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Buddhadharma : Spring 2017
44 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 1 7 Paticcasamuppada from His Own Lips, a volume that allows one to read the wonderful variety of perspectives and details on dependent co-arising in its own terms, largely free of later interpretive assumptions and biases. In translating the Pali into Thai, Ajahn Buddhadasa left key terms in Pali rather than rendering them with an interpreta- tive twist. For example, consciousness (viññana) remains just consciousness and is not twisted into “relinking consciousness,” a term the Buddha him- self never used. Also, birth is just birth (jati) and need not be assumed to mean “rebirth”; after all, there is no “re-” in jati. If a sutta passage was some- what ambiguous, he left it to the reader to explore the ambiguity. Choosing to put the orthodox Theravada com- mentaries back in their rightful place—secondary to the Pali suttas, yet potentially helpful in understand- ing the originals—left him open to constant sniping from those who had been raised on and never ques- tioned the commentarial system. The commentar- ies had come to be accepted as the Buddha’s word rather than remembered as derived from the origi- nal teachings. In response to those who felt threat- ened by his approach, Ajahn Buddhadasa insisted he was hewing to the Buddha’s intent—liberation from dukkha. Certain writers who adhere to the commentarial understanding of dependent co-arising, which spans at least three physical lives, often warn and scold those who do not follow their beliefs. While the bet- ter scholars among them have valid points that seri- ous students of Buddhism should not ignore, there is a tendency among such scholars to over-simplify, if not flatly misunderstand, critiques of their beliefs. To imply, as has happened, that thoughtful teachers such as Ajahn Buddhadasa are amoral, irresponsi- ble, or heretical smacks of the authoritarianism that often goes with scholarly hubris and patriarchal positions. Rather than dogmas and defenses of the faith, Ajahn Buddhadasa advocated reasoned debate and honest disagreement with a spirit that never forgets that we are aiming for the end of suf- fering as soon as possible. Perhaps none of us truly and fully understand dependent co-arising and can enjoy exploring it for the rest of our lives, as the Buddha appeared to have done. Careful, unbiased translations of the relevant suttas are crucial here. Exponents of the “the three lifetimes interpreta- tion,” which insists that dependent co-arising must be understood in terms of past, present, and future lives, assert that it is consistent with anatta or not- self. Ajahn Buddhadasa found their explanations unconvincing, as they have not escaped the implica- tions of something that remains the same as it car- ries over from one life to the next. This vehicle for karmic results smells rather like a self (atta)—that is, an individual, separate, and lasting entity. Such presentations fail to explain, although they claim to, how karma works over lifetimes without imply- ing such an entity. In Ajahn Buddhadasa’s view, the karma and rebirth emphasizing approach sacrifices the liberating value of a not-self understanding of dependent co-arising for a moral version of depen- dent co-arising. It may conventionally be correct from an ethical perspective, and therefore may be of value, but it misses out from an ultimate perspec- tive. Ajahn Buddhadasa found this unfortunate. There is no doubt that passages that describe “rebirth” appear in the suttas. What are we to make of them? Do we take them to be literally, materially true? If so, how do we deal with the fact that they seem to contradict the notion of not-self? Do we fudge one to protect the other? Are the suttas any less contradictory when we read them less literally? Do suttas present ultimate truth or conventional truth? Might there be value in understanding depen- dent co-arising in a variety of ways, wherein no single way of understanding it, even Ajahn Buddha- dasa’s, is the sole and whole truth? Ajahn Buddhadasa is not the only intelligent, thoughtful student of buddhadhamma to have SaNTikaRo was a student and translator of ajahn Buddhadasa, living many years as a monk in Thailand. he now teaches at Liberation Park in Wisconsin.