A Time for Parting
ßHave I not told you already, ânanda, that there must be parting and separation from all who are dear and agreeable to oneself?û These words, spoken by the Buddha to his attendant ânanda on the eve of his parinibbàna, took on an especially poignant meaning for me this past rainy season, when in quick succession my beloved ordination teacher, Ven. Balangoda ânanda Maitreya Mahànàyaka Thera, and my longtime spiritual friend, Ven. Piyadassi Nàyaka Thera, succumbed to the implacable law of impermanence. Ven. ânanda Maitreya expired on 18th July, just one month short of his 102nd birthday. Ven. Piyadassi followed exactly a month later, on 18th August, a little more than a month past his 84th birthday.
Both monks had lived full and fruitful lives in the Sangha throughout
the twentieth century, leaving behind such deep tracks in the contemporary
history of Sri Lankan Buddhism that it would hardly be an exaggeration to say
that their death spells the end of an epoch. Yet, though the two were firmly
My own relationship with these two elders was close and deeply personal,
unfolding under such unlikely circumstances that it seems a karmic nexus had
reached out across the oceans and linked us half a world away. The story of
this relationship began in 1971, when I was living at a Vietnamese Buddhist
This suggestion resonated with an idea that was already taking shape in
my mind, and thus the following year, when I decided to come to
The future Mahànàyaka Thera had been born just across the paddy field
from this temple in 1896 and was ordained there as a novice in 1911. His
teacher, Ven. Denihena Sãlananda, reputed to be the most learned monk in the
Balangoda area, subjected his young pupil to a nine-year course of training so
rigorous it left him only a few hours of sleep per night. But ânanda Maitreya
emerged with a masterly knowledge of the Tipitaka and its commentaries and of
the languages Pali and Sanskrit. At this point his far-sighted guru, aware of
the need of the hour, sent him to
Through the middle decades of this century Ven. ânanda Maitreya played a
pivotal role in almost all the major episodes in the modern history of Sri
Lankan Buddhism. As a teacher at
In 1973, at the age of 77, a new leaf opened up in Ven. ânanda
Maitreya's life: that of a Buddhist missionary to the West. Between then and
1994 he must have made seven or eight extended Dhamma missions which brought
him to Britain, France, the U.S.A., and Canada. He also appeared in the
well-known BBC television series, The
Long Search, where, as the informant on Theravàda Buddhism, he deeply
impressed viewers around the world. During one stay in the
On a trip to
Ven. Piyadassi needs hardly any introduction to our BPS readers, who
will know him through his classic The
Buddha's Ancient Path, The Spectrum
of Buddhism, and his many contributions to the Wheel, Bodhi Leaves, and
Damsak series. It was in fact a sermon he gave in late 1957 that led to the
birth of the BPS on New Year's day 1958; an edited version of that sermon
appeared as Wheel No. 1, The Seven
Factors of Enlightenment. From 1960 onwards he was the editor of the Damsak
series, the Sinhala counterpart of the Wheel, a role he fulfilled amidst a host
of other duties so numerous and demanding that they would normally require the
talents of three or four monks. He was the director of the Vajirarama Monastery
The salient characteristic of Ven. Piyadassi's life is summed up in the
title of his biography (by Kirthie Abeyasekera), Piyadassi: The Wandering Monk. This, however, was not a leisurely
wandering on foot with bowl and shoulder bag, but a global, airborne wandering
that took him on fourteen international Dhamma tours to over fifty countries.
Within Sri Lanka Ven. Piyadassi was, in his own words,
ßa shuttle on the loom,û
moving back and forth between
May these two great elders, who for so long held aloft the torch of the Dhamma, attain the supreme bliss of Nibbàna.
New book prices:
Who Is My Self? A Guide
to Buddhist Meditation.
The present volume contains the taped talks given by the late Ayyà Khemà
during a three-week course in
Instead of telling them directly that their assumption is wrong, the Buddha outlines a comprehensive course of training which proceeds from moral conduct, through concentration, to wisdom. What he does in effect is to expound the series of jhànas or meditation absorptions of tranquillity meditation (samatha), which his teaching shares with pre-Buddhist practice, and their use as supports for the development of liberating insight (vipassanà) specific to his own teaching.
Ayyà Khemà's commentary is articulated in close adherence to the text. Starting with the essential foundations of the ßgradual training,û the reader is taken through the full sequence of the meditative absorptions and the cultivation of the corresponding states of consciousness for the development of insight. This leads on to a discussion of the fundamental truths thus experienced by the meditator, resulting in the realisation of the illusory nature of what we call ßself.û In a final chapter, ßPath and Fruition: The Goal of the Practice,û the author gives her own excellent and clear account of the stages of progress on the way to enlightenment, up to ßthe total disappearance of the feeling of 'self' [which] is the culmination of the pathû (p.168). There follows an appendix with instructions for four varieties of loving-kindness meditation.
Ayyà Khemà has a true teacher's gift of communication. She can put complex ideas simply without sacrificing depth of meaning. Her style flows easily in a conversational tone and her words are imbued with good, honest common sense. Above all, she clearly writes from deeply lived personal experience, which lends conviction and authority to her words.
So this is a valuable book. But yet its usefulness as the ßGuide to Buddhist Meditationû it sets out to be is likely to be diminished, in my view, by the author's uncompromising belief, which permeates the whole book, that proficiency in the jhànas is essential to the development of insight. Now it is true enough that the combination of the practice of the jhànas with the development of insightÞsamatha and vipassanàÞhas been used for centuries as the standard meditative procedure by Buddhist monks and nuns, the reason being that a mind rendered ßmalleable, wieldy, and steadyû by jhàna attainment is better able to exercise the penetrating, equanimous observation necessary to achieve insight. There has, however, also always been a tradition of practitioners who take as their vehicle ßbare insightû based on a degree of mental concentration adequate for the arising of insight but not necessarily of jhànic intensity. This is a way that is particularly relevant to lay meditators who cannot work in a supportive monastic environment.
Now these are the kind of people that Ayyà Khemà is addressing, so a categorical insistence on the need to attain the jhànas before any insight can be achieved is more likely to prove discouraging than helpful. Ayyà Khemà herself evidently had a special gift for developing high levels of concentration, but it is simply not realistic to assume that everyone else can do so too if they will only try. When she says, ßWe all have consciousness, and therefore we are also capable of accessing those states of awareness known as the meditative absorptionsû (p.83), this is like saying that, as we all have legs, we can all become Olympic runners.
That insight can be developed on the basis of a lower level of
concentration than jhàna is an established principle in the mainstream
Theravada tradition, and seems to be justified on the basis of the
Satipa~n~nhàna Sutta, the ânàpànasati Sutta, and other texts. The reason the
Buddha includes the jhànas in the
This volume is, as we are accustomed to expect from Wisdom Publications, well printed and attractively produced. Apart from the reservation expressed above, it is a worthy addition to the literature on Buddhist meditation and an eloquent testimony to the teaching skills of the late Ayyà Khemà.
The Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving
Majjhima Nikàya No. 38
The Pali Canon generally portrays the Buddha as a gentle and amiable teacher who invites questioning, investigation, and discussion. He encourages us to think for ourselves, to weigh his teachings carefully, and to develop our own personal insight into the truth. He does not expect us to rely slavishly upon his guidance but to be ßislands unto yourselves.û There are, however, occasions when the Buddha displays a different countenance, when he can show a face that is stern, even severe. This is when he finds that his Dhamma is being misrepresented, and particularly when those responsible for the misrepresentation dwell in the ranks of his own ordained monks and nuns. When an ordained disciple grasps the Teaching wrongly, distorts its meaning in a way governed by personal predilection, and then insists that this mutilated version of the Dhamma conveys the real meaning, a grave danger appears on the horizon; for if the fundamental principles of the Dhamma are subverted from within, by an ßinside job,û the Teaching itself will be eviscerated. Deprived of its truly liberative power, it may then serve only to prolong bondage rather than to yield the freedom of Nibbàna.
The Buddha knew fully well that his Teaching runs counter to the way of the world, which means above all that it goes against the grain of a mind prey to a million desires and fantasies. To accept the Dhamma fully demands a profound change in our deeply rooted attitudes and ideas, yet for just that reason it is only too easy for those who are attracted to the Dhamma, but who cannot accept it on its own terms, to bend it and stretch it until it becomes acceptable on theirs. When the Buddha learns that his Teaching is being manipulated in this way, especially by those who wear the saffron robe, he does not keep quiet or brush off the danger with a pleasant smile. Rather, he calls the miscreant into his presence, points out his mistakes, and delivers a severe rebuke.
The Majjhima Nikàya records two instances in which such a confrontation takes place between the Master and a misguided monk, each serving as the occasion for a sutta of great depth and power. The first is the Simile of the Watersnake (Alagaddåpama Sutta, MN 22), which begins when a monk named Ari~n~nha declares that ßalthough certain things have been called obstructions by the Blessed One, they are not really obstructive for one who pursues them.û The sequel makes it plain that what Ari~n~nha was really aiming at was to abrogate the rule requiring monks to observe celibacy. He thought the highest stage of enlightenment could be achieved by those still indulging in sense pleasures, and in advancing this thesis, however subtly, he ran smack up against the Buddha's dictum that the highest goal could only be won by the highest life (brahmacariya), which requires the control and abandonment of sensual desire. Ari~n~nha's thesis, taken to its limits, could culminate in the idea that sensual indulgence can itself be a means to enlightenmentÞan idea which, indeed, did gain a foothold during the later history of Buddhism in India.
In the Great Discourse on the Destruction of Craving the Buddha is confronted with another bold challenge to the Teaching: the attempt to smuggle in the idea of a permanent self. When the sutta opens a monk named Sàti has been going about telling the monks that ßas I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.û The other monks try to persuade Sàti to relinquish this view, explaining that the Buddha has always taught that consciousness arises through conditions. But Sàti is an obstinate, self-willed man who refuses to change his views, and thus the monks are left with no choice but to report the issue to the Master.
When Sàti comes into the Buddha's presence, the Master does not upbraid him at once. He first asks Sàti whether the report he has heard is true, and when Sàti admits this he then asks him, ßWhat do you mean by consciousness?û This is an important question, which the monks had failed to ask, for if Sàti had answered correctly there would have been no reason to admonish him. But Sàti does not answer correctly but in a way that implicitly identifies consciousness as a self: ßIt is that which speaks and feels and experiences here and there the results of good and bad actions.û This reply shows that Sàti takes consciousness to be the agent behind all action, the persisting subject behind the changing experiences. Further, since this consciousness ßruns and wanders through the round of rebirths,û this suggests that Sàti takes consciousness to be a permanent and everlasting self, identical with the àtman of the brahmanic systems of thought.
That a view of self lies concealed behind Sàti's assertion is made clear by another text which states that one of the wrong views that arises in a worldling through careless attention is: ßThis self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actionsÞthis self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternityû (MN 2/M I 8). When the two texts are put side by side, it becomes evident that Sàti wants to ascribe all these qualities to consciousness: changelessness, permanence, eternal existence.
Once the Buddha has gotten Sàti to explain what he means by consciousness, he corrects him with the same words the monks used earlier, pointing out that consciousness is dependently arisen. To understand this passage, it is important to see exactly what the Buddha is rejecting in Sàti's view of consciousness. Other suttas (and to some extent the sequel to the present one) show that according to early Buddhism consciousness is the channel or vehicle of rebirth, and thus it is perfectly acceptable to say that consciousness re-arises or undergoes rebirth. Thus if Sàti had simply said that consciousness passes on from life to life, his assertion would not have been wrong. But Sàti is saying more than this. What he claims is that it is the very same consciousness (tad eva idaü vi¤¤àõaü) that passes on, which means that consciousness is a simple, substantial entity that preserves its self-identity throughout the transitory experiences and the sequence of births.
For the Buddha, however, consciousness is not a simple entity, a lasting self, but a process. It is a sequence of discrete occasions of consciousness, each of which is dependent on a wide lattice of conditions. Each occasion of consciousness arises in succession to the preceding occasion, performs it momentary function of cognition, and then immediately perishes, giving rise to the next. Thus there is no identity of consciousness from one moment to the next. However, though there is no identity, there is no absolute difference either, whether between the occasion of consciousness in one life or between the streams of consciousness in different lives. Consciousness occurs as a continuum of consciousness possessing the continuity of a process, and it is this continuity that accounts for the consistency and coherence of personal experience.
(to be continued)