Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

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Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby MMK23 » Mon May 18, 2009 5:49 am

Dear friends,

My thinking has been getting stuck in a rut, so I was hoping I could use some of you as mirrors. John Bullitt at Access to Insight, discussing the commentaries, says:

And what of their first-hand understanding of Dhamma: if the commentators were scholars first and foremost, would they have had sufficient meditative experience to write with authority on the subject of meditation? This is more problematic. Perhaps commentators like Buddhaghosa had enough time (and accumulated merit) both for mastering meditation and for their impressive scholarly pursuits; we will never know. But it is noteworthy that the most significant discrepancies between the Canon and its commentaries concern meditation — in particular, the relationship between concentration meditation and insight.4 The question of the authority of the post-canonical texts thus remains a point of controversy within Theravada Buddhism.


Now, as I've mentioned before, I'm both a lover of Buddhaghosa, and have doubts about doing vipassana. I'm not particularly interested in engaging a debate around these topics, but I was wondering if people would be able to share their thoughts on the part of Bullitt's quote that I've emphasised? I don't want scholarly treatises, but if people have feelings about this - mild or strong - I'd really appreciate them sharing to help me analyse my own views.

With love,

MMK23

EDIT: Link

John's bit is here - http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... atthakatha - which is "Beyond the Tipitaka: A Field Guide to Post-canonical Pali Literature"

Last edited by MMK23 on Mon May 18, 2009 7:14 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby retrofuturist » Mon May 18, 2009 6:07 am

Greetings MMK,

I'm not entirely sure either... perhaps it is related to the vipassana-nanas?

Metta,
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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby cooran » Mon May 18, 2009 6:13 am

Hello MMK23,

Might help to give the original link, so we could all have a look?

metta
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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby MMK23 » Mon May 18, 2009 7:14 am

Thanks retrofuturist and Chris, I've added the link to John's article :-)

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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby kc2dpt » Mon May 18, 2009 2:18 pm

The assumption in that quote seems to be that commentators not only didn't personally have "sufficient meditative experience to write with authority on the subject" but also didn't know anyone else who did, that they didn't consult with anyone. That seems to me highly unlikely.
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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby MMK23 » Mon May 18, 2009 3:12 pm

Peter wrote:The assumption in that quote seems to be that commentators not only didn't personally have "sufficient meditative experience to write with authority on the subject" but also didn't know anyone else who did, that they didn't consult with anyone. That seems to me highly unlikely.


Thanks for your thoughts, Peter :-)

Do you (or does anyone) have any thoughts about the relationship between jhana and vipassana generally? Does anyone feel a conflict in their practice, or their understanding of the dhamma, between jhana and vipassana? Has anyone experienced sectarian conflict regarding jhana and vipassana, or samatha and vipassana generally? How does your practice, or belief, create a relationship between jhana and vipassana? Is the conflict that John Bullitt describes something that impacts on your living of the Dhamma?

:coffee:

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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby Jechbi » Mon May 18, 2009 6:09 pm

Hello MMK23,

Your OP is somewhat related to the questions I asked in this thread, particularly the question of how "vipassana" (in the sense of insight) might or might not be part of our Dhamma practice. (I'd welcome your thoughts there. :) )

MMK23 wrote:Do you (or does anyone) have any thoughts about the relationship between jhana and vipassana generally?


In this talk, Ajahn Brahm has a great story about Mr. Vipassana and Mrs. Samatha going up to the top of a hill. Mr. Vipassana wants to see the view. Mrs. Samatha wants to enjoy the peace of being far from the bustle of the city, and close to nature.

When they get to the top of the hill, Mr. Vipassana sees the view, but he also enjoys a deep peace. And Mrs. Samatha enjoys the peace at the top of the hill, but she also partakes in the great view.

His point is that they're the same kind of practice. I think there's a lot of truth in that.

Metta
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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby MMK23 » Fri May 22, 2009 5:42 am

Jechbi wrote:Your OP is somewhat related to the questions I asked in this thread, particularly the question of how "vipassana" (in the sense of insight) might or might not be part of our Dhamma practice. (I'd welcome your thoughts there. :) )


Thanks, Jechbi, I'll check it out after this message :-)

In this talk, Ajahn Brahm has a great story about Mr. Vipassana and Mrs. Samatha going up to the top of a hill. Mr. Vipassana wants to see the view. Mrs. Samatha wants to enjoy the peace of being far from the bustle of the city, and close to nature.


I can't follow the link (very slow connection here :-)) so I'll have to take your word for it, but I guess then my natural next question would be - since I asked about jhana and vipassana and that conflict, and you have responded with samatha, does that mean that for you there is a natural symmetry between jhana and samatha? When I say "jhana", do you think "samatha"? Following on with that, is that where the tension lies (as suggested by your precis of the talk) - the tension is between an idea of meditative praxis that we call samatha, and an idea of meditative praxis that we call vipassana? How do the jhanas fit into that binary?

His point is that they're the same kind of practice. I think there's a lot of truth in that.


And I suspect that I might agree with you :-)

Thanks for you reply :-)

MMK23

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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby retrofuturist » Fri May 22, 2009 6:51 am

Greetings,

Upon MMK's invitation to further discuss the commentaries, I have little to say other than that they are treatises that have been prepared by people who are very scholarly and/or accomplished as practitioners. I don't care to suggest what that balance is. Like other people who are very scholarly and/or accomplished as practitioners, they are certainly worth listening to and may shed some excellent insight into meditation techniques and the Dhamma.

My only concern about the commentaries is not the commentaries themselves but the oft encountered perspective that the commentaries are more definitive than the suttas themselves. Venerable Dhammanando has provided a statement from the commentaries themselves that states that the Tipitaka should be the top rung of authority (personally I would split that as 1 - Sutta/Vinaya, 2 - Abhidhamma... but I digress), with commentaries coming next and then followed by subsequent lower links in the chain. If commentarial enthusiasts actually followed the frameworks established by their esteemed commentators, they would not allow the commentarial perspectives to in any way obscure what is embodied in the suttas. In the majority of circumstances, the commentaries provide addition detail, but they can obscure what is embodied in the suttas by... 1) subtly missing the point, and thereby missing the mark with their interpretation, 2) placing undue emphasis on certain aspects whilst skipping over other more pertinent points, 3) occasionally stating things which are inconsistent with the suttas.

The commentaries are good, are not infallable and are most beneficial when people are clear on how to relate them to the suttas... where do they fit with respect to each other? How do you best combine them for the best results? Presumably that's what John Bullitt wanted to explore in his article.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby MMK23 » Fri May 22, 2009 7:36 am

Great! Thanks Retrofuturist for sharing your thoughts.

I think this is a difficult subject - there's a sort of taboo for some people about discussing their differences with the commentaries, so I really appreciate Retro's thoughts. As I mentioned at the OP I'm doing a lot of thinking about these issues myself and comments like Retro's are a brilliant mirror.

Retro, I was wondering if you cared to expand upon,

retrofuturist wrote:In the majority of circumstances, the commentaries provide addition detail, but they can obscure what is embodied in the suttas by... 1) subtly missing the point, and thereby missing the mark with their interpretation, 2) placing undue emphasis on certain aspects whilst skipping over other more pertinent points, 3) occasionally stating things which are inconsistent with the suttas.


that bit? Or are you done with this topic? If anyone else has feelings about 1, 2, or 3 it'd be great to hear about it. Do any of these 1, 2, or 3, collude with John Bullitt's clear feeling that the commentarial treatment of the relationship between jhana and vipassana is a primary point of contention?

Thanks again :-)

MMK 23

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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby Jechbi » Sun May 24, 2009 6:49 pm

Hello MMK23,

Sorry to be a bit slow in responding. In case you're still following this, I can give you my impressions for the purposes of discussion. I'm not sure these comments will be on-topic with your thread. But here goes:

MMK23 wrote:since I asked about jhana and vipassana and that conflict, and you have responded with samatha, does that mean that for you there is a natural symmetry between jhana and samatha?

My impression is that a lot of people talk about it that way. Jhana often seems to be discussed as something that occurs in connection with a very calm mind. I also have the impression, however, that jhana is not something one can force or make happen. At a certain stage, I believe it's possible for a person to recognize the conditions that are condusive to jhana and to experience jhana more readily. I have the impression that it's a matter of "letting go" enough to allow jhana to occur. Whether jhana occurs during what we might call "samatha" or "vipassana" meditation probably depends entirely on the conditions present or absent in the individual meditator.

MMK23 wrote:When I say "jhana", do you think "samatha"?
Not necessarily, but I had the impression that's what you were thinking.

MMK23 wrote:Following on with that, is that where the tension lies (as suggested by your precis of the talk) - the tension is between an idea of meditative praxis that we call samatha, and an idea of meditative praxis that we call vipassana?
Yeah, I think so.

MMK23 wrote:How do the jhanas fit into that binary?
Probably a mistake to regard them as a true binary. In that respect, jhana might fit into "both".

Broadly speaking, my impression is that jhana is more like a fruit, just as "vipassana" in the sense of wisdom is more like a fruit (although we might use the term "vipassana" more narrowly as a technique). You can get instruction for how to work with the presence or absence of certain conditions to help "let go" in the direction of jhana, but my impression is that jhana is not the product of that instruction with correct application of any technique. It's going to depend on kamma.

None of these comments addresses the issue of the commentaries that you raise. But since you also asked for people's feelings about this, I hope this is somehow useful to you. I stand to be corrected on any of these positions.

Metta
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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby retrofuturist » Tue May 26, 2009 5:39 am

Greetings MMK23,

MMK23 wrote:Retro, I was wondering if you cared to expand upon,

retrofuturist wrote:In the majority of circumstances, the commentaries provide addition detail, but they can obscure what is embodied in the suttas by... 1) subtly missing the point, and thereby missing the mark with their interpretation, 2) placing undue emphasis on certain aspects whilst skipping over other more pertinent points, 3) occasionally stating things which are inconsistent with the suttas.


that bit? Or are you done with this topic?


Only that if you read Bhikkhu Bodhi's sutta translations, make use of the vigilance he has gone to in his footnotes. Endeavour to see and understand the relationships across topics for yourself, and recognise that repetition of themes throughout the Sutta Pitaka is often a good proxy for a subject's significance to the path. Consider also the Buddha's advice in the Simsapa Sutta about what he taught, what he intentionally did not teach, and the logic behind his syllabus selections.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby MMK23 » Tue May 26, 2009 8:02 am

Jechbi wrote:Sorry to be a bit slow in responding. In case you're still following this, I can give you my impressions for the purposes of discussion. I'm not sure these comments will be on-topic with your thread. But here goes:


Thanks Jechbi :-)

MMK23 wrote:since I asked about jhana and vipassana and that conflict, and you have responded with samatha, does that mean that for you there is a natural symmetry between jhana and samatha?

My impression is that a lot of people talk about it that way. Jhana often seems to be discussed as something that occurs in connection with a very calm mind. I also have the impression, however, that jhana is not something one can force or make happen. At a certain stage, I believe it's possible for a person to recognize the conditions that are condusive to jhana and to experience jhana more readily. I have the impression that it's a matter of "letting go" enough to allow jhana to occur. Whether jhana occurs during what we might call "samatha" or "vipassana" meditation probably depends entirely on the conditions present or absent in the individual meditator.


So, correct me if you're wrong, but you're saying that you regard jhana as something that should not necessarily be pursued, but instead ought to be allowed to occur or not occur as is natural and particular to the meditator?

Broadly speaking, my impression is that jhana is more like a fruit, just as "vipassana" in the sense of wisdom is more like a fruit (although we might use the term "vipassana" more narrowly as a technique). You can get instruction for how to work with the presence or absence of certain conditions to help "let go" in the direction of jhana, but my impression is that jhana is not the product of that instruction with correct application of any technique. It's going to depend on kamma.


And this I guess just makes that point further? So I guess then, my natural next question would be, how do you characterise jhana itself, what does it mean to you? I get the sense that you think of it as a state (perhaps?) or a feeling that might arise from meritorious behaviour?

None of these comments addresses the issue of the commentaries that you raise. But since you also asked for people's feelings about this, I hope this is somehow useful to you. I stand to be corrected on any of these positions.


Thanks Jechbi, your comments are really helpful and I'm glad you took the time. I'm not interested in correcting anyone I'm mostly just interested in whether people's thoughts differ from mine, how they get to where they are, and how that can assist me to grow myself. Thanks again.

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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby MMK23 » Tue May 26, 2009 8:10 am

retrofuturist wrote:Only that if you read Bhikkhu Bodhi's sutta translations, make use of the vigilance he has gone to in his footnotes. Endeavour to see and understand the relationships across topics for yourself, and recognise that repetition of themes throughout the Sutta Pitaka is often a good proxy for a subject's significance to the path. Consider also the Buddha's advice in the Simsapa Sutta about what he taught, what he intentionally did not teach, and the logic behind his syllabus selections.


Hey Retro :-)

Thanks for your thoughts. I was wondering if I could prod you to share a specific thought? Not to be a pest, but it's just that you've made reference to problems with the commentaries, but have sort of left it at, "find them yourself" ;-) If that's all you want to share, that's totally cool, but I can see that you've obviously put a great deal of thought and effort into your practice and your study, and it'd be super if you could share some of your insight (small-i ;-))... But, it seems like you're done with this topic, so I guess I'll have to let it be. Thanks for sharing though, I really appreciate it :-)

MMK23

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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby retrofuturist » Tue May 26, 2009 8:32 am

Greetings MMK23,

I'd rather not attempt to twist your understanding to match mine. No two people see the Pali literature alike.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby MMK23 » Tue May 26, 2009 8:49 am

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings MMK23,

I'd rather not attempt to twist your understanding to match mine. No two people see the Pali literature alike.

Metta,
Retro. :)


Hey Retro,

Obviously I have failed to communicate throughout this thread -- my op made reference to using other peoples' thoughts as a mirror (mirrors I guess), so it's precisely because two people will have two different understandings that I sought the opinions of others. In the hope that the reflections of others would help me to reflect on myself. I have no desire to assimilate your view points or otherwise, but merely wanted to broaden my thinking through the insights of others. I'm sorry that I didn't make this clear, I was just interested in different opinions and especially in how people feel about the issues I raised in the OP, it seemed to me like you had thoughts about this. My background is academic, and the spirit of the practitioner-scholar community is one of sharing of similarities and differences and charitable criticism, I may have just overshot that here. Thanks for trying with me though :-)

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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby Jechbi » Tue May 26, 2009 10:03 am

Hi MMK,
MMK23 wrote:So, correct me if you're wrong, but you're saying that you regard jhana as something that should not necessarily be pursued, but instead ought to be allowed to occur or not occur as is natural and particular to the meditator?
It would be a neat trick if I could correct you if I'm wrong. ;)
I wouldn't say that jhana is something that should not be pursued. For some people, the conditions may be right to receive instruction that will help jhana occur. Or it might occur without instruction. But no, I don't think it will happen for anyone who has the right instruction. You might be in the right place at the right time with the right instructor, and that all occurs due to kamma. Doesn't mean it shouldn't be pursued. Who knows what will happen? (And none of this is intended in any way to convey that I personally think I've attained to jhana states.)

Jhana is a wholesome "activity" (or perhaps "inactivity"), so I don't see a problem with pursuing it. Just don't expect it to happen necessarily, even if you think you're "doing" everything right.

MMK23 wrote:And this I guess just makes that point further? So I guess then, my natural next question would be, how do you characterise jhana itself, what does it mean to you? I get the sense that you think of it as a state (perhaps?) or a feeling that might arise from meritorious behaviour?
I don't want to characterize jhana, because I think that's done well enough in the texts and teachings we're all familiar with. In general, however, I regard it as a state of mind that occurs in formal meditation. Interesting that it happened naturally for young Gotama when he was a boy, tho.
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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby kc2dpt » Tue May 26, 2009 2:12 pm

retro wrote:
MMK23 wrote:I was wondering if I could prod you to share a specific thought?

I'd rather not...

It's so much easier to make vague, generalized criticisms that you don't have to back up. I bet if people were forced to back up their criticisms of Buddhism there'd be far less posts in these forms. ;)

retro wrote:No two people see the Pali literature alike.

Then perhaps you should have said something like "it seems to me they can obscure" or "to my mind they can obscure" rather than "they can obscure" as if it was an established truth.
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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby retrofuturist » Tue May 26, 2009 10:42 pm

Greetings Peter,

Have no doubt, I could give examples.

However, I don't maintain a running log of "everything the commentaries have said that doesn't seem absolutely right". I don't have the kind of aversion towards them that would lead one to create such a list of perceived faults, simply for the purpose of discrediting them in discussion. Thus, I gave some general "rule of thumbs" principles by which people can investigate them for themselves... some potential frames of reference, if you will.

If anyone wants to present a passage or something specific then I'm happy to discuss. However, my reticence for speaking in specifics to date is out of respect towards the greater Pali tradition, an acknowledgement of my own limitations, and a disinclination against academic argument for academic sakes. Unless there is a practical basis or application for the discussion, it risks being idle chatter.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Commentaries, jhana, vipassana

Postby Nibbida » Wed May 27, 2009 2:57 am

I recommend Shankman's The Experience of Samadhi: An In-depth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation. He goes in depth into discrepancies between the commentaries and the Pali canon on jhanas and their relevance to insight. He also interviews several contemporary teachers who share their varying views on this.
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