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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

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel M. Ingram

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram.  Aeon Books 2008.  406 pages.

This is not your daddy’s Dharma book!  (Your mommy’s neither.)

The differences start with the cover, and no, I’m not talking about the flaming dude with a chakra wheel for his heart.  I’m talking about the author’s title: Arahat.  Now, Ingram does have a regular title–he’s a medical doctor (M.D.) specializing in emergency medicine–“Everything from hangnails to heart attacks” he told me in a phone conversation.  As you ought to know by now (if you read this blog regularly), an arhat (there are variant spellings) is one who has completed the Buddhist path as laid out in the Pali Suttas.  “Done is what had to be done and there is no more of this to come!” goes the standard refrain by those who have attained such.  Clearly Ingram is, as the suttas say, ready to “roar his lion’s roar” in the spiritual marketplace.  He spells the differences out further in the “Forward and Warning,” wherein he puts you on notice he does not intend to write a “nice and friendly dharma book”; you know you’re in for it when an author tells you he hails from a lineage of “dharma cowboys, mavericks, rogues and outsiders” (16).

That said, the books proceeds normally enough through part one.  Ingram begins his discussion of dharma in terms of the traditional “three trainings”: morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (paññā).  I especially found his discussion of morality illuminating.  Going considerably beyond the standard list of things we shouldn’t do (the five precepts etc), he says

Training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world.  When we are trying to live the good life in a conventional sense, we are working on training in morality.  When we are trying to work on our emotional, psychological and physical health, we are working at the level of training morality…  Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training (24-5).

He goes on to point out that while absolute mastery of concentration and wisdom (insight) is possible, total mastery in the worldly sphere of ethics is not.  And so he calls it, rightly, the “first and last training.”

Chapter 4 (oddly, the chapters are not numbered, only the parts) lays significant emphasis on seeing the three characteristics (tilakkhana) of phenomena–impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta); indeed, this is a fundamental tenet of Ingram’s approach to meditation, derivable in part from his experiences in the Mahasi tradition which has a similar emphasis.  His discussion of anatta is clarifying: it means, simply, that when phenomena are investigated closely (as in vipassana), no agent, controller, or subject can be discovered; the things of the world are, in effect, ownerless.  This, too, is a significant part of Ingram’s dharma discussion, and comes up repeatedly later in the book.   Ingram also discusses the spiritual faculties, the factors of enlightenment, and the four truths.

Most of the above can be found in other dharma books.  Where things really start to get interesting is in the section entitled “Practical Meditation Considerations.”  Here Ingram’s wealth of experience in formal retreat centers comes to the fore and makes for extremely informative, even entertaining, reading.  For example, he lists the things retreatants tend to get neurotic about, such as wake-up bells (“too quiet, too loud, someone forgets to ring it at all”), roommates (“those that snore, smell, are noisy or messy, etc.”), as well as “issues of corruption, romances, cults of personality, affairs, crushes, miscommunications, vendettas, scandals, drug use, money issues, and all the other things that can sometimes show up anywhere there are people” (94)–meaning everything and anything!

Daniel Ingram

This is a section that demands multiple readings.  Not because it’s in any way difficult, just because the nuts and bolts of doing a retreat, of daily practice, are often the very things that defeat us.  I repeatedly found Ingram’s advice to be forthright, informed, and practical.  Many people, for example, get obsessed over posture, but Ingram says simply “we can meditate in just about any position we find ourselves” (96).   He notes, for example, how “Many traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit, with some getting paricularly macho or picky about such things” (97)–making me recall my experience in a Zen monastery in Japan.  He writes how the four postures of sitting, standing, walking, reclining each have plusses and minuses, the principle differences being in the energy level and effects on concentration.  He further discusses issues such as meditation objects, the critical role of resolve, and offers some very illuminating remarks on teachers.  One clearly gets the sense Ingram knows what he says from firsthand experience.

The fireworks start in Part II, “Light and Shadows.”  Little lightning bolts–the sign of something controversial ahead–adorn several chapters.  This is where Ingram gets up on his soapbox.  Usually, I would say that in a bad way, meaning someone was just spouting.  But here, I think, what Ingram does, even if you want to call it spouting, is all to a very good point, and that is to draw attention to some of the unconstructive shadow sides of Buddhist spirituality in America.  For example, in the section entitled “Buddhism vs. the Buddha,” he criticizes the religious trappings the Buddha’s teaching–in its original form an applied psychology–has been buried under, and how Americans have contributed to rendering the master’s technology of awakening into dogma or comfort food.

However, Ingram’s purpose here is not controversy.  He speaks also about having a clear goal, and encourages asking oneself questions like “Why would I want to sit cross-legged for hours with my eyes closed, anyway?”  It’s important you know what you’re seeking, after all, and Ingram hammers this point throughout the book.  (It was also one of the first questions he asked me in our phone conversation!)  This section also describes the critical difference between dealing with one’s “stuff”–i.e. the content of your life–and seeing the true nature of the phenomena that constitute that stuff.  For example, if you’re depressed because your significant other dumped you, trying to figure out why he/she did that to you is reflection on your “stuff,” but patiently observing the emotions of anger or depression as they arise and pass away–i.e. trying to see the fundamental characteristics of those experiences–is insight.  The difference here, as Ingram makes clear, is night and day.

Part III, “Mastery,” forms the heart of the book, and this is where Ingram’s starkly non-dogmatic, critical, and pragmatic intellect shows its best.  This is also the part most likely to offend and where it becomes clear that if you’re after spiritual pabulum, you’ve come to the wrong man.  Ingram is all about “states and stages,” about achieving exactly what the old dead masters achieved.  We each have our purposes in our spiritual lives–and he acknowledges this–but he is not looking to comfort or console anyone, or make things seem easier than they are.  Ingram’s vision of the Dhamma is, rather, very goal oriented and effort driven.  It is a path of achievement, of distinct and discernible attainments.  If your mentality does not incline toward this way of thinking and acting, now is the time to bail out!

This section reviews in great, perhaps unprecedented detail, three distinct subjects: the concentration jhanas (1-8), the progress of insight, and the multiplicity of models and definitions of enlightenment.  There is plenty here to make for argument, but also to educate, warn, coax and cajole.  In short, this is some of the most stimulating, revealing and educational dharma reading I’ve ever done.  You could read a hundred dharma books and still not come up with this stuff.  And while Ingram is not a particularly great (or even good) writer (more on this below), he is at times eminently quotable.  I can’t resist offering a few snippets here.  These give you a good idea of what you’re getting into with this book.

You may have heard, for example, about those teachers who say “there is nothing to attain, nowhere to go, no one to get enlightened, your seeking is the problem.”  Or, even more intriguingly, that “you are already enlightened.”  You find these teachings in some Buddhist schools, J. Krishnamurti, Adi Da, and others.  Here’s Ingram’s take on this take on enlightenment:

[It’s] like saying: you are already a concert pianist, you just have to realize it, or you already are a nuclear physicist, you just have to realize it…  [It’s] like saying to a severe paranoid schizophrenic: you already are as sane as anyone and do not need to take your medicines and should just follow the voices that tell you to kill people, or to a person with heart disease: just keep smoking and eating fried pork skins and you will be healthy…or saying to a greedy, corrupt, corporate-raiding, white-collar criminal, Fascist, alcoholic wife-beater: hey, Dude, you are a like, beautiful perfect flower of the Now Moment, already enlightened (insert toke here), you are doing and not-doing just fine, like wow, so keep up the good work, Man (360).

I read this while on the train to work and enjoyed an unrestrained guffaw–several times!

However…to double back to my criticism of Ingram’s writing: he’s badly in need of an editor, and the people at Aeon Books let him down.  Ingram grossly overuses the word “that”–it’s one of the most overused words in the language, so he is not alone in the bad habit of thatting this and thatting that–and after a while it started grating on my sensitive literary nerves.  He also does not seem to know the difference between “phenomena” and “phenomenon,” and, on a different note,  sometimes comes off sounding rather immature.  There were occasions, too, where he went on unnecessarily about whatever, and a little more self-control would have helped the text out a lot.  Again…where were his editors?

But this is minor stuff, mere bitching on my part.  Ingram is actually a pretty fun read, and the book is outstanding and unique in so many ways, I/we can and should forgive him.  He has much wisdom to offer and we should be grateful for all the hard work he’s done on and off the cushion.  I leave you with one nugget of insight that stood out for me:

      When I think about what it would take to achieve freedom from all psychological stuff, the response that comes is this: life is about stuff.  Stuff is part of being alive.  There is no way out of this while you are still living.  There will be confusion, pain, miscommunication, misinterpretation, maladaptive patterns of behavior, unhelpful emotional reactions, weird personality traits, neurosis and possibly much worse.  There will be power plays, twisted psychological games, people with major personality disorders (which may include you), and craziness.  The injuries continue right along with the healing and eventually the injuries win and we die.  This is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha.  I wish the whole Western Buddhist World would just get over this notion that these practices are all about getting to our Happy Place where nothing can ever hurt us or make us neurotic and move on to actually mastering real Buddhist practice rather than chasing some ideal that will never appear (330).

You have your marching orders.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

P.S. I highly recommend the following three videos of Daniel Ingram speaking at Brown University’s “Cheetah House”

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


The History of Buddhist Thought by Edward J. Thomas

The History of Buddhist Thought by Edward J. Thomas.  Dover Publications 2002 (1951).  316 pages.

This is my second review of an Edward J. Thomas (1869-1958) book, and I’ll say again a few things about the man’s background.  The author of a number of Indological works, Thomas was a British librarian living inIndiachiefly remembered today for the present work and his biography of the Buddha.  As will be apparent to anyone reading these books, Thomas was a brilliant and erudite man, widely read, with a formidable command of the source texts and languages (Pali certainly and, I believe, Sanksrit as well).  That these two books are still cited in discussions of Buddhist intellectual history is a tribute to their having been, at least at the time of their authorship, cutting edge scholarship, not to mention still capable of yielding nuggets of insight and a wealth of information.

History follows the standard format for surveys of Buddhist philosophy inIndia.  Chapters one, two, six and seven sketch a lot of the pre-Buddhist material—Brahmanism, the Upanishads, yoga, etc.  One interesting point Thomas makes, and which is confirmed by my other reading, is that “The original centre of brahmin culture was far from the cradle of Buddhism.  …[T]here are indications to show that the East, andMagadha especially, were long considered unfit for the habitation of brahmins.”  In other words, the Buddha taught in a backwater, and this fact, coupled with other passages (87, 90-1), indicates pretty decisively that the central thesis of the Upanishads (the atman-Brahman equivalence) was unknown to the Buddha.  This is important as it is often implied by Hindus that the Buddha was a Hindu and that he falls in line with the Upanishadic tradition (cf. Eknath Easwaran’s Dhammapada translation, 26) —a hard theory to sustain if what Thomas is saying is true.  (I believe it is.)

Thomas is quite effective when discussing the history of ideas and when speculating about what may (or may not) be different strata of teaching (“primitive” vs. later, e.g.).  Clearly, his knowledge of the sources was thorough and he had a discriminating intellect.  However, one should not look to him for doctrinal or philosophical insights, as he tends to run into problems when discussing some of the more challenging teachings of early Buddhism.

These are principally covered in chapters four, five, eight, nine and ten—“Early Doctrine,” “Causation,” “The Soul,” “Karma,” “Release and Nirvana.”  Thomas’ definition of atta (93) is really quite good, though he does not reflect much on what anatta means.  (Though he does offer a good rebuttal to those who try to insert the notion of soul into Buddhist thought—101.)  When tackling Dependent Arising and nirvana, he wades full into the scholarly debates of the day, and these sections can be quite interesting and vexing, all at the same time.  Interesting because we are made privy to the early Western, academic speculations regarding this exotic animal called “Buddhist thought,” and vexing because so often the scholars sound like the proverbial blind men with the elephant.  Consider on pages 77ff where Thomas reviews scholarly theorizing concerning dependent arising.  Not only are many of the conclusions little better than shots in the dark (the chain is a “cosmic emanation,” the product of Sankhya influence, etc), we once again can see that book knowledge, decoupled from actual practice, is of little use in this arena.  The discussion of nirvana (123ff and 130ff) is predictably sterile, sounding like a conference of food pundits sitting around a table with menus in hand, arguing about what the foods taste like, while never bothering to actually order a dish and find out.  I inevitably have to scratch my head when reading this kind of material.

Chapter eleven presents a solid discussion of the Buddha as he is viewed in the early texts, and is followed by a more strictly chronological discussion of developments in Abhidhamma (ch. 12), the conception of the Buddha (à la the early Mahayana—ch. 13), an in depth examination of the Lotus Sutra (ch. 14), the idea of the bodhisattva (chs. 15 & 16), and the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools (chs. 17 & 18).  The last chapter, “Buddhism and Modern Thought,” is a less helpful piece tacked on almost as an afterthought that begins with a startlingly dubious assertion:

The spread of Buddhism into other countries does not properly form a part of the history of Buddhist thought, except in so far as the mingling of cultures may have produced new schools.  Theoretically there was no development (249).

With this one statement the whole history of Ch’an (Zen), not to mention the Tantric schools of India and especially Tibet (the so-called Vajrayana) are dismissed, the specific reasons in the latter case made clear: “Tibetan Buddhism, except for some historical and grammatical works, has been little but a development of the less worthy elements introduced from India along with superstitions of its own” (249-50).  The early scholarly contempt for all things Tantric is strongly in evidence, to say the least!

Lastly, the scholarly state of affairs at the time of the book’s writing is made abundantly clear when Thomas writes

Mahayana has never made any impression on the West either as religion or philosophy.  Presented by the early investigators as a tissue of absurdities or niaiseries, it is still commonly looked upon as nihilism or subjectivism.  Now it is beginning to be recognized as more than this, but a full exposition of its metaphysical theories still awaits the complete publication of its authoritative texts and commentaries (256).

My, how far we’ve come in sixty years!

I hope these last tidbits won’t scare off potential readers.  Clearly, the book has its failings, but it can be a worthy addition to the reading list of those trying to shore up their history of Buddhism.  Just be sure its not your only read in this category.  Try to supplement it with others, such as Kalupahana’s Buddhist Philosophy: An Historical Analysis, Paul Williams’ Buddhist Thought, and Warder’s Indian Buddhism.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars


Anguttara Nikaya Anthology by Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi

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

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

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

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


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

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

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

Selfless Persons by Steven Collins

Selfless Persons: Imagery and thought in Theravada Buddhism by Steven Collins.  Cambridge University Press, 1982.  323 pages.

This book is a uniquely sincere and in-depth scholarly effort (note emphasis) to understand an extremely difficult subject, that of the Buddhist anatta, or “not-self.”  Both the book and the topic are deserving of special consideration, so this review will be longer and more detailed than my usual offering.

The fight Collins is wading into is one that’s been going on for thousands of years, that is, the argument over what the Buddha meant by anatta.  Did he, per the mainstream interpretation, say that if you look at the contents of your experience you will not find any subject, controller or locus of identity, or did he instead (in the words of the Japanese scholar Hajime Nakamura) teach “avoidance of a wrong comprehension of non-atman as a step to the real atman” (Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, p. 90).  While anatta is generally considered by everyone concerned one of the most misunderstood of the Buddha’s teachings, I would in fact argue the whole of the Buddha’s teaching is generally misunderstood—and that it is for this reason that people are confused about anattaSelfless Persons offers an excellent window onto this dilemma and the debate it has engendered.

The controversy becomes immediately apparent when one reads reviews of Collins’ book on Amazon.  Consider the following:

  • “Steven Collins, like so many others of his ilk, finds the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of Self difficult to understand, and makes it his stock and trade to reinterpret Buddhist texts, to provide a doctrine acceptable to his prejudices which betray a secular attitude. It never dawns on him that there are many positive statements in the Buddhist canon with regard to Self.”   —A.E. Hollingsworth
  • “This book would presume by its cover to prove that Buddhism is nihilism, but since there is no evidence as such in Sutta, this book has nothing within it but opinions and has nothing from the Suttas (Nikayas) to back up the authors missguided [sic] sectarian false views in contradiction to the corpus of Buddhism.”  —Kenneth L. Wheeler, self proclaimed Philosopher and “Buddhologist”
  • “The reader is warned that this book is written based upon the views of Theravada Abhidhamma secular anti-foundationalism/nihilism. Amazingly enough, Steven Collins makes the fallacy of composition from sutra that since ABCDEF is not X (Soul), therefore Buddhism denies the Soul. This entire book is 99.999% opinions, and the very very few citations Collins provides does not support his claim in any fashion that Buddhism denies/negates the Soul.”  —Denise Anderson

What’s obvious from the vehemence of these strikingly inaccurate assertions (for example, despite two readings I am still at a loss as to what the “secular attitude” is that Hollingsworth decries, or how Collins is proving “nihilism” or proclaiming “secular anti-foundationalism”—whatever that is—or how, despite many dozens of primary source quotes, Wheeler is able to say—with a straight face, no doubt—that Collins has “nothing from the Suttas… to back” himself up), is that their authors are quite ideologically invested in a belief that the Buddha could not possibly have taught anatta as it is commonly understood, and they assert this belief even against the formidable array of evidence Collins has assembled.  (For the record: Despite my eight years in Asia, most of which I spent living in temples and hermitages alongside monks of both Mahayana and Theravada persuasions, never once did I meet a monk who claimed to be searching for his atman or True Self.   I don’t know what books these critics read or what sorts of meditations they’ve practiced, but they certainly didn’t go to the school I went to.)

Collins addresses this controversy head on.  Pages 4-10 quote from a number of Theravadan authors—Walpola Rahula, Malasekera, Nyanatiloka—whose remarks represent the mainstream position.  He then contrasts their views against those of the opposition (Mrs. Rhys-Davids, Christmas Humphreys, Radhakrishnan et al) who argue for a substantialist, True Self version of anatta.  What struck me most in this discussion was that even among the traditional anatta folks I found serious misunderstandings of the Buddha’s teaching.  Rahula was reliably accurate, but Malasekera (like Nyanatiloka) seems to think that anatta is the bedrock of the Teaching and its only unique feature.  This is patently false.  The Four Noble Truths are the bedrock (remember the first sermon, anyone?), and every one of those truths is unique to the Dhamma.  (See my “Letter To Christian Buddhists” for more on this point.)  Moreover, if I had to single out one aspect of the teaching as fundamental, it would not be anatta but dependent arising, for the Buddha himself said, “He who sees dependent arising sees Dhamma; he who sees Dhamma sees dependent arising.”  It is interesting that Collins chose the passages he did, for one criticism I will hit him with later is that, just the like the authors he quotes, he actually overemphasizes the importance of anatta within the scheme of the Dhamma.

The following from Collins is a nice summation of the reason for the controversy with regards to anatta, and stands as a fitting comment on the Amazon reviews as well:

It seems to me that a great deal of the confusion on this issue arises from a need felt by many with strong religious convictions, and by some neutral scholars, to come to some final conclusion of their own—in terms, necessarily, of their own indigenous categories of thought—on the reality depicted by the conceptual products of other cultures” (p. 12).

While I agree in the main with this statement, there are two critical comments I would make on it.  (1) I have yet to encounter a “neutral scholar.”  Fact is, if scholars—and I include Collins here—were decidedly less neutral and more subjective and committed, they might actually allow themselves the opportunity to understand some things that can’t simply be read about in books but must be experienced and known directly.  (2) The Dhamma is something other than a mere “conceptual product” of long dead Indians.  It is, rather, a road map to the development of human consciousness, and as such applies with equal force to twentieth century scholars as to medieval peasants.

The following should do as a summary of Collins’ central thesis:

I have argued that the doctrine of anatta is, in the last analysis, a linguistic taboo in technical discourse; and that this taboo functions as a soteriological strategy, in two ways: in detail it forms part of a particular style of meditative self-analysis within the practice of Buddhist specialists; in general, acceptance of the linguistic taboo preserves the identity and integrity of Buddhism as an Indian system separate form Brahmanism” (p. 183).

By way of support, Collins musters a prodigious array of primary source evidence (hence my bafflement at Denise Anderson’s assertion that the book is “99.999% opinions… [with] very very few citations”).  His first step is to describe Brahmanical society with its emphases on the sacrifice, the continuance of life and the support of the social order, as well as the opposing undercurrent of ascetic, renunciate culture that existed alongside it.  He also examines the critical soteriological concepts of Indian religion—namely karma, samsara, and moksha—and traces how they developed from the interplay between Brahmanical and shramanic society.  The Buddha, of course, began life firmly ensconced in the former but made his name in the latter.  Part I concludes by discussing the varieties of Buddhist discourse regarding the self, person, personality and not-self, and this sets the stage for Part II, which specifically discusses the doctrine of not-self.

Much of the strength and worth of the book lies in this section.  Collins’ basic assertion, per his thesis, is that anatta is more than a statement about the reality of the individual understood by Buddhists; it is also a “strategy” of mental culture.  He discusses this notion within the framework of other important Buddhist concepts, such as views, attachment, “emptiness,” the “unanswered questions,” and the practice of “careful attention” (yoniso manasikara).

One of the biggest problems (from the standpoint of critics) with anatta has been how to describe what a person is and how he/she “continues” and is reborn.  Parts three and four, entitled “Personality and Rebirth” and “Continuity,” respectively, tackle these problems from the standpoint of both the suttas and the later exegetical tradition, making particular use of the Visuddhimagga and Milinda Panha.  Various common patterns of imagery—the house, vegetation, water, rivers—are discussed along the way, and the book concludes with an in depth look at the doctrines of momentariness and bhavanga-mind.

Overall, the tone of the book is serious, scholarly, and sophisticated.  It is well written, erudite, insightful, and as far as I know, unique as a work of scholarship focusing entirely on the anatta teaching.  His linguistic discussions of the critical terms atta (pp. 71ff) and sankhara (pp. 202ff) are noteworthy.  Regarding atta, he effectively debunks those who would make every fortuitous occurrence of the word into a declaration regarding a metaphysical Self (with a capital “S,” of course—which distinction does not exist in the language of origin, by the way, as Collins points out).  Usually the word is nothing more than a reflexive pronoun, though translation can sometimes seem to turn passages into an assertion regarding a/the self.

A particularly acute example of this is provided by a passage in which the Buddha comments on the remark of a king and queen that “no-one is dearer than oneself.”  He remarks (in verse) “surveying the whole world in one’s mind, one finds no-one dearer than oneself [or “than a man’s self”]; as everywhere others hold themselves dear [literally “self is dear to others”] the man who loves himself should not harm others’.  It would be possible to translate atta here as “the Self,” as if the idea were that a single cosmic self was shared by all (as in some Upanishads); but then the whole Buddhist ethical point would be distorted.  The idea here is simply that since each person is naturally concerned with his own welfare, a truly moral agent should realize that to cause suffering to others is to cause them the same distress which the agent knows well enough in his own experience (p. 74).

One would of course expect a scholar of Buddhism to have a firm grasp of the linguistic connotations of key Pali terms.  Where Collins begins to set himself apart, however, is in his clear understanding of the phenomenological thrust of the Buddha’s teaching.  He hits the nail on the head, for example, when he writes “It is pointless to speak of a self apart from experience” (p.98).  This passage occurs within the context of a discussion of the Buddha’s three denials of identity: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”  The Buddha, for his part, is clearly trying to drive home that since nothing you can experience can properly be identified as atta, it is pointless to cling to the notion there is such a thing.  Collins in effect repeats the Buddha’s lesson when he says “it is crucially important not to draw the inference that if the constituents of the personality are ‘not-self’ and ‘not yours’ then something else is” (p. 98).  Yet this is precisely what Collins’ critics have done.  (Bhikkhu Bodhi, in a note in his translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, is uncharacteristically blunt towards those who would cling to the belief that the Buddha left open the door for a self, or was just denying the “small self” to clear way for the “True Self.”  He writes (on p. 1457, n.385) “The Buddha declares that ‘all phenomena are nonself’ (sabbe dhamma anatta), which means that if one seeks a self anywhere one will not find one. Since ‘all phenomena’ includes both the conditioned and the unconditioned, this precludes an utterly transcendent, ineffable self.”)

There are a number of excellent and illuminating passages in the book.  On p. 192 Collins correctly understands the first noble truth of dukkha as not pessimism but as “part of a specific soteriological project”—meaning the verdict of normal life as suffering is meant to inspire, motivate and direct the efforts of a practitioner towards a goal.  Pages 136ff are a thorough review of the “unanswered questions” and why they are unanswered, and page 207 presents a rare discussion of the distinction between nibbana-with and without-remainder.

There are even cases of accidental illumination provided by the text.  While reading chapter eight, for example, I was suddenly struck by how scholastic and abstract the subject of discussion had become (“how long is a moment?”) as compared to the problems pondered over earlier in the book.  The Buddha was nothing if not practical, and the suttas reflect this; they are prescriptive and transformative.  But the exegetical tradition, judging by this presentation, lost sight of that and squandered its energies on matters that had no bearing on the problem of suffering and its end.  The whole doctrine of momentariness, for example, bore a distressing resemblance to the medieval debate over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Selfless Persons, though, is not without its weaknesses, and some of them are significant.  For one, the book is a “scholar’s view.”  This is hardly surprising—it originated as a doctoral dissertation, after all—but for people who want not only to study but to practice the Buddha’s teaching, this shortcoming may weigh heavily.  When I read the following passage—“The task of scholarship is endlessly to investigate, by any and every academic discipline which proves necessary, the words in which beliefs and doctrines are presented…” (p. 12), my immediate question was: “What about actual practice?”  Pure textual studies are appropriate in many cases (medieval literature, for example), but not when the “beliefs and doctrines” are things you are actually expected to do.  And so I was not surprised when Collins repeated a typical layman’s superstition that “It is generally considered impossible in our time to attain nibbana…” (p. 16).  I have to wonder if beliefs like this have not infected “neutral scholars” who do not feel inclined to practice what they study.  The scholarly attitude of objective indifference is especially puzzling when it concerns the scholar’s own existential dilemma as a conscious being who knows he will one day die.  Do scholars never consider that the Buddha was addressing them to?

There is also a tacit assumption of the untruth of certain beliefs.  For example: “We have seen the hypothesis that the doctrine of samsara in Brahmanical thought was influenced by little tradition ideas” (p. 33; see also p. 51).  And on page 60, we are told the history of how the atman/Brahman idea developed.  Thus everything is reduced to objectively knowable ideas and their history.  There is no consideration that someone might actually have experienced something that directly gave rise to these beliefs, for example, remembering past lives, or states of unitive consciousness, etc.  Even when Collins does acknowledge that someone might experience something (on p. 62) he minimizes its import to “a few individuals.”  (Go to Dharma Overground and you’ll see these “few individuals” are really not so few after all.)  Such experiences are not taken seriously because they are outside the ken of mainstream scholarship, which is not surprising since most scholars of religion do not practice what they study.  I suggest that if a scholar does have practical experience of his subject matter, then his ideas as ideas will gain weight; both the tone of his writing will change as well as his ability to express with insight.  As insightful as Collins is, a three month vipassana retreat would certainly have taken his game to the next level.

Directly related to this is Collins’ treatment of anatta in the abstract, as an idea rather than experience.  But in Dhamma not-self is one of the “Three Marks” (ti-lakkhana), coincident with insight into dukkha (“suffering”) and anicca (“impermanence”).  The third of the insight knowledges is “knowledge of comprehension” [of the three marks] (sammasana-ñana) wherein the vipassana meditator begins seeing directly that objects of experience are fleeting, unsatisfactory and painful, and that they come and go without any agency behind them.  This first glimpse of anatta can be a visceral experience that, when developed, leads directly to the phase of “arising and passing away” (A&P)—a critical event in any practioner’s spiritual life.  But he mentions none of this; hence the practical effect of anatta is concealed, and its place in the Buddha’s training distorted and exaggerated.

Another problem that colors his work is Collins’ failure to clearly distinguish between the sutta and exegetical traditions as regards anatta and related concepts.  In effect, he blends them together, trying to create a whole cloth out of their disparate understandings.  For example, on p. 77 he foreshadows confusion in the later Theravada between the terms puggala (“person”) and atta (“self”).  The two meanings are utterly different, but in such texts as the Milindipanha and Visuddhimagga they are conflated to the detriment of the teaching.  Collins does nothing to redress this misunderstanding; he in fact perpetuates it.  (See especially pages 115, 154, and 156ff.)  What becomes clear from his discussion is that by the time of the Milindipanha, anatta as a known experience had been lost sight of and replaced by a dogma—an erroneous dogma, I might add.  (Thus when Nagasena is asked “Who is reborn?” he responds “name and form”—p. 185.  But the correct answer, the Buddha’s answer, is to reject the question as meaningless.  Cf. discourses involving Vacchagotta and the monk Sati—M.38.)  Again, Collins never lays bare this discrepancy between the suttas and exegetical texts.

Connected no doubt to the above confusions is Collins’ lack of discrimination between such terms as nibbana, “enlightened person,” arhant, and sekha; for the most part they are used interchangeably (see e.g. pp. 83 and 92).  Consider the following: “What this ‘conceit’ [asmimana] refers to is the fact that for the unenlightened man, all experience and action must necessarily appear phenomenologically as happening to or originating from an ‘I”” (p. 94).  This is, in a way, correct, but he should have noted that four types or grades of people have experienced nirvana—the streamwinner (sotapanna), once returner (sakadagmi), non-returner (anagami) and arhant—and while each of these is, to a greater or lesser degree, “enlightened,” only the last has totally done away with asmimana (the “conceit” I am); the other three are still sekhas (“learners,” “aspirants”).  In another passage he does obliquely recognize the sekha—“We saw that when the overt fetter of belief in a self (sakkayaditthi) is given up, the focus of attention then becomes the selfishness inherent in the affective structure of experience, which is the fetter of asmimana.  We might call this latter the ‘unconscious’ utterance ‘I am’” (p. 101)—but again he fails to identify the different grades of enlightenment and what constitutes them.  The result is a mishmash of ideas and concepts whose direct connection to anatta as one of the Three Marks or Characteristics is obscured, and which culminates in a doozey of factual error: “The final eradication of these tendencies [“greed, conceit, and so on”] is ‘liberation without remainder’” (p. 102).  No!–the arhant, who is nibbana with remainder (i.e. living body-and-mind), is the final eradication of these tendencies.

There are a number of other misunderstandings that leap out at me that I will briefly list:

  • I have a serious problem with the reduction of anatta to a mere “strategy in mental culture.”  It is much more—it is a fundamental characteristic of phenomena revealed through meditation, something Collins would understand if actually tried said meditation.
  • Quoting Dumont, Collins writes “without transmigration the liberation or extinction which [the Buddha] recommends would lose all meaning” (p. 64).  This is sheer baloney, a vapid assertion that again indicates the radical disconnect of the scholar from actual experience.
  • Collins misunderstands when he says “It is static, unalterable dogma which posits a permanent and reincarnating self or person which is the object of Buddhist censure” (p. 76).  Actually, it is the experience of self itself that is the object of the Buddha’s censure—and the source of human suffering.  The “unalterable dogmas” are simply the results of this.
  • “[T]he idea of being a person on the Path, and therefore at least a stream-winner, must originally have meant no more than being a monk” (p. 92).  I have no idea where anyone would get such an idea.  Even he barest acquaintance with the suttas should be able to dispense with this notion.

My final assessment of this work is that it is both indispensable, a must read, as well as deeply flawed.  I would add too that it is most certainly not a beginner’s text—the subtleties of arguments, both good and bad, right and wrong, are likely to be lost on someone who does not yet know their way around the suttas and their terminology.  It should therefore be kept later as part of a capstone reading in Theravadan ideas.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


The Noble Eightfold Path by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then assures us that

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

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

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

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

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

My Amazon rating: 2 stars


The Connected Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (the pdf)

This pdf is the complete text of my biography of Ñanavira Thera, available for free distribution.

The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera


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