Mahayana and Tantra

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1. A Schism (B 59-60). What issues may have caused the sangha initially to split into two groups?  What were the two groups?  From which of these did Theravada descend?

2. Emergence of Mahayana (B 60-61) When did Mahayana Buddhism emerge?  (B 60) The exact historical circumstances surrounding the origin of the Mahayana are obscure and controversial; Keown chooses to pass over this topic without mention.  However, no one has seriously argued that Mahayana began via influence from Christianity, despite the similarities that Keown points out (B 60-61).

3. Key features of Mahayana (B 60-72) When we compare Mahayana to Theravada and to earlier forms of Buddhism, we can identify certain key points of difference:  (a) a belief that the Mahayana sutras are the word of the Buddha, (b) the bodhisattva ideal (in place of the arhat ideal) with a strong emphasis on universal compassion, (c) a new and more glorified vision of what it means to be a buddha, (d) full acceptance of devotion to buddhas and bodhisattvas as a legitimate part of the religion, even for well-educated people and monks; (e) a softening of the distinction between monks and lay people, with a more inclusive attitude toward lay people and women, (f) new and more radical philosophies of emptiness or no-self.  The next six learning goals will deal with these six points.

4. Mahayana Sutras (B 64-66). We can define Mahayana Buddhists as Buddhists who believe that the Mahayana sutras are—in some way or another—the word of the Buddha.  Theravada Buddhists do not accept these late-appearing scriptures.  When did these texts appear (B 64)?  If the Mahayana sutras did not appear soon after the life of the Buddha, then how can Mahayana Buddhist's regard the Buddha as their author (B 64)?

Note that Mahayana Buddhists still accept all of the same scriptures—found in the Pali Canon—that Theravada Buddhists accept.  These earlier texts fill a couple of shelves.  But with the Mahayana sutras added, the complete collection of scriptures fills a large bookcase!  What are these new scriptures?  Some famous examples are the Lotus Sutra, the Teaching of Vimalakirti, and the Heart Sutra.

How is the concept of skilful means illustrated by the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra  (B 64-66)?

5. The bodhisattva ideal.  (B 60-61) The term "bodhisattva" is used—in both Theravada and Mahayana—to refer to those who have set their hearts upon becoming a fully enlightened buddha, someone who is practicing the path to buddhahood.  How does the Dalai Lama define the term "bodhisattva" (RM 249)?

In Theravada, the highest ideal to which we are encouraged to aspire is the arhat, a fully enlightened person who has broken the bonds of samsara by practicing the teaching of the Buddha.  It is never mentioned that we should aspire to become buddhas ourselves. In Theravada, there are some differences between being a buddha and being an arhat; the main difference is that a buddha is able to become enlightened without following someone else's teaching, and thereby has the power to introduce Buddhism to a world and a time where it does not exist.

Mahayana Buddhism teaches that all living beings have the potential to become buddhas, and that only by becoming a buddha can we bring the most possible help to other suffering beings.  Therefore, we should all enter the bodhisattva path, the path to perfect buddhahood.

In Mahayana, the older "arhat ideal" is considered relatively self-centered.  It is harder to become a buddha, and it takes longer, but it benefits others much more. The term "Mahayana" means "great vehicle," and Mahayana Buddhists refer to other forms of Buddhism as "Hinayana," which means "small vehicle".  In effect, they argue that their type of Buddhism is like a vast bus, a bus that can carry everyone to perfect enlightenment.  They see the arhat-ideal of Hinayana as like a moped; an inferior type of vehicle which really just takes care of one person.  (Of course, Theravada Buddhists do not accept this analysis and never use the term Hinayana.)

The bodhisattva ideal places great emphasis on having a compassionate and altruistic motivation.  It is not enough just to want to escape cyclic existence and escape suffering oneself.  One has to be motivated, in all of one's practice, by the wish to help all beings to escape suffering and to help all beings attain perfect enlightenment. 

6. A glorified vision of what it means to be a buddha (B 61-63).  In describing the Theravada perspective, Rahula (WBT 1) emphasizes the Buddha's humanity: the Buddha was a person who lived, and taught, and died.  Well-educated Theravada Buddhists do not think of the Buddha as someone who still exists in some imaginable place.  They certainly do not think that the Buddha can hear and respond to their prayers. 

However,  even a well-educated Theravada Buddhist may have a sense or experience of sacred presence when visiting a shrine or stupa dedicated to the Buddha.  Certainly ordinary people, when visiting holy places, can be filled with devotion to what they experience as a living Buddha-presence.

The popular experience of the Buddha as a living presence clearly contributed to the Mahayana doctrine that a buddha has three bodies.  What are these (B 62-63)?

A single buddha may simultaneously have trillions of earthly bodies (nirmanakaya), not all of which will be human.  These are "emanations," forms that appear in the world to help beings in various ways.  A bridge in a storm, a noble pet, a musician-hero who leads young people in the right direction: anything that appears and helps might actually be an emanation of a buddha.  One of my teachers even suggested that when you are drinking in a bar, and you are thinking about having another, and then stop because you see someone else who is disgustingly drunk, that "drunk" might actually be an emanation body. 

Keown (B 62) makes several comparisons between the Buddha of Mahayana and the Christian God.  For Christians, God is all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, and perfectly good and loving. In Mahayana Buddhism, a buddha is all-knowing and perfectly good and loving.  As identified with the Dharma—ultimate truths or reality—a buddha, like God, is present everywhere.  However, buddhas are not "all-powerful":  A buddha has all of the power that any being could have, and can help in a vast number of places simultaneously.  However, since there are an infinite number of beings in samsara, no buddha can actively and directly help all of them.   Buddhas cannot make us enlightened by snapping their fingers, nor can they magically wash away our bad karma.  And of course, unlike the Christian belief in one God, Mahayana Buddhists generally believe that there a vast, perhaps limitless, number of buddhas.

7.  Full acceptance of devotion to buddhas and bodhisattvas (B 62-63, 67-69). In Theravada, devotional prayers or appeals to the Buddha are something that exists only at the "folk" level.  However, even well-educated Mahayana Buddhist have faith in buddhas and bodhisattvas to whom they can pray for inspiration and assistance. 

Maitreya is the name of the bodhisattva who will appear as the next fully enlightened buddha in this particular universe.  How does Keown compare this to Christianity (B 62)?  Do only Mahayana Buddhists believe in Maitreya?

Who is Avalokiteshvara (B 67)?  What virtue or quality is this bodhisattva normally identified with (B 67)?  How is Avalokiteshvara depicted (B 67-68 and IT 28—Chenrezig is Tibetan for Avalokiteshvara)? 

Who is Manjushri?  What virtue or quality is this bodhisattva normally identified with (B 67)?  How is Manjushri depicted (B 67 and IT 40)?

Besides Shakyamuni, what other buddha is especially popular in Mahayana Buddhism (B 69)?

8.  A more inclusive attitude toward lay people and women (B 66). Early Buddhism and Theravada focus heavily on male monks as the spiritual heroes who sacrifice their attachment to family and sensual life in order to live up the community's spiritual and moral idea.  Some of the Mahayana sutras contain passages openly ridiculing this pattern.  How does the Teachings of Vimalakirti bear upon this issue (see B 66)?  Note that Vimalakirti was married and living at home with his family.  In Mahayana generally, the bodhisattva ideal is not exclusively associated with monasticism or celibacy.  Some individuals, in some cultures, may find monasticism a helpful practice, while others may not.  While in Theravada, monks are thought of as spiritually higher than lay persons, in Mahayana one cannot always make this presumption.  In theory, one should not presume anything about a person's level of spiritual development on the basis of their status as monk, nun, or married person—or as male or female.

In one famous passage from the Teachings of Vimalakirti, a monk name Shariputra (representing the limited wisdom of the older Hinayana arhat perspective) encounters a goddess who is clearly much wiser than he.  He is quite surprised to find that a female knows so much of the Dharma , so he asks her what prevents her from transforming out of her (presumably inferior) female body.  She responds by using her supernormal powers to cause his body to become female and hers to become male (temporarily), explaining that the Buddha teaches that, "In all things, there is neither male nor female."

Elsewhere in the Mahayana scriptures, we find an entire sutra preached by the Buddha to an audience of one woman, and another sutra in which the main Buddhist teacher is a woman.  Many Mahayana sutras mention that there were women as well as men in the audience when they were preached.  In some forms of Mahayana Buddhism, devotion to female buddhas and female bodhisattvas is common and popular.  See the picture of Tara (IT 68).  In the relatively supportive Mahayana context, the order of nuns continues today—and in some areas flourishes—while in Theravada the order of nuns died out long ago. 

9. Emptiness (B 69-71).  Who is the most famous Mahayana Buddhist philosopher (B 69)?  What is the name of the school of philosophy he founded (B 69)?

In  Buddhism generally (Theravada or Mahayana), when one meditates on what the person is, one does not find some "essence of person." Instead, one finds an instant-by-instant stream of continuously changing "moments" or "point-instants" of mental experience (mind) or its material basis. The person lacks an essential self; it is said to be empty of self.  However, Theravada does not question the reality of the basic elements or point-instants (called "dharmas;" a different meaning for the same term) out of which the person (and everything else) is constructed (B 69-70).  All of the phenomena that we encounter in ordinary, non-meditative, experience are composites, compounded out of much more basic dharmas, which are quickly changing, but which (prior to Mahayana philosophy) were accepted as real and fundamental elements.

On the basis of the Mahayana sutras, Nagarjuna taught that all phenomena—everything that exists, including all of the basic dharmas—are empty of essence or inherent reality.  Another way of saying this is that there is nothing that has its own being, its own way of existing.  Do Madhyamaka philosophers see this as a doctrine of nihilism?  Why not?  (B 70)  How does this doctrine of emptiness change the way that samsara and nirvana are understood (B 70-71)?  In Madhyamaka, it is the wisdom that knows emptiness which destroys the ignorance and craving that drive cyclic existence (B 71).

 10. Compassion and Wisdom.  The two key virtues in Mahayana Buddhism are compassion (epitomized by the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) and wisdom (epitomized by Manjushri).  From beginning to end, an altruistic and compassionate wish to help others should motivate our practice.  Since we probably will not find such a strong wish within ourselves at the outset, a key part of Mahayana practice is to cultivate such a wish.  Our compassion must be very strong, but we cannot be attached to the beings we wish to save; ultimately, we and they (and all of the buddhas) are completely empty of inherent or grasp-able reality.

11. The spirit of Mahayana.  The heart of Mahayana is the intense altruism of the bodhisattva attitude.  A bodhisattva is a person who has bodhicitta, "the spirit of enlightenment." 

12. Perfection of Wisdom in the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is one of the most important Mahayana sutras; it is recited every day by many Buddhists throughout the world.  A translation of the entire sutra appears on this website.  Who is the speaker of the sutra?  Who is the main listener?  What is the role of the Buddha?  When Avalokiteshvara teaches that things are empty, just what is it that things are empty of?

14. Explaining Emptiness  Note that emptiness means the lack of inherent or essential existence.  Where does it exist?   How do things appear to us when we lack wisdom knowing emptiness?

Dependent arising involves dependence upon parts, causes, and imputation by mind.  Nothing exists in and of itself, because it depends upon its causes, its parts, and the mind which imputes it in the process of apprehending it. 

Does emptiness exist?  Does inherent or independent existence exist?  Does emptiness imply some positive presence in the place of the independent existence which it negate?  Is the very existence of things negated by emptiness?  If not, then what is negated?

The most famous passage in the Heart Sutra is "Form is precisely emptiness, emptiness precisely form." What does this mean?

Are the four noble truths empty and void of inherent existence?  Is the Buddha's perfect wisdom empty?  Does Avalokiteshvara deny that things exist?  Has anyone ever attained buddhahood without realizing emptiness?

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