August 31, 2011 full moon

A Conversation with Bhikkhu Anālayo

This month we have an interview with Bhikkhu Anālayo, probably best known to students of Dhamma in the West for his 2004 book, Satipatthāna: The Direct Path to Realization, which has since become a touchstone modern interpretation of that key sutta. He paid an informal visit to Barre earlier this summer as part of larger trip to the U.S. (He lives & teaches in Germany.)

Bhikkhu Anālayo graciously answered some questions for Insight Journal. His 2004 book, while very approachable for those with some knowledge of and interest in the Dhamma, was developed from his doctoral thesis. As such, formal practice was not a prime concern of that text. In 2013, however, he hopes to publish a follow-up book that applies much of what he has learned to how it might help us in our practice. (Please see the footnotes and links at the end of this interview for more on his writings.)

Insight Journal: Can you describe for us your path to the Dhamma? Those of us who know about you do so because of your very helpful book on the Satipatthāna Sutta. What else about you might be helpful for us to know about you?

Bhikkhu Anālayo: My main interest throughout has been and still is to change myself through meditation practice. Having meditated for a few years in the late eighties I realized that this is what I want to do with my life. So I went to Asia, where I did a retreat at the monastery of Ajahn Buddhadasa, after which the most logical thing to do was to ordain in order to do intensive practice. I lived as a ‘forest monk’ in a cave in Thailand and practiced, but without having real clarity about the Dharma. Somehow my practice did not really take off.

Then a friend made me read The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Ven. Ñānaponika Thera and that completely changed the situation for me. I felt so grateful that I went to Sri Lanka to meet him, but on arrival I found out that he had just passed away a few days earlier. I stayed in Sri Lanka and practiced, but at the same time studied the Dharma, mainly under the guidance of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi. This combination of scriptural study of the early discourses with the practice of intensive meditation is what runs like a red thread through my life.

IJ: Western interpretations of Dhamma have been through many filters, including 19th-century Romantic philosophy, Western psychology, and 5th-century Theravada (Visuddhimagga). What are the key misunderstandings that have been created, based on your understanding of the original Pali texts?

BA: Discussing such misunderstandings is a topic that would perhaps require more space and time, but maybe I just mention some tendencies? Sometimes I feel there is a lack of historical contextualization, so that ideas and doctrines that stem from a later period are not distinguished from early Buddhism. Without in any way wanting to downplay the importance of the explanations and methods that arose within the tradition, I believe it is good to be clear on what is early and what developed later.

Another trend is a kind of anti-intellectualism, according to which progress means leaving behind all knowledge and analytical thought. This is not the model of progress we get in early Buddhism.

IJ: You are clearly someone who has spent time both in serious study of Buddhadhamma texts and in practice as well. How do those two aspects complement each other? Is there a way to more explicitly combine them so that they inform each other?

BA: I try to make sure I always give priority to formal sitting meditation. Thus when I wrote the Satipatthāna book, I would go begging in the early morning and then do my research. In the afternoon I would go up hill to a little hut and just meditate the rest of the day, in this way spending half of my time in practice. Nowadays I work the whole day during half of the week, the other half of the week I am in silent retreat, sitting the whole day. In this way I continue spending half of my time in intensive silent meditation and everything else is nourished by that. I believe if we are able to give priority to the meditation then all else will eventually fall into place on its own accord.

IJ: Has your thinking about the Satipatthāna Sutta, about which you wrote the book, changed since then, as you have encountered those who have read the book?

BA: I have been teaching courses on Satipatthāna and the way students react to and approach various aspects of the discourse and how they implement these in their practice has been very helpful for my own understanding. At present I am preparing a follow up study on Satipatthāna that will be based on the Chinese Agama sources and hopefully come out with Windhorse in late 2013, ten years after the original Satipatthāna book. The new book will be more practice related than my PhD, and it will have more translated text excerpts instead of just references to the sources.

IJ: Are there other classical texts that you focus on? Which others would you recommend for study, in particular?

BA: For me the really central source are the early discourses, which have been preserved in Pali, Sanskrit fragments, a few Tibetan translations and then for the most part in the Chinese Agamas. Since so far only the Pali discourses are extant in translations into Western languages, I am trying to do my best to provide translations and studies of Chinese Agama discourses in articles, many of which can be freely downloaded from the website that has my ‘list of publications’ at the University of Hamburg.* In general I think it is good to be familiar with the early discourses as much as one can, this really helps the practice in many ways.

Besides the Satipatthāna Sutta there are several discourses helpful for insight meditation in the Middle Length Discourse Collection, of which we have the excellent translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi, such as the Smaller Discourse on Emptiness (MN 121, page 965), one of my favourites, which is preceded by the Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing (MN 118, page 941) and the Discourse on Mindfulness of the Body (MN 119, page 949). Another option would be to go from the Satipatthāna Sutta to the Satipatthāna Samyutta, collected shorter sayings on the same topic of mindfulness meditation, where we are again indebted to Bhikkhu Bodhi for providing us with a reliable translation, Connected Discourses of the Buddha, pages 1627 to 1667. This whole last part of the Samyutta-Nikāya has much that is of relevance to the practitioner, so those willing to read might go through the entire Great Book, the Mahavagga.

IJ: It seems that one type of error that is frequent is looking for philosophical nuggets in the teachings, when in fact they seem to be completely pragmatic, practical, and focused on understanding and practice for liberation. Later traditions seem to be especially prone to philosophical systems and views. How can we test ourselves to avoid this kind of mistaken view?

BA: I think if we make meditation our priority, then what is excessive naturally will sooner or later fall away.

IJ: You are doing some work comparing the Pali Canon with related materials in the Chinese Agamas. This is, I believe, a very active and fruitful area of academic research right now. What are the most important findings so far?

BA: The most important finding so far is the close resemblance of the parallel versions as far as essential aspects of the teachings are concerned. This makes core teachings found in the Pali discourses the common heritage of all Buddhist traditions and an important reference point for the follower of any Buddhist school.

Another important finding for me is to see the continuity of certain developments. One example is the bodhisattva ideal. Clearly in early Buddhism the idea to become a Buddha was unknown. Yet, in a book dedicated to the ‘Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal‘ I have been able to trace the very beginnings of what eventually became the bodhisattva ideal in the early discourses. Here particularly significant is the Acchariya-abbhuta Sutta (MN 123), as well as its Chinese parallels, but I guess to see what I have in mind you would have to read my book, which is fortunately available for free download.**

IJ: Scholars continue to investigate the origins and structure of the Pali Canon, such as which parts are the oldest, which suttas were possibly created later by combining parts of earlier ones, and so on. What are the most important questions here in your mind? Are there important insights into what the Buddha taught that we can gain? What are the most important issues that we might hope these inquiries could help us understand? Has your work with the Agamas led to any such insights? What are the implications for practice?

BA: In my new book on Satipatthāna** I want to try to explore the way some academic insights can inform our practice. Just to give one example, from a comparative perspective we get the impression that the core practices of contemplation of the body were these three: the examination of its anatomical parts, seeing the body as made up of elements and the cemetery contemplations.

This certainly does not mean that mindfulness of breathing or of the postures of the body is not a form of mindfulness; they certainly are, in fact precisely because they are closely related to mindfulness we now find them in the Sarvastivada and the Theravada versions of the Satipatthāna Sutta. But as far as we are able to tell through comparative study, these may not have been part of the historically earliest formulation of the Satipatthāna Sutta.

So the basic import of ‘contemplation of the body’ is to be found in these three exercises: anatomical parts, elements and cemetery contemplations. This in turn tells us what according to early Buddhism is central when practicing mindfulness of the body. That is, the first Satipatthāna appears to be not so much about using the body to establish mindfulness. Instead, it seem to be about using mindfulness to understand the true nature of the body as a means to developing detachment.

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*Here is the link to Bhikkhu Anālayo’s published works, several of which are available for free download:

http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/analayo/publications.htm

**The book mentioned by Bhikkhu Anālayo is published in 2010 under the title “The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal”. It is at the same address; see item 4) on the list:

http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/analayo/publications.htm

***This book by Bhikkhu Anālayo is planned for publication at the end of 2013, by Windhorse.