Setting the Record Straight on Certain Modern Theravada Traditions

Hi Folks,

Here is a link to a recent talk I gave giving an overview of the Mahasi Sayadaw vipassana lineage, Buddhist Publication Society, Ledi Sayadaw vipassana lineage, and Thai Forest Ajahn Mun monastic lineage. I also go over a number of related books.


Thanks for sharing.

I think it’s a stretch to call the Buddhist Publication Society a lineage or tradition. And the English work is just one part of the BPS, albeit the part that most of us are familiar with. I think it would be more accurate to say that generally the BPS is mainstream orthodox Theravada. I don’t see how it’s its own thing separate from that.

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I agree that it is not a lineage or tradition like the other three. But I do see it as having established a school of thought within the Western Buddhist world, especially in the U.S. It does seem to have its own momentum and autonomy. In the talk I go over how the BPS and the Mahasi lineage have collaborated with each other going back to Mahasi and Nyanaponika Thera.

Enjoying this highly interesting presentation right now. Thank you Sir

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For those of us without 2 hours to listen, could you summarize the gist, or point to a blog post or something? Thanks!


Where does the reverend title come from? Asking because I haven’t seen it before.


You’re in it, Banthe, with your judgement that the Samyutta is the earliest of the Nikayas.

Here are the slides Bhante

I am a lay minister in the Dhamma Vinaya Order. So far we are a small group of lay ministers in the U.S. Here is our online temple.

I used to be a monk with Thich Nhat Hanh. He gave me the name Phap Ngo which is Dhammabodhi in Pali.


Quoted from the transcript of the video:

The later Buddhaghosa understanding of jhana is you’re aware of a subtle mental image and you are no longer aware of your physical body and you’re no longer aware of mental activity beyond being aware of the subtle mental image.

So within the Thai forest tradition, there’s been research that has shown that that’s probably a later development. You don’t find that teaching in the early teachings in the Samyutta Nikaya.

Do you have a source for this research?

Also, what do you mean by ‘Buddhaghosa understanding’ – to what extent are you referring to Buddhaghosa’s personal commentary and to what extent the Visuddhimagga as a summary of the ancient Sinhala commentaries?


Hello Rev. Dhammabodhi! In your " Discourse on the Realized Ones" discussion, you use the term “wonky” when referring to several particular books about meditation and the 12 links. Can you explain this in a bit more depth. Additionally, I believe you say, in your view, the presentation of the 4 Noble Truths as a core teaching came later. Please explain what you mean by later. How much later and, if possible, how this might have happened. With thanks!

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The Thai Forest Tradition — to the extent that we can even speak of it as a unified doctrinal group, which we hardly can — is largely based on the Visuddhimagga and traditional Theravada texts. Just look at any discussion of meditation from teachers in those lineages and you’re likely to hear talk of the “40 meditation subjects (kammatthana),” an idea from the Visuddhimagga.

In their [auto]biographies, the old-school Thai ajahns will also frequently reference visions in their meditation. Not only because it’s in the Visuddhimagga, but simply because many of them claim that they experienced these things in their practice and had to work with them.

There are a handful of Western monks ordained in Thailand in forest-tradition lineages who have done varying degrees of research on early texts, and it is true that the forest tradition was based on certain reformist trends. But this is hardly representative of that tradition itself.


OK I confess I don’t have a direct quote from Sujato Bhikkhu or Thanissaro Bhikkhu saying that meditating on the counterpoint sign in the Visuddhimagga is a later development. However I can point to books from Thanissaro talking about the jhanas as states in which one is aware of one’s whole body. I can also say that in the Samyutta Nikaya in the teachings on the 16 exercises and the four jhanas I have not seen anything about a counterpoint sign. Below is a summary of my research on this.

From the Visuddhimagga there is discussion on meditating on the counterpoint sign to gain access concentration and enter the first jhana.

Visuddhimagga translated by Nanamoli BPS 2010. P.133

Ledi Sayadaw teaches this way to enter access concentration in his manual on the 16 exercises of mindfulness of breathing called Anapana Dipani.

Ledi Sayadaw (BPS 2000).

Ajahn Lee, a student of Ajahn Mun, taught mindfulness of breathing and mindfulness of the whole body as the way to get into the jhanas and develop the jhanas in his teachings on the 16 exercises of mindfulness of breathing. His student Ajahn Fuong and his student Thanissaro Bhikkhu teach the same.

Ajhan Lee Dhammadharo, Keeping the Breath in Mind and Lessons in Samadhi, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Seventh Revised (Metta Forest Monastery, 2017).

Thanissaro points to discourses in the Pali Canon that describe jhanas as including awareness of the whole body. He includes this in his teachings on the 16 exercises.

Bhikkhu Thanissaro, Mindful of the Body (Valley Center: Metta Forest Monastery, 2016).
Bhikkhu Thanissaro, With Each & Every Breath: A Guide to Meditation (Valley Center: Metta Forest Monastery, 2013).

Based on Sujato Bhikkhu’s work which points to the Samyutta Nikaya as possibly being the oldest layer of discourses in the Pali Canon we can look at the teachings on the 16 exercises and the four jhanas. I have not done an exhaustive search into the anapanasamyutta and the jhanasamyutta but but from what I have seen so far they don’t mention meditating on the counterpoint sign. The most straightforward interpretation of the 16 exercises would say that one starts with mindfulness of the breath and the whole body, then one goes into the jhanas based on that, then one does the heart-mind practice, and this culminates in realizing nibbana through contemplation of impermanence.

BY Buddhaghosa understanding I mainly mean what he says in the Visuddhimagga.

Were said texts ever supposed to be read on their own, apart from the insights and teachings of the Sangha? Apart then, from tradition?

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In my talk I discuss Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book “The Paradox of Becoming” which is an in depth look at the 12 links. I would say this is relatively more wonky than what you find in the nidanasamyuta itself in the Samyutta Nikaya. I also talked some about Ajahn Sumedho’s book The Four Noble Truths. In there he talks about the 4NTs using the links of dependent origination. He mainly focuses on contact, sensation, craving, and grasping. It is a pretty straightforward discussion and relatively less wonky. I would say the same thing about how Goenka talks about the links of contact, sensation, craving, and grasping in his book Discourse Summaries which I also mention in my talk.

Thanissaro has written how the teachings on the three marks of existence have an early style and a later style. In the early style one focuses on the perception of impermanent, suffering, or not self as a way to disrupt identifying and attaching to the body and mind. In the later style the teachings become truth claims about the nature of reality, namely that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, suffering, and no self. He says the Four Noble Truths have come to be seen through this later style of the three marks. He says originally the Four Noble Truths were not interpreted in this way. My sense is that he sees the 12 links as being more in line with how the 4NTs were understood in early Buddhism.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, First Things First: Essays on the Buddhist Path (Metta Forest Monastery: Creative Commons, 2018).

In the Samyutta Nikaya the Four Noble Truths (saccasamyutta) comes at the end of the Samyutta Nikaya. The teachings on the 12 links (nidanasamyutta) are right near the beginning after the discourses with verses (sagathasamyutta) which I see as an appetizer to the teachings on the 12 links. So the 12 links comes across as the core theory of the Samyutta Nikaya and the Four Noble Truths are a summary of the teachings that comes at the end.

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I don’t disagree. In my talk I was focusing just on the Ajahn Mun lineage and in particular the Ajahn Lee and Ajahn Cha sublineages. Ajahn Lee, Ajahn Fuong, and Thanissaro all teach the jhanas based on awareness of the whole body. I am not sure what Ajahn Mun himself taught. Thanissaro does reference books by Ajahn Mun and Maha Boowa about meditating on the body.
Bhikkhu Thanissaro, Mindful of the Body (Valley Center: Metta Forest Monastery, 2016).

My understanding is that Ajahn Mun in large part revived the forest tradition in Thailand. But of course there would be many other Thai Forest teachers with widely different views on jhana.

My hypothesis is that the Samyutta Nikaya contains the core set of interconnected teachings that were created and maintained by the early monastic sangha via the oral tradition. This would have been in combination with the vinaya, i.e. the monastic rules. The core structure of the Samyutta Nikaya provides pith teachings on the 12 links, 5 aggregates, 6 sense fields, and 8Fold Path that would need to have a living tradition of practice to expound on the pith teachings.

Ok, but none of those things were read on their own. No one ever just read the SN or its proto-type form and that’s it. As you say, the Sangha was also there. Said teachings were always given by the Sangha, which means with their supplementary teachings, explanations, elaborations. Things not included in the suttas themselves. That’s how it always was, until modern times. So, when you say for example that nimittas as per the commentarial tradition (summed up in the Visuddhimagga) aren’t discussed in the texts, that doesn’t really mean much IMO.

Just think about the argument here: because the EBTs don’t use the terminology of a much later text that is a commentary on them, therefore that commentary must be wrong.

A valid commentary must then only use the terms of what it’s trying to explain, which defeats the purpose of a commentary.

There’s no English words in the samyutta nikaya either, so how can we trust Ajahn Thanissaro when I can’t find any of the terms he uses in the suttas?

:slight_smile: :yellow_heart:


. Well the Samyutta Nikaya would have been chanted as a group. It would have started out with the core structure of samyuttas on the 12 links, five aggregates, six sense fields, the Eightfold Path, and the teachings on meditation such as the 16 exercises. Then over time more discourses would have been added to the original core structure.