Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mahayana Buddhism, The Doctrinal Foundations, by Paul Williams

I've been reading a great book by Paul Williams on the origins of Mahayana Buddhism - Mahayana Buddhism, The Doctrinal Foundations (2nd edition, 2009). I really did not know much at all about the history of how and why Mahayana developed out of the original Theravada tradition (and I will not use the derogatory term, Hinayana, that the early Mahayana proponents used), so this is quite useful.

I'm not going to try to review the book here, although it is highly recommended, mostly because I have not read any other books on the history of Buddhism, so I have no context by which to compare it. What I do want to do is offer a few quotes that I found interesting in that they reveal elements of the Mahayana tradition with which I was unfamiliar, particularly its mythic-magical background.

Anyway, all of these quotes, unless otherwise noted, come from the Introduction.
Mahayana is not, and never was, an overall single unitary phenomenon. It is not a sect or school but rather perhaps a spiritual movement (or, as Jan Nattier insists below, a vocation) which initially gained its identity not by a definition but by distinguishing itself from alternative spiritual movements or tendencies. Within Mahayana as a spiritual movement we find a number of doctrinal and philosophical schools and thinkers who cannot be placed so easily inside identifiable schools. Mahayana was, moreover, not a sudden phenomenon with a readily identifiable and unitary geographical or conceptual origin, it was not a planned movement spearheaded by a committee of geniuses (or fanatics). It developed over a number of centuries as an alternative and distinctive view of what Buddhism and the concern of some or perhaps even all Buddhists should ultimately be. Its growth and development in the early centuries was marked by, and from our perspective is all but identical with, the evolution of a new and distinctive canonical literature, the Mahayana sutras. If we look at this enormous literature, claiming a disputed canonical authenticity, what we find in reality is a shifting mass of teachings with little or no central core, many of which are incompatible with each other and within which we can sometimes detect mutual criticism. (p. 3)

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The reciting and authorization by Arhats, those who had achieved enlightenment, of the texts of the Canon was the most important event of the First Council [following the Buddha's death] as far as Buddhist tradition is concerned. Indeed the event of the council was so important for succeeding generations that there is a Mahayana tradition which maintains that contemporaneous with the First Council which established the non-Mahayana canon there was another council of Bodhisattvas, those beings who have vowed to become perfect Buddhas, superior to the Arhats. At this contemporaneous council the Bodhisattvas recited and authorized the collection of Mahayana sutras. Thus the Mahayana sutras, of debated authenticity, were given the prestige of antiquity and a respectable imprimatur.

Nevertheless, with all due respect to Buddhist tradition, it really would be quite wrong to think that the Canon was settled and closed at this early date. There are works contained in the Pali Canon, for example, which date from many years after the death of the Buddha. In time different sects produced different canons, each claiming to be the one recited at the First Council. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that over a period of centuries there arose new texts also claiming to be the authentic word of the Buddha. (p. 8)

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The following passage sets the ground rules by which new material can be added to the Buddhist canon, and this is important because much of the Mahayana material comes hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha, and they needed to be able to justify its consideration as the teachings of the Buddha.
We do not know, but perhaps the Buddha would not have been averse to later doctrinal innovation if it occurred within the fundamental structure of the Dharma, that is, if it was of spiritual benefit on the path to nirvaua. But what is to count as being of spiritual benefit? Perhaps it was the Buddha himself, but probably later tradition, who gave guidelines that culminated in the ‘four great arguments/authorities’ (mahapadesa) for controlling doctrinal innovation. These provide criteria for appraising whether a teaching heard is a genuine ‘word of the Buddha’ or not. A teaching heard can be judged authentic if it is received from the Buddha himself, or a sangha of elders, or a group of elders specializing in the transmission of Dharma, Vinaya or Matrkas (proto-Abhidharma – see below) or just one monk who specializes in those. But one can only appeal to the prestige of these four authorities if what is taught also coheres with what is known to be accepted already as scriptural tradition, i.e. it coheres with the Sutras and the Vinaya. Other sources also add that such putative ‘word of the Buddha’ should not contradict the way of things (dharmata).19

Nevertheless, these criteria for doctrinal appraisal still leave room for a great deal of subjective interpretation. This subjectivity may have been exacerbated in some circles by a further group of four interpretive principles – albeit by no means accepted universally – the ‘four reliances’ (pratizaraua). These specified that one should rely on the Dharma rather than the person teaching the Dharma, the meaning or point (artha) rather than the actual words used, sutras that are definitive (nitartha) rather than those requiring interpretation in some further sense (neyartha), and rely on gnosis, direct insight ( jñana), rather than discursive everyday awareness (vijñana). (p. 13-14)

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The following section is rather longer, but it is crucial because it is here that the distinction between an arhat (enlightened one who is free from the wheel of samsara) and a Bodhisattva (one who reincarnates until all beings are enlightened) begins to be formulated. In essence, the Buddha must be seen as supramundane, more than human, for the Mahayana tradition to define itself later on (as it will) as superior to the Theravada tradition.
Indeed, later sources tell of Mahadeva as a thoroughly evil monk who had sex with his mother, killed both his parents, repented and entered (or perhaps hid in) the monastic order and fomented disagreements and arguments. So perhaps the name was a stock one used of a controversialist with whom one strongly disagrees.28 Possibly the points attributed to Mahadeva were always just points debated either individually or as a set among the early schools, intended more often than not to encourage the development of more precise doctrinal understanding (cf. Cousins 1991: 36). If so, there must remain a doubt whether these five points themselves could have really been the cause of a break between the Sthaviravadins and the Mahasatghikas.

Still, whether or not they contributed in some way to the first (or indeed a subsequent) breach or schism in the monastic order, the points attributed to Mahadeva are worth noticing inasmuch as they suggest some opinions that were developing and being debated in early Buddhism. They mainly concern the status of the Arhat, the enlightened person. Mahadeva is said to have taught:

(i) An Arhat may have seminal emissions (possibly as the result of evil activity by Mara, i.e. from ‘the Devil’).
(ii) An Arhat can be subject to ignorance. Sources are not consistent in their interpretation of this. Perhaps this was not intended to mean religious ignorance, but rather an Arhat may be ignorant of a person’s name, and so on.
(iii) An Arhat may have doubt (again, perhaps not concerning the fruitions of the Buddhist path, and their attainment, but about such issues as which road to take at a junction, and so on).
(iv) An Arhat may be instructed by another person.
(v) This fifth point may originally have been that an Arhat can fall away. As it stands now, it appears to say that entry into the Buddhist Way may be facilitated or brought about by an utterance, such as ‘Suffering!’. It is still rather unclear what this last point meant (Cousins 1991; cf. Lamotte 1958: 300 ff.).

According to Paramartha, who wrote a treatise on the schools (sixth century CE, and hence long after the events themselves), the ‘heresy’ of Mahadeva lay in wishing to incorporate into the Canon the Mahayana sutras, and in attributing to the Arhats imperfections. As we have seen above, we know that sutras of the Mahasatghika and no doubt other early Buddhist sects were incorporated into the corpus of Mahayana sutras. It is possible that the reverse occurred. At any rate, what is interesting is the way in which Paramartha connects Mahadeva (however anachronistically), and the tendencies contained in the teachings attributed to Mahadeva, with support for, and possibly the creation of, Mahayana literature. The five points may contain an implicit lowering of the status of the Arhat, or at least may have suggested in the minds of some that an Arhat lacks the full glory that was more and more being associated with the Buddha himself.29 It is also possible that in certain circles the Arhat had been exalted in such a way as to abstract him from all possibility of occurrence. The Arhat needed to be brought closer to human reality. If so, this is interesting because among the more important differences that arose between the Sthaviravada sects and the Mahasatghikas was the Mahasatghika teaching of the ‘supramundane Buddha’, an exaltation of the Buddha that perhaps corresponded in some way with an implied lowering (or limiting) of the status of the Arhat.

As far as we can tell, in all Buddhist traditions there was a tendency to see the Buddha as more than just a purely human being. He was said to have various miraculous powers and the 32 major and 80 minor marks of a superman. At one important point the Buddha denied that he was a man or a god. Rather, he was a Buddha, a fully enlightened one. (p. 19-20)
The supramundane teachings essentially suggest that, not unlike Jesus in the Christian tradition, the Buddha was human but not tainted by the attachments of this world - he was pure (he was conceived without intercourse, and his birth involved no pain).
During the centuries after the death of the Buddha we find developed an extensive and widely popular literature consisting of tales (the Jataka tales) recounting the many virtuous deeds of the Buddha in his previous lives as a Bodhisattva, one on the path to Buddhahood. Indeed, it may have been reflection on these Jataka tales, the wonderful deeds of compassion and wisdom, and the stages that Sakyamuni went through in his many previous lives on his path as a Bodhisattva aiming at supreme Buddhahood, that eventually suggested to some that the path of a Bodhisattva to Buddhahood was a higher way than that of an Arhat. It was indeed a ‘Mahayana’ that was worth embracing themselves.30 (p. 20)
This is essential - in the Mahayana, the Bodhisattva IS superior to the arhat, and this is the foundation of the Mahayana tradition, which also includes a variety of superstitious beliefs not found in the Theravada, especially notions of divine beings and the Pure Land.

Because the Buddha is such a perfected being,
the suggestion that for those who are capable of it the highest religious goal should be not to become an Arhat but to take the Bodhisattva vows, embarking themselves on the long path to a supreme and totally superior Buddhahood. (p. 21)

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The following passage suggests the importance that the Mahayana tradition placed on the lay followers - one never knows where one might find a Bodhisattva.
In another sutra, the Bhadramayakaravyakarana Sutra, it is said that Bodhisattvas are the true renunciates, not those (like monks) who merely renounce the household life; while yet another sutra teaches that Bodhisattvas of correct understanding have no need to renounce the world and become monks. Corresponding to this is the role of interlocutors of the Buddha given to wise laywomen and girls, who are finally predicted to obtain perfect Buddhahood in the future. Particularly interesting in this context is the Asokadattavyakarana Sutra. Azokadatta was a 12-year-old princess who refused to stand and make obeisance to the monks when they entered the palace. The monks were followers of an Inferior Vehicle, a Hinayana: ‘Your Majesty, why should one who follows the path leading to supreme enlightenment, who is like the lion, the king of beasts, salute those who follow the Hcnayana, who are like jackals?’ (Chang 1983: 116). She explained the supremacy of the Bodhisattvas. Even a novice Bodhisattva exceeds all those on the Arhat path. To mock the monastic teaching of the spiritual inferiority of women, a low, dualistic way of thinking, Asokadatta turns herself into a man, and then back into a girl again. It is all relative, all in the mind. Her female form, we are told, was taken out of compassion to win (feminists?) over to the Dharma. Of course, to the traditional monastic way of thinking, based on the Buddhist path to becoming an Arhat, nothing could be worse, nothing more absurd, than religious instruction of monks by a 12-year-old lay girl. That, no doubt, is the point. Those who composed this text are intending to tell their monastic rivals and detractors that even a 12-year-old girl knows much more than they do.
It is clear, however, that the sutras WERE written by monks, and not 12-year-old girls or other lay persons. But their point was made - arhats have a very limited view to the Mahayana perspective, and Bodhisattvas can be found outside the monastery.
As Buddhahood became supreme over Arhatship, so attaining Buddhahood, and therefore becoming a Bodhisattva, eventually became the new religious goal advocated in the Mahayana for all Buddhist practitioners capable of it. While the notion of the Bodhisattva as one who is destined to full Buddhahood is common to all Buddhist traditions, to set forth the path of the Bodhisattva as the ultimate aspiration for many and possibly even for all seems to be a uniquely Mahayana conception. Within this context the layperson, as a Bodhisattva or potential Bodhisattva, gains in importance. Correspondingly, the religious activities held by some to be characteristic of, or of most benefit to, laypeople become respectable. We find this growing respectability already in the pre-Mahayana tradition. (p. 26)

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There are 20 more pages of the introduction that offer many more insights into the origins of the Mahayana tradition, but this will suffice for the purposes of this post.

I am intrigued by the mythic-magical beliefs in the foundation of this school that most people in the West do not associate with Buddhism. Many of the teachings of the Buddha's origins are so similar to those of Jesus in Christianity (aside from reincarnation, and this even might be less anachronistic to Christianity than we might think, based on the Gnostic Gospels).

We seem to have a tendency to want our teachers to be better than the rest of us - more than human. And this same impulse is clear in the many of the early teachings in the Mahayana traditions, and even more so in later expansions into the Pure Land school, among others.

Anyway - get this book and read it if you have any interest in the history of Buddhism from an external text-based perspective rather than from the interior teachings of the various schools.


C.S. Sloan said...


Thanks for posting this. As a (minor) Buddhist historian buff, I always enjoy reading works such as this. It has motivated me to go by the book for myself.

william harryman said...

My pleasure - it's a great book and has made me want to read some of the other texts he references as well (other histories, as well as the Sutras). Plus, it's on the Kindle, which makes me very happy.