Friday, August 8, 2008

Origins of the Lankavatara Sutra

The Buddha levitating to Sri Lanka, alighting atop Adam's Peak (Sri Pada)
Lankavatara Sutra
The title of the sutra [discourse], Lankavatara ("entering, or attaining to, Lanka), seems to have something to do with the basic way of thinking and practice in Mahayana Buddhism, though the Gunabhadra version of the ancient text apparently does not offer much help in this regard.

The title seems to have derived from the legendary story passed down among the Theravada practitioners of the island (modern Sri Lanka), which is recorded in the Dipavamsa ("Royal Lineage of the Island Lanka"), a history they compiled.
The Buddha's [alleged] visits

According to the first two chapters of the story, Gautama Buddha [a.k.a., Shakyamuni] came to the island three times:
  • (1) nine months after attaining enlightenment ("awakening")
  • (2) five years after and
  • (3) eight years after.

(1) When the Buddha saw all the world with his fivefold eyes, he saw the island, where yaksas (spiritual apparitions, literally "something quick") and raksasas (when yaksas get angry they are said to be "flesh-eating goblins" or raksasas, literally, "anything to be guarded against") were abiding and afflicting people, groaning loudly and sucking human blood. The Buddha was afraid some strange teachings might flourish in that situation to worry people further. Using supernatural power, he came from India and expelled the terrible yaksas and furious raksasas by having them shift their dwelling place to a lonely island named Giri far out in the ocean. He then returned to Urvela in the state of Magadha, India (Chp. I).

The real Adam's Peak, Island of Sri Lanka, where the Buddha landed and left a footprint

(2) After he left, in the island's highland mountains, land-snakes and marine-snakes struggled for sovereignty over the island, both being nagas [reptilians, dragons, supernatural serpents] with supernatural power, violent and cruel, arrogant and drunk with power, though different in size. The situation worsened to the extent that wherever they went, everything became contaminated and burned out. The Buddha, far away in India, felt he could not leave things as they were. Again he came to Lanka, which he had emptied of yaksas. He put both parties of snakes under control, reconciled them, and returned to the Jeta Forest (Chp. II).

(3) Three years later, the king of the Lanka snakes, Maniakkhika, invited the Buddha together with five hundred disciples to the island in return for the Buddha's work as peacemaker. The party came flying from the Jeta Forest. The Buddha went to Mahamegha Forest and predicted that in the future the very Bodhi Tree beside which he had attained buddhahood would be planted at the site in Lanka where bodhi trees had grown for previous buddhas (Chp. II).

There is no doubt that such stories were made on the basis of other more historical stories, also recorded in the Dipavamsa, that the transmission of the Buddha's teaching [the Dharma] to the island had begun during the reign of King Devampiyatissa (B.C. 241-207). In response to the gift of treasures from the Lankan King Tissa, King Asoka sent messengers from India with a gift and a message that he had taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

King Asoka's son, Mahinda, who was an elder monk (mahathera), came (Chp. XI), and King Tissa of the island had a temple complex -- the famous Mahavihara -- built in the suburbs of his capital, Anuradhapura, as the center for practice and study for monks under Mahinda's guidance (Chps. XIII, XIV).

Ven. Mahinda had a messenger sent to King Asoka, and had him bring back a portion of the Buddha's relics. Then a dome (stupa, pagoda) erected for them (Chp. XV). Mahinda's sister, Ven. Sanghamitta, also came to Lanka. She brought a branch of the Bodhi Tree and had it planted in the woods of Mahamegha, near the Mahavihara (Chp. XVI). Mahinda died in B.C. 199 (Chp. XVQ), and Sanghamitta passed the following year (Mahavamsa, Chp. XX).

Indian Epic

The legendary stories of the Buddha's three visits to the island, however, seem to derive from one of the famous epics of India, the Ramayana.

Rama, the hero, came to attack raksasas on the island. He killed Ravana, their chief, and returned home to India with his beloved wife Sita, who had been abducted and forcibly taken to the island.

The Buddha was a hero equivalent to Rama, an avatar of Vishnu. But unlike Rama, the Buddha killed no one. He expelled "evil" spirits who had been devastating Lanka.

The role of peacemaker played by the Buddha for the two snake groups also seems to be rooted in the Ramayana. There, two groups of monkeys followed Rama and helped him in his attack on the Lanka demons, because Rama had worked as peacemaker for them during conflicts on the Indian subcontinent.

"Entering Lanka"

Thus, we know that the Theravada document, the Dipavamsa, invented the story of the Buddha entering Lanka on the basis of history and legends. But we need to consider what was meant by the Mahayanists' use of the title "Entering Lanka" (Lanka-vatara) for their famous scripture.

The Lankavatara Sutra, in the Gunabhadra version, begins with the description of the spot where the Buddha, the Sangha, and the bodhisattvas met, and how one bodhisattva named Mahamati from among other "bodhisattvas of mahamati" (see note) stood up and asked the Buddha for a teaching.

"On one occasion the Buddha stayed for a while in the town of Lanka on a mountain top, on the coast of the southern sea..."

Now the Bodhisattva Mahamati, who together with [other] "bodhisattvas of mahamati" (i.e., of great wisdom), with an attendant in every "Buddhaland," through the Buddha's influence stood up from his seat... Read more
NOTE: The word "mahamati," used here both as a common noun and a proper noun, reveals a close connection between the Lankavatara Sutra and the Dipavamsa. In the latter, the word was used only as a common noun, to show a deep respect when excellent mendicants were referred to...

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