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Overview on the Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi's Critique of 'A Note on Pamiccasamuppada'

Written by Ven. Mettiko   

Translated extract from 'Kritik' by Mettiko Bhikkhu: Notizen zu Dhamma, und andere Schriften: Germany, Verlag Beyerlein & Steinschule, 2007)

Shortly after the appearance of the [German] article 'Paṭiccasamuppādaeine alternative Annäherung' in Lotusblätter, the author received a whole series of consensual posts and emails. There was only one censorious reaction, an exposed person associated with the 'Deutsche Buddhistische Union', which dubbed the author as a 'cultural neo-colonialist' and was indignant about the defiance of the venerable tradition. A content-related discussion did not take place. Likewise, Ven. Ñāṇavīra was mostly confronted with incomprehension and not so much with refusal during his lifetime. He waited in vain for a profound critique.

He surely had been glad about A Critical Examination of Ñāṇavīra Thera's 'A Note on Paṭiccasamuppāda' of the American monk-scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi, a critique which was written shortly after the appearance of Clearing the Path, and therefore much earlier than the copyright seems to imply: London, Buddhist Studies Review 1998.

Bhikkhu Bodhi was ordained in 1972 in Sri Lanka, where he spent more than 20 years. He was president and editor of the Buddhist Publication Society, co-translator of The Middle Lenght Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikāya) and translator of The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Saṃyutta Nikāya). Today he lives in the Bodhi Monastery, New Jersey.

Interestingly enough he was an admirer of Ven. Ñāṇavīra in his first two years of his life as a monk, but then turned away because, amongst other things, of an 'arrogant attitude' of the Notes (email from 30 September 2005). He writes:

When I came in contact with the deeply humble, unselfish, sympathetic, open-minded personality of the Ven. Nanaponika ... that was an entirely different world. But that doesn't mean that I have lost my appreciation for the Ven. Ñāṇavīra as a thinker. I find many of his formulations highly insightful, even brilliant, and leave open the possibility that he might really have attained the first path and the first fruition. I'm not qualified to decide this question, but I think it is possible that individual stream-enterers may interpret the Buddhist teachings conceptually wrong.

Bhikkhu Bodhi's polemic paper and apologia is more extensive than the criticized Note itself and would take a disproportional amount of space in this book. Nevertheless it shall be responded in bullet point form. On the one hand the Ven. Ñāṇavīra rates lack of knowledge of the commentary tradition admittedly as advantage (see Preface (a)), on the other hand he adduces good reasons to deal with false teachings (Letter 91). That's of course not to say that the writing of Bhikkhu Bodhi falls in the second category, but his Critique is definitely a touchstone on which one can measure one's understanding of the Notes. So that is to say that the reading of the Critique is recommended when one is somewhat firm in the existential approach to the Buddha's Teachings. [...]

In the introduction Bhikkhu Bodhi describes with almost disbelieving astonishment the impact and approach of the Notes:

For twenty-two years this [of Notes on Dhamma] circulated from hand to hand among a small circle of readers in the form of typed copies, photocopies, and handwritten manuscripts. Only in 1987 did Notes on Dhamma appear in print. [...] But in spite of its limited availability, Clearing the Path has had an impact on its readers that has been nothing short of electric. Promoted solely by word of mouth, the book has spawned an international network of admirers—a Theravāda Buddhist underground—united in their conviction that Notes on Dhamma is the sole key to unlock the inner meaning of the Buddha’s Teaching [...]

Few of the standard interpretative principles upheld by Theravāda orthodoxy are spared the slashing of his pen. The most time-honoured explanatory tools for interpreting the Suttas [...]—all come in for criticism. (Para. 1)

Bhikkhu Bodhi wonders in Para. 2:

Strangely, although Notes on Dhamma makes such a sharp frontal attack on Theravāda orthodoxy, to date no proponent of the mainstream Theravāda tradition has risen to the occasion and attempted to counter its arguments.

Ven. Bodhi wants to fill this gap by taking on the Note on Paṭiccasamuppāda which is a 'bold challenge to the prevailing “three-life interpretation”'. Like the Ven. Ñāṇavīra, he thereby wants to accept only the four main Nikayās and the older parts of the Khuddaka Nikāya as last resort. He concedes that the commentarial description is not to be found in the Suttas in all its particulars but serves as an instrument to make the Suttas and the Abhidhamma compatible. Neither is it necessary to accept it in all its particulars. His concern is only the 'essential vision' which underlies it, 'namely, that the twelvefold formula of [paṭiccasamuppāda] extends over three lives and as such describes the generative structure of saṃsāra, the round of repeated births.' (Para. 3)

Bhikkhu Bodhi is 'aghast' over the fact that Ven. Ñāṇavīra opposes an interpretation which is there for such a long time yet—'virtually from the time that tradition emerged as a distinct school' and which is already to be found in the 'Vibhaṅga of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and the Patisambhidamagga of the Sutta Piṭaka' (which he excludes two paragraphs earlier as last resort). After a half page of consternation, that someone stands alone against 'the entire mainstream Buddhist philosophical tradition' (incl. Sarvastivada, Mahasanghika, the great Madhyamika philosopher Nagarjuna along with the current Mahāyāna schools) he turns to the topic of the Buddha's Teachings: dukkha, the existential problem.

Here the differences already loom up between Ven. Ñāṇavīra's subjective, existential approach and Bhikkhu Bodhi's scholastic, objective approach—by Bhikkhu Bodhi's inability to understand dukkha as 'existential fear', 'nor even the distorted sense of self of which such anxiety may be symptomatic' (Para. 5). For him dukkha is the 'bondage to saṃsara—the round of recurring births, ageing and death' and 'self' is apparently only a special, additional (optional?) problem. From this it follows that (explicit in Para. 6) dukkha ends because and when one is no longer reborn. The personal, subjective problem of suffering becomes scholastically and scientifically objectivated—wonderful illustrative material for Ven. Ñāṇavīra's criticism on the 'would-be synthesis of public facts' (compare Preface (c), (f), RŪPA and others). That nibbāna thereby comes out not as the end of subjectivity, but effectively as annihilation is inevitable: positivism by its own rules can only be 'transcended' with nihilism.

If dukkha is understood as a fact (without the inclusion of the suffering, appropriating subject), as an objective fact, observable from outside, then one can imagine the 'end of dukkha'' only in form of the absence of rebirth, when the arahat is truly dead once and for all. In this context the editor wants to point out that not only 'death' is not applicable to the 'dead' arahat but also 'sickness' is not applicable to the 'living' arahat. Luang Pu Lah Khemapatto, one of the great realised masters of Thailand, which the editor was allowed to become acquainted with shortly before his 'falling apart of the body', was an impressing example that having a 'wreck of a body' doesn't have to mean 'sickness' or 'suffering'—if no subject comes into play which regards this wreck as 'mine'. That the arahat doesn't suffer from 'death'—see ADDITIONAL TEXTS §13 and A NOTE ON PAṬICCASAMUPPĀDA (b).

One sign of the incompatibility of the two paradigms is the fact that for the most part Bhikkhu Bodhi uses the same Sutta passages as Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera to support his position (e.g. D.15, M.44, S.12.2 and others).

Now to some details: The Critique begins with the topic 'birth' and assumes that Ven. Ñāṇavīra says in the end that bhavapaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ, 'with being as condition ageing-&-death' instead of 'with birth as condition ageing-&-death'. That is of course only justified if one assumes that paṭiccasamuppāda is a temporal process. The Ven. Bodhi criticizes that Ven. Ñāṇavīra sees birth, ageing and death in relation to the 'self, whereas the Suttas talk about the birth, ageing and death of the body' (Para. 7). To see a contradiction between the two really means reducing 'self' to a 'phenomenon of purely grammatical interest' (Preface (b)). And: jāti means re-birth after all (at least implicitly). As a proof Bhikkhu Bodhi regards the fact that according to the Suttas birth happens in different classes of existence (Para. 7 and 8).

On the subject of saṅkhāra nothing else remains to be done for the Ven. Bodhi than to unwrap again the commentarial gimmicks, which were mentioned and refused by Ven. Ñāṇavīra—the diverse variants of the patchwork rug strategy ('here it means this, there it means that'):

a) In relation with paṭiccasamuppāda saṅkhāra be identical with cetanā. For lack of proof in the Suttas the 'Suttanta Bhajaniya section of its Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka' must serve as authority, which after all 'can make a cogent claim to antiquity'. (Para. 12)

b) Sometimes saṅkhāra means 'that which forms' (paṭiccasamuppāda, 4. khandha), sometimes 'that which is formed' (two of the three marks of existence) and sometimes both (the triad in M.44 is a 1:2 mixed calculation).

c) Manosaṅkhāra be identical with cittasaṅkhāra. Besides of some 'implicit' evidence on page 17 Bhikkhu Bodhi brings in passages in which manosaṅkhāra is about action and its fruit. He thereby overlooks that Ven. Ñāṇavīra doesn't deny at all that there will be rebirth for a being which still has desire, and he writes in A NOTE ON PAṬICCASAMUPPĀDA (g) that manosaṅkhāra is action (which happens according to the conditions of the puthujjana—that is paṭiccasamuppāda anuloma (§15)). When I look through rose-coloured glasses, all temporal events are rose-coloured, but the glasses themselves are extra-temporal in relation to the viewed events.

On the subject of saṅkhāra the Ven. Bodhi makes a side-trip to the SHORTER NOTES of the same name. For him it is a 'cryptical message' that Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera regards the properties of king Mahasudassana as conditions (saṅkhāra) for his identity (along the lines of 'clothes makes people'). Does he think that the Buddha made that speech of almost two hours to tell Ānanda that all properties of a universal monarch (complete with horse, elephant, [primary] wife) are conditioned things and as such impermanent? Is not Dīgha 17, as a long-winded prelude to a platitude, degraded to a mere entertainment program thereby?

Bhikkhu Bodhi can't follow Ven. Ñāṇavīra's remarks, his lack of understanding is based on an entirely different point of view. So it's not a surprise that he fails to capture the twofold function of saṅkhāra (specific and general) which is shown in §§15, 20 and 21 of that Note.

Also based on those different paradigms are of course dissensions in translating, e.g. when Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of paṭibaddha (he sees as 'dependent on' rather than 'associated with') is achieved only due to the anticipation of the result. He rightly writes that Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera translates the word upaga mistakenly as past participle instead of present ('has arrived at', here correct as 'arriving'). But: The meaning of the sentence is not changed. The meaning of upaga does indeed change when Bhikkhu Bodhi falsely interprets the prefix upa- with his 'goes on towards'—upa- means 'here, here towards me (approaching me), related to me' (compare Hecker, Lesewörterbuch).

It would be possible to bring in many other examples for the approach of the Critique, but they all run with the same already demonstrated pattern. Perhaps in short on Bhikkhu Bodhi's 'defence of the tradition' (from Para. 21).

He circumvents the problem with vipākavedanā (§3) in the three-lives-interpretation by presenting a '“softer” interpretation', 'although the Commentaries do take the hard line'. The soft of that variant is: the body be kammavipāka, but at the same time the instrument which makes possible to feel vedanā, which is not kammavipāka.

On §4 he bluntly denies the relation of the Sutta passage cited by Ven. Ñāṇavīra with paṭiccasamuppāda and accuses him of 'strangely careless misreading of the passage'. Ñāṇavīra recommends with a good reason to study this Sutta 'first-hand'. Bhikkhu Bodhi at least concedes that 'paṭiccasamuppāda is introduced later in the Sutta'. In the discourse, after the headline 'Which, bhikkhus is the teaching proclaimed by me?', all four categories are shown (the 'activity of the mind' mentioned by Ven. Ñāṇavīra in third place, paṭiccasamuppāda as an explanation of the 2nd and 3rd Noble Truth in the fourth position). Unmistakable the Buddha afterwards explains the relation of the four categories. To assume that he teaches incoherently, this is indeed 'strange and careless'.

Bhikkhu Bodhi solves his contradiction with vipākacetanā elegantly by saying that nāmarūpa 'that “descends” into the womb is the result of past kamma, hence vipāka' and by referring again to a commentary—Atthasalini, p. 87-88. He discounts Ven. Ñāṇavīra's point that the three-lives-interpretation is not akālika:

The examination of the Suttas on paṭiccasamuppāda that we have undertaken above has confirmed that the usual twelve-term formula applies to a succession of lives. This conclusion must take priority over all deductive arguments against temporal succession in paṭiccasamuppāda [...] Realization of the characteristic of anatta removes clinging, and with the elimination of clinging anxiety is removed, including existential anxiety over our inevitable aging and death. This, however, is not the situation being described by the PS formula... (Para. 24)

Besides that Bhikkhu Bodhi explains wordy that according to the commentaries the paṭiccasamuppāda formular is 'not a rigid series', no 'linear sequence', that 'ignorance, craving, and clinging in unison generate renewed becoming' etc., maybe in order to show that the three-lives-interpretation is somehow a bit akālika after all, and that definitely no seeing of former or future lives is necessary to see paṭiccasamuppāda. (Para. 25)

That paṭiccasamuppāda shall be akālika would rely anyway on a wrong interpretation by Ven. Ñāṇavīra, who assumes in an unfunded way that paṭiccasamuppāda is included in the Dhamma which is described as akālika. (Para. 26). One could only wonder how Bhikkhu Bodhi ignores Suttas like Majjhima 26 where paṭiccasamuppāda is mentioned virtually as the quintessence of the Buddhadhamma. And one wonders that one page later he allows paṭiccasamuppāda as akālika again, but—and his reasoning extends over five pages—it doesn't mean timelessness, but just that one sees the Dhamma immediately when one sees it.

Bhikkhu Bodhi had intended to show exactly the errors in a 'thicket of errors' (of the Note on Paṭiccasamuppāda). He succeeded! The Notes—like the author himself concedes in letter 76—are full of errors—looked at from the traditional point of view. This point of view and the existential approach remain incompatible, however much arguments may be exchanged. Which point of view one wants to join is and will be 'a matter of one's fundamental attitude to one's own existence' (A NOTE ON PAṬICCASAMUPPĀDA §7).

From Bhikkhu Bodhi's Critique it becomes clearer over and over again that from the commentarial point of view an understanding of the existential approach is utterly out of the question. Syncretism ('Maybe both are right.'—'It's all the same anyway.') is totally discarded—alone for this lesson it's worth to deal with his writing. However even this standpoint is a matter of standpoint as Bhikkhu Bodhi's email from 30 September 2005 shows:

I'm not sure whether a syncretistic approach to the twelve link formular of Dependent Origination is impossible. I think the Ven. Ñāṇavīra was a bit hasty to exclude this possibility, maybe in order to provoce. I don't believe that both approaches can be equally correct. [...] But I think that the interpretation of the Ven. Ñāṇavīra provides an interesting and intellectually stimulating attempt to contribute an interpretation which is meaningful and attractive in the sense of contemporary existential and agnostic frameworks of thought. This interpretation could therefore act as 'skilful means' to indroduce people to the Dhamma which initially would hesitate to accept the teaching of rebirth. [...] Such a conciliation of both approaches [...] would of course seem a heresy to a later follower of him.

Would this strategy go well? First to thrust the Notes in the hands of a sceptic or agnostic in the hope that afterwards he will take pleasure in the intellectual dry food of Visuddhimagga and Co.?