New Moon Uposatha Day , February 21, 2012
index to series
Buddhism spread from its home in Northern India in all directions, north, east and west. We have considered some of what happened to Buddhism in China and the rest of East Asia. Some two hundred years before reaching China Buddhism is purported to have arrived in Sri Lanka during the Second Century BC reign of Emperor Ashoka, possessor of the political will that made Buddhism perhaps the first world religion, that is, propelled Buddhism well beyond its boundaries from the land and culture of its origin. The traditional account has Emperor Ashoka’s son Ven. Mahinda, a Buddhist monk, first brought Buddhism to this southern island, along with a branch from which a Bodhi tree could be planted. Though Sri Lanka was isolated by water it was not so distant culturally as China for its culture and language were Indoeuropean.
Over the first centuries different schools of Buddhism came and went in Sri Lanka, but what emerged dominant is what we now know as the Theravada school, which would spread to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, where it lives today. The Theravada school is often called the most orthodox school, or even “original Buddhism.” Indeed it is the one still existing school that does not fall into the reformist Mahayana camp. And indeed it has served more than any other school as the guardian of the original teachings, the Dharmavinaya, preserved in the Pali language as the early Suttas (discourses) and as the Vinaya (book of discipline).
Now, Theravada is not the only school to have inherited the Dharmavinaya — the Chinese have it too and the Tibetans most of it — but they are the primary guardians in at least two senses: First, the Theravada tradition preserves the Dharmavinaya in something close to the Buddha’s language or languages rather than in an unrelated language from with the original texts have been translated. For instance, if you wanted to find out in detail what the Christian Bible said about some esoteric point, you would prefer to look in the original Greek rather than the King James version. A similar higher degree of reliability falls to the Pali rather than to the Chinese. Second, the Theravada has devoted much more energy to the study of those texts than anyone else. These texts are chanted repeatedly in their original Pali. Pali scholars have discussed the meanings of words and phrases for centuries. These texts are actually read and even memorized.
I began this series by describing the Buddha’s meditation, based on the discourses. Although I relied almost exclusively on the Pali Suttas preserved in the Pali tradition, this does not mean that I was describing exclusively Theravada meditation. The Chinese Agamas seem, as far as I know, to say the same thing and outside of the last minute translation from Sanskrit to Chinese have as solid a pedigree as the Pali Suttas. What I presented seems to have been a part of the Buddha’s teaching in Northern India that defined the starting point for the evolution of each of the Buddhist schools, each of which introduced its own innovations. Buddha’s meditation is the root of both Zen meditation and of Theravada meditation, even though the Thervadins have the key right there on the shelf to unlock what the Buddha’s meditation was. In fact even as the primary guardian of these original teachings, the Theravada school underwent its own evolution, and was fully codified in Sri Lanka only in the Fifth Century AD in what is known as the Commentaries. This is a great body of texts that analyze the earlier canonical scriptures. Even though there is much debate about the reliability of the commentaries in every instance, the commentaries largely define the center of gravity in Theravada Buddhism. They are particularly highly regarded in Burma.
We will in fact be forced to plunge right into the Sutta/Commentary debate here, because it seems that meditation is handled quite differently in the Commentaries than in the Suttas. The commentarial Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) is a huge, very detailed and very influential meditation manual from the Fifth Century AD, compiled by Ven. Buddhaghosa about the same time Tian-tai Master Zhiyi Zhi was writing his voluminous meditation manual, the Mohe Zhiguan (Great Serenity and Insight) in China (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago).
For an ardent student of the Suttas, or failing that, for an ardent reader of the early part of this series on the Buddha’s meditation, a number of common claims about Theravada, particularly what is called Vipassana, meditation have to raise eyebrows through the roof:
“The Buddha taught two kinds of meditation: Samatha and Vipassana.”
“The Buddha taught following your breath where it touches your upper lip but otherwise there is no teaching from the Buddha on how to do samadhi.”
“Jhana is the mental absorption in a ‘counterpart image’ [nimitta].”
“Thinking stops and the senses shut down in jhana.”
“You have to come out of jhana to do vipassana.”
“Jhana/samadhi is not necessary for insight,” or “… for higher attainments, … for Liberation.”
None of these claims seems to have any support in the Suttas at all and many seem to flatly contradict the Suttas, what I have presented as Buddha’s meditation. Less importantly, none of these claims has any semblance whatever of Zen meditation.
What gives? Has Theravada meditation gone woefully astray, or did it decide at some point to abandon the old ways for a method more adequate than the Buddha’s method? It turns out, I think, that neither of these is true. This is what I will discuss in the next couple of weeks.