Buddhist Publication Society edition note

The Buddhist Publication Society is an approved charity dedicated to making known the Teaching of the Buddha, which has a vital message for people of all creeds.

Founded in 1958, the BPS has published a wide variety of books and booklets covering a great range of topics. Its publications include accurate annotated translations of the Buddha’s discourses, standard reference works, as well as original contemporary expositions of Buddhist thought and practice. These works present Buddhism as it truly is — a dynamic force which has influenced receptive minds for the past 2500 years and is still as relevant today as it was when it first arose.

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Publisher’s Note: The BPS thanks all those who assisted with making this book available in a digital as well as printed edition. This book is the result of the work of Mr John Bullitt of Access to Insight who initiated this digital edition, the several volunteers who helped him to convert the previous edition of this book to digital text, the other volunteers who helped the BPS with proofreading, Bhikkhu Nyanatusita, the BPS editor, who helped with and coordinated the proofreading, formatting, and typesetting, corrected the Pali, etc., and the work of the BPS typesetters Bhikkhu Sacramento Upatissa and Mr Nalin Ariyaratna who skilfully typeset the text.

Message from his Holiness the Dalai Lama

[xxiii/25] The history of the development of Buddhist literature seems to be marked by periods in which the received teachings and established scriptures are assimilated and consolidated and periods of mature creativity when the essence of that transmission is expressed afresh. Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga is a classic text of the latter type. It represents the epitome of Pali Buddhist literature, weaving together its many strands to create this wonderful meditation manual, which even today retains the clarity it revealed when it was written.

There are occasions when people like to make much of the supposed differences in the various traditions of Buddhism that have evolved in different times and places. What I find especially encouraging about a book such as this is that it shows so clearly how much all schools of Buddhism have fundamentally in common. Within a structure based on the traditional three trainings of ethical discipline, concentration and wisdom are detailed instructions on how to take an ethical approach to life, how to meditate and calm the mind, and on the basis of those how to develop a correct understanding of reality. We find practical advice about creating an appropriate environment for meditation, the importance of developing love and compassion, and discussion of dependent origination that underlies the Buddhist view of reality. The very title of the work, the Path of Purification, refers to the essential Buddhist understanding of the basic nature of the mind as clear and aware, unobstructed by disturbing emotions. This quality is possessed by all sentient beings which all may realize if we pursue such a path.

Sometimes I am asked whether Buddhism is suitable for Westerners or not. I believe that the essence of all religions deals with basic human problems and Buddhism is no exception. As long as we continue to experience the basic human sufferings of birth, disease, old age, and death, there is no question of whether it is suitable or not as a remedy. Inner peace is the key. In that state of mind you can face difficulties with calm and reason. The teachings of love, kindness and tolerance, the conduct of non-violence, and especially the Buddhist theory that all things are relative can be a source of that inner peace.

While the essence of Buddhism does not change, superficial cultural aspects will change. But how they will change in a particular place, we cannot say. This evolves over time. When Buddhism first came from India to countries like Sri Lanka or Tibet, it gradually evolved, and in time a unique tradition arose. This is also happening in the West, and gradually Buddhism may evolve with Western culture.

Of course, what distinguishes the contemporary situation from past transmissions of Buddhism is that almost the entire array of traditions that evolved elsewhere is now accessible to anyone who is interested. And it is in such a context that I welcome this new edition of Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s celebrated English translation of the Path of Purification. I offer my prayers that readers, wherever they are, may find in it advice and inspiration to develop that inner peace that will contribute to creating a happier and more peaceful world.

May 2000

Publisher’s Foreword to Third Edition

[xxiv/26] Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s translation of the Visuddhimagga not only makes available in fluent English this difficult and intricate classical work of Theravāda Buddhism, the high point of the commentarial era, but itself ranks as an outstanding cultural achievement perhaps unmatched by Pali Buddhist scholarship in the twentieth century. This achievement is even more remarkable in that the translator had completed the first draft within his first four years as a bhikkhu, which is also the amount of time he had been a student of Pali.

The Buddhist Publication Society first issued this work beginning in 1975, with the kind consent of the original publisher, Mr. Ānanda Semage of Colombo. This was a reprint produced by photolithographic process from the 1964 edition. The 1979 reprint was also a photolithographic reprint, with some minor corrections..

For this edition the text has been entirely recomposed, this time with the aid of the astonishing electronic typesetting equipment that has proliferated during the past few years. The text itself has not been altered except in a few places where the original translator had evidently made an oversight. However, numerous minor stylistic changes have been introduced, particularly in the lower casing of many technical terms that Ven. Ñāṇamoli had set in initial capitals and, occasionally, in the paragraphing.

Buddhist Publication Society, 1991

Publisher’s Foreword to Fourth Edition

This fourth edition had to be retypeset again because the digital files of the previous edition, prepared “with the aid of the astonishing electronic typesetting equipment” (as mentioned in the Foreword to the Third Edition) were lost.

Like in the previous edition, the text itself has not been altered except in a few places where Ven. Ñāṇamoli had evidently made an oversight. A few minor stylistic changes have been introduced again, such as the utilisation of the Critical Pali Dictionary system of abbreviation instead of the PTS system

The BPS would like to thank John Bullitt, Ester Barias-Wolf, Michael Zoll,

Manfred Wierich and all others who helped with this project.

Buddhist Publication Society, 2010

Translator’s Dedication

Ciraṃ tiṭṭhatu saddhammo
sabbe sattā bhavantu sukhitattā
To my Upajjhāya,
the late venerable Pälänē Siri Vajirañāṇa
Mahānāyakathera of Vajirārāma,
Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Translator’s Preface

[xxv/27] Originally I made this translation for my own instruction because the only published version was then no longer obtainable. So it was not done with any intention at all of publication; but rather it grew together out of notes made on some of the book’s passages. By the end of 1953 it had been completed, more or less, and put aside. Early in the following year a suggestion to publish it was put to me, and I eventually agreed, though not without a good deal of hesitation. Reasons for agreeing, however, seemed not entirely lacking. The only previous English version of this remarkable work had long been out of print. Justification too could in some degree be founded on the rather different angle from which this version is made.

Over a year was then spent in typing out the manuscript during which time, and since, a good deal of revision has taken place, the intention of the revision being always to propitiate the demon of inaccuracy and at the same time to make the translation perspicuous and the translator inconspicuous. Had publication been delayed, it might well have been more polished. Nevertheless the work of polishing is probably endless. Somewhere a halt must be made.

A guiding principle—the foremost, in fact—has throughout been avoidance of misrepresentation or distortion; for the ideal translation (which has yet to be made) should, like a looking glass, not discolour or blur or warp the original which it reflects. Literalness, however, on the one hand and considerations of clarity and style on the other make irreconcilable claims on a translator, who has to choose and to compromise. Vindication of his choice is sometimes difficult.

I have dealt at the end of the Introduction with some particular problems. Not, however, with all of them or completely; for the space allotted to an introduction is limited.

Much that is circumstantial has now changed since the Buddha discovered and made known his liberating doctrine 2,500 years ago, and likewise since this work was composed some nine centuries later. On the other hand, the Truth he discovered has remained untouched by all that circumstantial change. Old cosmologies give place to new; but the questions of consciousness, of pain and death, of responsibility for acts, and of what should be looked to in the scale it values as the highest of all, remain. Reasons for the perennial freshness of the Buddha’s teaching—of his handling of these questions—are several, but not least among them is its independence of any particular cosmology. Established as it is for its foundation on the self-evident insecurity of the human situation (the truth of suffering), the structure of the Four Noble Truths provides an unfailing standard of value, unique in its simplicity, its completeness and its ethical purity, by means of which any situation can be assessed and a profitable choice made.

Now I should like to make acknowledgements, as follows, to all those without whose help this translation would never have been begun, persisted with or completed. [xxvi/28] To the venerable Ñāṇatiloka Mahāthera (from whom I first learned Pali) for his most kind consent to check the draft manuscript. However, although he had actually read through the first two chapters, a long spell of illness unfortunately prevented him from continuing with this himself.

To the venerable Soma Thera for his unfailing assistance both in helping me to gain familiarity with the often difficult Pali idiom of the Commentaries and to get something of the feel—as it were, “from inside”—of Pali literature against its Indian background. Failing that, no translation would ever have been made: I cannot tell how far I have been able to express any of it in the rendering.

To the venerable Nyanaponika Thera, German pupil of the venerable Ñāṇatiloka Mahāthera, for very kindly undertaking to check the whole manuscript in detail with the venerable Ñāṇatiloka Mahāthera’s German translation (I knowing no German).

To all those with whom I have had discussions on the Dhamma, which have been many and have contributed to the clearing up of not a few unclear points.

Lastly, and what is mentioned last bears its own special emphasis, it has been an act of singular merit on the part of Mr. A. Semage, of Colombo, to undertake to publish this translation.

Island Hermitage Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka

Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu, Vesākhamāse, 2499: May, 1956