Before diving too deeply into the nuts and bolts of Buddhist doctrine, it might be worthwhile to keep a sense of context or contexts in mind. The broadest context is the historical milieu out of which Gautama’s biography arose and from which his teachings formed to blossom into the various lineages and strata of “Buddhism”.
There are a number of givens that are often uncritically accepted by Buddhists of all stripes. Among these are the “facts” of the personage of Gautama Siddhartha/Shakyamuni (his upbringing as a prince sequestered from the adventitious aspects of life until the gods forced the issue by exposing him to the traumas of sickness, old age and death; his years of extreme ascetic practices; his awakening under the bodhi tree; the forty or so years of teaching; his parinirvana), the development of the sangha or community and its diversification into various schools (beginning with the split of the earlier schools of which the Theravada is the only survivor), the division of mahayana and hinayana vehicles, and the eventual claims of different schools and lineages tracing their origins back to the founder himself.
The problem is that none of these givens is undisputed, including the historicity of the Buddha himself. Yes, there was a Shakya clan; yes, there developed a sangha based on the teachings attributed to the Buddha; and yes, we have seen a vast proliferation of schools that come under the rubric of “Buddhist”. However, things are not as clear-cut as people would like them to be, with the result that there is an equal proliferation of texts and schools vying for their own primacy over all others. Unfortunately, as with Jesus the Christ or even Moses or Laozi, there is no hard archaeological proof or contemporaneous textual support for the good prince’s existence. This does not mean that there is no inferential support, but this is not the same thing as proof and as with the other luminaries just mentioned, this does not abrogate the importance, sense or truth of the different teachings attributed to them, but it does or perhaps should, provoke reflection on the part of practitioners to examine the historical claims proffered by each of these traditions.
The principle reason for raising this point here is to begin with a demonstration of why it’s of dubious value for Buddhist teachers to emphasize how “scientific” Buddhism is, but more importantly, how a more hermeneutical approach is required for interpreting Buddhist doctrine and how this approach can aid the practitioner (1).This is apparent even at this stage of discussion and dealing with the context of what is often presented in fairly simplistic terms as the schism of the Greater and Lesser schools and which bedevils a certain amount of Buddhist explanation, particularly in the Tibetan families (2).
The common trope is that the Pali canon is the original teachings of the Buddha written down some two hundreds years after his parinirvana, depending on which dating is used. Later, the Mahayana Sutras evolved out of, or at least were coterminous with, the rise of the madhyamaka school of thought as presented by the great logician Nagarjuna and thereafter, the split between Mahayana and Hinayana was to remain definitive with the Mahayana schools predominant throughout central Asia (and northern India before vanishing from the sub-continent with the invasion of the Moguls) a d the Hinayana prevalent throughout southeast Asia.
Problems abound with this reading. Leaving aside the previously hinted at issues with Shakyamuni’s historicity, it has been a matter of debate that the Pali canon are the original words of the Buddha. There have been arguments that much was borrowed from other sources and that Buddhism, even at this early a stage, was more syncretic than its adherents know or would care to admit. That aside, it doesn’t take long to see that the Pali Suttas we have at our disposal were among the texts collected that establish the teachings and provide the framework for Buddhist discourse for the ensuing 2500 years. Moreover, it’s all here: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination and discussion on what is typically thought of as the provenance of the Mahayana: sunnata/shunyata or the doctrine of the emptiness of the inherent existence of phenomena. Additionally, the seeds of the Middle Way philosophy and reasoning are here and all this points leads to a further critique of the simplicity of such readings regarding this so-called schism particularly, but of interpreting superficially and with no regard for nuance, other historical development, Buddhist or otherwise.
What we find is that over a period of centuries, a number of schools evolved that were the heirs of that first sangha, of which the Theravada is the sole remaining. Not only that, but there were multiplicities of versions of different teachings; for example, that there were two Patimokkhas (Sanskrit: Pratimoksha). There were divergences or at least alternate traditions (3) early on and we can offer the conjecture that the development of the Mahayana is not as surprising or as jarring as one might think. Indeed, it becomes apparent that what is most surprising is the development of the term Hinayana being applied at all, particularly by Buddhists against other Buddhists.
While the term has been in use since very early on, it has been mostly pejorative and used mostly propagandistically much later. There are several ways in which the term was used, but it’s earliest usage seems to have been applied less to schools than to individuals whose practice was of a kind of individualistic or self-centered scope. This is, I think, the way it is mostly employed today but I sense that this interpretation of modern usage has more to do with a kind of political correctness than a genuine sense of ecumenicism. More on that later, but at some point, the word Hinayana was, in fact, employed to other schools including the Theravada, regardless of how inaccurate it is.
At this point, it bears reflecting that there are other points to be disputed as normative in the rote recitations we encounter regarding the development of modern Buddhism. For example, that the Mahayana Sutras are/are not the words of the historical Buddha. As mentioned above, the major points of what would become earmarks of Mahayana doctrine are to be found in the Pali texts. It is immaterial that the Mahayana Sutras were not contemporary with the historical Buddha in one way; in another way, this is hugely important for the purpose of questioning why we believe what we do and how we move to support these beliefs. This comes into play even more with discussions relating Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism.
One could argue that it’s immaterial whether Buddha historically taught the Mahayana Sutras because, frankly and crudely, it’s far too late to do anything about it. What’s done is done. However, it’s highly important because, frankly, so many arguments have been built up on a number of religio-political fronts that beg to be examined more acutely. By accepting the idea that Shakyamuni did, in fact, preach the sutric teachings to vast gatherings of beings – lay and ordained, bodhisattva, shravaka, worldly and supramundane – the stage is set for a Mahayana exceptionalism that, by its very existence, would silence or at least, win out over the earlier school or schools still extant. By accepting the argument that Shakyamuni did teach the sutras, the Mahayana supporter comes to reinforce the narrative that Buddha was not merely a normal human man who achieved enlightenment but was a superman who after countless lifetimes had come to this world fully enlightened but performed his life as a form of teaching that others could follow. The earlier narrative then becomes superseded by a more soteriologically oriented one. Along with this come metaphysical assertions that seem to enlarge on that earlier narrative. The value here is that the Mahayana in its rise, emphasized points of doctrine that were nascent in the earlier strata of teachings, but at the cost of the veracity of historical fact.
Does this abrogate the significance of the later teachings? No, but it reframes the degree of importance subsequent generations of practitioners will place on history and context. The degree of import that we place on historical events determines how much we understand what happens in the world. Historical analysis helps place us in a continuum of events that define us as cultures and societies and even as individuals. However, the mystic would argue that historical interpretation is not the only interpretation and that there are deeper, truer levels of Being that are either ahistorical or better, parahistorical, perhaps. It is here that we begin the gist of the reason for this blog’s existence.
Does the understanding that a received narrative not necessarily reflect what is historical reality diminish or enhance the substance of any given philosophical or religious doctrine? I would argue that what we run into here is the difference of uses of history. What is considered by those of us raised in the European/Western scholastic tradition as history is somewhat and somewhat considerably different from what those raised in other cultural contexts mean by history. A Tibetan’s interpretation of history is going to be very different from mine (4), for example. To the degree that I understand that, I can accept divergent interpretation; however, we run afoul when there is a lack of understanding on either of our parts such that the result is a lack of clarity or advancement of further understanding.
This degree of divergence becomes more pronounced as we move further afield when looking at the different forms of so-called “Esoteric Buddhism”, be it Tibetan Vajrayana, Chinese Tiandai or Japanese Shingon. Each has its own structure, but all claim that Shakyamuni brought these supramundane teachings into this world or that he taught them to only a select secret set of disciples. Thus we run into the argument that just because there is no physical evidence, this doesn’t mean this didn’t happen. And this, in turn, leads us to accepting metaphysical propositions that are not present in earlier forms of the teachings. Another question arises: does this diminish or enhance the effectiveness of Buddhist doctrine or practice (similar but not just the same as the previous question)? And another: does this diminish or enhance the earlier teachings?
To the first question, it depends on who you ask. To the second question, it depends on who you ask. Simply put, a Tibetan practitioner (either native born or convert) is likely to aver that of course, Shakyamuni taught tantra; a more factually oriented person is likely to scoff and a third, such as myself, is likely to say, context is everything. If the question is meant to emphasize practice, the historical recedes in immediate importance while remaining a challenge of how to think about the historical as I understand it in the context of the Vajrayana worldview. Regarding the latter question, a Tibetan practitioner’s usual response is that without the earlier teachings, the deeper/greater teachings can’t be understood or practiced effectively. That factually oriented person is likely to respond by saying that the content of the Vajrayana teachings is irrelevant to the existence of the earlier teachings (and neither diminishes nor enhances them). Me? I’m inclined to not say too much right now, except that I don’t draw a huge distinction between the teachings as teachings, and in practice, much depends on what is most effective for the individual. I’ll approach this last later and in greater detail in this blog.
To return to the Mahayana/Hinayana disjuncture, I’m increasingly of the mind that the term Hinayana needs to be retired. It is certainly not accurate – actually, it’s downright wrong – when applied to Theravada. It is pejorative and its definition is far more degrading than merely meaning “little” or “small” (5). In modern discourse, it is tragic that the denigration of the “Hinayana arhat” finds itself in use still (6), although this would no doubt be defended by those who support said view.
I would like to examine the idea the dichotomy of Buddhism into two vehicles was not merely a matter of disjuncture, nor a matter of motivational scope, but a politically motivated terminology that resulted in the marginalization of any given school that might challenge another’s ascendency. Along with this, I will go into a deeper look at how this relates to what we believe and how we come to stick by our beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. This will be saved for the next entry.
1. A great source for texts focusing on the application of hermeneutical methods to different schools of Buddhist teachings is Buddhist Hermeneutics, edited by Donald Lopez.
2. Paul Williams seminal study Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations
and Jan Nattier’s A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugrapariprccha) have been hugely helpful for framing the contexts of how the later developments arose while providing salient information about early Buddhism. Also extremely worthwhile is “Ancient Buddhist Monasticism” by Alex Wayman in his book Buddhist Insight.
3. See Wayman, pp. 38 – 42 for a succinct overview of the development of the early Buddhist sects.
4. A case in point was a discussion I had with a Tibetan teacher regarding the Jowo Shakyamuni statue in the Jokhang in Lhasa. I had said that it was both part of the Chinese princess’s dowry as well as a spoil of war meant to appease the king of Tibet whose forces had invaded and conquered the capital of Chang-an. My friend referred to a Tibetan text that this simply wasn’t so; that, in fact, the princess was happy to be of use in bringing such a highly venerated object of the dharma to the Tibetans who so desperately needed it. I didn’t object that the Chinese felt considerably differently as recorded in the Book of the Tang; at the point we were having this discussion, I thought it prudent to leave well enough alone until a later time when we could discuss historical dialog in greater detail and nuance. I was getting a little hot under the collar and realized I probably wouldn’t be speaking in as composed a manner as I should!
5. The Wikipedia entry on “Hinayana” is pretty thorough on this matter and a good place to start.
6. From Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s translation of the Sutra of the Three Heaps, perhaps an interpolation from the commentary attributed to Nagarjuna (Brian Beresford translates the passage as “the “unsurpassable” which is the fully awakened state of being that is superior to the Hearer’s attainment”). This is the kind of sectarian triumphalism that I find distasteful, and this will be a theme that I return to throughout this blog. Of course, it goes without saying that a Mahayanist would be right from his or her side in adapting this phraseology. But here we also have a questionable text; the commentary is ascribed to Nagarjuna and is not one of the vetted canonical works. The issue of the historical Nagarjuna is worth pursuing and a good place to begin is Ian Mabbett’s article reprinted here.
Dhargyey et al, Geshe Ngawang. The Confession of Downfalls. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Dharamsala. 2003.
Lopez, Jr., Donald S. (editor). Buddhist Hermeneutics. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. Delhi. (1993)
Nattier, Jan. A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugrapariprccha). University of Hawaii Press (March 2003).
Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations. Routledge. New York. (1989)
Wayman, Alex. Buddhist Insight: Essays by Alex Wayman. “Ancient Buddhist Monasticism”. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. Delhi. (2002)