These days, the Buddhist Path is replete with teachers. This, of course, is a good thing for there will most likely be a teacher to suit all preferences, all branches (Zen, Theravada, Tibetan, etc.), all needs. The downside is that you do have to conduct a thorough search and you do have to choose him, her, or those you feel are right for you—that, in essence, speak to your heart.
I have done my fair share of searching—reading, listening, re-reading, re-listening, video-viewing, and then reading again, and after nearly a decade of this, I have arrived at those I believe I will go the distance with.
The Greatest Teacher
The greatest teacher of all is, of course, Gautama Siddhattha, the historical Buddha, and the teachings that have come down from him to us in the Pali Canon.
Pali Canon Veracity
As an aside, considering that for the first five hundred or so years after the death of the historical Buddha, his teachings were handed down verbally from one generation of Buddhist monks to the next, how much of today’s Pali Canon reflect the actual words of Gautama? Five centuries leaves ample room and opportunity to either alter (by misremembering) or embellish (by clarification and elaboration) what was actually said, and I have definitely come across passages in the Pali Canon that I believe never crossed the Buddha’s lips.
My guess—and this is my gut talking—is that perhaps twenty-five percent of what is written in the Pali Canon is unadulterated Gautama, that another fifty percent is within spitting distance, and that a final twenty-five percent is sheer fantasy. Though, as I said, this is sheer gut feeling. If I am wrong, I hope I am wrong in the direction of underestimating the percentage of actual Gautama.
That said, most of what I read in the Pali Canon does ring true, even what I believe falls in the twenty-five percent fantasy bracket: all true in spirit, and all conveying valuable lessons.
So, considering Gautama Siddhattha my main teacher, I find that I return, time and again, to four principal, more current teachers:
- Ajahn Brahm – Meditation/Inspiration
- Ayya Khema — Meditation/Inspiration
- Bhikkhu Bodhi — Translation/Exposition
- Bhikkhu Analayo — Scholarship/Exposition
I believe that by Right Concentration (as the final step of the Noble Eightfold Path) the Buddha meant the Jhānas—I have now read both the Digha Nikaya and the Majjhima Nikaya (and I am about a third through the Samyutta Nikaya), and the Jhānas are mentioned and discussed and stressed often enough as the vehicle to prepare the mind for insight to leave room for little doubt: the Jhānas constitute right concentration.
My meditative goal, then, is to achieve true Samādhi (which I view as the 4th Jhāna or better) and to then proceed with Vipassanā—principally Satipatthāna—until I reach, experience and own Nibbāna. No small task, I know, but my goal nonetheless.
How best to achieve Jhāna? And how to even define Jhāna in this day of varying opinions on the matter. My initial search led me to Ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing, and I soon settled on it as my meditative vehicle.
I studied several books on this, starting out with Larry Rosenberg’s Breath by Breath, a very informative and well-written manual. I read it at least twice, and found it very helpful.
My second book on the subject was Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s Mindfulness with Breathing, another great introduction to Ānāpānasati. It, too, has seen me visit two or three times, always gaining much from each visit.
I proceeded with Stephen Snyder’s and Tina Rasmussen’s excellent overview Practicing the Jhānas, which, again, was very helpful if a little daunting.
With these books under my belt (while now practicing Ānāpānasati each early morning and each evening), I turned to Richard Shankman’s The Experience of Samādhi, which is a great survey of various approaches to the Jhānas including extensive interviews with eight principal Jhāna teachers. I have read this book two or more times as well, and each time it rings true and imparts valuable lessons.
I have also read several of Henepola Gunaratana’s (aka Bhante Gunaratana or simply Bhante G) “In Plain English” books, and his great treatise on Jhāna (which I found the most helpful of his books), The Path of Serenity and Insight.
I then turned to who has now come to be my main meditation teacher, Ajahn Brahm. I first read an e-book of his called The Jhānas, Enlightenment through Proper Meditation. Ajahn Brahm is here named Ajahn Brahmavamso (his “full” name, I believe). This is a book that not only tells it like it is—the way Brahm sees it, and which I agree with—but which also is very, very inspirational. It holds out hope, and truckloads of it.
I followed this book up with Ajahn Brahm’s Mindfulness, Bliss, And Beyond, and I don’t think I can praise this book enough. It is a logical, practical, taking-you-by-the-hand manual, that not only teaches you the Jhānas but also correlates (the best way of any correlation that I have encountered) the Jhānas and Ānāpānasati—for me an invaluable teaching. While I have also read his Dhamma Talk books, I find Mindfulness, Bliss, And Beyond invaluable, and I have returned to it often.
German-born Ayya Khema was the first Western woman to become a Theravada Buddhist nun (she was ordained in Sri Lanka in 1979). I wish I could have met this woman, and have had some of her amazing certainty rub off on me—though her books do an amazing job of such rubbing.
She has written a handful of books on Buddhism, and here I’ll mention those that I’ve bought and read: Come And See For Yourself; Who Is My Self?; Be An Island; Being Nobody Going Nowhere; Visible Here and Now; and Know Where You’re Going (initially published as When The Iron Eagle Flies).
Ayya Khema’s books are basically many of her excellent Dhamma Talks in writing. Conversational in nature, and extremely insightful, she tells it like she sees it and she has very, very good eyes. Reading her is always inspirational. You always put her books down more awake than you were when picking it up.
Two books in particular, Who Is My Self?, and Know Where You’re Going focus on meditative practice, and are brimful and alive with advice based on Ayya Khema’s personal meditative experience. She does not steer you wrong, and hearing her tell it you know that you can follow in her footsteps.
This leads me to another aside. How many retreats have I done? Answer: None. Next question: Why not? And here’s the answer to that:
I have practiced Buddhist Meditation now for close to a decade, and during this time location has had some bearing on this—just no retreats within practical distance. Financial concerns also play a part, but much more than this: I truly and honestly believe that I can, actually and fully, reach final enlightenment, Nibbāna, as a lay Buddhist practicing on his own.
In fact, one goal of my practice is to prove that this approach is not only doable but feasible. The detailed ins and outs of my reasoning on this must be the subject of another musing, but let me just say this: The entire world (some 7.25 billion of us by now—9 billion by 2050, some say) cannot all attend repeated retreats, so there simply has to be a way to successfully schedule and practice Buddhist meditation in your home or we are not, to put it plainly, ever going to Nibbāna this planet. As I said, I wish to prove this approach workable.
When it comes to translating ancient Pali, a Sanskrit derivative apparently spoken at the time of Gautama Siddhattha—though some scholars believe the Buddha did not speak Pali but Magadhi. Now, whether or not the Buddha did or did not speak Pali is moot, what matters is that by the time his teachings were put down in writing whey were recorded in Pali, so Pali it is that one must decode into English.
One odd thing about Pali is that the Theravada Buddhist Canon is the only place where you’ll find Pali today, almost as if it was designed for the teachings.
Obviously, with a Language going on 2,500 years, there are no reliable dictionaries, and much of such translation efforts must, by necessity, fall back on either detective work (as in comparing a Chinese version of the same teaching and extrapolate or clarify from it what is said in the Pali version) or interpretation based on the translator’s understanding of Pali and his or her familiarity with the teachings.
And when it comes to translation I can think of no better choices than Bhikkhu Bodhi.
Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American monk who spent a considerable time in Sri Lanka studying Pali and translating the Canon into English. At this point Bodhi has not only updated Maurice Walshe’s translation of the Digha Nikaya, but he has also translated afresh both the Samyutta Nikaya and Anguttara Nikayas, no small feat.
Bodhi is very conscientious and will go to almost any length to ensure that the reader can grasp the writings, this by a liberal supply of footnotes that often elaborate on the choices he made and that often compares his translation to those of others.
He is an amazing scholar with a crystal clear grasp of both Pali and the teachings. I believe one can read the Pali Canon in his English translation with great confidence that you have arrived as close to the original teachings of Gautama Siddhattha as you can.
Bodhi has also translated a Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, and has compiled an Anthology of the Buddha’s Discourses called In The Buddha’s Words, a wonderful book based on the Pali Canon but organized around Buddhism’s main topics. I highly recommend this book as a primer for anyone interested in the original teachings.
Bodhi has also written The Noble Eightfold Path, a book about the Buddhists basics (if you forgive the term).
Down the centuries, many a wise practitioner have sought to clarify and elaborate upon the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali Suttas, which work has been preserved in the classical commentaries.
Most ancient commentaries are quite brilliant and are treated almost as reverently as the Canon itself by many practicing Buddhists.
More recent and current exposition and elaboration may not be regarded as reverently as that of the ancients, but my feeling is that as a matter of practical usefulness for the 21st century Buddhist, a more modern view of the teachings and its applicability has a definite role to play in helping us along the path.
When it comes to current scholarship and exposition, no one (in my view) can match the brilliance of Bhikkhu Analayo.
Analayo is a German monk who is treading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s footsteps and who has already become a major translator force in his own right; both Pali to English and Pali to German. But more than a translator, Analayo is undertaking amazingly detailed studies of comparative texts (Pali vs. Chinese vs. Sanskrit) to determine authenticity and accuracy of the teachings.
To date, Analayo has written two excellent books exploring Satipatthāna (The Four Foundations of Mindfulness), Satipatthāna: The Direct Path to Realization and Perspectives on Satipatthāna. I have read (and am currently re-reading) The Direct Path and found it not only illuminating, but indispensable. Yes, that is a strong word, but I stand by it.
He has also written Excursions into the Thought World of the Pali Discourses, a book analyzing—in amazing and illuminating depth—many of the key words and concepts found in the Canon, such as Craving, Grasping, Passion, Ill-Will, Volitional Formations, etc. This book, in my view, is a bordering on critical for anyone interested in the Theravada tradition, its writings and meanings.
Also, just off the presses—currently available on Kindle, and soon to be published in paper—Compassion and Emptiness In Early Buddhist Meditation. I have acquired, but not yet read this book. It does, however, address two key issues for any branch of Buddhism, and I look forward to being amazed yet again by this brilliant scholar.
Aside from these books, several additional Analayo writings are available online, as PDF documents, from the University of Hamburg. Here is the link:
There is no denigration intended here by the term “secondary,” I just mean to say that these are teachers I turn to occasionally and more for inspiration than immediate guidance.
- Tenzin Palmo — Tibetan/Mahayana
- B. Alan Wallace — Tibetan/Mahayana
- Shaila Catherine — Meditation/Inspiration
- Nyanaponika Thera — Inspiration/Guidance
A Tibetan/Mahayana view
Although I am a practicing Theravada Buddhist, I know that all branches of Buddhism trace back to Gautama Siddhattha, albeit by different routes and adventures.
When I set out on my late-in-life Buddhist Path, one of my decisions was to find and study the teachings most likely to have come directly from the Buddha himself, and that, as I mentioned above, led me to the Pali Canon and Theravada Buddhism.
Later branches of Buddhism—Mahayana and its Tibetan offspring—to me, no matter how brilliant, are one (or two or three) steps removed from the original and will, to some extent or another, be adulterated by views and opinions of the many voiced who wanted to be heard along the way.
The Avatamsaka Sutra, for example, was written about 500 years after the Buddha’s death and in its Chinese translation consists of 700,000 characters and which in its English translation is 1,600 pages long. This, simply put, is not the Buddha’s words, it is a compilation of many, many views and opinions which may, or may not, have bearing on Path progress.
That said, however, much in the Mahayana tradition is fantastically valuable—if you have the time, and inclination, to dig widely and deeply.
In my studies I have come across two scholars who in some way have done that for me and now relate what they have found.
Shaila Catherine quoted Tenzin Palo in her Focused and Fearless, and this quote struck me as so apt, and so insightful and true that I had to look her up. And looked her up I did.
Turns out, Tenzin Palmo had spent twelve years in solitary retreat in a Himalayan cave at 13,000 feet—enough to convince anyone, even the most inveterate skeptic, that here was someone who took her meditation practice seriously.
Vicki Mackenzie wrote a wonderful book—Cave in the Snow—about Palmo’s solitary retreat, well worth reading; it is an amazing biography of an amazing woman.
Palmo herself has written two books (that I could find): Into the Heart of Life, and Reflections On A Mountain Lake. As I write this, I have just finished Into the Heart of Life, and I am half-way through Reflections On A Mountain Lake.
How, you might wonder, if I have only just recently began to read and study Palmo, would I consider her one of my four principal teachers? It is a good question, and it deserves a good answer:
Rarely have I come across anyone with such a beautiful grasp of the teachings and with such a refreshing and inspiring way of conveying what she has experienced and what she knows.
Reading Palmo is like drinking something very refreshing and head-clearing. She is an amazing spiritual guide, and I will return to her writings time and again, of this I am sure.
B. Alan Wallace
I came across B. Alan Wallace in the suggested readings listed by Bhante G in his Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English. The book he suggested was Wallace’s The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind. I bought it and read it and proceeded to be nicely blown away by it.
Wallace is extremely bright and equally knowledgeable. He writes from a Tibetan standpoint (as does Tenzin Palmo), but he has also extensively studied the Pali Canon and practiced with Theravada Teachers. He, in other words, brings a lot to the table. And he brings it brilliantly.
If you are interested in the relationships between Religion (and Buddhism in particular), Science, and Philosophy, Wallace is your man. He has written what must be a dozen or so well-researched and crisply authored books on these subjects and relationships, and I have read many of them—coming away from each catching my breath. He can be awe-inspiring, to put it mildly.
Wallace has also translated many Tibetan tracts on the practice, several of which I have read and found very helpful. His Tibetan view not so much challenges my own as complements it. I’d be hard pressed to recommend Wallace more than I do.
Catherine has written two very good books.
Firstly, Focused and Fearless—A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity. As the title hints, this is more of a guide than a practice manual; it is, as I think of it, a wonderful map of the territory.
Here second book, Wisdom Wide and Deep—A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhāna and Vipassanā, on the other hand, is a meditation manual.
Whereas Ajahn Brahm’s style and approach is light and almost jovial at times (without in any way spoiling the thread of his teaching), Shaila Catherine approaches her teaching with unmistakable sincerity and clarity. Reading her is like listening to clear water dripping in a vast cave: clean, fine echoes of meaning in almost all she writes.
One reflection about Wisdom Wide and Deep, however: While I found her early chapters, those that contain her views and instructions on the Jhānas, both illuminating and helpful, I did, however, find her Abhidhamma approach that followed overkill. Perhaps it is the right thing for many a professional meditator, but for me, a lay (if dedicated) practitioner, well, I found it a bit overwhelming, to be honest.
This is not to say that the books mentioned so far are not inspirational and that they do not give guidance, but here I want to introduce two Theravada scholars and teachers that both struck a particularly resonant chord with me. Unfortunately, neither Nyanaponika Thera (who died in 1994) nor Ayya Khema (who died in 1997) is with us today.
German-born Nyanaponika Thera was a distinguished member of the Theravada monastic order for over fifty years and in his numerous writings he expounded the Buddhist vision with extraordinary clarity and depth, presenting it as the most viable solution to the crisis and confusion faced by humankind today.
I read his the Vision of Dhamma early on in my studies, and it was as if he spoke directly to me with a clarity that was almost frightening. The power of his conviction (which power he shares with Ayya Khema) was a force that brooked little doubt, especially since I agreed with his views with all my heart. In this book he analyzes and explains subjects like The Power of Mindfulness, The Roots of Good and Evil, and Seeing Things as They Are. Once I put this book down I knew I had chosen the right path.
His The Heart of Buddhist Meditation is by many considered the book that introduced Vipassanā and mindfulness to the West. It really is a wonderful book that thoroughly introduces you to Satipatthāna.
He also wrote an amazing tract called Abhidhamma Studies which is a great argument for the Abhidhamma—the intricate explication of Buddhist philosophy that has come down to us along with the rest of the Pali Canon.
I am convinced that the Buddhist path, if ethically walked, can and will lead to full liberation. Of this I have no doubt. Yes, you have to do the walking yourself—no one can walk it for you and then hand you enlightenment on a silver plate—but a good teacher will point the way, and re-point the way, and re-point the way until you reach the end.
These are the teachers whose pointings I turn to time and again.