Ven Anālayo's book ~ Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions, A Historical Perspective

Conceit only occurs when there is comparison. Therefore Ven Analayo would want to avoid conceit by not comparing his own position with others.

He does use the words “superiority conceit” for sharply criticizing the “four” categories in Buddhist Traditions. He may need to explain clearly and precisely what is “self-conceit/pride” in and for them. It seems not suitable to just ignore or downplay their relevant positions and historical background when calling them “superiority conceit in Buddhist traditions”.

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I read the book immediately when it first came out and now need to go back and re-read some sections.

I’m just a lay practitioner who has benefitted greatly from Ven. Anālayo’s books (his practice manuals especially) and who’s had the great good fortune of participating in some of his online retreats over the past couple of years. And while I’m no scholar I appreciate scholarship and scholars greatly and have read most if not all of the lengthy academic papers “Superiority Conceit” is based on.

I agree with posters who characterize the book as a “greatest hits” (or perhaps "Cliff’s Notes?) summary of those papers. I actually find it amazing that Ven. Anālayo can both write in such granular detail with the requisite blizzard of footnotes in multiple languages required for academia AND distill things down to a few key paragraphs accessible to everyday practitioners.

It seems to me that this book is probably intended as a kind of doctrinal complement to his two practice manuals (on satipaṭṭhāna and ānāpānasati), or perhaps as an extension of his work in “Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhism” which explicitly tries to show the common ground in Early Buddhist and later Mahāyāna approaches to those topics.

From discussions in recent years with friends who like me are dedicated lay practitioners those manuals are already plenty scholarly but are far more accessible than his other books written for an academic audience and I think the intention here is to share the gist of some of his comparative research with teachers and practitioners outside the specialized Early Buddhist universe.

The first chapter on androcentrism is certainly a powerful indictment of such tendencies that for me brings to mind the gratitude I feel towards a whole host of brave teachers, from Ajahn Brahm and Bhikkhu Sujato to Tibetan nuns and Thai Forest bhikkhunis who have spoken out and risked so much in service of equality of opportunity regardless of gender.

The second chapter on Mahāyāna conceits hit home because I spent a couple of decades practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition before finding my way to the suttas and Early Buddhism, and so I’m all-too-familiar with “Hinayāna” disparagement and still-common belief on the part of teachers and practitioners in that tradition that their sutras and even tantras are the authentic words of the historical Buddha.

The most powerful chapter from a practice point of view, for me anyway, is the third on on Theravāda which offers such a clear and powerful summary of the key differences between sutta-based meditation practices and those based on the Visuddhimagga and 20th century Burmese inventions. And while Ven. Anālayo is clear and sharp in his distinctions his affection for later approaches and faith in their efficacy comes through loud and clear. It’s very much in the spirit of the YouTube video of him posted earlier in this thread, in which he urges respect for all Buddhist traditions but without any muddling.

The final chapter on secular Buddhism is the one I predict will be the most widely read and discussed. The criticisms of Stephen Batchelor are for the most part ones I’ve read before in numerous reviews of his books by Bhikku Bodhi and a host of scholars and monastics on forums like this but they perhaps sting a bit more when presented with such rapid-fire conciseness. Personally I find these criticisms to be a long-overdue “bookend” to the nearly-universal reverence for and uncritical adoption of Batchelor’s revisionist views I’ve experienced among prominent lay teachers in the American insight meditation community and their students. Perhaps between Anālayo’s book and the recent deconstruction of Matty Weingast’s “The First Free Women” by Ven. Sujato and a host of others some respect for those who know the Dhamma in its original languages and take great care in translating it will emerge in Western Buddhist circles. Actually I think it’s safe to say it already has, as classes and retreats with monastics are among the most popular offerings. Another encouraging sign: Spirit Rock has just launched it’s first-ever (online) sutta study class and it has drawn over 150 participants.

Meanwhile the secular Buddhist chapter in this book has already drawn at least one response:

https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/what-bhikkhu-analayo-got-wrong-a-review-of-superiority-conceit-in-buddhist-traditions/

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Welcome to the Forum Kevin. And thank you for sharing this carefully written review. Since the purpose of the Forum is discussion of the early texts I trust you will find much of interest here.

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Thank you very much for the warm welcome!

I’m quite in awe of the evolution of suttacentral and am so grateful for all of the work that goes into the site. I mostly come here to read the suttas but will make a point of checking in on the discussions from time to time as I always learn a lot from them.

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Here on D&D most interest would be in chapter 3, and a more detailed review of it would be appreciated.

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Okay Paul I’ll do my best but honestly I find the book itself to be so concise that it’s arguably easier to just read it than to review it! That said, here are a few things that struck me that I hope will whet people’s appetite. These are just some personal highlights in the order in which the topics are discussed in the Theravāda chapter.

Attempts to authenticate the Abhidhamma as stemming from the historical Buddha are similar to and just as dubious as Mahāyāna’s effort to do so with their sutras and tantras.

Reliance on the Visuddhimagga rather than the suttas for both doctrine and meditation instruction is endemic in Theravāda. [I recall how Richard Gombrich, who wrote the forward to this book, wryly said that Walpola Rahula’s “What the Buddha Taught” ought to have been titled “What Buddhagosa Taught”]. Among the consequences of this pervasive reliance on commentarial literature:

“…the idea that mindfulness plunges into whatever objects are taken up by the mind. This invests mindfulness with an active and forward-thrusting connotation that is not found in the early Buddhist texts, where it appears to be a more receptive and non-interfering form of awareness.”

Similarly, instead of the sutta-based instructions on mindfulness of breathing grounded in the whole body while cultivating non-sensual joy, gladness and unified attention we have the focus on only the breath as such - to the exclusion of anything but strong “striving” focus on the tip of the nose during every waking hour in some popular Burmese traditions. With the loss of joy and relaxation counting the breath also arose as a way to help tether the attention.

Another case of a great deal of “doing” and discursive complexity replacing gentle “being” and resting in awareness is the substitution of the complex, discursive Visuddhimagga-inspired system of cultivating metta and the other divine abodes using phrases and a prescribed sequence of objects rather than the non-discursive radiating in all directions described in the suttas.

Substitution of the doctrine momentariness in which whatever arises disappears immediately for the early Buddhist view the something arisen may persist for some time as a changing process before it disappears. Among the dubious consequences of this radicalization of impermanence into momentariness was the invention of the bhavanga citta or “life continuum” which morphed into the substrate consciousness that transmigrates from life to life in Mahāyāna, arguably becoming indistinguishable from the Hindu ātman.

The practice parallel in Burmese insight meditation traditions is the construction of insight meditation practice so as to lead to a direct experience of central tenets of Abhidhamma thought. “The task of mindfulness was to lead in particular to an experience of momentariness and the direct dissolution of mind and matter. Contemporary insight meditation traditions facilitate such a direct experience of momentariness by encouraging a fragmentation of experience, breaking it down into its various components.”

Slow-motion walking serves the same end, as does Mahasi-style labeling which cultivates the realization (or rather, “perception”) of the immediate disappearance of whatever has just been noticed.

The contrast between these approaches to practice and a sutta-based one will obviously be very familiar to anyone who’s read Ven. Sujato’s masterful A Brief History of Mindfulness but the virtue of the discussion in Superiority Conceit, it seems to me, is its brevity combined with citations of the important but lengthy papers that support the views offered for those who wish to follow up in more detail. The entire book, after all, barely runs to a hundred pages.

The chapter concludes with a brief but masterful parsing of well-known controversies about jhāna in which Ven. Anālayo disputes both the Mahasi “vipassanā-jhānas” and contemporary Western views that relatively light levels of concentration are sufficient for liberating insight. At the very end he shares one of his most striking recent findings, namely that “right” concentration refers not to mastery of the four jhānas but to samadhi in balance with the other 7 path factors, along with a rejection of the claim that jhanic mastery is required for stream entry.

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“Substitution of the doctrine momentariness in which whatever arises disappears immediately for the early Buddhist view the something arisen may persist for some time as a changing process before it disappears.”

Here Analayo follows others in misinterpreting the Visuddhimagga’s view of impermanence, because in describing impermanence of materiality (XX 74) it gives the example of a tree shoot and how it goes through the cycle of birth, growth, maturity/ ageing, decline and death over a period of weeks or months.
This trend of misinterpretation is due to the millennial preference for mentality over materiality, leading to a selective reading.

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Great summary of a summary @KevinK . I can’t comment on it directly because I’ve only just reached the beginning of the chapter in question.

The book is written in an interesting style: somewhat that of an encyclopedia entry, which will be useful as a sort of super-index to a subset of his works. I wish the Kindle editors had been more generous with the number of live links.

So, are you saying that because the Vsm uses the tree example that you reference, it nowhere else talkings about momentary arising and falling away? Logically this is possible, but not necessary; the two could co-occur.

How about the Abhidharma; what does it say about momentary arising and falling away? …

If both answers are negative, @Paul, can you say where you think the Burmese traditions sourced the idea of momentary rising and falling?

Thanks :slight_smile:

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@Gillian
The Vism mentions momentariness in the context of mentality, being a partner in the duality of mentality/materiality. The differentiation between the two is the challenge in the first stage of insight. The exercises given for recognizing materiality are physical in nature, the stages of the cycle of impermanence of a leaf being just one example. The Vism states what should be obvious when it says that recognition of impermanence in materiality is easier than in mentality, however materiality is not fashionable post-millennium, and the materiality section of the Vism is never mentioned. Yet in understanding impermanence, it is necessary to do so by means of material examples first, as Burmese monks would have done in their training. Western Buddhism in its immature stage has the characteristic of cherry-picking the teachings.

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Can you supply a reference to the section you are referring to please? Or if not, could you suggest some good search terms? I‘be been wanting to read the source material on this for some time.

:pray:

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It is suggested to look at Vism chapter XVIII in its entirety, then to XX beginning at v 22, where the theme of mentality/materiality is taken up again. Note that “Knowledge of Rise and Fall I” (XX 93) focuses on impermanence in materiality only, whereas in “Knowledge of Rise and Fall II” (XXI 3-34) the consciousness associated with a material object is introduced. This shows that for impermanence, materiality is the beginning subject.

I take knowledge of impermanence in natural materiality to be a preliminary stage, which nevertheless may take a considerable time to internalize.

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Do be clearer on this. Rejection of the vipassana-jhana and the jhana lite should mean deep Jhanas. Is it that in context of stream winning don’t need jhanas? Cause there’s the sutta of MN 64: SuttaCentral

Where the Jhanas are clearly stated to be required for non-returner. I don't think jhana is needed to attain nibbana - #12 by NgXinZhao

I humbly suggest a careful reading of the Theravāda chapter in the book to get a sense of Ven. Anālayo’s nuanced views on these perennially-controversial topics, as well as following up on the references given there to important academic papers of which the book is a concise summary. One such publication that is especially relevant to the questions you pose is this one:

  1. “A Brief History of Buddhist Absorption”, Mindfulness, 2020, 11.3: 571–586.

It’s clear to me from reading both the book and many of the papers referenced that Ven Anālayo does view quite deep states of concentration as what the suttas have in mind for jhāna practice, and that such practice, while not necessarily required for stream entry, is essential for full awakening.

As I mentioned earlier as a simple lay practitioner not a scholar I most value Ven. Anālayo’s practice manuals and the one on mindfulness of breathing is all about creating the causes and conditions for deep states of jhāna in the service of liberating insight to arise.

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His view is quite subtle actually. I forgot where I read this, but he also mentions that there are passages in the canon where jhana is mentioned and yet people can hear sounds or do other things that are not necessarily compatible with a “deep” jhana.

His solution is that it is possible to be only partially submerged in first jhana, somewhat like how one can be halfway submerged in a pond. This allows for a kind of spectrum of meditation experiences, from proto-jhana, to 25% in jhana, halfway in, and “full first jhana”.

I agree with this and I suspect this is why there are so many passages that seem to conflict with one another regarding jhana (causing endless debates on the topic).

Unfortunately I can’t recall where I read this, but it was surely Analayo. If anyone remembers and has a citation that would be helpful.

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Right, one example of this is in SA 474:

At one time, the Buddha was abiding in Rājagṛha in the Kalandaka Bamboo Garden. At that time, Venerable Ānanda was alone in a solitary place, contemplating in dhyāna, and thinking, “The Bhagavān has spoken of three types of sensations: sensations of pleasure, sensations of pain, and sensations of neither pleasure nor pain. Moreover, all of these sensations are spoken of as suffering. What does this mean?”

This type of “absorption” doesn’t ever seem to be given a name or number, and seems to be used in the very loose and general sense of being absorbed in any sort of contemplation.

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He spoke of this in one of his comparative study courses of the Agamas and Pali discourses back 2011–2104 through the University of Hamburg. The links for those lectures are available on line (and have been posted on this forum too), but offhand I don’t have them.

To expound a bit on what @Javier said, my recollection of what Ven Analayo said in the lecture is that one could be fully inside a jhana but then inadvertantly pop out for a moment, so to say, upon for example, hearing a loud sound if the state was not fully stable (and he gave an example from the discourses of a time this happenned to Ven Moggallana). He then said it was kind of like someone being fully submerged in a pool of water, both head and body, vs. being completely out of the water on the shore, but then asked what if one’s head pops out for a moment but the body remains under the water, and said that it’s a little difficult to say whether the person is in the water or out of the water. So while the person is clearly not fully submerged in the water(i.e. fully inside the jhana at that moment of popping out due to some temporary disturbance/instability in the state) she’s also not fully out of the water and may then return to fully submerged (i.e. fully inside the jhana).

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In the introduction to Knowledge of Rise and Fall- 1 (XX, 93) the Vism says that the preceding pages including knowledge of impermanence in natural materiality, are comprehension knowledge, and contempltion of Rise and Fall is a particular kind of contemplation. Knowledge of Rise and Fall is a momentariness practice and is different to the preceeding exercises on impermanence which are based on normal time spans. So it is a case of two different practices, the first being appropriate for beginners.

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Possibly here: Dr. Bhikkhu Analayo : Numata Center for Buddhist Studies : Universität Hamburg

Thanks.
And Anālayo is saying that the second practice doesn’t get mentioned in the EBTs.

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Another widely held view is that momentariness is included in suttas such as this. The ‘unfabricated’ section refers to nibbana:

"Monks, these three are fabricated characteristics of what is fabricated. Which three? Arising is discernible, passing away is discernible, alteration (literally, other-ness) while staying is discernible.

"These are three fabricated characteristics of what is fabricated.

"Now these three are unfabricated characteristics of what is unfabricated. Which three? No arising is discernible, no passing away is discernible, no alteration while staying is discernible.

“These are three unfabricated characteristics of what is unfabricated.”—AN 3.47

Impermanence must be consistent across all life cycles from the long to the short, even though the suttas do not place special emphasis on the latter.

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