Johannes Bronkhorst (2019): "What can we learn from Musīla and Nārada?"

A fascinating article by Johannes Bronkhorst was just uploaded to Academia.

In the Kosambī-sutta we find a conversation with Venerables Musīla and Nārada. Though they both realized the same knowledge and insight, only one of them was a perfected one. In this article, originally given at the conference “Śamatha-vipaśyanā in the context of Indo-Sinitic Buddhism, Statics and Dynamics” at Fudan University in Shanghai (Sept 2017) and subsequently as the “Lingyin Lecture” at Oxford University (June 2018), distinguished Buddhist scholar Johannes Bronkhorst uses the Kosambī episode as a stepping stone to an analysis of the early Buddhist path to awakening.


In his paper, Bronkhorst writes (pp. 11-12):

One of the practices [the early Buddhist texts] emphasize is mindfulness (Skt. smṛti / Pali sati) and I do not need to remind you that this practice consists in becoming consciously aware of activities of which we are normally not consciously aware. In other words, it aims at extending the explicit system of mental functioning at the expense of the implicit system.* This may not seem of much use as long as ordinary activities are concerned: our ability to walk without falling over, our ability to speak, ride a bicycle, and much else. But it suggests that the aim of the exercise, that is, the aim of the Buddha’s path, is to get at the knots in the system, at the sources of the habits and compulsions that make us prisoners of our character.

Mindfulness by itself cannot disentangle those knots; it only paves the way by expanding the realm of conscious access. Absorption expands this realm even further, eventually giving conscious access to those knots. Disentangling those knots—which means: facing the emotions associated with fixed habits and compulsions without giving in to them as one has before — is, I propose, what is meant by destroying the influxes (āsravas).

* Note

Two paragraphs before the quoted passage, Bronkhorst defined the terms explicit and implicit mental functioning:

The former concerns conscious activities, the latter numerous unconscious activities on which we depend in our daily lives, and which consist largely of acquired habits.

The reason I wanted to highlight this passage is because it evoked an image in me. It’s by all the effort of cultivating the eightfold path that we arrive at states of mindfulness and absorption powerful enough to disentangle these knots. One possible analogy would be that of an astronaut, who after many years of training develops enough skill to dwell in the International Space Station—analogous to a mendicant who develops enough skill to dwell in samādhi. Subsequently, just as a mendicant uses “super mindfulness” to untangle the knots of her own mind. the astronaut uses mindfulness to repair the International Space Station itself:

Image source

Christina Koch and Jessica Meir complete the first female-only spacewalk.

And how are those pesky knots untangled? This is what the mesmorizing verses from the Jaṭā-sutta have to say:

“Tangled within, tangled without:
these people are tangled in tangles.
I ask you this, Gotama:
Who can untangle this tangle?”

“A wise person grounded in ethics,
developing the mind and wisdom,
a keen and alert mendicant,
they can untangle this tangle.

Those who have discarded
greed, hate, and ignorance—
the perfected ones with defilements ended—
they have untangled the tangle.

And where name and form
cease with nothing left over;
as well as impingement and perception of form:
it’s there that the tangle is cut.” SN 1.23

I find it especially interesting how a wise mendicant skilled in the threefold training only *can* “untangle this tangle”, as opposed to the perfected ones who, by virtue of ending the defilements (āsava), have actually done it. This supports the thesis that early Buddhism, unlike later forms, didn’t regard wisdom as the soteriological goal—wisdom is just another stepping stone to reach liberation.

I must mention my debt to Bhante Sujato in using this analogy, who compared astronauts with mendicants before I did in one of his talks at the recent retreat in Belgium.


Thank you Robbie for sharing this article and your subsequent comment. It was a very interesting read.

In this presentation, I have made some rather radical suggestions. I claim that the early Buddhist tradition preserves materials that it does not always understand. Faithful preservation was apparently more important than understanding. (p. 14)

I cannot recall the article, but I read somewhere that, in the oral tradition, there was an emphasis on preservation rather that on practicing.


I just finished that article. For me, the high point was Bronkhorst’s “three alternatives” regarding early conceptions of the path to liberation:

(1) Ordinary knowledge of Buddhist doctrine (“intellectual understanding”).
(2) Mystical insight resulting from absorption.
(3) A permanently transformed psychological state that is the outcome of certain modifications that have been brought about in the mind while in a state of absorption: the destruction of the influxes (āsrava).

And his recognizing that “the two forms of awareness (intellectual understanding and mystical insight) are often confused in Buddhist literature;” which leads him to conclude that “the opposition embodied in Musīla and Nārada is not an opposition between intellectual reasoning — corresponding to (1) — and absorption — corresponding to (2). Rather, their opposition is either between (1)intellectual understanding and (3) psychological transformation; or between (2) insight resulting from absorption and (3) psychological transformation.”

I think most previous discussion has focused on juxtaposing (1) and (2) and the record of jhāna practice we find in the suttas includes not only (2) but (3) as well.

Also, Bronkhorst’s stance does not in any way require (while, at the same time, it does not preclude the possibility of) a separation between calm and insight practice.

For me, anyway, this is, as they say, “a game-changer” in this near century-old debate.


It’s certainly an interesting article, and spells out the alternatives clearly:

Though they are not EBTs (but neither is Bronkhorst’s paper :slight_smile: ) my reading of ancient commentaries such as the Visuddhimagga is that the Theravada tradition is firmly in favour of (3).
While in those commentaries there is a “progress of insight” along the way, they are not the end point. It is the experience of Nibbana that is irreversibly transformative. In that sense Bronkhorst’s conclusions do not seem particularly new.


Venerable Anālayo wrote an article on this topic last year called Ancient Indian Education and Mindfulness, published in the academic journal Mindfulness. From the abstract:

Ancient Indian precedents for the notion of mindfulness in current usage are related to learning by rote. This appears to have been based on an intentional training in memorizing texts without drawing inferences, in order to avoid interfering with precise recall. Such absence of inferencing relates to the Buddhist notion of bare awareness, a modality of mindfulness that aims at staying with bare sensory experience without additional layers of associations and mental proliferations.


Nårada’s position is clearer than Mus¥la’s in this respect. He
states in so many words that the third alternative is missing, that he
has not reached the permanently transformed psychological state
that is brought about by the destruction of the influxes. And the
fact that this (presumably) diligent and committed Buddhist admits
that he has not reached that state strongly suggests that he does not
know how to get there.

This seems weird to me to a certain extent. Knowing, broadly, how to get to a certain point doesn’t necessarily mean that one is at that point. Like for example I know how to get physically in shape, yet this knowledge of how to become in shape does not defacto lead me to be in shape (thanks, chocolate).

Otherwise I really enjoyed this paper, thank you for sharing.

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I am (somewhat purposely) not well-read when it comes to Visuddhimagga and the commentaries, but, to my recollection, Buddhaghosa stops just short of identifying nibbāna with any meditative experience. If I’m not mistaken, he intimates that saññāvedayitanirodha is a this-worldly experience of nibbāna, but he somehow maintains that saññāvedayitanirodha itself still does not constitute full liberation, or nibbāna. I think therein lies the difference with what Bronkhorst says. If I am reading correctly, he is saying that the transformative meditative experience itself, not any “mystical inisght” it engenders, is liberation. If that were the case, it would lead the discussion away from any talk of “insight based on absorption” and focus on the liberative power of samatha itself. This, surely, is something new.

Again, I don’t know much about the commentaries, if someone could locate where Buddhaghosa discusses this, it might bring additional clarity to this discussion.

I also saw this as a bit of a jump. But it doesn’t affect the other arguments in the article which did speak to me.

Hi Knotty,

OK, it’s difficult to go through the entire Visuddhimagga chapter, but here is the section of the Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, The Abhidhammatthasangaha of Acariya Anuruddha which summarises it.
Freely available here: Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, A

§34 Purification by Knowledge and Vision

When he thus practises contemplation, owing to the ripening of insight (he feels), “Now the absorption (of the path) will arise.” There upon, arresting the life-continuum, there arises mind-door adverting, followed by two or three (moments of) insight consciousness having for their object any of the characteristics such as impermanence, etc. They are termed preparation, access, and conformity (moments). That knowledge of equanimity towards formations together with knowledge that conforms (to the truths), when perfected, is also termed “insight leading to emergence.”

Thereafter, the change-of-lineage consciousness, having Nibbana as its object, occurs, overcoming the lineage of the worldlings and evolving the lineage of the noble ones. Immediately after this, the path (of stream-entry), fully understanding the truth of suffering, abandoning the truth of its origin, realizing the truth of its cessation, and developing the truth of the path to its cessation, enters upon the (supramundane) cognitive process of absorption. After that, two or three moments of fruition consciousness arise and cease. Then there is subsidence into the life-continuum.

Then, arresting the life-continuum, reviewing knowledge occurs. The wise person reviews the path, fruit, Nibbana, and he either reviews or does not review the defilements destroyed and the remaining defilements. Thus the fourfold path which has to be developed in sequence by means of the sixfold purity is called purification by knowledge and vision.

Herein, this is the section on purification.

The bold part sounds to me like a “transformative meditative experience”.

Bhikkhu Bodhi comments on that passage:

The path: The path consciousness (maggacitta) simultaneously performs four functions, one with respect to each of the four truths. These four functions, mentioned here, are the full understanding (pariñña) of suffering; the abandoning (pahana) of craving, its origin; the realization (sacchikiriya) of Nibbana, its cessation; and the development (bhavana) of the Noble Eightfold Path. For one of sharp faculties who has skipped the preparatory moment three fruition cittas occur following the path; for others, who have gone through the preparatory moment, two fruition cittas occur.

The late abhidhammic description in terms of mind moments is, of course, way off topic for this Forum, but, unless I’m seriously mistaken, the Theravada commentaries do seem to be saying that each of the four Ariya stages happens in a special deep absorption (even if there was no previous jhanic-level attainment).



Thank you for your post. I appreciate your taking the time to respond.

I’m sorry, but I would say that, according to Bronkhorst’s scheme…

…what you cited from the Abhidhamma would qualify as the second: a “mystical insight resulting from absorption.” The liberation is still prompted by paññā, which, regardless of the attainment of absorption, still makes it effectively a vipassanā practice, according to Gombrich’s analysis.

(He, of course, doesn’t mention paññā, vipassanā, or samatha–that’s me taking a bit of a liberty. He speaks about intellect/insight and absorption; but I don’t think using Buddhist terminology is too wide of the mark .)

The separation of the various liberation practices found in the suttas into three types–pure vipassanā analysis, vipassanā achieved in a samatha state, and a non-vipassanā, samatha attainment which liberates–and then grouping the first two together under the same heading (or, rather, noting that the suttas did so) and then juxtaposing them both against the third is what I think is new in Bronkhorst’s paper. I haven’t seen anyone else take this approach. I think it’s very innovative.

I see nothing “obscure” in this sutta. It’s not about “intellectual understanding” or “the cognitive side of the path”. When they talk about ‘knowledge’, the suttas are always about direct experience.

Narada has seen the goal: the cessation of existence (bhava, not ‘becoming’). He is a noble one, though not yet fully enlightened. He’s somewhere between stream entry and arahantship. Such a noble one is called a sekha (‘trainee’ or ‘learner’). They have understood the four noble truths, including the third, which implies the cessation of existence, as also mentioned in the cessation sequence of dependent arising. But they haven’t removed the defilements (asavas) yet, like Musila has.

Musila has fully understood the four noble truths, but that doesn’t mean that his knowledge is completely different from knowledge that comes earlier. The simile of the water in the well also makes this clear.

The question whether stream entry needs jhana or not I think is sufficiently answered by the various suttas that say samadhi is needed to know and see things as they really are, which refers to stream entry.


Yes, you’re right, it comes down to how we see the “mechanism” of that path moment. My point is simply that I have the impression, from reading and listening various sources, that a number of commentators, from the ancient commentary to many modern teachers, see that nibbana moment as an absorption where everything shuts down, and this destroys the influxes. Here are a few modern examples:

Here’s Mahasi Sayadaw’s Progress of Insight:

  1. Path Knowledge
    It is followed immediately by knowledge that abides in that same Nibbāna, which is void of formations since it is the cessation of them. This is called “path knowledge.” It is also called “purification by knowledge and vision.”
  2. Fruition Knowledge
    That again is immediately followed by knowledge that belongs to the final stage and continues in the course of its predecessor. It abides in that same Nibbāna, which is void of formations since it is the cessation of them. This is called “fruition knowledge.”

Bhikkhu K. Ñāṇananda, Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled

Sermon 8:

Some seem to think that the arahant experiences the Nibbānic
bliss only after his death. But the cessation of existence is experi-
enced here and now, dittheva dhamme. This is something marvellous
and unknown to any other religious system. It is just at the moment
that the shuttle of the sewing machine runs out of its load of cotton

that the cessation of existence is experienced. It is then that the
latencies are uprooted and all influxes are destroyed.
Cravings, conceits
and views refuse to play their part, with the result that mere prepara-
tions come up and go down. This is the ambrosial deathless. It is said
that the arahants partake of ambrosial deathlessness, amatam paribhuñjanti.

Bhikkhu Bodhi. In the Buddha’s Words. Introduction to Part IX, “Shining the Light of Wisdom”

How are we to correlate these two perspectives on Nibbāna found in the Nikāyas, one treating it as an experiential state of inward purity and sublime bliss, the other as an unconditioned state transcending the empirical world? Commentators, both Buddhists and outsiders, have tried to connect these two aspects of Nibbāna in different ways. Their interpretations generally reflect the proclivity of the interpreter as much as they do the texts themselves. The way that seems most faithful to both aspects of Nibbāna delineated in the texts is to regard the attainment of Nibbāna as a state of freedom and happiness attained by realizing, with profound wisdom, the unconditioned and transcendent element, the state that is intrinsically tranquil and forever beyond suffering. The penetration of this element brings the destruction of defilements, culminating in complete purification of mind. Such purification is accompanied by the experience of perfect peace and happiness in this present life. With the breakup of the body at physical death, it brings irreversible release from the beginningless round of rebirths.

See: In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon Linked to : Reading the Buddhist Scriptures of the Theravada Tradition
Specific Link: In the Buddha’s Words - Selections | Wisdom Publications


I’m sorry, I don’t know much about the teachings regarding path moments. But I don’t think Bronkhorst is simply referring to the mechanism of the nibbanā moment, though he does indeed propose that the confusion arose because “the final stages of this path had become obscure.” He seems to be talking about the path in its entirety; specifically, the path in terms of the method of practice chosen and followed throughout.

Bronkhorst’s article is a response to La Vallée Poussin, who is certainly talking about an opposition between paths:

“Without being too rash, one may discriminate in the Buddhist sources, both ancient and scholastic, between two opposed theories… the theory which makes salvation a purely or mainly intellectual achievement, and the theory which makes salvation the goal of ascetic and ecstatic disciplines.” (Louis de La Vallée Poussin: ‘Musila et Narada: Le Chemin de Nirvana’)

But, while La Vallée Poussin recognizes two paths, Bronkhorst proposes that there are in fact “three alternatives:”

This is new (at least to me!) because most scholars who have written on this issue seem to follow La Vallée Poussin’s paradigm. That’s why I think Bronkhorst’s view is innovative.

(Also, he believes that these alternative views being expressed in the suttas doesn’t necessarily mean that there was any historical conflict or that the “original” path could not have consisted of both calm and insight–which is where I think Anālayo and Wynne’s debate got bogged down.)

I don’t really read it like that, since he does not characterise the path as purely one of absorption:

Mindfulness by itself cannot disentangle those knots; it only paves the way by expanding the realm of conscious access.
Absorption expands this realm even further, eventually giving conscious access to those knots. Disentangling those knots— which means: facing the emotions associated with fixed habits and compulsions without giving in to them as one has before — is, propose, what is meant by destroying the influxes (åsravas).

And, to get away from mentions of mind moments, I quoted Vens Nananda and Bodhi above, and the way I read the parts I have bolded appears to me to be pointing to:

(3) A permanently transformed psychological state that is the outcome of certain modifications that have been brought about in the mind while in a state of absorption: the destruction of the influxes (āsrava)

Nanananda: It is just at the moment that the shuttle of the sewing machine runs out of its load of cotton that the cessation of existence is experienced. It is then that the latencies are uprooted and all influxes are destroyed.

Bodhi: The penetration of this element brings the destruction of defilements, culminating in complete purification of mind.

Rereading the paper, I am now curious why Bronkhorst never actually uses the word Nibbana/Nirvana, whereas Bhikkhu Nananada starts each of his Sermons with the quotation:

Etaṃ santaṃ, etaṃ paṇītaṃ, yadidaṃ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhakkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānaṃ.
“This is peaceful, this is excellent, namely the stilling of all preparations, the relinquishment of all assets, the destruction of craving, detachment, cessation, extinction”.


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Indeed, it isn’t purely one of absorption; he does mention mindfulness. But does it include

(1) Ordinary knowledge of Buddhist doctrine (“intellectual understanding”) or

(2) Mystical insight resulting from absorption?

I don’t think so. But that’s because I see satipaṭṭhāna (which is how I understand Bronkhorst’s “mindfulness”) as primarily, if not wholly, a samatha practice. You may not.

Also, regarding those two passages you’ve provided: the first doesn’t appear to explain at all the “mechanism" that effects liberation, but, rather, it’s more of an experiential description; the second actually states that nibbāna is realized “with profound wisdom:” I really think that categorizes it as Bronkhorst’s (1) (if there were no meditation involved) or (2) (if the wisdom was born of meditative practice).

I am in the middle of reading that article you sent me.

Thank you. It really brings home how complex an issue samatha/ vipassanā is. Actually, the whole “opposed paths vs. combined paths” debate is not my main interest in the Bronkhorst article–it’s really just far too complicated, and the scholarship on the issue is quite the “thicket of views.” And no one has the whole truth. At this point, I doubt anyone ever will: it’s probably lost to history.

There are certainly texts on meditation which are difficult to reconcile with others. At the same time, there are explanations composed by other texts or by later traditions for that express purpose. It really just comes down to which sets of texts one chooses to believe and, more importantly, how one reads them. (Or, what one sees in them.)

My personal thing is that I see an imbalance across Buddhist traditions regarding the saving power of paññā. I’m intrigued by the possibility that some members of the early community may have seen saññāvedayitanirodha as the full and final liberation. I think there are some tantalizing hints of this way of thought preserved in the EBTs–discourses which give support to this view of attaining nibbāna. I also think there is evidence of the obfuscation of this view.

But, I’ll tell you, there’s no way in niraya I am going to try and argue about what the path truly is, neither about “what the Buddha taught.” I think it’s best to leave that to those more expert (kusala) than I.

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