Tipiṭaka Commentaries – Helpful or Misleading?

December 6, 2017

1. I recently came across the following essay on Tipiṭaka commentaries: “Beyond the Tipiṭaka : A Field Guide to Post-canonical Pāli Literature”. It describes the importance of such commentaries in clarifying key concepts in the Tipiṭaka. I will present evidence to the contrary. In fact, such commentaries have introduced contradictory explanations.

  • Over the years, I have also seen heated discussions on key concepts of Buddha Dhamma like anicca, anatta, and anidassana viññāna, on internet discussion boards.
  • I often wonder about the immense amounts of time people waste on discussing the meaning of key Pāli words in Tipiṭaka suttā. They go back and forth between different interpretations without reaching a conclusion. I hardly see any issue resolved fully in such discussions. Same topic is discussed year after year without much progress.
  • One key factor contributing to this confusion is those commentaries themselves; they are not consistent with Buddha’s original teachings in the Tipiṭaka. The other key factor is the incorrect translation of key Pāli words. Both these issues are discussed below.

2. I hope this post would be helpful in thinking about a new approach to finding the “correct teachings of the Buddha”. By discarding sources of incorrect interpretations  once and for all, one could save a lot of time and really focus on making progress.

  • When I seriously started studying different versions of Buddhism several years ago, this was the strategy that I used to eliminate”corrupt” or “contaminated”  versions. I eliminated Mahāyāna, Vajrayaṃa (Tibetan), and Zen versions first. After I came across dēsanas of Waharaka Thēro, I was able to eliminate Visuddhimagga and other relatively recent commentaries. These steps are discussed in detail below.
  • Then I was left out with just the Tipiṭaka and its three ancient, original commentaries, which were composed during the time of the Buddha; see below. A consistent picture that is crystal clear has emerged for me.
  • I hope others can follow the same procedure. If everything can be understood within that framework, what is the need for more sources? As the principle of philosophy  “Occam’s razor” (or Ockham’s razor) says, simplest explanation without any inconsistencies is the best explanation.

3. My key assertion is that the Tipiṭaka, together with the three original commentaries of  PatisambhidamaggaPetakopadesa, and Nettippakarana are sufficient to clarify the original teachings of the Buddha.

  • This was made possible by my Noble teacher Waharaka Thēro, who was able to discern the true meanings of key Pāli words with the help of those three original commentaries; see, “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thēro“.
  • At this website I present this self-consistent picture that came out of the efforts of Waharaka Thēro.
  • Note that I am not asking anyone to take what I present at this website as the correct version. It is up to each person to look at the evidence and decide. As far as I can see, everything at this site is consistent with the Tipiṭaka and is also self-consistent. I encourage all to point out any inconsistencies, because my goal is 100% consistency.
  • Self-consistency, i.e., making sure that there are no contradictions is the scientific procedure used also by modern scientists to evaluate the validity of a scientific theory.
4. There is no need to consult any commentary other than the three original ones mentioned above. In fact, I have explained at length why the other key commentaries used today provide inaccurate and inconsistent explanations; see, “Historical Background“.
The above mentioned essay (in #1) is a good example of some misconceptions on the importance and validity of Tipiṭaka commentaries. When I say “commentaries” from now on below, they do not include the original three commentaries included with the Tipiṭaka.
  • In the following, the statements  within quotation marks and highlighted in red are from the above essay, and are accompanied by my comments pointing out the flaws in those statements.
5. “The Tipiṭaka (Pāli canon) assumed its final form at the Third Buddhist Council (ca. 250 BCE) and was first committed to writing sometime in the 1st c. BCE. Shortly thereafter Buddhist scholar-monks in Sri Lanka and southern India began to amass a body of secondary literature: commentaries on the Tipiṭaka itself..”.
  • Not true. The original three commentaries mentioned in #3 above (PatisambhidamaggaPetakopadesa, and Nettippakarana) were compiled during the time of the Buddha, and those still are in the Tipiṭaka itself:
  • Those three original commentaries are in Pāli, but there were many others written in Sinhala language, and all of those have been lost, as discussed below.
6. “Most of these texts were written in Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka, but because Pāli — not Sinhala — was the lingua franca of Theravada, few Buddhist scholars outside Sri Lanka could study them. It wasn’t until the 5th c. CE, when the Indian monk Buddhaghosa began the laborious task of collating the ancient Sinhala commentaries and translating them into Pāli, that these books first became accessible to non-Sinhala speakers around the Buddhist world”.
  • This statement refers to those early Sinhala commentaries that have since been lost.
  • It is correct that Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga — as well as other commentaries such as Vimuttimagga — were written in Pāli by Indian scholars.
  • It is also important to note that incorrect translations of those Pāli words led to more problems when those were translated to English; see #7 below.
7. “These commentaries (Atthakatha) offer meticulously detailed explanations and analyses — phrase-by-phrase and word-by-word — of the corresponding passages in the Tipiṭaka“.
  • First of all,  Atthakatha (a Sinhala word meaning “true accounts”) were the ancient commentaries on Tipiṭaka written in Sinhala. They ALL have been lost; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma“.
  • So, it is misleading to refer to those as the commentaries in question. In contrast, the commentaries in circulation today are NOT those ancient Atthakatha, but more recent ones like Visuddhimagga.
  • Buddhaghosa’s mission was to translate the material in Sinhala  Atthakatha to Pāli so that those bhikkhus in India could read them. Unfortunately, he incorporated many Vedic concepts; see, Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“.
  • Further problems were introduced when Visuddhimagga was translated to English in recent times. Today, both the original Pāli version of Visuddhimagga and its recent English translation are available on Amazon; see Refs. 1 and 2 below.

8. “Almost everything we know today about the early years of Buddhism comes to us from these post-canonical books”.

9. “First, the chronicles and commentaries provide a vital thread of temporal continuity that links us, via the persons and historical events of the intervening centuries, to the Tipiṭaka’s world of ancient India. A Tipiṭaka without this accompanying historical thread would forever be an isolated anachronism to us, its message lost in clouds of myth and fable, its pages left to gather dust in museum display cases alongside ancient Egyptian mummies..”.

  • There are no myths or fables in the Tipiṭaka. I would challenge anyone to show any evidence from the Tipiṭaka. This is an irresponsible and egregious statement.

10. “Second, almost everything we know today about the early years of Buddhism comes to us from these post-canonical books.”.

  • There is nothing in these commentaries that provide any significant information about the time of the Buddha. They may provide information about the time at which they were written. For example, Visuddhimagga was written about 800 years after the Buddha.

11. “One might reasonably wonder: how can a collection of texts written a thousand years after the Buddha’s death possibly represent his teachings reliably? How can we be sure they aren’t simply derivative works, colored by a host of irrelevant cultural accretions? First of all, although many of these texts were indeed first written in Pāli a thousand years after the Buddha, most Sinhala versions upon which they were based were written much earlier, having themselves been passed down via an ancient and reliable oral tradition..”.

12. “But what of the credentials of the commentators themselves: can their words be trusted? In addition to living a monastic life immersed in Dhamma, the compilers of the commentaries possessed unimpeachable literary credentials: intimate acquaintance with the Tipiṭaka, mastery of the Pāli and Sinhala languages, and expert skill in the art of careful scholarship. We have no reason to doubt either their abilities or the sincerity of their intentions”.

  • This is also a critical issue. As I discussed in those posts mentioned above, Buddhaghosa was a Vedic Brahmin and he distorted Anāpāna to breath meditation and incorporated kasina meditations into Visuddhimagga; no such kasina meditations are to be found anywhere in the Tipiṭaka.
  • Like so many late commentators, Buddhaghosa was just another philosopher like Nagarjuna. By the way, Nagarjuna was also a commentator, and his work led to the rising of Mahāyāna version of Buddhism.
  • I have discussed the drawbacks in Mahāyāna; see, for example, “Key Problems with Mahāyāna Teachings” and “Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) – A Focused Analysis“.
  • Same kind of arguments can be applied to Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayāna) and Chinese Zen Buddhism; all these are off-shoots of the original teachings in the Tipiṭaka; see, “Historical Background“. In fact, it is well-worth the time to read this section before coming to any conclusions.

13. “And what of their first-hand understanding of Dhamma: if the commentators were scholars first and foremost, would they have had sufficient meditative experience to write with authority on the subject of meditation? This is more problematic”.

  • This is the only statement that I agree with. They were just “scholars” and philosophers, who had not made any progress in actual practice.
  • This is true today as well. Many “scholars” have written books on Buddha Dhamma without having any significant progress in following the Noble Path. In fact, many are not even nominally Buddhists; some are “secular Buddhists” who do not believe in rebirth or Nibbāna; see, “Buddhism without Rebirth and Nibbāna?“.
  • I am not trying to put them down. They do serve a meritorious purpose in teaching how to live a moral life. However, those books/journal papers/websites cannot be used to clarify deeper teachings in the Tipiṭaka.

14. A key point missing in the current discussion is that it is not possible to comprehend the key concepts like anicca and anatta without at least attaining the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna. However, these days, people tend to gauge the qualifications by checking only whether a given person is an “academic scholar”.

  • Just like only a practicing physician can truly understand and diagnose a patient, not one who has just studied medical text books.
  • Only an Ariya (a Noble person) — who has practiced the true teachings and at least attained the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna — can comprehend deep concepts like ancca, anatta, viññāna, and saññā. One cannot fully understand such deep concepts by just studying or reading about them. For example, see, “What is Sañña (Perception)?“.

15. The most referred to commentaries (these days) are Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga and Upatissa’s Vimuttimagga (to a much less extent). The original Pāli text for the latter was long believed to have been lost; for centuries, discussions about the text therefore relied on a 5th c. Chinese edition.

  • As we have established, those later commentaries — including Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga — were written in Pāli.

16. Therefore, those late commentaries lead to confusion in two ways:

  • One is the erroneous interpretations by the commentators themselves, as discussed above.
  • The other is incorrect translations — initially done by early European scholars — in translating key Pāli terms incorrectly; see, for example, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars“. This has made the situation even worse.

These are two critical points to consider by those who are tempted to refer to those late commentaries. I cannot emphasize the importance of those two points enough.

17. Then there are those who quote from Chinese Āgama. Even though those original Chinese documents COULD BE authentic, my point is that they were also derived from the Tipiṭaka and thus serve no purpose as additional resources.

  • They could be valuable for those who are proficient in Chinese but cannot read Pāli, Sinhala, or English.

18. Finally, to re-emphasize my main point: The Tipiṭaka — together with the three original commentaries included in  it — are sufficient to clarify the original teachings of the Buddha. The goal of this website is to have such a consistent clarification of Buddha’s teachings in English at one place.

  • Using just the Tipiṭaka, I have also pointed out some current misinterpretations in Theravada Buddhism, mainly due to the influence of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga; see, “Incorrect Theravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline” and posts referred there.
  • There still could be some minor inconsistencies at the website, and I am appreciative of those readers who have pointed out some of them that have led to improvements. But I have high confidence in the correctness of key concepts.
  • Please do not hesitate to comment on any inconsistency with the Tipiṭaka or within the website. However, for the reasons that I have detailed, please do not quote from any other sources.

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 a historical background.

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