Insight Journal: Bhante, you’ve done a number of online programs over the years. How have you chosen what topics to cover, and why now choose to work with Ven. Ñāṇananda’s Nibbāna Sermons?
Bhikkhu Anālayo: My primary consideration is trying to make an academic understanding of Buddhism available to a wider audience. I realized that my own writings were rather academic and inaccessible. So I wanted to find another way of opening up that knowledge to a wider audience, in particular to those who live in parts of the world where it’s not so easy to reach a Dharma center or library.
Through Hamburg University, I did three online courses in successive years on the Madhyama-āgama, which is the Chinese parallel to the Majjhhima-nikāya (Middle-length discourses), in which we looked at the translations and discussed central aspects of early Buddhist doctrine that emerge out of comparing different versions of the suttas—in particular the Pāli and the Chinese—and how this approach can help us to understand Buddhism.
I’ve been very active with work around bhikkhunī ordination. I recently came out with a book about how the bhikkhunī order was founded, which in all my research was the most challenging issue to understand. It took me ten years to understand the texts involved, and as I worked with the texts, I became more and more involved in the issue of women in Buddhism. It’s so important because there is discrimination towards women in the Buddhist traditions, and we as Westerners have to take a very clear position towards that.
Out of that understanding, and also out of my attempts to support the revival of bhikkhunī ordination, we had the idea of doing a series of courses on women in Buddhism, in which I did the first lecture, and lecturers from all over the world did the other lectures.
This was another three years, with one course each year: Bhikkhunī Ordination, Women in India, and Women in Asian Buddhism. It has been a very rewarding experience to have so many brilliant women giving lectures, and having people from all over the world participate totally for free. But several people who had been in the first three courses said that they wanted me to be more involved. So then I thought to do another course just by myself, which I wanted to relate more closely to the practice of meditation.
Here a central question is: “What is most important? Why do we meditate?” From a traditional perspective, we meditate because eventually we want to reach Nibbāna. But what is Nibbāna?
For my own understanding of Nibbāna, and also as a profound inspiration for my own practice, these Nibbāna Sermons by Ven. Ñāṇananda have been very important. I even had a central role in getting these sermons transcribed.
I was in Sri Lanka at the time, and one of my meditation teachers, Godwin Samararatne, had just passed away. I found an audio tape of the first of the Nibbāna Sermons, in which Ven. Ñāṇananda had translated his own Sinhala talks into English. I listened to that tape, and the next day I went to the cave where he was living and said, “Bhante, just keep translating. I’ll do all the rest.”
For ten years it went on. He would send me the tapes or I would go to collect them, and then I would type it all out. He has an incredible memory and quotes from many sources. But with digital tools, I was able to provide the references.
These sermons were given under very specific circumstances at Nissarana Vanaya, which at that time was probably the foremost forest meditation monastery in Sri Lanka. The story goes that the monks who came to that place would all make the determination not to leave until they reached stream-entry.
In that kind of environment, these sermons were given. The late Ven. Ñāṇarama asked Ven. Ñāṇananda to come and talk about Nibbāna. Ven. Ñāṇananda has very deep meditative experience as well as an academic background. With all of his knowledge and experience, he takes up all the knotty and profound passages in the Pāli suttas related to Nibbāna.
By reading or listening to these sermons, you can appreciate his deep understanding of the suttas, but you also get a strong flavor of meditation practice in the traditional way of going for liberation.
So the idea is to have three successive courses on the Nibbāna Sermons over the next three years. There are 33 sermons, so we’ll take 11 each year. We’ll be trying to understand and contextualize what Ven. Ñāṇananda says. For example, it will be useful at times to look at the Chinese parallel of certain suttas. Also, sometimes Ven. Ñāṇananda uses somewhat outdated translations because he was living in a cave and only had the old PTS translations. So we’ll also be looking at how others, like Bhikkhu Bodhi, have translated certain sutta passages.
We’ll also have an online forum where everyone can discuss and express their opinions. That is one of my favorite parts, because I usually learn a lot from the students’ questions and comments.
IJ: Are there any specific points that Ven. Ñāṇananda offers about Nibbāna that were particularly useful for your practice, or that you think will be particularly useful for students?
BhA: Receiving and transcribing his talks every four to six months deeply impacted my meditation practice. So I know that these sermons can provide serious practitioners with a deeper understanding of what all the teachings are pointing to—not just on the conceptual level. That is what these sermons have done for me and many others, and that is the potential that I see.
IJ: Are there specific differences in practice between someone who has a strong and clear intention of attaining Nibbāna, as opposed to someone who is practicing without a clear intention or with an intention to simply increase mindfulness or compassion or equanimity?
BhA: There is sometimes a tendency to feel that any form of aspiration or aim associated with practice is just a form of greed. But this view is not what we find in the suttas. These are modern ideas, which must also have their value and benefit, otherwise people would not be practicing and teaching them. But in early Buddhist thought, the overarching framework for practice is the noble eightfold path, which has its guiding principle in right view. There are different types of right view, but the most important is right view in terms of the four noble truths.
Right view says that there is dukkha, and that in one way or another I am contributing to my own and to others’ experience of dukkha. Right view also says that there is the possibility of not doing that, and that there is a practical path towards that goal.
So it’s very clear that all the different aspects of the path lead towards this overarching aim of finding a solution to dukkha. And the solution to dukkha is Nibbāna. Nibbāna is the cessation of dukkha.
The stream-enterer reaches a level of mental purity in which certain very defiled actions can no longer happen. The non-returner can relate to anybody, whatever they do, without a trace of sensual desire or anger. This is such a fascinating ethical vision of the goal—and so powerful. That, I think, is what the practice is really about.
It doesn’t mean that we should sit there and think, “When will I reach Nibbāna? When will these defilements be eradicated?” When you’re driving to the airport, you’re not thinking during the entire drive, “When am I going to be at the airport? When am I going to be at the airport? Where’s the airport?” But you’re also not just driving around without any idea of where you want to go. Then who knows where you would end up?
You know that here is BCBS, and there’s the airport. There are different ways of getting from one place to the other, and sometimes you may lose your way, but there is this overall direction: I’m going to the airport. And that’s the point. For your car ride to be fruitful, there has to be some sense of where you want to go.
In the same way, for meditation to be fruitful, there needs to be some sense of where we are going. We are going towards freedom of the mind. Freedom from defilements. Freedom from craving. Freedom from dukkha. That’s the direction. That’s the ‘airport’.
IJ: One of the strongest hindrances for most Western practitioners is doubt, whether it’s personal (I’m not capable of attaining the final goal) or whether it’s general (the final goal is unattainable). Is getting a clearer understanding of Nibbāna and bringing Nibbāna into one’s daily practice one way of dealing with doubt?
BhA: The belief that Nibbāna is no longer attainable is not a Western innovation. That belief is very much there in traditional Asian societies, specifically in recent centuries. It’s such a widespread belief that even monks have believed that there’s no use in meditating because Nibbāna is not attainable. It is only with all the revival movements of the 20th century that the possibility of attaining Nibbāna has come back into popular belief.
But let’s say that I have something that is very dirty and has been dirty for many, many years. Then someone says to me, “If you use this soap and do a lot of work, you can get it clean.” Maybe I don’t have the time and energy to get it completely clean, but if even a little gets off, I can see that for myself. I don’t have to rely blindly on people who say, “I did the same procedure, and the soap really helped, and I got it completely clean.” I can see for myself that the soap works.
I can see very clearly how different a person I am compared to before I started to meditate. Honestly, I wouldn’t now want to meet myself the way I was before. I wouldn’t feel comfortable even being around that kind of person, particularly because of how strong my anger was.
So it is undoubtedly clear to me that this type of practice does diminish defilements and lead to increased mental liberation. And that is the whole point, regardless of whether one actually experiences Nibbāna. Anybody who genuinely practices within any of the insight meditation traditions will experience increasing degrees of mental freedom and decreasing degrees of defilements. Then they will know for themselves: “I have been washing, and it’s no longer as dirty as it was before. Who can tell me that the soap doesn’t work? It does work.”
That is how in early Buddhist teachings we are instructed to deal with doubt—not just through an act of faith, not just through an act of belief, but through investigation. If you have doubt, investigate. Find out.
IJ: In the suttas we read about so many arahants, so many non-returners, so many once-returners, so many stream-enterers. It was more difficult for doubt to find a footing because people were actually waking up. Where are all the arahants now?
BhA: But that was when the Buddha was alive. Don’t forget that. When I teach, I try to have some awareness of where my students are, but I have no ability to know what’s actually going on in their minds.
The Buddha could know exactly what was going on in your mind, and he could talk in such a way that he could lead you to a point where normally you could only reach through meditation. Just by listening to him, you could have the breakthrough.
If you went to the Buddha and said, “Bhante, I want to do a retreat,” he could give you a meditation object that straightaway would take you to the highest goal within your reach. Only the Buddha could do that—the one who found the path himself—the supreme teacher. Now that the Buddha is no longer around, it’s no wonder we don’t have hundreds of arahants.
But I still think the solution is to look at ourselves and at our fellow practitioners and just see how we all change. Nibbāna is the cessation of defilements. Am I coming closer to that? Am I diminishing my defilements? Yes or no? If I see someone not getting as angry as he or she used to, what an inspiration that is. It’s clear proof that the practice is working. I think that is the best way to deal with doubt.
IJ: Especially in the West, we have a strong desire to understand things analytically. Is it more useful to just hold the idea of Nibbāna as something of a great mystery rather than trying to comprehend that which is ultimately incomprehensible?
BhA: There are two sides. One side is the reasonable amount of investigation that is undertaken with the purpose of imbuing one’s meditation practice with correct understanding. The other side is engaging in endless proliferation and speculation just for the purpose of intellectual understanding and holding views.
I think it’s very reasonable to want to know where this practice leads. It’s good to have clarity around what we are doing, why we are practicing, where we want to go—as long as we keep it within the realm of trying to understand for the purpose of deepening our practice, and not for the purpose of intellectual enjoyment or showing how many suttas I can quote.
IJ: If someone comes to you and asks, “Bhante, what is Nibbāna?” what would you say?
BhA: I would say that it’s supreme happiness, the most total type of freedom possible. My own way of relating to Nibbāna is by way of reflection—a recollection of Nibbāna that is at the end of my book, Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation (p. 169) (MN 64):
This is peaceful, this is sublime, namely:
the calming of all constructions,
the letting go of all supports,
the extinguishing of all craving,