BuddhaSasana Home Page English Section

An Interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi

by Venerable Kantasilo

Venerable Kantasilo conducted this interview at the Palelai Meditation Center, Singapore, on Sunday, June 20, 2001.


Thank 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.

Could 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 College ...

And you got your bachelors degree?

- I got a BA degree in Philosophy.

What year would that be?

- I completed my BA degree in 1966.

And then after that?

- And then I went to Claremont Graduate School. This is in Claremont, California.

Southern California?

- Yeah. Again I specialized in Philosophy and completed my doctorate degree in 1972.

You 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.

I 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 philosophy.

But 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.

Do 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.

Is that the temple that's on the same street as the Washington Buddhist Vihara?

- The one on the same street as the Washington Buddhist Vihara, not the Jetavana temple.

No, 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 temple?

- It must be the same temple. It was called ... something like ... the Vietnamese Buddhist Church of America, or something like that.

Yes, 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.

And this was at the time the United States was involved in the ...

- 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.

Were 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.

And 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.

Conscientious objector?

- It wouldn't have been conscientious objector, it would have been a ministerial deferment.

And you were ordained for about two months before you went to South Vietnam?

- 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 then ... ?

- And I remained as a samanera for five years in the United States.

I 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.

But 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.

So 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.

So you were already a samanera, and you were working, and you were 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.

Do 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 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.

I 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.

And 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 visiting monks.

And 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,

Who 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.

I 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.

Then I stayed in Vietnam for two months, mostly in Saigon, a few weeks I went up to Hue in central Vietnam.

Were 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.

So from Vietnam you ... ?

- Then from Vietnam I went to Sri Lanka.

But 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.

How 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.

Can 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.

Did 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 Mettreya.

Can 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.

And 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.

But 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.

So 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.

Such as ... ?

- 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.

And 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.

So 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.

I 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.

Then 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 Acariya Buddharakkhita.

It 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.

And 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.

Yes, 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.

While 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.

And 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.

When 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 States.

It 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'.

So 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...

So they took you home?

- Yeah, yeah. But of course they were very unhappy with this.

And this was in NY or this was in ... ?

- At this time they were living in Long Island, outside NYC.

But 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.

..and 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.

So 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.

Some 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.

Then 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.

Yes, I remember that. They ordered all foreigners to leave the country within 48 hours.

- Yeah, yeah.

Yes, 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.

When 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.

Is that Mitirigula?

- That's Mitiri ... yeah. A place called Mitirigula. But now there are two monasteries in Mitirigula.

So 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.

The 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.

During 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.

And 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 his death.

So you've brought us up to 1984 ... can you bring us up to the present? Any other interesting anecdotes or events in your life?

- 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.

I 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.

So you've completed several very important translations from the Pali Canon ... being the Majjhimanikaya and the two volume set of the Samyuttanikaya.

- Yeah, yeah.

So 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?

- Yeah.

Is that four times a year?

- Well, now it comes out three times a year.

That 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.

The 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.

The 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 sub-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.

So 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.

Nick 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 okay.

And 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.

After 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.

I 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.

So 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 September 21.

That's 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.

So 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.

First, 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.

So 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].

One of the reasons that I wanted you to tell us your story is that 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.

There 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.

Could 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 Vanaya monastery.

The 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 sangha.

Otherwise, ... 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, finance, politics.

So 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.

So 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.

Are there any closing statements you would like to offer?

- I think I've covered everything.

Thank you, Bhante.


Source: Posted by M. Nease ([email protected] ),
https://groups.yahoo.com/group/dhammastudygroup/messages , Nov 25, 2001

[Back to English Index]
last updated: 29-08-2002