Sunday Dharma: Buddhaghosa

Buddhaghosa was the Indian Buddhist scholar who stands out as the pre-eminent commentator on Theravada understanding. His Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, believed written in Ceylon in the beginning of the fifth century CE, is a comprehensive study of Buddhist doctrine and meditation technique.

The Visuddhimagga is divided into four sections: 1) Virtue, 2) Concentration (Samadhi), the Purification of Consciousness, 3) Understanding, the Soil of Wisdom, and 4) Wisdom. This selection is from the introduction to “Description of Virtue,” and is based on the translations of Pe Maugn Tin (Pali Text Society,1922) and Bhikkhu Nanamoli (Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre, 1956).  These are the opening lines to the Visuddhimagga, a nice blend of poetry and dharma.

‘The man who is, on virtue planted firm,
Develops intellect and intuition,
Then as a seeker ardent and perceptive
He may untangle this tangle.’

Thus it was spoken. But why was it spoken?

It is said that to the Awakened One, then staying at Savatthi, there came one night a certain celestial being who, in order to have his doubt removed, asked this question :

‘Tangle within, tangle without,
Sentient things are entangled in a tangle.
And I would ask of you, Gotama,
Who can untangle this tangle?’

Briefly the meaning is this: By ‘tangle” is meant the net of craving. For craving is like the tangle of the network of branches of bamboo-bushes and the like, in the sense of an intertwining, because it arises again and again, repeatedly in connection with such objects as visible things. And it is said to be a ‘tangle within and a tangle without,’ because it arises as craving for one’s own needs and others’, for one’s own person and others’, and for consciousness subjective and objective. Sentient beings are entangled in such a tangle. Just as bamboos and the like are entangled by such tangles as bamboo-bushes, so all living beings, are entangled, enmeshed, embroiled, in that tangle of craving, this is the meaning.

And because of such entanglement, the meaning of, ‘I would ask of you, Gotama, this,’ is to be understood in this way: So I ask you, addressing the Awakened One by his family name, Gotama, ‘Who can untangle this tangle?’ means: Who is able to untangle this tangle which has entangled existence?

When questioned in this way, the Awakened One, walking in unobstructed knowledge of all things, confident with the Four Confidences, bearer of the Tenfold Strength, possessor of unimpeded knowledge and the all-seeing eye, spoke this stanza in answer:

‘The man who is, on virtue planted firm,
Develops intellect and intuition,
Then as a seeker ardent and perceptive
He may untangle this tangle.’

In setting forth, according to the truth,
The meaning of the stanza of the Sage,
which speak of virtue and such other things,
I will expound the Path of Purification,
Which relies on the teachings of the devout
Dwellers at the Great Monastery, and contains
Purest exposition, gladdening even those
Who never may find purity
For all their striving, though they seek it here,
Not knowing of the Path of Purity,
Which holds all virtue, and is straight and safe,
Though they have gone forth as seekers and attained
That which is hard to attain in the Victor’s realm.
Devout men, whose desire is purity,
Listen attentively to the things that I relate.

Here, by ‘Purity’ is meant Nibbana, which is free from all stains and is exceedingly pure. The Path to this purity is the ‘Path of Purification.’ The means of its acquisition is called the ‘ Path.’ I am going to speak of that Path of Purification. This Path of Purification has been set forth in terms of simple insight in which it is said:

‘All things conditioned are impermanent,
When one understands this
And turns away from what is unwholesome and ill,
This is the path to purity’


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