Buddhaghosa Buddhism


Buddhaghosa was a Buddhist monk, scholar, philosopher, and great commentator on Buddhist texts active in the early fifth century. Buddhaghosa means "the voice of Buddha, " translated into Chinese by Jueyīn 觉音.

Probably born in India, he lived for a long time in Sri Lanka, where he wrote many palis commentaries on the Tipitaka as well as their synthesis, the Visuddhimagga, a fundamental work for the schools of Theravada Buddhism.



We have only limited, and sometimes disputed, information about Buddhaghosa's life. The sources are the brief prologues and epilogues of his own works; details of his life from chapter 372 of the Culavamsa, a Sinhalese chronicle written around the thirteenth century; and an even later biography, the Buddhaghosuppati ("Development of Buddhaghosa's Career").

Finally, we have various accounts of his life, but they do not agree and none of them can be dated before the thirteenth century.


According to the Mahāvaṃśa (of which the Culavamsa is a part) and legend, Buddhaghosa was born into a Brahmin family in the Bodh Gaya region of India. He is said to have been an excellent scholar of the Pathanjali system. He mastered the Vedas at an early age and traveled throughout India practicing philosophical debate.

A defeat in a debate against a Buddhist monk named Revata is said to have led him to enter the Buddhist sangha in order to learn more about this doctrine. He received his monk's name, Buddhaghosa (Voice of the Buddha - the awakened one) because of his sonorous voice and rhetorical skills.

He is said to have written various treatises which have not survived, before following the advice of Revata, whom he had chosen as his teacher, who suggested that he go to Sri Lanka to look for commentaries on texts from the Buddhist canon which had become unavailable in India.

These commentaries had been transferred to Sri Lanka in the second century B.C., translated from Pali into Sinhala, and then kept in the Mahâvihâra (the "Great Monastery") in the capital, Anurâdapura.

Sri Lanka

On this island, he would have found the commentaries in Sinhala and studied them, under the guidance of the monk and scholar Sanghapâla. Then he sought permission to synthesize these commentaries into a single work, which he would write in pāli, the language of the Tipitaka.

But the monks would first test him by asking him to expound the dharma from two stanzas taken from the canon. Thereupon, Buddhaghosa composed the Visuddhimagga (The Way of Purity), his most famous work.

Bowing to his expertise, Buddhaghosa was able to write a book on the dharma. Bowing to his expertise and mastery of the texts, the monks then allowed him to consult all the texts, both canonical and commentary.

To this, the legend adds that deities hid the finished work twice, forcing its author to start his work again. But when they returned the first two versions to him, the three texts turned out to be identical.

After that, Buddhaghosa retired to the "Library Monastery" to quietly translate the Sinhala commentaries into Pāli. The masters of the tradition considered the result to be of equal value to the original texts. When his task was completed, Buddhaghosa returned to India to make a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya.[ref. wanted]


The attribution of commentaries to Buddhaghosa remains a disputed question in research. One can however give a list of texts that are probably by him, and another list whose attribution is more debatable.

But whoever the authors are, these texts have had a profound influence on Theravada Buddhist doctrine in Sri Lanka as we know it today, as well as throughout Southeast Asia.

Probable Attribution

The Visuddhimagga (the "Way of Purity") is undoubtedly Buddhaghosa's most important work, but also the greatest synthesis of Theravada Buddhist thought ever written, and one that has had a lasting impact on the tradition. It is divided into three parts - morality, wisdom, and theology - and is intended to be used as a guide to the Buddhist tradition.

Divided into three parts - morality (sila), meditative absorption (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna) - the Visuddhimagga summarizes the content of the Paleolithic tipitaka. The probability that Buddhaghosa's work was written in the form of the Visuddhimagga is high. The probability that Buddhaghosa is its author is high.

Among the texts whose attribution to Buddhaghosa is likely, we shall mention the commentaries on the great divisions of the basket of sutras (Sutta Pitaka), namely the Sumaṅgavilâsini, commentary on the Dîgha Nikâya; Papañcasûdani, commentary on the Majjhima Nikâya;

Sâratthappakâsini, commentary on the Saṁyutta Nikâya; Manorathapûrani, commentary on the Aṅguttara Nikâya. To which may be added the Paramatthajotikâ, a commentary on the Khuddakapâṭha and commentaries on the Abidharma books.

According to Buswell and Lopez, the commentaries on the four nikâyas are undoubtedly by him, but the other works attributed to him are probably later and due to what might be called the "Buddhaghosa school".

Debated attribution

Dhammapadaṭṭhakathâ, commentary on the Dhammapada.
Samantapâsâdika, commentary on the Vinaya Piṭaka
Kankhâvitaraṇi, commentary on the Pâtimokkha

Atthasâlinî, commentary on the Dhammasaṅgaṇi
Sammohavinodanî, commentary on the Vibhaṅga
Pañcappakaraṇatthakathâ, commentary on the Kathâvatthu
Jâtakatthakathâ, commentary on the Jâtaka.

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