The Diamond Sutra - Selections

Transforming the Way We Perceive the World


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Chapter 1: Early Buddhism and Mahayana

Although the origins of what we today call “Mahayana” may never be accurately traced, there seems to be a consensus that during the two centuries from 100 B.C.E. to 100 C.E. there arose within Buddhism a movement that eventually called itself Mahayana, the “Great Vehicle” or “Great Course.” This new movement dubbed earlier Buddhist movements “Hinayana”—the “Inferior Vehicle” or “Limited Vehicle”—in order to distinguish itself from them. The adherents of the Great Vehicle claimed that the path of the bodhisattva, which it advocated, leads to supreme, perfect awakening or buddhahood, while the Inferior Vehicle leads only to sainthood or arhatship.

The European orientialists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to see the appearance of Mahayana as a dramatic and cataclysmic rupture within the Buddhist church, along the lines of Martin Luther nailing his theses on the doors of the church at Wittenberg. Modern Buddhist scholarship, however, generally agrees that the Mahayana was a gradual, mitigatory, reformist impulse almost from the beginning of the formation of the sangha—the community centered around the teaching and personality of the Buddha. It may also be added that in reading the day-to-day experiences of Buddhists in medieval India in their heyday, this controversy does not appear as sharply cleaved as it has been made out to be in our own century. On the contrary, it appears that certain doctrinal positions crossed the Mahayana-Hinayana divide, showing perhaps that the inner lives of the early Buddhists were governed not by labels, but rather by religious experimentation.

Buddhists view the Buddha as a mahasiddha,a person of great shamanic powers who forged a new direction in the history of shamanism by laying emphasis on the primacy of intention, on personal and social ethics, and on the phenomenology of mental processes. While attainment of shamanic powers was a continuation of the Buddha’s yogic training, his insistence on ethics and intention was a departure from the larger religious climate of the subcontinent. This view challenges the image created by nineteenthcentury orientialists of the Buddha as a grim, puritanical, Calvin-like figure. Conze was the first European scholar of note, in the middle part of this century, to break the spell of “Buddhist rationalism” and argue that there was compatibility and coexistence of magic belief and Buddhist philosophy.The reality of Buddhism at the folk level in all Asian societies has remained closely wedded to the shamanic/ethical paradox, where the traditional emphasis on personal and societal ethics has at times been marginalized by practices of mystery and magic.

Buddhism is not a monolithic entity. It is rather a tradition from which people who consider themselves Buddhists draw inspiration and to which they add as they respond to the problems of their lives, sometimes reformulating the doctrine in new ways to make it more relevant, sometimes returning to earlier principles when they seem to be timely or in danger of becoming lost. The tradition is thus a history of what Buddhists think and do.

Siddhartha Gautama, the prince of the Shakya clan who became the Buddha, was a product of his time and place. His was a time of extraordinary change in all fields of endeavor. Most of all, it was a time of fervent religious and spiritual exploration. The quest for mystery and magic was a prominent, even dominant, feature of this exploration.

In the centuries before the time of the Buddha, the Vedic civilization flourished through the leadership of the traditional aristocratic and religious elite in a clanand caste-based agrarian society. As the eastward exploration of the subcontinent opened up new frontiers for Vedic society, it brought new challenges to the entrenched religious elite. The most potent of these challenges—intellectually and religiously—came from the rise of asceticism.

By the time of the Upanishads (circa 800–600 B.C.E.) asceticism had become widespread. It was through the ascetics, rather than the orthodox Brahmin priests, that the new teachings developed and spread. In those early centuries asceticism gave rise to an astounding range of experimentation, which continues to be a feature of Indian religious life today.

Some ascetics were solitary radicals or recluses who lived deep in the forest and inflicted austerities on themselves in order to become inured to hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and rain. There were also ascetics who embraced a less rigorous regimen and whose chief practices were the mental and spiritual disciplines of meditation. Some ascetics dwelt alone in the forested areas on the outskirts of towns and villages, while others lived in the forest in groups of huts under the leadership of an elder. A common activity of the life of the ascetics of the less rigorous regimen was to wander from village to village, either alone or in large groups, begging for food and clothing. The elder of the group typically had developed a religious doctrine of his own, which was proclaimed by the wandering group to all who wished to listen. Sometimes these mendicants entered into religious debate with other wandering ascetics. Some took advantage of the temperate climate to go naked, while others favored modesty and simple garments.

The rise of asceticism in India in the centuries immediately before the birth of the Buddha, spurred by the quest for magical power, was contextualized, perhaps even institutionalized, by the wandering ascetic (shramana) movement, whose members were a motley collection of primarily nonBrahminical spiritual seekers. These rebel ascetics sought magical power in order to compete with the Brahmin priests and scholars who already laid claim to social and political power by virtue of their caste and training. The Brahmins held power traditionally as the keepers of the cosmic mystery of fire sacrifices. It seems probable that, in the centuries preceding the Buddha, sacrificial mysticism had run its course and had come to be seen increasingly as a means of obtaining prosperity and long life. The Aryan civilization gradually moved eastward where Brahminism was less entrenched than in the west. And there, in the central and eastern part of the Gangetic plain, is where India’s long adventure with asceticism began.

Asceticism, with its challenge to entrenched Brahmin priesthood as the keepers of spirituality and esoteric knowledge, allowed many from the underprivileged castes to enjoy success, rewards, and prestige that might not have been otherwise available to them. This challenge was much more viable in an expanding frontier society where the alienated and those seeking to escape the constraints of a highly stratified and ritualized Vedic society could hope to compete with the Brahmin priests on a more or less equal footing. The challenge was rooted as much in questioning the authority of Brahmin orthodoxy as it was in the search for mysterious magical powers. Throughout its long history, the religious culture of India, spurred by these twin desires, has produced its share of charlatans as well as authentic saints.

The greatest veneration in the emerging civilization of the mid-Gangetic valley was reserved, however, for those ascetics who had developed psychic faculties and gained insights that words could not express. These adepts were perceived as having plumbed the cosmic mystery, having understood the nature of the universe and of themselves, thereby reaching a realm of bliss unaffected by birth and death, joy and sorrow, good and evil. They were seen by their followers as having the magical power to crumble mountains into the sea, protect a great city, increase wealth, or wreak devastation if offended. In short, the magical powers formerly ascribed to ritual sacrificers were now transferred to individual ascetics. Their model was the great god Shiva, on whose appeasement depended the well-being of the universe. Like Shiva himself, an ascetic was considered a conqueror above all conquerors; there was none greater than him in the universe.At the time of the Buddha’s youth, the definitions and goals of asceticism were firmly in place. The ascetic was searching for the six siddhis or “superknowledges,” such as the six found in this Buddhist enumeration: (1) magic powers (such as walking on water or flying); (2) the divine ear (being able to hear sounds from far away); (3) divine eye (being able to see things from far away); (4) memory of one’s former lives; (5) knowledge of others’ minds and thoughts; and (6 ) the extinction of the outflows, namely, sensuality, becoming, and ignorance. The first five superknowledges are shamanic powers, aspired to by shamans in every traditional culture, yet considered mundane by Buddhists who seek primarily the sixth superknowledge. Only arhats realize the sixth superknowledge. For them, the first five powers are simply by-products, and all are ascribed to the Buddha as well as further results of his awakening. Interestingly, the divine eye and the recollection of former lives figured prominently in events leading up to the Buddha’s final awakening, and in recapitulated accounts of his forty-five-year teaching career.

The Buddha’s lifetime coincided with the development of new and enduring patterns of thought in Indian society. Michael Carrithers, a historian of Buddhism, summarizes these patterns thus:

Their thought was symbolic, in the specific sense that it evoked or expressed—rather than questioned or explained—the shared experience and values of a relatively small-scale community. So long as that experience was shared, and so long as that community did not embrace too many disparate elements, there was no reason, indeed no occasion, for questioning the values.

But with the rise of the cities and the growth of a complex cosmopolitan community, experience was no longer shared nor values unquestioned. The easy correspondence between traditional thought and life no longer held. There were substantial changes in the forms of common life, and with those changes arose the possibility that those forms could be reconsidered, discussed and reasoned over; people could now philosophize over them.

At the time of the Buddha, the agrarian society of the Aryans had given way to a new kind of urban/mercantile culture. City-states arose in the central Gangetic basin clustered around urban centers where there had been none before. Some of these were tribal oligarchies, some republics, and still others warrior states intent on conquest and expansion. These new centers of power became showcases for royal courts, for merchants and craftsmen with new skills, and a magnet for soldiers and laborers. Migrating populations, including foreigners, opportunists, and the displaced, flocked to these urban centers, while conquered chieftains came to the royal courts to pay tribute.

This newly emerging urban culture gave rise to novel financial arrangements, such as credit and debt, real estate speculation, and interest-bearing loans. These innovations challenged the entrenched caste system of the Aryan civilization since an entrepreneur of any caste could now accumulate wealth and power. Thus arose a new merchant-trader class with increased social and financial power. As pivotal members of the complex urban society, the newly prosperous city merchants found an affinity with Buddhism. It was this class that assured the spread of the Buddha’s teaching and alms food for his monk-followers. (As a parallel note, it is worth noting the contribution of the Medicis and other merchants to the ushering in of the Florentine Renaissance.)

While Buddha’s teaching found a strong resonance among merchants, especially those who traveled far and wide with their caravans of goods, it would be misleading to suggest that Buddhism had a monopolistic hold on the minds and wallets of the merchant class. Quite the contrary. The Jain order of monks, a tradition that often paralleled Buddhism throughout Indian history, also benefited enormously from the patronage of merchants. The merchant class, more than other sectors of the society, was exposed to a wide range of human growth and change, both physical and psychological.

The newly emerging urban/mercantile culture firmly subscribed to the idea of earning merit (or protection) through supporting monks, whether Buddhist, Jain, or Ajivika. The idea of “merit making” continues to exert a powerful hold on the imagination of Buddhists in Asia to this day. The symbiotic relationship between monks and laity through the exchange of material support and spiritual teachings continues to be a cornerstone of Buddhist continuity in Asia.

The monastic communities of the Buddhists, Jains, and Ajivikas were part of the larger shramana movement. The flavor of the shramana movement is best captured by the term parivrajaka, or homeless wanderer. The six-year ascetic apprenticeship of Siddhartha Gautama after leaving home at the age of twenty-nine took place within the culture of the shramanas, the renouncers of the world and all worldly entanglements. In a certain sense, the challenge posed by the shramana philosophers to Brahmin orthodoxy in ancient India has a parallel in the challenge by the philosophers of European “Enlightenment” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. The shramanas rightfully have been called the first true cosmopolitans of ancient India. It is tempting to speculate on a possible connection between the words shramana and shaman although no etymological correspondence is to be found—the term shaman belongs to the Siberian group of languages, while shramana belongs to the Pali-Sanskrit group of Indo-European languages. However, the Chinese transliteration of shramana as sha-men puts it intriguingly close to the Siberian usage.

Historically and anthropologically, the terms shramana and shaman— while not linguistically related—have played an almost identical function in India and elsewhere. Contemporary anthropological research on neoshamanism offers an intriguing parallel to Mahayana cosmological perspectives, as well as to contemporary thinking in quantum physics. According to a contemporary scholar of neo-shamanism,

The “perverse” upside-down physics of the shamanic universe—in which time is stretchable, space is solid, matter is transparent, and conventional manifestations of energy are replaced by invisible subtle forces—cannot be grasped by our customary mode of perception. Nevertheless, all tribal societies as well as our ancestors—and cultures of both the Old World and our present world—did at one time subscribe to the idea of such a universe…[The shaman] speaks of the vitality of all that exists and of a global relatedness to all beings and phenomena at every level. To him the universe is pervaded by a creative essence which not only transcends normal existence but lends to it an inner cohesion. The shaman is part of the age-old tradition of the Perennial Philosophy—the mystical teaching of the unity of all things and all beings. In the realm of magic everything is interrelated; nothing exists in isolation. Here rules the principle of pars pro toto. This level of consciousness, like a gigantic telephone exchange, affords access to all other levels of awareness. All mystical paths are agreed that such a way of experiencing requires a suspension of normal awareness and of rational thought by means of special techniques of mind training. An empty mind allows an alternative way of being and affords access to the existential level of transpersonal experience.

We may find some support here for the thesis that aspects of Mahayana Buddhism are more deeply rooted in a pre-Buddhist, yogic civilization than previously thought. Asceticism, it would seem, was a driving force behind this yogic civilization.

The spiritual culture of the Buddha’s time honored asceticism and renunciation:

To be a renouncer was a young man’s, indeed a romantic’s aspiration, and from this point of view the Buddha was one of many youths who left home, attracted by the challenge of the wandering life. But the counterpart to this enthusiasm was a somber and deeply serious view of such a life’s task. First, the refined ideals of virtue and wisdom laid upon these wanderers a burden of perfection which perhaps few could achieve in detail. And second, they left ordinary life not just because of its irritations, but also because of its dangers.

The unexamined and uncontrolled life of the home leads only to sorrow and despair, endlessly repeated. Only the renouncer’s life offers hope, the hope of looking down upon a morass of desire and suffering from an eminence of knowledge and dispassion. Western writers have often counted this view as unrelieved pessimism, but they have missed the optimism, the prospect of attaining “the deathless.” The renouncers’ attitude was compounded of dark bitterness and bright hope.

As the first cosmopolitan citizens of the emerging urban civilization in ancient India, these renouncers were shaped by their world, but they also reshaped it—as teachers, preachers, and exemplars. They were the new intellectuals—carriers of cultural and linguistic changes; they were also wandering minstrels, keepers and transmitters of an oral culture. The changes and trends set into motion by the renouncers continued for several centuries during which Buddhism, especially when spreading into Central Asia, became both a transmuted entity and a transmutative influence.

Consistent with this broader movement, the Buddha’s public activities after his awakening were predominantly urban, although he himself favored the life of the recluse.

[The Buddha’s] was a life spent in great urban and trading centers of the time where people came together to trade and to deliberate, to study and to practice their special crafts and industries, to discuss and to be entertained, to seek justice, to make money, or to find the truth. The appeal of his doctrines was primarily to men of an urban background. Among the things which, tradition suggests, might be said in praise of him was that he abstained from ‘village ways,’ gama Dharma, a term which could also be translated ‘vile conduct.’…The point here seems to be that the Buddha’s urbanity of speech was consistent with the rational quality of the ideas which he expressed.

Here we find a paradox: On one hand, the Buddha encouraged his followers to abandon family ties and seek the wanderer’s life in order to gain awakening, while, on the other hand, there were more householders than ordained monastics among his followers and friends. These included kings and princes, as well as merchants and professionals. Together this group represented a new urban civilization, spearheaded by prosperous merchants who placed a premium on new areas of learning—mathematics, astronomy, and etymology. The Brahmins, representing the old learning, concentrated on memorizing the myriad verses of the Vedas, but that was often was the extent of their knowledge. The new learning made it possible for merchants to expand their activities along international trade routes in the northwestern parts of the subcontinent. The Buddha’s revolutionary contribution to the new learning was a language of rational presentation and psychological analysis, which appealed greatly to the urban intellectuals who were challenging the claims of the entrenched Brahminical teachings and power structures everywhere—in politics, society, and religion.

 These new urban intellectuals may have eventually challenged similar claims made by arhats within orthodox Buddhist groups. The followers of the new learning may have been willing to support the arhats as religious successors to the historical Buddha, but not as sole interpreters of his teaching.

The phase that is now variously called primitive Buddhism, early Buddhism, Pali Buddhism, or Nikaya Buddhism lasted for about two hundred years after the death of the Buddha. I have primarily used the term Nikaya Buddhism in this commentary to denote this early period of Buddhist history. This label is not without its own sets of problems, but it is being increasingly used by scholars.

Nikaya Buddhism was an oral culture, and its setting was monastic. Tradition tells us that by the time of the Second Council, held in the city of Vaishali about a hundred years after the passing away of the Buddha, fissures had already appeared in the thinking of some in the monastic community who wanted a more liberal interpretation of the monastic rules.

The conflict between lay followers and monastics and disputes about what the true Dharma is and who knows it have been central features of Buddhist history since that time and have led to the formation of new schools in almost every generation in every Buddhist culture. The term sasana is perhaps the nearest ancient equivalent of the modern expression “Buddhism.” (The term as an “ism” has been an attempt by European colonizers to understand a foreign tradition through their own religious and conceptual framework; many of the assumptions implicit in the European framework do not obtain in Buddhist history in Asia. This continues to be a subtle problem in our contemporary understanding of the tradition.)

Sasana, [in its developed sense] denotes a system. It has a socioreligious content and is used as a term of delimitation, with a touch perhaps of communal consciousness too, “within the Sasana” meaning “within the Buddhist system of faith and its rule of living.”

The absence of any centralized authority within the sasana rendered irrelevant the question of conformity or nonconformity. The modern Theravada school of Sri Lanka, representing Nikaya Buddhism, has tried to establish itself in a position of authority by claiming that its canon is definitive. The Sthaviras, their ancestors in ancient India, championed the view that other schools of Buddhism were heterodox. “Sthavira” literally means “elder” and denotes those monks who believed that the sutra collection in the Tripitaka was the one and only authoritative teaching of the historical Buddha. But going back to the time of the Buddha himself, the tradition had been extraordinarily tolerant of “free thinking” as in, for example, the Buddha’s advice to the Kalamas.The added problems of geographical isolation and linguistic diversity in pre-Ashoka Buddhism only reinforced the tendency for independent thinking and interpretation among non-Magadhan monks—those monks who had been venturing westward and southward and were not in touch with the finer points of monastic debates in and around Rajagraha, Shravasti, and Vaishali.

The schism at the Second Council led to the formation of the Mahasanghika sect, which became the dominant voice for ideas that would later be collectively called Mahayana, even though it is possible to discern the presence of these ideas in all the early schools, including the orthodox ones. Historical records differ as to exactly what issues precipitated this split, but a general consensus seems to be that the Mahasanghikas refused to accept the sutras and the Vinaya as the final authority regarding the Buddha’s teaching. The Mahasanghikas were thus the first rebels, reformists, or schism-makers (depending on who is writing history), and they ushered in a new way of thinking that eventually coalesced several centuries later into what we today know as Mahayana. Like the eleven schools of Sthavira or orthodox Buddhism, the Mahasanghikas also split, inevitably, into a number of subgroups over a period of time.

At the Third Council held at Pataliputra (the capital of the Magadhan empire) in 250 B.C.E. under the aegis of King Ashoka, the primacy of the Sthaviras was established, and the dissenters were excluded from the sangha. It is important to note that this exclusion was in no way comparable to excommunication in the Catholic Church; it only meant that the doctrines of the dissenting monks were not accepted by King Ashoka and the orthodox monks, but the dissenting monks were still free to preach without royal patronage. The dissenters spread out westward, most notably to Mathura (near present-day New Delhi), Kashmir, and other parts of northwestern India, thus creating “western Buddhism” in contradistinction to Magadha-based “eastern Buddhism.”

The Mauryan spread of Buddhism, under the patronage of Ashoka in the newly unified subcontinent under one imperial authority, glorified and legitimized for the masses what had hitherto been championed by a relatively small group in north-central India: new opportunities for participating in the wanderers’ holy life, regardless of sex, creed, or caste. It was during this flowering of the Ashokan period that Buddhism truly became a religion of the people. But the seeds for elitism were always there; in later centuries, donations of land and buildings by wealthy patrons allowed for monks and nuns to be no longer in touch with the daily life of the villagers. They were no longer in the service of the many but in the service of an institution. By the time of Brahmin re-ascendancy under the imperial Guptas at the beginning of the fourth century, Buddhism was on an irreversible course toward being marginalized in the public life of India and confined largely to great monastic universities. That Buddhism survived outside India for so many centuries is in no small measure due to the fact that in the countries of north and southeast Asia it took roots as a religion of the populace.

This transformation of Buddha’s sangha in India from a regional to a continental entity and from a minor sect to a recipient of imperial patronage had enormous implications for the monastic community. New pressures appeared that transformed the sangha despite itself, and in the process the whole timbre and resonance of Buddha’s teachings were changed from their earliest presentations. The pre-Ashokan sangha had primarily consisted of renunciates, monks and nuns devoting their lives to the exclusive goal of nirvana. As a result of Ashoka’s patronage, the transformed entity became a universal, international religion in which the interests of the laity became equally important.

Any mention of Mahayana within the context of this commentary must follow the caveat that the term Mahayana did not come into usage until several centuries after the initial split between the Sthaviras and the Mahasanghikas (the Diamond Sutra, for example, does not use the term at all). The Mahasanghika School remained the primary focus of new trends of thought that had moved away from the Sthavira model. The new movement called itself Bodhisattvayana to emphasize its conscious embracing of the path of the bodhisattva. Mahayana is not and never was a single, unitary phenomenon. It is not a sect or a school, but rather a spiritual movement, which initially gained its identity not by definition, but by distinguishing itself from alternative spiritual movements or tendencies then current; it was essentially a culmination of various earlier developments.

A lot of nonsense has been said and written about the Hinayana-Mahayana controversy. Well-intentioned but myopic people have been in the thick of this controversy. To a large extent, this controversy thrives on emotions generated by word choices. “Hina” means “lower” or “inferior” but it can also mean “humble” or “narrow.” Depending on the context, “Hinayana” can mean the path that is “narrow and deep,” and “Mahayana” can mean “wide and shallow.”

The more aggressive users of the term “Mahayana” have been insensitive in making extravagant claims at the expense of followers of Nikaya Buddhism. At the heart of these distorted perceptions we find social, political, and economic issues, even issues of power and authority. In the politically correct, internationalized West, the term “Theravada” has replaced “Hinayana,” which is not without its difficulties, but it works to defuse the traditional animosity between the followers of northern and southern branches of Buddhism.

In our own time and place, those not co-opted into the sectarianism of Asian settings are seeking creative ways to describe the reality of this earliest phase of the tradition. A contemporary scholar has suggested “Foundational Buddhism,”which I think is a very apt description. I like to call the earliest layer “Psychological Buddhism,” and the later phase, the socalled Mahayana, “Visionary Buddhism.” These terms are not exclusive but manage to capture the basic orientation of each of the two phases. The use of the term “Psychological Buddhism” acknowledges the tremendous revolution Siddhartha Gautama brought about in the religious climate of his time, moving the debate from metaphysical speculations to the working of individual consciousness. It does not come as a surprise then that the contemporary Western intellectual and psychological tradition should discover great nuggets in Pali texts dealing with the Buddha’s teachings on mind and its role in the shaping of bondage or awakening.

This argument sees Visionary Buddhism not as a rejection of Psychological Buddhism, but as a refocusing of elements that are strongly present in the enlightenment experience of the Buddha, though wisely not the main thrust of his teachings. For such an experience is beyond the grasp of ordinary human mind; the Buddha’s enterprise, if anything, was to point out certain universal operative principles that Psychological Buddhism was most uniquely qualified to propagate.

A close reading of the available material shows that the Mahasanghika School was a reaction against the conservative tendencies within the nascent Buddhist religion in the second and first centuries B.C.E. Although the genesis of this reaction may be found as early as the Second Council, it was not an organized movement or a rejection of the strengths of Psychological Buddhism.

 It is perhaps best to regard the Mahayana as a social movement of monks, nuns, and lay people that began in reaction against the controls exercised by a powerful monastic institution. This movement was responsible for the production and dissemination of a body of literature that challenged the authority of that institution by having the Buddha proclaim a superior and more inclusive path and a more profound wisdom. In subsequent centuries, during which sutras continued to be composed, the Mahayana became not merely a collection of cults of the book but a self-conscious scholastic entity.

The divide between the laity and the religious specialists was never as sharp as has been made out by partisan scholars; monasticism continued to be a powerful force within Indian Mahayana throughout its tenure. What’s more, the scholastic/analytic approach of the Abhidharmist monks did not define the totality of the Sthavira/Theravada monks whose cause it sought to champion. There were a number of good Theravada monks who did not know Abhidharma and were quite happy to be deprived of its technical structure. What seems most likely is that for nearly a millennium after the death of the Buddha the broad tradition based on his teachings was both an influencer and an influencee in a multicultural marketplace, so to speak, of competing religious and philosophical ideas that emerged in India after Alexander’s invasion in 323 B.C.E.

A distinction needs to be made between the Abhidharmist monks and the mystically inspired persons on both sides of the divide. The Mahasanghikas had their own Abhidharma as did some other subschools of Sthavira. At the same time, the nascent Mahayana movement was driven by mystical and devotional paradigms, and the impulse of these followers was to reclaim the mystical inspiration of the Buddha. They figured there was more to contemplative life than lists, categories, and subcategories; often the devotional and the mystical aspects of the human heart are not satisfied by mere technical information. In that sense, the Mahasanghika followers were not that far apart from the non-Abhidharmist Theravada monks.

Even later, when the Madhyamaka philosophers of the Mahayana developed philosophical tools to respond to the Abhidharmist scholars, the debates were limited to an intellectual elite within the Buddhist community. A large majority of the community went about its own business, doing different practices in order to be inspired by the vision of awakening as outlined in Buddha’s life and teachings. Many of these practices were influenced by what was happening in the larger society around them rather than the intra-Buddhist philosophical debates.

The momentous changes that were taking place within the Buddhist sangha in the years following the reign of King Ashoka were but a reflection of the political and societal turmoil going on around it. The Mauryan empire disintegrated rapidly after Ashoka’s death, and the years between 200 B.C.E. and 300 C.E. were a time of bewildering political change in India. Yet beneath this confusion one thing provided continuity and cohesion—trade. The Mauryan empire had opened up the subcontinent by building roads and imposing a uniform system of administration. It created ideal conditions for merchants in the mid-Gangetic valley to open up trade routes with the Mediterranean world and China.

The newly prosperous mercantile community organized itself into guilds, which became important influences in urban life, both in the production and distribution of goods and in shaping public opinion. The emergence of guilds and international mercantile activity gave rise to a written culture with Sanskrit as an international language, a development that had tremendous impact on how the Buddhist sangha thought about itself and how it presented itself to those outside the fold.

The pre-Buddhist Vedic culture had been an oral tradition, although there is some evidence that written languages did exist at the time. A body of sacred texts transmitted orally from teacher to student (in most cases, from father to son) had allowed the Brahmin priests to maintain their hold on the religious and intellectual life of Indian society. In the two or three centuries following the death of the Buddha the vast oral canon of the Pali sutras had remained the province of monks who specialized in their memorization. But the oral process also promoted elitism within the sangha, which, coupled with the insistence of the Sthaviras that they alone were the true repository of the Buddha’s teachings, gave rise to dissatisfaction among those monks who proposed that the Buddha had taught therapeutically rather than as a metaphysician. In their view, there was room for creative interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings. The rise of written culture allowed dissenting monks to express important perceptual shifts within the tradition. The first of these was championed by the Mahasanghikas:

The Mahasanghikas were in the course of time led to an increasing skepticism about the value of verbalized and conceptual knowledge. Some of them taught that all worldly things are unreal, because [they are] a result of the perverted views. Only that which transcends worldly things and can be called “emptiness,” being the absence of them all, is real. Others said that everything, both worldly and supramundane, both absolute and relative, both Samsara and Nirvana, is fictitious and unreal and that all we have got is a number of verbal expressions to which nothing real corresponds. In this way the Mahasanghikas early implanted the seeds which came to fruition in Mahayana.

Mahayana, as a historical cultural process, contained a number of shifts that eventually led to the rise of philosophically important schools such as Madhyamaka and Yogachara and their subschools, as well as breakaway religious experiments like Zen and Tantra. Within India this process lasted for a thousand years or more after the death of the Buddha, and a number of shifts coalesced during this period that were eventually to influence the shape of Buddhism in east and north Asia. These shifts were not always discernible to those who were engaged in different experiments in their own time and place; there was no single person who experienced all these shifts in his or her lifetime. It is only with hindsight that we have created our own unique ways of looking at them:

Shift from a “developmental” model to “discovery” model: Although these are contemporary terms, we may speculate that the Mahasanghika followers felt that one of the problems of a map-oriented developmental model such as the Abhidharma is that of verification. In theory, it is possible to have a map and say that an arhat has completed the map and is therefore fully developed or liberated. However, to the Mahasanghikas, this self-proclaimed awakening did not conform to how the Buddha taught, for he did not lay out a map in the sense that the later masters of Abhidharma did. So long as the Buddha was alive he could be counted upon as a source of verification of attainment of arhatship in others. In the following centuries, as the production of arhats dwindled, the problem of verification became a contentious issue.

The Mahasanghika shift was thus from the rigid, scholastic, and developmental map of the Abhidharmists to modalities of religious experimentation where each person had the freedom to discover for himor herself the perils and promise of the path.

Shift from the psychological to the mystical: An important aspect of the discovery model for early Mahayanists was the shift from the idea that mind can be a knowable, dynamic process to an exploration of the universe as a sacred mystery; of its ineffability. This was a shift from analysis to transformation in which the tendency of the analytic approach for elaboration or explanation was discarded in favor of experiential absorption and allowing the nonverbal experience to be transformational. Hence it was a shift from the intellectual to the experiential in which dissatisfaction with the rigidity of Abhidharma scholasticism led to an effort to recover the fresh intuition of the principles behind the doctrines.

Shift from scriptural codification to models of awakening: An inevitable result of the above shifts was the move away from affiliation with a fixed canon to the observation of examples set by living persons; from a codification of the mechanics of awakening to faith in an “enlightened” person as a model of awakening. This shift may have been influenced by the inspiring presence of saints, regardless of what they could teach and whether or not their understanding conformed to the Abhidharma model.

Such a change in perspective may have led to a shift from debating fraternities to co-devotionalists. It has been suggested that by the time of Ashoka, the so called “eighteen schools” of Buddhism (there may in fact have been as many as thirty) had in effect turned into debating fraternities; and the ascetic practices of the first generation of monks and nuns were no longer central to the life of these fraternities. The shift may have been a catalyst for inserting devotional, even mystical, fervor into a debating environment.

Another shift, perhaps an overarching one, may have been from a monochromatic to a polymorphous culture. The Buddhists of the second century

B.C.E. in India may have been chafing at a debate-centered Abhidharma model, lacking in love and devotion. The need of the hour may have been for a language of the heart, of poetry, color.

The bodhisattva model opened up the possibility of a shift from a parts mentality to a wholeness mentality. One of the Mahasanghika criticisms of the arhat model was that it was self-centered. The bodhisattva model, working for the benefit of all sentient beings, was offered as an alternative. In fact, one of the central themes of developed Mahayana, as also of the Diamond Sutra, is the inseparability of one being from another. An offshoot of this shift may have been yet another shift—from a commitment to individual healing to a commitment to communal healing.

A major shift in early Mahayana was a shift from obedience (to the Vinaya rules) to creativity in individual expression, which brought about another, perhaps dubious, shift, several centuries later, from the ascetic to the aesthetic. In medieval Japan and China we see the culmination of this trend in the high visibility of Buddhist poetry and visual arts, at times to the detriment of meditational pursuits.

Perhaps the most decisive shift in the movement from Psychological Buddhism to Visionary Buddhism was the shift from the historical to the transcendental in terms of the changing status of the Buddha. For the Sthaviras, the Buddha Shakyamuni was a historical personage—a great teacher but not a divinity. The Mahayanists, however, saw the Buddha as a transcendental principle rather than a mere individual in the phenomenal world. Over time, this formulation led to an elaborate Mahayana cosmology, which posited buddha fields and the three bodies of the Buddha. In the popular imagination in the countries of north and east Asia, the notion of “living Buddhas” came to replace the historical Shakyamuni. This development was not without its cultural and sociological causes and consequences.

The shift from an oral to a written culture permitted the encapsulation of a number of trends that were already present in the incipient Mahasanghika dissent. As the center of political power moved away in the postAshokan period from Magadha to the northwestern parts of India, there was a corresponding shift from an eastern, Pali-based Buddhism to a western, Sanskrit-based Buddhism. The accompanying shift, from the analytical approach of Pali Abhidharma to more poetic modes of expression in Sanskrit, allowed the Mahayana followers to be more in touch with trends in secular literature of their time, which was, of course, in Sanskrit.

None of these shifts took place overnight or were even obvious at the time. But certainly the rise of written culture and the establishment of settled monasticism changed the character of the sangha as never before. The transition from a wandering mendicant to a settled monk, from a forest dweller to an urban temple administrator, meant an increasing dependence on wealthy lay followers for economic support. It was a recipe for some chaotic interactions, and not always auspicious for the future of the ordained sangha.

The transformations that have taken place within Mahayana may seem almost violent from the perspective of Nikaya Buddhism but, as Edward Conze has noted,

Throughout its history, Buddhism has the unity of an organism, in that each new development takes place in continuity from the previous one. Nothing could look more different from a tadpole than a frog and yet they are stages of the same animal, and evolve continuously from each other. The Buddhist capacity for metamorphosis must astound those who only see the end-products separated by long intervals of time, as different as chrysalis and butterfly. In fact they are connected by many gradations, which lead from one to the other and which only close study can detect. There is in Buddhism really no innovation, but what seems so is in fact a subtle adaptation of pre-existing ideas. Great attention has always been paid to continuous doctrinal development and to the proper transmission of the teaching. These are not the anarchic philosophizings of individualists who strive for originality at all costs.


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© Mu Soeng, The Diamond Sutra (Wisdom Publications, 2000)

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