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Archive for the tag “paticcasamuppada”

Clearing the Path by Ñāṇavīra Thera

Clearing the PathClearing the Path (1960-1965) by Ñāṇavīra Thera. Path Press Publications 2010, 621 pages.
How does one review a book that, arguably, is the most influential book in your life?  Well, I’ll start by directing readers to my bio of Ñāṇavīra.  This, better than anything I could say in this review, will prep you for the work itself.  But of course, a few words on that are presently in order…
I don’t actually recall how/when I first encountered Ñāṇavīra’s writings.  So, I can’t say how they struck me at the time.  But I can say that for a while–a good many years, in fact–they basically defined the Buddha’s teaching for me.  What purpose, exactly, did these amazing and unique documents fulfill in my thinking?
First, they directed me to the suttas and away from that which would interpret them for me (think the Commentaries) or pretend to supersede them (the later schools, Mahayana, etc).  And while my range in Buddhism has broadened considerably since then, I still think that if your interest is to know what the historical Buddha said this is a healthy attitude to have.  If it’s just any kind of spiritual thought or practice you’re after, there are a great many out there to satisfy you, but if your intention is to get to know Shakyamuni Buddha, the Pali canon (but not all of it!) is where you’ve got to go.  All others are pretenders and wannabes.
So Ñāṇavīra pointed me to the original texts.  But he also, to my mind, illuminated them like nobody else ever has.  In his writings there is a combination of integrity, clarity, rigor and exactness that is rarely found in spiritual writing, even the best.  The man had a first rate head on his shoulders, a wry wit, and the writerly chops to get it all across in the best style possible.  Not to mention the fact that he wrote from actual meditative attainment (i.e. sotapatti, meaning stream entry) and so knew first hand something of the Buddha’s teaching and how the texts related to that attainment.
Another notable aspect of Ñāṇavīra’s writings is his relating of the Buddhist suttas to twentieth century European philosophy—specifically existentialism and phenomenology.  This is not to say he thought Sartre & Co had somehow discovered the Dhamma on their own, but rather he noted that their perspective on the human situation mirrored the Buddha’s own position to an uncanny degree and so, for many Westerners at least, might offer a door in to the Stream.  I think there is little to argue about in this regard–that is, the case, I’d say, is pretty well proven.  So those who come to the Buddha’s teaching from an existentialist or phenomenological position might find more that is familiar than they would expect.  Ñāṇavīra pointed this out to me, and through this understanding I found myself adopting a different attitude with a consequently greater appreciation for the existentialists.Beyond mere intellectual illumination though there is also Ñāṇavīra’s wrestling with questions of life and death.  He lived, for the better part of a decade, with ill health, chronic discomfort, and the prospect that his solitary enterprise as a Buddhist monk might be go down to defeat on account of intestinal parasites.  As a result, his writings discuss with startling matter-of-factness the possibility of his death by suicide on this account, and what such a death might mean within the context of Buddhadhamma.  As one reads, the omnipresent possibility—indeed, inevitability—of his end weighs in the background, lending a degree of drama.But what about the contents?  What comprises this unique text? Clearing the Path has been described as a “workbook,” and it is certainly is that.  You should know though that it is not a single piece, but consists of one major original work—Notes on Dhamma, written to illuminate certain critical terms  in the suttas–and a slew of letters to correspondents who came to Ñāṇavīra with questions about life, the Dhamma, and the meaning of it all.  One piece, entitled Fundamental Structure, is rather forbidding and opaque–something like a mathematical proof.  Readers are advised to leave it for last and not to get their hopes up too high as for understanding it; I confess I grasped portions, but large swathes escaped me.

Which leads me to my one cautionary note: this book is for advanced Dhamma students only.  People unfamiliar with basic Pali terminology and/or Buddhist thought will be hopelessly lost.  I should also add it is not, primarily, a meditation manual; its principle thrust is the philosophical under girdings of the the historical Buddha’s thought as it is found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school.  If you’re looking for some other Buddhist school, this will not be your cup of tea.

I leave you with a few snippets–mere appetizers–of writing from the sage of Bundala:

Existential philosophies, then, insist upon asking questions about self and the world, taking care at the same time to insist that they are unanswerable.  Beyond this point of frustration these philosophies cannot go. The Buddha, too, insists that questions about self and the world are unanswerable, either by refusing to answer them or by indicating that no statement about self and the world can be justified.  But—and here is the vital difference—the Buddha can and does go beyond this point: not, to be sure, by answering the unanswerable, but by showing the way leading to the final cessation of all questions about self and the world. Let there be no mistake in the matter: the existential philosophies are not a substitute for the Buddha’s Teaching—for which, indeed, there can be no substitute.  The questions that they persist in asking are the questions of a puthujjana, of a “commoner,” and though they see that they are unanswerable they have no alternative but to go on asking them; for the tacit assumption upon which all these philosophies rest is that the questions are valid. They are faced with an ambiguity that they cannot resolve. The Buddha, on the other hand, sees that the questions are not valid and that to ask them is to make the mistake of assuming that they are.  One who has understood the Buddha’s Teaching no longer asks these questions; he is ariya, “noble,” and no more a puthujjana, and he is beyond the range of the existential philosophies; but he would never have reached the point of listening to the Buddha’s Teaching had he not first been disquieted by existential questions about himself and the world (from the Preface).

At the time I read [Joyce’s Ulysses]—when I was about twenty—I had already suspected (from my reading of Huxley and others) that there is no point in life, but this was still all rather abstract and theoretical. But Ulysses gets down to details, and I found I recognized myself, mutatis mutandis, in the futile occupations that fill the days of Joyce’s characters. And so I came to understand that all our actions, from the most deliberate to the most thoughtless, and without exception, are determined by present pleasure and present pain. Even what we pompously call our “duty” is included in this law—if we do our duty, that is only because we should feel uncomfortable if we neglected it, and we seek to avoid discomfort. Even the wise man, who renounces a present pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure in the future, obeys this law—he enjoys the present pleasure of knowing (or believing) that he is providing for his future pleasure, whereas the foolish man, preferring the present pleasure to his future pleasure, is perpetually gnawed with apprehension about his future. And when I had understood this, the Buddha’s statement, “Both now and formerly, monks, it is just suffering that I make known and the ceasing of suffering” (M.22:38), came to seem (when eventually I heard it) the most obvious thing in the world—“What else,” I exclaimed, “could the Buddha possibly teach?”  (pp. 404-5).

Suffering (dukkha) is the key to the whole of the Buddha’s Teaching, and any interpretation that leaves suffering out of account (or adds it, perhaps, only as an afterthought) is at once suspect. The point is, that suffering has nothing to do with a tree’s self-identity (or supposed lack of self-identity): what it does have to do with is my “self” as subject (I, ego), which is quite another matter…  As I point out…, “With the question of a thing’s self-identity (which presents no difficulty) the Buddha’s Teaching of anatta has nothing whatsoever to do: anatta is purely concerned with ‘self’ as subject.” But this is very much more difficult to grasp than the misinterpretation based on the notion of flux, so flux inevitably gets the popular vote (like the doctrine of paramattha sacca, of which it is really a part). The misinterpretation is actually of Mahayanist origin; and in one of their texts (Prajñaparamita) it is specifically stated that it is only on account of avijja that things appear to exist, whereas in reality nothing exists. But the fact is that, even when one becomes arahat, a tree continues to have a self-identity; that is to say, it continues to exist as the same tree (though undergoing subordinate changes on more particular levels—falling of leaves, growth of flowers and fruit, etc.) until it dies or is cut down. But for the arahat the tree is no longer “my tree” since all notions of “I” and “mine” have ceased (p. 175).

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.  Grove Press 1959/1974.  151 pages.

I suspect more people have been introduced to Buddhism through this book than any other—and that is a very good thing.  If any single volume can be called “core,” “fundamental,” “indispensable,” it’s this one.  Why?  I think it is Rahula’s uncommon combination of simplicity, clarity, directness, and accuracy that makes him such a good writer and this book so reliable and accessible.  Basically, if you’ve not read this book—regardless of whatever else you may have read—you are assuredly missing something.

Over the past twenty years the number of introductory works on Buddhism has exploded.  While not as mainstream as yoga, Buddhism is now “out there”—i.e. out and about, in plain view—and “in here”—meaning affecting peoples’ lives and thoughts, even if they don’t know it.  The need for a work that is at once timeless and contemporary, personally affecting and objectively critical, is more pressing than ever, and What the Buddha Taught (1959) has fulfilled and continues to fulfill these needs.

The author Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) was a Sri Lankan monk in the Theravadan tradition.  Among his other books are History of Buddhism In Ceylon and Zen and the Taming of the Bull; in his capacity as Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in Chicago, he became the first Buddhist monk to hold a professorial chair in the Western world.  On a more personal note: in 1990 I had an opportunity to meet Venerable Rahula but at the time, having only recently arrived in Sri Lanka, I was suffering from a bad case of diarrhea and general disorientation and so passed on the chance—something I’ve always regretted.

The book is built around the Four Noble Truths, which are the subject of chapters two through five.  The first chapter, entitled “The Buddhist Attitude of Mind,” starts off rather provocatively with the assertion “man is supreme.”  Right off the bat, the Buddha’s non-theistic (note: not atheistic) thought is emphasized, its difference from Western forms of religion made plain.  Remember: Rahula grew up under British colonial rule, and as a Sinhalese Buddhist would no doubt have confronted the imperial assertion of Christian supremacy many times.  (Clearly, he was unimpressed.)  As Rahula puts it:

Among the founders of religions the Buddha…was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple.  Other teachers were either God, or his incarnations in different forms, or inspired by him.  The Buddha was not only a human being; he claimed no inspiration from any god or external power either.  He attributed all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavor and human intelligence (1).

Granted the previous four hundred years of Western (read Christian) cultural ascendancy, this is a heady and defiant statement.  And I know from observation and experience that humanity can fairly well be divided into two groups: either they are offended, appalled and repulsed by such a thought, or they are intrigued, inspired and encouraged.  Upon my very first reading of this book, I knew to which camp I belonged.

In this first chapter Rahula deftly lays out basic attitudes of Buddhist culture: the requirement of responsibility for one’s actions (karma), freedom and openness of thought, the necessity of critical inquiry (cf. the Kalama Sutta), tolerance, non-violence, the distinction of faith not as belief but as intelligent devotion and trust.  Here too we encounter the vital principle of empirical verification and the Buddha’s disdain for metaphysical speculation unconnected to the problem of suffering and its cessation.  Rahula is somehow able to touch upon and clarify all these themes in a mere fourteen pages, and to do so while quoting liberally from the suttas (in easy to read, modern English translations, no less!).  Talk about economy!  That is why this book easily bears multiple re-readings so well—there is so much compacted into so little space, and yet never does one feel like drowning.  (Quite the contrast from the Paul Williams book I just read!)

I’ll briefly outline topics dealt with in the four core chapters:

  • Chapter two—first noble truth: definition of dukkha, the five aggregates, question of origins, charges of pessimism;
  • Chapter three—second noble truth: definition of tanha, four nutriments, karma, question of Self/soul;
  • Chapter four—third noble truth: definition of nibbana (nirvana), what happens to a Buddha after death?, who realizes nirvana?;
  • Chapter five—fourth noble truth: definitions of the eight limbs of the path.  If I have any significant criticism of the book, it falls on this section, which, considering its importance is given rather short shrift.

Chapter six discusses anatta.  Rahula notes the idea’s uniqueness and relates it to the teachings of the five aggregates and conditioned genesis.  Regarding the latter, he achieves the remarkable feat of actually getting what he says right (easier said than done when it comes to paticcasamuppada, which not only is the core of the Buddha’s Teaching but also notoriously difficult to grasp) and by not diluting his discussion with the later commentarial muck of the “three lives” interpretation.  He notes also the perennial effort of various people, even noted scholars (e.g. Caroline Rhys-Davids, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and George Grimm), to insert a higher metaphysical Self into the Buddha’s teaching.  Rahula offers some excellent advice to such folks:

It is better to say frankly that one believes in an Atman or Self.  Or one may even say that the Buddha was totally wrong in denying the existence of an Atman.  But certainly it will not do for any one to try to introduce into Buddhism an idea which the Buddha never accepted, as far as we can see from the extant original texts (56).

He proceeds to supply an abundance of textual support for anatta and to point out that its naysayers typically defend their position by mistranslating common instances of atta (as in “myself” or “yourself”) as Self (with a capital S, of course).

Chapter seven concerns bhavana, or “mental culture.” Rahula describes the differences between concentration and insight meditations, and offers simple guidance for the practice of anapanasati—mindfulness of breathing.  This chapter (specifically the instructions on pp. 69-70) had an especial effect on me in my first year in college, when by simply following the text I was able to cure myself of a prolonged bout of insomnia. Rahula concludes his text proper with a chapter on the relevance of the Buddha’s teaching for people today.

The remaining one third of the book consists of very readable and reliable translations of selections from the Pali canon.  Included here are the Buddha’s first sermon (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the so-called Fire Sermon, the Metta Sutta (“Discourse on Loving Kindness”), the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Sigalovada Sutta, and selections from the Dhammapada.  All of these are foundational texts and excellent examples of Buddhist thought, offering just enough so the reader will have a sense of what he or she is getting into.  Venerable Rahula has, in effect, opened a door for would-be seekers of truth.  After reading this marvelous book, it is then their choice whether they walk through it or not.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


Buddhist Thought by Paul Williams et al

Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul Williams et al.  Routledge 2000, 323 pages.

This is one of the better (I hesitate to say “best”) surveys of Buddhist intellectual history I’ve read.  As such I’d say it’s good for relative—i.e. not total—beginners.  The author, Paul Williams, is a British academic with many publications under his belt, but is perhaps best known for his Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, often used as a textbook in Buddhist studies.  (A second edition of the 1989 original is imminent.)  The writing, while intelligent and at times demanding, is not so academic as to be stultifying.  Williams even displays a bit of English wit now and then.

I always appreciate illuminating passages, no matter what the sort of book I’m reading happens to be.  I mean the sort that make you snatch out a pen and scribble something next to it, or underline a sentence or paragraph.  There are quite a few in this book, particularly, I’d say, in the first two chapters, which make up 40% of the book’s text proper.

Chapter one, entitled “The doctrinal position of the Buddha in context,” offers an excellent starting point.  Indeed, some things said here need to be remembered by everyone venturing into the world of Buddhism.  Consider the following from pages 2-3:

Buddhism is thus…concerned first and foremost with the mind, or, to be more precise, with mental transformation, for there are no experiences that are not in some sense reliant on the mind.  This mental transformation is almost invariably held to depend upon, and to brought about finally by, oneself for there can also be no transformation of one’s own mind without on some level one’s own active involvement or participation.

How different the history of the world would be if every religion and philosophy understood and acted upon this seemingly simple and self-evident truth!

This section discusses the historical background of Brahmanism and shramanism, smartly noting that any characterization of the Buddha as a “Hindu reformer” is anachronistic at best (8).  Williams points out that the story of the Buddha’s life demonstrates what is most important in his teachings.  For starters, unlike in Christianity, the message (Dharma/Dhamma) is preeminent over the messenger (the Buddha).  The Buddha was just a man who found Dharma; it is Dharma that really counts.  You can have Dharma without the Buddha, but you cannot have the Buddha without Dharma.  Williams’ discussion of elements in the Buddha’s hagiography and how it exemplifies and illuminates the Teaching is one of the most insightful and satisfying I’ve read on this subject.

The second chapter also considers “mainstream Buddhism” (i.e. non-Mahayana) and is entitled “A Buddha’s basic thought.”  Williams does a good job here, except a few stumbles (more on this below); in fact, his approach is unique in ways.  On 60ff he does a wonderful job debunking the notion the Buddha posited a Self outside the five aggregates:

On the basis of [the Buddha’s discussion of the aggregates] there are those who consider that all the Buddha has done here is to show what is not the Self.  I confess I cannot quite understand this.  If the Buddha considered that he had shown only what is not the Self, and the Buddha actually accepted a Self beyond his negations, a Self other than and behind the five aggregates, fitting the paradigmatic description for a Self, then he would surely have said so.  And we can be quite sure he would have said so very clearly indeed.  He does not (60).

This passage illustrates another aspect of Williams’ writing I find admirable—a sort of humble, commonsensical honesty that is rarely displayed in writing by scholars.  I think many would be sympathetic, for example, when he says (on page 68) “…it is not at all obvious in detail what the twelvefold formula for dependent origination actually means.”  And I liked it even better when he wrote “This twelvefold formula for dependent origination as it stands is strange” (71).  Rather than pretending scholarly omniscience and superiority in regards to the texts (I’m thinking of E.J. Thomas at his worst), Williams expresses understandable puzzlement as, no doubt, most people do when encountering the Buddha’s thought for the first (or even hundredth) time.

Chapter two is really a core piece of Buddhist writing in that it hits every significant point (the four truths, anatta, cosmology, nirvana, etc) and does so in an intelligible and intelligent fashion.  This is not an easy feat to pull off, as anyone who has read a good many dharma books can tell you.  In fact, I might even say that Williams goes about as far in his understanding as a scholar qua scholar can.  But while surveying so much and dealing with so many difficult concepts, he (perhaps inevitably) takes a few pratfalls.

I won’t go into detail about what I think he does wrong; a brief list and comments should be enough:

  • When referring to atta (“self”) he consistently capitalizes the S, inferring that the Buddha was discussing only the transpersonal Atman or True Self.  This is not the case; the Buddha was referring especially to the experience of a subjective controller, doer, or identity (sakkaya), the self of everyday experience.  The Self as an ontological construct follows upon this.
  • He fails to thresh out the distinction between “intention,” “desire” and “wanting” as these pertain to the liberated person (an arhat or Buddha) (44).  This may seem like nit-picking, but it is in fact an essential issue that spells the difference between insight and its lack.
  • He states (67) that Ananda was unenlightened at the time of the Buddha’s death—in fact Ananda was a sotapanna.
  • On 69 he perpetuates the thesis that the being reborn is “neither the same nor another” than the one who died.  This teaching comes from the Milindhapanha and has infected Buddhism everywhere ever since.  It is a view entirely at odds with the Suttas, falling into attavada.  This is perhaps Williams’ biggest stumble from a doctrinal point of view.  (The correct answer, when asked “who is reborn?” is to reject the question as meaningless on account of its presupposition of self in some form or another.)
  • He continues the old saw that dependent origination is “causality.”  Causality (as a descriptive concept) certainly applies to karma (“intentional action”) but it has nothing to do with paticcasamuppada.  I have discussed this at length in other reviews.  Part of the problem may arise from the 12-factor formulation, wherein the first ten elements are certainly structural as opposed to temporal, and then the last two are cause-effects.  Williams gets it right (I think) when he suggests the list may well be “a compilation from originally different sources” (71).  In other words, I suspect the 12-factored formula is a later intellectual (though still pre-scholastic) description of the original assertion: “When there is this, that is…” etc.
  • Description of satipatthana as the “sole way” (83).  This is a frequent mistranslation.  The word here is ekayana, meaning a course that goes one way or one direction.
  • His discussion of meditation (83ff) is palpably second-hand.  Once again I must lament the unnecessary divorce of scholarship from practice.

The rest of the book discusses Mahayana—its early formulation, development, key concepts and texts.  This area is Williams’ forte, and for the most part I think his discussions are quite good, though he does sometimes confusingly mix the names of schools, terms, and people together into a less than lucid jumble.  Neophytes are likely to get lost or frustrated at times; I did myself (though I was once again, quite viscerally, reminded why I so dislike Nagarjuna’s thought!).

A special note on the last chapter, written not by Paul Williams but Anthony Tribe.  This is an excellent introduction to and overview of tantric Buddhism, an area often inadequately covered in texts like this.  (E.J. Thomas’ survey not only neglected but maligned it.)  Tribe’s writing is clear and organized and he offers an invitation to everyone to better get to know this unique phase of Buddhist thought.  I confess that while I am not convinced that tantra has added substantively to Shakyamuni’s philosophical thinking, I am now totally in the camp that affirms it possesses a host of valuable and powerful practices/techniques that can facilitate one’s spiritual journey.  Lastly, the book has a lengthy bibliography tacked on at the end to enable further exploration of texts the authors drew upon during the course of their survey.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis by David J. Kalupahana

Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis by David J. Kalupahana.  The University Press of Hawaii 1976.  188 pages.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book—probably at least four times, maybe five.  There’s a reason for this: it’s relatively short, dense with information and insight, well written, and the single best book I know of for demonstrating the clear differences—nay, the rift—that lies between the teachings of the early texts (Pali suttas) espoused by the Theravada and those of the later Mahayana and Vajrayana sutras.

If the above sounds partisan, allow me to explain.  I have long been dismayed by the cavalier way in which so many Buddhists—and even scholars—muddle up terms and ideas from the different Buddhist traditions.  They take a little from here, a little from there, and assume that all of this represents the Buddha’s thinking.  They sometimes even buy into the idea that the early teachings were somehow “less developed” or “sophisticated”—hinayana, as they say.  Very beginner books are especially prone to do this, and since that’s where so many people start their dharma journey (for understandable reasons), the intellectual foundation they lay for themselves is often vague and non-discriminating as regards the historical realities of Buddhist thought.  Needless to say, a foundation of sand cannot serve anyone well when they venture into more difficult and challenging terrain.  Anyone reading this book, however, should avoid such troubles.

While the subtitle is “a historical analysis” the emphasis is much more on analysis than history.  In line with a historical approach, however, the book starts at the beginning in “Early Buddhism.”  Seven chapters take up critical points of the historical Buddha’s thoughts—epistemology, causality (more on this later), the three marks of existence, karma and rebirth, ethics and, lastly, nirvana.  In each case Kalupahana shoots right for the heart, trying to dig at the critical points underlying each concept.  Particularly noteworthy here, I think, is his discussion of the Buddha’s epistemology—that is, what the Buddha viewed as valid sources of knowledge.  Already here we can see how the Buddha stands out from so many other philosophers—not to mention religious teachers—in that he clearly equates the means of knowledge with knowledge (“gnosis”) itself.  The two are not distinct; his approach is relentlessly empirical.  Revelation and reason from unexamined a priori assumptions are rejected.  Only direct seeing without the intrusion of egoic distortions can be taken as valid (“in the seeing, only the seen” etc.).  I always get a thrill reading these kinds of passages and contemplating this man, a product of fifth century BCIndia, so far ahead of even the most modern of thinkers.  Kalupahana does an excellent job illustrating this, as well as other points.

This is not to say I agree with everything Kalupahana writes about the early teachings.  In particular I would fault his discussion of paticcasamuppada (“Dependent Arising”) or, as he terms it, “causality.”  My problem lies in particular with that word—causality.  As defined by Merriam-Webster, causality is “the relation between a cause and its effect or between regularly correlated events or phenomena.”  Consulting Hume, we get his first three points on causality, which define the commonsense notion:

  1. The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time.
  2. The cause must be prior to the effect.
  3. There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect.

Clearly what is implied in these definitions is a process in time: A (at time 1) causes (or determines) B (at time 2) etc.  But this is not how the Buddha describes Dependent Arising.  In fact, look at that translation—dependent arising.  B can be dependent upon A, but this does not mean A is its cause or precedes it in time.  Referring to the classical definition of dependent arising: “When there is this, that is; with the arising of this, that arises; when this is not; that is not; with the cessation of this, that ceases”—we can see clearly that the order of A and B is not chronological but structural.

Consider a twelve storey building.  It would be ridiculous to say that the first floor causes the second floor.  It would be perfectly correct though to say that it supports it, that the second floor is dependent upon it, and that if the first floor ceases, the second will cease (collapse) as well.  In considering this analogy, its obvious limitation has to be acknowledged: when building a twelve storey tower the first floor is necessarily constructed in time before the second floor.  But when speaking of human consciousness—which is what paticcasamuppada concerns—one part of consciousness does not appear before another part—consciousness simply appears, it is—and as it is, its structure is internally dependent/conditioned after the fashion of the Buddha’s description.

Failure to consider Dependent Arising as a structural principle leads to the sort of nonsense Theravadan commentators wallowed in, like the three lives interpretation.  Obviously, if the Buddha had actually wanted to teach such a thing, he would have done so, but nowhere in the suttas does the Buddha ever imply that dependent arising is a process stretching over time, not to speak over multiple lives.  Instead, he describes it as akalika—literally “not (in) time.”  Moreover, were it a process in time, it would of necessity be a thing remembered and therefore open to the distortion of memory.  But the Buddha described it also as sanditthika, meaning visible here-and-now.  Too, no arhant’s awakening experience (as described in the suttas) ever involved memory of past lives, which, again, the notion of causality and the resulting three-lives interpretation of necessity imply.  (None of this is to say though that the Buddha never discussed causality in the sense of trains of response and counter-response in emotions, actions, and social behaviors.)This is the most significant caveat I would issue in regards to Kalupahana’s work, though even this does not obviate the invaluable service he offers in distinguishing early and later Buddhisms.

The latter portions of the book clarify Mahayana, beginning first with the development of scholasticism, then the newer sutras and explicitly philosophical schools, such as Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka and the Yogacara.  In these later thinkers we see the development of philosophical absolutism and the steady departure from the Buddha’s psychological and empirical approach in favor of more metaphysical and speculative ideas.  The results often bear more resemblance to the Advaita of Shankara than to the Dhamma of the Buddha.  As Kalupahana puts it:

We have attempted to explain the gradual development of the absolutist tendency within Buddhism after the death of the Buddha.  If what has been said here regarding the early doctrines is true, then the Prajnaparamitas certainly represent a “revolution”…in Buddhism.  The revolution consists of the adoption of the transcendentalist standpoint, which is opposed to the empirical approach of early Buddhism (p.134).

That, in a nutshell, is the vital lesson of the book and the best reason for reading it.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (the pdf)

If you enjoyed reading my series of thirteen posts inspired by Scott MacPherson’s critique of my post “Thoughts On Christian-Buddhism“–or even if you didn’t–I’ve collected and edited them all to form a single document in pdf format.  Here it is, for free distribution


Parallel Lines: The Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths (Part 8 of A 13-Part Series)

In the Mahasalyatanika Sutta (M.149:9-10) the Buddha defines what constitutes the Noble Eightfold Path: 

When one abides uninflamed by lust, unfettered, uninfatuated, contemplating danger, then the five aggregates affected by clinging (panc’upadanakkhandha) are diminished for oneself in the future [this describes the sekha]; and one’s craving—which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and delights in this and that—is abandoned [=nirodha].  One’s bodily and mental troubles are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental torments are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental fevers are abandoned, and one experiences bodily and mental pleasure. 

The view of a person such as this is right view.  His intention is right intention, his effort is right effort, his mindfulness is right mindfulness, his concentration is right concentration.  But his bodily action, his verbal action, and his livelihood have already been well purified earlier. 

Clearly, the ariyamagga is Aryan only for those who have attained the path.  Until then, the aspirant walks a mundane way, purifying first his actions, words and livelihood (his sila) in preparation for the higher stages.  At the same time (hopefully), he undertakes those practices that are liberating, as are found in, for example, the Satipatthana Sutta: mindfulness of breathing, of bodily posture, feelings, mental states (i.e. vipassana), cultivating detachment from pleasant things (via asubha bhavana) and overcoming hostility by metta bhavana.  None of these practices, however, constitute the Noble path until the path and fruit (maggaphala) are obtained and one “enters the stream”—or better.  That the path-moment constitutes entry into Right View (sammaditthi) is affirmed by the Buddha in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta (M.117:34): 

In one of right view, right intention comes into being; in one of right intention, right speech comes into being; in one of right speech, right action comes into being; in one of right action, right livelihood comes into being; in one of right livelihood, right effort comes into being; in one of right effort, right mindfulness comes into being; in one of right mindfulness, right concentration comes into being; in one of right concentration, right knowledge (vijja) comes into being; in one of right knowledge, right deliverance (vimutti) comes into being.  Thus, bhikkhus, the path of the disciple in higher training (sekha) possesses eight factors, the arahant possesses ten factors. 

Clearly, right view is the “gate” to everything else; it is equivalent to seeing the Four Noble Truths.  (Cf. M.141:24: “And what, friends, is right view?  Knowledge of suffering, knowledge of the origin of suffering, knowledge of the cessation of suffering, and knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering—this is called right view.”)  It needs to be pointed out, too, that for the sekha each of the eight supramundane factors “come into being” simultaneously; it is not a matter of first obtaining right view, and then a few days or months later getting right intention, and so on down the line.  Just as we saw with Dependent Arising, the seeing (=accomplishment) of one element is the seeing/accomplishment of everything else.  While one practices the mundane eightfold path over the course of time, the fruition-moment of the supramundane path is accomplished instantaneously—it is akalika (“without time”).  (Note: We have here as well a further distinction between the sekha and the arhant: final knowledge and deliverance are the arhant’s special provinces and represent the consummation or completionas opposed simply to the acquisition—of the noble path factors.)   

I have written the above because it is a widespread misperception—and one that Mr. MacPherson perpetuates—that the putthujjana, by practicing meditation and restraint in accordance with the Teaching, is by this means practicing the noble eightfold path.  He is not.  The noble eightfold path is not perfectly practiced until it is attained; it is not attained until it is perfectly practiced.  As two parallel lines do not, by definition, ever intersect, so these paths—the noble and mundane eightfold paths—are separated by a gulf, and that gulf (from the putthujjana’s standpoint) is avijja (“delusion”)—the non-seeing of the Four Noble Truths. 

Clearly though, the Noble Path cannot be accomplished without the aspirant’s work on the mundane path.  The former depends upon the latter not for its existence, but for its availability or visibility.  And when the mundane path is practiced to perfection, then at the moment of attainment comes the “knowledge of change of lineage” (gotrabhu ñana)—the supramundane is accomplished and the worldling becomes a Noble One.  To extend our metaphor from above, the disciple finds himself not on the mundane line he started on, but on the other, noble line—only now when he looks at the gap between them, he sees not avijja but nibbana

This critical distinction between the two paths must be borne in mind when considering Mr. MacPherson’s argument that the Eightfold Path can be found in the Bible, which is predicated upon discovering resemblances between dhamma practice and Biblical passages.  Resemblances I freely admit to, but they are the resemblances of one mundane path to another.  In not a single chapter or verse from the Old and New Testaments is the complete picture obtained; there is no comprehension of a path (to nibbana), much less the realization or accomplishment of the Path.  Putthujjanas abound in the pages of the Bible, but nowhere is discovered an indication that anyone—including Jesus—ever attained cessation or any of the stages of holiness described in the Buddha’s teaching.

Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling (Part 5 of A 13-Part Series)

But let be the past, Udayin, let be the future.  I shall teach you the Dhamma: When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.  When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases (Culaskuludayi Sutta, M.79:7).

The story of how the wanderer Sariputta encountered the Buddha’s disciple Assaji and gained his enlightenment is well-known.  Sariputta and his friend Mogallana were seekers after “the Deathless” and had split up so as to increase their chances of encountering a bona fide teacher of the Way.  When Sariputta met Assaji, one of the Buddha’s original five disciples, he was impressed by the peacefulness of his bearing and countenance and asked about his teacher and the dhamma he proclaimed.  At first Assaji demurred, claiming to be but a beginner, but when pressed he at last responded with this now-famous summation of the Buddha’s teaching:

Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathāgata has told the cause,
And also what their cessation is:
This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse.

As it is written in the Vinaya: “Then, as he heard this Dhamma exposition, in Sariputta the wanderer there arose the dustless, stainless eye of Dhamma: ‘Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation’” (Vinaya Mahavagga I:23.1-10).  In that moment Sariputta became a stream-enterer. 

Clearly, Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppāda)—of which the quatrain above is a brief formulation—is the fundamental insight upon which the framework of the Buddha’s teaching is built.  As noted in an earlier post, the Second and Third Noble Truths are direct statements of it.  

Now, much has been written about this teaching, a great deal of it wrong.  However, as this is a blog and not a book, I am constrained by time and space and so will try to keep my comments to the point.  The most common (mis)understanding of Dependent Arising is that it somehow explains rebirth via the “Three Lives Interpretation.”  Readers unfamiliar with this interpretation from the Pali Commentaries should familiarize themselves with it before continuing.  See here for the Wikipedia article, which is pretty good as summaries go.  Bhikkhu Bodhi, an ardent proponent of this view, writes in its defense in volume one of his Samyutta Nikaya translation: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 517ff. 

Some points opposing this traditional interpretation are as follows:

  1. Dependent Arising has nothing to do with rebirth.  One might even be an arhant and not be able to recollect past lives. 
  2. “Precedence [of terms] in paticcasamuppada is structural, not temporal,” to quote Ven. Ñanavira.
  3. It therefore has nothing to do with causality, which is by definition a process in time.
  4. It is not the description of a process (necessarily temporal), but of a structure.

A recent, popular interpretation is that Dependent Arising teaches the “unity” and “interconnectedness of all things,” which seems to be what Mr. MacPherson thinks.  Cf. “Right understanding…means to understand both cognitively and experientially that one is connected to all other people (dependent origination)”—from “The Eightfold Path Inside Christianity: Points 1 and 2”.  I have no idea where this belief came from or who started it (though I suspect Thich Nhat Hanh may have something to do with it), but it has no basis in either the suttas or in the experience of vipassana meditation.  Any interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching built upon this manner of thinking is built upon quicksand.

A few further points:

  1. In not a single sutta or Vinaya passage does the Buddha refer to past lives in connection with Dependent Arising.
  2. In no story of anyone’s awakening experience is their insight described as depending upon the remembrance of past lives, which is what the traditional interpretation implies.  Cf. Bhikkhu Ñanananda in The Magic of the Mind: “The law of Dependent Arising is a Noble Norm (ariyo ñayo) which in all its twelve-linked completeness is well-seen and well-penetrated through wisdom (paññaya sudittho hoti suppatividdho ) even by a Stream-winner (sotapanna) who may not possess the knowledge of past lives” (p. 26, n. 1).
  3. No passage in the suttas asserts the “unity” of everything, the “interconnectedness” of creation, the “ground of being,” “cosmic oneness” or any other such substantialist doctrine.  (In fact, in books on non-duality and mysticism in general, passages from the Pali Canon are most noticeable for their absence.  This was one of the insights that caused me to start asking what it was about the Theravada that made it “feel” so different from the mystical philosophies—Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, Christian mysticism, etc—with which I was at the time more familiar.) 
  4. Dependent Arising is solely concerned with the structure of conditioned consciousness, how it is (samudaya) and how it isn’t (nirodha).
  5. There are several formulations of Dependent Arising, differing in terms of the items listed, but all share the same structure of conditionality and dependence.  This  clearly indicates that the structural principle per se is what is important, and not the individual terms themselves.  Assaji’s phrase is but a bare statement of this structure, as is the Buddha’s declaration to Udayin.
  6. The individual items (sankhara) in the series depend upon, condition, determine and support one another.  Not one, not even avijja (=delusion, usually first in the chain), is unsupported.  The structure of consciousness therefore stands and falls depending upon its supporting elements.  This point is critical to understanding the nature of dukkha and nibbana

Having said the above, the question ought naturally arise: Why did the Buddha emphasize tanha—“desire”—as the source of suffering?  Why, even though the second noble truth is clearly the arising phase of paticcasamuppada, did he focus on that term, which is but one in the standard series of Dependent Arising? 

The following quote from Ñanananda’s masterful little treatise, The Magic of the Mind, indicates an answer: 

Selfhood which tries to sit pretty on that which is liable to disintegrate is itself subject to the inexorable law of impermanence.  In the face of this predicament one craves, grasps and “becomes” yet another “thing”—which too yields to the same law of nature… 

The process of becoming is thus shown to be perpetually going on within the mind of the samsaric individual who identifies himself with sense-data under the influence of the proliferating tendencies toward craving, conceits and views…  Since…becoming in the psychological realm is necessarily followed by birth, decay-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, grief and despair in every specific instance of short-lived identification, an insight into the law of Dependent Arising provides one with the key to the entire gamut of samsaric experience.  One comes to understand the cycle of samsaric life by discovering its epicycle in the very structure of living experience.  He is now convinced of the fact that it is craving that plays the villain in the drama of samsaric existence, bringing about re-becoming by delighting “now-here-now-there” (pp.48-50). 

What Ñanananda is saying is that craving (tanha) is the energizing force behind the constant identification with the phenomena (dhamma) of experience, and that this identification is in part a survival mechanism, a flight from inevitable destruction under the pressure of omnipresent impermanence.  The flip side of desire, then, is fear—fear of loss, decay, death.  Life is bound between the carrot and the stick, an endless flight and pursuit.  We chase the pleasurable and flee the painful.  (Cf. Ñanavira’s discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses.) 

There is yet another reason why the Buddha focused on desire and defined it as the “cause” of suffering.  The Buddha’s teaching, unlike most pre-modern philosophies, is phenomenological as opposed to substance-based or idealistic in character.  Here, from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is a definition of phenomenology: 

Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/.  Accessed 7/4/2011). 

A more succinct and accurate description of the Buddha’s general orientation could hardly be desired.    

The Buddha, then, concerned himself not with abstract principles or explanations but with what human beings experience.  He realized that in describing the human situation he had to start with the grosser facts, the inescapable bases of all lived experience, and if anything is fundamental to life it is desire.  From the moment a baby is born (not to mention the manner of its conceiving!), it wants food, water, warmth, shelter, protection, nurturance, and then, later, status, recognition, acknowledgement, assurance, friendship, belonging, hope, and whatever else the person deems necessary to support his or her psychophysical being.  (Cf. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”)  Our experience of life, therefore, and what we make of it, is defined by our definition of phenomena as desirable or not.    

The implication of Dependent Arising, however, is that everything we hope for and hold to is radically vulnerable, i.e. impermanent.  If we understand this fact, we realize that no matter what we take our lives to be, they inevitably fall apart—I am unstable, as are the things I identify myself with, both inwardly and outwardly.  In demonstrating this truth, the teaching of Dependent Arising urges us to question and ultimately let go the desires and identifications that make up our selves. 

Writes Ñanavira: 

[T]he Dhamma does not set out to explain, but to lead—it is opanayika [“onward leading”].  This means that the Dhamma is not seeking disinterested intellectual approval, but to provoke an effort of comprehension or insight leading to the abandonment of attavada [“self-view”] and eventually of asmimana [the “conceit” I am].  Its method is therefore necessarily indirect: we can only stop regarding this as “self” if we see that what this depends on is impermanent.  Consider, for example, the Mahasudassana Sutta (D.17:2:16), where the Buddha describes in detail the rich endowments and possessions of King Mahasudassana, and then finishes: 

See, Ananda, how all those formations (sankhara) have passed, have ceased, have altered.  So impermanent, Ananda, are formations, that this, Ananda, is enough for weariness of all formations, enough for dispassion, enough for release.

This is not a simple statement that all those things, being impermanent by nature, are now no more; it is a lever to prize the notion of “selfhood” out of its firm socket.  Those things were sankhara, they were things on which King Mahasudassana depended for his very identity.  They determined his person as “King Mahasudassana,” and with their cessation the thought “I am King Mahasudassana” came to an end (Clearing the Path, pp. 108-9). 

Lest the reader think this all just some grand philosophy, some heady, speculative pronouncement, I would like to remind you that these insights are born of direct, reflexive observation of the mind and its contents.  Consider the following from Mahasi Sayadaw, where he describes the last moments before the attainment of nibbana, wherein the entire structure of dependently arisen consciousness suddenly ceases for the first time: 

The meditator who wishes to realize Nibbana should repeatedly bring to mind, through the practice of noticing, every bodily and mental process that appears at any of the six sense doors. When he brings them to mind thus, his consciousness engaged in noticing—here called “bringing to mind”—will, until adaptation knowledge is reached, fall at every moment upon the (conditioned) bodily and mental formations called here “continuous occurrence,” because they go on occurring over and over again in an unbroken flow, like a river’s current. But in the last phase, instead of falling upon that continuous occurrence, consciousness passes beyond it and alights upon “non-occurrence,” which is the very opposite of the bodily and mental formations called here “occurrence.” In other words, it arrives at non-occurrence, that is to say, it reaches, as if it “alights upon,” cessation, which is the stilling of the formations (or conditioned phenomena). When the meditator, having already before practiced correctly and without deviation by way of the knowledge of arising and passing away and the other knowledges (or by way of the purification of conduct, of mind, of view, etc.), has in this manner arrived at non-occurrence (by the consciousness alighting upon it), he is said to have “realized Nibbana.” He is called one who has made Nibbana a direct experience and has actually seen it (The Progress of Insight, VI.12). 

It cannot be stated too emphatically that the above does not describe a “mystical experience,” an experience of “oneness,” “nonduality” or “cosmic consciousness,” all of which are mentally constructed states, most being confined to the stage known as “arising-and-passing-away” (udayabbaya-ñana)—fourth of the sixteen “insight knowledges.”  The Buddha’s teaching is not mystical in character and any attempt to construe it as such will lead inevitably to distortion and confusion.

Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire (Part 4 of A 13-Part Series)

Mr. MacPherson has a whole lot more to say about the Second Noble Truth than he did about the First.  He makes a number of points which, taken together, add up to a kind of definition:

  1. “Suffering certainly comes from temporal desires” (though he doesn’t seem entirely certain this is sufficient, positing Original Sin as, perhaps, a more complete “explanation”);
  2. “We suffer because we focus too much on impermanent material things” (after which statement he quotes part of the Sermon on the Mount);
  3. “The Second Noble Truth [of] Buddhism posits that the root cause of all suffering is pride, greed, lust, and the like” (and then asserts “This is Christianity”);
  4. “Pride, or boastful vanity, which always leads to suffering because it is an attachment to temporal material things” (which truth he relates while discussing how Lucifer became the Devil—“he could not get past the third step of Buddha’s Eightfold Path”). 

To sum up: Mr. MacPherson is saying that the Buddha is saying that desire (greed) for impermanent material things, connected with pride, lust, and vanity, is the source of suffering and that this constitutes the Second Noble Truth.  He then says “The Buddha was in fact right.”  Mr. MacPherson offers nothing from the suttas as textual support for his assertions, and this is unfortunate (for him) because he could easily have found a rich trove of evidence for his case.  He might also, in the act of consulting them, have learned there is much more to the Second Noble Truth than mere desire. 

Let us start again with a definition: “The Second Noble Truth is that of the arising or origin of dukkha (Dukkhasamudaya-ariyasacca)” (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught [1974], p. 29), or Samudaya for short.  In his first sermon (S.56:11), the Buddha spoke of it as follows: 

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures (kamatanha), craving for existence (bhavatanha), craving for non-existence (vibhavatanha). 

This would certainly seem to support what Mr. MacPherson is saying, that greed (craving) is the source of suffering.  Indeed, it is clear that he is “right”—as far as he goes.  The trouble is he does not go far enough; he is like a man who has visited Four Corners, splayed his legs and arms, and then claims on this basis that he has seen the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.  (I did it and I haven’t seen squat in New Mexico!) 

Without going further than this, it is clear his definition is at best one-third complete.  The Buddha, after all, lists three specific types of craving, but Mr. MacPherson considers only one, i.e. kamatanha.  What about the other two?  A full discussion of these terms could lead us far afield, so for now I will only say that these represent two orientations toward experience, the first of wanting more of it, of wanting to preserve, continue, prolong and fortify it, the second the urge to escape it, end it, change it (from what it is to something else).  The first is typically born of experiences of pleasure and satisfaction, while the latter often results from world-weariness and dissatisfaction.  Notice how these emotional orientations naturally incline one toward specific views (ditthi) toward the world, namely eternalism (sassatavada) and nihilism (ucchedavada), respectively.  The Buddha, however, claimed to teach something quite different from either of these, specifically the Middle Way (majjhima patipada): 

This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence.  But for one who sees the origin [samudaya] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world.  And for one who sees the cessation [nirodha] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world (S.12:15).  

The “world,” therefore, is none other than that which arises and ceases, namely dukkha.  (And so we have the equation: dukkha = life = the world [of experience].  Those who have read my post “The Buddha On the Nature of Personality and Suffering,” will know also that these terms are identical with sakkaya, i.e. “personality,” or “identity,” as well.)   The Buddha is saying too that tanha (“craving,” “thirst,” “desire”) in at least these two senses is related to certain false modes of viewing the world, and that desire can end when the world is seen “with correct wisdom.”  What is that “correct wisdom”? 

This world, Kaccana, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence.  But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, that mental standpoint, adherence, and underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about “my self.”  He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising [i.e. he sees the second noble truth], what ceases is only suffering ceasing [he sees the third noble truth].  His knowledge about this is independent of others.  It is in this way, Kaccana, that there is right view. 

“All exists” [sassatavada]: Kaccana, this is one extreme.  “All does not exist” [ucchedavada]: this is the second extreme.  Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: “With ignorance as condition, volitional formations; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving (tanha); with craving as condition; clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be.  Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering” (S.12.15). 

This list of conditioned, dependent psychological phenomena is none other than the positive (anuloma) phase of Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppāda), and clearly indicates that “correct wisdom” is seeing Dependent Arising.  (Cf. M.28:28: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.”)  Thus by not adhering to ideologies of existence and non-existence, by seeing phenomena without bias, as conditioned and impermanent, the noble disciple sees the arising of dukkha and its cessation and so attains to Right View (sammaditthi).  His “Eye of Dhamma” (dhammacakkhu) opened, he attains the Path and becomes “independent of others” in the Teaching. 

Plainly then a proper understanding of the Second Noble Truth (and by extension the Third) entails a proper understanding of Dependent Arising.  The two are inseparable, for “the origin of this whole mass of suffering”—the illustration of which is the purpose of paticcasamuppāda’s positive phaseis exactly the point of the Second Noble Truth.  Greed, craving, lust—all are part of this, but tanha has its antecedents and they theirs, tracing back to beginningless avijja—“delusion”—which is non-knowledge of the Four Noble Truths: the truth of dukkha, its arising, its cessation, and the Path leading beyond it.

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (table of contents for a 13-part series)

  Table of Contents

  1. If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice
  2. Looking For the Buddha In the Bible: How Not To Make Spinach Soufflé
  3. Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter
  4. Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire
  5. Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling
  6. Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity?
  7. Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It
  8. Parallel Lines: Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths
  9. Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey!
  10. Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom
  11. So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras
  12. Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism
  13. Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation

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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