Misinterpretations of Buddha Dhamma

Misinterpretation of Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) started with the emergence of Mahāyāna in India and was accelerated by the commentaries of Buddhaghosa. 

Revised October 5, 2016; rewritten February 27, 2023

1. After Emperor Asoka’s reign, no further steps were taken to hold back the inevitable Brahminic influence on Buddhism in India. 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.

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

  • These refinements became significant when D. T. Suzuki’s books were written in the early 1900s, and the original teachings were severely distorted. This is why I am so obsessive about ensuring my essays are compatible with Buddha’s original teachings.

3. All these distortions in both Mahāyāna and Theravada versions have their origins in various philosophers (such as Nagarjuna and Buddhaghosa) trying to interpret Buddha Dhamma in terms of mundane concepts.  

  • However, as pointed out in many posts on this website (see #8 below), 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 those that are yet to be discovered will only confirm the pure Dhamma that stays intact in the Tipiṭaka to the day, as also pointed out in that post.

4. The Tipiṭaka (Pali Canon) has the correct teachings of the Buddha. However, it is in a condensed form fit for listening, retention, recitation, memorization, and repetition – the five major elements in oral transmission.

  • Commentaries were composed to explain condensed versions, especially in some deep suttas. Even though many of the original commentaries (“Sinhala Atthakata”) have been lost, three commentaries compiled by Arahants at the time of the Buddha are still there with the TipiṭakaPatisambhidamaggaPetakopadesa, and Nettippakarana. See “Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma.”
  • This is a critical point. For example, the Buddha orally delivered the main Suttas over many hours; the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta was delivered to the five ascetics over several days. For easy transmission, these discourses were SUMMARIZED in Magadhi (and that particular format of “lining up” was termed Pāli); see “Sutta – Introduction.”
  • Each line, sometimes even a word in a Sutta, needs a further explanation; see “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Structure” and follow-up posts. Such “explanatory texts” or “commentaries” were initially written in Sinhala and were called “Sinhala Atthakata.”

5. Commentaries in Sinhala accumulated for centuries, and in the fourth or fifth century CE, these commentaries were translated to Pāli (and edited with his 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 Vedic concepts.

  • Among the “tainted” commentaries to the Tipiṭaka, those on the Abhidhamma are dominated by the three commentaries of Buddhaghosa: (i) the Atthasālinī, “The Expositor,” the commentary to the Dhammasangani, (ii) the Sammohavinodani, “The Dispeller of Delusion,” the commentary to the Vibhanga, and (iii) the Pañcappakaranatthakatha, the combined commentary to the other five treatises in the Abhidhamma.
  • But it must be remembered that  Buddhaghosa wrote those commentaries with his ideas as a former Hindu Brahmin.
  • The original Tipiṭaka remains unaltered, including those three original commentaries mentioned in #4 above.

6. Besides writing those commentaries on the Tipiṭaka while he was in Sri Lanka, Buddhghosa also wrote the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) around 430 CE, wrongly considered an essential treatise on Theravada doctrine. 

7. This is a 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 Tipiṭaka. Therefore, it is good to have the works of  Buddhaghosa reviewed extensively.

  • I will point out the most critical misrepresentations on this website. The Dhamma that I present here is, in my opinion, the correct interpretation of the Tipiṭaka. I hope you will come to that conclusion after carefully examining the material.
  • More details can be found in “Incorrect Theravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline” and other posts in the “Historical Background” section.

8. Another critical point is that the Buddha advised not translating the Tipiṭaka word-by-word into any other language. See #5 of Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma.”

  • Of course, this tradition was broken with the emergence of the Mahāyāna version of Buddhism just 500 years after the Buddha.  Vedic teachings highly influenced Mahāyāna Buddhism and both those highly influenced Buddhaghosa. That is how incorrect translations of anicca as “impermanence” and anatta as “no-self” got incorporated into Theravada Buddhism. See “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”
  • The problems with such incorrect translations can be easily seen because they lead to inconsistencies with the Tipiṭaka. The following section discusses these critical issues: “Elephants in the Room.”
  • However, the teachings of the Buddha are entirely self-consistent. Those original teachings are in the Tipiṭaka and remain unaltered, including those three original commentaries mentioned in #4 above. See “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”
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