Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro
Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro (10 October 1884 – 3 February 1959), also known as Phramongkolthepmuni (Thai: พระมงคลเทพมุนี), was the abbot of Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen from 1916 until his death in 1959.[note 2] He founded the Thai Dhammakaya meditation school in the early 20th century. As the former abbot of Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, he is often called Luang Pu Wat Paknam, meaning 'the Venerable Father of Wat Paknam'. He became a well-known meditation master during the interbellum and the Second World War, and played a significant role in developing Thai Buddhism during that period. He is considered by the Dhammakaya Movement to have rediscovered Vijja Dhammakaya, a meditation method believed to have been used by the Buddha himself. Since the 2000s, some scholars have pointed out that Luang Pu Sodh also played an important role in introducing Theravada Buddhism in the West, a point previously overlooked.
Luang Pu Sodh was born as Sodh Mikaewnoi on 10 October 1884 to a relatively well-off family of rice merchants in Amphoe Song Phi Nong, Suphan Buri, a province 102 km west of Bangkok in central Thailand. His father was called Ngen and his mother Soodjai. He received part of his schooling in the temple of his uncle, a Buddhist monk, when he was nine years old. He therefore became familiar with Buddhism from an early age. He also showed qualities of being an intelligent autodidact. When Sodh's uncle moved to Wat Hua Bho, he took Sodh with him to teach him further. After a while his uncle left the monkhood, but Ngen managed to send Sodh to study with Luang Por Sub, the abbot of Wat Bangpla. This is where Sodh learnt the Khmer language. When he was thirteen years old, he finished his Khmer studies there and returned home to help his father. Father Ngen ran a rice-trading business, shipping rice from Suphanburi to sell to rice mills in Bangkok and Nakhon Chai Si District. At the age of fourteen, Ngen died, and he had to take responsibility for the family business, being the first son. This affected him: thieves and other threats brought home to him the futility of the household life, and at the age of eighteen, he desired to be ordained as a monk. He had to take care of his family first though, and saved up money for them to be able to leave behind after he would become a monk. The biography of Wat Phra Dhammakaya says that he had to calculate the rate of inflation for this, and work harder than before, but finally managed to gather enough funds after four years.
When Sodh was twenty-two years old, he was ordained at Wat Songpinong in his hometown and was given the Pāli language monastic name Candasaro. Phra (phra meaning 'monk, venerable') Candasaro studied both under masters of the oral meditation tradition as well as experts in scriptural analysis, which was uncommon during that period. In his autobiographical notes, he wrote that he practiced meditation every day, from the first day following his ordination. In his first years as a monk, he had difficulty obtaining food on traditional alms rounds, where monks go house to house looking for laypeople to offer them food. This hardship led him to resolve that he would one day built a kitchen for monastics, who would then enjoy convenience in the spiritual life. After his third rainy season (third year after monk's ordination), Phra Candasaro traveled far and wide in Thailand to study scriptures and meditation practice with teachers from established traditions. He learnt about a broad range of things, and was in the habit of respecting all spiritual things. He studied scriptures at Wat Pho and learnt about meditation at eight centers, including Wat Ratchasittharam. At Wat Ratchasittharam he studied a visualization meditation method with Luang Por Aium, and experienced a development in meditation regarded as important, when he perceived a sphere of light.[note 3] Buddhist Studies scholars Kate Crosby and Catherine Newell believe Wat Ratchasittharam to be crucial in Luang Pu Sodh's development of Dhammakaya meditation.
Although Phra Candasaro had studied with many masters, and had mastered many important Pali texts, he was not satisfied. He withdrew himself in the more peaceful area of his hometown twice. Some sources state he also withdrew himself in the jungles to meditate more, but Newell doubts this. In the eleventh rains retreat (vassa) after his ordination, in 1916, he stayed at Wat Botbon at Bangkuvieng, Nonthaburi Province. Wat Botbon was the temple where he used to receive education as a child. As seen from Luang Pu Sodh's autobiographical notes, he reflected to himself that he had been practicing meditation for many years and had still not understood the essential knowledge which the Buddha had taught.
Thus, on the full-moon day in the tenth lunar month of 1916, he sat down in the main shrine hall of Wat Botbon, resolving not to waver in his practice of meditation. He meditated for three hours on the mantra sammā araham, which means "righteous Absolute of Attainment which a human being can achieve." Then "his mind [suddenly] became still and firmly established at the very centre of his body," and he experienced "a bright and shining sphere of Dhamma at the centre of his body, followed by new spheres, each "brighter and clearer." According to Luang Pu Sodh, this was the true Dhamma-body, or Dhammakaya, the "spiritual essence of the Buddha and nibbana [which] exists as a literal reality within the human body," and the true Self (as opposed to the non-self).[note 4] According to Mackenzie, "Luang Phaw Sot sought to relate his breakthrough to the Satipatthana Sutta. He interpreted a phrase which is normally understood as ‘contemplating the body as a body’ as contemplating the body in the body."
Convinced that he had attained the core of the Buddha's teaching, Phra Candasaro started a new chapter in his life, which marked the start of Dhammakaya meditation as a tradition. Phra Candasaro devoted the rest of his life to teaching and furthering the depth of knowledge of Dhammakaya meditation, a meditation method which he also called "Vijja Dhammakaya", 'the direct knowledge of the Dhammakaya'. Temples in the tradition of Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, together called the Dhammakaya Movement, believe that this method was the method the Buddha originally used to attain Enlightenment, but was lost five hundred years after the Buddha passed away. The event of the attainment of the Dhammakaya is usually described by the Dhammakaya movement in miraculous and cosmic terms. For example, it is mentioned that heavy rains preceded the event.
Phra Candasaro spent much time teaching. Even when he was still at Wat Pho, he would teach Pali language in his own kuti (monastic living space) to other monks and novices. He had also restored an abandoned temple in his hometown Song Phi Nong and set up a school for Dhamma studies for lay people in Wat Phrasriratanamahathat in Suphanburi. He enrolled for the reformed Pali examinations, but did not pass. He did not enroll again, even though he was a more than capable scholar: he believed that having obtained an official Pali degree, he might be recruited for administrative work in the Sangha (monastic community), which he did not aim for. Nevertheless, because of his work, he was noticed by leading monks in the Sangha. Still in 1916, Somdet Phuean, the monastic governor of Phasi Charoen, appointed Phra Candasaro as caretaker abbot (Thai: ผู้รักษาการเจ้าอาวาส) of Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, located in Thonburi. From then onward, he was usually referred to as "Luang Por Sodh" or "Luang Pu Sodh".
In 1916, Thonburi was not part of Bangkok yet, and had no bridge to connect it to Bangkok. Wat Paknam faced social and disciplinary problems, and required a good leader. Luang Pu Sodh promoted and enforced strict monastic discipline. He was able to change Wat Paknam Bhascharoen, a temple that was neglected and almost vacant, into a temple with hundreds of monks, a school for Buddhist studies, but also a government-approved primary school with a mundane curriculum, and a kitchen to make the temple self-sufficient. Apart from monastic residents, the kitchen would also provide food for all the lay visitors of the temple. Wat Paknam became a popular center of meditation teaching. Luang Pu Sodh emphasized the development of people more than construction: besides developing a large community of monks in the temple (in 1959, five hundred monks, the highest in Thailand at the time), he also set up a community of mae chis (nuns), with separate kutis and meditation rooms. Mae chis played an important role in Wat Paknam's Dhamma and meditation propagation. In the first period, Luang Pu Sodh's work was not appreciated by some lay people who, according to biographies, had illegal business with the temple and did not appreciate Luang Pu Sodh changing the temple. Once he was even shot at, though not hurt.
Soon after his appointment as temporary abbot, he was appointed fully as abbot of Wat Paknam, where he remained until his death in 1959. For his life and work he was given monastic and royal honorific names, that is Phrakhru Samanadham-samathan (in 1921), Phrabhavanakosolthera (in 1949), Phramongkolratmuni (in 1955), and finally Phramongkolthepmuni (in 1957). The last three royal titles were given late, due to the fact that the temple was not under royal patronage, and therefore received less attention from the royal family than other temples.[note 5]
During a ministry of over half-a-century, Luang Pu Sodh taught Dhammakaya meditation continuously, guiding meditation every Thursday and preaching on Buddhism on Sundays and Uposatha days. Luang Pu Sodh would distribute an introductory book about meditation to practitioners. At first, the Dhammakaya meditation method drew criticism from the Thai Sangha authorities, because it was a new method. Discussion within the Sangha led to an inspection at Wat Paknam, but it was concluded that Luang Pu Sodh's method was correct.
In teaching meditation, Luang Pu Sodh would challenge others to meditate so that they might verify for themselves the benefits of Dhammakaya meditation. He organized a team of his most gifted meditation practitioners and set up a 'meditation factory of direct knowledge' (Thai: โรงงานทำวิชชา). These practitioners, mostly monks and mae chis, would meditate in an isolated location at the temple, in shifts for twenty-four hours a day, one shift lasting for six hours. Their "brief" was to devote their lives to meditation research for the common good of society. In the literature of the Dhammakaya movement many accounts are found about Dhammakaya meditation solving problems in society and the world at large. Dhammakaya meditation was—and still is—believed to bring forth certain psychic powers (Pali: abhiññā), such as travelling to other spheres of existence, and reading people's minds. Publications describe that Dhammakaya meditation was used during the Second World War to prevent Thailand from being bombed. Luang Pu Sodh also used meditation in healing people, for which he became widely known. An often quoted anecdote is the story of Somdet Puean, the abbot of Wat Pho, who, after meditating with Luang Pu Sodh, recovered from his illness. An important student in the meditation factory was Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong, who Luang Pu Sodh once described as "first among many, second to none" in terms of meditation skill, according to the biography of Wat Phra Dhammakaya.
Besides meditation, Luang Pu Sodh promoted the study of Buddhism as well. In this combination he was one of the pioneers in Thai Buddhism. In 1939, Luang Pu Sodh set up a Pali Institute at Wat Paknam, which is said to have cost 2.5 million baht. Luang Pu Sodh financed the building through the production of amulets, which is common in Thai Buddhism. The kitchen which he built was the fulfillment of an intention which he had since his first years at Wat Pho, when he experienced difficulty in finding food. It also resulted in monks having more time to study the Dhamma.
Luang Pu Sodh took part in the construction of the Phutthamonthon, an ambitious project of Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram in the 1950s. The park was built to host the 2500 Buddha Jayanti celebrations. Judging from the chapel at the centre of the Phutthamonthon, dedicated to Luang Pu Sodh and Dhammakaya meditation, as well as the amulets Luang Pu Sodh issued to raise funds for the park, Newell speculates Luang Pu Sodh assumed a significant role in building the park and had an important relation with PM Phibun.
According to the biography by Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Luang Pu Sodh did not endorse "magical practices" that are common in Thai Buddhism, such as fortune-telling and spells for good luck. He did, however, often heal people through meditation, and Luang Pu Sodh's amulets were—and are still—widely venerated for their attributed powers.
Luang Pu Sodh had a great interest to introduce Dhammakaya meditation outside of Thailand. Wat Paknam already published international magazines and leaflets in the time Kapilavaddho, his first Western student, started living under the guidance of Luang Pu Sodh. The periodical of the temple was in both Thai and English, and at certain occasions booklets would be published in Chinese as well. In old periodicals of the temple visits from high-standing monks from Japan and China have been recorded, and Dhammakaya meditation is still passed on by Japanese Shingon Buddhists that used to practice at Wat Paknam.
Luang Pu Sodh was one of the first Thai preceptors to ordain people outside Thailand as Buddhist monks. He ordained the Englishman William Purfurst (a.k.a. Richard Randall) with the monastic name "Kapilavaḍḍho Bhikkhu" at Wat Paknam in 1954. Kapilavaddho returned to Britain to found the English Sangha Trust two years later. Former director of the trust Terry Shine described Kapilavaḍḍho as the "man who started and developed the founding of the first English Theravada Sangha in the Western world". He was the first Englishman to be ordained in Thailand, but disrobed in 1957, shortly after his mentor Phra Ṭhitavedo had a disagreement with Luang Pu Sodh and left Wat Paknam. He was ordained again in England, and became the director of the English Sangha Trust in 1967. Luang Pu Sodh ordained another British monk, Peter Morgan, with the name Paññāvaḍḍho Bhikkhu. After his death he would continue under the guidance of Ajahn Maha Bua. Phra Paññāvaḍḍho remained in the monkhood until his death in 2004, when he had ordained for the longest of all westerners in Thailand. A third monk, formerly known as George Blake, was a Brit of Jamaican origin, and was the first Jamaican to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. He was ordained as Vijjāvaḍḍho, and later disrobed, becoming a well-known therapist in Canada. The ordination of Vijjāvaḍḍho, Paññāvaḍḍho and another British monk called Saddhāvaḍḍho (Robert Albison) was a major public event in Thailand, attracting an audience of ten thousand people. Namgyal Rinpoché (Leslie George Dawson), a teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, also studied for a while under Luang Por Sodh, but he was not ordained under him. One of the last Western students in the time of Luang Pu Sodh was Terrence Magness, who learnt Dhammakaya meditation at Wat Paknam as well, from the lay teacher Acharn Kalayawadee. He was ordained under the name Suratano, and wrote a biography about Luang Pu Sodh.
In summary, Luang Pu Sodh had a significant impact on Thai Buddhism, both in Thailand and abroad. He helped pioneer the combination of study and meditation, traditionally two separate monastic vocations. Newell points out that in this he even preceded Phra Phimontham, the administrator monk who introduced the New Burmese (meditation) Method in Thailand. Luang Pu Sodh ordained a British monk that helped pioneer Buddhism in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, he started many developments that were continued by Wat Phra Dhammakaya, later to become the largest temple of Thailand.
In 1954, Luang Pu Sodh made an announcement that he would die soon, and instructed his students to continue their duties without him, especially to propagate Dhammakaya meditation. Two years later, he was diagnosed with hypertension. Luang Pu Sodh died in 1959. His body was not cremated, but embalmed, so that after his death people would still come and support Wat Paknam. In Wat Phra Dhammakaya a memorial hall was built in honor of Luang Pu Sodh, and in Wat Paknam, a charity foundation was started in his name.