Meditation & Insight: Teachings from the Late Ven. Ñāṇadīpa’s Forty Years in the Forest
by Bhante Joe & Ajahn Nisabho | Feb. 19, 2021
After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, the late Ven. Ñāṇadīpa gave up his customary forest wandering and spent the final months of his life sharing teachings on study, meditation, and the practicalities of forest dwelling gained from over forty years of living in Sri Lanka’s jungle. He passed away in September of 2020 renowned for the purity of a life of seclusion and practice.
The teachings below are drawn from “To the End of Body and Mind: The Story of Ñāṇadīpa Bhante’s Life and Teachings at Bhaddeka Vihari Aranya” which may be downloaded in full here. Another biography, “The Island Within: The Life of the Hermit Monk Bhante Ñāṇadīpa” may be found here. A talk detailing his life can be accessed here.
Read the companion piece, “Forty Years in the Forest: Teachings from the Late Ven. Ñāṇadīpa on Wandering & Study“.
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante was born in Lyon, France, in 1944 with the name Denys Jeune. His father, Eugene, had been a member of the French resistance, and had been captured and sent to a concentration camp. Towards the end of the conflict, he was put on a ship carrying prisoners of war. Five days before the end of World War II in Europe, the RAF bombed the ship and he was tragically killed.
While in the concentration camp, Eugene made a pact with a fellow prisoner, Gregers Jensen. They agreed that if Eugene didn’t make it through the war, Gregers would help to care for his two young sons. When the war ended, Gregers sought out Eugene’s family. He met his widow, Renée, and they married. He was able to care for Eugene’s family, thus fulfilling his promise to his old wartime friend.
The family moved to Denmark. Denys received a classical education, studying Greek and Latin. As a teenager, he developed an interest in Mahāyāna Buddhism. He thought that he would like to be an academic. In University, Denys decided to major in Tibetan and Chinese.
Denys’s university career was not to be. An interest in travel drove him out of Denmark and onto three trips across Europe and Asia. When he was twenty-four, he arrived in Sri Lanka.
There, Denys began to read the Pāli canon which he soon realized contained the original words of the Buddha. Inspired, he converted to the Theravada.
In 1968, Denys ordained as an white-robed monastic aspirant at the Island Hermitage. He left for a short trip back to Europe but returned in 1969 to ordain as a sāmaṇera, or novice monk. He was given the name Ñāṇadīpa, which translates as ‘island of wisdom’. Not long after his ordination, Venerable Ñāṇasumana, who was a fellow Island Hermitage monk, invited sāmaṇera Ñāṇadīpa to stay near the solitary Buṇḍala Kuṭi.
Sāmaṇera Ñāṇadīpa accepted the invitation and went to stay in the Buṇḍala forest. At night, he would make a pile of leaves and spread his robe over them, spending the night on this makeshift mattress. This can perhaps be seen as the beginning of what would become a lifetime of forest dwelling.
Ven. Ñāṇasumana stayed inside the Buṇḍala Kuṭi. He and Sāmaṇera Ñāṇadīpa would meet for a shared alms round and discuss the Dhamma after the morning meal. Unfortunately, Ven. Ñāṇasumana was killed by a snake, leaving Sāmaṇera Ñāṇadīpa as the sole inhabitant of the Buṇḍala Kuṭi.
In 1971, Sāmaṇera Ñāṇadīpa took higher ordination and became Ñāṇadīpa Bhante. Soon after, he returned to the solitude of the Buṇḍala Kuṭi. Apart from a short trip to Thailand, he would spend most of his life dwelling in the solitude of Sri Lanka’s forests.
In 1984, Ñāṇadīpa Bhante arrived in the Laggala forest where the villagers built him a solitary kuṭi. Bhante stayed in the Laggala area for fifteen years. Almost every year, he built a new kuṭi. Gradually, other monks joined him and a community began to form its culture spreading out from Laggala and strongly influencing the Sri Lankan forest tradition.
In his later life, Ñāṇadīpa Bhante spent more time at monasteries, his increased engagement with other monks allowing his knowledge to spread. He passed away in September of 2020 at Etdalagala monastery. By the time of his passing, he had become something of a legend. He left behind a legacy of solitary forest practice that continues to this day and an example of a life devoted to finding the end of suffering.
Ven. Ñāṇadīpa’s Reflections
Ven. Ñāṇadīpa going for alms at Bhaddeka Vihari in 2010.
“Meditation was always there (in Sri Lanka), it was just a small minority.”
* * *
When asked about meditation topics, Bhante said: “That’s pretty individual.”
* * *
Despite his impressive accomplishments, Bhante had a very humble attitude. Once, when asked about meditation, he said: “I am not the model bhikkhu to ask. I’ve just been going for walks in the forest. Only rarely would I practice meditation intensely, perhaps for three days at a time.”
Monk: ‘How do you tell if you’re on the wrong path if you don’t have a teacher?’
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “It’s very difficult. If one can find an arahant, then one can trust them completely. I’ve rarely heard rumours of that, except in Thailand. There were fewer rumours then (in his younger days), now there’s more…
“Sometimes, one may also find someone on the path who is struggling with the same problem, but that would be rare.”
* * *
“In my own case, I didn’t have a teacher, but I learned the suttas very thoroughly as a backup.”
* * *
About two months before his death, Ñāṇadīpa Bhante moved from Bhaddeka Vihari to Etdalagala monastery. Once, a small group of monks from Bhaddeka Vihari went to visit Bhante. When they arrived, they discovered that he was in the hospital. When they arrived at the hospital, they saw Bhante laying on a bed. He had mostly stopped speaking by that time. However, when one monk asked him a question about the Dhamma, he immediately answered. The monk asked, “There are many suttas, which discuss countering the various hindrances. For lust, one has āsubha. For hatred, one has mettā. I haven’t been able to find what can be used to counter uddhacca-kukkuccha (restlessness and anxiety).”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “Ānāpānasati (mindfulness of breathing)… It appears in the Udāna, and also other places in the canon.”
Towards the end of his stay at Bhaddeka Vihari, Guttasīla Bhante, and also other monks from Laggala came to visit Ñāṇadīpa Bhante. Guttasīla Bhante had arranged to have a Dhamma discussion with Ñāṇadīpa Bhante at around 2pm. News spread fast, and as it turned out, more than ten monks came to hear and participate in the discussion. Towards the end of the discussion, Ñāṇadīpa Bhante noticed that one monk didn’t ask any questions. Ñāṇadīpa Bhante said: “You don’t have any questions?”
Monk: “…I’m not much of a thinker, Bhante. I want to achieve all the jhānas up and down, or die trying.”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “Then you’ll succeed.”
* * *
If he felt it was appropriate for his listeners, sometimes Bhante would describe the methods of other teachers. One upāsika was a follower of a teacher, who taught that one attains jhāna by getting absorbed into a light nimitta. When discussing jhāna practice with the upāsaka (devoted lay follower), with a smile on his face, Bhante said: “It’s when the breath becomes so beautiful that a light appears, and you get absorbed into the light.”
* * *
There is some debate in the West as to whether ‘kāya’ (body) in jhāna formulas means the physical body or a mental ‘body’. An upāsaka who was a follower of a teacher whose method involves being absorbed into a light asked about this. He said that he was more on the side of the debate that one needs to develop the jhānas until the body disappears. Ñāṇadīpa Bhante replied: “Pīti (rapture) in the first jhāna is bound up with the body. It’s waves of rapture spreading through the body. In the fourth jhāna, the breath stops, but the body is still there.”
* * *
Regarding the difference between pīti, passaddhi, and samādhi: “Pīti has an energetic aspect to it. In the Aggi Sutta (SN 46.53 – The Fire Sutta), it says that when the mind is sluggish, that is the time to cultivate pīti (rapture), viriya (energy), and dhamma-vicāya (investigation of phenomena). When the mind is restless, that is the time to cultivate passaddhi (calm), samādhi (concentration), and upekkhā (equanimity)… Passaddhi is ‘calm’; it’s a precursor to samādhi.”
* * *
“The first jhāna is more thinking-oriented. In the second jhāna, one drops pīti and focuses on sukha. In the third jhāna, there is just happiness and equanimity. Then, one lets go of even the happiness.”
* * *
“Sometimes, when I was reading the suttas, I would feel waves of rapture coming through the body.”
* * *
Bhante related that in his early years, he was attaining sāmadhi through vipassanā (insight) practice. The depth of his samādhi seemed to be increasing. He felt satisfied with his level of concentration. However, after he was injured by an elephant, his ability to gain samādhi became much more limited.
* * *
Once at a Dhamma discussion, a monk asked Bhante about ānāpānasati practice (mindfulness of breathing). It sounded like this monk was gaining sāmadhi through his ānāpānasati practice. He asked Bhante how ānāpānasati could be used for further development. Bhante replied: “The Ānāpānasati Sutta says that ānāpānasati can be used all the way to Nibbāna. Don’t just use it for calm. Practice cittānupassana (contemplation of the mind) as well.”
* * *
“Don’t think that samādhi alone will get you there.”
* * *
An upāsaka asked Bhante about an exchange in the Sutta Nipāta between Upasīva the wanderer and the Buddha…
Upāsaka: “Upasīva asks the Buddha if someone standing on emptiness would stay there. The Buddha replied, ‘He may stay there.’ Is emptiness here the same as Nibbāna?”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “No, it’s not the same as Nibbāna. Emptiness in that case means the base of nothingness. Upasīva calls it the highest saññā (perception). It’s the highest saññā because that is as far as saññā can go. The base of nothingness is as far as one can use sañña for vipassanā. Past that, one cannot use it…
“He was asking questions such as: ‘Does he have continuous health there?’, which made clear that he was still a puthujjana (unenlightened being). Even though he had this attainment of emptiness, he was still a puthujjana.”
* * *
Monk: “Is the cessation of perception and feeling the same as Nibbāna? When a monk enters the cessation of perception and feeling, it usually goes along with the phrase, ‘seeing with wisdom, his taints are destroyed.’”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “It doesn’t say ‘seeing with wisdom’. It says, ‘having seen with wisdom’. Having seen with wisdom means that he sees with wisdom before, not that he sees with wisdom on emerging. This refers to an arahant liberated in both ways.”
* * *
Shortly before he left Bhaddeka Vihari, Bhante had a Dhamma discussion with many monks. During this discussion, one of the monks asked about Bhante’s ‘No Cassa’ article. He asked Bhante if Nibbāna could be taken as an object of meditation. Bhante replied: “One can incline the mind towards Nibbāna. There’s so many suttas which say, ‘etaṃ santaṃ etaṃ paṇītaṃ yadidaṃ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhippaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nibbānan’ti’ (This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is the calming of all formations, the relinquishment of all attachment, the cessation of craving, dispassion, Nibbāna). This does not refer to taking Nibbāna as an object. It refers to inclining the mind towards Nibbāna.”
Upāsaka: “What degree of samādhi do we need to practice vipassanā (insight meditation)?”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “There are so many levels. One doesn’t need to wait to reach a particular level to practice vipassanā.”
* * *
“Some practice samādhi first, some practice vipassanā first. You can practice vipassanā any time. Samādhi can help; it can give you calm and stability. You don’t need to have a very deep jhāna before practicing vipassanā.”
* * *
When asked how one can overcome the kilesas (defilements), Bhante replied: “That varies between individuals. Basically, one wants to keep seeing that any kind of acquisition is suffering.”
* * *
In discussing the recollection of the Buddha, Bhante related: “One should gain a sense of the Buddha as a man through the suttas and through his teachings, not just using the regular formula. In this way, Buddhānussati can be much more personal and deep.”
* * *
All four satipaṭṭhānas (foundations of mindfulness) are important. Kāyanupassana (contemplation of the body), vedanānupassana (contemplation of feelings), and cittānupassana (contemplation of the mind) all have to connect with dhammānupassana (contemplation of Dhamma categories). They have to connect to the Four Noble Truths.”
* * *
“The four satipaṭṭhānas are another one of these ‘complete’ teachings. They cover everything in the universe, but approach it from a different angle than the five khandhas. Kāyanupassana is equivalent to rūpa (form). Vedanānupassana is (equivalent to) feeling. Cittānupassana is (equivalent to) consciousness, and dhammānupassana is (equivalent to) sankāras (mental formations). The only one that’s missing is saññā (perception).”
* * *
Regarding āsubha practice: “Mentally, one takes each of the parts of the body and puts it into a pile. So, one takes the hair and puts into one pile, one takes the skin and puts into another…”
* * *
“Dhammānupassana (mindfulness of Dhamma categories) should not be practiced alone, because then it just becomes philosophy. In order for it to lead to a realization, one should go through the other three satipaṭṭhānas. One should contemplate kāyānupassana (mindfulness of the body), vedanānupassana (mindfulness of feeling), or cittānupassana (mindfulness of mind) in conjunction with dhammānupassana.”
* * *
When asked what type of meditation he practiced, Bhante related: “I’ve done some mettā, and some ānapānasati, but what I found most effective was cittānupassana. It struck right at the heart of the defilements.”
* * *
“The description of cittānupassana in the suttas is quite brief. So, I developed my own method: when a kilesa (defilement) arose in my mind — I was particularly concerned with hatred — I would ask, ‘Why?’. I would then notice that it was because of an attachment. I would observe that the attachment was dukkha (suffering), and ask ‘Why do I want that?’ In this way, I could let it go.
“Practicing in this way, I found that whenever suffering arose, it was because of attachment. When the attachment faded (after following the steps above), I could see that behind it was this taṇhā (craving), this thirst.”
* * *
In practicing cittānupassana: “One learns to observe how the mind goes to external things, and to see that it’s creating a self. One realizes that, ‘Any time I have dukkha, there’s an attachment to something. I don’t want it to be that way, and so this attachment is causing me to suffer. I’m trying to make a self out of it.’ This search is motivated by the desire to create a self that one can never create.”
* * *
Monk: “Can cittānupassana be used for lust?”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “It can, but it should be used in conjunction with āsubha (contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body). Lust is alluring. Using cittānupassana for hatred is less dangerous because it’s less alluring.”
* * *
Samanera: “What do you think the Sangha needs most right now?”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “Wisdom.”
Visiting Monk: “And, how does one cultivate wisdom?”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “Cittānupassana (contemplation of the mind).”
Ven. Ñāṇadīpa’s Reflections
Ven. Sugatavamsa accompanies Nyanadipa Bhante from Tanjantenna to Colombo via helicopter for a blood transfusion.
A monk asked Bhante about a statement in the Anguttara Nikāya (the Numbered Discourses). In that statement, the Buddha says that it’s impossible to achieve psychic powers and arahantship without concentration that is peaceful, sublime, etc. He asked if that statement meant that one needed the fourth jhāna to attain arahantship. Ñāṇadīpa Bhante replied: “No, one doesn’t need the fourth jhāna. In the Anguttara Nikāya, there is a sutta called the ‘Eleven Doors to the Deathless’. In this sutta, it says that one can attain Nibbāna based on any one of the four jhānas, the four Brahmaviharas (the four “boundless abodes” beginning with mettā) and three of the four immaterial attainments. One can contemplate impermanence based on any of these states. The first jhāna is sufficient.”
* * *
At present, in the West, there can be debate about what constitutes a noble attainment. One monk asked how a person can know if they’ve reached a noble attainment? Bhante replied: “One knows one has reached a noble attainment if one realizes the four noble truths in one’s mind.”
* * *
Regarding the noble attainments, Bhante said, “Don’t worry too much about gauging your level. Just keep going forward towards Nibbāna.”
Path and Fruit
“In the suttas, it’s clear that someone with a magga (“path”) is guaranteed to achieve a phala (“fruit”, or the culmination of realization) within that lifetime… The commentary says that magga occurs just a moment before phala. However, there is a sutta which describes the merit of giving alms to someone with a magga. This would be almost impossible if magga occurred just a moment before phala.”
* * *
When asked about the difference between a saddhānussari (faith follower) and a dhammānussari (wisdom follower), Bhante replied: ‘Both are sotāpattimagga (on the path to stream-entry). They are destined to reach sotāpatti (stream entry, a level of enlightened realization) in that life, but don’t yet have the ability to achieve it.”
* * *
“The saddhānussari has faith in anicca, dukkha, and anattā. It isn’t a blind faith. The dhammānussari is safer, because they rely on the faculty of wisdom.”
* * *
“A sotapanna would have an increased knowledge and ability to understand the Buddha’s teachings.”
Lay Stream Entry
A Canadian lay practitioner asked Bhante if he knew any lay stream-enterers. If so, what helped them to achieve it? Bhante replied: “Yes, I believe I did know one, and I heard of others. He sold his business, retired and devoted himself to the Dhamma full-time.”
* * *
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “Finding solitude, going to the forest would be difficult for a layperson.”
Monk: “What if they could do it?”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “It would be a good thing. I would recommend it.”
* * *
Some of Bhante’s advice for lay practitioners: “They can use the suttas, but probably the most important thing is to have a good teacher if they can find one. Although, I myself never had a teacher.”
Cittānupassana – Contemplation of the Mind
“When I was young, the dosa citta (hatred mind) was most prevalent. I used to observe the mind to see what it was that made me angry. Usually, it (anger) came when someone said something to me, which offended my perception of who I was. It arose because there was a conflict between what I thought of myself, and what someone or something else was doing.
So, I would ask myself, ‘Why am I suffering?’. I found it was always related to this self-identity. This self-identity was all taṇhā (craving). That’s what allowed me to make the breakthrough. One practices cittānupassana (contemplation of the mind) until one comes to the end of body and mind.
Concentration will be present at the time of the breakthrough. One’s defilements go away at that time, but only temporarily. Depending on the individual and the strength of concentration, it could be days, it could be four or five hours, it could be a half-hour, but they gradually return.”
* * *
Regarding the mind maturing through cittānupassana practice: “If one becomes angry, one learns to ask: ‘‘Why am I suffering when someone makes me angry?’ One learns to recognize that a notion of oneself has been challenged. With this, one can let go of the anger.
“The mind matures in the sense that the contemplation gradually deepens. One begins to see how thoroughly this desire to create a self penetrates. One sees that behind all of it is craving. This citta (mind) is nothing other than taṇhā (craving). It is thoroughly polluted by greed, hatred, and delusion. At this point, the mind matures and is able to relinquish its attachments and this is stream-entry.”
Ven. Ñāṇadīpa’s Closing Reflections
When asked about which monks were most inspiring to him, Ñāṇadīpa Bhante replied: “Venerable Sāriputta and Venerable Ānanda. In his Theragāthā, Venerable Sāriputta said that he didn’t go forth for knowledge of past lives or other psychic powers. He went forth for the destruction of the taints.
“Venerable Sāriputta and Venerable Ānanda have some deep suttas. Most assume that I would be most inspired by Venerable Mahākassapa.”
* * *
Towards the end of his stay at Bhaddeka Vihari, Bhante moved to the Mahāthera Kuṭi. A novice commented that it was fitting that he was living in the Mahāthera Kuṭi, since he was a mahāthera (a monk of over twenty years). Bhante said: “I’m not a mahāthera. That term doesn’t appear in the suttas. I prefer to call myself a ‘thera’”
* * *
By the end of his life, Bhante had been a monk for almost fifty years. When asked how long the ups and downs of his practice lasted, he replied: “After fifty years in robes, you have quite a lot of ups and downs. They can take a long time.”
* * *
Samanera: “Bhante, what is it that kept you going in your life as a monk? You’ve been a monk for over fifty years, and apparently, have never given up.”
Ñāṇadīpa Bhante: “I realized that there’s nothing else for me to do.”