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Meeting the Mahathera


It was just the ticket.

Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, Trivandrum. Twelve months open return. For under a thousand. I sure knew what I’d be doing for the next year.

I was particularly pleased with the Sri Lankan legs. I’d tried to get to Sri Lanka from India on one of my earlier trips but learned it could be politically and bureaucratically complicated to travel between adjacent Asian countries.

‘Complications’ had prevented me crossing from Nepal to Tibet in 1987, from India to Pakistan in 1988 and from India to Sri Lanka in 1990. This time I’d sort out all the tickets and visas before I left home. Yeah, I’d lose some of the flexibility and spontaneity of my earlier trips but hopefully wouldn’t end up hopelessly tangled in red tape this time. And I’d finally get to Sri Lanka, where I planned to study dhamma at the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) in Kandy under the Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera, meditation at Nilambe under Acharya Godwin Samararatne and hedonism at various beaches under the equatorial sun. But still there were complications.

Nyanaponika Mahathera

Nyanaponika Mahathera

Arriving in Kandy I discovered Nyanaponika had retired from his roles as president of the BPS and lecturer in dhamma studies. He now spent almost all his time at the nearby Udawattekele forest hermitage, rarely seeing visitors. His replacement was a ‘young American monk’ I’d never heard of named Bhikkhu Bodhi. The next dhamma lecture was a couple of days away so I’d soon have the chance to check him out. In the meantime I’d got lucky. Godwin Samararatne himself was expected to visit the BPS the next day. I’d get to meet him and find out if he would take me on as a student. I was to be disappointed.

The Acharya would be leaving for South Africa in a few days and Nilambe was booked solid for a month after his return. He was humbly and sincerely apologetic but couldn’t take me on for at least six weeks. I got my first taste of his tranquil charisma and was awed. When I got over that I did the maths.

I’d planned for two months in Sri Lanka on the way to six months in India and maybe another month in Sri Lanka on the way back to Malaysia and Thailand. I wanted to spend at least a month at Nilambe but now I wouldn’t fit that in my first visit. The planned second visit might work, but only if there were no ‘complications’. So I’d shorten my first visit and lengthen the second. Godwin agreed to accept me as a student seven months from now.

Despite the fine weather I’d been spending a lot of my time in the BPS library, reading the books and chatting with other people who were interested in the dhamma. My return to Sri Lanka would be during the monsoon so I decided I’d hit the beaches for a month before flying to India but would stay in Kandy one more day to catch one of Bodhi’s lectures first.

I never did see those famous Sri Lankan beaches.

Young American monk’ turned out to be a relative description. Bhikkhu Bodhi is more than fifteen years my senior and by then had been an ordained monk for over twenty years. His teachers include not only the Venerable Nyanaponika but also Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya. Bodhi too is Mahathera. He’s a dhamma scholar of the highest order, an eloquent speaker and writer, a patient teacher and a Really Nice Guy.

Dhamma studies at BPS in the early 90s was a pretty informal weekly evening gathering of up to thirty people – mostly tertiary educated Sinhalese people – in the lecture theatre above the library. Bodhi’s lessons were wide ranging. Suttas, mindfulness practice, explanations of Pali terms and concepts, … His patience and good humour were indefatigable and he always allowed plenty of time for questions. Soon our discussions had spread from evenings in the lecture theatre to daytime in the library.

Given our histories it was probably inevitable Bhikkhu Bodhi and I would argue. He’s from a New York Jewish background where debate over philosophical issues is as ubiquitous as bagels. My family too had a tradition of dinner table debates over anything and everything – a tradition my schoolteachers rarely seemed to appreciate. I reckon if you really want to know what someone thinks, get into an argument with them. You might even learn what you think.

The Kalama Sutta rejects saddha (faith) as a basis for morality. I was for it. He was against it.

The Buddhist doctrine of no-self (anatta) is ontologically distinct from the Advaitist belief that Self is All (atman = Brahman). He was for. I was against.

The individual self exists as a composite of its own memories. I was reluctantly for. He was implacably against.

As a committed Buddhist Bodhi could give no credence to claims for a persistent self. To do so would fly in the face of one of the three fundamental facts of existence. Anicca – nothing conditioned is permanent. Dukkha – existence and that which exists are unsatisfying. Anatta – nothing, conditioned or otherwise, has a core self. Memory, I maintained, suggests there is a core self that may be in constant flux but which remains continuous for as long as memory lasts.

“Look at it this way. If it were possible to transplant all of your memories into me and visa versa it wouldn’t feel like we’d swapped stories, it would feel like we’d swapped bodies. You’d still be Bhikkhu Bodhi with all your knowledge of the canon and memories of New York but you’d be staring out through the eyes of an Australian punk rocker”.

“Why would you think memories are things that can be transferred from one person to another?”

“I don’t believe it literally. But memories are encoded in stuff. Matter and energy. In theory at least we could erase the engrams from your brain cells and copy the engrams from mine in their place. Then you’d be me, though I might have a hard time convincing Australian Immigration.”

“Are you so sure memories are made of stuff?”

“Well I don’t think they’re made of karmic seeds if that’s what you mean. If you lose bits of your brain from injury or dementia, you lose bits of memory”.

“So if you can lose your memory, how can it be you? Does being you depend on your memories?”

“Yeah, it does. The more memories I lose the more of myself I lose. If I forget everything I might still be something but I’m not me. I’m arguing against anatta here, not anicca. I didn’t say memory is a permanent self”

“I think you should talk to Nyanaponika Thera about this.”

“What do you mean?”

“He knows a lot about how the mind gives rise to perceptions such as memories. You should go to him and ask.”

Udawattakele forest

Udawattakele forest

Udawattekele forest is on a ridge not far from the BPS. Actually it is the ridge. The invitation I held from Bhikkhu Bodhi excused me the usual entry fee to the reserve. I’d walked around much of its perimeter and thought it wasn’t very large but I soon learned it’s steep in places with curved pathways and short lines of sight. The constant drizzle didn’t help visibility and leeches ruled out short cuts through the jungle. Oh well, at least I got to see lots of beautiful forest before I finally found the cottage in which Bodhi and Nyanaponika patiently waited.

I was a bit shocked at how frail Nyanaponika seemed. The photos I’d seen of him had been taken decades earlier and though I knew he was now over ninety I wasn’t expecting a weak and wheezing old man. Little more than a year later he would give his final demonstration of the truth of impermanence. I felt simultaneously honoured and ashamed to be taking up his time. Apparently Bodhi had already briefed him about my questions because I hardly needed to explain them. Or maybe he’d just heard the same thing from a thousand smart arses before me.

His answers weren’t always easy to follow. Not because they were excessively technical or abstract but because he spoke faintly with frequent pauses for thought or breath. Several times he said something brief and unintelligible to Bhikkhu Bodhi who explained it to me at length while he recuperated a little.

Did I learn anything?

I doubt I understood it all, but what I gleaned was this.

If memory is stuff then everything is memory. Not just the cells in my brain and the disks in computers and the books on shelves. But footprints in the dirt and clouds in the sky and songs of the birds. Everything has been conditioned by what goes before it and if you knew how to read it you would know the memory of the trees and the rocks just as well as you know the memory of your brain. Everything is a record of everything that has influenced it since time began.

But is memory stuff? Do books hold memories if no one reads them? Is anything a memory if it is not being recalled? Isn’t ‘memory’ just an abstract concept we apply to anything we believe might represent information? Isn’t memory merely a potential, no more inherent in brain cells than an oak forest is inherent in an acorn? In order to represent something they must be acted upon by something capable of reading them. In order to hold meaning they must be interpreted. Memories only appear to make a story of self if you arrange them in sequence like the images on a film and call each of those images ‘you’. But you can only actually remember one of those images. The one in the now.

There is no memory. There is only the act of remembering.

There it was. My final objection to the doctrine of anatta that I’d been chewing over for years, gone after a few minutes quiet conversation with an ancient German monk. I could now accept intellectually I had no core self. But it would be another twenty years until I began to understand it.

From → autobiography

  1. This is such a great travel story! I wasn’t expecting that. A really skilful build-up to meeting with the frail Mahathera, and the statement: ‘There is no memory. There is only the act of remembering.’ It points directly to the emptiness. I know about Bhikkhu Bodhi’s absolute insistence on anatta, there’s an article he wrote about Advaita – the link I sent you some time ago I think? I’m still wondering, though, if it’s possible to say that ‘cessation’ means the end of this kind of consciousness and thus enter into another kind of consciousness. It puzzles me that Bhikkhu Bodhi is so strongly against that. It might be to do with this Jewish background of never-ending debate over philosophical issues you mention here…


    • Would that be this critical piece he wrote about dhamma and non-duality?

      It’s dated about four years after I last spoke to him and seems to express a stronger view than the one he put to me during our discussions. He even takes a swipe at Mahayana non-duality, insisting that there are no non-dualist statements attributable to the Buddha in the canon.

      What I remember from our discussions were the question of whether nibbana and samsara could be considered poles of a duality or whether they are actually the same thing perceived differently and the question as to whether it was meaningful to distinguish between ‘nothing is self’ and ‘everything is self’ when the illusion of samsara has been penetrated.

      What he did convince me of is that there is no equivalent of Advaita’s Brahman in the Therevada tradition, in that there is no underlying non-conditioned ‘field’ from which the conditionality of maya/samsara emerges. So Therevada is incompatible with the ontological non-dualism of Advaita, but I’m not convinced it’s also incompatible with it’s cognitive, experiential or epistemological non-dualism.

      I really don’t know whether ‘cessation’ is equivalent to another form of consciousness. My feelings about Buddhism in general and Therevada in particular is that it is not. Nibbana is often characterised as blissful and it is hard to imagine bliss without consciousness, but then again it’s hard to imagine thoughts without thinkers or remembering without memories. I can’t help thinking that consciousness too is a conditioned state and so is incompatible with Nibbana.

      The great value of anatta over atman=Brahman to me is that it provides an antidote to the tendency of people to always slip themselves into any picture – even if it’s only as an external observer. What you see a lot of in New Age neo-Advaita is the idea that transcendence is some kind of reward for diligent practice and the virtuous rewardee is always implicitly in the picture. Even worse of course is when unity with godhead is read as equivalence between the seeker and a patriarchal creator god. That way lies megalomania.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, ‘Dhamma and Non-duality’, that’s the one. I knew a monk who stayed there, Visuddhi, an Englishman who later disrobed and followed the non-dual direction. He was the one who got me started on this path too. Visuddhi said that Bhikkhu Bodhi suffers from chronic headaches most of the time, this may account for his intensity. Otherwise Theravadins have this purist thing about Early Buddhism, I used to be like that too. Then I started to get to know some Bhikkhus in Europe and discovered they weren’t all closed to the Advaita Vedanta. One monk came to visit me in Bangkok and asked if we could listen to the live Adyashanti podcast. But he was reluctant to discuss it. Another one some years later mentioned in passing that many Theravadin monks are open to Advaita Vedanta but didn’t want to say much about it. Yet another monk commented on my copy of I Am That, saying something like it was the next best thing to Buddhism – I can’t remember exactly. My feeling is that they would, as you say, question as to whether it was meaningful to distinguish between ‘nothing is self’ and ‘everything is self’. The whole thing is a subjective enquiry, Brahman is not an object, can’t be seen or in any way perceived. As long as things stay on that level, for these monks maybe, non-dualism is the same truth. This is what you’re saying here in a much clearer way and I’m grateful for your concise explanation. It’s these finer points that some teachers would quibble over. On the basic level, as you say, anatta helps people to let go, and the opposite is the case for those who identify with the godhead, fundamentalist Christians and others.


        • Visuddhi said that Bhikkhu Bodhi suffers from chronic headaches most of the time, this may account for his intensity.

          I’m not sure about intensity but there was a consistent difference between our positions in that he always seemed to take a more authoritarian and text-based approach than I. That says more about me than him of course. But when you consider how much of his life has been devoted to trying to understand the Pali Canon in the semi-original Pali you could easily see why he may have firm opinions about it.

          I don’t recall anything that would indicate Bodhi was troubled with headaches when I knew him. He always seemed patient and well focused. His frequent laughter seemed to come from a deep well of good humour that showed no sign of political or doctrinal correctness.

          From my perspective he seemed on firmer ground with the practical application of the canon than with its philosophy. There are good textual grounds for such an emphasis. Metaphysical speculation can be intoxicating and addictive. I should know.

          Brahman is not an object, can’t be seen or in any way perceived. As long as things stay on that level, for these monks maybe, non-dualism is the same truth.

          While I (finally) agreed with Bodhi that Brahman as the field of existence is incompatible with Therevada I still think there’s a fair bit in core Buddhism that points towards a non-dual reality. In particular there’s the practice of vipassana, metta and (especially for me) anapanasati which seem more than coincidentally effective at bringing about non-dual altered states. Descriptions of the jhanas would suggest this isn’t a side-effect. They’re supposed to do that.

          the opposite is the case for those who identify with the godhead, fundamentalist Christians and others.

          Yeah, there even seem to be a few completely secular godheads around that people identify with. I had that problem with knowledge and morality.


    • As to various competing ontologies I’m pretty much an ontological anti-realist these days. It seems unlikely to me there’s an underlying ‘absolute’ reality that is not only perceivable to certain people but describable in words.

      I don’t know what’s real. I don’t know if there are gods. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after I die or if it’s meaningful to ask the question.

      I guess my religion is and has always been mysticism. The question as to exactly what different states of consciousness actually mean or how to describe them is still fascinating but not so important to me anymore.

      I guess the important thing to me is that it’s all just consciousness and there’s very different ways to experience it. Which is the ‘right’ way seems beside the point.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry it’s taken a while to get back, there are other things to say but in the meantime, here’s a link to what Ajahn Amarao has to say about ND, remembering both he and Bhikkhu Bodhi are Theravadin monks, also that A. Amaro is in the Ajahn Chah lineage:


        • Thanks for the link. I’m fond of the story of Bahiya. His death by runaway cow is a punchline packed with all sorts of symbolism.

          I think what Wei Yu is asserting here is cognitive non-dualism. The argument that pure experience is all we have to make sense of the universe with and pure experience seems to be non-dualistic (with dualism projected onto it by the act of observing). In my discussions with Bhikkhu Bodhi I don’t recall him taking a stand one way or another as to whether the suttas assert cognitive non-dualism (though I’m sure he’d have a thing or two to say about the authenticity of the Shurangama Sutra).

          The distinction between cognitive and ontological non-dualism can seem subtle from an empirical perspective but it boils down to whether the apparent dualism of empirical experience is something that arises (whether as illusion or not) from a non-dualistic substrate (Nirguna Brahman) or whether it’s purely a product of our own thoughts.

          Ultimately cognitive non-dualism says nothing beyond what we experience whereas ontological non-dualism makes assertions about the fundamental nature of reality independent of our experience of it. As you can probably see, ontological non-dualism tends to contradict the doctrine of emptiness whereas cognitive non-dualism does not.


        • I’m interested in what you’re saying about cognitive and ontological non-dualism and the difference between the two. How about what Ajahn Amaro is talking about with sutta examples, this is ontological non-duality, right?


        • My understanding of ontological non-dualism is that it claims that all reality is somehow reducible or resolvable down to a non-dualist underlying principle.

          In neither of the sutta quotes does the Buddha actually say the non-dual ‘sphere of being’ or realisation constitutes the underlying truth or first cause of samsara so I’d have to guess they’re pointers to a non-dualist cognitive framework.


        • I feel like I’ve discovered the answer to the either-or, Buddhist/Advaitist question that’s bothered me for a long time. Thanks for your observations…


  2. Nice to be in a position of no real responsibilities to let thoughts go.. As all verbal thoughts are memory removing us from the greater mindful reality of now..:)

    Retired folks with new rubbered tires.. Monks.. And other subsistence independent folks can achieve that option easier than others riding the rat race of cultural memory..:)


    • Yeah, gotta agree there.

      Or as Kris Kristofferson said (via Janis): “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sorry about getting back to you here rather late again. Just a couple of other things about your discussion with B.B. I’ve been thinking about the normal lay/monastic relationship in the Theravadin context and even though B.B. may not have showed any sign of doctrinal correctness, it would have been quite exceptional for him to have a direct and, I imagine at times confrontational dialogue with an Australian social activist. I’m saying this because I’ve spent many hours discussing Dhamma with different Theravadin monks but always stayed within the behaviour mode that’s expected, and finding a way around that with a lot of laughter in order to get the discussion focused properly. Maybe that’s what you were doing too, but it could be that you took him by surprise and there was no way he could get things around to considering vipassana, metta, anapanasati as pointing towards a non-dual reality. As you said here, metaphysical speculation can be intoxicating and addictive, and I imagine B.B. reacting to anything resembling speculative conjecture as if it were a virus; not obsessive but trained to bring it immediately to an end with no further discussion. Could be you were asking the wrong person? Anyway, I’m interested in the link you’re suggesting with non-duality, it’s something that’s developed since I started blogging and finding a way of exchanging ideas with others. So we can return to this later, thanks for the post…


  4. Just a further note to say I copied the Nyanaponika Thera quote and used it for a post on my blog sourced back to here, with gratitude. Hope the move to your new place goes well so far…


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