by Craig Shoemake
Clearing the Path (1960-1965) by Ñāṇavīra Thera. Path Press Publications 2010, 621 pages.
How does one review a book that, arguably, is the most influential book in your life? Well, I’ll start by directing readers to my bio of Ñāṇavīra. This, better than anything I could say in this review, will prep you for the work itself. But of course, a few words on that are presently in order…
I don’t actually recall how/when I first encountered Ñāṇavīra’s writings. So, I can’t say how they struck me at the time. But I can say that for a while–a good many years, in fact–they basically defined the Buddha’s teaching for me. What purpose, exactly, did these amazing and unique documents fulfill in my thinking?
First, they directed me to the suttas and away from that which would interpret them for me (think the Commentaries) or pretend to supersede them (the later schools, Mahayana, etc). And while my range in Buddhism has broadened considerably since then, I still think that if your interest is to know what the historical Buddha said this is a healthy attitude to have. If it’s just any kind of spiritual thought or practice you’re after, there are a great many out there to satisfy you, but if your intention is to get to know Shakyamuni Buddha, the Pali canon (but not all of it!) is where you’ve got to go. All others are pretenders and wannabes.
So Ñāṇavīra pointed me to the original texts. But he also, to my mind, illuminated them like nobody else ever has. In his writings there is a combination of integrity, clarity, rigor and exactness that is rarely found in spiritual writing, even the best. The man had a first rate head on his shoulders, a wry wit, and the writerly chops to get it all across in the best style possible. Not to mention the fact that he wrote from actual meditative attainment (i.e. sotapatti, meaning stream entry) and so knew first hand something of the Buddha’s teaching and how the texts related to that attainment.
Another notable aspect of Ñāṇavīra’s writings is his relating of the Buddhist suttas to twentieth century European philosophy—specifically existentialism and phenomenology. This is not to say he thought Sartre & Co had somehow discovered the Dhamma on their own, but rather he noted that their perspective on the human situation mirrored the Buddha’s own position to an uncanny degree and so, for many Westerners at least, might offer a door in to the Stream. I think there is little to argue about in this regard–that is, the case, I’d say, is pretty well proven. So those who come to the Buddha’s teaching from an existentialist or phenomenological position might find more that is familiar than they would expect. Ñāṇavīra pointed this out to me, and through this understanding I found myself adopting a different attitude with a consequently greater appreciation for the existentialists.Beyond mere intellectual illumination though there is also Ñāṇavīra’s wrestling with questions of life and death. He lived, for the better part of a decade, with ill health, chronic discomfort, and the prospect that his solitary enterprise as a Buddhist monk might be go down to defeat on account of intestinal parasites. As a result, his writings discuss with startling matter-of-factness the possibility of his death by suicide on this account, and what such a death might mean within the context of Buddhadhamma. As one reads, the omnipresent possibility—indeed, inevitability—of his end weighs in the background, lending a degree of drama.But what about the contents? What comprises this unique text? Clearing the Path has been described as a “workbook,” and it is certainly is that. You should know though that it is not a single piece, but consists of one major original work—Notes on Dhamma, written to illuminate certain critical terms in the suttas–and a slew of letters to correspondents who came to Ñāṇavīra with questions about life, the Dhamma, and the meaning of it all. One piece, entitled Fundamental Structure, is rather forbidding and opaque–something like a mathematical proof. Readers are advised to leave it for last and not to get their hopes up too high as for understanding it; I confess I grasped portions, but large swathes escaped me.
Which leads me to my one cautionary note: this book is for advanced Dhamma students only. People unfamiliar with basic Pali terminology and/or Buddhist thought will be hopelessly lost. I should also add it is not, primarily, a meditation manual; its principle thrust is the philosophical under girdings of the the historical Buddha’s thought as it is found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school. If you’re looking for some other Buddhist school, this will not be your cup of tea.
I leave you with a few snippets–mere appetizers–of writing from the sage of Bundala:
Existential philosophies, then, insist upon asking questions about self and the world, taking care at the same time to insist that they are unanswerable. Beyond this point of frustration these philosophies cannot go. The Buddha, too, insists that questions about self and the world are unanswerable, either by refusing to answer them or by indicating that no statement about self and the world can be justified. But—and here is the vital difference—the Buddha can and does go beyond this point: not, to be sure, by answering the unanswerable, but by showing the way leading to the final cessation of all questions about self and the world. Let there be no mistake in the matter: the existential philosophies are not a substitute for the Buddha’s Teaching—for which, indeed, there can be no substitute. The questions that they persist in asking are the questions of a puthujjana, of a “commoner,” and though they see that they are unanswerable they have no alternative but to go on asking them; for the tacit assumption upon which all these philosophies rest is that the questions are valid. They are faced with an ambiguity that they cannot resolve. The Buddha, on the other hand, sees that the questions are not valid and that to ask them is to make the mistake of assuming that they are. One who has understood the Buddha’s Teaching no longer asks these questions; he is ariya, “noble,” and no more a puthujjana, and he is beyond the range of the existential philosophies; but he would never have reached the point of listening to the Buddha’s Teaching had he not first been disquieted by existential questions about himself and the world (from the Preface).
At the time I read [Joyce's Ulysses]—when I was about twenty—I had already suspected (from my reading of Huxley and others) that there is no point in life, but this was still all rather abstract and theoretical. But Ulysses gets down to details, and I found I recognized myself, mutatis mutandis, in the futile occupations that fill the days of Joyce’s characters. And so I came to understand that all our actions, from the most deliberate to the most thoughtless, and without exception, are determined by present pleasure and present pain. Even what we pompously call our “duty” is included in this law—if we do our duty, that is only because we should feel uncomfortable if we neglected it, and we seek to avoid discomfort. Even the wise man, who renounces a present pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure in the future, obeys this law—he enjoys the present pleasure of knowing (or believing) that he is providing for his future pleasure, whereas the foolish man, preferring the present pleasure to his future pleasure, is perpetually gnawed with apprehension about his future. And when I had understood this, the Buddha’s statement, “Both now and formerly, monks, it is just suffering that I make known and the ceasing of suffering” (M.22:38), came to seem (when eventually I heard it) the most obvious thing in the world—“What else,” I exclaimed, “could the Buddha possibly teach?” (pp. 404-5).
Suffering (dukkha) is the key to the whole of the Buddha’s Teaching, and any interpretation that leaves suffering out of account (or adds it, perhaps, only as an afterthought) is at once suspect. The point is, that suffering has nothing to do with a tree’s self-identity (or supposed lack of self-identity): what it does have to do with is my “self” as subject (I, ego), which is quite another matter… As I point out…, “With the question of a thing’s self-identity (which presents no difficulty) the Buddha’s Teaching of anatta has nothing whatsoever to do: anatta is purely concerned with ‘self’ as subject.” But this is very much more difficult to grasp than the misinterpretation based on the notion of flux, so flux inevitably gets the popular vote (like the doctrine of paramattha sacca, of which it is really a part). The misinterpretation is actually of Mahayanist origin; and in one of their texts (Prajñaparamita) it is specifically stated that it is only on account of avijja that things appear to exist, whereas in reality nothing exists. But the fact is that, even when one becomes arahat, a tree continues to have a self-identity; that is to say, it continues to exist as the same tree (though undergoing subordinate changes on more particular levels—falling of leaves, growth of flowers and fruit, etc.) until it dies or is cut down. But for the arahat the tree is no longer “my tree” since all notions of “I” and “mine” have ceased (p. 175).
(from Buddhist Books Blog)