Sunday, August 31, 2008

The peaceful teaching of Theravada in busy Bangkok

Living dhamma

The peaceful teaching of Theravada in busy Bangkok


Bangkok has long been a hub for people travelling throughout Southeast Asia. It offers things both good and not-so-good to the visitor, although Theravada Buddhism - the cultural cornerstone of Thailand and a source of tremendous pride for Thais - has not been proactive in teaching the international community about its many offerings.

Need for an alternative

While Thailand's temples shimmer majestically in photos, non-Thais interested in the peaceful teachings those temples enshrine are often left in the dark. The buildings are beautiful and inviting, but the teachings and principles of enlightenment they hold remain a mystery to most non-Thais, many of whom would like to know more. There are many reasons, but a major one is the language barrier.

For this reason, last year a small group of us decided to launch an experiment aimed at presenting those precious teachings in English to local expatriates and foreign visitors.

Accordingly, the international community of Bangkok is invited to attend a series of dhamma talks in English which will explore one of Thailand's most precious gems, called: "Theravada Buddhism. Living Dhamma". The series will take place on Thursdays from Aug 21 to Oct 9. The talks will cover topics on Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation, and promise to be easily understood by newcomers, while offering fresh insights into topics that regular mediators will find interesting and challenging.

Rites, rituals minimised

"The Living Dhamma" series will run for eight consecutive Thursdays. This means that topics covered will be explored methodically and thoroughly.

The rites and rituals surrounding dhamma, as taught in Theravada Buddhism, will be kept to a minimum. Instead, the focus will be on how the teachings can be brought to practical and peaceful uses.

The talks will examine how the various methods of reflection and meditation can be used to console one's thoughts and feelings, offering a taste of the meditative peace that lies beyond.

In fact, there is a pure, psychodynamic aspect of the teachings that resides beneath the rituals, and this has been of growing interest to the West, especially in psychology.

For example, more than 17,000 people have completed the University of Massachusetts' "Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction" programme, which utilises many of the techniques found in Theravada and Zen practices.

One aspect of the programme scrutinises these teachings under the microscope of science. The course founder, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, maintains close ties to the Buddhist roots of the course through the Mind and Life Institution - a group that "explor(es) the relationship of science and Buddhism".

However, how much can science cut away with "Occam's Razor" before losing sight of the spiritual goal of enlightenment?

Training the mind

The mind, by nature, is universal and warrants investigation. And while Buddhists appreciate the scientific interest from psychology, Theravada Buddhism focuses on more than just stress reduction.

Training the mind to step back and observe itself strips the "self" identity to its bare roots. Our parents and teachers never really taught us to notice this, enthralled as they were with exam scores.

This quiet, yet awake, mind is where the mind unifies. Kayagatasati Sutta observed that a monk must seek to be: "Heedful, ardent and resolute, and any memories and resolves related to the household life (should be) abandoned, and with their abandoning his mind (should) gather and (be) quieted inwardly, (be) unified and centred."

At the talks, participants will look at modern research and how it relates to dhamma topics, says co-organiser Dr Holly Dugan, a former professor of East-West Psychology at Abac University.

Dugan says, "I think the crowd will give us some ideas about future topics, but Buddhist Psychology is a natural [topic]. Oh, and lots of people are interested in Christianity and Buddhism, a subject I've chewed on a bit."

So far, participants have presented a wide range of ideas for discussion. With knowledge of Pali terminology and Buddhist learning, participants show just how far the West has come in its understanding of Asian religion and thought.

Bangkok 'sangha'

Several participants come from backgrounds in yoga and spiritual massage. Others come from more academically rooted philosophical and psychological backgrounds.

The universal appeal of Theravada Buddhism can be seen through the diversity of persons who gather for the talks. However, attendees are not required to believe in any specific faith or be a member of any specific group. The more diverse the crowd, the more interesting the discussions can be.

Over the next several weeks. we will take a detailed look at these teachings. Hopefully, there will be as many answers as questions, and in the near future we can expand the format to include more informal gatherings.

Indeed, since forming last year, many lasting friendships have grown in our Little Bangkok Sangha - which is part of the larger plan. The word "sangha" originates from Pali and translates roughly as "community"; but in a broader sense it can mean a group of like-minded people.

The upcoming talks will be held at Wat Yannawa, which is a three-minute walk from Saphan Taksin Skytrain Station. They will run from 6:30pm to 8:15pm every Thursday beginning Aug 21 and will continue for eight weeks.

The format will include a dhamma talk, simple meditation instruction for those who do not have an established regimen, meditation, and Q&A. All the events are free of charge, and no reservation is needed.

For more information, visit . For a list of discussion topics each week, visit .

Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu is a British national who was ordained in 1996 in Thailand. He has a BA in Buddhist Psychology from Mahaculalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University ('Monk's University', Bangkok). He is a co-founder of 'The Living Dhamma' series of discussions and workshops in English.

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