Buddhism – A Short Story

Far from being a short story, this is 150 pages of good Buddhism knowledge. Perhaps that’s nothing when you take into consideration the thousands of books and millions of pages of manuscripts, tantras, and sutras, so well, maybe it’s better not to complain about having to read a book that is actually shorter than 200 pages. I took those lines I highlighted while I was reading, and tried to put them together into something that could resemble a summary. But this is mostly intended to be a reminder of the book’s contents.

Introduction

Violence has to be avoided

The self is responsible for all suffering

Death is an error that can be overcome

Old Buddhism is Hinayana. The second Buddhist period sees the rise of Mahayana. Finally, the third period with Tantra and Ch’an.

The First Five Hundred Years: 500 – 0 BC.

Monastic discipline (Vinaya) and Skandhaka, the document which contains some rules to regulate Buddhist life. The 250 rules of Pratimoksha, ecclesiastical offenses. Some of these include having a chair or bed made with legs higher than eight inches. The basic doctrines include a theory of salvation and a theory of the three jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha). Searching for security in the material world is futile. In fear of birth and death, Buddhists leave their home lives to attain salvation. To Buddhism, the root of all evil is not sin, but ignorance. They don’t care much to define Nirvana, but rather to realize it within themselves, through effort in meditation. Meditation, which:

  • Aims at a withdrawal of attention
  • Shifts attention to a subtler realm
  • Penetrates into the supra-sensory reality

Mindfulness leads to trance (samadhi) and then to wisdom (prajna). There is almost no limit to the total of different meditational methods reported during the first period.

As for the three jewels: Buddha is the enlightened one. His name was Gautama, or Siddharta (often called Sakyamuni). Tathagata is the spirit of Buddhism, the Dharma-body, or the Buddha nature. “Whoso sees the spiritual law, or Dharma, he sees me“. Buddha incarnated is not really important: what’s important is the Buddha nature. The seven Buddhas. The Boddhisatva theory. Maitreya, the future Buddha. Dharma is the subject of all teachings. It is the one ultimate reality, it is the teachings of the Buddha, and it is also the application of these teachings in our daily life, becoming righteousness or virtue. Sometimes, Dharmas -note the plural- are seen in Buddhist teachings, denoting the individual “things” that we perceive and that give origin to ignorance. Examples of these are the five Skandhas (form, feelings, perceptions, volitional impulses, and consciousness) which constitute the human personality. As per the Sangha (or Samgha) the real Samgha is the invisible church, the Aryans, the holy ones. Of all the Buddhist saints, the Arhats are the most highly prized.

Sects and their disputes

Buddhist sects remained in contact and thus were able to share principles and understand each other. The goal -of enlightenment- may be reached on different roads. Tensions between the elitists who want to keep the Dharma for a small number of Arhats, and those who wish to increase the salvation chances of the common people. As salvation depended on the awareness of certain mental processes, philosophy played an important role in Buddhism. The classification of knowledge, the problems of causality, time, the criteria of what is real and what is not… At this point, a scholar called Mahadeva called into question the holiness of the Arhats. Those who agreed with him separated into the called Mahasanghikas. Those who didn’t were called the Sthaviras, the elders. Buddha became an object of religious faith, more than just a human being. The earth Buddha became then a fictitious creature who was thought to have been sent by the transcendental Buddha to teach the world. The Mahasanghikas taught two important things: 1) that all thought is pure, and 2) that all worldly things are unreal, and that includes verbalized and conceptualized knowledge (even Buddhist knowledge).

The next separation was caused by the question of the person, or “pugdala” (“entity that reincarnates as an individual or person” – Wikipedia). The personalists or Vatsiputriyas claimed that apart from all the impersonal Dharmas, there is still a person that needs to be taken into consideration. “One person, when He is born in the world, is born for the weal of the many. Who is that one person? He is the Tathagata“. For them, the person is a reality in the ultimate sense. Neither identical to the skandhas, nor in the skandhas, nor outside of them.

The third split was caused by the doctrine of Katyayaniputra, who taught that not only present but also past and future events are all real (pan-realism).

The laity

What is the place of the common folk in the scheme of things? There are four avenues for them to increase their merit:

  • observe the five precepts
  • be devoted to the three treasures
  • be generous, especially to the monks
  • worship the relics of the Buddha

The monks, in return, increase the spiritual and material welfare of the community, and also the well-being of the country. Much of Buddhism’s success is owed to its good relationship with Asian rulers. Nevertheless, there was a precarious relationship with the laity, and this invited the development of Mahayana, and the idea that people are as important as dharmas. In the third period, monks were forced to become astrologers, doctors, weather changers, and other professions useful to laymen. “The story of Buddhism becomes unintelligible unless due weight is given to the desires of the dumb common people“.

Expansion

Asoka, his son, and Buddhism in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Close contact between Buddhists and rulers infused the latter with a sense of nationalism and led the monks to support national wars. Ceylon was home to the Theravadins.

The Second Period: AD 0 – 500

Mahayana, the great vehicle (Maha means big. Mahatma, Maha Kali). Demand for more equal rights for the laity, and fewer arhats. Mahayana Buddhism was able to travel outside India and was influenced by foreign ideas. The importance of the Sakyamuni Buddha was put aside, making room for the Buddha who is the embodiment of Dharma (the Dharmakaya). Among the Mahayana innovations we count:

  • shifting the ideal from the Arhat to the Bodhisattva, who remains in touch with the ordinary people.
  • giving compassion equal importance as wisdom. Paramita, the six “methods to go to the beyond”: giving, morality, patience, vigor, meditation, and wisdom.
  • a new pantheon of deities, composed of more-than-divine persons (Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Samantabhadra), both mythical Buddhas as well as Bodhisattvas.
  • development of the idea of Skill-in-means (skillful means) the ability to bring out the potential in people through unusual ways.
  • a new ontological doctrine dealing with emptiness, suchness. Although the “beyond” is considered to be, well, beyond the grasp of intellectual and verbal comprehension

The Yogacarin school (“one whose practice is yoga” – Wikipedia) came up with the final formulation of the Three Bodies of the Buddha. The Dharmakaya is the absolute truth, and reality itself. The Sambhogakaya is the body in unearthly realms. The Nirmanakaya is the one that human beings see on earth, the physical incarnation of the Buddha.

Some of these doctrines were forbidden and esoteric, to the point where it becomes hard to distinguish between true Buddhist innovation and just esoteric knowledge being made available to the populace.

Hinayana developments in India

To hold its position, Hinayana adopted some of the Mahayana theories. They stressed more the idea of “emptiness”. Created the Abhidharma.

Ceylon

Is learning more important than practicing? Buddhaghosa, writer of the Visuddhimagga. Discord between the Mahavihara and the Abhayagirivihara. The latter were more open toward laymen. The Mahaviharas were more conservative.

Expansion into greater Asia

As a world religion, Buddhism was born in Gandhara, India. The Mahayanists were more successful missionaries, given their freedom in interpreting the scriptures. Medical missionaries were also responsible for a great number of conversions. The first large country to be penetrated by Buddhist thought was China. First as a religion of the non-Chinese, but by 500 it was well established throughout the whole of China, developing a state within a state. The Chinese Buddhists weren’t shy about quoting Lao Tzu or the Yellow Emperor. Rulers found the Buddhist priests more amiable than Taoist priests, as they relied on donations from wealthy laymen, and were not inciting rebellions like the Taoists were. Among the first works to be translated into Chinese we find the sutras on Prajnaparamita. The problem of being versus non-being, the emergence of the seven schools.

  • School of original non-being
  • Variations in the first school
  • School of the emptiness of matter
  • School of the non-being of mind
  • School of stored impressions
  • School of phenomenal illusions
  • School of causal combination

Kumarajiva, the Book of Chao. Buddhism and neo-Taoism. The Icchantikas (“deluded being who can never attain enlightenment” – Wikipedia) are forever excluded from Buddhahood. Achieving Buddhahood in an instant opposes Hindu thought regarding acquired learning. Meanwhile, popular faith concerns itself with rebirth in paradise. Be it Akshobhya’s in the east, Amitabha’s in the west, or Maitreya’s in the future. Founding of the Fellowship of the White Lotus, which would later evolve into Chung-t’u, or school of Pure Land.

The Third Period – AD 500 – 100

The emergence of Tantra. This is the last creative achievement of Buddhism, which enriched it with magical traditions. Mantras, mudras and mandalas were introduced. Systematized into Vajrayana, and the syncretist Kalacakra, with an emphasis on astrology. Whereas common people use magic to acquire power, Buddhists use it to free themselves from powers that are alien to their true being. No longer distant, Buddhahood is right now, “in this very body”. The ideal now is the Siddha. The ambiguous language of Tantra, and the visions of the yogins which they esteemed as more real than reality itself (which makes it difficult to research Buddhism historically).

The monastic system was weakened and spread into groups of self-sufficient Yogins. The wrathful deities, and their feminine counterparts. Cunda, Vasudhara, Usnisavijaya, Vajravarahi, Buddhalocana…dakinis, consorts of the Buddhas and their erotic rituals. The fivefold division of all cosmic forces, each one presided by one Tathagata: Vairocana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi. Clothing the highest into the form of the lower, shock therapy, the union of male and female in the ecstasy of love.

Royal patronage of Buddhism in Northern India would come to define its direction for the following centuries. The Buddhists developed their logic preceding the Hindus. Formulation of epistemological theories.

China and Korea

Between 500 and 800 AD were the most productive centuries for Chinese Buddhism. The eight indigenous schools. The Mi-Tsung, is the Chinese version of Tantra. The T’ien-t’ai school aimed at a syncretism of all Mahayana schools. The Pure Land school, and Amidism. O-mi-to-fo, and the legend of Sukhavativyuha. Kuan-yin, the Indian version of Avalokitesvara. The strength of Amidism lies in its democratic spirit: just chant the name and you will be free, all that is required is faith. The Ch’an school, and the introduction of working monks. “A day without work, a day without eating”. Practical realization, simplification of the approach to enlightenment. If you are cold, just burn a statue of the Buddha. Kill the Buddha if he gets in your way. “Strange words and stranger actions“. Buddhahood is achieved through instantaneous enlightenment.

Buddhists were becoming impatient with how long it took for Hinayana or Mahayana to produce any enlightened beings, so the Ch’ans worked for enlightenment “in this life”. After the Arhats, Pratyekabuddhas, Boddhisattvas, and Siddhas, we now have the Roshis. Cultivation through non-cultivation. “Only do ordinary things with no special effort“. “To eat all day yet not to swallow a grain of rice“. The great prosecution of 845.

In Tibet, Buddhism found resistance from the Bon religion. The prosecution of 863. Padmasambhava.

The Last One Thousand Years: AD 1000 – 1978

In India, Buddhism pretty much ended in 1200 due to Mohammedan invasions, much as it was also due to internal strife. Monks left the country, thanks to the international character of Buddhism, contributing in this way to its extinction. The creative impulse had ceased. The division between Hindus and Buddhists had diminished, and Buddhism no longer served a purpose as a separate entity. In Nepal, monks gave up celibacy, and lay Buddhism prevailed. In Burma, Theravada orthodoxy was preserved. Build a pagoda to acquire merits (with the consequence that the country is covered with them). In Laos, the story of Buddhism is shrouded in legend. In China, Amidism and Ch’an ousted all other schools. While the school of Ts’ao-tung stressed quiet sitting and silent meditation, the Lin-chi sect favored rudeness and the “shout and the stick” approach. Nembutsu. The Taiping rebellion.

In Korea, the government was entirely in the hands of the bonzes for long stretches of time, but that changed in 1392 with the change of dynasty. Confucianism gained the upper hand. In Japan, Buddhism reached its creative peak. During the Kamakura period, Amida and Zen schools became the two most prominent forms of Buddhism. The Yozo Nembutsu, the Jodo or Pure Land school. In this age of decay, traditional Buddhist morals are no longer effective, and we must rely on a higher power, that of the Buddha Amitabha. The nationalistic school was founded by Nichiren, who replaced the Nembutsu with the Namu Myoho Renge-kyo. As for the Zen schools, Dogen introduced Ts’ao-tung into Japan, insisting that a decadent age was no reason to aim at less than insight into the highest truth. Zazen is carried out as an absolutely pure religious exercise from which nothing is sought, and nothing is gained. All daily activities should be regarded as post-enlightenment exercises. Bushido, the way of the warrior. Mono-no-aware, sensitivity to beauty. After 1500, there was a revival of Confucianism and military Shintoism in Japan. Only the Zen sect showed signs of vitality.

In Tibet, Indian teachers were invited again after a revival in 1000. Atisa came in 1042. His seminal work, “Lamp illuminating the road to enlightenment“. Tsong-kha-pa, the formation of different Tibetan sects. The Bka-ijdam-pa (Kadampa). The bKa-rclyud-pa (Kaguypa) was founded by Marpa. Their monks were not saints, but human beings. The story of Mila-ras-pa, Tibet’s greatest saint and poet. Gtum-mo, magical heat. The shi-byed-pa, the Sa-skya-pa, the Nying-ma-pa. The latter came up with the concept of hidden treasures, or gter-ma. The biography of Padmasambhava was one of these discovered treasures, as well as the bar do thos grol. The six bardos of the Nyingmapas. The ceremony of gCod (Chod) to offer one’s body to greedy demons. They operate similarly to the left-hand tantra practitioners of India. Creating tutelary deities (yidams), controlling the occult body, and realizing the nature of one’s own mind. A well-rounded personality does not suppress lust, anger, etc., but puts them into their own place. Finally, only the Dge-lugs-pa were able to come out victorious over the Nyingmapas. This sect was founded by Tsongkhapa, the last great thinker of the Buddhist world.

Three great achievements: codification of the canon into two big collections (the Kanjur and the Tanjur). Production of a large quantity of indigenous literature. Lastly, the rooting of Buddhism in the life of people. Tulkus, lamaism. The violence of the fifth Dalai Lama, and the shutting off of the country after the 18th century.

In Mongolia, the Dalai Lama converted the Mongols in 1577 when he journeyed to meet Altan Chagan, ruler of the eastern Mongols to show him his magical powers, forcing rivers to run uphill. Shamanistic sacrifices were thereupon forbidden. The Mongols conquest of Iran meant they built many cultural centers in those lands.

The present situation

Buddhism is now just spending its energies on maintaining itself, having lost the initiative it once had. The Buddha Jayanti, the 2500th anniversary of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. Prophecies mark this era as the time when monks “will be strong only in fighting and reproving“. Northern Buddhism is under communist control (Mongolia, China, Tibet, and then Southeast Asia), and Buddhism and communism seem to be perfect enemies for each other, although Mahayana Buddhism and Dialectical Materialism seem to be surprisingly close.

Modern warfare, Cambodia. Although the country was neutral during the Vietnam war, it was “bombed back into the Stone age“. In Japan, we have seen a growth of nationalistic Buddhism. It is doubtful whether capitalism has been more kind to the Buddhists than communism.

In the West, Buddhism was absorbed on three different levels: The philosophical, Schopenhauer, Blavatsky, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and abundant literature has been written about the similarities between eastern ideas and those of some of the modern European thinkers. On the historical level, Buddhist manuscripts and documents have attracted the attention of many scholars. On the sectarian level, many Buddhist communities have been formed, primarily in protestant countries. Figures like Alan Watts served as conduits for the spreading of a multiplicity of somewhat disorganized ideas. “How a drop of water could be prevented from ever drying up?

The answer is: “by throwing it into the sea“.

Conclussion:

It was definitely interesting to me to learn about the historical development of Buddhism. Of particular interest was the realization that Buddhism hasn’t been just “the words of the Buddha”, but that the tradition has grown, evolved, and transformed itself into many different things across the span of centuries. Like Christianism, Buddhism was once a well-guarded secret that only a few could understand, with fundamental teachings being written in a language very few people spoke (Sanskrit, whereas Christianism hid behind Latin words). Then, the common folk found a way to open it up, and thus came Mahayana (in Christianism, we got the New Testament).

One thing that is clear to me now is that Buddhism IS A RELIGION. Fine, it is a philosophical religion, and it involves much more debating and thinking about the ontological matter of our own existence, but in the end, you pray to divinities and hope to be reincarnated in another world (be it Samsara or it in a pure land). You wear a uniform (the orange robe) that differentiates you from those who don’t believe in your thing. And you see those others as unintelligent, or incomplete human beings. That’s pretty much what religion is.

Now that I have seen how complex Buddhism is, I have actually lost some faith in it. One of my criticisms of the Bible is how complicated it makes the message of the one -supposedly- true god. He couldn’t just forgive our sins in one swipe of his divine hand, no, he had to come up with an elaborate plan that required him to prepare a specific tribe from a specific location on the planet, and into this tribe, he sent the spirit of the first creature he ever created so that he could give up this very life and somehow fix things up. Why I really don’t know.

Anyway. I really recommend this book, especially if you want to understand Buddhism better. Before you start chanting all those nembutsus, you might want to know where it all came from.

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