Western Buddhist Review

Review: Cultivating Compassion, Realising Emptiness

Posted by dhivan thomas jones on Tue, 1 March, 2016 - 09:59
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dhivan thomas jones

We present here a review by Sarah Clelland of Anālayo’s new book, focussing on the interest and challenge of understanding the profound meditations that Anālayo writes about.

Anālayo: Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation

Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, UK, 2015, £12 pback, £6 ebook

Review by Sarah Clelland

I have often wished that the Buddha was my meditation teacher. In the early texts, we get a glimpse into the work of a great teacher who spontaneously tailors his expression of the Dhamma to the person in front of him. Each teaching traces a path from the everyday to the heights of awakening. Most of his followers reach awakening. But when I read the texts, I find that the instructions – especially meditation instructions – are often frustratingly terse, and that they suffer in translation. What exactly does the Buddha mean by (to take a random example), ‘If he wants, he remains percipient of loathsomeness in the presence of what is not loathsome.’? How do I apply it to my own practice, at 8pm on a Monday evening?

Anālayo has, with painstaking scholarship, attempted to uncover how the early Buddhists might have meditated. In previous books, he tackled satipaṭṭhāna. In this book he looks at – just as the title says – Compassion and Emptiness. The first three chapters of the book are devoted to the practice of compassion and the other brahmā-vihāras (kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity), especially as described in the Karajakāya-sutta.[1] The next three chapters of the book explore emptiness meditation as described in the Cūḷasuññata-sutta and Mahāsuññata-sutta.[2] But the book is not just a compendium of two unrelated practices. Anālayo shows how the two fit naturally together and then in chapter 7, gives detailed meditation instructions encompassing them both. 

Before I get on to talking about the the content of those chapters, I’ll say a few words about Anālayo’s methods for reading those suttas. It’s difficult to be sure what the early Buddhists thought and said, because no manuscripts survive from the time of the Buddha. The teachings were first passed down orally in stylised form, and then written down on short-lived palm-leaf manuscripts which were copied and recopied over the years. So how can we know whether changes or mistakes crept in over time? How can we understand obscurities?

One approach is to look at parallel texts – very similar versions of texts preserved in different traditions, usually in a different language. For example, the Sarvāstivāda and what became the Theravāda sects of Buddhism split around 300 BCE. The Theravāda preserved texts in Pāli (hence known as the the Pāli canon). The Sarvastivāda texts survive only in Chinese translation. The idea is that by comparing parallel texts in the two languages, the differences suggest mistakes or changes introduced in the last 2,300 years. On the other hand, if parallel texts exist that are almost the same in both languages, it is likely that they accurately transmit the early tradition. And one translation might throw light on the meaning of words in the other.

Anālayo does not go into technical details, but this method of comparing parallel texts is behind his investigation of meanings. Since translations from the Pāli canon are widely available, he has quoted in the book from his own translations from the Chinese, Sanskrit or Tibetan parallels. This emphasises that the early texts are the inheritance of all traditions of Buddhism, not just the Theravāda (Anālayo himself is a Theravāda monk). He also contextualises the texts by comparing within a tradition. For example, to explore the meaning of the word mettā, he looks at other Pāli texts where the same word is used.

There are some surprises along the way. In the Triratna community, one of our principles is the unity of Buddhism. And it is common among western Buddhists in general to read a Pāli text here, the Heart Sūtra there, a bit of Thich Nhat Hanh and a bit of Pema Chodron. There is a lot to be said for this – aren’t we lucky to be living in a time when the richness of the whole Buddhist tradition is available to us? – but sometimes it can be easy to miss how Buddhist practice and understanding of words have changed over time. I was surprised to learn for instance that the familiar method of directing compassion (or any of the brahmā-vihāras) to a series of people – a friend, a neutral person, an enemy etc. – actually comes from the Visuddhimagga, a later Theravāda compendium by Buddhaghosa of meditative techniques. The practice in the earliest texts is that of boundless radiation in all directions, without an object. Presumably the method in the Visuddhimagga was useful for people (like me) who find boundless radiation difficult at first, as a training tool.

Anālayo also explains that our understanding of the brahmā-vihāras may be different from that of the early Buddhists. For example, in the earliest texts, karunā (compassion) refers specifically to the wish to help others find freedom, and compassionate activity typically means teaching the Dharma, by word and example. He shows that mettā in the early texts does not exactly mean love, but more protection, cooperation, patience and forbearance. When the mettā of a mother for her child is referenced, (famously in the Karaṇīya-metta-sutta) it is referring to the mother’s protectiveness, not to her affection. Even upekkhā – equanimity – has changed in meaning over the years. Later traditions wondered, ‘If you want to free all living beings, how can you be equanimous to their fate?’ They sometimes reinterpreted equanimity to be the wish that all beings may be liberated equally. But Anālayo shows that in the early texts, equanimity is a culmination of compassion, ‘Liberating compassionate activity from the expectation of results’, that is not being attached to the outcome of your dhamma teaching.

Encouragingly, Anālayo points out that according to the early texts, the brahmā-vihāras can be successfully practised without first achieving absorption. He gives canonical examples of people even in difficult situations of pain and distraction doing this practice. But this does not mean that the brahmā-vihāras are just an introductory practice. They can be a way to develop the mind towards absorption and the immaterial spheres, and can take the mind almost all the way to awakening.

Just to remind you, the early texts describe successive levels of meditation – four levels of absorption (also called jhāna, or in Sanskrit dhyāna) followed by four immaterial levels. The mind remains alert and aware throughout, but successively emptier of the things we might expect to find. The first level of absorption is reached when we temporarily lose the ‘hindrances’ – five familiar things which tend to dog meditation: restlessness, sleepiness, doubt, ill-will and desire. So this is where the practice of the brahmā-vihāras connects to the practice of emptiness as described in the Cūḷasuññata-sutta and Mahāsuññata-sutta. The brahmā-vihāras can help us approach the immaterial spheres. The Cūḷasuññata-sutta describes progress through those immaterial spheres as we experience the mind becoming successively emptier.

This is about the point in the book where many of us will leave behind what we know from our own experience. I have to confess my meditation experience to date does not include the immaterial spheres. But don’t despair! According to Anālayo, one does not have to actually attain these refined states to do the practice. He makes the distinction that the text speaks ‘of giving attention to the perception of the sphere of infinite space’ (p.91) rather than attaining the sphere itself, and so on for the other immaterial spheres, and that therefore you don’t need to have the concentration normally required to fully attain that state, so long as the hindrances aren’t present.

This is a huge point. If Anālayo’s interpretation is correct, this practice not just for the rare person who can attain the immaterial spheres. Instead, it is accessible to any meditator who can concentrate enough to temporarily get rid of the hindrances. You might ask, what is perception of an immaterial sphere? How do you perceive something you have never attained? Analayo approaches this from two angles. In chapters 4 to 6 he explores what the immaterial spheres of ‘infinite space’, ‘infinite consciousness’ and ‘nothingness’ mean in the context of the early texts. In chapter 7, he gives explicit meditation instructions on how to practice perception of these states by directing your attention to particular aspects of your experience.

He devotes the whole of chapter 5 to ‘infinite consciousness’, and explores what consciousness is, in terms of dependent arising, and of the Buddha’s teaching to Bāhiya: ‘In the seen, only the seen…’ and so on. He makes the point that this is a process of perceptual training and we should not mistake the experience for a truth about the world. The experience – or perception – of infinite consciousness does not imply a philosophical belief that everything is mind-only, or that consciousness is permanent and the same consciousness will be reborn. In fact, the realisation that consciousness is insubstantial is part of the entry into the sphere of nothingness, the third immaterial sphere.

Interestingly, the fourth immaterial sphere (‘neither perception nor non-perception’), although mentioned in the Pāli text, is not present in the Chinese or Tibetan versions.  Anālayo thinks it is more likely that the fourth of a well-known group would have been automatically added than accidentally deleted from the canon, so he prefers to go with the Chinese and Tibetan version in which we move directly from ‘nothingness’ to ‘signlessness’. The signless concentration is not itself liberation, but is a springboard for insight reflections leading to liberation, through the realisation that even the experience of signless concentration is itself conditioned and directing attention to the impermanent, unsatisfactory nature of the mind even in such a refined state.

Having examined the core suttas in detail, Anālayo moves on in chapter 7 to detailed practical meditation instructions for the whole progression from brahmā-vihāras to emptiness to liberation itself. By the nature of things, this draws on his personal experience and so is only one way of expanding on the sparse guidelines of the canon. But this is by no means some kind of guided meditation. Instead, it is a toolkit of practical techniques that you can use to build your own practice. If imagining a puppy (one of his suggestions) does not inspire mettā in you, he has alternatives!

He does assumes a certain amount of confidence in meditation. There is not a great deal of hand-holding. For example, although Anālayo says earlier in the book that one can practise the the brahmā-vihāras without great concentration, in the actual meditation instructions he devotes a grand total of two pages to getting rid of the hindrances, before continuing, ‘Once no hindrance is present in the mind…’ Some people may find this kind of thing frustrating.

On the whole, though, I find Anālayo an encouraging guide. I found his suggestions for approaching the perception of the immaterial spheres particularly helpful. However, I think that to fully undertake the practice without a teacher or at least someone to consult, would be difficult, and might lead to difficulties. As Anālayo says in chapter 7, ‘the gradual entry into emptiness involves perceptual experiences that need to be handled well. Their profundity can trigger fear or else become seductive.’ Many people would benefit from help in dealing with such experiences that a book, however sane and balanced, cannot give.[3]

Balance is a theme running through the book – the balance between the four brahmā-vihāras, the balance between compassion and emptiness, between receptive and active practice, between insight and concentration. Anālayo emphasises that a balanced practice helps the whole practice flourish; for example, even if you prefer to concentrate on compassion, it is good to devote time to all the brahmā-vihāras ‘to ensure the best possible conditions for a flowering of compassion’ (pp.160–1). And: ‘Progression to… full awakening… requires one to combine the practice of compassion with the cultivation of the awakening factors’ (p.74).

In Triratna terms, we often refer to Sangharakshita’s System of Meditation as an expression of a complete, balanced practice leading to liberation. We usually think of the brahmā-vihāras as an expression of ‘positive emotion’, but Anālayo shows that they also lead to ‘integration’, that is, progressive absorption. With the addition of emptiness and insight practices we approach ‘spiritual death’. The remaining two parts of the System are implicit rather than explicit in this approach. By reading the early texts, we can connect imaginatively with the inspiring figure of the Buddha presented there (‘Spiritual Rebirth’), and identify with him by practising as he might have taught. The receptive nature of ‘mindfulness and just sitting’ is more of a flavour in this book. Anālayo encourages balanced effort rather than striving too hard. He suggests a benefit of the brahmā-vihāras is that their boundless nature tend to prevent pushing too hard in meditation.

This book is a detailed, balanced guidebook for the practical meditator. Anālayo has carefully based his words upon the earliest Buddhist texts, and has set out a meditation practice firmly founded on the Buddha’s words, or as near as we can get. Despite the excellent scholarship, this is a book intended for practitioners, not academics. I recommend it to the experienced meditator who can invest the time and effort to get the best out of it.

Sarah Clelland is a meditator who would like to ask the Buddha a few questions.

Please purchase Anālayo’s book directly from Windhorse Publications as this helps support the publisher.


[1] Anālayo includes a translation of the Mādhyama-āgama version of the Karajakāya-sutta as preserved in Chinese translation, in ch.8, along with translations of the Cūḷasuññata-sutta and the Mahāsuññata-sutta in their Mādhyama-āgama versions. The Karajakāya-sutta is preserved in Pāli in the Aṅguttara-nikāya 10:217–9, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom, Boston, 2012, p.1535f (although the Pāli version does not contain the whole teaching). (Editions and translations at Sutta Central).

[2] These discourses are preserved in Pāli in the Majjhima-nikāya, translated by Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi as Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom, Boston, 1995, sutta nos. 121 and 122. Once again, Anālayo includes in ch.8 translations of the versions preserved in Chinese translation. (Editions and translations at Sutta Central).

[3] Although no substitute for dialogue with a teacher about meditation, readers may be interested in an article by Dh Satyadhana on exploring the formless attainments published in Western Buddhist Review.

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