Monday, November 30, 2009

The Story of Mahayana (Part I)

From its source in India, the Mahayana version of Buddhism spread to Central Asia, China, Japan, mainland Southeast Asia, Java, Sumatra, and even Sri Lanka (Abhayagiri monastery). Also known as the Northern School, it was considered more liberal and progressive than the Southern School (Theravada). Early Theravadins branded Northern Buddhism Acariya-vada, or “Teaching of the Patriarchs.”

Another term accepted by Mahayanists themselves to describe the Northern School is “Bodhisattva-yana,” or the “Bodhisattva Vehicle.” The bodhisattva (enlightenment delayed) is the Mahayana ideal, rather than the Theravadin arhat (immediate enlightenment) ideal.

Mahayana Buddhism is generally practiced in the countries of East Asia, namely, China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. (But usually, Nepal, Tibet, and the rest of Asia are also included under the term of “Northern” Buddhist). Mahayana became the Pan-Asiatic form of Buddhism. But it involved fundamental shifts in doctrine and approach for which there were precedents in earlier schools. Mahayana teaches that neither self (soul) nor dharmas (phenomena) exist.

The Mahayana view, as Nagarjuna puts it, is that “There is no real, independent existence of entities in the factors (pratyaya)” (Madhyama-Karika 1, 5). Mahayana is a populist, devotional movement that prefers worship to practice, but it utilizes Sanskrit, a language used by brahmins, scholars, and the Indian elite, whereas Prakrit (of which Pali is a form) was the language of the people, which the Buddha used to teach the Dharma widely.

In Mahayana, love of creatures (the Indian ideal of ahimsa) is exalted as the highest. A bodhisattva (one bent on becoming a buddha rather than attaining enlightenment as a disciple) is encouraged to offer the merit derived from good deeds for the good of others, just as the Buddha encouraged his disciples and arhats to do. The tension between morality and mysticism which agitated India also entered Mahayana.

Nature and Characteristics
Mahayana adherents adopt the method of non-dualism (advaya). That is, it does not accept that there exist such opposites as nirvana and samsara, or noumena and phenomena, and so on. Mahayana is more inclined towards a mystical approach. Like Hinduism, it believes in the spiritual apprehension of Truth beyond understanding: The conscious self can transcend bodily limitations and commune with, or become immersed in, some higher form of being. (This differs from the Buddha's gradual teaching of the Middle Way and the methodical Theravadin approach to reaching enlightenment and nirvana).

Mahayana is not merely metaphysical, dealing with the basic structure and principles of reality. Its teachings can be regarded as a theoretical, preparatory, instructional manual for the achievement of a desired state or condition. Thus, there is a coexistence of theoretical investigation and supreme experience. The former is the premise, the latter, the consequence.

The convergence of meditative exercises leads to an emptying of thought to reach a point where one proceeds from voidness to voidness and finally to the ultimate where even the minutest thought vanishes. (This corresponds to the goal of Raja yoga and Hinduism where samadhi, or the stilling of all thought-waves or vrittis, is the goal). Rational activity is exercised until it becomes quiescent: prajna (supreme wisdom) itself by successive emptying becomes nullified. Only in doing so does it identify with the unutterable ultimate reality.

Divinization and Multiplicity
In the Mahayana tradition, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni is viewed not merely as a human master and model but also as a supramundane being. Mahayana tends to be devotional and mystical, taking the Buddha almost in a theistic sense. With echoes of the Hindu idea of avatars, it is as if the Supreme Reality (Brahman) descended on earth in human form for the good of mankind.

He does this by multiplying himself and is reflected in a pentad of buddhas: Amitabha, Vairocana, Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava, and Amoghasiddhi. Some of these, usurping the place of Shakyamuni, are revealers of elaborate doctrines and complicated liturgies. The Mahayana concept of this Reality is never as a theistic creator but as Divine Love that out of compassion embodied itself in human form to uplift suffering humanity.

As Mahayana developed, a great deal of literature called Buddhavacana ("Revelation of the Buddha") was circulated, which went far beyond the ancient canons (such as the body of work preserved from the time of the Buddha by the Theravada tradition known as the Pali canon). It was proposed as the highest revelation, superseding prior texts. In this literature the teaching is viewed not as merely of one kind but as on various levels, each adapted to the intellectual capacity and karmic propensities of those who hear it.

The Buddha is no longer simply the historical sage (muni) of the Shakyas (his clan name) but is now supramundane (lokottara). Even the Sangha is of two types, that of this world and that beyond it. The devotion of the Mahayanists gave great impetus to Buddhist art in various forms.

The Bodhisattva Ideal
The Bodhisattva Gwan Shih Yin ("One who hears the cries of the innumerable suffering") is esteemed as the ideal in Mahayana is the Bodhisattva, a saintly figure who has vowed not to enter final nirvana (parinirvana) until the whole human race has achieved salvation with him. The essential premise of the bodhisattva ideal is to generate the thought of enlightenment to fulfill the vow to become a buddha, foregoing entrance into nirvana in order to remain in the world as long as there are creatures to be saved from suffering (which the historical Buddha did not do).

With that vow the aspirant begins the career of a bodhisattva, which traverses 10 stages or spiritual levels and achieves purification through the practice of the Ten Perfections (paramitas). These levels, which become progressively higher, elevate the bodhisattva to the condition of a buddha. The first six levels are preliminary, representing the true practice of the six perfections:
  1. generosity
  2. morality
  3. patience
  4. vigor
  5. concentration
  6. wisdom
Irreversibility occurs as soon as the seventh stage is reached. From this moment the bodhisattva assumes the true "buddha nature," even though further purification and fortification must be achieved in the stages that follow. This is the moment when, having performed his duty, he engages in activity aimed at completely fulfilling the obligations of a bodhisattva.

The difference between this and the preceding six stages is that now the activity is explained as an innate and spontaneous impulse manifested unconstrainedly and therefore not subjected to doubts. Everything is now uncreated, ungenerated; thus, the body of the bodhisattva becomes identified more and more completely with the essential body (dharma-kaya), with buddhahood, and with omniscience.

The Three Buddha Bodies (tri-kaya)

Mahayana Buddhism developed the doctrine of the Three Bodies, which forms the highest doctrine of this school of thought. The three bodies (modes of being) of the Buddha are rooted in the Theravada teachings concerning the physical body (consisting of four elements), the mental body, and the body of the Dharma. It is with the Mahayana, however, that the theory of the three bodies enters into the salvation process and assumes central significance in the doctrine.

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