The Heretic Sage, Part 4

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A Dhamma Interview with Ven. Bhikkhu K. Ñānananda by Ven. Bhikkhu Yogananda

The following is a minimally edited transcript of Bhante Ñāṇananda’s comments on the Neyyattha Sutta, which seems to have been the seed out of which the Two Truths doctrine has been developed.

“We come across this in the Aṅguttara Nikāya: nītattha sutta and neyyattha sutta. Nīta, taken as it is, means you are led to it. Neyya means you have to be led. So nīta means you are already at the meaning; you don’t have to reinterpret it. Whatever is supposed to be the nīta in the Buddha word, you have to take it ‘as such’. Now, it is different when it comes to neyyattha: in that case you have to understand it in the context of the Dhamma; you can’t take it as it appears.

“It is from this distinction that sammuti / paramattha and samvṛti/paramārtha (in Buddhist Sanskrit) have been developed. And also this is the reason I think the Nettippakaraṇa and Petakopadesa were composed, as guides to the commentator. Because it is the job of the commentator to explain a sutta, and how it should be explained is a problem. There are occasions when the Buddha used loka samaññā loka nirutti (worldly conventions, worldly parlance) as they are, according to the context. And on some occasions, especially to monks, he would say something very deep, which you have to take as it is.

“ The traditional interpretation, as you get in the commentaries, is very simple: it says neyyattha would be such suttas where the ordinary concepts of beings etc. come in, but nītattha is where you get anicca, dukkha, anattā . That’s a very simple definition of it.

“ Among the discourses, there are some, like the Bāhiya Sutta , where you don’t have to reintroduce anything in to it. But the people will have to introduce something to understand them – that’s the whole trouble. A case which came to my attention was that sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the case of Moliyaphagguna, where, step by step, the Buddha had to correct even the question of Moliyaphagguna. [1]

Ko nu kho bhante phusati? — it goes like that: ‘who, lord, does touch?’ [The Buddha replies:] ‘I don’t say like that. If I did, then you can ask me like that. The correct question should be: Kim paccayā? ’ “ So the paccaya terminology is actually the nītattha, if I may say so. But you can’t talk with paccaya always. In fact, I remember some people who tried to avoid the ‘I’ concept altogether in conversations, using such phrases as ‘this pañcakkhandha’. But that’s only artificial. “This I may say is a challenge to understand the discourses. Because you always have to ask yourself: what are the nītattha suttas and what are the neyyattha suttas? Without a criterion to decide, you are in a fix. But if you start on your own, I think you could take instances where the Buddha is talking about the four noble truths, as well as paticcasamuppāda.

“This is an instance where we see the difference between the grammar of nature and the grammar of language. You have to give way to the gram mar of language if you’re to talk. Because if you are to explain, you have to make com promises with language, as we say ‘it rains’ or ‘devo vas satu’. Otherwise there is something lacking. The subject, the object and then the adjectives and adverbs and the sentence structure – these are deciding our thinking. The logicians are bound by it. That is why the Dhamma is atakkā vacara . That again is a challenge: what is meant by atakkā vacara?

“Logic has to distinguish one from the other. It is again a logical question when they ask: saññā and vedanā – are they completely different, or are they the same thing? That is the way logic would put it. There’s no half way between. Even that they tried to cover: I’m not very familiar with logic but what is already apparent in the canon is the tetralemma. The question of contradiction comes in: either it has to be this or the other. But there are these grey areas. “ All these problems come up because, first of all, we break reality – the flux of life – into pieces. We differentiate between a ‘thing’ and its colour: the colour is an adjective; the object is something else. So we create problems for ourselves. But then the Buddha had to convey a message – and in fact I make it a point to say, why the Buddha hesitated to teach was not out of jealousy or any other reason, but the problem was how to present this doctrine in an intelligible way to people. I may say that only the Buddha had that ability. Though it is again an unsolved problem, about the Pacceka Buddhas, it seems, if ever they remain silent, hence called ‘silent’ Buddhas, it is because they could not, unlike the Buddha, bring these two truths in to alignment.

“Already in the Kalakārāma Sutta you see how deep the problem is. But the Buddha could explain it suffi ciently for one to start practicing. And once you start practicing, then, as in the Cūlahatthipadopama Sutta, you are walking the Dhamma way, and you’ll realize by yourself. You go and see. Now, even though the Dhamma says ehipassika, we don’t want to go; we want to stay where we are and go through logic to understand the Dhamma. That is the problem with the scholars. “The Buddha’s Dhamma was an invitation. If you start the practice, the rest you will know by yourself. The map can’t be the same as the journey. No map is complete by itself; it may use colours and signs etc. but it is never complete. So is the Dhamma. Much of it, the Buddha left unexplained. That is probably why the people are now complaining that there is no methodology here and that something is lacking in the Dhamma. But you can’t be spoon-fed.

“It is because the Buddha has given sufficient advice that some could realize even by just listening. They didn’t merely listen: they listened with rapt attention. Like in Ven. Bāhiya’s case, they were not leading idle lives. Their play thing was jhāna. So it was easy for the Buddha to make them understand, as they had a sharp receptive apparatus. They only needed saddhā . Without saddhā, with logic if you’re hoping to understand, you’re gravely mistaken.

“So now, getting down to the type of suttas we have, at a glance, perhaps, Bāhiya sutta is a clear cut case, although those who want something objective, with a substantialist view, would find something lacking there. And also, for instance, when the Buddha answered the accusations of the Brahmins, and when we come to the ten indeterminate points, that perhaps is something like nītattha. The Buddha is put to that point where He can’t agree any longer to the convention. Because He used conventional words, people made it an excuse to glean advantage from it. That is the case with Nibbāna: the fire going out.

“If the fire ‘goes out’ some think you should be able to go and locate where it is. Some scholars in the West also follow the same Hindu way where they think when the fire goes out it stays in some ineffable state. When it comes to such points of absurdity the Buddha had to correct them. Otherwise the Buddha would, for all practical purposes, use the convention. Even to Bāhiya He said ‘This is our pinḍapāta time’, as if there’s some strict time for pinḍapāta . As if His whole life is for pinḍapāta. ‘We have to go on pinḍapāta, don’t come and question us’! But when it comes to the Dhamma: ‘in the seen, just the seen, in the heard, just the heard.’ When Bāhiya could master and muster sufficient Samādhi he had built up in the past, when he was sufficiently calmed down, then the Buddha gave the real thing. “There are also other occasions, for instance in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, where you find the verses: Ahaṃ vadā mī ti pi so vadeyya Mama ṃ vadantī ti pi so vadeyya, Loke samañña ṃ kusalo vid itvā Vohāra mat tena so vohareyyā’ti. [ SN 1.25]

That monk still might use such words as “I,“ Still per chance might say: “They call this mine.“ Well aware of common worldly speech, He would speak conforming to such use. “So every time the Buddha says ‘I’m going’ and so on, you should not think that He’s contradicted His own anattā doctrine. “Nītattha could also be in such cases like in the Alagaddūpama Sutta where the brahmins are repremanded for false accusations. The Buddha comes out with the statement: Pubbe c’āha ṃ bhikkhave etarahi ca dukkhañceva paññāpemi dukkhassa ca nirodhaṃ – that is the best criterion to decide on which side you are. ‘All for merely and now, I merely say that there is suffering’ – there is no one suffering, whether it’s a puggala or person or individual – all this rot comes in because of not knowing that the Buddha’s message is also part and parcel of language.

“For all practical purposes, the Buddha’s words are enough. But for those who do not practice, but who are armchair critics, there is so much contradiction in the Buddha’s words. Sometimes He says there is dukkha only, and sometimes He says you are suffering. This is also the reason why there is such a mess in the interpretations of the kamma doctrine also. In sammādiṭṭhi, we may say there’s the ‘lower’ sammādi ṭṭhi and the ‘higher’ sammādiṭṭhi . [2] The dasa-vatthuka sammādiṭṭhi is kammassakatā . When a person takes kamma as his own, he’s bound by it. You are bound by your own grasping. Then it’s a fact that you’re going to these various realms etc.: dependent on avijjā there is saṅkhāra. Such people have to be judged by their own standards.

“By the way, I may also say, now that we are on the point: if you’re translating the Dhammapada, it is wrong according to my understanding to translate the attavagga as the chapter on Self. It should be oneself. Otherwise, as Radhakrishnan finds it, you are on the side of attā. But it is ‘one self’: reflexive. If you understand that as self there’s a contradiction between attāhi attano natthi and attāhi attano natho. But these are just loke samaññā.

“ Similarly in the Poṭṭhapāda Sutta, now and then the Buddha had to come out, especially in the last words of the sutta – they are very powerful: imā kho citta loka samaññā... yāhi tathā gato voharati, aparā masa ṃ (“Citta, these are the world’s designations, the world’s expressions, the world’s ways of speaking, the world’s descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them.”) I remember reading The Meaning of Meaning by Ogden and Richards; there they quoted from the Poṭṭhap āda Sutta. They understood that there’s something very deep in that simile about milk, curd, butter etc. Though they didn’ t get everything, they knew the Buddha was nearer the truth about semantics. “But now we think that where there’s a word there should be some thing. It’s the thing that’s causing all the trouble.

There’s just a flux of life, a functioning, but no agent in it. But the language requires both. That is why we have to say ‘it rains’, leaving the room for someone to ask ‘what is this ‘it’?’. The fire goes out: where has it ‘gone’? The Buddha from time to time had to show the absurdity of such questions. In such contexts you come across the nītattha.”


1. SN 12.12 (excerpt below)

2. “And what is right view? Right view, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in the acquisitions; and there is noble right view, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.” [MN 117]


“Who, now, Lord, exercises contact?” “Not a fit question”, said the Exalted One. “I am not saying (some one) exercises contact. If I were saying so, the question would be a fit one. But I am not saying so. And I not saying so, if any one were to ask this: ‘Conditioned, now, by what, Lord, is contact?’, this were a fit question. And the fit answer there, would be: ‘Conditioned by the six fold sense- phere, is contact, conditioned by contact is feeling’.“ [...] – Translation by Bhante Ñāṇananda: Saṃyutta Nikāya – An Anthology

See also