Background to this book, and its contributors
This book is a project of the International Council of Vesak, based at Mahachulalongkorn-rajavidyalaya University (MCU), Thailand, Vesak being the Buddhist festival celebrating the birth, enlightenment and final nirvana of the Buddha. The project’s aim is to distribute this book for free around the world, especially in hotels, so as to make widely available the rich resources found in the texts of the main Buddhist traditions relating to fundamental issues facing human beings. Through this, its objectives are to increase awareness among Buddhists of their own rich heritage of religious and ethical thinking as well as to increase understanding among non-Buddhists of the fundamental values and principles of Buddhism. It seeks to strike a balance between what is common to the Buddhist traditions and the diversity of perspectives among them.
The book consists of selected translations from Pāpractice being on compassionate help li, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan, using a common terminology in English of key Buddhist terms, and maintaining strict scholarly standards. It is to be published first in English and then into the other official UN languages as well as other languages of Buddhist countries.
The Rector of Mahachulalongkorn-rajavidyalaya University, Most Venerable Professor Dr. Brahmapundit, is the guiding Chief Editor of the project, president of its advisory board, and MCU has provided the resources needed for the project.
The proposer and coordinator of the project is Cand.philol. Egil Lothe, President of the Buddhist Federation of Norway
The editor and translators
Peter Harvey: Professor Emeritus of Buddhist Studies, University of Sunderland, U.K., co-founder of the U.K. Association for Buddhist Studies, editor of Buddhist Studies Review, and author of An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2013) – editor of the text, and translator of some passages in The Life of the Historical Buddha and Theravāda sections. Meditation teacher in Samatha Trust tradition.
G.A. Somaratne: Assistant Professor, Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong, formerly Co-director of the Dhammachai Tipitaka Project (DTP) and Rector of the Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy (SIBA) – main translator of passages in The Life of the Historical Buddha and Theravāda Sangha sections.
P.D. Premasiri: Professor Emeritus of Pāli and Buddhist Studies, Department of Pāli and Buddhist Studies, University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, co-founder of the Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy and President of Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy Sri Lanka – main translator of the passages in the Theravāda Dhamma section.
Most Venerable Thich Tue Sy: Professor Emeritus of Buddhist Studies at Van Hanh University, Vietnam – translator of many of the passages in the Mahāyāna sections.
Dharmacārī Śraddhāpa: Graduate Researcher, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo, Norway – co-translator/translator of the passages in the Mahāyāna sections. Member of the Triratna Buddhist Order. He would like to thank Bhikṣuṇī Jianrong, Guttorm Gundersen, and Dr Antonia Ruppel for their invaluable advice and assistance with difficult points in the translation.
Tamás Agócs: Professor in Tibetan Studies, Dharma Gate Buddhist College, Budapest, Hungary – translator of the passages in the Vajrayāna sections.
Chair: Venerable Dr Khammai Dhammasami, Executive Secretary, International Association of Buddhist Universities; Trustee & Fellow, Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, University of Oxford, Professor, ITBMU, Myanmar.
Cand.philol. Egil Lothe, President of the Buddhist Federation of Norway.
Prof. Dr. Le Mahn That, Deputy Rector for Academic Affairs, Vietnam Buddhist University , Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Ven. Prof. Dr Thich Nhat Tu, Vice Rector, Vietnam Buddhist University, Ho Chi Minh City.
Ven. Prof. Dr Jinwol Lee, Dongguk University, Republic of Korea.
Ven. Prof. Dr Yuanci, Dean of Post-Graduate Studies, Buddhist Academy of China.
Prof. Dr B. Labh, Head of Dept. of Buddhist Studies, University of Jammu. Co-founder and Secretary of the Indian Society for Buddhist Studies.
Prof. Dr D. Phillip Stanley, Naropa University, USA, and Head of the Union Catalogue of Buddhist Texts of the International Association of Buddhist Universities.
Scott Wellenbach, Senior Editor and Translator, Nalanda Translation Committee, Canada.
Ven. Associate Prof. Dr Phra Srigambhirayana (Somjin Sammapanno), Deputy Rector for Academic Affairs of MCU.
This book offers a selection from a broad range of Buddhist texts. You will find here passages that may inspire, guide and challenge you. Overall, they give a picture of this great tradition as it has been lived down the centuries. Welcome!
You may be familiar with some aspects of Buddhism, or it may be quite new to you. It is generally included among the ‘religions’ of the world. This is not inappropriate, for while it is not a ‘religion’ in the sense of being focussed on a ‘God’ seen as the creator of the world, it does accept various kinds of spiritual beings, and emphasizes the potential in human beings for great spiritual transformation. As well as its ‘religious’ aspects, though, Buddhism has strong psychological, philosophical and ethical aspects.
Its aim is to understand the roots of human suffering, and to undermine and dissolve these, building on a bright potential for goodness that it sees as obscured by ingrained bad habits of thought, emotion and action. There is currently a surge of interest in the uses of ‘mindfulness’ – something central to Buddhism – in helping people to deal with such things as stress, recurrent depression, and ongoing physical pain. The UK National Health Service, for example, recommends mindfulness practice as a way to help depressed people from being drawn by negative thoughts back into another episode of depression (see *Th.138 introduction).
Buddhist teachings talk a lot about suffering, which in the past has made some people see it as pessimistic. But the point of talking about suffering is to help one learn how to overcome it, through methods that help bring calm and joy, and a letting go of accumulated stresses. Any well-made image of the Buddha shows him with a gentle smile of calm repose:
The Buddha taught in a way that did not demand belief, but reflection and contemplation. It has its various teachings and doctrines, but most of all it is a set of practices that helps one:
1. To behave in a more considerate and kindly way, for the true benefit and happiness of oneself and others.
2. To learn to nurture more positive and helpful attitudes and states of mind, which bring calm, mental composure and inner strength, and to recognize and let go of the causes of stress.
3. To develop a wiser understanding of the nature of life, including human limitations and human potential.
2. The age and influence of Buddhism
The history of Buddhism spans around 2,500 years from its origin in India with Siddhattha Gotama,1 through its spread to most parts of Asia and, in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, to the West. Professor Richard Gombrich of Oxford University holds that the Buddha was ‘one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of all time’,2 whose ‘ideas should form part of the education of every child, the world over’, which ‘would make the world a more civilized place, both gentler and more intelligent’ (p. 1), and with Buddhism, at least in numerical terms, as ‘the greatest movement in the entire history of human ideas’ (p. 194). While its fortunes have waxed and waned over the ages, over half the present world population live in areas where Buddhism is, or has once been, a dominant cultural tradition.
3. Buddhism as containing different ways of exploring its unifying themes
In an ancient tradition, and one that lacks a central authority, it is not surprising that differences developed over time, which applied the Buddha’s insights in a variety of ways. The different traditions developed in India, and then further evolved as Buddhism spread throughout Asia. In Buddhist history, while the different traditions engaged in critical debate, they were respectful of and influenced each other, so that physical conflict between them has been rare, and when it has occurred it has been mainly due to political factors.
This book contains teachings from the three main overall Buddhist traditions found in Asia. It seeks to particularly illustrate what they have in common but also to show their respective emphases and teachings.
4. The organization of this book
This book is divided into three main parts: i) the life and nature of the Buddha ii) the Dhamma/Dharma, or Buddhist teachings, and iii) the Sangha or spiritual community. Each chapter except the first is divided into three sections, containing selected passages from the texts of the three main Buddhist traditions: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna.
Each of the passages is labelled with a letter to show what tradition it comes from – respectively Th., M. and V. – and a number, for ease of cross-referencing. Passages in the first chapter, on the life of the Buddha, are labelled with the letter L. You can either browse and dip into the book where you like, or read it from the beginning. For referring back to material in the introductions, section numbers preceded by relevant letters are used: GI. for General introduction, LI. for Introduction on the life of the historical Buddha, SI. for Introduction to the Sangha, and ThI., MI., and VI. respectively for the Introductions to the selections from Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism. So, for example, MI.3 refers to section 3 of the Mahāyāna introduction.
Note that, in the translations, where material is added within round brackets, this is for clarification of meaning. Where material is added within square brackets, this is to briefly summarise a section of the passage that has been omitted.
5. The Buddha and Buddhas
The English term ‘Buddhism’ correctly indicates that the religion is characterized by a devotion to ‘the Buddha’, ‘Buddhas’ or ‘Buddha-hood’. ‘Buddha’ is not a proper name, but a descriptive title meaning ‘Awakened One’ or ‘Enlightened One’. This implies that most people are seen, in a spiritual sense, as being asleep – unaware of how things really are. The person known as ‘the Buddha’ refers to the Buddha known to history, Gotama. From its earliest times, though, Buddhism has referred to other Buddhas who have lived on earth in distant past ages, or who will do so in the future; the Mahāyāna tradition also talks of many Buddhas currently existing in other parts of the universe. All such Buddhas, known as ‘perfectly awakened Buddhas’ (Pāli sammā-sambuddhas, Sanskrit3 samyak-sambuddha), are nevertheless seen as occurring only rarely within the vast and ancient cosmos. More common are those who are ‘buddhas’ in a lesser sense, who have awakened to the nature of reality by practising in accordance with the guidance of a perfectly awakened Buddha such as Gotama. Vajrayāna Buddhism also recognizes certain humans as manifestations on earth of Buddhas of other world systems known as Buddha-lands.
As the term ‘Buddha’ does not exclusively refer to a unique individual, Gotama Buddha, Buddhism is less focussed on the person of its founder than is, for example, Christianity. The emphasis in Buddhism is on the teachings of the Buddha(s), and the ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ that these are seen to lead to. Nevertheless, Buddhists do show great reverence for Gotama as a supreme teacher and an exemplar of the ultimate goal that all Buddhists strive for, so that probably more images of him exist than of any other historical figure.
6. The Dhamma/Dharma
In its long history, Buddhism has used a variety of teachings and means to help people first develop a calmer, more integrated and compassionate personality, and then ‘wake up’ from restricting delusions: delusions which cause grasping and thus suffering for an individual and those they interact with.
The guide for this process of transformation has been the ‘Dhamma’ (in Pāli, Dharma in Sanskrit): meaning the patterns of reality and cosmic law-orderliness discovered by the Buddha(s), Buddhist teachings, the Buddhist path of practice, and the goal of Buddhism: the timeless nirvana (Pāli nibbāna, Sanskrit nirvāṇa). Buddhism thus essentially consists of understanding, practising and realizing Dhamma.
7. The Sangha
The most important bearers of the Buddhist tradition have been the monks and nuns who make up the Buddhist Saṅgha or monastic ‘Community’. From approximately a hundred years after the death of Gotama, certain differences arose in the Sangha, which gradually led to the development of a number of monastic fraternities, each following a slightly different monastic code, and to different schools of thought. In some contexts, the term saṅgha refers to the ‘Noble’ Sangha of those, monastic or lay, who are fully or partially awakened.
8. The three main Buddhist traditions and their relationship
All branches of the monastic Sangha trace their ordination-line back to one or other of the early fraternities; but of the early schools of thought, only that which became known as the Theravāda has continued to this day. Its name indicates that it purports to follow the ‘teaching’ of the ‘Elders’ (Pāli Thera) of the council held soon after the death of the Buddha to preserve his teaching. While it has not remained static, it has kept close to what we know of the early teachings of Buddhism, and preserved their emphasis on attaining liberation by one’s own efforts, using the Dhamma as guide.
Around the beginning of the Christian era, a movement evolved which led to a new style of Buddhism known as the Mahāyāna, or ‘Great Vehicle’. The Mahāyāna puts more overt emphasis on compassion, a quality which is the heart of its ‘bodhisattva path’ leading to complete Buddhahood for the sake of liberating countless sentient beings. The Mahāyāna also includes devotion to a number of figures whose worship can help people to transform themselves – holy saviour beings, more or less. It also offers a range of sophisticated philosophies, which extend the implications of the earlier teachings. In the course of time, in India and beyond, the Mahāyāna produced many schools of its own, such as Zen.
One Mahāyāna group which developed by the sixth century in India, is known as the Mantrayāna, or the ‘Mantra Vehicle’. It is mostly the same as the Mahāyāna in its doctrines, and uses many Mahāyāna texts, but developed a range of powerful new practices to attain the goals of the Mahāyāna, such as the meditative repetitions of sacred words of power (mantra) and visualization practices. It is characterised by the use of texts known as tantras, which concern complex systems of ritual, symbolism and meditation, and its form from the late seventh century is known as the Vajrayāna, or ‘Vajra Vehicle’. Generally translated as ‘diamond’ or ‘thunderbolt’, the vajra is a symbol of the indestructibility and power of the awakened mind. ‘Vajrayāna’ is used in this work as a general term for the tradition which includes it as well as the elements of the Mahāyāna it emphasizes.
While Buddhism is now only a minority religion within the borders of modern India, its spread beyond India means that it is currently found in three areas in Asia:
1. Southern Buddhism, where the Theravāda school is found, along with some elements incorporated from the Mahāyāna: Sri Lanka, and four lands of Southeast Asia – Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos. It also has a minority presence in the far south of Vietnam, the Yunnan province of China (to the north of Laos), Malaysia, Indonesia, in parts of Bangladesh and India, and more recently in Nepal. In this book, it is referred to as ‘Theravāda’.
2. East Asian Buddhism, where the Chinese transmission of Mahāyāna Buddhism is found: China (including Taiwan) except for Tibetan and Mongolian areas, Vietnam, Korea, Japan. It also has a minority presence among people of Chinese background in Indonesia and Malaysia. In this book, it is simply referred to as ‘Mahāyāna’.
3. Central Asian Buddhism, where the Tibetan transmission of Buddhism, the heir of late Indian Buddhism, is found. Here the Mantrayāna/Vajrayāna version of the Mahāyāna is the dominant form: Tibetan areas within contemporary China and India, and Tibetan and other areas in Nepal; Mongolia, Bhutan, parts of Russia (Buryatia and Kalmykia), and now with a resurgence of it among some in Indonesia. In this book, it is referred to as ‘Vajrayāna’, though it shares many central Mahāyāna ideas with East Asian Buddhism.
These can be seen as like the three main branches of a family. There are ‘family resemblances’ across all three branches, though certain features and forms are more typical of, and sometimes unique to, one of the three branches. Moreover, the ‘family’ is still expanding. Since the nineteenth century, with a large boost in the second half of the twentieth century, Buddhism has, in many of its Asian forms, also been spreading in Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, as well as being revived in India.
9. The number of Buddhists in the world
The number of Buddhists in the world is approximately as follows: Theravāda Buddhism, 150 million; East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism, roughly 360 million; Vajrayāna Buddhism 18 million. There are also around 7 million Buddhists outside Asia. This gives an overall total of around 535 million Buddhists. It should be noted though that, in East Asia, aspects of Buddhism are also drawn on by many more who do not identify themselves as exclusively ‘Buddhist’.
Introduction on the life of the historical Buddha
The passages marked ‘L.’ in this book concern the life of the Buddha. For the texts that these passages are drawn from, see the introduction on the Theravāda passages below.
1. The dates of the Buddha
Scholars are yet to come to an agreement on the exact dates of the historical Buddha. Indian culture has not been as concerned with recording precise dates as have Chinese or Graeco-Roman cultures, so datings cannot always be arrived at with accuracy. All sources agree that Gotama was eighty when he died (e.g. Dīgha-nikāya II.100), and the Sri Lankan chronicles, the Dīpavaṃsa and the Mahāvaṃsa, say that this was ‘218’ years before the inauguration of the reign of the Buddhist emperor Asoka (Pāli, Sanskrit Aśoka): the ‘long chronology’. The Theravāda tradition has seen Asoka’s coronation as in 326 BCE, making the Buddha’s dates 624–544 BCE. These dates have been traditionally accepted in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia and were the basis for the celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinibbāna (Pāli, Skt parinirvāṇa; final nirvana, at death) in 1956/57 and the 2600th anniversary of his sambuddhatva (awakening/enlightenment) in 2011/12.
However, references in Asokan edicts to named Hellenistic kings have meant that modern scholars have put the inauguration at c. 268 BCE. Accordingly, some who accept the long chronology see the Buddha’s dates as 566–486 BCE. Sanskrit sources preserved in Chinese and Tibetan have a ‘short chronology’, with the Buddha’s death ‘100’ years or so before Asoka’s inauguration. If we then apply the Greek dating of Asoka’s coronation, the Buddha’s dates would be 448–368 BCE.
2. Background of the Buddha
Religion around this time in India was complex in character. It was made up of: local indigenous cults continued from the beliefs and practices of the Indus Valley religion (which went back to c. 2500 BCE); the dominant orthodox Brahmanism established and maintained by the brahmin priests (brāhmaṇa) of the Āryan people, and the various non-orthodox sects of renunciant ascetics and wandering philosophers known as samaṇas (Pāli, Skt śramaṇa; literally ‘strivers’, but here translated as ‘renunciants’). The brahmins saw themselves as the highest class in society; and many but not all functioned as orthodox priests. They alone learned the body of sacred oral texts known as the Veda, the sacred scriptures of Brahmanism that were centred on sacrificial rituals to many gods; they knew its mantras, and could conduct sacrifices to the gods. The samaṇas rejected the authority of the Veda, and renounced family life and the ritual system associated with it in Brahmanism. They gave up normal work and social status to live from donated alms-food. Their wandering lifestyle made them dwell outside the villages in forest ashrams, places of spiritual striving, and formed unstable congregations around masters who propounded a diversity of teachings. Like the brahmins, their rivals, they received the respect from all classes, and their teachings were many and varied.
This period saw the establishment of new republics, kingdoms and empires, the development of cosmopolitan cities like Kapilavatthu, Rājagaha, Sāvatthī and Ujjenī, and the emergence of a new lifestyle organized around these urban centres. A large number of people living in these cities were either cut off from or dissatisfied with the old sources of worldviews. They were seeking new orientations to their religious concerns and there was much intellectual curiosity. Both the sages connected with Brahmanism, who expressed their ideas in symbolic and mystical texts known as Upaniṣads, and their rivals the samaṇas, responded to this new situation by leading radical intellectual and religious movements.
In this context, in northern India, the son of a ruler gave up his worldly heritage and, after six long years of spiritual striving, convincingly declared himself the ‘Buddha’ of the age. It was he who introduced what has come to be known as Buddhism, a religion that was a middle way between a materialistic pursuit of sensual pleasures and a life of ascetic self-denial. It was neither focused on pleasing the gods through sacrifice, so ensuring a life rich in sensual pleasures, nor on pursuing the kind of extreme asceticism practised by some samaṇas as a way to forcefully master the body and its desires.
3. The meaning of the term ‘Buddha’
Originally, ‘buddha’ was a concept among the samaṇas, though by the time of the Buddha it had become accepted in the larger religio-philosophy of India. The Pāli and Sanskrit word buddha means ‘awakened one’ – awakened from the sleep of the deluding defilements, and awakened to the true nature of reality4 – or ‘enlightened one’. Its usage in Indian literature identifies a broad spectrum of persons, from the learned to those rare individuals who have achieved liberating insight. The Buddhist use of the term is in the latter sense, as referring to those exceptional selfless individuals who, with a direct penetration into the true nature of reality, have irrevocably reached release from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, along with its attendant pains.
Buddhists use the term buddha in a range of related senses:
1. Its primary meaning is to refer to ‘the Buddha’, the founder of Buddhism, Siddhattha Gotama (Pāli, Skt Siddhārtha Gautama), also known as Sakyamuni (Pāli, Skt Śākyamuni), the sage of the Sakyan/Śākyan people. Following his awakening/enlightenment, he became a teacher, sharing with others what he had discovered for himself. As a discoverer and teacher of liberating truth, he was a sammā-sambuddha (Pāli, Skt samyak-sambuddha), a perfectly awakened Buddha, who attained his virtues and wisdom as the end-product of many past lives of spiritual striving. The term Buddha, on its own, typically refers to such perfectly awakened Buddhas. They teach the Dhamma (Pāli, Skt Dharma), a term which means something like the ‘Basic Pattern’ of things, and which in practice means a perfectly awakened Buddha’s teachings, the nature of reality as seen by him, and the path he teaches.
2. Other sammā-sambuddhas of previous and future eons, who likewise discover and teach the Dhamma at times when it is lost to human society.
3. Awakened disciples of a sammā-sambuddha, who have, like them, attained release from the cycle of birth and death. These are sāvaka-buddhas (Pāli, Skt śrāvaka-buddha), disciple-awakened ones, also known as arahants (Pāli, Skt arhant). The extent of their knowledge and powers is less than that of a sammā-sambuddha.
4. Solitary-buddhas (Pāli pacceka-buddha, Skt pratyeka-buddha), who arise at a time when there is no sammā-sambuddha to teach the Dhamma. They develop the same level of liberating wisdom as them, but only teach others to a limited extent, not founding a new tradition of teaching Dhamma.
5. In the Mahāyāna movement, which developed from the first century BCE, there is also the idea of samyak-sambuddhas of innumerable other world-systems spread throughout the vastness of the universe. Some are seen as in ordinary worlds similar to our own. Others are seen as in celestial Buddha-fields or Pure Lands, created by their presiding Buddha. It is held that these celestial Buddhas can be contacted in meditation, dreams and visions, and give teachings, and their devotees can seek rebirth in their realms.
6. The celestial Buddhas are seen as able to produce recognized earthly incarnations, such as the Panchen Lama of Tibet.
The enlightened nature of a perfectly awakened Buddha, their Buddha-ness, is seen as identical with the highest reality, nirvana (Pāli nibbāna, Skt nirvāṇa), that which lies beyond all rebirth and the sufferings of the conditioned, temporal world. This identification perhaps caused the early Buddhist communities to use only impersonal and symbolic representation of the Buddha, and for several centuries discouraged composing a comprehensive biography of the founder.Over time, ideas about the nature of the Buddha and Buddhas have evolved, often leading to more elevated or refined ideas about the nature of Buddhahood.
4. Epithets of the Buddha
The Buddha’s many qualities, as inspirations to faith in him, are expressed in a range of epithets applied to him. Some of these express particular human qualities such as his compassion, kindness, and wisdom. Some emphasize aspects of him that might otherwise remain unemphasized. Some refer to his lineage and name. Some reveal his extraordinary aspects and marvellous nature. Some epithets define the Buddha as having attained perfection in all domains. His wisdom is perfect, as are his physical form and manner. In some cases the epithets indicate that the Buddha was without equal. The superhuman aspect expressed in several epithets often has laid the foundation for deep devotion.
Among the many epithets, buddha was the favourite. Even hearing the word caused people to rejoice. The epithet bhagavā, ‘blessed one’5 or ‘exalted one’, conveys a sense of beneficent lordship in one full of good qualities. It is the most commonly used word referring to the Buddha in the canonical texts. The word tathāgata, ‘thus come’ or ‘thus gone’ (see *L.20), has an aura of ambiguity and mystery, but implies the Buddha’s attunement to the nature of reality (what is ‘thus’). It is often used when the Buddha refers to himself or to awakened ones like him in general. The epithet satthā deva-manussānaṃ, ‘teacher/guide of gods and humans’, shows the Buddha as one who helped others to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth. He is like a leader who guides a caravan of travellers across a wilderness, getting them to reach a land of safety (representing nirvana). The epithet anuttaro purisa-damma-sārathi, ‘unsurpassed leader of persons to be tamed’, describes the Buddha’s skills in taming those difficult to be tamed; his taming of the murderer Aṅgulimāla (*L.45), and the elephant Nāḷāgiri (*L.44) were often highlighted. Sakya-muni, sage of the Sakyans, refers to his human lineage. The epithet mahā-purisa, ‘great man’, whose body is endowed with thirty-two major and eighty minor characteristics, expresses his extra-ordinary character and good qualities developed in past lives (*L.38).
The epithets of the Buddha, in addition to having a central place in Buddhist devotion, are featured in the meditation known as the recollection of the Buddha (buddhānussati: *Th.134). This form of meditation, like all Buddhist meditational practices, aims at the training and purification of the mind. It is a technique of visualization, a way of recovering the image of the Buddha. Such visualization of the Buddha by contemplation of his epithets has been important in all Buddhist traditions.
5. The life of the Buddha
While there is debate over the Buddha’s dates, there is no debate over his actual existence. This innovative and charismatic person, known as samaṇa Gotama (Pāli, Skt śramaṇa Gautama), wandered along the plains of the river Ganges in the north and north-eastern parts of India, leading a religious community consisting of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. Gotama was born in the Sakyan state as the son of an elder elected as its ruler. He later came to be seen as a ‘prince’, with his father as a ‘king’. The state, whose capital was Kapilavatthu (Skt Kapilavastu), on the northern Gangetic plain just below the Himalayan foothills, in the region of the current Indian border with Nepal.
Scattered passages in the early texts focus on key events in his life. These were later woven together, embellished and added to in more sustained allegorical biographies, though even the early passages contain some wonders and marvels (such as in *L.1). His father was Suddhodana (Skt Śuddhodana), ruler of a small state and Mahāmāyā was his mother (*L.3–4). At the time of his conception, his mother dreamed of an auspicious white elephant entering her right side. When her time was approaching, while travelling to her relatives, she gave birth in the Lumbinī grove, while standing with her up-stretched right hand on the branch of a tree. The newborn child miraculously stood up, strode seven paces and, declaring that this was his last birth, said he was destined for awakening (*L.1). A few days later, Asita, an aged sage, examined the marks on the infant, and prophesied that he would become either a Buddha, if he chose to leave his father’s palace and become a samaṇa (see *L.2), or a Cakka-vatti (Pal, Skt Cakra-vartin; Wheel-turner), a monarch ruling the whole of the known world.6 The child was named Siddhattha, meaning ‘one who has achieved his goal’.
Just days after, Siddhattha’s mother died, so that her sister Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī brought him up, as his step-mother. When he came of age, his father, desiring to see his son become a great monarch, tried to prevent him from leaving the palace and becoming a samaṇa. He tied him down with sensual pleasures by constructing three palaces for him to live in luxury in the three seasons, by providing him with dancing girls and every delight a young man could desire (*L.5–6), and by arranging his marriage to princess Yasodharā. In due course Yasodharā bore him a son, who was given the name Rāhula, Fetter (*L.4).
In his twenties, he started to reflect on some of the stark truths of life. In the later biographies, it is said that due to his father’s constant care and over-protection, Siddhattha knew no sorrow, pain, or unhappiness, and saw no old age, disease or death. However, one day he went out for a chariot ride, which allowed him to see an aged man for the first time in his life. Shocked by the unanticipated scene, he asked his charioteer about old age, and came to know that it is the destiny of all humans. He returned to the palace right away, depressed, taking no relish in the gaiety and pleasure around him. On a second occasion, he saw a diseased man for the first time. He considered that people are foolish to thoughtlessly enjoy themselves under the constant threat of disease. On a third trip, he saw his first corpse; dismayed, he marvelled that people could forget the fear of death and live heedlessly. On a fourth occasion, he saw a calm, wandering samaṇa, and made up his mind to leave the home life and follow the lifestyle of this kind of renunciant religious seeker. Thus what in the early texts is presented as a reflective confrontation with the universal existential truths of ageing, sickness and death (*L.5 and 7), becomes in the later texts a story of a sequential discovery of them.7
In the depth of night Gotama took a last look at his wife and newborn child.8. He mounted his horse together with his charioteer, and rode out of the sleeping city. He removed his royal clothes and ornaments and arranged them to be taken back to his father. He cut off his hair and wore simple ascetic clothes. This was the great renunciation that took place when Gotama was twenty-nine years old (*L.8).
In his search for peace, Gotama went first to Āḷāra Kālāma. The latter taught him the way to attain the meditative state of ‘nothingness’, a ‘formless’ state that transcended any sensory or material form (*L.10). Gotama practised the method and quickly attained its goal. Āḷāra Kālāma offered to set him up as his equal and co-teacher. However, Gotama knew that the attained state was conditioned and limited, and led only to a refined rebirth, not escape from all rebirths. He turned down the offer and went away. Then he went to Uddaka Rāmaputta (son of Rāma), who taught him the way to attain the even subtler meditative state of ‘neither-perception-nor-non-perception’ (*L.11). He mastered his teaching and attained its goal. At the end, he was acclaimed even Rāmaputta’s teacher. However, he found that this attainment also did not reach to what he was seeking, the deathless nirvana beyond all rebirths, and so he left Rāmaputta.
Then Gotama went eastward to Uruvelā near Gayā, and found a pleasant spot suitable for striving. Having tried the above mystical body-transcending states, he now tried another of the available methods of spiritual striving: mortification of the body and its desires (*L.12–13). He held his breath for long periods, fasted and came as close as he could to eating nothing at all. He became utterly emaciated. Seeing his incomparable striving, he was joined by five ascetics. He continued in this painful rough course for six long years, in time seeing that this practice led him nowhere. He then wondered if there was another way.
At this point, he recollected an incident in his youth: when seated under a shading tree while his father was ploughing, his mind reached a joyful and calm meditative absorption known as the first jhāna (Pāli, Skt dhyāna). This recollection pointed him to a fruitful method (*L.15). However, Gotama’s body was too weak to practise and gain such a blissful experience, so he started taking solid food. Seeing him giving up his hard practice, the five ascetics left him in disgust.
Gotama had five dreams, assuring him that he would soon become a Buddha. The next day he sat under a sacred tree. Sujātā, a woman who had vowed to make a yearly offering to the deity of this tree if she bore a son, having had her wish fulfilled, prepared as offering a fine bowl of rice and milk. Her maid came upon Gotama sitting under the tree, and mistook him for the tree spirit. She reported the apparition to her mistress Sujātā, who rushed to the place and presented Gotama with the food. After taking the meal, Gotama sat under a tree which became known as the Bodhi-tree (Awakening-tree) in Gayā, facing east. He resolved not to arise until he attained awakening. Māra (‘The Deadly’), a misguided deity intent on keeping beings within the round of rebirth and re-death, was alarmed at the prospect of Gotama’s victory, that is, his escape from the realm of death. Māra came to assail him with an army of fearful demons. Gotama was protected by his accumulated good qualities and his love for living beings. After failing to shake him, the hosts of demons fled in defeat (*L.14).
Māra then invoked his own magic power to try to overthrow Gotama. But Gotama invoked his own superior good qualities, amassed through many previous lives. Māra called on his retinue to witness his good qualities, so Gotama, having no other witness on his side, touched the earth with his right hand, calling the earth to testify to his moral and spiritual perfections. The earth quaked in response.
Then Māra, having failed with intimidation and compulsion, turned to temptation. He sent his three daughters, Desire, Delight, and Discontent, to seduce Gotama; but he remained as impervious to lust as he had to fear. Māra and his hosts then gave up and withdrew.
Later that full-moon night, Gotama attained the first jhāna again, and then three further jhānas till he was in a state of profound equanimity, mindfulness and mental alertness. From this, he then attained to three higher knowledges (*L.15). During the first watch of the night (evening), he acquired the first of these, remembering a countless number of his past lives. During the second watch (the hours around midnight) he acquired the divine eye, with which he surveyed the dying of other living beings, and how the nature of their rebirths depended on the moral quality of their karma, or intentional actions. During the third watch (late night), he acquired the third knowledge, that of the extinction of deep-rooted intoxicating inclinations (*Th.128). He perceived the four Truths of the Noble Ones (usually called ‘Noble Truths’), directly seeing that which is dukkha (painful and unsatisfactory), that which causes this, that which is its cessation (nirvana), and that which is the path leading to its cessation (detailed in *L.27). His mind was free from intoxicating inclinations. The new day dawned on Gotama, now a Buddha (*L.17). In response to this great event, it is said that the earth swayed, thunder rolled, rain fell from a cloudless sky, and blossoms fell from the heavens.
After attaining awakening, Gotama remained at the foot of the Bodhi-tree for seven days, contemplating dependent arising (see *Th.156–168), the central principle of his teaching. Seeing the profundity of the realty that he had realized, and seeing that people were so engrossed in attachment, he was hesitant about teaching what he had found (*L.25). But Sahampati (‘Lord of our World’), a compassionate great Brahmā deity (and seen as taught by a past Buddha), saw his hesitation and rushed to him to plead that he should teach others. Seeing that some would understand his message, the Buddha decided to teach. He walked many miles to find the five former companions that he had practised asceticism with, in Varanasi9 (*L.26). With a discourse to them (*L.27), the Buddha ‘set the wheel of the Dhamma rolling’, inaugurating the influence of his teachings. For the next forty-five years, he walked around north and north-east India converting men and women to follow the Dhamma. He established a monastic community of monks and nuns and community of Buddhist laymen and laywomen. Sāriputta, Moggallāna, Ānanda, Anuruddha, Khemā, Uppalavaṇṇā were among his chief monastic disciples. Anāthapiṇḍika, King Pasenadi Kosala, Citta and Visākhā10 were among his chief lay disciples.
At the age of 80, his lifespan came to end and he breathed his last, ending his teaching life. Since his awakening and experience of nirvana, he was without that which could lead to any rebirth. Now he attained final nirvana (Pāli parinibbāna, Skt parinirvāṇa; *L.69). Henceforth gods and humans could no longer see him through his physical body, but only through his Dhamma-body, i.e. the collection of his teachings and the qualities these espoused (*Th.2–4).
6. Early biographies of the Buddha
The early collections of Buddhist texts, such as the Pāli Canon, give priority to the Buddha’s teachings, and so contain no full biography of him. However, material on episodes during his life are scattered throughout these texts, and the selections in the Life of the historical Buddha section of this book are examples of these. There are two main scholarly views on the formation of the Buddha-biography. One is that a basic ur-text of it existed in an early period, composed prior to King Asoka (c. 268–39 BCE). No longer extant now, it was complete only up to the conversion of the two great disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna. This Buddha-biography was composed as an introduction to the Khandhaka, a text on vinaya (monastic discipline) finalized at the second Buddhist council (roughly a century after the Buddha’s death). Also included is an account of the Buddha’s passing away, and of the first years of the formation of the monastic community. According to this first view, all subsequent Buddha-biographies have been derived from this basic ur-text.
The other view is that there was a gradual development of biographical cycles, and these materials were later synthesized into a series of more complete biographies. According to this view, the earliest stages of the development of the Buddha biography are the fragments found in the suttas (discourses) and the vinaya texts. As can be seen from some selections in this book, they show no concern for chronology or continuity, and are simply narratives to help convey the message of the Buddha. The suttas emphasize stories of the Buddha’s previous births, episodes leading up to the awakening, the awakening, and an account of his last journey, passing away, and funeral. The vinaya texts, on the other hand, focus on the Buddha as the shaper of the monastic community, and in addition to accounts of the events associated with his awakening, include narratives that describe the early days of his ministry, including an account of the conversion of his first disciples.
The Mahāvastu, Lalitavistara, Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra, Buddhacarita, and part of the vinaya of the Mūlasarvāstivādins were the new autonomous biographies of the Buddha, compiled by various early Buddhist schools between the first and third centuries CE. They mainly follow the vinaya tradition where the story ends at a point soon after the Buddha had begun his ministry. These new autonomous biographies testify to three important changes that affected the traditions of Buddha-biography during the centuries immediately after King Asoka: the inclusion of new biographical elements drawn from non-Buddhist sources; the inclusion of stories about the Buddha’s previous lives (jātaka) as a device for explicating details of his final life as Gotama; and an increasing emphasis on the superhuman and transcendent dimensions of the Buddha’s nature. Whereas the Mahāyāna accepted the early autonomous biographies and supplemented them with additional episodes of their own, the Theravāda tradition displayed a continuing resistance to developments in the biographical tradition.
Two types of Buddha-biographies have had an important impact and role in the later history of the Theravāda tradition. One type is the Nidānakathā, a second or third century CE text that serves as an introduction to the Jātaka commentary. It traces the Buddha’s career from the time of his birth as Sumedha, many lives ago, when he made his original vow to become a Buddha in front of the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, to the year following Gotama’s awakening, when he took up residence in the Jetavana monastery. The other type is the biographical material included in Sri Lankan chronicles of Buddhism. These describe the Buddha’s meditation-powered flights to the island, and then trace the influence which his two ‘bodies’ had on the island after his death. That is, they trace the bringing to the island of his physical relics, seen to contain something of his beneficent power, and his Dhamma-body, or collection of teachings. The first is a link back to the Buddha’s physical body, the second links to his mind.
The selections in the Life of the historical Buddha chapter of this book are translations from the Pāli suttas and the vinaya texts on the life and the person of the Buddha. These selections include material on significant events in his life, and show something of his nature. The descriptions of his human as well as superhuman characteristics are expected to serve the reader for understanding the life and the person of that greatest selfless being who, wandering tirelessly along the Ganges valley in India, established Buddhism for the benefit of the world.
7. Some significant terms and names: bodhisatta, Māra and brahmā
Bodhisatta: prior to the Buddha’s awakening, from the time of his vowing, in a long-past life, to become a Buddha, he is known as a bodhisatta (Pāli, Skt bodhisattva). This means a being destined to attain Bodhi, awakening.11 As one commentary defines it,12 a bodhisatta is one who is working towards awakening (bujjhanaka-satto), a being who is worthy of moving towards the realization of the perfect awakening (sammā-sambodhiṃ gantuṃ arahā satto). In the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions, the term bodhisattva is used for the ideal person, compassionately aiming to aid other beings, especially by attaining the perfect awakening that allows their skilful and wise guidance (see *MI.2, below).
Māra: also known as ‘Pāpimā’, the ‘Bad/Evil One’, whose name echoes the Vedic Pāpmā Mṛtyu, ‘Evil Death’. In Buddhism, one commentary says:13 ‘He is Māra since, in inciting beings (to do) that which is to their detriment, he kills (māreti) them’. So māra means ‘death-bringing’, ‘deadly’, and Māra is ‘the Deadly One’. A misguided tempter-deity dwelling in the highest of the lower (sense-desire) heavens, he tries to weight people down by keeping them within his main scope of influence, the field of sensual pleasures. He is intent on encouraging both bad behaviour and even some religious behaviour, such as Brahmanic sacrifice, which keeps people entranced by the attractive aspects of the conditioned world, and hence bound to the realm of rebirth and re-death. He is a living embodiment of spiritual ignorance and the clinging attachment fed by it, who worked to hinder the Buddha in his efforts. Each inhabited region of the universe is said to have its Māra, and a Māra is not eternal, but is the current holder of a kind of cosmic position. As well as ‘Māra’ as the name of a tempter-deity, the term māra is also used to refer to other ‘mortal’ or ‘deadly’ things, namely anything impermanent and subject to death (Saṃyutta-nikāya III.189), and refers to the negative, pāpa, traits found in the human mind, that stifle its bright potential for awakening.
Brahmā: the higher deities are known as brahmās, and the most important of them is a Great Brahmā, with each world-system having one. In Brahmanism he is seen as creator of the world, but in Buddhism he is seen, like all unawakened beings, as within the round of rebirths and re-death, though he is endowed with great compassion. Buddhism also uses the term brahmā in the general sense of seṭṭha, ‘supreme’, and in this sense the Buddha is said to have ‘become brahmā’ (*Th.4).
Introduction to the Sangha, or community of disciples
1. The Buddha’s disciples consisted of monks (Pāli bhikkhu, Skt bhikṣu), nuns (Pāli bhikkhunī, Skt bhikṣuṇī), laymen and laywomen. These groups are known as the four ‘assemblies’ (Pāli parisā, Skt pariṣat). The term Saṅgha (Skt Saṃgha) or ‘Community’ refers in its highest sense to the ‘Noble’ Sangha of those, monastic or lay, who are fully or partially awakened. Most typically, though, it refers to the community of monks and/or nuns, whose lifestyle is especially designed to support the path to awakening, with its supportive friendship being ‘the whole of the holy life’ (*Th.86), and the monastic Sangha symbolises the Noble Sangha. ‘Sangha’ in its widest sense was also occasionally used of all the four ‘assemblies’ (Aṅguttara-nikāya II.8) – a sense which became not uncommon in Mahāyāna circles.
The terms bhikkhu and bhikkhunī literally mean ‘almsman’ and ‘almswoman’. The original mendicancy of these, still current to varying extents, symbolized renunciation of normal worldly activities and involvements: this was an aid to humility, and also ensured against becoming isolated from the laity. It is said that the mutual giving of laypeople and monastics brings benefit to both (see *Th.190). The often close lay–monastic relationship makes bhikkhus unlike most Christian ‘monks’. They also differ from these in that their undertakings are not always taken for life, and in that they take no vow of obedience (though for their first five years, they live under dependence on a senior). The Buddha valued self-reliance, and left the monastic Sangha as a community of individuals sharing a life under the guidance of Dhamma and Vinaya. The job of its members is to strive for their own spiritual development, and use their knowledge and experience of Dhamma to guide others, when asked: not to act as an intermediary between God and humankind, or officiate at life-cycle rites. Nevertheless, in practice they have come to serve the laity in several priest-like ways.
2. Monastic rules
The life of monks and nuns is regulated by the vinaya, meaning ‘that by which one is led out (from suffering)’. The main components of this section of scriptures are a code of training-rules (Pāli (pāṭimokkha, Skt prātimokṣa) for monks, one for nuns, and ordinances for the smooth running of communal life and ceremonies. The vinaya drastically limits the indulgence of desires, and promotes a very self-controlled, calm way of life, of benefit to the monks and nuns themselves and an example which inspires confidence among laypeople. In some ways, it can be likened both to a code of professional conduct and one of sports training. The rules are not so much prohibitions as aids to spiritual training that require those observing them to be ever mindful. By constantly coming up against limiting boundaries, they are made more aware of their ‘greed, hatred and delusion’, and so are better able to deal with them.
The early monastic fraternities developed different versions of the original code of perhaps 150 rules, though the codes agreed in substance and most of the details. Three are still in use, all dating from the pre-Mahāyāna period: the Theravāda code of 227 rules for monks (311 for nuns) is the one used by the Theravāda monastics of Southern Buddhism, the Mūla-Sarvāstivāda code of 258 rules for monks (366 for nuns) is used by the Vajrayāna monastics Northern Buddhism, while the Dharmaguptaka code of 250 rules for monks (348 for nuns) is used by the Mahāyāna monastics of Eastern Buddhism. An order of nuns following a full vinaya have survived in Eastern Buddhism, but died out in Southern Buddhism and was only introduced in a restricted form in Northern Buddhism. Since the late twentieth century, though, it has been re-introduced in Theravāda Sri Lanka and is being revived in Northern Buddhism. In the Buddha’s discourses, when he is described as addressing himself to ‘monks’, it has been shown that he means all monastics, male and female.
The most serious monastic rules concern actions, which immediately and automatically ‘entail defeat’ (pārājika) in monastic life and permanent dismissal (see *V.84): intentional sexual intercourse of any kind; theft of an object having some value; murder of a human being; and false claims, made to the laity, of having attained advanced spiritual states (a possible way of attracting more alms). As serious karmic consequences are seen to follow from a monk breaking these rules, it is held to be better to become a layperson, who can at least indulge in sexual intercourse, than live as a monk who is in danger of breaking the rule against this. The importance of celibacy – in the sense of total avoidance of sexual intercourse – is that sexual activity expresses quite strong attachment, uses energy which could otherwise be used more fruitfully, and generally leads to family responsibilities which leave less time for spiritual practice.
In the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, the monastic Sangha has remained important in most countries, though bodhisattva vows are taken by devout laypeople as well as by monks and nuns. In Japan, the celibate Sangha has mostly been replaced by a married priesthood since the late nineteenth century, and in the Vajrayāna, revered teachers (Skt guru, Tibetan lama) may be either monastics or married. Among a famous set of Vajrayāna teachers known as the mahā-siddhas (‘great accomplished ones’), who lived from the eight to twelfth century, most were not monastics and many were of unconventional behaviour.
Introduction to the selections from Theravāda Buddhism
1. The passages marked ‘Th.’ in this book represent the textual tradition of the Theravāda school of Buddhism. The canonical literature of the Theravāda school is preserved in the Pāli language, which in its present form cannot be entirely identified with any known ancient spoken language of India, although it has many linguistic characteristics common to the ancient Indo-Aryan group of languages, both literary and spoken, and has the principal linguistic characteristics of Middle Indian Prākrits. It was exclusively adopted by the Buddhists of the Theravāda school to preserve what they determined to be the word of the Buddha, and came to be known as ‘Pāli’, probably because it was the language of their most authoritative texts, as the word pāli means ‘text’ or ‘scripture’. For Theravāda Buddhists, the Pāli Canon is considered the authoritative foundation for Buddhist doctrines as well as for the disciplinary rules and regulations adopted in the homeless mode of life of the community of monks and nuns who claim a Theravāda identity.
2. The content of the Pāli Canon
The Pāli Canon consists of three large collections or piṭakas, literally ‘baskets’, and so is also known as the Tipiṭaka (‘Three baskets’; in Skt, Tripiṭaka), a term also used by other early schools for their collection of texts. The contents of the Pāli Canon are:
1. Vinaya-piṭaka: the collection on monastic discipline, primarily promulgated by the Buddha himself, with rules of individual discipline, and monastic regulations to ensure the sincerity of commitment to the goals of the community of monks and nuns, as well as to ensure harmonious community living so as to facilitate the achievement of these very goals of the holy life. It also contains a small amount of narrative material and teachings.
2. Sutta-piṭaka: the collection of ‘discourses’, which gives the teachings of the Buddha and some of his leading disciples, delivered on a variety of occasions. It is organized into five nikāyas, or collections: the Dīgha-nikāya, or ‘Long Collection’ of 34 discourses (3 vols.); the Majjhima-nikāya, or ‘Middle Length Collection’ of 152 discourses (3 vols.); the Saṃyutta-nikāya, or ‘Connected Collection’ of 7,762 discourses, grouped in fifty-six sections (saṃyutta) according to subject matter (5 vols.); the Aṅguttara-nikāya, or ‘Numerical Collection’ of 9,550 discourses, grouped according to the number of items occurring in lists (from one to eleven) which the discourses deal with (5 vols.); the Khuddaka-nikāya, or ‘Small Collection’ of 15 miscellaneous texts in 20 volumes, many in verse form, which contain both some of the earliest and some of the latest material in the Canon. The 15 texts are: (a) the Khuddaka-pāṭha, a short collection of ‘Little Readings’ for recitation; (b) the Dhammapada, or ‘Verses on Dhamma’, a popular collection of 423 pithy verses of a largely ethical nature. Its popularity is reflected in the many times it has been translated into Western languages; (c) the Udāna, eighty short suttas based on inspired ‘Paeans of Joy’; (d) the Itivuttaka, or ‘As it Was Said’: 112 short suttas; (e) the Sutta-nipāta, the ‘Group of Discourses’, a collection of 71 verse suttas, including some possibly very early material such as the Aṭṭhaka-vagga; (f) the Vimānavatthu, ‘Stories of the Mansions’, on heavenly rebirths; (g) the Petavatthu, ‘Stories of the Departed’, on ghostly rebirths; (h) the Theragāthā, ‘Elders’ Verses’, telling how a number of early monks attained arahantship; (i) the Therīgāthā, the same as (h), for nuns; (j) the Jātaka, a collection of 547 ‘Birth Stories’ of previous lives of the Buddha, with the aim of illustrating points of morality and the heroic qualities of the developing bodhisatta – the full stories are told in the commentary, based on verses, which are canonical, and together they comprise 6 volumes – while this is a relatively late portion of the Canon, probably incorporating many Indian folk tales, it is extremely popular and is often used in sermons; (k) the Niddesa, an ‘Exposition’ on part of (e); (l) the Paṭisambhidā-magga, an abhidhamma-style analysis of certain points of doctrine (2 vols.); (m) the Apadāna, ‘Stories of Actions and Their Results’ on past and present lives of monks and nuns in (h) and i), with some brief material on the Buddha and solitary-buddhas); (n) Buddha-vaṃsa, ‘Chronicle of the Buddhas’, on 24 previous Buddhas; (o) the Cariyā-piṭaka, ‘Basket of Conduct’, on the conduct of Gotama in previous lives, building up the ‘perfections’ of a bodhisatta as he worked towards Buddhahood. The tradition in Burma/Myanmar also includes in the Khuddaka-nikāya: (p) the Sutta-saṅgaha, ‘Compendium of Discourses’; (q and r) the Peṭakopadesa, ‘Piṭaka Disclosure’, and Nettippakaraṇa, ‘The Guide’, both attributed to Kaccāna Thera and aimed at commentary writers, (s) the Milindapañha, ‘Milinda’s Questions’: discussions between King Milinda and Nāgasena Thera.
3. Abhidhamma-piṭaka: the collection of ‘Further teachings’, is a scholastic literature which primarily extracts and systematizes the key teachings of the suttas in terms of a detailed analysis of human experience into a set of dhammas or impersonal basic processes, mental or physical. It consists of seven books out of which the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, Vibhaṅga, Dhātukathā and Yamaka are devoted to the analysis and classification of dhammas, the Puggalapaññatti to the categorization of character types according to ethical and spiritual qualities, and the last and most voluminous book, the Paṭṭhāna, to showing how the analysed and classified dhammas condition each other’s arising. The fifth book (Kathāvatthu), which deals with a refutation of non-Thervāda Buddhist views, is probably the latest addition to the Abhidhamma-piṭaka. Unlike the Sutta-piṭaka, all the texts included in this Piṭaka assume a highly technical language and style.
The Sutta-piṭaka primarily consists of material also found in the collections of other early Buddhist schools, though its fifth nikāya contains some abhidhamma-like material (l) that is particular to the Theravāda school. The core of the Vinaya-piṭaka is shared with other vinaya collections. Most of the Th. passages in this book come from the Sutta-piṭaka. Apart from the canonical scriptures there is a vast body of commentarial and sub-commentarial Theravāda literature as well as other post-canonical doctrinal texts that developed in the Theravāda tradition. All the L. and Th. passages are translated from texts in the Pāli language.
3. The development of the Pāli and other early Canons
The Vinaya-piṭaka of the Theravāda canon gives an account of the first Buddhist council that gained official recognition in the history of Buddhism, in which the teachings of the Buddha (Dhamma) and the disciplinary rules and regulations laid down by him (vinaya) were agreed upon at an assembly of five hundred senior disciples of the Buddha, and communally recited. This council, held about three months after the passing away of the Buddha, may be considered as the most significant event in the scriptural history of Buddhism. The fact that such a council was held is accepted by all existing schools of Buddhism. However, the teachings of the Buddha could have been agreed upon, and to a considerable degree systematised, even before this officially recognized council. Such an observation is supported by the internal evidence in the Buddhist scriptural tradition that shows the early existence of some of the sections of the Sutta-nipāta of the Pāli Canon, and the reference in the Saṅgīti Sutta (Dīgha-nikāya III.210–11) to an attempt by the disciples of the Buddha to come together to agree upon an orderly classification of the Dhamma taught by the Buddha following a numerical method.
Originally, the agreed-on texts were in oral form, passed on by carefully organised communal chanting, as writing was little used in ancient India. The Pāli Canon was one of the earliest to be written down, this being in Sri Lanka in around 20 BCE, after which little, if any, new material was added to it. There also survive sections of six non-Theravāda early canons preserved in Chinese and Tibetan translations, fragments of a Sanskrit canon still existing in Nepal, and odd texts in various languages of India and Central Asia found in Tibet, Central Asia, and Japan. The Pāli Canon which survives to the present day, as probably the most authoritative and complete ancient scripture of the Buddhist tradition, is a body of Buddhist literature that developed as a consequence of the agreements reached at the first council. Although bodies of canonical scripture were also preserved by other early Buddhist traditions, these now exist only in a few surviving texts in any Indian language, or more fully, but again incompletely, in Chinese or Tibetan translations.
Among the early Buddhist schools, an influential non-Theravāda one was the Sarvāstivāda, and recent studies have shown that their Sanskritised sūtra/sutta collection is closely comparable with the Sutta-piṭaka of the Pāli Canon. The original Sanskrit version of this canon was lost many centuries ago, and what remains of it today are only a few fragmentary manuscripts discovered recently through archaeological excavations. However, this alternative version, along with sections of other early collections, has been preserved in the Tibetan and especially Chinese languages from at least about the third or fourth centuries C.E., making it possible for modern researchers to engage in a serious comparative study of the different versions. The close similarity in the ideological content of the suttas preserved in the five nikāyas of the Pāli Canon and the sūtras of the four āgamas (Chinese translations of parallels to the first four nikāyas) and other minor canonical texts of the Chinese and Tibetan Canons, shows that this sutta/sūtra literature belongs to an early period when Buddhism was undivided on sectarian lines. Many of the minor differences within and between canons can be seen to be due to the way in which oral traditions always produce several different permutations of essentially the same story or teachings. The abhidhammas (Skt abhidharma) of the different Buddhist canonical traditions do not have the same degree of closeness and similarity in respect of doctrinal content. Therefore, it is reasonable to maintain that most of the Th. selections made to represent the teachings of the Buddha have a high probability of being attributable to the historical Buddha himself.
Most of the teachings of the Pāli suttas are the common property of all Buddhist schools, being simply the teachings which the Theravādins preserved from the early common stock. While parts of the Pāli Canon clearly originated after the time of the Buddha, much must derive from his teachings. There is an overall harmony to the Canon, suggesting ‘authorship’ of its system of thought by one mind. As the Buddha taught for forty-five years, some signs of development in teachings may only reflect changes during this period.
4 Later Pāli texts
Of course, some later texts have been very influential on Theravāda Buddhists, and so a few passages from these have also been included to give a representative impression of the tradition. The most important of these are the Milindapañha (‘Milinda’s Questions’), included in the Pāli Canon by the Burmese tradition (item (s) above), and the Visuddhimagga (‘Path of Purification’). The first purports to record conversations between a Buddhist monk and a king of Greek heritage in North-west India, Menander (c. 155–130 BCE), in which the monk answers the king’s questions on key Buddhist concepts. The second is by Buddhaghosa, a fifth century CE commentator, and is a manual of meditation and doctrine that has had a shaping influence on how Theravādins came to interpret earlier texts. The jātaka stories on past lives of the Buddha as a bodhisatta have verses which are canonical, but the full stories, much cited in sermons, are fleshed out in the commentaries.
Popular stories also come from the commentary to the Dhammapada. Its stories describe situations in which the Buddha taught and interacted with his disciples and struggling meditators. Although they are dated late for Theravāda texts – at around the sixth century BCE – they tell stories which would probably have been recounted for a long time. The Dhammapada verses that are associated with them are very early and we do not know at what stage their stories become linked with them. The tales are important, and have longstanding popularity amongst the laity, as they communicate a very human sympathy and engagement as meditators struggle, often over several lifetimes, with various problems and tendencies that bring unhappiness, but which in the end are overcome (see the story of the goldsmith’s son in the introduction to *L.33). The perspective of many lifetimes and the way the Buddha guides them on their individual meditative journeys demonstrate the way meditation practices were seen as carefully geared to specific individuals. The teacher and the meditator work together to find results, even after many apparent failures.
5 The selected passages and their sources
The Th. selections, drawn primarily from the Pāli Canon, represent not only the teachings of the Buddha meant for monastics who have renounced the world but also for the ordinary layperson who wishes to lead a happy, contented and harmonious life guided by ethical and religious ideals based on reason and empathetic awareness. They cover diverse aspects directly relevant to successful day-to-day living, such as a rational basis for moral action, principles for a sound social and political culture, sound counsel pertaining to friendship and family life in the context of the life of laypeople, as well as instructions on meditation and wisdom relating to the cultivation of greater awareness and more skilful mental states, leading on to the attainment of what the Buddha’s teachings regard as the highest goal and greatest good. Broadly speaking, Theravāda teachings concern: good and bad karma (intentional action) and the results these lead to in this and later rebirths; the practice-aspects of ethical discipline, meditation and wisdom; the four Truths of the Noble Ones (see*L.27), usually called ‘Noble Truths’, on the painful, unsatisfactory aspects of life, what causes these, the transcending of these and their causes, and the noble eightfold path to this goal, nirvana.
The references indicated at the end of each Th. (and L.) passage are to editions of the texts by the UK-based the Pali Text Society (PTS; founded 1881) (http://www.palitext.com), which is the version most often referred to by Buddhist Studies scholars around the world. 14 The English translations of the selected Th. passages have benefited from many other existing translations of the canonical suttas, but are not direct borrowings from them. An attempt has been made to provide original translations considered by the main author of this section to be the most appropriate. The book’s editor, Peter Harvey, has also added some passages selected and translated by himself, to enhance the range of topics covered.
6 Key Theravāda ideas
One group of key Theravāda teachings come under the headings of rebirth and karma, as with other forms of Buddhism. Our short human life is seen as simply the most recent in a series of countless lives, without discernible beginning. In the past, we have sometimes been human, but sometimes been various kinds of long-lived yet mortal divine beings; together, these form the more pleasant, good rebirths. Sometimes, though, we have been in less pleasant, bad rebirths: as various kind of animals (including birds, fishes, or insects); as hungry ghosts, dominated by attachment and greed; or as hell-beings experiencing nightmarish existences for prolonged periods. Human rebirth is seen to bring more freedom of choice and the possibility of pursuing moral and spiritual development.
The specifics of our wandering from life to life are not seen as either random or determined by a God, but by the nature of our intentional action, or karma. Actions arising from greed, hatred or delusion are seen to sow seeds in the mind that naturally mature in unpleasant experiences in one of the lower rebirths (but beings in these have unexpended fruits of good actions, which will in time help them back to a good rebirth). Actions arising from generosity, kindness and wisdom are seen to sow seeds maturing in the more pleasant experiences of the human and divine realms.
The Buddha accepted many kinds of heavenly rebirths, populated by gods (devas). The beings of the first six heavens (listed near the end of *L.27), like humans and beings of sub-human rebirths, belong to the realm of ‘sensual desire’ (kāma), where perception is coloured by sensual pleasures or their lack – these heavens are attained by practising generosity and ethical discipline. Then there are various heavens of the realm of elemental or pure ‘form’ (rūpa), in which things are perceived more clearly – these realms are reached by having attained meditative absorptions (jhāna). The beings of these levels are sometimes as a group referred to as brahmās, and the highest five of these heavens are the ‘pure abodes’, in which the only inhabitants are non-returner disciples, who are almost arahants (awakened beings) and the arahants that they then become (though most arahants live at the human level). Beyond all these heavens are the four worlds of the ‘formless’ (arūpa) realm, beyond perception of anything related to the five senses, and attained by deep meditative states of the same name as the heavens: the infinity of space, the infinity of consciousness, nothingness, and neither-perception-nor-non-perception.
Yet all such lives sooner or later end in death, and further rebirths, according to the nature of one’s actions. Sometimes the next rebirth is as good as or better than the last, sometimes worse. Hence one should not just aim for good future rebirths, but to transcend the cycle of lives – ‘wandering on’ (saṃsāra) in repeated birth and death – by the attainment of nirvana (Pāli nibbāna, Skt nirvāṇa). This brings in the next main heading of teachings: the four ‘Truths of the Noble Ones’15 (see *L.27). These are four aspects of existence that the wise and spiritually ennobled are attuned to. The first is the physically and mentally painful aspects of life: its stresses, frustrations and limitations. The second is the craving, grasping and clinging that greatly add to the stresses of life, and drive one on to further rebirths, and their limitations. The third is nirvana, as that aspect of reality that lies beyond all such stresses as it is experienced through the cessation of such craving. The fourth is the path to this end of craving: the noble eightfold path, a way of happiness. The practice of this path is a gradual one that encompasses the cultivation of ethical discipline, meditation and wisdom, guided by the Buddha’s teachings.
Most Theravāda Buddhists remain laypeople, but a significant minority become monks or nuns, with opportunities for a more sustained practice of the path, as well as being key preservers and teachers of the tradition.
People aim initially at a happier, more harmonious life, and good rebirths, but have as their highest goal nirvana: liberation from the round of rebirths. The stages to this consist of being a true disciple (sāvaka, literally ‘hearer’) of the noble ones or noble one (the Buddha) who attains the spiritual breakthroughs of becoming a stream-enterer (who has only seven more rebirths at most), a once-returner (whose future rebirths include only one more as a human or lower god), a non-returner (who has no more rebirths at lower than the level of the elemental form heavens), and then finally an arahant (who has no further rebirths). These four, with those firmly on the immediate path to each of these states, are the eight ‘noble persons’. 16
However, other noble persons are also recognised: a perfectly awakened Buddha (Pāli sammā-sambuddha) and a solitary-buddha (Pāli, pacceka-buddha, see *LI.3, above). The first is, like Gotama Buddha, one who, when knowledge of the Dhamma had been lost to human society, rediscovers it and teaches it to others and establishes a community of disciples (Majjhima-nikāya III.8). The path to this is hugely long, over many many lives of building up spiritual perfections and inspired by meetings with past perfectly awakened Buddhas.
The solitary-buddha is one who, unlike an arahant, attains liberation without being taught by a perfectly awakened Buddha, also after a long path, but who teaches others only to small extent. Solitary-buddhas are described as ‘without longing, who individually have come to right awakening’ and as ‘great seers who have attained final nirvana’ (Majjhima-nikāya III.68–71). A person becomes a solitary-buddha by insight into impermanence and the folly of attachment, this arising from seeing such things as withered leaf falling, a mango tree ruined by greedy people, birds fighting over a piece of meat, and bulls fighting over a cow (Jātaka III.239, III.377, V.248).
Arahants are sometimes known as disciple-buddhas (Pāli sāvaka-buddha). They practise the teachings of a perfectly awakened Buddha so as to destroy their attachment, hatred and delusion and fully realize nirvana. They awaken to the same truths known by a perfectly awakened Buddha (see *L.27), and usually teach others, but lack additional knowledges that a perfectly awakened Buddha has, such as an unlimited ability to remember past lives (Visuddhimagga 411). A perfectly awakened Buddha is himself described as an arahant, but is more than this alone.
A Theravāda verse commonly chanted as a blessing, from the Mahā-jayamaṅgala Gāthā, is: ‘By the power obtained by all Buddhas and of solitary-buddhas, and by the glory of arahants, I secure a protection in all ways.’ In his Visuddhimagga (I.33, p.13), the Theravāda commentator Buddhaghosa makes clear that the goal of being a perfectly awakened Buddha is a higher one than being an arahant: ‘the virtue of the perfections established for the sake of the liberation of all beings is superior’. Mahāyāna traditions hold up perfectly awakened Buddhahood as the goal that all should seek, by compassionately taking the hugely-long path to this, as a bodhisatta (Pāli, Skt bodhisattva), so as to have the qualities of a great teacher. The Theravāda, though, sees perfect Buddhahood as a goal only for the heroic few. As the path to it is a very demanding one, it is not seen as appropriate (or even not compassionate) to expect most people to take it. The Theravāda sees it as best for people to aim for arahantship, and benefit from the teachings that the historical Buddha rediscovered and spent 45 years teaching. Nevertheless, a few Theravādins do see themselves as on the long bodhisatta path, with the focus of their practice being on compassionate help for others.
Introduction to the selections from Mahāyāna Buddhism
1. The passages marked ‘M.’ in this book represent the textual tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Unlike Theravāda, Mahāyāna does not represent one particular school or associated monastic fraternity. Rather, it is a broad movement encompassing many different schools and approaches, which developed expressions of the Buddha’s teachings centred on compassion and wisdom. Mahāyāna sūtras began to gain popularity by the first century BCE. Its origin is not associated with any named individual, nor was it linked to only one early school or monastic fraternity, though the main one was the Mahā-sāṃghika. It arose in south-eastern India, spread to the south-west and finally to the north-west.
2. Key Mahāyāna features
Like all forms of Buddhism, the Mahāyāna includes teachings directed at those who seek temporary relief from the ordinary stresses of life: on how to live more calmly, considerately and harmoniously, this also being a way to generate beneficial karma leading to relatively pleasant rebirths. Ultimately, though, timeless happiness depends on going beyond all that is impermanent and conditioned. In Buddhism, some aim to become an arhant (Skt, Pāli arahant), one who has ended the attachment, hatred and delusion that lead to repeated rebirths and their ageing, sickness, death, and diverse mental pains. This is the main higher goal of Theravāda Buddhists. A few have aimed to become a solitary-buddha (Skt pratyeka-buddha, Pāli pacceka-buddha), a person with greater knowledge than an arhant (see *LI.3, above), but of limited ability to teach others. Some aim to become a perfectly awakened Buddha (Skt samyak-sambuddha, Pāli sammā-sambuddha), a being with the ultimate knowledge, insight and means that can be used to compassionately guide countless other beings through his teachings and powers. This is the highest goal of Mahāyāna Buddhists.
Key features of the Mahāyāna outlook are:
1. Compassion is the central motivating basis of the path: the compassionate urge to reduce the current suffering of others, encourage them to act in such a way as to reduce their future suffering, and aid them on the path to awakening/enlightenment so as to bring all their sufferings to an end. Compassion is the heart of the bodhi-citta, the ‘awakening-mind’, or aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the sake of others.
2. Bodhi-citta arises from the renunciation of attachment to one’s own happiness, and the wisdom that sees into the nature of reality.
3. Bodhi-citta is enacted through the path of the bodhi-sattva, a being who is fully dedicated to attaining the awakening (bodhi) of a perfectly awakened Buddha. The path to developing a perfectly awakened Buddha’s qualities is seen as much longer than the path to attaining awakening as an arhant, hence greater compassion is needed to take this long path, as well as being a key aspect of the enactment of this path. The path is one of developing six qualities to the level of complete ‘perfections’ (Skt pāramitā): generosity (dāna), ethical discipline (śīla), patient acceptance (kṣānti), vigour or diligence (vīrya), meditation (dhyāna), and wisdom (prajñā). Sometimes a further four perfections are added: skill in means (upāya-kauśalya), vow or determination (praṇidhāna), power (bala) and knowledge (jñāna), and each of the ten qualities is seen as respectively brought to fullness in ten levels or stages (bhūmi) that are then followed by the attainment of Buddhahood.
4. The bodhisattva in the eighth stage of the long ten-stage path to Buddhahood is seen to realize nirvana as an arhant does, in which all defilements are completely eliminated so that a person is no longer bound to future rebirths. However, the Mahāyāna holds that this is not the ultimate nirvana, and that there is still spiritual work to do. The advanced bodhisattva has a deep non-attachment to the round of rebirths (saṃsāra), and this allows further progress to true, ultimate nirvana, realized exclusively by a Buddha with unsurpassed perfect awakening.
5. Bodhisattvas can be at various levels along the path: monks, nuns and laypeople of various levels of spiritual development, some who have reached at least the first of the ten stages, which pertain to bodhisattvas of a spiritually ‘Noble’ level, as they have had some direct insight into the nature of reality, in what is called the ‘path of seeing’ (darśaṇa-mārga). Bodhisattvas at the higher stages of the Noble path are transcendent beings associated with Buddhas from other worlds; they are saviour-beings who may be called on for help by devotees.
6. The Mahāyāna has a new cosmology arising from visualization practices devoutly directed at one or other Buddha as a glorified, transcendent being. Many such Buddhas besides Śākyamuni are seen to exist.
7. The Mahāyāna developed several sophisticated philosophies, on which see below.
The call to the bodhisattva path to perfectly awakened Buddhahood is inspired by the vision that the huge universe will always be in need of such Buddhas. The person entering this path aspires to be a compassionate, self-sacrificing, valiant person. Their path will be long, as they will need to build up moral and spiritual perfections not only for their own exalted state of Buddhahood, but also so as to be able altruistically to help liberate other beings, ‘ferrying them out of the ocean of re-birth and re-death’ by teaching, good deeds, transference of karmic benefit, and offering response to prayer. While compassion has always been an important part of the Buddhist path, in the Mahāyāna it is more strongly emphasized, as the motivating factor for the whole bodhisattva path, and the heart of the bodhi-citta, or ‘awakening-mind’.
3. The nature of the Mahāyāna and its attitude to other types of Buddhism
The Mahāyāna perspective is critical of Buddhists who are concerned only with their own liberation from the suffering of this and later lives, neglecting the liberation of others. The emphasis is on what is seen as the true spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, and its texts seek to express this in ways unrestricted by formal adherence to only the letter of what the Buddha is said to have taught. They are directed at what the Buddha pointed to, rather than the words he used to do this – at the ‘moon’ rather than the pointing ‘finger’. Hence the Mahāyāna has many sūtras unknown to earlier Buddhist traditions, with teachings whose gradual systematization established it as a movement with an identity of its own.
At first, the new movement was called the Bodhisattva-yāna, or ‘(Spiritual) Vehicle of the Bodhisattva’. This was in contradistinction to the ‘Vehicle of the Disciple’ (Śrāvaka-yāna) and ‘Vehicle of the Solitary-buddha’ (Pratyeka-buddha-yāna), whose followers respectively aimed to become arhants and pratyeka-buddhas. As the new movement responded to criticisms from those who did not accept its sūtras, it increasingly stressed the superiority of the Bodhisattva-yāna, and referred to it as the Mahā-yāna: the ‘Great Vehicle’, or ‘Vehicle (Leading to) the Great’. The other ‘vehicles’ were disparaged as being hīna: ‘lesser’ or ‘inferior’. However, the term ‘Hīna-yāna’ is not seen as a name for any school of Buddhism, but is a term for a kind of motivation and associated outlook.
A key sūtra developed a perspective which, while hostile to the ‘Hīnayāna’, sought to portray it as incorporated in and completed by the Mahāyāna: the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka (‘White Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma’; ‘Lotus’ for short). Chapter 2 of this text achieves this accommodation by what was to become a central Mahāyāna concept, that of upāya-kauśalya: skill (kauśalya) in means (upāya), or skilful means. All Buddhist traditions accept that the Buddha adapted the contents of his teaching to the temperament and level of understanding of his audience. This was by simply selecting his specific teaching from a harmonious body of teachings. The Mahāyāna also holds that the Buddha gave different levels of teaching which might actually appear as conflicting, for the ‘higher’ level required the undoing of certain over-simplified lessons of the ‘lower’ level. While the Buddha’s ultimate message was that all can become omniscient Buddhas, this would have been too unbelievable and confusing to give as a preliminary teaching. For the ‘ignorant with low dispositions’, he therefore begins by teaching on the four Truths of the Noble Ones,17 setting out the goal as attaining nirvana by becoming an arhant. The arhant is seen as still having a subtle ignorance, and as lacking full compassion in his hope of escaping the round of rebirths, thus leaving unawakened beings to fend for themselves. For those who were prepared to listen further, the Buddha then teaches that the true nirvana is attained at Buddhahood, and that all can attain this, even the arhants who currently think that they have already reached the goal. The Buddha has just ‘one vehicle’ (eka-yāna), the all-inclusive Buddha-vehicle, but he uses his ‘skilful means’ to show this by means of three: the vehicles of the disciple, solitary-buddha, and bodhisattva. He holds out to people whichever of them corresponds to their inclinations and aspirations, but once he has got them to develop spiritually, he gives them all the supreme Buddha-vehicle, the other ways being provisional ones. As the bodhisattva path leads to Buddhahood, it seems hard to differentiate the bodhisattva and Buddha-vehicles. The doctrine preached in the Lotus Sūtra asserts that every sentient being who has once heard the name of a Buddha and bowed down to him would definitely become a Buddha in the future, regardless of how long this took; because the Buddha-nature (seed of Buddhahood) is inherent in all. Almost all disciples of the Buddha were prophesied to become a Buddha in the far future in different realms of the universe known as ‘Buddha-fields’ (Buddha-kṣetra) or ‘Buddha-lands’. Not all Mahāyāna texts follow this ‘one vehicle’ perspective, however, for some, such as the Ugra-paripṛcchā (‘Inquiry of Ugra’) follow a ‘three-vehicle’ (tri-yāna) one in which arhants do not develop further. Others, such as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, emphasize the importance of bodhisattvas not falling back so as to seek the lesser goal of arhantship.
According to the standards of arhantship preserved by Śrāvakayāna schools such as the Theravāda, the arhant is also described as imbued with loving kindness and as compassionately teaching others. The Theravāda still acknowledges that the long path to Buddhahood, over many many lives, is the loftiest practice, as it aims at the salvation of countless beings (see heading above *Th.6). Nevertheless, while the bodhisattva path has been and is practised by a few Theravādins (often laypeople), it is seen as a way for the heroic few only. Most, though, have gratefully made use of the historical Buddha’s teachings so as to move towards arhantship, whether this be attained in the present life or a future one.
The particular feature of the Mahāyāna is that it urges all ‘sons and daughters of good family’ to tread the demanding bodhisattva path. Moreover, while the earliest Mahāyāna may have been developed by reformist monks, there is then evidence of a transition from a monastically-centred Buddhism, in which monks were dominant in the dissemination of the Dharma, to one where laypeople also made important contributions in spreading and developing the Dharma. The culminating point of this householder movement was characterized by the legend of Vimalakīrti who criticized the conservative elements in monastic Buddhism of devoting oneself to individual liberation which, while avoiding harm to others, was regarded by him as insufficiently concerned with bringing positive benefit to other suffering beings (*M.10, 113, 127, 136, 141, 168).
Over the centuries, many monks studied and practised according to both the disciple-vehicle and Mahāyāna; not infrequently, both were present in the same monastery. The Chinese, in fact, did not come to clearly differentiate the Mahāyāna as a separate movement till late in the fourth century.
4. The development of Mahāyāna texts
The Mahāyāna emerged into history as a loose confederation of groups, each associated with one or more of a number of previously unknown sūtras (Skt, Pāli sutta). These were preserved in a form of Sanskrit, the prestige language of India, as Latin once was in Europe. Originally, Mahāyāna sūtra texts were described as ones which were vaipulya, which means ‘extensive’ or ‘extended’; that is, the extension of what had been taught by the Buddha indirectly, implicitly, metaphorically. Vaipulya texts are one of nine early classifications of the Buddha’s words (buddha-vacana)18 in terms of the mode of expression. It corresponds to the Pāli word vedalla as found in the titles of the Mahā-vedalla and Cūḷa-vedalla Suttas.19 The Mahāyānists emphasized that the words of the Buddha should not be understood only literally, as a word is only a mere sign, which may be for a hidden, deep reality, a ‘finger’ pointing to the ‘moon’ far beyond.
Anyone accepting the Mahāyāna literature as genuine sūtras – authoritative discourses of the Buddha – thereby belonged to the new movement. This did not necessitate monks and nuns abandoning their old fraternities, as they continued to follow the monastic discipline of the fraternities in which they had been ordained. The Mahāyānists remained a minority among Indian Buddhists for some time, though in the seventh century, perhaps half of the 200,000 or more monks counted by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) were Mahāyānist.
Traditionalists denied that the Mahāyāna literature was ‘the word of the Buddha’ (Buddha-vacana), but Mahāyānists defended their legitimacy through various devices. Firstly, they were seen as inspired utterances coming from the Buddha, now seen as still contactable through meditative visions and vivid dreams. Secondly, they were seen as the products of the same kind of perfect wisdom which was the basis of the Buddha’s own teaching of Dharma.20 Thirdly, in later Mahāyāna, they were seen as teachings hidden by the Buddha in the world of serpent-deities (nāgas), till there were humans capable of seeing the deeper implications of his message, who would recover the teachings by means of meditative powers. Each explanation saw the sūtras as arising, directly or indirectly, from meditative experiences. Nevertheless, they take the form of dialogues between the ‘historical’ Buddha and his disciples and gods.
The Mahāyāna sūtras were regarded as the second ‘turning of the Dharma-wheel’, a deeper level of teaching than that in the early suttas, with the Buddha’s bodhisattva disciples portrayed as wiser than his arhant disciples. Because of the liberating truth the sūtras were seen to contain, there was said to be a huge amount of karmic benefit in copying them out, and disseminating, reciting, expounding, understanding, practising, and even ritually venerating them.
Some Mahāyāna scriptures are in the form of a report of teachings given by the Buddha in a normal human context. Others utilize specific styles of literature to express an understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, such that, in them, the Buddha teaches within a marvellous setting of wonders and divine beings, as is found to a small extent in a few early suttas, such as the Mahā-samaya.21 Many Mahāyāna sūtras reflect this style. In them, the Buddha uses hyperbolic language and paradox, and makes known many transcendent Buddhas and high-level bodhisattvas from other worlds, existing in many regions of the universe. A number of these saviour beings, Buddhas and, in other texts, bodhisattvas, became objects of devotion and prayer, and greatly added to the appeal and missionary success of the Mahāyāna.
5. Mahāyāna texts and philosophies
Mahāyānists have continued to be influenced by ideas from early Buddhism, preserved, for example in the section of the Chinese Canon on the āgamas, which are similar to the nikāyas of the Pāli Canon. Some early Mahāyāna texts such as the Śālistamba (‘Rice Seedling’: *M.130–31) Sūtra, on the conditioned nature of existence, show a transitional phase from earlier Buddhist ideas, while the Śatapañcaśatka-stotra (‘Hundred and Fifty Verses’: *M.2) of Mātṛceṭa (second century CE) praise the Buddha in rather traditional ways. Other texts are evidently expanded versions of pre-Mahāyāna texts, such as the Upāsaka-śīla (‘Laypersons’ Precepts’: *M.1, 23, 30, 38, 42, 50, 53, 56, 64–5, 72–3, 79, 82–4, 87–92, 98, 102, 104, 160) Sūtra, translated into Chinese around 425 CE, which builds on texts such as that found in the Theravāda Canon as the Sigālovāda Sutta (Dīgha-nikāya, Sutta 31: *Th.49), but with an emphasis on the layperson’s practice as a bodhisattva. In the Ugra-paripṛcchā (‘Inquiry of Ugra’: *M.49 and 81), first translated into Chinese in the second century CE, teaching lay and monastic bodhisattvas, we see signs of the origin of the Mahāyāna among monks living from alms and meditating in the forest.
The Mahāyāna doctrinal perspective is expressed in both sūtras, attributed to the Buddha, and a number of śāstras, ‘treatises’ written by named authors. These systematically present the outlook of particular Mahāyāna schools, based on the sūtras, logic, and meditational experience. Each school is associated with a particular group of sūtras, whose meaning it sees as fully explicit (nītārtha); other sūtras may be regarded as in need of interpretation (neyārtha). This process continued in the lands where the Mahāyāna spread, which also took on differing broad emphases of their own.
In the Prajñā-pāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) Sūtras, the key idea was that, both due to the interrelation of everything, and the inability of concepts to truly grasp reality, everything we experience is empty of any inherent existence, or inherent nature: the idea of ‘emptiness’ (śūnyatā) of inherent nature/inherent existence (svabhāva) (see especially *M.137–41). Moreover, this means that the conditioned realm of ordinary experience, in this and other lives (saṃsāra), is not ultimately different from or separate from the highest reality, nirvana, which is empty of attachment, hatred and delusion, and cannot be pinned down in concepts. Hence nirvana is not to be sought as beyond the world but in a true understanding of it. Supported by the idea that everything is empty of anything that is worth grasping at, the bodhisattva practises the thirty-seven factors of awakening22 for the sake of their own benefit, and is devoted to the bodhisattva perfections, for the benefit of other sentient beings, knowing that the true benefit of self and other cannot really be separated. Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras include: the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (‘8000 Lines’: *M.54, 70, 76, 140, 153), the Vajracchedikā (‘Diamond-cutter’: *M.4, 9, 20, 44, 48, 103), and the Pañcaviṃśati-sāhasrikā (‘25,000 Lines’: *M.135, 139), and the very popular one-page Hṛdaya (‘Heart’: *M.137). A sūtra that uses the idea of emptiness to emphasize going beyond all dualities is the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa (‘Explanation of Vimalakīrti’: e.g. *M.127, 136, 141, 168), in which the wisdom of a lay bodhisattva outshines that of many leading monks. The idea of emptiness of inherent nature/inherent existence was taken up and developed in the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna philosophy, whose root text is the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (‘Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way’: *M.138) of Nāgārjuna (c.150–250 CE). Influential works by a later monk of this school, Śāntideva (c. 650–750), are the Bodhicaryāvatāra (‘Engaging in the Conduct for Awakening’: *M.43, *V.34, 35, 38, and cited in other V. passages), on the bodhisattva perfections, and Śikṣā-samuccaya (‘Compendium of (Bodhisattva) Training’), that quotes from many Mahāyāna sūtras.
As the Buddha eventually came to the end of his earthly life with his final nirvana, this gave rise to the question of whether he would continue to exist in some way after his supposed final ‘extinction’ (the literal meaning of the Sanskrit word nirvāṇa: extinction of what is painful, and the defilements causing this). The question was listed among others known as ‘the fourteen undetermined issues’23 regarded as beyond the reach of human speculation and rationality. However, after the passing away of their greatly revered teacher, it is natural that the bereaved community, missing his guidance, raised again the question once deemed by the Buddha as unjustifiable. This question entails others concerning the nature of the great teacher. Mahāyāna views on the continuing nature of the Buddha are expressed in such sūtras as the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka (‘White Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma’: *M.7, 22, 55, 152), an influential text, and the Mahā-parinirvāṇa (‘Great nirvana’: *M.5, 6, 8, 40, 43, 111, 145).
The Mahāyāna also introduced the ideas of many other Buddhas currently active in other parts of the universe, but who could be contacted. One such Buddha, that became especially important in East Asian Buddhism, was Amitābha (‘Infinite Light’), also known as Amitāyus (‘Infinite Life’). He is seen to dwell in a ‘Bissful Land’ (Sukhāvatī) generated by his own powerful beneficial karma, an ideal realm where rapid spiritual progress is possible, and which is reached by true faith in Amitābha’s saving power. An early sūtra on the visualisation of him and other Buddhas is the Pratyutpanna Buddha Saṃmukhāvasthita Samādhi (‘Meditation on the Presence of All Buddhas’: *M.114), and two influential texts on him are the Larger and Smaller Sukhāvatī-vyūha (‘Array of the Blissful Land’: *M.158, 159) Sūtras, also known as the Larger and Smaller Sūtras on Amitāyus.
Texts such as the Saṃdhi-nirmocana (‘Freeing the Underlying Meaning’: *M.143) and Laṅkāvatāra (‘Descent into Laṅkā/Ceylon’: *M.142) Sūtras emphasize that the world that one experiences is fundamentally mental in nature. What one experiences is an end-product of a complex process of interpretation, influenced by one’s habits, tendencies and past actions, along with language. This also applies to our concepts of a material world. Indeed this perspective sometimes says that there is no material world existing beyond our flow of mental experiences. In this perspective, the important thing is to understand how our mind shapes experience, to go beyond the splitting of experience into an inner, supposedly permanent subject-self, and external objects, and experience a fundamental re-orientation at the root of the mind, in the store-house consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) that is an unconscious store of karmic seeds that shape our conscious experience. This kind of perspective was taken up and developed in the Yogācāra or Citta-mātra school of Mahāyāna philosophy, founded by Asaṅga (310–90?) and his half-brother Vasubandhu. Asaṅga is said to have been inspired by the bodhisattva Maitreya to compose texts such as the Mahāyāna-sūtrālaṃkāra (‘Ornament of Mahāyāna Sūtras’), which includes a systematisation of Mahāyāna ideas on the nature of a Buddha.
Sūtras such as the Tathāgata-garbha (*M.12), Śrīmālādevī-siṃhanāda (‘Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā’: *M.13) and Mahā-parinirvāṇa (‘Great nirvana’) express the idea of the Tathāgata-garbha: the womb/embryo of the Tathāgata/Buddha, or Buddha-nature. This is seen as empty of greed, hatred and delusion, but not empty of wondrous Buddha-qualities, and as a radiant reality already present in all beings, for them to discover and mature into Buddhahood. This idea, while drawing on an earlier Buddhist idea that meditation uncovers the radiant nature of the mind (*Th.124), may have been in part a response to a resurgent Hinduism, with its idea of an essential, permanent Self within all beings. It repeatedly criticised Buddhism for its not accepting anything as ‘Self’, as well as for not accepting the Hindu system of divinely-ordained classes and castes. The Tathāgata-garbha was seen as the radiant inner potential for Buddhahood in all beings. While in some ways Self-like (as it is seen as a beginningless aspect of a being), it was seen as ultimately Self-less, beyond anything to do with the sense of ‘I am’ (*M.144–46). This idea was systematised in India in the Ratnagotra-vibhāga (‘Analysis of the Jewel Lineage’: *M.12), also known as the Uttara-tantra, (‘Highest Continuum’), attributed to Sāramati or to Maitreya, and had a great inflience on the Buddhism of China and other East Asian countries.
The Buddha-avataṃsaka (‘Flower Adornment of the Buddha’: *M.39, 46, 51, 62, 71, 96, 112, 149, Sūtra is a compendium of many texts which also circulated separately, including the Daśa-bhūmikā (‘Ten Stages’) Sūtra on the stages of the bodhisattva path and the Gaṇḍa-vyūha (‘Flower-array’: *M.17, 69, 148) Sutra. The latter, a literary masterpiece, is on the long spiritual quest of Sudhana, and the many teachers he meets on this quest. It culminates in a phantasmagorical vision of the nature of reality, in which he sees the deep interrelation of all phenomena, and of their ultimate nature, with everything inter-penetrating everything else across time and space. A traditional Mahāyāna view is that this was the first sūtra taught by the Buddha after his awakening, under the bodhi tree.
6. Buddhist texts in China
Buddhism, mainly of a Mahāyāna form, spread along the Silk Road, through Central Asia, to reach China from around 50 CE. There it came to be of considerable and lasting significance, adapting to China’s Confucian-dominated cultural context. Chinese-influenced forms of Buddhism later spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan. The gradual translation of the huge volume of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit and other Indic languages was a monumental exercise.
Perhaps the first Buddhist text translated (late first century CE) was the Sishierzhang jing (‘Sūtra of Forty-two Sections’: *M.31, 58). A summary of basic Buddhist teachings, later forms of it contained more Mahāyāna elements and some influence from Chinese Daoism. The Fo chui ban nie pan liao shuo jiao jie jing (Yijiao jing for short: ‘Bequeathed Teaching Sūtra’), translated around 400 CE, emphasizes monastic discipline in a Mahāyāna context. The Fan wang jing (Brahmā’s Net Sūtra’: 45, 90, 97, 100, 112), an influential text on monastic and lay bodhisattva ethical precepts, became popular in China in the mid-fifth century. Another influential text in China was the Dizangpusa benying jing (‘Discourse on the Past Vows of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva’:24 *M.11, 24, 35, 68). The Confucian emphasis on ‘filial piety’, or respect for elders and ancestors, was also given a Buddhist form in texts such as the Yulanpen jing (‘Ullambana Sūtra’; mid-sixth century) and Fumuenzhong jing (‘Sūtra on the Importance of Caring for One’s Father and Mother’; eighth century?: *M.36).
Various new schools of Buddhism developed in China. Two of these developed over-arching syntheses of the teachings of the many Buddhist texts: the Tiantai (‘Heavenly Terrace’) and Huayan (‘Flower Ornament’) – in Japanese, respectively Tendai and Kegon. The Tiantai school was founded by Zhiyi25 (539–97), and sees the Buddha’s highest teachings as expressed in the Mahā-parinirvāṇa Sūtra and the Lotus Sūtra, such that it emphasized the idea of the Buddha-nature, the heavenly nature of the Buddha, and his many skilful means in teaching according to the capacities of his audience. The Lotus Sūtra is also the main focus of faith in the Japanese Nichiren school. Works of Zhiyi that have extracts included in this book are these meditation guides: Fa-hua San-mei Chan-yi (‘Confessional Samādhi of the Lotus Sūtra’: *M.123) and Mo-ho Zhi-Guan (‘The Great Calm and Insight: *M.119).
The Huayan school was founded by Dushun (557–640) and systemised by its third patriarch, Fazang26 (643–712). This saw the Buddha’s highest teaching as expressed in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, especially the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra section of it. Huayan sees ultimate reality as empty of a fixed nature, being a fluid substance that is the basis of everything, just as gold can be shaped into countless forms. Its ideas had considerable influence on the Chan school in China (Thien in Vietnam, Seon in Korea, Zen in Japan). This book contains extracts from Huayan wu jiao zhi-guan (‘Cessation and Contemplation in the Five Teachings of the Huayan’: *M.149), attributed to Dushun, and Fazang’s Jinshizizhang (‘Treatise on the Golden Lion’: *M.150).
Two schools of Chinese Buddhism emphasized particular kinds of practice: Chan (‘Meditation’) and Jingtu (‘Pure Land’). The Chan school has the semi-legendary Indian monk Bodhidharma (470–543)as its founder, and of great influence on it was its sixth patriarch Huineng (638–713; *M.167), especially via the Liuzi-tan jing (‘Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch’). Indian texts of particular influence on it were the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. It also developed its own kind of literature centring on the gong-an27 (Japanese kōan), or paradoxical sayings of Chan masters. This book includes extracts from the ‘Platform Sūtra’ (*M.125–27, 167), from the inspiring Xin Xin Ming (‘Inscription on the Mind of Faith’: *M.128) of Jianzhi Sengcan (d. 606), the third Chan patriarch, and from the Zuochan yi, ‘Manual for Seated Meditation Practice’ (*M.124), an influential description of how to sit in meditation by Chan master Changlu Zongze (d. 1107?).
The Jingtu school focuses on devotion rather than meditation, and values texts such as the two Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sutras. It was founded by Tanluan (476–542) and emphasizes open-hearted devotion to Amitābha Buddha, by chanting his name and visualising his ‘Blissful Land’ (*M.114, 158– 59). Its simple practice made it very popular in East Asia. In Japan, it has two forms, the Jōdo (‘Pure Land’) and Jōdo-shin (‘True Pure Land’), the latter emphasising a way of salvation by pure faith alone.
7. The Chinese and Tibetan Canons
The main sources for our understanding of Mahāyāna teachings are the very extensive Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist Canons. While most of the Pāli Canon (of Theravāda Buddhism) has been translated into English, only selected texts from these more extensive Chinese and Tibetan Canons have been translated into Western languages, though much progress is being made. While the texts used by Mahāyāna Buddhists of East Asia are mainly sūtra texts attributed to the Buddha and e.g. Chinese treatises based on these, in Vajrayāna areas the main texts used are Tibetan treatises that are systematic presentations of Buddhist thought and practices that extensively quote from the sūtras and tantras, and are based on earlier Indian treatises. In both areas, indigenous treatises played a huge role in the formation of distinctive regional schools of Buddhism.
The Chinese Canon is known as the Dazangjing or ‘Great Store of Scriptures’. The standard modern edition, following a non-traditional order based on systematization by scholars, is the Taishō Daizōkyō (‘Taishō’ for short), published in Japan from 1924 to 1929. It consists of 55 large vols, each of over 1000 pages, containing 2,184 texts (see: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Portal_talk:Buddhism /
Its contents are:
(i) Translations of the āgamas (equivalent to the first four Pāli nikāyas) (151 texts in 2 vols.)
(ii) Translations of the jātakas on past lives of the Buddha, as a bodhisattva (68 texts in 2 vols.)
(iii) Translations of Mahāyāna sūtras (628 texts in 13 vols.), sometimes including several translations of the same text. These are grouped into sections on: the Perfection of Wisdom (42 texts in 4 vols.), the Lotus Sūtra (16 texts in most of 1 vol.), the Avataṃsaka (‘Flower Garland’; 32 texts in 1 vol. and a part vol.), the Ratnakūṭa (‘Heap of Jewels’; 64 texts in one and a part vol.), the Mahāparinirvāṇa (‘Great Final Nirvana’; 23 texts in a part vol.), the Mahā-sannipāta (‘Great Assembly’; 28 texts in 1 vol.), and general ‘Sūtras’ (mostly Mahāyāna; 423 texts in 4 vols.)
(iv) Translations of tantras (572 texts in 4 vols.)
(v) Translations of various early vinayas (on monastic discipline) and some texts outlining ‘discipline’ for bodhisattvas (84 texts in 3 vols.)
(vi) Translations of commentaries on the āgamas and Mahāyāna sūtras (31 texts in 1 and a part vol.)
(vii) Translations of various early abhidharmas (28 texts in 3 and a part vol.)
(viii) Translations of Madhyamaka, Yogācāra and other śāstras, or ‘treatises’ (129 texts in 3 vols.)
(ix) Chinese commentaries on the sūtras, vinaya and śāstras (158 texts in 12 vols.)
(x) Chinese sectarian writings (175 texts in 4 and a part vol.)
(xi) Biographies (95 texts in 4 vols.)
(xii) Encyclopaedias, dictionaries, catalogues of earlier Chinese Canons, histories, non-Buddhist doctrines (Hindu, Manichean, and Nestorian Christian), and ‘ambivalent’ texts (800 texts in 4 vols.).
By 1934, there was also a Taishō Daizōkyō supplement of 45 volumes containing 736 further texts: Japanese texts, recently discovered texts from the Dunhuang caves in China, apocryphal texts composed in China, iconographies, and bibliographical information. An outline of the Tibetan Canon is given in the introduction to the Vajrayāna passages of this work.
Note that about half M. passages in this work come from the Taishō, and are therefore translated from Chinese. Where they are translated direct from Sanskrit, this is indicated.
Most Venerable Thich Tue Sy
Introduction to the selections from Vajrayāna Buddhism
1. The passages marked ‘V.’ in this book represent the textual tradition of Vajrayāna Buddhism. Vajrayāna emerged as a distinctive school of method (upāya) within the Mahāyāna, teaching ways of meditation said to effect awakening more rapidly than the practice of the perfections (pāramitās) presented in the sūtras. These esoteric methods are taught in a distinct class of Buddhist scriptures known as tantras, which started to appear in great number from the fifth century CE in India. Like the Mahāyāna sūtras, most Buddhist tantras also trace their origins back to the historical Buddha. But the tantric system of practice known as Vajrayāna seems to have been developed by a group of yogis known as mahā-siddhas (‘great accomplished ones’), most of whom were active under the Pāla Empire (750–1120).
2. The spread of the Vajrayāna
The Vajrayāna was introduced to Tibet during the eighth to eleventh centuries CE, and it here became the official state religion. From there it spread to Mongolia and parts of China. Today, though having suffered heavy losses during the Chinese ‘cultural revolution’, Vajrayāna Buddhism is still present in historically Tibetan areas of China (not only in the Tibetan Autonomous Region but also in Quinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces) and everywhere in the Himalayan region where Tibetan culture prevails, including the kingdom of Bhutan, parts of Nepal, and the Himalayan states of India. After seven decades of Russian-backed Communist repression, it was revived at the end of the twentieth century in Mongolia, Buryatia, and Kalmykia (parts of Russia with people of Mongolian ethnicity). A separate strand of the Vajrayāna tradition has been preserved by the Newari Buddhists of Nepal, and a tantric school known as Shingon has flourished as one of the schools of Japanese Buddhism.
3. The three Wheels of Dharma
Tibetan Vajrayāna is heir to the cultural forms of late North-Indian Buddhism, which was characterized by a double strand of philosophical study and tantric practice. The former flourished mainly in the great monastic universities, such as Nālandā, where a synthesis of different Buddhist philosophies was taught. All the teachings of the Buddha were seen as belonging to three turnings of the ‘Wheel of Dharma’ (or three teaching-cycles, Dharma-cakra): the first one on the four ‘Noble Truths’ (see *L.27) and ‘non-Self’ (*Th.170–171) represented the ‘Hīnayāna’ (‘Lesser Vehicle’) level of practice,28 and the other two belonged to the Mahāyāna. The second Wheel emphasized the teaching of emptiness (śūnyatā) of inherent nature/inherent existence and the bodhisattva path as presented mainly in the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) Sūtras, and the third was seen to contain formulations of ultimate reality in terms more positive than ‘emptiness’, such as the teaching of ‘mind-only’ (citta-mātra) and the ‘Buddha-nature’ (Tathāgata-garbha). By extension, the tantras later also came to be seen as belonging to this latter category, though some Tibetan schools classified them as a fourth Wheel. The meaning of all these different teachings contained in the sūtras and their complex relationships were elucidated by the great Mahāyāna philosophers in their śāstras (treatises), and late Indian Buddhist philosophy developed an understanding based on a synthesis of their ideas. Thus, studies at the monastic universities centred on the treatises, rather than on the sūtras directly, though both the Indian and Tibetan treatises often cite the sūtras.
4. Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna, Tantrayāna
The Vajrayāna is also known as the Mantra-, or Tantra-yāna. Though the three terms are often used as synonyms, each one has a slightly different connotation. According to the Tibetan tradition, ‘mantra’ literally ‘protects the mind’ (man-tra), through disrupting negative mental patterns and focusing it on the awakened qualities being cultivated. ‘Tantra’ is understood to mean the ‘continuity’ of the awakened nature of the mind present in all sentient beings (not just humans) that is known as Buddha-nature (Tathāgata-garbha). It is uncovered or awakened through the unbroken ‘continuity’ of the master-disciple tantric lineages that are understood to go back to the Buddha himself. While in the general Mahāyāna, the process of attaining full Buddhahood is said to take three incalculable eons, in the Vajrayāna, one can aspire to attain Buddhahood in one lifetime through the methods taught by the great accomplished tantric masters (mahā-siddhas) of India. They gave rise to teaching lineages that eventually reached Tibet where it inspired the founding of different schools or orders (Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, Sakyapa, and Gelukpa being the four main ones) that were dedicated to preserving and transmitting the methods for realizing that continuity. Tantra-yāna is a general name for the way of practice laid down in the Buddhist tantras, characterised by visualization, mantra recitation, and cultivation of various states of meditative concentration (samādhi). Finally, the term ‘Vajra-yāna’ refers to the foremost symbol of the awakened mind, ‘vajra’, often translated as ‘diamond’ or ‘thunderbolt’. It is actually the name of the mythical weapon of Indra, chief of the pre-Buddhist gods in India, which was a symbol of indestructibility and mastery.
5. Schools of Tibetan Buddhism29
The Nyingmapa school are those who (pa) are ‘Adherents of the Old (Tantras)’. It looks to Padmasambhava, an eighth century Indian tantric guru who did much to establish Buddhism in Tibet, as its founder. It has a system of nine spiritual ‘vehicles’ (yāna): those of the Disciple, Solitary-buddha and Bodhisattva, which it sees as ways of ‘renunciation’ of defilements; those of the three ‘outer Tantras’, which it sees as ways of ‘purification’; and those of the three ‘inner Tantras: Mahā-yoga, Anu-yoga and Ati-yoga, which it sees as ways of transformation, which transmute defilements into forms of wisdom, rather than seeking to simply negate them. In Nyingmapa doctrine, these are all seen as appropriate for people at different levels of spiritual development. However, in practice, everyone is encouraged to practise the inner Tantras, provided that the basic refuge and Bodhisattva commitments and vows are also maintained. Ati-yoga, the highest teaching, concerns the doctrines and practices of the Dzogchen, or ‘Great Completion/Perfection’. This seeks to bring the practitioner to awareness of an uncreated radiant emptiness known as rig pa (Skt vidyā, insight-knowledge). This is symbolized by Samantabhadra (see *V.6), the primordial Buddha who embodies the Dharma-body (see *M.9), but it also already present in all beings, as in one interpretation of the Tathāgata-garbha/Buddha-nature teachings. The aim is to let go of all mental activities and content, so as to be aware of that in which they occur. The Nyingmapas follow the Old Tantras translated during the first dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet (7–10th centuries). Over the next centuries, they claim to have discovered many termas or ‘treasure’ texts, which are attributed to Padmasambhava and seen as discovered by a tertön or ‘treasure-finder’. Termas might be physical texts or religious artefacts. In the case of ‘mind termas’, they are seen to have been buried in the unconscious mind of a disciple by Padmasambhava, then rediscovered there by a later incarnation of that disciple. The teaching-transmission by termas, which is seen to jump direct from a past teacher to a present recipient, is seen to complement the more usual Kama (Oral Tradition) transmission, by which oral and written teachings are passed down the generations.
In the eleventh century, a renaissance of Buddhism led to its firm establishment throughout Tibet and the development of several new schools of Buddhism that were based on new translations of Buddhist texts, so as to be referred to as ‘new translation’ (sarma) schools. At the invitation of a regional king, the ageing monk-professor Atiśa came from India on a missionary tour in 1042. He helped purify the Sangha, emphasizing celibacy, and improved Tibet’s understanding of Buddhist doctrine, as based on a mix of Madhyamaka and the Tantras. His reforms led his main disciple to establish the Kadampa, or ‘Bound by Command (of monastic discipline) School’, and also influenced two other new schools of the period. The first was the Kagyupa, the ‘Whispered Transmission School’. Its founder was Marpa (1012–97), a married layman who had studied with tantric gurus in India and translated many texts. He emphasized a complex system of yoga and secret instructions whispered from master to disciple. His chief pupil was the great poet-hermit-saint Milarepa, whose own pupil Gampopa first established Kagyupa monasteries. The other new school was the Sakyapa, founded in 1073 at the Sakya monastery. It is noted for its scholarship and is close to the Kagyupa in most matters.
An idea which seems to have originated with the Kagyupas in the thirteenth century is that of recognized Emanation-bodies or tulkus, of which there are now around 3,000 in Tibet. A tulku is often referred to as a ‘reincarnate (yangsid) Lama’. Though in Buddhism all people are seen as the rebirths of some past being, tulkus are different in being the rebirth of an identified past person, who was a key Lama, and also an emanation of a celestial being. Tulkus are recognized as children, based on predictions of their predecessors and the child’s ability to pick out the latter’s possessions from similar looking ones.
The last major school of Tibetan Buddhism was founded by the reformer Tsongkhapa (1357– 1419), on the basis of the Kadampa school and Atiśa’s arrangement of teachings in a series of levels, with a purified tantrism at the top. He founded the Gelukpa, or ‘Followers of the Way of Virtue’, whose monks are distinguished from others by the yellow colour of their ceremonial hats. Tsongkhapa emphasized the study of Madhyamaka, and the following of moral and monastic discipline. In his ‘Great Exposition of the Stages of the Way’ (Lamrim Ch’enmo), he argues that one should progress from seeking a good rebirth (a worldly goal), to seeking liberation for oneself (Hīnayāna motivation), to seeking Buddhahood so as to aid the liberation of others (Mahāyāna motivation), with Vajrayāna methods then helping to more speedily attain the Mahāyāna goals. Higher levels of truth or practice are seen to build on, but not subvert, lower ones. Logical analysis prepares the way for direct, non-conceptual insight, and textual transmissions are as important as oral ones.
In the sixteenth century, the head of the Gelukpa school reintroduced Buddhism to the Mongols, who had lapsed from it. One of the Mongol rulers, Altan Khan, therefore gave him the Mongolian title of Dalai, ‘Ocean (of Wisdom)’, Lama. He was regarded as the second reincarnation of a former Gelukpa leader, Tsongkhapa’s nephew, so that the latter was seen, retrospectively, as the first Dalai Lama. Each Dalai Lama was seen as a tulku who was also a re-manifested form of the great Bodhisattva embodiment of compassion, Avalokiteśvara. The other major Gelukpa tulku is the Panchen Lama, seen as a repeated incarnation of Amitābha Buddha.
In 1641, the Mongolians invaded Tibet and established the fifth Dalai Lama as ruler of the country. From then on, the Gelukpa school became the ‘established church’. In the nineteenth century, a movement developed known as the Ri-may, meaning ‘Impartial’, ‘Non-aligned’ or ‘All-embracing’. This was a kind of universalistic eclectic movement that arose in Nyingmapa circles in eastern Tibet, and came to draw in adherents of other schools, even including some Gelukpa ones. However, the Ri-may movement was primarily a teachings-synthesis that rivalled the Gelukpa synthesis. With few exceptions, Lamas of the Ri-may traditions trained at Ri-may centres, and Gelukpa ones at Gelukpa ones, with only limited contact between them. The Ri-may synthesis drew together the three non-Gelukpa schools (and some of the semi-Buddhist Bön). These already had in common the existence of lay yogins, an interest in the old Tantras and termas, and the relatively formless Dzogchen teachings/practices provided a unifying perspective.
6. The Tibetan canon
In this book, the term ‘Vajrayāna’ is used in a wider sense to refer to the entire system of Tibetan (or Northern Mahāyāna) Buddhism, which has preserved the whole edifice of late Indian Mahāyāna. This is reflected in the structure of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon, which divides the Tibetan translations of Indian Buddhist texts into two main parts: the Kangyur (bKa’ ‘gyur30) or ‘Translated Buddha Word’ – two thirds of which is comprised of Mahāyāna Sūtras – and the Tengyur (bsTan ‘gyur) or ‘Translated Treatises’. In the Peking edition of these two collections, there are 330 volumes with 5,092 texts and 224,241 pages.31 The Kangyur contains mainly Mahāyāna sūtras and the root-tantras (mūla-tantras) attributed to the Buddha. In the Peking edition, it consists of 106 vols. with 66,449 pages and 1,112 translated texts, grouped in the following order:
(i) Tantras (738 texts in 25 volumes)
(ii) Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras (17 texts, plus 13 pre-Mahāyāna ‘Protection’ texts, in 24 vols.)
(iii) Avataṃsaka Sūtras (1 text with 45 chapters in 6 vols.)
(iv) Ratnakūṭa Sūtras (49 Sūtras in 6 vols.)
(v) Other sūtras (268 texts in 32vols.)
(vi) Vinaya (monastic discipline) (8 texts in 13 vols.)
(vii) Praṇidhāna (aspiration prayers) (18 short texts at the end of final volume)
The Tengyur includes the authoritative treatises (śāstras) by Indian scholars, with a handful of texts by early Tibetan masters, who commented on the meaning of the sūtras and tantras. In its Peking edition, it consists of 224 vols with 3,980 texts and 157,792 pages, which are grouped as follows:
(i) Stotras (hymns of praise) (63 texts in 1 vol.)
(ii) Commentaries on the tantras (3,136 texts in 87 vols.)
(iii) Commentaries and treatises on the sūtras (and useful worldly subjects): commentaries on the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras and the vinaya; Madhyamaka and Yogācāra treatises, abhidharma works, tales and dramas, treatises on such topics as logic, medicine, grammar, arts and applied crafts (e.g., architecture), and other miscellaneous works (781 texts in 136 vols.).
Most of the canonical scriptures – sūtras, tantras, and śāstras – were translated from Sanskrit originals, under the guidance of Indian scholars (paṇḍita) who helped the transmission of Buddhism into Tibet. The translations were carried out in a ‘scientific’ manner – with standardized terminology and syntactic rules – to maintain maximum closeness to the original. Therefore, Tibetan translations are generally held to be very reliable. Yet, no text was meant to be studied without oral transmission and detailed practical instruction from a learned and experienced master. The tantras in particular have always been considered as esoteric, virtually unintelligible without oral transmission of their actual meaning and proper initiation into their practice.
By the time the enormous task of translating the Indian Buddhist heritage was completed, the development of an indigenous Tibetan scholarship was well under the way. Tibetan authors started composing their own treatises to elucidate the meaning of the sūtras and śāstras, including the tantric scriptures. Faced with the immense variety of narrative, doctrine, and liberating technique contained in the canonical texts, they inevitably found themselves at the job of ordering and systematizing the material. Following the tradition of North-Indian Buddhist scholarship, they based their doctrinal syntheses on the śāstras of Nāgārjuna (ca. 150–250), Asaṅga (ca. 310–90, with Maitreya-nātha as his teacher), Vasubandhu (ca. 310–400), Dharmakīrti (ca. 530–600), Candrakīrti (7th century), and Ṥāntideva (ca. 650–750) – to mention only the greatest Mahāyāna philosophers. The tantras were also studied through the commentaries, instructions, and practice manuals written by Indian mahā-siddhas and tantric scholars, which were contained in a bulky section of the Tengyur. The different tantric lineages – systems of tantric practice handed down from master to disciple reaching Tibet from the seventh to twelfth centuries – became institutionalized in the four main schools and their various branches. Over time, those schools each developed its own literary tradition, resulting in an astonishing proliferation of Vajrayāna literature. Though following the Indian ways was the norm everywhere, there was room for creative innovation. These include ‘treasure’ texts hidden in Tibet or in the mind stream of Tibetan students by the Indian masters to be rediscovered later at an appropriate time which were included in canonical collections.32
7. The selected passages
Passages selected from the Vajrayāna tradition for this book represent the Vajrayāna Buddhist views on the topics selected for the volume. In accordance with the kind of texts emphasized in Tibetan Buddhism, these are best summarized by well-known Tibetan authors like Gampopa (1079–1153) or the Nyingmapa teacher Patrul Rinpoche (1808–1887), whose works we have most often utilized as sources for the selections. From among canonical sources, we have included a few passages from treatises of Nāgārjuna (*V.12) and Ṥāntideva (*V.34–5, 38), as well as Atiśa’s (982–1054) ‘Lamp for the Path to Awakening’ (*V.10) in its entirety. Texts from Gelukpa teachers are Tsongkhapa’s ‘The Abbreviated Points of the Graded Path’ (*V.40), ‘Prayer of the Secret Life of Tsongkhapa’ (*V.91), on the latter, and ‘The Song of the Four Mindfulnesses’ (*V.69) of the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708–1757). ‘Mind Training: An Experiential Song of Parting from the Four Attachments’ (*V.16) is by Sakyapa and Ri-may teacher Khyentse Wangpo (1829–1870). The tantric genius for poetry is illustrated by some verses from Tibet’s greatest poet, Milarepa (*V.8, 11, 17, 23). Specifically tantric texts are best featured in Chapter 2. (‘Different Perspectives on the Buddha’) – where the tantric view of innate Buddhahood is illustrated by passages taken from the textual tradition of the Great Completion (Dzogchen; *V.2–6). More information on these and other texts are supplied in the introductions and footnotes.
Most English translations have been newly prepared from the Tibetan by myself for the purpose of inclusion in this volume, though they have profited from already existing translations, which are duly noted.
The translator wishes to thank all those who supported the project. May it benefit many!