Ven. Ñāṇananda, Nibbana and Phenomenological Existentialism

Ven. Ñāṇananda is widely known as a distinguished scholar monk and a person of high personal virtue. He is also regarded by some as a ‘phenomenological Buddhist’, a representative of a loosely defined current in the Buddhist thought based largely on the ‘one-life’ interpretation of the Dependent Origination and espoused by such influential figures in the ‘underground Buddhism’ as Ven. Ñāṇavīra. I myself prefer to think of this brand of Theravada Buddhism as ‘phenomenological existentialism’, as it is also concerned with interpreting the Buddha’s Teaching in the light of existentialist philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sarte, etc. - and vice versa.

One of the best known works of Ven. Ñāṇananda is ‘Nibbana - The Mind Stilled’, a series of 33 sermons on the subject of Nibbana. I myself have so far tried three times to read it and stumbled on the central metaphoric idea of the Venerable, the idea of our existence as a magic show. This idea seems to me to presuppose the ultimately illusory nature of the whole existence, an idea that disturbs me so much that I had to stop reading. Now, a good spiritual text is always disturbing and thought-provoking, so it may be just my personal limitedness and fear of the truth. At the same time, Ven. Ñāṇananda staunchly denies any accusations of being an idealist and ‘illusionist’, and this is where I get lost and don’t really know how one could summarize his views about the nature of Nibbana. So, I am turning for your help: Could someone please explain to me the Venerable’s ideas concisely and in the most plain language possible? Are there any canonical arguments against it (there is no need for arguments for it, since Venerable’s books are abundant in them)?

Another possile avenue of discussion is how Ven. Ñāṇananda’s work, and really the whole Buddhism-existentialism-cum-phenomenology project is really a product of the Western culture - not in the derogatory sense of being merely a cultural product, but treated rather as an attempt of a Western grasp at the universal truth of the Dhamma, focusing on the issues that are troubling and interesting to people of the Western culture. As Stephen Bachelor wrote about Zen:

A key significance of Zen in the coming of the Dharma to the West is that it provides an excellent historic case study of the encounter between Indian Buddhism and a civilization with a highly evolved and distinctive culture of its own, i.e. China.

The Chinese culture is peculiar in its disinterest in the afterlife, so, as Mr. Bachelor’s argument goes, it resulted in Zen disinterest in the rebirth teaching to the point that some Zen teachers are openly agnostic about the rebirth. The modern Western person seems to be at least unconsciously suspicious of the rebirth doctrine, with many of the people, Mr. Bachelor including, discarding it as an Ancient Indian superstition and a result of cultural conditioning. This nibbida at the idea of rebirth could hardly have resulted in it being prominent in the Buddhist phenomenological existantialism, so you don’t really read much about it in the works of Ven. Ñāṇananda and Ñāṇavīra. At the same time, they despite being representatives of the Western intellectual tradition never rejected the rebirth. In fact, Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s killed himself because of believing in rebirth. He considered himself a stream-enter, and as a gravely ill person unable to meditate as much as he wished he decided to take his own life to achieve the Awakening as soon as possible. For the sake of clarity, my personal stance is that it was a wrong thing to believe in and a stupid thing to do.

Considering all of the above, couldn’t this phenomenological Buddhism of Ven. Ñāṇananda be a middle ground between us, ‘hardliner Western Buddhists’, and Secular Buddhist rejecting the monastic institutions and rebirth altogether? Are there any fundamental irreconcilable differences of opinion making it unacceptable to any of the other two sides? Couldn’t we find a common ground in this form of Dhamma and respectfully agree to disagree on the other issues (and I mean real respect on both sides)? Not that we are that divided anyway, but bringing more harmony into our relations is always beneficial.

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I really don’t think there is any meaningful middle ground between these two groups. So-called secular Buddhists reject rebirth in toto, and I cannot see how it would be acceptable to them to restrict this rejection to dependent origination.

In any case, the crucial issue, as I am sure you would agree, is not whether this might be a middle ground acceptable to both sides, but whether such an approach can be justified from the suttas. I am convinced it cannot.

The proposals of Ven. Ñāṇavīra, in respect of dependent origination relating to a single life time, have been thoroughly critiqued by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi (“A Critical Examination of Ñāṇavīra’s ‘A Note on Paṭiccasamuppāda’”). I consider Bhikkhu Bodhi’s the last word on the issue. As for Ven. Ñāṇananda, I understand that he is largely a disciple of Ñāṇavīra, and so his ideas on this topic are not all that independent.

Regardless of the above, the case that dependent origination in the suttas refers to rebirth is very strong. Here is a list of some of the evidence:

• Dependent origination is all about showing the causal origination of suffering. This suffering is throughout the suttas equated with saṃsāric existence and hence rebirth.

• There are two suttas that give real life examples of dependent origination, DN 15 and MN 38. Both of these suttas speak of consciousness or a gandhabba entering the mother’s womb as a condition for the embryo to develop.

• Rebirth (jāti) is always defined as physical birth (e.g. at SN 12.2), and it is never used as a metaphor. The same is true for old age and death.

• The first three links of dependent origination are avijjā (delusion), saṅkhāra (willed activities), and viññāṇa (consciousness). If these three only spanned a single life, then consciousness would cease as soon as ignorance ceases, that is, the arahant would lose consciousness as soon as he reached awakening. We know from the suttas that this is not what happens.

• The second noble truth says that it is the craving that leads to rebirth which is source of suffering. Sometimes the whole sequence of dependent origination is used instead to illustrate the second noble truth. This means that dependent origination, too, must include rebirth.

• A number of the suttas in the Nidāna-saṃyutta (the connected discourses that deal with dependent origination) use vocabulary that refers to rebirth, such as: SN 12.19 (kāyassa bhedā kāyūpago hoti, “when the body breaks up, he goes to a body”); SN 12.38 (tasmiṃ patiṭṭhite viññāṇe virūḷhe āyatiṃ punabbhavābhinibbatti hoti, “when that consciousness has become established and come to growth, there is renewed existence in the future”); SN 12.59 (viññāṇassa avakkanti hoti, “consciousness descends”; this is a common way to express rebirth in the Nidāna-saṃyutta and elsewhere); and many others.

• There is no evidence that any of the early schools of Buddhism understood dependent origination as relating to a single life.

• The entire Pali commentarial tradition interprets dependent origination as spanning across lives.

• A passage in the Paṭiccasamuppādavibhaṅga of the Abhidhamma is sometimes interpreted to refer to a single life time. Even if this is correct, which is questionable, it is specifically said to relate only to the Abhidhamma and not to the suttas.

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Thanks for your answer, Bhante!

You should not necessarily consider them Buddhists to try to find a middle ground with them. Think of it as interreligious dialogue.

I agree with you on the rebirth being the basis of DO in the Canon. It means I should ask an additional question: Are Ven. Ñāṇananda’s ideas on the nature of Nibbana and Samsaric existence based on the one-interpretation only? As far as I can remember, it is not exactly so. If my memories are correct, then we should consider the relative merits of Venerable’s other ideas, which is difficult without formulating them first.

Take for example Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s criticism of the chariot simile in the Milinda Panha. What if says is that of course a chariot is not a sum of its elements, it is a sum of its elements in a specific functional arrangement, otherwise it is nothing but a heap of chariot details.

Even though Ven. Ñāṇavīra did not purse this line of thinking further, I frequently ask myself (without giving any definitive answer) if nama in namarupa couldn’t be this functional arrangement.

I am not all that familiar with Ven. Ñāṇananda’s writing, but I believe that he has a traditional view of saṃsāra as the round of death and rebirth. I also think that he sees nibbāna simply as the ending of this. So yes, there may indeed be merit in his other ideas, such as his ideas on papañca (proliferation) as expounded in Concept and Reality.

Thanks bhante. Looks like I have to overcome my nibbida to his use of the magic show metaphor and words like ‘illusory’ and ‘illusion’. If I find enough time to read ‘Nibbana - The Mind Stilled’ I will surely share my impression here giving you a brief summary of his most important ideas.

Dear All
Can someone either provide a link to or the full text of the following.?.
"A Critical Examination of Ñāṇavīra’s 'A Note on Paṭiccasamuppāda"
Thanks
With Metta
Nimal

Hi Nimal,

as far as I know, you can find it on Scribd.com under the title A Critical Examination of Ñāṇavīra Thera‟s “A Note on Paṭiccasamuppāda”. Not sure if I can provide a link since I am not really sure about the copyright, but it is pretty easy to find there.

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I think the appropriate middle way is to be agnostic about rebirth, whether it concerns dependent origination or any other aspect of the Buddhist teachings. I don’t think it is useful to force people to take a stand on an issue that they are not ready to take a stand on. Moreover, in a very literal sense the vast majority of Buddhists are agnostic about rebirth, because it is just a belief for them without any direct “gnosis”. Once you see it this way, a middle ground sort of opens up.

What is truly problematic is the outright denial of rebirth, for this is tantamount to saying that the Buddha got it wrong. And if you deny the awakening of the Buddha, I am not sure if it makes much sense to call yourself a Buddhist.

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I wholehaertedly agree with you on that, Bhante. What I meant is that even if you do not consider Secular Buddhists to be Buddhists (which is ultimately not that important), we still can have a meaningful talk with them about which beliefs are shared by us, which aren’t, on which points there may be future evidence supporting one of the sides (and by that I mean objectively verifiable evidence, as they cannot accept subjective experience of Awakening or knowledge about rebirth as such, just as we cannot really see how you can possibly prove that consciousness is equal to brain processes) and which points are likely to remain beliefs. Having established all of this and expressing respect for our belief differences stripping the discussion of emotional and affective overtones that, unfortunately, are sometimes heard on both sides, we can contribute to our mutual well-being.

Hi Vstakan
Thank you for providing the information.
Nimal
With Metta

a few suttas posit that not only name-and-form is dependent on consciousness but vice versa as well, which would explain why an arahant doesn’t lose their consciousness at extinguishment

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I think this argument is one of the weakest that Ven. Ñāṇavīra presented in his book. There are more than one way to refute it with very little effort needed, and your objection is a good example. That is pretty weird provided this argument is considered by some to come from a stream-enterer :wink:

Some thing I have come to understand about the Paticca Samuppada in its - Past-Present- Future interpretation is that it is beyond my understanding until I begin to see my past lives and the process of physical death and rebirth. When the Buddha said that this Dhamma is sandihiko and akaliko ( something to understand in this very moment and timeless) I don’t think it involved seeing your past lives and futures births. If we interpret the Paticca Samuppada in the conventional sense this is what we aught to be able to see before claiming to understand the Paticcha Samuppada. Perhaps at the level of an Arahat we might get this understanding. Until then it is only a belief. On the other hand the Suttas tell us that even a stream enterer has clear understanding of the Paticca Samuppada. So does that mean a stream winner can clearly see the process of physical birth rebirth and death ? I am not sure. But if we see the Paticcha Samupadda as a description of metal states as it exist here in the present moment as the Ven. Nananada and few others interprets it The Patticha Samupadda makes a whole lot more sense and I can see how it can be sandihiko and akaliko.
Quoting from Saṃyutta Nikāya 12 5. Gahapativagga 41. Pañca­ve­rabhaya­sutta


“And what is the noble method that he has clearly seen and thoroughly penetrated with wisdom? Here, householder, the noble disciple attends closely and carefully to dependent origination itself thus: ‘When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases. That is, with ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness…. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness…. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.’
“This is the noble method that he has clearly seen and thoroughly penetrated with wisdom."

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You should also consider reading the 4 volume The Law of Dependent Arising Series. They have a lot of the same content but its worth it.
http://seeingthroughthenet.net/books/

In the context of dependent origination, I think sandiṭṭhika and akālika means seeing causal relationships. What you see is the causal relationship between craving and rebirth. It’s like understanding a law of nature. There is no need to remember your past life.

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Thanks for the reply Venerable . Yes that’s true - it is all about seeing causal relationships. But when you say rebirth what does it mean. Is it physical birth of life or the arising of a metal state. For me it makes much more sense to see it as the birth of a metal state rather than physical birth.

The issue is that when we talk about what the Lord Buddha taught we should really consider how He or His early students used a specific word in the whole corpus of the Canonical texts , we should analyze the entire context. Neither your opinion, nor mine, nor even Ven. Brahmali’s matter unless they are substantiated by textual, linguistic and cultural evidence. When it comes to jāti, we should admit it regularly occurs in the rebirth context, so we should really say that is what the Canonical Buddha thought and / or taught whether we can really connect to it or not.

On the other hand, I can’t really see why you can’t observe the different stages of this extended conditioning process encompassing several lives in this very moment. You can observe it even on the conceptual level right down to the consciousness-name-and-form knot, as is mentioned in DN 15. Probably, you cannot adequately describe the workings of sankhara in our language, most certainly you cannot really describe your ignorance. Still, you can observe and analyze the other stages within your conceptual reach and see how they produce each other. Extrapolating the results of your investingation and analysis, you can apply them to your past and future lives to see how the rebirth process works. As Ven. Brahmali mentioned, it is like understanding a law of nature. You see an apple falling down on your head and realize how planets and galaxies are attracted to each other. You observe how your craving is conditioned by your feeling etc., and you can realize how it leads to rebirth. What I strongly agree with Ven. Brahmali on, is that we should not think that the present moment description is the ultimate one, that it is exactly what the Buddha was talking about. It can be a handy heuristic tool for us to better understand the ultimate law, very much like Newton’s apple, but a falling apple is definitely one of the less significant effect of gravity in the Universe.

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"Sanditthika and kalika (the opposite of akalika) are used together in a revealing phrase which occurs three times in the suttas (SN 1, 20; SN 4, 21; and MN 70). The phrase, with minor variations in each sutta is as follows:
I don’t run after what is kalika, having abandoned what is sanditthika.
I run after what is sanditthika, having abandoned what is kalika.
Naham sanditthikam hitva, kalikam anudhavami.
Kalikam hitva, sanditthikam anudhavami.
In these three contexts, sanditthika and kalika are clearly direct opposites, antonyms again. Thus it is reasonable to assume that the opposite of kalika, akalika, must be synonymous with sanditthika. That is, sanditthika and akalika have essentially the same meaning. They both refer to that which is ‘visible in this life’.“
The above is a quote from Ajahn Brahmawamso’s article on DO. The link to the full article is found at Q & A section of this site under " How should Dependent Origination should be viewed”.
With Metta

As Vstakan says, we need to be careful not to impose our own opinions on the suttas. For instance, there are lots of people who don’t believe in rebirth - and of course that’s perfectly fine. But if they argue, as some do, that the Buddha too rejected rebirth then they go too far. To me it is inescapable that in the suttas the term jāti means the coming into existence at the beginning of a life, also in the context of dependent origination.

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