Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background

April 8, 2017; Revised April 29, 2017

1. Acariya Buddhaghōsa has had a strong influence on Thēravāda Buddhism for the past 1500 years. Before examining his commentaries — especially the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) — we will discuss some significant events that took place prior to his time, and why he came to Sri Lanka to compose those commentaries.

2. First, we note that only Arahants participated in the first four Buddhist Councils (Sangāyanā), and the fourth one was held at the Aluvihāra Monastery (a rock temple) near present-day Mātalē in the Central Province of Sri Lanka in 29 BCE; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma“.

  • The Tipitaka was written down fully (as exists today) for the first time in this fourth Sangāyanā in Pāli with Sinhala script (Pāli does not have its own alphabet).
  • So, it is important to keep three things in mind: (i) Genuine Dhamma existed in 29 BCE with Arahants also completing the Abhidhamma Pitaka, (ii) What we have in the Tipitaka today is this version and therefore we can have confidence that the true teachings of the Buddha are in the Tipitaka, (iii) Tipitaka was written down in Pāli with Sinhala alphabet.

3. Secondly, many parts of the Tipitaka are in a condensed form as discussed in “Sutta – Introduction“. Today, there is a tendency to translate Tipitaka suttas word-by-word, and this has led to significant confusion and many contradictions as discussed in that post.

  • Starting at the time of the Buddha, commentaries were written to expand and explain the key concepts that are in a condensed form that was designed for easy oral transmission. We need to remember that the Tipitaka was not written down for around 500 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, and during that whole time it survived only because it was in a form that was designed for ease of remembering; thus many details were omitted.
  • For example, Dhamma Cakka Pavattana sutta took many hours to deliver, but the sutta was condensed to just a few pages of verse. It is not possible to condense all that information in a sutta for mostly oral transmission that was available at the time. In those early days, Bhikkhus explained the details when they delivered desana or discourses to the public.
  • Therefore, in addition to the Tipitaka being orally transmitted through generations, the details were also orally transmitted. However, when Buddha Dhamma started declining around 100-200 CE, those details stopped being transmitted (there were not enough Ariyas, or those who attained magga phala, to pass down correct explanations). Of course, the easy-to-memorize verses of the Tipitaka were faithfully transmitted.
  • That last bullet explains a key problem that we have today. Even though the Tipitaka remains intact, there have not been many Ariyas within the past hundreds of years to explain the key concepts in the Tipitaka; but thanks to late Waharaka Thero, that has changed; see, “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thero“.

4. Even though a few commentaries were composed in the time of the Buddha in Pāli (we have three in the Tipitaka; see below), most of them were written later on in Sinhala (especially after the time of Ven. Mahinda), when written language became more common.

  • Up to the time of Buddhaghōsa (after about 700 years from the time of Ven. Mahinda), there would have accumulated a vast number of such commentaries called Sinhala Atthakathā, which means “accounts of the truth” (attha + kathä). However, it is likely that most of those were destroyed when the Mahavihara was burned before Buddhaghōsa’s arrival in Sri Lanka; see below.
  • Buddhaghōsa’s task was to translate those from Sinhala to Pāli, but instead he just made a few of his own commentariesespecially the Visuddhimagga — where he incorporated his own Vedic concepts in themsee below.

5.  As given in the timeline in the post mentioned in #1, an important event took place before the arrival of Buddhaghōsa in Sri Lanka which led to the possible destruction of many original commentaries; this was the establishment of the Abhayagiri Vihara in Anuradhapura around 100 BCE. This led to degrading of Buddha Dhamma in Sri Lanka, which then was accelerated by the writing of the Visuddhismagga, as we discuss below.

  • Over a number of decades, Abhayagiri Vihara became a rival to the Mahavihara, which had been the center of religious activity since Ven. Mahinda (King Devanampiyatissa).
  • The arrival of a body of monks from Pallarama in India, who belonged to the Vajjiputta Nikaya, apparently started this schism between the two Vihara (p. 29, Ref. 3). This sect descended from those who were expelled from the Thēravāda by Ven. Moggaliputta Tissa Thero at the Third Sangāyanā.

6. Later, during the reign of King Voharaka Tissa (215-237 CE), Abhayagiri Vihara adopted the Vaitulya Pitaka. It is no coincidence that by this time Mahāyāna had become dominant in India.

  • When the Mahavihara raised objections to this new development, King  Voharaka Tissa appointed minister Kapila to investigate, and on his recommendation ordered all Vaitulya books be burnt.
  • A key point to remember is that, “Literary activity in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) declined and, it seems, fell into virtual abeyance between 150 CE and 350 CE, as will appear below” (Ref. 1, p. xxiii).

7. During King Gothabhaya’s reign (254-267 CE), the Vaitulyan heresy raised its head again, and the King again took action. He not only burnt their books, but branded 60 of their leaders and expelled them.

  • Those expelled settled down at Kavira in South India. While they were there, a new recruit by the name of Sangamitta joined them.
  • One day, while bathing, Sangamitta saw the branding on the backs of the others and learned what had happened in Sri Lanka. He vowed to take revenge.

8. Sangamitta went to Sri Lanka, and was able to win the confidence of King Gothabhaya, who appointed Sangamitta to be the tutor of his two sons.

  • When King Gothabhaya died, his elder son Jettha Tissa became King, but he was not that much attached to Sangamitta, so Sangamitta went back to India. When Jettha Tissa died 14 years later, the younger brother, Mahasena, became King.

9. Mahasena was very much attached to Sangamitta, and Sangamitta decided to come back to Sri Lanka, realizing that his time to take revenge had come.

  • On Sangamitta’s advice, King Mahasena started a process that was very damaging to the Mahavihara and to the Buddha Dhamma in Sri Lanka in general. He prohibited providing alms to Mahavihara, and over time bhikkhus at Mahavihara migrated to other parts of the country.
  • By this time, Buddhism in Sri Lanka was in decline due to other factors too, one being the rise of Mahāyāna in India. Arahants were scarce in the Island, and if there were some they would have been in remote regions.

10. For 9 years, Sangamitta lived in glory, plundering the properties of Mahavihara, and eventually burning down the seven story building with its libraries (p. 47 of Ref. 3). People became angry with what happened to Mahavihara, and a rebellion was started by a minister of the King named Meghavaranabhaya.

  • However, before a battle took place, the minister was able to meet the King and explain why he needed to make amends to the Mahavihara to appease the populace. The King apologized and rebuilt the Mahavihara.
  • However, people were quite angry at Sangamitta, and he was killed on the orders of a queen of the King, probably without the knowledge of the King.

11. The damage had been done. It is also said that when the King rebuilt the Mahavihara, it was mostly those who were at the Abhayagiri who took residence at the restored Mahavihara. Therefore, when Buddhaghōsa visited the Mahavihara, the bhikkhus there could have been those originally belonging to the Abhayagiri sect.

  • Furthermore, It is possible that many of the original Sinhala Atthakathā were destroyed when the Mahavihara was burned to the ground. Even though copies of the Tipitaka were at many different locations scattered throughout the country, it is not known how many of the Atthakathā had copies.
  • In any case, none of those original Sinhala commentaries is in existence today.
  • Mahāyāna was taking root in India and possibly contributed to the degrading of Thēravāda in Sri Lanka as well. Sanskrit became the “language of the pundits” (with many new Sanskrit sutra written by Nagarjuna, Vasudeava, etc), and Pāli was losing the battle; see, “Incorrect Thēravāda Interpretations – Historical Timeline“.

12. By the time of Buddhaghōsa arrived in Sri Lanka (during the reign of King Mahanama between 412-434 CE), it is possible that some of those Atthakathā were still there.

  • Ven. Nyanamoli says  (p. xviii of Ref. 1), “..There are references in these works (by Buddhaghōsa) to “Ancients (Porana) or “Former Teachers (Pubbacariya)” as well as to a number of Sinhalese Commentaries additional to the three referred to in the quotation given earlier. The fact is plain enough that a complete body of commentary had been built up during the nine centuries or so that separate Bhandantacariya Buddhaghōsa from the Buddha..” and “..This body of material — one may guess that its volume was enormous — Bhandantacariya Buddhaghōsa set himself to edit and render into Pāli (the Tipitaka itself had been left in the original Pāli)..”
  • By the way, “Porāna” is a Sinhala word (now Puräna), meaning ancient.
  • Apparently, the detailed explanations in those Atthakathā were held in high esteem among the remaining Buddhists in India, and as we see below, this is where Buddhaghōsa came to the picture.
  • So, it appears that even though some of the Sinhala Atthakathā were burned with the destruction of the Mahavihara, some had survived in other locations and brought back to the rebuilt Mahavihara.

13. Buddhaghōsa was born into a vedic brahmin family who lived close to the Bodhi Tree in India. He mastered the three Vedas and was a well-known vedic scholar. He was converted to Buddhism by a Bhikkhu Revata who lived in that region in India.

  •  Law (p. 6 of Ref. 2) writes that Ven. Revata told Buddhaghōsa, “..The Sinhalese  Atthakatha are genuine. They were composed in the Sinhala language by the inspired and profoundly wise Mahinda, who had previously consulted the discourse of the Buddha, authenticated at the three convocations (Sangāyanā), and the dissertations and arguments of Sariputto and others, and they are extant among the Sinhalese. Repairing thither, and studying the same, translate (them) according to the rules of the grammar of the Maghadhas (Pāli). It will be an act conducive to the welfare of the whole world”. Malalasekara (p.66 of Ref 3) gives a very similar account of that request.
  • Ven. Nyanamoli also gives a detailed account of how Ven. Revata recruited Buddhaghōsa for the project on pp. xxxiv-xxv (Introduction) of Ref. 1. Also see, pp. 31-39 of Ref. 2 and pp. 64-69 of Ref. 3.

14. The important position assigned in the Thēravāda tradition to the work of Buddhaghōsa is evident from the following quote from Ref. 1 (p. xli):

  • “..The doctrines (Dhamma) of the Thēravāda Pāli tradition can be conveniently traced in three main layers. (1) The first of these contains the main books of the Pāli Sutta Pitaka. (2) The Abhidhamma Pitaka, notably the closely related books, the Dhammasangayani, Vibhanga Patthana. (3). The system which the author of the Visuddhimagga completed, or found completed, and which he set himself to edit and translate back into Pāli ..”.
  • Even today, many Theravadins just use the Visuddhimagga and don’t bother to consult the Tipitaka.

15. Sinhala tradition assigns the arrival of Buddhaghōsa in Sri Lanka 965 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, according to Malalasekara (p. 66). This is consistent with the above timeline.

  • Upon arriving at the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, Buddhaghōsa requested those Atthakathā from the authorities. They were reluctant first, but after verifying that he was indeed a scholar, they gave him access to the books (Refs. 1-3).
  • Law (p. 8 of Ref 2) says, “..Taking up his residence in the secluded Ganthakaro viharo at Anuradhapura, he translated, according to the rules of the Maghdhas, which is the root of all languages, the whole of the Sinhalese Atthakathā (into Pāli)”.

16. This assertion that Buddhaghōsa “translated Sinhalese Atthakathā into Pāli” is obviously not correct.

  • It is clear that he incorporated many of his vedic concepts (breath meditation, kasina meditation, etc) and made his own commentaries, as I will discuss in the next post.
  • Furthermore, in the next post, I will point out obvious inconsistencies of the Visuddhimagga with the Tipitaka and with the remaining three original Pāli commentaries that are still in the Tipitaka.

17. Law makes the following interesting statement (p. 38 of Ref. 2): “..Buddhaghōsa’s task of translating was finished in three months. Having observed the Pavarana, he informed the chief of the congregation of the completion of his task. The Samgharaja praised him much and set fire to all the works written by Mahinda in Sinhalese..”. We can make two observations:

  • If indeed the work was completed in three months as Law says, Buddhaghōsa obviously did not have even time to go through the whole of the Sinhalese Atthakathā, even if only a part of it was left.
  • It is hard to believe that the chief Bhikkhu set fire to the original books. However, it is true that ALL those Sinhalese Atthakathā were lost after the time of the Buddhaghōsa.

18. In the next post in this section, “Buddhaghōsa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“, I will discuss the key reasons why Visuddhimagga does not represent Buddha Dhamma.

  • However, as we discussed above, all of the Sinhala Atthakathā were lost soon after the publication of Visuddhimagga, and Visuddhimagga became the sole source for explaining Tipitaka material.
  • In fact, it became customary to just use the Visuddhimagga and not even consult the Tipitaka until recent times, especially until the “discovery of Buddhism” by the Europeans who started translating the Tipitaka as well as Buddhaghōsa’s works; see detail in the “Historical Background” section.

19. Furthermore, When Europeans started translating the Tipitaka (starting with Rhys Davis and others), they translated suttas word-by-word to English, a practice that continues today.

  • However, It is not a good idea to translate Pāli suttas word-by-word, and those early commentaries were critically important in order to expand on the Tipitaka material. This is discussed in “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • In addition, those early European scholars made a huge mistake by incorrectly translating the Pāli words anicca and anatta as impermanent and “not-self”; see, “Misintepretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars“.
  • This is why the work of late Waharaka Thero is so important. He was able to “re-discover” the meanings of the key Pāli words by perusing through the remaining three original Pāli commentaries  of Patisambhidamagga, Petakopadesa, and Nettippakarana; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma“.


1. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghōsa (translated by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli), BPS edition, 1999. The Introduction (by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli) provides a historical background.

2. The Life and Work of Buddhaghōsa, by Bimula Charan Law (Low Price Publications, Delhi, 1923), 2005 edition.

3. The Pāli Literature of Ceylon, by G. P. Malalasekara (Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, Delhi, 1928), 2010 edition.

Next, “Buddhaghōsa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“, ..

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