Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism
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zavk
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Re: Approaching the traditional Theravada Commentaries with caut

Post by zavk » Sat Mar 21, 2009 12:20 am

Hi friends,

First of all, let me say that I am not very well read when it comes to the suttas and commentaries. I have only read the texts that directly address my formal practice and bits and pieces of others that elaborate on certain key doctrines, concepts and ideas.

I appreciate what you are suggesting Craig, that one ought to read the commentaries with critical reflexivity. But I also appreciate what Tilt is cautioning against, that one ought not to dismiss the commentaries too hastily without a nuanced understanding of the wider scriptural tradition.

But perhaps we could shift the focus here so that what we really examine is not so much the texts but the process of reading. This is not to dismiss the importance of the texts, but to suggest that these texts we are interested in do not exist outside their relationship with the reader, and the two are linked by the process of reading (we can say that a certain co-dependently originated relationship produce and shape them). To inquire into 'reading' is to be mindful of the dynamics behind language, words, meaning, interpretation. Regardless of whether one feels that a text is accurate or not, the notions of 'accuracy' and 'inaccuracy' are not self-evident but arise out of the processes of language, words, meaning, interpretation.

IMO, to inquire into the nature of language and words, the processes of words and meaning-making, is to inquire into the nature of thought, consciousness and subjectivity. Hence, I'd say that it falls within the purview of the dhamma.

Best wishes,
zavk
With metta,
zavk

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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by jcsuperstar » Sat Mar 21, 2009 4:15 am

the thing about the commentaries that makes them worth looking into beyond this idea that they were writen by arahants or whatever, is they were writen by people closer to the buddha's time, who's language and culture were very similar to his. something no modern commentator can say.
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the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: "in the commentaries"... where?

Post by Dhammanando » Sat Mar 21, 2009 5:04 am

Hi Retro,
retrofuturist wrote:Once back at E-Sangha, venerable Dhammanando provided a "priority list" sourced from the commentaries themselves which showed the respective priority that certain sources of information (e.g. Suttas, Vinaya, Abhidhamma, Commentaries, other opinion) should be afforded.
I posted it here too:

http://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=914

Best wishes,
Dhammanando Bhikkhu

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retrofuturist
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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by retrofuturist » Sat Mar 21, 2009 5:09 am

1. Sutta: the three baskets of the Tipiṭaka.
2. Suttānuloma: a direct inference from the Tipiṭaka.
3. Atthakathā: a commentary.
4. Attanomati: the personal opinions of later generations of teachers.
"Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education." - Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"One discerns wrong view as wrong view, and right view as right view. This is one's right view." (MN 117)

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phil
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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by phil » Sat Mar 21, 2009 6:44 am

Hi all

I posted this elsewhere before self-editing it out, but I think Bhikkhu Bodhi's talks on the Majhimma Nikaya do somewhat of a disservice to the commentaries, if I may use that blanket term. During a typical talk, there are usually a couple of cases where he says he disagrees with the commentary and expresses instead his own opinion. By virtue of his position as one of the leading translators he is seen as an authoritive figure, which is really questionable, if you think about it. He's a wonderful, modest, generous man (we all know about how he struggles constantly with migraines, but does all his great work and talks) but I think it's odd that a modern day bhikkhu's voice can come to be seen even nearly as authoritative as the ancient commentaries - but it is.

It's difficult to access the commentaries in English, but if possible I would like to read the commentary for every sutta I like, and sit with it, reflecting patiently on any gap between the way I interpreted it and the way the commentary puts it. I will continue to be motivated and inspired by my interpretation, but will hopefully (who knows) make the effort to reflect on the commentary as well. So far I haven't, one's own interpretation is so delicious!

Metta,

Phil
Kammalakkhano , bhikkhave, bālo, kammalakkhano pandito, apadānasobhanī paññāti
(The fool is characterized by his/her actions/the wise one is characterized by his/her actions/Wisdom shines forth in behaviour.)
(AN 3.2 Lakkhana Sutta)

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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by retrofuturist » Sat Mar 21, 2009 6:50 am

Greetings,

Whenever I see Bhikkhu Bodhi "overrule" the commentaries, I (from my comparatively limited perspective) tend to agree with his overrule decisions 90%+ of the time.

Metta,
Retro. :)
"Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education." - Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"One discerns wrong view as wrong view, and right view as right view. This is one's right view." (MN 117)

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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by mikenz66 » Sat Mar 21, 2009 7:44 am

Hi Phil,
phil wrote: I posted this elsewhere before self-editing it out, but I think Bhikkhu Bodhi's talks on the Majhimma Nikaya do somewhat of a disservice to the commentaries, if I may use that blanket term. During a typical talk, there are usually a couple of cases where he says he disagrees with the commentary and expresses instead his own opinion. ...
Perhaps I'm mistaken, but that's not the impression I get. My impression, reading his notes to the MN and SN, and listening to his talks, is that he tries to include as much commentarial information as he can, when it is needed to make sense of the Sutta. He then occasionally expresses contrary opinions, but he is always clear about which are his opinions. I actually like this because the queries that he voices are probably the same queries that other listeners might have so pointing out the conflict calls attention to that and allows the listener to think harder about those points.

This is in contrast to some other translators who just present their own ideas without explaining that they are in conflict with the commentary.

Mike

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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by clw_uk » Sat Mar 21, 2009 1:14 pm

This is in contrast to some other translators who just present their own ideas without explaining that they are in conflict with the commentary.

This is interesting, in your opinion why do you feel that they should state that they are conflicting with the commentary, wouldnt it only be important if they were conflicting with say the Suttas?




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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by kc2dpt » Sat Mar 21, 2009 2:18 pm

clw_uk wrote:
This is in contrast to some other translators who just present their own ideas without explaining that they are in conflict with the commentary.
This is interesting, in your opinion why do you feel that they should state that they are conflicting with the commentary, wouldnt it only be important if they were conflicting with say the Suttas?
It depends on what you want, I guess. If you want to learn Theravada Buddhism as it has been taught for centuries then you need to learn what the commentaries have to say. If you want one man's personal opinion on what the suttas mean then you don't need to hear what the commentaries say.

Ven. Bodhi's class is not meant to be one man's interpretation of the suttas. It is a class on Theravada Buddhism, and that includes the information in the commentaries. If I go to a class to learn Theravada then that's what I expect to learn. If the teacher has in the course of his studies formed a personal opinion in conflict with that tradition then I am happy to hear what he has to say. But for him to substitute his own opinion without telling anyone that is what he is doing is deceptive and irresponsible.

The suttas are vague in many places. That vagueness is often filled in by the commentaries. Without the commentaries it is possible to come up with many different interpretations, none conflicting with the suttas. To discount the commentaries out of hand is to toss out an accepted wisdom centuries old and, in my opinion, severely handicaps one's progress on the Path.
- Peter

Be heedful and you will accomplish your goal.

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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by clw_uk » Sat Mar 21, 2009 4:20 pm

It depends on what you want, I guess. If you want to learn Theravada Buddhism as it has been taught for centuries then you need to learn what the commentaries have to say. If you want one man's personal opinion on what the suttas mean then you don't need to hear what the commentaries say.

Ven. Bodhi's class is not meant to be one man's interpretation of the suttas. It is a class on Theravada Buddhism, and that includes the information in the commentaries. If I go to a class to learn Theravada then that's what I expect to learn. If the teacher has in the course of his studies formed a personal opinion in conflict with that tradition then I am happy to hear what he has to say. But for him to substitute his own opinion without telling anyone that is what he is doing is deceptive and irresponsible.

True, but the commentaries can be looked at as a certain teachers understanding and teaching method, so if a teacher contradicts them i dont think they would always have to state so, for example if Ajahn Sumedho teaches something different from Bhikkhu Thanissaro, he wouldnt necessarily state so everytime (or if his teaching differs from another teacher)


In a sense what im saying is i see the commentaries as just different teachers understanding and teaching method, when one listens to a Dhamma talk that can be seen as a kind of commentary, a Bhikkhu or Bhikkhunis understanding of the Dhamma/Suttas




I think one can learn a great deal from just the Suttas, meditation and advice from modern teachers

For example i like the teaching style of Bhante Vimalaramsi who de-emphasizes the commentaries and teaches straight from the Suttas themselves
The Lord Buddha pointed out that meditators, as well as philosophers
dispute and quarrel with each other because similarly, they see only one-side
of the truth, or have only one way of looking at things. They dogmatically
cling to their views, maintaining that they alone have a monopoly of that
truth. All of the Buddhas consider and see all sides of the truth. That is why
the suttas are so much more important than the commentaries. Although the
comments made about a sutta may be helpful, it is absolutely necessary to
check what the commentary says against the original sayings of the Buddha.
This proves that genuine Buddhism is in no way be called unilateral.
According to this Buddhist way of thinking, experience is multi-faceted and
the Buddhist view is therefore multilateral. If truth is multi-faceted, it cannot
be stated in a unilateral way!


This is why the Buddha said, \I do not dispute with the world, though
the world disputes with me. No one who is aware of the whole truth can
dispute with this world." When a person asked the Lord Buddha for his
view, he replied that his view was that he did not oppose anyone in the
world, whether human, divine or diabolical. If this is the Buddhist position,
how can Buddhist meditators come in conflict with each other, or for that
matter, with anyone in the world?
When meditation practitioners become dogmatic, they cease looking for
Truth (Dhamma) because dogmatism separates all people, including those
who seek to open and purify their minds. This denitely causes conflict and
verbal daggers to be thrown. Meditation and mental purication is supposed
to teach us love, compassion and tolerance. If this is so, how can dogmatism
prevail in the name of Truth?
This is taken from his book

"The Anapanasati Sutta -
A Practical Guide To Mindfulness of Breathing and
Tranquil Wisdom Meditation"

http://www.dhammasukha.org/Study/Books/ ... 3-2003.pdf" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

Now i dont think Bhante Vimalaramsi would suggest putting the commentaries to the bin (from what i can see he disagrees with the commentaries when it comes to meditation) but he does teach well by just looking at the suttas and hardly from the commentaries


Now in the past i have on some occasions sadly fallen into dogmatism which was foolish (im not saying anyone here is doing that) but ive come to realize that there are others who teach well by placing emphasis on the commentaries so Classical Theravada isnt obsolete or wrong but neither is the Modern Theravada approach, they both point to the same place it just depends on whats best for each person IMO

some will benefit with the aid of the commentaties and some wont benefit which is why caution should be used so one can decide if they are helping or not

Now im not telling people how it is im just stating my personal approach


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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by kc2dpt » Sat Mar 21, 2009 6:14 pm

clw_uk wrote:the commentaries can be looked at as a certain teachers understanding and teaching method
This seems to me a misunderstanding of what the commentaries are.
- Peter

Be heedful and you will accomplish your goal.

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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by clw_uk » Sat Mar 21, 2009 6:34 pm

clw_uk wrote:
the commentaries can be looked at as a certain teachers understanding and teaching method

Peter
This seems to me a misunderstanding of what the commentaries are.

To me thats what they are, interpretations and elaborations on teachings such as what you find given at Dhamma talks or books, when they discuss meditation they are discussing a technique


How do you understand them?
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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by mikenz66 » Sat Mar 21, 2009 7:32 pm

clw_uk wrote:
clw_uk wrote:
To me thats what they are, interpretations and elaborations on teachings such as what you find given at Dhamma talks or books, when they discuss meditation they are discussing a technique
The difference is that the Commentaries are not just the work of one person, but collections of huge amounts of information from many many monks. According to the tradition some would have been direct disciples and many (all?) arahants. What we have today was assembled by Ven Buddhaghosa, but that doesn't mean that they were his work. Of course a modern teacher or book is going to be easier to approach, but it is useful to be able to go back and see what the Suttas and Commentaries say.

I've listened to many of Bhante Vimalaramsi's talks (which are generally very interesting) and the Mahasi-tradition teachers he had in Burma didn't seem to suit him very well. Since the Mahasi teachers follow the commentaries quite closely, it's not surprising that he also doesn't like the commentaries. On the other hand, the Mahasi approach is the basis of a large proportion of western "insight" meditation, with people such as Joseph Goldstein being students of U Pandita. And, in fact, most of what Bhante Vimalaramsi says doesn't really seem to me to conflict with what I've learned. Rather, it seems to conflict with what he perceived was being taught to him...

Metta
Mike

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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by clw_uk » Sat Mar 21, 2009 7:43 pm

The difference is that the Commentaries are not just the work of one person, but collections of huge amounts of information from many many monks. According to the tradition some would have been direct disciples and many (all?) arahants. What we have today was assembled by Ven Buddhaghosa, but that doesn't mean that they were his work. Of course a modern teacher or book is going to be easier to approach, but it is useful to be able to go back and see what the Suttas and Commentaries say.


This is why i feel sometimes they are correct and other times they are not which is why i feel one should read them with caution
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Re: Approaching traditional Theravada Commentaries with caution

Post by mikenz66 » Sat Mar 21, 2009 7:59 pm

clw_uk wrote: This is why i feel sometimes they are correct and other times they are not which is why i feel one should read them with caution
I don't understand why you feel that you have to keep cautioning people about the commentaries as if they are somehow more dangerous than other writings...

How about giving equal bandwidth to cautioning people against taking too seriously the modern teachers who tend to downplay the Commentaries, such as Venerables Buddhadasa, Vimalaramsi, Sumedho, Thanissaro, and Brahm? And especially those pesky western "insight" teachers...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. None of us here actally know which parts of the Suttas, Commentaries and modern interpretations are correct. I suggest you try to avoid that word...

Metta
Mike

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