Academic versus Realized Buddhism

I know enough now to see the bigger landscape of Theravāda Buddhism. Basically it divided about 1200 years ago into two schools: the academics headed by Buddhaghosh, and the forest monks, the practitioners. As more and more of the population moved to cities, attended schools & learned to read, Burma, Thailand & much of Sri Lanka followed the academics instead of the forest monks. That’s why most Buddhist culture is so impotent: nobody is becoming enlightened.

Until the time of Buddhaghosh, the Buddha’s teaching was handed down by oral recitation under the direction of realized senior monks. Buddhaghosh was from India and became a leader among the first Buddhist academics to put everything in writing, a strategy used very effectively by the Indian brahmans to create a phony history justifying the caste system and the violent extermination of Buddhist culture in India. In the case of Buddhism, the early scholar-monks of Anuradhapura created a division between the dry speculative philosophy of the Commentaries & Abhidhamma and the actual practice of the teaching, leading to the confused situation today. Instead of following the Buddha’s original sermons in the Suttas, people read in the Commentaries, Abhidhamma and Visuddhimagga what the scholastics think he said.

Ven. Ñāṇananda writes in Nibbāna the Mind Stilled:

“There is a popular belief that the commentaries are finally traceable to a miscellany of the Buddha word scattered here and there, as pakiṇṇ􏰁􏰁akadesanā. But the true state of affairs seems to be rather different. Very often the commentaries are unable to say something conclusive regarding the meaning of deep Suttas. So they simply give some possible interpretations and the reader finds himself at a loss to choose the correct one. Sometimes the commentaries go at a tangent and miss the correct interpretation. Why the commentaries are silent on some deep Suttas is also a problem to modern day scholars. There are some historical reasons leading to this state of affairs in the commentaries.

“In the Āṇ􏰁isutta of the Nidānavagga in the Saṃ􏰀yutta Nikāya we find the Buddha making certain prophetic utterances regarding the dangers that will befall the Sāsana in the future. It is said that in times to come, monks will lose interest in those deep Suttas which deal with matters transcendental, that they would not listen to those Suttas that have to do with the idea of emptiness, suññatā. They would not think it even worthwhile learning or pondering over the meanings of those Suttas.

“There is also another historical reason that can be adduced. An idea got deeply rooted at a certain stage in the Sāsana history that what is contained in the Sutta Piṭ􏰃aka is simply the conventional teaching, and so it came to imply that there is nothing so deep in these Suttas. This notion also had its share in the present lack of interest in these Suttas. According to Manorathapūra􏰁ṇī, the Aṅ􏰂guttara commentary, already at an early stage in the Sāsana history of Sri Lanka, there had been a debate between those who upheld the precept and those who stood for realization. And it is said that those who upheld the precept won the day. The final conclusion was that, for the continuity of the Sāsana, precept itself is enough, not so much the realization.

“Of course the efforts of the reciter monks of old for the preservation of the precept in the midst of droughts and famines and other calamitous situations are certainly praiseworthy. But the unfortunate thing about it was this: the basket of the Buddha word came to be passed on from hand to hand in the dark, so much so that there was the risk of some valuable things slipping out in the process.”

So practice & realization were neglected in favor of scholarship. No wonder there is so much confusion. More recently, narrow conservative Burmese monks like Mahāsi Sayādaw had a lot of impact in Sri Lanka. Many of not most monks in Sri Lanka today are following the academic tradition. That’s why we had a bad time with them when we first arrived in Sri Lanka. They are only posing as forest monks. The real  Sri Lanka forest tradition does not accept Visuddhimagga or the academic commentarial tradition.

I remember how excited I was to find out about radical Buddhist thinkers like Ñāṇavīra and Wettimuny because like Buddhadasa, they had rejected Visuddhimagga and were thinking for themselves, based on their experience of the practice. Well Buddhadasa’s movement was suppressed with sneaky politics and is now finished. The academics like Thanissaro have won and are feeling very smug. They’re popular, but nobody among their followers is becoming enlightened. So what kind of victory is that?

Further research revealed that Ñāṇavīra’s and Wettimuny’s actual inspiration was coming from the authentic forest tradition through Ñāṇananda. Remember Ñāṇamoli translated the whole Visuddhimagga into English—and then rejected it. That was also Ñāṇananda’s influence. His influence is huge among the forest monk community, although he prefers to remain quietly in the background. For example, he doesn’t allow photos; you will not find a single photo of him anywhere.

Actually there are many good monks in the forest monasteries, but they don’t advertise on Internet, nor do many of them speak good English. Ñāṇananda is about the only one with good enough English skills to write, and even he writes in Siṅhala and then translates into English by hand. He recently gave me a handwritten manuscript of his latest book to type, and it’s mind-blowing stuff.

So in future as we become more established in the philosophy and practices of the authentic forest tradition, we will be posting deep analyses of the Buddha’s teaching from that point of view. Of course these will contradict many of the scholastics’ assumptions about the real teaching and practices of the Buddha. But too bad, we are interested in enlightenment, not debates or publishing scholarly papers. That’s why approaches like The Dharmasar Solution based on the forest tradition are so powerful: they actually bring people to enlightenment.


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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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