- Anālayo, The Meditative Scholar
Bhante Anālayo’s works are marked by a precision and thoroughness that seems to border on perfectionism. I first saw this in Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Awakening, and later in his other publications. Since completing the work which earned him a Ph.D., he has moved on to comparative studies in Early Buddhism, and ranks among the best contemporary scholars specializing in that largely unexplored area. If his published works are any indication, the upcoming comparative study of the Majjhima Nikāya is going to be a classic.
When I was assisting Bhante Nāṇananda with publishing some of his work online, I got in contact with Ven. Anālayo. He was the one who had transcribed the Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled sermons and prepared, in typical ‘Anālayan’ thoroughness, the impressive list of references for each talk. I used the opportunity to email him a few questions about his monastic life and scholarly work. The questions and answers appear below:
Q: What sparked your interest in Buddhism?
“I had been introduced to the practice of Buddhist meditation and found that this helped me to stay more calm and balanced in stress situations, so I wanted to know more about the background.”
Q: Could you please tell us about your monastic life: how you went forth, who your teachers were etc.?
“My going forth etc. is a little complex. I originally went forth in 1990 in Thailand in a monastery near Huahin (after an inspiring meditation retreat at Wat Suan Mokh, the monastery of Ajahn Buddhadāsa). This was, however, originally only planned to be for the vassa, which I wanted to spend meditating in a cave close by the seaside. I stayed on in robes for two years, in the end, since I found it was the most meaningful thing to do. However, trying to keep the rules strictly combined with my German perfectionism had created some problems in my mind (stiffness, arrogance towards those who are less strict etc.). I anyway had to go back to Germany to settle things, since originally I had not left with the idea of living in Asia, so I went down to anagārika, did what I had to do in Germany, and in 1994 came to Sri Lanka, where in 1995 I took pabbajā again, under Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya.
“My main reference point for the subsequent period was Bhikkhu Bodhi, whom I consider as my teacher, as he guided me in Pāli etc. and we were throughout in regular contact. In order to keep out of dāna obligations and other things, and also out of my earlier experience with the rules of higher ordination, I stayed samaṇera for 12 years. Thus it was only in 2007, after repeatedly being urged to do so by Bhikkhu Bodhi, that I took higher ordination, in the Swejin Nikāya, with Ven. Pemasiri of Sumathipala Aranya as my monastic teacher.”
At first I misundertood the ‘dāna obligations’ Bhante mentions as relating to the way a Bhikkhu is to receive food. The Vinaya does not allow fully ordained monastics (Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis) to grow, store, cook or even pick up unoffered food for consumption. This stipulation makes them entirely dependent on the lay supporters for their meals, which are ideally acquired through pinḍapāta – begging for alms from door to door. But later he clarified the real reason, which has nothing to do with storing food (which he has never done):
“I went begging every day and did not want to accept invitations for dāna ceremonies. This was sometimes difficult to explain, as the laity is always so keen to invite us, but the fact that I was not a bhikkhu made it easier for me to avoid such ceremonies, as laity usually likes to invite fully ordained bhikkhus, and being a samanera, one is a much less attractive object for such invitations ”
Q: What made you interested in comparative studies?
“After my going forth in Sri Lanka I wanted to balance my practice with a better understanding of satipaṭṭhāna, so I got into the University of Peradeniya and did a PhD on the Satipaṭṭhānanasutta (I had already done a BA degree and some MA studies in other subjects in Germany), which I completed in 2000.
“During the course of that study, I had come to notice the interesting differences between the Pali and the Chinese versions, so after I had completed the PhD, I learned Chinese (Bhikkhu Bodhi had in the meantime left Sri Lanka so I followed him to the US where he stayed at a Chinese monastery, which afforded me the occasion to get into Chinese) and also Tibetan.
“Then I got into a study of the Satipaṭṭhānanasutta and eventually of the whole Majjhima from the perspective of their parallels. This was undertaken as a post-doctoral degree called habilitation in Germany, at the University of Marburg, which I completed in 2007. The book is at present in the final stage of revision and will be published next year with Dharma Drum Academic Publishers in Taiwan.”
Q: How did you get involved with Bhante Nāṇananda’s work?
“I had met Bhikkhu Nāṇananda personally already several times, but when Godwin Samararatne passed away, I found a tape with the first Nibbāna sermon translated into English in his room (at the Lewella Meditation Center). After listening to it, I felt a strong inner calling that this is something important and I should do what I can to help it become available for others. So I went to visit Bhikkhu Nāṇananda and put my services at his disposal. From then one we had regular contacts, as he would send me the tapes as soon as he had finished translating, and I would then transcribe from the tape, search the references and then send him the print out for corrections and regularly visit him to discuss about the sermons etc.”
Q: Are there any instances where you would disagree with Bhante Nanananda’s interpretations?
“There are a few of the translations where I would render the Pali original differently, but this does not really matter so much.”
Like many sincere monks, Ven. Anālayo is reluctant to talk about his personal meditation practice, but his commitment and dedication to it, even while keeping up a thriving scholarly career, is so inspiring that I got permission to mention it here.
Q: How do you handle the—perhaps conflicting—demands of your scholarly work and meditation practice?
“I have kept up and do still keep up a strong practice of meditation throughout. At present, I spend the first three days of every week in silent retreat just meditating, so that together with a long retreat at the beginning of the year I end up spending nearly half of my time in retreat conditions. I just mention it because I feel it is important in some way to make it clear that meditation has to be at the centre of life, otherwise the other things won’t work. It is so easy to get carried away by Dhamma activities and forget about the whole purpose of going forth.”
Anālayo, The Meditative Scholar - Bhikkhu Yogananda