A puzzling fragment of an 18th-century Thai meditation manual

Yogavacara meditation practices, also called Boran Kammathanawere an integral part of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia until the monastic reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries discouraged esoteric meditation practices. Yogavacara Manuals incorporate teachings from canonical and post-canonical Buddhist literature: for example, meditations on guilt, kasiṇa meditation, contemplation of ten forms of knowledge.

This article presents an 18th century manuscript fragment from Ayutthaya (Central Thailand), which has intrigued Thai curators at the British Library, past and present, because of its illustrations, painting style and format. unusual.

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

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

Forms of knowledge

Illustrations relate to Yogavacara meditations on the ten forms of knowledge, which are mentioned briefly in the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha, a Pali text attributed to Ācariya Anuruddha who is said to have lived between the 8th and 12th centuries. In essence, the content is based on Buddhaghoṣa’s Visuddhimagga, which only mentions eight forms of knowledge, but elaborates in detail on the graphic descriptions associated with them. The ten forms of knowledge describe the stages of insight that a meditator goes through on the way to nibbāna.

The illustrations are in the Ayutthaya style of painting with a strong Mon influence. The minimal use of gold and generous use of orange, the execution of mountains and rocky outcrops in the “Chinese” style with a light watery wash, the use of Krajang Pattyan motif, and the depiction of a round halo around the monk’s head distinguish the style of painting as Ayutthayan from 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 such as 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). It is possible that the artist is Mon, or that the manuscript was produced in a local Mon community in the kingdom of Ayutthaya.

If we assume that the order of paintings illustrating the ten forms of knowledge is consistent with the order of descriptions in known Pali textual sources, this manuscript should be viewed from right to left. The manuscript had previously been leafed through in pencil starting with “1” in the upper left corner, as one usually reads a Thai folding book in portrait orientation. However, this is incorrect.

Manual Yogavacara. Photo credit: British Library, Or 14447 first folio

The illustrations in the first folio, of which only half remain, relate to the first two forms of knowledge: knowledge of calm and insight (sammathadassana-ñāṇa) and knowledge of the rise and fall (udayavyayādassana-ñāṇa).

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

Manual of Yogāvacara, British Library, Or 14447 folio two

The illustrations on the following folio represent the third and fourth forms of knowledge: the knowledge of rupture (bhangānudassana-ñāṇa) and Knowing what to fear (bhayatupaṭṭhāna-dassana-ñāṇa).

Below, representing the Knowledge of Disturbance, a red-haloed monk faces a corpse by the river. The monk touches the corpse with his stick. The illustration at the top represents the knowledge of what is to be feared.

A red-haloed monk crosses his hands in front of his chest facing a corpse and a lion emerging from a cave. The Thai-Pali text above says: “The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the bhaiyavipasanāñāṇa sees saṃsāra also frightening, 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 tries to escape the rājasīha(translation by Trent Walker).

Manual Yogavacara. Photo credit: British Library, Or 14447 folio three

In the middle of the manuscript (“three leafs”) two illustrations relate to the fifth and sixth forms of knowledge: knowledge of evil (ādīnavanudassana-ñāṇa) and knowledge of disgust (nibbidānudassana-ñāṇa).

The image below is related to the knowledge of evil, representing a monk with a red halo, which points to a burning house. The Thai-Pali text says: “The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the ādinaviñāṇa sees saṃsāra and run away, just like [someone in] a burning house is trying to escape from the house.

At the top is a monk with a red halo pointing to a bird, behind him is an alms bowl, a forest monk’s meditation umbrella and a water container. It represents the knowledge of disgust and the Thai-Pali legend said “The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the nibhidāyañāṇa sees saṃsāra and is very disgusted by it, just like a royal swan that was once in a clean forest but one day flies and ends up in a village of [evil-doers?]…like the royal swan that gets disgusted and tries to run away” (translation by Trent Walker).

Manual Yogavacara. Photo credit: British Library, Or 14447 folio four

The illustrations on the fourth folio represent the seventh and eighth forms of knowledge: the knowledge of the desire for freedom (muccitukamyatādassana-ñāṇa) and knowing how to think (paṭisaṅkhānupassanā-ñāṇa).

Below is a monk with a red halo pointing to Rāhu, the moon swallowing demon, which relates to knowing the desire for freedom. The Thai-Pali text says: “The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the muñcitukāmāyañāṇa trying to break free saṃsārajust as the moon seeks freedom from Rāhu” (translation by Trent Walker).

Above is a monk with a red halo, seated under his umbrella, pointing to a man with a red halo, who has caught a snake and puts it in a fishing basket. This relates to the knowledge of reflection. The Thai-Pali caption for this illustration in the manuscript reads: “The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the paṭi[saṅ]khārañāṇa has the means to seek freedom from saṃsāra, just like a man… [illegible] …. a cobra and grabs its neck and seeks to be freed from that serpent” (translation by Trent Walker).

Manual Yogavacara. Photo credit: British Library, Or 14447 folio five

Only half of the last folio has survived, and the illustrations and captions are only partially visible and in very poor condition. The illustrations relate to the last two forms of knowledge: knowledge of indifference to all conditioned formations and knowledge of contemplation of adaptation.

center piece

The Visuddhimagga mentions two scenes which are depicted in the illustrations in this folio: below showing a divorced woman finding a new lover while the former husband remains equanimous and above there are traders on a ship using a raven of search for land when the ship left. of course, comparing this scene with the discovery of the meditator of nibbāna rejecting the occurrence of all formations.

Paleography of the Khmer/Khom script text accompanying the illustrations suggests it was written around the end of the 18th century, particularly the less rounded shape of the letter “ว”, which in the early 18th century and earlier generally looks very similar like modern Khmer “វ” (Trent Walker, personal communication).

Yogāvacara textbooks, mostly from the 19th century, survive in manuscript collections in Thailand, but in library catalogs and publications they are often referred to as Pritsana Thammeaning “Dhamma puzzle” (H. Woodward, 2021). The reading method Yogavacara right-to-left textbooks – which, in the Thai tradition, appear to have been read from back to front – may have given rise to the description “Dhamma puzzles”.

However, the format and reading direction Yogavacara manuals is similar to the folding books found in East and Central Asian traditions, where manuscripts from earlier periods survive, such as the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, a 9th-century fold-out book with text in Chinese and Tibetan, or a Tangut fold-out book dating between the 10th century and 13th century containing the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Yogavacara Manuals may be a central piece of the puzzle that attempts to explain how paper folding books and esoteric meditation methods arrived in mainland Southeast Asia.

This article first appeared on the British Library Asian and African studies Blog.

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