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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Rebirth and Consciousness

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Did the Buddha teach that consciousness continues after the death of the body? The answer to this question is important for the question of how to relate to the teaching of rebirth, since it affects what we suppose the Buddha was teaching when he taught about rebirth. In a previous blog I wrote: ‘From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said.’ I went on to write that the Buddha disagreed with a monk called Sati who said that consciousness (viññāṇa) continued from life to life, just the same;[i] the Buddha told Sati that consciousness is dependently-arisen. Some respondents to this blog post, however, have disagreed with what I had written, saying that it is not correct to take the Buddha’s words to mean that the Buddha believed that consciousness was dependent on the brain. Some people, it would seem, believe that consciousness can somehow exist without a physical basis and hence that it can survive death, and that this is what makes rebirth possible. But did the Buddha teach this?

In conversation with Sati, the Buddha tells the monk: ‘Monks, consciousness is named after whatever condition it arises dependent on. Consciousness that arises dependent on the eye and forms is just called consciousness based on the eye; consciousness that arises dependent on the ear and sounds is just called consciousness based on the ear; consciousness that arises dependent on the nose and smells is just called consciousness based on the nose; consciousness that arises dependent on the tongue and tastes is just called consciousness based on the tongue; consciousness that arises dependent on the body and tangibles is just called consciousness based on the body; consciousness based on the mind and mental objects is just called consciousness based on the mind.’ This does not give us much scope for thinking that the Buddha is saying that consciousness can survive without a body, since consciousness exists dependent on the sense-organs. Admittedly, the Buddha is here characterising consciousness as we presently experience it. But the Buddha did not say we could experience consciousness in any other way.

In the Nagara-sutta,[ii] the Buddha makes his position clearer when he says that ‘When there is name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) then consciousness exists; with name-and-form as condition, there is consciousness.’ Here and elsewhere[iii] the expression ‘name-and-form’ is explained as meaning the body made up of the four elements, and the mental apparatus consisting of feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), contact (phassa) and attention (manasikāra). Having said something similar in the Mahānidāna-sutta,[iv] the Buddha makes the point that we can only meaningfully talk about existence when there is consciousness and name-and-form. (The idea that conciousness in this discourse ‘descends’ (okkamati) into a mother’s womb might suggest a somehow pre-existent disembodied consciousness, but such an idea is contradicted by everything else the Buddha says. I suggest translating okkamati as ‘arrives’ in the sense of ‘appears’). As Sariputta says in the Sheaves of Reeds Discourse,[v] consciousness and name-and-form lean on each other like two sheaves of reeds. We see therefore that according to the Buddha’s teaching it is only meaningful to speak of ‘consciousness’ connected with sense-experience and co-arising with the body and mental apparatus.

This way of looking at consciousness is comparable to a modern scientific understanding of consciousness, in which consciousness arises dependent on the physical brain. But just as name-and-form depends on consciousness, so the physical brain is also dependent on consciousness: it appears that the rapid evolution of the human brain was connected with the advantages for survival of consciousness and intelligence. Moreover, in present human experience, it has been shown that conscious activity, like meditation, can cause the modification of neural networks in the brain.

Let us consider the Buddha’s ‘middle way’ in the light of this. Consciousness, this experience of awareness, of being a subjective point of view, arises dependent on physical matter in the form of the brain. There are in fact plenty of scientists and philosophers who are not materialists, because there is in fact no good explanation of how consciousness can be ‘produced’ from matter in the brain.[vi] But it has to be said that, as far as I know, there are no contemporary philosophers who suppose that consciousness can exist without a brain. This brain, however, is also highly dependent on consciousness for its evolution and structure. The materialist view of human consciousness, implying annihilationism, is in this sense not convincing. Moreover, we human beings, who are embodied consciousnesses, having dependently arisen, have minds capable of imagining our past and our future. We can imagine this very consciousness as having existed before and existing afterwards – we can even imagine consciousness as existing in a disembodied state, and as undergoing rebirth. The eternalist view of the substantial spiritual self depends on just this powerful imaginative independence of consciousness. But the Buddha was careful to avoid eternalism, pointing his followers towards the dependent co-arising of consciousness with name-and-form.

It seems, therefore, that the Buddha taught rebirth, but that he did not teach that consciousness could exist independent of its physical basis, which, as we now know, is the brain. He taught that consciousness, like everything else, arises dependent on conditions. Just exactly how we can explain ‘rebirth’ if it does not involve the continuity of consciousness is a problem I’ll leave for others. I’ll conclude with a thought about this teaching of rebirth. Not only was rebirth part of the accepted view of the Buddha’s day, but in those days there was no distinction drawn between what we would call a ‘literal’ teaching about what happens after death and a ‘metaphorical’ teaching. In the absence of any kind of scientific knowledge, knowledge was symbols and stories. The Buddha taught rebirth, but it is reasonable to understand this teaching as a metaphor, a story. For western Buddhists, imbued with the exacting spirit of science, it is less incongruous to hold to rebirth as a form of story-telling, while maintaining a principled agnosticism concerning its literal truth.

[i] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta 38, the Mahātaṇhākkhāya-sutta, the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’.

[ii] Saṃyutta-nikāya 12:38. Nagara-sutta means ‘The City’.

[iii] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta sutta 9, the Sammā-diṭṭhi-sutta, the ‘Discourse on Right View’. This discourse gives definitions of each of the 12 nidānas, as well as some other important Buddhist terms.

[iv] In Dīgha-nikāya sutta 15, Mahānidāna-sutta, the ‘Great Explanation Discourse’.

[v] Saṃyutta-nikāya sutta 12:67, Nalakalapiya-sutta, ‘Sheaves of Reeds Discourse’.

[vi] See my previous blog post reviewing Thomas Nagel for an example.