In recent times, there have been a number of discussions, here and elsewhere, on various weird conspiracy-style theories that have emerged among monks regarding highly eccentric, bordering on crazy, theories. They might be systematic re-assigning of meanings of words—which assumes that the people who used a language had no idea what it meant—or a wholesale reinvention of history—the Buddha was born in Sri Lanka, for example. Most of the ones we’ve heard of have come from Sri Lanka, but I’m not sure if that means it’s a feature of Sri Lankan Buddhism, or simply that we haven’t heard so much from other countries.
Most people have no idea what the background of these ideas is, and how they came to prevail in modern Theravada. It’s nothing new; see, for example, Richard Gombrich’s book on Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 80s, which describes a number of similar cases. I’m hoping that this little article will demystify it all and help people to avoid falling into these traps.
The theoretical root of these theories is the peculiar Theravadin conception of a set of dhammas known as the paṭisambhidās. The idea, as it manifests in modern Theravada, is essentially that a certain level of realization enables one to access truths directly from the Dhamma, not in terms of letting go suffering, but as specific textual details and facts. You’re getting live streams of history and textual knowledge right from the Nibbana element.
Lest there be any confusion: all this is delusional, and has nothing to do with Dhamma. Realizing Dhamma means that you let go of suffering and its causes; it tells you nothing about Pali.
How did such a crazy idea get a foothold? Here’s a brief background.
The patisambhidhas are mentioned a few times in the Anguttara. Unusually, they do not appear anywhere else in the EBTs. They are a set of qualities that are essential for someone who wishes to teach Dhamma:
- dhamma = text, teaching
- attha = meaning, interpretation
- nirutti = terminology, language
- paṭibhāna = inspiration, eloquence, improvisation
They refer to knowing the text of the teaching, understanding its meaning, having the linguistic knowledge to analyze and express it, and the capacity to marshal all the above in giving a spontaneous Dhamma talk.
And that’s about it. Those of great wisdom, such as the Buddha or Sāriputta, are said to attain mastery in these qualities, hence their unparalleled ability to give clear and detailed teachings.
This set of Dhammas is pretty obscure in the broader scheme of things. They are almost ignored in the northern schools, and where they do appear, the root of the term is different (pratisamvid). It is not clear why either root bhid (= break) or vid (= know) is used, or which is to be preferred. It may be that both are derived from an unknowable earlier dialect.
Despite these humble beginnings—or more likely, because of them—in the Theravada, the patisambhidas came to assume a critical importance. If you look at the Dipavamsa’s account of the first schism (between the Theravada and the Mahasanghika) the chief complaint about the Mahasanghikas was their sloppiness in textual redaction. They mixed up the nouns and verbs, everything was unclear, they rejected some texts and added others. All this is, to be fair, an accurate depiction of the Mahasanghika texts, at least from a Pali perspective. The result of this was that the Theravada—specifically, the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura, rather than the broader Sthaviras of the mainland—defined itself as the school of textual precision.
This is great, because it means we inherit the very well edited and consistent texts of the Pali canon. But when it’s held too tightly it also can lead to rather fundamentalist attitude towards textuality.
This found its earliest expression in the book the Patisambhidamagga. One of the latest additions to the Pali canon, this elevated the obscure group of qualities needed by Dhamma teacher, and made it the underlying framework of the path to Nibbana.
It continued in the commentaries, where we find the idea that Pali is the sabhāvanirutti, the “essentially existing language”. Note that nirutti is one of the patisambhidas. The idea here is that Pali exists inherently as part of the fabric of the universe, not just a set of conventions for communicating. If a child were to be brought up without anyone speaking, it would naturally speak Pali; as do, of course, the devas. Again, just to be clear: this is nonsense, and directly contradicts everything the Buddha said about language.
This all might have been just a footnote in history, a record of how sometimes people get a little too enthusiastic about their sacred texts. But the tradition is alive and well. And like all traditions, it is not a fixed thing that stamps out followers from a template. It is a living thing that is engaged and interrogated by those who live it. And when people engage it foolishly, driven by ego and ignorance, they draw from it foolish things. This is not the fault of the tradition, but of its interpreters.
So this is how some people will claim to have access to some special form of knowledge, a way of reading the Dhamma from the universe, via visions or insights in meditation or whatever. Rather than seeing such things as impermanent, as empty, and as unreliable, they take them as a crucial insight into the nature of reality.
Usually such claims are fed by a high level of narcissism. The thing about narcissism, it gives you confidence and charisma, and it’s really easy for people—even intelligent and critically-minded people—to be fooled; at least for a time. The teacher lays claim to a counter-narrative that taps into a more broadly based disillusionment or cynicism. “See,” they say, “how there’s so much corruption and decadence? Here is the reason why!”
Their ideas are simple and obvious, avoiding the hard work that goes into genuine understanding. With minimal commitment, people can get the rush of being part of an inner circle who really gets it. Like a climate change denialist who convinces themselves that their silly notions have somehow never been understood by the climate scientists who have devoted years of their life to actually understanding the topic, such people easily imagine they know better than all the Pali and Sanskrit scholars, dismissing the 2500 year old legacy of linguistic sciences of India.
This is not just an intellectual thing, it comes with a sense of emotional uplift and fervor that can frequently result in heightened meditation or other experiences. Such experiences, being based on delusion, don’t lead anywhere in the long term, but they do give an emotional high that, for the convert, confirms the truth of what they’ve been told. In this way the narcissistic delusions spread, infecting not just the teacher, but their disciples as well, creating wider conflicts in families and communities.
We can’t understand these delusionalities without reference to the wider descent into paranoia, conspiracy-mongering, and anti-truth that we see all around us. It is a peculiarly Theravadin expression of a much wider phenomenon. And one of the things that is common to all these forms of denialism or delusionism is that they obsess about trivial nonsense and have nothing to say about things that matter. The creationists argue senselessly that creation happened 4000 years ago, making zero contributions to actually understanding life and its origins. The climate change denialists endlessly regurgitate the same discredited lies, while contributing precisely nothing to an actual understanding of climate.
Meanwhile, there are issues of incredible importance that face Buddhist communities. To pick just one, global warming will have a devastating impact on South-East Asia, and Theravadin countries in particular. Colombo, Bangkok, Yangon: all are as good as gone. Myanmar is number two in the world for climate vulnerability. What are we doing to help our people, to warn them and prepare them? We do nothing, and meanwhile we waste our time with nonsense about where the Buddha was born, or rewriting the dictionary based on sheer imagination. There’s no wisdom there, no meaning, nothing worth listening to.
And this is what the first lines of the Mangala Sutta are all about.
Asevanā ca bālānaṃ,
Not associating with fools,
but associating with the astute,
Pūjā ca pūjaneyyānaṃ ,
paying respect to those who deserve it:
this is the highest blessing.