Jul 8, 2007

Commenting on Comments

From the comments to my post on Rebirth, Apichato Bhikkhu says;

The three lifetime idea, along with the ‘relative truth’ of rebirth, is Brahmanism, eternalism. Buddhagosa was originally a Brahman, and along with the eternalist view of Paticcasamuppada he also ‘endorsed’ other Vedic practices as part of Buddhism, e.g. meditative practices that are totally irrelevant to the cessation of suffering, and quite a few other ideas (although he was not the first to endorse such a view and such ideas).
No, he wasn't the first. The Buddha beat him to it by about a millenium.

Those who wish to characterize rebirth as a brahminical import into the pure Buddhadhamma would have to account for the numerous times the Buddha explicitly teaches it. Likewise, the strongest case for the "three-lifetimes" model is found in the suttas themselves, where the factors of "birth" and "death" are routinely defined in the literal terms of actual birth and death of beings, not in the metaphorical sense necessary for the momentary model, which is rather contrived for this part of the cycle.

As for the various practices described in the Vissudhimagga "totally irrelevant to the cessation of suffering" I can only infer Apichato is referring to the forty samatha meditations, such as mindfulness of breathing and kasina work. As far as I know, there is no practice in the Vissudhimagga that isn't found previously in the words of the Buddha himself. This is not surprising, as the VM was written as a commentorial encyclopedia, a precis of the canonical teachings. And while samatha meditation does not lead by itself to cessation of suffering, it is far from irrelevant to that endeavour. You have to practice your scales if you want to play at Carnegie Hall.

Lastly, dismissing a teaching as a "relative truth" implies a basic misunderstanding of that term. A relative truth is not a falsehood. In the case of rebirth or kamma, these teachings may be called "relative" because they are stated in terms of individual beings which in the ultimate sense are only conventional names. However, this does not mean they do not actually happen!


I've fiddled with the settings for the comments again, here is the new deal;

1. I've left on word verification. I know it's slightly annoying but less than having the comments fill up with spam for great stock tips and male enhancement products.
2. I've taken off moderation, we seem to have lost the nasties. If they come back, moderation will go back on.
3. Lastly, I've enabled the requirement that you register. We've got a lot of anonymous postings and it makes it impossible to follow any discussion in the threads. Registration with Google seems to be the only way to require posters to use a name (doesn't have to be your real name.) If you have a blog, or use other personalized Google services, you're already registered. If not, it's free and easier than most on-line registrations. We may lose a few posters doing this, but I think it will make the comments more readable for everyone.


Anybody said...

Reading the Vimuttimagga has helped me with my meditation on occasion - especially the part on how to deal with ill will. The book seems to be out of print - does anyone know if I can order or download it or the Visudimagga? What's the difference between them?

Ajahn Punnadhammo said...

The Vimuttimagga is a very good source for meditation, better than the Vissudhimagga in my opinion, especially on breath meditation. It was written by a slightly different tradition off what became the main-line of Theravada, but also in Sri Lanka.

The Vissudhimagga is available through Wisdom Publications I think, and the Vimuttimagga from the Buddhist Publication Society.

Noah said...


Great post. Interesting topic, sorry to see such narrowmindedness in regards to the Buddhadhamma - like the blind men and the elephant, eh?

Visuddhimagga should be spelled thus, and is available for free from Taiwan with a hardcover and a red ribbon.

anonyrod, a reflectance of dorynona said...

As Ajarn Apichato first practiced traditional anapanasati and was recognized by senior Ajarns of the Thai Sangha to be adept in fourth jhana and abhinnya even before he ordained as a novice, I doubt that he was criticizing the inclusion of anapanasati in the list of 40 meditations. In fact he has been teaching anapanasati at the abdomen for over thirty years. Rather, I suspect that he means the inclusion of variations on Bhakti yoga, and the Brahma Vihara meditations.

As for the criticism that the three lifetime idea stemmed from the belief in eternalism, this criticism goes back even before Ajarn Buddhadasa, and was pointed out by one of the heads of the Thai Sangha around 100 years ago. This Pra Sangharaja tended to put the blame on Buddhagosa, whereas Ajarn Buddhadasa dug much deeper and traced it back to the third council.

Thus, we can see that even the ‘Be here now’ hippies of the sixties were closer than some junior Sangha members of the present day; if it isn’t about the present moment, then it’s not Buddhism.

As for finding references in the texts, no doubt there are many. However, relying upon the texts is no different than any other religion basing their idea of truth upon what they find in their own texts. It presents a weak argument at best, in real terms somewhat like saying “My dad said so!”

As Tan Pra Ajarn Mun astutely pointed out, these are just stories, and stories, if I remember correctly, are mainly for children, or as ‘glen fiztgerald’ shrewdly interpreted them ‘Sunday School Buddhists’. As this eternalist view was already well established in The Sangha before any of the texts were written down, it is perhaps not so surprising that the texts support this eternalist view, and quoting what The Buddha said does not mean much if it does not agree with the actual practice.

There are also other criticisms of Buddhagosa concerning the words of The Buddha, and the fact that he interpreted them in a Brahmanical way rather than in a Buddhist way (read Dependent Origination by Ajarn Buddhadasa).

Finally, a relative truth, as correctly pointed out, is not a falsehood, but Buddhism is concerned with absolute truth, thus relative truths are inconsequential.

anonyrod, on 911.. the speedo says 350 but the needle never goes beyond 310! (911 Turbo) said...

As an aside, what one learns from talking to various Ajarns is that apart from the method the reality and possibilities of practice are not written down at all, or if they are, are simply the hearsay postulations of scholars more concerned with spelling, punctuation and grammar (not forgetting the red ribbons).

Admittedly not a direct concern of Buddhist practice, but if we take abhinnya, or iddhi, (supernatural abilities) for example, even the ones written about are often misconstrued. The general explanation of iddhividha, flying through the air, walking on water, diving into the earth and the creation of forms, etc., are not complete explanations. Walking on water and diving into the earth are extensions of kasina practice, and here one could also include walking through walls, flame strikes, and a host of other effects as an extension of such practice. This should perhaps illustrate that the old mythology of wizards casting spells is not too fanciful, but with an obviously different explanation of what is actually happening.

Here one should also mention that one of the common experiences for beginning or not particularly skilled meditators is the experience of levitation when in fact they are not levitating; what they experience is simply a feeling. While it might sound unbelievable, one Ajarn points out that such feelings, which include flying, can actually be learned from beings of other realms, and if you can remember those feelings in your usual consciousness then you can do the same; easier said than done.

Such things as the creation of forms does not have a prerequisite skill, like kasina knowledge, other than a vivid imagination, and as one Ajarn points out that while being a ‘somewhat cool’ supernatural ability, its general result is that it tends to freak some people out big time, so it is not something that Ajarns recommend.

Pubbenivassanussati, described as remembering the past lives of oneself and others, has the prerequisite skill of high level sati (mindfulness) at its core, and rather than being an ability to remember past lives (a Brahman interpretation) the Ajarns say that in reality it is the remembrance of past experiences; something completely different altogether.

Dibbasota (celestial ear) is quite straightforward yet is enhanced by sati, and Dibbacakkhu (celestial eye, third eye) involves instantaneous rebirth into the Yama realm. Paracittavijanana, knowing the mind and thoughts of others, is the result of the natural awareness that many Ajarns have.

There are also many other possibilities not even mentioned in texts. Two kinds of travel are possible, one using the Yama realm where the complete body and mind can travel to a destination, and another technique where only the mind contacts a particular destination, and not only the faculty of sight works well but also the faculty of smell.

Telepathy is also something considered not that difficult, and even group telepathy, where a group of senior Ajarns in different locations throughout the country have engaged in contact, is also possible. There are also said to be forms of iddhi using mind contact that most people could not even imagine.

Thus, relying upon texts rather than the actual practice is somewhat like reading a book on Venezuela written by someone who has never even set foot in the place; very nice but not even 00.001% of the actual experience of being there.

There is, and has always been, a tendency for Buddhists to attach to the framework and outward appearance of Buddhism rather than the actual practice; the real heart of Buddhism.

yuttadhammo said...

Ananyrod (if that is your real name), said:

"if it isn’t about the present moment, then it’s not Buddhism."

That is a little narrow, isn't it? I mean, that says that all of the past lives of the Buddha are not Buddhism, which makes them a strange inclusion in the Tipitaka (perhaps more brahmanism?). When it gets right down to it, that statement nullifies cause and effect as being Buddhist.

According to the Buddha (evam me sutam) there are eight kinds of avijja, the first four in regards to the four noble truths, and the latter four are:

5) ignorance in regards to the past
6) ignorance in regards to the future
7) ignorance in regards to the past and future
8) ignorance in regards to the law of dependent origination (which comprises at least 12 seperate moments in time, eleven of which are in the past or future at any given moment).

So I don't see how your statement holds.


A junior Sangha member of the present day :)

anonyrod, needle only goes to 310 (911 Turbo) said...

The past lives of The Buddha are stories, and whether or not you believe them or whether they are true stories or not makes no difference to Buddhism.

As for the second point, that my statement nullifies cause and effect, you are almost there. However, Buddhism itself, non-attachment, nullifies cause and effect.

I think that this is the whole point of the teaching of Dependent Origination; there is no cause and effect if you have mindfulness of the present moment.

As for ignorance,

how does one deal with ignorance of the past?

How does one deal with ignorance of the future?

How does one deal with ignorance of the past and future?

I have no doubt that your quotes are correct, but we normal human beings are going to have great problems with this; that is of course if we take it all literally.

Therefore, we come back to the second insight knowledge, mentioned a few weeks ago, paccayapariggaha nana (knowledge penetrating conditionality), which means that when you understand the present moment then you have the ability to investigate the past and the future as they really are (as they are exactly the same). Meaning that avijjas from 5-8 are all about understanding the present moment.

This is the problem of getting into the books and becoming completely baffled by words and speculation. You might note that Ajarn Mun and Ajarn Chah of one lineage did not walk around with a pile of books, and neither did the other lineages, not to mention the monks who could not even read or write (including The Buddha himself) who had no problems becoming Arahants.

I must admit to thinking that much of the written teachings were influenced by Brahamanism; as you might expect ordinary people to do who were brought up in a Brahman society. Similar things happen to Buddhism in Western Society.

As for Anonyrod, would anyone have such a real name? It started with my real name, Rod, but when he upset the kind and compassionate I changed it to that.

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