The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) by Buddhaghosa Mahathera translated by Ven. Ñanamoli Thera
Very much like the
Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas this classic from about 500 CE
synthesizes the entire teaching of the Tipitaka. A detailed work of great
complexity, suitable for more advanced study. Bibliography, introduction, notes,
index, Pali-English glossary, tables. This book is from
BPS Pariyatti Editions of Seattle, which co-publishes classic and
contemporary titles from the Buddhist Publication Society of Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Visuddhimagga translated by C.A.F.Rhys Davids (publisher link) (Pali Text Society) is the initial translation into English and still retains some value. However the flowing and incisive translations of Ñanamoli Thera makes his monumental work the preferred volume for initial study.
The most esteemed commentary in all of Pali literature,
The Path of Purification, or Visuddhimagga is a systematic
examination and condensation of Buddhist doctrine and meditation technique. The
various teachings of the Buddha, found throughout the Pali Canon, are organized
in a clear, comprehensive path leading to the final goal, nibbana, the state of
complete purification. In the course of his treatise Buddhaghosa gives full and
detailed instructions on the forty subjects of meditation aimed at
concentration, an elaborate account of the Buddhist Abhidhamma philosophy, and
explicit descriptions of the stages of insight culminating in final liberation.
The author, Bhadantacaryia Buddhaghosa, composed the The Path of Purification in the early part of the 5th century CE. The India-born monk-scholar travelled to Sri Lanka to translate into Pali the extensive Sinhalese commentaries preserved there. His crystallization of the entire Pali Canon reinvigorated Theravada Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka. It still shines as clearly today, in this brilliant 1956 translation by the British-born monk, Bhikkhu Nanamoli that in itself is considered an outstanding achievement of Pali scholarship of the 20th century.
The Path of Purification is perhaps unique in the literature of the world It systematically summarizes and interprets the teaching of the Buddha contained in the Pali Tipitaka, which is now recognized in Europe as the oldest and most authentic record of the Buddha's words. As the principal noncanonical authority of the Theravada, it forms the hub of a complete and coherent method of exegesis of the Tipitaka, using the `Abhidhamma method' as it is called. And it sets out detailed practical instructions for developing purification.
The Path of Purification is probably best regarded as a detailed manual for meditation masters, and as a work of reference. As to its rather intricate construction, the List of Contents is given rather fully in order to serve as a guide to the often complicated form of the chapters and to the work as a whole. In addition, the following considerations may be noted.
The first two chapters deal with virtue as the practice of restraint, or withdrawal, and need present no difficulties. It can be remarked here, though, that when the Buddhist ascetic goes into seclusion (restrains the sense doors), it would be incorrect to say of him that he `leaves the world'; for where a man is, there is his world (loka), as appears in the discourse quoted in Chapter VII, §36 (cf. also S.iv, 116 as well as many other suttas on the same subject). So when he retreats from the clamor of society to the woods and rocks, he takes his world with him, as though withdrawing to his laboratory, in other the better to analyze it.
Chapters. III to XI describe the process of concentration and give directions for attaining it by means of a choice of forty meditation subjects for developing concentration. The account of each single meditation subject as given here is incomplete unless taken in conjunction with the whole of Part III (Understanding), which applies to all. Concentration is training in intensity and depth of focus and in single‑mindedness. While Buddhism makes no exclusive claim to teach jhana concentration (samatha = samddhi), it does claim that the development of insight (vipassana) culminating in penetration of the Four Noble Truths is peculiar to it. The two have to be coupled together in order to attain the truths'° and the end of suffering. Insight is initially training to see experience as it occurs, without misperception, invalid assumptions or wrong inferences.
Chapters. XII and XIII describe the rewards of concentration fully developed without insight.
Chapters. MV to XVII on understanding are entirely theoretical. Experience in general is dissected, and the separated components are described and grouped in several alternative patterns in Chapterss. XV to XVI, § 1‑12. The rest of Chapter. XVI expounds the Four Noble Truths, the center of the Buddha's teaching. After that, dependent origination, or the structure of conditionality, is dealt with in its aspect of arising, or the process of being (Ch. XVII; as cessation, or nibbana, it is dealt with separately in Chapters. XVI and XIX). The formula of dependent origination in its varying modes describes the working economics of the first two truths (suffering as outcome of craving, and craving itself‑see also Ch. XVH, n.48). Without an understanding of conditionality the Buddha's teaching cannot be grasped: 'He who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma' (M1,191), though not all details in this work are always necessary. Since the detailed part of this chapter is very elaborate (§58272), a first reading confined to §1‑6, §20‑57, and §273‑314, might help to avoid losing the thread. These four chapters are 'theoretical' because they contain in detailed form what needs to be learnt, if only in outline, as 'book learning' (sotavadhana‑fana). They furnish techniques for describing the total experience and the experienceable rather as the branches of arithmetic and double‑entry book‑keeping are to be learnt as techniques for keeping accurate business accounts.
Chapters. XVIII to IX, on the contrary, are practical and give instructions for applying the book‑knowledge learnt from Chapters. XV to XVII by analysing in its terms the meditator's individual experience, dealing also with what may be expected to happen in the course of development. Chapter. XVIII as 'defining of mentality‑materiality' (first application of Chapters. XV to XVI) and Chapter. XIX as 'discerning conditions' (first application of Chapter. XVII) are preparatory to insight proper, which begins in Ch. XX with contemplation of rise and fall. After this, progress continues through the 'eight knowledges' with successive clarification‑clarification of view of the object and consequent alterations of subjective attitude towards it‑till a point, called 'conformity knowledge', is reached which, through one of the `three gateways to liberation', heralds the attainment of the first supramundane path.
In Chapter XXII, the attainment of the four successive supramundane paths (or successive stages in realization) is described, with the first of which nibbana (extinction of the craving which originates suffering) is 'seen' for the first time, having till then been only intellectually conceived. At that moment suffering as a noble truth is fully understood, craving, its origin, is abandoned, suffering's cessation is realized, and the way to its cessation is developed.' The three remaining paths develop further and complete that vision.
Finally Chapter. XXIII, as the counterpart of Chapters. XII and XIII, describes the benefits of understanding. The description of nibbana is given at Ch. VIII, §245ff., and a discussion of it at Chapter. XVI, §66ff.
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