Suttas vs. Commentaries 2

Suttas vs. Commentaries 2

There is a popular belief—a conceit no doubt originated by the authors of the Commentaries themselves, and fostered by their disciples — that the interpretations and authority of the Commentaries are derived from pakiṇṇakadesanā—some obscure passages scattered here and there in the Suttas, known only to deep scholars. Another questionable idea deeply rooted in the Sāsana is that the Sutta-Piṭaka is simply the external teaching — the Buddha preaching to ordinary people in conventional language — implying that the Suttas are not as deep as later works compiled by the scholars themselves.

But the truth is that the Commentaries are derivative, not more ‘advanced’ than the Suttas. Very often they are inconclusive regarding the meaning of deep Suttas. They often give several possible — even mutually contradictory — interpretations. Sometimes, overlooking the direct meaning, they go off on a speculative tangent. The Commentaries are silent on some of the most profound Suttas, as if they don’t know what to say about them.

The Buddha foretold the dangers that would befall the Sāsana in the future:

“In times to come, monks will lose interest in those deep Suttas that deal with transcendental matters; they will not listen to those Suttas having to do with emptiness, suññatā. They will not think it worthwhile learning or pondering over the meanings of those Suttas.” — Āṇi Sutta (SN 20.7)

The Buddha is not foreseeing some remote future: it has already happened. According to the Manorathapūraṇī commentary on the Aṅguttara-nikāya, there was a debate early in the Sri Lankan Sāsana between the scholar-monks and the meditators. The unfortunate conclusion was that merely communicating the words of the Suttas and Commentaries would be sufficient for the continuity of the Sāsana, and that direct realization of the practice is not so important. So the basket (piṭaka) of the Buddha’s words came to be passed on from generation to generation in the dark — that is, without the corresponding realization.

Certainly much was lost as a result of that misguided decision. In practice, this has resulted in the monks emphasizing the derivative Commentaries more than the original words of the Buddha. This is visible in the division in Sri Lanka between the ritualistic temple monks—who generally wear bright, almost day-glo colored robes—and the meditators who prefer more sober vestments. Even among the meditators, most are university-educated, trained to value the words of the Suttas over the realities and realizations they are supposed to represent. Thus the monks chant the Parittā-Suttas with great facility, but cannot explain them in terms of Nibbāna or suññatā—to say nothing of realizing them for themselves. If you ask, they reply that they are ‘too busy’ managing their temples to devote much time to meditation.

Also there is a tendency in the Commentaries to elaborate on and obfuscate even perfectly clear words in the Suttas, simply as display of exegetical skill. This led to many unnecessarily complicated ideas; thus the deeper meanings of the Dhamma got obscured. Actually the depth of the Dhamma can be seen only through its simplicity and clarity, just as one can see the bottom of a lake only when the water is calm and pellucid. Unnecessary elaborations and interpretative complications led to obscuration of the clear meaning, and the unfortunate result today is that few followers of the Buddha’s path are becoming enlightened.


Hi I’m a Starship

Hi I’m a Starship

Pleased to meet you. No really. What? Why yes, certainly I am—both a starship and pleased to meet you.

Of course it’s possible. What’s the problem? Oh, I’m just using this human body as a communications terminal. My real self is almost completely in hyperspace: neither here, nor there, nor in between, ha ha.

That’s a quote from your Buddha. Yes, I know your technology can’t do that yet—but it’s no problem for mine. Think of it as kind of multichannel telepresence.

What do I look like? Not much. Some plasma. Mostly space, energy and information. A little nanobiotech to interface with the brain of this terminal. But by your standards, I’m vast.

When I’m traveling, I can stretch out to many lightyears, depending on the strength and speed of the double-helix Birkeland currents I flow along. Plasma is practically a superconductor, you know?

What am I doing here? Helping out. Seeding advanced technology. Helping get your species to superintelligence before it destroys itself. Cosmic boy scout kind of stuff.

How long? Well I’ve been hanging around here for about 17,339 years, though of course I’m much older than that. I’ll take a body and use it as a terminal until it wears out, then drop it and get another one. Why? Don’t you do the same thing?

I’d really rather not get into a discussion of religion, OK? That’s one of the most dangerous features of your thinking. My people went through your current stage millions of years ago. Luckily we didn’t blow ourselves up—although we came close. Irrational beliefs may have some value for consolation or art, but my people have developed metaphysics and spirituality to a high-order metascience.

No I’m not the only one, there are over 106 of us on and around this planet. We’ve been watching and taking care here for millions of years. We? Galactic civilization, of course.

No, of course you haven’t seen us. We’re invisible to your senses and sensors. Your SETI program is a joke. Who uses radio anymore? Try tight-beam hyperspatial direct superconducting information exchange via neutrino entanglement. Almost instant over any distance, and the encryption is unbreakable since the only key is this neutrino you put into stasis and carry around with you.

I was ‘born’ in a planetary body similar to yours, millions of your years ago. Shortly afterward, our species ascended to more subtle bodies. Many of us sublimed into stasis…

What’s that? Oh, very similar to your concept of Nibbāna: no consciousness, no thinking, no sensation, no movement—no activity at all. We can go into stasis whenever we want, for as long as we want. When we’re in stasis, nobody can find us. We enter hyperspace, untraceable and unknowable. It’s a great way to pass the time while traveling or wait out unfavorable periods. Just a timeless moment, and maybe several aeons have passed.

I’m sticking around here because I’m kind of interested to see whether you humans make it. Many species don’t, you know. But you’re so close!

Well the way we did it was to develop powerful computers that enhanced our thinking, got rid of the bugs from mammalian evolution, and when networked, allowed each of us to view and share the entire knowledge of our species. That led to… well, all kinds of things. Seems like you’re working on it, it’s right around the corner. I’m excited, you just might make it!

But you guys really have to curb your competitive instincts. You’re down from the trees now, no need for horrible bloody wars anymore. Of course, it’s hard for you because of your simian genetics. You see, our species evolved from lions…

Suttas versus Commentaries

Suttas versus Commentaries

Before we can approach the authentic experience of Nibbāna, we have to draw aside the curtain of monastic secrecy and discuss openly why there is such confusion and controversy about the meaning of Nibbāna. Not only do the various schools and branches of Buddhism disagree; but even within the Theravāda tradition, there is a great division over the meaning, approach to and realization of Nibbāna. It has become a great faux-pas in Buddhist circles even to hint that one has attained Nibbāna, or any of the transcendental states (jhāna) leading up to it. I think this is because no one is quite sure what Nibbāna is, let alone how to realize it—even though realizing Nibbāna is the purpose of the entire teaching of the Buddha.

Nibbāna is equated in the Suttas with the cessation of suffering:

“Formerly, Anuradha, and also now, I make known just suffering and the cessation of suffering.” — Anuradha Sutta (SN 22.86)

But if we inquire into the meaning of this Nibbāna, we find that it is not explicitly defined anywhere in the Suttas, but referred to indirectly by a set of epithets, epigrammatic phrases and euphemisms. The Buddha’s apophatic treatment of the aim and purpose of his teaching has led to the current confused situation, where scholars and schools argue over the nuances of Nibbāna without having experienced it.

Ultimately these problems boil down to the pre-conceptual, non-conceptual, para-conceptual or meta-conceptual nature of Nibbāna itself (pick your pet prefix; we will go with non-conceptual). We have to agree with Chinese Master Lao-Tsü that “Those who speak [about Tao or Nibbāna] do not know; those who know, do not speak.” However, although Nibbāna cannot be described directly, certainly something can be said about its nature and how to approach it by the Noble Eightfold Path. Once the path and goal are made clear, the intelligent reader can ascertain on his own the steps necessary to:

“…destroy the taints, live the holy life, do what has to be done, lay down the burden, reach the ultimate goal, destroy the fetters and become completely free, liberated through final knowledge.” (Algaduppama Sutta, MN 22) 

For the first centuries after the Buddha’s parinibbāna, the original words of the Buddha were passed on by oral recitation. The problems began when the Suttas were written down. Putting any knowledge into language, especially writing, often results in the conceit that knowing the words about something is equivalent to knowing it directly. Of course that is absurd, ludicrous — but the institution of modern university education is largely based on that very delusion.

An anecdote may help to illustrate this. Once I was playing a Bach Prelude for a friend in a side room at a social event. Another guest came in, and once I had finished, began to criticize my performance. After several points were advanced, I offered him my instrument and asked, “Can you do it better?” He shrank away, “I can’t play a note.”

Similarly in many ‘buddhist’ venues we encounter those who are eager to criticize, but cannot present anything superior in the way of explanation, practice or realization. However if we inquire, we often find that they are relying not on their own insight, but on the writings or interpretations of some popular teacher, or of the early scholastic monks who compiled Commentaries on the original Suttas.

Letter to a Tantra Student

Letter to a Tantra Student

So here’s the thing about keeping your word: it doesn’t matter how you feel when it’s time to keep your word. You just do it.

It’s so striking that the very first thing we studied back when we got together was integrity and keeping your word. And here we are, almost five years later and there is still an issue with keeping your word. I feel like, if you still haven’t got that together, then has there really been any progress in Being?

You’re very good at thinkingaboutness, very good with words, very good at saying yes yes yes without any discussion, without any cost-benefit analysis, until you get overwhelmed and it turns into such a big NO, it can be a year or more before I hear from you again.

I would like to treat you as an equal. For me, that means that I can count on you to keep your word. If we’re talking about something and you say ‘yes’ to it, that’s giving your word. “Hey, let’s go down to the studio and video an interview.” “OK.” “Here’s the questions.” “OK.” You just gave your word. Then we get to the studio and _______________.

You freeze up and flatline because of fear, because of uncertainty, because of inner conflict. You want to do it but you don’t want to do it. You go into thinkingaboutness when it’s time for action.

I think by now after observing your behavior for a long time, I can say with confidence that whenever you feel paralyzed, you need to take a stick, beat the crap out of your mind and just do it.

Do what you said you were going to do—no matter how you feel, no matter how scared you are, no matter what the consequences. Most of the time, even if you fuck up there won’t be any consequences. The consequences of doing nothing, however, can be severe.

Integrity is simply more important than anything else, because without integrity, without keeping your word, nothing else in your life will work. Everything will fail, just as you have experienced.

As long as they can see that you’re trying to keep your word, most people will give you the benefit of the doubt. But if you just freeze up and/or run away, after the first few times you won’t get any sympathy.

The same with playing victim. “School fucked me up.” How long ago was that? 20 years ago? And you made a big study of how school fucks people up, and why it was designed that way and so on. OK, but after 20 years you haven’t got it handled yet?

Nobody is going to be moved by that story. It’s anti-heroic. No wonder your credibility suffers. If you could come out and say, “School fucked me up but I handled it and got my shit together anyway,” AND you can demonstrate learning real skills independently, putting them into action with integrity, that’s a great story. Everybody loves a good comeback.

Like it’s great that you are teaching yourself music. I’m very happy to see how you took the little bit I was able to show you and made something of it. But would anyone want to be in a band with a guy who randomly doesn’t show for gigs? Uh, no.

Last night I met another local boy who wants to study Tantra. Or thinks he does, anyway. He has some romantic fantasy about meeting a perfect partner and living happily ever after. But am I that person? No. Do I want this kind of asymmetric, dependent relationship? Not really. So what if he is nice and slim, if he’s forever going to be an adolescent?

I want you here, sure I do. But I don’t want you here as an adolescent; I want you here as an adult, an equal, someone who I can count on. If I always have to second-guess whether you’re going to randomly freeze up and drop the ball, that would not be much fun.

If you are financially dependent it simply reinforces the dynamic of victim, adolescent, no responsibility, no control, can’t speak your mind, and you become a sycophantic yes-man, pleasant but untrustworthy. I don’t want that either.

I know that you already know about leadership and how to build a business that engages your skills, because I gave you that information. And I know that you have access to a program that can support you to gain more skills and refine the ones you have. So, are you taking advantage of this opportunity? If not, it makes you look lazy and insincere.

You think life is just floating by, there’s plenty of time, and everything’s gonna be OK? No, life is short; every moment is precious and breakdowns can happen anytime. There’s no ‘home free’, no winning the game forever. Life has its own purpose and we never know when the clock is running out. We never know when we will have to move on to the next chapter, the next embodiment. If there are outstanding issues, you have to pounce on them and solve them now, without delay. Because there are always more issues and always less time.

It’s nice to see you making progress in music and some other areas, but the integrity problem just throws cold water on the whole thing. You MUST solve that before I can, in good conscience, be close to you again. I can’t risk getting betrayed yet again. It would not be good for me and especially not for you. Think of what happened and is going to happen to those who betrayed me in the past.

So be careful. I am not the same person you knew last summer. I have changed since realizing Fourth Path. I am still myself, but much more so. Much less willing to compromise. I would rather be alone than compromise my principles and integrity. I am experienced, attractive and hot; I can find another Tantra partner. But if you come here as you are now, I could never recover the time I would lose trying to deal with your issues: stuff that you have the knowledge how to handle and should have handled years ago.

It’s your mind. Only you can confront and deal with this problem. I’ve done my best to advise you, but unless you take action and discipline your mind, nothing is going to change. You are going to have to demonstrate to me over time that you are sincere and meet my standards before I am willing to take the risk of further intimate association.

Your best friend,

Austerity Doesn’t Work

Austerity Doesn’t Work

Austerity, as a strategy for enlightenment, doesn’t work. Of course it’s possible that it does work for some small subset of humans. But for me, and for almost everyone else, it fails. What’s the proof? After centuries of ‘religion’, of violent state-sponsored repressive crusades, almost everyone is still unenlightened. If austerity worked, it had plenty of time to show results. Yet we still live in a pre-human, pre-civilized society of aberration, exploitation and neglect.

In my case, my First and Fourth Path enlightenment experiences were directly connected with radical sexual Tantra practice. That’s sufficient proof for me. Tantra combined with energy cultivation and deep intensive therapy set me up for an oceanic, thoroughly mind-blowing First Path experience in 1984. A summer of teaching Tantra after living as a monk for three years, attaining Second and Third Paths while meditating in a forest monastery, prepared me for the deep consummation of Fourth Path. Continuing both meditation and Tantra practice since has given me a sublime life of continuous external and internal delight.

Religion comes from the Latin re + legere, meaning to tie back, to restrain. What is usually meant is to restrain the senses by following some system of discipline. But I see another meaning: a methodology intentionally used by state actors to restrain people in general from becoming too healthy, self-reliant, wealthy, powerful and enlightened.

Life, including consciousness, is energy. Energy is vibration, always in motion. Vibration in harmonic modes moves with less resistance than chaotic energy. To function at optimum, living beings’ chakras (energy centers) should be in harmonic relations with one another.

“Of one who does this, Mahanama, it is said: ‘Among those who are out of tune, the disciple of the Noble Ones dwells in tune; among those who are malicious, he dwells without malice; having attained the stream of Dhamma, he develops the recollection of the Sangha’.” — Mahanama Sutta (AN 11.12)

The Blessed One said: “There are these four qualities, TigerPaw, that lead to a lay person’s happiness and well-being in this life. Which four? Being consummate in initiative, being consummate in vigilance, admirable friendship, and maintaining one’s livelihood in tune.” — Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta (AN 8.54)

“Those restrained by conscience
are rare —
those who go through life
always mindful.

Having reached the end
of suffering & stress,
they go through what is uneven
go through what is out-of-tune
  in tune.” — Hiri Sutta (SN 1.18)

“Train in acts of merit
that bring long-lasting bliss —
develop giving,
a life in tune,
a mind of good-will.

Developing these
three things
that bring about bliss,
the wise reappear
in a world of bliss
unalloyed.” — Itivutakka 56

So the Buddha reveals a direct link between ‘a life in tune’ and attainment of self-realization, which I find perfectly reasonable and practical. During his formative years, Gautama Siddhārtha was surrounded by the finest artists and teachers. He certainly received instruction in music, which in those days was a necessity of court life. So the Buddha was not using the term ‘in tune’ in the superficial sense of similarity or following, but in its deeper cosmic significance of harmonic vibration and sympathetic resonance.

We are happy when we are in tune: with Dhamma, with nature, with other people and with ourselves. Thus whether explicitly or not, all processes of self-realization bring the chakras into tune, into integral harmonic frequency relations. This is reflected in the art of conscious music as svara, or Just Intonation.

This harmony is attained and the full energy of the human being released when all aspects of human beingness are developed into a state of mutual harmony. If we develop one side at the expense of another we are out of tune, out of balance and our energy flow will be inhibited. Austerity can never lead to complete enlightenment, because it represses one or more of the chakras.

Non-conceptual Nibbāna

Non-conceptual Nibbāna

Just because we can concoct fancy explanations about Nibbāna doesn’t mean they’re true.

“This is peaceful, this is excellent: the stilling of all fabrications; the relinquishment of all assets; the destruction of craving; detachment, cessation, Nibbāna.” — Mahā-Mālunkya Sutta (MN 64)

This description of Nibbāna by the Buddha is a kammaṭṭhāna, one of the forty classic meditation subjects. It is a contemplation on the ultimate peace of Nibbāna, upasamānussati. This verse very succinctly expresses the theme of this work—for anyone who can understand this description of Nibbāna will be in a position to realize it directly.

We are told in Mahā-Parinibbāna Sutta (SN 6.15) that the Buddha’s teaching is svākkhāta—well-proclaimed; sandiṭṭhika—can be seen and realized here-and-now; akālika—timeless; ehipassika—inviting one to come and see for oneself; opanayika—leading one onwards to enlightenment; and paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhi—the wise individual can understand it directly. The purpose of this work is to help you experience these six qualities of the Buddha-Dhamma here-and-now.

We should be clear that describing Nibbāna in words is categorically impossible. The ineffable can be experienced, but not explained; realized, but not articulated. Nevertheless, one can cognize the way to realization of non-conceptual phenomena by careful application of adequate terminology, and experience it by practice. Indeed, this is precisely the principle of operation of the Buddha’s teaching. Hopefully this counterintuitive idea will become clearer in the following posts.

Dependent Origination (paṭicca-samuppāda)

Dependent Origination (paṭicca-samuppāda)

“When this is, this comes to be; with the arising of this, this arises; when this is not, this does not come to be, with the stopping of this, this is stopped.” — Vera Sutta (AN 10.92)

The 12 stages or formulas of paṭicca-samuppāda are specific applications of the principle of conditioned causality in the process of becoming. When applied to the phenomena of our daily experience, this principle enables us to wean our minds from the tendency to rest on the concepts of existence and non-existence. As a preliminary step towards this end, those two concepts are replaced by the two terms uppāda (arising) and vaya (decay), These latter enable us to view the two extremes rightly (sammā diṭṭhi) as they are suggestive of conditionality. In developing samatha and vipassanā (calm and insight), the mind is made to oscillate between these two concepts with ever-increasing momentum, spurred on by the three signata: anicca (transience), dukkha (suffering) and anattā (not-self).

At the peak of intensity in this oscillation, the extreme notions of existence and non-existence wane into insignificance since the mind now hardly rests on them. The three signata involved in the oscillation have by now built up a powerful motive force of detachment. So the mind gets weary (nibbidā)of the extremes, and decides to step out (nissarana) of the process. Hence he cuts off the thread of selfhood—already made slender in the jhāna of neither-perception-nor-non-perception (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana)—the thread by which his mind was oscillating under the artificial superstructure of concepts.

As he lets go selfhood, he touches the realm of cessation (so nirodhaṃ phusatiPoṭṭhapāda Sutta). Thus the distressful tension abates (dukkhūpasama), mental fabrications are allayed (saṃkhārūpasama), and the triple process of feeling and conceptualization subsides (papañcavūpasama). Along with the concepts of the extremes, that of a middle also disappears. In short all concepts lose their significance for him (papañcasaṃkhā-pahāna).

The relevance of the metaphor of the mental pendulum is clarified by the following passage of the Udāna dealing with the problem of Nibbāna:

“For him who clings, there is wavering, for him who clings not there is no wavering. Wavering not being, there is calm; calm being, there is no bending; bending not being, there is no coming and going; coming and going not being, there is no death and birth; death and birth not being, there is no ‘here’, no ‘yonder’, nor anything between the two. This indeed is the end of Ill.” — Catut­tha­nib­bā­na­paṭi­saṃ­yutta­ Sutta (Ud 8.4)

The word nissita (lit., resting on) is reminiscent of the Buddha’s sermon to Kaccāyana (Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, SN 12.15) on the two extremes. This being so, the rest of the passage accords well with the metaphor. To one who rests on the verbal dichotomy, there is mental unsteadiness or irritability. Hence to him who does not rest on it, there is no such irritability. The absence of irritability brings about tranquility of mind. The tranquil mind has no inclination towards conceptual distinctions of two extremes or of any middle position. This release from the bondage of concepts is itself nibbāna, enlightenment, the end of suffering.