For this lecture, please read the Edicts of Ashoka.

The Codification of The Dharma

Hotei by Kano Tan'yu

Scholars debate about the similarities and differences between what Siddhartha Gautama taught after experiencing a state of enlightenment and what became codified as the early doctrines of Buddhism.  When the ascetic Upaka asked Buddha, “Who is your teacher?”, he replied that he has abandoned authority to be free and happy.  Upaka said, “So be it,” and left, unhappy with Buddha’s lack of doctrine but unconcerned about changing his mind.  Buddha did not appoint a successor, and he gave his followers freedom as to how they should interpret and understand the teachings.  He also used the metaphor of a raft to teach that teachings themselves are tools, good like a raft for crossing a river but then to be left aside once the river has been crossed.  Sextus the ancient Greek skeptic said that philosophy is a ladder to be similarly cast aside, and modern philosophers such as Wittgenstein have quoted him.

buddha teaching

In an early Buddhist story The Monk and the Carpenter, an illiterate carpenter and educated monk get into an argument over whether neutral feelings are good feelings.  The carpenter said that the Buddha included neutral feelings with good feelings, while the monk said that the Buddha clearly distinguished good, neutral and bad feelings as three different types.  The Buddha told the two that they are both right, and thus both wrong for rejecting the other’s views.  Sometimes, being neutral is “not bad”, and thus a good thing, while other times neutral is not good, and thus neither bad nor good.  Notice that the Buddha takes both of their sides, but neither exclusively, just as he should in line with there being multiple sides of the elephant.

buddha teaching b

The Buddha did not distinguish the happiness and freedom of nirvana from happiness and freedom in samsara, the world of suffering and attachment.  The peace and insight we experience emotionally and conceptually in daily existence are the same that enlightenment deepens for those who practice cultivation.  This means that Buddha did not present himself as having experienced something that the commoner doesn’t experience, with a conception of the truth that is concealed from anyone.  Rather, Buddha said that the most difficult part for the individual is to give up belief in permanent things such as the self and existence due to fear.

chinese buddhist monk reading

In the process of becoming a religious tradition, the philosophical ideas of Siddhartha, such as the Middle Way, Impermanence, and Codependent Arising were complimented by several doctrines of a numerical nature that became part of the core practices of Buddhism early on.  These include the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, The Three Jewels and The Five Abilities.  These were codified within the first decades of the Buddha’s death among several different schools with differing practices.

dharma wheel thailand

The Four Noble Truths can also be called The Four Truths of Nobles, or the Four Ennobling Truths.  They are: 1) Existence is suffering, 2) The cause of suffering is desire, 3) There is freedom from suffering, and 4) Freedom is the Dharma, the Buddha’s teaching, often identified with the Eightfold Path.  The Eightfold Path is similar to The Three Jewels of Jainism, 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.  In each and every area of life, the Buddha taught to be mindful of moderation, impermanence and codependent complexity.

Thai Buddha Teaching Mudra

Take right speech, for example.  Buddha says that the things we say can be true or untrue, useful or useless, and pleasant or unpleasant.  Ideally, we should try to say only what is true, useful and pleasing, but we can say things that are true and useful but not pleasing, untrue but useful and pleasing, and five other possibilities that are less than ideal, depending on the situation and what is best for ourselves and others, which shows Codependent Arising.  We can also choose to say nothing, which is often best.  The Buddha considered “the true” to be what has become true, and not what is always true, making truth temporal and temporary, showing Impermanence.

mahakasyapa buddha holds up a flower

Buddha says you wouldn’t go to another kingdom of India with a different dialect (as a Pali speaking person, such as Buddha, to a place that speaks Sanskrit) and insist that your word for bowl was the correct word for bowl (or that your word dhamma was the correct word for teaching, not dharma).  The Buddha encouraged followers to spread teachings in their own languages, adapting it to their own cultures.  The “voice of another” (parato ghosa) is useful, not as an absolute but as part of a productive situation of investigation and reflection.  Speaking well is listening to others.  This shows the reciprocity of the Middle Way.

Buddhist monks steps

To officially become a Buddhist, you must declare a three-part vow: “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, and I take refuge in the Sangha,” the teacher, the teaching and the community of the teaching.  These are known as the Three Refuges, also the Three Jewels, which is confusing because the Jains have their own Three Jewels, (right thought, right speech, right act) which is more like the Buddhist Eightfold Path.


The Five Abilities 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 Manjushri, bodhisattva or saint 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 Statue Taiwan

Buddha said that we can be freed through wisdom, as we are somewhat unknown, undetermined and unconditioned, not totally determined or completely set and known any particular way, all we must do is come to awareness of the freedom that is already part of us and open to us.  This is very similar to the Jain dualistic view of mind and matter, in that our minds are already free, even if their entanglements with existence conceal this from us.  This is what Buddha refers to as “freedom without basis”, freedom that is not based in anything particular at all that the human mind can distinguish and exclusively identify.



Buddhism is popularly identified with meditation practices, such that thinking of Buddhism will often call up images of a monk sitting in meditation, Indian style.  Gautama Siddhartha did practice extensive meditation, as do many schools of Buddhism, however there have been from the earliest days criticism within the Buddhist tradition about the failure of meditation alone to lead to wisdom and enlightenment.  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.  Clearly it is good to calm and develop ourselves through meditation, but it is also important to have the courage and compassion to interact with others and participate mindfully in all the basic activities of life.

reclining buddha thailand

Buddha said the yogic method is useful for developing insight, but he was not uncritical of practicing forms of meditation, having left the Upanishadic masters he practiced with first after leaving home.  He did practice calming meditations before he died, at the time that he had the most followers during his lifetime, so it is possible that the emphasis some schools of Buddhism place on calming forms of meditation reflect this. Buddha did not want people to simply meditate and become passive, nor to meditate simply to pacify the mind.  While the Skyclad Jains say Mahavira perfectly did nothing after achieving omniscience, Buddha conversed with many for over four decades.  Kalupahana argues that as Buddha became a revered figure, texts increasingly portrayed him as a perfect being, without personality or fault.

Zen encounter

There are many texts that follow the earliest that present Buddha as obtaining magical psychic powers, such that he can see all of his past and future lives and read minds.  Some consider these popular mythologizing of Buddha’s teachings and practices, much as stories of magic and myth are partly based in fact all over the world.  Extrasensory perception such as telepathy may simply be meditation leading to increased awareness of the emotions of others, including facial expressions and gestures.  In ancient times prophets had visions of the future, much as we still do today, and a wiser mind that is developed in practice may see the future and determine the past better than others.  With an aware mind, we can see what others don’t see, hear what others don’t hear and even feel what others don’t feel, not because they can’t but because they don’t, obsessing about other things.  For Buddha, the highest form of knowledge is wisdom or insight, the knowledge of waning of influxes, that things exist and are important, but not completely or entirely.  In one text (The Grouped Discourses), Buddha says:

Beings, dominated by prediction, established upon prediction, not understanding prediction, come under the yoke of death.  However, having understood prediction, one does not assume oneself to be a fortune-teller.

buddhist monk meditating

While 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.  With the eyes closed, it is easier (while not that easy) to concentrate but harder to integrate with everyday life.  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.

waterfall steps

While 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.

Zen Meditation

Regardless 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.

Ashoka: Buddhist Emperor of Ancient India

The Maurya Empire, founded by Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BCE), unified much of India more than ever before for 135 years (322-187 BCE), much as Alexander (356-323) had unified much of Greece more than ever just before Chandragupta, for a much shorter while, which turned to Chandragupta’s favor.  The Maurya empire that Chandragupta founded reached its height with Ashoka (268-232 BCE), the greatest ancient Indian emperor and one of the great revered leaders of ancient history, as well as the first Buddhist emperor, the individual who most helped Buddhism become a worldwide religion and philosophy.

According to early Indian Buddhists, the Nanda were thieves who rose to be rulers over much of northern and central India, who were justly overthrown by Chandragupta.  Chanakya, the revered Hindu Brahmin philosopher, was supposedly so ugly that the Nanda king Dhana threw him out of the assembly, clearly not in the way Buddha taught the Vajji to run assemblies.  Chanakya cursed the king publicly, and the king tried to catch and kill him, but he escaped disguised as a follower of Gosala, the philosopher with the ball of twine.

Wandering into neighboring lands, he saw Chandragupta, a child playing king and robbers with other children who was, in some hideous and magical way, ordering that the limbs of the other children playing robbers be cut off, have the children’s limbs get actually cut off by the other children, and then Chandragupta magically re-attached the limbs.  Chanakya bought the kid from his guardian with gold and trained him and a Nanda prince named Pabbata he similarly acquired to see which would be the better emperor to overthrow Dhana, the Nanda emperor who threw him out.

One night, he asks Pabbata to take Chandragupta’s necklace off without waking him, but Chandragupta wakes up and Pabbata fails.  The next night, Chanakya asks Chandragupta to take Pabbata’s necklace off without waking him, so Chandragupta cuts off Prabbata’s head.  Problem solved! The text does not specifically mention if Prabbata’s head was reattached, or what happens to Prabbata. Chandragupta wins the stealthy thief contest, and is the one to be the emperor, cutting off the head of the Nanda empire and then reattaching its limbs together into the harmonious whole of his own empire.  When Chandragupta was old enough, Chanakya used magic to multiply thousands of gold coins into the money needed to raise an army, and then Chanakya, well versed in the Vedas and political theory, guided Chandragupta to justly overthrow the terrible Nanda Empire.

It was just before this time that Alexander turned back from conquering India, unable to push forward against the Nanda and others, and then died soon after.  Chandragupta conquered Greek colonies that Alexander left behind unprotected as he retreated, allowing Chandragupta to gather a much larger empire westward. In 303 BCE, Chandragupta and Seleucus, general of Alexander who took the portion of Alexander’s empire that bordered and included parts of India, made a peace treaty, in which Seleucus sent the Greek ambassador Megasthenes (350-290 BCE) to Chandragupta’s royal court to live and conceded vast territories, including much of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Chandragupta, and Chandragupta sent Seleucus 500 war elephants.  Later, Chandragupta sent Seleucus powerful aphrodisiacs, that make people into people, and powerful anti-aphrodisiacs, which make people not into people.

Megasthenes wrote a book now lost about India called Indika, mentioned later by the Roman historian and decent beer Pliny the Elder.  In the book, Megasthenes claimed that the wisest Indians know that Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, passion and ecstasy, taught the Indians how to grow food, make wine and worship the gods, ruled India for 50 years and then died of old age.  Indians also claim that Hercules was from India, with the club and lion’s skin, and that Hercules founded Pataliputra, which became Chandragupta’s capital city, the city where Megasthenes wrote this. He also identifies the Brahmin priests as “philosophers”, the highest caste, as Plato says about Egyptian priests.  The Greeks called Chandragupta “Sandrokottos”.

In the incredible story of Chandragupta’s son’s birth, Chanakya mixed poison into the king’s food bit by bit to make him immune, much like the dread Pirate Roberts does in the Princess Bride.  Unfortunately the king didn’t know, and the king fed a bit to the pregnant queen, so Chanakya cut off her head, presumably to stop the bit of poison in its tracks, without much time to tell the king what he is doing, and then kept the fetus in the belly of a goat for a week until Chandragupta’s son and Ashoka’s father Bindusara was born.  I am not clear on what this may have to do with recent Hindu claims of ancient natal techniques or stem cell research that rival modern methods.

The Jains claim Chandragupta followed Jainism, and near the end of his life became a monk, left all his power and wealth and died peacefully in the forest by fasting, as is the honored Jain thing to do at the end of life.  Chandragupta’s son Bindusara was not a Jain but an Ajivika, a follower of Gosala with the ball of twine, but his power and court were interconnected with many powerful Hindu Brahmins. Bindusara’s son Ashoka, however, went on to be not only one of the most successful emperors in history, but instrumental to the spread of Buddhism beyond Gosala, the Jains and even the Hindus.

Ashoka, whose name means painless or without fears, ruled most of India for over thirty years (268-232 BCE), the first to gather much of India into a single political body.  According to Buddhist sources, which scholars have mentioned emphasize the transformation of Ashoka from fierce and evil to compassionate and good, Bindusara wanted his eldest son to succeed him, but Ashoka tricked his older brother into falling into a pit of hot coals, and then killed the rest of his 99 brothers, such that he might have a problem, but a brother isn’t one of them, other than his one brother Tissa.  Ashoka built a torture chamber that was beautiful on the outside and horrible on the inside to consolidate his power by terrifying his rivals, but during the terrible and costly war he waged against the Kalinga he saw so much death and destruction he converted to Buddhism, set up pillars and edicts, send missionaries, and established monuments at sites of the major events in the life of the Buddha.

The flag and emblem of India today bear Ashoka’s wheel and triple lion pillar, because Ashoka was the first to unify much of India, and he used Buddhism to unify his empire, as great empires and emperors have done and do today. Because of Ashoka, much of Afghanistan and Pakistan were quite Buddhist until the rise of Mohammed and Islam.  Unfortunately, this is why the Taliban blew up ancient, colossal Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

The Edicts of Ashoka

The Edicts of Ashoka are public texts, carvings on walls and pillars, often topped with three lions, but sometimes a single lion, bull or horse, that Ashoka constructed to consolidate his empire and proclaim his Buddhist political code.  Many ancient empires constructed similar edicts, preaching to the people that the powers that be protect them from harm and help them. The edicts were written in a personal tone, as if Ashoka is leveling with the people, similar to the personalized and humanized art style of Akhenaten in ancient Egypt.

Ashoka assures us all that he is sincere in building good things and maintaining them as the people and their concerns are his greatest concern, apologizing for war and promising peace.  He hopes that people will adopt Buddhism, and that they will stop performing rituals and holding festivals that are of little good for everyone, though encouraging people to practice religions freely.  Some have claimed this is one of the earliest laws for freedom of religion, but similar statements are found in similar edicts of Egypt.

Many scholars have pointed out that Ashoka says very little about Buddhist philosophy or doctrines in the edicts, leading some to claim that Ashoka wasn’t actually a Buddhist, as some say Constantine wasn’t actually a Christian but used the Church to hold on to an empire, and others to say Ashoka was a Buddhist but not much of one, unconcerned with Buddhist philosophy but using it for consolidation.  Still others, however, have said that the edicts are not concerned with teaching philosophy, but rather grand political pronouncements. Ashoka does suggest that all live according to moderation and compassion for all life, which are core Buddhist teachings. Ashoka did change Mauryan foreign policy from war to peaceful coexistence, and the justice system from harsh punishments to relative fairness and tolerance.

In the edicts, we can read that Ashoka has made healthcare available, grown and imported herbs and medicines, dug wells and planted trees for the good of all humans and animals.  Before, in Ashoka’s kitchen, hundreds of thousands of animals were turned into delicious curries, but now only “two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always”. Apparently Ashoka couldn’t kick the peacock curry habit, but hoped to, as we are told, “in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.”  According to Jains, Chandragupta, Ashoka’s grandfather and great patriarch, grew up in a village that raised peacocks.

Ashoka assures us that no matter what he is doing, eating, with the women, in bed, in the chariot or napping in the park, he has ordered that he should be informed about anything that is in the interests of the people, and there is no better work than promoting the people’s welfare, the debt that Ashoka repays because he owes it to all of life, presumably for waging war, which we are told of elsewhere.  People all desire self-control and purity of the heart, but desires and passions only let them practice a part of it. Those who receive great gifts but lack self-control and compassion are terrible, which suggests that Ashoka was himself just this terrible.

Ashoka’s edicts say that he sent Buddhist evangelical missionaries to the peoples of India, the Greeks, the Himalayas, Thailand and Sri Lanka.  Ashoka’s son and crown prince Mahinda (285-205 BCE) renounced the throne, as did Buddha himself according to the story, and personally spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka with his sister Sanghamitta as monk and nun, where it survived and thrived as the official religion of the land as much of India became Hindu and Muslim in later centuries.

When Mahinda sent for his sister Sanghamitta to come spread Buddhist convents and nunneries in Sri Lanka, he had her cut and bring a sapling from the original Bodhi Tree, the tree Buddha sat under when he experienced his great awakening. It is this sapling that Buddhists say was brought back to Bodh Gaya and replanted when the original tree was destroyed.  The Theravada, the original Buddhists as far as the tradition considers itself, sprang from this Sri Lankan lineage.

The Theravada: The Way of the Elders

cambodian buddhist monk stairs

The 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 Buddhism

Today both can be found all over the world including Europe and America, but primarily Theravada is the official religion of several countries in Southeast 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.

Theravada Monks Walking

The 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.  Sometimes 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 of London.

theravada monk receiving food bowl

There 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.

Chinese Emperor

The 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 Together

The 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 Buddha

While 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 Hermit

The 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 nalagiri

In 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

The Mahayana Tradition

Mahayana Pure Land

One 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 golden

Increasingly, 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 childbearing age are kept under control.

Buddha Nature

Buddha 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 bodhisattva

Bodhisattvas: 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 Buddhism

In 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.

Daienin Kannon Guan Yin

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.  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.

The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras


The earliest and most popular Mahayana sutra texts are called Perfection of Wisdom, Prajnaparamita.  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.  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 Scroll

In 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 sutra

Buddha 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

Tibetan-Buddhist-nuns debate

As mentioned with the Nyaya and Gautama, Buddhists debated their doctrines with other schools, as well as hold debates between competing schools of Buddhism.  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.


Buddhists 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.


Nagarjuna (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 nagarjuna

Nagarjuna 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.

camp fire

To 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 on screen, 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 non-being.

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.  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.


Nagarjuna 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.