Review of ‘Notes on Dhamma’

by John Stella

From the foreword to photocopied version of Notes on Dhamma by BCC.

Nowadays we often find the Middle Way as expounded by the Buddha confused with ‘moderation’: hence, involvement in worldly pursuits, even those of pleasure, money-making and fame (perhaps tempered by occasional retreats, pilgrimages, or an hour or so of meditation) are compatible with the Dhamma as long as they are not ‘extreme’. Consequently, the Middle Way ­all too often degenerates into the Easy Way; and many books on Buddhism—a term our present author disliked—are dedicated to making the Dhamma as easy as possible to understand and thus practicable by the largest possible number.

Opposed to this popular literature, which will surely not satisfy the truly religious mind, we are fortunate to have the writings of Venerable Ñāņavīra Thera,i who vehemently criticized all attempts to simplify the Buddha’s Teaching, whether in theory or practice. His Notes on Dhamma has been acclaimed as ‘the most important book of the century’ for its revolutionary and uncompromising existential interpretation of the Suttas, in which the author constantly reminds us, as the Buddha warned Ananda, that the Dhamma is ‘deep, profound and difficult to see’—an Aryan discipline, not for the many but for the few. Its tone was described by one of its original readers as ‘arrogant, scathing and condescending’. In departure from popular custom, the puthujjana reader is ‘treated as if he had no opinion worth consulting’ and so will find himself directly and personally challenged to adopt the viewpoint of the author, a sotāpanna, one who has attained sammādiṭṭhi, orRight View.ii

Moreover, Ven. Ñāņavīra has caused great scandal in Buddhist circles for having reduced ‘with a few strokes of the pen … the three baskets to two’. He maintained that the age-old Commentaries and Abhidhamma, disinterested professional philosophers and scholar-monks armed with ‘tidy charts’ containing conventional and facile explications of paṭiccasamuppāda, kamma and rebirth,iii have done a disservice to anyone who seriously intends to put the Buddha’s teaching into practice; for much of what they say (aside from their Pali grammars, dictionaries and concordances) is either downright misleading or ‘objective’, sub specie æterni, and therefore not the concern of anyone in particular.

Many of us, before encountering this present volume, thought we understood ‘dependent origination’, kamma and rebirth, having been taught the spurious simile of the flame or absurd notions such as ‘neither he nor another is reborn’. Awed by centuries of tradition, both clergy and laity have recited these elementary formulae and allowed unresolved contradictions to pass under the guise of “mysticism”. Conversely, our author debunks these convenient and long-held fallacies, and insists that if we are at all serious we must learn Pali, study the Suttas and adhere rigorously to the Laws of Thought. Moreover, he is adamant that we puthujjanas admit both our ignorance and inauthenticity, and stop fooling ourselves by believing we understand what in fact we do not understand. Ven. Ñāņavīra’s demands may make readers squirm in their easy chairs, but as he once wrote to his physician, quoting Kierkegaard, ‘The very maximum of what one human being can do for another … is to inspire him with concern and unrest’.

For this reason the Notes will undermine the comfortable position of many contemporary Buddhists who, having never studied the Suttas, blithely remark, ‘I just practise’. As if one could practise the Dhamma without comprehending it; or worse, as if the Dhamma were shallow, superficial and obvious instead of deep, profound and difficult to see. And if we are to take the Buddha at his word, the Dhamma must be our chief, nay, our only concern.iv Any other concern is meaningless, for the only worthwhile goal for the puthujjana’s farcical existence—as our author bluntly describes it—is to cease being a puthujjana. And that, as he was wont to say, needs hard work.

Those few who are prepared to study and practise the Dhamma afresh, putting aside both the encrustation of centuries and jejune New Age “dharma”, will experience a revolution, a metanoia, as they read this book. Herein they will find the essentials of the Buddha’s Teaching as they have never heretofore been explained. Not, of course that our author’s philosophical commentary on the Suttas sets out to render them any easier;v rather, they are rendered more rewarding via the scrutiny of a powerful intellect possessing the ‘clear and stainless Eye of the Dhamma’: by one ‘attained to view’ and fully percipient of the truth of anicca.

Another consideration, only slightly less important for those of us who strive to understand the Suttas in a world far removed from that in which they were composed, is Ven. Ñāņavīra’s English background and education, which facilitated an approach to the Dhamma in a Western mode. Some consider this a disadvantage: there are those who believe that the Dhamma is the sole property of Asia, or more curiously that in their country alone is Buddhism truly Moreover, critics of our present volume, many of whom are Westerners themselves, have censured Ven. Ñāņavīra for his existentialism and neglected the selections from Bradley, Camus, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre and others he used to illustrate the Notes. But as we read in Letter 107:


This criticism, however, supposes that we are, in fact, able to approach the Canon with a perfectly virgin mind, equipped only with a knowledge of Pali and a sound training in logic. But this is precisely what we cannot do. Each of us, at every moment, has the whole of his past behind him; and it is in the light of his past (or his background or his presuppositions) that he interprets what is now presented to him and gives it its meaning. Without such a background nothing would ever appear to us with any meaning at all … Certainly we can, to some extent, deduce from the Canon its meaning; but unless we first introduced our own ideas we should never find that the Canon had any meaning to be deduced.

This is precisely the case with Notes on Dhamma. Heavily reliant on twentieth-century Western philosophy and literature, it boldly introduces existentialist ideas into the Canon, and the meaning to be deduced from it becomes readily apparent. Ven. Ñāņavīra quickly cautions us that the Existentialists are in no wise a substitute for the Buddha, for whatever their merits, they found ‘No Exit’vii to the dilemmas they posed and consequently remained puthujjanas. Nevertheless, he learned from them that one must take a ‘vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own personal existence’ in order to progress in the Dhamma. He relentlessly asserts that meaning of the Canon relates to me, to my problems, my frustrations, my sorrows, and their resolution—and nothing else. He regarded the ‘horizontal’ or impartial view, so often taken by post-canonical texts, as a kaṇha dhamma: a ‘dark teaching’, not leading to awakening, or to borrow an existentialist idiom, yet another act of ‘bad faith’. Hence the author’s motive for reducing the three baskets to two.

So at last, we have an original work on the Dhamma, not just a rehash of the Visudhimagga or the Abhidhamma; one which does not catalogue 52 types of consciousness, nor speculate on how many thought-moments occur per second.viii At last, we have an author who instead discards all such ‘dead matter’ extraneous to the luminous teaching of the Suttas, which reveals the Exit from anguish and discontent. This I consider one of the most valuable contributions of the Notes, and one must keep it in mind at all times while attempting to follow the line of reasoning in this admittedly difficult book.ix

In other words, as one follows each Note, including the lengthy discussion on paṭiccasamuppāda, the argument hinges on these questions: Is the Dhamma objective, a treatise on cause-and-effect, as many would have it? Or is it essentially subjective, concerning a present, personal and vital problem, i.e. the Care and Anxiety (Heidegger’s Sorge) experienced right at this moment, for which I alone am responsible?

If the Dhamma is objective, the tilakkaṇa (anicca, dukkha, anattā) can be observed as external phenomena by any puthujjana. He is told, for example, that hair eventually turns grey and that a chariot, (perhaps a car or a computer is substituted), is merely a collection of components, which may be disassembled. Further, he is reminded, as modern physics has asserted, that the molecules of the car’s solid and liquid components are in ‘constant motion’ or ‘flux’. Once he assents to this, it can be demonstrated to him that because the car is subject to change, it has ‘no self’, and ‘in the highest sense’ does not exist.x By this nifty logic, the car standing before him disappears, and our pupil may now relinquish his misguided attachment to it. Summarily cured of avijjā, he perceives anicca and anattā, core elements of the Buddha’s Teaching.

Notice, however, the conspicuous absence of dukkha in the equation, and as our author demurs, ‘the problem has been solved by leaving it out’. Why should I or anyone suffer because objects are in flux? Certainly not because various molecules move within an assembly of parts, or that a strand of proteins changes colour. Is it not for the reason that as a puthujjana, I cling to attā, a notion of ‘self’, which determines those phenomena as mine?xi That ‘self’, in the act of appropriation, takes on the guise of a persona of a drama wherein I, the protagonist, affect and am affected by a world rife with change. That any car whatsoever is a collection of parts is of no consequence; but when this one belongs to me it becomes an immediate concern, because at any moment one or more of its components may wear out or malfunction; and if so, I shall not be able to get around, it will cost me so many thousand rupees to repair it, I shall have work overtime to come up with the money, etc. Similarly, those grey hairs on my head are not mere strands of protein, but harbingers of my body’s decline; now women will no longer find me attractive and I shall be deprived of sensual pleasure. And even if the car is in perfect condition today, there remains the troublesome possibility of a break down tomorrow, and although my hair at present may be coal-black, there remains the certainty that to my dismay it will someday turn grey or fall out. This too, as the Suttas say, is dukkha.xii

These brief observations alone should demonstrate that for a puthujjana Care and Anxiety lurk in each moment; and impermanence, with its ever-present menace to “my self” (read: an illusory sense of mastery over circumstances), necessarily implies suffering as a structural principle of my existence. Consequently, as Ven. Ñāņavīra contends in Letter 53, only subjective aniccatā, inseparable from dukkha, is relevant to the Buddha’s Teaching; hence,the tilakkaņa triad ‘has no intelligible application if applied objectively to things’.

So, as we go through the Notes, we shall see that the author’s ‘subjective’ viewpoint in no way intends an abrogation of hard thinking or hard work, and that an objective analysis of the Dhamma, no matter how “logical”, fails to rise above the mundane. If anicca concerns things, we should be better equipped with a microscope than with wisdom to observe it; if paṭiccasamuppāda deals with cause-and-effect, explains kamma and vipāka, and may be ‘portrayed diagrammatically on one very large sheet of paper’xiii as it is so often done, then it should not take an arahant to comprehend it. Yet the Buddha declares in the Nidana Saṃyutta that he experienced a “breakthrough” when he realized the inner workings of paṭiccasamuppāda. We have been told that the revolutionary idea comprises the knowledge that one stage in this so-called cycle precedes another, that ignorance in the past leads to birth, ageing and death taking place over three lifetimes. But even supposing we accept this explanation, can this knowledge be described as lokuttara, supermundane, difficult to fathom?

Our author contends that ‘dependent origination’ is a structural, rather than temporal principle. As he states in his shorter note, “Any interpretation of paţiccasamuppāda that involves time is an attempt to resolve the present problem by referring to past or future, and is therefore necessarily mistaken.” Our present, personal and vital problem, which cannot be resolved in previous or successive incarnations, concerns the notion of an ‘extra-temporal changeless “self”’, whose pleasurable and worthwhile existence is assumed a priori, and yet to whom the miseries of birth, ageing and death, sorrow and lamentation apply (§10). Taṇhā, upādāna, bhava and all the other aspects of the series, with their concomitant dukkha, arise because in the puthujjana a persona ‘presses for recognition’ and seeks (in vain) its fulfilment in experience. And as a persona, he cannot help but act out his role, at the same time reinforcing his self-identification, thereby perpetuating a drama where his antagonist, Sorge, confronts him in every scene.

Ven. Ñāņavīra’s crucial distinction between ‘individual’ and ‘person’ shows us the nature of the Buddha’s truly genuine breakthrough: for the ‘person’, events happen to and for ‘me’, they are ‘mine’. Hence for him all ‘contact’ (phassa), assumes a ‘self’; it occurs between ‘me and things’, while for the individual, i.e. the arahant, there is also contact, but merely between the eye and visual objects, the ear and sounds, etc. The same with ‘name-and-form’ (nāmarūpa) and ‘consciousness’ (viññāṇa), which have one significance for the puthujjana, engrossed in the incidents of pleasure and displeasure, gain and loss, fame and disrepute, and quite another for the ariyasāvaka, who is not. This provides the rationale for the possibility—indeed, the responsibility—of bringing contact, name-and-form and consciousness to an end in the present. To do so one must ‘stop’: cease to act, walk off the stage, and leave the theatre. The ariyasāvaka, having observed the tilakkaṇa as inherent in every dhamma, is no longer entertainedxiv by the drama.

As outlined above, the subjective or existential approach of Notes on Dhamma may appear to render the Buddha’s Teaching more obscure and more difficult to practise. Yet upon reflection it will become clear that other books have hoodwinked us by making the Dhamma look simple. If phassa can be compared, as in the Milindapañhā, to the contact between two cymbals, and such a key concept as nāmarūpa defined as ‘mind-and-matter’ or as George Grimm’s ‘mind-body machine’, then we hardly need the wisdom of a Buddha to enlighten us.xv Moreover, in this case nirodho, or the cessation of all elements of paṭiccasamuppāda would be impossible, and a living arahant a contradiction in terms: for no one still walking and breathing could do away with the mind-body machine.

Of course, the Teaching is atakkāvacara, and no matter how learned a puthujjana may be, only by developing sīla, samādhi and paññā can he become an Aryan. Indeed, as our author argues, avijjā is not ‘a purely verbal misunderstanding’, and Right View is not achieved through an informed choice. Yet he also argues that one cannot truly develop sīla, samādhi and paññā if he ‘just practises’ while misinformed of what the practice is all about; or while under the spell of modern mysticism, which tells him the chair upon which he sits does not exist; or while seduced by “Buddhism without beliefs”, whereby he may comfortably ‘seek refuge in distractions’ and in the Dhamma at the same time.

To our benefit, Ven. Ñāņavīra Thera has in great measure ‘cleared the path’ of the above-mentioned superficial notions of paṭiccasamuppāda and its constituent terms, as well as numerous other fatuous misconceptions. We may now proceed along the Way unimpeded by the ‘dead matter’ which has littered it for so long.


i Born in 1920, the only child of wealthy British parents, Harold Edward Musson graduated from Cambridge University, where he received First Class Honours in Modern Languages. Abandoning his ‘prospects’ and inheritance, he ordained as a bhikkhu in 1950 in Ceylon, where he remained until his death in 1965. For a thorough understanding of his revolutionary approach to the Dhamma, I consider it absolutely imperative to read this book alongside his collected letters (Volume II of our present edition). Another important text, based on Ven. Nāņavīra’s writings, is Ven. Bodhesako’s Change (Colombo: Karunaratne and Sons, 1991). Those with access to the internet may find it and other material related to the life and work of our author by viewing the Nāņavīra Thera Dhamma Page at http:/www.

ii See especially Letters to Mrs. Irene Quittner for initial reaction to Notes on Dhamma, which was at first circulated privately in a cyclostyled or mimeographed version. Together with the author’s collected Letters (1960–1965) it was later published in Clearing the Path (Colombo: Path Press, 1987), now out of print.

iii See Shorter Notes for Ven. Ñāņavīra’s critique of the inconsistencies of the ‘Na ca so na ca añño’ argument of the Milindapañha, ‘a particularly misleading book’.

iv Compare Kierkegaard, quoted in Letter 119: ‘Because for him [the authentic man] the ethical is absolutely important, differing in this from men in general, for whom so many things are important, aye, nearly everything, but nothing absolutely important.’

v In fact, our author went so far as to assert that only an arahant could master the Suttas, and perhaps not all of them.

vi I myself have heard this asserted in each of the three major Theravāda countries: Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka.

vii From the title of one of Sartre’s most famous plays (in the original French, Huis Clos).

viii Medieval scholastic philosophy has long been an object of satire for speculating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. For some reason similar irrelevancies such as those mentioned are still taken seriously in Buddhist discussions.

ix Even the author admitted (Letter 4) that he, too, sometimes found it difficult.

x See the Note on Paramatta Sacca, §§8–10 for a fuller critique of this false teaching.

xi See “A Note on Paţiccasamuppāda” §§11–15 for Ven. Ñāņavīra’s lengthy and innovative treatment of saņkhārā and cetanā. His unique translation of the former term as ‘determination’ demonstrates how the subject designates and appropriates its object (thereby fostering attavāda). Compare the following from Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘This point, indeed, is essentially and of necessity the subjective, our own consciousness. For this alone is and remains that which is immediate; everything else, be it what it may, is first mediated and conditioned by consciousness, and therefore dependent on it.’ The World as Will and Representation vol. II, New York: Dover, 1969), p. 4.

xii Compare the following passage by the novelist Alberto Moravia: ‘The normal state of affairs in life did not consist of my designs for happiness, but rather the opposite: that is, of all its things, its eventualities, fortuitous and rebellious against plans and projects, revealing themselves to be defective and unforeseeable, bringing disappointment and sorrow.’ La romana (Milano: Bompiani, 1947, p. 142). My translation.

xiii See Letter 149.

xiv In broadest sense of the word, from the Latin inter+tenere: i.e. to hold or divert one’s attention or interest, and to hold back, detain (e.g., in samsāra).

xv As Ven. Ñāņavīra emphasizes, ‘The passage at Dīgha ii,2 <D.ii,62-3> … rules out the facile and slipshod interpretation of nāmarūpa as “mind-&-matter”.’ In his Note on Nāma he gives a more profound interpretation of ‘the designation of a phenomenon’ or ‘the form or guise’ adopted by behaviour (rūpa). For greater clarification of the complex implications of this Sutta term, refer also to Shorter Notes on Cetanā, Phassa, Rūpa and Viññāņa.

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