless, this is an outstanding work which was compiled in 1830 by two persons: a learned Khmer speaker known as Chaou Bun, resident in Siam, and the German missionary Karl Gützlaff who lived in Bangkok from 1828-31. Gützlaff’s first wife, Maria Newell Gützlaff, an English missionary, teacher and translator of Chinese, may have assisted in some way with this collaborative work after she joined her husband in Bangkok in 1830. Together, they were also working on Bible translations into Thai, Khmer and Lao languages. The sudden death of Maria following the birth of twins and Gützlaff’s departure to Macau in 1831 was probably the reason why the glossary was never finished.

Page from the “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word” by Chaou Bun (Khmer text) and Karl Gützlaff (English translations), 1830
Page from the “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word” by Chaou Bun (Khmer text) and Karl Gützlaff (English translations), 1830. British Library, Or 13577, f. 14 Noc

The most remarkable manuscript containing Khmer text is a nearly 15 m long paper scroll from Japan. It contains a mid-19th century copy of a transcript made in 1818 of ten official documents and trade letters written in Japanese from the Gaiban Shokan (Foreign Correspondence) between the Japanese government (shogunate) and various foreign rulers or officials between the years 1604 and 1675. Among Dutch, Italian and Luzon letters are six Cambodian documents with translations dated to 1605-6. Whereas the Sino-Japanese script is immaculate, the translations of the six letters in Khmer script are almost illegible and are thought to have been copied by a Japanese scribe who was not familiar with Khmer.

19th-century copy of a letter in Khmer language dating back to 1605, in a Japanese scroll containing trade documents from 1604-75
19th-century copy of a letter in Khmer language dating back to 1605, in a Japanese scroll containing trade documents from 1604-75. British Library, Or 12979 Noc

Thanks to the digitisation of several Khmer manuscripts with funding from the Legacy of Henry Ginsburg, it was possible to work with scholars across the globe to identify the age and texts contained in some of these manuscripts. The scroll from Japan (above) is one such example: Mr Bora Touch kindly provided a transcript of nine lines of almost illegible text in Khmer language, dated 1605, seen in the image above:
[1] សារ នោ ឧកញា ឝ្រីអគ្គរាជ នុឧកញា ធម្មតេជោយេងខ្ញុមទាង២ ថ្វាយបំគម្ម មោកស្តេចញីបុ៎ន កុ
[2] កជូ ឫ យេងនោស្រុកកុម្វុជ្ជាធិបតី បានយលស្តេចញីបុ៎នសាបុរ្សប្រសេថ្ឋពៀកទេព
[3] ឲយតេងសំពោវខ្មេរ១ឲយចោ សពោវឈ្មោះស្សយីមុនកានោក
[4] ទោះស្តេចយីបុ៎នកុកចូ ស្រលេងយេងខ្ញុំទាង២ពិតឲយស្តេចកុកចូវ
[5] ឲយទំនេរចោសំពោវចេញទោវឆាបកុំប្បីឲយនោវអាយលេយ ឥតអិយៗនុថ្វាយ
[6]មោកស្តេចលេយ សោមមោកថ្វាយចៀម៥ ក្រមួនហាប១ ខាន់សាកករ ហា
[7] ប១ សាកកសរ ហាប១ កន្ទុុយកងោក១០ ស្បេកខលាតម្បោង
[8] ៥ថ្វាយមោកស្តេចចងទេងព្រហ្បនគំមោកឯក្រោយម្តងទៀតទេពតេំងត្រា
[9] ផ្កាមកថ្វាយ..
Mr Bora Touch and another Cambodian scholar, Mr Suon Sopheaktra, helped to identify a French translation of the letter (no. 2, p. 130), saying it was sent to the emperor of Japan by two Cambodian envoys, Okna Srei Akkarac and Okna Thommadecho. It documents the gift of textiles, beeswax, candy sugar, white sugar, peacock tail feathers and leopard skins to the emperor of Japan. The letter was sealed with a red lotus flower seal.

This kind of information is not only extremely useful for the description of the manuscript in the Library’s online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts, but also for historians, archaeologists, palaeographers and linguists who rely on these rare primary sources for their research.

It is hoped that through digitisation more facts about Khmer manuscripts will come to light, for example about a rather mysterious book bound in European style. It contains 203 drawings of scenes mainly from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka. Short Khmer captions written on each folio with pencil accompany the drawings. 157 pages are illustrated with scenes from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water-colour shades; pages 158-203 contain coloured drawings of scenes from the Vessantara Jataka and other Jatakas. The illustrations are in the style of the Thai Rattanakosin period and resemble reliefs of the Ramakien (Thai version of the Ramayana) at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok which were created during the reign of King Rama III (r. 1824-51). However, similar scenes from the Reamker (the Khmer Ramayana) can be found in murals at Vat Po in Siem Reap as well as on 12th-century bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat. Unusual for both Thai and Khmer painting styles is the sketching of the drawings with pencil before they were drawn with ink, as well as the shading of the black ink drawings with grey water colour. On the inside of the first unfoliated page, the word "Couronne" is written in pencil, which may be a French name. Judging from the acidity of the paper the creation period of the drawings is estimated to around 1880 to 1900. The glossy endpapers were decorated with a design called “Spanish wave” made in marbling technique which became increasingly popular in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Unfortunately, nothing else about the book is known, except that it was acquired from Sam Fogg, London, in 1994.

Rama reveals himself as an incarnation of Narayana. Illustration of a scene from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water colour on European paper, ca. 1880-1900
Rama reveals himself as an incarnation of Narayana. Illustration of a scene from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water colour on European paper, ca. 1880-1900. British Library, Or 14859, ff. 54-5 Noc

Endpaper with “Spanish wave” design in a book containing drawings of scenes from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka, ca. 1880-1900
Endpaper with “Spanish wave” design in a book containing drawings of scenes from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka, ca. 1880-1900. British Library, Or 14859 Noc

All Khmer manuscripts at the British Library have now been catalogued and can be searched in the Library’s online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts  which also links to manuscripts that have been digitised.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

Further reading
Current status of manuscript collections in Cambodia’s monasteries. Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge, École française d'Extrême-Orient (retrieved 16/10/2021)
Mouhot, Henri. Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860 (Vol. 1 of 2). London, 1864.
Niyada Laosunthon. Silā čhamlak rư̄ang Rāmmakīan : Wat Phrachēttuphonwimonmangkhalārām. Bangkok, 1996
Péri, N. Essai sur les relations du Japon et de l'Indochine aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles. Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. 1923, 23, pp. 1-136
Roveda, Vittorio: Wat Bo: Conclusion. (2017)

29 November 2021

Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 1)

The history of Khmer manuscripts is closely connected with the influence of Indian civilisation in Southeast Asia and particularly with the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism in the region. The earliest book format in the Khmer Empire – similar to that in South Asia – was the palm leaf bundle, sleuk rith. Although the oldest surviving examples of Khmer palm leaf manuscripts date back only to the late 17th century , there is evidence that they were in use in mainland Southeast Asia much earlier. The Khin Ba gold manuscript found at Sri Ksetra (kept at the National Museum, Yangon), crafted in the shape of palm leaves with holes, indicates that such manuscripts have been present in the region at least since the 5th century CE. The donation of Mahabharata, Ramayana and Purana manuscripts to a Hindu temple is documented in a pre-Angkorian stone inscription (Veal Kantel K.359) dating back to the early 7th century, and a 9th-century inscription (Prei Prasat K.279) by King Yasovarman prescribes the provision of blank palm leaves, lampblack and earth powder - for sanding down the leaves - to students. A statue in Khmer style of the 11th-12th century (kept at the National Museum, Bangkok) shows Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara holding in his four hands a conch, mala beads, a lotus bud and a palm leaf book, whereas a 12th-century bas-relief at Angkor Wat depicts an apsara holding such a manuscript.

First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century
First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century. Acquired by the British Museum from Edwards Goutier, Paris, on 6 December 1895. British Library, Or 5003, ff. 9-11 Noc

In the Cambodian manuscript tradition, two types of palm leaf manuscripts (sleuk rith) are known: the short format (vean), which tend to be manuals of mostly a secular nature written in Khmer language, whereas the long format (sastra) palm leaf manuscripts mostly contain Buddhist scriptures in Pali or bilingual Pali-Khmer languages, as well as sermons, legal writings and classical literary texts and poetry in Khmer language. The text on palm leaves is usually incised and then blackened.

In addition to the palm leaf manuscripts there are folding books (kraing), which were traditionally crafted with paper (snay) made from the bark of the Streblus Asper, a tree in the Mulberry family. The paper can be in a natural cream colour with text written in black ink, or it can be blackened and text written either with white chalk, a yellow gamboge ink or gold ink. Two main styles of Khmer script are found in manuscripts: aksar chrieng (slanted script) and aksar mul (round script).

Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey
Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey (transl. 'Oh my darling', literally 'Oh my golden soul') attributed to the Cambodian king Preah Reachsamphear (alias Sri Dhammoraja II), in chrieng script written in yellow gamboge ink. Cambodia, c. 1820-80. British Library, Or 5865, f.53 Noc

Despite decades of combined efforts by Cambodian and French scholars to preserve Cambodia’s manuscripts, the majority have disappeared: an estimated 80% were lost to war and destruction by the Khmer Rouge, looting, neglect due to post-war poverty and, more recently, mutilation to make souvenirs sold at tourist markets.

However, large numbers of manuscripts containing Pali or bi-lingual Buddhist texts in Khmer script have been preserved in Thailand. The country has strong ties with Khmer cultural heritage due to the fact that much of today’s Thailand geographically was once part of the former Khmer Empire. Hinduism and largely also Buddhism were introduced to the early Thai kingdoms Sukhothai and Ayutthaya via the Khmer Empire, and Thai rulers drew inspiration from the Khmer in the process of establishing their own distinctive script, literature, art, architecture, law and administration. For centuries, until the introduction of printing in the 19th century, it was common practice to copy manuscripts as a way of preserving Buddhist and Hindu sacred texts, and often such copies – including entire editions of the Pali Tipitaka – were sponsored by members of the royal family. Towards the end of the 18th century the Khmer script was adapted to accommodate Thai vowels and tonality in order to write texts in Thai language in Khmer script (called akson Khom in Thai). The copying of Khmer manuscripts reached a climax when George Cœdès was assigned to the Royal Vajirañāna Library in Bangkok (1916-18) and ordered copies of rare Khmer manuscripts and texts that were not known outside Cambodia.

Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language
Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language. Illustrations from the Bhuridatta Jataka in Phetchaburi painting style, Central Thailand, late 18th or early 19th century. British Library, Or 14526, f.5  Noc

The majority of manuscripts with text in Khmer script at the British Library originate from Central Thailand and contain bi-lingual Buddhist texts, yantra designs, medical treatises and glossaries. However, a small number of over a dozen manuscripts are almost certainly from Cambodia with text either in Pali or Khmer language. These include palm leaves as well as paper folding books.

A collection of Khmer literary texts in eleven volumes is a fine example of multi-volume kraing (folding books), made from cream-coloured mulberry bark paper (Or 16131/1-11). The text was written with black ink, and each volume has a red stamp either on the front or back cover (image below). Although none of the volumes contain a date, they are thought to be copies made between 1890 and 1925 from older manuscripts. In volume 3 the name of a temple, Vat Pudumm Vadhatiy, is mentioned. The volumes contain chapters from verse novels like “Hans yant” (vol. 1), “Tav rioen" (vols. 2-5, 8-10) perhaps composed by Ukna Cakri Kèv and Bana Ratn Kosa Kèv in 1837, “Cau Om”, a didactic text in verse consisting of admonitions from a father to his son on the art of political life and “Dambèk puon nak”, a tale in verse on the stupidity of four bald men (both vol. 6), "Laksanavans" (vol. 7), “Varanetta” (vol. 11). Some volumes also contain notes in Thai language, in a different hand, which may have been added later.

Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925
Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925. Acquired from Arthur Probsthain, London, in 2005. British Library, Or 16131/2 Noc

A charming, small kraing manuscript made from blackened mulberry bark paper (below) was acquired when former curator Henry Ginsburg’s collection of books and manuscripts was given to the Library following his sudden death in 2007. The text in Khmer language is written in gold ink, in Khmer chrieng script, but because the manuscript is incomplete it was not possible to identify the text for a long time.

Dr Trent Walker, from Stanford University, was able to establish that the text is a letter addressed to royalty, consisting of a set of prophesies for the future and admonitions to be followed. It references other prophetic (damnay) texts, including Ind damnay. The estimated period of its creation is between 1850 to 1925.

Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script.
Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script. Cambodia, c. 1850-1925. From Henry Ginsburg’s collection. British Library, Or 16827, f. 2  Noc

Traditional Khmer manuscripts like the examples presented in this blog post have been used as vehicles of knowledge for centuries and give us insights into the religious, literary and cultural traditions of the Khmer civilisation. The upcoming second part will look at some manuscripts containing Khmer texts that were created outside Cambodia.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

Further reading
Current status of manuscript collections in Cambodia’s monasteries. Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge, École française d'Extrême-Orient (retrieved 16/10/2021)
David, Sen and Thik Kaliyann. Palm leaves preserving history. Phnom Penh Post, 19 September 2015
Documentary film: Sleok Rith, My Life, directed by Leng Sreynich (2017)
Goodall, Dominic. What Information can be Gleaned from Cambodian Inscriptions about Practices Relating to the Transmission of Sanskrit Literature? Indic Manuscript Cultures through the Ages: Material, Textual, and Historical Investigations. Ed. by Vincenzo Vergiani, Daniele Cuneo and Camillo Alessio Formigatti. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2017, pp. 131-160
Sassoon, Alessandro Marazzi and Kong Meta. A ‘crime’ against local history: Cambodia’s lost manuscripts. Phnom Penh Post, 7 April 2017
Sureshkumar Muthukumaran. Speaking of palm-leaf and paper (2018)
Toshiya Unebe. Textual contents of Pāli Samut Khois. Manuscript Studies 2 (University of Pennsylvania, 2017), pp. 427-444 
Walker, Trent T. Unfolding Buddhism: Communal Scripts, Localized Translations, and the Work of the Dying in Cambodian Chanted Leporellos. Ann Arbor, 2018

15 November 2021

Transcribed from the boundary wall of the universe: Early Dhammasattha manuscripts in the Burmese collection of the British Library

The British Library’s Burmese collection holds some of the earliest extant dhammasattha manuscripts in the world. The dhammasattha, or “treatise on the law” is a genre of Buddhist literature prevalent in mainland Southeast Asia, written in Pali and in a range of vernacular languages including Burmese, Arakanese, Mon, Shan, Thai, Lao and Khmer. Although it is an integral part of the Theravada tradition, it is also historically related to Brahmanical dharmaśāstra texts written in Sanskrit.

Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript
Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript. The title “Dhamasat’” is flanked by two dragons. Manu kyay dhammasat, 19th century. British Library, Phayre Collection, Or 3447 A Noc

The dhammasattha was the primary legal framework for society, and originally applied to every Buddhist, both secular and monastic. It dealt with all aspects of the law, covering property and land, debt, wages, inheritance, slavery, marriage (including rape and adultery), assault, murder, theft, slander and the breaking of oaths. The most extensive tradition of dhammasattha comes from Myanmar, where some laws derived from the genre are still in force in the legal system today. Knowledge of dhammasattha was part of the education of rulers and administrators, monks, as well as any “good men”, and could be put to practice by any of these (therefore being mainly a male activity). The exclusive profession of a judge came into being only during the colonial period.

This blog draws extensively on Christian Lammerts’ recent authoritative publication Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (2018), as well as his article 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong and Arakan' (2015), in which he discusses at length the dhammasattha manuscripts found at the British Library.

The Origin of Law

A flying rishi
A flying rishi. Manu was one of the first rishis or men who had accomplished super-knowledge and super-powers, such as the capacity to fly. Scenes from Jataka stories, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 1r Noc

The story of how the dhammasattha text came into being has many versions. According to one standard narrative, it already existed at the beginning of the world. The very first king, Mahāsammata, had a renowned minister of great learning named Manu, whom he appointed to adjudicate disputes. Manu, however, soon found that it was difficult to rely only on witness testimony in passing judgment, and since he was fully accomplished in super-knowledge (abhiññā) and magical powers (iddhi), he used these to fly through the sky to the boundary wall of the universe. There the dhammasattha was written on the wall in Pali with letters each as big as a cow. Manu then proceeded to transcribe the law from the wall and presented the dhammasattha text to Mahāsammata.

The dhammasattha was therefore originally conceived of as cosmically derived, neither human nor divine. It had no author, but was intimately tied to writing. Although it was a natural part of the cosmos it was only accessible to those with magical power. It was also stated that the dhammasattha was so vast it could not be mastered by the average man. This is why, the tradition reports, scholars and wise men abridged it, sometimes translating it into vernacular languages. Although the dhammasattha had many textual variations its essential cosmic justification stayed the same until the 18th century when Burmese jurists began to question this theory of the origin of law.

Dhammavilāsa dhammasat

An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version
An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version. British Library, Or 11775. Noc

Textual references to dhammasattha begin to be found in 13th century Burmese inscriptions (although dhammasattha texts were likely in circulation earlier).  The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat (ဓမ္မသတ်, Burmese for dhammasattha) is understood to be the oldest known dhammasattha composition. Out of seven existing manuscript copies three are located at the British Library (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249, Or 11775). Of these, Add MS 12249 is particularly significant, as it provides the only secure date for the composition of the text. Although the manuscript is dated 1825 the scribal colophon states that the text was copied from an old manuscript dated to 1637/38.

The oldest physical copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat is from 1758 and is located at the Universities’ Central Library in Yangon. One of the British Library copies (Or 11775), however, is dated only 11 years later, to 1769.

The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat was widely transmitted and produced many significantly different versions, both in prose and verse, not only in Burmese, but also in Arakanese, Mon and Shan.

An Arakanese dhammasat

The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749
The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749. British Library, Murray Collection, Add MS 12254, f. 73rNoc

The British Library holds a rare early Arakanese dhammasat manuscript (Add MS 12254) from 1749, which has been fully digitised. Although related to the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat this version represents a distinct Arakanese dhammasattha tradition, prevalent in the area of Sittwe and Chittagong in 18th-19th centuries. This is the oldest extant Arakanese version and the westernmost of all dhammasatthas; it is also nine years older than the oldest extant Burmese version of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat.

The text is written with black ink on individual strips of yellow paper (instead of palm leaf). The Murray Collection, of which it is a part, contains the oldest Arakanese paper manuscripts in the world (dated between 1721-1784).

The text is written in “mra mā”, which before the end of the 18th century designated both Arakanese and Burmese languages (that are closely related). Its scribal colophon identifies it as the work of “the excellent teacher and monk Rāmi Shyaṅ.” In Arakan personal names were used instead of monastic titles, which is still tradition in Chittagong today.

Manusāra dhammasat and Manu kyay dhammasat

The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese nissaya commentary
The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese commentary (nissaya). British Library, Add MS 12241. Noc

The Manusāra dhammasat was also an early tradition with the composition of the text attributed to 1651-52. It was written by Tipiṭakālaṅkāra (a monk and Vinaya scholar) and Kaingza Manurāja (a lay judge), and for the first time links the dhammasattha geographically to Myanmar and chronologically to Burmese and Mon kings. The origin story is slightly transformed, with a seer named “Manusāra” responsible for transcribing the dhammasattha from the boundary wall of the universe. Manusāra was written in Pali verse, for the benefit of durability and easier memorisation, but also included an elaborate nissaya or commentary in Burmese. Manusāra is noteworthy for the many reformulations of the dhammasattha tradition it introduced, including a more explicit separation of lay and monastic jurisdictional boundaries.

The British Library holds the earliest known manuscript of the 1651–2 Manusāra dhammathat (Add MS 12241), copied in 1773.

The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions
The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions. British Library, Mss Man/Bur 3429. Noc

The Manu kyay was a much later abridgement and differed considerably from the aforementioned treatises. It was an anonymous compendium of laws derived from the dhammasattha tradition and compiled sometime prior to 1782. The British Library holds the second oldest extant Manu kyay manuscript (Man/Bur 3429), dated to 1789. The Many kyay was translated in English by Richardson already in 1847, and henceforth made this version well known.

Impartial justice

The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon
The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 63r. Noc

The dhammasattha advocated for universal justice and applied to all Buddhist beings, human and celestial. It was meant to be “impartial, like a pair of scales”.

The Dhammasat is like Sakka’s thunderbolt-weapon and the jewel-treasure of a cakkavatti king that grants all wishes. It is like the weapon of the lords and ministers who have been tasked with carrying out the duties of the country. It is like a carpenter’s ruler and a physician’s diagnostic manual. It is like an oil lamp that illuminates a dark room filled with precious gems. It is like an eye that can see whether an appearance is good or bad, and like an ear that can hear whether a sound is good or bad. It is like the rays of the moon that illuminate the four continents at night, and the rays of the sun that brighten them during the day. It is like the tusk of a powerful elephant. It is like mother’s milk.” (Add MS 12254, f. Ki v; trans. Lammerts 2018, 184–185)

Lammerts has noted that interestingly the Arakanese versions of the dhammasattha are much more tolerant than their Burmese counterparts by allowing the testimony of both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike (“those who take refuge [in the three jewels] and those who do not,” Lammerts 2015, 431), as well as local residents and foreigners (“people from places far away,” Lammerts 2015, 431), and of good and bad people regardless of their character and the scale of the dispute. The Burmese dhammasatthas, by contrast, specifically discriminate against non-Buddhists as untrustworthy witnesses.

Bad Judges

Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly
Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 131r Noc

Punishment for faulty judgement was extremely harsh from the very beginning, and was the reason why Manu was prompted to look for a cosmic explication of the law in the first place. Judges were expected to be truthful, avoid bias, refrain from bribes, and to examine the evidence comprehensively. They were particularly advised to avoid the four “bad courses” (agati): desire (favouring a relative, a friend or someone who has given presents), hatred (disfavouring an enemy or someone who doesn’t pay one respect), fear (letting someone go without consequences because they know someone in power, or because they threaten one’s property or oneself), and ignorance (inability to understand or discern the law). Should a judge adjudicate incorrectly or unjustly the “eight dangers” and “ten punishments” would befall him.

The eight dangers, which in this formulation are unique to Myanmar, are the following: 1) being swallowed by earth, 2) being struck by lightning, 3) being eaten by ogres, 4) being eaten by a tiger, 5) death by crocodile, 6) capsizing in a boat, 7) bleeding to death, 8) madness.

The ten punishments are paralleled in the Dhammapada: 1) violent, unhappy suffering, 2) loss of property, 3) destruction of the body, 4) severe, torturing disease, 5) loss of mind, 6) oppressive punishment from the ruler, 7) harsh accusations, 8) extermination of the family, 9) eradication of wealth, 10) houses burnt by lightning.

When such a person died they fell into the four unhappy destinies (hell realm, demon realm, ghost realm and animal realm) suffering greatly as ghosts. The texts describe such hell-ghosts in detail: “His body would grow enormous… His eyes were a cubit in diameter, his mouth the size of a needle. His body was red like the colour of blossoming flowers. His toenails and fingernails were as sharp as nails, and with them he incessantly gouged his flesh and cannibalised himself. He lost all strength from consuming himself, and was eventually carried away by the wind.” (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249; trans. Lammerts 2018, 81).

If the law was adjudicated correctly it would bring great prosperity to the country and foster the ability of humans to perform acts of merit. According to certain dhammasatthas, the benefit of such merit would be divided into six parts, one of which went to the ruler. In contrast, should the law be adjudicated incorrectly the country would be unable to achieve prosperity and happiness. The demerit produced would similarly be divided into six parts, with the ruler and the judge each personally receiving one.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

I would like to thank Christian Lammerts for his comments on this blog and for his expert opinion.

Further Reading:
Lammerts, D. Christian, Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018).
Lammerts, D. Christian. 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong in Arakan', Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (Dec. 2015), 407-444.
Mong, Sai Kham, ed., Shan Thammasat manuscripts (Tokyo: Mekong, 2012).
Huxley, Andrew. ‘The Importance of the Dhammathats in Burmese Law and Culture’, Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 1 (1997), 1-17.
Hla, Nai Pan, Eleven Mon Dhammasāt Texts (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies for Unesco, 1992).
Richardson, D. (trans.) The Damathat, or the Laws of Menoo (Maulmain, 1847)

11 October 2021

Chulamani Chedi, a celestial stupa

A stupa (Sanskrit for “heap”) is an important form of Buddhist architecture as a place of burial or a receptacle for sacred religious objects, which has its origins in the pre-Buddhist burial mounds of ancient India. The earliest stupa contained portions of Gotama Buddha’s relics, and as a result, these monuments began to be associated with the body and energy of the historical Buddha. In Thailand the term chedi (from Pali: cetiya) is more commonly used to refer to stupa as objects and places that keep the memory of the Buddha and his teachings alive. According to the Thai Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum Phra Ruang, a celestial stupa with the name Chulamani Chedi (Pali: Cūḷāmaṇi Cetiya) is situated in the Tavatimsa heaven (image below, left) where the god Indra (Sakka) and 32 deities reside.

The Chulamani Chedi (left), the pāricchattaka tree, celestial umbrella and Sudhamma assembly hall (right) in the Tavatimsa heaven, illustrated in a Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum, from Thailand, 19th century
The Chulamani Chedi (left), the pāricchattaka tree, celestial umbrella and Sudhamma assembly hall (right) in the Tavatimsa heaven, illustrated in a Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum, from Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 15245, ff. 7-8  noc

The Chulamani Chedi is mentioned repeatedly in the story of the Life of the Buddha: when Prince Siddhattha renounced worldly life, he cut off his hair which the god Indra placed in the celestial stupa. Long after his enlightenment, the Buddha ascended to the Tavatimsa heaven - where his mother had been reborn as a deva (deity) - to deliver his wisdom, or Dhamma.  This occurred during one rainy retreat (the period of the Buddhist Lent), in the celestial Sudhamma assembly hall, next to the celestial pāricchattaka tree and the Chulamani Chedi. Finally, after the Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana and the cremation of his physical remains, Indra descended from Tavatimsa heaven to fetch a relic of the Buddha and deposit it inside the Chulamani Chedi.

An exquisite illustration of the Chulamani Chedi with the monk Phra Malai, the god Indra and his spouse, in a Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, dated 1849
An exquisite illustration of the Chulamani Chedi with the monk Phra Malai, the god Indra and his spouse, in a Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 42  noc

Symbolising the Tavatimsa heaven, the Chulamani Chedi plays an important role in the popular story of the monk Phra Malai, who, as a result of his accumulated merit, was able to travel to the Buddhist hells and heavens. The creatures reborn in the hell realm asked him to urge their relatives in the human world to make merit. Phra Malai revealed his encounters to the laity and received eight flowers from a poor man as an offering, given with the hope of making merit and being reborn into a more fortunate existence. Phra Malai then traveled to the Tavatimsa heaven, where he met the god Indra to discuss ways to gain merit, including the accumulation of merit through listening to recitations of the Vessantara Jataka, the last Birth Tale of the Buddha. This scene is shown in the illustration above from a Thai folding book (Or 14838, dated 1849), in which Phra Malai is seen in front of Chulamani Chedi while conversing with the god Indra and his spouse, Indrani, both depicted with a red aura. Below is the same scene from another Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai (Or 6630, dated 1875), but here the monk is conversing with Indra and another male deity.

Phra Malai, Indra and a male deity in front of the Chulamani Chedi, illustrated in a folding book with extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, Central Thailand, 1875
Phra Malai, Indra and a male deity in front of the Chulamani Chedi, illustrated in a folding book with extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, Central Thailand, 1875. British Library, Or 6630, f. 43  noc

Although the composition of this prominent painted scene in Phra Malai manuscripts is quite standardised – always showing the monk and the god Indra with green skin in front of the celestial stupa – additional figures and objects can be included, like for example Indra’s spouse or, alternatively, a male deity, or several male and/or female deities. Chulamani Chedi is most frequently depicted as an emerald stupa with gold decorations on a white base. Sometimes the stupa is shown before a lavishly decorated background as in the example above. Often included are also the monk’s alms bowl, the poor man’s lotus offering, candles, incense, containers for pouring water for the transfer of merit to the deceased, as well as funeral banners. The latter can be either white or gold, with images of crocodiles or centipedes. In the Thai tradition, such banners are hung outside the home when someone has passed away, and they are carried in a procession to the Buddhist temple on occasion of the cremation of the deceased’s body. Occasionally, the banners can be in the shape of crocodiles and centipedes as in the manuscript below (Or 15207, dated 1882).

The Chulamani Chedi with a red aura to highlight the fact that it is housing relics of the Buddha. Illustration from a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 1882
The Chulamani Chedi with a red aura to highlight the fact that it is housing relics of the Buddha. Illustration from a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 1882. British Library, Or 15207, f. 38  noc

These elaborately decorated funeral and commemoration books with the story of Phra Malai were commissioned as an act of merit, sometimes on behalf of a dying or deceased relative, with the hope of rebirth in a heavenly realm. In the colophon of the manuscript above (Or 15207, fol. 91) it is mentioned that the patron’s wish was to be reborn in the heavenly realm of Phra Si An (Thai name for Buddha Metteyya) and to attain nibbana. It is believed that on each Buddhist holiday all celestial beings gather at the Chulamani Chedi, circumambulating it with lit candles to venerate the Buddha and his teachings.

The Chulamani Chedi depicted as a gold stupa in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, dated 1837
The Chulamani Chedi depicted as a gold stupa in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, dated 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f. 76   noc

The illustration above (Or 14710, dated 1837) shows the Chulamani Chedi in gold on a heavily decorated white base. It is situated in a walled compound with amber floor tiles. According to Pali Buddhist scriptures, Indra built walls around the Tavatimsa heaven so that mischievous or evil-minded asura, inferior deities, could not enter this realm. While Indra is shown kneeling in a respectful pose facing the Chulamani Chedi, Phra Malai is seated behind the stupa, pointing towards the entrance of the Tavatimsa realm through which Buddha Metteyya later joined the two of them to give predictions about the future of mankind. Above the entrance is a white banner with the crocodile image (Thai: makara) which in Thai Buddhist mythology functions as a guardian of gateways. Occasionally, one can see in these illustrations from the story of Phra Malai plain white banners and lanterns hanging from large poles with tiered umbrellas as in the example below (Or 14732, dated 1857). All these details reflect Thai funeral traditions.

Two illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi with white lanterns (left), white funeral banners (right), tiered umbrellas on top of poles, and worshippers in a Phra Malai manuscript from Central Thailand dated 1857
Two illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi with white lanterns (left), white funeral banners (right), tiered umbrellas on top of poles, and worshippers in a Phra Malai manuscript from Central Thailand dated 1857. British Library, Or 14732, f. 45   noc

Another feature that frequently appears in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi are images of hong (from Mon language: hongsa, and Sanskrit: haṃsa), mythical swan-like birds that represent the release of the deceased from the cycle of life. These images, usually in gold, are also attached to the poles that hold the funerary banners and/or tiered umbrellas (below).
In the Thai Buddhist tradition, it is advised to reflect on the Buddha and to visualise the Chulamani Chedi when someone is approaching death, with a banana leaf envelope containing a white flower, incense and a beeswax candle in their hands. This is called "creating one's own image", with the aim of creating an atmosphere of tranquility and peace in the mind. When a person is going to complete their present existence all attachments, loves and hates must be cut in order to enable a fortunate rebirth in the future and, eventually, attainment of nibbana.

Emerald Chulamani Chedi with images of gold hong birds and tiered umbrellas before a background with flower decorations in a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 19th century
Emerald Chulamani Chedi with images of gold hong birds and tiered umbrellas before a background with flower decorations in a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16007, f. 48   noc

Further reading
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Thai Tellings of Phra Malai: Texts and Rituals Concerning a Popular Buddhist Saint. Tempe: Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 1995.
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Envisioning the Buddhist Cosmos through Paintings: The Traiphum in Central Thailand and Phra Malai in Isan. Social Science Asia, Volume 3 Number 4, pp. 111-120 
Ginsburg, Henry, Thai Art and Culture: Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library, 2000
Heijdra, Martin, The Legend of Phra Malai. Firestone Library, Princeton University (2018)
Igunma, Jana, A Buddhist monk’s journey to heaven and hell. Journal of International Association of Buddhist Universities 3 (2012), pp. 65-82
Peltier, Anatole, Iconographie de la légende de Braḥ Mālay. Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient 76 (1982), pp. 63-76
Santi Leksukhum, Buddhism in Thai architecture: Stupa. Manusya Journal of Humanities vol. 4 no. 1 (2001), pp. 68-77
Traiphumikatha, Buddhist cosmology: The illustrated King Rama IX edition. Bangkok: Ministry of Culture, 2012

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections  ccownwork

 

20 September 2021

Kālāma Sutta and the premise of free thinking

Tipiṭaka or the ‘Three Baskets’ forms the canon of the teachings of the Buddha written in Pāli. The second ‘Basket’, Sutta Piṭaka, contains five Nikāyas or ‘collections’ of thousands of discourses attributed to the Buddha and his disciples. The Aṅguttara Nikāya, or ‘numerical discourses’ is divided further into eleven Nipāta or ‘books’, one of which includes the Kālāma Sutta (ကာလာမသုတ်) or the ‘Instruction of the Kalamas’ (Tika-Nipāta, Mahāvagga, Sutta no. 65, also known as the Kesamutti Sutta). The Kālāma Sutta is famous for encouraging free thinking and opposes dogmatism, fanaticism and any kind of intolerance. It expounds the idea that in order to gain clarity one has to also examine one’s mind and ideas.

Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century. Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

The British Library’s Myanmar (Burma) Collections hold several manuscripts of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Man/Pali 56 and Man/Pali 61 both contain the Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, including the Kālāma Sutta. They are beautifully manufactured palm leaf manuscripts, entirely gilded from the outside and placed between bevelled gilded wooden binding boards. These manuscripts belong to the Mandalay Palace Collection from 1886 and therefore date from the 19th century. Both manuscripts contain over 170 precisely incised palm leaves.

The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

In the Kālāma Sutta the Buddha is wandering around Kosala accompanied by a large community of monks (bhikkhus) and comes to Kesaputta town, inhabited by the Kalamas. The Kalamas ask the Buddha for advice. There are many holy and wise men who visit the town, each expounding their own doctrines and demolishing opposing ones. This leaves the Kalamas uncertain: which of these men speaks the truth?

The Buddha responds with these famous words:

"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.”

Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

The Buddha then goes on to explain that mental wellbeing can be acquired by overcoming greed, hate and delusion and goes through each of these in detail. The Kalamas agree that greed, hate and delusion can only cause harm and that the absence of these is thus beneficial. Following this the Buddha expounds that each person has the capacity to distinguish what causes harm and what causes happiness and therefore each person should follow their own judgement. Whatever one’s belief (or non-belief) in the hereafter, if one is free of hate and malice, that person will be able to find solace.

Distinguishing between what causes harm and what causes happiness is in the Kālāma Sutta not simply an act of reasoning or an intellectual exercise, it is the ability to distinguish what leads to the harm or benefit of not just oneself but of everybody.

The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.
The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.

Further reading:

"Kalama Sutta: The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry", translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

"Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Alfred Bloom, Critical Thinking in Buddhism: The Kalama Sutta. Shin Darma Net.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

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