Theorists vs. Practitioners - who is better?

I just red the Mahacunda Sutta SuttaCentral thanks to @Upasaka_Dhammasara .

The battle between meditators and scholars, if you let me to call them so, has been there since the Buddha’s time and prevails until today.

Just yesterday I spoke with a monk and told him that there is a small group of monks known as “Mahavihara” in Myanmar, who are very strict in Vinaya rules and dedicate their lives to study, rather than meditation. He immediately rejected their value as those who do not follow the Buddha’s will.

The Mahacunda Sutta, however, shows that we (meditators) are not supposed to talk like this. One of my reasons to write this topic is a suggestion that the word “dhammayogā bhikkhū” now translated as “mendicants who practice discernment of principles” seems to me somewhat inaccurate. The Commentaries explain that dhammayoga here means dhammakathika, i.e., those who recite Dhamma (scholars, theorists) -

“Dhamme yogo anuyogo etesanti dhammayogā. Dhammakathikānaṃ etaṃ nāmaṃ.”

“Because they engage in Dhamma, they are those who engage in Dhamma. It is the word for reciters of Dhamma.” (my simplified translation)

Maybe if the English translation followed the Commentaries (as all Burmese translations of Mula Pali do) it would be easier to appreciate the meaning. (Just a personal opinion.) Otherwise, some may doubt whether ven. Sujato @sujato is perhaps also one of the two groups and doesn’t feel enthusiastic to praise the other… :wink: (only hypothetically)

Another interesting teaching of the Buddha where the Buddha warns against scholars criticizing meditators is Dvesahāyakabhikkhuvatthu, DhpA story no.14, for verses 19 and 20.

In this discourse the Buddha actually suggests that indeed those who just follow pariyatti (scriptural studies) would benefit from meditation… There are many more suttas where patipatti (practice) is elevated above pariyatti, but my main point is related to the “monks” and their “peace.”

The pariyatti monks apparently later, in defense against the danger of being blamed for their lack of meditation experience, “created” (and yes, here I do accuse them of “creating”) a Buddha’s verse which the Buddha has never said. The verse appears only a single time, in an Anguttara Nikaya Commentary, but it is famous throughout the pariyatti world in South-East Asia.

"Yāva tiṭṭhanti suttantā, vinayo yāva dippati;
Tāva dakkhanti ālokaṃ, sūriye abbhuṭṭhite yathā.
"Suttantesu asantesu, pamuṭṭhe vinayamhi ca;
Tamo bhavissati loke, sūriye atthaṅgate yathā.
"Suttante rakkhite sante, paṭipatti hoti rakkhitā;
Paṭipattiyaṃ ṭhito dhīro, yogakkhemā na dhaṃsatī’ti. (MM ANA 1.72)

The masters here argue that until there are suttas, there will be vinaya. This verse apparently, unfortunately, led to a prevalent modern Buddhist community of monks who dedicate themselves to sutta studies but do not follow Vinaya rules.

Let me know anybody and everybody your thoughts, please. :heart:


“Then there is the case where Dhamma-devotee monks praise only Dhamma-devotee monks, and not jhana monks. In that, the Dhamma-devotee monks do not shine brightly, and the jhana monks do not shine brightly. That is not practicing for the welfare of the masses, for the happiness of the masses, for the good of the masses, nor for the welfare & happiness of human & divine beings.

“Then there is the case where jhana monks praise only jhana monks, and not Dhamma-devotee monks. In that, the jhana monks do not shine brightly, and the Dhamma-devotee monks do not shine brightly. That is not practicing for the welfare of the masses, for the happiness of the masses, for the good of the masses, nor for the welfare & happiness of human & divine beings.

“Thus, friends, you should train yourselves: ‘Being Dhamma-devotee monks, we will speak in praise of jhana monks.’ That’s how you should train yourselves. Why is that? Because these are amazing people, hard to find in the world, i.e., those who dwell touching the deathless element with the body.

“And thus, friends, you should train yourselves: ‘Being jhana monks, we will speak in praise of Dhamma-devotee monks.’ That’s how you should train yourselves. Why is that? Because these are amazing people, hard to find in the world, i.e., those who penetrate with discernment statements of deep meaning.”

Now, take a case where mendicants who practice discernment of principles praise only others like them, not mendicants who practice absorption meditation. In this case the mendicants who practice discernment of principles are not inspired, and the mendicants who practice absorption meditation are not inspired. And they’re not acting for the welfare and happiness of the people, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.

And take a case where mendicants who practice absorption meditation praise only others like them, not mendicants who practice discernment of principles. In this case the mendicants who practice absorption meditation are not inspired, and the mendicants who practice discernment of principles are not inspired. And they’re not acting for the welfare and happiness of the people, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.

So you should train like this: ‘As mendicants who practice discernment of principles, we will praise mendicants who practice absorption meditation.’ That’s how you should train. Why is that? Because it’s incredibly rare to find individuals in the world who have direct meditative experience of the deathless.

So you should train like this: ‘As mendicants who practice absorption meditation, we will praise mendicants who practice discernment of principles.’ That’s how you should train. Why is that? Because it’s incredibly rare to find individuals in the world who see the meaning of a deep saying with penetrating wisdom.”


I think comparing is one of things we should be careful on our path, because it likes to feed sense of self.

Anyway, I think generally that everyone who considers himself a buddhist should practice earnestly. Teachers like Ajahn Chah, and generally a lot of Thai Forest Tradition put a lot emphasis on practice.

As to theory, I think it is more useful for some people than for others. Some people (like me), really need to read a lot, because of their doubtful nature they need to deeply understand something before fully commiting to it. But there are people who don’t know much theory of dhamma, didn’t read so many books, but are great practitioners, because dhamma is here and now, and only essential aspects of theory are enough for them.

On the other hand, just theory without much practice is very dangerous in my opinion, and doesn’t lead to much spiritual progress, and oftentimes lead to a lot of delusion and conceit, and in consequence - other defilements.

Personally I love most practice combined with theory, but I deeply respect also practitioners who don’t put much emphasis on theory. I don’t trust theoritist who don’t practice. In my opinion only intellectualising about meditation and holy life and not practicing at all is like blind people talking about colours, and I generally don’t heed to their advice, no matter how many books they’ve read. But I heed to advice of both people who practice deeply and practice deeply combined with deep theoretical study. :slight_smile:

I don’t know if I precisely answered your question Venerable Sir, but since you asked to share our thoughts, here are mine :anjal: :slight_smile:

With Metta :heart:


Bhante I was just thinking it was created in the time Sangha in Sri Lanka had a debate.

A debate occurred in the Sangha, who finally came together after a long time, the topic being: which is more important, the practice (pa†ipatti) or the learning (pariyatti)? The monks, who argued that pa†ipatti is more important than pariyatti, were defeated in the debate, giving the victory to the monks who argued that pariyatti is more important than pa†ipatti. The majority would have supported the second view, since they had already experienced the problem of preserving the Oral Transmission of the Tipitaka. On this ground, learning must have been considered as the most important factor for the stability and the ongoing life of Buddhism. The lack of Bhanakas was a real threat for the continuation of the Oral Transmission of the Tipitaka. The Abhayagirivasins were called Dhammarucikas (Sin. Dahamrusi) or those who delighted in the Dhamma. Most probably the Abhayagirivåsins also may sided with the group that stood for the importance of learning the Tipi†aka or the practice of pariyatti. The Abhayagiri inscription of King Mahinda IV is sufficient evidence to show how the Abhayagirivåsins had been respected by kings and the people as great scholars who were well versed in the Tipi†aka and directing their wisdom to great literary works.

** The Impact of the Abhayagiri Practices on the Development of Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka
Submitted by
Rangama Chandawimala Thero**

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maybe your question could be expanded with SN 12.70:

“I don’t understand the detailed meaning of what you have said in brief. Please teach me this matter so I can understand the detailed meaning.”
“Reverend Susima, whether you understand or not, we are freed by wisdom.”

Is this second group a different one also devoted to study but they don’t follow Vinaya as the previous ones?

Please, Can you clarify this point?

No, my point is not related to following Vinaya rules (at this moment). It is related to monks who meditate and criticize other monks who don’t meditate and instead just memorize books. It is also related to monks who don’t meditate and say that memorizing books is the way to preserve the Buddha’s Teachings, meditation without memorizing is wrong.

Both groups are there in the world today and in a big number of monks. My intention was to show, through the suttas, that both groups should appreciate each other and get inspired by each other.


Ahhhhhhh but of course, without the “Dhamma monks” who dedicated themselves to learning this discourse, memorising it and passing it on ( this and the rest of the canon), we wouldn’t have it to rely upon, would we? So, even though we shouldn’t take sides, we learnt this through the Dhamma monks, so I think that might be a point in favour for them maybe! :laughing::laughing::laughing:


I was just thinking today, there might be a misunderstanding in susima story, it seems it was a trap. And secondly those do meditate but don’t experience all 8 jhanas

I understand you. Sorry, I have some interest in those present monks you wrote. I’m ignorant about the present variety of monks. I don’t know if today there are communities of monks without the goal of nibbana. In such case I agree with your comment, that’s a pity.

About the Sutta you quoted, There is an old discussion about this issue. It would be long to explain. If you are interested you search about “Two-approaches” or “Two paths” theory. There are quite papers and discussions around this.

the Commentaries explain that dhammayoga here means dhammakathika, i.e., those who recite Dhamma (scholars, theorists) -

I wonder this can be difficult to conceive because no books at those times. Neither the Buddha allowed ordination for other purpose than nibbana.

My humble view is those monks were no simple reciters or memorizers but they were focused in wisdom (pañña) for the arising of a direct insight into the Truth, nibanna. The depiction like simple memorizers or reciters would be wrong.

In the footnotes provided in the ven.B.Bodhi translation SN 12.70, we read some explanations from the burmese Saratthappakasini-purana-tika, about this episode was another case of dry-insight by means wisdom, pañña.

This is inside that problem to identify those monks and their practices.

I believe the ven.Sujato translation “mendicants who practice discernment of principles” is enough good to get the sense.

Well here you put yourself on par with people who lived during the Buddha’s time or short time after it.

The Commentaries that we have today are not written by ven. Buddhaghosa, they are translated from Sinhalese into this present Pali version. Before they were in Sinhalese they were in Pali, and that version is coming right from the Buddha’s place and time.

The explanation in Pali related to usage. The word dhammayoga was “used” in the meaning of dhammakathika.

I think you are trying to make a mystery out of a simple thing. Commentaries are very important for our understanding and we certainly should not think that we will understand the Buddha’s Pali meaning better, now 2500 years after the Buddha passed away, than the great masters who lived in the time and place of the Buddha, spoke in Pali as their mother tongue (Magadhi), and were surrounded by Arahants and possessors of great psychic powers.

Here in Myanmar, where I live, studied, and teach, there is a great respect for those who lived in the Buddha’s time and gave us their explanations. In my opinion it would be a serious folly to think that we now 2500 years after the Buddha passed away can understand “better” than the great masters of the Buddha’s time. It shows a lot of pride.

Maybe ven. Sujato @sujato may like to share with us some opinions on the modern savagery in rejecting and disputing Commentaries or even Abhidhamma. In Myanmar, as you would expect, rejecting Commentaries is an utter heresy. But not because God said it different, but because the Commentaries helped for millennia to thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of good men and women to attain freedom from all greed, hatred, ignorance. Disputing or rejecting Commentaries is like throwing the one Key to Enlightenment into the bottomless well of suffering.

Look at all the great masters and Enlightened monks and nuns in Myanmar, now and in the past, all of them revered and followed Commentaries. It reminds me of the modern symbol of holy grail, which is never a beautiful golden chalice, but an old, ugly cup. You may not find Commentaries beautiful, but indeed, for thousands or hundreds of thousands, they have been the key to the deathless.

Please, read Commentaries. Read them. Every day.
Thank you. :sun_with_face:

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Very emotive language here… a bit of restraint and dispassion may go a long way towards constructive discussion :pray:


you right. Restraint

My perspective is here.


Context, venerable bhante, context.

I think here we are getting to the sphere of belief, but that’s just my opinion (to avoid lengthy debatable points).

It seems that you, bhante, believe, that the Buddha’s teachings from 2500 years (of course, 2600 and a little more, let me be simple here) ago can be understood in the modern day context in the same way as it was understood in the Buddha’s time. I would like to suggest, however, that today we do not speak in Pali (Magadhi) and we do not know how people spoke in their everyday lives in the Buddha’s time. We do not know the usage of words apart from a few hypotheses based on a few texts where each of the strange words appears.

You know so well that very important words in Pali are used with a totally different meaning in different contexts and to understand them you (and perhaps every other translator including me) have to either theorize from the usage in other suttas or rely on dictionaries which rely on the ancient Commentaries anyway or which theorize in the same way as we would.

Death, disease, danger, and loss. Life 2500 years ago was totally different from what we experience today. Commentaries help us understand life in ancient times. If you remove or disregard them, you may (and may not, as you wish to believe) misunderstand the Buddha’s meaning.

I remember somebody came to me and asked me for help with a sutta. He had a translation from Bhikkhu Bodhi and from ven. Thanissaro. Ven. Thanissaro’s translation made no sense, it was simply nonsense. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation was very beautiful, easy to understand, helpful, practical. So, I already knew that ven. Thanissaro didn’t respect the Commentaries, but who cares, I needed to have a proof. So, I took the Pali Atthakatha, Commentaries, and searched the sutta explanation there. It was incredible how Bhikkhu Bodhi followed the Commentaries word by word, whereas ven. Thanissaro didn’t.

That’s why I always trust Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, because I know he has respect for the elders, the great masters, who either themselves became Arahants or who shared with us the great wisdom of Arahants. In your article you suggest that in the Buddha’s time people listened to the Buddha without having a friend whispering into their ear the meanings of the Buddha’s words. Well… up to some point… As we know from so many suttas, monks actually heard the Buddha’s Teachings and then went to see another monk for an explanation. The idea that the Buddha knew monks would go and ask for meaning may also mean that the Buddha expects us to go and ask for meaning in the other cases as well… E.g., in Mahagopalaka Sutta the Buddha suggests that having monks closeby to get answers for questions is a necessary requirement for progress in meditation. In other words, the Buddha’s teachings “as is” was not expected to be enough. Commentaries sometimes add new things, but oftentimes they just quote the Buddha wherever a further quotation might be useful to understand the context of the Teachings. Visuddhimagga is excellent in the ability to quote the Buddha time and again.

As for Abhidhamma, we will need to discuss that elsewhere, but for the time being, I would like to suggest that you are open to opinions of others and instead of “stating” that Abhidhamma was made after the Buddha passed away, you could be more professional and say “some people believe, that Abhidhamma was made after the Buddha passed away.” What do you think, venerable bhante?

Or do you hold the view that it is “savagery” to believe in Abhidhamma and Commentaries as essential on the Noble Path, to the extent like Burmese senior monks who memorized all Tipitaka believe the same about the opposing group? :sun_with_face: (I am here trying to learn the strength of your attitude toward (a) the Commentaries as not essential for understanding suttas and (b) Abhidhamma as not coming from the Buddha’s Mouth.)

Vandami bhante. :pray:

Are you referring to the 20th century Burmese monks Bhante?

I read in an article ( edit: actually the article mentionend in that blog is at this following URL: A STUDY OF TIPITKADHARA SELECTION EXAMINATION IN MYANMAR (1948-2007) | IATBU) that actually even the best memorizers ( the 11 who obtained the Tipiíakadhara Tipiíakakovida title according to this article written in 2007) learnt the Vinaya, the Digha Nikaya and the Abhidhamma but not the Majjhima, Anguttara and Khuddaka Nikayas.
While not wanting to diminish the achievement of such a truly amazing feat of memory, I was a bit disappointed that the claim was made that they learnt the whole Tipitaka, because that’s the story that is now widely believed everywhere.

Since you’re living in Burma, maybe you could clarify that point, did some monk actually memorize the entire Tipitaka?

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Bhikkhi Bodhi does appear to have a lot of respect for the commentaries (I do enjoy the footnotes in his translations, which draw a lot on these). He does seem to have a somewhat nuanced approach to them though. Here’s a snippet from an old interview by the Inquiring Mind (IM) journal with him:

IM: Some people feel that the commentaries, especially those by Buddhaghosa, present a different viewpoint—a more narrow interpretation of Dhamma practice—than the suttas. How do you see the basic Dhamma understanding of the suttas as compared to that in the commentaries? In what ways are they the same or different?

BB: The relationship between the suttas and the commentaries is an extremely complex one and it is risky to make blanket judgments about it. The commentaries are not original works by Buddhaghosa, but edited versions of more ancient commentaries that had been preserved in Sri Lanka. Their historical origins are obscure, but clearly they begin with the suttas themselves; that is, there are suttas that are commentaries on other suttas (e.g. MN 141, SN 12:31, SN 22:3, 4). During the early period of oral transmission, the ancient Buddhist teachers must have developed a body of commentary to go along with the root text, and this no doubt accumulated with each generation in the way a rolling snow ball gathers snow.

The old Sri Lankan commentaries upon which Buddhaghosa drew—no longer extant—were probably an archaeological treasure trove of material from several centuries, perhaps beginning with the personal disciples of the Buddha. Even in the commentaries we inherit, the most ancient layers seem to precede the division of the original unitary Sangha into different Buddhist schools, for they contain material that has found its way into the exegetical traditions of various sects. The later material originates from the teachers of the Theravada lineage after it emerged as a distinct school and thus reflects its own methods of interpretation. There was also a tendency for the schools to exchange interpretative material, but unlike other schools, the conservative Theravadins, to their credit, rigorously kept the newer material outside the canonical works directly ascribed to the Buddha.

To understand what the commentaries are doing at the doctrinal level, we have to remember that the suttas themselves are not uniquely Theravada texts. They are the Theravadin transmission of a class of scriptures common to all the early Buddhist schools, each of which must have had its own way of interpreting them. The commentaries that come to us from Buddhaghosa (and others) take up the task of interpreting these texts from the standpoint of the Theravada school. Their view is thus necessarily narrower than that of the suttas because it is more specific: they view the thought-world of the suttas through the lens of the methods of exegesis developed by the early Theravadin teachers, using these methods to explicate and elaborate upon the early teachings.

If we compare the suttas to a vast expanse of open territory, reconnoitered from above as to the main features of its topography but with its details only lightly sketched, then we might compare the commentaries to a detailed account of the lay of the land. The question is: Are the commentaries simply coming in and describing the landscape in greater detail, or are they bringing in construction crews and building housing schemes, shopping malls and highways on the virgin territory. The answer, I think, would be a combination of both.

To be brief, I would say there are two extreme attitudes one could take to the commentaries. One, often adopted by orthodox Theravadins, is to regard them as being absolutely authoritative almost on a par with the suttas. The other is to disregard them completely and claim they represent “a different take on the Dhamma.”

I find that a prudent middle ground is to consult the commentaries and use them, but without clinging to them. Their interpretations are often illuminating, but we should also recognize that they represent a specific systematization of the early teaching. They are by no means necessitated by the early teaching, and on some points even seem to be in tension with it.


I am talking about those who did memorize the four Nikayas, such as the great Tipitaka Mingun Sayadaw. Some of the other sayadaws, although their Tipitaka title consists of Vinaya, Abhidhamma, and Digha Nikaya, have memorized also Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara under different examinations.

I have myself memorized a book and a half in Pali language and can say that the “feel” of the Buddha’s word is much different than after translating or simple reading. When you memorize the text you keep it, recite it, cherish it, think about it, correct yourself, humble yourself, and reflect on your thoughts, speech, and action.

Memorizing is an excellent way how to approach the Buddha’s time, even if it is just a book or two - then what to speak about 20. The official Tipitakadhara title is for 20 books (5 Vinaya, 12 Abhidhamma, 3 Digha Nikaya), but there is a higher title, something like Dhammabandhagarika, which is given to those who memorize all 40 books. :sun_with_face:


Excellent note on Commentaries from venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi.

Only the last sentence seems to contradict all what he explained before - “They are by no means necessitated by the early teaching, and on some points even seem to be in tension with it.”

The first part of this sentence contradicts his praise of commentaries as an “archaeological treasure trove of material” and, more importantly, “there are suttas that are commentaries on other suttas.”

It is a contrary statement because these explanations included in the suttas help avoid misunderstanding and wrong view. If these explanations are disregarded, readers who are not the intended audience for that particular sutta (because the Buddha taught sutta according to His present audience, not to the conceited skeptics of 20th-21st century) might misunderstand and get a wrong view. Unfortunately, we see this very often in the Western Buddhist scholarship (e.g., with the dhammayoga word).

(In Myanmar disputing Commentaries is understood as an ultimate insult to the great masters who composed them. Only the most conceited skeptics can dare to do this. Just in case if you come to Myanmar and share attano vada, “your own views.”)

The second part of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s sentence is truth only in terms of worldly information. The great master venerable Janakabhivamsa has commented on the conflict in Commentaries regarding the gradual decline of Enlightened people in the world. Vinaya commentary would suggest that by today we can attain maximum Anagami, whereas according to the other Commentaries we can attain even Arahanthood with the Three Knowledges (tevijja). Ven. Janakabhivamsa explains that this contradiction is not related to the way how we need to practice Dhamma, hence it is not important - and adds that there is never a contradiction on the practical points.

We need to humble ourselves. Please, keep yourself humble when you discuss Commentaries. These people who dare to dispute the importance of Commentaries happen to compare themselves to hundreds of generations of elder, Enlightened monks, who lived the Pali tradition for sixty, eighty years, meditated, discussed, and helped their students to get free from all mental defilement.

Anyway, in the past, I also thought that Abhidhamma and Commentaries are not reliable. I am happy that during my studies at the Buddhist and Pali University I overcame this kind of pernicious view. I have got my BA degree in Buddhist Philosophy thanks to my arguments for Abhidhamma as the Buddha’s original Teaching (despite the university teachers’ perverted lectures).


Mingun Sayadaw is mentionned in the article (I linked to the blog post quoting the article but I should have linked the URL of the article itself which is more relevant: A STUDY OF TIPITKADHARA SELECTION EXAMINATION IN MYANMAR (1948-2007) | IATBU). They list what he learnt and recited and the examinations he did over the years and the article does not say that he learnt the Majjhima, Anguttara and Khuddhaka Nikayas. At the end of it the author actually says:

Forty Buddhist Canonical books, or 54 Pâéi Texts, of Chaííhasaègâyanâ version are prescribed in principle for Tipiíakadhara Selection Examination, but in reality only 20 books of course study, or 20 Texts, are used in the oral and written examinations. To also learn the rest - 20 books, or 34 Texts would be too much for the candidate. However, these could be used in oral and written examinations, if voluntarily asked by the candidate.

Could it be that this idea some monks learnt by heart the entire Tipitaka is actually a deformed version of what really happened (probably caused by the names of the titles and the natural tendency for humans to embellish real life events over time)?

Again, I’m not questioning the fact that what these monks have achieved is absolutely mind blowing and inspiring, but I do like facts and truth and really don’t like the idea of embellished stories that are then used everywhere to prove some points.

That’s fantastic, congratulations. I do believe you that committing the dhamma to memory must be such a great help for practice. And very inspirational. This is something I wanted to do for a long time (not entire books but just a few key suttas in English or even better in Pali) but I failed to commit to it until now… although I have hope to do this at some points!

How would memorizing the suttas help humbling oneself according to you?

Interesting. I’m wondering why the author of the article (a certain U Aung Thein Nyunt) did not mention it in his article.

So all in all, afaik so far, I’m on the fence. It’s not hard to imagine that if one learns by heart 20 books of the Tipitaka then one could certainly learnt 40 books given enough times… however, I still wonder if it has been done or if we just have an embellished story.

Are there any respected Burmese monastic scholars that question the origin and content of (parts of) the commentaries and Abhidhamma? Or is it that any questioning, even by very learned and experienced Burmese monks leads to some kind of ostracization?

Don’t you fear that such an approach could lead to blind dogmatism? Truth doesn’t mind and will resist any questioning and challenges. As Carl Sagan probably never said but is often believed to have said: ‘if it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth’! :slight_smile: