Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reflections on the Ten Perfections

Wisdom Quarterly; American Bhikkhu Bodhi (BodhiMonastery.org), Intro. to "A Treatise on the Paramis from the Commentary to the Cariyapitaka," 2005 (accesstoinsight.org)
Boudanath, "Buddha's eyes," outside Kathmandu, Nepal (Tyson Moktan/flickr.com)
(Aidan McRae Thomson/flickr)
The treatise [on the perfections or paramis] draws upon various sources for its material, both Theravada ["Teaching of the Elders," namely the earliest Enlightened Disciples of the Buddha] and Mahayana ["Great Vehicle," populist interpretation], and thus represents perhaps a unique instance of a classical style Theravada work consciously borrowing from its northern cousin.
In matters of philosophical doctrine, however, the work never deviates from the [older] Theravada perspective. The set of Ten Paramis itself comes from the Buddhavamsa, as does the discussion of the great aspiration (abhinihara) with its eight qualifications. 
All of this had become part of the standard Theravada tradition by the time the work was composed and was easily absorbed. Other Pali [language] sources -- the sutras, Jatakas [Birth Tales], later canonical works, the Path of Perfection (Visuddhimagga), etc. -- have all contributed to the overall composition of the treatise.
The basic methodology of the commentaries is evident in the explication of the Ten Paramis by way of the fourfold defining-device of characteristic, function, manifestation, and proximate cause (Section V). 
The heritage of the oral traditions of various teachers in later Pali scholasticism is seen in the various views expressed on the three grades of practice for each [perfection] (Section XI), on the correlation of the four foundations with the different stages of the bodhisattva's career (Section XII), and on the classification of time required for the completion of the [perfections] (Section XIV).

Maitreya the Buddha-to-come, Ladakh, India
Perhaps the influence of another [now defunct] early school, the Sarvastivada, lies behind the dyadic treatment of the Six Paramitas (Section XII).
The main Mahayana work utilized by the author is the Bodhisattvabhumi, the fifteenth chapter of the Yogacarabhumi, a voluminous text of the Yogacara school ascribed to Maitreyanatha, the teacher of Asanga.

The Bodhisattvabhumi has contributed to the sections on the practice of the [perfections], particularly the first, on the four shackles to giving, and on the special accomplishments resulting from the [perfections].

The originals, however, have all been divested of their specifically Mahayana features to make them fully compatible with the Theravada perspective.

Mahayana influence may further be discernible in the emphasis on compassion and skillful means [upaya], in the vows to benefit all beings, in the statement that the bodhisattva causes beings "to enter and reach maturity in the three vehicles," etc.
Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (Cyrille Gibot/flickr)
On points of doctrine, as we mentioned, the work remains well within the bounds of Theravada orthodoxy. Its section on the perfection of wisdom has nothing more in common with the Prajnaparamita [Heart of Wisdom] literature than the core of Buddhist doctrine shared by all schools. 
There is nothing about the identity of nirvana and samsara, the triple body of the Buddha [a borrowed Brahminical/Hindu concept], the suchness and sameness of all dharmas, mind-only, the provisional nature of the disciple and pacceka buddha vehicles, or any of the other ideas distinctive of the Mahayana. 
Even the mention of emptiness (shunyata) is restricted to the absence of a self or ego-entity and is not carried through to the radical ontology of the [latter day] Mahayana sutras. 
The discussion of wisdom [prajna] draws entirely upon the Pali sutras and the [commentarial Path of Purification known as the] Visuddhimagga, only with the stipulation that the bodhisattva must balance wisdom with compassion and skillful means and must postpone his entrance upon the supramundane path until [a person's] requisites of enlightenment are fully mature. More

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