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Kammathana: Escoteric Meditation in Cambodian Buddhism

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 The yogi or yogavacara of Cambodia practiced the “hidden” (lak) or “interior way” (phluv knong).

The yogavacara (esoteric or initiatory tradition of Cambodia) is a practitioner of yoga who becomes an adept of mula khammatthana (neak mula kammathana).

The modern monk-scholar practices the “exterior way” (pluv krau).

In mainstream Theravada Buddhism, the term khammathana refers to the 40 meditation subjects authorized by the Buddha.

In Cambodian tradition, however, the term “khammatthana” has a special meaning, the mastery of pluv knong.

Khmer tantra operated with a theory of correspondences, letters, sounds, numbers, presented in a ritual context.
The term “mula” means the skill of using Khmer alphabet to denote Buddha’s teaching.

Mula Kammatthan can be practiced in two ways: (A) the “right hand path” (phluv sdam) which leads to nibbana; (B) the “left hand path” (phluv chveng) which leads to attainment of worldly ends, such as gaining power over others.

“The work of the brah khammatthana refer to the Tripitaka in ways different from the manner employed by the modernists. The traditionalists explain nothing. They hide (what they know) and teach how to practice the spiritual life…The modernists transmit their knowledge but only speak of fruits and flowers. Of roots and stumps they say nothing.” Acher Trok Din [Harris p.96]

When Acher Trok Din speaks of the “fruits and flowers, roots and stumps” he is referring to a Cambodian esoteric meditation tradition. Maha Ghosananda also spoke of “The Bodhi Tree” of the body. The Cambodian yogavacara tradition draws correspondences between the embryo and a “fig tree with five branches.”

The human body is the “tree” of transformation, the cosmos, and the Buddha’s teaching (Dhamma) is crystallized/expressed in sound.
· Trunk = torso
· Branches = arms and legs
· Leaves = two ears
· Flower = umbilicus
· Fruit = embryo
· Roots = penis and testicles (which give rise to future generations)


The fig tree has five branches, with its roots in the infernal regions, its branches reaching into the deva-realm.
The tree also represents the Dhamma: Fruits are the Tripitaka; Leaves, the ten perfections…etc…

Francois Bizot referred to this tradition in his writing. This allegorical symbol represents the human body as the physical locus of transformation the cosmos, and it expresses and crystallizes the Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma) in the form of sound. “As the human body, its trunk is the torso, its branches are the arms and legs, its leaves the two ears, its flower the umbilicus, its fruit the embryo, and its threefold root is the penis and testicles, which give rise to future generations. The fig tree with five branches is also the world tree, stretching as high as the divine deva world, and its roots in the infernal regions. The system, then, homoligizes the macrocosmos to the human body. The tree is the world axis, or Mt. Sumerut ‘in the five aggregates of our bodily form, our head is Mt. Sumerur chest Mount Giri Parabat, our pelvis Mount Gijjhakuta Parabat (Vulture Peak), and two knees, the two ankles, and the two soles, the seven levels of Mount Sattaparibhand, the enclosure of Mt Sumeru. The four lakes situated at the foot of Mt Sumeru are the four elements of our bodily form.” [Bizot 1976.]

“The tree also occurs in another allegory of the spiritual path. The twins Nan Cittakumara and Nor Cittakumari represent the spirit of yogavacara. [Nan Cittakumara and Nan Cittakumari represent respectively the mind (citta) and mental factors (cetasika). As such they also denote the psycho-physical being in the intermediate states between two existences.] They take leave of Yama, the god of death, to seek birth in the rose-apple land (Jambudvipa, India), but they get lost on the way. While they lament their predicament, a god in the form of a man encourages them to search for a jewel collected the birth globe (tuong kamnot), or a crystal globe (tuonhg kaev), hidden in a fig tree with five branches. The two children make supplication to the deity and begin their quest. The crystal globe is guarded by Indriy birds (sense faculties), but its possession will confer great happiness, for it is in essence the three letters “ma,” “a,” and “u” which make up the sacred syllable “Om.” These three letters are also the “noble triple dhamma” (preah dhammatrai); they correspond to the three sections of Tripitaka. In other words, the twins must create a new body out of the elements of Buddha’s teaching. This new dhamma body (dhammakaya) is the key to Nibbana.


In some of his later writing Bizot sees parallels between this initiatory body and the Mahayana doctrine of the Tathagata (tathatatagarbha).
Kasina meditation are part of the meditation tradition. The word kasina means “total field.” And includes the ten meditation on earth, water, wind, fire, blue, yellow, red, white, space (akasha) and consciousness (vijnana). In this process, the mind is exclusively, and with complete clarity, filled with the object and finally becomes one with it (Samadhi).

Samadhi is “unified mind” collected in a single object through gradual calming of mental activity. The consciousness of the subject becomes one with the object.

This state of consciousness is often called “one pointed concentration”; “this expression is misleading however, because it calls up the image of the mind “directed” at one point.

Samadhi is neither a straining concentration on one point, nor is the mind directed from here (subject) to there (object), which would be a dualistic experience. The ability to attain Samadhi is a precondition for absorption/jhana.

(Vipassana: the three super mundane types of Samadhi are distinguished that have as their goal emptiness, the state of no characteristics, and freedom from attachment to the object, and the attainment of Nibbana. Any other Samadhi, even in the highest stages of jhana, are considered worldly.]

Kasina meditations are associated with magical powers (iddhi) in Theravada Buddhism of Cambodia.
Cambodian Buddhism sees meditation practice in cosmological terms. Stanley Tambia describes the correlation/matrix of Buddhist cosmology and the meditation states. These are outlined in Visuddhimagga chapters 13 and 14. These practices develop the three-knowledges of “divine eye” and “passing and reappearance of things” to the periodic creation and dissolution of the cosmos and the world cycles of the eons of time.

Meditation ascends from rupa (material) to arupa (immaterial) states of consciousness: From access to neighborhood concentrationo absorption concentratione first jhana.

Then the arupa/formless begins at fifth jhana of empty space. Iddhi-powers can come only after the 4th jhana.

The meditatior develops a spiritual potency, charismatic quality, or “magical power” known as saksit.

The forest monk, or traveling masters (lok thudong) attained potency (saksit) and knowledge (vijja), and were able to influence and benefit others. The adept must have not only rational knowledge, but be attained, i.e. be transformed by that knowledge, be virtuous by observing the Buddhist precepts. The adept maintains balance between mind and external objects (equanimity, equilibrium). He is able to embody, incarnate, Enlightenment.