Theravāda and Mahāyāna Need Each Other (2/4)

Myth 2: Mahāyāna as higher teachings

Theravāda has been remarkably orthodox historically, although it did undergo some further development from the early Buddhist texts (hereafter EBT). This earliest layer of scriptures, as close as we know to what the Buddha himself taught, was supplementing very early on by the canonical Abhidhamma and, beginning around 500 CE, by voluminous Pali commentaries (atthakathā) on the EBT and on the Abhidhamma. Gombrich[12] notes that Theravāda has developed very little since the commentary days in the first millennium. It has been extremely conservative in its outlook, not participating in the fast pace of Indian Buddhism during that same period, nor the further developments in Mahāyāna lands. The conservationism Theravāda is probably a result of its geographical isolation in Sri Lanka during its early history and subsequently southwest Asia. Gombrich points out that the Tamil culture and language of Sri Lanka are also very conservative compared to the Tamil of southern India. Theravāda has also failed to produce the long line of brilliant and original thinkers that Mahāyāna has.

450px-cundi_bodhisattva_-_smallCharacteristic of Mahāyāna is a dramatic shift in the center of its scriptural basis from the EBT to the sometimes wildly original Mahāyāna sūtras and śāstras (treatises), which were unknown until the first millennium CE. Among the important themes expounded within the new Mahāyāna texts are the bodhisattva ideal, buddha nature, elaborations of cosmology including the attribution of superhuman status to the Buddha, emptiness, subject/object non-dualism and appeal to superhuman beings. Two main philosophical schools are generally held to have developed in Indian Mahāyāna: the Madhyamika and the Yogācāra. the first centered around emptiness and began with Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, and followed by the scholarly work of Nagārjuna and others. The second centered around subject/object non-duality, began with the Samdhinirmocana Sutra and Lankavatara Sutra, followed by the works of Asanga and Vasubandhu and others in the Yogācāra or Mind-Only School. But the scope of doctrine found within Mahāyāna is much greater than this.

This very gradual (centuries-long), but in retrospect dramatic shift represented by Mahāyāna has been evaluated from two conflicting perspectives, one by Theravāda and one by Mahāyāna, which Bhikkhu Bodhi calls Theravāda purism and Mahāyāna elitism.[13] The tendency for Theravadins, and undoubtedly many in the early sects of yesteryear, has been to look at Mahāyāna sutras with some alarm as inauthentic aberrations from the Buddha’s teaching, instances illustrative of an unraveling of the Sāsana. The tendency for Mahāyānists, on the other hand, has been to regard their sutras with some enthusiasm as higher teachings, a further unfolding of the Sāsana.[14]

A familiar example of the Mahāyāna attitude is the famous Heart Sutra, part of the Prajñāpāramitā literature, which has the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, a mythical figure in Mahāyāna lore, lecturing on the Dharma condescendingly to the great Śāriputra (P: Sāriputta), an historical disciple and arahant at the time of the Buddha, known in the EBT for his great wisdom.

“Oh, Śāriputra, form does not differ From emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. The same is true for feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness.”

In the Tibetan rendition of this sutra, we learn that the Buddha has been quietly listening during this discourse and at the end approves of Avalokiteśvara’s words.

Mahāyāna sutras typically have the basic form of the EBT discourses, reporting on the composition of an audience and the delivery of a sermon by the Buddha. A myth that often accompanies them – prominent in the Lotus Sutra, for instance – is that these texts indeed originate with the Buddha, but that they were preserved secretly for hundreds of years until the world was ready for them.[15] So profound are they, that before these works manifested, the world had first to master an inferior doctrine (the Hīnayāna). These texts were quickly embraced by the Mahāyānists as they became available, but neglected by more orthodox Buddhists, as they are by the Theravādins to this day.

Virtually all scholars agree that Mahāyāna sutras are, in fact, of much later provenance, and of uncertain authorship; they certainly did not originate with, nor anywhere near the time of, the Buddha.[16] Although this seems to support the common Theravāda purist view regarding these texts, the value of many of these texts must be acknowledged, for many are quite brilliant and important for the doctrinal development of Buddhism. Moreover, from the Mahāyāna perspective we could just as well concede that the Buddha was only the first in a series of great Buddhist thinkers, that he turned the wheel of Dharma once but that a second and a third teacher turned it again and again.

Indeed, the first millennium CE, the period during which these texts arose, northern India seems to have experienced a vibrant intellectual and spiritual life, encouraged by the great Buddhist universities suc as Nālanda. It is significant that among the Buddhist sects, the Theravādins played little role in this intellectual fervor,[17] nor does it seem in its history to have produced minds of the stature of Nāgārjuna, nor Vasubandhu, nor of later thinkers beyond India like Tsongkhapa and Dōgen. It was instead creating line-by-line commentaries on the EBT and Abhidhamma during this period.

Later in this essay I will describe what I see as a process of doctinal decline and recovery that has characterized the Sāsana historically. For now I point out that Mahāyāna seems to have arisen at a period of doctrinal decline in many sects particularly in northern India. In fact, it is probably partly in response to that decline that Mahāyāna arose, as we will see. Framed in these terms it will be evident that much of the enthusiasm for Mahāyāna ideas came not from some inadequacy of the Buddha’s early teachings, but from doctrinal corruption in certain of the early sects in the first few centuries of the Sāsana by the time the Mahāyāna movement was under way. Particularly important to the Mahāyāna response were the teachings of the Sarvāstivāda sect dominant and intellectually active in northern India for many centuries, which had developed a highly speculative and substantialist Abhidharma, and the offshoot Sautantrika (sutta-only) sect.[18]

Unfortunately, seeing early Buddhism through the filter of later corruptions, then underscoring this by the myth of higher teachings, resulted in a failure in the Mahāyāna to study and recognize the brilliance and sophistication of the earliest teachings.[19] Hence the dismissive attitude toward poor Śāriputra in the Heart Sutra. It is by deprecating what they understood as early Buddhism as “Hīnayāna” that Mahāyāna cut itself off from its own past. This was a grave error, for much of the coherent and remarkably profound system of thought that constitutes the earliest Buddhist texts would significantly have to be re-invented.

Meanwhile, Theravāda has been the bearer of a this same priceless and luminous EBT jewel and the sole custodian of the Buddha’s full turning of the wheel. Verily, this early corpus has, almost in its entirety, long existed as a part of the Chinese canon, but it has lied there buried, disregarded and almost completely hidden under heaps of later texts. Not only has the Theravāda tradition kept these texts alive over all of these years, it has preserved these texts in the Pali language, close to the language the Buddha must have spoken, giving Theravāda valuable access to the subtleties of the original language of these texts. These ground the tradition in an authentic foundation.

This brings us to the topic of authenticity. Every tradition is obliged to justify its teachings, to ground its teachings in something in which adherents have unshakable trust, to establish norms for correct understanding. Generally a claim to represent the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana) is the primary criterion of authenticity. Theravada is grounded in the EBT, which is closely linked by tradition to the Buddha and modern scholarship substantially confirms its right to do this this.[20] The Theravāda commentary tradition purports to rest on the same foundation, which is to say, even where it might provide faulty interpretations, those interpretations can be challenged by matching them against the EBT. The canonical Theravada Abhidhamma represents a curious case. Scholars place it in the centuries after the Buddha, though it turns out to be quite consistent with the EBT. Nonetheless the canonical Abhidhamma is justified by means of a miraculous origin story in the commentary tradition, which involves the Buddha ascending to Tāvatiṃsa Heaven in order to preach to a group of deities, thereby establishing it as buddhavacana.

Authenticity is much more difficult to establish in Mahāyāna because Mahāyāna traditionally ignores or deprecates the EBT. At different times and places the clergy have been compelled to establish their own authority by advancing certain standards.[21] There are a number of ways Mahāyāna sutras and sastras are claimed to be authentic. The most common is to declare them to be words of the Buddha after all, purporting them to be authentic discourses of the Buddha as in the EBT, ones that even begin with Aananda’s words, “Thus have I heard.” Other sources indicate inspiration by contemporary buddhas dwelling in other-worldly realms or as revelations by deities, sometimes with books appearing in the hands of forest-dwelling ascetics, or found in caves.[22] Zen, for its part, describes itself as a teaching transmitted independently of words and letters from teacher to student going back all the way to the Buddha, the transmission of the lamp. Many Mahāyāna texts, such as the influential Treatise on Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith were probably not even composed in India, even while they are purported to have been.[23]

Presumably as a result of these discretionary standards, Mahāyāna scriptures are, as one prominent scholar has described it, “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 criticsm.”[24] Mahāyāna is perhaps best regarded as an umbrella for many schools of many shapes and sizes an it is hard to make generalizations about Mahāyāna as a whole. Yet as mentioned, Mahāyāna has produced many brilliant and innovative thinkers and viable schools within its mix, often able to overcome deficits in its pre-Mahāyāna history. How this was possible will be explored in the remainder of this essay.

In sum, Mahāyāna has been cut off from its past and Theravāda from its future. Mahāyāna has been cut off from the EBT in which it is historically rooted. Not understanding its own roots, Mahāyāna has diversified into a wide variety of schools that stretch the bounds of what constitutes Buddhism, each school having to invent its own history in order to justify its own authority. Properly, we cannot say that Mahāyāna teaches the various doctrines listed here, only that they are found within Mahāyāna. As a result Mahāyāna has no widely accepted standards for assessing its historical and existing variations. Theravāda, on the other hand, has been cut off from the later innovations of Mahāyāna. Theravada contains within itself, in principle, all it needs to know, but has little flair for reformation.

The need for reformation remains to be argued. I will now turn to the tendency of Buddhism toward both decline and recovery. Specifically, I will argue that Theravāda froze in early on a number of faulty interpretations of the EBT, while within Mahāyāna correct interpretations have either been preserved or rediscovered.

Next episode, Part 3: Tendencies toward decline


12. Gombrich (2006, 21-22).

13. Bodhi (2013).

14.Anālayo (2014) traces this view to Tarkajvāla (6th century) and points out that it was promoted by the Japanese delegation to the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religions.

15. Kalupahana (2015, 4).

16. Williams (2008, 39): “However, source-critical and historical awareness has made it impossible for the modern scholar to accept this traditional account.”

17. Mahāyāna does seem to have made at least an appearance in Sri Lanka during the first millennium. See Williams (2008, 10).

18.Kalupahana (2015, 20-21). Interestingly the Sautantrika (sutta-only) sect, which also became prominent, split from the Sarvāstivādins in an attempt to distance itself from the Abhidharma, but failed to excise many concepts that in fact deviate from the Nikayas.

19. Kalupahana (2015, 5).

20. Sujato and Brahmali (2014) argue for the authenticity (as well aknowledge the limits) of the EBT according to a wide variety of criteria.

21. Sharf (2001, 14).

22. Williams (2008, 39-40).

23. Muller (1998).

24. Williams (2008, 3).


Anālayo, Bhikkhu, 2014, “The Hīnayāna Fallacy,” Journal of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies 6, 9-31.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 2013, “Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” In The Bodhisattva Ideal: essays on the emergence of Mahāyāna, Buddhist Publication Society, 1-30.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2014, A Cultural of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sāsana, Theravāda Dharma Society of America.

Connelly, 2016, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra, Wisdom Publications.

Gombrich, Richard, 1996, How Buddhism Began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings, London & Atlantic Highlands: Athlone Press.

Gombrich, 2006[1988], Theravāda Buddhism: a socialhistory from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, Routledge.

Heirman, Anne, 2001, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination in Fifth Century China,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 24:2.

Jaffe, Richard M., 2010, Neither Monk nor Layman: clerical marriage in modern Japanese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Kalupahana, David J., 2015, Mulamadhyamakarika of Nāgārjuna: the philosophy of the middle way, Motilal Danarsidass: Delhi.

Kalupahana, David J., 1992, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Sri Satguru Publications.

Muller, Charles, 1998, East Asian Apocryphal Scriptures: Their Origin and Role in the Development of Sinitic Buddhism, Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 6.

Nattier, Jan and Charles Prebish, “Mahāsaghika Origins: the beginnings of Buddhist sectarianism,” History of Religions 16:3, 237-272.

Nhat Hanh, Thich, 1974, Zen Keys, Doubleday.
Santina, Peter Della, 1997, The Tree of Enlightenment, Chico Dharma Study Foundation.

Sharf, Robert H., 2001, Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Skilton, Andrew, 1994, A Concise History of Buddhism, Barnes and Noble.

Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali, 2014, The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts, Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies, also available on-line.

Williams, Paul, 2008, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, Routledge.


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