Misinterpretations of Buddha Dhamma

Revised October 5, 2016

1. It is said that the Buddha advised not to translate the Tipitaka material word-by-word into any other language. Instead, commentaries were written to explain the Pali material in the Tipitaka in condensed form fit for listening, retention, recitation, memorization, and repetition – the five major elements in oral transmission.

  • This is a very important point. For example, the Buddha orally delivered the main Suttas over many hours; the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta was delivered over several days to the five ascetics. For easy transmission, these discourses were SUMMARIZED in Magadhi (and that particular format of “lining up” was termed Pali); see, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • Each line, sometimes even a word in a Sutta needs a further explanation; see, “Satipatthana Sutta – Structure” and follow-up posts. Such “explanatory texts” or “commentaries” were originally written in Sinhala and were called “Sinhala Atthakata”.
  • Commentaries in Sinhala accumulated for centuries and in the fourth or fifth century CE, these commentaries were translated to Pali (and edited with his own ideas incorporated) by Buddhaghosa. Subsequently, most of the original Sinhala commentaries were lost, and today we only have the edited summaries of Buddhaghosa where he incorporated his own ideas.
  • Fortunately, three of the original commentaries (“Sinhala Atthakata”) have been preserved in the Tipitaka; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma“.

2. Among the commentaries to the Tipitaka, those on the Abhidhamma are dominated by the three commentaries of Buddhaghosa: (i) the atthasalini, “The Expositor”, the commentary to the Dhammasangani, (ii) the Sammohavinodani, “The Dispeller of Delusion”, the commentary to the Vibhanga, and (iii) the Pancappakarana Atthakatha, the combined commentary to the other five treatises.

  • But it must be remembered that  Buddhaghosa wrote those commentaries with his own ideas as a former Hindu Brahmin. The original Tipitaka remains unaltered, including those three original commentaries (“Sinhala Atthakata”) mentioned above.

3. In addition to writing those commentaries on the Tipitaka while he was in Sri Lanka, Buddhghosa also wrote the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) around 430 CE, which is considered to be an important treatise on Theravada doctrine. This is wrongly considered to be a comprehensive manual condensing the theoretical and practical teaching of the Buddha, and some consider it to be the most important Theravada text outside of the Tipitaka Canon of scriptures.

  • I will point out many problems with Buddhaghosa’s writings – including Visuddhimagga — at this site.
  • The most common problems include: misinterpretation of Anapanasati bhavana as “breath meditation”; see, “7. What is Änapäna?” and “Maha Satipatthana Sutta“.
  • He also incorporated kasina meditations, which are anariya meditations and are not Ariya meditation techniques. In Ariya (or true Buddhist) meditations, the object of meditation is Nibbana, not a mundane object like a kasina object.

4. This is critical issue since most current Theravada institutions teach mainly the works of Buddhaghosa, since those works are supposed to be reliable summaries of the teachings in the Tipitaka. Therefore, it is good to have the works of  Buddhaghosa reviewed extensively.

  • I will point out the most important misrepresentations on this website, based on what I have learned from my teacher Thero in Sri Lanka. The Dhamma that I present here is, in my opinion, the correct interpretation of the Tipitaka. I hope you will come to that conclusion on careful examination of the material.
  • More details can be found in “Incorrect Theravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline” and other posts in the “Historical Background” section.

5. After Emperor Asoka’s reign, no further steps were taken to hold back the inevitable Brahminic influence on Buddhism in India, and Buddhism went through a gradual decline in India (despite or even because of the resurgent philosophical activity led by Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubhanudhu, and others around the beginning of the first millennium) and virtually disappeared from India during the first millennium.

6. The Mahayana version of Buddhism started with the works of Nagarjuna, who, in all likelihood had best intentions for the promotion of Buddhism (even though he was naive enough to assume that Buddha Dhamma can be refined for the “new ages”).

  • These refinements became major revisions  by the time D. T. Suzuki’s books were written in the early 1900’s, and the original teachings were badly distorted. This is the reason why I am so obsessive about making sure that my essays are compatible with the original teachings of the Buddha.

7. All these distortions in both Mahayana and Theravada versions have their origins in various philosophers (such as Nagarjuna and Buddhaghosa) trying to interpret Buddha Dhamma in terms of mundane concepts; see, “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency“.

  • However, as pointed out in that post, it is easy to point out the inconsistencies with such mundane interpretations by Nagarjuana, Buddhaghosa, and others, especially with the evidence gained by the scientific advances made during the past few hundred years.
  • And such scientific evidence and the ones that are yet to be discovered will only confirm the pure Dhamma that stays intact in the Tipitaka to the day, as also pointed out in that post.

Next, “Preservation of Dhamma“, ………

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