Source: Karma deconstructed
Source: Episode 9 – Death and the Djang
Source: Episode 8: Visionaries Incognito
Source: Mahayana Buddhism
published on 15 March 2017
Mahayana Buddhism (or the Mahayanas) can be defined as a major movement in the history of Buddhism which has its origins in northern India. It is made up of many schools and reinterpretations of fundamental human beliefs, values and ideals not only those of the Buddhist teachings. The recorded starting point for Mahayana, also known as the ‘Great Vehicle’ because it embraces so much, is the 2nd century CE, but it is assumed that this tidal wave of shifts began to grow before that date, building on existing schools and systems, and it continues today. Its exact origins are still not completely understood, but in contrast to previous Buddhist aspirations, great emphasis was placed equally on the doctrines of compassion (Skt: karunã) and insight (Skt: prajñã). In addition, the Bodhisattva, the human being who devotes him or herself to the service of others, became the new model for religious practice as opposed to the Arhat (Hīnayãna-Hearer or Seeker) who is concerned only with the self-interested pursuit of liberation.
This age also represents a massive social change in the way Buddhists practised because householders, lay practitioners, ie. those who have not renounced life to become monks or nuns, became equally as important as the clergy, ie. monastic practitioners devoting their whole lives to Buddha. Also, a new body of literature is associated with this movement known as the Perfection of Insight texts (Prajñã-pãramitã Sutras) in which Buddha Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) is seen in a new light as a supernatural being (later formalized as the trikaya – three bodies) and the concept and doctrine of emptiness (Skt: sunyata) became of major importance. Today, Mahayana Buddhism is predominant in north Aisa and has been strongly influenced culturally and by existing religions there such as Taoism and Confucianism.
To clarify this complex movement of spiritual and religious thought and religious practice, it may help to understand the three main classifications of Buddhism to date: Theravada (also known as Hinayana, the vehicle of the Hearers), Mahayana, and Vajrayana. These are recognised by practitioners as the three main routes to enlightenment (Skt: bodhi, meaning awakening), the state that marks the culmination of all the Buddhist religious paths. The differences between them are as follows:
Theravada is the only remaining school from the Early Buddhist period, its central texts are in Pali (Pãli Canon), the spoken language of the Buddha; and its exclusively monastic devotees strive to become enlightened for their own liberation.
Mahayana uses Sanskrit as its main language, and monastic and lay followers work for the liberation of all sentient beings, making compassion and insight (wisdom) its central doctrines.
Vajrayana, the Diamond School, originally exclusive to Tibet (in 20th century CE the Chinese occupation of Tibet forced it out of the country), emphasizes the permanence of the Buddha’s teachings as symbolized by the vajra (thunderbolt), a ritual implement used for ceremonies, employs Tantra (techniques to reach enlightenment quickly) and focuses mainly on lay practitioners.
The main schools of Buddhism practised today are Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Shingon, and Tendai (all Mahayanas); and Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana). It is significant that Theravada texts exclusively concern the Buddha’s life and early teachings; whereas, due to widespread propagation (spreading of the teachings), Mahayana and Vajrayana texts appear in at least six languages. Mahayana texts contain a mixture of ideas, the early texts probably composed in south India and confined to strict monastic Buddhism, the later texts written in northern India and no longer confined to monasticism but lay thinking also.
SCHOOLS & NOTABLE FIGURES
The term Mahayana was first mentioned in the Lotus Sutra (among the final teachings of Buddha Sakyamuni) at an indeterminate date between 5th and 1st century CE. However, according to recent scholarship, it may have been a mistaken term because instead of ‘yana’ meaning ‘vehicle’ or ‘cart,’ it could have been ‘mahajãna,’ ‘jãna’ meaning ‘knowing,’ therefore ‘great (maha) knowing.’ In this era, the Dharma, (Pali: Dhamma), the natural law of all existence according to Buddhism, was no longer regarded as a doctrinal element but as a medicine that would heal all worldly suffering.
In the Mahayanas, new schools started to appear such as the Madhyamaka (the ‘Middle School’, 2nd century CE), the Yogacara or Yogachara (based on the practice of yoga, 4th century CE), the Pure Land tradition in China (dates and origins uncertain but examples are T’ien-t’ai and Ch’an), and the Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism founded in 5th century CE by Padmasambhava).
Buddhist Illuminated Manuscript, Goryeo Period
Mahayana Buddhism is prevalent in north Asia having spread from northern India, then to Tibet and central Asia, China, Korea, and lastly Japan. Due to the cultural influences and diversity of countries, the scope of Buddhist practice has widened even more to include the Tantric practices (Tantra meaning techniques to reach Enlightenment more quickly) and Shamanism (a shaman is an intermediary who has access to the world of spirits and healing) from central Asia; Taoism and Confucianism giving rise to the Ch’an school of contemplation in China and Korea, which developed eventually into Japanese Zen, and so on.
Notable figures of this movement are Asvaghosa who wrote The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana translated into Chinese c. 550 CE; Maitreyanatha who compiled the Mahayana path from the Yogacara perspective made up of 800 verses; Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school, born c. 2nd century CE in south India; Aryadeva, Nagarjuna’s foremost disciple; Dogen, known for his teachings on Buddha Nature in Japan; Kukai, founder of Shingon Buddhism; and Hua-yen for the ‘Flower Garland’ tradition in China, Korea, and Japan.
As mentioned, the main tenets of this Mahayana Buddhism are compassion (karuna) and insight or wisdom (prajna). The perfection of these human values culminates in the Bodhisattva, a model being who devotes him or herself altruistically to the service of others, putting aside all self-serving notions; in contrast, is the preceding pursuit of self-interested liberation (Hinayana or Sravakayana). Bodhisattva (Skt; Pali: Bodhisatta) means an enlightened being or one who is oriented to enlightenment. This ideal human being is inspired by the life story of Buddha Sakyamuni who began by generating the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings in the form of a vow. Then he embarked on a religious life by cultivating the Six Perfections (paramitas).
Early Mahayana texts stipulate that a Bodhisattva can only be male, but later texts allow female Bodhisattvas. The term Bodhicitta is used to describe the state of mind of a Bodhisattva, and there are 2 aspects: the relative, a mind directed towards enlightenment, the ceasing of all cravings and attachments, and the absolute, a mind whose nature is enlightenment. A Bodhisattva must place themselves in the position of others in order to be selfless and embody compassion: in other words, to exchange him or herself for the other.
With this new focus on Buddha’s life lay practitioners or householders who were in a far better position than monks or nuns to fulfil the vow of a Bodhisattva emerged and became a key element of Mahayana Buddhism. The first lay Buddhist Cunda was enlightened at the Buddha’s Parinirvana (death of a Buddha) to the indignation of the enlightened monks and Kings attending to bring final offerings. On his departure from the world as an old man, the Buddha revealed that all beings, including women, could become enlightened not only monastic devotees. From this p oint onwards, enlightenment took on new meaning.
Biographical literature of the Buddha first appeared during this Mahayana era and aided the rapid spread of Buddhism across the Silk Road to the east of India and north into Nepal and Tibet. In addition, Buddhist poets expressed their faith using literary expressions which transcended the doctrinal lines between the different schools.
THE NEW MAHAYANA EPOCH WAS ACCOMPANIED BY A CANON OF SCRIPTURES, KNOWN AS ‘PERFECTION OF INSIGHT,’ CHARACTERISED BY THE DOCTRINE OF EMPTINESS, WHICH ENTAILS VIEWING BUDDHA AS A SUPERNATURAL BEING.
The new Mahayana epoch, long after the Parinirvana of the Buddha, was accompanied by a canon of scriptures or sutras, known as the Prajñã-pãramitã Sutras (Perfection of Insight). They are characterised by the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata) which entails viewing Buddha for the first time as a supernatural being worthy of devotion. This later led to the doctrine of his nature as the trikaya, or three wheel bodies (the Dharmakaya (the enlightenment or truth body), the Sambhogakaya (the bliss or clear light body), and the Nirmanakaya, (the form body manifesting in time and space).
The Bodhicaryavatara, ‘Entering the Path of Enlightenment,’ composed by Santideva (685-763), a Buddhist monk, poet and scholar based a Nalanda University, is one of the main texts for aspiring Bodhisattvas. It describes various steps taken by a Bodhisattva to reach enlightenment. A famous quotation from it is:
Whosoever wishes to quickly rescue himself and another he should practise the supreme mystery-the exchanging of himself and the other. (8.120).
Compassion can be tangibly used by Mahayana practitioners in the transfer of merit to all sentient beings, which is accumulated through devotional practice. Wisdom can be used to transcend the human condition via the conviction that all beings contain the Buddha seed so can, therefore, become a Buddha. The basis of the Bodhisattva vow is the six paramitas (perfections):
- generosity (dana)
- morality (sila)
- patience (ksanti)
- courage (virya)
- knowledge (jhana or dhyana)
- and intuitive insight (prajna).
In early Buddhism, there were ten paramitas, and later in the Mahayana, they were increased again to ten to match the ten stages (bhumi) of a Bodhisattva’s spiritual progress. Liberating or saving those who were lost or suffering becomes the sole life-purpose of those who take this Bodhisattva vow, even today.
PLACES OF WORSHIP
Another feature of Mahayana Buddhism is the presence of stupas – religious towers or domes which evolved from prehistoric burial mounds and eventually had tall spires known as pagodas, common structures found throughout Asia. The Buddha instructed that on his death a stupa should be constructed over his relics. Today, surviving stupas often contain sacred objects such as texts as well as relics or remains of revered beings. Their popularity as marking a place of worship increased as Buddhism spread to the masses who were mostly illiterate laymen. On the inside walls of stupas, pictures were inscribed and sculptures made depicting the life of Buddha and his previous lives as a bodhisattva.
LAY & MONASTIC PRACTITIONERS
Many scholars claim that lay Buddhism was responsible for the flourishing of the Mahayanas. The centring of the movement on Buddha as the first Bodhisattva and the revelation that all beings could reach Enlightenment promoted Buddhism in everyday life rather than behind the closed doors of monasteries. There is also evidence to show that the excessive privileges and arrogance of monks was detested by householders, especially in Japan, and that the clergy looked down on lay practitioners as in other religions, notably Christianity. The Asokadattavyakarana Sutra advocated the wisdom of women and girls: the protagonist, a 12-year-old princess, refuses to salute the monks referring to them as “Hinayana jackals.” At the same time, the Vimalakirtinrdusa Sutra advocates lay Buddhism in the exploits of its hero, Vimalakirti.
Stupas were administered by lay devotees and so the importance of Buddha’s life became increasingly significant as a result. They provided not only an opportunity for a different kind of worship but also for social interaction. There was finally an alternative religious tradition for householders, some of whom became founders of new schools, e.g. Prince Shotoku of Japan who never took monastic vows though he lived out the Buddhist teachings in everyday life and also became the first Buddhist statesman to reorder Japan with a 17-article constitution. The widening of Mahayana doctrines and the universal appeal of attaining Buddhahood meant that many schools flourished outside monasteries and often focused on certain Mahayana texts. It might be said that for a long period of time monks remained cloistered hearing the Dharma, while the laity were actively working as Bodhisattvas in daily life.
The significance of the Buddha’s physical death as only an appearance is paramount in Mahayana Buddhism. Out of his compassion, he became ever-present to help suffering sentient beings trapped in samsara, the cycle of repeated birth and death that individuals must undergo until they attain ‘Nirvana‘ (enlightenment), in which they are blinded by the three roots of evil, namely greed, hatred, and delusion. Samsara, although not mentioned by name, is characterised as suffering (Skt: duhka) in the first of the Four Noble Truths. It is an ancient notion common to all mainstream Indian religions dating back to circa 800 BCE.
This striking change in attitudes to the Buddha and his teachings represents its reabsorption into the society which it had renounced and become distant from in the monasteries. This fundamentally created a new religious system and a self-awareness which is evident in the body of the Mahayana Sutras and which made such doctrines respectable.
In the 21st century CE, it is estimated that 488 million (9-10% of the world population) people practice Buddhism. Approximately half are practitioners of Mahayana schools in China and it continues to flourish. The main countries which practice Buddhism currently are China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Tibetan Buddhism, due to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, has been adopted by international practitioners, notably westerners, in a variety of different countries.
‘Socially Engaged Buddhism,’ which originated in 1963 in war-ravaged Vietnam, a term coined by Tchich Nhat Hanh, the international peace activist, is a contemporary movement concerned with developing Buddhist solutions to social, political and ecological global problems. This movement is not divided between monastic and lay members and includes Buddhists from Buddhist countries as well as western converts. Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka are the major Buddhist countries (over 70% of population practising) while Japan, Laos, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam have smaller but strong minority status.
New movements continue to develop to accommodate the modern world. Perhaps the most notable are the Dalit Buddhist Movement (Dalits are a group of Indians known as the ‘untouchables’ because they fall outside the rigid caste system but who are now gaining respect and status supported by UN); New Kadampa Tradition, led by Tibetan monk Gyatso Kelsang, which claims to be Modern Buddhism focused on lay practitioners; and the Vipassana Movement, consisting of a number of branches of modern Theravada Buddhism which have moved outside the monasteries, focusing on insight meditation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linden is a ValidLit writer/teacher living in Japan. Ordained as a Buddhist Priest, she is a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.
Source: thought vs meditation
This shows how words and images have replaced direct experience of life.
A group of people meeting each other for the first time sit in a room in a circle. They are asked not to speak but just to look around.
As they look out at each other and their environment, all of them start to whisper descriptions of their circle mates inside their heads, some complimentary, some not. Meanwhile their masks smile and they long to talk with rough words which will somehow help them to learn about these new people. Most of us are taught that words help us to learn about the world when we are children.
But thoughts and words are a sheer reaction to the outside world. Therefore, the individual True Nature of each person in the circle is not present. They are each effectively a constellation of words and thoughts and skin.
They are looking out but only at the waves not…
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Source: Smothered by words
published on 09 March 2017
In Japan in 573 CE Anahobe, the wife of the Emperor’s son, had a dream of a priest in golden robes who asked her if he could lodge in her womb as he was about to be born as a world-saving Bodhisattva. The child was born painlessly and unexpectedly in the imperial stables and was named Shotoku (sho meaning sacred, and toku meaning virtue). At the age of 2, he naturally placed his hands together in gassho (reverence), faced the East, and recited the words, Namu Butsu (praise be to Buddha). Buddhism had hardly been heard of in Japan at that time! Prince Shotoku was to rule Japan between 594-622 CE as Regent and to unite his nation of warring clans in the dual roles of the first Buddhist statesman in the world and the lay founder of Japanese Buddhism.
Prince Shotoku had several titles:
- Prince of the Stable Door (Umayodo no Miko) due to the unusual circumstances of his birth.
- Prince of Eight Ears (Yatsumimi no Miko) because of his special intelligence and his ability to listen to eight people at one time and understand each of them.
- Prince of the Upper Palace (Kamitsumiya no Miko or Jogu Taishi) because his father, Emperor Yōmei, loved and respected his talented son so much that he created a special part of the palace for him to live in.
The civic contributions made by Jogu Taishi (the title most people in Japan give him) were impressive and are still in place. Among them, he created the ‘cap system’ for government officials which rooted out nepotism with the recognition of merit. He imported Chinese culture along with the lunar calendar, art and scholarship and he resumed the existing practice of dispatching of envoys to import all manner of cultural and religious knowledge to Japan which had been terminated. He initiated irrigation projects to improve agriculture and implemented extensive welfare measures. He created highway systems and he wrote the first chronicle of Japanese history.
BUDDHISM IN JAPAN
How he came to be devoted to this new faith which suddenly appeared in the islands of Japan is something of a mystery as mentioned above. However, though a Buddhist scholar and the first patriarch of Japanese Buddhism, he remained a lay practitioner throughout his life. It is thought that Buddhism first became known in Japan when the ruler of a province of Korea called Baekje visited Japan and presented a beautiful gold-plated image of Buddha Shakyamuni and sutra scrolls to Emperor Kimmei (531-571), Shotoku’s grandfather, who was impressed. However, his enthusiasm to adopt Buddhism threw the principal families of Japan into confusion.
Japan had been culturally isolated and conservative until then and showed no sign that the indigenous religion, Shinto, the ‘Way of the Gods,’ was inadequate. Shinto develops a deep appreciation of natural beauty and spirituality but there is no ethical element, unlike Buddhism. Also, at the time there was no formal written language in Japan so the enthusiastic adoption of Chinese pictographs happened simultaneously with the influx of Buddhist sutras in Chinese translation.
However, Shotoku, now Prince Regent to his Aunt Suiko who succeeded her husband in 593 CE, was to convince the country that Buddhism was exactly what was needed. In fact, at the age of 14, he fought in a brief civil war between the progressive Soga family who favoured Buddhism and the conservative Monobes family. It was a Holy War fought over the enshrinement of Holy relics in a pagoda (stupa) which Shotoku insisted was essential as the origin of Buddhism was so far away from Japan in India.
Surprisingly, Buddhism replaced Shinto as the national religion of Japan within 50 years exactly due to its values of tolerance, rationality and philosophical depth, none of which featured in the Shinto faith. The only remnant of Shinto which was retained was the link between members of the Imperial family and the Japanese goddess of the Sun and the Universe, Amaterasu, who are still considered to be her direct descendants.
Perhaps the story which best exemplifies Shotoku’s devout Buddhist faith as an adult is when his father became seriously ill. The Prince sat by his father’s bedside day and night meditating on his recovery and as a result, he did recover and became a devoted Buddhist himself.
TEMPLES & TEACHINGS
The Prince initiated the first two Buddhist temples to be built in Japan. Shitenno-ji (530 CE), the temple of the Four Heavenly Kings, of the North, South, East and West, was erected because whilst defending his family in battle, he prayed intently to the 4 Buddhist Kings and victory was achieved. Later Horyu-ji was built in Nara to contain many treasured artworks and artefacts, and he went on to build five more. But these temples were not merely places of worship. Shitenno-ji, built at the seaport, was a religious sanctuary providing training in music and the arts, a dispensary for medical herbs, an asylum for the abandoned and a hospital and sanatorium. Monks took many roles in society, as educators, physicians, and even engineers. Temples in Japan today are often cultural and welfare centres.
Prince Shotoku also gave public lectures on various aspects of Buddhism. He authored eight volumes of commentaries on sutras. The Sangyo-gisho (3 Sutras) was popular among lay Buddhists. It focused on the Lotus Sutra which conveyed Buddha Nature and universal enlightenment, the Vimalakirti Sutra which expounded lay Buddhism and national rulers as Bodhisattvas, and the Srimaladevi Sutra which extolled the virtues of a Buddhist Queen to honour his devout aunt, Princess Suiko.
‘HARMONY IS THE MOST PRECIOUS ASSET. WE ALL ALTERNATE BETWEEN WISDOM & MADNESS. IT IS A CLOSED CIRCLE.’ SHOTOKU SEVENTEEN-ARTICLE CONSTITUTION
The 5 bonds of Confucius figure in each article: ruler to ruled, father to son, elder to younger siblings, elder friend to younger friend, and husband to wife. Shotoku declared, ‘‘Harmony is the most precious asset. We all alternate between wisdom and madness. It is a closed circle.’ According to the Nihon Shoki, a definitive history of ancient Japan written in circa 720 CE, Prince Shotoku created a seventeen-article ‘constitution’ (Jpn. Jushichojo Kenpo) which was implemented as a political tool to unite the warring clans. This was not a modern constitution designed for the governing of state and subjects, but a set of spiritual aspirations inspired equally by Buddhism and Confucianism. It focused on the morals and virtues that should be the aspiration of every subject in the realm and led to him receiving the title ‘Dharma Monarch’ (Skt; Dharmaraja)
The following articles are evidence that this is truly a Buddhist constitution: Article 2: Reverence to the 3 Treasures of Buddhism – Shotoku firmly believed that all beings could benefit from their truth. Article 6: the difference between merit and demerit, reward and punishment – this demonstrates the laws of karma so central to Buddhism. Article 10: self-control and mind-control – the harmony between nature and society, also a strong goal of the Buddhist way of life. They are as follows:
1. Harmony should be valued and quarrels should be avoided.
2. The three treasures, which are Buddha, the (Buddhist) Law and the (Buddhist) Priesthood; should be given sincere reverence, for they are the final refuge of all living things.
3. Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven.
4. The Ministers and officials of the state should make proper behavior their first principle, for if the superiors do not behave properly, the inferiors are disorderly.
5. Deal impartially with the legal complaints which are submitted to you.
6. Punish the evil and reward the good.
7. Every man has his own work. Do not let the spheres of duty be confused.
8. Ministers and officials should attend the Court early in the morning and retire late, for the whole day is hardly enough for the accomplishment of state business.
9. Good faith is the foundation of right.
10. Let us control ourselves and not be resentful when others disagree with us, for all men have hearts and each heart has its own leanings.
11. Know the difference between merit and demerit.
12. Do not let the local nobility levy taxes on the people.
13. All people entrusted with office should attend equally to their duties.
14. Do not be envious! For if we envy others, then they, in turn, will envy us.
15. To subordinate private interests to the public good — that is the path of a vassal.
16. Employ the people in forced labor at seasonable times.
17. Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone.
These tenets provide the basis of stable and peaceful Japan today 1500 years later and could be said to be part of the essence of its distinctive culture.
DEATH & LEGACY
In 621 CE, Shotoku became gravely ill and as an indication of his popularity, a statue was commissioned in the form of the Buddha. It can now be viewed in the Hall of Dreams of the Horyuji Temple in Nara. After his death in 622 CE, he became known as ‘Japan’s Shakyamuni’ and his relics were enshrined in the various temples he established.
The surviving features of the Mahayana Buddhism he founded are as follows: the notion that all beings have Buddha Nature and can be enlightened regardless of spiritual training, class or gender (Jpn. Ekayana); the spiritual aspects of Buddhism are the most important – this remains true today; gender discrimination in monasteries should not exist; Buddhism should be synonymous with the welfare of the Japanese nation and symbolic of prosperity and peace.
In the Middle Ages, Shinran (1173-1262 CE), the founder of Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land), the largest school of Japanese Buddhism today, worshipped Prince Shotoku as the saviour of Japan. Shinran is famous as the first ordained monk to reject his clerical vow of celibacy which set a trend for Japanese clerics. He openly married and had children with Eshinni and the reason for this departure was that Prince Shotoku appeared to him in a dream as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kannon, who assured him that he would be incarnated in Eshinni. So, in a way, Shinran married his greatest hero. Shotoku is also said to have reincarnated as Bodhisattva Eshi of the Tendai faith and later as Amida Buddha, the principal Buddha of the Pure Land School.
In conclusion, as Prince Shotoku firmly believed, it is certain that our sincere relationships with each other are the most important factor of all in society and that individual power and success must only be viewed through that lens. But this 17-article constitution could and can only be successful if humans put aside all their self-seeking ideas and temper their dominant egos and temporal desires. This can best be achieved by cultivating Buddha Nature and embodying our divine mission of unconditional love and light. Altruism – sincerely looking after others before ourselves – is an ancient universal tenet of the human species which Prince Shotoku spent his life embodying.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linden is a ValidLit writer/teacher living in Japan. Ordained as a Buddhist Priest, she is a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.
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