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May 3, 2015 full moon

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Love and Compassion in the Visuddhimagga

A Conversation with Maria Heim

Insight Journal: Tell us something about your path to the Dharma.

Maria Heim: I became interested in Buddhist philosophy studying it in college, but that was in the context of being fascinated by Indian thought more broadly.

IJ: Buddhaghosa evokes some strong reactions among some Western Buddhists. Some tend to blame him for what they see as the intransigently conservative aspects of Theravāda Buddhism. What is your take on who he was and what his intentions were?

MH: Buddhaghosa is very forthright about his intentions. He sees himself as a caretaker of the teachings in that he is preserving and extending them so that future generations (like us) will have access to them. While he, like other commentators in the premodern Indian tradition, disavows originality, I see him as offering startlingly fresh readings of the texts. What I appreciate about him is his very humane and down-to-earth exploration of human psychology, though this is couched within a very erudite and sometimes forbidding scholarly idiom. People should keep in mind that the majority of the work attributed to him has not been translated and very few scholars work on him, so the full extent and depth of his thought is not well known.

I am writing a book on what Buddhaghosa had to say about the process of interpreting the Buddha’s words. In particular I am exploring the rather sophisticated ways he thought that scripture might be read so that we could begin to grasp how the Buddha’s omniscient understanding could be conveyed in the limited vessels of texts to very limited (that is, not omniscient) understandings like ours. Buddhaghosa thinks that reading and interpreting the Buddha’s words should be an endless practice — there is no way one could come to the end of reading and grappling with even one sutta , for example. This very open-ended, but still highly disciplined, interpretative practice makes the teachings live in both the past and the present. I don’t see this as a conservative reflex.

IJ: Do you see any of the Visuddhimagga as obscuring the earlier teachings? Put another way, if one relied solely on the Visuddhimagga, what would one be missing?

MH: The Visuddhimagga is many things, and one of them is that it is a compendium of Abhidhamma. As such, it is a brilliantly systematic manual of the some of the most technical teachings. What it does not do is convey the lively immediacy of the Buddha’s conversations with all sorts of different people that we find in the Suttas. When we see how the Buddha was responding to the wide range of people he encountered, and how he spoke specifically and pointedly to them (something Buddhaghosa’s commentaries on the Suttas help us to appreciate, by the way), we realize just how extraordinary this ancient genre of dialogue is.

We might compare this situation with Socrates’ dialogues and see that a compendium of Socrates’ teachings abstracted from the dialogues would have to be read in tension with the living dialogical and conversational style of his contextual and back-and-forth form of philosophical inquiry. So too nothing can replace the vivid quality of the Suttas’ contextually-situated narrative encounters. But Buddhist thought is given to us in different genres and each genre makes possible different kinds of understanding. Again, this attention to genre is something Buddhaghosa was well aware of and has taught me a lot about.

White Flower in Basement Garden

IJ: Which suttas do you single out for study in your course?

MH: I really appreciate the collection that Bhikkhu Bodhi has translated called “In The Buddha’s Words,” and I use it a lot in my courses.

IJ: What does Buddhaghosa’s psychology add to what we find in the earlier texts?

MH: One thing he does is work out in detail, with an eye on the practical and institutional realities of life-on-the-ground, what the jhāna practices, such as the brahmavihāras, involve. These are mentioned in the Suttas, but we don’t learn what the full practice consists of nor the psychological intricacies of them until Buddhaghosa’s exposition. Buddhaghosa offers, I believe, the most fine-grained and subtle work on human psychology in all of Buddhist thought; this is due in part because he was deeply steeped in Abhidhamma.

IJ: You mention the brahmavihāras as a jhāna or concentration practice. Is that how Buddhaghosa sees them?

MH: Yes, that is how he sees the brahmavihāras: as jhāna practices. Buddhaghosa is entirely clear: they are samatha meditation practices that occur in the section on samādhi. They are not a matter of sīla or morality.

I am aware that this may be startling for some practitioners, but it is quite clear in the Visuddhimagga. I will of course talk about it when I teach at Barre. There are some important implications. He does not have much to say about them outside of their role in jhāna.

Click here to read more…

Dawn Working in Garden

April 4, 2015
Cultivating Bodhicitta: Wisdom and Compassion in Śāntideva’s Introduction to the Awakened Life
A Conversation with William Edelglass

March 5, 2015
Going Forth
A Conversation with David Chernikoff

February 3, 2015
The Buddha doesn’t do “cozy”
A Conversation with John Peacock

January 4, 2015
A Philosophical Assessment of Secular Buddhism
By Dale S. Wright

December 6, 2014
Mapping the Mind
A presentation by Andrew Olendzki

November 6, 2014
Wise Attention
A conversation with Sayadaw U Jagara

October 8, 2014
Secular mindfulness: potential & pitfalls
By Jenny Wilks

September 8, 2014
Some (mostly secular) thoughts on Emptiness
By Gay Watson

August 10, 2014
Neuro-Bhavana: The Mindful Cultivation of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
A video series with Rick Hanson

July 12, 2014
The Evolving Sangha
Talking with Jay Michaelson

June 13, 2014
Awareness of Thinking: Recollective Awareness Practice
Talking with Jason Siff

May 14, 2014
Jhāna Practice and True Happiness
Talking with Shaila Catherine

April 15, 2014
Natural Buddhism
By Gil Fronsdal

March 16, 2014
How is the Medium Changing the Message?
By Ken McLeod

February 14, 2014
Buddhist Roots & Ethics
Talking with Lynn Monteiro & Frank Musten

January 15, 2014
Silent Illumination
By Guo Gu

December 17, 2013
New Horizons: Talking with Andrew Olendzki

November 17, 2013
Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, & Compassionate Action
Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison

October 18, 2013
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
a conversation with Joseph Goldstein

September 19, 2013
MIT Meets the Monastery
a conversation with Rajesh Kashturirangan

August 20, 2013
Secular Buddhism: New vision or yet another of the myths it claims to cure?
By Akincano Weber

July 22, 2013
The Essence of Dhamma
By Ajaan Thanissaro

June 23, 2013
Seeing the Āsavas
By Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia

May 25, 2013
Meeting your thoughts at a resting place
By Jason Siff

April 25, 2013
New rivers, new rafts
By Chris Talbott

March 27, 2013
Wheels of Fire: The Buddha’s Radical Teaching on Process
By Kate Lila Wheeler

February 25, 2013
True & False: Dharma After the Western Enlightenment
Talking with Rita Gross

January 26, 2013
Honoring a Life & Legacy in the Dhamma
Talking with Mirka Knaster about Munindra

See Archive page for some older editions.