The Heretic Sage, Part 3

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

In the traditional exegesis, pancupādānakkhandhā (the five aggregates of clinging) and nāma-rūpa (name and form) are used interchangeably, implying that these two are the same. As Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera also pointed out in his Notes on Dhamma , this is a dubious interpretation that does not find explicit support in the Suttas. I ask Bhante Ñāṇananda how we should understand the connection between pancupādā - nakkhandha and nāma - rūpa. “It is quite common to hear that these two are the same: that rūpa - upādānakkhandha is the same as the rūpa in nama - rūpa , and the other four aggregates are nāma . That is like trying to measure distance in kilograms – a confusion.

“In that beautiful seminar in a moonlit night recorded in the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta , it is made quite clear that viññāna can not be a part of nāma . One venerable asks “Kohetukopaccay or ūpakkhandhassa paññā - panāya?” and so on — what is the cause for the designation of each aggregate? And the Buddha answered that it is the four great elements that give rise to the designation of an aggregate of form. For vedanā, saññā and saṅkhāra, it is phassa – contact. But for viññāna , the cause is nāma - rūpa.

“We are used to explaining paṭiccasamuppāda in the form of the standard 12 links starting from avijjā. However, always trying to put avijjā at the lead in exegesis led to misinterpretations of certain Suttas. For example, commenting on the Mahānidāna Sutta , Ven. Buddhaghosa Thera brings in the so-called three-life interpretation whereas there is nothing missing from the Sutta itself. As I tried to explain in The Bhikkhu K. ¥àõananda 695 ‘Magic of the Mind’, it is from the preparations that are done in the darkness of ignorance that the duality of viññāna and nāma-rūpa arise.

“And what is that duality? The same duality seen by the dog on a plank over water.” Bhante Ñāṇananda is referring to a simile he has often used in Dhamma discussions: A dog is crossing a plank over a stream. Half way through it looks into the water and sees another dog there. It wags its tail and the other responds. It snarls and the other reacts. It looks away to ignore, but when it looks again the water dog is still there looking on. The view of an existing self is also due to such unwise attention. “I think therefore I am” is the resulting wrong conclusion. Neither narcissistic love nor masochistic hate can solve the problem. Ignoring with a cynical sneer is to evade the problem. Therefore one has to thrash-down this problem of the elusive self-image to the basic confrontation between consciousness and name and form. 
“Reflect Rightly on the Reflection”, From topsy - turvydom to Wisdom “ Nāma - rūpa is a deception. It is unreal. But in the illusion of viññāna , wherever you look, it is there. What ever it may be, whether it’s a sight, or a sound, or a thought, it is just vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phassa, or manasikāra. But here again there is a common mis interpretation: when listing the nāma - dhammas, some start from phassa, vedanā. They put phassa to the front. But phassa has to be at the back.” He says the above in Sinhala, where the word for ‘back’ is ‘ passa ’. The pun is lost in translation. As for putting phassa first, it is often seen in the Abhidhamma literature when listing the cetasikas.

“They say so because in paṭiccasamuppāda, phassa comes before vedanā . That doesn’t apply here. In the Suttas, such as the Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta , the ordering is never in that form. The Buddha and the Arahants were not mistaken; logically one can have phassa first, but psychologically it is vedanā that is primary. It is through vedanā that one recognizes the four 696 Nibbàna Ý The Mind Stilled great elements, not through phassa. The self notion hinges on vedanā . That is why it deserves to be the first. “ So one develops a saññā according to vedanā, based on which one has cetanā , at which point the ‘per sonality’ is taken for granted. This creates the duality necessary for phassa.

Manasikāra is at the end, some what like ekaggatā , unifying them all: manasikāra sambha vāsabbe dhammā – all things arise from attention. “ With vedanā, the self notion ‘awakens’, although here it is more like dreaming. Or like a blind man groping in the dark. The blind man reacts only to the feeling of bumping into something. That is why Ven. Ananda Thera replied to the Buddha that it is not possible to have any self notion when there is no vedanā . Taṇhā arises from vedanā . “ So where does pañcupādānakkhandha come in? Pañcupādānakkhandhā is the final result of the constant tussle between viññāṇa and nāma - rūpa . This is made clear in the Mahāsaāyatanika Sutta . What is gathered from the six viññāṇas, at the end, are filtered down to things grasped as these are my forms, these are my feelings, these are my perceptions.

You might remember how the Buddha explained the designation of a khandha , in the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta:

atītānāgatapaccuppannaṃajjhattaṃvābahiddhāvāoārikaṃvāsukhumaṃvāhīnaṃvāpaṇītaṃvāyaṃdūresantikevā (past, future, present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior, or superior, far or near). That’s the demarcation of the heap. One of the main themes of Bhante Ñāṇananda’s classic ‘The Magic of the Mind’ is the illusory nature of viññāṇa . Earlier we discussed some of the nuances involved in differentiating between viññāṇa and paññā, and now the discussion moves on to the relationship between viññāṇa and nāma - rūpa . It’s a pity that many Buddhists still can not accept that the goal of this practice is the cessation of viññāṇa . It is a suffering; the simile for viññāṇâhāra is being beaten by a spear 300 times a day. The darkness of avijjā creates the background for it. As I pointed out with the similes of the cinema and the magic show, these things can only happen as long as there is darkness. All this is just an illusion, a drama. In fact, the old - Bhikkhu K. ¥àõananda 697 meaning of saṅkhāra is found in that context of a stage show.

“The connection between viññāṇa and nāma - rūpa can be illustrated with a childish simile: it is like a dog chasing its own tail. The modern Rohitassas who try to overcome a world as seen through viññāna are no different. They chase after what the Buddha dismissed as an illusion. There is nothing to go chasing after here; all that needs to be done is to stay where one is, and to realize that it is merely a shadow. When the darkness of avijjā is dispelled, saṅkhāras are stilled. The game is over. “Viññāṇa and nāma - rūpa revolve around each other at an indescribable speed. That’s why it was told to Ven. Sāti that it is wrong to say “viññāṇaṃsandhāvatisaṃsaratianaññaṃ” (it is this same viññāṇa that runs and wanders, not another). If only the Ābhidhammikas realized that parivatta in ahuparivattaṃcittaṃ means ‘revolving’: viññāṇapaccayānāmarūpaṃ, nāmarūpapaccayāviññāṇaṃ.

“The Gāthās in the Sagāthaka Vagga, although often not given enough attention, are very deep. I stopped the Nibbāna series at sermon number 33, but what I had planned for 34, although never delivered, was based on that beautiful verse from the Nimokkha Sutta: Nandībhavaparikkhayāsaññāviññāasaṅkhayā , Vedanānaṃnirodhāupasamāevaṃkhvāhaṃāvusojānāmi Sat tānaṃnimokkhaṃpamokkhaṃvivekanti. [ SN 1.2] When delight and existence are exhausted When perception and consciousness are both destroyed When feelings cease and are appeased – thus, O friend, Do I know, for them that live Deliverance, freedom, detachment. – Translation by Bhante Ñāṇananda: Saṃyutta Nikāya – An Anthology “In all other religions, viññāṇa was taken as a unit, and worse, as the soul. It is taught that even if e very thing else is impermanent, this isn’t. And it is taught as that which reaches Brahmā . But the Buddha pointed out that it is a mere illusion. It can’t exist on its own. ’The Mind Stilled.’

“That brings us to a nice point. What is the simile used by Ven. Sariputta Thera to illustrate the aññamaññapaccayatā (interdependence) of viññāṇa and nāma - rūpa ?” “The simile of the two bundles of bamboo reeds” I reply. “Why is that? Couldn’t he have chosen some thing better, some wood with pith – say, two bundles of Sāla wood? See how penetrative they are even in their use of similes. The Pāli for bamboo reed is tacasāra . Taca means skin, or peel, so tacasāra means that which has just the skin for its pith. The thing taken by the world as being full of pith is summarily dismissed by Ven. Sariputta Thera. It’s not a unit either, but a bundle. “ I’m reminded of something Ven. Ñāṇavīra said: ‘all consciousness is self-consciousness.’ That is quite right. Occasionally he came up with brilliant insights like that which shook the establishment. He was one who wasn’t afraid to point out these misinterpretations. It is unfortunate that he was rather extremist in other areas.

“The whole notion of the so - called antarābhava depends on the belief that viññāṇa ‘goes’ on its own. The Buddha’s explanation of the wandering of viññāṇa is not like that of the Upanishads where the sim ile of the leech is used. [1] According to the Dhammaviññāṇa and nāma - rūpa are in a state of whirling or turning around. “ The wandering of the mind is not like that of physical things. It’s a circuitous journey of a mind and its object. With the taking up of one object by a mind, a sort of whirling begins; when one end is lost from grasp, the other end is taken up: itthabāvaññathābhāvaṃsaṃsāraṃnātivattati – thisness and otherwiseness, that’s all there is in saṃsāra . Our minds keep wandering away but keep coming back to this upādinna . Who l ike to let go of it, to die? It always comes back to that which is held dearly. At the last moment, when Māra comes to snatch it away, one does not want to give it up, so there is a contest: the struggle for life. The Buddha asked us to just give it up . “Think of any kind of existence, and you will see that it depends on grasping. There is no ‘thing’ that exists on its own. Here again, I’m reminded of something Dr. W.S. Bhikkhu K. Karunaratne said: ‘Existence has got to be relative; there is no absolute existence.’ But the world thinks of unitary things existing on their own. They ask, ‘why, even when I don’t look at this thing, doesn’t it continue existing’? But really there is only a diṭṭha , a seen. There is only a suta , a heard. But the moment we think of a seen ‘thing’, a heard ‘thing’, we are trapped. We create things with maññanā , ideation. “ The problem with ‘things’ is solved in the Bāhiya Sutta: there are only di ṭṭha, suta, muta, viññāta , nothing else. That is the theme in the Kālakārāma Sutta too. As long as one does maññanā about these, one would be deluded.” Here we seem to have encountered a more thorough answer to my earlier question about the ‘reality of things’, and it is quite clear that Bhante Ñāṇananda has quite a different view from the standard Theravadin interpretation which is closer to naïve realism. It is also opposed to Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s explanations, and readers who are familiar with Clearing the Path would notice that Bhante Ñāṇananda’s interpretation is close to Sister Vajira ’s earlier views. It is easy to see why Bhante is some times accused of being a viññāṇavādin by those who are less willing to consider the subtleties involved. “ But how is viññāṇa made to cease?” Bhante adds, discussing the final goal of Buddhist practice. “ Viññāṇa has the nature to reflect, and what it reflects is nāma - rūpa . One is attached to the reflection because one doesn’t know that it is a reflection. But when the knowledge arises, attachment drops . In many instances where paññā is discussed, we find the words paṭivedha and ativijjha , meaning ‘penetration’. The view is replaced by a vision.” Bhante then quotes from his own Concept and Reality

For the Arahant all concepts have become transparent to such a degree in that all - encompassing vision, that their boundaries together with their umbra and penumbra have yielded to the radiance of wis dom. This, then, is the significance of the word anantaṃ (endless, infinite). Thus the paradoxically detached gaze of the con templative sage as he looks through the concepts is one which has no object (ārammaṇa ) as the point of focus for the worldling to identify it with. It is a gaze that is neither conscious nor non-conscious (nasaññīassa, saññīcapanaassa ), neither attentive nor non - attentive ( namanasikareyya, manasicapanakareyya ), neither fixed nor not fixed (najhāyati, jhāyaticapana ) – a gaze that knows no horizon.


1. E.g.: “And just as a leech moving on a blade of grass reaches its end, takes hold of another and draws itself together towards it, so does the self, after throwing off this body, that is to say, after making it unconscious, take hold of another support and draw itself together towards it.” [Bhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.3] – From The Upanishads – A New Translation by Swami Nikhilananda

See also