Pali, literally "voice (or proclamation) of the Buddha"

A 4th-5th Century AD scholar of Theravada Buddhism, author of the Visuddhimagga and a number of commentaries on the Pali Canon (Tipitaka). Buddhaghosa is widely considered to be among the greatest of the ancient Buddhist scholars, an author whose works are given status akin to that of the words of the Buddha. He is considered to be the greatest of the authors of the Pali commentaries, the next most significant being Dhammapala.

Buddhaghosa was born near the end of the 4th Century to a Brahmin family, possibly in the kingdom of Magadha, near the Buddhist pilgrimage center Bodh Gaya (most of the few sources about his life claim he was born 'near the Bodhi Tree'). From an early age, he was regarded as a skilled debater with a flawless memory, who quickly learned the complete meanings of several of the philosophical systems current in his day. As a young man he was exposed to Buddhist teachings and texts, and desired to learn their full meaning- particularly the complex and systematic Abhidhamma. He was ordained as a monk (bhikkhu) and traveled to Ceylon(modern Sri Lanka), where he took up residence in the great monastery at Anuradhapura (known as the Mahavihara). There he was tutored and instructed by the scholar-monk Sanghapala Thera.

Note that the biographical information above is based on the traditional story of Buddhaghosa, as recorded by later commentators in the Mahavamsa and other sources. In reality, very little is known about him and his life, and it is quite likely that the details of his birth and conversion were altered to give him a heritage closer to that of the Buddha. Scholastic investigation indicates the he may actually have been from southern India.

The elder says almost nothing about himself in his own works, and much of the later biographical material is indistinguishable from myth and hagiography, particularly the Buddhaghosuppatti of Mahamangala, composed in Burma around the 15th Century. In this work, Buddhaghosa's scholarly endeavors are depicted as being penance for prideful thoughts, he converts his father to Buddhism by locking him in a room and preaching to him for three strait days, and he dwells among the gods before and after his life as a scholar. Less imaginative sources include the Mahavamsa and the prefaces and post-scripts to Buddhaghosa's various commentaries. There does seem to be some sort of popular association between Buddhaghosa and Maitreya/Metteyya, the future Buddha. In the Mahavamsa, it is said that many believed that the scholar was the bodhisattva incarnate, because of his skill at expounding the dhamma. In the later works, it is said that Buddhaghosa will be born in the future as the chief disciple of the future Buddha.

Whatever his origins, following his conversion and ordination, Buddhaghosa became a prolific writer, producing in his lifetime at least 19 commentarial works, covering the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and a selection of books from the Abhidhamma. The majority of these works are still preserved in the Theravada tradition, and many are regarded as authoritative on the subject they cover. It is unclear how many texts Buddhaghosa actually authored; as with many famous thinkers of ancient times, works continued to be attributed to him after his death, as a form of homage, and to boost the authority of these newer works.

Buddhaghosa's most famous composition continues to be the Visuddhimagga (the "path of purification", or "way of purity"), a complete exposition of the Theravada as it was taught in the Mahavihara during Buddhaghosa's lifetime. Composed in the 5th Century AD, the Visuddhimagga is regarded as the single most important post-canonical work in Theravada Buddhism. It contains a complete explication of Buddhist practice, teachings, and meditation, organized along the lines of the three-fold division of the Four Noble Truths (morality, concentration/meditation, and wisdom). In Pali literature, its importance is so great that it put an almost complete halt to the practice of composing short handbooks on the Sutta Pitaka to distill and explain their teachings to studious monks- it was felt that the Visuddhimagga made all such attempts redundant! It is usually grouped together with Buddhaghosa's four commentaries on the four nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka- the introductory verse of the Visuddhimagga indicates that it was meant to be placed in the middle of these four texts.

As a writer, Buddhaghosa seems to have been above all else a meticulous and thorough editor and scholar. Modern scholars agree that the doctrines presented by the elder in the Visuddhimagga and other works were not his own innovation, but rather a systematization and collation of various Pali and Sinhala commentaries and teachings present in his time. Buddhaghosa cautions against reliance on one's own opinions, calling it the weakest measure of truth. On only one or two occasions does he explicitly offer his own interpretation of a passage or particular concept, and in such cases he indicates clearly that it is his own opinion that is being offered, and not the more canonical sources to which he was referring.

These sources, since lost, had been developed from the teachings of the Tipitaka by Sinhala monks in the centuries since the death of the Buddha, and were largely composed in the local Sinhalese language. In the face of political uncertainty, rising heterodoxy among rival monasteries, and the growing influence of Sanskrit literature, the composition of the Visuddhimagga not only preserved and clarified the numerous teachings developed by the Sinhala elders, it also kicked off a sustained renaissance of Pali literature that was to last until the 11th Century in South and Southeast Asia among the Theravada, even as the other Hinayana schools and Indian Buddhism generally disappeared from the scene.

A Selection of Works Attributed to Buddhaghosa

The Velthius Scheme is used in transcribing the titles of these works.

The Vinaya Pitaka commentaries:
  • Samantapaasaadikaa: Collection and translation of commentaries on the Vinaya that were used at the Mahavihara.
  • Kha.nkhaavitara.nii: Practical commentary on the Patimokkha, the Buddhist monastic code. Intended for instruction and reference, rather than as a theoretical work.
The four works below constitute Buddhaghosa's Suttanta commentaries. They are usually considered as a whole, along with the Visuddhimagga. The three texts below concern the Abhidhamma Pitaka, and are also best taken as a group. They are almost certainly not authored by Buddhaghosa, but are attributed to him, and he is listed as their 'initiator'- they were composed at his request or urging.

As is often the case, there are numerous commentaries written about Buddhaghosa's works, often written alongside his own words. It is from these subcommentaries that much of the information about Buddhaghosa is known (the other major source being the Mahavamsa, the Pali chronicle of ancient Ceylon). The Visuddhimagga is also heavily commented, and has been translated into a number of languages, including English, Tibetan, and Chinese. Most of the works attributed to Buddhaghosa are available in translation from the Pali Text Society

Likely the most accessible and most modern translation of the Visuddhimagga available to English speakers is that produced by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and first published in 1956. It has been recently re-issued by the Buddhist Publication Society in cooperation with the Vipassana Research Institute of America as one of BPS's 'Pariyatti' editions. The translation and production are both excellent; the introduction alone is an excellent source of information about the history of the Visuddhimagga and Buddhaghosa, as well as Bhikkhu Nanamoli's insightful thoughts about the problems of translating the Pali classics into English.

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