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The Magic of the Mind by Bhikkhu Ñánananda

The Magic of the Mind: An Exposition of the Kalakarama Sutta by Bhikkhu Ñánananda.  Buddhist Publication Society 1997, 92 pages.

I suppose I should start by noting that the author was my teacher during my brief career as a samanera (novice monk) in Sri Lanka, and on account of this fact I think I’m well placed to remark on his credentials.  They are, in brief, impeccable.  The Venerable Author is not only an amazingly erudite man (the consensus among his students was he probably spoke Pali in his sleep) but, I would wager, enlightened to some degree as well.  (Monks, of course, don’t generally talk much about what they’ve attained except with their teachers, though this thought, too, was general consensus among his students.  What he knew seemed to go well beyond the stuff of books.)

This little tome, which stands as a good introduction to the author’s thinking, may be short on pages but is long–and weighty–as regards content.  While the work is ostensibly an exposition of an obscure and dense little sutta, that sutta is used as a lens with which to peer into the heart of the Buddha’s teaching.  And the author’s razor-sharp eyes see far indeed.

Ven. Ñánananda starts off with a wonderful and illustrative story of a magic show, wherein two friends see the same show but come away feeling very differently about it.  For one has been taken in and tricked by the magician’s sleight-of-hand while the other has not–he watched the show from backstage, and saw exactly how the”magic” worked.  The response of the first is naive infatuation and excitement, while that of the second disinterest and detachment.  These two responses correspond quite nicely with the response of the worlding (putthujjana) and the noble disciple (arya) who has escaped the world’s fetters.  The remainder of the book elaborates this basic dichotomy between ignorance and knowledge as it applies to the Buddha’s teaching.

In the course of the work many of the author’s favorite topics are touched on: the meaning of dependent arising, the “vortical interplay” of consciousness and its object (name-and-form), the self as a “point-of-view,” the beguiling nature of concepts and the ideologies we construct from them, and, finally, an exploration of the consciousness of the liberated person, the arhant.  For those of you who have read, or will read, the author’s earlier and more substantive work, Concept and Reality, this topical list should appear familiar, for he returns to many of the same themes there.  Clearly, these are critical concepts in the Buddha’s teaching, and Ven. Ñánananda discusses them with a degree of insight you rarely encounter in popular dharma books.  It is not often either that today’s popular pundits have anything near the wealth of scriptural knowledge this author brings to bear; he knows the illustrative passages and discusses them in a way that illuminates and places them in context.  The Buddha’s teaching, it seems, is far more than the typical lists you see repeated verbatim now here, now there: three marks, four noble truths, five khandhas, six sense bases, seven factors of enlightenment, eightfold path, etc.  In this little book you get a taste of the meaty substance of the Dhamma, and a glimpse the genius of the Buddha.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

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