, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 177-198
Date: 12 Feb 2012

The Sutta on Understanding Death in the Transmission of Borān Meditation From Siam to the Kandyan Court

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This article announces the discovery of a Sinhalese version of the traditional meditation (borān yogāvacara kammaṭṭhāna) text in which the Consciousness or Mind, personified as a Princess living in a five-branched tree (the body), must understand the nature of death and seek the four gems that are the four noble truths. To do this she must overcome the cravings of the five senses, represented as five birds in the tree. Only in this way will she permanently avoid the attentions of Death, Māra, and his three female servants, Birth, Sickness and Old Age. In this version of the text, when the Princess manages not to succumb to these three, Māra comes and snatches her from her tree and rapes her. The Buddha then appears to her to explain the path to liberation. The text provides a commentary, padārtha, which explains the details of the symbolism of the fruit in terms of rebirth and being born, the tree in terms of the body, etc. The text also offers interpretations of signs of impending death and prognostications regarding the next rebirth. Previously the existence of Khmer and Lānnā versions of this text have been recorded by Francois Bizot and Francois Lagirarde, the former publishing the text as Le Figuier a cinq branches (Le figuier à cinq branches, 1976). The Sinhalese version was redacted for one of the wives of King Kīrti Śrī Rājasiṅha of Kandy by the monk Varañāṇa Mahāthera of Ayutthayā. This confirms earlier speculation that this form of borān/dhammakāya meditation was brought to Sri Lanka with the introduction of the Siyam Nikāya in the mid-eighteenth century. It also shows that in Sri Lanka, as in Ayutthayā, this form of meditation—which in the modern period was to be rejected as ‘unorthodox’—was promoted at the highest levels of court and Saṅgha.

Gunasena and Crosby’s work on this article was conducted under the auspices of the AHRC’s Religion and Society Programme as part of the project, ‘‘Yogāvacara Meditation in Theravāda Societies,’’ while its potential significance was first noticed by Skilton (2005) (on which see below). We would like to express our gratitude to the AHRC and their reviewers for supporting this work, and our heartfelt thanks to Phibul Choompolpaisal for tracking down confirmation of the identity of the monk Varañāṇa and other details in Thai sources.