The Heretic Sage, Part 2

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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,[1] 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.

Notes

1. Ṛgveda: sūkta 10.129 (Eng­lish trans­la­tion)

See also