The Heretic Sage, Part 2
A Dhamma Interview with Ven. Bhikkhu K. Ñānananda by Ven. Bhikkhu Yogananda
There is hardly any teaching that has given rise to more internal disputes among Buddhists than paṭiccasamuppāda. My next question is based on a comment by Bhante Ñāṇananda, which considers paṭiccasamuppāda as the golden mean between atthitā (existence) and natthitā (non-existence), replacing them with samudaya (arising) and vaya (passing away).
“Everyone knows that the middle way is the noble eightfold path. Everyone knows that the first sermon was the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. But if for some reason Āḷārakālāma or Uddaka Rāmaputta were alive, what we would have as the Dhammacakkappavattana would be something short like the Bāhiya Sutta, because they were facing a duality of a different nature.
“The five ascetics were given a teaching based on the ethical middle path, avoiding the two extremes of kāmasukhallikānuyoga and attakilamathānuyoga. But the middle path of right view is found in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, beautifully used by Ven. Nāgārjuna. When the Theravadins got engrossed with the Abhidhamma they forgot about it. The Mādhyamikas were alert enough to give it the attention it deserved.
“Extremism is found not only in ethics, but also in various kinds of views. The duality of asti and nāsti has a long history. I don’t have much knowledge in the Vedas, but I remember in Ṛg Veda, in the Nāsādīya Sūkta, you get the beautiful phrase nāsadāsīn no sadāsīt tadānīṃ. They were speculating about the beginnings: did existence come from non-existence or vice-versa.
“All those kinds of dualities, be it asti/nāsti or sabbaṃ ekattaṃ/sabbaṃ puthuttaṃ etc. were rejected by the Buddha: majjhena Tathāgato Dhammaṃ deseti – he taught the Dhamma by the middle. It’s not just the middle path. It’s not a mixture of 50% of each. We usually think that the middle is between two ends. It’s a rejection of both ends and an introduction of a novel standpoint. Again, I remember Dr. W.S. Karunaratne saying how paṭiccasamuppāda, both as a philosophy and as a word, was novel to Indian thinking. There were other vāda–s such as Adhiccasamuppāda and Issaranimmāna, but not paṭiccasamuppāda, and it is not a vāda.
“The ‘parroting’ method of paṭiccasamuppāda involves dishing out the 12 terms, and even then, the paṭiloma is often forgotten. But the important thing is the principle, embedded in ‘asmiṃ sati…’, as seen in many Suttas. There again, I also made a mistake inadvertently when translating: in early editions of The Magic of the Mind I used ‘this/that’ following the standard English translations. That’s completely wrong. It should be ‘this/this’.
“In the formula we must take two elements that make a pair and analyse the conditionality between them. ‘That’ implies something outside the pair, which is misleading. Paṭiccasamuppāda is to be seen among the elements in a pair. The trick is in the middle; there’s no point in holding on to the ends. And even that middle needs to be let go of, not grasped.
“When introducing paṭiccasamuppāda we first get the principle: imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjati… and then yadidaṃ – the word yadidaṃ clearly shows that what follows is an illustration. And then the well known 12 elements are given. But how is it in the paṭiloma? Avijjaya tu eva – there’s an emphasis, as if to say: yes, the arising of suffering is a fact, it is the nature of the world, but it doesn’t end there; from the fading away of that same ignorance this suffering could be made to cease. That is why we can’t categorically say that any of these things exist or not. It entirely depends on upādāna. It is upādāna that decides between existence and non-existence. When there is no upādāna you get anupādā parinibbāna, right then and there. And that is why the Dhamma is akālika.”
The impossibility of making categorical statements about existence was discussed extensively in Bhante Ñāṇananda’s The Magic of the Mind, and he reminds me again about the importance of the Kālakārāma Sutta which provided the basis for that book. He quickly adds that the Buddha’s stand is not something like that of his contemporary sceptic agnostic Sañjaya Bellaṭṭhiputta, the so-called eel-wriggler; rather, the situation is beyond what could be expressed through the linguistic medium. It can only be known individually: paccattaṃ veditabbo.
His interpretation of paṭiccasamuppāda, which dramatically deviates from the traditional exegesis, has earned Bhante Ñāṇananda a few vehement critics. He amusedly mentions a recent letter sent by a monk where he was accused of ‘being a disgrace to the Theriya tradition’. This criticism, no doubt coming from a Theravāda dogmatist, is understandable seeing how accommodating Bhante Ñāṇananda is when it comes to teachings traditionally considered Mahāyāna, hence taboo for any self-respecting Theravādin. However, if one delves deeper, one would see that he is only trying to stay as close as possible to early Buddhist teachings.
“I didn’t quote from the Mahāyāna texts in the Nibbāna sermons,” he says, “because there was no need. All that was needed was already found in the Suttas. Teachers like Nāgārjuna brought to light what was already there but was hidden from view. Unfortunately his later followers turned it in to a vāda.”
He goes on to quote two of his favourite verses from Ven. Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamādhyamakakārikā (as usual, from memory):
Śūnyatā sarva-dṛṣtīnaṃ proktā niḥsaranaṃ jinaiḥ, yeṣāṃ śūnyatā-dṛṣtis tān asādhyān babhāṣire [MK 13.8]
The Victorious Ones have declared that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. Those who are possessed of the view of emptiness are said to be incorrigible.
Sarva-dṛṣti-prahāṇāya yaḥ saddharmam adeśayat, anukampam upādāya taṃ namasyāmi gautamaṃ [MK 26.30]
I reverently bow to Gautama who, out of compassion, has taught the doctrine in order to relinquish all views.
Bhante doesn’t bother translating the verses; the ones provided above are by David Kalupahana.
“When I first read the Kārikā I too was doubting Ven. Nāgārjuna’s sanity” he laughs. “But the work needs to be understood in the context. He was taking a jab at the Sarvāstivādins. To be honest, even the others deserve the rebuke, although they now try to get away by using Sarvāstivāda as an excuse. How skilled Ven. Nāgārjuna must have been, to compose those verses so elegantly and filling them with so much meaning, like the Dhammapada verses. It’s quite amazing. This has been rightly understood by Prof. Kalupahana.”
Prof. David J. Kalupahana is an eminent Sri Lankan scholar who stirred up another controversy when he portrayed Ven. Nāgārjuna as a reformist trying to resurrect early Buddhist teachings. He had been a lecturer during Bhante Ñāṇananda’s university days as a layman at Peradeniya.
“If there is no substance in anything, what is left is emptiness. But many people are afraid of words. Like śūnyatā. They want to protect their four.” With that ‘irreverent’ comment about the four paramattha dhamma–s of the Abhidhamma, Bhante Ñāṇananda breaks into amused laughter.
“If one does not approach the commentarial literature with a critical eye, one would be trapped. Unfortunately many are. In fact, I had to remove a few pages from the manuscript of Concept and Reality on Ven. Nyanaponika’s request”.
I’m disappointed to hear that, as Concept and Reality had already become my favourite commentary on the Buddhist teachings. There are some delightfully understated criticisms of the traditional views in the book, and I wonder what we have lost in the editorial process at the hands of Ven. Nyanaponika Thera, an undoubtedly very learned yet quite conservative scholar. When I express my dismay, Bhante Ñāṇananda adds that now he tends to agree with Ven. Nyanaponika.
“I did it unwillingly, but later on I also thought it may have been too much as it was my first book. Perhaps what is left is quite enough. The message still gets through. Some of that I could restate in the Nibbāna sermons as I had the backing of my teacher.”
This teacher is Ven. Matara Sri Ñāṇārāma Mahathera, then abbot of the Nissarana Vanaya and an illustrious elder of the Sri Lankan forest tradition. I ask Bhante what the response of the Sangha was when those controversial sermons were delivered.
“Apart from a very few, the others didn’t really understand. Some went around criticising, calling me a heretic. Fortunately it didn’t get out of hand thanks to the teacher. But then some others like Ven. Khemānanda were very appreciative.”
Our discussion moves on to Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera. I wonder what influence this radical monk had on Bhante Ñāṇananda, but I can’t muster enough courage to ask directly. So I just let him speak on his views.
“It is true, Ven. Ñāṇavīra made a start. But I think he went to an extreme in his criticisms, until his followers were dropping even the useful things. And he failed to make the necessary distinctions between saupādisesa and anupādisesa Nibbāna elements. That led to an idealized view of the noble disciple. And now there is a lineage of ‘Ñāṇavīrists’ who fail to see anything beyond Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s views. They are simply idolizing him.”
I was one of them until I started a correspondence with Bhante Ñāṇananda, so I know the way of thinking.
To end the discussion I pick up the thorniest of issues. I ask: “What is a ‘thing’? Is it completely imaginary, or is it something made by the mind using the ingredients ‘out there’?” A straightforward answer to that rather extremist question would make Bhante Ñāṇananda’s position clear on the gamut of views.
“I’m sure you have read Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. You must have come across the Pheṇapindūpama Sutta. In the notes you’ll see Ven. Bodhi explaining that although the lump is illusory, the ingredients aren’t. It is worse when it comes to the magic show. He says that only the magic is not real; the magician’s appurtenances are. This is a distortion of the simile given by the Buddha. We must appreciate the great work done by Ven. Bodhi, but it is unfortunate that he is bound by the commentarial tradition.
“What is considered the ‘truth’ is relative to each individual. Each person gives evidence in the court of reality based on his own level of experience. For example, parents often give false explanations to their little children. But these are true to the kids. When asked, the kid will tell what his parents told him. It’s true for the child, but not for us. In the famous commentarial story about Ven. Tissa Thera we find him seeing a woman as a skeleton, and saying so when asked by her husband. The venerable was closer to the truth.
“When we transcend one level of truth, the new level becomes what is true for us. The previous one is now false. What one experiences may not be what is experienced by the world in general, but that may well be truer. But how do we reach the ultimate truth? This is beautifully explained in the Dhātuvibhaṇga Sutta: Taṃ saccaṃ, yaṃ amosadhammaṃ nibbānaṃ. And from the Dvayatānupassanā Sutta: amosadhammaṃ nibbānaṃ tad ariyā saccato vidū. It is Nibbāna that is of non-falsifying nature, where there is no ‘thing’. Nibbāna is the highest truth because there is no other truth to transcend it.
“The Buddha called himself the first chick in this era to break out of the egg of ignorance. All these wonderful things we do such as space travel all happen inside this saḷāyatana shell. If paṭiccasamuppāda is presented properly, perhaps a few more chicks would be able to break through today.
“Ven. Nāgārjuna was right: at the end, all is empty. We are not willing to accept that existence is a perversion. Existence is suffering precisely because it is a perversion.”
It may not be a categorical answer, and it probably isn’t possible to give one. But I will bring this issue up again later.
We have been talking for more than an hour, and it is time for Bhante’s meal. I end the discussion, looking forward to another one in the evening. Colophon
This is part 2 of a series on Ven. Katukurunde Ñāṇananda Thera. In November 2009 I had the opportunity to stay at his monastery for a few days and have several long conversations with him. The articles are based on the recordings of these discussions.
1. Ṛgveda: sūkta 10.129 (English translation)