Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis

April 29, 2017; revised March 16, 2021; major revision September 3, 2021

Two Major Distortions to Buddha Dhamma

1. The first distortion occurred about 1500 years ago with the introduction of “breath meditation” as the Buddhist Anāpānasati meditation by Buddhaghosa in his commentary Visuddhimagga.

  • The second significant distortion took place more recently by European scholars by an honest mistake. They were unable to distinguish between Sanskrit-based Mahāyāna Buddhism and Pali-based Theravada Buddha Dhamma. That led to to the mistranslation of anicca as impermanence and anatta as “no-self.”
  • We will discuss the background to the first issue in this post.
  • An introduction to the second issue is in the post, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”
Historical Background on Buddhaghosa

2. In the previous post in this series, “Buddhaghosa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background,” we discussed why Buddhaghosa traveled to Sri Lanka. Here is a summary of that post:

  • Many parts of the Tipiṭaka are in condensed form. Starting from the Buddha’s time, commentaries were written to expand and explain the key concepts in the Tipiṭaka.
  • Most of those commentaries — at least from the time of Ven. Mahinda — was written in the Sinhala language by Ven. Mahinda himself and many Sinhalese Arahants for over 950 years up to the time of Buddhaghosa. These were called Sinhala Atthakathā (true accounts).
  • A certain bhikkhu by the name of Ven. Revata in India recruited Bhuddhaghosa to travel to Sri Lanka and translate those Sinhala Atthakathā to Pāli (See Refs. 2-4 below).
  • In this post, I will point out that instead of translating those Sinhala Atthakathā, Buddhaghosa incorporated his own vedic ideas into his commentaries in Pāli, especially describing Ānāpānasati as breath mediation.
Demise of Sinhala Atthakathā (Original Commentaries in Sinhala)

3. Those Sinhalese Atthakathā disappeared from existence not long after Buddhghosa completed his work (most of them were likely burnt with the Mahavihara well before Buddhaghosa’s time). Regardless of what happened to those original Atthakathā, Theravada tradition accepted Visuddhimagga to represent those original Atthakathā as well as the Tipiṭaka. To date, Visuddhimagga is regarded in high esteem.

  • When he edited those Sinhala Atthakathā and composed the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa, a scholar in Vedic literature, incorporated Hindu Vedic concepts to the Visuddhimagga.
  • In particular, he replaced real Buddhist Anāpāna Bhāvanā with breath meditation and also introduced Hindu kasina meditation.
  • Buddhaghosa also disregarded the importance of the Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta), but I will show evidence that he never distorted their meanings. That happened only when the Europeans translated the Tipiṭaka and the Visuddhimagga to English; see, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”
  • He also reportedly wrote other commentaries on Tipiṭaka, but they are not widely used.  
  • I guess that Buddhaghosa did not consult the Sinhala Atthakathā, even for the Visuddhimagga. Certainly, Visuddhimagga is not compatible with the remaining original three commentaries and the Tipiṭaka regarding meditation techniques.
Final Buddhist Council Attended by Arahants

4. As I discussed in the post, “Buddhaghosa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background,” pure Dhamma existed until the fourth Buddhist Council (Sangāyanā) held in 29 BCE in Matale, Sri Lanka.

  • By the time Buddhaghosa arrived in Sri Lanka roughly 450 years later, drastic changes had taken place (with the Buddhist center of Anuradhapura Maha Vihara burnt down once) and a Mahayaṃist sect the landscape for a while; see the above post) among other things.
  • So, the degradation of Theravada Buddha Dhamma occurred gradually over two thousand years. Still, two drastic changes took place during that time: (i) Buddhaghosa’s introduction of Hindu meditation techniques in the fifth century, (ii) misinterpretation of anicca and anatta by the European scholars when they translated both Tipiṭaka and Visuddhimagga to English in the late 1800s.
  • Even though there was a resurgence of Buddha Dhamma since the late 1800s due to those Europeans’ efforts like Rhys Davids, Eugene Burnouf, and Thomas Huxley, unfortunately, this “distorted Dhamma” was what spread throughout the world in the past 200 years. 
Three Original Commentrairs in Pāli

5. Even though those old Sinhala commentaries were lost, three commentaries composed in Pāli (Paṭisambhidāmagga, Petakopadesa, and Nettippakarana) at the time of the Buddha remained intact with the Tipiṭaka; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma.”

  • After Buddhaghosa composed Visuddhimagga, Theravadins almost exclusively used Visuddhimagga instead of the Tipiṭaka, and those original Pāli commentaries were totally neglected.
  • With the help of those three original Pāli commentaries, Waharaka Thero was able to “re-discover” the Buddha’s original teachings over the past 25 years or so. Unfortunately, Wahraka Thero attained Prinibbāna recently; see, “Prinibbāna of Waharaka Thero.”
  • After the “re-discovery” of the Buddha’s true teachings by Waharaka Thero over the past 25 years or so, it became clear that several key misinterpretations crept into Buddha Dhamma over the past two thousand years. But the actual timeline of contamination was not clear.
  • For example, it was not clear whether Buddhaghosa himself was responsible for anicca and anatta’s misinterpretations. In this post, I will show that Buddhaghosa was not responsible for that part. In the post, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars,” I presented evidence that it was done by the European pioneers when they assumed that the Pāli words anicca and anatta were derived from anitya and anathma in Sanskrit.
Buddhaghosa Not Responsible for Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta

6. First, I will show evidence that Buddhaghosa did not distort the meanings of the words anicca and anatta, even though he did not realize the importance of the Tilakkhana.

  • We need to remember that Buddhaghosa was supposed to take material from Sinhala Atthakathā and compose his own commentary, Visuddhimagga, in Pāli. One can purchase that original Pāli version, Ref. 1 below, from Amazon.
  • When comparing the Pāli and English texts below, I will be using Ref. 2.

7. On p. 271 of the Pāli Visuddhimagga (Ref. 1), for example, it says, “Catutthacatukke pana aniccānupassi ettha tava aniccata veditabbam. Aniccata veditabba. Aniccānupassanā veditabba. Aniccānupassi veditabbo“.

  • This is translated in the book by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli (p. 282, vol. I) as, “But in the fourth tetrad, as to contemplating impermanence, here; firstly, the impermanent should be understood, and impermanence, and the contemplation of impermanence, and one contemplating impermanence.”
  • So, in this case, Buddhaghosa used the correct Pāli words, anicca. Still, Bhikkhu Nyanamoli incorrectly translated it as “impermanence” following the European pioneers’ misinterpretation before him, as we discussed above.

8. Buddhaghosa’s original Pāli version also states the relations among the three characteristics, as I discussed in the post, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations.” On p. 617 of Ref. 1, “Yadaniccam tam dukkha’nti (SN 3.15) vacanato pana tadeva khandhapancakam dukkham. Kasma? Abhinhapatipilana, abhiññāpatipilanakaro dukkhalakkhanam.” AND “Yam dukkham tadanatta’ti (SN 3.15) pana vacanato tadeva khandhapancakam anatta. Kasma? Avasavattanato, avasavattanakaro anattalakkhanam“.

  • This really means, “dukkha arises (based on attachments to things of) anicca nature, therefore (such attachments are of) anatta nature,” as I explained in my post too.
Incorrect Translation by Bhikkhu Nynamoli

9. However, Bhikkhu Nynamoli, following the incorrect interpretation by the early European pioneers in the 1800’s, translates those two verses as (p.663 of Ref.2): “Those same five aggregates are painful because of the words, ‘What is impermanent is painful‘ (S. iii,22). Why? Because of continuous oppression. The mode of being continuously oppressed is the characteristic of pain.”, AND

“Those same five aggregates are not-self because of the words, ‘What is painful is not-self (S. iii,22). Why? Because there is no exercising of power over them. The mode of insusceptibility to the exercise of power is the characteristic of not-self.”

10. Thus, it is obvious that it was not the Buddhaghosa who interpreted anicca as impermanent and anatta as not-self, but those early Europeans in the late 1800s. As explained in those previous posts, subsequent scholars from Sri Lanka and other Asian countries propagated those two incorrect interpretations.

  • For example, early Sinhala scholars like Malalasekara, Jayathilaka, and Kalupahana, learned Buddhism (and received Doctoral degrees in Buddhism!) from those European pioneers at universities in the United Kingdom.
  • One needs to contemplate on how the authority of those early Europeans on Buddha Dhamma. As explained in those other posts, they merely translated the Tipiṭaka word-by-word (using perceived etymologies to Sanskrit).
  • We must realize that translating Tipiṭaka is not the same as translating any other book from one language to another. One has to have a deep background in Buddha Dhamma to do that.
  • The key mistake made by Rhys Davids, Bernouf, and others, was to assume that Pāli anicca and anatta are the same as Sanskrit anitya (which does mean impermanence) and anathma (which does mean no-self). 
Buddhaghosa Introduced Breath Meditation as Anāpānasati

11. Now, we turn to the issue of Biddhaghosa introducing Hindu Vedic meditation techniques to Buddha Dhamma in his Visuddhimagga.

Here is a key passage from Buddhaghosa’s original Pāli Visuddhimagga (p. 254 of Ref. 1):Tattha dighamva va assasantoti digham va assasam pavattayaṃto. Assasoti bahi nikkhamanavato. Passasoti anto pavisanavatoti vinayatthakathayam vuttam. Suttantatthakathasu pana uppatipatiya agatam. Tattha sabbesampi gabbhaseyyakanam matukucchito nikkhamanakale pathamam abbhantaravato bahi nikkhamati. Paccha bahiravato sukhumarajam gehetva abbhaantaram pavisanto talum ahacca nibbayati. Evam tava assapassasa veditabba“.

Bhikkhu Nyanamoli CORRECTLY translates this passage to English as follows (p. 265 of Ref. 2): “Herein, breathing in long (assasanto) is producing a long in-breath. assāsa is the wind issuing out; passāsa is the wind entering in’ is said in the Vinaya Commentary. But in the Suttanta Commentaries, it is given in the opposite sense. Herein, when an infant comes out from the mother’s womb, first the wind from within goes out, and subsequently, the wind from without enters in with fine dust strikes the palate and is extinguished [with the infant’s sneezing]. This, firstly, is how assāsa and passāsa should be understood”.

  • So, above is concrete evidence that Buddhaghosa himself referred to Ānāpānasati as breath meditation. He specifically talked about inhaling and exhaling air.
  • However, actual Buddhist Anāpāna Bhāvanā is not breath meditation; see, “7. What is Änapäna?“.
Buddhist Meditations Do Not Use Kasina Objects

12. The second problem that Buddhaghosa introduced in his Visuddhimagga was to present mundane kasina meditation as a viable path to Nibbāna. He gives detailed explanations on making kasina objects in chapters 4 and 5 in Ref. 1.

  • For example, he goes to minute details describing how to make an “earth kasina” starting on. 118 of Ref. 1: “..Nilapitalohitaodatsambhedavasena hi cattaro pathavikasinadosa. Tasma niladivaṇṇam mattikam aggahetva gangavahe mattikasadisaya arunavananaya mattikaya kasinam katabbam..”.
  • Bhikkhu Nyanamoli translates (p. 123 of Ref. 2): “…Now the four fruits of the earth kasina are due to the intrusion of blue, yellow, red, or white. So instead of using clay of such colors, he should make the kasina of clay like that in the stream of Ganga, which is the color of the dawn..”.
  • In the same way, Buddhaghosa goes into great detail to describe how to make other types of kasina objects.

13. The critical point is that true Buddhist kasina meditation does not involve any physical kasina objects. If anyone can find a reference in the Tipiṭaka where it is described how to make a physical kasina object, I would appreciate receiving that reference.

  • The Buddha described the true Buddhist kasina meditation to Ven. Rahula in the Maha Rahulovada Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, MN 62). It was explained to him as a part of Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā, which can be done in many ways, but here by contemplating on internal body parts made of satara mahā bhuta and realizing that external objects are also made with the same satara mahā bhuta. Furthermore, that means nothing can be considered in one’s body as. “me, myself, etc..”

“..Ekāmantaṃ nisinno kho āyasmā rāhulo bhagavantaṃ etadavoca: “kathaṃ bhāvitā nu kho, bhante, ānāpānassati, kathaṃ bahulīkatā mahāpphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā”ti? “Yaṃ kiñci, rāhula, ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ kakkhaḷaṃ kharigataṃ upādinnaṃ, seyyathidaṃ—kesā lomā nakhā dantā taco maṃsaṃ nhāru aṭṭhi aṭṭhimiñjaṃ vakkaṃ hadayaṃ yakanaṃ kilomakaṃ pihakaṃ papphāsaṃ antaṃ antaguṇaṃ udariyaṃ karīsaṃ, yaṃ vā panaññampi kiñci ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ kakkhaḷaṃ kharigataṃ upādinnaṃ— ayaṃ vuccati, rāhula, ajjhattikā pathavīdhātu. Ya ceva kho pana ajjhattikā pathavīdhātu yā ca bāhirā pathavīdhātu, patha­vī­dhātu­revesā. Taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti—evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya disvā pathavīdhātuyā nibbindati, pathavīdhātuyā cittaṃ virājeti.”.

  • The other three, apo, tejo, vayo, are discussed in the same way there. One does not need to make kasina objects for true Buddhist kasina meditation, and as I said, there is nowhere in the Tipiṭaka that discusses preparing kasina objects.
The Second Issue of Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta

14. In the next post, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars,” we will wrap up this section on “Historical Background.”

  • With that post, I would have summarized the historical background from the Buddha’s time to the present day. This is probably the only section that can be said to be “finished,” even though I may edit the posts in this section as needed.

1. Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification – Pāli Edition), by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa (Theravada Tipiṭaka Press, 2010).

2. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa and translated by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli (BPS Edition, 1999). The Introduction (by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli) provides historical background.

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

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

Next, “Background on the Current Revival of Buddha Dhamma.”

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