Modernish Theravada History

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Modernish Theravada History

Postby mikenz66 » Fri Nov 27, 2009 8:01 pm

A recent entry on Ven Sujato's blog:
Reform http://sujato.wordpress.com/2009/11/25/reform/
Is worth reading if you are completely unfamiliar with the developments in Burma and Thailand in the 19th and 20th Centuries: In Thailand the founding of the Dhammayut sect by King Monkut, and thoroughly established by one of his sons, and the beginnings of the various Forest groups; in Burma the developments in meditation instruction by the likes of Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, U Ban Kin, Goenka, Pa Auk Sayadaw, etc. Ven Sujato's Blog covers some of this, perhaps a little superficially. He also mentions the question of translation to local languages, which he claims was actually precipitated by the early English translation efforts.

One thing that I think is useful to have an overview of is that the Thai and Thai-derived meditation teachers who are well-known in the west (such as the Ajahn Chah group, Ven Thanissaro, etc) are the ones who tend to be the "Suttas + personal experience" type, derived from the Forest groups, whereas the Burmese teachers (and hence many western "vipassana" instructors, such as Joseph Goldstein) are much more Abhidhamma/Commentary based.

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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby tiltbillings » Fri Nov 27, 2009 8:04 pm

mikenz66 wrote: whereas the Burmese teachers (and hence many western "vipassana" instructors, such as Joseph Goldstein) are much more Abhidhamma/Commentary based.

And this manifests how?
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby mikenz66 » Fri Nov 27, 2009 8:28 pm

Hi Tilt,
tiltbillings wrote:
mikenz66 wrote: whereas the Burmese teachers (and hence many western "vipassana" instructors, such as Joseph Goldstein) are much more Abhidhamma/Commentary based.

And this manifests how?

I thought that was for you to tell us... :juggling:

OK, I'll play along and speculate. One way in which it may manifest for some of us who started with Burmese-derived teachers is that we see the Abhidhamma and Commentaries as important because that's where the approach and language we learned come from. Whereas it's those who started with Ajahn Chah students, or other Forest monks who get the message about "sticking with the actual words of the Buddha" (i.e. the Suttas).

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, but it's certainly true that the teachings of Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, U Pandita, Pa Auk Sayadaw, etc, are very much based on the Abhidhamma, Commentaries, and Visuddhimagga and that I've heard that "words of the Buddha" thing from several Forest Monks...

The point is not so much to argue about it, but to clarify where the various modern teachers are similar or different. This knowledge might avoid some confusion when comparing teachings from different groups. I.e., don't be surprised if Ajahh Chah and Mahasi Sayadaw's teachings seem to have some differences.

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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby tiltbillings » Fri Nov 27, 2009 8:42 pm

mikenz66 wrote:


Of course, this is a gross oversimplification,

I'd say so, given that sutta study is not necessarily strongly emphasized in the Ajahn Chah tradition, which is what I was told by Ajahn Sumedho when I was in Thailand in the mid 70's. The Ajahn Chah tradition is more a Vinaya keeping tradition, using the Vinaya as a basis for practice. Western teachers such as Goldstein certainly do not de-emphasize the suttas.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby Kare » Fri Nov 27, 2009 8:46 pm

Well ... I don't know ... Everybody says the Burmese are especially strong on the abhidhamma, and that may be true.

Maybe I did not look close enough - but I did not find much that was specific abhidhamma in the teaching of U Janaka, who was a pupil of Mahasi Sayadaw.

The meditation teacher that most actively has used abhidhamma in her teaching, is probably Achaan Naeb from Thailand. And one of the least "abhidhammic" meditation teachers is Dr. Thynn Thynn from Burma.

So these generalities should be taken with some reservations.
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby Ben » Fri Nov 27, 2009 8:48 pm

Thank you Mike for alerting us of Ajahn Sujato's blog and his brief history of 'modern' Buddhism.
It may prove to be a valuable resource, particularly those curious and new to the path.
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby mikenz66 » Fri Nov 27, 2009 8:59 pm

Thanks everyone for your comments...
Kare wrote:Well ... I don't know ... Everybody says the Burmese are especially strong on the abhidhamma, and that may be true.

Maybe I did not look close enough - but I did not find much that was specific abhidhamma in the teaching of U Janaka, who was a pupil of Mahasi Sayadaw.

Perhaps I should have emphasised Visiddhimagga rather than Abhidhamma. My experience after haveing practised with Mahasi-style teachers was that the discussion of insight in the Visuddhimagga seemed quite familiar (e.g. in walking meditation breaking up the step into lifting, moving, lowering, etc...).

tiltbillings wrote:
mikenz66 wrote:Of course, this is a gross oversimplification,

I'd say so, given that sutta study is not necessarily strongly emphasized in the Ajahn Chah tradition, which is what I was told by Ajahn Sumedho when I was in Thailand in the mid 70's. The Ajahn Chah tradition is more a Vinaya keeping tradition, using the Vinaya as a basis for practice. Western teachers such as Goldstein certainly do not de-emphasize the suttas.

Yes, well I did say that the Forest monks emphasised experience... And I didn't say that Goldstein de-emphasises Suttas, but that the Mahasi approach draws from Commentary.

And of course the situation is confused because nowadays many Thai teachers teach derivatives of the Mahasi approach. It's the "official technique" of my local Thai Wat...

Mike
Last edited by mikenz66 on Fri Nov 27, 2009 9:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby tiltbillings » Fri Nov 27, 2009 9:06 pm

Ven Sujato in his blog wrote:In questioning the necessity for jhana, the Burmese elders were not merely positing a different approach to meditation, but were challenging one of the very factors of the eightfold path itself, Right Samadhi.
It is not really that simple. When I was in Thailand, I heard repeatedly (and from learned monks, such as the abbot of Wat Bawon) that the ability to attain jhana has long been lost. The was a common theme throughout the Theravadin world for a very long time. Even with the present day jhana-wallahs there is a wide divergence of opinions about it, about how it is attained, etc, which suggests there is likely some truth to the "jhana has been lost" notion, but certainly jhana has been found (variously).

The Mahasi Sayadaw tradition never denied the function of jhana; rather, they pointed out that it is not a necessity to gaining insight and even the attainment of stream-entry. My first traditional nimatta, one pointedness jhana experience was with an Indian teacher who was a direct student of Mahasi Sayadaw from whom he learned the practice. The Mahasi Sayadaw "vipassana jhanas" are clearly a recognition that the traditional descriptions, as in the Buddhsghosa, do not fully cover the experience(s).

So, things are never really quite so simple.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby Kare » Fri Nov 27, 2009 9:07 pm

mikenz66 wrote:Thanks everyone for your comments...
Kare wrote:Well ... I don't know ... Everybody says the Burmese are especially strong on the abhidhamma, and that may be true.

Maybe I did not look close enough - but I did not find much that was specific abhidhamma in the teaching of U Janaka, who was a pupil of Mahasi Sayadaw.

Perhaps I should have emphasised Visiddhimagga rather than Abhidhamma. My experience after haveing practised with Mahasi-style teachers was that the discussion of insight in the Visuddhimagga seemed quite familiar (e.g. in walking meditation breaking up the step into lifting, moving, lowering, etc...).



Yes. I agree that you've got a point there.
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby mikenz66 » Fri Nov 27, 2009 9:17 pm

Hi Tilt,
tiltbillings wrote:The Mahasi Sayadaw tradition never denied the function of jhana; rather, they pointed out that it is not a necessity to gaining insight and even the attainment of stream-entry. My first traditional nimatta, one pointedness jhana experience was with an Indian teacher who was a direct student of Mahasi Sayadaw from whom he learned the practice. The Mahasi Sayadaw "vipassana jhanas" are clearly a recognition that the traditional descriptions, as in the Buddhsghosa, do not fully cover the experience(s).

Yes, I've not heard Mahasi teachers be negative about jhana, either of the "vipassnana" or "normal" type. Similarly Pa Auk Sayadaw mentions that he teaches both jhana and "pure insight" approaches.

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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby cooran » Fri Nov 27, 2009 10:00 pm

Additionally, I am not very impressed with Ajahn Sujato's blog entry.

Meditation began in Burma as a response to the psychic shock of being invaded by the British and the very different world view they and their accompanying Christian clerics presented. Lay Meditation was not common in any of the Buddhist countries - nor had been for millenia. It was usually the province of the ordained sangha.

But, in response to the search for something specifically buddhist which could be 'reclaimed' by the Burmese, King Mindon and the Court began to practise meditation.

It grew from there.

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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby BudSas » Fri Nov 27, 2009 10:53 pm

mikenz66 wrote:Yes, I've not heard Mahasi teachers be negative about jhana, either of the "vipassnana" or "normal" type. Similarly Pa Auk Sayadaw mentions that he teaches both jhana and "pure insight" approaches.


From what I read and personal contacts with 2 meditation teachers of Pa Auk Sayadaw style, it seems they also rely heavily on the Visuddhimagga material, only with different emphasis than the Mahasi style.

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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby Cittasanto » Fri Nov 27, 2009 11:11 pm

Hi Mike,
I was re-reading a part of his history of mindfulness the other night, the part where he suggests the original satipatthana is basically the Vibbangha version found in the Abhidhamma (minus the Abhidhammic slant in presentation, but the areas covered are the original areas, I think that is a reasonably accurate way of representing it anyway?) although I feel he may be too strict in his decoding of what was in the original offering; I don't think he will be far off.
reflect that regarding the Meditation center approach of Goenka I think it may actually be along a similar line to the original training, not exactly the same but similar in many aspects, remembering that the Patimokkha developed over 45years or there about, so the original bhikkhus would of been essentially what we now call novices, but that is if I am understanding the development correctly.

EDIT - maybe I should point out I am being general and not taking the reasons for the starting up of the lay centers into account but rather how they have developed.
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
Blog, - Some Suttas Translated, Ajahn Chah.
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby mikenz66 » Sat Nov 28, 2009 1:39 am

Thanks everyone for the interesting input.

As I've indicated above, I'm aware in a superficial sort of way how some of the 19th and 20th C developments in Burma and Thailand connect to the Dhamma that is readily available to Westerners.

The third important source is Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a key connection for English language Dhamma translations. The early English translations by the PTS were a result of Sri Lankan connection by way of T. W. Rhys Davids. Ven Nyanatiloka, a German, ordained in 1903 in Burma, but spent most of the rest of his life in Sri Lanka, where he and his various German (Nyanaponika), English (Nanamoli, Nanavira) and American (Bhodhi) successors produced many of the modern English translations by Scholar-Monks (as opposed to the Scholar-Academics who produced the early PTS translations - many of their later translations are by monastics, such as Venerables Narada's Abhidhamma translations, and some are co-published with Wisdom i.e. MN, SN. See http://www.palitext.com/palitext/tran.htm).

What is totally unclear to me is to what extent Ven Nyanatiloka and his successors (Western and Asian) reinvented the Dhamma and to what extent they drew from current Sri Lankan interpretations. I'm sure that this is explained in various scholarly books, but would anyone care to give an executive summary?

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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby zavk » Sun Nov 29, 2009 12:12 am

HI Mike

As it turns out, I have been reading historical-critical books on modern Buddhism. IMHO, I think it helps our individual practice to have an awareness of how our understanding of Buddhism has been (and continues to be shape by) broader historical forces. I have compiled notes that address the questions you ask in this thread. I'll need to go pick out the salient points. Will post again.
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby jcsuperstar » Sun Nov 29, 2009 12:47 am

zavk wrote:HI Mike

As it turns out, I have been reading historical-critical books on modern Buddhism. IMHO, I think it helps our individual practice to have an awareness of how our understanding of Buddhism has been (and continues to be shape by) broader historical forces. I have compiled notes that address the questions you ask in this thread. I'll need to go pick out the salient points. Will post again.

cool, like what books?
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby zavk » Sun Nov 29, 2009 7:27 am

Hi JC

I've just finished two books recently: The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan and Buddhism and Science by Donald S. Lopez Jr.

I've mentioned The Making of Buddhist Modernism in previous posts. Even though it is aimed primarily at academic readers, it is written in a non-jargonistic manner. McMahan narrates a clear overview of the sociocultural history of contemporary Buddhism. I highly recommend this book. You can sample the first chapter or so in Google Books.

Buddhism and Science, despite its title, does not actually examine in detail Buddhist doctrine and scientific theories. Rather, it examines the meanings that have been ascribed to Buddhism and Science and the historical factors that have shaped the relationship between the two. In other words, it examines the history of how the categories of 'Buddhism' and 'Science' have been interpreted and linked together.

Another book is the anthology Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism, edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr. The 'Introduction' by Lopez presents an insightful overview of how Orientalist scholarship of the colonial era has shaped some of the defining characteristics of contemporary Buddhism. The chapter 'Roads Taken and Not Taken in The Study of Theravada Buddhism' by Charles Hallisey deals with Theravada. It examines in particular the influence of T.W. Rhys-Davids' work on contemporary understanding of Theravada.

I've also read parts of The British Discovery of Buddhism by Philip Almond. I believe this was the first book to examine how Buddhism was shaped by Victorian modes of understanding to emerge as a rational, pragmatic and ethical system free from myth and ritual.

Curators of the Buddha takes some effort to get through as it is primarily addressing questions about scholarly methodologies, so it's full of academic jargon. I'm engaged in sociocultural research so I guess I'm paid to endure this kind of writing. But if you can get access to and don't mind reading this type of books, you might also find Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka by Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere, and the journal article 'Buddhist Politics and Their Revolutionary Origins in Thailand' by Charles F. Keyes interesting. I haven't read these two texts but they are often cited, especially Gombrich and Obeyesekere.

I've been looking through the notes I have. Will post some relevant extracts from the books later.
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby zavk » Sun Nov 29, 2009 10:29 am

mikenz66 wrote:The third important source is Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a key connection for English language Dhamma translations. The early English translations by the PTS were a result of Sri Lankan connection by way of T. W. Rhys Davids....

What is totally unclear to me is to what extent Ven Nyanatiloka and his successors (Western and Asian) reinvented the Dhamma and to what extent they drew from current Sri Lankan interpretations. I'm sure that this is explained in various scholarly books, but would anyone care to give an executive summary?


Hi Mike

I have not read any commentary about how Ven. Nyanatiloka and his successors have influenced contemporary understanding of Theravada. However, there is a significant body of work (as indicated above) that have examined the modernizing of Buddhism in Ceylon/Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century. This process--facilitated in no small part by the pioneering work of T.W. Rhys Davids--set the stage for latter figures like Ven. Nyanatiloka et al. to carry out their modern interpretation of Theravada.

I happen to have a scanned document of the introductory chapter from The Making of Buddhist Modernism. The following paragraph, which cites Gombrich and Obeyesekere's work, gives a nice summary of the circumstances surrounding the modernizing of Theravada in Ceylon in the mid to late nineteenth century:

Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere have mapped similar trends specifically in Sinhalese Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Emphasizing the Christian influence on modernizing forms of Sinhalese Buddhism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as those of Victorian English culture, they use the term "Protestant Buddhism" to suggest that modernizing Buddhism both protested against ‘European colonization and Christian missionization and adopted elements of Protestantism. These included rejection of the clerical links between individuals and the religious goal, emphasis on the “individual’s seeking his or her ultimate goal without intermediaries," “spiritual egalitarianism," individual responsibility, and self-scrutiny. The importance placed on the sangha (the community of monastics) was diminished as the laity became more important. Under the influence of Protestantism, Gombrich and Obeyesekere assert, "religion is privatized and internalized: the truly significant is not what takes place at a public celebration or in ritual, but what happens inside one’s own mind or soul" (1988: 216). The rise of Protestant Buddhism was also connected with urbanization and the rise of the bourgeoisie in Ceylon, as well as other Asian nations, and mingled traditional Buddhist ethics with Victorian social mores (Gombrich 1988: I72—97). It also replicated orientalist scholars’ location of “true Buddhism" in canonical texts, while often dismissing local or village iterations as degenerate and superstitious. (emphasis added; McMahan 7)


There's also a section in Hallisey's article (mentioned above) that summarizes the modernizing of Buddhism in Thailand--will post it soon. It charts in Thailand the same trends that I've highlighted in bold above. I think it is obvious how these trends have become the defining characteristics of Theravada today, characteristics that we by and large accept as a given. However, these characteristics are not intrinsic to Theravada (and Buddhism more generally) but were rather produced by the interplay of various historical factors.

There is a fascinating history behind these characteristics that define contemporary Buddhism. I'll post relevant excerpts when I have the time.
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby jcsuperstar » Sun Nov 29, 2009 6:44 pm

thanks so much!
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Re: Modernish Theravada History

Postby mikenz66 » Sun Nov 29, 2009 7:23 pm

Thanks zavk!

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