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Some quotes from Bhikkhu Katukurunde Ñāṇananda

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#1

I occasionally go through the discussions here and every once in a while the views of Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda seem to come up (for those not familiar, Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, 1940-2018, was a Sri Lankan monk famous for his Sutta-centric approach and 33 sermons given on nibbana). Now that Bhikkhu Analayo has made the Nibbana sermons more widely known through his e-learning courses, I believe there will be a greater interest in his teachings.

I found myself recently re-reading a booklet from his website titled “The Heretic Sage” which is authored by a Bhikkhu Yogananda, which chronicles a series of interviews the author had with Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda (link: http://seeingthroughthenet.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/The-Heretic-Sage_Rev_9.0.pdf). These interviews touch on a number of ‘controversial points’ of Bhante Ñāṇananda’s views and is ripe with interesting quotes, so therefore I thought I would post some of these quotes for those who might find Ñāṇananda’s views interesting:


The interviewer quotes from Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda’s book, “Nibbana and the Fire Simile”:

“There is a flush of Buddhist literature thriving in the West which attempts to interpret this fire simile in the light of the Vedic myth that the extinguished fire ‘goes into hiding’. Though the Buddha succeeded in convincing the Brahmin interlocutors of the dependently arisen nature of the fire by the reductio-ad-absurdum method, these scholars seem to be impervious to his arguments. What is worse, misinterpretations have even sought refuge in blatant mistranslations of sacred texts.

The term ‘extinction’ is anathema to the West in general. Perhaps as a euphemism, ‘extinguishment’ might be ‘passable’. But rather than playing with the ‘fire-simile’ it is better to accept the obvious conclusions, willy nilly.”


From Interview 1:

“The difference between viññāṇa and paññā is explained as paññā bhāvetabbā, viññāṇaṃ pariññeyyaṃ: paññā is to be developed, viññāṇa is to be understood. When paññā is fulfilled, viññāṇa is fully comprehended. As in the magic show: to see through the magic is to miss the show.”

The last sentence is a reference to Bhante Ñāṇananda’s short masterpiece The Magic of the Mind.

“In the floodlights of paññā there is no room for the shadows of viññāṇa. The delusion of self-love reflects a world, so there are the two: an I and a world. Reflections on the eye, reflections on the ear, reflections on the mind: taking these reflections that fall on the senses as true, the materialists go looking for a world out there. When the Buddha called all of that a mere illusion, he meant all, including concepts. That’s why it is said sabba dhammakkhayaṃpatto vimutto upadhisaṅ-khaye. Mind and dhammas are the last resort of delusion.”

This is one of the most controversial of Bhante Ñāṇananda’s views. The Magic of the Mind discusses this topic at length. He has been called an idealist and an illusionist because of it; he rejects both accusations. Being a Ñāṇavirist at the time, this ‘illusionist’ interpretation was something I too found difficult to accept, especially in light of Ven. Ñāṇavira’s explicit and vehement rejection of the notion of māyā as a hindu concept shared by the Mahayanists.


From Interview 2:

Our discussion moves on to Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera. I wonder what influence this radical monk had on Bhante Ñāṇananda, but I can’t muster enough courage to ask directly. So I just let him speak on his views.

“It is true, Ven. Ñāṇavīra made a start. But I think he went to an extreme in his criticisms, until his followers were dropping even the useful things. And he failed to make the necessary distinctions between saupādisesa and anupādisesa Nibbāna elements. That led to an idealized view of the noble disciple. And now there is a lineage of ‘Ñāṇavīrists’ who fail to see anything beyond Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s views. They are simply idolizing him.”


From Interview 2:

“What is considered the ‘truth’ is relative to each individual. Each person gives evidence in the court of reality based on his own level of experience. For example, parents often give false explanations to their little children. But these are true to the kids. When asked, the kid will tell what his parents told him. It’s true for the child, but not for us. In the famous commentarial story about Ven. Tissa Thera we find him seeing a woman as a skeleton, and saying so when asked by her husband. The venerable was closer to the truth.

“When we transcend one level of truth, the new level becomes what is true for us. The previous one is now false. What one experiences may not be what is experienced by the world in general, but that may well be truer. But how do we reach the ultimate truth? This is beautifully explained in the Dhātuvibhaṇga Sutta: Taṃ saccaṃ, yaṃ amosadhammaṃ nibbānaṃ. And from the Dvayatānupassanā Sutta: amosadhammaṃ nibbānaṃ tad ariyā saccato vidū. It is Nibbāna that is of non-falsifying nature, where there is no ‘thing’. Nibbāna is the highest truth because there is no other truth to transcend it.

“The Buddha called himself the first chick in this era to break out of the egg of ignorance. All these wonderful things we do such as space travel all happen inside this saḷāyatana shell. If paṭiccasamuppāda were presented properly, perhaps a few more chicks would be able to break through today.

“Ven. Nāgārjuna was right: at the end, all is empty. We are not willing to accept that existence is a perversion. Existence is suffering precisely because it is a perversion.”


From Interview 3:

“With vedanā, the self notion ‘awakens’, although here it is more like dreaming. Or like a blind man groping in the dark. The blind man reacts only to the feeling of bumping on to some-thing. That is why Ven. Ananda Thera replied to the Buddha that it is not possible to have any self notion when there is no vedanā. Taṇhā arises from vedanā.

“So where does pañcupādānakkhandha come in? Pañcupādānakkhandhā is the final result of the constant tussle between viññāṇa and nāma-rūpa. This is made clear in the Mahāsaḷāyatanika Sutta. What is gathered from the six viññāṇa–s, at the end, are filtered down to things grasped as “these are my forms, these are my feelings, these are my perceptions, …”


From Interview 3:

One of the main themes of Bhante Ñāṇananda’s classic The Magic of the Mind is the illusory nature of viññāṇa. Earlier we discussed some of the nuances involved in differentiating between viññāṇa and paññā, and now the discus-sion moves on to the relationship between viññāṇa and nāma-rūpa.

“It’s a pity that many Buddhists still cannot accept that the goal of this practice is the cessation of viññāṇa. It is a suffering; the simile for viññāṇâhāra is being beaten by a spear 300 times a day. The darkness of avijjā creates the background for it. As I pointed out with the similes of the cinema and the magic show, these things can only happen as long as there is darkness. All this is just an illusion, a drama. In fact, the oldest meaning of saṅkhāra is found in that context of a stage show.

“The connection between viññāṇa and nāma-rūpa can be illustrated with a childish simile: it is like a dog chasing its own tail. The modern Rohitassas who try to overcome a world as seen through viññāna are no different. They chase after what the Buddha dismissed as an illusion. There is nothing to go chasing after here; all that needs to be done is to stay where one is, and to realize that it is merely a shadow. When the darkness of avijjā is dispelled, saṅkhāra–s are stilled. The game is over.

“Viññāṇa and nāma-rūpa revolve around each other at an indescribable speed. That’s why it was told to Ven. Sāti that it is wrong to say “viññāṇaṃ sandhāvati saṃsarati anaññaṃ” (it is this same viññāṇa that runs and wanders, not another). If only the Abhidhammikas realized that parivatta in lahuparivattaṃ cittaṃ means ‘revolving’: viññāṇa paccayā nāmarūpaṃ, nāmarūpa paccayā viññāṇaṃ.

“The Gāthās in the Sagāthaka Vagga, although often not given enough attention, are very deep. I stopped the Nibbāna series at sermon number 33, but what I had planned for 34, although never delivered, was based on that beautiful verse from the Nimokkha Sutta:

Nandībhavaparikkhayā saññāviññāṇasaṅkhayā, Vedanānaṃ nirodhā upasamā evaṃ khvāhaṃ āvuso jānāmi Sattānaṃ nimokkhaṃ pamokkhaṃ vivekan’ti. [SN. 1.2]

When delight and existence are exhausted
When perception and consciousness are both destroyed
When feelings cease and are appeased
– thus, O friend, Do I know, for them that live Deliverance, freedom, detachment.

“In all other religions, viññāṇa was taken as a unit, and worse, as the soul. It is taught that even if everything else is impermanent, this isn’t. And it is taught as that which reaches Brahmā. But the Buddha pointed out that it is a mere illusion. It can’t exist on its own.


From Interview 3:

“I’m reminded of something Ven. Ñāṇavīra said: ‘all consciousness is self consciousness.’ That is quite right. Occasionally he came up with brilliant insights like that which shook the establishment. He was one who wasn’t afraid to point out these misinterpretations. It is unfortunate that he was rather extremist in other areas.


From Interview 3:

“Think of any kind of existence, and you will see that it depends on grasping. There is no ‘thing’ that exists on its own. Here again, I’m reminded of something Dr. W.S. Karunaratne said: ‘Existence has got to be relative; there is no absolute existence.’ But the world thinks of unitary things existing on their own. They ask, ‘why, even when I don’t look at this thing, doesn’t it continue existing’? But really there is only a diṭṭha, a seen. There is only a suta, a heard. But the moment we think of a seen ‘thing’, a heard ‘thing’, we are trapped. We create things with maññanā, ideation.”


From Interview 3:

Here we seem to have encountered a more thorough answer to my earlier question about the ‘reality of things’, and it is quite clear that Bhante Ñāṇananda has quite a different view from the standard Theravadin interpretation which is closer to naïve realism. It is also opposed to Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s explanations, and readers who are familiar with Clearing the Path would notice that Bhante Ñāṇananda’s interpretation is close to Sister Vajira’s earlier views. It is easy to see why Bhante is sometimes accused of being a viññāṇavādin by those who are less willing to consider the subtleties involved.

“But how is viññāṇa made to cease?” Bhante adds, discussing the final goal of Buddhist practice. “Viññāṇa has the nature to reflect, and what it reflects is nāma-rūpa. One is attached to the reflection because one doesn’t know that it is a reflection. But when the knowledge arises, attachment drops. In many instances where paññā is discussed, we find the words paṭivedha and ativijjha, meaning ‘penetration’. The view is replaced by a vision.”

Bhante then quotes from his own Concept and Reality:

“For the Arahant … all concepts have become transparent to such a degree in that all-encompassing vision, that their boundaries together with their umbra and penumbra have yielded to the radiance of wisdom. This, then, is the significance of the word anantaṃ (endless, infinite). Thus the paradoxically detached gaze of the contemplative sage as he looks through the concepts is one which has no object (ārammaṇa) as the point of focus for the worldling to identify it with. It is a gaze that is neither conscious nor non-conscious (na saññī assa, saññī ca pana assa), neither attentive nor non-attentive (na manasikareyya, manasi ca pana kareyya), neither fixed nor not fixed (na jhāyati, jhāyati ca pana) – a gaze that knows no horizon.”


There are 6 interviews in total; I will post more quotes in the future if possible.


#2

But the world thinks of unitary things existing on their own. They ask, ‘why, even when I don’t look at this thing, doesn’t it continue existing’? But really there is only a diṭṭha, a seen. There is only a suta, a heard. But the moment we think of a seen ‘thing’, a heard ‘thing’, we are trapped. We create things with maññanā, ideation.”

I could be wrong, but I wonder that to get at what Bhante Ñāṇananda is trying to convey (this is referring to Buddha’s instructions to Bāhiya), we can think of it as “There is only seeing; there is only hearing”. (This goes with the type of meditation instruction he gives in his insight meditation book, if I recall correctly.) As Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda has said elsewhere, “seeing” is bifurcated into a seer and a seen object (and similarly for the other senses).

More from interview 1 on this point:

The first level of viññāṇa is in discriminating between different feelings. For instance, in the Mahānidāna Sutta we find the Buddha asking Ven. Ananda Thera whether there would be any self notion where there is no feeling. The answer is ‘no’. That shows that feeling is fundamental. So what is there in feeling? Bifurcation, which is the most fundamental delusion.”


The delusion of self-love reflects a world, so there are the two: an I and a world. Reflections on the eye, reflections on the ear, reflections on the mind: taking these reflections that fall on the senses as true, the materialists go looking for a world out there. When the Buddha called all of that a mere illusion, he meant all, including concepts.


“It is viññāṇa that discriminates between a sense and an object. The Abhidhammikas are stuck thinking that even when all else falls apart mano viññāṇa remains. It is like we separating a flowing river into parts, naming them, and then putting the parts back together to create a river. I remember something Dr. W.S. Karunaratne said: ‘the grammar of nature does not correspond to the grammar of language’. That’s a nice saying. This is beautifully illustrated in the Poṭṭhapāda Sutta. We separate the flux of existence into parts, with papañca-saññā-saṇkhā. Those saṇkhās are mere suggestions. They can only nudge us toward a certain direction. We cannot understand reality using them.


#3

Thank you @pahana for this very deep and interesting first (2) posts.

And welcome to the Suttacentral discourse channel!


#4

Interesting stuff. There seem to be two quite different interpretations of what the suttas say.
The first is that sense-consciousness (vinnana) is based on a dyad, ie the dyad of sense-base and sense-object. So for example the suttas describe how eye-consciousness arises in dependence upon eye and form.
The alternative interpretation, favoured by Nanananda, is that sense-consciousness creates a dyad, a bifurcation into self and other, “in here” and “out there”.
Or at least that is how I understand it.


#5

I would be interested in some more comparison of nanananda with nanvira if anyone could share some thoughts. I have a very limited understanding of both.


#6

Hi idappacayata,

If you want Nanavira comparisons, there are several Nanavira/Nanananda enthusiasts at dhammawheel.com who see them as exponents of “Phenomenological Dhamma”, along with recent writings published by Path Press. Welcome to Path Press Publications! - PathPressPublications

Personally, I liked that Bhikkhu Analayo’s lecture series on the Nibbana Sermons Bhikkhu Anālayo Lectures had a much broader focus.


#7

Thanks! I have read some things about them on dhamma wheel, but not too much comparing them. I guess i was a little surprised to see them considered so similar. I read notes on dhamma, and am only a few chapters in to the nibbana sermons, but they seem quite different to me; though neither are Orthodox.

I guess I will have to try to really nail down the underlying themes of what they’re teaching and compare them.