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A Treatise on the Paramis by Acariya Dhammapala

A Treatise on the ParamisTranslated by Bhikkhu Bodhi; Buddhist Publication Society 1996; 71 pages.

The version of this text I read is the abridged booklet available in the Buddhist Publication Society Wheel format (pictured at left).  The complete text can be found in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Discourse on the All Embracing Net of Views. 

This is a wonderful, very dense little primer on the paramis (Sanksrit paramitas), the critical moral requisites for a Buddhist practitioner and the modus operandi par excellence of any would-be bodhisattva.  What the author, Acariya Dhammapala, has done is to create a perfect fusion of Theravada thought with Mahayana attitude.  In fact, in all my Buddhist reading, I don’t think I’ve come across any work so perfectly “hybrid” in a way that captured the best of what are often thought to be conflicting and/or competing traditions.

The booklet includes a brief but informative introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi.  Several takeaways here:

  • the “three vehicles” (or, more accurately, “careers”) of the arahant, pacekkhabuddha, and buddha are all present in the earliest texts, though of course arahants were not looked down on as they were in the later Mahayana scriptures;
  • there are ten perfections in the earlier canon as opposed to the six better known later on (which was again expanded into ten in the Avatamsaka Sutra and other texts);
  • the author’s manner of commenting upon and discussing the paramis shows he is straight out of the Theravadan commentarial tradition.

As for the text proper: if you are interested in learning about the conception of the bodhisattva, you have come to the right place.  This little treatise captures the flavor, the heroism, the challenge, not to mention the profound lifestyle shift this “project” requires.  Here’s the “schedule of questions” Dhammapala covers:

(1) What are the paramis?  This is just a brief definition.

(2) In what sense are they paramis?  He gives four examples of how they are paramis.

(3) How many are there? Answer: 10.

(4) What is their sequence? Here he lists and defines them.

(5) What are their characteristics, functions, manifestations, and proximate causes? Further description, definition, etc.

(6) What is their condition? One of the meatier sections of the work, this defines what gives rise to the paramis, and what impedes them.

(7) What is their defilement?  That is, what hinders their development?  Answer: discriminating thoughts.

(8) What is their cleansing? Removal of the three poisons.

(9) What are their opposites?  Unwholesome qualities.

(10) How are they to be practiced?  This is what you’ve been waiting for!  This section, which is really heavy-duty inspiring and exhorting, comprises about one third of the text proper, and should cause you to get out of bed earlier and start thinking how to change your habits.

(11) How are they analyzed? and (12) How are they synthesized?  Some uniquely Theravadan commentator dicing and slicing.  I didn’t find this section particularly helpful.

(13) By what means are they accomplished? Another level of analysis, but this one is both insightful and inspiring.

(14) How much time is required to accomplish them? If you’re good, only four incalculables and 100,000 great aeons.  If your slow-witted, well, much longer!

(15) What benefits do they bring? Basically, this section will let you known whether or not you really are (per the textual tradition) on the path of the bodhisattva, or are just a wannabe.

(16) What is their fruit?  Briefly, “the state of perfect Buddhahood.”

Anyway, I highly recommend this little text.  It is much “heavier” than its number of pages indicates, and I plan to follow up with some essays further examining its contents and asking just how its recommendations can be put into practice.

dharma the cat

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Anguttara Nikaya Anthology by Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi

Anguttara Nikaya Anthology: An anthology of discourses from the Anguttara Nikaya selected & translated by Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi.  Buddhist Publication Society 2007.  245 pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed and heartily recommend this short, punchy and eminently readable selection of passages and suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, one of the five main “baskets” of texts making up the Pali Sutta Pitaka of the Theravadan school.  The translation by Nyanaponika Thera (BB’s mentor) was originally published in the BPS Wheel Series in three volumes.  Bhikkhu Bodhi has cleaned up this translation, as well as added extensive (and quite helpful) endnotes.  The result is the most accessible Anguttara Nikaya available for non-Pali readers.

Readers should be aware that this is in no way an attempt at a complete translation.  In many cases, only a paragraph or two has been kept from any given sutta, and from the final “Chapter of the Elevens” only one text (a snippet of a sutta) was included.  Obviously then, there will be many passages that people might hope to have found that will not be here, as the choice of what to put in and what to leave out has been entirely a matter of personal inclination (specifically Nyanaponika’s).

What I perhaps most appreciated about this book was its high number of practice oriented texts.  Too often Buddhist philosophy can seem remote or technical, and for those that find philosophy in the abstract too…well…abstract, this should be a welcome addition to the personal library.  There are lots of passages here one can easily write down and stick in the wallet, or pin next to the computer, to remind and encourage oneself.  And ultimately, this of course is what it is all about–how to make ourselves better, more conscientious and conscious human beings.

Newsflash!!

Wisdom Publications has received Bhikkhu Bodhi’s new translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, which is currently being reviewed by our editor. Any available information or updates on this project will be announced in the Wisdom Reader e-Newsletter (from the Wisdom Publications website).

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

The Noble Eightfold Path by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering by Bhikkhu Bodhi.  BPS Pariyatti 2000, 133 pages.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s little treatise on the constituents of the fourth noble truth is a quick, by the numbers (and letters) summary of orthodox Theravadan opinion on the subject.  As such it is a useful resource especially for beginners to the field, or for someone who is interested in “brushing up” on the fundamentals.  Factually, it is guaranteed accurate, though this is not to say it is particularly thought provoking or insightful.  I’ll give a few examples of what I’m talking about.

BB actually starts off with an intriguing conundrum: we ordinary people inevitably encounter suffering, and if we consider the nature of that suffering, we

seek a way to bring our disquietude to an end…  But it is just then that we find ourselves facing a new difficulty.  Once we come to recognize the need for a spiritual path we discover that spiritual teachings are by no means homogeneous and mutually compatible (pp. 1-2).

The problem then becomes trying to “decide which [teaching] is truly liberative, a real solution to our needs, and which is a sidetrack beset with hidden flaws.”

He then takes up the question of how to decide on a path (though we of course know what his ultimate answer will be), eventually concluding:

To sum up, we find three requirements for a teaching proposing to offer a true path to the end of suffering: first, it has to set forth a full and accurate picture of the range of suffering; second, it must present a correct analysis of the causes of suffering; and third, it must give us the means to eradicate the causes of suffering (p. 5).

But then Bhikkhu Bodhi cops out of the project he set up: “This is not the place to evaluate the various spiritual disciplines in terms of these criteria,” he tells us.  “Our concern is only with the Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha…”

To which I thought, “Well if that was the case, why did you lead me on this wild goose chase?  Why didn’t you just get to the point and not pretend you were going to philosophize about the serious challenge of how one goes about choosing a worldview for oneself?”  In other words, BB acknowledges the challenge, but doesn’t quite have the gumption (or perhaps the intellectual equipment) to really justify to us why we should bother picking up a book on the Buddha’s teaching in the first place.  Anyway, I find it irritating when a writer sets up an interesting problem but then refuses to try to solve it.  (An unsuccessful attempt is vastly more satisfying than no attempt at all.)

Another example of this kind of irritating superficiality in BB’s discussion concerns kamma (=karma in Sanskrit).  He writes:

The most important feature of kamma is its capacity to produce results corresponding to the ethical quality of the action.  An immanent universal law holds sway over volitional actions, bringing it about that these actions issue in retributive consequences, called vipaka, “ripenings,” or phala, “fruits” (p.20).

He then assures us that

the right view of kammic efficacy of action need not remain exclusively an article of belief…  It can become a matter of direct seeing.  Through the attainment of certain states of deep concentration it is possible to develop a special faculty called the “divine eye”…  When this faculty is developed… one can then see for oneself, with immediate perception, how beings pass away and re-arise according to their kamma, how they meet happiness and suffering through the maturation of their good and evil deeds (pp. 22-23).

My immediate response to reading this was to think, Okay Bhikkhu Bodhi, have you developed the divine eye?  For anyone for whom the answer to this question is “no”—and unless you are a psychic such will always be the answer—there is no recourse except to faith, which may be true or not.  Clearly, this is not a practicable test of this central tenet, but the mere fact BB discusses kamma in this fashion indicates how bound he is by a traditional, non-scientific understanding of his own tradition.

If you take the Buddha’s teaching for what it is—as an applied psychology—kamma can be understood as simply conditioning, the shaping or molding of the mind by thoughts, words and actions.  Whatever you think, say or do affects your state of consciousness and circumstances, and this is not a matter of faith but of direct observation here and now.  This can be seen on gross levels or fine (e.g. working out makes you buff and depressed thoughts land you in the shrink’s office); clearly our actions have consequences—they determine not only our characters but the course of our lives.  Kamma is not magical and should not be considered as such; the word, after all, means “intentional action,” and anyone can see the importance of both intentions and actions.

Bhikkhu Bodhi is best known for his translations, and the above examples make it clear why.  He is not a first rate thinker or communicator; whenever he engages in drawn out exposition (as in the case of a book in his own words), what he writes tends to read like a technical manual written by someone who reads technical manuals for a living.  I suspect this is a personality thing, but it also comes from him being first and foremost a “man of the texts”—a translator and scholar as opposed to practitioner.

This emerges too in the overall the feel of the book, and goes way beyond the quotes above.  Though this short manual is fine for beginners interested in the basic “stuff” of Buddhism, there is little sense of living practice here.  You don’t get the stories a meditation teacher is likely to garner from sitting on the front cushion, nor do you get glib, funny anecdotes from the author’s everyday life experience.  Everything is distant, formal, abstract, leavened with stilted phrases and multi-syllabic words…such as “concomitant.”

My Amazon rating: 2 stars

 

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2 volumes).  Wisdom Books 2000; 2074 pages.

I think Bhikkhu Bodhi read and considered every criticism levelled at his previous offering, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, and determined to make darn sure he didn’t have to hear those criticisms again.  The result of his enterprise is an extremely detailed and careful treatment of the second largest collection in the Sutta Pitaka, the Samyutta Nikaya.  For this post I’ll first discuss briefly the place of the SN in Pali literature, and then give an overview of how BB has treated it.

Along with the Digha, Majjhima, Anguttara and parts of the Khuddhaka Nikayas, the Samyutta Nikaya comes from the oldest strand of Buddhist texts, and is thus critical if one wants to have any hope of determining what the historical Buddha actually taught. It got its name from the fact that its various parts (called vaggas) are made up of suttas that tie directly to one another in terms of their format (the particular pattern or “template” they display) and subject matter.  The resulting vaggas are characterized by their focus on, for example, verse sayings, or discourses on dependent arising, the aggregates, the sense bases, the eightfold path, or some other critical doctrinal point.  There are also sections devoted to talks by and with certain individuals, famous and not so famous, such as Anuruddha or Channa or Samandaka.

The Samyutta Nikaya is thus at once very heterogeneous in the range of topics it covers, but also much more systematically organized than, say, the Majjhima or Digha Nikayas, where subject matter takes a back seat to other concerns.  This makes it very easy to locate suttas on specific issues one is interested in, but it also has the effect of making many of the suttas sound monotonously similar, to the point where it’s often tempting to skip ahead upon encountering–for the umpteenth time–the same iteration of terms one just read through a few pages back.  As a result, BB has had to do a lot of condensing and made extensive use of ellipses, and indeed, because the suttas seem to bleed into and repeat one another, the tradition itself does not have a solid count of how many individual suttas make up the nikaya.  The consensus seems to be around 2,900, give or take a couple dozen.

As noted, BB’s translation is thorough.  To give you an idea how thorough, I counted about 480 pages of endnotes!  Now many of these are of interest only to philologists, but many more add significantly to the text in the form of traditional commentarial materials, as well as BB’s own insights into the text.  He also is careful to note which sources he is using, as the various redactions from Burma, Sri Lanka or the PTS don’t always agree with one another.  This is something he was specifically criticized for not doing on the Majjhima Nikaya, so I think scholars in the audience will have fewer bones to pick this time around.  In addition to the general introduction, each vagga also gets its own intro, where its particular themes are further discussed; I especially found his intro to the Khandhavagga illuminating.  (I quoted from it in my essay on Christian Buddhism.)  All in all Bhikkhu Bodhi has put an enormous amount of effort into this project and I’m starting to think that Buddhists all over the world owe him a medal or something.

Regarding the text proper: as I’ve said with previous reviews of translations, I am not a Pali scholar so am not in a position to critique him on specific word choices–except, perhaps, important doctrinal terms.  In most cases his translations of such terms are quite standard and unexpected, though I was pleasantly surprised by his rendering of sakkaya not by the traditional “personality,” but as “identity.”  I think this is an improvement and brings increased clarity and accuracy to important terms like sakkayanirodha or sakkayaditthi.  The text, as a whole, is highly readable, beautifully presented, and does the best it can with the already noted copious repetitions.  Any translator of Pali has to deal with this issue and there are only so many ways of doing it.  I think BB has respected the text’s integrity by preserving what needed to be preserved, by artful use of ellipses, and by leaving enough so one can reconstruct any particular passage from the clues on hand.  And yet, we still have two weighty volumes!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi

In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, edited and introduced by Bhikkhu Bodhi.  Wisdom Publications 2005, 485 pages.

This is the most recent of several Pali-only anthologies of Buddhist texts I’ve read, the other two being Word of the Buddha and Path To Deliverance, both by the famous German monk Nyanatiloka.  (The latter is especially good.)  This one is easily the most comprehensive.

For those of you who find the suttas tough going on account of their lack of thematic organization, this book will be a godsend.  As Bhikkhu Bodhi explains in the introduction, the idea for it had its genesis in a series of lectures he gave on the Majjhima Nikaya.  His goal therein was to arrange materials from simplest to most profound, giving a progressive, graded course of theoretical and practical instruction.  He then decided to turn that approach to the Sutta Pitaka as a whole.  The result is the present work.

The specifics of this structure are as follows, where each number refers to a part of the book:

  1. The Buddha’s description of the human condition
  2. The nature of the Buddha and his attainment
  3. How to approach the Dhamma
  4. How the Dhamma contributes to happiness in this life
  5. How it can contribute to happiness in future rebirths
  6. The Dhamma on why renunciation is the safest course to take (the perils of samsara)
  7. The nature of the path to liberation
  8. How to master the mind
  9. The nature of transcendent wisdom
  10. Stages of realization

Each of these sections is prefaced with a substantial introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi, and some of these are surprisingly good.  (I have often felt a little sour toward BB’s writing because he is such a slave to the Commentaries and tends to express himself with a slightly stilted, pompous air.)  I was especially impressed by his introduction to part 3 (“Approaching the Dhamma”), which is, in effect, an essay on the place and nature of faith (saddha) in the Buddha’s teaching.  I think anyone, no matter how knowledgeable, can benefit from these pages (81ff).  It is especially useful as a contrast to Christian notions of faith.

So who would benefit most from this book?  I think beginning students would especially be served by it, or at least those who have until now subsisted mainly on a diet of secondary texts and haven’t yet plunged into the jungle of the suttas.  This book is excellent for providing an orientation, and if read two or three times so that one really becomes familiar with the passages contained therein, when the passages are finally encountered in their full form it should prove very rewarding.  But then, anyone who wants a refresher, or a different manner of presentation from, say, the four noble truths and the three-fold training (sila, samadhi, paññā), will also benefit.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya translated by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi.  Wisdom Publications 1995, 1412 pages.

Note: I was notified by a reviewer on Amazon that there have been two revisions, quite substantial, since this edition.  The most recent is from 2005 and is apparently much improved.  It is, however (I am finding), difficult to get!  My review below applies only to the original 1995 edition.

For my review of this translation I decided to take a different tack.  Since I am not a Pali scholar I am not qualified to critique Bhikkhu Bodhi’s (or Ven. Ñanamoli’s) translation, so I thought I would turn to someone who is–namely, L.S. Cousins of the University of Manchester writing in The Journal of Buddhist Ethics (Vol. 4, 1997).  For anyone wanting to go further than my summary of his major points, you can find his review here.

Cousins criticizes the title, specifically the word “new,” since most of the translation was done by Ñanamoli in the 1950s, not by Bhikkhu Bodhi in the 1990s.  Indeed, in Cousin’s view, Bodhi’s contribution is fairly cosmetic in the sense of making the text more readable, and of lending more flexibility to certain Pali terms.  In this sense he commends BB by making the text  approachable to modern readers who are not themselves scholars.  This is, however, about the only good thing he has to say of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s work.

Other significant points are:

  • A lack of clarity as to which source text is being used.  BB claims it is the PTS edition, but Cousins doubts this as the text often follows earlier Sinhalese editions that Ñanamoli likely had available.
  • No use of recent scholarship.
  • Many old mistakes are perpetuated, and even some inaccuracies that Ñanamoli had removed are reinstated.
  • Cousins deplores the large scale cutting of repetition, pointing out that when the original–with the full repetitions–is chanted aloud, it has a certain, meditative effect on the mind; this is lost in the edited, written version.  (I have to disagree with Cousins here: since most people in the West will approach the Suttas through the written word, my feeling is translators need to make the originals digestible in that form.)
  • Lastly, he notes BB’s uncritical acceptance of the commentarial tradition, something I have harped on in previous posts.

Now for some words from our sponsor…

As regards the introduction, like Walshe’s for his Digha Nikaya translation (see my review here), Bodhi’s is necessarily fairly basic, but does go further.  For example, his discussion of certain critical terms such as dhamma, sankhara, namarupa, etc, is more informative.  I always read introductions, but not everyone does–my wife, for instance, will not even read a two page author’s preface.  For someone in a rush (though I’m not sure how one would rush through a one thousand plus page book) and who is already well informed on these matters, the introduction is dispensable.  Someone more beginning, though, would do well to read it carefully.

On the Majjhima Nikaya specifically: This is the second of the five nikayas (“collections”) that make up the Sutta Pitaka (“Basket of Discourses”).  In accordance with its title, the 152 suttas (“discourses”) here are not generally as lengthy as those in the Digha Nikaya, though they are often more substantive.  The entire teaching, in some way or another, is touched on here, and some of the most important of the Buddha’s discourses are included in this collection.  It is repetitious, however, even with the generous editing of repetitive passages.  There really is no way around this, though, and readers need to be patient.  Not every discourse is a treasure; some are nearly verbatim reruns of previous ones.  However, a benefit of this (if one is charitable) is that important issues are more likely to sink in deep; that is, you can begin to get a sense for where the real emphases are in the Buddha’s Teaching.

While it is important to be grateful to Bhikkhu Bodhi for his many years of labor on this and other works of translations, I am left scratching my head over why no able team of scholars has ever been put together in the way that Biblical translation teams are.  Why is it always a lone translator trying to capture a literature that is many times more voluminous than the Bible?  Certainly there are other monks, scholars and interested individuals who could add their talents to the project of translating Buddhist scriptures.  It is high time that we stop relying upon the understanding and insight of individuals–always limited, however learned they may be–for our access to these vital documents.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

 

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