Asian Philosophy 4: Buddhism in India, the Theravada & the Mahayana

buddhaThis lecture covers Buddhism in India, including the major two traditions of Buddhism that originated in India, the Theravada and the Mahayana.  Next time, we will cover Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet, China, Korea and Japan.

The Life of the Buddha

Early Gandhara BuddhaAccording to the tradition and legend, the Buddha, the awakened or conscious one, was the son of a king who ruled the Gotama region of Northern India, the same region and living at the same time as Gotama, founder of the Nyaya school of Logic and Debate.  When the Buddha was born, the king’s wise adviser told him that his son would be either a great king or a great holy man.  The king did not want his son to be a holy man, but rather the next king, so to control his son he hid his son away in his palace and gave him all the luxuries in the world, hiding death, disease and pain from him, surrounding him with dancing girls and servants and only healthy, happy, obedient people.

buddha four sightsAt 29, the Buddha had become bored of this, and snuck out to see the city, taking along his trusted servant.  In succession, the Buddha saw the Four Sights (an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man).  When he saw the first three, his servant each time told him that old age, disease and death are unfortunately inevitable for everyone, but when he got to the fourth, the holy man (likely a proto-Jain), his servant told him that the sage was working on the first three.

Jain statue vines karnatakaThe Buddha was immediately envious of something more wonderful than he had ever possessed in the palace, and so he escaped into the jungle where he found proto-Jain sages practicing austerities, forms of raja yoga.  The Buddha did these austere practices in the jungle for six years, but he found that this brought no great enlightenment and in fact brought him much frustration and self-hatred.  Buddhism is famous for long periods of meditation, and this is quite like Jain austerities of standing in postures, fasting and concentration exercises, but Buddhism teaches that it is through balance and not extremes that one will be liberated.  The Buddha found Jain asceticism to be promoting of self hatred which is still attachment and duality.  In other words, the Buddha found Jainism to be ekantavada, one sided, and not in accord with the Jain principle of anekantavada, non-one-sidedness.

Bodhi Tree BuddhaThe Buddha left the jungle disappointed.  He decided to sit beneath a large tree, known as the Boddhi Tree (which one can go see in India today, a tree supposed to have been grown from the original in the original spot), and he vowed not  to rise until he found complete and total truth or he would give up his life.  After 49 days, at the age of 35, he realized complete enlightenment, the goal of moksha and nirvana that the Hindus and Jains also revere.  This is defined in the tradition as the  extinction of greed (raga), hate (dosa), and delusion (moha), obtainable in this life by any being through the overcoming duality and desire.

avatars of vishnu with buddhaJust as Jains call their sages Tirthankaras, those who ford the stream to get to stability on the other side, the Buddha is often called the Tathagatha, the Thus Come One or the “having arrived guy”.  While Hinduism and Buddhism competed against each other, they also incorporated each other.  Hinduism recognizes the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, while some Buddhist texts speak of the Buddha going to high heaven realms and teaching the Hindu gods, who rejoice upon being enlightened more than they apparently already were, which is odd given that they should have figured out what the Buddha realized already if they are decently omnipotent.

Buddha India StatueOn a related note, Buddha is never depicted as fat though many Europeans and Americans believe that he is.  Gautama Siddhartha, the original Buddha, is always depicted in India, Tibet, China, Japan and South East Asia as slender, particularly because when he was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree he had been practicing Jain-like austerities and fasting for six years.

Buddha BeipuThe happy fat buddha, one of many buddhas, is Budai (in Chinese, or Hotei in Japanese), the laughing Chan/Zen monk and good luck saint/bodhisattva who supposedly lived around 900 CE.  His name means ‘cloth sack’, and he is often depicted holding a sack, and orange, or a ball of butter up in the air.  It is said that he loves playing with children and giving them gifts and candy from his bag, just like the sort of people I was warned about by Nancy Reagan as a child in the eighties.  He appears in one Zen koan story, the sort we will concentrate on two weeks from now.  It is said that a monk approached him as he was distributing candy, and asked, “What is the meaning of Zen?”, a common koan question, and Budai dropped his bag to the ground.  The monk then asked, “How does one realize this?”, and Budai picks up his bag and wanders off.

Budai with childrenBudai is extremely popular in Chinese culture, and it is believed that he brings good luck and fortune to lay people and shop owners.  Rubbing his belly is supposed to bring good luck, which is why the gold paint or red die on the belly of Budai statues in restaurants is often word away.  People saw Budai in the Chinatowns of America and Europe, and assumed this Buddhist monk to be the Buddha himself.  Yes, but only in the way that all of us are the original Buddha, Budai and the entire cosmos.  When people think that the Buddha is fat, this is somewhat like confusing Friar Tuck with Jesus.  Jesus is also depicted as skinny, not as a fat Franciscan brewing beer.

Small Budais

The Core Philosophical Teachings of Buddhism

The first and foremost teaching of the Buddha, what he taught immediately after enlightenment to those who would listen, are known as the Four Noble Truths (or Four Truths of Nobles, or Four Ennobling Truths).  They are:

lotus 8 buddha1) Existence is suffering.

2) The cause of suffering is desire.

3) There is liberation from suffering.

4) The liberation is the Dharma, the Buddha’s Teaching, also known as the Eight-Fold Path.

cosmologyThe Eight-Fold Path is similar to the Three Jewels of Jainism, which are right body, right speech and right mind.  Notice that the three correspond cosmologically to earth/desire, air/breath, and fire/thought, in accord with ancient cosmology.  The Buddha added more to the list to make eight: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

ManjusriThe Five Abilities that are to be developed through study and practice are dedication, strength, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.  The final ability, wisdom, is the most prized.  Just as the lion is king of the animals, wisdom is king of the virtues and identified with the lion.  It is also symbolized by the sword or the ‘sword of wisdom’.  Some bodhisattvas such as Manjusri, bodhisattva or saint/buddha of wisdom, is often pictured holding the sword upright or above the head ready to cut off attachments and destroy the obstacles of ignorance, often personified as demons.

Buddha Wheel greyThe Doctrine of the Middle Way states that in all things, as the mind splits things into opposites and prefers one while rejecting the other, one should always practice moderation between  extremes.  As a criticism of Jainism, this means that one should balance avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, being attached to neither, rather than chase pain and difficulty to liberate the self.  The Buddha found Jain practice to be immoderate: too much deemphasis of self is attachment to self hate, not detachment from particular things (as self-hate is particular and bound up with particular things just as much as self-love or pride is).  One must be attached to neither loving nor hating the self, cutting a middle path between the decadent hedonism of the Charvakas and the pious asceticism of the Jains, the two other unorthodox non-Hindu schools of Indian thought.

Buddhist MandalaDoctrine of Impermanence:  Buddha taught that all things are impermanent.  Thus, everything is constantly evolving, never the same twice.  Only the great All is eternal, the One to which we all belong, but as soon as you say this it becomes a conception, a particular being separated from other particular beings, and then is simply another temporary and limited being in your mind.  Just like Jains, Buddhists believe that suffering exists because of attachment and bondage to particular things, to ‘this versus that’, such that we come to have one-sided views of ourselves, of particular things, and of the cosmos as a whole.  The Buddhists, like the Jains, believe that one does not have a permanent self, and this constant transformation is a central cause of the fear and clinging of the mind to particular things outside of the self in order to seek stability.  However, because particular things are not permanent, the mind must jump from one thing to another, seeking ideal stability in each thing and then leaping to the next with the same hope, endlessly without rest unless wisdom is developed.

chimp thinkingTo illustrate this, the Buddhists use the metaphor of the monkey mind, of a monkey leaping from branch to branch.  The liberation from desire is simultaneously the liberation of ignorance, a finding stability in the whole tree rather than seeking stability in any particular branch.  One can desire or thirst for an end to particular things or everything as well, but this is does not bring satisfaction either.

chinese finger trapIn another related monkey metaphor, one similar to the enchantingly racist Brer Rabbit and the tar baby story from The Tales of Uncle Remus (which is nice in retelling African wisdom tales in the context of the American South, but plenty racist in their presentation by today’s standards), a hunter sets a trap for a monkey with pitch.  The monkey takes the bait and gets his hand stuck.  To get his hand out, he uses his other hand, then legs, then tail, getting more and more stuck in the trap as he tries to escape.  It is similar to the Chinese finger trap puzzle, where getting free means doing the opposite of trying to pull away.

Tibetan Sand Painting MandalaCodependent Arising (Pratityasamutpada):  Another major teaching of Buddhism is the codependent arising of all things, also known as dependent origination and conditioned genesis.  All things are themselves in so far as they are interconnected to every other thing.  Opposites, such as heat and cold or self and other, do not anchor themselves or give things their meaning, but rather all things exist dependent on other things.  Not only do opposites arise codependent with each other (without good there can be no bad, and without cold there can be no heat) but each particular thing is a bundle or pile (skanda) of many things.  The self is a pile of many things, as is the meaning of a thing, the memory of a thing, or the cause of a thing.  This is similar to Wittgenstein’s idea that thinking and meanings are a tangle of many things, without one single thread running throughout and within the length of the whole chord.

Zen Circle Caligraphy PaintingEmptiness (Shunyata):  Buddha taught that all things are empty (shunya) of self or self-existence, as they are dependent on other things.  While this seems depressing or frightening to many, it should be understood as openness, not being closed off in themselves as it first appears but being connected to and dependent on everything else.  Just like when studying Nietzsche or any skeptical thought, what first appears to be nihilism, belief in nothing, should rather be understood as belief in everything as an interconnected whole, as a rich abundance that means far too much to mean any one specific thing in particular.

Dalai Lama Compassion in EmptinessIn a set of talks by the Dalai Lama released called Compassion in Emptiness,  he speaks about Nagarjuna, who we will soon study, and connects emptiness, openness, and compassion as the goal of Buddhist teaching and practice.  Being empty of self is not just lacking self-determination, but lacking selfishness and possessiveness.  An absence of selfishness or division of things does not mean one has nothing.  Rather one is not attached to the things one finds one has.  In an early text, the Buddha says that abiding in emptiness is abiding in fullness.  This is the talk in which the Dalai Lama giggles about Jains showing up to conferences naked.

Thai Buddha Teaching MudraMudras of the Buddha: We have already discussed mudras, hand positions such as the seed or essence mudra pinching of thumb and index finger together which is found in the Hindu Upanishads as well as early images and statues of the Buddha teaching that all is one without division and the essence of what deludes us and prevents us from realizing it is desire and attachment to particular things.

buddha touching the ground mudraThere are many mudras associated with the Buddha and his teachings, but there are two central mudras that form a paradoxical pair.  Buddha is often shown with his palm face down towards the earth, cutting off all desire and delusion, blocking the lower and detaching from the inferior.  Buddha is also often shown with his fingertips touching the earth, connecting with the lowest and purifying the inferior.  This is similar to dogmatic understanding which separates the true and good from the false and bad, and skeptical reason which seeks the union of the divided and oppositions into an integrated whole.

The Dhammapada

Dharma Wheel DeerThe Dhammapada is a collection of sayings of the Buddha, collected and written in the first century BCE, the time when Buddhism was becoming fully codified as a tradition and religion in Pali texts of Northern India.  Dhamma, dharma in Pali as opposed to Sanskrit, means law, discipline and truth, and pada means path, step, foot and foundation.  Thus, the text is the foundation of the law, as well as the path of truth.  It opens with and includes:

Aukana_BuddhaWe are what we think.  All that we are arises with our thoughts.  With our thoughts we make the world.  Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.  Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.  “Look how they abused and beat me, how they threw me down and robbed me.”  Live with such thoughts and you live in hate…. Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.  In this world hate has never dispelled hate.  Only love dispels hate.  This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.  You too shall pass away.  Knowing this, how can you quarrel?

An untroubled mind, no longer seeking to consider what is right and what is wrong, a mind beyond judgements, watches and understands.  Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded, but once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or mother.

Monkey reflection moon paintingThe fool who knows they are a fool is that much wiser.  The fool who thinks they are wise is a fool indeed.  A jug fills drop by drop.  Fools forget their mischief, and light the fires they will burn in one day.  The farmer channels water to his land, the fletcher whittles his arrows, the carpenter turns his wood, and the wise man masters himself.  There is an old saying: “They blame you for being silent, they blame you when you talk too much and when you talk too little.”  Whatever you do, they blame you.  The world always finds a way to praise and a way to blame.  It always has and it always will.  I shall endure hard words as the elephant endures the arrows of battle, for many people speak wildly.

If you sleep, desire grows in you, like a vine in the forest.  Like a monkey in the forest, you jump from tree to tree, never finding the fruit, from life to life, never finding peace.  You have come out of the hollow, into the clearing.  The clearing is empty.  Why do you rush back into the hollow?  Desire is a hollow.  Quiet your mind.  Reflect.  Watch.  Nothing binds you.  You are free.  Delight in the mastery of your hands and your feet, of your words and your thoughts.  You have no name and no form.  Why miss what you do not have?  Empty the boat, lighten the load.  Unbolt the doors of sleep, and awake.

Meditation Practice

Zen MeditationWhile I am not, in any way, an instructor in meditation, there are a few points to share with the average person who wishes to put a simplified and informal version into practice.  You can practice in the traditional lotus position or ‘sitting Indian style’ as it is sometimes called, but you can also sit straight in a chair, stand straight, stand in yoga postures, walk, or even jog according to post-eighties trendy teachers.  You can close your eyes (I would not while jogging), keep your eyes open, or, as many Zen teachers instruct, keep your eyes half open, half closed.

buddha face closed eyesWith the eyes closed, it is easier (while not that easy) to concentrate but harder to integrate with everyday life.  One of my favorite short Buddhist stories tells of a monk who goes up to an isolated mountain top and becomes greatly enlightened, but then when he goes back down into the marketplace someone bumps into him and he is greatly angered.  With the eyes half open, it is easier to concentrate while integrated with experience of the world.  For human beings, visual experience is the most vivid and most processed in the brain.

Zen WaterfallWhile meditation is about clearing and calming the mind, it is very difficult if not impossible to empty the mind.  No matter how hard one tries, particularly if one is trying hard, things continue to pop into the head and take your mind away with them.  The point is not to empty the mind of images or words, but to practice allowing them to arise without being attached to and limited by them.  Jack Kornfield, an American meditation instructor and author, says we should watch as things rise continuously in the mind and let them fall away without following them, what he and his teachers in India call, “gazing at the waterfall”.  Other teachers, including those of early traditions, speak of holding compassion or particular images in mind.

Thai Monk MeditatingRegardless of whether one concentrates on nothing, something in particular or whatever arises naturally, all instruct that one should also concentrate on breathing.  There are complex formulas for breath counts, but the simplest is slowly breathing in with a count of four or five seconds followed by breathing out with the same count at the same speed.  You can count forward for both or count from one to five on inhaling and from five to one on exhaling.  At first it is awkward to switch from inhaling to exhaling and exhaling to inhaling while concentrating, but with practice and patience the sharp transition becomes smooth and rounded.  There have been numerous psychological and neurological studies that suggest regularly meditating in this or a similar way has mental and physical health benefits, particularly due to reduction of stress.

The Two Schools of Buddhist Thought: The Theravada & Mahayana

buddhist thai monk almsThe two large groups of Buddhism are the Theravada and the Mahayana, both originally from India.  Theravada’ means ‘The Way of the Elders’, the continuation of the initial orthodox tradition from the time of the Buddha.  ‘Mahayana’, which  means ‘Greater Vehicle’, was a reformation in India in the first century CE that became the larger of the two schools, though there are still over 100 million practicing Theravadins.  The Mahayana call Theravada ‘Hinayana’, the ‘Lesser Vehicle’, though of course the Theravada never use this term to refer to themselves as ‘lesser‘.  As Mahayana Buddhism evolved and spread, they considered themselves to be the greater, more all inclusive vehicle for the community beyond the monastery.

Spread of Theravada and Mahayana BuddhismToday both can be found all over the world including Europe and America, but primarily Theravada is the official religion of several countries in South East Asia including Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and Mahayana is found in many countries of East Asia including China, Mongolia, Korea, Vietnam and Japan.  Sometimes Tibetan Buddhism is considered part of Mahayana, but sometimes it is considered the third large school of Buddhism, Vajrayana, the ‘Diamond Vehicle’.  As with the terms ‘Mahayana’ and ‘Hinayana’, it is often only the Tibetans who refer to themselves this way.  Mahayana Buddhists consider the Tibetans to be Mahayana like themselves.

Theravadin monks begging

Indian Buddha PaintingThe original early tradition, the Theravada, formed at the same time as Jainism and Hinduism were gathering and codifying their own religious traditions.  This was centered in the sangha, the community or monasteries.  To  convert to Buddhism, traditionally one takes the three vows:

I take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (the teaching) and the Sangha (the community of the teaching).

Diamond Sutra Chinese Block PrintingSometimes monasteries were founded in remote locations to promote meditation and withdrawal from the bustle of life, but often temples and monasteries served as religious, educational and medical sites for local communities the same way that Christian monasteries did in the Middle East and Europe.  Both were centers for learning to write and copying texts, first by hand and then printed after block printing was invented in China.  The first block printed text is a Chinese scroll of the Diamond Sutra, printed in 878 CE and held today in the British Museum.

theravada monk receiving food bowlThere are three ways one can be involved in the sangha.  First, one could be a common lay person who is educated by monks or self-educated in Buddhist teachings, meditation and devotional worship but is not a monk or nun.  Buddhist monks of the Theravada tradition walk from house to house, collecting alms and food to eat.  Monks often have only two possessions, a robe and a begging bowl, which they consider to be tradition going back to the Buddha and his original followers.  To the horror of many Jains, Theravada Buddhists will eat donations of meat given to them by common people.  Meat is rare in most households of Southeast Asia because it is expensive, however there are many fishing villages where monks will eat donations of fish.

Theravada Monks WalkingThe Buddha, against the Jains, taught that it is perfectly alright to eat meat if it has not been killed for the monk to eat.  This is similar to eating fruit after it has already fallen from the tree, but the Jains would not be satisfied with this.  Centuries later, an emperor of China asked the Indian Buddhists for texts that prescribed vegetarianism for all monks.  Daoist sages are often vegetarian, and Buddhism was identified with and understood in terms of Daoism when it first came to China.  When the Indian monks told the Chinese emperor that there were no texts that made it a requirement for monks to be vegetarian, the emperor had one written up and made law for Buddhist monks of China.

Theravada Monks Eating TogetherThe second way one can become involved with the sangha is to join the monastery as a monk or a nun.  In one early text, Buddha uses a parable used by Jesus as well as the Confucians Mencius and Xunzi, the parable of sowing seeds on good and bad soil, explaining that while teachings should be shared with everyone, those monks and nuns who have committed their lives to monastic living are living in rich soil with the potential to use the teachings the most to achieve enlightenment.

Prajapati with BuddhaWhile this did give women as well as low caste and poor individuals the opportunity to seek a better life outside of their circumstances and become educated, it is also true that nuns were subordinate to monks.  Monks could instruct nuns, but nuns could not instruct monks.  The same was true of Christian monasteries in Europe, which is why nuns often teach children in schools but do not teach adult men.  In one text, Buddha prescribes this sexist social order, but when asked by Prajapati, the legendary founding Buddhist nun, how nuns should train and practice compared to monks, Buddha replies ‘as monks do’ twice, asked again, reiterating that there is no difference for how women and men should practice.

hokusai Japanese Buddhist HermitThe third way one can be involved, though not very involved, with the sangha is to become an arhat, an advanced person who has achieved much enlightenment on their own, like the proto-Jains who went off into the jungle.  One can go off on one’s own, but it is often better to seek instruction and discipline within the community.  In early texts, the title arhat means little more than a buddha, but in the later tradition the term increasingly refers to individuals only marginally involved with the monastic community.  With Zen, we will see that hermits wander down out of the mountains occasionally, lecture the assembly of monks, and then leave and go back into the mountains, living much as Daoist hermits do.

Buddha and elephant nalagiriIn one early text, an evil monk tries to take over the community and when the Buddha sends him away he returns and argues with Buddha in front of the sangha about how staying near the outside community and seeking alms and food will necessarily involve monks in evil so monks should dwell in the forest apart from lay people.  Buddha replies that one can go into the forest if one wants, or dwell in the community if one wants, and enlightenment can be gained either way.  The evil monk tries to kill Buddha by releasing a crazed elephant on the path where Buddha was walking, but Buddha soothes the elephant and pets its forehead.  The elephant cleans the dust off Buddha’s feet with his trunk, anoints his own head with the dust and wanders off, no longer a crazed but now an enlightened elephant.

Buddhist monks & Angkor Wat

Cambodian Theravadin monks in front of the most famous Theravada temple, Angkor Wat

The Mahayana Tradition

Mahayana Pure LandOne of the major differences between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions is that the Theravadins believe that it is almost always male monks who gain enlightenment and liberation, and so lay people and nuns should work hard to re-position themselves so that they can be a male monk and achieve nirvana in their next rebirth or one soon to come.  The Mahayana tradition grew in reaction against this rigid formula.  Just as Buddhism became popular by reaching out to those regardless of the caste system, Mahayana became popular, the most popular form of Buddhism, by reaching out to the community beyond the monastery and preaching that anyone can be enlightened, not just monks, by the teachings of the Buddha, regardless of occupation or gender.

Bodhisattva goldenIncreasingly, stories and texts were circulated telling of lay people, including old women and young children, becoming enlightened without needing monastic training.  In one story, a snake/dragon (naga) princess becomes enlightened upon hearing Buddha’s teachings, but when she goes to have her enlightenment confirmed, the monks do not believe her because she is a woman and argue that it is not possible.  To refute them, she transforms into a male in front of their eyes and shoots off to a high heaven realm.  Notice that one could read this story in the community as a progressive or a conservative, as if it doesn’t matter if you are male or as if you still have to transform into a man before total liberation.  When we read Zen koan stories in two weeks, there are many in which a mountain dwelling sage, or an old woman, or a girl with pigtails shows up a Zen master, who must acknowledge they are beaten by the understanding of an outsider.  Unfortunately, this also shows us that, while women have been recognized as great individuals in the ancient world, women of child-bearing age are kept under control.

Buddha NatureBuddha Nature (Buddha Dhatu): The Mahayana taught that, just as all particular beings are in fact one, much like the Thou Art That of the Upanishads, all conscious beings have Buddha nature and so it helps to be a monk but anyone can achieve great enlightenment no matter who they are.  Just as Jainism and Buddhism had appealed to individuals of all castes by putting enlightenment above caste duties, Mahayana Buddhism flourished and considerably outgrew the Theravada in numbers.  The Theravada tradition survived as the official religion of Sri Lanka, the island south of India, and was spread along Indian shipping trade routes of Southeast Asia along with the Ramayana and much Hindu culture.  The Mahayana thrived in central India and so it was the Mahayana tradition that spread through East Asia, through Tibet and China and then Korea and Japan.

Jiuhuashan bodhisattvaBodhisattvas: The final major difference between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, one of great importance for devotional worship, is the reverence of great saints or bodhisattvas.  Just as Mahayana increasingly involved lay people, devotional worship came to incorporate the honoring of great saints that could bestow particular blessings or help individuals achieve states of realization.  The bodhisattvas are great individuals who could have been fully released from the rounds of birth and death but decided instead to stay involved in the world of suffering for the sake of enlightening and liberating everyone else.  The Bodhisattva Vow is to become enlightened for the sake of all conscious beings.  Buddhist devotional worshipers pray, chant and give offerings such as burning incense to implore the help of their power.

The Couch and the Tree Psychoanalysis and BuddhismIn a book that compares psychoanalysis and Buddhism, particularly Zen, titled The Couch and the Tree, after listening to a psychoanalyst talk about freeing people from their mental problems, a Zen monk says, “Yes, but my religion can save rocks and trees…Can your religion do that?“.  Notice that not only does the monk refer to the psychoanalysis of Freud, Jung, Lacan and others as a religion, but when he speaks about saving rocks and trees he is not merely talking as an environmentalist, but as a Mahayana Buddhist who believes in the Bodhisattva vow.

Thousand Armed Avalokitesvara Guan yinDaienin Kannon Guan YinChenrezigthangka Avalokitesvara Tibet

  The most important and popular bodhisattva is Avalokitesvara, known as Guan Yin in China and Kannon in Japan, the bodhisattva of compassion.  She plays a similar role to the Virgin Mary in Catholicism, a being one can implore for kindness and mercy and a favorite of mothers, particularly in caring for children.

Maitreya Buddha the next Buddhamaitreya__the_future_buddhaMaitreya

Another central bodhisattva is Maitreya, the Buddha who will come at the end of this kalpa (cycle of the cosmos) to signal the end of this world and its rebirth.  Maitreya is the Buddha to come, the one who will be as great as the Buddha who came at the height of the golden age of Indian thought (high noon of this kalpa) to teach the true way of things.  Another popular bodhisattva is Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom who is often pictured holding the sword of wisdom above his head, ready to cut off attachments and the ignorance attached, which we already discussed.

The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) Sutras

Astasahasrika_Prajnaparamita_Sutra_ManuscriptThe earliest and most popular Mahayana sutra texts are called ‘perfection of wisdom’, Prajnaparamita, sutras.  They are short compared to many Buddhist texts, and are chanted in devotional worship to Buddha and the bodhisattvas.  The two most central are the Diamond or Diamond Cutter (Vajracchedika) Sutra and the Heart (Hrdaya) Sutra, which I gave you in your readings.  These texts repeat the message that the perfection of wisdom is emptiness and compassion, not for one’s own sake exclusively but for all conscious beings.  This is the vow of the bodhisattva, but it is also the aim of the lowest practitioner.  Wisdom is, as the Buddha taught, the highest virtue, seeing beyond selfishness and identity such that one cares for everything.

Diamond-Sutra ScrollIn the Diamond Sutra, which was mentioned with Chinese block printing, after Buddha goes to collect food and alms in a large city, he is asked about the bodhisattva path at an assembly of monks.  Note that for Theravadins, the Buddha would have never heard of bodhisattvas.  He replies that all beings are to be liberated and enlightened, and the merit or good karma generated from this is as invaluable as the sky is immeasurable.  The Buddha can see with his ‘buddha eye’, the third eye that opens in the center of the forehead, as in Hinduism symbolizing union of the duality of two eyes, that there have been countless buddhas so far and this is the root of countless buddhas in the future.

Subhuti diamond sutraBuddha questions Subhuti, a bodhisattva himself, and Subhuti answers correctly each time, demonstrating his right understanding, exactly as Zen monks do in koan stories.  Subhuti says that there is a teaching, and there isn’t, there is a galaxy, and there isn’t, there are the thirty two marks that traditionally identify the Buddha, and there aren’t, and many other things that do and do not exist as they are.  Buddha says that the universe is like a Ganges river for every grain of sand in the Ganges river, endlessly complex, yet there is one mind that can be known that contains all of it.  In the final lines, Buddha says that even if a bodhisattva were to give innumerable galaxies of precious gems to him as a gift, this would not have the immeasurable merit that a humble woman or man would achieve by sharing the teaching with others.

Buddhist Logic & Debate

Samye Monastery TibetAs mentioned with the Nyaya and Gautama, Buddhists debated their doctrines with other schools, as well as hold debates between competing schools of Buddhism.  As we will learn next week while studying Tibetan Buddhism, Tibet was more influenced by India than China, in part due to a legendary debate in 794 CE between Kamalashila, a monk from India, and Moheyan, a monk from China, at the Samye monastery in Tibet, the first Buddhist monastery built in Tibet only fifteen years earlier in 779 CE.  Kamalashila, who represented Indian Mahayana Buddhism and argued for gradual enlightenment, defeated Moheyan, who represented Chinese Chan (Zen in Japanese) Buddhism and argued for sudden enlightenment, and this affected the entire course of Buddhism in Tibet.  This remained an issue between the two large schools of Zen.  Several Chinese sources say that it was Moheyan who won the debate, but he was forced to leave the country.

Tibetan-Buddhist-nuns debateAs mentioned, Buddhists took lessons and examples from the Nyaya, such as ‘If there is smoke on the hill, then there is fire on the hill’ to analyze types of inference and their validity, but like Jains, they argued that a thing can be true in some way but not other ways, in some place but not everywhere and at some time but not all times.  The Buddhists also argued that things do not have singular causes but rather significant causes that seem to be singular but rather catch our attention such that other causes in the complex network are obscured.

tibetan books studyBuddhists believe that reason, wisdom and enlightenment can be achieved through study, reflection and meditation.  Study is taking knowledge in, reflection is critical reasoning about the knowledge one has taken in, and meditation is practicing stillness and calm.  While most Indian schools of thought teach that study and reflection are paths to enlightenment and greater perspective, Buddhists emphasize the necessity of practicing meditation over long periods of time.  While Daoists of China also consider these three to be useful, Confucius considered meditation worthless, and thought it best to spend all of one’s time studying and reflecting.

nagarjunaNagarjuna (150-250 CE), the central and most famous logician of Buddhism, was the abbot of a Mahayana monastery where he wrote textbooks for monks on logic, meditation and compassion for all beings.  He is considered the founder of the Madhyamaka “middling” school, and his work was foundational for Mahayana Buddhism.  He is revered by Tibetan Buddhists, who wrote many commentaries on his work.  Today, the Dalai Lama teaches Nagarjuna to large audiences.  The Madhyamaka school developed in response to other competing Buddhist schools they believed to be one-sided in doctrines and dogmas, attempting to get back to the fundamental concept of the middle way.

Catuskoti four things nagarjunaNagarjuna is a firm supporter of non-one-endedness.  This is displayed well in his Catuskoti (also called the Tetralemma, both meaning, ‘The Four Things’) show us another modal understanding of viewpoint and description that complements the Jain seven view understanding already discussed.  The four things are is, is not , is and is not, and neither is nor is not.  If we have two circles, the first (A) being IS, and the second (B) being IS NOT, then the space shared by the two (X3) both IS and IS NOT, and the area outside the two circles (X4) neither IS nor IS NOT.

Fire FlamesTo illustrate the fourth of the four things, consider an image of a fire.  It is not hot because it is an image, but it is not cold as a consequence of not being hot either.  Rather, the image of a fire is neither hot nor cold in itself unless one has left the television on for far too long.  Another example of this type is an actor playing a villain is not bad because he does evil onscreen, but neither is he good because he is not evil as he appears.  The actor may be acting well or poorly regardless of what the role requires.  Consider also that something which both IS and IS NOT is neither IS nor IS NOT exclusively.  If reality is all being and not-being, then reality is both and neither.  Reality contains all sorts of being and all sorts of nonbeing.

Nagarjuna print

Nagarjuna attacks positions of other schools by showing contradictions that undo their position.  If a position contradicts itself, it is not self sufficient but dependent on its opposite within its very self.  For example, if the meaning of life is that we can find all sorts of meaning in life, then the singular meaning of life is that there is no singular meaning of life.  This does not make life devoid of truth or meaning, but rather shows how fruitful truth and meaning can be.  As another example, if what is best for ourselves is to be concerned about others and not simply ourselves, then what is not in self-interest is in self-interest.  In one debate, Nagarjuna’s opponent argues that if Nagarjuna believes everything is empty, then his words and argument must also be empty.  Nagarjuna replies that this does not mean they are not also true and meaningful at the same time.  What will these words we use now mean next week, or in 3000 years?  They might be quite meaningless then, but this does not make them meaningless here and now.  Nagarjuna’s opponent argues that if Nagarjuna believes that everything can be negated, then so can his argument.  Nagarjuna replies that he can negate his own argument, but he can also put it forward at the same time.

wittgenstein grafNagarjuna taught that all Buddhist concepts are only valid for actual practice and not abstractly in theory, much like American pragmatists such as Dewey and Rorty.  Like Wittgenstein in his later thought, Nagarjuna taught that things do not have singular essences, but arise out of the complex.  He argued this against other Buddhist schools of his time who taught that the essence of the self is non-existence as opposed to existence, that time is the essence of things, anger is the essence of duality, that compassion is the essence of practice, and matter is the essence of form.  Each of these things are true, but not entirely and exclusively true.

2 thoughts on “Asian Philosophy 4: Buddhism in India, the Theravada & the Mahayana

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