Thai Buddhism and "original mind" type concepts

In the old discussion about Bhikkhu Analayo’s paper about that infamous “radiant mind” passage, there was an old Youtube video posted of Bhante Sujato discussing the “original mind” concept in Thai Buddhism, and specifically in the Thai Forest Tradition.

This topic is fascinating from a number of different angles. As mentioned, it’s very difficult to get a sense of what someone actually means when they are discussing rarefied states of mind or meditation phenomena like that. When someone uses a term like “consciousness” or “mind,” what they actually mean can vary quite a lot.

Then there is the historical matter of how these interpretations entered Thai Buddhism. There was some mention in the video about Mahayana in Thailand in the past. Indian Mahayanists were known to be propagating similar ideas in Southeast Asia. Some translators like Samghabara, Mandrasena, and Paramartha, moved from India to Funan, and then eventually into China.

Paramartha in particular propagated Tathagatagarbha type school of Yogacara. Those ideas eventually also took hold in China and became codified in the Chan Buddhism. It would also not surprise me if later Chan Buddhists such as Xuyun had some influence in the early 20th century. For example:

In 1907 (age 68), at Thailand’s Longquan temple, while delivering discourse on Pumenpin (the Universal Gate Chapter of the Lotus Sūtra) following his discourse on Dizang-jing (the Earth Repository Sūtra), [Xuyun] entered into samādhi, forgetting about his speech. He stayed in concentration for nine days, which made a stir in the capital city of Thailand.

All of this is really just to ask if, in 2021, we know any more about what those connections were?

Is it any clearer today how those ideas about the mind entered the Thai Forest Tradition?

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I went to Thailand after living in India for a time, where I had been practicing Tibetan Buddhism. When I was staying in a forest monastery in Thailand I was blown away to hear Kruba Ajahns describing the experience of mind/consciousness the same way Tibetans did: vast, limitless, radiant, etc. I believe the word the ajahns used for mind/consciousness was “citta”. I tried asking Ajahn Dun about it, but was told to just get back to watching my breath.


In general, there are two sources of views: scholars confidently misunderstanding texts and meditators confidently over-generalizing an experience. Both are dangerous. We need theoretical and practical knowledge (as well as humility!) to avoid such mistakes. In short, we have to be circumspect: both before we declare and before we criticize.


My Zen master once remarked that the radiant mind is the “without beginning” Avijja itself.


Just to clarify, I’m asking about the history of this concept in the Thai Forest Tradition. For example, whether any studies have been published that document a link between those ideas and earlier Mahayana influences.


Since the Thai forest tradition is so new, and generally speaking is so decidedly non-scholastic, it seems unlikely. At least such a study wouldn’t come from the Thai forest tradition itself. The Thai forest masters will not have written anything about it. They only talk about their own experience of citta that results from their practice. However, whether or not some academic has tried to do that is another matter. I’m not sure how many sources they would have to draw on for such a study, though. I think an academic would have to scour Thailand for as many palm leaf manuscripts they could find, and hope to find something in them that gives a hint about how the mind was talked about by meditators hundreds of years ago. It seems unlikely that such manuscripts would be found, though. Based on what I’ve heard, those palm leaf manuscripts mostly contained topics like astrology, medicine, Pali grammar, and Jataka tales.

This is an entertaining talk about palm leaf manuscripts by someone who travels the world cataloging them: Justin McDaniel, 'Tracing Pali and Thai Manuscripts from Japan to Ireland' 02-17-17 - YouTube

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It’s my understanding that this was more or less Ajahn Maha Booa’s view as well.