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The best of paths is the Eightfold Path. The best of Truths are the Four Sayings. Non attachment is the best of States. The best of bipeds is the Seeing One. -Magga Vagga - The Dhammapada

Vicious misinterpretations of Dhamma

This is not my usual brief essay because the subject requires a certain detail. By 'vicious' I use the Oxford English Dictionary meaning: 2. (Of language, document, reasoning etc.) incorrect, faulty, unsound, corrupt.

It is a follow-up of my essay on the Satipatthana Sutta and a response to another by an emeritus Professor of Buddhism, University of Hawaii. (Daily News, 15th Dec.). He has made gross distortions for a vicious adaptation of the Teaching of the Buddha to 'explain' the environment in Dhamma terms.

The Assault of Mara Stone. About A. D. 750 Borobudur, Java

The brow-beat readers with etymology and ontology when the Buddha says: Here, monks, some misguided men learn the Dhamma - discourses, stanzas, expositions, verses, exclamations, sayings, birth stories, and answers to question - but having learnt the Dhamma, they do not examine the meaning of those teachings with understanding (Panna), and do not gain a reflective acceptance of them (Ditthinijjanakanthi).

Those teachings, being wrongly grasped by them, conduce to their harm and Dukkha for a long-time. (Alagaddaupama Sutta). Elsewhere, he says: 'Phrasing is a mere trifle.'


The seminal discovery of the Buddha is this: But, Udayi, let be the past, let be the future, I shall set you forth the Teaching - When there is this is, with the arising of this this arises; when there is this not this this is not, with cessation of this this ceases.

When there is this this is, with arising of this this arises; that is to say with nescience (Aavijja) as condition (Paccaya) determinations (Sankhara), with determinations as condition, consciousness (Vinnana); with consciousness as condition, name and matter (Namarupa); with name and matter as condition, feeling (Vedana); with feeling as condition, craving (Tanha); with craving as condition, holding (Upadana); with holding as condition, being (Bhava); with being as condition, birth (Jati); with birth as condition, ageing and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair (Jara, Marana, Soka, Pariveda, Dukkha, Domanassa, Upayasa) come to into being.

Thus is the arising of this whole mass of Dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction, subjective impermanence, attachment, conflict, belief in a self and so on). When there is not this this is not, with cessation of this this ceases; that is to say, with cessation of nescience, ceasing of determinations... thus is the ceasing of this whole mass of Dukkha.

Note the common wrong translation: When this is, that is etc. The word 'this' refers to a specific thing (Dhamma, e.g. feeling) while 'that' can mean anything.

Nowhere, in the entirety of the Dhamma - as found only in the Suttas in particular - does the Buddha apply this exemplification of a fundamental structural principle to any phenomena other than, as he often says, 'Monks, formerly and now, what I teach is the arising and the ceasing of Dukkha.'

It is a travesty to claim that Buddha enunciated an 'explanation' of genesis of the universe, of earthquakes, tornados, volcanoes, pollution, terrorism, drug addiction and so on - like Albert Einstein who spent the last years of his life trying to find a 'formulae for everything'.

The purpose of his teaching for 45 years was to show the way to end this 'whole mass of Dukkha' - the corporate, degenerating foul fathom long carcass re-becoming through the millennia - like that ubiquitous recurring decimal - after he brought his own life to extinction, at 35 years.

This concept is beyond the ken of untaught persons, and more unintelligible when he further says: That consciousness by which the Tathagata might be manifested has been eliminated by the Tathagata, cut off at the root, dug up, made non-existent. It is incapable of future arising. The Tathagata, great king, is free from reckoning as consciousness... (Avyakata Samyutta). 'So too, Vaccha, the Tathagata has abandoned that matter by which one describing the Tathagata might describe him; he has cut it off at the root, made like a palm stump, done away with it so that it is no longer subject to future arising. The Tathagata is liberated from reckoning in terms of matter.

Vaccha, the Tathagata he is profound, immeasurable, hard to fathom like the ocean. (Aggivaccagotta Sutta). Apropos, the word 'immeasurable' is widely misunderstood by zealous monks as meaning 'superhuman, beyond compare'.

All measurement is from a here to a there, with in-betweens. In the Buddha, there is neither a here nor a there nor any in-between. He is thus immeasurable. See the discourse to Bahiya. With attainment of Arhatship - and Nibbana - there is no one here. Empty phenomena just roll on - empty of self. It is extinction of self, and ipso facto, of consciousness, the end of coming to being, and Dukkha.


This is a key word in the Dhamma. The Buddha chose to use it in his last words, to summarise 45 years of teaching: Vyadhamma sankhara, Appamadena Sampadetha: it is the nature of sankhara to disappear, strive unremittingly. Sankhara do not just disappear (Sankhara Nirodha). If it were the case, the Teaching would be pointless. We can sit and wait.

The common popular translation of Sankhara is 'formations' along with other idiosyncratic bizarre renderings such as 'preparations, fabrications, and dispositions'. And the popular Establishment interpretation is that sankhara is Kamma (action) - by reversing the statement: It is intention that I call Kamma. In some contexts sankhara does mean 'intention' (Cetana). While all cetana are Sankhara, all Sankhara are not cetana, as for example Ayu-sankhara. See the Culavedalla Sutta for the three classes of sankhara.

Venerable Nanavira Thera of Bundala, (Englishman, BA Honours, at 21 years, Modern Classics, mathematician, Cambridge, Sotapanna at 44 years) gives the accurate, elegant and apposite translation 'determinations.' (Clearing the Path, Writings of Nanavira Thera, Vol. I, BCC, 125, Anderson Road, Dehiwela, Sri Lanka, 2001, re-produced by me.) I shall not here go into its detailed exegesis.

In the Culavedalla Sutta, 'Sankhara means a thing from which some other thing is inseparable - in other words, a necessary condition. If a Sankhara is something upon which something else depends, we can say that the 'something else' is determined by the first thing, i.e. by the Sankhara, which is therefore a 'determination' or a 'determinant'.

It will be convenient to use the word determination when we need to translate Sankhara.' (Ibid, p. 25)


Nowhere has the Buddha spoken about a 'stream of consciousness' (Bhavangasota) as claimed by the professor. The concept is from the Visuddhimagga of Achariya Buddhagosha, or from the Abhidhamma, both of which are not the Words of the Buddha. I have read neither.

But I assert that Buddhagosha is responsible for gross distortion the Dhamma, as in the chapter 'Cittavitti, 'mental process, cognitive.' 'It is, perhaps, not superfluous to remark that this doctrine, of which so much use is made in the Visuddhimagga (and see also in Abhidhammatthasangha), is a pure scholastic invention and has nothing to do with the Buddha's Teaching (or, indeed, with anything else).

It is, moreover, a vicious doctrine, totally at variance with paticcasamuppada, setting forth the arising of experiences as a succession of items each coming to an end before the next appears (Imassa nirodha idam uppajjati). (Ibid, p. 62). Arising and ceasing are like two sides of a coin.

'Consciousness' is a hard subject. I shall here only say that consciousness is mere presence; and since there cannot be presence without something being present, it is what distinguishes living from non-living, such as tables and chairs. Any series of Paticcasamuppada (dependent arising) - and there are several - 'boils down' to Vinnana paccaya (conditioned by consciousness). Our 'problem' is consciousness. No one can be conscious of consciousness. It cannot be syringed out to look at it, without by consciousness.

There are no states of un-consciousness. Even in sleep we are conscious. Reflex actions (like the knee jerk) are mere movements like trees swaying in the wind. And consciousness is discontinuous - like a monkey swaying through trees, holding a branch here, letting it go, and grabbing another... Consciousness, the Sun's Kinsmen shows seems nothing but a conjuring trick!(Samyutta 22.95). So the Buddha has nowhere explained or described what is consciousness.

He describes six kinds: Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind consciousness (internal bases, Ayatana) with their six corresponding external percepts of visible form, sound, smell, taste, touch, images/ideas.

In the untaught, this is indicative consciousness by which one infers from things. When inference leads to insight, consciousness becomes non-indicative as in the Arahat (Vinnanam anidassanm). Experience is now divorced from subject-object duality. (Mulapariyaya Sutta). That is, things do not point to a self (Phassa Nirodha). It has been extirpated. There is now direct knowledge. This is private experience of 'absolute'.

In the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (No. 38, Majjhima), a monk named Sati, son of a fisherman, says that as he understands the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of re-becoming, not another. "Misguided man, to whom have you known me to teach the Dhamma in that way? Misguided man, in many discourses have I not stated that consciousness is dependently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness?" reprimands the Buddha.

The definitive sutta of its dependent arising and ceasing is given in the Sutta on namarupa in Digha ii, 2.

It is a long discourse to his cousin and personal attendant Venerable Ananda. Please read and study it. It is critical for getting an insight of the Teaching.


In the preface to Notes on Dhamma, Nanavira Thera writes: There is nothing in these pages to interest the professional scholar, for whom the question of personal existence does not arise; for the scholar's whole concern is to eliminate or ignore the individual point of view in an effort to establish the objective truth - a would be impersonal synthesis of public facts.

The scholar's essentially horizontal view of things, seeking connexions in space and time, and his historical approach to texts, disqualify him from any possibility of understanding a Dhamma that the Buddha himself has called Akalika (not taking time). Only a vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own existence, is a man capable of apprehending the perilous insecurity of his situation; and only a man who does apprehend this is prepared to listen to the Buddha's Teaching.'

Elsewhere, in a comment to a writer who sent the draft of his book, Nanavira Thera wrote thus: ... A person who simply makes a collection - however vast - of ideas, and does not perceive that they are at variance with one another, has actually no ideas of his own; and if one attempts to instruct him (which is to say, to alter him) one merely finds that one is adding to the junk heap of assorted notions without having any other effect whatsoever...' Ignorance of the traditional Commentaries, he says, is a positive advantage as leaving less to be unlearned!


Understanding is not 'wisdom'. Here is the OED meaning: being wise; (possession of) experience and knowledge together with the power of applying them critically or practically; sagacity, prudence, common sense; wise sayings.

In translating from Pali to English one must be equally proficient in both, and should have attained the path. 'No one who has not attained the path', says Nanavira Thera, 'can assume to be right about the Dhamma' The Dighanikha Sutta (No. 74 Majjhima) by the Buddha confirms it.

Understanding is Panna - it is the third stage, after seeing (Dassana, yatha bhutha nana, seeing things as they actually are), and path entry. The characteristic of the Dhamma is that it is leading onwards (Opanayiko). Thus, full understanding (Parinna) is by the arahat. Unfortunately, that is beyond a householder, in this life. Let us be satisfied with panna - just as the dawn heralds the rising of the sun.


The lost Buddhist heritage of Tibet

Half of Tibet consists of a vast wind-swept plateau dotted by shallow salt lakes. To the Western travellers and geographers Tibet is the 'Roof of the World'.

The Tibetans traditionally call their country symbolically the 'Land of Snow'. The mean altitude of Tibet in the western and central regions is between 13,000 to 16,400 ft above the mean sea level. Steep mountains, clad perennially with snow dot the landscape.

The legends have it that divine kings descended on these mountain peaks, and hence mountains are treated with great honour and respect, which enables the eco-system to continue undisturbed by man's axe or fires.

The land is intersected by broad and fertile valleys, which in the central -west are watered by the mighty river Brahamaputra (only river in India with a male name, others Ganga, Jamuna, Sarasvati, Godavari, Indu female names) flowing in a westerly eastern direction and its tributaries, and in the east by the upper reaches of the great rivers of South-East and Eastern Asia flowing southwards, the Yellow River, the Yangtse, the Meekong and Salween.

The entire country is agro-pastoral growing barley, the staple food, peas, buck wheat and various species of fruits and vegetables.

Every effort of this writer to visit Tibet from India became futile in view of the stringent embargo on visitors to Tibet. Thus this feature is primarily based on discussions, I have had with the Tibetan Lamas (Monks) in charge of the Uruvel Cave (Dhungaswari in Bihar State) where Prince Siddartha engaged himself in self-mortification.

Although Tibet was so close to India, with only the Himalayan ranges in the middle, it took many centuries before Buddhism reached Tibet. Indo-Tibetan Buddhist relations commenced in the 7th century AD when King Srong-Sen-Gam-Po sent a group of erudite delegation to India, who studied at the famous Indian universities such as Nalanda, Oddantapuri, Vikramasila etc for eighteen years and then returned home, established Mahayanic Buddhism in Tibet.

They translated many Mahayana scriptures to the Tibetan language and initiated Mahayanic rites and rituals. This move was followed by even a later King Ti-Song-De-Sen and the Indian mystic Padmasabhava established a monastery at Sam-ye, about thirty miles away from the capital Lhasa in the model of the Indian University Odantapuri at Nalanda (Bihar State) where for the first time ordinations were done and a full-fledged Sangha Sasasana was established in Tibet.

Thus there were exchanges of Buddhist missionaries between the two countries. Tibetan monks commenced propagating Buddhism in Mongolia, China and Russia.

Deeply moved by the persecution of Buddhist Monks in Mongolia, after the take over of the country by Chinese Communists in 1920, Dalai Lama, the Head of the Government and the Buddhist Order wrote what has been called his 'political testament' in 1923, farseeing what was in store for Buddhists in Tibet.

He wrote "It may happen that here in Tibet the religion and the centres of secular administration may be attacked both from outside and from the inside..... As regards the monasteries and priesthood, their lands and other properties will be destroyed.

The officers of the State, ecclesiastical and secular will find their lands seized and their properties confiscated and they themselves made to serve the enemies or wander about the country as beggars. All beings will be sunk in great hardships and in over-powering fear; the days and nights will drag on slowly in suffering".

In less than twenty years later the prophetic words of the Dalai Lama came to be fulfilled. In the autumn of 1950, the Communist regime invaded Tibet. Organised resistance of the Tibetans was ruthlessly and mercilessly stamped out.

In 1951, again like in 1911 for the first time Chinese Communists entered the capital Lhasa and Tibet was reduced to a colony of China. There was a Tibetan uprising in March 1959 soon after the Great Prayer Ceremony, the Dalai Lama, the 14th successor fled to India.

In 1965, the Chinese established Tibet Autonomous Region' and vanquished all vestiges of Buddhism and independence of Tibet. Tibetans approximating to 80,000 sought refuge in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and several thousands migrated to Europe, especially Switzerland and North America.

Dalai Lama since 1960 became a honoured guest of India and was allowed to set up his headquarters in the hill station Dharmasala in the Himalayan foothills of north-west Delhi thus migrating Tibetans now continue to perform their Buddhist activities in their adopted homes without any let or hindrance.

In the past prior to the Communist take over of Gyantse, one of the three towns in Tibet, more or less a village, stood the famous Stupa of a thousand images. The most splendid monument was the Potala in Lhasa, the seat of the Dalai Lama.

This unique building nestling on a rock on the middle of a fertile plain was the embodiment of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. It was founded by the Fifth Dalai Lama and His Chief Minister between 1645 and 1653, with 13 stories, courtyards, halls, temples as well as a palatial mansion for the Dalai Lama.

In the Tibetan life festivals and ceremonies Puncuate the day-to-day life. In the past the ceremony at Jo-Khang Temple, the Cathedral of Tibet is the oldest and the holiest.

Here the ceremony involves the Lamas (Mons) chasing scapegoats, symbolising the chasing of evil spirits. Fire offerings are made to certain Tantric deities. The bell symbolises wisdom, vajra or septre, skilful means, the two constituents in the path for Buddhahood. The special crown of the Dalai Lama has five parts, each decorated with one of the five cosmic Buddhas.

The Tantric mediation is centred on a mandala (circle). In the centre of the circle sits Aksobhya, one of the five cosmic Buddhas, with the other four around him in the small concentric circle. The sceptre like shape on the borders is the vajra. Outside the circle are Bodhisatvas differentiated from one another with different colours. In the corners of the square are gateway guarding fierce goddesses.

The Dalai Lama is considered as the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara Bodhisatva. Avalalokitesvara means the God who looks after the people on earth, the guardian of land and sea - travellers and the Buddha aspirant. Since the end of the 16th century the Dalai Lama is both the religious and secular ruler of Tibet.

The Great Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) consolidated Lamaism and its sovereignty and consolidated the leading group of Lamas the Yellow Hats (dGe - lugspa) and made Lhasa the capital.

The Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara is also regarded as an emanation of the Buddha Amitabha, the God of mercy and compassion, the fountain head of happiness of all sentient beings. Following the Hindu sculptural traditions statues of Amitabha is sculptured with several hands, each hand symbolising a particular power he wields.

In rituals festivals and ceremonies dancers use masks to help the dancers to be endowed with the power of the God he enacts in his dance. On the paths leading to shrines and sanctuaries, the Sacred Mantra - "Om Mani Padme Hum' is exquisitely carved.

In the roof beams of temples such as Jo-Khang Temple in Lhasa every surface is inscribed with protective and sanctifying texts. In the Jo-khang Temple, the whole roof is gilded and walls are decorated with murals of Gods. In case of sickness there are lay reciters of Sutras to recite Sutras.

The ordinary monk is called a Lama, who is a spell-binder, meditator are all in one. In praying both the monks and the laity use a prayer wheel, like a toy, which they hold with one hand turns while praying or meditating by the movements of the prayer wheel the Sacred Spell is activated.

Every man made castrophe or of nature has a silver lining. This is manifested in tsunami affected Ache Province of Indonesia, where separatists had waged an armed struggle and in the wake of tsunami, the Government and rebels came to dialogue and the problem was settled. In the massive earthquake of Jammu and Kashmir (India-Pakistan) with thousands of deaths and unimaginable loss of property, the Indian Government opted to open four of the five barriers of the 200 km long line of control, to enable transportation of relief supplies and relief workers and citizens on either side to visit their relatives after many decades of segregation.

Similarly the Communist take over of Tibet in 1950 initiated a new period in the history of the study of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Native Tibetan works published by the refugees were accumulated in depository libraries across the United States, as a result of American Public Law 480, under the terms of which the huge debts owed by the Government of India to the United States for shipments of American wheat provided for famine relief would be repaid in the form of books.

Specifically, a designated number of copies of every book published in India was to be provided to the Library of Congress, which would then distribute them to the depository libraries. In this way, the long mysterious Tibetan archives became as if magically manifest in the stacks of American university libraries. Thus the West was provided with an opportunity to know what it was before and after Communist take over of Tibet.

Dalai Lama still continues in exile in India and the damage done to Tibetan Buddhism has been far greater than the Turkish invasions of India in the eleventh century AD.



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