The early manuals
The main commentator on Buddhist meditation is Buddhaghosa, the great scholar and writer who lived in Sri Lanka in the fifth century BCE, who has left us with extensive commentaries on many of the major texts of the early Buddhist canon. The Visuddhimagga has been the principal means whereby the teachings on meditation from the time of the Buddha have been made practically available and accessible to later generations. It is erudite, comprehensive and in some
cases, such as in the methods for the kasija practice (1–10), breathing mindfulness (29) and the formless realms (35–8), supplies us with information that is unavailable elsewhere. Many helpful lists and guides to practice are given, such as the lists of impediments to meditation and ways of guarding the mental image (nimitta), the basis of samatha practice. Though not canonical, they appear to have emerged within the tradition as the product of years of practical experimentation and experience in dealing with meditators and their problems (see Vism III 29–56 and Vism IV 34–41). Buddhaghosa’s systematic and discursive
approach has seemed over elaborate to some, but through these means he covers endless contingencies, methods and potential problems, exhibiting a wish characteristic of much Indian commentarial literature to explore any given subject with exhaustive attention to detail. This is partly, it appears, for the sheer pleasure of the exercise, but also to fulfil his evident concern to provide a manual that encompasses all possible difficulties and choices facing a practising meditator. This has been more than invaluable: it is unlikely that the meditative tradition could have survived in such a healthy way, if at all, without his detailed lists and exhaustive guidance. His manual is so constantly used and quoted throughout Buddhist Theravada countries that it is often regarded as the principal text on the subject of meditation, even to the exclusion of canonical sources.8
The other important early manual is Upatissa’s Vimuttimagga, known in the West through its translation, The Path of Freedom. Upatissa is a mysterious figure, and we do not know where or when he lived. We do not even know in which language he wrote; his work has come to us via a Chinese translation from Pali or some form of Buddhist Sanskrit.9 Comparison with Buddhaghosa is interesting and tantalizing, as much of what they say accords to similar patterns. A study of the two by Bapat has shown that we cannot be certain who came first, but the little evidence we have suggests that Upatissa’s work was known to and precedes Buddhaghosa: Bapat concludes that Buddhaghosa may have wanted to improve upon him. Upatissa quotes at greater length from original texts, adopts a more
streamlined approach in his breakdown of meditation subjects and writes in an easy and uncluttered style that, even after translation into English, seems much simpler and more expressive than that favoured by Buddhaghosa. Buddhaghosa in certain places disagrees with other teachers who represent views that we may find in Upatissa and he does supply much more detail as regards method, though his quotes from the canon tend to be shorter. Both make extensive use of simile and metaphor, though Upatissa possibly places more emphasis on this by arranging some sections around a single simile. Buddhaghosa exhibits a great love of the nirutti, the elucidatory pun that plays with elaborate ‘etymologies’, which Upatissa does not seem to share.10 For the modern reader both works complement one
another: Buddhaghosa provides more detailed and thorough analysis of each meditation object and the work carries the reassuring weight and authority of what has become by the fifth century CE a highly developed meditative tradition. Upatissa’s natural and unaffected style, however, seems to bear the imprint of a practitioner, though it would be difficult to prove this in any way. For some meditations, his accounts are refreshingly simple: the meditation on light (9), the recollection of the dhamma (22) and that of peace (30) are particularly noteworthy (PF 128, 149–50 and 177–9). His analysis of dependent origination, one
of the most difficult areas of Buddhist doctrine, in terms of his own simile of the seedbed and the production of rice, is one of the most succinct explanations of this profound teaching that one could encounter anywhere (see PF 259–61). It is not the place here to analyse the distinguishing features of the two commentators’ approaches in detail: they accord on most major issues and differ in emphasis and tone rather than practice. Both works are essential in helping our understanding of the canon, which curiously omits for some meditations methods for pursuing each one in practice.