In AN 6.46 we have an interesting discussion of conflicts between two groups of mendicants. The text gives an idea of some of the tensions that emerged in the Sangha in the years following the Buddha’s death. It has attracted several translations and discussions.
However, most, if not all, of this attention has worked under the assumption that the conflict is between scholars and meditators. This assumption is based on the commentary and is not supported by the text. The conflict recorded in the text is between two groups of meditators, one who emphasize wisdom, and the other who emphasize serenity.
The text is a rare discourse given by Ven Mahācunda, who has a connection with Ven Sāriputta, and is regarded in the tradition as his younger brother. Be that as it may, his approach to Dhamma emphasizes understanding in a way similar to Sāriputta, as evidenced in his Theragāthā verse at Thag 2.11:
It is from wishing to learn that learning grows;
When you are learned, understanding grows;
Through understanding, you know the goal;
Knowing the goal brings happiness.
AN 6.46 is set in Ceti, with no mention of the Buddha, and for these reasons it is probable that it is set some time after the Buddha’s death. So it has been taken as evidence for the situation in the Sangha in that time, and has attracted a fair amount of modern discussion. However I now believe that discussion has been led astray by the commentary.
The text sets up an opposition between two groups of mendicants, who sometimes criticize each other, or else only praise mendicants similar to themselves. Cunda points out that this is not very useful, and encourages the Sangha to appreciate each group for their good qualities. So far, so good.
Why dhammayogis are not scholars
The problem with the text is the exact nature of these two groups. One of them is the jhāyi, literally “practitioners of jhāna”. Jhāna in such cases is often translated more vaguely as “meditation”, which is how Ven Bodhi translates it. But I feel that this loses the specific meaning of the word; and I think this text bears this out.
For the other group the text uses a unique term, dhammayoga. How we read the sutta depends how we read this term.
The term is made up of the two elements dhamma and yoga. The problem is not that these terms are obscure, but that they’re too common. They both occur frequently, and in many different senses. So we have to figure out exactly what sense is meant here.
Yoga and associated terms often have the sense of “commitment to, devotion to”, and this is followed by Ven Thanissaro, with his “Dhamma-devotee” and Hare, with “Dhamma-zealot”. Ven Bodhi’s translation is a little more useful; he has “Dhamma specialist”. None of these translators venture to actually translate dhamma.
However, yoga rarely, if ever, is applied to the theoretical side of Dhamma. Almost always it is used for the practice, and often enough it means simply “meditation”. It seems to me we’d need strong reasons to take it as referring to study as opposed to practice.
These modern interpretations rely on the commentary. Leaving the crucial terms untranslated, it says:
Dhamme yogo anuyogo etesanti dhammayogā. Dhammakathikānaṃ etaṃ nāmaṃ
Those who yoga, and keep on yoga-ing, in the Dhamma are the “Dhammayogis”. This is a term for Dhamma teachers.
So the commentary explicitly identifies dhammayogis as those who teach Dhamma, leading to the opposition between these and those who meditate.
However, there is nothing else in the text to support this idea. There are a couple of things that might be held to support it, but they disappear on closer inspection.
Near the end of the text, the dhammayogis are said to understand the deep atthapada. Thanissaro translates this correctly as “statements of deep meaning”, whereas Ven Bodhi is a little more vague with his “deep and pithy matter”. Atthapada refers to a “statement” or “saying” whose meaning is drawn out by wisdom. But being able to understand a statement doesn’t mean that you’re a scholar. It means that you’re wise. Everyone would have known many teachings of the Dhamma, even the most reclusive and contemplative. The point here is that such people find their path to insight through understanding of the teachings.
The dhammayogis are criticized for being sloppy, loose-tongued, and unmindful. This feels like it could be a criticism of study monks, but the text does not make this association, and so far as I know, it is not made elsewhere. In fact, it is a stock description that is quite frequently applied to forest monks, eg. SN 9.13, Ud 4.2, SN 2.25, AN 6.59. The point of the passage, it would seem, is that such mendicants have forsaken the gradual training, in other words, they are not fulfilling the factors that support samādhi.
What the text is really about
It’s always a bad idea to base your interpretation on ambiguous terms. Let’s start with things that can be established more firmly and work from there.
At the end of the sutta, each of the groups of mendicants is encouraged to praise the other. Here are the specific qualities that are mentioned:
amataṃ dhātuṃ kāyena phusitvā viharanti
have direct meditative experience of the deathless element
gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ paññāya ativijjha passanti
see a deep and meaningful saying after penetrating it with wisdom
This kind of terminology is well established, and often occurs together, eg. SN 48.50, SN 48.53:
Kāyena ca phusitvā viharati; paññāya ca ativijjha passati
This refers to the distinction between those who emphasize tranquillity in meditation, and those who emphasize wisdom. As I argued extensively in A Swift Pair of Messengers, this is meant solely by way of emphasis, not exclusion. Every realized practitioner has both wisdom and samādhi.
This distinction is recognized in many places in the suttas, with such pairs as the saddhānusāri and dhammānusāri (“faith-follower” and “dhamma-follower”), the kāyasakkhi and paññāvimutta (“direct witness” and “wisdom-freed”), etc.
These latter two are combined in the ubhatobhāgavimutta, whose mastery of both these aspects is described in familiar terms as:
kāyena phusitvā viharati, paññāya ca naṃ pajānāti
Note also the use of dhamma in the context of wisdom for the dhammanusari. This usage echoes the similar contrast between ajjhattaṃ cetosamatha and adhipaññādhammavipassanā (“inner serenity” and “higher wisdom of discernment into principles”). We also have dhammavicaya and dhammānupassanā in the same sense; and I think dhammayoga fits here too. In all these cases dhamma means “principles”, in the sense of understanding the “principles” of cause and effect that underlie the four noble truths and so on.
It would be highly unusual, if not unique, for the suttas to use terminology like “sees after penetrating with wisdom” for someone who had merely studied the teachings. The two meanings of dhamma as “teaching” and “principle, phenomena” are often conflated in wisdom contexts, and in some cases the suttas themselves invoke both meanings in the same context; I’m thinking of the canonical explanations of dhammavicaya. Dhamma spans both “teachings that point to the truth”, and “truth to which the teachings point”.
The Commentary addresses this problem:
Paññāya ativijjha passantīti sahavipassanāya maggapaññāya paṭivijjhitvā passanti. Imasmiṃ panatthe sammasanapaṭivedhapaññāpi uggahaparipucchāpaññāpi vaṭṭatiyevāti
"Sees after penetrating with wisdom" means they see after penetrating with the wisdom of the path together with insight. In this case the wisdom of scrutiny and penetration (i.e. insight meditation and realization) and the wisdom of learning and questioning are both operating.
Here the commentary shows that it recognizes that study alone is not a path to realization.
The sutta is not introducing a unique case where there is conflict between scholars and meditators. It is a new take on the well-known distinction between those who emphasize wisdom, like Sāriputta, and those who emphasize samādhi, like Moggallāna. Its interest lies in that it is the first text to overtly suggest an actual conflict between these groups.
I think dhammayogi means “those who practice discernment of principles”, and jhāyi means “practitioner of meditative absorption”. Perhaps we could use “insight meditators” and “jhāna meditators”. But I’m reluctant to use terminology so closely associated with the modern insight movement, which espouses a more extreme dissociation between these groups than anything found in the suttas. Finding a translation that is both elegant and clear is not easy, but in such a case clarity is more important.
There are strong textual reasons to reject the commentarial explanations of this sutta, and to revise the modern translations based on it. The commentaries have a very different take on samatha and vipassanā as compared to the suttas, and their explanations on this topic should always be questioned.
Please note, though, that these remarks are only meant to apply to the commentarial interpretation of this particular topic. It does not mean that they are equally unreliable in all areas. There are, it is true, other topics subject to a similar distortion. But in many cases, especially when they have no doctrinal axe to grind, they are still very helpful.