SuttaCentral

Desanitizing Pure Dhamma

This post is about a Buddhist tradition/group that I believe is banned on this forum. However, this post is not about their teachings themselves but a cultural phenomenon associated with them, so I hope the post would still be acceptable.

It seems the Waharaka group in Sri Lanka is an excellent example of how Buddhist traditions adapt to various cultural contexts. On forums such as this and on their English websites, it attempts to present a rational, even ‘scientific’ face, whereas its actual origins are immersed in the fantastic and the mysterious, even embracing the irrational. I don’t know if the enthusiastic Waharaka followers who share various Waharak-ian etymologies on forums such as this realize that such efforts go against the very method their teacher Waharaka Thera adopted: supposedly based on his arahattā and using his analytical knowledges (paṭisambhidhā-ñāṇa), he introduced his own system of elucidating Pali terms that is outside conventional linguistics. This he called pada nirukti in Sinhala, to distinguish it from conventional linguistics which he called bhaṣā nirukti.

The Waharaka hagiography in Sinhala tells us about the meritorious deeds and determinations he made during the times of Buddhas Dīpaṁkara and Siddhattha which bestowed on him such powers in this life. The former involves being present there when ‘our’ Buddha—then the ascetic Sumedha—received the prophecy of Buddhahood, as narrated in the Buddhavaṁsa!

I have tried to offer a glimpse into these fascinating origins of the Waharaka movement in the following brief paper. Among other things, it might give some idea as to why Buddhist studies, linguistics and other academic approaches fail to have any impact on Waharaka followers:

https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/gnw6q

16 Likes

Thanks so much Prabath, this is a really excellent paper, and I’ll be sharing it with some academic colleagues.

I have always suspected that the “etymologies” of the school stem from a claimed patisambhida, but this is the first time I have seen it confirmed.

As background for those not familiar with this rather esoteric nuance in Buddhism:

The patisambhidas are a set of four qualities that are mentioned occasionally in the Suttas, and especially associated with Sariputta:

They have been translated as “discriminations” or “analytical knowledges”, but from the beginning it is clear they have been closely associated with the critical analysis of texts. They are:

  • attha = meaning
  • dhamma = text
  • nirutti = terminology
  • paṭibhāna - eloquence

The idea seems to have been that certain people had a specially gifted form of intelligence that allowed them to understand and analyze texts with precision. Over time, this evolved to being a quasi-magical ability to intuit the original and “true” form of language. Of course, this is not how language works: language arises by agreed convention in a community.

From an early date, this minor set of Dhammas was emphasized and made central in Theravada in a way that is quite different to other schools. An early Theravada book was even named after them: the Patisambhidamagga.

As a simple search will show, they rapidly became a standard feature of Theravadin texts, despite their rare appearance in the Suttas.

The first schism, according to the Dipavamsa, was with the Mahasanghika, on the question of the quality of textual analytics. This shows how important they were in defining the nature of the school. Historically, there is truth to this, as the Mahasanghika texts in Hybrid Sanskrit are far less precise and consistent than the Theravada.

Thus the Theravada has always favored the letter of the text and the correct interpretation of the meaning, which was doubtless one of the reasons why the commentarial literature was developed to such a degree.

It is standard in Theravada to describe prestigious arahants as possessing the patisambhidas, an epithet rarely if ever found in northern texts.

In modern times, Ajahn Mun specified that he did not possess the patisambhidas; thus he staked his tradition on personal experience rather than textual precision and authority.

By invoking—implicitly or explicitly—the patisambhidas, the Waharaka group is drawing on a deep archetype in the Theravadin sense of self-identity, a strand that is especially strong in Sri Lanka. It is this, I believe, that explains why their message is so persuasive to some, while being gibberish to anyone with a linguistic backgroiund.

21 Likes

Yes and Ajahn Chah can be included in that. I think it incorrect to present patisambhida as the main thread of Theravada, as the instructions for beginners anyway put the emphasis on meaning and practice:

“Lending ear (also reading), he hears the Dhamma. Hearing the Dhamma, he remembers it. Remembering it, he penetrates the meaning of those dhammas. Penetrating the meaning, he comes to an agreement through pondering those dhammas. There being an agreement through pondering those dhammas, desire arises. With the arising of desire, he becomes willing. Willing, he contemplates (lit: “weighs,” “compares”). Contemplating, he makes an exertion. Exerting himself, he both realizes the ultimate meaning of the truth with his body and sees by penetrating it with discernment.”—MN 95

2 Likes

In the bizzaro Pure Dhamma world, Buddhist academics be like…

image

:rofl:

1 Like

Thank you Bhante @sujato

The Waharaka movement spares no opportunity to mention the paṭisambhidhā-ñāṇa of their originator, so it is indeed quite explicit and a critical part of their lore. In the Sri Lankan context it gives much gravitas to pada nirukti ‘etymologies’ they propose while offering an additional layer of insulation against criticism. There is no technical way to question pada nirukti because it’s an entirely new language, as leading Waharaka teachers such as Ven. Walasmulle Abhaya specifically mention: according to them, this is Ariya jargon inaccessible through conventional linguistics.

Unfortunately, this also means that when Waharaka and ‘regular’ Buddhists engage in conversation, they are using two different languages even if they appear to be the same. They can’t help but talk past each other.

There is, however, another important reason: the great disruptor in the Waharaka interpretation is to ask why anyone should care about the objective aniccatā of the Theravada commentarial interpretation. Who cares if something ‘out there’ in the world that one doesn’t care about happens to be impermanent—how does that lead to suffering (yad’aniccaṁ tam dukkhaṁ), they ask. The Waharaka solution is to change anicca to aniccha. I don’t think the traditional Theravadins in Sri Lanka still have a convincing answer, which explains (at least in part) why, against all odds, Waharaka still thrives.

4 Likes

I’m not sure if it’s actually all that convincing, more than it is just sort of comfortable. Their interpretation of suffering is a very ‘pop’ rendering which navigates around all the discomfort of impermanence and no self.

I think Waharaka thrives because it has the benefits cults have. A charismatic figure who’s a messiah, the ability to deny all criticism or facts disproving them, the sensation of rallying to a cause, with no self and impermanence being thrown away as a cherry on top.

I think the issue with contemporary theravadin teachers in Sri Lanka is that they seem to largely lack competent ones. This is all very ironic to me, since a great counter to the Waharakan ideology is right in the first sermon of the Buddha.

1 Like

Suttas in traditional interpretation themselves state that anicca is relevant to us, because what is anicca, is dukkha (because all pleasant states are mixed up with unpleasant in the long term). As Ajahn Brahm says: every moment of happiness is a pause between two moments of suffering. Every moment of suffering is a pause between two moments of happiness.

DN33

Pañca vimuttiparipācanīyā saññā— aniccasaññā, anicce dukkhasaññā, dukkhe anattasaññā, pahānasaññā, virāgasaññā.

Five perceptions that ripen in freedom: the perception of impermanence, the perception of suffering in impermanence, the perception of not-self in suffering, the perception of giving up, and the perception of fading away.

Cha nibbedhabhāgiyā saññā— aniccasaññā anicce, dukkhasaññā dukkhe, anattasaññā, pahānasaññā, virāgasaññā, nirodhasaññā.

Six perceptions that help penetration: the perception of impermanence, the perception of suffering in impermanence, the perception of not-self in suffering, the perception of giving up, the perception of fading away, and the perception of cessation.

Satta saññā— aniccasaññā, anattasaññā, asubhasaññā, ādīnavasaññā, pahānasaññā, virāgasaññā, nirodhasaññā.

Seven perceptions: the perception of impermanence, the perception of not-self, the perception of ugliness, the perception of drawbacks, the perception of giving up, the perception of fading away, and the perception of cessation.

What is dukkha, is anatta. I personally think that Buddha oftentimes meant anatta as no-self in terms of atta, or sanskrit atman. Atta means that even phenomena in conditioned reality have meaning, because they’re “divine” in a way, they’re connected with divine consciousness of atman. An ideal food for papanca and giving meaning to samsaric existence and prolonging it.

What Buddha points to is that no conditioned experience is divine in any way. Hence it is easier to let go of all suffering and even of heavenly realms. Hence we can let go to the very end and realise cessation. I think teaching of anatta is dedicated mostly to samadhi practitioners (and Buddha taught it mostly to ascetics, mendicants etc.).

When you have samadhi and use psychic powers it gives only for cultivation of beauty rather than seeing impermanence, it is easy to start being in love with samsara again, cause it is so blissful and beautiful if you have higher states of mind and constantly direct the mind towards heavenly realms.

But Buddha said that they’re anicca, if they’re anicca - they’re connected to dukkha (cause they will pass and suffering of lower realms and states come back), and because they’re connected with dukkha, they’re anatta, they are not divine, not to be grasped, howerer beautiful or heavenly or pure they are. Hence motivating even further letting go to it’s fullest to achieve real liberation.

It is complementary with seeing conditionality and that there isn’t any permanent “I” or “we”, any permanent thing we can call a self. I think both interpretations help to dismantle all attachments to “self” whether we understand it as permanent “I” or “divine” nature of conscious experience (atman).

If my reasoning is wrong, please forgive me my ignorance and correct me. :pray:

As to Waharaka tradition even tho I consider their arguments incorrect, I must admit they were thought stimulating. However main problem for me is with unfair and dangerous way they stand against rest of the tradition, way of their argumentation, cult techniques and fact that they create more delusion in people minds.

1 Like

Of course I must note here that most scholars today now hold that the first schism was over Vinaya issues, particularly the Sthaviras wanted to add more rules to he Vinaya. So it was the Mahāsāṃghika who were more conservative originally.

So probably the textual issues were more of a later concern. Also, we just don’t have enough Mahāsāṃghika texts in the original, so I am not sure if I would say they were far less precise, we just can’t really know. Of course there is also the fact that there were numerous Mahāsāṃghika schools and traditions, just like there were numerous Sthavira schools…

This isn’t wrong, but it is not quite the dukkha of aniccatā. I understand yad’aniccaṁ taṁ dukkhaṁ as applicable to all experiences. To feel at all is to suffer, when it comes to saṅkhāra-dukkha:

Vuttaṁ kho panetaṁ, bhikkhu, mayā: ‘yaṁ kiñci vedayitaṁ, taṁ dukkhasmin’ti. Taṁ kho panetaṁ, bhikkhu, mayā saṅkhārānaṁyeva aniccataṁ sandhāya bhāsitaṁ.
SN 36.11

The unpleasant feeling (dukkha-dukkha) and the transitory nature of the pleasant feeling (vipariṇāma-dukkha) (SN 45.165) are but a sub-set of this bigger problem.

Again, I can’t say this is wrong, but when the Buddha repeatedly admonishes us to contemplate the entirety of experience (whether in terms of pañcakkhandha or saḷāyatana) as ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my [atman?]’, at least the first two don’t imply any divinity: they seem to point at a sakkāyadiṭṭhi and asmimāna of a very human kind.

5 Likes

On the contrary, I think it is the great number of monks who are competent in the Theravada Ābhidhammika commentarial tradition but are unable to entertain any other perspective on the Dhamma, that continues to propel Waharaka.

The aniccatā of the commentarial tradition deals with the arising and passing of fundamental particles (paramattha-dhammā), of which the observance is impossible by that theory itself (i.e., rūpa-kalāpa and citta-vīthi lack any practical mechanism through which they can be observed—which one assumes what it would take to ‘see’ aniccatā according to the theory).

When Waharaka then arrives with the messages that it has all been a huge confusion in the first place, and that the Dhamma is indeed for one who feels (AN 3.61), it is not surprising that there’s a great deal of interest in their message, especially among the educated middle-class who suddenly find the Dhamma applicable to their daily experience.

I don’t know how long Waharaka will last in the absence of Waharaka Thera, but I don’t think the traditionalists will have a response to this aspect of their interpretation as long as they hang on to Abhidhammic objective realism.

7 Likes

Thank you for reply Prabhath.

As to dukkha, there are 3 types of dukkha:

DN33

Tisso dukkhatā— dukkhadukkhatā, saṅkhāradukkhatā, vipariṇāmadukkhatā.

Three forms of suffering: the suffering inherent in painful feeling, the suffering inherent in conditions, and the suffering inherent in perishing.

It is true that saṅkhāradukkhatā is ultimate unsatisfactoriness of all conditioned phenomena, including highest realms and samadhi. But it seems also true that vipariṇāmadukkhatā is pretty much dukkha regarding anicca, as in first noble truth.

SN56.11

Rebirth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.

Five grasping aggregates are suffering relates clearly to saṅkhāradukkhatā. But for example illness, death, separation are all due to all 3: dukkhadukkhatā, saṅkhāradukkhatā, vipariṇāmadukkhatā. Association with the disliked and not getting what you wish for is both dukkhadukkhatā, saṅkhāradukkhatā.

Most importaint seems the reason for this teaching. Buddha used oftentimes many terms to describe something, or approached dhamma from many angles so it speaks to the hearts of various dhamma students. It seems that all three types of suffering are to be contemplated to weaken the origin of suffering (tanha), and to realise end of suffering, which is cessation.

True, we seem to be in agreement. As I’ve already stated, these both ways are complementary to dismantle all notions of self as atman (which is clearly refuted in DN1 as eternalist view) as well as all “me, mine or a self” related to all 5 khandhas. :slight_smile:

DN1

They say:

‘sassato attā ca loko ca vañjho kūṭaṭṭho esikaṭṭhāyiṭṭhito;
‘The self and the cosmos are eternal, barren, steady as a mountain peak, standing firm like a pillar.

They remain the same for all eternity, while these sentient beings wander and transmigrate and pass away and rearise. Why is that? Because by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort, and right focus I experience an immersion of the heart of such a kind that I recollect my many kinds of past lives, with features and details.

Because of this I know:

“The self and the cosmos are eternal, barren, steady as a mountain peak, standing firm like a pillar. They remain the same for all eternity, while these sentient beings wander and transmigrate and pass away and rearise.”’ This is the second ground on which some ascetics and brahmins rely to assert that the self and the cosmos are eternal.

(…)

The Realized One understands this: ‘If you hold on to and attach to these grounds for views it leads to such and such a destiny in the next life.’ He understands this, and what goes beyond this. Yet since he does not misapprehend that understanding, he has realized extinguishment within himself. Having truly understood the origin, ending, gratification, drawback, and escape from feelings, the Realized One is freed through not grasping.

These are the principles—deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, sublime, beyond the scope of logic, subtle, comprehensible to the astute—which the Realized One makes known after realizing them with his own insight. And those who genuinely praise the Realized One would rightly speak of these things.

I’ll just finish tihs post saying that whatever I post on D&D is not to state “what is right”, but to discuss and learn. :anjal:

Is Abhidhammic realism really still that big in Sri Lankan Buddhism?

2 Likes

The mainstream Sri Lankan Buddhism puts Abhidhamma at the foremost position. It very much remains the ‘higher Dhamma’. Things are not as Abhidhamma-centric as in Myanmar, but it is using Abhidhamma that serious discussion happens.

There are some dissident groups that take a critical stance (the largest being the Mahamevna group), but they remain a minority. One of the goals of the proposed Tripitaka Conservation Act was to silence these voices, even though Waharaka seems to have been the main trigger.

5 Likes

Waharaka (as per OP) takes issue precisely with this definition: if what anicca causes is primarily vipariṇāmadukkhatā, what of the unpleasant feeling that subsides? How does that vipariṇāma cause suffering? One may even invoke the Cūḷavedallasutta at this point (dukkhā vedanā ṭhitidukkhā vipariṇāmasukhāMN 44).

Waharaka answers this by changing anicca to aniccha. Impermanence then doesn’t come into the picture: it is all about desire.

My personal take, on the other hand, is that dukkha in yad’aniccaṁ taṁ dukkhaṁ is all about saṅkhārā (this doesn’t exclude other types of dukkha, but they are all consumed in saṅkhāra-dukkhatā anyway). Existence is but a sequence of preparations (saṅkhārā), and the impermanence of these saṅkhārā is the main dukkha (i.e., saṅkhāra-dukkhatā), regardless of what we may be feeling at any given time. There arises no need to redefine anicca because certain types of changes bring about pleasure, because to feel at all is to suffer.

2 Likes

@Prabhath, thank you very much for writing and posting your article. I had a few questions…

  1. What is the Sinhala word for “ritual specialist”?
  2. Do you think that the loss of mahaprana consonants in Sinhala makes it easier for people to get on board with his etymologies?
  3. Is this movement primarily a lay movement at this point? Is there a monastic community that is specific to this community?
  4. How common is it for monastics in Sri Lanka to make claims that they were alive at the time of various Buddhas?
3 Likes

1. What is the Sinhala word for “ritual specialist”?

I’m afraid I used a standard term in anthropology—it isn’t a translation from Sinhala. These types of characters, however, are known as kapuvā or kapu-mahattayā (more respectful, mahattayā means ‘mister/sir’).

2. Do you think that the loss of mahaprana consonants in Sinhala makes it easier for people to get on board with his etymologies?

Yes, it does. Please also see footnote 9:

The Sinhala alphabet, as with Pali, has aspirated consonants, but modern Sinhala sounds are rarely aspirated in common use. Thus, layman Sinhala pronunciations of Pali anicca and aniccha sound identical. The Waharaka approach assumes the interchangeability of such pairs of words with aspirated and non-aspirated consonants, at least when convenient.

3. Is this movement primarily a lay movement at this point? Is there a monastic community that is specific to this community?

Yes, there are Waharaka monastic leaders—some in exile, like Ven. Walasmulle Abhaya who is residing in Australia. Understandably, the monastic disciples don’t really have the same level of charisma of Waharaka Thera.

4. How common is it for monastics in Sri Lanka to make claims that they were alive at the time of various Buddhas?

It’s very rare :slight_smile:

2 Likes

I see. Thanks. This is an unfortunate turn of events.

Oopse. Missed that. Thanks.

Follow up question, how common is it for monks in Sri Lanka, in general, to claim some kind of ariya attainment? And how common is it for there to be “whisper campaigns” among the lay community that a certain monk is an ariya? In the Thai forest tradition it seems fairly common for lay people to make claims about monks.

some in exile

Do you just mean he is living abroad, or was there some kind of pressure for him to leave? I would imagine if the group is made up of educated Sinhala people, Austraila would be a good place to find a following.

Thanks!

1 Like

IMO, this question was well answered by Ajahn Chah when he described things as ‘uncertain’ rather than just ‘impermanent’. A slightly different shade of meaning, though essentially the same. Due to Anicca the unpleasant feeling that has subsided can restart at any time. Its quiescence can be as unpredictable and short or long lived as was its original continuance. And that’s the true horror of the thing. Who knows what unimaginable suffering which we have already partly undergone in this/ past births could restart at any time? Is that kamma really and truly burnt out? Are we over and done with it? Or is there more yet to come and our present good circumstance merely a temporary intermission in the grand show of Life? (drumroll… Taliban!) As you say, ‘to feel at all is to suffer’.

And he is not even fully wrong here. Wrong on etymology, yes. But as per SN 56.11

not getting what you wish for is suffering

which is what he is using to link Anicca to Suffering. And then doubling back and changing the meaning of Anicca to Aniccha…(oops…)

2 Likes

This was very rare, but lately we seem to have a bit of a proliferation of arahants. Many of them, unfortunately, seem to have rather eccentric characteristics—quite unlike the venerables considered to be arahants in Thailand and Myanmar. Apart from his unique interpretation and etymologies, the late Waharaka Thera seemed to be a monk of good conduct, devoid of such eccentricities. I do not know much about him apart from his teachings.

As for the laity, they are like everywhere else: easily impressed by good monastic discipline and conduct, quick to bestow ariyahood on charismatic monks, and generally fickle in their loyalty :smiley: Devotion to this or that monastic teacher is primarily based on personal impressions and biases.

For a couple of years after the death of Waharaka Thera, the movement was getting increasingly popular and was making smart use of social media channels to reach a wide audience. Disciples like Ven. Abhaya would use slide shows to project sutta excerpts and translations in their Dhamma talks—unprecedented in Sri Lanka—which made their sessions all the more convincing.

This dramatic popularity of the Waharaka movement triggered a swift reaction from the traditional monastics, who convinced the Mahanāyaka Theras (patriarchs) of the sect to which Waharaka monks belonged, to admonish them and to force them to stop promoting their interpretation. I believe some monks (samaneras) even got expelled in the process, but I am not aware of the details. This may have forced Ven. Abhaya to seek refuge in Australia—but this is just my guess.

2 Likes