Friday, June 26, 2015

Who's Buddhaghosa? What are Commentaries?

Crystal Quintero and Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly
The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga)
The question arises when reading, or trying to read, the incredibly dense Path of Purification. Who is its author, what does he know, and why should anyone listen to him? We have the sutras (canonical discourses), so presumably we have the word of the Buddha. What can Buddhaghosa possibly add to our understanding?

He can add a great deal, as it turns out. Most technical information on Buddhist meditation -- from working with the absorptions of serenity to the intricacies of insight meditation (particularly the causal links of Dependent Origination contemplated systematically after emerging from the jhanas to gain direct liberating insight) -- is learned from an ordained teacher.

That precious information has always been handed down through an oral tradition, not through books. Even today, though some of it is written, it will hardly make sense to the intrepid reader who will not have nearly enough knowledge or experience to approach it much less benefit from it. Of course, as Westerners, we do not want to give up our autonomy. Like Zen seems to teach us, we don't need no stinking teachers! The same way we don't need badges.

But first, who was he? Ven. Buddhaghosa Thera (the monk named Buddhaghosa the elder, of at least ten years in robes) was the greatest commentator on the Tripitaka, a collective name for the Buddhist texts ("The Threefold Basket").

The sacred texts can easily mislead one without the guidance and clarification the commentaries afford us. Commenting had a long and illustrious history before Buddhism, and it has continued ever since. A commentator is not giving an opinion the way we might today, but is clarifying points of controversy or sating thing Those who disparage it, as if we could access what the Buddha taught without it, are well-intentioned but misguided because they fail to see the tremendous value of the subsidiary and supporting texts that clarify and organized the Buddha's Teachings, the Dharma, even for the people to whom it was directly taught.

When, for example, the Buddha gave a teaching in brief and it was necessary for someone to flesh it out, if the monastics had questions, sometimes the Buddha assigned someone else to teach in full what he had stated in brief. and Ven. Sariputra were excellent at this.

Who was Buddhaghosa?
G.P. Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Names, Pali Text Society, edited by Amber Larson
The Indian scholar-monk and great commentator, Ven. Buddhaghosa, examining ola palm leaf Buddhist texts to collate them and explain them in a systematic study of the Dharma.
Buddhaghosa was born a Brahmin in India long after the time of the historical Buddha. And the Sās. (p. 29) says his father was a Brahmin priest (purohita) named Kesa, his mother Kesī.

Gv.66 says his father was the chaplain or spiritual counselor of King Sangāma. He was born in a village near Bodh Gayā, in Bihar state, and became proficient in the Vedas (the Indus Valley Civilization knowledge book now considered the sacred texts of Hinduism) and allied branches of knowledge.

Buddhist cosmology: 31 Planes of Existence
One day he met a monk named Ven. Revata and, on being defeated by him in debate, entered the Buddhist Monastic Order to learn the Buddha's teachings. Because his speech was profound, like that of the Buddha, and because his words spread throughout the world (like those of the Buddha), he came to be called Buddha-ghosa.

While dwelling with Ven. Revata, he wrote the Ñānodaya and the Atthasālinī, and he also began to write a Parittatthakathā (a concise commentary) on the Tipitaka, the "Three Collections" of the Dharma.
But in order to complete this monumental task, he went to Sri Lanka at the suggestion of Ven. Revata (Sās. p.29 says he was sent to Sri Lanka punishment for thinking himself wiser than his teachers) and studied the commentaries preserved in the local Sinhalese language at the Great Temple, the Mahāvihāra, under Ven. Sanghapāla. When his studies were ended he wrote The Path of Purification, the Visuddhi-Magga.

Sensual Planes of Existence (kama loka)
And having thereby won the approval of the noble elders there, he rendered the Sinhalese commentaries into the ancient exclusively Buddhist language of Pāli. During this period he lived in the Ganthākara Vihāra, and on accomplishing his task, he returned to India (then referred to by its Buddhist name, Jambudīpa, "the Rose Apple Island" or "Continent" or this "Planet" surrounded by "seas of space" and great rings of "mountains," which may sound odd but makes the most sense).
  • (Burmese tradition says Buddhaghosa obtained his copy of the Tipitaka and the commentaries from another storehouse monastery, one called Aloka Vihāra, but see P.L.C.83, n.1.4).
Besides these works of Buddhaghosa, we have also the Samantapāsādikā and the Kankhāvitaranī on the Disciplinary Code basket (Vinaya Pitaka); the Sumangalavilāsinī, the Papañcasūdanī, the Sāratthappakāsinī, and the Manorathapūranī on the Sutra basket. 
He is also said to have compiled commentaries on the Khuddakapātha and the Sutta Nipāta (called the Paramatthajotikā) and on the Dhammapada, a grand collection of the Buddha's aphorisms and their back stories. Buddhaghosa also wrote a series of commentaries on the Collection of Higher or Ultimate Teachings, the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the Atthasālinī, the Sammohavinodanī, and the Pañcappakaranatthakathā).

Some ascribe to him the commentary on the Rebirth Tales, the Jātakatthakathā. For further particulars relating to Buddhaghosa, see Law's Life and Work of Buddhaghosa" and P.L.C.79 ff. The account of his life given here is taken from Cv.xxxvii.215ff. For a list of works ascribed to Buddhaghosa, see Gv., pp.59 and 68.

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