Staring Into the Void: The Resolution of Nihilism Through Buddhist Practice

I think you should edit yourself for style and kill your darlings, since you wish to be such a radical. Smooth reading with a punch is still smooth reading with a punch. It could just possibly be delivered to more people. You must not give up on yourself. Something small, clear and elegant is needed.


Interesting. I follow Ajahn Thanissaro, but also really like Ven. Nynamoli’s teachings. I don’t see a contradiction here.

Ajahn Thanissaro presents the path as replacing lower forms of happiness with higher forms until it culminates in the highest form (happiness here is the complete absence of suffering). At the beginning, it makes sense to replace sensual pleasures with non-sensual ones (e.g. pleasure derived from meditation). As Ajahn Thanissaro puts it, you want to give yourself good food to fuel you on the path; where non-sensual pleasure is better food than sensual pleasure.

Having given yourself good food, you then want to use it for developing discernment. I.e. you don’t spend all your time trying to bliss out. In Ajahn Thanissaro’s words (paraphrased), if you’re blissing out on non-sensual pleasures you’re just getting fat on good food.

A key point is that it does not help to bypass developing the skill of of obtaining non-sensual pleasure on the basis that it is a distraction. You need a level of mastery over the skill to adequately progress in developing discernment. If you have mastered the skill of non-sensual pleasure to the point that you now use it as a distraction, you simply need to spend more time developing discernment.

In this area I see no difference between what Ajahn Thanissaro says and what Ven. Nynamoli says. I haven’t heard Ven. Nynamoli say that one shouldn’t develop Jhana. He has given methods for developing Jhana that diverge from Ajahn Thanissaro’s, but that is a different thing as there are many ways to develop Jhana. What they have in common is that they both hold the view that one must not get lost in non-sensual pleasure. Ajahn Thanissaro has colloquially called it ‘getting fat’ while Ven. Nynamoli calls it indulging in distraction.

It is notable that following Ven. Nynamoli’s advice to watch the mind requires a certain level of concentration. My experience has been that it becomes easier to develop the skill of concentration when the reward is non-sensual pleasure, as the mind is more easily motivated / persuaded by pleasure.

N. Nanamoli believes you can’t directly know jhana since it’s non-sensual. So going by your food metaphor, you can’t know that your food is low quality until you’ve had better food, the problem is that getting the better food is unimaginable, like a fish trying imagine life outside of water.

The reason being is that jhanas are non-sensual, and N. Nanamoli believes you can’t attain the non-sensual through the sensual. So watching your breath, or repeating thoughts like “in out” or “rising and ceasing” doesn’t lead to jhana but to hypnosis/trance.

He believes the only way to attain the non-sensual is through sense restraint.

He believes when people attain jhanas on retreats, it’s because of seclusion from sensuality but people have wrong view and believe it’s the technique that caused the jhanas, not the seclusion/sense restraint, so when they lose their jhanas after leaving seclusion they double down harder on their technique, which doesn’t work.

You can only know it by doing it, I agree. I see no point of contradiction here though.

Only watching your breath perhaps leads to trance. But watching the breath, for many is an entry way into Jhana, at least based on the Satipatthana sutta. Ven. Nynamoli places particular emphasis on putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world i.e. developing a non-sensual attitude. However, I have not seen him discard the breath as a frame of reference.

"There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings… mind… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.

"And how does a monk remain focused on the body in & of itself?

"There is the case where a monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore [lit: the front of the chest]. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

"Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’…

I believe he talks about it in terms of holding a sensual attitude. If such an attitude persists in meditation I would imagine that Jhana would be difficult.

There may be differences between Ajahn Thanissaro and Ven. Nynamoli. My own perspective is that, on this particular topic, there is not as large a divergence. It’s just that Ven. Nynamoli puts his emphasis in a different place.

I think you’re missing the main point, which makes Nanamoli completely different from anyone else, is that Nanamoli says you can’t directly see the problem because the problem lies behind the sense organs, and trying to conceptualize the problem only makes it a sense object again which further obfuscates the problem.

He says that people and other Buddhists look for their problems and fixing them in sense objects, but sense objects are the bait and sense organs are the trap. So if you’re trying to fix sense objects, like for example, removing bad thoughts as thoughts are sense objects, then you’re going to fall into the trap of the sense organ.

Since you cannot perceive the sense organs, you cannot directly see the problem, it’s like trying to catch an invisible animal, instead you have to cordon off a zone or boundry where the invisible animal cannot escape, and you’ll eventually tame this animal without ever directly seeing it. This is the purpose of satipatthana, to cordon off a zone which won’t let this wild invisible animal (mind organ) to escape.

Thanissaro has never spoken on this and has never made a phenomological distinction like this.

As long as one is prioritizing sense objects (which includes anything that can be perceived, like thoughts), one has improper attention and is falling further into dukkha, not moving away from it.

I don’t think you fully grasp what Nanamoli is about and I think you need to delve deeper into existential Buddhism to figure it out, he has a good playlist which covers what it means to “pervert the order” (i.e. where the problem lies). This is the core of his teaching and I would watch that first before making any Thanissaro comparisons Discerning the Body for Uprooting of Sensuality - YouTube

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Good on you for writing this book @keller. Kudos for completing such a big project :slight_smile:

This part stood out to me:

Giving to others is a direct rejection of the defensive anxiety
that lies at the core of greed; it fosters a personality of openness,
consideration, and ease that is such an obviously preferable way
of being.

Generosity is truly preferable. One thing that struck me the last time I was staying as a guest at a monastery is the fact that it is so delightful to work for free. Getting paid would really ruin it.

Another important contrast to my own culture is that the generosity that I experience at Buddhist monasteries (giving and receiving) is of the type that is not degrading for the giver nor the receiver.


If you are implying that Ajahn Thanissaro’s method involves trying to conceptualise what can’t be seen, I believe this is a misunderstanding.

Ajahn Thanissaro does place an emphasis on good bodily, verbal and mental fabrication (breath, self-talk and focus/imagination/context respectively). However this is not an end in and of itself. The aim is not to dispel all bad thoughts etc, but rather to fabricate a state that is conducive to concentration.

If you naturally have good concentration then well and good; following Ven. Nynamoli’s instruction might seem simple. However if your concentration is not good, or if you are overcome by negativity then any kind of practice becomes difficult. The ability to pay attention is key, and having good concentration helps a lot in this regard.

It is a matter of what kind of language a person prefers and the angle of inquiry that comes most naturally to them. Ven Nynamoli, from the first video of your series, has this to say:

The pleasure of the sense objects is actually determined and dependent upon the pressure that your own body exerts on your mind.

I came to a similar understanding by following Ajahn Thanissaro’s instructions to create good bodily, verbal and mental fabrication. This is because, a large part of the body’s influence on the mind and vice versa comes from changes in the breath. In actively trying to fabricate a pleasurable state you gain insight into how the moving parts fit together.

In other words, by trying to create more and more refined states of pleasure you start to understand the basis that underlies all of it.

Ven. Nynamoli, again from your first video, says:

It’s about understanding the body as that thing which is there that needs to be tamed on the level of the peripheral through not engaging with actual sense objects that are pulling you.

Ajahn Thanissaro says that it can be difficult to disengage on command because of the mind’s tendency to grasp at things. So, rather than trying to disengage and not pick anything up, you start by reaching for a more refined source of happiness that forces you to disengage with the more gross kind. This is a conscious form of grasping that has three benefits:

  • Firstly, if you prefer a more refined form of happiness, eventually the tendency to gravitate towards gross forms of happiness subsides. This results in greater levels of well being.
  • Secondly, once you master the art of grasping, you get to the point where you can observe the mind letting go of lower forms of happiness in favour of higher forms. This observation allows you to learn how to let go / disengage without picking up anything further.
  • Thirdly, because the focus is on conscious grasping rather than disengaging, it reduces the likelihood that you think you have disengaged while you’re actually unconsciously grasping at something.

This is true as long as the senses are seen as an end in and of itself. For example, I completely agree that trying to expel ‘bad’ thoughts in an effort to find a lasting peace is futile. However, working with the senses to understand the basis that underlies them is a different thing. This is what Ajahn Thanissaro teaches, or at least, the way that I pick up his teaching.

Ven. Nynamoli talks about seeing the eye etc. as empty and hollow, and how cultivating an attitude of non-ownership allows you to free yourself from the dangers of what cannot be controlled.

In practical terms, all reactions to sense objects can be distilled down to what Ajahn Thanissaro calls bodily, verbal and mental fabrication. In other words, it is only to the extent that bodily, verbal and mental fabrications change that one can say that a reaction to sense objects took place. Therefore mastery of the process of fabrication creates a keen sensitivity to how we are pushed and pulled by that which underlies the senses.

In addition, especially in meditation, bodily, verbal and mental fabrications become objects of concentration in and of themselves. As such, mastery of the process of fabrication allows you to swap objects in and out at will and push the limits of what is within your control. By pushing the limits, you gain an understanding of the limits of control and what is ultimately not within control and not worth engaging with.

Ven. Nynamoli speaks of understanding negative space. Ajahn Thanissaro provides a practical way to gain this understanding by mastering positive space.

I’ve seen a number of his videos, including a few on perverting the order. He does a remarkable job of drawing our attention to some useful insights. But again, while he takes a different angle and places a different emphasis, there is no incongruence between what he says and what Ajahn Thanissaro says.

It is fair to say that you prefer one teacher over the other due to the ease of progress you personally can make. That depends on your unique mix of habits, tendencies and understanding. But to say that Nynamoli teaches something completely different is an overreach.

Thank you for the playlist though. It is nice to have the snippets of insights from some of his other videos I’ve watched all in one place.

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Hi @keller I came across this article in JSTOR. It could be interesting for you.

J. Jeffrey Franklin
Religion & Literature, Vol. 44, No. 1 (spring 2012), pp. 73-96 (24 pages)

Here’s the first couple pages.