Monthly Archives: August 2013

Fundamental View: Talk 10

This talk was presented to the Buddha Center, Second Life on August 17 and 20, 2013.

Talk 10

The Phenomenology of the Path

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


The Buddha distinguished four fundamental degrees of spiritual accomplishment: stream-entry, once-returning, non-returning, and arahantship. To these he added the practices leading to the realization of these fruits, a clear reference to kamma and its effects. The stream is a metaphor the Buddha used for both the Supermundane Eightfold Path and sangsara. The implication is that there is a relation or correlation between the four realizations and the eight steps of the path. Nevertheless, the exact relationship is subtle.

Stream-entry is, as the word suggests, the attainment of the path itself. As such, it is the fundamental attainment. The stream-enterer (sotāpanna) is one who, having attained the path, has overcome the fetters of belief in the reality of the self, skepticism, and attachment to rites and rituals. Expressed in positive terms, he has achieved selflessness, certainty, and non-attachment to actions. Such a person has achieved the dhamma-eye (dhammachakkhu).

The stream-enterer has achieved a “taste” of nibbana that results in a decisive awakening. This realization is called the “breakthrough to the dhamma” (dhammābhisamaya). This state is identical with the state of the hearer (sawaka), the ariyasangha (spiritual community), and Perfect View (sammaditthi). A stream-enterer cannot be reborn as an animal, ghost, or demon (I prefer the term “demon” to hell being because hell is a Judaeo-Christian concept that has no correspondence in Buddhism, being permanent, but neither term is ideal).

According to the tradition, a stream-enterer must attain full, final, and complete enlightenment within no more than seven rebirths. However, like the statement that nibbana can be achieved in as short a time as seven days, whereas the Pali Canon provides evidence of rebirth in a shorter time than this, there does not appear to be an objective basis for this specific number. Why not six or eight rebirths? Perhaps there is an explanation somewhere, but I do not know of it. Thus, I take it figuratively rather than literally, i.e., in a relatively short time, depending on the nature and intensity of the karmic residue.

Concerning this accomplishment, the Buddha said, taking up a bit of soil under his fingernail, “for a noble disciple, a person accomplished in view who has made the breakthrough, the suffering that has been destroyed and eliminated is more, while what remains is trifling. The latter does not amount to a hundredth part, or a thousandth part, or a hundred thousandth part of the former mass of suffering that has been destroyed and eliminated, since there is a maximum of seven more lives. Of such great benefit … is the breakthrough to the Dhamma, of such great benefit is it to obtain the vision of the Dhamma.”

The term “breakthrough” may be compared with Padmasambhava’s concept of the “leap.” It implies that the attainment of stream-entry is a singular, momentary, even visionary experience. It is not clear whether the experience itself destroys kamma, or is itself the result of the destruction of kamma. As we have already discussed, a stream-enterer is not necessarily a monastic or even celibate. Therefore, the ariyasangha is not identical with the monastic sangha, as pointed out by Dr. Peter Masefield. The four factors for attaining stream-entry consist of associating with superior persons, hearing the true dhamma, careful attention, and practising the dhamma. A stream-enterer experiences an instantaneous transformation of being, an awakening characterized by directly knowing and seeing the truth.

The second developmental accomplishment is that of once-returner (ekabījin or sakadāgāmin). In addition to the three fetters already mentioned, he has significantly, but not completely, weakened craving and anger. As the name implies, the once-returner must suffer only one more human rebirth. He will either be reborn as a dewa or attain nibbana. One can also attain this stage without embracing celibacy. Thus, this stage is available to a householder.

The third developmental accomplishment is that of non-returner (anāgāmin). The non-returner has completely overcome all the foregoing fetters. In addition to the previous attainments, he has achieved indifference to sensual pleasures and perfect benevolence or compassion. Anagamins are never reborn as human beings. They are reborn directly in one of the Five Pure Abodes of the Form World. From there they attain full enlightenment.

By definition, therefore, neither a bodhisatta nor a future Buddha has ever achieved this stage, because, had they done so, they could never be reborn as a human being. Therefore, the conclusion is that these four stages of development are not, strictly speaking, sequential, or even necessary. Clearly, one can skip a step. I am not sure whether this fact has ever been noted, but it follows logically nevertheless. Because the fetter of craving is completely overcome, a non-returner must be celibate. Still, he is not necessarily a monastic. The suttas represent this stage as an ideal stage for the laity to aspire toward. The attainment of the stage of non-returner is equivalent to the attainment of the first jhana.

Finally, the fourth developmental accomplishment is that of arahant.  The arahant has overcome all of the previous fetters plus five additional fetters, viz., craving for rebirth in any state, the ego-conceit, restlessness or agitation, and, finally, ignorance, the root of the chain of cause and effect. Thus, the arahant adds complete detachment, selflessness, peace, and wisdom to the accomplishments of the previous stages.

According to tradition, a householder cannot remain in the state of arahantship. Either he will attain arahantship at death or he will become a monastic immediately upon achieving arahantship. Strictly speaking, therefore, all arahants are monastics, at least after the fact. This is not true of the previous stages. Thus, the common identification of the ariyasangha with monasticism represents a conceptual confusion.

The arahant has also perfected the five faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. According to the Buddha, an arahant is incapable of nine actions: killing, stealing, sex, lying, sensuality, and wrong actions based on desire, hatred, delusion, and fear. Even if powerful sensory experiences come into his range of perception, they will not perturb his mind.

One can see there is a kind of correspondence between these four stages and the Supermundane Eightfold Path. The stream-enterer has attained Perfect View. All the stages have attained some step of the Path. However, beyond that a simple one-to-one correspondence is difficult to show. The ten fetters have no direct correspondence with the Eightfold Path. However, the faculties of energy, mindfulness, and concentration, mastered by the arahant, suggest the final three steps of the Supermundane Path, viz., Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness, and Perfect Concentration. Wisdom is the specific attainment of the first step of the path, viz., Perfect View or, in other views, the goal. An arahant has perfected all these. The Buddha says these five faculties are implicit in all the stages, but to different degrees. In the outsider or worldling, the puthujjana, they are completely absent. However, this begs the question of the nature of the attainment of the stream-winner, who has achieved Perfect View, overcome skepticism, and attained certainty in the truth of the dhamma.

Two stages that precede the stage of stream-winner consist of dhamma followers and faith followers. The former is higher than the latter. Dharma and faith followers are stages of intermediate development between an ordinary worldling and a stream-winner. They consist of ordinary wisdom and faith in the Buddha respectively. The Buddha says dhamma followers will attain enlightenment after an unspecified number of rebirths. Presumably, this number is greater than seven. The faith follower will be reborn as a dewa in a higher world. Both will attain stream-entry in their current life. Presumably, in order to distinguish the faith follower form the once-returner and the non-returner, the faith follower will only attain enlightenment after at least two additional rebirths.

The wanderer Vacchagotta wonders whether the Buddha is the only one who has attained to these states. The Buddha assures him others in the community have also attained. He includes both male and female monastics, who have attained the highest stage of arahantship; celibate male and female lay followers, who have attained the third stage of non-returning; and non-celibate male and female lay followers, who have attained the first and second stages of stream-entry and once-returning. Thus, the Buddha makes no spiritual distinction between the genders. However, he does say non-celibate practitioners cannot proceed beyond the second stage of once-returning, for the very practical karmic reason that the non-celibate person is still attached to sensual desire and rebirth. Nevertheless, once-returning is still a very advanced state of spiritual development.

A bodhisatta or future Buddha cannot attain any of these states, since they all imply non-rebirth as a human being at some point in the future. The Buddha says he has been reborn many times as a Bodhisatta over countless eons. One sees that the path of the arahant is not the only possible path, but only one possible path. 

Seven Kinds of Person

According to another classification, the Buddha recognizes seven kinds of persons: the two-ways-liberated person, the wisdom-liberated person, the body-witness, one who has attained-to-view, the faith-liberated person, the dhamma follower, and the faith follower. We have already discussed the concepts of liberation by wisdom and faith as well as the dhamma and faith followers. We have also discussed tranquility meditation (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassana). Samatha means literally “quietude of the heart.” Vipassana means “intuition.”

The practice of samatha results in the pacification of the physical body by means of the form and formless meditations, the eight jhanas. The practice of vipassana results in the pacification of the mental body through the destruction of the taints, viz., sensuality, lust for living, ignorance, and the detachment induced by deeply understanding the nature of existence, especially impermanence. Now this structure has been set up, one can see how these seven types of person fit into it. As the name implies, one liberated-both-ways has mastered both quietude and insight. The one liberated by wisdom has not mastered quietude, but he has mastered insight. Both of these types of practice are, the Buddha says, sufficient to attain arahantship. Nothing more remains to be done. Thus, there are different paths to the same goal, suited to different types of aspirant.

The body-witness has mastered quietude, but has only incomplete detachment. One who has attained-to-view has not mastered quietude, but has partly developed detachment, as well as an intellectual understanding of the dhamma. The one attained-by-faith has not mastered quietude, but has partly developed detachment and he has developed complete faith in the Buddha. The dhamma follower has not mastered quietude or detachment, but he accepts the dhamma intellectually and has acquired the five faculties of an arahant, viz., faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom, but only somewhat. Finally, the faith follower has not mastered quietude or detachment, but has complete faith in the Buddha and has developed the five faculties to a degree. All of these types of human being are capable of reaching enlightenment in this life, but not necessarily without further cultivation.

When one considers these classifications as a whole, one sees how deeply karmic the Buddha’s fundamental understanding is. Human beings are caught in a mirage, characterized by endless cycles of time and causality, entropy and negentropy, driven by the real force of kamma that is in turn actuated by intention based on ignorance and desirous attachment in an endless series of lives that have no discernible beginning or end, characterized by non-self-identity, impermanence and change, and suffering. However, human beings also have the innate capacity, through the quality of sentience, to “wake up,” to see the reality of their existence. Through the perfection of non-intentionality resulting from the cultivation of insight and tranquility, the direction of kamma can be reversed, resulting in emancipation from the mirage, and the attainment of perfect wisdom and bliss in a state of ultimate immortality that is beyond rational comprehension and trans-dual.

Non-intentionality itself is trans-dual, because it is not rooted in desire or revulsion. Non-intentionality is a state of perfect clarity of mind, without attachment to the dichotomies of thought. The Buddhist path is based on the essential idea of universal and individual causation. Kamma acts as both a glue and an energy that binds the whole process together, yet is in itself essentially mysterious. Kamma equates to volition in its primary, ignorant state. Kamma in itself is neither “good” nor “bad.” The same force that binds us is also the force of emancipation. It is the essential dynamic of reality itself. Without this ultimate and essential dynamic, there would be neither becoming nor liberation, but simply the stasis of nothingness.

Four Kinds of Persons

With respect to the ultimate goal, the Buddha further identifies four kinds of persons: those who attain nibbana through volitional exertion and those who attain it without volitional exertion, either during life or at death. Volitional exertion includes contemplating the unattractiveness of the body, impermanence, perceiving the repulsiveness in food, discontent with the world, and strong awareness of death. This is the classical model of the renunciant or ascetic. Attaining nibbana without volitional exertion includes seclusion from sensual pleasures and unwholesome states and the mastery of tranquility meditation and the four jhanas.  All these types of person must also cultivate the five powers of a trainee (sekha), viz., faith, shame, fear of wrongdoing, energy, and wisdom, and the five faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. 

The Eight Jhanas

The renunciation of the five lower fetters, viz., self-view, skepticism, attachment to rites and rituals, craving, and anger, equivalent to the stage of the non-returner, is developed by means of the four jhanas or meditative attainments. The first jhana is attained by giving up possessiveness, unwholesome states, and “tranquilizing the bodily inertia.” It is a cognitive state associated with rapture, happiness, and seclusion. He experiences existence as impermanent, suffering, and empty of self. He turns his mind to the “deathless element,” nibbana, either experiencing the destruction of the taints or, if there is a trace of craving left, being reborn in the Pure Abodes. Thus, he experiences the stage of a non-returner.

With the subsiding of thought and examination, he experiences the second jhana.

With the fading away of rapture, he experiences the third jhana.

With the subsiding of pleasure and pain, he experiences the fourth jhana. He experiences perfect mindfulness and equanimity.

Upon the passing away of the perception of form and sensory impingement, he realizes the first formless jhana, called Infinite Space.

Upon transcending the perception of the infinity of space, he realizes Infinite Consciousness. This is the second formless jhana.

Upon transcending the experience of infinite consciousness, he realizes Nothingness. This is the third formless jhana.

Dying Consciously

The Buddha also taught the practice of yoga in conjunction with the process of dying. Dying consciously can be a powerful spiritual practice. When the lay follower Dighawu was dying, he asked his father, Jotika, to fetch the Buddha. The Buddha came to Dighawu to offer him spiritual instruction. Once the Buddha confirmed Dighawu was dying, he advised Dighawu to cultivate faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. That this advice was directed to Dighawu’s rebirth is made clear by the Buddha’s recommendation Dighawu resolve to cultivate the moral virtues – clearly not a recommendation that has much relevance to someone who is already in the final stages of life. These four factors are the standard list for stream-entry. The Buddha is clearly encouraging Dighawu to become a stream-enterer, either in this life or the next.

When Dighawu confirms he has already attained stream-entry, the Buddha recommends he cultivate six additional factors, viz., the progressive realization of impermanence, suffering, non-self, renunciation, “fading away,” and cessation. Dighawu declares he has already mastered these meditations too. By means of these meditations, Dighawu is declared to have achieved the stage of non-returning. He has overcome the five fetters and been born in a dewa world.

One can influence one’s future rebirths through intention. It also suggests that the stage of dying itself is a valuable opportunity to develop the spiritual life. This view was greatly developed in the Tibetan system of the phowa, based on the cultivation of the post-mortem state. It also shows, through the cultivation of the six things that partake of true knowledge, how one may overcome the five fetters and attain the state of a non-returner. Once again, wisdom takes priority in the practice of cultivation.

Seven Factors of Enlightenment

The Buddha identifies seven factors of enlightenment attained by five kinds of non-returners, including one who attains arahantship early in this life, at death, in “the interval,” “upon landing,” without volitional exertion, with volitional exertion, or, finally, in the Akanittha realm. Akanittha is the highest Pure Abode. This passage is exceptionally interesting, especially the references to attaining arahantship “in the interval,” “upon landing,” and “becoming one bound upstream.”

According to the orthodox Therawadin interpretation, based on commentaries written hundreds of years later, these refer to emancipation attained at death, upon rebirth as a dewa, during the first quarter of one’s lifespan in the Pure Abodes, during the second quarter, or during the second half. This interpretation ignores both the meaning of the terms and the sequence. Even Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is or was a Therawadin, recognizes the artificiality of this interpretation on purely linguistic grounds. Both Bodhi and Dr. Peter Masefield take the obvious meaning of this passage, based also on the famous simile of the flaming chip in the Anguttara Nikaya,[1] to refer to the current life, the moment of dying, the post-mortem state “in between” this life and the next rebirth, rebirth in the Pure Abodes, or finally during one’s life in the Akanittha state, after having passed through the Five Pure Abodes. With and without volitional exertion then become the two modes of attainment that apply to subsequent rebirths.

Bodhi’s interpretation is clearly the obvious and natural meaning. However, it presents a grave problem for Therawadins. They deny the reality of an intermediate post-mortem state. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s support for this interpretation is all the more remarkable for this reason. As an aside, Bodhi himself does seem to have changed his allegiances somewhat. He has left Sri Lanka and taken up residence in the Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey.[2] Bodhi Monastery is a Chinese Mahayana monastery with a strong basis in the Pali suttas. Apparently, Bodhi himself now teaches the Mahayana interpretation of the suttas in his classes, in addition to the Therawada view. In addition to recognizing the reality of an intermediate post-mortem state, Bodhi refers to the superiority of the path of a bodhisatta in his introduction to this section. Bodhi’s praise for the path of a bodhisatta is extremely unusual for a Therawadin monk. Also remarkable is the fact this is an early text.

One finds the post-mortem state described in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The yoga of conscious dying is based on the teachings of the great guru Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava recognized the reality of an intermediate post-mortem state called the bardo. Bardo means interval or “the in between.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead develops an elaborate phenomenology and yoga of the bardo state. It is based on the significance of the moment of death. That this doctrine is presaged in the Pali Canon shows the degree to which the later Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions depend on a deep appreciation of the Pali suttas. The bardo or “interval” falls outside the ontological classification of the 31 planes of existence. Nevertheless, it is also a state from and within which one can attain nibbana. Tibetan Buddhism appears to be the only tradition that has preserved this particular aspect of the Pali Canon.

When the Venerable Khemaka is dying, he declares he has overcome the five aggregates subject to clinging, including the identification of the “I” with the five aggregates, but he has not overcome the notion or conceit of “I am.” Thus, he makes a distinction between “I am” and “This I am.” Bodhi explains this as a residual conceit and desire associated with the “odour of subjectivity” connected with the belief in personal identity. The “I am” is not identified with any particular form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, or consciousness, based on the metaphor of the flower’s scent. I would explain it as an underlying belief in a separate ego resulting from fundamental ignorance, still not overcome. Its root is the metaphysical underpinning of the delusion of atta (self), detached from identification with objects but not from self-identification or exclusiveness.

Atta is distinct from the idea of the mind stream, in that it is exclusive. The mind stream is a “true self” not exclusive of anything and thus trans-dual. I would regard the latter as the ontological underpinning of the illusory self still mired in ignorance. One can reconcile the doctrine of anatta with the idea of a mind stream. It is necessary if one is to regard sangsara as a mirage and not merely a (nonexistent) “illusion.” Even an illusion is grounded in ontology.

The Buddha and the Arhant

Both the Buddha and an arahant are liberated by non-clinging. Their essential identity raises the question of the difference between them. The Buddha says he is self-realized, whereas the arahant is liberated by the wisdom resulting from the dhamma discovered and taught by the Buddha. In other words, it is a matter of seniority. Thus, the Buddha says,

so long as a Tathagata has not arisen in the world, an Arahant, a Perfectly Enlightened One, for just so long there is no manifestation of great light and radiance, but then blinding darkness prevails, a dense mass of darkness; for just so long there is no explaining, teaching, proclaiming, establishing, disclosing, analyzing, or elucidating of the Four Noble Truths. But … when a Tathagata arises in the world, an Arahant, a Perfectly Enlightened One, then there is the manifestation of great light and radiance; then no blinding darkness prevails, no dense mass of darkness; then there is the explaining, teaching, proclaiming, establishing, disclosing, analyzing, and elucidating of the Four Noble Truths.

 In other words, time and history are intrinsically entropic, whereas the power of the truth of dhamma is inherently negentropic.

The Buddha identifies ten powers of the arahant and ten powers of the Buddha.

 Comparison of the Powers of an Arhant and a Buddha

Ten Powers of an Arahant Ten Powers of a Buddha
Impermanence Possibility and impossibility
Craving and suffering Results of actions
Seclusion and renunciation Ways leading everywhere
Four establishments of mindfulness Elements of the world
Four perfect kinds of striving Inclinations of beings
Four bases of spiritual power Disposition of beings
Five spiritual faculties Process of emancipation and attainment
Five powers of an aspirant Recalling past lives
Seven factors of enlightenment Divine eye (karmic destinations)
Supermundane Eightfold Path Emancipation (destruction of the taints)


Four establishments of mindfulness: contemplating the body, contemplating feelings, contemplating mind, contemplating phenomena

Four perfect kinds of striving: non-arising, abandonment, arising, maintenance (perfect effort)

Four bases for spiritual power: intention, effort, consciousness, investigation

Five spiritual faculties: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, wisdom

Five powers of an aspirant: faith, shame, fear of wrongdoing, energy, wisdom

Seven factors of enlightenment: mindfulness, discrimination, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration, equanimity

Supermundane Eightfold Path: perfect view, perfect intention, perfect speech, perfect action, perfect livelihood, perfect effort, perfect mindfulness,  perfect concentration

There appears to be a one-to-one correspondence between these terms. However, an essential difference is that all of the powers of an arahant are primarily mental powers or realizations pertaining to the attainment of emancipation. These include various realizations concerning the nature of existence (impermanence, craving, suffering, etc.). However, the ten powers of a Buddha are all primarily ontological. A significant number of these powers are associated with kamma, viz., knowing what is possible and impossible; causes and possibilities; the types of conduct and future destinies to which they lead, including emancipation; the inclinations and dispositions of beings, corresponding to a kind of clairvoyance; recalling past lives; and seeing the karmic destinies of beings (the so-called “divine eye”).

The nibbana of an arahant appears to be exclusive of sangsara. The nibbana of a Buddha includes all this plus a deep understanding of sangsara, and not only from the perspective of the absolute. I suspect this comes about because of the difference between the path of the four stages of an arahant compared with the path of a bodhisatta in relation to sangsara: i.e., the arahant renounces sangsara, whereas the bodhisatta chooses to remain with the world. Thus, the realization of an arahant excludes sangsara; a Buddha includes it in a way the arahant does not, including what can only be called psychic powers. Rooted in the attainment of an arahant, the attainment of a Buddha takes precedence over that of an arahant, not only in relation to time but also in terms of the quality of his realization of kamma and the nature of experience. This is characterized by the perfect awakening, detachment, and truthfulness of a Tathagata, whose speech and actions are in perfect accord with each other and reality itself.

[1] Anguttara Nikaya, Book of the Sevens, Sutta 55.

[2] Bodhi Monastery was founded in 2000 by Master Jen-Chun, a disciple of Taiwanese Master Yin-Shun. The monastery adheres to a holistic, non-sectarian vision that seeks to harmonize ancient Pali and Mahayana approaches to the dhamma based on the bodhisatta ideal.


Fundamental View: Talk 9

Presented to the Buddha Center, Second Life on August 10 and 13, 2013

Talk 9

The Cultivation of Wisdom

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


In previous talks we have discussed the importance of wisdom in the spiritual quest, but what kind of wisdom is this? The Buddha compares wisdom to the lights of the moon, sun, and fire; he declares the light of wisdom to be greater than these. In a remarkable simile, in a sermon presented, not to monks, but to nuns, the Buddha compares the supermundane wisdom of dhamma to a butcher’s knife “that cuts, servers and carves away the inner defilements, fetters, and bonds just as the butcher cuts, severs, and carves away the inner tendons, sinews, and ligaments of a cow.” This simile is remarkable, in the context of the universal Indian veneration for the cow and the quasi-tradition of Buddhist vegetarianism (I say “quasi,” because the Buddha himself never regarded vegetarianism as mandatory).

The Indian reverence for the cow must be very ancient. The Rigveda says, “[t]he fiend who consumes flesh of cattle, with flesh of horses and of human bodies, who slaughters the milk producing cow, O Agni, tear off the heads of such with fiery fury.” Nevertheless, the ancient Brahmans also sacrificed cows and ate their meat in a ritual context. The Buddha’s words must have struck the ears of his listeners as a very powerful and even offensive metaphor. Perhaps it was designed to offend the Brahmans, who the Buddha criticized openly, often, and severely.[1] In other words, the wisdom of the Buddha is an anti-Brahman wisdom.

Perfect View

The Buddha identifies eight preconditions for developing true wisdom. These preconditions include an attitude of reverence toward a teacher. The teacher may include a fellow monk – another indication of the Buddha’s egalitarianism. Also included are receiving teachings from a teacher; physical and mental withdrawal; ethical self-restraint; investigating and penetrating the teachings; effort directed toward abandoning the unwholesome and cultivating the wholesome; not engaging in rambling and pointless talk, either talking about the dhamma or keeping silent; and deeply realizing the truth of impermanence.

When asked, “What is Perfect View?”, synonymous with the realization of wisdom, Sariputta, renowned as the arahant foremost in wisdom, identifies 16 realizations. These realizations constitute Perfect View, viz., understanding the root of the wholesome and the unwholesome; the four “nutriments” so-called, which include food, contact, volition, and consciousness; the truth of suffering; aging and death; birth; existence; clinging; craving; feeling;  contact; the six senses; name and form; consciousness; volitional formations (sankhāras); ignorance; and the taints (āsawas). These realizations lead to the realization of the Supermundane Eightfold Path. Twelve of these, starting with aging and death and ending with ignorance, correspond to the twelve links in the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda). These include three of the four nutriments. 

The Five Complexes

The Buddha says that his enlightenment arose out of a state of direct knowledge or gnosis based on the realization of the Five Aggregates. The twelvefold chain of cause and effect, the general principle of interdependency, resolves itself into the twelve nidanas. The nidanas consist of ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, mind and matter, the six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and aging and dying. The Five Aggregates are a subset of this list. They consist of mental formations, consciousness, form, perception, contact-feeling, and clinging. The latter is applied to the previous five, all rooted in desire. Thus, the Five Aggregates constitute a subset of the nidanas (literally, “causes”), but in a different order. One wonders if the aggregates preceded the causes as an early version of the latter.

Comparison of the Causal Chain and the Five Complexes

The 12 Causes (nidānas)

The Five Complexes (khandhas)

Unconscious (awijjā)
Potentiation (sankhāra) Volitional formations (sankhāra) (4)
Mentation (vinnyana) Consciousness (vinnyana) (5)
Psychophysical complex (nāmarūpa) Form (rūpa) (1)
Six apperceptions (salāyatana) Perception (sannya) (3)
Sensing (phassa) Feeling (vedanā) (2)
Feeling (vedanā)
Desiring (tanhā) “Rooted in desire”
Attachment (upādanā) “Subject to clinging”
Living (bhāwa)
Rebirth (jāti)
Dying (jāramarana)

All these factors must be understood in dynamic process terms, rather than as objective constituents or things. It is hard to convey this concept in English, due to the linguistic distinction between verbs (actions) and nouns (things). The closest one can come in English is the use of the process-participle, indicated by the suffix “ing.” Although presented in linear sequence, the nidanas are all connected by the doctrine of interdependency. Therefore, they are not truly linear – the nidanas are all aspects of a singular and complex, universal process, all aspects of which condition and are correlated to each other. Thus, they are essentially inseparable.

The Buddha states the Five Aggregates are rooted in desire, the craving that constitutes the eighth nidana of the twelvefold chain of cause and effect. He emphasizes, through desire or intention, that one can profoundly influence the state of one’s future rebirths. The idea of self arises from attachment to the Five Aggregates. Non-attachment to the Five Aggregates based on the realization of their essential nature, i.e., impermanence and suffering, results in non-identification with them. In this way, the realization of anatta, no-self, the third characteristic of existence, arises. Another basis for the arising of the realization of no-self is the inability to control form. If form were self, form would be amenable to change based on volition. However, this is not the case. So for the remaining aggregates. In other words, one experiences oneself as subject to the Five Aggregates. The fact the aggregates are not subject to volition proves the Five Aggregates are not a self.

A further subset of the Five Aggregates includes eye, forms, eye-consciousness, eye-contact, ear, mind, mind-contact, etc. The senses, the sensations, and the sensed altogether constitute “the all” (sabba). The first three aggregates, perception-form-feeling, are the essential core set. The Buddha says, without detachment from and renunciation of the All, suffering cannot be overcome. In a famous simile, the Buddha says the All is burning with lust, hatred, delusion, birth, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair. Through detachment, the mind is liberated, birth is destroyed, the spiritual life has been lived, and there is no more rebirth through liberation from the taints by not clinging. Detachment is the result of realizing the essential truth of impermanence. In this way, one sees that the immediate causes of liberation are ultimately reducible to the realization of wisdom or insight, i.e., the realization or recognition of the true nature of things. Ananda declares the world is empty. The ontological realization of emptiness was further developed in the Mahayana. The Buddha confirms Ananda’s insight. He declares the world, consciousness, and the rest are empty of self.  Nothing samsaric is or can be self. 


The Buddha compares form to a bubble, a mirage, the coil of a banana tree, or a magical illusion. The Buddha refers to the magician who creates the illusion of samsara as doing so at a crossroads. The shamanic practice of meeting at crossroads is a universal archetype. In India, the god Bhairawa, an older version of Shiva, is said to guard the crossroads at the outskirts of villages. Stone phalluses and statues of Bhairawa’s watchful eyes represent him as a guardian of the boundaries. The Buddha recognizes form as inherently void, hollow, and insubstantial. It is remarkable in explanations of quantum physics that the underlying subatomic structure of matter is frequently described as quantum “froth.” It is as though one were to investigate the intricate structures of the froth of a wave breaking upon the shore. It exists for an instant, then is gone. If one looks at it closely and quickly enough, it contains worlds within worlds. Through this understanding, one is liberated.

We have referred to sangsara, the cycle of transmigration, commonly translated as “existence,” as a mirage. The Therawadins claim the Buddha did not talk about the trans-dual, despite explicit references to duality and its transcendence all through the Pali Canon. The Buddha says of sangsara,

This world … for the most part depends upon a duality – upon the idea of existence and upon the idea of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of nonexistence with respect to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world. … ‘All exists’: this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering toward either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the dhamma by the middle. (italics added)

Similarly, in the Udana the Buddha says,

There is, bhikkhus, that base (tadayatanam) where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; neither this world nor another world or both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkhus, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering. (Ud. 81.) (italics added)


Here, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: “In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized.” In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya. “When, Bahiya, for you what is seen is merely what is seen … in the cognized is merely what is cognized, then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘with that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘with that,’ then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘in that,’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘in that,’ then, Bahiya, you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering.” (Ud. 1.10) (italics added)

These passages and many others suggest the Buddha did teach non-duality, with apologies to Bhikkhu Bodhi.[2]

These passages imply the Mahayana doctrine of the two truths: relative and absolute. Therefore, to describe sangsara simply as illusory is oversimplified. Illusions do not simply “not exist.” Even if sangsara is illusory from the perspective of the absolute, or reality itself, it is nevertheless experienced and therefore real in some sense, i.e., in the sense in which it is experienced, from the perspective of the relative. The Buddha’s discussion of kamma in the context of nibbana “with residue” confirms this view.

I prefer the metaphor of a mirage – a metaphor the Buddha also used – to that of an illusion. From this, one may infer, absurdly, sangsara is not grounded in reality. It becomes appropriate to inquire into how sangsara comes about in the context of reality itself, i.e., what is the ontological function of sangsara?  Clearly, sangsara must fulfil some function in relation to reality. The Buddha says in the face of the doctrine of impermanence that the Four Truths are actual, unerring, and invariable. The doctrine of impermanence itself is relative. The “absolute” truth of sangsara is also relative from the perspective of the absolute, since suffering is definitely transcended in the experience of nibbana.

The Nirvana Element

The Buddha refers to nibbana as the non-disintegrating, the non-manifest, the non-proliferated, the deathless, and the non-conditioned. He explicitly alludes to the ontological character of nibbana as absolute reality. The Buddha says, “There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned [ajātang, akatang, abhūtang, asankhatang]. If, monks, there were no unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned.”

People think of nibbana as singular. I have alluded to the view of Hanshan that there are two nibbanas: one imperfect, one perfect. I have also referred to the nibbana of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the nibbana associated with the Buddha’s “passing on,” or death (the parinibbana). The Buddha himself identifies two nibbanas – one “with residue,” and one without. The “residue” referred to is kamma. Karmic residue is inherited from the past. Therefore, it does not seem past kamma is necessarily destroyed entirely by the realization of nibbana. The arahant who has attained nibbana with residue still experiences pleasure and pain. The arahant without residue is completely liberated through final knowledge upon his passing on. Presumably, an arahant who attains emancipation with no karmic residue will die immediately upon his enlightenment. Arahantship is a state of perfect liberation and transcendence in which there is no experience of pleasure and pain. A bodhisatta, then, at least potentially, is an arahant with residue, the residue in this case being the kamma of compassion.


The common view of kamma is that kamma is the product of action. However, this is simplistic. It is more like the Jain than the Buddhist view. The Buddha says, “what one intends and what one plans and whatever one has a tendency toward: this becomes a basis for the continuance of consciousness. … But … when one does not intend and does not plan and does not have a tendency toward anything, no basis exists for the continuation of consciousness.” Non-intentionality is the true meaning of Buddhist detachment. One is reminded of the saying of Yeshua, “You shall not be concerned about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be concerned for itself.” Intention and not action is the essential causal factor. Once one realizes this fully, one realizes all rules, observances, social and ethical norms, rituals, and practices are mere skilful means (upāya). Skilful means are not at all like the imperious absolutes that have been the bane of so many religions, Buddhism included. However, this does not mean one becomes inactive. Rather, any actions are undertaken without attachment and are therefore non-intentional. The evidence for this is the life of the Buddha himself.

The Universal View

Some might take the view that the Buddha taught the entirety of the spiritual life. Therefore, there is nothing concerning the spiritual life he did not teach. However, the Buddha, as the most recent Buddha, was also the shortest-lived. He taught during the most degenerate age, when the lifespan of human beings is only 120 years. They cite for this view the statement of the Buddha that he held nothing back, holding nothing in secret. However, the Buddha directly contradicts this notion when he says, “the things that I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few.” He compares the things he has taught to a handful of leaves in relation to the leaves of the simsapa tree. The simsapa was probably rosewood, the leaves of which are very numerous. It is more correct to say that the Buddha taught what is fundamental or essential to the spiritual life. He did not teach everything. This is consistent with our view that the Buddha taught the perennial philosophy. The perennial or primordial philosophy comprises the totality of the spiritual life by definition. In other words, the Buddha limited what he taught to the limitations of his hearers in this degenerate age. It follows, therefore, that the horizons of the spiritual life should open up before one as one progresses, rather than being limited to what the Buddha did and said. The fundamentalist view constricts the spiritual life.

When the Buddha says he eschews speculation, he is not saying that the subject matter of speculation is empty of meaning. Rather, the Tathagata has experienced the truth of the matter. For this reason, he eschews speculation. The Buddha does not refuse to discuss the trans-dual because it is meaningless or unreal. Rather, it is because it transcends the comprehension of his (unenlightened) audience.

[1] Compare Yeshua’s attitude to the Pharisees.

[2] Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Dhamma and Non-duality” (Access to Insight, 2011),


Bodhi appears to support the philosophical concept of a fundamental and non-reducible ontological dualism. Dualism has had a rather checkered history in philosophy.


In this blog, I have briefly discussed the Buddhist Council of Canada and the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies (What’s Wrong with This Picture). Recently I have learned that the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies may be seeking funding to re-establish itself in Toronto, after being closed down by the Ontario Ministry of Education in 2006. In view of this new development, I am publishing the following extract from the Afterword of my forthcoming book, Fundamental View: Ten Talks on the Pali Canon.  If you are considering funding this school or enrolling for courses offered by it, you have been warned.


In 2001 I enrolled in a postgraduate certificate program offered by the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies in Toronto, Ontario,[1] entitled “Introduction to the Pali Canon.” Given the name and reputation of the school, staffed by academics associated with the University of Toronto and McMaster University no less, I expected the school to provide a comprehensive, unbiased, and thorough analytical study of the Pali Canon, but I was disappointed by the quality and tenor of the program, which barely met a high school standard, taught by a Pali linguist who knew the Pali language but had no philosophical understanding of his subject. More shockingly, the teacher openly presented himself to his students as a Luddite, nationalist, religious bigot, and sympathizer with the genocidal Sri Lankan regime, at a time when as many as 120,000 Tamil civilians were being murdered by the Sri Lankan government during the bloody Sri Lankan civil war.[2] A central theme of his teaching and subsequent writings has been an overtly racist pseudo-academic popularization of the Buddhadharma, in which the significance of the Buddha’s Indian heritage was systematically denigrated. I withdrew from the program in 2002.

Nalanda College was subsequently denied permission by the Ministry of Education of the Province of Ontario to offer degrees in Buddhist studies,[3] and was shut down. The school was forced to refund the tuition of at least one student,[4] and as far as I know, never issued a single certificate of completion to any student for its expensive and mediocre program of study.


[1] The Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies was founded in 2000 by Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri (1936 – ?). Sugunasiri ran this school out of his U of T office using the equipment and facilities of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). Refused admission by the University of Ceylon, Sugunasiri managed to acquire a mail-order B.A. from the University of London in 1958, while earning a living as a clerk, short-story writer, and dancer [sic]. He managed to parlay this rather meager beginning into Masters degrees in linguistics (1966) and moral philosophy (1971), followed by a Ph.D. in political science (1978). After relocating to Canada to work as a high school teacher, and pursue an academic career, described by himself as “checkered,” he founded the Buddhist Council of Canada, which was shut down by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in 1989 for failing to file the required financial statements, even though Sugunasiri himself admits that he did not begin to study Buddhism seriously until 1999. Sugunasiri’s Wikipedia biography was deleted by Wikipedia for, in their words, “unambiguous advertising or promotion” (the Wikipedia page was subsequently rewritten and restored, but the current page now has a warning stating that the page does not meet Wikipedia’s notability guidelines for biographies and may be deleted). Rate My Professor has also published critical accounts of this professor by seven ex-students. The University has also recently prohibited the Buddhist Council of Canada, of which Sugunasiri is the President (currently on a leave of absence), from using U of T email addresses on its website (personal communication). Sugunasiri has also published photographs of himself online with the Dalai Lama and with Herbert Guenther during the period of the latter’s senility, even though he has publicly denigrated Indian Buddhism and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

[2] CBC Radio broadcast

[3] Letter dated December 22, 2006 from Christopher Bentley, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities of the Province of Ontario, addressed to Dr. S. Sugunasiri.

[4] This student was given a failing grade for a paper that was at least as good, if not better, than the paper on the basis of which he was admitted to the school in the first place, probably because he was gay, using a variety of academic pretenses which subsequent inquiry proved to be false (e.g., “serious scholars do not study the Jatakas,” “Tantra is not Buddhist,” etc.). The school’s lawyers attempted to silence him by having him sign an agreement not to criticize the school as a condition of receiving a tuition refund, which he refused to do. These actions violated both his Charter rights under the Canadian Constitution and the University of Toronto’s policies concerning classroom utilization by third parties.


[1] Canadian revoked charities – detail page, Buddhist Council of Canada,, accessed August 9, 2013

[1] Suwanda HJ Sugunasiri,, accessed August 9, 2013

[1] Rate My Professors – Suwanda Sugunasiri,, accessed August 9, 2013

[1] Speedy deletion Wiki – Suwanda HJ Sugunasiri,, accessed on August 9, 2013

[2] CBC radio,, uploaded Feb. 14, 2009

[3] Letter to Dr. S. Sugunasiri from Christopher Bentley, Minister, Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, dated December 22, 2006,, accessed August 9, 2013

[4] Personal communication


I have recently discovered that there is a connection between the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, the Buddhist Council of Canada, and the Church of Scientology in Canada. I am researching this further and will provide more details as they are confirmed. Sept. 7, 2014