The Tree of Enlightenment
An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism
by Peter Della Santina
Origins of the Mahayana Tradition
It must be said at the outset that, given the vastness of the Mahayana
tradition, we cannot hope to do more than introduce its major trends in the space of
a few short chapters. However, regardless of our personal inclinations toward or
commitments to any one of the Buddhist traditions, we must recognize the fact that
Mahayana has contributed a great deal to Buddhist thought and culture. It has
produced a vast literature, many works of art, and many different techniques for personal
development. Many countries throughout Asia have been influenced by the Mahayana,
although it was neglected by modern scholars in comparison to the Theravada, there is
now a tremendous interest in Mahayana literature and philosophy and in the path of the
Bodhisattva. It is therefore appropriate that we should devote eight chapters to
at the origins and development of the Mahayana tradition.
I have chosen to begin by considering the origins of the
because I believe that if we do not understand and appreciate the reasons why this tradition
arose--its seeds, so to speak, in the primeval soil of the Buddhist tradition--it will be
difficult for us to see the Mahayana from an objective perspective. I would like to look first
at the very earliest period in the establishment of the Buddhist tradition, that is, at the
life of the Buddha Shakyamuni himself.
The Buddha Shakyamuni taught for forty-five years at many
north east central India. He is universally believed to have taught innumerable living
beings. They included not only human beings from all walks of life, but also animals
and supra human beings such as the gods of the various heavens and the under world.
Buddha is also acknowledged by all the Buddhist traditions to have performed many
extraordinary and inconceivable miracles of various kinds for the sake of Enlightening
living beings. The Buddha was not a man nor a god as He himself avowed. But if he was not
a god, he was certainly divine, exalted and supramundane, because he had made himself
so over the course of countless existences. Indeed, all Buddhists believe that the
Buddha is far greater than any god, his qualities and activities more beneficent and
immense. The Buddha Shakyamuni set an example by his own career that people could
emulate. The goal of this career was Enlightenment and Buddhahood and the way was
the way of the Bodhisattva. The Buddha spoke of the goal of enlightenment and
Buddhahood as well as of the goal of Nirvana. He himself had thoroughly taught the way of
attaining the goal of Buddhahood by means of the practice of the perfections of the
Bodhisattva in the many tales of his former existences.
The Buddha Shakyamuni allowed his followers to accept and adapt his
teaching to their own abilities and aspirations. While never abandoning the cardinal
virtues of morality and wisdom, the Buddha permitted a great deal of scope for individual
expression. He encouraged free inquiry among the laity and democracy within the
monastic community. This is evident in many places throughout his teachings.
There is, for example, the famous doctrine he articulated in his advice to the
Kalamas, when he said that one should not rely on secondary means of verifying assertions
about the nature of things, but test such assertions in the light of one's own personal
experience and only then accept them as true.
In a similar vein, he said that one should test the truth of assertions
in the light of the criteria of observation, reasoning, and self-consistency, the way a
wise man tests the purity of gold by cutting, rubbing, and heating it. Again, toward the
end of his career, the Buddha told his disciples to be lamps unto themselves, to light their
own way with their own reasoning. His last words were, 'Subject to change are all
compounded things; work out your liberation with diligence.'
The Buddha also encouraged self-reliance in his instructions to the
community of monks regarding the code of monastic discipline. Consequently, he told Ananda
that, after he himself had died, the members of the Order would be free to abolish the
lesser rules of monastic discipline if they saw fit. Indeed, it is significant that the
Buddha even refused to appoint a successor to head the Buddhist community after his death.
All these facts point to the climate that existed in the very early Buddhist
community--a climate of free inquiry, democracy, and independence.
After the Buddha's death, his teachings were preserved in an oral
tradition that was handed down from one generation of followers to another, maintained in
their collective memory. Literacy was a privilege of the elite in India at that time,
and it is another indication of the premium placed on democracy within the Buddhist
tradition that literary formulation of the teaching was neglected for so long. Many people were
not literate, so word of mouth was the universal medium for preservation and
dissemination of the Dharma. During the five hundred years when the teaching was preserved
orally, a number of assemblies or councils were convened to organize, systematize, and
determine the commonly accepted versions of the doctrinal teaching and the monastic
discipline, or Vinaya. There were certainly three and maybe more than six of
assemblies convened during this period at various places throughout India. The
result was the emergence of a great many schools whose doctrines and disciplinary
rules varied to a greater or lesser degree.
The First Council was certainly held immediately after the Buddha died
at Rajagriha the capital of Magadha. There it was asked whether the council should
proceed to abolish the lesser precepts, as the Buddha had told Ananda the Order might do if it
Unfortunately, Ananda had neglected to ask the Buddha which
lesser precepts. This uncertainty led the presiding Elder, Maha Kashyapa to recommend
that the assembly retain all the rules of discipline without any modifications. This fact
is significant because it indicates that the question of disciplinary rules was
debated at the
time of the First Council. The question was to arise again at the Second Council and was
the major issue there.
In addition, the records of the First Council tell us the story of a
monk named Purana who arrived at Rajagriha just as the assembly was concluding its
deliberations. He was invited by the organizers to participate in the closing phases of the council
but declined, saying that he would prefer to remember the teaching of the Buddha as he had
heard it from the Buddha himself. This fact is significant because it indicates that
there were already people who preferred to preserve an independent tradition, to remember
the Dharma they themselves had heard from the Buddha. Both episodes indicate the degree
of freedom of thought that existed at the time of the early Buddhist community.
Let us now look at the record of the Second Council which
about a hundred years later. At this council, the issue that dominated the debate, and
that precipitated the calling of the council was disciplinary. A number of monks had taken up
practices which the elder monks considered breaches of monastic discipline. There
were ten such practices, including carrying salt in a hollowed horn, which was
considered a breach of the rule forbidding the storage of food; seeking permission for an
action after the action had already been done; and accepting gold and silver, which was
considered a breach of the rule forbidding the accumulation of wealth. The erring
declared in violation of the orthodox code of discipline and censured accordingly.
Again the conservative stand of Maha Kashyapa was adopted by the Elders at the
council, and indeed the rules of monastic discipline have remained virtually
unchanged over the centuries notwithstanding many actual modifications in practice.
In spite of the apparently easy resolution of the disciplinary
the years after the Second Council saw the emergence and proliferation of many separate
schools such as the Maha Sanghikas who some regard as the progenitors of the Mahayana,
Vatsiputriyas and others. Consequently, by the time of the Third Council, held
the reign of Emperor Ashoka, in the third century B. C. E., there were already at
least eighteen schools, each with its own doctrines and disciplinary rules.
Two schools dominated the deliberations at the Third Council,
analytical school called the Vibhajyavadins, and a school of realistic pluralism known as
the Sarvastivadins. The council decided in favor of the analytical school
and it was the views of this school that were carried to Sri Lanka by Ashoka's missionaries,
led by his son Mahendra. There it became known as the Theravada. The adherents of the
Sarvastivada mostly migrated to Kashmir in the north west of India where the school
became known for its popularization of the path of the perfections of the
At yet another council, held during the reign of King Kanishka
first century C.E., two more important schools emerged--the Vaibhashikas and the
Sautrantikas. These differed on the authenticity of the Abhidharma, the Vaibhashikas
holding that the Abhidharma was taught by the Buddha, while the Sautrantikas held
it was not. By this time, Mahayana accounts tell us, a number of assemblies had
been convened in order to compile the scriptures of the Mahayana tradition which were
already reputed to be vast in number. In the north and south west of India as well as at
Nalanda in Magadha, the Mahayana was studied and taught. Many of the important
texts of the Mahayana were believed to have been related by Maitreya the future
Buddha and other celestial Bodhisattvas or preserved among the serpent gods of the
underworld until their discovery by Mahayana masters such as Nagarjuna.
The appearance of all these schools each having its own
version of the
teaching of the Buddha clearly illustrates the immense diversity that characterized the
Buddhist tradition at the beginning of the common era. Although differing in many
particulars regarding the question of the authenticity of texts and teachings, the Buddhist
schools continued to acknowledge a common identity as Buddhists. The single exception to
this rule being the Vatsiputriyas who because of their adherence to the notion of an
essential personality were universally dubbed heretics by the other schools.
The formation of the extant written canons of the schools, both
India and in Sri Lanka, is now generally accepted by scholars to belong to a relatively late
period. The Mahayana teachings, as well as those of the other schools, including the
Theravada, began to appear in written form more than five hundred years after the time
Buddha. We know with certainty that the Theravada canon--recorded in Pali, an early Indian
vernacular language--was first compiled in the middle of the first century B.C.E.
The earliest Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra and the Sutra of the
Perfection of Wisdom are usually dated no later than the first century C. E. Therefore, the
written canons of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions date to roughly the same period.
After the death of the Buddha, the views of the elders among
dominated Buddhist religious life, but by the first century C. E.,
dissatisfaction with the ideal of the Arhat whose goal was the achievement of personal freedom had grown
significantly among the monastic and lay communities. The followers of the Buddha
were presented with a choice between two different ideals of religious life--Arhatship
and Buddhahood. While the aspiring Arhat is interested in gaining freedom for him- or
herself, the Bodhisattva or Buddha to be is committed to achieving Enlightenment for
the sake of all living beings.
The essence of the Mahayana conception of religious life is
for all living beings. Indeed, it is in this context that we should understand the
increasing popularity of the Mahayana. It is hardly surprising if many devoted Buddhists chose
to follow the example of the Buddha whose compassion and wisdom were infinite and not
that of his prominent disciples, the elders and Arhats who for the most part seemed
austere and remote. In short, the Mahayana, with its profound philosophy, its
universal compassion and its abundant use of skillful means, rapidly began to attract an
enthusiastic following not only in India, but in the newly Buddhist lands of central Asia.
I would like to conclude this chapter by spending a few
moments on a
brief comparison of a few ideas from the canon of the Theravada tradition and
some of the salient features of the Mahayana that appear prominently in Mahayana
texts like the Lotus Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Discourses and the Lankavatara
Sutra. It is often forgotten that not only are there many virtually identical Discourses
belonging to both canons, but also that there are traces in the Theravada canon of some
of the characteristic themes of the Mahayana--such as the supramundane nature of the
and the doctrines of emptiness and the creative and luminous nature of mind.
For example, in the Theravada canon we find the Buddha
referring to himself not by name but as the Tathagata, one who is identical with suchness,
or reality. Nonetheless, the Buddha is credited with the power to produce
emanations for the edification of living beings. These passages contained in the
canon suggest the transcendental, supramundane, and inconceivable nature of the
Buddha, an idea very important to the Mahayana. Again according to the Theravada cannon, the
Buddha extolled emptiness in the highest terms, calling it profound and going
beyond the world. He said that form, feeling and the like were illusory, mere bubbles.
Phenomena are nothing in themselves. They are unreal deceptions. This is a theme
taken up and elaborated in the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom literature. Again, according to
the Theravada canon the Buddha said that ignorance
and imagination are responsible for the appearance of the world. He referred to the parable of
the Demigod Vepachitta who was bound or freed according to the nature
of his thoughts to illustrate this point. The original nature of consciousness however
shines like a jewel, intrinsically pure and undefiled. These ideas are developed in
sutras like the Lankavatara Sutra. They are the very foundation of the Mahayana view of
the nature of the mind.
Thus the origins of the Mahayana tradition can be found in the
earliest phases of the Buddhist tradition and in the Buddha's own career. The five hundred
years after the death of the Buddha witnessed the emergence of differing traditions of
interpretation that, whatever their emphasis, all look back to the original, infinitely
varied, and profound teaching of the Buddha. By the first century C.E., the formation of the
Mahayana was virtually complete, and most of the major Mahayana sutras were in
existence. We will discuss three of these sutras in the following chapters.
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