Asian Philosophy 4: Buddhism in India

For this lecture, please read the Dhammapada.

Buddha Departure

Suffering & Desire

Gandhara Buddha

We left off last time with the Jains, who practice severe discipline to escape from entanglements with material existence.  Mahavira argued for a physical conception of suffering rather than a psychological one such that any material interaction, intentional or unintentional, has negative consequences.  This is why Jains practice non-violent measures such as wearing masks, as unintentionally killing insects and microorganisms has a negative karmic impact on the individual, even if they are unaware of it and did not intend it.


Let’s say that Susan and Steve are quite addicted to delicious, satisfying waffles.  Sadly, waffles are not the healthiest food in existence, and so Susan and Steve suffer pain and dissatisfaction after eating nothing but waffles for years on end.  Susan gives no thought to her problems, or anyone else’s really, but Steve worries about his health and addiction to waffles a great deal.  For the Jains, what is bad for you is bad for you regardless of whether or not it is intentional, and so a Jain could use this imaginary example to show that Susan and Steve’s health suffers the same even though one intends to change while the other does not.

Buddha Java Indonesia

Gautama Siddhartha (563 – 483 BCE), a shramana (striver) like Mahavira, left his home for the jungle and tried Jain-like practices with the forerunners of Jainism before it became an official school, but he left frustrated and dissatisfied.  Gautama, also known as Siddhartha, also known as The Buddha, also known as Buddha, found that Jain beliefs and practices gave him feelings of self-loathing rather than liberation, and so he meditated until he discovered that the cause of suffering is psychological rather than physical.  Buddha taught that desire and fear fill existence with suffering, what Buddhists and others call samsara, but we can grow through wisdom to find freedom and happiness, what Buddhists and others call nirvana, moksha and samadhi.

Buddha guarded by Nagas

While a Jain might argue that Susan and Steve have the same health problems, a Buddhist would argue that both have the conscious, intentional desire for waffles and then act on that desire again and again, and that this intention is the cause of their problem, not the waffles themselves, who intend nothing.  Thus, Steve intends to change after intending to eat waffles, which is better than Susan intending to eat waffles without intent to change.  Susan might be ignorant, but her actions are not unintentional.  One follower of Mahavira argued that if an uncivilized savage roasts and eats someone, mistaking them for food, then Buddhists would have to admit that the savage did no wrong, and thus made a good breakfast.

The Life of the Buddha

Buddha Hyderabad India

According to the tradition, Gautama Siddharta was the son of a king who ruled the Gautama region of Northern India, what is today in Nepal, the same region and living at the same time as Gautama, founder of the Nyaya school of Logic and Debate.  When Siddhartha was born, the king’s wisest adviser told him that his son would be either the greatest of kings or the greatest of sages, the great ruler of the physical or the mental.  The king did not want his son to be his successor, so he kept his son in a palace and gave him all the luxuries in the world, hiding death, disease and pain from him, surrounding him with servants, peacocks and happiness.  Siddhartha received the finest education and training several academic and military subjects, and received everything he desired, but by 29 he had become bored and snuck out to see the city outside the palace, taking along his most trusted servant.

buddha four sights

Siddhartha Buddha departing

Outside the palace walls, the prince first saw an old man, then a sick man, and then a dead man.  Horrified, he asked his servant about each, and each time the servant said that this is what happens to everyone, even the crown prince himself.  Then he saw a holy man practicing meditation, and his servant told him that this fourth man was working on the problems of the first three.  The Buddha was immediately envious of something more wonderful than he had ever possessed in the palace, and so he left home to become, in the Buddhist tradition, the greatest sage of all ages.

Buddha Po Lin

Many sages and schools had many formulas for finding one’s way to the One itself, the truth and meaning of it all.  The Indian tradition generally prizes liberation from attachments, accompanied by discipline.  The Vedanta wrestle over how much this is anthropomorphic devotional worship and how much this is beyond human and inhuman.  The Vaisheshika and Nyaya seek atomic, universal truth.  The Charvakas say that everything outside of immediate sense is illusion.  The Jains say that everything is perspective and disentanglement of the mind from matter.  Many great strivers had come before Buddha, but he is the last of the great sages of the golden age of ancient Indian thought, and by following and popularity he is unquestionably the greatest, the most revered Indian philosopher of all time and one of the most popular philosophers in history.

Temple and Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya

After leaving home, Siddhartha first tried meditating with masters of the Upanishads, but he was not happy to simply pacify the mind and attain tranquility.  Then he tried asceticism, fasting and severe 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.  He left the jungle disappointed, and sat underneath a large tree on the bank of Neranjara River, across from a place where priests, ascetics and others made fire sacrifices to different deities.  Siddhartha tried the Upanishadic meditations for pacifying the mind again, but with the strength he had acquired from proto-Jain asceticism, and found himself in a state of freedom from hate, greed and confusion.  He realized that enlightenment is not a conception of reality, a form of truth, but maintaining awareness itself.  He then came out of this state and spent most of his time for the next 45 years reflecting and teaching, explaining with words and concepts why words and concepts are not the truth itself.

The Middle Way

Siddhartha Budda emaciated

One of the most popular metaphors we find across human thought is balance, the idea that we should not do too much, nor too little.  Aristotle in Greece and Confucius in China were both advocates of balance in all things, and the Jains, following Mahavira, argue that we should not be one-sided.  The Buddha tried living in a palace with every luxury, and then he tried doing without everything in the jungle, but neither worked.  In other words, the Buddha tried being a Jain, but he found that Jain practices are not non-one-sided enough.  There are Buddhist images and statues which portray the Buddha obtaining enlightenment while still severely emaciated, but these are not the typical popular portrayal of the Buddha as neither too thin nor too fat, in line with the idea of moderation between extremes.

Small Budais

Hotei Laughing Buddha

Gautama Siddhartha is never depicted as fat, though many Americans and others wrongly believe that the Buddha was fat because of the popular “Laughing Buddha”, the happy fat monk and good luck saint who supposedly lived around 900 CE.  Known as Budai in China and Hotei in Japan, his name means ‘Cloth Sack’, and he is often shown holding a sack, and orange, or a ball of butter up in the air.  He loved playing with children and giving them gifts from his bag, just like the sort of people Nancy Reagan warned us about in the 80s.  In one Zen koan story, a monk approached Budai as he was giving out 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, slung it over his shoulder and wandered off.

laughing buddha singapore

Budai 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.

Buddha Hong Kong

The Middle Way is what Buddha taught those who first listened to him, including ascetics, after he himself had practiced asceticism.  He realized that a mind without hate, greed and confusion can see and experience so much more of the world, but that we must be both dispassionate and compassionate at the same time.  Unlike Mahavira, Buddha thought we should grow our passions, the seeds in you into fruits, growing causes into effects, without allowing them to become too inflamed and out of control, neither burning them all off nor allowing them to grow out of control.  Rather than try to escape our attachments, individuality and perspective entirely for unmotivated omniscience, we should pragmatically engage with whatever side of the elephant we find ourselves on with the wisdom that there is always more than one side.

Gautama Buddha with cape

One of the great scholars of Buddhism as philosophy is David Kalupahana, who studied with Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke, who studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, my favorite modern European philosopher.  For many years, Kalupahana was the head of the philosophy department at the University of Hawaii, one of the foremost institutions in the comparison of Eastern and Western thought.  Kalupahana argues that Buddha, like William James and Wittgenstein, was a pragmatist who sought a middle way between dogmatic absolutism and skeptical relativism.  Our desires and conceptions are true and false, believable and doubtable, and so it is not about what we believe in itself but what we do with our beliefs in practice.  Desires and conceptions are not bad in themselves, but tools that are used in ways that result in good and bad.  Thus, we should grow the seeds in us wisely, without burning them off or growing them into too much fruit.

hands of the buddha

Buddha argued that there are many different views and schools, but that all of their theories are based on both reason and experience.  The Nyaya logicians had argued before the Buddha that there are four sources of knowledge: perception, inference, testimony and comparison.  We experience things and experience others telling us about their experiences, and we reason about what is true beyond our and others experiences, making comparisons between different things and their different possibilities.


Some schools, like the Nyaya, believed that reason is central and yogic insight unnecessary, but other schools, like the Jains, believe that yogic insight acquired through practices is necessary.  Thus, both the Nyaya and the Jains believe in both reason and experience, but the Nyaya believe that reason is essential and experience is a helpful, while the Jains believe that experience is essential and reason is helpful.  In the early modern European philosophical tradition, these two positions were known as Rationalism and Empiricism, the first major skism, with Descartes and Kant on the side of reason as universal and Locke and Hume on the side of experience as complex.

Buddha Vietnam

The Buddha argued that siding with the Rationalist Nyaya or the Empiricist Jains are each an overstatement (adhivuttipada in Pali, similar to the Jain anekantavada in Sanskrit), as we should not have too much faith in reason nor too much faith in experience.  We must believe and doubt our perceptions as well as our reflections, maintaining awareness of the situation.  Too much faith in one side of things blinds us because there are different positions we can take and things change.  What if we trust our reasoning, and deny counterexamples in our experiences, including the testimony of others?  What if we trust our experiences, such that we deny our reasoning, including comparisons we can make between how we do things and how we could do things better?  In one early text found in the Majjhima-Nikaya (The Middle Length Discourses), Buddha is recorded as saying:

Even if I know something on the basis of best faith, that may be empty, hollow, and confused, while what I do not know on the best faith may be factual, true and not otherwise.  It is not proper for an intelligent person, safeguarding the truth, to come categorically to the conclusion in this matter that such alone is true and whatever else is false.

reclining buddha sagat stage

Impermanence & The Monkey Mind

avatars of vishnu with buddha

Many of the debates between ancient Indian philosophers were concerned with separating the eternal and universal from the temporary and particular.  Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, including our individual selves and our shared world.  Buddha was critical of the Hindu idea of the atman and the caste system, even though Hinduism recognizes the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, and 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.

Monkey reflection moon painting

Even our conceptions and understandings of the whole and truth itself are evolving and changing depending on circumstances.  This constant transformation is a central cause of fear and clinging to particular things 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.  To illustrate this, Buddha use the metaphor of the monkey mind, of a monkey leaping from branch to branch trying to find the branch that is completely secure, ignorant of the insecurity the monkey finds in every particular branch.

buddhist monk on phone

Buddha says that we all have contact with reality, much as each blind man has direct physical contact with the elephant in the Jain story.  By having contact with reality, we become familiar with things, and by becoming familiar with things, we come to have positive, negative or neutral feelings towards them.  Feeling can lead to perception, perception can lead to reflection, and reflection can lead to obsession.  If we are satisfied or dissatisfied with something in experience, this can lead us to focus on it rather than ignore it, as we do with countless things that are pleasing or displeasing in passing.  If we focus on a thing and how it is satisfying or dissatisfying, this can lead us to reflect on it later, when we are no longer experiencing the thing, and if we reflect on things we are not directly experiencing, this can lead to obsession.  If the Buddha is correct, our lives are unfortunately filled with obsessions that cause ignorance, which itself causes problems.

Buddha Hall Dragons

When we reflect on our perceptions, we can focus on whether or not things are making us happy, but we can also reflect on whether or not our perceptions and reflections themselves make us happy, leading us to bondage and suffering or freedom and happiness.  Thus, in maintaining awareness of our feelings, perceptions, reflections and obsessions, we become increasingly aware as we feel, perceive, reflect and obsess that we can obsess about our reflections but we don’t have to, and we can reflect about our perceptions and feelings but we don’t have to.  Because we cannot say with absolute certainty that our feelings, perceptions and reflections are the complete and total truth, we must try to maintain awareness that the perceptions and reflections that arise from our feelings are only useful some of the time.  As Kalupahana says, “it is easier to be enslaved by a concept that gives the impression of being permanent and incorruptible than by a perception that is obviously temporal and corruptible.”

Codependent Arising

victory of the buddha

By maintaining awareness of feelings and perceptions, we can do without excessive and harmful reflections and obsessions.  In particular, Buddha was concerned with the ways we obsess about ourselves, attempting to fix a permanent, perfect self, and the ways we obsess about our world, attempting to fix the ways of things and our understandings of them.  As we become aware of our obsessions, we become aware of how they blind us to seeing the complexity of the situation, how things are interconnected and complex.  Buddha called this pratityasamutpada, Codependent Arising, which sounds like a terrible movie about therapists aboard a submarine, also known in English translation as dependent origination and conditioned genesis.

Tibetan Sand Painting Mandala

Each thing is what it is because of how it interacts with every other thing, not because of anything that it is completely in itself.  Things that are opposite and opposed to each other, such as self and other, friend and enemy, good and bad, hot and cold, are what they are because of their opposites and in spite of them.  Buddha referred to the self, the world and each part of each thing as a pile (skanda), a bundle of many things intertwined.  This is similar to Wittgenstein’s idea that thinking and meaning are like a thread, a tangle of many things without one single strand running throughout the length of the whole.

Zen Circle Caligraphy Painting

Because things are impermanent and dependent on other things to be what they are, Buddha taught that all things are empty (shunya).  While this seems depressing or frightening to many, it should be understood as a kind of openness, not being closed off in themselves as it first appears but being connected to and dependent on everything else.  In an early text, the Buddha says that abiding in emptiness is abiding in fullness.  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 Emptiness

In a set of talks by the Dalai Lama 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.  Later in this talk the Dalai Lama giggles about Jains showing up to conferences naked.

The Dhammapada

Dharma Wheel Deer

The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings of the Buddha, collected and written in the first century BCE, the time when Buddhism was becoming 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 includes several memorable passages, including:

Buddha India Statue

We 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.  “Look how they abused and beat me, how they threw me down and robbed me.”  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?

tibetan buddhist demon

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.

The 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.

monkey bamboo painting

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.

buddha face closed eyes

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 Theravada Tradition

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

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 printNagarjuna 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.


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