Showing posts with label Mahayana. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mahayana. Show all posts

07 April 2017

Further Problems with the Heart Sutra: aprāpti

Ven. Dr. Huifeng (釋慧峰)
In this essay I will attempt to summarise and critically assess the article, Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems, by Huifeng (2014). The article is long and complex. It deals with three philological problems in Conze's Sanskrit text of the Prajñāpāramitahṛdaya or Heart Sutra. Conze, himself, highlights these problems and Huifeng tackles them by using the method, suggested by Jan Nattier and Nobuyoshi Yamabe (Nattier 1992), of tracing the passages back to the Prajñāpāramitā source texts in Chinese and Sanskrit. Huifeng discovers that the  person who translated the Heart Sutra from Chinese into Sanskrit misread the text. However, Huifeng leaves open the correct readings, which I will attempt to supply. I will also discuss the problems raised by this discovery (which, in many ways, parallels my own discoveries about this text) and I disagree with Huifeng on how to translate a key term.

Huifeng's article concerns the passage (Sanskrit from Conze 1967; Chinese from T251).
na jñānam, na prāptir na aprāptiḥ. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhanirvāṇa.
I'll separate the three problems into two separate installments: this one will deal with the Conze's phrases na prāptir na-aprāptiḥ and aprāptitvād; the next will deal with the phrases containing the compound a-citta-varaṇa, which occurs twice in different grammatical forms. In the conclusions, we will see that this whole passage needs to be reinterpreted and retranslated.

Nattier's Chinese Origins hypothesis been shown beyond reasonable doubt to be the only plausible account of the history of the text. Until such time as it is refuted, I take it for granted. This gives us a timeline like this:

-100Putative origin of Prajñāpāramitā
~708000 line manuscript in Gāndhāri
179《道行般若經》T224 (8000) by Lokakṣema
225《大明度經》T225 (8000) by Zhī Qiān
291《放光般若經》T221 (25,000) by Mokṣala
382《摩訶般若鈔經》T226 (8000) by Zhú Fóniàn
404《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra T223 (25,000) by Kumārajīva
406《大智度論》*Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa, T1509. Composed by Nāgārjuna, trans. Kumārajīva
408《小品般若經》T227 (8000) by Kumārajīva
404-600?Heart Sutra ur-text in Chinese from various sources including T223 or perhaps T1509.
404-600?《摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經》 *Mahāprajñāpārami[tā]-mahāvidyā-sūtra, T250 atrrib. Kumārajīva
663《大般若波羅蜜多經》 T220-ii (25,000) by Xuánzàng
7th C?《般若波羅蜜多心經》 Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra, T251 attrib. Xuánzàng.
7th C?Sanskrit translation of Chinese 心經
7th C?First Chinese commentaries on T251
8th C?First Sanskrit long text
741《般若波羅蜜多心經》Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra (long text) T 252 translated by 法月 Fǎyuè (Skt. *Dharmacandra?)
9th CTransmission to Tibet of corrupt Heart Sutra ms.

I understand the later Chinese Heart Sutras (T252-7) to be translations from Sanskrit texts, except T255, which is a translation from Tibetan. I take the two early short-text Heart Sutras (T250 and T251) to derive from the no-longer-extant Chinese ur-text. The Heart Sutra was mainly composed of passages from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (PPS), aka the 25,000 Line Prajñāpāramitā Text. See also my list of Chinese Heart sutra texts, with translators and dates. My focus is almost entirely on the relationship between the Sanskrit and Chinese short texts and when I refer to the "Chinese Heart Sutras" I mean only T250 and T251, unless otherwise specified.

At some point, I hope that Ben Nourse will finish his study of approximately 300 short text manuscripts in Chinese and Tibetan found at Dunhuang, but until then I won't be considering them.

Sanskrit Heart Sutra

The passage that concerns us initially begins "Therefore, Śāriputra, in emptiness..." (Tasmāc chāriputra śūnyatāyāṃ); negates the skandhas. etc/, and then concludes with "no wisdom, no attainment and no non-attainment" (na jñānam, na prāptir na-aprāptiḥ)(Conze 1975: 89). Here, the Sanskrit word prāpti means "attainment". It is an action noun from the verb prāpṇoti (pra√āp) which means "to attain, to reach, arrive at".

I've noted previously that some editors and/or copyists get carried away with the negations and modify the nidāna section of this passage—i.e., nāvidyā nāvidyā-kṣayo yāvan na jarāmarṇnaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo—so that it reads (interpolations underlined):
navidyā nāvidyā navidyākṣya nāvidyākṣayo yāvan na jarāmarṇnaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo
It would seem that the double negative na-aprāptiḥ in the current passage falls into the same category, though, curiously, the editor has not included na ajñānaṃ. It is contradictory to state, as Conze's Heart Sutra appears to, that there is "no nonattainment" (na-aprāpti) and then in the next sentence say that it is precisely "because of being in a state of non-attainment" (a-prāpti-tvād) that bodhisatvas get enlightened. The Chinese Heart Sutras lack any equivalent of nāprāpti. Since Conze includes the this phrase, he has to resort to convoluted explanations for the apparent contradiction, which are not very convincing. Thus, we can treat na aprāpti as an interpolation and a clumsy one at that. 

The phrase na jñānaṃ na prāpti is found in the section of PPS that is quoted in the Heart Sutra. However, the original passage lists na prāptir nābhisamayo; i.e., "no attainment, no realisation" and then continues on listing types of attainment, from stream-entrant up to Buddhahood. At least one Heart Sutra manuscript also has na prāptir na abhisamaya, e.g., Cb aka T256 (a Sanskrit text transliterated using Chinese characters). I'll return to this when considering the Chinese texts.

Conze's next sentence begins tasmāc Chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvasya..., which he translates as "Therefore, O Śāriputra, it is because of his non-attainment-ness that a bodhisattva...", which is one of the more egregious examples of his Buddhist Hybrid English. We need to be aware of how Sanskrit uses abstract nouns (indicated by the suffix -tvā). It can be very like English, in which case the suffix -ness can work well. However, the abstract can also represent the idea of being in a particular state. Coulson's discussion of abstract nouns is instructive: "English noun clauses ('that the grass is green') and noun phrases with a verbal component such as an infinitive ('for the grass to be green') tend to be replaced in Sanskrit by a straight abstract noun ('the greenness of the grass')" (2003: 130-1). And thus in translation we sometimes have to produce a noun clause and noun phrase to translate a Sanskrit abstract noun.

Conze is surely correct to interpret aprāptitvād as an ablative of cause ("because"), but the abstract noun can't really be forced into a single word here. The compound must mean something like, "because of being in a state of non-attainment". As PPS explains repeatedly, if a bodhisatva were to think "I am a bodhisatva", or "I have an attainment", then they would not be a bodhisatva. I believe that this kind of talk relates to what in Pāḷi is called suññatāvihāra or "dwelling in emptiness", something the Buddha was said to do frequently. This involves cultivating the formless (arūpa) meditations and sustaining the samādhi in which one experiences nothing at all (śūnyatāsamādhi), i.e., one is alert, but without any sense of being a subject observing an object.

Having described and tidied up the Sanskrit Heart Sutra passages, we now turn to the Chinese texts and begin to unpick the Sanskrit translation and, of course, any English translations based on it.

Chinese Words

There is a problem throughout the Chinese Canon because translators, especially Kumārajīva, have "flattened" the lexicon by using the same character to translate multiple words. This means that there can be considerable ambiguity when looking at a Chinese text as to what Indic word was being translated. So, for example, Huifeng notes that the character 得 has been used to translate √bhū, prāpta/prāpti, √budh, √labh, and other terms (81).

Unfortunately, we also have to add the almost ubiquitous possibility of problematic Chinese translations. As Jan Nattier has said:
"In short, when reading any given line of a Chinese Buddhist sūtra—excepting perhaps those produced by Hsüan-tsang, who is justifiably famous for his accuracy—we have a roughly equal chance of encountering an accurate reflection of the underlying Indian original or a catastrophic misunderstanding." (2003: 71)
T250 and T251 are the same at this point, though both slightly different to the Sanskrit text. Between na jñānaṃ na prāpti , and aprāptitvād bodhisatvasya... the Sanskrit has tasmāc chāriputra "therefore Śāriputra". The Chinese text does not have this, but reads (without the modern punctuation):
...無智亦無得以無所得故... knowledge and no attainment because of there being no attainment...
All modern editions punctuate, and translate, as two sentences (see below). Here, 無智 would appear to correspond to na jñānam, and 無得 to na prāpti. However, because the Gilgit ms. of PPS has na prāptir nābhisdamayo at this point, Huifeng would like to read  as abhisamaya (85). This would also mean that the order of the two negated terms had been switched. With the inherent ambiguity of the Chinese translations, this is plausible. My view is that the Gilgit PPS ought to be treated as authoritative when it comes to the correct Sanskrit of quoted passages. 

The phrase 以無所得故 presents us with some difficulties. The verb is again 得. Huifeng points out that the character combination 以 ... 故 usually stands for a Sanskrit instrumental (2014: 80). However, note that Kieschnick & Wiles (2016) say of this same structure: "故 often works together with 以, meaning “for this reason”, “because”" (39), i.e., it can be consistent with an ablative of cause, which also fits this context. Huifeng also notes that 故 "...when alone after a verbal form is usually grammatically equivalent to a Sanskrit ablative form" (81). For Huifeng 所 before a verb indicates a past participle. Kieschnick & Wiles (2016) explain that "when placed before a verb or verb phrase, 所 turns it into a noun."

When he compares the use of this Chinese phrase he finds: "examination of other examples reveals that the majority of the appearances of the Chinese phrase “以無所得故” (yĭ wú sŭodé gù) directly corresponds to the Sanskrit an-upa√lambha-yogena" (88). The phrase frequent appears appended to sentences describing practices, and means "by being engaged in non-apprehension".

Despite meaning prāpti in the immediately preceding phrase, here 得 appears to equate to a Sanskrit verb upalabh "obtain; perceive, behold". Edgerton's Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary lists anupalambha as meaning "inconceivability, inconceivable", particularly in relevant phrases such as śūnyatānupalambheṣu dharmeṣu "in regard to states of being which because of voidness are inconceivable". However, s.v. upalambha; Edgerton defines upalambhayogena as "by the (erroneous) method of upalambha"; and the latter means "mental perception or apperception, realization by the intellect (c.f. Tibetan dmigs-pa). This supports reading anupalambhanayogena as "by the method of non-perception".

Thus Huifeng argues that, in the phrase 以無所得故 the verb 得 has to be read differently from its use in the previous 無得. He points out that, in any case, denying attainment is inconsistent with the passage in which the bodhisatva attains nirvāṇa (niṣṭhanirvāṇaprāptaḥ). Though note that I have already showed that niṣṭhanirvāṇa is probably another mistake and that what was intended by the Chinese phrase 究竟涅槃 was more likely to be nirvāṇa-paryavasānam ("whose culmination is extinction").

Having said that 所 indicates a past participle, which would be upalabdha or upalabdhita, Huifeng does not note any such forms but, instead, finds forms such as upalambha (action noun) or upalabhamāna (present participle). So here 所得 probably stands for the noun derived from the verb upalambha, and 無所得 for anupalambha; and thus we expect 以–無所得–故 to translate anupalambhena (instrumental) or anupalambhāt (ablative). Apparently, the yoga was simply left out. But this is not uncommon in Chinese translations.


Various modern versions punctuate the Chinese text differently, but the oldest versions of the text have no punctuation. Huifeng thinks that other modern editors have broken the sentence in the wrong place. He argues that the version punctuated as:
... no wisdom and no attainment. Because of non-attainment...
Ought to be
... no wisdom and no attainment, due to engagement in non-apprehension.

This creates a structure in which the whole passage opens with the words, "Therefore in emptiness" (是故,空中) proceeds to say there is no form (無色) etc, but concludes, in Huifeng's new English translation, "...due to engagement in non-apprehension" (以無所得故)(2014: 103). This also means we would read the Sanskrit differently. As Huifeng says, this introduces a major shift in orientation:
"It is our view that this shifts emphasis from an ontological negation of classical lists, i.e., 'there is no X', to an epistemological stance. That is, when the bodhisattva is 'in emptiness', i.e., in the contemplative meditation of the emptiness of phenomena, he is 'engaged in the non-apprehension' of these phenomena" (2014: 103).
This view is consistent with my own reading of the Prajñāpāramitā literature as continuing an epistemological stance found in the Pāḷi suttas and described in detail by Sue Hamilton (2000). The main focus of early Buddhism is experience. Similarly, the Prajñāpāramitā literature is focussed on the experience of states which are characterised as "empty"; i.e., states in which there is no sense of being a subject observing an object, and no arising and passing away of experience. In this altered state there is just alertness and no content. It is cultivating this state that is the summum bonum of Buddhist practice. I suspect that, in the Prajñāpāramitā texts, the character of Subhuti represents this point of view, while Śakra and Śāriputra represent other points of view; most likely dhyānic meditation and abhidharma-style analysis.

The problem here, however, is that Huifeng appears to overlooked another kind of boundary in the text. In fact, 無智亦無得 is the end of the quotation from PPS and 以無所得故 is part of the text composed in China. There is no reason to think that the non-quoted parts of the Heart Sutra were composed by Kumārajīva and thus no a priori reason to think that they will conform to Kumārajīva's idiom. Importantly, because of this transition from quotation to composition there is no necessity to read 得 as being from two different verbs, which, after all, is a rather startling ambiguity. Just as the translator has read 以無所得故 as aprāptitvād, so might we.

This issue becomes more interesting if we repeat Huifeng's search for this phrase to see who used it. Using the online CBETA Lexicon tool, I searched for the phrase and found that it occurs 238 times in the Taishō edition of the Tripiṭaka. Before Kumārajīva it is used just once:
  • T318 文殊師利佛土嚴淨經,  a translation of the Ratnakuta Sutra on the Prediction of Mañjuśrī to Buddhahood (cf 310.15) translated by Dharmarakṣa 竺法護 in the Western Jin [西晉] (A.D. 240 ~ 290)
Notably it is not used in Dharmarakṣa's Prajñāpāramitā translations. In Kumārajīva's translations we find the phrase multiple times: T223 26; T250 1; T307 1; T586 1; T1509 35. All the rest of the occurrences are in versions of the Heart Sutra or commentaries on it, and thus can be thought of as copying the Chinese Heart Sutra; or they are from later translators. Thus, the phrase, though first used by Dharmarakṣa, is quite distinctive of Kumārajīva's PPS and his translation of the Upadeśa or commentary on the PPS attributed to Nāgārjuna. This suggests that the composer of the Heart Sutra was familiar with Kumārajīva's idiom! 

And just to make matters more complex, we know from ample attestation, that Kumārajīva—a native of Kucha who was taken to Changan as a captive late in life—was probably never fluent in Chinese and his "translations" were probably all the result of collaboration with Chinese monks who produced the actual translations based on his lectures about the texts (Daňková 2006). In other words, "Kumārajīva" is a cipher for a process in which he provided the intellectual understanding, but not the actual Chinese expressions that bear his name.

The upshot of this is that we cannot be sure whether to read 以無所得故 as aprāptitvād or as anupalambhayogena. It also makes me wonder what else can be discovered by comparing other phrases with Kumārajīva's translations. For the purposes of this essay I will follow Huifeng's lead in my conclusions, but more work is required to establish the relation of the composed parts of the text to the quoted parts. 

I would further quibble with Huifeng's translation of anupalambha as "non-apprehension" and replace it with "non-perception". The meaning of the term is the same, but I think it more clearly conveys the epistemological stance of the text. Apprehension is a metaphor quite at home in this context; however, it implies that something is there to be apprehended which is not apprehended, whereas, in the state of emptiness there is nothing to apprehend. I think non-perception conveys this better.

Another effect of this is to cast doubt on the use of Tasmāc Chāriputra in this passage. The earlier use is probably also an interpolation, but here it definitely gets in the way and contradicts the sentence structure. So, again, it looks like an interpolation that ought to be excised. However, note that in PPS this quoted passage begins "So, therefore, Śāriputra..." (tathā hi śariputra) (Kimura 1-1: 64)

Reconstructive Heart Surgery

Huifeng thus reads the passage of the Chinese Heart Sutra as:
"Therefore, Śāriputra, in emptiness there is no form ...etc... no gnosis, no realization, due to engagement in non-apprehension." (102-3)
是故,空中無色,無受 ... etc ... 無智,亦無得,以無所得故
He does not give a reconstructed Sanskrit translation, but this would be:
tasmāc [chāriputra] śūnyatāyām na rūpa ... etc ... na prāptir na abhibhasamayo anupalambhayogena.
I would give an interpretative translation of this:
Therefore, Śāriputra, in [the state of] emptiness, due to being engaged in [the practice of] non-perception [of objects], there is no form... etc... no attainment, and no realisation.
Note that in some of his the first Sanskrit edition (1948) Conze follows aprāptitvād with bodhisattvasya,  i.e., bodhisatva in the genitive singular case. This was a mistake that was corrected in the 1967 edition, to bodhisattvo, i.e., the nominative singular. Unfortunately, the second edition of Buddhist Wisdom Books (1975), originally published in 1958 using the 1948 text, doesn't include the correction. This change was not picked up by Kazuaki Tanahashi in his recent Heart Sutra Book (2014: 181).

In the next instalment I will look at Huifeng's treatment of the compounds acittavaraṇaḥ cittavaraṇa-nāstitvād /心無罣礙 無罣礙故.



All Chinese texts from CBETA.
All Sanskrit texts from Gretil. Except Heart Sutra from Conze (1967).

Conze, Edward (1948) Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.

Conze, Edward. (1967) The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. Modified version of Conze (1948).

Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. First Ed. 1957.

Coulson, M. (2003) Teach Yourself Sanskrit. teach Yourself Books.

Daňková, Zuzana. (2006) Kumarajiva the Translator His Place in the History of Translating Buddhist Scriptures into Chinese. Diplomová práce. Ústav Dálného Východu Filozofická fakulta Univerzita Karlova v Praze.

Huifeng. (2014). ‘Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: “Non-attainment”, “Apprehension”, and “Mental Hanging” in the Prajñāpāramitā.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105.

Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online:

Nattier, Jan. (2003). A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path according to The INquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

Kieschnick, J. & Wiles, S. (2016) A Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings. Stanford University.

Tanahashi, Kazuaki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambhala

19 February 2016

Against Merciful Lies

I recently responded to a blog post by Amod Lele (On the Very Idea of Buddhist Ethics) and the point I made was taken up by Elisa Freschi on her blog (Buddhist morality and merciful lies). My original point was that there is a disconnect between karma and anātman, which is not a new theme for me (If there is no self, who is responsible for what actions?). 

I was struck by this phrase "merciful lies", which is Elisa's rendition of the Sanskrit term kauśalyopāya, usually translated as "skilful means", as it applies to telling the truth. The idea of a lie told for your own good is not found in Pāḷi Nikāya (or to my knowledge in the Āgamas either). The Buddha of the Nikāyas does not deceive anyone, for any reason. In Mahāyānsim, this idea of a well-meaning deception "for your own good" is strongly associated with the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra or Lotus Sutra (lit. The Lotus of the Good Dharma). In this sūtra we find the parable of the burning house. The world is described as a house that is on fire. We, the unenlightened, are portrayed as children playing with our toys inside the burning house and we are reluctant to leave the house because we are too busy with our toys. The Buddha is portrayed as a father who calls to his children, and when they refuse to respond, he lies to them about having marvellous new toys for them outside. The children run outside expecting toys, but the father gathers them up and puts them in his cart and drives off rescuing them from death. 

I find this repugnant for all kinds of reasons. But on Elisa's blog my argument was lost in the noise, so I'd like to restate it and expand on it here. To my mind there are three main arguments against merciful lies. Firstly the scenario itself is stupid and offensive; secondly there's no need to construct a religion which lies to us, either on historical or moral grounds; and thirdly we all need to take responsibility for our actions and merciful lies by authority figures undermines this imperative.

The Scenario is Stupid. 

The parable of the burning house is just that, a parable. It's a hyperbolic rhetorical device meant to make a broader point through a simple analogy: we are like stupid children; the Buddha is like our wise Daddy. And on this basis many people might urge me to tolerance and understanding. They tend to do this when I complain about myths and legends. After all, the parable is widely admired and repeated, and even praised by the founder of my Order. My response is this: Has anyone actually thought about the intent of this so-called parable? Why, for example, would anyone embrace a parable that casts them as a idiot child, with not even enough sense to get out of a burning building? Who hears this parable and nods in ascent, "Yes, I'm so very stupid, that I need a father figure to look after me"? Well, who, apart from Christians, Muslims, and conservatives. One wonders at the appeal of this scenario in a post-Christian, anti-patriarchal Feminist and Freudian influenced, convert Buddhism milieu. And yet this is one of the most popular stories in a wildly popular text. Whole international sects are dedicated to this one text. This means that thousands of people tacitly accept that we're all really, really stupid and wise Daddy-in-the-Sky (aka Lord Buddha) needs to deceive us to save us from our stupid selves. If we even are selves, but don't get me started on that.

Or is it that we hear the parable, look around us at other people and ascent to their incredible death-defying stupidity? How stupid do we think other people are? I can imagine a priest taking this kind of view, especially the Buddhist sort because laypeople treat them with such exaggerated, sycophantic respect. If you're a bhikkhu, I suppose, laypeople probably do look pretty stupid as they bow at your feet. It's certainly an advantage to a priest for their flock to think him wise and themselves as stupid. But experience suggests this is unlikely to be the case. The priest is as likely to be an alcoholic or child abuser as he is to be wise. Most of them are just ordinary. How many disastrous scandals involving naive people giving up their power and individuality to sociopathic priests do we need before we start questioning this "Father knows best" attitude that they promote? The supposedly stupid lay person is often much wiser than we might otherwise give them credit for. Most of us converts got interested in Buddhism because of a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the mainstream, which is the beginning of wisdom. For many, meeting Buddhism is also the end of wisdom, because they drop one set of superstitions only to take up another set. 

I am among the first to rail against society and write apocalyptic social commentary. I see many problems in society. I see many stupid things going on. Many people making stupid decisions. I sometimes despair at how badly run our world is. But I am fundamentally optimistic about humanity. I don't particularly like most people, but I don't generally think of them as stupid. Most people are ignorant, even the educated, but this is not the same thing as being stupid. An ignorant person can learn, a stupid person has no hope. Most of us are doing our best, but we don't have all the information or the skill set we need (and we're too busy working hard to acquire either). Politicians generally speaking are a special kind of stupid, but they are a minority and we're talking about humanity in general. Even the people making stupid decisions are often doing so from the best of intentions, believing that they are doing the best thing. Truly stupid people are pretty rare. 

Many of us are figuring out how to be happy. Quite a few are studying happiness with a view to being more systematic about achieving it, which is precisely what we need to do. See for example this TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, who tells us that happiness is all about having positive relationships and not at all about working hard. In an increasingly atomised society, this call to pay attention to your relationships looks almost radical. Spend face-time, not Facebook-time, with your loved ones, you'll live longer and be happier. There are plenty of other sensible things said these days on the subject of happiness. Of course some (but not all) of the Buddhists selling happiness are also happy, but, not everyone involved in this project is a Buddhist or responds positively to the religious myths of Buddhism. Secular mindfulness looks more useful and relevant to most people than most of the stuff I learned as a novice Buddhist. I kind of hope it takes over our initial offering of somewhat random meditation instruction and a weirdly eclectic potted history of Buddhism. Better that people do something helpful than learn a bunch of stuff they can't make sense of.

Of course mere temporal happiness is not the end of the story. There are even a handful of people I know who are exploring the higher reaches of liberation. It seems unlikely to me that I, or 99% of the Buddhists I know, will ever join that group. And this is where David Chapman's critique of renunciation-centred Buddhism gets interesting. The argument goes that if few of us are ever going to be able to practice renunciation to the kind of intensity required to make a difference, why continue to use it as the basis of our religious lives? Is there any point in renunciation becoming an end in itself (which it does throughout the Theravāda world)? My concern is that the pendulum might swing the other way. We live a society with deep problems related to obsessive consumption of resources. Problems of addiction, obesity, and heart disease. Problems of making the environment much less able to support life. A society where my local paper thinks it's both amazing and great (rather than obscene and disgusting) that a restaurant serves a 10,000 kcal meal (albeit for two people) - 10,000 calories would go a long way in a refugee camp about now, and goodness knows we have too many of those at the moment. A lot of people are hedonists already, either by temperament or as a kind of neurosis, and I think that renunciation might help put the breaks on this trend, whereas a turn towards experience might accelerate it. Admittedly this might sound as though I also think people are stupid. On the contrary I think our decisions are driven by many factors outside our control and that few people are equipped with the understanding of their situation or right tools to change. And this is my key point, tell people the merciful truth about their situation and it better equips them to save themselves. Tell them a lie and let them think that someone else will rescue them. Except that there is no Daddy-in-the-Sky coming to rescue us. Relying on a fantasy is worse than useless. 

In any case I see no need to demonise humanity and portray them as very stupid children that won't leave a burning building because they are playing with their toys. That's a very unpleasant viewpoint to take and it makes me wonder who benefits from it. And the answer seems to be "priests". Those with a vested interest in keeping us passive, stupid, and dependent. Those to whom some of us prostrate ourselves. In which case, the first step towards liberation is to liberate oneself from this position of bondage. I would not ape that awful Mahāyānist saying "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him". I would not say "Kill the priests", but we should at least start ignoring them or making fun of them. 

Buddhism Without Lies

In my explorations of Mahāyānism last year (esp. The Ambivalent Religion 20 Nov 2015) I proposed an alternative history of Mahāyānism. Indeed I argued that Mahāyānism, in its mature form, was effectively a different religion from what went before. The resemblances to Nikāya based Buddhism are merely superficial. The Mahāyānists employed different rhetoric, dogma, and religious exercises towards a different goal. One of the dynamics of the development of Buddhism after the advent of Mahāyānism was an increasingly magical worldview. 

In early Buddhism, (at least) some people are capable of liberating themselves and the Buddha is just a guide. The first Arahants achieve just what the Buddha did, he is pre-eminent because he did it first and alone. Later a gulf opens up between the Arahants and the Buddha. The example of this I have published about (Attwood 2014) involves a story about King Ajātasatthu. In the Pāḷi Samaññaphala Sutta, the Buddha is portrayed as being unable to help the parricidal king, Ajātasatthu. He just says to the monks, "The king is done for". However, in later Mahāyānist versions of the story the king is saved from the consequences of his actions by merely meeting the Buddha and talking with him. The Buddha becomes more and more godlike as time goes on, but equally, ordinary people seem to become more and more hapless. The standard Mahāyānist rhetoric is that it takes three incalculable aeons of practice to perfect the perfections and become a Buddha. So where ever you happen to be now, Buddhahood is an infinite number of lifetimes in the future. In other words utterly unattainable.

Many people still believe that the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya or "Heart Sutra" was created as a kind of epiphany of wisdom, a summary of the doctrine that could serve the guide the percipient reader to saṃbodhi. In fact the truth is a lot more prosaic than that. In all likelihood lines from existing texts were taken out of context, written on paper and worn as an amulet to ward of ill fortune and malevolent spirits, which is what the Prajñāpāramitā tradition promised after all: "write this down and you'll be protected from misfortune". Because people of that time and place probably did not believe that anyone could actually achieve saṃbodhi and thus protection from evil or demons was a much more pressing issue for them. 

Early Buddhists already had a weak Vitalism (āyu/jīvata) and a somewhat negative attitude to the body that comes with it (cf Metaphors and Materialism 26 Apr 2013). But this hatred for mere flesh reaches its apotheosis in the awful book by Śāntideva, Bodhicāryāvatāra, in which he writes about the body as something supremely distasteful:
59. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth? 
60. Is it that you do not like a dirty worm because it's only tiny? It must be that you desire a body likewise born in filth, because it is formed from such a large amount. 
61. Not only are you disgusted at your own foulness, you glutton for crap, you yearn for other vats of filth!
(pages 92-93 of Crosby and Skilton)
And so on. Śāntideva is a hate-filled maniac, with delusions of grandeur. But he's very popular in Mahāyānist circles because he seems to epitomise something of the twisted logic and fanaticism of Mahāyānism. There's a broad pattern of denigrating human beings and their bodies, and of deifying the Buddha or his replacement and elevating his body, which becomes a dharmakāya

Another manifestation of this hatred of human beings in Mahāyānist thought is the idea that we can do nothing whatever to save ourselves. All we can do is throw themselves on the mercy of the Buddha Amitābha and rely on vows of his that are recorded in the Sukhāvativyūha Sūtra. Recall that Gautama was sidelined because his parinirvāṇa meant that he could no longer participate in life on earth. Amitābha lives in another universe, but is able to interfere in ours, for our own good. It became necessary to invent other universes because Gautama cut himself off from our universe and the rules say we can't have another Buddha until the Dharma has completely died out there. The lack of a messiah-buddha proved so inconvenient that they had to invent one and situate him in another universe. Amitābha, unlike Gautama, is a model Buddha, who has not abandoned his universe and continues to care for souls in his world, and will even care for those souls in our world who ask his help. From my point of view a really compassionate omnipotent, omnipresent being would not need us to ask, or wait till death, they would tell us what we need to know right now and we could get on with liberating ourselves. But the point here is that we, poor stupid human beings, cannot help ourselves any more. The individual human being is incapable of liberating themselves without the presence of a god-messiah-buddha. And yet Buddhists and even Mahāyānists, insist that there is no god in Buddhism. Clearly there is a god, he's just in disguise, though it's not much of a disguise. 

So this idea of merciful lies emerges in a milieu of increasingly magical thinking, with godlike Buddhas floating around in paradises in other universes (but still able to save earthbound misfit humans); and with stupid people who have no hope of liberation from their own efforts or at all, but who are still plagued by misfortunes (disease, demons, criminals, tyrants, old age, death, or just plain bad luck).

The unfair characterisation of humanity as stupid, weak, and more or less beyond help short of a divine intervention is overly pessimistic. But this view was not always current in Buddhism. One can construct a Buddhism without merciful lies. We know this because we have records of it. While the Buddha is portrayed as expressing doubts about whether anyone would understand his breakthrough (Ariyapariyesana Sutta), he is never portrayed holding back from offering to help them, although he does call recalcitrant people stupid (moghapurisa). These stories are expressions of the values of the suttakāras. The idea of the merciful lie is absent from Nikāya and Āgama texts. Indeed the opposite is the case: the Buddha tells merciful truths. There are a few people who cannot take in these truths, the bereft man in the Piyajātikā Sutta for example, but on the whole the merciful truths that the Buddha tells set people free or at least on the path to freedom.

So why would a Buddha lie when the truth is what sets people free? How could a Buddha lie? Part of the answer seems to be that the distance between the Buddha and ordinary people has become an almost unbridgeable gulf. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is a godlike, omniscient, omnipotent doer of miracles who occupies a transcendent realm beyond our comprehension. Human beings on the other hand are just sacks of shit, infinitely far from Buddhahood, and incredibly stupid. It is this distortion of the respective statuses of the participants in Buddhist myths and legends that opens the gap for merciful lies where no lie should exist. Thus, lies come into the religion in which pretty much everyone, from the meanest peasant to the highest priest, across the divisions rent by time and the changing needs of society, vows not to lie (musāvādā veramaṇī-sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi). 

Another divisive innovation was the Two Truths Doctrine, in which one of the truths is in fact a lie (or at least untrue). I've written about this at some length so need not repeat the argument here (Not Two Truths: 5 Aug 2011). But the idea of relative truths (saṃvṛti-satya), which are not in fact true helps to ground the merciful lie in Buddhist doctrine. If one can rationalise the lie as a saṃvṛti-satya in the service of a paramartha-satya or ultimate truth, then anything is justified. So Buddhists are able to weasel out of the ancient precept which requires us always to tell the truth. It allows some Buddhists to mislead people and claim that it is a skilful means. The result has been quite disastrous for Buddhism, as gurus who are alcoholics, sexual abusers, or who have other moral failings have sometimes passed this off as kauśalyopāya. Once lying is part of the system, then no end of abuse is justifiable.

No one is served by a merciful lie. We are not children. We don't need Daddy to rescue us. Buddhism was originally constructed without such lies. The changes that allowed for these lies were for the worst in any case. Grown-ups need to be told the truth and given the appropriate tools to save themselves. There is no Big Daddy-in-the-sky waiting up there to rescue us. Most convert Buddhists rejected this fantasy well before becoming Buddhists, though an alarming number don't seem to notice that the Buddha has become their Big Step-Daddy-in-the-Sky. 

Taking Responsibility

Many Buddhists seem to lap up this characterisation of humanity as fundamental stupid and unable to manage itself. I hate it. I think we demonise humanity, including ourselves, at considerable risk to our well-being. I've recently written about the problems of Buddhists with self-esteem issues and mental health problems (Rumination and the Stress Response 22 Jan 2016). I did not mention the pernicious consequences of convincing converts that they are idiot children whose lives have to be managed for them, and who can expect authority figures to routinely lie to them for their own good. And they are too stupid to know what is good for them or to make appropriate decisions. Which all seems catastrophically disastrous to me. 

The thought of this teaching being common and commonly accepted makes me angry. The Buddhism that I first learned was all about taking responsibility for one's actions. The idea that one would abdicate responsibility to a guru was anathema. And seeing this put into practice was part of what attracted me to the Triratna Movement. Some have argued that our founder, Sangharakshita, has been weak in this department and to be sure it is by no means universal in the Triratna Order, but over many years I have seen enough of my colleagues in the Order exemplify this quality of taking responsibility that I'm content to find my home amongst them. Taking responsibility for one's actions, indeed for one's mental states, is not mere rhetoric. It is a necessary step for growing up. 

If someone is taught from the outset that they are too stupid and helpless to take responsibility, then what hope does that person have of making positive changes in their life? We can agree that they ought to consult friends and mentors, seek and listen to their advice on matter of importance, but in the long run we have to live our lives as we see fit. We and no one else has to weight up the pros and cons and make decisions. We have to make our own decisions and face the consequences. Of course, where those decisions affect other people, or where we have existing obligations, we need to take these into account (that is part of taking responsibility). We are never totally free to act, but whenever we do act, we ought to do so after due consideration. 

The abdication of responsibility to authority figures is almost always disastrous. We have seen this time and again in many spheres of religious and political life for example. Those we invest with power are almost inevitably corrupted by it.  This is why democracy which limits the amount of time the powerful can spend in positions of power is essential. Our leaders wear out after a few years and must be replaced. Their need for expediency often sees them telling us what they see as merciful lies.

For example, Western Governments assured us that they did not spy on citizens or abuse the surveillance powers they granted themselves. And yet whistle-blower Edward Snowden showed that this was a bald lie. They were and are spying on us, reading our emails and texts, gathering information on who we talk to. We did not agree to this, we did not vote for it. Most of us don't want these powerful government agencies spying on us. We know that once they have power they cannot be trusted to use it wisely and we cannot vote the commanders of Homeland Security or GCHQ out after a few years. 

Or we can look at the global banking and finance industry. Successive governments abdicated responsibility for the economy to banks, removing regulations and oversight and as a result banks became corrupt and even criminal. They engineered an economic collapse of catastrophic proportions. While banks qua corporations went broke or were nationalised to stop this happening (i.e. were bailed out by tax payers), the individual bankers in charge of this disaster walked away incredibly wealthy, or in fact did not walk away and are still in charge of banks. In the USA only one banker went to jail. In the UK none did. And yet they destroyed trillions of pounds of wealth, including pensions and retirement investments. Thousands of families lost everything, including their homes. 

Or we could cite the numerous religious cults led by charismatic individuals who lead their followers to a sticky end. And we've seen what happens when Buddhist gurus are followed by naive individuals looking for the next Messiah. A mess, all right. 


There have been many deleterious developments in Buddhist thought over the centuries. The Realism of the Abhidharma, the Two Truths Doctrine, the ontological speculation, the abandonment of making a personal effort, and so on. But none is so egregious as this idea of the merciful lie. It is not merciful to lie to adults. It is deceptive and malignant.

A real problem we have in Buddhism is a deep religious conservatism which enables us to argue about how to interpret our doctrines, but never to fundamentally question them. So it looks like we have a healthy debate, but in reality everyone still assents to the tradition. Or we did until recently. At this moment in time a significant number of Buddhists are asking some hard questions. Or they are intuitively rejecting the usual sources of authority (texts, priests, tradition). We are discovering that we can still think for ourselves and that, for example, science is also authoritative. Or we are turning to people who seem to have genuinely made breakthroughs and can talk about awakening from experience rather than relying on second-hand authorities. We live in a time when awakening once again seems to be possible.

There's little or no scholarship behind this movement. It's quite hard to get such critical ideas as denying the validity of karma as a theory published. And it would be bad for an academic's career to do such a thing. A few renegades like Greg Schopen have attempted to stir the pot a little, but the bastions of Buddhism are heavily defended. The business of Buddhist academia is predicated on embracing Buddhism on its own terms. Indeed a lot of research into Buddhism is funded by Buddhist foundations like Numata and Khyentse, which in any other field would amount to conflict of interest. No one whose livelihood comes from a Buddhist organisation is going to conclude that Buddhism has got it all wrong.

Additionally we have more and more bhikkhus and lamas joining universities and doing research. They cannot be expected to provide our fledging move away from traditional Buddhism with any intellectual support either. "Monastics" are committed to supporting the status quo, in which they themselves are major beneficiaries. Their lifestyle demands so much from them, that they are even less likely than the Buddhism embracing academic to support the deconstruction of tradition. What they produce is almost inevitably in the form of apologetics for religious propositions. Defences of the very ideas that people like me want them to question. In all likelihood no help will come from that direction either. Nor can we expect much help from Western philosophers who continue to "discover" Buddhism and all too often act like they are the first people to understand it. In the end they are really only interested in reinterpreting Buddhism using categories that derive from ancient Greek thought and this is of little or no help to us. The Greeks and their successors were and are asking the wrong questions about experience.

Where we are getting some help is from neuroscience and from the psychology of mindfulness. Some argue that the work in these fields lacks rigour, but the scientific process will get there eventually. Refutation is at the heart of the enterprise, unlike in religion where it is all about making reality fit the theory. 

Presuming that we are in the presence of someone who knows the truth, I argue that the truth is always preferable to the convenient lie. The truth is what liberates us. Lies only sow doubt as to what is true. The idea of the merciful lie was a terrible mistake. That it survived and is traditional doesn't matter. It is still a mistake. Give us the truth and the skills to act on that truth.


A couple of people have suggested that the story of Nanda (Ud 3.2, Nanda Sutta) represents an early Buddhist merciful truth. In this story Nanda is thinking of giving up the religious life (brahmacarya) because of a pretty girl. The Buddha takes Nanda to the deva realm known "The Thirty Three" (tāvatiṃsa) - one of the lower devalokas. There they see a number of female divinities called accharā (better known by their Sanskrit name, apsarā) who are described as dove-footed (kakuṭa-pāda). Nanda agrees that compared to the apsarās his girlfriend is ugly. The Buddha then says:
abhirama, nanda, abhirama, nanda! ahaṃ te pāṭibhogo pañcannaṃ accharāsatānaṃ paṭilābhāya kakuṭapādānan ti.

Enjoy, Nanda, enjoy! I am your sponsor (pāṭibhoga) for obtaining 500 dove-footed apsarās.
With this motivation, Nanda returns to the religious life. After some grumbling from the bhikkhus who think this motivation is beneath them, Nanda becomes enlightened and then releases the Buddha from his promise.

At no point does the Buddha appear to lie to Nanda in this story. The story stipulates that apsaras exist and there is no suggestion that the Buddha was unable or unwilling to fulfil his promise to sponsor or guarantee Nanda his heavenly reward.

Another possible exception is the story of Kisagotamī. This is not found in the suttas, but is found instead in the Apadāna and in the Pāḷi commentaries. I don't know the dates of the Apadāna, though it is canonical. According to Oskar von Hinüber's, Handbook of Pali Literature, it was one of the last additions to the canon. The commentaries of course date from about the 5th century, though are generally believed to be based on earlier, non-extant, texts because they say they are. 

Also... This week Nature reported on an update to the Milgram Experiment. Abbott, Alison. (2016) Modern Milgram experiment sheds light on power of authority. Nature. 18 February 2016.
"People obeying commands feel less responsibility for their actions."

20 November 2015

The Ambivalent Religion: An Alternate History of Mahāyānism.

Some weeks ago I summarised a bunch of recent research on the origins of the Mahāyāna. It turns out to have been an amorphous movement made up from a number of distinct cults, to have emerged from within Mainstream Buddhism, from within Mainstream Buddhist monasteries, and to have taken many centuries to coalesce as "the Mahāyāna" (with a possible name change due to a misunderstanding as Sanskrit took over from Prakrit). Eventually, some forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism became the mainstream in North India, others probably remained as outliers.

A lot of my recent work has involved identifying internal contradictions in early Buddhist doctrines. At first I didn't go looking for these, it was just that when I started paying close attention they stood out. And at first I had no intellectual context for them because all the historical narratives are of unity and coherence increasing as we go back in time. In trying to get some background I realised that the problems I was seeing were once live issues for Buddhists. They recorded some of their arguments about these matters in texts. While each sect was developing it own attempts to reconcile the contradictions, they were also trying to discredit their Buddhist opposition. Generally speaking, if you take any given formulation of Buddhist doctrine there is a record of a concerted effort by other Buddhists to discredit it. 

In previous essays and a published article (Attwood 2014), I explored how some Mahāyānists tinkered with the theory of karma, doing away with the inevitability of consequences and introducing some mythology about how meeting the Buddha could eliminate evil karma, as well as a number of religious exercises which could do the same. In this essay, I want to explore another aspect of the way Mahāyānists reacted to the doctrine of karma. 

I've seen some secularists argue that karma and rebirth are not essential to Buddhism. But my view is that karma and rebirth are central to classical and traditionalist accounts of Buddhism. Indeed, I've shown that as problems with the metaphysics of Buddhism became apparent, in the form of a conflict between karma and pratītyasamutpāda, that Buddhists refined their accounts of pratītyasamutpāda to ensure the continued working of karma and rebirth. They were not beyond tinkering with karma as well, but I will endeavour to show in this essay, that what they have in mind in doing so, was concerns about rebirth and the ending of rebirth. 

In their most basic forms karma and rebirth enact a twofold myth common to many religions: the myth of a just world, and the myth of an afterlife (in which justice is enacted). In previous essays, I've showed that the two almost inevitably go together because as the world of everyday experience is clearly unjust, so the other world is naturally conceived of as just. To some extent, this emerges from the basic concepts and metaphors associated with ontological dualism (see Metaphors and Materialism). For Buddhists, karma is the supernatural monitor that "sees" all actions and ensures that we get the fate we earn. In India that fate is experienced primarily as repeated death and life; or in escape from repeated death and life. 

However, in trying to ensure that no permanent entity persisted in the process, Buddhists created an internal contradiction, first explicitly noted by Nāgārjuna: karma requires personal continuity to be the basis of an effective morality (we have to feel a connection to the consequences of our actions or we don't restrain our unwholesome urges); but pratītyasamutpāda, as conceived by early Buddhists, denies personal continuity, thus cutting a person off from the results of their actions. This basic self-contradiction led to a number of innovations prominent amongst which is the doctrine of momentariness adopted by the Theravādin Abhidhammikas and the Yogācārins. 

Early Mahāyāna theorists created a whole other problem for themselves. The Buddhist afterlife (seen from the moral point of view) is a hybrid of the two principle types of afterlife that I identified in my taxonomy. Without an effort, one cycles around dying and being reborn according to one's actions. However, with effort one can be liberated from this cycle and escape from being reborn. Buddhists were extremely reluctant to say much more about nirvāṇa other than that it meant not being reborn. They produced a few metaphors, largely drawing on standard North Indian imagery (cool caves, dried up streams, lotus flowers, etc) of the kind that crops up across the board in Indian literature. The frequent refrain of those who achieve the goal of Buddhism in early Buddhist texts is that they will not be reborn. But the specific question of what happens to a tathāgata (one who is "in that state") after death is inexplicable (avyākṛta).

As an aside in one of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad creation stories, just after Brahman has created the world and the gods we find:
tad dhedaṃ tarhy avyākṛtam āsīt | tan nāmarūpābhyām eva vyākriyatāsau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa iti | BU 1.4.7
At that time this world was undifferentiated (avyākṛta); it was distinguished only in terms of name and form (nāmarūpa): [the one with] this name [has] this form.
So it's possible that the choice of words used when refusing to discuss the post-mortem state of the tathāgata was borrowed from this Vedic myth.

In the generations after the Buddha, the stories about him became inflated: he became more magical, more knowledgeable, more powerful. All the worldliness of the Buddha was gradually eliminated from the stories about him. The Buddha became superhuman and took on more and more godlike powers - he walks and talks at birth for example. We can to some extent see this process at work and it's also common in other hagiographies. In this inflationary process was the roots of a tectonic dilemma. If the Buddha was godlike and had infinite compassion for people (and indeed all living beings) then why did he have to die? Even more crucially, why did he have to stop being reborn?

Once in India, being reborn was just an ordinary part of life. By the time the early Upaniṣads were composed rebirth was seen as a burden. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad quietly slipped in the idea of ending rebirth and joining with brahman as a superior goal to a good rebirth within saṃsāra. Brahman is a kind of universal consciousness, a world-spirit that parallels, or perhaps originates, the element of spirit in us. A common image for the relation between absolute and relative being (sometimes erroneously used by Buddhists) is that people are like waves: brahman is water and it can take the shape of an individual wave (ātman) that appears to be independent, but ultimately the waves are water and returns to the ocean. And the Upaniṣads conceived of the end of rebirth as going to brahman. Sometimes brahman is personified as a god, Brahmā, and a theistic variety of Brahmanism is attested in the early Buddhist texts. But Buddhists rejected this kind of cosmology or theology and simply refused to speculate on the Buddha after his death, except to say he was not reborn and that he had "opened the doors to the deathless" i.e. made this escape available to everyone. In this Gautama to some extent resembles the culture hero Yama who opened the way to the ancestors for Brahmins.

The disappearance of this increasingly superhuman Buddha from the scene was a problem for Buddhists. He became an "otiose god", to use a phrase from Witzel (2012), who could play no further role in our lives. The fact that he simply died like an ordinary human being was difficult enough, but his disappearance forever seems have been deeply troubling, particularly for Mahāyānists. One of the places in which this dilemma is openly discussed is the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra, where a bodhisatva called Ruchiraketu does a bit of logic.
  • Puṇya leads to long life.
  • The Buddha practised the perfections over an incalculable number of lifetimes.
  • Therefore, the Buddha has an incalculable store of puṇya.
  • Therefore, the Buddha should have an infinitely long life. 
  • However, the Buddha died after only 80 years. 
In other words, the received facts about the Buddha's life were at odds with the beliefs about the Buddha that had developed in the meantime. Ruchiraketu then has an expansive visionary experience (not unlike some of the visions described by the well known lunatic and darling of the Romantics, William Blake) in which supernatural Buddhas explain that the Buddha's lifespan is, in fact, infinite. The world of appearances seems unrelated to the true nature of tathāgatas, though we are not told why or how in this text.

In the early model of Buddhism, the Buddha instructed many disciples who went on to recreate his experience for themselves and become liberated from rebirth. People who did this are arhat (worthy). The arhat instructed many disciples of their own and so the community of arhats grew. But within a few generations this scheme seems to have been failing. We don't know the details, but we do know that Mahāyānists began to criticise arhats in their literature. They seem to have seen this scheme of passing on teachings as a failure and the arhats as unworthy. They seem to have have two main responses.

The first response was to invent new Buddhas in other universes who were not dead and therefore still able to intervene in human affairs. This gave rise to texts such as the Suvarṇabhāsottama, Akṣobhyavūyha and Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras; and eventually to what we know as "Pure Land Buddhism". Despite the fact that our Buddha died and disappeared beyond comprehension, in a next door universe, usually Abhirati or Sukhāvatī, there was another Buddha who was very much alive, omniscient, and omnipotent. This powerful figure would intervene at death and allow the worshipper to be reborn in a land where liberation was easy. No nasty sex or other forms of ritual pollution (that Buddhists seem to have assimilated from Brahmanism) just bliss and flowers and ambrosia and nirvāṇa. Paradise, in other words, as envisaged by celibate men living in the Central Ganges Valley in the early first millennium CE. This form of theistic Buddhism went on to be one of the most popular, if least demanding, forms of Buddhism and remains very popular. It is easily compatible with WEIRD sensibilities because it is so very close to familiar forms of messianic theism.

A sub-thread of the development of theistic Buddhism was the cult of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya is sometimes portrayed as a kind of immanent Buddha, who is taking a keen interest in human affairs and can't wait to get into the fray, he's just waiting for the previous dispensation to completely die out. This ought to have taken about 1500 years by some accounts, and to have been considerably accelerated by the ordination of women. However, as time went on Maitreya's birthday became further and further off, until it was infinitely far off. I think this is partly because he got tangled up in the deification of the Buddha, whose dispensation could not be seen to die out. Someone as fantastic as the Buddha would not teach a Dharma that only lasted a few hundred years. It would have to last forever. That this conflicts with other aspects of the developing culture of Buddhism is awkward, but not surprising. 

The second response was a lot more complicated. The reasoning seems to have been that the Buddha was a lost cause. He was gone and not coming back (and his replacement wasn't due for an infinitely long period of time). However, there were really hardcore practitioners who attempted to emulate the Buddha (or at least the stories about him). They already referred to themselves as bodhisatta, which we have reason to believe originally meant "committed (sakta) to awakening bodhi". These bodhisaktas conceived of a way that they could be better than the Buddha, or at least better than the arhats, by not disappearing from the world. They retained a commitment to the fundamental worldview in which karma gave rise to rebirth unless one was liberated. And they also inherited a tradition which said that the most helpful thing one could do is become liberated and teach others to liberate themselves. So they reasoned that if they got to the brink of liberation, a point where they have all the advantages of intense meditation practice, they could hold back from being liberated from rebirth. Being unliberated they would be bound to be reborn (they overlook the traditional view that breaking the fetters ensures the end of rebirth within a fixed number of lifetimes and the metaphysical problems that implies), but being so highly attained they could take control over the process, retain all their knowledge, and being eternal good guys in the fight against duḥkha. In other words, by a few twists of metaphysics they made themselves into immortal superheroes.

The superhero myth continued to play out. Fictional characters who embodied this new ideal began to appear in literature and then in art (quite some time later). Ironically, given that Buddhist karma and rebirth was originally a rejection of the general idea of beings reincarnating, the superheroes found a kind of apotheosis in Tibetan men who were proclaimed to be the (re)incarnation of imaginary superhero figures (tulku). Lineages of reincarnated superheroes were established along with procedures for recognising new avatars. Though curiously the young children had to be educated from scratch to be bodhisatvas, rather than being born with all their knowledge intact. Coincidentally, this turned out to be an excellent political strategy for preventing the dissipation of monastic power and wealth under the control of a celibate clergy.

It wasn't enough simply to proclaim themselves superheroes. Their own superiority had to be combined with a negative campaign against the existing mainstream, which may explain the negative attitude towards Arhats in some texts. Those who merely repeated the human Buddha's example and liberated themselves from rebirth had to be portrayed as men of lesser talents and ability, whose selfishness resulted in a lesser attainment. By this time the Buddha had achieved apotheosis and become an eternal god who manifested in human form, but was, in fact, eternal. This enabled Mahāyānists to establish a mental split between the human Buddha and a cosmic Buddha, as evidenced by the Suvarṇabhāsottama. The Buddha, that is the selfish figure of Gautama who died and won't come back, became increasingly irrelevant to Buddhism. Why emulate the mere human being (who isn't coming back) when there was a god-like, omnipresent dharmakāya who would save all beings from suffering, however long it took? Why this cosmic Buddha did not continue to manifest in human form, repeatedly and in parallel, is a question that ought to plague Buddhism the way that the absence of the second coming of Jesus plagues Christianity. Omnipotent beings are not limited to one body at one time. If I was omnipotent, I would simply manifest sufficient avatars to accomplish the goal. Apparently this never occurred to Buddhists or it was a step too far even for the most credulous. 

The negative spin campaign against arhats had three main focusses: the hero of the early Buddhist saṅgha, Śāriputra, the arhats themselves, and the distinction between the mainstream and this new cult of immortal superheroes. New texts were composed on the model of early "sutras" which expounded these new ideas. Śāriputra becomes a figure of mockery (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa), the arhats are dismissed as irrelevant and selfish (Saddharmapuṇḍarikā), and a new pejorative (probably caste based) term for the Mainstream is coined: hīnayāna meaning "defective vehicle", to contrast with mahāyāna (Cf Hīnayāna Reprise). It is in creating this false view of mainstream Buddhism that "the Mahāyāna" really crystallizes as a distinct approach. The common enemy of early Buddhists is usually Brahmins, whereas, in the post-Abhidharma period, it is conservative Buddhists. For a movement which proclaims itself as the most sublime human aspiration, this is pretty dirty politics. It's fairly obvious that this dark side of the Mahāyāna is not motivated by love, compassion, or wisdom. And yet apologies for this misanthropic behaviour are still being made. Where is the critique of any of this in the modern literature of Buddhism or Buddhist studies? It may well exist, but I've never seen it. 

The new cults seemed to have some positive elements as well. They produced intellectuals who grappled with the self-contradictions they found in early Buddhism and who tried to improve upon early attempts at reconciliation. Up to a point, such people were able to look back and see the best of early Buddhism. Nāgārjuna in the 2nd Century CE is at the threshold for this. Two centuries later, Vasubandhu is almost wholly forward-looking. From this point on no school of Buddhism looked to the early Buddhist texts for new ideas. They just made them up or borrowed them from other religions. Not until the Protestant reformation of Sri Lanka and Modernist Buddhism did we rediscover the early Buddhists. Ironically we mistake them for authorities and fail to see the mistakes they made, privileging them on the basis that they are older. We erroneously associate age with authority, but in the history of Buddhist ideas the peak of coherence is not reached until the mid-First Millennium CE.

The new cults also engaged in comparative studies of Buddhist doctrine, though usually with a strong sectarian bias. The Prajñāpāramitā movement seemed to carry on an intellectual current of early Buddhism which emphasise experience and meditation. It offered a useful if somewhat cryptic critique of the incipient realism of the Abhidharma. On the other hand, some of the enduring appeal of Mahāyānist thinkers is in arguing over what they said and what they meant. Nāgārjuna is the prime example of this. There are many ways to interpret his words, but after some 1800 years there is no consensus on what the author intended. His commentators could not agree and modern day Mādhyamikas either regress into a false certainty of one interpretation or incessantly rehearse the commentarial arguments. WEIRD scholars still build careers on reinterpreting his oeuvre. Medieval Buddhists also engaged in philosophical debates with thinkers from other Indian traditions, though by this time what was meant by Buddhist philosophy is almost unrecognisable from early Buddhism. 

Rather than being a single cult, Mahāyāna developed as a number of competing cults, often with very little in common beyond their Vinaya ordination. The advent of the Gupta Empire (3rd-6th Century CE) must have helped this as they opened up trade routes that spanned the sub-continent and allowed disparate elements of the movement to communicate and move around more freely. The resulting collection of cults gradually took over as the mainstream. As they became the mainstream there was an imperative to integrate the disparate aspects of the movement into a more coherent whole. Indian Buddhist intellectuals began to pull the disparate threads together and weave them into something more coherent. 

As with the same impetuous in early Buddhism in response to the Mauryan Empire, the formation and powerful influence of the Gupta Empire in North India likely had a huge effect on Buddhism. During the Gupta period, Sanskrit became the main language of the literati and scripts evolved to handle the more complex task of encoding Sanskrit (with its extra vowels and conjunct consonants). Mahāyānist texts, composed in Prakrit began to be translated into Classical (i.e. Pāṇinian) Sanskrit. By this point, the Theravādins were relatively isolated in Sri Lanka and committed to using the less prestigious Prakrit (or vernacular) that came to be called Pāḷi (the word means 'line'). The willingness to embrace Pāṇinian Sanskrit became another distinguishing feature of Mahāyānist literature.


From its own propaganda, Mahāyāna is a superior form of Buddhism that was the natural successor to the inferior form that initially took centre stage. It's difficult to generalise about such a broadly based movement since many of the separate cults that contributed to the movement had very different ideas and ideals, and superiority is a rather subjective judgement. What we now think of as "the Mahāyāna" is a synthesis of a variety of cults, largely filtered through centuries of adaptation to Chinese, Japanese and to some extent Tibetan culture (depending on who one is talking to). 

Not only did Mahāyānist not solve the doctrinal problems of early Buddhism, they introduced a whole raft of new problems through their failures. If early Buddhists could be described as metaphysically reticent, then Mahāyānists are metaphysically exuberant. They invent whole universes as required. In their literature and art, the Buddha undergoes apotheosis. This partly to explain away his rather disappointingly un-godlike human incarnation and all too final death. And yes, there is a contradiction here: Gautama is simultaneously elevated to virtual godhood and reduced to a bit player. New superhero figures emerge and multiply. Emphasis shifts away from dead Gautama, and towards these new buddhas who are still active in their own worlds, and to superheroes who are not so selfish and graceless as to stop being reborn. These imaginary characters continued to become more and more magically potent and godlike. They approached omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence. In some strains of Buddhist thought, the dharmakāya Buddha is the universe. 

My point is that although we call it Buddhism, the religion of the Mahāyānists is a wholly different religion from what came before. It certainly has some roots in Buddhism, but it repudiates much of what made Buddhism identifiably Buddhist while retaining some pan-Indian features such as karma and rebirth. 

The new religion of Mahāyānists employed a number of dirty tricks to establish itself, but having taken over, acted as though this was simply the natural order of things. They could not quite make Buddhism disappear, but they managed to discredit most of it by the time they were driven out of India. The religion of Mahāyānists these days markets itself as the religion of compassion and (unless pulled up on it) claim that compassion was their innovation. It wasn't. By compassion ancient Buddhists generally meant "teaching the Dharma". Mahāyānists did not invent it or introduce it.

Despite many openings for criticism, most scholars of Buddhism join with Buddhists in taking Mahāyāna on its own terms, or limit themselves to describing Mahāyāna as they find it, careful not to disturb anything. No one ever asks the Dawkins questions, "Why would you believe something that is obviously false?" And yet, because of the proliferation of metaphysical speculation, imaginary beings, and imaginary worlds, the Mahāyāna religion is far more open to such criticism than it's more conservative cousins. My conclusion is that scholars are in love with their subject and don't want to say anything bad about it. We're afraid of being asked to leave the temple, or being thrown out.

On the other hand part of the reason that Mahāyānism receives so little critical attention is that it dovetails into a Romantic worldview so well. It is full of hyperboles, epitomes, acmes, essences, embodiments, and archetypes that appeal to the Romantic imagination. It does not simply allow for magical thinking, it positively encourages it. So for the Romantic escapist, Mahāyānism is fertile ground. One can easily become caught up in the hyperbole, the colour, the excitement, and let us not forget the interminable arguments, and forget for a while that one is a limited, short-lived being whose life is probably quite dull, boring, and pointless. Mahāyānism is a high-quality drama that distracts us from reality while preaching that the very distraction is reality. Which is quite brilliant from a marketing point of view. And if the cracks start appearing one can confidently fall back on some perplexing pseudo-wisdom culled out of context from the Diamond Sutra or that old fraud Nāgārjuna. It's all just śūnyatā. Isn't it? 


Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012). Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. 

03 July 2015

Early Mahāyāna: Everything You Know is Wrong

Revised 5 Jul 2015.

The origin of the Mahāyāna has been a subject of some fascination over the years. In its mature form, Mahāyāna Buddhism could hardly be more different from Mainstream Buddhism and still be thought of as Buddhism. A variety of theories have been proposed for how the Mahāyāna came about. In this article, I will précis some recent articles which revise or review of the origins and development of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Note that the articles that this essay is based on are all available on the internet via (individual links are included in the bibliography). I highly recommend the two articles by Drewes (2010a, 2010b). They are very accessible and thought provoking. Karashima's articles are long and technical and general readers may find them a bit daunting, but they never-the-less also provide important insights (and post date Drewes by some years and thus also provide a contrast to his work).

The Name Mahāyāna

Like some other Buddhist terms coined in Prakrit, it seems Mahāyāna might have been the victim of a wrong Sanskritisation. We already suspect that sūtra 'thread' ought to have been sūkta 'wise saying', both words assimilate to sutta in Pāḷi; while satva† 'being' ought to have been sakta 'committed, intent on', both satta in Pāḷi. Hence, bodhisatva ought to be bodhisakta 'committed to awakening', and it's possible that mahāsakta might have signified 'one whose commitment is great'. Karashima (2015b) provides a comprehensive survey of the word mahāyāna in the various versions of the Lotus Sutra. He argues that the word was probably intended to be the equivalent of the Sanskrit mahājñāna 'great knowledge', but that this was pronounced mahājāna in Prakrit. There was a natural ambiguity with the word mahāyana 'great vehicle', and the Lotus Sutra plays on this to some extent (see Karahima 2015b: 215-217). Later, the ambiguity was resolved in the wrong way and mahāyāna became the standard interpretation instead of mahājñāna. So, the fact that we talk about a great vehicle and not a great knowledge is a quirk of history.
†Buddhist manuscripts virtually always spell this word satva, so that, arguably, the correct form in Buddhist Sanskrit is satva. It has been further over-corrected to sattva by editors to make it conform with Classical Sanskrit.
Karashima argues that the use of the word was transferred from the Lotus to the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (2015a: 115) where the word only occurs in the parts of the text that are considered to have been added towards the end of the composition/compilation process.

The term mahājñāna is probably synonymous with terms like sarvajñā, found frequently in Prajñāpāramitā texts, and to prajñāpāramitā, as well. 

Karashima further conjectures, from his own research and work done independently by Peter Skilling (cited 2015a: 117), that the title sūtra or mahāyāna sūtra is a later affectation. Such texts are frequently referred to as paripṛccha (question), nirdeśa (description), vyākaraṇa (explanation/analysis), or vyūha (arrangement/manifestation), as well as sūtra. The addition of sūtra is frequently superfluous.

Many texts have the word Mahāyāna in their title. These titles first appear around 400 CE. Karashima (2015a) shows, by surveying the Chinese Canon, that this was a change that happened over time. He proposes that, originally, they were known as 'irregular' sūtras, signified by Middle Indic *vedulla = Pali vetulla, Gāndhārī *veulla or *vevulla. This corresponds to Sanskrit vaitulya. This word started appearing in Chinese texts about the 2nd century. However, because of the ambiguity in the Middle Indic forms and a change in the perception of these texts, by the 5th century the Middle-Indic word began to be interpreted as vaipulya, 'extensive, incomparable'. One of the characteristics of the vedulla suttas was that they consisted of a series of questions and answers, characteristic of the paripṛccha texts, but also the Prajñāpāramitā texts. Later again, these vaipulya texts were renamed Mahāyāna texts.
* The asterisk here stands for a term derived from grammatical rules, but not found in any extant text.

So it seems that history has tricked us once again. As we will see below, the early Mahāyāna texts seem to have been composed in Prakrit and only translated into Sanskrit much later, late enough for the translators to no longer have a clear understanding of the intentions of the original authors, and to be mislead by the received tradition. We have so many examples of this kind of thing that we must admit that Buddhist lineages of passing on teachings were quite unreliable. Buddhist lineages amount to a game that American kids call "Telephone". The idea that because your teacher tells you they taught you what their teacher taught them, is no reason to believe that what you have received reflects an unchanging tradition.

What the Mahāyāna is Not
"Mahāyāna was not a distinct sect. It did not involve the worship of bodhisattvas. It was not developed by lay people. It was not an offshoot of the Mahāsāṃghikas. It was not a single religious movement." Drewes (2010a: 59)

Early theories

In his two articles, Drewes sums up a generation of research into the early Mahāyāna. Mostly, it is the story of wrong turns and false assumptions, many of which have the origins in the 19th century. For example, the idea that Mahāyāna was primarily a lay movement can be traced to an 1865 article by V. P Vasilev. The first actual lay origin for the Mahāyāna was put forward by Jean Przyluski in the 1920s and 1930s. Similarly, the idea that the Mahāyāna involved the rejection of the (so-called) arhat ideal was first put forward by T. W. Rhys Davids in 1881. Linking Mahāyāna to the Mahāsāṃghika sect was a popular 19th century idea, being found in the works of Hendrik Kern, L. A. Waddell, and T. W. Rhys Davids.

Stories of this kind proliferated and became a kind of standard narrative with some variations. The Mahāyāna was a reaction against the narrow mindedness and formalism of the Hīnayāna. Hīnayāna was portrayed as a religion in terminal decline that had preserved texts they didn't really understand (and the 19th century Sangha didn't do much to dispel this view). Mahāyāna was said to have embraced a universal ideal whereas the Hīnayāna was all about self liberation. Mahāyāna was institutionally distinct from existing forms of Buddhism. And so on. In the 1950s, Japanese scholar Akira Hirakawa proposed a new theory, which was that Mahāyāna was a lay movement focused on stūpa worship. (Drewes 2010a: 55)

I would observe that many of these historical narratives owe a great deal to the historical narratives of the schism in the Christian Church that gave birth to the Protestant movement, especially as perceived by Protestant Western Europeans. Protestants identify with the breakaway sect which brings with it a renewal of values and ideals, and (in their own estimation) a greater authenticity. They identify the Mainstream (in this case Roman Catholicism) as intellectually moribund (whereas the Catholic Church has always been more intellectually lively) and morally bankrupt (which was certainly true at the time of the Luther and various other points in history).

The irony is that the heartland of Protestant Buddhism was and is Theravādin Sri Lanka (the story becomes inverted without anyone quite noticing). But there never was this kind of schism in Buddhism! Or at least there is no evidence for it. Mahāyāna activity started small, operated within existing monasteries, and only very gradually over centuries came to dominate Indian Buddhism. Nor, for that matter did Theravāda dominate Sri Lanka until 10th century reforms purged non-Theravāda Buddhism from Sri Lankan monasteries and standardised forms. Many of the features we take to be characteristic of Mahāyāna Buddhism are, in fact, culture norms from Tibet, China or Japan. They bear no direct relationship to Buddhism in India.

The tide began to turn in the 1970s. Greg Schopen's 1975 article introduced a new theory of Mahāyāna origins that directly challenged Hirakawa. Schopen argued that early Mahāyāna groups rejected stūpa worship in favour of what Schopen called "the cult of the book". Drewes (2007) himself critiques this seminal article at length, but it began an American-led re-evaluation of the origins of Mahāyāna.

The decisive moment, however, was Paul Harrison's article "Who Gets to Ride in the Great Vehicle? Self Image and Identity Among the Followers of Early Mahāyāna." (1987). This was based on an examination of the first sūtras to be translated into Chinese. This showed that Mahāyāna was overwhelmingly a monastic movement. The texts show little desire for establishing sectarian identity. Some of them even acknowledge the legitimacy of arhatship. They do not recommend devotion to bodhisattvas. They do show a generally negative attitude towards women. (Drewes 2010a: 55-6). And so the lay origins theory died.

The Breakaway Thesis

The standard story about Mahāyāna was that it began life as a breakaway sect from Mahāsāṃghika. There are several highly contradictory accounts of the schism at the second council which saw the conservative Sthāviras split from the more progressive Mahāsāṃghikas over matters relating to Pratimokṣa rules. Here I find the only bum note in Drewes' analysis. He describes this theory of Mahāsāṃghika origin as having died a quiet death. However, Karashima apparently disagrees because he continues to see, for example, the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra as being connected with Mahāsāṃghika (2013). However, the part about Mahāyāna being a breakaway sect is deprecated both for lack of evidence and for positive evidence of continued coexistence for many centuries between the Mainstream and the so-called Breakaways. In fact, what evidence we do have suggests that there was only ever one kind of ordination lineage in India (nikāya), there was no distinct Mahāyāna ordination, and no distinct Mahāyāna institutions. Harrison argued that there was no way to determine any sectarian affiliation of the early Mahāyāna.
† The word nikāya is used in different ways, but here means "a group". The nikāya ordinations are basically the same the Buddhist world over. Theravādins also use the term nikāya to indicate ordination lineages within their school.
Mahāyāna Buddhism appears to have developed slowly. It certainly produced many texts in the early centuries, but little hard evidence. Schopen has noted a single statue of Amitābha, broken off at the ankle, but labelled as such on the pedestal, dating from ca. 153 CE. The oldest epigraphical evidence dates from the 4th or 5th centuries CE.
‡ Epigraphical evidence is from inscriptions typically carved into stone at a Buddhist site. Many record donations of money, often from monks.
Once we strip away all the unsupported conjectures and suppositions about Mahāyāna, little remains. There was no "the Mahāyāna", per se, (and I have tried to avoid the definite article in this essay). We know, from epigraphical, textual and eye-witness reports of Chinese pilgrims that Mahāyāna monks lived alongside Mainstream monks in the same monasteries. These monks were mainly concerned with the production and spread of new Buddhists texts, a major preoccupation of the texts themselves. Over many centuries the emphasis of monasteries changed so that Mahāyāna ideas and values predominated, but the ordination lineages remained the same (as they do in Tibet and parts of China to this day). According to Drewes, there were reactions, but these were by the Mainstream against Mahāyāna, or indeed by one branch of Mahāyāna against another. There was no Mahāyāna reaction against the Mainstream. There was a slow evolution over at least 600-800 years.

Karashima, however, points out that in second stratum of the Lotus Sūtra the dharmabhāṇaka (Dharma preacher) proclaiming the Lotus Sutra were "harshly criticised, slandered for having composed the kāvyas (i.e., the Lotus Sutra itself) and for propagating a heresy" and thus "it is evident that their belief was a very dangerous heresy in the eyes of the Buddhist authorities of that time" (2015a: 115). Similarly, Schopen argues that Mahāyāna authors were defensive with respect to the Mainstream. Discussing the Ratnāvalī, a text attributed to Nāgārjuna:
"Even in the hands of one of its most clever advocates it does not appear as an independent, self-confident movement sweeping all before it as... But rather—and as late as the second or third century—it appears as an embattled movement struggling for acceptance." (Schopen 2005: 7)
And also:
"Sociologists, however, who have studied sectarian groups in a variety of contexts, have shown that [the sort of characterization found in the Ratnāvalī] is typical of small, embattled groups on the fringes or margins of dominant, established parent groups." (Schopen 2005: 9)
This suggests that Drewes is playing down the antagonism between Mahāyāna and the Mainstream. It seems clear that Mahāyāna believers did co-exist with Mainstream Buddhists, but they did not necessarily co-exist without tensions and conflicts.

The Role of Texts

It seems that in trying to understand Mahāyāna we have placed too much emphasis on the proliferation of texts. Too many assumptions were made about the conditions under which a religious group might produce and transmit new texts. Here, again, we can point to the influence of Protestantism. To our Eurocentric minds, the production of new texts must be preceded by schism and must represent irreconcilable differences. But this assumption does not apply in India, generally. The history of Indian religions is very different from the history of Christianity in Europe, especially as seen through Protestant eyes. Buddhist India was far more pluralistic than Christian Europe; more tolerant of heterodoxy, though polemics do survive; and more likely to syncretise. 

For some time it seemed that Schopen was right to say that "each text placed itself at the centre of its own cult" (cited in Drewes 2010a: 59). However, Drewes calls this into question. Firstly, there was no evidence of distinct Mahāyāna communities. Mahāyāna existed within the Mainstream institutional framework. Some have pointed to the divergent doctrinal views of Mahāyāna texts as evidence requiring distinct cults, but Drewes counters that accepting the authenticity of texts with divergent points of views is not a problem today and there is no evidence that it ever was. Drewes suggests that the different sūtras probably reflect the ideas of different authors rather than distinct communities.

So, Mahāyāna was primarily a literary movement, operating within and alongside mainstream Buddhism. It was unlikely to have been a unified movement.

We now have good evidence in the form of the old Aṣṭasāhasrikā manuscript described by Karashima and Falk that the first Prajñāpāramitā texts were composed and/or compiled in Gandhāra in the local language, Gāndhārī (see Karashima 2013).
    It is fairly certain, however, that writing was in use before the development of Mahāyāna. Drewes notes one Mainstream text with a 2σ range 184-46 BCE and another with 2σ range 206 BCE - 59 CE (2010a: 60). The mid points of these ranges are 110 BCE and 146 BCE respectively. But, on the whole, it seems that Mahāyāna textual practices were not different from Mainstream practices and Drewes notes that the distinction between categories like "oral" and "written" is not hard and fast in India. Even written texts are memorised and studied orally.

    As Drewes points out, contra to a popular theory, there is no evidence that Mahāyāna Sūtras were initially composed in written form (2010a: 60). Karashima (2015a: 113) reinforces the point that the texts were most likely composed orally in Prakrit. He proposes a rough time line:
    1. Oral transmission in Prakrit. 1st Century BCE.
    2. Oral transmission in Prakrit. Written Prakrit in Kharoṣṭhī script. 1st~3rd centuries CE.
    3. Broken Sanskrit mixed with Prakrit. 2nd~3rd centuries CE.
    4. (Buddhist) Sanskrit. Written in Brāhmī script. 3rd/4th centuries onwards.
    Drewes places the translation into Sanskrit about a century later than Karashima, i.e., 4th/5th century.

    To sound a contrary note, I have to point out that propagating a literature is generally a community activity. Written texts require a medium, ink, and implements, all of which suggest an economy in which such things were either produced or could be bought. For oral texts to survive for any length of time, they must be memorised by more than one person at a time. But such communities could have existed as cliques within monasteries.

    Forest Dwelling Bodhisatvas

    Paul Harrison (1992) and Reginald Ray(1994) independently floated the idea that forest dwelling ascetics were a significant influence on the development of Buddhism, generally, and Mahāyāna, specifically. The idea seems to have caught on and many scholars have found textual support for this thesis, not least Jan Nattier in her 1993 book A Few Good Men. Indeed, if the heart of the Mahāyāna was in forest renunciants, then this would explain the lack of inscriptional evidence (though for the same reason it is inconsistent with written texts).

    The forest renunciate is a Romantic figure, or at least a focus for Romantic projections, both for their mode of life and for the location of it in wild nature. They are saintly, dedicated to religious practices, especially self-denial, and is associated in many cultures with sacredness. Research has shown that such personal sacrifices are important in encouraging the faith of ordinary people (see Martyrs Maketh the Religion). Thus, the forest renunciate appeals to the Romantic aspect of modernist world view and self view.

    However, as Drewes remarks, "The main problem with the forest hypothesis is that Mahāyāna sūtras, the final court for any theory of early Mahāyāna, provide little support for it." (2010a 61). Of course, the texts do mention forest dwelling, but it is hardly the sine qua non of Buddhist practice in most early Mahāyāna texts. Some texts, e.g., the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, even discourage it! The majority of Mahāyāna texts seem to be concerned with easy practices that enable one to get out of saṃsāra with the minimum of effort.

    Ray turns out to have used a very narrow selection of texts to justify his thesis (and those only in translation). He excludes the large majority of the texts that have been translated, let alone of those which are preserved in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. But what is worse is that the texts he does cite frequently undermine his thesis on closer examination. For example, he cites the Ratna-guṇasamcayagāthā as advocating forest dwelling, when, in fact, it explicitly discourages it! (Drewes 2010a: 62). Jan Nattier's forest dwelling thesis is also, I hate to say, built on shaky ground. It is based on one text, the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra, that is admittedly very early, but "advocates forest dwelling and monasticism inconsistently" (Drewes 2010a: 62). Her other contribution focuses on Akṣobhya's pure land, but here also she seems to overlook the ease with which practitioners are promised entry to Abhirati. "Nattier's general idea that earlier forms of Mahāyāna advocated difficult, jātaka-like practices and that easy means of practice were developed only later has no obvious evidentiary support" (Drewes 2010a: 62).

    Clearly, forest dwelling played a continuing part in Buddhism. It is evidently an important practice for Mainstream Buddhists, but Mahāyāna texts are equivocal about the benefits. They seem to prefer other kinds of practice; often much easier practices.

    The Bodhisatva Ideal.

    The earlier models of Mahāyāna Buddhism had a break-away group who rejected the arhat ideal in favour of the new bodhisatva ideal. We've seen that the break-away thesis is wrong, that the arhat ideal was not rejected in all early Mahāyāna texts. And, in fact, there is no strong evidence that the bodhisatva ideal was particularly influential in Mahāyāna. We also know that the bodhisatva ideal was not missing from the early Buddhist texts. But a number of other characteristics distinguish Mahāyāna texts from Mainstream texts:
    • expanded cosmologies and mythical histories
    • pure lands
    • 'celestial' Buddhas and bodhisatvas
    • descriptions of powerful new religious practices
    • new ideas on the nature of the Buddha
    • a range of new philosophical perspectives
    There's nothing in the actual texts to suggest that the bodhisatva ideal was either the cause of the others, or that it was more prominent than the other characteristics (Drewes 2010b: 66-67). So it seems the focus on the bodhisatva idea is a retrospective emphasis, and the insistence that it was not found in Mainstream Buddhism is a straw man argument, a mistake or a disingenuous piece of misinformation.


    A generation of scholarship has transformed our understanding of the origins and early development of Mahāyāna Buddhism. However, that scholarly understanding has yet to fully permeate the Buddhist community. Certainly when I got involved in Buddhism in the early 1990s the standard narrative was still basically the 19th century one. I believe that it survives largely intact. Part of the reason might be that it strikes at Buddhist self-views and identity building narratives. My understanding of religious belief is that these are the beliefs that are most resistant to counterfactual arguments. Judging by how reluctantly Buddhists have received the knowledge that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphal Chinese text, I suspect that it will be some time before Buddhists catch up with the academy on this, if they ever do.

    A significant drawback in Drewes' articles is that they only relate the etic view, i.e., the views of European and American scholars. They tell us little or nothing of the emic, i.e., of what Buddhists themselves thought about Mahāyāna. I think it likely that etic views were formed in part by the normative stories told by Buddhists themselves. The views held by Western scholars were almost certainly informed by existing Buddhist narratives. It would be useful to know more about the process of view forming amongst these early scholars and the extent to which they were simply repeating what Buddhists themselves believed about their own history.

    It is quite significant if the Buddhist normative stories are at odds with the actual history that we can derive from textual and archaeological studies. My sense is that many of the false stories about the origins of the Mahāyāna are promoted by the sectarian followers of Mahāyāna in order to bolster their own prestige. Buddhists often seem to see themselves as being in a competition to present (and represent) the most "authentic" or most "authoritative" version of Buddhism. Or else they are justifying their own heterodoxy. Many of these historical narratives are dismissive of Mainstream Buddhism, which in light of the actual history now seems bizarre. And the competitive side of Buddhists is still evident in the present.

    This new historical paradigm may well shed new light on old debates about the sectarian affiliations of the some more prominent Mahāyāna śāstra writers, like Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu. The idea that these writers could have a foot in both camps no longer seems odd. Assigning them to either Mainstream or Mahāyāna might be to misunderstand where their loyalties lay. It is only our perception of sectarian divides that make us struggle to place a figure Nāgārjuna, who both cites āgama texts and uses Mahāyāna ideas, like śūnyatā. As monk, Nāgārjuna can only have been ordained in a Mainstream lineage, because that was the only kind of Buddhist ordination. Perhaps it was entirely natural at the time to have loyalty to a conservative ordination lineage and an innovative textual tradition at the same time.

    Drewes argues against the use of the term Mainstream Buddhism, largely because different scholars have used it in widely varying ways. He suggests non-Mahāyāna, but I disagree. It would be better to have a positive term for what was, after all, the mainstream of Indian Buddhism for a millennium, and to seek a consensus on how it is used. Defining the mainstream in terms of not being part of a minority movement seems perverse. In light of this new picture that has emerged, "Mainstream" seems the best candidate yet as a term to contrast the Mahāyāna tendency in Buddhism over a period of many centuries. We need to be clear that this is a term for discussing the history of Buddhism in India. It does not apply to groups outside India, nor beyond the demise of Indian Buddhism, though, arguably, now that there are millions of new (Ambedkarite) Buddhists in India, it is once again relevant. So the term cannot apply to modern Buddhism movements. Nor is it a fixed term. The mainstream of Buddhism in India was changing all the time; the point that Drewes makes is that the mainstream was gradually taken over by Mahāyāna Buddhism. For an example of this kind of change see my JBE article on how karma changes over time (Attwood 2014).

    I've noted a few points of discussion and disagreement. These ought not to distract from the overview provided by Drewes. Overall, these articles are an important contribution to our understanding of the history of Buddhism. The articles benefit from being well written and organised. Although many scholars contributed to the change in worldview, to see all that work expertly summarised is quite an experience. It brings with it that frisson that the true intellectual feels when they experience a paradigm shift. One's worldview does not simply adjust to the new knowledge, but the new knowledge restructures the world view. The case Drewes makes seems to sit on firm foundations and to completely supersede the legacy view of Mahāyāna. Personally I love it when this happens. Everything we thought we knew was wrong. Fantastic!



    Attwood, Jayarava. (2014) Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics 21: 503-535.

    Drewes, David.

    Seishi KARASHIMA

    Schopen, Gregory. (2005) Figments and Fragments of Mahayana Buddhism in India. University of Hawai'i Press.

    See also Bhikkhu Bodhi et al., The Bodhisattva Ideal: Essays on the Emergence of Mahāyāna. Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 2013. [Reviewed by Dhīvan in the Western Buddhist Review. And seems to make many of the same points from a mostly Theravāda point of view.]