The Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) is the most important Pali work in the Theravada after the Pali canon, and it has, in certain contexts, superseded canonical sources as a practical handbook and systematization of doctrine and practice. The text became the structure and foundation of Theravada orthodoxy, and remains influential in this capacity, especially as a manual of meditation, to this day. Its author, Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa (5th century CE), is also credited with transmitting into Pali many of the commentaries (aṭṭhakathā) on the three baskets of the Pali scriptural canon (tipiṭaka), though his authorship of all of the commentaries ascribed to him has been disputed by modern scholars. The Visuddhimagga, itself described as a commentary, is one part of this larger body of scriptural exegesis and is best understood within this larger exegetical context. The scholarship on the Visuddhimagga and Buddhaghosa’s commentaries is not as developed as we might expect for such significant texts, and most of the commentaries attributed to him have not been translated into European languages.
The standard English translation of the Visuddhimagga is the masterful work of Ñāṇamoli (Buddhaghosa 1999). Von Hinüber 2015 gives the most up-to-date survey of scholarship on Buddhaghosa and the nature of his transmission of the commentaries. Brief but helpful overviews of the Visuddhimagga (Arunasiri 2007) and of Buddhaghosa (Law 1971) can be found in the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, and U Dhammaratana 2011 offers a clear and useful synopsis of the contents of the text. Malalasekera 1994 devotes a chapter to Buddhaghosa in a book on the intellectual history of the Pali tradition. Geiger 1978 surveys Pali literature and the place of Buddhaghosa within it. The most extensive overview of Buddhaghosa and his work is provided by the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies (Potter 2008).
Arunasiri, K. “Visuddhimagga.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 8. Edited by W. G. Weeraratne, 706–712. Sri Lanka: Dhammacakkam Pavattitam Appativattiyam, 2007.
Overview of Buddhaghosa, summary lists of the contents of the Visuddhimagga, and a brief discussion of its importance in Pali literature and among Buddhist texts more broadly.
Buddhaghosa. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Translated with an Introduction by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli. Onalaska, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions, 1999.
The best place to explore the Visuddhimagga is the text itself, and this is the English version with which to do so. Ñāṇamoli’s translation of the Visuddhimagga translates Pali terms consistently with the same English terms; it is both literal and readable (though difficult); and it includes a useful introduction, extensive footnotes, appendices of Abhidhamma tables, and a thorough index. Originally published in 1956.
Geiger, Wilhelm. Pali Literature and Language. New Delhi: Oriental Books, 1978.
Geiger provides an overview of post-canonical Pali literature and the commentaries (pp. 25–34); he sees the Visuddhimagga as an “encyclopedia” of Buddhist doctrines.
Law, Bimala Churn. “Buddhaghosa.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 3. Edited by G. P. Malalasekere, 404–417. Ceylon, Sri Lanka: Government of Ceylon Press, 1971.
While drawing somewhat uncritically from the hagiographical sources on Buddhaghosa, this article outlines the narratives of Buddhaghosa’s life, the works attributed to him, and key philosophical categories central to the Visuddhimagga.
Malalasekera, G. P. The Pāli Literature of Ceylon. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1994.
Has chapters on Buddhaghosa and Buddhaghosa’s successors, and describes his contribution in the context of Pali intellectual history of Sri Lanka.
Potter, Karl, ed. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Vol. 9, Buddhist Philosophy from 350 to 600 A.D. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2008.
This volume contains probably the best summary of what is known of Buddhaghosa’s history and the contents of the Visuddhimagga, as well as the commentaries ascribed to him, listed by the titles of texts (pp. 110–216).
U Dhammaratana. Guide through the Visuddhimagga. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2011 (Originally published 1964).
This is a short and clear synopsis covering the three main sections of the Visuddhimagga in three chapters, on virtue, concentration, and wisdom. Best for a beginner for its largely descriptive nature.
von Hinüber, Oskar. “Building the Theravāda Commentaries: Buddhaghosa and Dhammapāla as Authors, Compilers, Redactors, Editors and Critics.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 36/37 (2015): 353–388.
An overview of current work on the commentarial tradition of the Mahāvihāra, focusing on Buddhaghosa and Dhammapāla.
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