Monthly Archives: July 2015

Buddhist Hermeneutics and the Problem of Tradition

Dedicated to Bhikku Sujato

Zen monkBuddhist hermeneutics – from the Greek hermeneutikos, “of or for interpreting,” commonly but erroneously associated with the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the Gods  – is still in its infancy in the West, as the Dharma Transmission to the West, now in its 108th year, continues to take hold and proliferate. The most common Buddhist hermeneutic, especially amongst both traditional and modern Theravadins, is historicism, i.e., the belief that the meaning of the Buddhist message is identical with the words uttered by Siddattha Gotama (c. 445 – c. 400 BCE), the historical Buddha. Although this hermeneutic may seem to many to be straightforward and self-evident, critical evaluation reveals it to involve numerous problems, including:

  1. Objective identification of the actual historical words of the Buddha (the Buddhavacana);
  2. Determination of the correct meanings of the words and the doctrines that they imply;
  3. Resolution of apparent contradictions;
  4. Resolution of apparent nonsense, including the problem of what nonsense actually is in the context of cultural relativism (i.e., what may be nonsense to you may not be nonsense to me and vice versa, and what may be nonsense to us may not have been nonsense 2,500 years ago); and
  5. The question of whether the Buddhavacana is comprehensive, complete, and exclusive, even if it is accurate and true.

These problems occur against a religious backdrop that tends to hold, influenced by the Buddhist doctrine of the “degenerate age,” that “later = bad,” thus disparaging later texts as inherently non-historical and dubious, even within the canonical tradition of the Pali Canon itself. This kind of analytical necrotizing fasciitis threatens to devolve into nihilism. The latter also represents a decisive break with orthodox Theravada, even though many people who criticize the Pali Canon in this way hold themselves out to be Theravadin.

The orthodox Theravada, which still has numerous adherents, both in Asia and in the West, holds that the Pali texts of the Pali Canon, including the Vinaya, Suttas, and Abhidhamma, all incorporate the exact words used by Siddattha Gotama, in the language spoken by the Buddha, remembered pre-eminently by Ananda, who was graced with the gift of photographic memory, and verified by the arhants of the First Buddhist Council and their successors who were perfect and infallible in their understanding of the dharma. Thus, the collective text of the Pali Canon is the literal Buddhavacana, handed down without error for 2,500 years. We in the West are of course familiar with such thinking amongst Jews and Christians (the Bible is the literal inspired Word of Yahweh or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and Muslims (the Qur’an is the literal Word of Allah, dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel and preserved through an impeccable process of collation, after which all deviant texts were destroyed).

However, even if we accept the orthodox premise, the problem of hermeneutics is not yet solved. There is still the problem of interpreting the meaning of the language of the infallibly revealed scriptures and doctrines and the questions of whether these meanings are complete and comprehensive, and whether the texts themselves exhaust all possible meanings, therefore illegitimizing any subsequent interpretation.

A lot of academic and scholarly effort has been put into the Pali Canon in the past hundred years, thanks to the pioneering efforts of F. Max Muller, Rhys Davids, and others. Although there are extremists who deny any legitimacy to the Pali Canon, the general consensus today is that the Pali Canon, especially the Four Great Nikayas, so-called (the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara), represent the historically oldest strata of Buddhist scriptures, and are probably substantially similar to the books that were compiled in the first century BCE, three hundred years after the death of the Buddha, even though we have few texts actually dating from that period due to the perishable nature of the writing materials that were used. This has led some denialists to reject the Pali Canon tradition entirely as the invention of “Western Orientalists.” It might even be true that these texts are substantially similar to the texts as they appeared in the mid-third century BCE, about 150 years after the Buddha’s death. (For comparison, this corresponds to the Christian literature between 180 and 380 CE, none of which is canonical.)

On the other hand, the Pali Canon has the virtues of repetition and size, so that it is possible to identify recurrent themes in the texts that were presumably emphasized in the original teachings. However, even here there is controversy. The important Polish Buddhologist, Stanislaw Schayer, undeservedly little known in the West, opined that the exceptional, contrary, and idiosyncratic material that was left in the Pali Canon may be even more significant than the stock doctrines precisely because they were left in the Canon by its conservative redactors. By emphasizing these teachings, Schayer arrives at a proto-Mahayanist view that contradicts the mainstream view that still regards the Theravada as the most historically authentic school. Based on the current consensus of the dates of the Buddha, called the “median chronology,” which places his “passing on” (parinibbana) about 400 BCE, these texts were passed down orally for about three hundred years before being committed to writing, although some parts of some texts may have been written down as early as the third century BCE. The Four Nikayas consist of several thousand suttas, or “discourses,” mostly attributed to the Buddha, purportedly delivered over the course of forty-five years after his Enlightenment experience. These include the places, names of the interlocutors, and sometimes evidential information concerning the relative dates of the discourses. However this information is highly dubious given two passages in the Vinaya that describe a process of arbitrarily assigning places to suttas for which places were not known, and discrepancies of places and people involved in discourses that are very similar or even identical (of course, it is also possible that the Buddha gave the same or similar discourses in different places, especially during the last years of his teaching career). On the other hand, the doctrinal significance of such differences is negligible.

In English translation, the Four Nikayas constitute about 6,000 pages, or two million words. This corresponds to roughly 250 hours of speech, about five hours for each year that the Buddha reportedly taught. The suttas represent the Buddha as engaged in a virtually continuous process of communication with monastics, lay followers, and interested visitors based on a dialogic question-and-answer process. Clearly, if this is true, five hours per year does not come close to what the Buddha must actually have said, even allowing for repetitions, which also occur in the Pali suttas themselves, so these cancel out. Even if we cautiously assume that the Buddha spoke for two hours per day, two days per week, his actual speech must have been nearly fifty times this. Thus, it seems that the view of the Dharmaguptaka, a sect of the Hinayana (c. 232 BCE), that the “original teachings of the Buddha had been lost,” is justified, at least in part. It has also been pointed out that many of the passages in the Pali Canon pertaining to the major doctrines are merely lists of headings; the doctrines themselves are not explained in any detail. Thus, a great range of interpretations is still possible.

Most scholars today do not believe that the Pali language in which the Pali Canon is preserved is the actual language of the historical Buddha. Rather, Pali appears to have been an artificial language hybridizing several prakrit dialects constructed post facto in order to address the increasing linguistic and geographic diversity of the Buddhist community (sangha) that originated in Western India during the third century BCE. On the other hand, it seems likely that Pali was similar to the language or languages that the Buddha actually spoke. Thanks to the herculean efforts of the Pali Text Society, especially the Pali-English Dictionary (1921-1925), Pali is fairly well understood, though more comparative and historical studies of the vocabulary as used throughout the Canon need to be done and are now possible using computer analysis. Pali and Sanskrit also draw on a common set of etymological roots in Vedic proto-Sanskrit, the study of which greatly facilitates interpretation and translation. Peter Masefield has complained, however, that Pali translators are insufficiently attentive to the technical philosophical meanings of the words.

The state of knowledge in this area has been nicely summarized by Bhikkus Sujato and Brahmali in their monograph on this topic entitled “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts,” published by Chroniker Press. Rhys Davids and Pande (Studies in the Origins of Buddhism, 4th ed., 1995) have also made significant contributions. Sujato and Brahmali appear to adhere to the revisionist Theravada school sometimes called “Modern Theravada,” a.k.a Progressive Theravada, Early Buddhism, or Original Buddhism. The main conclusion of this study that is relevant to the present discussion is that the Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs), which they identify generally with the Four Great Nikayas and some other texts including the Vinaya disciplinary code (patimokkha), parts of the Sutta Nipata, Udana, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, Theragatha, and Therigatha, are “authentic.”  Their general argument is that the description of the political geography, social conditions, economic conditions and trade, and religious context accurately correspond to the period during which the Buddha lived and taught; that the oral textual transmission is both reliable and dateable; that the remarkable vision and consistency of the Canon, including peculiarities that can only be explained historically, is evidence of a unitary founder who was a real historical person; that archaeological research supports the antiquity and accuracy of the Pali Canon and the reality of the Buddha; and that a comparison of later and earlier strata of the Canon shows an ideological development typical of other religions.

The whole tenor of Sujato and Brahmali’s argument consists of general assertions of this kind, such specific passages as they adduce having little or no doctrinal significance. However, even if we grant the veracity of this argument, it comes nowhere near proving their main thesis, their “theory of authenticity” (TOA), i.e., “that texts that purport of be the words of the historical Buddha and his immediate disciples were in fact spoken by them” (p. 9). Although their language largely finesses this point, if their argument is that the words contained in these texts accurately preserve the actual words of the historical Buddha, and not merely the general situation,[1] this conclusion is far too specific to be supported by the evidence that they adduce.  Perhaps it would be fair to say, then, that the Pali Canon preserves an overview or outline of the major doctrines of the historical Buddha as interpreted by his successors and preserved as they were perceived and understood roughly 150 to 300 years after the Buddha’s death. I believe Bhikku Bodhi has made the point more correctly when he states that the Pali Canon may include passages that resemble certain statements originally made by the Buddha. The problem then becomes how to identify and extract the utterances of the Buddha, such as they are, from the mass of material in which they are embedded, or if this is even possible.

Some Pali linguists would like to suggest that the strict application of a scientific methodology of Pali linguistics to the Pali Canon in combination with other critical methods could identify such passages. However, in practice one finds that such academics tend to find what they want to find, merely constructing an explanatory framework that justifies post facto their own particular ideological and cultural view. A prominent example of this that comes to mind is the work of University of Toronto professor (now retired) Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri. One can of course “connect the dots” to justify any particular theory in retrospect, simply rejecting passages as “late” or using other criteria (e.g., “Indian” or “Hindu” – Sugunasiri) that do not conform to one’s preferred interpretation, based on the fallacy already alluded to that “late = bad.” (Academics frequently fall into this hole.) Let us look at this hermeneutical doctrine in detail.

The assertion that “late = bad” is based on two premises: (1) that everything that is true about the Buddha’s teachings was said by the Buddha himself, and perhaps his immediate disciples, and (2) that no doctrinal development is possible or permissible. That is to say, that the Buddha’s teachings are comprehensive, complete, and exclusive. Therefore, all that is necessary is to identify the “original teachings.” However, I have already shown that it is extremely improbable that the Pali Canon preserves all of the original teachings of the Buddha or that it is even possible to identify the actual words of the Buddha. What we have is a composite of what the Buddha said, what his immediate disciples understood him to mean, and what their successors understood them all to mean, all inextricably interwoven together into an aggregate of texts, some earlier, some later, some a mixture of earlier and later, and some of indeterminate earliness or lateness, and all embedded in a particular cultural system or systems. Moreover, it is clear that the Pali tradition moved gradually over time after the Buddha’s death, first from northeast to western India, and then south to Sri Lanka, thus exposing it to a variety of cultural influences. If one’s objective were to identify actually and objectively the precise technical language used by the historical Buddha, on which alone precise hermeneutical interpretations could be based, I would submit that this state of affairs is so complex and so ineffable that it is, practically speaking, impossible to sort out in an analytical or reductionist way, leaving us with a non-exclusive “general outline” theory at best.

Moreover, even if we accept that we can identify in broad outline perhaps even most of the original teachings of the historical Buddha, does this mean (1) that we have actually understood what the Buddha meant by those teachings, or (2) that those meanings are incapable of further understanding through a process of progressive examination, refinement, elucidation, and realization?  With respect to the first point, the whole tenor of this discussion so far has been focused on the person of the historical Buddha. This bias corresponds to the use of the English word, “Buddhism,” literally “the doctrine of the one who understands.” However, if we accept the Pali text, the actual word used by the Buddha to refer to his philosophy is Dharma-Vinaya, literally “truth and training,” which might be interpreted as training in the truth, i.e., more or less what we might mean by “education” or “praxis of being.” Elsewhere he also refers to his followers as “sons of the Shakyan,” referring to Shakya, the Buddha’s home country. It is quite clear, however, that the Buddha’s object of concern was not himself, but rather the dharma or truth itself, in its most general and universal meaning, i.e., the truth of being or reality, which he discussed and debated with his contemporaries, not merely as personal opinions, but rather as an objective reality that can be discussed, known, understood, and realized both by individuals and collectively through a critical process.

The Buddha did not merely discuss the dharma with his disciples. If we accept the Buddha as the Buddha, then we accept him as the supreme expositor of this truth, at least when and where he lived, but there is no suggestion in the Pali texts themselves that the Buddha’s realization was personal, exclusive, or arbitrary in any sense. He also discussed it with other samanas, with whom he shared the desire to comprehend and realize this truth, even though they were not Buddhists. Therefore, this truth is objective. His doing so implies that he believed that it was possible for him and them to come to a shared understanding of the dharma. His primary purpose was not merely conversion or persuasion, but shared understanding, although of course by declaring himself Buddha he was also implying that his realization was superlative. Here we depart decisively from mere academic scholarship, which is only concerned with establishing “the facts of the matter,” generally in historicist and social contexts. As Buddhists, our primary focus is (or should be) not merely to understand the Buddha, but also, through understanding the Buddha, to understand the dharma. Thus, we have dharmic and non-dharmic (or profane) scholarship. While the latter may have utility to us, as Buddhists, only the former is of fundamental or ultimate concern. This raises many additional and subtle questions and concerns that go far beyond mere academic or profane scholarship.

Can we understand the dharma entirely and exclusively by understanding the person of the Buddha? Even the Buddha is ultimately merely an historically and culturally contingent phenomenon. Is the dharma something that is fixed or frozen in time, identical with the original words of the Buddha that we seek to discover in the Pali Canon? Is the dharma even “historical”? Is the Buddha the sole authority for understanding the dharma? If the dharma can be understood by his successors, and the Buddha’s teaching career makes no sense otherwise, then there must be successors who are also authorities, perhaps even buddhas themselves, whose utterances are therefore also relevant to understanding Buddhism, perhaps even more relevant than the Pali Canon, given its obscurity. If the Buddha has successors, then he may have had predecessors. There is no suggestion in the Pali Canon that the Buddha claimed to be unique. Rather, again, if we accept the relevant texts, the Buddha stated that he was merely rediscovering an ancient truth, known to but long forgotten by the Brahmans and perhaps others too. This provides additional contexts for understanding the dharma that go beyond the place, time, and historical and cultural circumstances of the Buddha. Ultimately, dharma is the truth of reality itself. Therefore, it cannot be separated from any other form of knowing. As the truth of reality, it must be universal and implicit in all. Since reality is boundless and indeterminate, it seems extremely improbable that the Pali Canon encodes or could encode the totality of dharma. Therefore, how can we restrict ourselves to it as anything other than a provisional foundation for further elaborations and exegeses, potentially even limitless in extent?


[1] In fact three forms of the TOA are identifiable: (1) the strong form: where the Pali Canon quotes the historical Buddha, it does so accurately, with little or no variation from his actual diction and syntax (the orthodox Theravadin view); (2) the semi-strong form: where the Pali Canon quotes the Buddha, it does so using diction and syntax that broadly resembles the actual diction and syntax of the historical Buddha; (3) the weak form: the general situations described in the Pali Canon accurately portray the life and times of the Buddha, including his general ideas; some actual sayings of the Buddha probably survive in the Canon, and it is possible to trace a kind of chronological development in the Canon. The weak form of the TOA necessarily allows for a broad range of alternative doctrinal formulations. At best, the evidence for the TOA supports the weak form.


Bennett, Tom. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Nov. 6, 2013.

Fry, Paul. Three Ways In and Out of the Hermeneutic Circle. Sept. 1, 2009.

Levman, Bryan. “Sakaya Niruttiya Revisited.”āya-niruttiyā.pdf.

Pande, Govind Chandra. Studies in the Origins of Buddhism.  4th ed. 1995.

Sujato and Brahmali. The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts. Toronto: Chroniker Press, [2015.]

Cosmic Buddha


The Arhant and the Buddha

“Every Buddha (awakened one) was an Arahant. Every Arahant was buddha (awakened).” T.W. Rhys Davids, Dialogues of the Buddha, Part III, p. 6

BodhisattaWhatever contestations may be proclaimed concerning the existence or non-existence of the bodhisatta concept in the Sutta Pitaka as anything other than a term for an “unenlightened Buddha,” no one can contest the coexistence of two interconnected concepts as the Arhant and the Buddha, fundamental in the Pali Canon. Yet even Rhys Davids asserts the duality in the unity of the Arhant and the Buddha. Logic attests, and the sutta confirms, that the Buddha is the precursor and indeed the precondition of the Arhant, Arhant though he be. A Buddha is therefore a First Arhant in an Age of Darkness, and the sutta asserts that there can never be another till the Buddha and all his words and doings have passed from human memory.  Only One can be first. Therefore, no equation is possible – one is unique and in that sense incongruous.

That one is a moment in an historical lineage, all manifesting a primordial Buddhahood, only serves to accent the difference between Buddhas and Arhants. The Buddhas reignite and thus pass on a lineage, each in its own unique historical circumstance, whereas the Arhants pass on that light which has been handed down to them and realized in and for themselves. The Buddha is solitary and contrary. He goes into the forest alone and though he studies and practices with others, in the end he is self-initiated and the discovery of the dharma his original yet primordial answer, a rare member in a rare line, but Arhants arise in numbers. The paradox of the singularity and multiplicity of the Buddhas highlights the absurdity of a single Buddha, which suffers from the problem, familiar to Christian theologians, of a “single saviour of all.” The horizontal requires differentiation. Yet the differentiation of Buddhas and the differentiation of Arhants are not the same. That which differentiates is the Power of Truth. For the Buddha, dharma realization arises from Enlightenment. For the Arhant, Enlightenment arises from dharma realization.  Rhys Davids’s incongruous ‘bees’ attest to an endless knot at the heart of the uncontestable unity of the Arhant and the Buddha.

The Buddha comes first. He suffers, aspires, achieves awakening and becomes an Arhant. He then teaches others who in turn become Arhants themselves and also teach others. For both Buddhas and arhants, at death the cycle of involuntary rebirth ends, but the path that leads to Buddhahood takes millions of lives compared to a maximum of seven for the arhant. The lineages of the Buddhas appear and disappear throughout the multiverse, spreading like bubbles or seeds from generation to generation because of the original and originating activity of the Buddha and his Arhant successors and their less than Arhant successors in a process of diminishing returns. Dharma proliferates due to the Power of Truth, but the Path of the Arhant suffers gradual decline. If there is degeneration, then it follows that the Arhant is degenerated compared to the Buddha who preceded him.

The powers of the Arhant point to the Arhant’s emphasis on desirous attachment, compared to the primary emphasis of the Buddha on ignorance, for it is clear from the Pali Canon that the cultivation of Wisdom is the essential salvific principle. If there is a difference, then they cannot be the same, though both might be awakened, inherent in the primogeniture of the Buddha. Arhant and Buddha are not equal, even though arhants might even be “buddhas” (with a lowercase b, note), two realizations that both lead to emancipation. But Buddhahood and Arhantship are inherently non-isomorphic.

ArhantThe Buddha taught the Path of the Arhant that leads to Arhantship, but is Arhantship Buddhahood? We have already seen that this cannot be. Therefore, the Buddha teaches a Path that is not the Path that he himself trod, a path which he identifies implicitly when he refers to himself as an “unenlightened bodhisatta” – a paradox in itself, since “bodhisatta’ means “wise one,” compared to Arhant, which merely means “venerable,” referring to the ascetics with which the Buddha had associated prior to his Enlightenment experience (and subsequently clearly rejected).

The Pali Canon makes it clear that the lives of human beings at the degenerate time of the Buddha were brutish and short. At first, the Buddha hesitated to teach at all, and considered becoming a paccekabuddha, but the divine realization that some might have such a light coating of dust that they might be able to apply the dharma, inspired him to teach those few who could hear the truth. In fact, the Buddha became quite popular, acquiring the friendship of royalty and the admiration and loyalty of many, to the benefit of himself and his order of Arhants. Yet not four generations passed before the sangha was riven by schism about one hundred years after the Buddha’s passing on. Even the first council was convened out of fear of schism, and always over the same issue – the rules of the order. Arhants cannot be in schism, therefore could it be that the Arhants were fallible?  With this assertion, attributed to Mahadeva, some Hinayana schools agreed and some disagreed.[1] Some of those who agreed postulated that the path of the bodhisatta that leads to Buddhahood might be a better path than the path of the arhant that the Buddha condescended to teach only to the few and only near the nadir of human degeneracy, and, logically, that can only lead to further degeneracy as the few wash their hands of existence. These became the Mahayana. The sutta says that the Buddha refers to a primordial dharma that is as vast as space compared with what he actually revealed. Yet he also said that his fist is open. Perhaps he did teach it, implicit in the remnant of teaching that has come down to us, preserved in fragments in a land and amongst a people not his own, and amplified by subsequent study and realization.


1. The Hinayana schools that rejected the absolute infallibility of arhants included the Sarvastivada and Kasyapiya, both derived from the conservative Sthavira, the same school from which the Theravada claims descent, and the Mahasamghika, Ekavyavaharika, Lokottaravada, Bahusrutiya, Prajnaptivada, and the Caitika, from which the Mahayana ultimately derived.

Two Talks on Meditation

Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, July 5, 2015.


The Essence of Meditation

It is not correct to speak of “meditation” in the Pali Canon. Rather, one should refer to “meditations’ in the plural. The Buddha did not merely teach one method of meditation. Rather, he taught numerous methods, each suited to the personal needs of the individual with whom he was speaking.

These are included in the 84,000 dhammakhanda (lit. “dhamma collection”). The number 84 is not arbitrary. It is an ancient sacred Vedic number that also appears in Sumerian culture. 84 is 7 times 12, the number of anciently known planets multiplied by the number of signs of the zodiac. It is also 8 (2 x 4) and 4, the symbol of Infinity (the Buddhist “endless knot”) and the Four Elements. It also adds up to 12 (3 x 4). It is also the duration of the luni-solar calendrical cycle, being the product of 3, 4, and 7. This cycle was also used by the Celtic Christians to calculate Easter. Interestingly, it is also the period of Uranus. It is also a positive feng sui number. 84 x 1,000 is, therefore, a number of completeness and spirituality. Thus, when we speak of the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha we refer, in addition to being a large number, to their qualities of completeness and totality, especially in relation to higher consciousness.

The Pali Canon includes references to many different types of meditation. Sarah Shaw collects many of these texts in her book, Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon (London: Routledge, 2006). One of the best-known of these is the metta meditation, in which one projects feelings of love and compassion to the six directions, consisting of the four horizontal directions (north, south, east, west) plus above and below (the zenith and the nadir). This meditation is frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon. However, in this talk, I would like to take an integral approach to the topic of Buddhist meditation, for, if there are 84,000 iterations of something, then there must be an underlying unity of which there are 84,000 iterations. That unity is mindfulness, the essence of meditation. In taking this approach to Buddhist meditation I am influenced by Sri Aurobindo and Ken Wilber, and I will be largely using Shaw’s translations, aided by the comprehensive understanding of the Pali Canon that I am building up as a consequence of my vow to read the Pali Canon through five times over the next five years. In order to achieve this integral view I will be keeping this discussion as universal as possible.

As I have discussed in my talk, “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition,” the Buddha clearly taught that women are capable of emancipation, despite the highly patriarchal and indeed misogynistic views of the arhants of the First Buddhist Council.

One of the consistent themes relating to meditation in the Pali Canon is where it is conducted. Originally, the Buddhasangha did not occupy monasteries and did not meditate enclosed in temples. Rather, they meditated in the forest, outdoors, either in secluded places or in huts. Later on, they meditated in parks, donated by wealthy patrons such as the courtesan Ambapali. Of course, one reason for meditating out-of-doors in the forest was seclusion, which is the precondition of the first jhana and frequently mentioned in the texts. This seclusion is not merely or even, perhaps, primarily external. The Buddha makes it clear that external rites and practices are of little value. Rather, real seclusion consists in withdrawing the mind from attachment to stimuli, including sensory stimuli and the stimuli of the mind itself. In Buddhism, the mind is simply seen as a “sixth sense.” However, the texts themselves frequently allude to the quality of natural beauty as another significant factor, in addition to subsequent Buddhist practice. Historically, Buddhist monasteries are not merely located in remote places. They are also located in places of great natural beauty, so-called “power points.” This is somewhat paradoxical, but Shaw herself notes that emancipation seems to enhance one’s appreciation of the natural, even though the explicit goal of emancipation is transcendence of the natural. This paradox may represent a survival of the deep shamanic roots of Buddhist theory and practice, as we do elsewhere. The practice of solitude is, therefore, not merely negative. It results in the “stirring of energy” that itself furthers the attainment of the meditative state.

Another significant factor that arises in the practice of meditation that leads to the experience of emancipation is what Shaw refers to as “the moment,” a surprise event or shock that results in an instantaneous change of state in the context of meditative practice. The influential European mystic George Gurdjieff also refers to it in his doctrine of “the shock.” Shaw mentions schools that regard this as a necessary preliminary to enlightenment, referring probably to Zen, but it is certainly also found in the Pali Canon. I have referred to this in a previous talk. Ananda refers to this as the fourth cause of enlightenment, along with serenity and insight. This is discussed in Chapter 8 of my book, Fundamental View: Ten Talks on the Pali Canon. Sometimes this attainment results in the spontaneous utterance of ecstatic poetry.

Meditation, while necessary, is not sufficient to attain emancipation, however. The Buddha says that meditation without wisdom is ineffective, and that wisdom without meditation is ineffective, but it is clear from the texts that the cultivation of wisdom is the first and essential salvific principle, corresponding to the attainment of Right View and the stage of a “stream enterer” or a “stream winner.” Converts are typically shown hearing a dhamma discourse by the Buddha, by which they are then known as “hearers’ (savakas), and then going into solitude for a short period of meditation, followed by the attainment of arhantship. Contrary to what one often reads in popular expositions of Buddhism, meditation does not need to be pursued for years, decades, or lifetimes in order to achieve emancipation. The Buddha says that as short a time as one week will do, depending, of course, on one’s karmic “readiness.” This is probably an approximation, since Kondanna and several others attained enlightenment after five days of continuous meditation.

One of the essentials of meditation that appears throughout the Pali Canon and indeed the whole Indian and Buddhist tradition is the cross-legged posture. This is the paradigmatic physical position in which meditation is undertaken. Seated, the legs are crossed, the pelvis elevated above the knees, and the hands are placed together in the lap, or sometimes on the knees. The spine is straight, the shoulders square, the head tipped slightly forward, and the gaze, neither focused nor unfocused, with eyelids neither completely closed nor completely open, directed towards the middle ground, neither far nor near. This posture is a physical embodiment of the balanced, harmonious state of the middle way. The crossing of the ankles and the hands creates a closed energy loop whereby the subtle energies of the body begin to circulate internally. This posture is very ancient, going back at least to the Indus Valley civilization.

Retiring to a secluded natural spot; seating oneself in the cross-legged posture; centering oneself in the present moment, the “now;” practising awareness of the body; and arousing energy, what one finds most frequently emphasized throughout the Pali texts is the practice of “breathing mindfulness.” The Buddha says that this method of meditation includes everything required to attain emancipation. The Buddha refers to it uniquely as “the Tathagata’s dwelling,” and practised it himself, even after his enlightenment. In the Buddhist system, one does not try to control the breathing, but simply directs one’s attention to the exhalation and the inhalation as they occur. The breath will deepen and become more refined naturally. The mind will become still. Consciousness itself will come to the forefront, while thoughts will become transparent, mirage-like, and secondary, and progressively diminish in intensity and frequency. Thought disappears. The body is suffused with bliss. Shaw cites Buddhaghosa’s comment that mindfulness of the body is a practice unique to the Buddhadhamma. According to the Pali Canon, mindfulness of the body alone is capable of bringing the practitioner to emancipation.

The Buddha also recommends a visualization practice in which the body is imagined as being suffused with light. Shaw notes that some of the visualizations described in the Pali Canon are reminiscent of the practices taught in “Northern” or Tantric Buddhism, once again demonstrating my thesis that one finds the seeds of Tantra in the Pali tradition. This practice culminates in the direct realization of the natural radiance of the empty mind, the quality of self-conscious sentience devoid of content. This is the kinetic mind stream or mental continuum that is the “true self” of the individual, as distinct from the “false self” of the static atta or atman. Which is merely a projection of the ego and an object of attachment. This quality is experienced naturally in the moment between thoughts (although this moment is so infinitesimal that it is normally not noticed), in deep sleep, at death, and at other times as well. Thus, deep sleep is meditation without reflexivity. Meditation is deep sleep with reflexivity. In fact, this is the literal meaning of “mindfulness,” sati, which literally means “self-recollection.” This concept, which occurs in the Pali suttas, is the forerunner of the Mahayana concepts of the “clear light” and the tathagatagarbha, the Buddha-nature (or “Buddha-embyro”) that is the inherent potential of every sentient being. Its full realization is equivalent to enlightenment itself. Any person who attains this state, even for a moment, is declared by the Buddha to be ordained. According to the Pali Canon, this radiance is actually visible and results in a clear, bright complexion that develops in the course of meditation. This is the origin of course of the halo that appears in the portraits of Buddhist saints. Similarly, monks in the Pali Canon are consistently described as healthy, fit, and attractive, to the point where women are constantly seeking them out and tempting them to break their vows.

Other subjects recommended by the Buddha for meditation that leads to emancipation include the Buddha himself and the devas, from whom the Buddha also received teachings. The Buddha recommended the recollection of the devas at the time of death. In addition to mindfulness of the breathing, the Buddha also practised the meditation on the Buddha (in his case, he meditated on Buddhas of the past). These practices, including chanting, purify karma and the mind, thus eliminating impediments and obscurations and progressively revealing the self-radiance that is inherent in sentience itself. Chanting has been found to purify the spinal fluid, for example. The Buddha likens this process to the purification of gold ore.

The practice of meditation leads to the cultivation and progressive refinement of the mind, culminating in the fourth jhana, characterized by equanimity, a state of freedom from pleasure and pain, the indifference of serenity, and mental integration or “one-pointedness.” In this state, one ceases to be aware of one’s breathing (the texts imply that breathing itself stops).  The realization of the fourth jhana leads to the attainment of psychic powers (iddhi), including astral projection (I’m using the common terms here, the term used in the Pali Canon is the “mind-made body”; Tibetans refer to the “body of light” or “rainbow body”), clairaudience, clairvoyance, the recollection of past lives (much emphasized in the Pali Canon), and seeing the karma of others. The “mind-made body,” which, the Buddha states, is created “magically,”[1] is not a metaphor. It is an actual physical experience. The sensation of one’s body literally slipping out of one’s feet is an indescribable and unforgettable experience.


  1. The Pali word is abhinimmināti, consisting of abhi + nimminati. Nimminati (nimmita) means “to build, fashion, create, produce, shape.” Abhi clearly derives from iddhi, “power, potency, psychic power, supernatural power, magical power, miraculous faculty, miracle.” Maurice Walshe (Wisdom Publications) translates this compound simply as “produce,” whereas Shaw includes the connotation of spiritual or psychic power or potency. The latter is more literal and etymologically correct. Both PTS Dictionary and Tamilcube have “to create (by magic).” See CSCD Tipikta, Sāmaññaphalasuttaṃ, 236f.


Origin and Provenance of Dzogchen

The Tibetan word “dzogchen” means “the great completeness.” Within Buddhism, Dzogchen is associated with the original, Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Dzogchen is also found in the older Bon tradition of Tibet, but the direction of influence is uncertain. We do know, however, that Dzogchen was introduced to Tibet by Padmasambhava, the Buddhist Tantric adept who is credited with the conversion of Tibet to the Buddhadharma in the late 8th century CE. Padmasambhava left Tibet in 774 CE, having transmitted only part of the Dzogchen tradition before his departure. Over the subsequent centuries many so-called “terma” (hidden treasure) texts were discovered by a variety of spiritual practitioners, including the famous Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo. All of these texts concerned Dzogchen and were attributed to Padmasambhava. The Dzogchen tradition was subsequently developed in Tibet by other Dzogchen masters, including Vairochana and Vimalamitra.  Padmasambhava himself received the Dzogchen transmission from Garab Dorje in what is now known as the Swat Valley, from which Padmasambhava himself also originated. This area is referred to as Oddiyana in Sanskrit and Orgyen in Tibetan. This region was associated with the development and dissemination of early Vajrayana Buddhism, and became the basis of the Shambhala mythos. Dzogchen texts were never included in the Kangyur, which therefore lie outside the sectarian organizational system of the Tibetan ecclesiastical establishment. Nevertheless, it is widely practised throughout Tibetan Buddhism by all sects and schools and in the Nyingma system Dzogchen is regarded as the highest yana (vehicle) of Buddhist teaching and practice.

The main Dzogchen system practised today is based on Longchenpa’s Heart Essence Teachings, revised by Jigmey Lingpa and amplified by the First Dodrubchen, but these are merely culturally and historically contingent interpretations. Dzogchen itself is not a system, nor is it subject to samsara by definition. It is also considered transcendent to both sutra and tantra, and indeed, universal. Dzogchen is the highest possible realization of Enlightenment itself, and therefore the holiest and most precious teaching.

Practice of Dzogchen

Dzogchen philosophy includes ontology, soteriology, and ethics. According to the Tibetan ecclesiastical system of the Nyingma, Dzogchen is the highest Buddhist yana (vehicle) and can only be practised properly after satisfying a number of conditions, which if interpreted strictly could be quite onerous. These prerequisites of Dzogchen practice, however, seem to contradict Dzogchen’s emphasis on the non-causal path, in which, according to the formula, “the goal of the practice is taken as the practice itself.” It appears rather that Dzogchen has been appropriated and incorporated into a causalist structure as its apex and crown, in which the essential preconditions of practice have been elaborated into a system the primary motive for which is to maintain the power and authority of an ecclesiastical hierarchy that sought to limit access to and therefore control the Vajrayana teachings.  Nevertheless, these elaborate preconditions are not universally observed.[1]

According to the orthodox approach, the practice of Dzogchen is preceded by the practice of ngondro, which is in turn preceded by the so-called “common preliminaries.” Ngondro, however, was invented during the 16th century. Dr. Alex Berzin has stated that no one can approach Dzogchen meditation who has not spent many years practising samatha (Tib. Shyiné) “tranquility” meditation. Again, these requirements smack of causalism and an imposition of later times, both as a way to protect the teachings during a period of great ignorance but also as a way of establishing and maintaining the power and authority of the religious elites. When one analyzes these preliminaries, one discovers that they are all essentially identical with Dzogchen itself. Indeed, this is true of all practices, for Dzogchen, as the highest, is also the universally inherent spiritual practice that incorporates all other spiritual practices into itself and of which all other spiritual practices are aspects. Therefore, there is no theoretical objection to pursuing Dzogchen directly rather than through an historically and culturally contingent program.  A single example will suffice. Much is made of the fact that one must experience rigpa before one can practice Dzogchen in a satisfactory way, but Dzogchen and rigpa are really the same thing, so what is being said here (sure, scholastic philosophers will split hairs here. but we know these too from our own, Western traditions)? Moreover, in the next breath it is stated that rigpa is the natural state of the mind and therefore universally inherent in all living beings, including human beings, yet somehow obscured from itself by involvement in samsara. This is true. This is the essential paradox of the trans-dual. Nevertheless, as the natural state of the mind where else can we look for rigpa other than to the mind itself, which, as stated, is our universal endowment. Therefore, it does not take years of meditation to experience rigpa. Anyone can see it instantly, simply by choosing to look at it. You do not not even need to close your eyes. It is right here! This is really the most radical “pointing out” instruction. Making things seem more difficult than they really are is an old ploy of those who wish to control access to knowledge.

Ngondro is a system of practice widespread through India, and in its simplest basis consists of six moments:

  1. Taking refuge;
  2. Prostration;
  3. Bodhicitta;
  4. Mantra;
  5. Offering the mandala; and
  6. Guru yoga.

These practices are held to purify pride (2), jealousy (3), hatred (4), attachment (5), and delusion (6). Each of these practices must be repeated 100,000 times at least in order to be “recognized” as a “qualified” Dzogchen practitioner. Moreover, according to this theory they must be practised under the direct authority of a “qualified” lama, who one is also bound to regard as a living Buddha! However, this structure commits several essential errors, either directly or by implication. First, it implies the error of causalism. Second, it implies that enlightenment is obtainable mechanistically, by the following of rules. Third, it implies that quantity is superior to quality (the Buddha Himself stated that there is no correlation between attaining enlightenment and time. Awakening may be attained in as long a time as seven rebirths, or in as short a time as a single week. Therefore, duration is not the significant factor.). Fourth, it is historically and culturally contingent. Fifth, it is sectarian (which is a violation of the Bodhisvattva vow). In fact, there are many variations of ngondro. Sixth, it ignores the factor of karma. Seventh, it subordinates the individual to the authority, contrary to the Buddha’s final advice to seek the light within oneself.[2] Eighth, it is based on a falsehood, i.e., that the lama is a Buddha (except in the sense that we all are, or in some symbolic sense). And, finally, ninth, it is based on a metaphysical error, for what are pride, jealousy, hatred, attachment, and delusion in themselves? According to the view, the purpose of ngondro is to “purify” the “karmic obscurations.” This is the same thinking that underlies the path of asceticism that the Buddha rejected just prior to his enlightenment. However, there are no karmic obscurations in reality, samsara itself being essentially illusory. Since there are no karmic obscurations, there is no need to purify oneself of them. One has only to recognize the identity of nirvana and samsara, and this is done by Dzogchen. On the other hand, the Buddha identifies meditation with renunciation and karmic purification. Ethics as such are irrelevant. This is true emancipation.

The self-practitioner can satisfy these requirements by aspiring to the Absolute Guru, the Tathagatagarbha, calling upon Padmasambhava Himself as lama to witness his refuge in the Dharma and his correlative vow of aspiration (bodhicitta). By calling upon Guru Rinpoche the transmission occurs automatically. Dzogchen itself, as the universal and essential spiritual practice, subsumes prostration, mantra, mandala, and religion. None is necessary.

In the age of near universal ignorance (not so distant nor dissimilar from our own time) transmission was the essential means by which the spiritual integrity of understanding and practice was communicated from guru to disciple. As the repository and channel of spiritual teachings that teacher was held in highest esteem. Such transmission was always private, secret, and intimate – not involving crowds of hundreds or thousands or communicated at a distance through a vertical ecclesiastical hierarchy. This was the environment in which Dzogchen flourished. Nevertheless, the Buddha eschewed secrecy and condemned it amongst the Brahmans.

The common preliminaries all refer to Right View, the first step of the Aryan Eightfold Path, specifically, the preciousness of human rebirth, change (anicca), karma, and suffering (dukkha). In other words, the foundation of practice is wisdom. Wisdom and method. If one recognizes and accepts the truth of these doctrines, not merely as abstract theoretical concepts but as spiritual facts that one has personally realized experientially, one has already fulfilled the preliminary requirements without regard to any ritual that in itself is meaningless.

The Buddha said that a Brahman is not made by birth or caste or by wearing a robe, but by their personal and spiritual qualities. Similarly, the true spiritual practitioner cannot be restrained or inhibited by external social, political, or even ecclesiastical criteria but is established only in and by himself or herself. The Buddha himself was self-ordained and self-recognized. He warned his disciples against attachment to rules and based the hierarchy of the order purely on seniority, not claims of spiritual attainment, rejecting the efforts of Devadatta to impose an even more rigorous external discipline.

As stated above, rigpa – our own natural sentience that is the universal ground of all living beings – is inherently devoid of reflexivity. This is the essential condition that underlies even ignorance, and is therefore more fundamental than the pratityasamutpada. It is ontologically given. This non-reflexivity of rigpa gives rise to the phantasmagoria of experience that we call samsara. Because rigpa is not aware of its own intrinsic nature (ignorance), it becomes attached to the objects of experience, to which it attributes its own qualities of permanence, self-identity, and satisfactoriness. This is the essential condition in which we find ourselves. We can speculate about “why” or “how is it” that this is so, but such discussion is ultimately futile. Therefore, the essential endeavour of Dzogchen is to establish the reflexive state. This is done by a simple act of the mind: recognizing the objects of experience, both gross or subtle, as essential voidness, and “redirecting,” as it were, the attention towards the simple, perfectly empty state of rigpa-sentience that is already present but non-reflexive. This is synonymous with enlightenment itself, and includes within itself both wisdom (i.e., the recognition of the true nature of things) and ethics (i.e., self-control). Indeed, Dzogchen, as the highest and most universal path, contains all paths, traditions, and practices within itself. Nothing else is required, but the Dzogchen practitioner may make use of all of them as he or she will. Therefore, Dzogchen alone is both fundamental and essential.

Meditation is to remain balanced, free of distraction, without particularly rejecting or accepting anything, at ease

Dza Patrul Rinpoche


  1. “As scholar David Jackson describes, the particular Kagyu tradition of pointing-out instruction outside of the tantras was popularized, if not originated, by Gampopa. ‘One of the special Great Seal (phyag rgya chen po: mahāmudrā) teachings for which sGam-po-pa was best known was his so-called ‘introduction to the [nature of] mind’ (sems kyi ngo sprod), by which the disciple was led to confront and directly recognize the nature of his or her mind. sGam-po-pa is said to have given such Great Seal instructions sometimes not as secret Vajrayana precepts in connection with initiation and special yogic practices, but rather as a Sūtra-based Great Seal instruction, or even as a doctrine going beyond both Sūtra and Tantra. Later critics such as Sa-skya Paṇḍita (or Sa-paṇ, as he was known for short) maintained, however, that all true Great Seal instructions were Mantrayana teachings that necessitated full, formal Tantric initiation into a maṇḍala. These masters denied in general the existence of any Sūtra-based or non-Tantric Great Seal, and in particular they considered the existence of any Mahāyāna doctrine outside of the classes of Pāramitāyāna and Mantrayāna to be impossible.'” (Wikipedia, s.v. Pointing-out instruction). See also “To Kiss and Tell or Not: Dzogchen Ponlop, Ngondro and More”; “Re: Dzogchen and Ngondro”; “Three Classifications of Mahamudra,” by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche; etc.
  2. “Therefore, rid yourself completely of close relationships of dependency on followers, friends, or relatives, and make a definite effort, from today on, to practise the hallowed Dharma, alone in isolation. Supreme hallowed beings of the past have said that from living in isolation, they found the nectar (of Dharma experience). Therefore, (resolve that) I too shall live alone in isolation in a forest in order to actualize a state of being stilled. Living in isolation has been praised by the Triumphant (Buddhas). With no one unruly (around you), you increase your absorbed concentration on what is profound. You naturally practise the Dharma and develop sombre thoughts of impermanence. You put material possessions aside and have no busy-work or distractions.” (Longchenpa, Klong-chen Rab-‘byams-pa Dri-med ‘od-zer (APrecious Garland of the Four Themes), tr. Alex Berzin)