Jainism: Austerity & Perspective
Jainism, or “Jain Dharma” is still practiced today by four million Jains (not Jainists as some mistakenly say). There are currently 4 Million in India today, with many others in communities around the world including New York and Toronto. Jainism rose just before Buddhism, as Mahavira (650 BCE), the main teacher and founder of Jainism, lived just before the Buddha (550 BCE), though all of these dates are still in debate.
Jainism advocates two principles that are shared with Indian thought but credited to Jain innovation: anekantavada, the multiplicity and relativity of reality or “non-one-endedness” and syadvada, the hypothetical and imperfect nature of perspective and judgment that is always the fiber of human truth. According to these two principles, all human beliefs and judgments are temporary and partial views of each particular thing, including the self, and the cosmos, the greater whole. Jains, like Buddhists, believe that things may or may not be as they seem and may or may not be expressible as they are. Jains, much like the Buddhist Logician Nagarjuna we will read soon, believe that there are seven points of view of each and every thing as to how describable and conceivable they are. Each thing, including the cosmos and the self, IS in a way that is describable, IS NOT in a way that is describable, IS and IS NOT in a way that is describable, is indescribable, IS in a way that is indescribable, IS NOT in a way that is indescribable, and IS and IS NOT in a way that is indescribable.
The Buddhist Nagarjuna’s four categories are how a thing is, is not, both is and is not, and neither is nor is not. Notice his addition of the ‘neither’, and one could say one dimension of how things are and are not is how they are and yet are not describable. However, the fourth Jain mode of simply ‘indescribable’ says neither ‘is’ nor ‘is not’. While other schools, including Nyaya logician/debaters, claimed that Jains and Buddhists are at fault for contradicting themselves and seeing contradicting views in things, the Jains and Buddhists argue that one only falls into problematic contradiction if one makes one-sided claims. This is a classic duel between all/none logic and some/some-not logic, between the absolutist and the relativist. The absolutist says the relativist does not have certain truth and contradicts themselves because they are on all sides of the issue, and the relativist replies that the absolutist does not have the full truth and contradicts themselves because they are NOT on all sides of the issue.
Jain texts use the example of hot and cold. An absolutist would argue that a thing cannot be both hot and cold at the same time, but a relativist would argue that a thing is always somewhat relatively hot and somewhat relatively cold. To say a thing is simply hot ignores how cold it is, and to say it is simply cold is to ignore how hot it is. We could supply the example of a refrigerator, which cools on the inside by heating up in back and drawing the heat out of the inside. A refrigerator is simultaneously hot and cold, and it could not be cold in one part unless it is hot in another.
Jains also, much like the wheel of Lao Zi in chapter 11 of the founding Daoist text, the Dao De Jing, use the example of a pot being solid and empty, there and not there. In one part, it is, and in another part, it is not. They use another example of a multicolored cloth, which is and is not many colors all over. Notice that each thing one can say about anything is true in some ways, but false in others, a very critical way that things are and are not as they are described yet are never fully describable. Jains argue that one sees and argues for the side of things that one wants to see, that one wants to be true. This is yet another example of attachment and desire carving the One into many, shining light on some and plunging others into darkness and ignorance.
Jains note that, because human views and descriptions are always one-sided, it is perfectly alright to understand the whole yet lead people in one direction as opposed to another, just as ignorant arguers do, if one sees all of what one is doing. Jains and Buddhists would see Jain and Buddhist teachers and saints in this light, as always telling what cannot be fully told, as leading us towards what is in all directions to begin with. It is only a low and ignorant mind that thinks such leading is impossible because it is contradictory.
Jains use the image of a tree, with the absolute view (naya) as the trunk, what one joins after being fully liberated, and the particular view as the branches and twigs. Notice that the trunk is and is not the twigs, just as the absolute and all-encompassing view is each particular view as a sum of them all but is not each particular view in that it is everything opposed to each particular view as well.
Similarly, Jains argue (like Hegel, who considers seeing being, non-being and becoming simultaneously in things as the first leap of philosophy and associates it with the ancient Greek skeptic Heraclitus) that things simultaneously are and are not because they are being birthed/generated, stable/still, and decaying/transforming at the same time at all times that they are. Each of these views are false if they are considered independently true as opposed to their opposite, but in conjunction with their opposites they are the whole truth of each particular thing and of truth as a whole. Notice that the union of stability with transformation as a single whole view is entirely similar to the orthodox Hindu union of Vishnu, the preserver/savior, and Shiva, the destroyer/transformer, in Brahma, the personification of all.
Jains were also early proponents of the idea that the cosmos works in cycles: like the physical rising and setting of the sun, consciousness rises, then sets. People start to become awakened teachers and develop religion in the rising era, and people lose religion in the setting era. This is endless, like the cosmos. The cosmos becomes enlightened to its own self through us, and then loses consciousness of itself through us. The Hindus and Buddhists share a similar picture of the cosmos, and the Indian golden age of philosophy, which includes the birth and teaching period of Mahavira and the Buddha, is seen as the apex, the high noon, of this current cycle. Unfortunately, we currently live in an era of dimming religion and consciousness according to most Jain and Hindu teachers (the Hindus following the Jains in this picture).
Jain teachers and saints are known as Tirthankaras, “one who makes a ford” (cutting through water as order over chaos, as land becoming firmament in the chaotic waters). Mahavira (also Mahavir), the founder of Jainism, is understood by Jains to be the 24th Tirthankara. Like others of his time, Mahavira was a practitioner of austerities that are aimed at detachment from desire and multiplicity of the world: fasting, standing in jungles, going without food or luxuries for extended periods of time. Statues of Mahavira and other Tirthankaras show vines growing up their legs and bodies, as vines grow several feet in the jungle a day and so would grow up your body if you practice standing austerities for days at a time. Jains believe that these practices purify the self/soul/mind.
Here, we come to THE critical difference between Jainism and the other schools of Indian thought. In Hinduism and Buddhism, karma can be positive (merit and blessing) or negative (demerit and sin). Thus, karma can either help you up or drag you down. For Jains, karma is always bondage, always weight that keeps you down, always division or blockage between you and the ALL. Thus, one tries best to avoid accumulating karma and to destroy the karma one has already accumulated.
While there are kinds of karma and attachment that make ourselves and others happy which the Jains call good, they are hindrances to be overcome if final liberation is to be obtained. If you really, really like waffles, this is fine but to become one with all you must be as indifferent to waffles, neither loving nor hating waffles, as the cosmos. Jains believe that “good” karma, such as that which causes pleasure when helping others out of compassion, matures and falls off naturally along with the body. It is easier to get rid of “good” karma which only affects the body, but it is still to be left behind.
Jains are famous for their doctrine of the negativity of attachment and the radical nonviolence that follows from this principle. Jains wear masks to prevent insects from flying in their mouths, sweep the ground to avoid killing insects (even though the killing would be unintentional, it would still be an accumulation of karma), influenced other Indian thought in promoting vegetarianism, and even don’t eat root vegetables as it kills (up-roots) the whole plant rather than that plucked from the plant. Like Buddhists, Jains believe that one should be disciplined and practice austerities and meditation not just for one’s own salvation, but for compassion and salvation for all living beings.
The best way to understand the dual practice of avoiding karma AND shredding karma is the Metaphor of the Leaky Boat: You ride in a boat across water to a distant shore (Nirvana). Notice that water represents chaos and desire, and the land represents the firm and the enlightened. The boat is leaky, and water is pouring in. You have to BOTH plug the leaks (preventative principles like vegetarianism that prevent bad karma from getting IN you) and bail out the water that has already inside the boat (shedding karma, practicing austerities like fasting or standing in postures to get the karma you already have in this life OUT of you). Jains believe that it is only by this two-pronged strategy that the individual can be fully liberated and join back together with the cosmos and thus gain eternal life rather than round after round of rebirth. From the Tattvarthadhigama Sutra, a central Jain text, we read:
There is a stoppage of inflow of karmic matter into the soul. It is produced by preservation, carefulness, observances, meditation, conquest of sufferings, and good conduct. By austerities is caused the shedding of karmic matter…Liberation is the freedom from all karmic matter, owing to the non-existence of the cause of bondage and to the shedding of the karmas. After the soul is released, there remain perfect right-belief, perfect right-knowledge, perfect perception, and the state of having accomplished all.
Jains argued as logicians (debaters, in the ancient world) with the other competing schools of Indian thought such as Vedanta, Nyaya, Buddhists, and Charvakas. As mentioned, Jains argued against Hindu orthodox schools such as the Vedanta and Nyaya that there is no immortal soul/self after total release and liberation, against the Buddhists about karma, heavenly realms and other dogmatic differences, and against the Charvakas that there is no liberation of consciousness. They also argued passionately for the principle of anekantavada against the doctrine of many other schools that there is one essential nature outside of any perspective (‘naya’), a position the Jains call ‘ekantavada’ as opposed to their own ‘an-ekantavada’.
The Life of the Buddha
According to the tradition and legend, 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 advisor 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. At 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 Jain or proto-Jain), his servant told him that the sage was working on the first three.
The 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 sages practicing austerities. The Buddha did these proto-Jain austere practices in the jungle for six years, but he found that this brought no great enlightenment and in fact brought him 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.
The 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 total extinction of greed (raga), hate (dosa), and delusion (moha), obtainable in this life by any being through the overcoming duality and desire. Just as Jains call their sages Tirthankaras, one who fords 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.
On a related note, Buddha is never depicted as fat in spite of how many Europeans and Americans who believe that he often is. Gautama Siddhartha, the original Buddha, is always depicted in India, Tibet, China, Japan and South East Asia as tall and slender, particularly because when he was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree he had been practicing Jain-like austerities and fasting for some time.
The happy laughing and fat Buddha is Budai (in Chinese, 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 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 Europe and America, 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.
The Core Philosophical Teachings of Buddhism
The Four Noble Truths (or Four Truths of Nobles, or Four Ennobling Truths)
1) 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, or the Eightfold Path
While these are supposed to be the realization of the Buddha under the Boddhi Tree, it seems strange to say that the Buddha suddenly realized that liberation is his teaching. Sometimes it is said that the fourth is following Buddha’s teaching, but often it is said that it is following the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold 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. 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.
The Five Abilities or faculties 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.
The 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 the extremes. As a criticism of Jainism, this means that one should balance pain and 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 de-emphasis 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 love and hate the self, bringing the two together, to find detachment from many and complete identity in the One, the All.
Doctrine 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 because of suffering there is 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 the things are not themselves 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.
The Buddhists use the metaphor of the monkey mind, of a monkey leaping from branch to branch in a frenzy. 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. In another related monkey metaphor, one similar to the enchantingly racist Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby story from 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.
Codependent 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.
Emptiness (Shunyata): Buddha taught that all things are empty (shunya) of self or self-existence. While this seems depressing or frightening to many, it should be understood more as openness, as not being closed off in the self as it first appears but being connected to and dependent on everything else. Just like when studying Nietzsche or any decently skeptical thought, what first appears to be nihilism, belief in nothing, should rather be understood as belief in everything as a whole, as a rich abundance that means far too much to mean any specific thing in particular. A set of talks by the Dalai Lama recently released is called Compassion in Emptiness. He speaks about Nagarjuna, who we will study as well, 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.
Mudras 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. There 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. In so far as delusion is division, one should eliminate it. In so far as division is delusion, one should integrate with it to get beyond it.
While I am not, in any way, an instructor in meditation, I have periodically practiced it based on the instructions of modern teachers and 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. In the Zen tradition, there was debate about this similar to the opposing mudras just discussed. With 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.
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. 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.
Regardless of whether one concentrates on nothing, something in particular or whatever arises naturally, all instruct that one should also concentrate on the breath. There are complex formulas for in and out counts for breath, as well as quick or slow inhalation versus exhalation, 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.
Schools of Buddhist Thought in India: the Theravada & Mahayana
The two largest groups of Buddhism are the Theravada and the Mahayana. ‘Theravada’ means ‘The Way of the Elders’, the continuation of the initial orthodoxy 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.
Today 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 refer to themselves this way.
The Theravada Tradition
First we consider the original early tradition, the Theravada, which formed as a religion 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 become or convert to Buddhism, traditionally one takes the three vows: “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community or tradition of the faithful). Sometimes monasteries were founded in remote locations to promote meditation and withdrawal from the bustle of life, but often they 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.
There are three ways one can be involved in the sangha, though the third is only vaguely involved. First, one could be a common lay person who is educated by monks or self-educated in Buddhist teachings, meditation and devotional worship. Buddhist monks of the Theravada tradition wander from house to house, collecting alms and food to eat. Monks often have only two possessions, a robe and a begging bowl. To the horror of many Jains, Buddhists will eat donations of meat, rare in most households of India not only because of diet but because it is expensive. When challenged on this by Jains, the Buddha replies that it is perfectly alright to eat meat if it has not been killed particularly for the monk to eat. This is similar to eating fruit after it has already fallen from the tree, but the Jains of course were not satisfied with this answer. Much later, an emperor of China asked the Indian Buddhists for texts that prescribed vegetarianism, and when they said there was no text that made the diet a requirement, the emperor had one written up and made law for Buddhist monks of China because Daoism had already convinced Chinese culture that vegetarianism is required of great sages.
The second way one can become involved with the sangha is to quit being a lay person and join the monastery as a monk or a nun. In one early text, Buddha uses a parable identical to one used by Jesus, 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 rich with potential to use the teachings the most. 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 still considered 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 not 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, explicitly mentioning no difference.
The third way one can be involved, though not very involved, with the sangha is to become an arhat. Remember that Jainism and Buddhism developed from individuals who were not yet bound in communities and monastic orders but were rather practicing meditation and austerities individually in the jungle. Both Jainism and Buddhism recognize that some individuals who practice on their own are indeed sages who achieve greatness, though typically the traditions advocate joining the traditions and the community within the walls. 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 on their own or only marginally involved with the monastic community.
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 uses this as a devise to cause a schism in the sangha, a story that explains to early Buddhists both how Buddha accepts arhats as well as how early on there were competing Buddhist schools with various dogmas and interpretations. Just before this final trick that worked, the monk had tried to kill Buddha by releasing a crazed elephant on the path where Buddha was walking, but he sooths the elephant with his unsurpassed compassion mind and strokes its pacified forehead, and 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.
The Mahayana Tradition
One of the major differences between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions is that the Theravadins believe that one can possibly become enlightened on one’s own or outside the monastery, but typically it is monks who gain enlightenment and liberation. This meant that lay people as well as nuns were taught that they should work hard to reposition themselves such that they could be born a monk and achieve nirvana in the next rebirth or one soon to come. The Mahayana tradition grew in reaction against this rigid formula. 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 or as if you still have to transform into a man first 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.
Buddha Nature (Buddha Dhatu): The Mahayana began teaching that, just as all particular beings are in fact one being, 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.
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. These are often also understood to be buddhas in their own right. 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 understood to be great individuals who could have been fully released but decided to stay involved in the world for the sake of enlightening and liberating all conscious beings.
Buddhist devotional worshipers pray, chant and give offerings such as burning incense to implore the help of their power. The most important and popular bodhisattva is Avalokitesvara, known as Guan Yin in China, the bodhisattva of compassion. She plays a similar role to the Virgin Mary in Catholicism, a being one can implore for kindness and mercy.
Another central bodhisattva is Maitreya, the Buddha who will come at the end of this kalpa or 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 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.
The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) Sutras: The earliest and most popular Mahayana sutra texts are called ‘perfection of wisdom’ sutras. They are short compared to much of the Buddhist texts, and are chanted in devotional worship to Buddha and the bodhisattvas. The two most central are the Diamond Sutra or Diamond Cutter (Vajracchedika) Sutra and the Heart (Hrdaya) Sutra, which I gave you in your readings. Notice that vajra, ‘diamond’, is taken up by the Tibetans to specifically refer to their tradition as Vajrayana or ‘Diamond Vehicle’.
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 according to much earlier Theravada texts, the highest virtue, seeing beyond selfishness and identity such that one cares for the liberation of all beings. In the introduction of a book on the comparison of Psychoanalysis with Zen (a Mahayana school) called The Couch and the Tree, the author recalls a conversation as a therapist with a Zen monk, who says, “My religion can save rocks and trees…Can your religion do that?”.
As the Mahayana draw the focus away from salvation in the monastery to salvation of the community as a whole, the Buddha and bodhisattvas are presented as superior to arhats because they teach others rather than isolate themselves, concerned with their own achievement. Rather than abstain from the world and suffering, the goal is to overcome the world, suffering and attachment by becoming them and thereby surpassing them. As Zen master Joshu says in one koan story we will read, “Buddha is compulsive passions, and compulsive passions are Buddha”. Similar to how the Buddha tried austerities but found it to be an attachment to self loathing in the attempt to get rid of attachment, by seeing one’s own goal of liberation as itself delusion you gain self liberation by giving up on self liberation and helping others.
In the Diamond Sutra, after Buddha goes to collect food and alms in a large city, he is asked about the bodhisattva path at an assembly of monks. 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 (which is also, we are told, thus no particular merit at all, which will be important for Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen). 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. He questions Subhuti, a bodhisattva himself, and Subhuti answers correctly, demonstrating his right understanding, exactly as Chan/Zen monks will do in koan stories we will examine soon. Many of his answers consist of saying that there is a teaching, but there isn’t, there is a galaxy, but 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. We will see with Nagarjuna and the Madhyamakas that this becomes foundational for Buddhist logic. 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, he 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.
In the Heart Sutra, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, filled with compassion, teaches that all things are empty, including the emptiness and negation of things. How do you like them non-apples?