BUDDHAGHOSA (fl. fifth century ce), one of the greatest Buddhist commentators. Participating in the Buddhist heritage as it neared completion of its first millennium, Buddhaghosa is most acclaimed for providing a commentarial and interpretive structure for the Theravāda tradition. He took the many strands of contemporary Buddhist teachings and traditions, both oral and written, and through patience and methodical scholarship wove them together to produce the standard Theravāda orientation for interpreting the teachings of the Buddha. He accomplished this by coordinating, collating, translating, and editing the vast, imposing body of the Theravāda canon.
Very little about the life of Buddhaghosa can be established definitely. That he was held in great esteem in the Theravāda tradition is seen in the Buddhaghosuppatti, a late Pali text of uncertain origin, date, and authorship, which presents a legendary account of his life and work. The Mahāvaṃsa, the chronicle of Sri Lanka written and preserved by the monastic community there, provides some information about this figure, but in a section (chap. 37, vv. 215ff.) considered to have been written seven to eight centuries after his life. From the silence regarding biographical information about such a prolific commentator, one may infer that his enormous industry and productivity were the consequence of a consistently self-effacing purpose. His foremost aim was to provide a commentarial framework in the language of the canonical texts that would contribute to a clearer understanding of the canonical teachings and ensure the continuity of these teachings and interpretations for posterity.
Although an old Burmese tradition has claimed that Buddhaghosa was a native of Thaton, in lower Burma (a position generally discredited, but argued anew on occasion), it appears that Buddhaghosa was from India, but opinions vary as to whether he came from the region of Bodh Gayā or from Andhra, or from an area farther to the south, around Kāñcīpuram.
Buddhaghosa received his ordination into the monastic order, came to Sri Lanka, and resided either at the Mahāvihāra in Anurādhapura or in nearby monastic dwellings. His purpose there was to study the Theravāda exegetical tradition. When he arrived in the early fifth century, he found approximately twenty-five sources forming a multifaceted collection of commentarial literature written in Sinhala, the predominant language of Sri Lanka. At least one additional commentarial source seems to have been preserved in a Dravidian language. These sources had developed over several centuries and by the end of the first century ce had reached the state in which Buddhaghosa found them.
It was against this historical background that Buddhaghosa wrote in Pali the Visuddhimagga (The path of purity), his first literary effort in Sri Lanka. This encyclopedic work, structured upon a cardinal tripartite theme in the Buddhist heritage—virtue (Pali, sila ), concentration (samādhi ), and wisdom (paññā )—demonstrates Buddhaghosa's talent in arranging the complex details of the Buddhist teachings at his disposal. He brought together details drawn from practically all of the canonical Pali texts, a few postcanonical works, and several Sinhala commentarial sources. His classic work remains the scholar's gateway to a Theravāda perspective on the canonical teachings and through which those canonical teachings subsequently passed into the continuing tradition.
Buddhaghosa continued his labor to assure a wider dissemination of the received commentarial interpretations of Sri Lanka by translating into Pali the Sinhala exegetical literature on many of the canonical texts. The chronological order of his works remains uncertain, however. He drew from his sources to provide a commentary on the Vinaya Piṭaka, the voluminous Samantapāsādika. He also provided a particular commentary, the Kaṅkhāvitaraṇī, on a portion of the Vinaya known as the Pātimokkha. He further provided commentaries on the four sections of the Sutta Piṭaka: the Sumaṅgalāvilasinī on the Dīgha Nikāya; the Papañcasūdanī on the Majjhima Nikāya; the Saratthappakāsinī on the Saṃyutta Nikāya; and the Manorathapūraṇī on the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Each work testifies, in its prologue, that it represents a translation of the Sinhala commentaries established by Mahinda, who is said to have brought the buddhadhamma to Sri Lanka in the middle of the third century bce; these commentaries were preserved in the Mahāvihāra.
Although the point remains open to debate, it appears that Buddhaghosa also wrote commentaries on the seven texts comprising the third major division of the Pali canon, the Abhidhamma Piṭaka: on the Dhammasaṅganī he provided a commentary called Atthasālinī ; on the Vibhaṅga, the Sammohavinodanī ; and on the remaining five texts, one work called Pañcappakaraṇaṭ-ṭhakathā. The commentaries note that they are based on the older Sinhala commentaries and follow the tradition of interpretation endorsed at the Mahāvihāra.
A few years after completing these commentaries, political turmoil disrupted the calm of the Mahāvihāra when Anurādhapura was overrun by invaders. This probably was the cause of Buddhaghosa's departure from Sri Lanka and the reason he did not complete commentaries on all the canonical texts. The weight of tradition says that he returned to India, although some accounts claim that he left Sri Lanka for lower Burma. Additional commentaries have been ascribed to Buddhaghosa, but they were probably the work of others. Buddhaghosa was followed by other notable commentators, namely Buddhadatta, Dhammapāla, Upasena, and Mahānāma.
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John Ross Carter (1987)