Growing the Dharma: the History of the Sasana

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In the last chapters we have looked at the factors articulated in early Buddhism that define the Sasana, Buddhism in its social context. In this chapter we look at the subsequent history of Buddhism.

Chapter 6. Propogation and Evolution of the Sasana (1/2)

During one of his discourses the Buddha once sneezed1. The monks present called out,

“Bless you!”

This was a conventional idiom in Buddha’s India and the Buddha’s response should have been,

“Bless you too.”

But instead he posed a question, something like,

“Wait a minute. Do you think that saying that will influence my future well-being?”

The monks replied, “Well, no, actually.”

“Then you are not to say it!”

And thereby a new rule circulated that monks were expected to follow. However, lay people began to complain about how unmannerly all the monks had suddenly become, something like,

“I blessed a perfectly good monk who sneezed and he didn’t even bless me back!”

“How rude! The impudent cad”

When this was reported back to the Buddha he rescinded the rule that he had earlier proclaimed.

“Monks, householders need blessings. When someone says, ‘Bless you’, I permit you to answer, ‘Bless you too’.”

This little story is indicative of the Buddha’s willingness to adapt to druthers. The Buddha thereby gave us a Buddhism that would be subject to and tolerate embellishment. Perhaps this is part of the reason that it gained a place as the first world religion as it simply passed peacefully from one land to another.

Moreover, Buddhism after the Buddha’s death (parinibbāna) was open to evolution because it lacked a central authority to impose orthodoxy or orthopraxis, with the integrity of the Dharma entrusted independently to each local monastic sangha. It was open to evolution because its Great Standards (mahāpadesa) made the Dharma effectively extensible on functional grounds. It was susceptible to local mutation because the Buddha asked that the texts be taught in local vernaculars rather than more widely understood lingua francas.2 And indeed the flower of Buddhism would changed with time and place, sometimes developing wider leaves or deeper roots, sometimes developing a shorter stem or requiring more sun or less water, but in in most places remaining a flower that still produced from time to time a dazzling blossom and propagating itself still further.

A Whirlwind History of the Sasana after Buddha

Let’s get historical. Just as organisms change from generation to generation, Buddhism has changed to produce many varieties, and continues to change. The metaphor here is genetic. We can talk of three kinds of processes that have together created the diversity of today’s Sasana:

Propagation is the process whereby any particular Buddhist tradition extends itself into new regions or populations.

Evolution is the mutative process of change, generally in response to regional or cultural preferences.

Cross-fertilization is the process of borrowing traits from one tradition (Buddhist or non-Buddhist) into a distinct Buddhist tradition.

Propagation. As Buddhism spread geographically through India and into neighboring lands it began differentiating itself along geographical lines, in small ways, much as linguistic dialects tend distinguish themselves over time until eventually they will become mutually unintelligible yet functionally similar languages. There also seems to have been an occasional schism, or a split in a local sangha whereby one group of monks went off in a huff and would no longer deal with the remaining monks, probably with much the same result as geographical dispersion.3 For instance, the early Sarvastivadin sect apparently developed around Kashmir and into Central Asia and much of Northwest India and was active for almost a thousand years. The Dharmaguptaka sect arose in Gandhara, the Mahasangika was scattered around in northwest and western India, including Mathura, the Theravada took hold in Sri Lanka and is active there and in Southeast Asia, to which it spread, to this day. Each sect typically introduced some new elements or interpretations that differentiated it from others. Now and then a particular sect would commit its heretofore orally preserved teachings to written form in one language or another. The Dharmaguptaka scriptures, for instance, were recorded in Gandhari and Sanskrit,4 the Sarvastivadin in Sanskrit, the Theravadin in Pali and so on.

The propagation of Buddhism was reportedly given its first really big boost through the very early missionary zeal of Emperor Ashoka (304–232 BCE),5 who sent missions to various places within and beyond his empire – to Sri Lanka, to Kashmir, to Persia and as far as the Mediterranean. With time Buddhism spread westward across what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan into Persia and Central Asia, southward and eastward through Southeast Asia and island-hopping as far as Java. From Central Asia it spread in both directions along the Silk Road, eastern into China in the first century CE, from whence it with time it would gain the bulk of its adherents in East Asia. There is some tenuous speculation of the influence of Buddhism on early Christianity at the far Western end of the Silk Road.6 In the eighth century Buddhism become firmly established in Tibet through Kashmir, where Buddhism had come under the crossbreeding influence of Tantric Hinduism. In recent years Buddhism has spread over much of the world outside Asia from almost every sect as local ethnic communities have established temples. The growth in literacy and communications in recent times has sometimes allowed Buddhism to precede qualified sandals-on-the-ground Buddhist teachers in extending the influence of Buddhist philosophy and life into uncharted lands.

The great variety of people from the most diverse regions traveling hither and fro along the Silk Road and producing an ample trickle of Buddhists at the eastern end, made China heir to almost every sect or later movement or philosophical school of Buddhism active in India or elsewhere, such that the early sects no longer retained their individual identities except to inject their own characteristic scriptural teachings into the Chinese mix. For instance, the Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka sect became standard for Chinese monastic practice, but probably the Sarvastivadin had the greatest doctrinal influence. As history marches on the West is now experiencing a repeat of this process as virtually every form of Buddhism found in Asia is adding its characteristic heritage to the Western mix.

Buddhism has largely died out in India, in the regions west of India and in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it has been largely supplanted by Islam and Hinduism. The only early (that is, pre-Mahayana) sect that has retained its early identity is the Theravada of Southern Asia.

Evolution. The combination of variation and selection has produced over many centuries many varieties of Buddhism. Variation arises at other times by adopting alternative understandings – at worst erroneous interpretations of traditional teachings, and at best insightful products of great minds – able to shape a Buddhism more effective in a regional culture, or to streamline certain practices or understandings. Desirable features have been selected due to the pressures of human nature, of local cultural and environmental factors and occasionally of external intervention, such as governmental decrees.

Early differences in interpretation are found in the varying codifications of a formalization of Buddhist philosophy called the Abhidharma (Sanskrit, or Abhidhamma in Pali) which developed rather independently but in parallel in many of the early sects after the time of Emperor Ashoka. For instance, the Buddha’s subtle teaching of non-self (Pali, anatta or Sanskrit, anatman) gave rise to differing ontological stances on ultimate existence. The Abhidharma projects sometimes became highly speculative and other early sects abstained from theAbhidhamma project, rejecting any such extension beyond the early discourses. Most notable among the latter is the Sautrantika subsect of Sarvastivada, whose name refers to their rather strict reliance on the suttas.

Starting in the first century BCE or the first century CE and continuing for a few centuries thereafter monks in India and later in Central Asia began composing texts that were most often based on the model of the early discourses but generally longer and mythically fortified. Examples were the apocryphal Prajnaparamita Sutras, Lotus Sutra, Flower Ornament Sutra and so on. This was the beginning of the Mahayana movement, whose scriptures generally developed and then echoed a number of common doctrinal themes. As if this were not enough, the first millennium CE in northern India seems also to have been an era of very liberal thinking, of free Buddhist inquiry, the era of the great scholar-monks, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Vasubandu, and so on, and the era of the great Buddhist monastic universities where they lived, studied and taught, most famously Nalanda, which brought thousands of students and teachers together in one place or another to discuss and debate the whole spectrum of Buddhist thought both orthodox and modern. I picture this era as much like what developed much later in the Western post-Enlightenment intellectual milieu or in beatnik coffee shops of the 1950’s, in which almost any philosophical proposition was worthy of discussion or debate.

In China Buddhism was suddenly propelled into a radically different culture that placed selective evolutionary pressures on its shape, much as if flower seeds were propagated by wind or defecating birds to a region of distinctive conditions of wind, soil or water, or, for that matter, if a flock of penguins were to come into contact a colony of Eskimos for many generations: the tradition would either evolve or perish. With much colder weather, clothing and housing, the basic requisites of monks, would have to be more substantial. In a land whose cultural life was largely rooted in Confucianism and Taoism, included a very strong ethical code governing every aspect of life from the behavior of the emperor to familial relations, had a basis of high literacy and intellectual astuteness, and appreciated the cycles and beauty of nature. Here the family was valued highly and there was no previous tradition of wandering mendicants. The Chinese way of thinking has been called syncretic where the Indian is analytic. The emperors were divine. There was much more social mobility than in India; a farmer’s son could through passing government examinations become employed in the government system and eventually be promoted to eventually become a minister to the emperor.

China was culturally about as far from India as possible. And in China Buddhism evolved under these influences. First, the Chinese popularized those scriptures and philosophical treatises appearing at the mouth of the Silk Road that most appealed to Chinese tastes, giving Chinese Buddhism a distinctive quality simply through the process of natural selection. For instance, the long obscure Pure Land Sutras from India seem to have gone viral in China. China developed its own schools and ordination lineages, such as Chan and T’ien Tai (Zen and Tendai in Japan), each generally on the basis of a particular transmitted Mahayana scripture. Then China’s own scriptural corpus developed, such as the rather unique poetry and koan collections found in the Zen school that bear a much clearer affinity to Taoist literature than to anything found in Indian Buddhism. We will have occasion to look at some of these Chinese adaptations as our discussion progresses.

Throughout its newly gained range Buddhism came under a variety of pressures that tended to bend and reshape Buddhism in various ways. Among these pressures are cultural taboos, different culturally conditioned ways of conceptualizing the content of Buddhism and the blending of indigenous folk religions or folk beliefs into Buddhism. Also important in this regard is the way in which seemingly universal religious proclivities, for instance, toward worship, toward the need for consolation and toward supernatural embellishment exerted selective pressures on Buddhism.

Cross-fertilization. Innovations once introduced into individual traditions often spread laterally from one tradition to another, much as a dance craze or a disease, such as the Jitterbug, the Macarena or the Spanish flu, readily jumps over national borders. The Jataka tales, stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, originated (with a couple of exceptions) in the centuries after the Buddha, perhaps already under the cross-breeding influence of non-Buddhist traditions, walzing through Buddhist traditions so widely that they can be regarded as part of the common heritage of all of Buddhism.

Similarly, the Mahayana Jitterbug spread readily from pre-Mahayana sect to another, scholars now agree. As a result, within a single Sarvastivada or even early Theravada monastery some monks would take to this new craze and others would not. This apparently entailed little discord, since the Vinaya, historically much less susceptible to the effects of cross-fertilization or evolution than the Dharma, tended to ensure harmonious relations within sanghas. However, the incipient craze may have been nipped in the bud in Sri Lanka through the intervention of King Voharikatissa in the early third century.7 But throughout much of the Buddhist world this was a craze that was here to stay and gradually some devotees began to self-identify as Mahayanists, even though a self-identified Mahayana monastery would not exist in India until relatively late, and the earliest inscriptions that make use of the word “Mahayana” date from the sixth century CE.8

With the Mahayana movement and with the rise of scholarship at large monastic institutions, Sanskrit by default became the common language of Buddhism in northern India in support of a broader dissemination and livelier interchange of ideas. Meanwhile the southern lands of Sri Lanka and adjacent areas of Southern India, somewhat removed from this rich intellectual world of Northern India geographically and linguistically, had fewer opportunities for cross-fertilization.

As China seems to have fallen heir much of what was published in Northern India in the first millennium CE, the Chinese took a particular selective interest in the Mahayana teachings and much of the philosophical thought that continuing to flow out of the Indian universities. In spite of the tenuous communication between India and China, Chinese Buddhists, anxious to gain access to additional Buddhist texts, dispatched a series of pilgrims, fifty-four that we know about from the third to the eleventh century, to make the perilous journey over the Silk Road back into India to learn Indian languages, to acquire texts and to have a look around.9 In China major translation projects were set up to make these texts accessible, often headed by Indian or Central Asian scholar-monks who had ventured into Chinese territory. From China a Sinicized Buddhism would penetrate the remaining chopstick-wielding world: Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

What of the fragile flower that once thrived on the slopes of the lush Ganges Valley in ancient times? How have its descendents fared in the thin soil on the Steppes of Central Asia? Have they endured the harsh winters of northern China or Mongolia? Do they still blossom as brightly? Or has the whirlwind of Buddhist history scattered away their pedals and uprooted them? Has the Sasana survived in its full integrity and authenticity? I only raise the question for now.

The History of the Buddha Gem

Among the most distinct changes as the flower of the Sasana evolved from its early stages was an increased requirement for sunlight, an enhancement of the first gem and refuge. The attitude toward the Buddha and the very concept of the Buddha experienced embellishment and elaboration in almost all of Asia that would in turn trigger further doctrinal changes. I speculate that the primary driving force was the seemingly universal human proclivity of latching onto objects of veneration and making them bigger than life, as is found in most of the world’s religions and in modern celebrity worship.

We have seen that the Buddha endorsed during his life veneration of his himself, his qualities, the example of his life and his Awakening and his teachings. The function of such veneration is inspiration, the opening of hearts to his influence. The practice of veneration of the Buddha was defined in terms of quite modest conventional cultural means of respect, through recitation of the qualities of the Buddha, through future pilgrimage to four sites associated with his life, through the distribution of his relics among various lay communities for future veneration.

The Buddha recognized that he had attained rare qualities and put himself forward as someone to emulate, not as a deity or a messenger of God, but as an Awakened human. It should be borne in mind that in India people rather casually attributed divinity to that which is venerated: to brahmins, to famous ascetics, to cows, sometimes to trees and to the fires in people’s hearths,10 but the Buddha never claimed this honor for himself. Nonetheless he must frequently have been regarded as divine even during his life and have been accorded the supernatural powers that are, in fact, mentioned in the early discourses, powers like jumping up and touching the sun.11

The physical mainstay of this veneration from the earliest days is anjali, a ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in Indian culture often taking the form of prostrations, applied from earliest times to venerate the living Buddha and also the Sangha. Remarkably this Indian gesture was subsequently carried into every land I am aware of in which Buddhism has taken root. No culture that I am aware of having chosen either to abandon it according to local custom or to substitute for it an indigenous expression, such as a wave, a salute, a nod or a hearty hand clasp. Its adoption in Christian prayer speaks faintly of some not yet fully understood ancient instance of cross-breeding in distant lands.12

An early enhancement of this practice of veneration concerns the burial mounds (stupas), used to inter the Buddha’s relics after his death. These became a primary symbol of the Buddha and were venerated as such in the early centuries, a practice further encouraged by Emperor Ashoka when he reportedly redistributed the original relics to thousands of locations throughout his empire. Stupas of increasingly imposing design and size were constructed, sometimes even by embedding an older stupa within a newer, to produce the cetiyas of South Asia and eventually the pagodas of East Asia. Along with the proliferation of stupas came an endorsed means of increasing the availability of relics through creating replicas that “count as” genuine relics of the Buddha, and of supplementing these with relics of conveniently deceased arahants.

Starting in the first century BCE, statuary representations of the Buddha in South Asia, but with possibly Greek roots, gave a more personal and portable object toward which to direct one’s veneration for the First Gem. Such statues have almost invariably striking in the inspiring calm they exude, leading one to experience what it might have been like to sit in the presence of the living Buddha. As if personally to enact befriending the Buddha, adherents began to make offerings to such statues of light, water, incense, flowers and/or food, then to bow to such statues, a practice that would ruffle the feathers of early European explorers to no end, who would see in it idol worship of graven images pure and simple. A further step in the long process of elaboration was reached in the actual attribution of miraculous properties, such as bringing protection or good fortune, to the Buddha statue, to the stupa/pagoda or to the relics. It is common among Burmese Buddhists today, for instance, to attribute such properties to the “power of the Buddha” that inheres in such an object once it is properly consecrated by monks so as to “count as” the Buddha.

Beginning apparently in the early Mahasanghika sect, then in the Sarvastivadin sect and taking off among the Mahayanists, the Buddha himself became larger that life. The Jataka stories from the centuries after the death of the Buddha traced his previous lives as a bodhisattva, one who has vowed to become a buddha in a future life. The view arose of the Buddha living out a prearranged mission on earth, through an early vow to someday become a buddha. It was said the he was born in his final life with the marks of a great man, such as webbed toes and fingers, and that he was in fact stepping into the footprints of buddhas who preceded him, who realized the same things and who taught the same Dharma.

In an influential Mahayana sutra the Buddha is presented as a cosmic being who had came to earth as a kind of cosmic ruse to instruct mankind in the form of a man:

In all the worlds the heavenly and human beings and asuras all believe that the present Shakyamuni Buddha, after leaving the palace of the Shakyas, seated himself in the place of practice not far from the city of Gaya and there attained annuttara-samyak-sambodhi. But good men, it has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of kalpas since I in fact attained Buddhahood.13

In fact he has been teaching and training disciples, bodhisattvas, for many eons and continues doing so presently, only pretending to be born and die as a human for a brief period.14 The discerning reader will have surmised that the person of the Buddha is becoming step by step more exalted.

With his new level of exaltation came a greater level of Awakening, now qualitatively different from that of the mere arahants. In the Mahayana movement bodhisattvas became those who like the Buddha in his previous lives aspired to buddhahood rather than to mere arahantship. Such bodhisattvas began to appear and sometimes reappear as major characters in the Mahayana sutras, each typically embodying one particular outstanding character trait or another, for instance, Avalokiteshvara of many arms to represent compassion, Manjushri wielding a sword to cut through delusion to represent wisdom, Samantabhadra atop his multitusked elephant to representing virtuous action, and Maitreya with an appointment to become the next Buddha on earth. The Buddha now gained companions with whom to share altars and pagodas; sometimes these companions even displaced him in the zeal of adherents. In China Avalokiteshvara became Guan Yin, a female figure, and Maitreya was identified with an historical chubby monk and became the Happy Buddha (-to-be). In Tibet Avalokiteshvara came to be regarded as the person of the Dalai Lama returning life after life.

Transcendent thinking did not end there. Many buddhas were envisioned of similar disposition to ours, dispersed over many realms throughout the universe. Once the Shakyamuni Buddha became disassociated from his human embodiment, then it seemed that one exalted buddha could pretty much be swapped with another. In China Shakyamuni was largely displaced in Pure Land Buddhism by Amitabha Buddha, the chief resident of a non-earthly realm (the Pure Land), who makes space for those on earth who aspire to join him in their next life. Meanwhile back on earth, monks were apparently living rightly because the world was not empty of awakened ones. In the Mahayana lands these were often referred to as buddhas in their own right rather than simply as arahants.

It should be noted that although veneration of the Buddha Gem took on radical new forms, some of which are capable for various reasons of raising skeptical modern eyebrows two by two, the function of this veneration seems seldom to have been violated, and may often have been enhanced. The function of such veneration is inspiration, the opening of hearts to the influence of the Buddha.

1This retelling is based on an account in the Vinaya, II, 139.

2Vinaya, Cullavagga, Fifth Khandika.

3See, for instance, Dutt 1978.

4Gandhari fragments, incidentally, are the oldest known surviving Buddhist manuscripts, dating from the 1st Century BCE.

5Strong, 1983.

6Consider the resemblance of the Christian prayer mudra, apparently not of Jewish origin, to the Buddhist mudra of respect or veneration.

7Williams (2008), p. 5.

8Williams (2008), p. 29.

9Foltz, 2010, pp. 53-56.

10Williams, 2008, p.174

11People in ancient India, not possessed of a modern understanding of what jumping up and touching the sun would entail, seem to have thought this would be fun.

12Wherever an archaic cultural artifact plays a critical functional role in Buddhism it seems almost always to be retained in any new cultures even in which this artifact is foreign. I speculate that this conservatism results from the lack of central authority in the institutional Sangha, needed to institute a swap with an indigenous form. Gruber and Kersten (1995) speculate on the Buddhist-Christian connection with some compelling but sometimes overstated evidence.

13Kato, et al. (1975), Chapter 16.

14Kato, et al. (1975), Chapter 15.



One Response to “Growing the Dharma: the History of the Sasana”

  1. John Tohkubbi Says:

    I think that for a Buddhist or anyone encountering Buddhism that its important as a part of fundamental understanding to be familiar with the historical heritage of Buddhism. These chapters cover well such a broad range of the founding in the past what is encountered and practiced today in the various schools of Buddhist experience. It is helpful to know some of the various canonical and non-canonical sutras and how these developed as well as the evolution of the role and lifestyle of the monastics in the various traditions.


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