An Interview with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
Kantasilo conducted this interview at the
Center, Singapore, on Sunday, June 20, 2001.
you Bhante for talking to us. Could you tell us about your early
years, where you were born, your lay name, your parents' names?
I was born in NYC in 1944, my civilian name was Jeffrey Block,
and my parents were a middle class Jewish family living in Brooklyn.
you tell us where you went to school, your primary education?
I went to a public elementary school quite close to the family
house, also to junior high school, high school in the neighborhood,
which is Borough Park, in Brooklyn. And then I went to Brooklyn
you got your bachelors degree?
I got a BA degree in Philosophy.
year would that be?
I completed my BA degree in 1966.
then after that?
And then I went to Claremont Graduate School. This is in Claremont,
Yeah. Again I specialized in Philosophy and completed my doctorate
degree in 1972.
were telling me earlier that you had met a Vietnamese Buddhist
monk which was probably your first introduction to Buddhism?
Actually I had become interested in Buddhism in my junior year
in college, mainly just by strolling in bookshops and looking
at book titles and then somehow I became interested in a few
books on Buddhism that I could find there. I think this interest
in Buddhism arose from the kind of surge or quest for some deeper
understanding of human existance that was offered by the materialistic
philosophy of modern American civilization, and I wasn't satisfied
with my ancestral Jewish religion, and also I didn't find much
long term value in Christianity. But I was drawn at an early
period, say during my junior year of collage to the religions
of the east.
began reading some of the Upanishads, Bhagavadgita, then I found
in the bookshops some books on Buddhism. These were by D.T.
Suzuki and Alan Watts so they were mainly on Zen Buddhism and
Mahayana Buddhism. Then when I went to Claremont Graduate School
my interest in Buddhism continued and I felt increasingly a
deeper need to lead a spiritual life. At the same time I always
had an underlying doubt or skepticism about any type of spiritual
finally when I was in graduate school I met a Buddhist monk
from Vietnam who was attending the same school and living in
the same residence hall in which I was living. I became friends
with him, and I approached him as a teacher and from him I received
my first instructions in Buddhism and meditation.
you remember his name?
His name is Thich Giac Duc. I have not heard from him in many,
many years, so I'm not sure whether he is still alive. In fact,
when I was still living in Washington D.C. at the Washington
Buddhist Vihara he was in the Vietnamese temple, which was a
few blocks right up the street, and he was the monk in charge
of that temple.
that the temple that's on the same street as the Washington
The one on the same street as the Washington Buddhist Vihara,
not the Jetavana temple.
no, but there is a Vietnamese temple just right down the street
from the [Washington Buddhist] Vihara and has a very big Kuan
Yin [image located] in the precincts there. Is that the same
It must be the same temple. It was called…something like… the
Vietnamese Buddhist Church of America, or something like that.
that's probably it.
Yeah, he was in charge of that at the same time that I was in
the Washington Buddhist Vihara, just by pure coincidence that
we wound up on the same street after several years of separation.
But he was getting into an increasingly antagonistic relationship
with the Vietnamese community. I think mainly because of the
different political affiliations… because Vietnamese monks had
very strong political affiliations.
this was at the time the United States was involved in
No, this was years after the Vietnam War - this was 1981, perhaps
early 82. He came to the United States in 1975 just at the very
time that Saigon collapsed and fell to the Viet Cong. And that
he was educated in the United States and he had somewhat pro-western
sympathies compared to those monks who took a more radical stance
against the United States. His life was in danger because once
the Viet Cong took power they would have singled out or weeded
out those monks who were known to be sympathetic to the west,
or to the United States, and [would have] eliminated him physically
and so he had to escape Vietnam immediately.
you practicing any type of Vietnamese meditations [at this time]?
He started me off with Anapanasati. What is interesting is Vietnamese
Buddhism is Mahayana but I think because of the proximity to
Cambodia, or perhaps because they've also received a stream
of transmission from Indian Mahayana, not only Chinese Mahayana
coming down from south China to Vietnam, Vietnamese Mahayana
Buddhism tends to have a stronger strain of classical Indian
Buddhism within it. So the meditations he taught me were basically
mindfulness of breathing, the meditation on loving kindness,
and a meditation based on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness
which is… its sort of a line, each foundation of mindfulness
links up with a particular one of the four perversions or distortions.
To contemplate the body as being essentially impure - asubha,
to contemplate all feelings as being suffering, to contemplate
every state of mind as being anicca - impermanent, and to contemplate
all dhammas as being without self.
you were ordained as a samanera?
Yeah, after I became friends with him and I began the practice
of meditation, through the practice my skepticism and doubts
about Buddhism or the spiritual life dissipated. I became convinced
that this is the proper path for me to follow. And so then I
asked my friend, teacher, if he could give me ordination as
a monk. Also, I have to confess that there was an underlying
pragmatic motive as well. I wouldn't say that was the main reason
why I wanted ordination, but this was a period when America
decided it had to beef up its armed forces and it was expanding
its roll-call of people subject to the draft. And so I also
thought it might be an extra security measure to have a formal
ordination as a monk in order to be able to submit some kind
of document to receive exoneration from the obligation to serve
in the armed forces.
It wouldn't have been conscientious objector, it would have
been a ministerial deferment.
you were ordained for about two months before you went to South
No, I was ordained by him only as a samanera in May 1967, five
years before I left for Asia.
In the United States.
And I remained as a samanera for five years in the United States.
see. And then you traveled straight to Vietnam?
I was planning to go to Asia all along, from the time that I
received ordination. It was not exactly certain where I would
go for ordination or training, though my teacher, my Vietnamese
teacher, had some contact with Sri Lankan Buddhists…with Ven.
Narada - famous monk Venerable Narada. And he was always constantly
advising me to go to Sri Lanka to ordain and to receive training.
as a Vietnamese monk…or?
At that time it was unclear but I think he thought I should
take reordination as a Theravada monk but then eventually I
should come back to Vietnam and then ordain again in the Mahayana
Order as a Bhikshu.
how long were you in South Vietnam?
Okay, so this is after I completed my graduate studies and then
I had to teach for two years… this was while I was working on
my dissertation, I was teaching in order to earn money to pay
back debts that I had incurred from loans to support my education.
you were already a samanera, and you were working, and
still working on your dissertation…
Yeah, yeah, I was completing my dissertation. Then when I completed
it… I completed it in February 1972 and I continued to work
through the end of that academic year, then I was ready to leave
for Asia. And by this time I had also come into contact several
times with Sri Lankan Buddhist monks who were passing through
Los Angels. After my first Vietnamese teacher left the United
States he had a friend, another Vietnamese monk who was living
in Los Angeles. He had originally gone to teach Buddhism at
U.C.L.A. and then he established a Buddhist meditation center
in Los Angeles.
you recall his name?
His name is Dr. Thich Thien An. He died from cancer in 1980.
In 1971 I went to stay and live at that meditation center
(IBMC) with Dr. Thich Thien An. And while I was staying
there I got to know a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka who was
passing through Los Angeles and we invited him to come to
stay at our meditation center and to give a series of talks
over a period of a week. This was Venerable Piyadassi of
Vajirarama in Columbo.
became friendly with Venerable Piyadassi and I drove him around
Los Angeles. I introduced him at talks and I brought him to
my classes at the university to teach, to give lectures. And
then when we parted at the Los Angeles airport he suggested
to me that some time I should come to Sri Lanka and he could
arrange for me to stay at a Buddhist monastery.
then some time later I met another monk named Venerable Ananda
Mangala who is actually a Sri Lankan monk but he was stationed
in Singapore. Then I became friendly with him, he stayed with
us also for about a week. Then there was Dikwella Piyananda
who was at the time chief monk at the Washington Buddhist Vihara,
he also came to stay with us for a few days and I became friendly
with him. And so it seems I have some deep underlying karmic
connection with Sri Lanka, which was getting reinforced by these
so then when I decided to go to Sri Lanka, I wrote to Venerable
Piyadassi and told him about my intention and asked him if he
could recommend a place I could go to ordain and study. Then
he recommended to me a monk, Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya,
later became the Sangha Nayaka…?
Actually, at that time he was the Mahanayaka of the United Amarapura
Nikaya. He had become already the Mahanayaka Thera of the Amarapura
nikaya, this would have been in early 1972. I think he received
that appointment…it must have been 1969 or 1970. Because I remember
he was the holder for a five-year period and then he relinquished…
that period came to an end in 1976. So he might have had the
appointment in 1971.
was under the impression that after you gained samanera ordination
in the Vietnamese tradition you left California to visit your
monk friend in Vietnam.
Actually I hadn't reached that point yet in my narrative. I
had written to Venerable Piyadassi and he gave me the name of
Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya. I wrote to Venerable Ananda
Maitreya asking if I could come and stay with him to ordain
and to study and he wrote back saying I was welcome. So then
in August 1972, I left the United States and my plane came first
to Thailand and so I spent one week in Thailand at Wat Pleng
Vipassana. From there I went to Vietnam in order to visit my
friend, the first Buddhist monk that I had contact with. This
was Venerable Thich Giac Duc.
I stayed in Vietnam for two months, mostly in Saigon, a few
weeks I went up to Hue in central Vietnam.
there any meditation centers in Hue or were you just sight-seeing?
It was more sight-seeing. There were monasteries in Hue but
everything was in a rather hectic and chaotic state at that
time because of the Vietnam War. The monks were very uncertain
about the future of Buddhism and the future of the country itself.
from Vietnam you…?
Then from Vietnam I went to Sri Lanka.
at this point, I want to make it clear you were a Mahayana samanera.
I was a Mahayana samanera still and I arrived in Sri Lanka wearing
my Vietnamese style robe. My teacher wanted me to wear the yellow
robe when I came to Sri Lanka since with the brown robe I might
not have been recognized as a Buddhist monk. So I wore this
flowing yellow robe. Then, after a week or so in Colombo I went
out to Balangoda to stay at the monastery of my ordination teacher
- Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya. Then a few weeks later
I took a new ordination into the Theravada Order as a samanera.
long did you remain a samanera in the Theravada tradition?
The samanera ordination took place in November 1972, then I
took the Upasampada ordination in May, 1973. So it was six months.
you give us you preceptor's name?
My preceptor was Venerable Bibile Sumangala Nayaka Thero. He
was a prominent monk in the upcountry Amarapura Nikaya. But
he was not known outside of the upcountry Amarapura Nikaya.
He did not have an international reputation.
you have a relationship with him?
No, no. No relationship at all. His function as the upajjhaya
at the upasampada ceremony was purely ceremonial or a formal
function. My real close relationship was with Venerable Ananda
you tell us about that relationship?
Well, I came to him because he had a great reputation as a scholar
and also as an outstanding monk. When I first came to him and
found out that he was 77 years old I was a little apprehensive
because I was coming here as a young monk and I thought that
I would have to spend five years of study with him and I was
worried that at the age of 77 he might die at any time. But
he wound up going on to live till the age of almost 102 and
he was very strong and vigorous.
while I was staying with him I found out one of the secrets
of his excellent health was going for long walks several times
a week, about twice a week. His temple was located about two
miles in one direction from the town of Balangoda itself, in
a village, in one direction and he also had a pirivena, a monastic
school, two miles in the other direction, on the other side
of Balangoda. But by that time he had retired from his function
as the principle of the monastic school and he left it in the
charge of his pupils.
he kept his library there. He was a very avid reader, always
doing research on different subjects. And so twice a week he
would walk from his temple to the pirivena, the monastic school,
with a bunch of books under his arm. And quite often he would
ask me to go along with him and so we would walk about four
miles in one direction - four miles going and then we would
rest and have a cup of tea, then walk back another four miles.
And he was quite fit and vigorous I was quite surprised.
he was a very influential person in your life?
I would say so, definitely so. And it was with him I began my
study of Pali and Buddhism. Though I have said pretty much I
learned Pali on my own, he didn't give me formal lessons in
the grammer. But I'd work with some textbooks and he would check
my exercises. Then once I'd learned enough Pali to start going
through the texts…we went through certain texts together.
We started with the first part of the Samyutta Nikaya, the collection
with verses, then we went through some suttas in the Majjhima
Nikaya, then he took me through the Abhidhammatthasamgaha.
you would translate what was already Pali into English or vise-versa?
I would just translate it to myself. At that time I was not
yet doing written translations.
you were reading the Romanized Pali?
Actually, he wanted me to learn the Burmese script, which I
did, because he had the entire Burmese Sixth Council Edition
in his library. He was one of the monks who participated…in
fact, he was like the leader of the Sri Lankan delegation during
the Sixth Buddhist Council. And so he urged me to learn the
Burmese script, which I did and then we worked through texts…
those texts in the Burmese script.
think I remember reading somewhere that you had a very close
relationship with Venerable Nyanaponika?
Venerable Nyanaponika each year would go to Europe for a month
or two, he started making these trips in the late 1960s up till
1980. I had met Venerable Nyanaponika first when I made a visit
to Island Hermitage. This was shortly after my ordination. Just
by coincidence he happened to come down there. He was staying
in Kandy, at Forest Hermitage, but each year at the time when
the Island Hermitage held its Kathina ceremony, he would go
down to Island Hermitage. And so just at the time I made my
visit to Island Hermitage he was visiting there and so I had
some talks with him.
occasionally when I had questions about points on Dhamma, I
would write to him to get his views. Then in 1974 when he was
going to Europe, he asked if I would come and look after the
Forest Hermitage in his absence. And I agreed to do that, and
in this way I became friendly with him. And then in 1975 I left
Sri Lank and I went to India, to Bangalore, and stayed in Bangalore
for ten months at the Maha Bodhi Society there, which was under
happened that while I was staying with Venerable Ananda Mettreyya
in Balangoda, an Indian monk came to stay at the same monastery.
His name was Saddharakkhita and I became friendly with him and
he told me that his home monastery was the Mahabodhi Society
in Bangalore. And so when he had completed his studies in Sri
Lanka, and decided to go back to Bangalore, he suggested that
I go along with him. And also I wanted to go to India because
I wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Buddhist Holy sites.
so I came along with him to Bangalore and I stayed altogether
for ten months at the Mahabodhi Society there which I found
quite inspiring because his teacher, Venerable Acariya Buddharakkhita
spoke English very fluently, had very good understanding and
knowledge of Dhamma, and each week he would give very very good
Dhamma talks. At that time there were three western monks staying
with him... er... I'm sorry, actually there were five or six
monks there. One of them received ordination only toward the
end of my stay there under the name Sangharatana. But later
he came to Thailand and became reordained as Silaratana, staying
with Ajaan Maha Bua. I think you know him. They call him Phra
Dick now - Richard Byrd.
I know him very well.
So he was there, and then there were two young Indian monks,
and a Sweedish monk who was even senior to myself named Lakkhana.
And Venerable Buddharakkhita… Actually, at that time Venerable
Lakkhana was very into Abhidhamma, and I was into the study
of suttas. And so he had Venerable Lakkhana teach the Abhidhamma
to all the monks and he had me teach the suttas to all the monks,
even though I didn't have much knowledge at the time, but it
really forced me to prepare talks on the suttas and to study
the suttas carefully and learn how to explain them. And then
occasionally Acariya Buddharakkhita would ask us to give the
Sunday public Dhamma talk in place of himself, and that forced
us to learn how to give public discourses.
I was staying in Bangalore, it became clear that our visas would
not be renewed another year so I had to find another place to
go. And meanwhile the Venerable Nyanaponika wrote to me and
told me that if I decided to come back to Sri Lanka I would
be welcome to stay with him, and so I decided to do so. So then
I came back at the very end of 1975, I came back to Sri Lanka
and went to stay with venerable Nyanaponika. Actually in the
place right next to… there are two places about 100 meters apart
within the same precincts. One is the Forest Hermitage where
venerable Nyanaponika stays, the other is called Senanayakarama,
where Venerable Piyadasi would stay when he came to Kandy.
so I was staying in Senanayakarama since Venerable Nyanaponika
had only one guest room, and he was expecting to come within
a few months none other than, Venerable Phra Khantipalo. And
so then I stayed… Anyway, I stayed all together close to two
years with Venerable Nyanaponika in that place. And Venerable
Khantipalo stayed with us for about a year.
I took ordination, my parents were extremely upset with this.
And they would write to me frequently, sometimes angry letters,
sometimes letters of grief and sorrow, sometimes letters critical
of Buddhism and of myself, sometimes letters pleading with me
to go back. And so I actually decided that I wouldn't be able
to continue as a monk and that I would disrobe and go back to
the United States. And I told this decision to Venerable Nyanaponika
and he regretted it very much. But he thought that I had to
make my own decisions so he didn't try to compel me, though
he felt that I would have been justified in continuing as a
monk rather than conceding to my parent's wishes. But I felt
that maybe this was necessary to do. I actually fixed the date
that I would disrobe. I was already making arrangements with
my parents to get the ticket for the trip back to the United
was about two or three weeks away from the time I was scheduled
to disrobe and one day I was sitting up in my room… at this
point I was living in the Forest Hermitage with Venerable Nyanaponika
- this was after Venerable Khantipalo left Sri Lanka. Then I
was just thinking that the whole purpose of my life was to live
as a Buddhist monk and if I were to disrobe just to satisfy
my parent's wishes it would be like nullifying all that was
of value and of meaning, of significance in my own life, just
to fulfill their expectations. So I told this to Venerable Nyanaponika
and he said 'in that case go back but go back as a monk', and
I thought 'why not'.
then I went back, this was in August 1977, then I went back
to the United States as a monk. And when my parents, who were
expecting me to come down in lay clothes, saw me coming in my
saffron robes with an alms bowl on my back and the monk's umbrella
in my hand… this is what my father told me later, they had seen
me before I saw them. My mother said to my father, 'that's not
our son, let's go' and she actually started to walk away from
the airport but my father held her back and they took me...
they took you home?
Yeah, yeah. But of course they were very unhappy with this.
this was in NY or this was in…?
At this time they were living in Long Island, outside NYC.
you went to stay for some time at the Sri Lankan Buddhist Vihara,
so was this at the very beginning of that stay?
No. You see the first place I stayed when I went back to the
United States was called the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America.
It's in New Jersey. In a place called Washington, New Jersey.
It was established by a Kalmuk lama named Geshe Wangyal who
was one of the first… You see there was a Kalmuk community which
had come to the United States, I think during the period when
Stalin was persecuting the Kalmuk Mongolians, or it could even
have been immediately after the Bolshevik revolution - I'm not
sure when. But they had come to the United States and settled
in southern New Jersey.
set up a center?
The Buddhist centers would have come some time later. And Geshe
Wangyal he was a Kalmuk Mongolian. He had studied in Tibet and
China then they had set up a monastery for him and he attracted
to himself some of the first Americans who studied Tibetan Buddhism.
Later they became quite prominent scholars of Tibetan Buddhism,
like Robert Thurman, Jeffrey Hopkins - they were originally
students of Geshe Wangyal.
how long did you visit your parents?
Well, I stayed with my parents a couple of weeks then I went
to stay at this Lamaist Buddhist monastery. And I wanted also
to study some aspects of Indian Mahayana Buddhism through the
Tibetan. So actually I studied Sanskrit and Tibetan there -
to some extent. But then I visited Washington D.C., this would
have been Vesak 1978, and I visited the Washington Buddhist
Vihara and met monks there.
of the lay followers, the American lay followers of the Washington
Buddhist Vihara, then requested me to come and take up residence
at the Washington Buddhist Vihara. And so then I left New Jersey
and I came to settle in Washington D.C. This would be in May
1979. Then I stayed at the Washington Buddhist Vihara for three
years till 1982.
I felt that I wanted to go back to Asia in order to do more
intensive training and meditation. My original plan was to go
to Burma and to practice meditation with Mahasi Sayadaw. And
I started to make plans to go to Burma. Several years earlier,
Burma started to loosen up its visa policy and they were giving
long term residence visas to foreigners who would come and stay
at Buddhist monasteries and meditation centers just for the
purpose of practicing meditation, or studying Buddhism. And
so I was hoping to ride in on that wave. But just when I started
to make the application, then Burma went through one of these
paranoid phases and threw all the foreigners out of the country
and was refusing to give any long term visas.
I remember that. They ordered all foreigners to leave the country
within 48 hours.
I remember that very clearly.
I think that there were some Americans who said that they had
planned to come to Burma for the purpose of meditation and then
after they would do a period of meditation then without permits,
without the approval of the authorities they would just on their
own started to travel about. And then the Burmese government
became afraid that these were spies going about disguised as
monks. And they started to… the safest policy was to just get
them all out of the country. Okay, so then I had to reroute
my trip and so I decided to come back to Sri Lanka. It was in
May 1982, that I arrived back in Sri Lanka.
were you made head of the B.P.S.?
Well, I became the editor of the B.P.S. in 1984. When I first
came back to Sri Lanka, I spent my first Vassa together with
Venerable Nyanaponika. But after the Vassa I went to a different
monastery. This was a meditation monastery called Nissarana
Vanaya, Mitirigula Nissarana Vannaya … and I stayed.
That's Mitiri… yeah. A place called Mitirigula. But now there
are two monasteries in Mitirigula.
Mitirigula is the name of an area?
Mitirigula is a village, and the monastery itself is called
Nissarana Vanaya - Nissarana Vana, the Grove, or Forest, of
Deliverance. But then on the hill just beyond Nissarana Vanaya,
another monastery was started. Originally, that was to be a
study monastery but the study program never worked out there…
never worked out successfully. Then the Burmese monk, the pupil
of Pa Auk Sayadaw named U Agganya was invited to go there and
give meditation training to Sri Lankan monks. And he was very
popular, quite successful. Because now this other monastery
that was originally set up as the study center turned into an
intensive meditation center teaching the Pa Auk system of meditation.
other monastery still functions more or less as a meditation
monastery but after the death of Venerable Nyanarama the quality
of meditation training there has declined. It is virtually turning
into an old-age home for monks, rather than a place for younger
monks who are really keen on intensive practice.
Venerable Nyanaponika's last years you were…he was living
with you... or?
Well, I'd say that I was living with him. While I was at Nissarana
Vanaya I stayed with him on and off for about two years… close
to two years. Then in 1984 Venerable Nyanaponika was already
was in his 80s, getting quite weak, and I felt that I should
go to stay with him to look after him.
then about a month after I came to stay with him he told me
that he would like to pass on the editorship of the BPS to me.
I wasn't quite prepared to take it but I agreed to do so. And
so he retired as editor but he remained president for another
four years till 1988 then he decided to retire from the presidency
and he asked me to succeed him as president, which I did. But
he continued to live on till 1994, he was 93 at the time of
you've brought us up to 1984… can you bring us up to the
present? Any other interesting anecdotes or events in your
Okay, well in 1984 then I took over as editor for the Buddhist
Publications Society. In 1988 I became president then I lived
on constantly there with Venerable Nyanaponika, very rarely
leaving the Forest Hermitage, in looking after him quite diligently.
He remained in quite good health up till the last few weeks
of his life, because he was getting weaker and his eyesight
had deteriorated. His eyesight really started to go in 1988
and by about late 1989 he was not able to read anymore. So each
evening we would have our evening tea and I would read to him
for about one hour from various books and I would also record
what I read so that later he could listen again. And I tried
to obtain tapes from various teachers for him to listen to.
My own life I think is rather flat.
don't think so! I think its event packed.
No, if I were to write a biography from that period on it might
be difficult to fill two or three pages.
you've completed several very important translations
Pali Canon…being the Majjhimanikaya and the two volume set
of the Samyuttanikaya.
that's quite…and some other editions that I haven't mentioned,
some smaller booklets, and you do the very important…uh..is
it the B.P.S. newsletter?
that four times a year?
Well, now it comes out three times a year.
I wouldn't call flat…
How the edition of the Majjhimanikaya came about… Well actually
the proposal for the Samyuttanikaya came out even earlier than
the Majjhimanikaya. And it was none other than Phra Khantipalo,
who initiated that. He felt that there was an urgent need for
a new translation of the Samyuttanikaya, and I had already started
this practice of translating Canonical suttas from the Canon
and attaching to them translations of large portions of the
commentary and sub-commentary.
first work in this genre that I did was the Brahmajala Sutta
together with its commentary and sub-commentary. I did this
on the urging of Venerable Nyanaponika, he was very keen to
have this done. And many years earlier he had translated large
portions of the commentary and sub-commentary to the Brahmajala
Sutta, which he had kept in a notebook. So I really learned
very much, to read and understand the commentaries and sub-commentaries
from these notebooks of Venerable Nyanaponika.
style of the commentaries and sub-commentaries, particularly
the Tikas can be quite difficult… because the sub-commentator
writes in the style of the classical Sanskrit commentator. You
know, like Shankhara, well he preceded Shankharacariya, but
its in a similar style, very terse, using very complex sentences
with a lot of abstract nouns linked together by various indirect
cases. So it's quite a project to translate the sub-commentary
sentence by sentence… I really learned to understand the sub-commentarial
style from these notebooks of Venerable Nyanaponika. And then
I put together this Brahmajala Sutta with the commentary and
that was printed by itself once.
It is, it still is printed by itself. It's called the Discourse
on the All Embracing Net of Views. Then after that I did the
first Discourse of the Majjhimanikaya, this is the Mulapariyaya
Sutta and its commentary and sub-commentary, then the Mahanidana
Sutta, that's the Great Discourse on Causation, and the Samannaphala
Sutta, the second discourse in the Dighanikaya -- The Discourse
on the Fruits of Recluseship.
Venerable Khantipalo liked my translations and he proposed to
me that I do a new translation of the Samyuttanikaya for the
Pali Text Society. But I was somewhat doubtful that the Pali
Text Society was interested in taking on new translations. Bhikkhu
Khantipalo wrote to Richard Gombrich who was then the secretary
of the P.T.S. asking him to write to me to assure me that they
would be interested in new translations. And Gombrich did so.
This was in 1985. But just about that same time Wisdom Publications
had written to Venerable Nyanaponika… you see, Venerable Khantipalo
had put together 90 suttas from the Majjhimanikaya that were
translated by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli and these were published in
Bangkok in three volumes by Mahamakut Press called A Treasury
of the Buddha's Words.
Ribush of Wisdom Publications found out about those three books,
these three volumes, and he had the idea to have an entire translation
of the Majjhimanikaya published. He asked Venerable Nyanaponika
if he would be able to edit the remaining 32 discourses of the
Majjhimanikaya that Venerable Nyanamoli had translated. But
Venerable Nyanaponika, at this point, was in his mid-eighties
already and he thought it was just too much for himself to take
on. And he asked me if I would be willing to do it and I said
so I started doing this in 1985 and as I went through then I
felt that some of Venerable Nyanamoli's terminology had to be
altered. He was using a rather experimental terminology, which
would not have been so readily comprehensible to an ordinary
reader in English. I made these alterations with the approval
of Venerable Nyanaponika who totally endorsed them. So I worked
on that from 1985 till about early 1989 because I wasn't able
to do this full time. I also had to do the editing for the Buddhist
Publications Society. It was April 1989 that I sent the completed
manuscript off to Wisdom Publications and it remained in limbo
with them for about three years since they couldn't find anybody
to oversee the project. This was the age before computers had
come into general usage, at least in Sri Lanka. And so what
I submitted to Wisdom was a typed script, typed on a manual
typewriter. And so, they had various people enter the text into
computer format using different computers and different editorial
styles. And then they needed someone to oversee the whole project
but they couldn't find anybody for several years and it remained
in limbo till one person named John Bullitt came along and he
took the responsibility for overseeing the text preparation,
copy editing of the whole work. So finally it came out in 1995.
I finished the Majjhima, several months later I started translating
the Samyuttanikaya… this would have been about June 1989. I
started doing the Samyuttanikaya not with the first volume,
which is the collection of verses, since the verses can be very
difficult and I thought that if I started doing the verses first
I would quickly get discouraged and give up on the project.
And so I started with volume two, the first of the prose volumes
and so I did volume two and three pretty quickly but then I
got involved in other projects, books at the B.P.S. had to be
edited, also various things came, even for several years I couldn't
return to the Samyuttanikaya for so many years. Then I would
return to it for periods then back to other things. Not that
I was wasting my time or throwing my time away on trifling enjoyments,
but various other projects called for my attention and deflected
it away from the Samyutta. So I couldn't return to that, sometimes
for several years, then I would work on it.
must have finished the first draft in 1993. Then I had to prepare
the notes and the verse collection was very, very difficult
I went through it several times making drastic alterations,
as I compiled the notes then I saw places where I interpreted
certain verses wrongly and I had to retranslate the verses.
And the preparation of the notes was very time consuming, a
year was spent on the notes alone. And so it was completed…
I was… diddling on again accepting invitations to various projects,
to various engagements, and so on.
finally, Wisdom Publications gave me a deadline, which was in
a way a lifesaver, in that it forced me to put my attention
wholeheartedly on the Samyutta and complete it. I think the
deadline was something like September 21st, 1999, and I completed
all of the work… you know, everthing that had to be done… and
put everything on disks and sent the disks off to them by courrier
on September 17 so that the disks arrived at their office on
what we call a close call.
Yeah, but nothing would have happened if I missed the deadline.
They wanted to enter it into their catalogue for a particular
release date. So if I missed the deadline then it wouldn't have
gotten into the catalogue and so their release would have been
postponed for another season. Their releases are done three
times a year, so that it would have had to have been postponed
from I think a spring or summer release to a fall or winter
release. It wouldn't have meant that I would have been killed
[laugh]… for missing the deadline.
you've brought us up to the present…
But one thing I didn't mention is the problem with the headache.
This seems to be some type of karmic destiny that I've had which
is… I've repeated this story so often to different doctors it
gets boring to repeat it in detail over and over. But starting
in 1976 early 77 I started to get this headache condition which
gradually grew worse, and I consulted various doctors.
the problem developed around the eyes so I thought something
might be wrong with the eyes so I saw optometrists and they
led me on to EMT specialists who thought that there could have
been inflammation in the sinuses and they passed me on to neurologists
thinking that something could have been wrong with the nerves.
But none of these doctors could find anything organically wrong.
Then I tried different types of medical treatment, not only
western medicine but Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Sri Lankan
herbal medicine, Chinese acupuncture, homeopathic medicine,
Tibetan medicine. Now here in Singapore, along with western
medicine I'm also trying Chinese herbal medicine and massage
therapy. So this headache has been quite a major obstruction
to my work and other activities through the years.
hopefully through the power of your punna these will soon come
to an end.
It seems that it will take a lot of punna [laugh].
of the reasons that I wanted you to tell us your story
in the past there have been many western monks, this is not
a new thing, and with the passing of Venerable Nyanaponika…I
think that we lose a lot without asking pertinent questions
at the right time. So I'm very glad that you've agreed to tell
us your story. And he [Suchao Ploychum] wanted me to ask you
about your views of Buddhism in Sri Lanka…what are your impressions,
do you think it will remain a vital place for westerners to
seek ordination and training there?
Okay, well rather sadly I have to say that my impression of
Buddhism in Sri Lanka is that to a large extent it has deteriorated.
In the older generation you could find monks who were quite
good scholars and sincere practitioners. Now, because of various
changes, political changes in the country, economic changes
the large impact of westernization I would say that the quality
of the monastic life has declined a lot.
are still pockets of monks who are very good, very earnest,
very dedicated. Particularly within this community or organization
called the Sri Kalyani Yogashrama Sanstava which is a distant
cousin of the Dhammayut nikaya in Thailand.
you repeat that name clearly?
Okay, Sri Kalyani Yogashrama Sanstava. Sanstava is something
like association of the Yogashramas… meditation monasteries.
Sri kalyani… I think its name comes from the Kalyani river in
Burma in which the ordinations were performed by the monastic
community which is the parent of the Ramanyanikaya… it must
be in the Ramanyadesa of Burma. This was a kind of association
of monasteries established by one Venerable Jinavamsa who is
still alive today at the age of… could be 95, 96, and Venerable
Sri Nyanarama who was the meditation master at Mitirigula Nissarana
original motivation for the starting of this organization was
to revive the true monastic life in Sri Lankan monastic Buddhism
based on close adherence to the Vinaya, study of the texts…
very precise and careful study of the text, and the practice
of meditation. And this particular monastic community has been
in rather close contact in recent years with Pa Awk Sayadaw
in Burma and some of the monks from this organization have gone
to Burma to practice with Pa Auk Sayadaw, and others are studying
in Sri Lanka under Pa Auk Sayadaw's disciple U Agganya. So I'd
say that this is a quite healthy stream within the Sri Lanka
outside of this organization there are other good monks here
and there. But by and large I have to say that monasteries have
become rather depressing places. Many of the younger monks get
ordained solely for the purpose of pursuing their education,
if they are capable they go to the universities, get their degrees,
then disrobe. Others remain as monks but they work at salaried
jobs as teachers, which I would say is not so condemnable in
itself but other monks who are rather clever and enterprising
become involved in various activities which go quite against
the whole grain of the monastic life, involvement in business,
for westerners who wish to ordain and receive proper training
I find it rather difficult to recommend Sri Lanka. Though there
are a few places I could suggest, like Nissarana Vanaya, if
a monk is capable of taking care of himself with a little outside
guidance, then its still a suitable place. The other place connected
with the strict meditative training… I say that its too narrow
in its focus for a new monk who needs a broader base of training,
some guidance in the monastic rules, a general introduction
to the teaching, the Dhamma, in a place like that one doesn't
find the training, one finds only the exclusive teaching of
meditation according to a particular technique. A place like
that is suitable for a monk who has already completed his basic
training and wants some intensive practice in meditation.
the opportunities for a foreigner coming to Sri Lanka… there
are opportunities to ordain… often monks will have no hesitation
to give the formal ordination to a candidate but once they get
ordained they largely have to make out on their own to get proper
instruction in the Dhamma.
there any closing statements you would like to offer?
I think I've covered everything.