Mahayana/Theravada 4: The Authentic Teachings

Mahayana/Theravada 4: The Authentic Teachings

If you poll the followers of the various schools with the question,
"Which is the True Buddhism?" you will probably find a very consistent
answer: "Ours Is!"

Zen, for instance, is traditionally held to be a special transmission
independent of words and letters that was kept under wraps in India,
but can be traced directly to the Buddha, through Bhikkhu Mahakassapa,
who as only one out of myriad disciples understood what the Buddha
meant when, instead of delivering a conventional discourse, he simply
held up a flower, and Kassapa smiled. Soka Gakai, a Japanese sect
whose main practice is revering the Lotus Sutra, not part of the
earliest scriptures, often claims to be the one "True Buddhism."
Theravadins often claim that theirs is the one authentic school
because, they say, it has not added or removed a single word from what
the Buddha taught.

The various schools of Buddhism (Theravada and Mahayana, the latter
with much more variety than the former) do differ in their doctrines,
though my own feeling is that except for some runaway schools, the
differences are not as great as many people seem to think. And almost
no school contradicts a certain set of core teachings, which can be
attributed to the Buddha with a degree of certainty, though all
enhance them, either a little or a lot. In this posting I want to
consider how to pinpoint what the Buddha taught and then in very
general terms consider how that has been tinkered with. This is a bit
of history, as I understand it from my studies. (By the way, I'm not a
Buddhist historian, and do not intend this blog posting as a scholarly
treatise. I welcome hearing any corrections to what I write here).

What Did the Buddha Teach?

We actually do not know for certain what the Buddha said or did not
say. But there is a corpus that we can be reasonably certain fairly
well reflects the Buddha's teachings as they were understood shortly
after his death. This is the Eartly (Not Mahayana) Suttas (Sutras, or
Discourses, I will use the Pali word Suttas to refer to this corpus)
and the Vinaya (Books of Discipline), which correspond to two of the
three baskets of the Theravada Pali Canon and to similar parts of the
Agamas that survive in Chinese translation from Sanskrit. I'll call
these the Core Corpus, or, if you will, the Core-pus.

The argument that the Suttas and Vinaya, the Core-pus, mostly date
back to the Buddha, comes from reconstructing their history. It is
recorded that the teachings of the Buddha, quite extensive after a
45-year teaching career, were first recited from memory in their
entirely at the First Council of 500 monks shortly after the
Parinirvana. The words were not yet committed to palm leaf, but
retained in memory, different parts by different members of the
sangha, and preserved in that form for hundreds of years, eventually
in many different regions in India and beyond, and in different
languages, and by the different early schools that began to form. The
idea of memorizing such a huge corpus seems daunting to modern
Westerners, but it seems to have been common at the time. After living
with Burmese monks, who continue this tradition of memorization, this
no longer seems at all infeasible to me. Many monks here can recite
very long texts word for word, such as all 227 rules for monks. There
was a famous Burmese monk who won a place in the Guinness Book of
World Records for being able to recite the entire Pali Canon,
basically the entire Core-pus plus the huge Pali Abhidamma, all by
himself, which is like 28 thick books! The texts were eventually
written down at different places and times and in different languages,
apparently first in Sri Lanka, where the Pali Canon was recorded about
400 years after the death of the Buddha. Today the Theravada school
refers to this Pali version, and this is the easiest to find in
English translation. In India the Sanskrit versions became most widely
known, and were inherited into the Mahayana schools. However, these
various versions of the Core-pus, preserved in different places and
recorded at different times, turned out to be in remarkable agreement,
and in no way account for the doctrinal differences of various later
schools. So, in China virtually the same range of discourses and
stories and rules of discipline were available as in Sri Lanka or
Burma. This is evidence that the various written versions probably
accurately represented the original recited version of the Core-pus.

Although there versions of the Core-pus agree remarkably they don't
entirely. Spurious changes can be found, and in fact editing of these
versions probably went on for hundreds of years. For instance, in the
Pali Vinaya there is an account of the Second Council, reported to
have occurred 100 years after the death of the Buddha. For the most
part scholars can detect spurious edits by comparing the early written
texts, but apparently there are cases in which this does not work,
because the editors of different versions have adopted the same
changes from a common third source. For instance, some scholars now
believe that many of the Jataka (previous lives of the Buddha)
stories, along with references to the concept of the Bodhisattva,
first mentioned in the Jatakas; and the teachings of the Paramitas,
recognized with some differences by virtually all modern schools of
Buddhism, were all absent in the original Core-pus, i.e., the Buddha
never taught these things. Rather all of these seem to have
originated in the Sarvastivada (early Hinayana, i.e., non-Mahayana)
school long after the Buddha, which then added these to their
scriptures. Apparently these modifications were a good idea, since
other schools, including the Theravada, then made these same changes
to their versions of the scriptures. But by and large scholars seem
generally to have a degree of confidence that the Suttas and Vinaya
reflect the teachings of the Buddha.

Different Interpretations.

The Christian Bible, as far as I can tell, was written by many
different people who had quite diverse and contradictory views. This
may partially account for why there are so many doctrinal differences
within Christianity. The Buddhist Core-pus, on the other hand, is
largely the product of one mind, or of the Buddha and a handful of
disciples who were in intimate contact with that one mind, and as such
is very consistent in its approach. However, even the Core-pus seems
to lend itself to alternative interpretations, some of which may
underlie later doctrinal differences within Buddhist. For instance,
what is meant literally, and what is meant metaphorically, what is
essential and what is incidental? For example, the Core-pus has a lot
of colorful imagery, and often makes reference, quite matter-of-factly
to devas and deva realms, i.e., godly beings and their living
arrangements. These may be embellishments for dramatic or comic
effect, but sometimes seem to have systematic roles in the exposition
of the Dhamma, as in the case of rebirth in the various non-human and
non-animal realms. In the Pure Land School of Mahayana Buddhism, the
Pure Land is one of these godly realms, in which a buddha (not THE
Buddha, who is sidelined), Amitabha, plays a critical role. I
understand that the basic premises of this school actually have
support in the Suttas and Vinaya, if you look for them. Yet the Pure
Land school is often criticized in the Theravada as deviant in its
doctrine in making rebirth in the Pure Land a fundamental goal. (The
Pure Land is, I believe, also the largest modern school of Mahayana
Buddhism, so this critique is sometimes assumed in the Theravada world
to apply to all of the Mahayana.) This may (I am speculating) be a
question of whether a particular passage of the earliest corpus is
taken to be essential or incidental.

What Was Taught After the Buddha?

Buddhism has a vast set of scriptures that do not belong to the
Core-pus, many of which are important to only specific schools of
Buddhism. Many of these are claimed to have originated with the
Buddha, often with a transmission story to explain why they were
unknown earlier on; these stories often involve either devas or
dragons preserving these scriptures secretly for a period, sometimes
until the world is ready for these teachings. In addition, there exist
commentarial traditions and philosophical schools within Buddhism that
have enjoyed quite a lot of original thought and debate. In many
Mahayana schools of Buddhism the Suttas, although part of the history
of these schools, are all but ignored in favor of these later works
(though significantly the Vinaya is an important part of almost every
tradition outside of Japan).

Let me review some things that are clearly post-Core-pus:

(1) The Abhidhamma. This is regarded in the Theravada tradition as the
third basket of the Pali Canon. In Burma this is not only attributed
to the Buddha, but regarded as the highest teachings of the Buddha. It
also has a transmission story, which has the Buddha reciting it to his
mother, reborn as a godess, in Tavatimsa Heaven. Unlike the other two
baskets the Pali Abhidhamma does not correspond to anything preserved
in other traditions. There are at least two other versions of
something called "Abhidharma" that arose in other traditions,
including the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma, but these are clearly separate
works and also not a part of the Core-pus. The Theravada Abhidhamma
(which I am engaged in studying right now) is a thorough
systematization of the Buddha's teachings as presented in the Suttas
with regard to the nature of reality and of the mind, but also seems
to add some original detail, For instance, it provides a detailed
accounting of the mechanisms of rebirth, which does not seem to be a
major focus of the Suttas.

(2) The Theravada commentarial corpus. This includes, for instance,
The Path of Purification and other works of Acariya Buddhaghosa. This
corpus, compiled about 800 years after the Buddha, in Sri Lanka in
Pali, is considered by nobody to have originated with the Buddha, but
is claimed to have been based on writings of his early disciples.
Nevertheless, it has something close to scriptural status in the
Theravada school, playing an important role in the current shape of
Theravada Buddhism. The Path of Purification is a meditation manual
and is pretty definitive of Vipassana meditation, though a number of
Theravada meditation teachers, including Ven. Buddhadassa of Thailand,
point out that the Buddha's approach to meditation as presented in the
Suttas is really much less elaborate.

Doctrinally Theravada Buddhism might not be identical to the Buddhism
of the Core-pus, but on the other hand, it never lets the Core-pus out
of its sight. The Suttas and the Vinaya are widely studied, and so the
parallels with the commentary and Abhidhamma are clearly in mind.
Students are instructed in Burma to study with the Suttas (or
Abhidhamma) in one hand and the commentary in the other. This pretty
much ensures that there can be no large unfounded deviation from the
original teachings of the Buddha.

(3) All of what are commonly regarded as Mahayana sutras. These
include the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Flower Ornament Sutra, the
Amitabha Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, Indra's Net
Sutra, and so on. All of these Sutras appear to have been composed in
the early centuries of the Christian era, primarily in India, though
apparently scholars are now discovering that many are of Chinese or
Middle Asian origin. Many of these works are attributed to the Buddha
and often have some of the formal structure of the early Suttas, but
the colorful imagery of the early Suttas, including gods and
supernatural powers, really comes into its own in many of the Mahayana
Sutras. These Sutras introduce a host of characters not found in the
Core-pus, such as the Bodhisattvas Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara,and so
on. They also focus on some themes that are absent or more marginal in
the Core-pus, such as the bodhisattva ideal and compassion,
realization of emptiness as the heart of wisdom, Buddha nature and the
transcendent nature of the Buddha. However, taken as a whole the scope
of the Mahayana Sutras is much narrower than that of the earlier
Suttas; they usually focus on higher stages of wisdom, whereas in the
Core-pus there is a Sutta for virtually any occasion or listener, so
that they cover meditation instruction, ethics, metareligion (such as
how to evaluate religious teachings), care of parents, etc., even the
proper way to hang up robes to dry, in addition to higher wisdom.

(4) All of what are commonly regarded as the Mahayana commentaries
(shastras). This includes works of philosopher-monks such as
Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga, Shantideva, etc. In the Mahayana the
name of Nagarjuna, sometimes called "the Second Buddha," is
particularly prominent, and there are even origin stories for his
teachings, involving special access to secret works from the time of
the Buddha that were preserved by Nagas (dragons) under water (notice
that his name accordingly begins with "Naga"). Commentaries and the
Sutras seem to have been composed throughout the early centuries of
the Christian Era, most scholars agree, by monastics.

Notice I have hedged calling the Sutras and commentaries "Mahayana."
This word was first applied after most of these had been composed, so
after the fact. Rather, there seems to have been a period of free
Buddhist inquiry and debate in northern India in the early centuries
of the Christian Era, roughly that was perhaps comparable to the
intellectual milieu of post-Enlightenment Europe, in which monastic
universities flourished and scholars could examine Buddhist ideas
creatively from a variety of perspectives. Sanskrit became the primary
language of this world. Because Theravada Buddhism developed primarily
in Sri Lanka it was largely cut off from this rich intellectual world.
For a period Sinhalese was its primary language of discourse, then
later Pali.

When the word "Mahayana" was introduced it seemed to have been to
applied to a variety of seemingly orthogonal teachings, including
Emptiness, the Enhanced (almost godly) status of the Buddha, the
bodhisattva ideal in opposition to seeking personal enlightenment,
etc. "Hinayana" was used to refer to schools or monks that do not
accept this variety of teachings. In general the Mahayana never
criticized the Hinayana, or the Core-pus, for being in error, but for
being incomplete. Somehow there seems to have been a long-standing
dissatisfaction with the original teachings that provided a constant
pressure toward a variety of innovations during this very creative
period in northern India. The interesting question is why was that? A
weakness in the Buddha's teachings, a change in the demographics of
the Buddhist community, a need for more devotional practices or a more
colorful mythology? In any case, the Mahayana-Hinayana debate in no
way split the monastic community; as Chinese pilgrims who visited
India during this period testified Mahayana and Hinayana monks lived
side-by-side in the same monasteries perfectly happily, apparently
with a high degree of tolerance for doctrinal diversity.

Now, many of these innovations can be found in the schools called
"Hinayana." For instance, the "Hinayana" Sarvastivadin school seems to
have originated the bodhisattva ideal early on, which was partially
adopted by most schools, including Theravada. On the other hand, the
"Mahayana" focus on Emptiness may have been a reaction to the
Sarvastivadin Abhidharma, which seems to have reintroduced something
like an enduring Self. Theravadins criticize the Sarvastivadins for
this. David Kalupahana argues that Nagarjuna's contribution to
Buddhism was not a new doctrine of emptiness, but a further exposition
of profound teachings that the Buddha first introduced, that his views
were conservative, very much in the spirit of the Core-pus, though his
style of exposition was brilliant. I think Nagarjuna actually never
touched on any of the other "Mahayana" themes, and lived before the
word "Mahayana" was coined.

Proponents of the Mahayana may have simply claimed many of the most
creative thinkers and their works as representing Mahayana after the
fact. But also, notice that all the other Hinayana (non-Mahayana)
schools of Buddhism eventually died out, as Buddhism died out in
India. I suspect that Mahayana simply became the heir of all of the
products of this creative period in norther India. This might explain
why Mahayana is difficult to pinpoint doctrinally. We might say,
Mahayana = Core-pus + Creative Innovations.

(5) The Teachings in China, Tibet and beyond. As Buddhism died out in
India, the scholar and university tradition primarily continued in
Tibet. In China the teachings took on radically different forms,
primarily under the influence of Taoism. For instance, in the Zen
tradition the koan corpus acquired scriptural status, quirky little
stories or dialogs that pointed to higher wisdom, while little direct
reference was made to the teachings of the Suttas, for instance to the
Four Noble Truths. It is very difficult to compare Zen to the Core-pus
point by point for consistency, because its language is quite
different.

Folk Embellishments.

In addition to deliberately composed teachings, there are in every
Buddhist country a lot of folk embellishments to the Buddhism of the
Core-pus, often resulting in a blending of indigenous beliefs with
Buddhism, in a way that locally it becomes difficult to distinguish
the two. It is interesting to observe that in Myanmar: I've reported
in past postings to this blog on a lot of the ways in which anything
of interest to the normal tourist has become a pagoda after some folk
story has lent it special Buddhist significance. Here is another
example of the blending of folk beliefs in this country: The Burmese
cherish their arahants and generally attribute posthumous supernatural
events to them. There is a widespread belief that an arahant can
choose to become a mummy, that is, with no preparation they can choose
not to decay after death, and to thereby remain as a Protector of
Buddhism should the need arise. Somehow I have trouble picturing how
this would actually play out. I have seen such a mummified arahant at
a pagoda near here, and he did not look like he would be very healthy,
or particularly useful, if he arose from death with some noble task in
mind. He would scare a lot of people, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike.
In East Asia there is a lot of blending of Buddhism with ancestor
worship, as well as with Taoism and Confucianism.

Although the direct teaching of the Suttas has largely been displaced
in most of the Mahayana schools by later Sutras, commentaries and
other works, this does not entail that the spirit of the Suttas has
been lost in this transformation. The one part of the Core-pus that is
still widely referenced in almost all Mahayana schools is the Vinaya,
the Books of Discipline, that define the lives of monks and nuns, and
the governance of the Buddhist community. Thus more than the the
Suttas, the Vinaya is the common thread that runs throughout almost
all of Buddhism in Asia. This may at first seem strange, but this is
very important to consider in the West, especially since this text is
virtually unknown in Western Buddhism. The Vinaya was created by the
Buddha as the instrument though which the integrity of the Buddha's
teachings would endure and through which the Buddhism would flourish.
In fact in Theravada Buddhism it is taught that as long as monks and
nuns follow the Vinaya, the Dhamma will take care of itself. The
history of Buddhism seems to bear this out. If this is true, then
those Mahayana traditions that respect and practice the Vinaya can not
be doctrinally too far off base.

I intend to make one final posting to the Theravada/Mahayana Series,
in which I draw conclusions that are hopefully useful to Western
Buddhists for planning their practice lives. Then I will begin a
series called "The Buddha's Teachings on Community," based on the
Vinaya, that often dry and in the West neglected work, that has
nevertheless proved to be critical in the history of Buddhism and that
will be essential for its future growth in the West.

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