- Bodhidharma, First Patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism
During the Buddha's forty-five year ministry he converted thousands to his way and his truth. But what exactly that truth and way were we cannot determine either by scripture or by consensus. There is a lack of documentation and a surfeit of opinion.
Soon after the Buddha's death a group of his disciples convened in order to collect his teachings and put them into memorizable form. Convinced that their individual memories could survive war, pestilence, famine, senility, etc. and still remain in perfect accord, they dispersed to teach and to proselytize.
Anyone who has ever tried to recollect two consecutive verses (if not lines) of his national anthem can guess the outcome. There were soon so many memory lapses and so much disagreement that it was necessary, a hundred years later, in 380 B.C., for the priests to reconvene in order to reorganize the teachings. They had no new solution to the problem; and perhaps because they had no alternative, they once again resorted to memory.
No one knows when the Aryans gained the knowledge of writing. The earliest document we have from India comes from one of Alexander the Great's scribes who recorded events of the young conqueror's invasion of India in 327 B.C. The earliest native writing that has come down to us are some of the Emperor Ashoka's edicts preserved in stone inscriptions. Ashoka reigned from about 268 to 232 B.C.
By 250 B.C., then, it surely was possible to commit the teachings to print, still, to our knowledge, no one elected to do so. Religious teachings were traditionally transmitted through the priestly generations by rote and it probably was not in the clergy's interests to break that tradition. He who possessed the sacred knowledge possessed the sacred power; and it was considered sacrilegious to place that power into vulgar hands.
Regardless of the reasons, the Buddha's teachings were not committed to print until 80 B.C. when the priests of Sri Lanka finally relented and wrote down all that they could remember. How much credence can we accord texts (the Pali Canon) compiled so long after the actual teaching?
Let's consider their version of the Buddha's deathbed pronouncements - one of the least controversial texts in Buddhism. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta this eighty year old man, expiring in the agony of food poisoning, halted his death throes long enough to:
1. Instruct his followers to discontinue the practice of calling each other 'friend' as they had done throughout his lifetime. In the future, junior disciples were to address senior disciples as Sir or Venerable One. Senior disciples could still call junior disciples 'friend' or, if they chose, address them by their given names. (He neglected to specify how junior disciples should address each other.)
2. Give permission for priestly communities to alter or abolish as they chose any of the minor precepts of his Path. (He did not specify which precepts were minor.)
3. Order that his beloved disciple and former servant, Channa, be ostracized from the community as punishment for having presumed upon his long and close association with the Buddha and for having behaved in a haughty manner towards the other disciples.
4. Pronounce them all (with the obvious exception of Channa) spiritually accomplished, secure and without doubts (thereby putting his Imprimatur on their doctrinal opinions and versions of events); and, having made all this perfectly clear, added,
5. "All conditioned things are transient. Work diligently for your salvation." Then he died.
For unintentional humor, it is a deathbed scene Charles Dickens could not have improved upon.
Unfortunately, with the advent of writing came even more scriptural profusion and diversity. Not content with their monopoly over existing editions of prescribed truth - ordinary laymen had no private libraries - priests, elders and Buddhist scholars of every stripe began to create new sacred literature to suit themselves and their audiences. Those with Brahman pretensions compounded their works with Brahmanism. Those with Jainist sympathies mixed Jain beliefs into Buddhist dogma. Intellectuals, gravitating as usual to hard-core Samkhya expositions, laced their disquisitions with the headier stuff of metaphysics and yogic discipline; and the spiritually unripened, as is their custom, penned tracts which offered salvation through obedience to endless rules of righteous conduct. For the young at heart, touching stories about the Buddha's efforts to save innocent life - such as the time he changed himself into a rabbit and jumped into a frying pan, substituting himself for the scheduled entree - were ingenuously recorded. Most astonishing of all were the fevered writings of those turgid authors who claimed that the Buddha had exhorted his flock to indulge in any and all kinds of licentiousness. As they quoted him, he advocated fornication with any and all kinds of women including those who would render the coupling incestuous, adulterous, or child-abusive; killing any animal and eating any meat, including human flesh; lying; cheating; stealing; and committing various other high crimes and misdemeanors to obtain nirvanic 'liberation.' As the Guhyasamaja Tantra Scripture explained, "Perfection can be gained by satisfying all one's desires." For some, then, Buddhism threatened damnation for stepping on an ant; for others, Paradise was gained by sleeping with one's Nana.
Buddhism was truly becoming a universal religion: all things to all people. There was virtually nothing so sordid, bizarre or infantile in any man's strategy for salvation but that he could find it prescribed in holy writ.
As H. G. Wells summed up Buddhism's literature in his Outline of History: "There seems to be no limit to the lies that honest but stupid disciples will tell for the glory of their master and for what they regard as the success of their propaganda... It is one of the perplexing absurdities of our human nature."
In what, then, did original Buddhist views consist? We can only assume that when the Buddha established a new religion and attracted people to join him in seeing life from his vantage, his points of view had to be appreciably different from those of his competitors.
There was, for example, no caste system in Buddhism. And as there was no caste (punishment or reward), there could not be karma (as judicable actions) or reincarnation (the means by which reward or punishment applied.)
Paradoxically, while Buddhism denied there could be any such thing as good or evil, in order to experience that tranquil, non-judgmental state directly, a devotee had to behave himself. Morality without being judgmental - a new con- cept!
Buddhism did adhere to the traditional views of reality versus illusion, i.e., of heaven versus hell, of Eternity versus Greenwich time, of Nirvana versus Samsara, of ego-consciousness versus Buddha awareness, and so on. In short, Nirvana was real and Samsara was merely the world of appearances, the world which the fictitious ego apprehended with its untrustworthy senses and distorted with its ego- centered consciousness. What the average fellow called reality, Buddhism insisted was merely illusion or Maya. To experience "true" reality, the ego had to be transcended.
As to supreme beings, the Buddha acknowledged the existence of many Buddhas, Mahasattvas, Bodhisattvas, Celestial Kings, and an assortment of god- like mythic creatures who reposed in Nirvana's Tushita Heaven, the locus of the Eighth and Ninth Worlds. All such beings were encountered by those individuals who attained exalted spiritual states.
He did not embrace, however, any great cosmic god of gods who was endowed with personality, will, and a secret and somewhat prejudiced agenda. He saw no god who created and destroyed at his pleasure the people, places and things of our universe. The cosmic ground of all being was The Void, the Tenth World, the destination of the ego-emptied practitioner who had completed his blissful tour of the Eighth and Ninth Worlds. For any of religion's practical purposes, the great god of Buddhism is the Buddha Nature which can be said to exist only in conscious, thinking creatures. (Does a stone have Buddha Nature? No. Does an amoeba have Buddha Nature? No. Does a dog have Buddha Nature? Maybe. Does a dolphin or a whale have Buddha Nature? Count on it.)
Again, as there is no willful, exterior great god, there is no willful, interior petty god, i.e., no individual ego that directs its own precious destiny. Dispelling the notion that in reality each human being is a separate, autonomous self is perhaps the single most important aim of Buddhist discipline.
Basically, the Buddha propounded Four Noble Truths: 1. Life in Samsara is bitter and painful. 2. Egoistical cravings cause this bitterness and pain. 3. These cravings can be overcome. 4. The way to overcome craving is to follow the Eightfold Path's ethical and commonsense approach to life and to practice such spiritual exercises as meditation.
It would seem at first glance that there is not much here to argue about; yet, areas of disagreement became vast.
Consider dietary laws. Generally speaking, the priests of Sri Lanka, an island, may eat seafood. Japanese priests may eat seafood and filet mignon, too, providing somebody donates it to them. Chinese Buddhists are vegetarians no matter where they live or what they are given. What about sexual conduct? Japanese priests may marry. Chinese priests are celibate. Thai priests may not so much as touch the flesh of a female human being or even sit at a dining table with a female priest or even sit at a dining table with any male who is not a priest. At the other extreme, priests of any 'left-hand' yoga or tantric order receive instruction in ritual sexual intercourse. What about reincarnation? Most Chinese and Japanese Buddhists vir- tually ignore the subject while the lives of Tibetan Buddhists are so shot through with transmigrations that there is no room left to house the creation of a single, unique, wholly-new individual. Everybody is, or was, somebody else.
Disagreement among the various factions - Northern, Southern, Eastern, Western - became outraged criticism. Enough mud was slung to transpose two continents.
Nothing limited scriptural extravagance. With fanatical zeal authors deified Siddhartha Gautama and provided him with the obligatory miraculous birth. (Gods cannot be brought by the stork like the rest of us.) Queen Maya was said to have conceived him in the course of dreaming about a six-tusked elephant which modestly penetrated her side. She delivered the agile baby while the usually indifferent flora and fauna took enthusiastic note.
Each time a literate priest had a spiritual brainstorm, he satisfied the demands of publication by resurrecting the Buddha's cousin, Ananda, who supplied a convincing blurb or personal testimonial. "Thus have I heard the Blessed One say..." the sutras begin. In such a way were thousands of pages of direct quotations of the Buddha written hundreds of years after his death.
To complicate matters even further, it was the copying scribes' practice to enter any text in order to amend it for clarification. Thus, the great rule of Buddhist scripture: the older the text, the shorter the text, and the more authentic.
With so much of such varying quality being written by so many, schism had to result.
It took only a few hundred years after the Buddha's death for Buddhism to split into two rival systems, the conservative Theravadin, called pejoratively Hinayana (little raft) and Mahayana (great raft), each with its own canon and each containing many different schools. Yanas are actually means to accomplish something or vehicles here considered to be rafts used for crossing the troubled waters that separate the ordinary, ego- defiled consciousness of Samsara from the pure consciousness of Nirvana. "Getting to the other shore" is the traditional way Buddhists describe the event of salvation.
It is not in the beginner's Seventh World or in the adept's concluding Tenth World (the Void) that we find any major differences between these two rafts.
While a detailed discussion of the intervening Eighth and Ninth Worlds is beyond the scope of this work, it may be sufficient to note that Buddhist theology embraces a Trinity of Divine Persons: Buddha; Bodhisattva; and Future Buddha. When that androgyny-inspiring Savior- figure, the Bodhisattva, is seen as a celestial entity, the salvation raft is said to be in Mahayana waters. When, however, one's Guru or Perfect Master is seen to embody the Savior, the raft is navigating the Hinayana. Thus, a single, celestial Avalokitesvara-Guan Yin may deliver multitudes; while a relatively unknown Master can deliver only those few disciples who actually gain access to him. Theravadins therefore require that many masters attain perfection.
In either case, the devotee delivers the Immortal Foetus or Divine Child, the prototype of which is Maitreya (Mithras), the Future Buddha.
A third vessel, the Vajrayana (lightning raft) was added to the fleet when tantric Buddhism melted into the Bon religion of Tibet between the Seventh and Ninth centuries - subsequent to the Muslim invasions of India. The Vajrayana raft supports the entire range of Buddhist belief; from "right-hand" sexually conservative methodologies to "left-hand" libertine forms; from primitive superstition to ultrasophisticated theology; and, of course, from the devotion to a Perfect Master to the devotion to Avalokitesvara, of whom the Dalai Lama is said to be an Avatar.
In order for Chan to become the sleek "salvation" vessel that it eventually proved to be, it had to jettison a thousand years of confused literature. But its boat did not bob about unballasted in salvation's treacherous waters. Chan retained a few Mahayana scriptures (from the Prajna Paramita Sutras) and the Sixth Patriarch's Platform Sutra. In addition, it weighted itself nicely with the elegant literature of Classical Daoism and with the numerous instruction manuals through which Dao masters publicized esoteric lore.
The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 3: Scriptures, Page 1 of 1
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)