Esoteric Theravada by Kate Crosby

This is a new book by Kate Crosby which addresses Esoteric Theravada. Southern Esoteric Buddhism - Wikipedia
Though, of course, this is not about Early Buddhist Texts, arguably it is relevant to understanding the creation of the modern meditation movements that many of us have learned from and been influenced by.

Esoteric Theravada - The Story of the Forgotten Meditation Tradition of Southeast Asia
By Kate Crosby

Theravada Buddhism, often understood as the school that most carefully preserved the practices taught by the Buddha, has undergone tremendous change over time. Prior to Western colonialism in Asia—which brought Western and modernist intellectual concerns, such as the separation of science and religion, to bear on Buddhism—there existed a tradition of embodied, esoteric, and culturally regional Theravada meditation practices. This once-dominant traditional meditation system, known as borān kammaṭṭhāna, is related to—yet remarkably distinct from—Vipassana and other Buddhist and secular mindfulness practices that would become the hallmark of Theravada Buddhism in the twentieth century. Drawing on a quarter century of research, scholar Kate Crosby offers the first holistic discussion of borān kammaṭṭhāna, illuminating the historical events and cultural processes by which the practice has been marginalized in the modern era.


No it’s not, unless you are a follower of Dhammakaya.

Wat Dhammakaya spends a lot of money getting academics to link its practices to Yogavacara Buddhism and other kinds of minority “esoteric” Theravada. It’s a shame, because they are obfuscating important scholarship.


Thanks for that comment @Coemgenu. The history of Theravada is very confusing, given the various reforms and movements over the past couple of centuries. Clearly, practices on the ground in Thailand and other countries are extremely varied. The difficulty is determining which practices (and which versions of the history) are useful.


Thanks for the link, this is an important and often misunderstood field. It’s too easy to think of “Theravada” as the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Pali canon, but the reality is far more complex.

Living in Thailand, you come to know of all sorts of weird and wonderful meditation traditions. It’s a hugely creative culture.

FWIW, Richard Dixey, who has spent much of his life among Tibetan lamas and gurus, once told me that traveling in Theravada countries convinced him that Theravada was the only true esoteric Buddhism left. In the Tibetan tradition, all the so-called “esoteric” practices are codified, written down, and incorporated in the mainstream. In Theravada they are still in the oral tradition, unknown except for those in the region.


Dhammakaya in fact employs an esoteric practice as its central meditation subject.

The name Dhammakaya itself means mind-made dhamma (viz idealized) body:

1 Like

Yes, all sorts of amazing things in Thailand!

Perhaps Hamlet’s advice is relevant:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


Is it just me or has the before-linked Wikipedia article for “dharmakāya” changed a lot recently? I don’t remember the Pali Canon sections being so polemical and seeming to have something to prove.

Looking at the page history, on Nov 9, a user added some detail connecting Wat Phra Dhammakāya to the Wikipedia page for “Dharmakāya” as well as changed material in the “Theravāda” subsection for that page. There was a previous round of editing to do with Wat Dhammakāya from the same user earlier on that page in September.


Oh come on. Even the official Dhammayut (reform) order chanting book has visualization practices, mandalas, protection spells, deity invocations…

Dhammakaya has a full-time team to manage their Wikipedia articles, create fake sites, etc. To keep up their credibility in the Wikipedia community, they also go around adding to other articles about Buddhist topics too, so just be careful out there…


I live in Chiang Mai now, for part of the year. This creativity and vibrance has become such an important part of my life, and antidote to so much of my life that is wearying in the west. At Wat Umong I have the history and the ancient traditions, and one of the best walking meditation salas in Thailand. I can go then on the way home to the Maya mall, and see the large Ganesh shrine at the entrance. And now with a partner in Chiang Mai, she is from a Hill Tribe community with deity, animist, and other ancient practices as part of her traditional wat- based Buddhism. The meditation scene in Chiang Mai is diverse and there are just so many interesting people involved in variants of Buddhism, yoga and meditation to make the scene in Thailand just so exciting.


I have noticed this. I have so far refrained from wading into this fight, preferring to stick to editing wikipedia articles that I actually find interesting. But it is troubling, wiki is the sixth most visited site and it is an authority for many. Even though there is much criticism of Dhammakaya, the wiki article on Wat Phra Dhammakaya has little to nothing about it. It cites a lot of papers in Thai though and it sounds objective but clearly has a pro Dhammakaya stance.

See: Wat Phra Dhammakaya - Wikipedia

Just wondering, if one wanted to add a criticisms section, which scholarly sources would be best for citing ?


It might be prudent to do it over PM in case they are watching this site waiting to put their efforts into cancelling any public figures who comment negatively.

They almost owned the Thai State Samgha, as I’m sure people are aware. Like Scientology, SGI, and Waharakists, they are not to be triffled with if you are in a position to be canceled. The most dangerous dog rules the junkyard with the threat of his teeth.

How many dangerous dogs are reborn as gods? None. How many dangerous dogs acheive nibbāna? None. But they rule the junkyard.


Review of “Esoteric Theravada”:

The cover illustration is related to the stages of meditation, since the fourth (or first) figure is holding a glowing object:


When the mind is concentrated at the center of the body, the pathama-magga, or dhamma sphere (duangtham), may be seen by a wholesome person, but is not seen by an unwholesome person or those who lack sufficient concentration powers, according to Dhammakaya teachings.[68] The first sighting of this “bright crystal sphere” is considered as an important first step.[68] The first stage of this path Luang Pu Sodh simply called the ‘beginning of the path’ (Thai: ปฐมมรรค, romanized: pathommamak).[53] The meditation teachers state that with sufficient skill, or if there is an adequate store of merit, the meditator sees this path as a “glowing sphere”.[58] According to Tanabe, this state is also described as the arising of bright light at the center of the body.[70] According to Skilton and Choompolpaisal, this practice sometimes leads to the pīti state, or the temporary experience of goosebumps or other physical responses.[71]

“From this arises a brighter sphere, the sila sphere, followed by an even brighter and more refined sphere of samadhi (mental concentration). According to Jayamaṅggalo, the former abbot of Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, this is the first stage of absorption, from which insight meditation can be started.[68] Next comes the pañña (wisdom, insight) sphere, and then the sphere of liberation (vimutti). Finally, the “sphere of knowledge and vision of liberation” (vimutti-ñanadassana) arises – a term normally used for Arahatship, according to the Dhammakaya meditation teachings.[72]”—Wikipedia

1 Like

It’s from a series of illustrations commissioned by King Taksin to accompany his edition of the Traibhūmikathā, a Thai cosmological treatise. It consists in a stylized depiction of the eight kinds of ariyapuggala.

You can seen the full set here.


Yes but it’s related to Boran Kammathana and seems to read from bottom to top, ie the figure holding a white object at the abdomen is the arahant, the horizontal bars representing fetters.

"When the practitioner concentrates further on the vimutti-ñanadassana, a series of eight inner bodies arise from this sphere, which are successively more subtle, and come in pairs, starting with “a crude human form” (panita-manussakaya).[73][58][74][note 6] Each of these bodies is preceded by several spheres of light.[76][73] The eight inner bodies begin in a form identical to the meditator, but are more refined.[77][78] After the crude human body, there arises the “refined human body” and then the “crude celestial body” and the “refined celestial body”. After the meditator attains the refined celestial body, this gives way to the “crude form Brahma body”. This is followed by “refined form Brahma body”, “crude formless Brahma body” and “refined formless Brahma body”. Once again, like previous inner bodies, these bodies have a normal and refined form.[79]

According to Mackenzie, “[t]his series of [four] bodies seems to broadly correspond to the meditative development up to the four jhanas”, through them, and then the four formless meditation attainments.[80] The final four of these inner pairs are called the Dhammakayas and are equated with the four stages of enlightenment, leading to the final stage of enlightenment (arahant).[78] In between is the ‘change-of-lineage’ (Pali: gotrabhū) intermediary Dhammakaya state.[73][81][note 7] According to Newell, quoting Jayamaṅggalo, this state is the ninth inner body and is characterized by “the lap width, height and sphere diameter [of] 9 meters.”[78] The size of the Dhammakaya bodies increase, as the meditator progresses through these intermediate stages, from a height and lap-width of 9 meters or more to 40 meters or more.[83] According to Harvey, the visualized inner bodies in Dhammakaya teachings are said to appear like Buddha-images,[note 8] followed by bodies of Noble persons, finally that of an arahant’s radiant Dhammakaya form within allowing the experience of Nirvana.[84]"—Wikipedia


Can I ask for the basis for this? Not doubting, it seems exactly like what Dhammakaya would do, just curious.

One of the many problems with them is that they are one of the few sources of funding for Buddhist academic studies overseas, and western academics can be very naive about the actual role and nature of Dhammakaya. Which, in case anyone is unclear, is a creepy criminal pyramid scheme masquerading as a Buddhist temple.

I notice from the wikipedia page that their abbot Dhammajayo is still on the run, since 2017. :neutral_face:


Original research :grimacing:

When I was staying there (and didn’t yet know their deal but started to get suspicious) I tried looking up info online… and noticed a … biased tone. After digging around the Wikipedia edit history, I identified a few accounts that seemed to be doing this polishing work. Wondering how they got trusted by the Wikipedia mods, I stalked their history and noticed many months of edits all over Buddhist Wikipedia.

I later, tactfully, asked my host (a longtime Dhammakaya member) about their digital marketing and he confirmed that they have a team dedicated to “correcting misinformation” online.

I didn’t keep good notes and don’t particularly feel like digging through the Wikipedia logs again, but that part at least is publicly available online.


Thanks, that’s interesting. This isn’t wikipedia, original research is not discouraged! But yeah, this is exactly the kind of thing they do all the time, and why in any superficial look it’s easy to frame them as just a reformist group unfairly attacked.


How many people here have read “The Esoteric Teaching of Wat Phra Dhammakāya?” by the former Ven Mettanando – now Dr. Laohavanich?

All this business about “spheres” is discussed in there, including the crystal sphere of nibbāna. Then comes the Dhammakāyas of Light and Darkness etc.

Wat Dhammakāya’s esoterica resembles Manichaeism moreso than any Vajrayāna-like Buddhism they may or may not have inherited from pre-reform times.

Their threefold world is arguably more indebted to Gnosticisms than anything. Lightworld, darkworld, in-between grayworld, etc. Evil materiality, good disembodiment, etc.

I would very, very, very much recommend this text to anyone who wants to learn about Wat Phra Dhammakāya.


I’ve read the above article, and what strikes me the most is the absence of the Buddha Dhamma.
What does the Buddha teach about esoteric practices? My impression is that the EBT’s are quite explicit about investing Right Effort into only those mind states that are conducive to the path, that lead to abandoning the unwholesome and fostering the wholesome.

While the MInd may be a beguiling playground, it is full of cul-de-sacs, wrong turns, dead ends etc. If you want to move beyond the labyrinth, skillful means are required. Skillful means in this instance are really about knowing where to place attention and expend effort, thus following the path to Liberation.

Regarding Mind states, this involves the 8 jhanas… a very explicit process, that conditions the Mind states, leading to Nibbana.