No Need for the H-Word

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Bhikkhu Bodhi et al., The Bodhisattva Ideal: Essays on the Emergence of MahāyānaBuddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 2013, 239pp., £9.99 pback. (Available from Wisdom Books at www.wisdom-books.com).

My review of this collection of essays, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review.

The usual history of Buddhism in India goes that the Mahāyāna arose around the beginning of the common era as a reaction against complacency and scholasticism in the existing schools. It described itself as a ‘great vehicle’, which put forward the Bodhisattva ideal of complete perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all, in contrast to the ‘inferior vehicle’ (hīnayāna) of the śrāvakas, with their arahant ideal of enlightenment merely for oneself. But it turns out that this is mostly untrue. We learn from this volume on the Bodhisattva ideal that this ideal does not belong only to the Mahāyāna but to all Buddhist schools. The idea that the Mahāyāna has the monopoly on it is a misrepresentation of Buddhism.

The general picture that emerges from this book, however, is that Mahāyāna was neither a school nor an ordination lineage, but a movement within Indian Buddhism. There were never Mahāyāna monasteries, and Buddhists of this new movement and non-Mahāyāna Buddhists lived and practised together. The word ‘hināyana’ (the ‘H-word’) is a pejorative term only found in later Mahāyāna texts, and never used by any non-Mahāyāna text to describe ‘mainstream’ Buddhism. The idea presented in Mahāyāna Sūtras that Mahāyāna is a higher teaching of the Buddha, revealed only to certain disciples, and so on, is rhetorical.

The essays collected here, which have all previously appeared elsewhere, is in the first place a more specific corrective to common misperceptions about the Bodhisattva ideal. The first essay, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, sets the tone. It outlines how the Bodhisattva ideal appears in Theravāda Buddhism. The Buddha realized enlightenment, and then taught others how to gain it. At first, no distinction was made between the Buddha’s enlightenment and that of his followers, but gradually a distinction began to be made. After all, the Buddha had gained enlightenment by himself, while others did so by following his teaching. The well-known distinction of three types of bodhi, awakening or enlightenment, arose: there is the bodhi of the arahant or ‘worthy one’ who is a disciple of the Buddha; there is the bodhi of the pacceka-buddha or ‘solitary Buddha’, who gains enlightenment by himself but does not teach; and there is the sammā-sam-bodhi of the Buddha. From earliest days the Buddha was called a bodhisatta prior to his enlightenment;[1] but gradually the story evolved of the enormously long career of this bodhisatta through previous lives, illustrated in the stories of the Jātaka, and beginning from the vow to attain Buddhahood made by the brahman Sumedha in the presence of the Buddha Dipaṅkara incalculable aeons ago, as recorded in the Buddhavaṁsa. The Bodhisattva ideal is thus acknowledged and venerated in non-Mahāyāna Buddhism as the highest Buddhist ideal. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains how Mahāyānists then gave this ideal prescriptive force for the Buddhist practitioner. But this in no way necessitates any disrespect for the arahant ideal, and indeed the earliest Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra,[2] contain no criticism of the earlier ideal. It is only in later Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka Sūtra, that we find a denigration of the arahant.

An essay by Bhikkhu Anālayo reconstructs the genesis of the Bodhisattva ideal from the evidence in the Pāli discourses and their parallels preserved in Chinese translation.[3] We learn that everything said about the Bodhisattva in the Mahāyāna is derived from the common traditions of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. Essays by Jeffrey Samuels[4] and Karel Werner continue to explore the Bodhisattva ideal in non-Mahāyāna literature in complementary ways. Samuels describes how great Mahāyānists such Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga and Candrakīrti each identify the Mahāyāna with the bodhisattva-yāna, and the srāvaka-yāna with the non-Mahāyāna Buddhism of the various schools. As Samuels points out, this ‘sets up an opposition between an ideology and an institutional affiliation’ (p.33), which is quite misleading, for, as we have seen, the bodhisattva-yāna is fully part of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The question inevitably arises of what exactly is Mahāyāna, and why it arose. It has to be said that this is still something of a mystery. The last essay of the collection, by David McMahan, explores the significance of writing for the emergence of the Mahāyāna. His essay reminds us how the distinguishing features of Mahāyāna scriptures are their visionary metaphysics and cosmic extravagance. Non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, by contrast, was based on the careful preservation of earlier teaching, initially through oral recitation, though with some imaginative embellishment. With the popularisation of writing around the turn of the common era, new ways arose for reform movements within Buddhism to express themselves. One way they did this was to fabricate entirely new sūtras, and attribute them to Buddhas. The longest essay in the collection, by Peter Skilling, explores what we know about the earliest of these new scriptures, where and how they arose, and how they presented themselves. The discussion is technical but highly illuminating. We discover that there is no longer any accepted model for the arising of the Mahāyāna. It is not simply a matter of a lay movement, or a monastic movement towards forest renunciation, nor is it a matter of cults of stupa-worship or book-worship. All these ideas for the origin of the Mahāyāna have been put forward, but none seem completely to explain it. Skilling also emphasises how, even in the last twenty years, we have learned a great deal more about early Buddhism. The discovery and editing of ancient texts, including a hitherto-unknown Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, in the Gandhari dialect, is changing the whole way we understand early Indian Buddhism.

An overall theme in this collection is how both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhists look to the Buddha and his enlightenment for their inspiration. It is only through the Buddha as exemplar and teacher that we have access either to the arahant ideal or to the Bodhisattva ideal. This does not mean these ideals are in some sense ‘really the same’, but that they must each be understood in terms of complex historical processes of doctrinal development. In this sense, this book contributes to Buddhist unity in the modern world, a unity, which is also an important theme in the teaching of Sangharakshita and in the Triratna Buddhist movement.[5]

I suppose a die-hard Mahāyānist might object that this is a book written and published by Theravādins for Theravādins, like a book by Roman Catholics about Protestantism. However, this would be unfair. Although Bhikkhu Bodhi’s writing style used to be overtly orthodox, he now lives at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey, where both Pāli and Mahāyāna Buddhism is studied and practiced,[6] and his teaching is replete with references to non-Theravādin sources.[7] The other contributors to this volume, whether ordained monastics or not, are scrupulously scholarly. Nevertheless, it would not be a criticism to say that the essays in The Bodhisattva Ideal are written on the whole from a Theravādin perspective. Their concern is not primarily to understand the arising of the Mahāyāna as a reform movement, but rather how the Bodhisattva ideal is more universal in Buddhism than is usually understood, and how the concerns of Mahāyāna are continuous and entwined with much in non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. It would be fascinating to see a companion volume of essays from an avowedly Mahāyānist point of view.

[1] Bhikku Bodhi, p.29, makes the point, which has been made elsewhere, that the Pāli bodhi-satta may represent what would be in Sanskrit bodhi-śakta, ‘capable of enlightenment’, and that bodhi-sattva, ‘enlightenment-being’, may represent an incorrect Sanskrit back-formation.

[2] As introduced and translated in the excellent book by Jan Nattier, A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Enquiry of Ugra, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2003.

[3] This essay is extracted from Anālayo, The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal, Hamburg University Press, 2010; online at http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/publikationen/HamburgUP_HBS01_Analayo.pdf.

[4] Not to be confused with Geoffrey Samuels, an anthropologist of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism.

[5] As discussed in Subhuti, ‘A Supra-Personal Force’, 2012, online at www.sangharakshita.org

[6] See www.bodhimonastery.org for details of this fascinating project.

[7] The footnotes in his new translation of the Aṅguttara-Nikāya, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom, Boston, 2013, often draw attention to parallel passages in surviving Chinese translations of the Ekottarikāgama.

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4 thoughts on “No Need for the H-Word

  1. Thanks again, Dhivan

    That seems like an excellent summary of a very timely book. You are doing a great job!

    One of the many benefits of Buddhism coming West is that there is at last some critical intelligence being brought to bear on its own history. Up till fairly recently few traditional Asian Buddhists had any interest in asking any searching questions about the origins of their own traditions or the provenance of their sacred texts. It’s a bit like contemporary Islam where it is generally considered sinful to even ask such questions. Christianity has benefitted greatly from the work of textual criticism begun by German theologians in the nineteenth century, even though the results have been scary for “true believers”. Perhaps something similar is at last happening in Buddhism.

    I imagine relatively few people have much time for the details of the history but the practical implications of this kind of reflection can’t be overstated. It’s still very common in Mahayana circles for practitioners to believe that their tradition or lineage is drawing on material which had to be kept secret until it could be delivered to those who were ready for it. Or that it was delivered by some sort of cosmic mechanism which, in practice, seemed to bypass the historical Buddha. Not only has this produced a most unhelpful elitism in the East. When transplanted to the West it has, to my observation, risked a kind of spiritual leapfrogging whereby people can ignore the “basic Buddhist” teachings preserved in the Theravada and jump straight into complex visualizations, tantric rituals and so on. Thereby neatly constructing a self-view of themselves as “proper Buddhists” if they’re not careful! Which might itself earn a few more re-births! (only joking)

    One of the encouraging things in the world nowadays is that a growing number of teachers who are themselves within a traditional lineage are actually becoming very heterodox in practice. As you point out Bikkhu Bodhi is one such example. I also agree that in theory the FWBO/TBC has genuinely tried to create a space which is not confined to one historical interpretation. Though I must say (and this is purely subjective) that when I was more actively involved in it a lot of credence was given to the more “magical” interpretation of Mahayana teachings (perhaps this view was even encouraged in Bhante S’s The Eternal Legacy). I know it was only when I drifted off that I seriously began to look at foundational texts like the Anapanasati and Satipatthana suttas and realized that there was more than enough to keep me going there for this lifetime without any more supposedly advanced teachings. So it can now be quite hard to keep a straight face when somebody quotes, say, The Lotus Sutra as if it were the verbatim word of the Buddha.

    I realize that is just my experience and that Bhante S himself said there are no advanced teachings only deeper realizations! Maybe the challenge is to acknowledge and incorporate the perennial human need for myth, ritual and symbol (surely part of the appeal of Mahayana Buddhism) whilst freeing ourselves of literalism.

    I thought your concluding comment about the desirability of a similar volume from an avowedly Mahayana perspective, was particularly insightful.

    I’ll go and read that Subhuti article you reference next!

    Kind regards

    Michael

  2. Thanks for this Michael. I haven’t myself encountered many Mahāyāna elitists recently, but that’s probably because I mainly move in Triratna and academic circles! But I certainly thought, while reading this book and reviewing it, that the points it makes ought to stir up exactly this kind of criticism of elitism. The articles in the book are of course not polemical, but they do all very much lead the reader to notice that Mahāyāna Buddhists can be very literal in how they relate to their sūtras and the claims they make, when these same claims are in fact highly rhetorical and are not easily reconciled with actual Buddhist doctrine and history. But for that very reason it would be great to have a response from a Mahāyāna point of view!

  3. Slight correction – Bhikkhu Bodhi has lived the last few years at Chuang Yen Monastery (http://www.baus.org/en/?cat=9), where he is now president. And just to comment on the depth of his knowledge of Mahayana – I know he’s read Yin Shun’s The Way to Buddhahood. And he’s giving a lecture called ““Riding Two Vehicles to Nirvāna, Toward Harmony Between Buddhist Traditions” http://www.baus.org/en/?p=5511 – a video will probably posted later to the monastery’s Youtube stream.

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