The Heretic Sage, Part 1

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A Dhamma Interview with Ven. Bhikkhu K. Ñānananda by Ven. Bhikkhu Yogananda

  • How does a bhikkhu know the ford? Here a bhikkhu goes from time to
  • time to such bhikkhus who have learned much, who are well versed in
  • the tradition, who maintain the Dhamma, the Discipline, and the Codes, and he
  • enquires and asks questions of them thus: ‘How is this, venerable sir? What is
  • the meaning of this?’ These venerable ones reveal to him what has not been
  • revealed, clarify what is not clear, and remove his doubts about numerous
  • things that give rise to doubt. That is how a bhikkhu knows the ford.


Bhante Ñāṇananda is not the monk I thought he would be. He is much more. As I recall my first meeting with him in his small cave kuti, the first word that crosses my mind is “innocent”. For a senior monk who has been in the order for more than 40 years, he is disarmingly simple, unpretentious, and friendly. Childlike even. But you would not get that impression from his classics ‘Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought’ and ‘The Magic of the Mind’.

I was introduced to his writings by my friend Ven. Sumana, an English monk. It was Bhante Ñāṇananda’s Nibbāna–'The Mind Stilled' collection that I first read. Later I would go through 'The Magic of the Mind', which I would find both enchanting and baffling at the same time. It would take me even longer to take up 'Concept and Reality'. All of them would leave a lasting impression on me, and define the way I interpret the Dhamma. But not before completely misconceiving what he was saying, and engage in a lengthy correspondence with him, finally meet him only to learn that I was miserably wrong on many things all that time. And it would be a meeting I’ll always remember.

I was a staunch ‘Ñāṇavirist’ until that meeting, so for me Nibbāna–'The Mind Stilled' was more or less a commentary on 'Notes on Dhamma' by Ven. Ñāṇavira Thera. Sure enough, there were some passages here and there that took some effort to beat into submission, but language is a flexible medium and the mind is infinitely creative. On the few occasions when that problem could not be easily shrugged off, I resorted to considering Bhante Ñāṇananda the scholar who needed to bow in front of the experience of Ven. Ñāṇavira. The first vassa in 2009 was a time when my understanding of the Dhamma went through some changes. I noted those thoughts down, and sent some of them to Bhante Ñāṇananda for review. A particularly long letter that ran to more than 50 pages took two months for a reply. Bhante thought it would take an equally long letter to explain those matters, which he was not in a position to write: he had just returned from a two month stay in the hospital. Instead, he invited me to visit him at his monastery and stay a few days. Which created a few problems, because Ven. Katukurunde Ñāṇananda Thera is an outcast.

His critical analysis of Buddhist texts and the unwillingness to adhere to the commentarial tradition has made Bhante Ñāṇananda a radical and a heretic. He probably knew what he was getting into from the very beginning. In the introduction to 'Concept and Reality', written in 1969, he states: It is feared that the novelty of some of our interpretations will draw two types of extreme reaction. One the one hand, it might give rise to a total antipathy towards the critical analysis of doctrinal points attempted here. On the other, it might engender an unreasonable distrust leading to a sweeping condemnation of the commentaries as a whole. This work has failed in its purpose if its critical scrutiny of the occasional shortcomings in the commentarial literature makes any one forget his indebtedness to the commentaries for his knowledge of the Dhamma. [1] Over the years he would become less apologetic and more straight forward in his assertions, but his criticisms would always remain subtle, his delightful sarcasm barely noticed unless approached with the necessary background knowledge and the attention they deserve. For example, criticising the Ābhidhammika atomism and the commentarial sabhāva (own-essence) doctrine, he says: An insight meditator, too, goes through a similar experience when he contemplates on name-and-form, seeing the 682 Nibbàna Ý The Mind Stilled four elements as empty and void of essence, which will give him at least an iota of the conviction that this drama of existence is empty and insubstantial. He will realize that, as in the case of the dumb show, he is involved with things that do not really exist. [...] Seeing the reciprocal relation ship between name-and-form, he is disinclined to dabble in concepts, or gulp down a dose of prescriptions. [...] What is essential here is the very under standing of essencelessness. If one sits down to draw up lists of concepts and prescribe them, it would only lead to mental constipation. [2]

It is in his latest booklet 'Nibbana and the Fire Simile' that I found him being the most direct: There is a flush of Buddhist literature thriving in the West which attempts to interpret this fire simile in the light of the Vedic myth that the extinguished fire ‘goes into hiding’.

Though the Buddha succeeded in convincing the Brahmin interlocutors of the dependently arisen nature of the fire by the reduction - ad - absurdum method, these scholars seem to be impervious to his arguments. What is worse, misinterpretations have even sought refuge in blatant mistranslations of sacred texts. [...]

The term ‘extinction’ is anathema to the West in general. Perhaps as a euphemism, ‘extinguishment’ might be ‘passable’. But rather than playing with the ‘fire-simile’ it is better to accept the obvious conclusions, willy nilly. [3] To appreciate the rebelliousness of these passages and many others like it, one needs to understand the context in which they were written. The monastic Sangha in general is quite dogmatic and traditionalist, not entirely welcoming of challenging views. When the Nibbāna sermons were delivered at the Nissarana Vanaya, Bhante Ñāṇananda had the backing of his teacher, the illustrious Elder Ven. Matara Sri Ñāṇārāma Mahathera , who not only allowed him the freedom, but invited and encouraged him to express his radical views.

Even then he was criticized by many of his colleagues. Those Bhikkhu K. ¥àõananda 683 views were one of the main reasons that led to Bhante Ñāṇananda’s departure from the Nissarana Vanaya after the death of Ven. Ñāṇārāma. He left of his own accord, and set up a small monastery in Devalegama: Pothgulgala Aranya. It was there that I first met him in November last year. It was late in the evening that I arrived, and Bhante Ñāṇananda was out visiting a doctor, some thing that was becoming more frequent, as his asthma was getting worse. After he returned at around 10 pm, I’m was taken to his small cave kuti by his student Ven. Damita. I was surprised to see how frail and almost fragile Bhante Ñāṇananda was. I introduced myself; he slaped his head and laughs, and asked: “How did you manage to escape?” The next day, after piṇḍapāta I went to visit him in his kuti. He warmly welcomed me. I pulled out his lastest reply to my letters, in which he provided some points to ponder, and started asking him for clarification on each of the points. As I sat there on the floor listening to his thoroughly informative commentary, some of my cherished views got blasted to bits.

Answering a question dealing with the structure of experience, Bhante Ñāṇananda quoted the Hemaka māṇavapucchā of the Sutta Nipāta (from memory, of course), and used the simile of the plantain trunk to illustrate the way knowledge of experience is gained. “ It’s a beautiful sutta, where Hemaka explains the reason why he gained faith in the Buddha. Ye me pubbe viyākaṃsu Huraṃ gotama sāsanaṃ , Iccāsiiti bhavissati Sabbaṃtaṃitihitihaṃ Sabbaṃtaṃ takkavaḍ ḍhanaṃ Nāhaṃtattha abhiramiṃ . Tvañca me dhammam akkhāhitaṅh ānigghtanaṃ muni, Yaṃviditvāsato caraṃtarelokevisattikaṃ.

Those in the past who explained their teachings to me out-side Gotama’s dispensations aid “so it was and so it will be”. All that is “so and so” talk; all that promoted specu-684 'Nibbàna Ý The Mind Stilled'-tion. I did not delight in them. And you, O Sage, do expound to me the teaching of destruction of craving, knowing which, faring mindfully, I shall cross over the clinging in this world. Those verses cut to the heart of the problem. They show the value of this akālika Dhamma. Taṇhā is something that is here and now, and it is taṇhakkhayo that is Nibbāna. Now, the simile of the plantain trunk comes in here. At the end, all of this is just a heap of saṇkhāras – preparations, which the Buddha equated to a plantain trunk. It is not necessary to roll the sheaths to realize the pithlessness of it; one just needs to take the sword of paññā and cut through. From the cross section itself one realizes. Actually that what is meant by under standing paṭiccasamuppāda , not memorizing the 12 links. The Dhamma is akālika because of the principle.” In his letter Bhante has mentioned the importance of understanding the difference between vijānāti and pajānāti when it comes to discussing viññāṇa . I asked for an elaboration. “This is some thing that tends to get over looked. There are many words that share the ñā root in the texts: sañjānāti, vijānāti, pajānāti, abhijānāti, parijānāti, ājānāti . There may be more. It is with reason that there are these differences between them. It is commonly known that the root ñā stands for ‘knowledge’. Why is it said ‘vijānāti’ when it could have easily been said ‘jānāti’? Most translations just use ‘knows’. But vijānāti means ‘discriminatively knows’. What is the main job of viññāṇa? We can clarify that from the Mahāvedalla Sutta . There we get the phrases yaṃsañjānātitaṃvijānāti and yaṃvijānātitaṃpajānāti . ‘What one perceives, that one discriminates’ and ‘what one discriminates, that one knows’.

“From the examples that follow that phrase we can understand the jānana level of each. For sañjānāti- Nīlakampi sañjānāti, pītakampi sañjānāti, lohitakampi sañjānāti, odātampi sañjānāti–using colors. When someone is coming from a distance, all we see is just some blob of color. When Bhikkhu K. ¥àõananda 685 he comes closer we separate him from the others: ‘oh, he is this person, not the other’. When we know deeply, at pajānāti level, all is the same, just the four elements, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. What are the examples given for vijānāti ? There are two; the first is sukhan’tipivijānāti, dukkhan’tipivijānāti, and adukkhamasukhan’tipivijānāti . This clearly shows that vijānana is unique to living beings, not found in trees and rocks. The first level of viññāṇa is in discriminating between different feelings. For instance, in the Mahānidāna Sutta we find the Buddha asking Ven. Ananda Thera whether there would be any self notion where there is no feeling. The answer is ‘no’. That shows that feeling is fundamental. So what is there in feeling? Bifurcation, which is the most fundamental delusion.” He pauses to say how glad he is that there is no need to use ‘foot notes’ when talking to me. I’m glad I did the homework. If you want to find Bhante Ñāṇananda in his zone, do the necessary preparatory studying, and be willing to put up with copious amounts of Pāḷi, not all of which would be translated. But then he asks “Do you remember the other example for vijānāti ?” I don’t. There is a second example for vijānāti from the Khajjanīya Sutta:

Ambilampivijānāti, tittakampivijānāti, kaṭukampivijānāti, madhurakampivijānāti, khārikampivijānāti, akhārikampivijānāti, loṇikampivijānāti, aloṇikampivijānāti — different tastes. Do you see any difference between knowing colors and knowing tastes?” I mumble my ignorance. “With taste the discrimination is explicit. When we taste some thing, it takes a while to decide whether its sweet, or sour, or salty. Some foods we can’t easily categorize by taste, like the Nelli fruit. But it is not essential to go that far: what is important is to remember that discriminating between different feeling tones is the main function of viññāṇa".

A unique feature of paṭiccasamuppāda is the way one result becomes the cause for another. One pulls the other in. When we take a pair of items in paṭiccasamuppāda , one member is also a member in the next pair. The very question whether saññā and viññāṇa are the same or different reeks of absolutism, an attempt to separate them into watertight compartments. But their connectedness is pointed out in the Sutta with yaṃsañjānātitaṃvijānāti, yaṃvijānātitaṃpajānāti . This doesn’t mean all three are the same either. The nuances are important. The difference between viññāṇa and paññā is explained as paññābhāvetabbā, viññāṇaṃpariññeyyaṃ.

Paññā is to be developed, viññāṇa is to be understood. When paññā is fulfilled, viññāṇa is fully comprehended. As in the magic show: to see through the magic is to miss the show. The last sentence is a reference to Bhante Ñāṇananda’s short masterpiece 'The Magic of the Mind'.

In the floodlights of paññā there is no room for the shadows of viññāṇa . The delusion of self love reflects a world, so there’s the two: an I and a world. Reflections on the eye, reflections on the ear, reflections on the mind: taking these reflections that fall on the senses as true, the materialists go looking for a world out there. When the Buddha called all of that a mere illusion, he meant all, including concepts. That’s why it is said sabbadhammakkhayaṃ pattovimutto upadhisaṅkhaye . [4] Mind and dhammas is the last resort of delusion. This is one of the most controversial of Bhante Ñāṇananda’s views. 'The Magic of the Mind' discusses this topic at length. He has been called an idealist and an illusionist because of it; he rejects both accusations. Being a Ñāṇavirist at the time, this ‘illusionist’ interpretation was some thing I too found difficult to accept, especially in light of Ven. Ñāṇavira’s explicit and vehement rejection of the notion of māyā as a hindu concept shared by the Mahayanists. It is viññāṇa that discriminates between a sense and an object. The Ābhidhammikas are stuck thinking that even when all else falls apart manoviññāṇa remains. It is like we separating a flowing river into parts, naming them, and then putting the parts back together to create a river. I remember some thing Dr. W.S. Karunaratne said: ‘the grammar of nature Bhikkhu K. ¥àõananda 687 does not correspond to the grammar of language’. That’s a nice saying. This is beautifully illustrated in the Poṭṭhapāda Sutta . We separate the flux of existence into parts, with papañcasaññāsaṇkhā . Those saṇkhās are mere suggestions. They can only nudge us toward a certain direction. We can not under stand reality using them. Words have a limited capacity. It is okay to use them as long as one realizes their limitations. One who realizes their limitations would not be limited by them. The Poṭṭhapāda Sutta ends with imākho Citta loka samaññā loka niruttiyolokavo hārā loka paññattiyo, yāhi Tathāgato voharatiaparāmasaṃ . We must be so grateful to the ancient bhāṇakas: it would have been such a loss if that last word was forgotten. Aparāmasaṃ – not grasping. That’s where the whole secret lies. And then he laughs his delightful laugh, as if all that should have been obvious in the first place.


1. Ñāṇananda. K. (1997) [1971], 'Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought', Buddhist Publication Society, p. VI.

2. Ñāṇananda, Katukurunde, Bhikkhu (2004), 'Nibbāna–The MindStilled', Vol.II, Dharma Grantha Mudrana Bharaya, p. 183.

3. Ñāṇananda, Katukurunde, Bhikkhu (2010), 'Nibbāna and the Fire Simile' , Dharma Grantha Mudrana Bharaya, p. 26.

4. Sn992

See also