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Archive for the category “Whatever”

So what the hell kind of Buddhist are you, anyway?

I recently had some email conversation with a person named Sophia.  Although the issues we discussed were of great intrinsic interest, I cut off the conversation on account of my correspondent’s insistently aggressive snarkiness.  It just got to be a little much.  However, I would like to address some of those issues in more detail and hopefully clarify what I really think about them.  While I can’t say this is for Sophia’s benefit, it may be of interest to some people or, if perhaps anyone else was thinking along the lines she was thinking, may head off future conflict or misunderstanding.

Perhaps the first matter to clarify is whether I am Mahayanist or Theravadan in orientation.  A lot of the challenges and points she was making seemed to assume this dichotomy, and also seemed to assume I was the former over against the latter—this, no doubt, because I’ve been writing a lot recently about the bodhisattva ideal.  I find this confusion puzzling since I’m pretty up front about my position in the “About Me” section of my blog: “Regarding Buddhism: my bias is towards the Pali suttas—no other texts can claim veracity as regards the historical Buddha…”  The only caveat I can add to this is that the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings and practices have certainly added worthy ideas and technologies to the Buddhist tradition.  This stance should not, I think, be in any way controversial, given modern scholarship regarding the history of Buddhism.

What might be controversial (to some) is my decidedly secular approach to these teachings.  That is to say I do not take a religious, fundamentalist, or absolutist view of anything in Buddhism (or anything else).  I do not see anything “perfect,” “revelatory,” or “final” about the Buddha’s or Buddhist teachings.  I do not accept anything just because “it is written.”  I do not accept anything just because “so it is said” or because “this teacher said so.”  (Think the Kalama Sutta.)  I land where scholarship and actual testing in practice tells me I should land.  Thus: the Jatakas are not the Buddha’s past lives—they are Indian folktales appropriated for didactic purposes by the Buddhist tradition.  The Buddha did not teach the Abhidhamma to devas in Tavatimsa heaven—it is a later scholastic creation, often at odds doctrinally with the Suttas.  And the Buddha was not omniscient—he actually said as much, and there is no doubting that many of his powers and achievements have been exaggerated.  (I could say the same thing of Jesus or any other pre-modern miracle worker or saint.)  It is also silly to say the Buddha was the “most enlightened, most perfect, peerless, ultimate teacher of gods and men to ever walk any world in any galaxy.”  Maybe he was, probably he wasn’t.  There is no way to know, and anyone who says this kind of thing is pretending to knowledge they obviously do not have and is speaking from nothing but faith—blind faith.  (An equivalent assertion is the oft-repeated Christian dogma that Jesus rose from the dead or never sinned, etc.  I find such wild presumptions of knowledge puzzling, not to mention grossly immature.)  This position of mine in no way obviates the worth of the Buddhist tradition or the excellence of the Buddha as a teacher.  I personally think the Buddha is the best teacher of whom we have a reasonably complete and reliable record, but this is just my opinion based upon my limited information; I should be—and am—always willing to change my opinion if I happen upon better evidence.

Getting back to the Theravada/Mahayana dilemma:  I should point out that a lot of the Theravada incorporates beliefs and practices not found in the Suttas.  Remember, the Theravada was and is a school—it is the not the Buddha’s Teaching per se.  What might be the Buddha’s teaching, what holds the clearest claim to be such, is the Pali Canon, specifically the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas, and then some of the texts in the Sutta Pitaka are clearly later and apocryphal, e.g. the Buddhavamsa, the Cariyapitaka, etc.  One must tread with care determining what is what.  Now, while determining what the Buddha actually taught is a fascinating historical and scholarly endeavor, for a contemplative practitioner it is a waste of time.  The reason is because there are many ways to skin a cat.  The phenomenon of human awakening—“enlightenment”—is not something dependent upon a particular set of practices or a particular tradition.  One personality type will be most helped by this practice, another by that practice.  Whether it is Advaita Vedanta or Vajrayana or Theravada is not important: what works is important. This is really the heart of what I mean by being “secular”—a practical, non-ideological approach is required.  This way opens up the whole human contemplative endeavor to each one of us rather than shutting us off in separate schools, everyone claiming “Mine is best!”

If religious Buddhists find this stance offensive, that’s okay.  They are welcome to their views.  They can practice over there and I will practice over here.  But even if we practice cheek-to-jowl they probably will never know I am “secular” because I have no problem bowing to statues, chanting precepts in Pali, observing Uposathas, etc.  In other words, I do not eschew the forms—in fact, I love the forms.  The forms help us and comfort us, they guide us, but they must not cage us.  You might even say I am Buddhist because I find the forms of Buddhist practice the most comfortable to live and work with, as opposed, say, to Taoist or Hindu forms, not to mention Christian or others.

I hope the above clears up any doubts people might have about where I’m coming from; if it doesn’t, that’s okay too.  I’m really not such an important person that you have to grok my Dharma—or should I say “Dhamma”?

On reading Buddhist books

I’m now on to my second book about the paramis (Skt paramitas) and I’ve come to a conclusion: what people read, what sells, and what has lasting value can be divided into four types of literature or writing.  These are…

Wait!  First, I want to preface my pending revelation with a rather obvious statement: This is just my opinion.  Nobody should get offended or think I’m talking down to them.  I am a certain type of person and as such have certain preferences and standards.  What works for me is not what’s going to work for everyone–if I have gained one iota of wisdom in my nearly half century of living, this much at least I can be sure of.  Now, back to the revelation.

Taichung_Baojue_Buddhist_Temple3

Read my books!

The four types of Buddhist literature are:

Popular: This type of book sells surprisingly well and is always twice as long as it needs to be.  For better or worse, a lot of people who aren’t even Buddhist read this stuff and feel good about themselves on account of reading it.  As a result, you definitely know who the authors of these books are so I won’t bother telling you their names.

Now, here’s how you can tell a Buddhist book is a “popular” book.

  1. If you do an Amazon search for “Buddhism” it probably comes up near the top of the list.
  2. The author was once a monk or nun but realized at some point that writing books was a more lucrative endeavor.
  3. The author is now a media personality and has founded one or more organizations.
  4. The author quotes indiscriminately from all the different Buddhist schools–as well as from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Taoist, secular, and scientific writers, maybe even popular songs.
  5. The word “being” is used at least once every other page of every book the author writes.
  6. Quotes from other people and books are never given more attribution than the fact they were said/written by so-and-so.  In other words, the source text is rarely cited, and chapter and verse are never offered.
  7. Quotes from the Buddha, especially, sound like someone talking at your office–with an amazingly modern diction and vocabulary for a guy who died two and a half millennia ago.  Again, chapter and verse are nowhere to be seen.
  8. The historical veracity of the Mahayana and Vajrayana accounts of the Buddha’s words and biography are never doubted.
  9. The ultimate truth and unity of all religions is not questioned.
  10. Mother Theresa and/or Martin Luther King will be mentioned at least once and their sublime virtues discussed in passing
  11. Everyone is naturally, originally, uniquely, perfectly Good–if only they knew it.
  12. The writer’s grandmother was invariably the wisest and most awesome of hidden sages.
  13. There are no footnotes, endnotes or bibliography, and indexes are optional.
  14. The titles of these books are often derived from well known sayings, songs, or folksy expressions, etc.

Scholarly/practical: The authors of these sorts of books often have significant contemplative experience under their belts, with academic training to boot, though some are purely academic in their background and just happened to have broken into the public consciousness.  While not usually as popular or well known as the writers of “popular” books, their work can sell well.  Authors I would put in this category include Walpola Rahula (What the Buddha Taught), Gil Fronsdal (translator of the Dhammapada), Bhikkhu Bodhi, Daniel Goleman, and Henepola Gunaratna (Mindfulness In Plain English).  Their works are typically characterized by the following:

Gil Fronsdal

  1. 80-90% less fluff language than is found in the works of popular writers; instead, their language is typically crisp and intelligent though not dry or opaque.
  2. Uncommon and unique insights–no garden variety “wisdom” here.
  3. Almost always include indexes, as well as–frequently–bibliographies and endnotes.
  4. They actually provide citations for quotes and don’t rephrase the quotes to make them sound like 21st century utterances.
  5. Fewer stories from regular life, though these are still included.  Instead, many more stories and examples from original sources.
  6. You probably won’t learn anything about their grandmother, cat, or best friend.
  7. They are mindful of the differences between Buddhist schools and, except on rare occasions, don’t feel the need to invite comparisons with other religions and philosophies.
  8. You are more likely to remember one of these books a year later than you are a popular book.
  9. You are more likely to keep one of these books with the intention of rereading or consulting it in the future than you are a popular work, which will probably turn yellow on your shelf, assuming you don’t first charitably donate it to your local library or regift it to a wayward relative.
  10. You will probably want to underline, highlight or otherwise mark up one of these books.
  11. The authors of these books are less prolific than popular writers.  So the book in your hand will probably be one of only two or three (max) widely known works by him or her.  Popular writers, on the other hand, are constantly coming out with new and improved versions of the Dharma they wrote about last year.

Scholarly: These books are easily spotted.  They usually come from university presses and you have to dig for them on Amazon.  Their authors are invariably professors, scholars, and other learned sorts–or were: maybe now they are living out a hermit-like retirement.  While some of these authors are good writers, they don’t hesitate knocking you over the head with Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and/or Korean technical terms, and their sentences can take on a cerebral knottiness that requires multiple reads.  (Note: Tibetan terms in these books are invariably rendered in English via the unpronounceable Wylie system.)  Furthermore:

The_art_scholar_by_amartinsdebarros

Too short a life and too many books!

  1. Diacritic marks and the italicization of technical terms are inevitable.
  2. Endnotes can run for dozens of pages.
  3. There is often a bibliography of works from the original language (Sanskrit, Chinese, etc).
  4. You have never heard of the author apart from the book in your hands.
  5. He or she may or may not be Buddhist.  If the author is Buddhist, he or she has not informed any professional colleagues about this fact.
  6. The author probably doesn’t meditate because that would (allegedly) impair his or her objectivity.
  7. The book may never break out of hardback and will be three times more expensive than a regular book of the same size and make.
  8. The topic of the book will be about a particular doctrine of a particular school in a particular century that ended long before you or anyone you know ever breathed.
  9. You will feel very intelligent while reading the book, but afterwards you will wonder what you should do with all that knowledge.
  10. You will probably keep the book, but will be afraid to open it again.
  11. No more than one–maybe two–people will have reviewed the book on Amazon.
  12. The reviewers’ comments will indicate they are much smarter and better read than you are.
daniel-ingram

The laughing arahat

Hardcore: These are the polar opposite of “popular” works, though they can, in fact, actually be popular.  Their authors are not typically interested in scholarship or “good works,” rather in the practice and achievement of exalted states of mind—jhanas, nyanas, nirvana, even siddhis.  Writers of this genre are typically very self-assured, speak with the confidence of “direct knowledge,” and are not generally terribly concerned with philosophical subtleties.  While they are sometimes quite orthodox in their thinking (simply accepting whatever theory is at hand), there is a tendency for some of them to challenge orthodox notions if tradition conflicts with their experience.  Moreover, these works:

  • Are long on practice and short on theory
  • Disdain fluff
  • Are grounded in meditative achievement
  • Are rarely published by big houses, but can yet attain “underground” or “cult” status
  • Don’t care how flowery or literary their prose is
  • Don’t tell lots of stories
  • Are often psychologically technical
  • Don’t quote original sources much but if they do are as likely to cite commentaries as suttas/sutras
  • Will make you feel like you’ve not done enough
  • Will inspire you to get up earlier, sit longer, and eat less

Examples of these books are some of Goenka’s material, Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma (originally Living Buddhist Masters, a book that had a significant impact on me when I first read it–the rest of Kornfield’s material is decidedly popular), books by some Burmese teachers (e.g. Webu SayadawMahasi Sayadaw and U Pandita) and Thai forest masters (e.g. Ajahn Chah) and, last but not least, that icon of the “hardcore dharma” movement,  Daniel Ingram (pictured above), author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

I have read many examples of all four.  Popular books occasionally contain gems scattered among the endless deserts of vapid prose.  This, and the inevitable language of optimistic self-improvement they employ (hence the fluffy verbiage), is what keeps you reading them–they tell you you’re extraordinary, that you possess Buddha-nature (if only you could see it!), and you want to believe, so you read and read and read and read.  If you’re a beginner, these are naturally the sorts of books you’ll start with, but if you don’t get beyond them you’re probably doomed to never learn anything you couldn’t have gleaned from the pages of Reader’s Digest.

Most of the best reading you’ll do will be by scholar-practitioners and hardcore dharma nuts.  People in both these groups really have something to say.  They are not looking for the next big seller; they know what meditation is about; they don’t have an organization to run (or if they do its supported by donors); and the scholar-practitioners especially are familiar with the original texts and the histories and can discuss them intelligently and practically.  Read as many of these (scholar-practitioner and hardcore) books as you can, but when particular issues become problematic for you or whet your interest, don’t be afraid of good scholars and their tomes, however weighty.  Some examples of excellent scholars and their work would be Steve Collins’ Selfless Persons, books by Richard Gombrich and Paul Williams, David Loy (Nonduality and others) and Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach among others.

Happy reading!

Karma This, Karma That…

I recently encountered someone online who described karma as a “theory,” or “thesis.”  Ironically, they also criticized Stephen Batchelor as doing a disservice to Buddhism.  I noted that the Buddha in Anguttara Nikaya 6.63 explicitly stated: “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and thought.”  Since I can see my intentions in real time (if I look), I therefore can see karma and, ipso facto, karma is not a theory but a lived fact, like breathing or farting or whatever.  For good measure, I quoted the Sutta Nipata where the Buddha defined karma as that which has consequences or results:

651-By action [kamma] is one a farmer, by action a craftsman,
By action is one a merchant, by action a servant,

652-By action is one a thief, by action a soldier,
By action is one a priest, by action a king.

I thought this made the stance of the historical Buddha as regards the definition of karma pretty clear.  But in response I was told that we do not see karma, only enlightened beings can do this.  I was also told karma is both cause and effect and the force that binds these together.  I was also told to get my head out of the Pali Canon.

I found these responses and the attitude they betrayed perplexing to say the least, and I’d like to take a moment to dissect what’s going on here.

First, let’s get back to Stephen Batchelor.  Batchelor is famous for his efforts to strip Buddhism of its mythology, dogma and old-fashioned delusions.  For this general program I applaud him, but he has a frightening tendency to confuse babies with bathwater.  When it comes to karma he kind of, almost, sort of gets it right, since in the chapter entitled “Rebirth” in his Buddhism Without Beliefs he quotes the above passage on the equation of karma and intention.  But then he goes on to spout silly and unjustifiable things, as when he claims on page 37 that karma is (just) an “ancient Indian metaphysical theory” and that “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…”  The first statement directly contradicts the definition of karma as intention (nothing theoretical there) and the second is simply false since if you can directly observe something it is a datum of experience and not something you need take on faith.

This misapprehension of the term karma seems to be a widespread problem, partly because not all Buddhists are even willing to acknowledge the quite straightforward definition of the term from the oldest texts—as in “get your head out of the Pali Canon.”  The inevitable result is vacuous assertions like “only enlightened people can see karma,” which is exactly the mindset Batchelor—quite rightly—criticizes.  In the case of my interlocutor, he clearly had an animus toward “narrow hinayanists,” not to mention a dislike for evidence that didn’t conform to his beliefs.   Such an attitude reflects a “true believer” mentality, since if we cannot experience something until the hoped-for day we get enlightened, then we have no choice but to accept the word of those who claim themselves enlightened.  This way of thinking reduces the Buddha’s teaching to a faith-based religion.

I loathe faith-based religions.  While I may with good reason accept a proposition as a working theory, I remain ever ready to toss it out if and when strong contrary evidence comes to light.  I treat a range of phenomena in this fashion, most notably the thesis of rebirth.  I accept rebirth for a variety of reasons, but I would not say I believe it.  I am willing to dispense with the notion; it just so happens that the balance of data I’ve encountered so far weighs in favor of it.  (When I went to Asia at age 23, I was quite firmly of the opinion rebirth/reincarnation did not happen.)

But I digress.  Back to karma.

Another point I made in the debate was that karma is cause, not effect.  I noted that vipaka (“fruit”) is the word the Buddha defined as the effect of karma; it is what happens as a result of my intentional action.  I was told this amounted to “an appeal to authority” and was therefore an illegitimate argument.

[Scratch head.]

Imagine you and I are playing Scrabble.  I disagree with your spelling of a word, or even doubt the word’s existence.  You suggest we look it up in Webster’s.  I then say “No dice!  That’s an appeal to authority.”  What should you do other than punch me?  I mean, really?  The issue here is not “authority.”  The issue is the definition and proper use of technical vocabulary, and it seems a great many people—especially when it’s something they’re emotionally vested in, like a religion—are inclined to making up definitions to suit themselves.

Think of the chaos that would ensue in daily life if everybody went about their affairs in this way.  Suppose you’re a Freudian analyst and one day, for amusement’s sake, you switch the meaning of the words “id” and “ego.”  How long will you last before you’ve lost everyone in the room?  How long will you last before you lose your board certification and are out of a job?

As in any endeavor, progress begins with learning the lingo.  It continues with clear and sincere motivations.  It is consummated when you are able to effectively communicate your realization, your understanding, to others in such a way that it helps them.  For this reason I find karma deniers and obfuscators among the most pernicious so-called Buddhists around.  They take a simple but very important idea and flog it until it submits to their ulterior motives.  This is not helpful.  It is bad karma.

Quick Guide To Reviews

I just wanted to quickly point out that I’ve added a tab for quick access to data on all the books I’ve reviewed.  Once there, you can download a spreadsheet showing the specs.  Over time this will grow to considerable size, with authors, titles, page numbers, my ratings, plus categorizations of whether books are core, secondary or tertiary in importance, and also what level–beginner, intermediate and advanced.  There is also information there about the subject matter.  This way you’ll be able to sort the spreadsheet and get where you need to go.

Quick Guide to Reviews

(I’m not sure what relevance the picture below has, but I like it….)

 

Outing an Ideological Vandal

I am very grateful to a certain Rahula #80 on Yahoo! for pointing out something to me: there is a guy/gal operating under many aliases–A.E. Hollingsworth, Kenneth L. Wheeler, Denise Anderson, AncientBuddhism, Shakya Aryanatta, Ven. Shakya Ariyana, Aryasatvan, and the Neoplatonic Platonist–whose chief purpose in life (online, at least) is to go around bashing (i.e. giving one star) any book whose writer does not propagate his/her particular brand of Buddhism.  This “brand” is what he or she (I’m going to assume it’s a he) calls “Aryan Buddhism”, and he manages a blog by that name. 

Now it is quite fine if you want to give a book one star on Amazon or wherever, but it is cheap to do so purely because you do not agree with the author’s opinions.  It is double cheap–indeed, a form of literary vandalism–if you log in 

"Intellect without discipline; power without constructive purpose." (aka vandalism)

under a variety of names and give multiple one star reviews to those you dislike.  This, apparently, is what the blogger at Aryan Buddhism has done.

Specifically, what Aryan Buddhist (as I shall call him) is perpetuating is the notion that the Buddha really taught a soul/self/atman behind the changing, suffering phenomena of the temporal self we all experience.  He does this by citing quotes from the Pali suttas where he gratuitously translates any instance of the word atta as referring to a Self (with a capital S of course–a signification not found in the texts), soul etc.  Here is an example (from his review of Selfless Persons by Steven Collins):

“Therefore, Ananda, stay as those who have the Self (attaa) as island, as those who have the Self as refuge, as those who have no other refuge; as those who have Dhamma as island, as those who have Dhamma as refuge, as those who have no other refuge.” – Mahaparinibbana Sutta

A more intelligent rendering of the passage is as follows:

Therefore, Ananda, you should live as islands [or “lamps”–the wording is ambiguous] unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge (D.16.2.26, trans. by Maurice Walshe). 

Clearly the Buddha here is enjoining self-reliance and intellectual independence; the passage is not at all a metaphysical pronouncement.  For the simple fact is that the word atta is no more ontological than the English word “self.”  Usually it is a reflexive or indefinite pronoun, such as in “talking to myself,” or “take care of yourself” etc.  Imagine if one went through Shakespeare and began capitalizing every self-reference, taking each as a metaphysical postulate.  Consider Polonius’ famous advice to his son: “To thine own Self be true…”  By such legerdemain we could transform Shakespeare from the Bard into the Oracle!  This is exactly what Aryan Buddhist (and his ilk) are doing.  (As far as the claim of Shakyamuni teaching a True Self goes: Sabbe dhamma anatta (Dhammapada 279)–“All phenomena are not-self.”  Dhamma here covers both mundane and supramundane phenomena, meaning nothing–not even nibbana–can be considered as Self or soul.  If you don’t believe me, take a three-month course of vipassana meditation and you’ll know this directly–no need to read about it.) 

As a side note: readers should be aware that the misspelling of atta in Aryan Buddhist’s quote above is typical of his lack of attention to punctuation, grammar, spelling, or anything else to do with literary craftsmanship.  Read a few blog posts, or the vitriol that he leaves on Amazon (examples are in my review of Selfless Persons), and you’ll see one ungrammatical phrase and misspelled or missing word after another.  And yet, this is apparently the same person who, on his blogger profile, describes himself as “a Pali translator… author of books & articles on Buddhism,” who “has spent countless thousands of hours and many years directed at the research of earliest Buddhism before either Theravada & Mahayana existed” etc.  Oddly, he also describes himself as a “Neoplatonic Platonist” (they’re called Neoplatonists, for Christ’s sake) and says “that to call oneself a ‘buddhist’ is self-degrading and implies superficial nihilistic Humanism.”  (In a comment on Aryan Buddhist’s snappily titled post “Cross-examination of Typical Scumbag “buddhists”. Or, Claims, Conjectures, and Feelings, but no Logic” luke.jmo makes a reasonable request: “You claim to be a published author on the subject of Buddhism, as well as getting paid to lecture on Buddhism. I’m very curious to know where you lecture, and where I could purchase your books.”  No comment in response is found.)

Needless to say, it is hard to read any of this with a straight face.  I find it disturbing though when I go to a website allegedly devoted to the Buddha’s teaching (even if wildly distorted in its interpretations) and find it sprinkled with Nazi swastikas (see left) and a picture of Julius Evola, a twentieth century Italian philosopher sympathetic to the kind of occultic, racialistic, anti-egalitarian drivel promulgated by the Nazis and Italian fascists.  (Harold Musson, aka Ñanavira Thera, about whom I’ve written extensively on this blog, translated one of Evola’s books on Buddhism, though later wrote of the work “I cannot now recommend [it]…without considerable reserves.”  For the full story, see my first post on Ñanavira here.)  Readers who meet up with Aryan Buddhist’s hostile reviews (one star), under whatever alias, should ignore them for the claptrap they are.  To date, I’ve found them on Amazon attacking these books:

On the other hand, our friendly neighborhood Buddhologist does like some things (five stars).  For example:

  • The Trouble With Textbooks by Gary Tobin (which apparently attacks “the hard left-wing agenda”)
  • MLF II Black Infantry Knife (in the review for which he says “I hate everything, but this knife gets 5 STARS”)
  • Arguing With Idiots by Glenn Beck

I think this last one pretty much tells you the story.

***UPDATE***

(12/27/2011) I have now been the honored recipient of three vitriolic screeds totalling almost six thousand words from none other than “Aryan Buddhist.”  (By comparison, my original post above was just over one thousand words.  Clearly he does not believe in measured responses.)  Moreover, he has apparently garnered yet another alias: “Kelly den Adel.”  Further updates will follow as events unfold…

***SECOND UPDATE***

(3/21/2012)  Aryan Buddhist has a new moniker!  Ulf Hansrimehr.  Below is his latest shot across my bow, posted on my “About Me” page:

Your blog is superficial twaddle and smacks of existentialist crypto-nihilism. In short, you’re a materialistic demon

To which I responded:

I’m leaving this post here for its entertainment value. This is, I have no doubt, the work of Aryasattvan, a sort of neo-fascist so-called Buddhist non-Buddhist whose chief work in life (or at least on the web) is running around trashing other people. I am, for the second time now, the honored recipient of his vile and invective. See my (very popular!) post “Outing an Ideological Vandal” at https://buddhistbooksblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/outing-an-ideological-vandal/ to get the full, juicy scoop on this rather sad, strange person.

Thoughts on Lewis Richmond’s “The Buddha’s Teachings About the Soul”

See here for Lewis Richmond’s article on Huffpost Religion, which I responded to.  I should first note that the word translated here as “soul” or “self” is the Pali atta (Sanskrit atman).  In the context of the suttas the word means neither exactly the soul as Christians, Jews and Muslims conceive it, nor exactly the ego of Western pychology.  It partakes of both senses, but is also used reflexively in the manner of “my self” in conversational usage.  The discourses referenced here are from the Abyakatasamyutta (S.44.10) and the Aggivacchagotta Sutta (M.72). 

Lewis Richmond has completely misconstru­ed the Buddha’s silence. Mr. Richmond says: “In some sermons, the Buddha seems to acknowledg­e the existence of a soul.” This he most certainly did not do. The Buddha was silent [S.44.10] because any answer to Vaccha’s questions would have allowed that they were legitimate questions, which they were not. They were the questions of a putthujjan­a, a “commoner” or “worldling­,” one whose entire worldview is informed by notions of self and other. Questions asked from such a point of view (ditthi) are absurd from the beginning, and any answer which treats them as anything but absurd will itself be absurd. (The same goes for questions of God’s existence or non-existe­nce.) The Buddha clearly illustrate­s this when, in a later sermon [M.72], he asks Vaccha if he would know that a fire, burning in dependence on grass, was in fact burning. Vaccha says he would. The Buddha then queries if it would be meaningful to ask which direction-­-north, south, east or west–the fire went after it died out from lack of fuel. Vaccha says the question would be wrongly put. So, too, the Buddha concludes, is asking about the self–abou­t whether it is, isn’t, both, neither, or where it goes after death, etc. Far from keeping “noble silence” on account of the Dhamma’s alleged mysterious­ness or transcende­nce, the Buddha refused to address problems that were, of their very nature, insoluble because they have no intelligible or meaningful solution.

Rebel Monk: The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (1920-1965) (Part 5)

Continued from Part 4…

Last Years

In the month after Sister Vajira’s departure, Ñanavira’s health took a definite turn for the worse.  He suffered a fresh attack of amoebiasis, with “increased abdominal discomfort, ‘hungry’ feeling in the afternoon…, specific tenderness about the region of the left end of the transverse colon, abdominal distension, increased quantity of mucus…, thick opaque mucus with traces of blood…, slightly increased constipation.”[1]  His symptoms included as well more general “lassitude and debility, especially in bad weather.”[2]  While he received treatment in April 1962, this apparently was inadequate, for the symptoms recurred in June and he was treated with a different drug, Entamide (Diloxanide).  This time the treatment was not only ineffective but also resulted in bizarre and unforeseen side effects.  He wrote to his doctor:

I have the impression that there is a continuous, though variable, specific stimulation, which, though no doubt neutral in itself (it is, indeed, disagreeable when observed dispassionately), is a pressing invitation to sensual thoughts.  I have never experienced anything like this before.[3] 

It got worse—much worse.

After two or three days [of taking the medication] I began experiencing a violent erotic stimulation, as if I had taken a very strong aphrodisiac.  If I lay down on the bed I at once started to enter upon an orgasm that could only be checked by a prodigious effort of attention to the breath, or else by standing up.  Even after stopping the course of treatment this persisted…[4]

This new affliction was satyriasis (the male equivalent of nymphomania)—defined by Webster’s as the “abnormal and uncontrollable desire by a man for sexual intercourse,” and aptly described by Stephen Batchelor as “a devastatingly inappropriate malady for a celibate hermit.”[5]  Three months later this erotic stimulation had decreased, “but it was still very far from normal”[6] and not improving.  Ñanavira’s plight had devolved into a Catch-22.  He noted: “This erotic stimulation can be overcome by successful samatha practice (mental concentration), but my chronic amoebiasis makes this particularly difficult for me.  So for me it is simply a question of how long I can stand the strain.”[7]

In November, the strain having become more than he could bear, he unsuccessfully attempted suicide by self-asphyxiation.  He remarked after the fact: “I should not have attempted suicide, nor still be regarding it (intermittently) as an immediate possibility, were it not for the additional strain of the erotic stimulation.”[8]  He wrote further:

I find that, under the pressure of this affliction, I am oscillating between two poles.  On the one hand, if I indulge the sensual images that offer themselves, my thought turns towards the state of a layman; if, on the other hand, I resist them, my thought turns towards suicide.  Wife or knife, as one might say.[9]

While for most readers this dilemma would appear the easiest and most natural to resolve, disrobing being the obvious and, in this case, a not dishonorable course of action, to Ñanavira that was “a layman’s view.”  He noted that “whereas it is known that monks have become arahats in the act of suicide, it is nowhere recorded that anyone has ever become arahat in the act of disrobing.”[10]  He cited specific instances in the Suttas of monks who due to various problems had chosen suicide as opposed to disrobing.  He wrote:

It is hard for laymen (and even, these days, for the majority of bhikkhus, I fear) to understand that when a bhikkhu devotes his entire life to one single aim, there may come a time when he can no longer turn back—lay life has become incomprehensible to him.  If he cannot reach his goal there is only one thing for him to do—to die (perhaps you are not aware that the Buddha has said that ‘death’ for a bhikkhu means a return to lay life…)[11]

(The reference here is to S.20.10: “For this, bhikkhus, is death in the Noble One’s Discipline: that one gives up the training and returns to the lower life” [Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, p. 711].)

Ñanavira’s suicidal tendencies were, it appears, strictly determined by his physical circumstances and not by the usual motives.  He says as much: “It is extremely depressing to be accredited with all sorts of motives—resentment, remorse, grief (‘a secret sorrow’), despair, and so on—that are totally absent.”[12]  He wrote extensively on the subject of suicide and was emphatic about why he felt it was a justifiable—perhaps even necessary—option for him.  “[F]or me the Dhamma is real, and it is the only thing that I take seriously: if I cannot practise the Dhamma as I wish, I have no further desire to live.”[13]  Moreover, he saw his attitude—and the course of action it might lead him to—as being “a necessary corrective to the prevalent blindly complacent view of the Dhamma as something to be taken for granted—that is to say, as a dead letter—; and I regard it almost as a duty to reflect this attitude in my writing, even at the risk of giving offence.”[14]

Ñanavira was certainly cognizant of the effect his words and the course of action he contemplated had—or might have—on others. 

[P]eople [he remarked] find it scandalous (though they cannot say so openly) that anyone should take the Buddha’s Teaching so seriously as actually to be willing to ‘lose his sense of proportion’ by living in solitude, and perhaps also to lose his life.  People want their Dhamma on easier terms, and they dislike it when they are shown that they must pay a heavier price—and they are frightened, too, when they see something they don’t understand: they regard it as morbid, and their one concern (unconscious, no doubt) is to bring things back to a healthy, reassuring, normality.[15]

He noted, too, the particular horror that most cultures—especially Western—had of suicide:

Such a gesture threatens to undermine the precarious security of Society, which is based on the convention that ‘life is worth living’.  Suicide puts in question this unquestionable axiom, and Society inevitably regards it with fear and suspicion as an act of treachery.  (It is customary, in England at least, for Coroners’ courts to give the verdict ‘Suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed’.  This insult automatically puts the victim in the wrong and reassures Society that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds…)  If the victim should fail in his attempt, Society takes its revenge upon his temerity by putting him in prison (where, presumably, he is expected to learn that, actually, life really is worth living).  Those, on the other hand, who can show good reason for ending their lives (the man, for example, with a political grievance) do not by their act put this convention in question, and they are therefore regarded as safe and perfectly respectable.[16]

But for many people, he speculated, his suicide (if it came to that) might not be the most controversial element of the situation.  The reality of the Buddha’s Teaching might be far more disturbing:

[T]hough a suicide for the sake of the Buddha’s Teaching would be bad enough, the real scandal would be if it became known that some person or other still living had reached one of the stages [i.e., sotapanna, sakadagami, anagami, or arahat].  People do not, in their heart of hearts, like to think it possible—the shock to their comfortable conventional ideas would be intolerable.[17]

This of course comes back again to his theme, oft-repeated throughout the letters, of “the present total divorce of the Dhamma from reality”,[18] of the refusal of too many people—even self-acknowledged Buddhists—to authentically examine their lives in the light of the Teaching, and then to act on the basis of that examination.

There are also the obvious ethical issues that suicide raises—would it not be akin to committing murder?  On this Ñanavira was less vocal simply because the ethics of suicide (in terms of the Buddha’s Teaching) are determined by one’s status as a puthujjana, sekha, or asekha (arahat), and it is not allowable under the Buddhist monastic discipline for a bhikkhu to make claims (even if true) of a higher status to anyone except another monk, preferably his teacher.  There is, thus, in many of Ñanavira’s discussions with his correspondents, a necessary degree of ambiguity regarding the ethical nature of his possible choice.  He did note, however, “that though [suicide] is never encouraged [in the Suttas] it is not the heinous offense it is sometimes popularly thought to be, and… the consequences of the act will vary according to circumstances—for the puthujjana [which Ñanavira was not] they can be disastrous, but for the arahat… they are nil.”[19]  This passage highlights Ñanavira’s in-between status as a sotapanna—i.e., as a sekha bhikkhu who was neither puthujjana nor arahat.  The Buddha, however, was not ambiguous about such a one’s destiny: “he is freed from [the possibility of] hell, the animal realm, and the domain of ghosts, freed from the plane of misery, the bad destinations, the nether world.”[20]  According to the Suttas then, a sotapanna committing suicide could expect human rebirth at worst, and his eventual destiny was not in doubt: “Bhikkhus, a noble disciple…is a stream-enterer, no longer bound to the nether world, fixed in destiny, with enlightenment [i.e. arahatta] as his destination.”[21]   

Finally, it should be noted that while Ñanavira could hardly have been content with his predicament, he was not unhappy with what life had dealt him.  In an undated letter (written sometime in 1964), to the new abbot of Vajirarama Temple in Colombo, he clarified his more general feelings about his life:

…I have no reason for dissatisfaction.  I have done what I did not expect to do, and so I am content.  Certainly, the age of forty-four is rather early to close the account, but when I left England at the time of the first Berlin crisis I told myself that if I managed to practise the Dhamma for even one year I should count myself fortunate.[22]

The beginning of 1963 found his amoebiasis “appreciably worse than three years ago”[23] and the nervous condition still with him.  He wrote, “it is distasteful for me to think of even a week more of this, and a year or over is out of the question.”[24]  However, he did manage a year, and more, during which he experienced one or two temporary revivals in his health, only to be followed by inevitable declines.  For a brief spell, he was plagued by heart palpitations, and then “ash skin” (a dry, scaly, itchy skin condition).  Only the ups and downs of his bowel condition—as the weather determined—seemed to be constant, along with the nervous affliction.  A mid-1964 Colombo visit to treat his skin and other conditions cured the former but “brought about no improvement”[25] in the latter.  Ñanavira’s morale, through all this, was “precarious,” and he felt himself sustained chiefly by his ushering Notes on Dhamma through its publication process and by his answering of inquiries into the issues his writings raised.  In response to those questions, he set about revising the Notes, and this too helped him pass the time.   

By 1965, Ñanavira had aged beyond his years.  Maugham, visiting him that January, said “[h]e looked tired and ill.”[26]  In a late 1964 letter to a friend, a monk who for a brief time lived nearby and studied with Ñanavira wrote: “This is an old man of 60.  He is in constant physical pain but he never shows it nor does the peace in his eyes ever change.  We spend many hours talking—rather he speaks and I learn.”[27]  Ñanavira was at the time a mere forty-four years old. 

On July 5, 1965, some time after 2:45 in the afternoon, a Bundala local brought Ñanavira an afternoon beverage.  The kuti was silent.  Its occupant lay still on the cement bed, in the traditional “lion posture”—lying on the right side, the right hand tucked under the head.  His other hand dangled to the floor, an empty vial beside it. 

Making one last use of his typical ingenuity, Ñanavira had rigged a cellophane facemask and then filled it with a sufficient quantity of ethyl chloride, an anesthetic given him to dull the pain of insect bites.  His passing would have been quick and painless. 

The villagers were devastated.  On the following day, they built him a funeral pyre eight feet high.  Women draped it with their finest saris.  Ñanavira’s ashes were interred by the kuti

In the months before his passing, Ñanavira had prepared his papers.  He left behind, among other things, an amended and expanded typescript of Notes on Dhamma, marked with the dates 1960-1965.  Two decades later, this manuscript would form the nucleus of a book of Ñanavira’s gathered correspondence and would be published by Path Press in Colombo in 1987 under the title of Clearing the Path: Writings of Ñanavira Thera 1960-1965.  The anonymous editors, Samanera Bodhesako (Robert Smith), a former editor at the Buddhist Publication Society inKandy,Sri Lanka, and Professor Forrest William of the University of Colorado, were supported in their meticulous and pain-staking labors by a grant from the Council on Research and Creative Work at the University of Colorado.  Sadly, Ven. Bodhesako died the next year, age forty-nine, from a sudden intestinal hernia.  With his demise, Path Press ceased to exist in any functional form, and Ñanavira’s book went out of print.

Afterword: Like a phoenix from the ashes, Path Press lives again, stronger than ever.  Please visit its site here.  Moreover, Notes on Dhamma has been reissued, and the complete Clearing the Path is in process of reissuance.  It’s about time: my copy, in addition to a significant printer’s error, suffers from a broken spine from over use.  I need a new one.     

Reissue of Notes on Dhamma

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
 
 
P.S. For those who would like a pdf of this biography, see here.
 


1. Ibid, p. 209.

2. Ibid, p. 522.

3. Ibid, p. 214.

4. Ibid, p. 522.

5. Stephen Batchelor, op. cit.

6. Clearing the Path, p. 522.

7. Ibid, p. 276.

8. Ibid, p. 226.

9. Ibid, p. 216.

10. Ibid, p. 524.

11. Ibid, p. 276.

12. Ibid, p. 222 fn (a).

13. Ibid, p. 283.

14. Ibid, p. 283-4.

15. Ibid, p. 376.

16. Ibid, p. 219.

17. Ibid, p. 376.

18. Ibid, p. 283.

19. Ibid, p. 219.

20. S.55:1.  Bhikkhu Bodhi (trans.), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p. 1788.

21. S.55:2.  Ibid, p. 1789.

22. Clearing the Path, p. 525.

23. Ibid, p. 225.

24. Ibid, p. 233.

25. Ibid, p. 380.

26. Robin Maugham, “I Solve the Strange Riddle of the Buddhist Monk from Aldershot,” The People (London: September 26, 1965).  Quoted in Clearing the Path, p. 540.

27. Quoted in Kingsley Heendeniya, “The legend of Bundala,” The Island, July 7, 2003 (http://www.buddhanet.net/budsas/ebud/ebdha256.htm).

Rebel Monk: The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (1920-1965) (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3

Three Visitors

In the summer of 1959 and on into the fall, Ñanavira’s health was much improved.  The improvement did not last, however, and by October he was suffering from “the local colitis that is common in dry weather.”[1]  Then in January of the following year, he was treated for symptoms of lymphatic filariasis, a mosquito-borne disease caused by microscopic worms that infect the human lymph system.  Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing more than a temporary distraction, and after an apparently successful treatment inColombo, Ñanavira returned to Bundala.

Sometime during 1960[2] Ñanavira’s mother came to see him.  Her husband having passed away she was alone and wanted her son to come back toEngland.  Through Ñanavira’s lay supporters it was arranged for her to come toSri Lanka, where she stayed at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel outsideColombo.  She and Ñanavira met somewhere in the city, probably atVajiraramaTemple.  By one account, she was “devastated by his pagan life” and shocked to see him as he ate with his hands from his alms bowl.  She pleaded with him to return toEngland; he refused.  She left and two weeks later inEngland she died of a heart attack.  When Robin Maugham, in early 1965, interviewed Ñanavira, he recorded Ñanavira’s recollection of his mother’s death:

 His voice was quite impassive as he spoke.  I find it hard to describe the tone of his voice.  Yet if I don’t I shall miss the whole point of the man I’d traveled so far to see.  There was no harshness in his tone.  There was no coldness.  There was understanding and gentleness.  And it was only these two qualities that made his next remark bearable.

‘My mother’s death didn’t worry me,’ he said.  ‘Even now, during this life, every moment we are born and die.  But we continue.  We take some other shape or form in another life.’[3]

In 1961 his kuti received yet another visitor.  Sister Vajira (the religious name of Hannelore Wolf) had been in the country since 1955, living most of her time, like Ñanavira, as a hermit.  Ñanavira later described her as “an extremely passionate and self-willed person, with strong emotions, and, apparently, something of a visionary.”[4]  She had read

Sister Vajira

a 1956 article written by Ñanavira entitled “Sketch for a Proof of Rebirth” that had been printed in the Buddha Jayanti and been impressed.  A correspondence ensued, but this lapsed after a short while.  In 1961 she asked to come see him to discuss Dhamma, and after the meeting the correspondence resumed.  Ñanavira sent her “A Note on Paticcasamuppada” and “Paramattha Sacca,” as well as several of the shorter notes he had written by that time.  In a later letter to a supporter, Ñanavira confessed that he “did not expect anything very much” to come of the correspondence, but he “found that she was giving attention to what [he] was saying.”[5]  Finally, by January 1962, her letters gave indication “that something might happen.”

Something did.

Shortly before the 21st of January, Sister Vajira, guided by Ñanavira’s letters and Notes, experienced an ecstatic breakthrough culminating in her attainment of sotapatti—she, too, became a sotapanna.  To Ñanavira she wrote: “I have lost a dimension of thought, at least to the degree [necessary] to grasp this matter…”[6]  In reference to this curious statement, Ñanavira remarked to a supporter “I am unable to see that it could have been written by a puthujjana, even if he were trying to deceive.  It would never occur to him to add the part about ‘losing a dimension of thought.’  One must actually have had the experience to know how exactly this describes it.”[7] 

Sister Vajira’s later letters confirmed Ñanavira’s suspicion concerning her transformation.  On the 23rd she wrote “…the moment I realized what it really means to be puthujjana, I ceased to be one.”[8]  In the margin of the letter Ñanavira scrawled: “This claim can be accepted.”[9]  She went on: “I won a victory over myself; and when I awoke this morning I had found refuge in the Dhamma, and I realized everything (or a great many things) that we had been discussing…  I begin now to discover the Dhamma.  I can just stay in one place and see everything passing before my eyes that I knew without knowing.  It is an entirely new landscape.”[10]

Sister Vajira’s experience, however, was so potent as to be at least temporarily destabilizing.  She went “off her head for a fortnight of joy”[11]—to use Ñanavira’s words—during which she lost a degree of self-control; a situation she herself had anticipated in her last letter.  As Ñanavira described the episode:

Things were now happening much too fast for me to keep up with them.  (It seemed—and seems—to me that she went through in about five days what took me three months and a half—though of course our circumstances were different—and I was quite unprepared for her subsequent behaviour, though she gave me notice of it at the end of the letter of the 23rd.)  Evidently what happened was that with the sudden release of the central tension all her compensating tensions found themselves out of work and began aimlessly expending themselves this way and that, and some time was required before she found a new position of stable equilibrium.  I asked the Ven. Thera for a report, and he replied (as I hoped he would) that although she had recovered she ‘seemed to be a changed person’.[12]

On February 22, 1962 “she was bundled out of the country”—deported—and returned to HamburgGermany.  There reports indicated she remained “a changed person,” but no longer had interest in the Dhamma or her Buddhist friends, something Ñanavira interpreted as “a good sign, not a bad one—when one has got what one wants, one stops making a fuss about it and sits down quietly.”[13]  Ñanavira concluded:

For my part I am satisfied (judging solely from the letters) that, however strange her behaviour may have seemed to her well-wishers in Colombo, there was nothing in it to contradict my opinion.  What you speak of as the ‘breaking point’ was (as I see it) no more than the entry into a particularly strong (and pleasurable) emotional state consequent upon the realization (which, at the beginning especially, can be breath-taking) that ‘nothing matters any more’.  I don’t suppose she was within a hundred miles of telling the people who were caring for her what the reason was for her condition. Certainly, her last letter, for all its emotional colouring, gives no suggestion that she is in any way unhappy or distressed, or even that she has any doubts about her new state.  And you will observe that I am quietly but firmly dismissed at the end of the letter. Whatever else happened, one thing is certain—she no longer finds herself in any way dependent upon me.  A psycho-analyst, at least, would be gratified with that result![14]

 (The story of Sister Vajira—aka Hannelore Wolf—is not a happy one.  See here for her biography.)

Continued in Part 5


1. Letter to Ñanamoli Thera, October 5, 1959 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1959).

2. This according to Robin Maugham, op. cit. p. 184.

3. Robin Maugham, p. 200.

4. Clearing the Path, p. 386.

5. Ibid, p. 385.

6. Ibid, p. 530.

7. Ibid, p. 387, fn. (a).

8. Ibid, p. 531.

9. Ibid, fn.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid, p. 390 fn. (b).

12. Ibid, p. 385-6.

13. Ibid, p. 386.

14. Ibid, p. 388.

Rebel Monk: The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (1920-1965) (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2

Stream Enterer

At this point a pause from our until now strictly chronological narrative is in order.  For the obvious question has to be asked, and answered: What happened?  What was this event that, simply judging by the content of the letters previously (to Ñanamoli) and subsequently (to various lay people), wrought such an interior transformation as to be the defining moment of Ñanavira’s life?

A little history behind this oddly written document is first in order.  The manuscript, a single page, was from the time of its writing kept in a sealed envelope in the kuti.  That it was written in Pali indicates its intended audience—other monks.  On the envelope exterior the following was written: “In the event of my death, this envelope should be delivered to, and opened by, the senior bhikkhu of the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa.  Ñanavira Bhikkhu.  20th September 1960.”[1}  However, in July 1964, while in Colombo for medical treatment, Ñanavira turned the envelope over to the new abbot of Vajirarama Temple and, for some reason, the letter was opened not long after and its contents read and discussed.  Thus, as Ñanavira described it later, “this rather awkward cat” got “out of the bag”—unintentionally, it seems—and became “semi-public property.”[2]  The public (such as it was) immediately began to debate the validity of the author’s claim.

To understand exactly what that claim was, a clarification of terms is obviously in order, for at this point even readers familiar with the terminology and stock phrases of the Suttas might be unsure exactly what was being claimed, and those entirely new to the subject are likely to be at least moderately bewildered.  The activity the author was engaged in that fateful night—“walking up and down”—was walking meditation, a practice used especially in the Theravadan tradition for the development of the four “foundations of mindfulness” (satipatthana) as prescribed by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta (M:10) and elsewhere.  In that sutta, the Buddha is quoted as saying:

…a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.  He abides contemplating feelings as feelings…  He abides contemplating mind as mind…  He abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects…[3]

This passage refers to the development of moment-to-moment awareness of 1) postures (standing, sitting, lying down, and, of course, walking), 2) sensations on and in the body, 3) mood states (happy, sad, attentive, dull, etc.), and 4) mental phenomena such as thoughts, images, memories, etc.  Thus, referring specifically to the mindfulness of postures, the Buddha says that “a bhikkhu is one who acts in full awareness when going forward and returning; …when looking ahead and looking away; …when flexing and extending his limbs…”[4] etc.  All activities should be encompassed by satisampajañña—“mindfulness and clear comprehension”—even defecating, urinating, and falling asleep.  Walking meditation is specifically for the development of this faculty in action

The author’s saying he “made his mind quite pure of constraining things” will be readily understandable to those readers who have some significant practice of meditation under their belts.  For after a while of practice there comes a time when the mind no longer wanders from its subject of meditation—it becomes firmly fixed in, absorbed by, that object.  This is a unitive state, highly pleasurable, in which self-consciousness is lost and there is only the act of attention.  At that point the mind is bright, supple, and very awake.  Ñanavira, obviously, had practiced assiduously and his mindfulness had attained a pitch sufficient for a breakthrough.

The critical passage here—and what amounts to a very bold claim—is “the clear and stainless Eye of the Dhamma arose in him,” a phrase found in various rewordings throughout the Suttas and Vinaya.  Thus, when Kolita (Mogallana), later one of the Buddha’s two chief disciples, heard the Dhamma from his friend Upatissa (Sariputta, the other chief disciple), and understood it, “there arose [in him] the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye.”[5]  The awakening of many other disciples is so described.

This “Eye of Dhamma” (dhammacakkhu) is almost always linked with the phrase: Yam kiñci samudayadhammam sabbam tam nirodhadhammanti.  (“Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing.”)  This is a stock phrase in the canon and is invariably associated with the direct seeing by the individual of paticcasamuppada (“dependent arising”), the arising and ceasing of self-consciousness, and the extinguishing (at least for an instant) of personally contrived experience.

In short, Ñanavira claimed to have become a sotapanna, or “stream enterer.”

More subtle details emerge from the sentence after the main paragraph: “Having been a teaching follower (dhammanusarin) for a month, he became one attained to right view (ditthipatta).”  A dhammanusarin is one in whom the faculty of insight (paññindriya) is most pronounced and who, having reflected upon the Teaching, has sufficiently understood it and has developed the meditative faculties (concentration, energy, etc.) necessary to enter upon the Path (magga).  On that Path, one becomes sotapanna; upon attainment of the “fruit” (phala) of the Path one is sotapanna.  Through that attainment, the dhammanusarin becomes ditthipatta.  The time between entering the path and attainment of the fruit varies from individual to individual.  It can be in a succession of moments, or, as in Ñanavira’s case, a month or more.  (It should be noted that this language—“path,” “fruit,” etc.—while perhaps poetic or picturesque, refers in fact to precise psychological states.  Indeed, the Suttas, in one way or another, are mostly devoted to the description of psychological states and the practical methods used to obtain and master these states.  The Buddha’s Teaching is, fundamentally, an applied psychology.)

Ñanavira’s quote from the Sutta Nipata serves as a reminder of what his singular achievement meant: the ariya (noble disciple) is no longer affected by the “writhing of views”; that is, he has no longer attachment to the beliefs and ideologies that the ordinary person, secular or religious, requires to support and define his or her personal world.  He has “arrived at assurance,” meaning his attainment is indubitable, a direct, reflective certainty.  Finally, the noble disciple no longer requires the guidance or teaching of another—not even the Buddha.  He has become, to a degree, an embodiment of the Teaching, having understood and seen it directly.  While with the sotapanna that embodiment is still mostly incomplete, it is sufficient to guarantee his knowledge of what is the Path and what is not, and to insure his practice accordingly. 

That Ñanavira was fundamentally altered by his experience there can be no doubt.  In his writings afterward, in the formal Notes and informal correspondence dating from 1960 on, there is no longer the wavering of opinion, the expressed doubts, the searching that so characterized his epistles to Ñanamoli.  While acknowledging the necessity for further work, he had found something so fundamental and definite that henceforth there could, for him, be no uncertainty as to what the Buddha had meant.  And thus, quoting from the Suttas, he could write with confidence: “There is… a path, there is a way by following which one will come to know and see for oneself: ‘Indeed, the recluse Gotama speaks at the proper time, speaks on what is, speaks on the purpose, speaks on Dhamma [“Truth”], speaks on Vinaya [“Discipline”].’”[6]

Notes On Dhamma

Sometime in 1960 Ñanavira began work on two formal writings that became “A Note on Paticcasamuppada” and “Paramattha Sacca.”  (These reside in chapters six and nine respectively of the present volume.)  Many shorter pieces followed, and by 1963 Ñanavira had, with the help of a number of lay people (particularly the Honorable Lionel Samaratunga), privately published a work entitled Notes on Dhamma (1960-1963).  Two hundred and fifty matt black, hardbound volumes were printed and distributed to universities, some bhikkhus and laity in Ceylon, and to a number of Buddhist societies in Germany, France, and the UK.  The response, overwhelmingly, was polite incomprehension, though a few discerning individuals expressed strong reactions—positively or negatively, or both together.  One was “provoked to a fit of indiscriminate xenophobic fury.”[7]  Various others described the book as “a fantastic system,” as “arrogant, scathing, and condescending,” and as “the most important book to be written in this century.”  Ñanavira described it as “both unpopular (learned) and unpopular (unorthodox)”[8] and admitted it was “vain to hope that it is going to win general approval.”[9]  He invoked Robert Graves, indicating that what Graves had said of his book, White Goddess, could be said of the Notes: “…a very difficult book, as well as a very queer one, to be avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired, or rigidly scientific mind.”[10]

Notes on Dhamma (1963 original typescript)

The book’s intent was twofold: First, to preserve the Buddha’s Teaching from the accumulated misunderstanding of centuries by pointing out texts and traditions that misinterpreted it.  “The Notes,” he said, “have been written with the purpose of clearing away a mass of dead matter which is choking the Suttas…”[11]  Its second aim was “to indicate (what for purposes of argument may be called) the proper interpretation of the Suttas.”[12]  This interpretation was, by its nature, practical, in that the Notes were “concerned only with the essential application of the Buddha’s Teaching…”[13]  The book was therefore not intended as a scholarly rendition, or mere description, of the contents of the Suttas.  If the first goal was negative—the elimination of needless, confusing baggage—the second then was positive—an indication of the correct way of understanding.

The book did not make for casual or light reading, and Ñanavira readily acknowledged its difficulties, especially for “‘objective’ or positivist thinkers [i.e., the “rigidly scientific”] who will not easily see what the book is driving at.”[14]  Ñanavira defended this aspect, however, by arguing that “the teaching contained in the Pali Suttas is (to say the least) a great deal more difficult—even if also a great deal more rewarding—than is commonly supposed; and the author is not of the opinion that Notes on Dhamma makes the subject more difficult than it actually is.”[15]

Inevitably, there were questions.  A number of those who read the book wrote to Ñanavira seeking clarification and further elaboration.  A voluminous correspondence between the author and his readers ensued.  Among these correspondents were a businessman, a British diplomat, a barrister, Ñanavira’s doctor, and a British Buddhist.  Tellingly, no monks either from Ceylon or abroad ever made a response.

In reading the correspondence once cannot help but be reminded of the old epistolary tradition, such as what is found in the New Testament, in which much personal reflection (philosophy, if you will) was carried on among small groups of sympathetic individuals, who thrashed out their visions of the world using a shared language of symbols and psychological terminology.  There is also, at times, something akin to a Buddhist apologetics in Ñanavira’s writings.  Like the early Christian apologists, who wrote to the pagan culture of ancient Rome, Ñanavira, in his letters, strove to build conceptual bridges from twentieth century secular thought to the more rarefied and timeless world of the Buddhist Suttas. 

Continued in Part 4


1. Ibid, p. 528, L. 97, n. 2.

2. Ibid, p. 381.

3. M:10.3.  Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (translators), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), p. 145.

4. M:10.8.  Ibid, p. 147.

5. From Vinaya Mahavagga I.23.5, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (www.accesstoinsight.org/canon/vinaya/mv1-23-5.html).

6. D.8:13.  Translation by original editors, Clearing the Path, p. 495.

7. Ibid, p. 166.

8. Ibid, p. 451.

9. Ibid, p. 353.

10. Ibid, L.131 (See note 10 above.)

11. Ibid, p. 339.

12. Ibid, p. 338.

13. Ibid, p. 290 fn. (ii).

14. Ibid, p. viii.

15. Ibid.

Rebel Monk: The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (1920-1965) (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

The Search

Harold settled his affairs in England; most importantly, he took steps to get his by then finished manuscript of Evola’s book to potential publishers.  (It finally saw publication by Luzac in 1951, long after the author was already gone.)  By one account the two men went first to India in November 1948 where they spent three months with the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta, a religious order founded by Ramakrishna Parahamsa, India’s most popular nineteenth century saint.  They left the mission dissatisfied, though, and came to Ceylonon an exploratory venture.  (This account is according to Kingsley Heendeniya, a doctor-friend and supporter of Ñanavira, who to this day writes columns on Buddhism in various Sri Lankan publications.  However, I was unable to confirm his version of events.)  They ended up finally at the Island Hermitage in Dodanduwa where, on April 24, 1949, they were ordained as samaneras (novice monks) by the abbot, the famous German monk, Nyanatiloka.  Harold received the ordination name of  Ñanavira and Moore the name Ñanamoli. 

Ven. Ñāṇavīra and Ven. Ñāṇamoli

Ñanamoli possessed a scholarly bent, and would live out the remaining years of his life at the Hermitage, his reputation as one of the most renowned translators of Pali literature cemented by his translation of the massive fifth century Sinhalese commentary, the Visuddhimagga (published as The Path of Purification).  (In a letter dated December 2, 1954, Ñanavira, recalling Dante as the man who had been to Hell and lived to tell the tale, joked that Ñanamoli would “in time… be regarded with… awe as the man who read the Vissudhi Magga and lived to translate it.”[1])  Ñanavira went to study under Palane Siri Vajirañana Maha Nayaka Thera, the abbot at Vajirarama Temple in Colombo (Ceylon’s largest city and capital).  There he received the upasampada, or higher ordination as a fully ordained bhikkhu (monk) the following year.  His aspirations were more contemplative than Ñanamoli’s, and when he returned to the Island Hermitage he devoted as much time as possible to the practice of meditation (anapanasati).

In 1951 he experienced the first of many notably “third world” complications to his new life: he contracted typhoid.  While he eventually recovered, he seems never to have fully regained his health, for not long after he was infected by amoebiasis, a malady that would plague him for the rest of his life. 

Amoebiasis, also known as amoebic dysentery, is a type of gastroenteritis caused by the protozoa Entamoeba histolytica, and is typically spread by water contaminated with feces, or (as seems most likely in Ñanavira’s case) by contaminated hands touching food that is then consumed.  What is actually transmitted from host to host are cysts of the protozoa that, once they invade the small intestine, release active amoebic parasites which then enter the large intestine, causing tiny ulcers.  About ten percent of the world’s population is infected, making it the third most common cause of death by parasitical infection.  However, ninety percent of carriers are, fortunately for them, asymptomatic—that is, they don’t even know they have it.  For those unfortunates in whom the disease manifests itself, symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood and mucus in the stool, and distension of the bowel.  In extreme cases the disease can spread to the liver, lungs and brain.

Thanks to this affliction, Ñanavira found that the state of the weather had a direct effect on his bowels and energy level: dry weather energized him, wet weather drained him.  The weather at Island Hermitage is typically rainy and humid, so he was forced to seek some other place of residence.

Even while Ñanavira was away from the Hermitage on scouting expeditions for a new dwelling place, he and Ñanamoli maintained a vigorous correspondence wide-ranging in its subject matter, including twentieth century philosophy, translation of critical Buddhist terminology, logic, even quantum physics.  The point of their efforts was to build a conceptual bridge that would enable them to grasp the meaning of the Buddhist Suttas (discourses of the Buddha), and for this purpose they found the writings of the existentialists (e.g. Jean-Paul Sartre) and phenomenologists (e.g. Edmund Husserl) to be more helpful than anything else they had encountered.

What emerges from this correspondence (the bulk of which is dated between 1954 and 1959) is a picture of Ñanavira as a man intensely wrestling with the views and practices the Buddhist texts presented him with, trying to clarify them in terms he could understand.  At first—“in those innocent days” as he later told it—he looked to the traditional commentaries on the Suttas for clarification, but as he compared what the Suttas said to what the commentaries said about the Suttas, he came more and more to doubt their accuracy.  Thus by 1955 he would write to Ñanamoli that “the Vissudhi Magga (or so I consider) is not the Buddha’s Teaching”[2]—an opinion that in Ceylon (both then and now), was practically heretical, that text being the most comprehensive single commentarial work, and written in Ceylon to boot.  By that time too he had begun to doubt the commentarial “three life” interpretation of one of the most important of Buddhist teachings: paticcasamuppada, or “dependent arising.”  However, as late as February 1959 he was still uncertain as to what extent he agreed—or disagreed—with the commentaries on this point.  These uncertainties, however, would shortly come to an abrupt end.

A letter to Ñanamoli dated February 2, 1955 indicates an initial foray into the hot southern “dry zone” region of the island, an area known as Hambantota.  He remarked to Ñanamoli: “I don’t like this kind of weather, but apparently it likes me…”[3]  The next two years were spent mostly at various caves and hermitages in the area, none of which particularly pleased him.  (He described one as “a nightmare” and “a mockery of the monk’s life.”[4])  Finally, by no later than June of ’57, he settled into a kuti (a small house) at Bundala in Hambantota, an ancient village whose inhabitants were, according to local lore, descended from the washerwomen of a certain king of Sri Lanka who reigned some fifteen hundred years earlier.  The kuti, built by lay supporters, nestled in the Bundala forest reserve (now a national park), a wilderness inhabited by elephants, leopards, boar, monkeys and, of course, plenty of snakes (especially Russell’s vipers, or polonga as they are locally called, and cobras).  It consisted of a single room, eight feet square, and entered by a twelve-foot long corridor built for walking meditation.  A stone bed, a table, a chair and some books furnished the room.  A latrine and earthen water storage structure were built nearby.

Bundala Kuti (Aug. 2006)

Thus it happened that the young man who had grown up wealthy in an English mansion would spend the rest of his life in this little wilderness retreat, supported by lay supporters (dayakas) in Colombo and by the alms offerings (dana) of faithful villagers.  In a later letter to one of his Colombo dayakas, he wrote of his abode: “Compared with the senasana or resting place of bhikkhus in former days, this kuti is a well-appointed and luxurious bungalow, and the conditions of life here easy and soft.  As regards solitude, however, this place seems to accord with the Buddha’s recommendations…that it should be neither too near nor too far from a village, that it should be easily approachable…, and that it should be free from mosquitoes and snakes and other such creatures.  I do not think it would be easy to find a better place for practice of the Buddhadhamma—but for that, alas! it also needs good health.”[5]

Ñanavira’s health at this point was never good even on the best of days, and due to the now chronic affliction of his bowels, he found seated meditation difficult.  Despite apparently undergoing frequent treatments for the disorder (his letters after 1960 detail some of the treatments and discussions with his doctors concerning his condition) recoveries were typically short-lived and often interrupted by poor weather or reinfections.  He therefore took to walking meditation for the development of mindfulness.  In this he made progress—so much so that, on the 27th of June 1959, something extraordinary occurred.  Writing in the language of the scriptures, Pali, and imitating their characteristically repetitive cadence, he described the event that permanently altered him:

At one time the monk Ñánavíra was staying in a forest hut near Bundala village.  It was during that time, as he was walking up and down in the first watch of the night, that the monk Ñánavíra made his mind quite pure of constraining things, and kept thinking and pondering and reflexively observing the Dhamma as he had heard and learnt it.  Then, while the monk Ñánavíra was thus engaged in thinking and pondering and reflexively observing the Dhamma as he had heard and learnt it, the clear and stainless Eye of the Dhamma arose in him: “Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing.”

Having been a teaching-follower for a month, he became one attained to right view.  (27.6.59)[6]

 Accompanying this paragraph were several texts, also in Pali, from the Canon itself.  One, from the Sutta Nipata (verse 55), bears repeating:

“I have gone beyond the writhing of views.

With the path gained, I have arrived at assurance.

Knowledge has arisen in me and I am no longer to be guided by another.”

[Knowing this,] let him fare lonely as a rhinoceros horn!

Five days later, he wrote to Ñanamoli: “I have now entered one of my non-letter-writing moods, and so I shall not reply in detail at present to your rather meaty letter.”[7]  Nowhere else in the course of their correspondence (as we have it) had he written anything like this, and Ñanamoli was never to know the reason for it.  The letters from Ñanavira petered out, the last dated January 11, 1960.  As he remarked in a later letter to a supporter, he found continuation of the correspondence “pointless.  There was no longer anything for me to discuss with him, since the former relationship of parity between us regarding the Dhamma had suddenly come to an end.”[8]

The correspondence never resumed.

On March 8, 1960, Ñanamoli, having completed his magnum opus translation of the Visuddhimagga, went on a walking tour with the abbot of Island Hermitage.  In some little back of beyond he passed away from coronary thrombosis.  His body was transported by bullock cart to a hospital, and later to Colombo for the funeral.

Continued in Part 3


1. Letter to Ñanamoli, December 2, 1954 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1954).

2. Letter to Ñanamoli, March 7, 1955 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1955).

3. Letter to Ñanamoli, February 24, 1955 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1955).

4. Letter to Ñanamoli, undated.  Probably March or April of 1954.  (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1954).

5. Clearing the Path, p. 287.

6. Ibid, p. 495.  Translation by the original editors of Clearing the Path.  I have slightly modified their sutta verse translation (below) for the sake of clarity.

7. Letter to Ñanamoli, July 2, 1959 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1959).

8. Clearing the Path, p. 386.

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