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Its Essence and Development
By EDWARD CONZE
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
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The Flavour of Dharma
THE historian who wants to determine what the Buddha's doctrine actually was, finds himself confronted with literally thousands of works, which all claim the authority of the Buddha, and yet contain the most diverse and conflicting teachings. Some in-fluentical writers, bred in a Nonconformist tradition, have recently contended that one must seek for the true Buddhist doctrine only in what Gautama Buddha actually said about 500 B.C. This thesis has led to some acrimoniousness. The truth is that the oldest stratum of the existing scriptures can only be reached by uncertain inference and conjecture. One thing alone do all these attempts to reconstruct an 'original' Buddhism have in common. They all agree that the Buddha's doctrine was certainly not what the Buddhists understood it to be. Mrs. Rhys Davids, for instance, purges Buddhism of the doctrine of 'not-self,' and of monasticism. To her, some worship of "The Man" is the original gospel of Buddhism. H. J. Jennings, in cold blood, removes all references to re-incarnation from the Scriptures, and claims thereby to have restored their original meaning. Dr. P. Dahlke, again, ignores all the magic and mythology with which traditional Buddhism is replete, and reduces the doctrine of the Buddha to a quite reasonable, agnostic theory. In this book I set out to describe the living tradition of Buddhism throughout the centuries, and I confess that I do not know what the 'original gospel' of Buddhism was. To regard all later Buddhist history as a record of the 'degeneration' of an 'original' gospel is like regarding an oak tree as a degeneration of an acorn. In this book I assume that the doctrine of the Buddha, conceived in its full breadth, width, majesty and grandeur, comprises all those teachings which are linked to the original teaching by historical continuity, and which work out methods leading to the extinction of individuality by eliminating the belief in it.
Throughout the book we will have to refer to the Scriptures as the essential documents of Buddhist history. A general survey of Buddhist literature must be inserted at this point, and we must briefly consider the various divisions of the scriptures, their age, and the collections in which they are preserved.
From early times onwards, the scriptures were divided into Dharma and Vinaya. Vinaya deals with monastic discipline, Dharma with doctrine. At a later time, we find a threefold division, into Vinaya, Dharma or Sutra, and Abhidharma. The Abhidharma deals with more advanced doctrines (see pp. 105 sq.).
Another important division is that between Sutra and Shastra. A sutra is a text which claims to have been spoken by the Buddha himself. It always begins with the words, Thus have I heard at one time. The Lord dwelt at ... The 'I' here means the disciple Ananda, who recited the entire Buddha-word immediately after the Buddha's death. Many sutras were composed centuries after the death of the Buddha. The actual authors of the sutras which were not spoken by the historical Buddha himself, are, of course, unknown. The Buddhists themselves were sharply divided as to the value of these later sutras. One fraction, known as the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, held that works composed a substantial time after 480 B.C. and not recited at the first Council immediately after the Buddha's death, could not be authentic, could not be the Buddha's own words, could be no more than mere poetry and fairy tale. The other section, however, known as the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, asserted, in the face of all chronological difficulties, that even these later sutras come from the Buddha's own mouth. The time lag in publication was accounted for in various ways. One well-known story, for instance, runs that the Prajñaparamita Sutras, the texts dealing with perfect wisdom, were revealed by the Buddha himself, but that they were too difficult to be understood by his contemporaries. In consequence, they were stored in the palace of the Serpents, or Dragons, called Nagas, in the Nether world. When the time was ripe, the great doctor Nagarjuna went down into the Nether world, and brought them up into the world of men. This tale is not meant to be believed by everyone. In their desire to adapt themselves to the various dispositions of different people, the Buddhists were ever ready to give a mythological explanation to people who thought in mythological terms, and at the same time a philosophical explanation for those used to philosophical ways of thinking. The philosophical justification of the later Sutras makes use of the doctrine of the 'three bodies' of the Buddha, which we shall explain soon. It maintains that the old Sutras were taught by the Buddha's 'form-body,' and the later ones by his 'enjoyment-body' (see p. 171).
A Shastra is a treatise written by an author who is generally known by name, who endeavours to be more systematic than the Sutras usually are, and who quotes the Sutras as authorities. Many Shastras by the doctors of the Church, such as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and others, are preserved for us.
The total literary output of the Buddhists was enormous. Only fragments have reached us. Our history of Buddhism must therefore always remain fragmentary and tentative. For about 400 years the tradition was transmitted only orally, by schools of Reciters. Some features of the older scriptures are clearly those of an oral tradition, such as the many repetitions, and a fondness for verse and for numerical lists. Owing to this preference for oral transmission, many just of the oldest documents are now lost.
About the age of the Scriptures we are somewhat in the dark. Buddhism is a body of traditions in which few names stand out, and in which fewer dates are precisely known. It is indeed most exasperating when we try to apply our current ideas of historical criticism. Langlois and Seignobos, in their text book of historical method, state that "a document whose author, date and provenance cannot be determined, is just good for nothing." Alas, that is the case with most of the documents on which we build a 'history' of Buddhism. Hindus have always shown an almost complete indifference to historical dates. Historical change is considered as quite unimportant compared with the unchanging Truth. The Indian Buddhists shared this attitude. Even with regard to a date as fundamental as that of the life-time of the Buddha, their estimates varied substantially. Modern scholars generally place the death of the Buddha at 483 B.C. In India, Buddhist tradition put forward many other dates, for instance 852 B.C., or 652, or 552, or 353, or even 252. Without a firm framework of dates, a great deal of what we say about the temporal sequence of events in Buddhist history can be no more than plausible guess work. We should, however, admit that the Buddhist attitude to dates, exasperating though it is to the historian, is not quite as wrong-headed as it seems. The Dharma itself has no history. What changes are only the external circumstances in which it operates. And much of what is really important from a spiritual and religious point of view has no place in an historical book at all. Most of the experiences of the sages and saints of old in their solitude elude the historian.
The Buddhists also preserved few names, because it was, in the best periods, bad form for a monk to make a name for himself by literary work. It did not matter to them who said something, but whether it was true, helpful and in keeping with tradition. Originality and innovation were not encouraged, and anonymity was a concomitant of sanctity. This attitude has its compensations. If a persistent collective effort is made, over a long time, by a great number of people devoted singly to their emancipation, to work out a system of spiritual healing, the result after, say, ten centuries, is likely to be fairly imposing.
In addition, even where names are mentioned, they cannot be always taken at their face value. The great names of men like Ashvaglosha, Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, often attracted to themselves so many works, that later pious tradition sometimes extended the life-time of their holders over many centuries, while modern historical criticism has had the greatest difficulties in distinguishing the different persons behind the one name.
Nevertheless, some rough dating of literary works is possible. The Sutta Nipata, for instance, seems to contain some of the oldest texts we possess, partly because of its archaic language, and partly because a commentary of a part of it is included in the Canon of the Theravadins. Our conjectures as to the relative dates of Buddhist writings may be based on linguistic, or doctrinal grounds. With regard to the latter, one is faced with the danger—not often avoided in the past—that one forms some arbitrary conception of 'primitive' Buddhism, and then dates everything in reference to that. The Chinese translations are a great help to us, because they always meticulously record the date, and allow us to infer that the book in question must have been composed in India some time before that date. But even then, we find that the composition of just the most important works seems to have extended over a long period. Works like the Mahavastu and the Lalitavistara contain materials which may range from 200 B.C. to 600 A.D. In a book like the Lotus of the Good Law, or the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, the last chapters are centuries later than the first. What has survived of the scriptures exists now in 3 great collections:
I. The Pali Tripitaka
This contains the scriptures of one of the Hinayana schools, the Theravadins. The scriptures of other Hinayana schools are partly preserved in Sanskrit and Chinese, but the greater number of them is lost. For future reference I give a short survey of the chief divisions of the Hinayana Canon.
II. The Chinese Tripitaka
Its composition is less rigidly fixed, and it has varied in the course of time. The oldest Catalogue, of 518 A.D., mentions 2,113 works, of which 276 are still in existence. In 972 the Canon was printed for the first time. The latest Japanese edition, the Taishi Issaikyo, 1924-1929, gives 2,184 works in 55 volumes of ca 1,000 pages each.
III. The Tibetans Kanjur and Tanjur
The Kanjur is a collection of the Sutras, and it comprises either 108, or 100 volumes. Of these, 13 deal with Vinaya or monastic discipline; 21 with Prajñaparamita, or "Perfect Wisdom"; 45 with various Sutras, and 21 with Tantric texts. The Tanjur, in 225 volumes, gives the commentaries and the Shastras. The Tanjur falls into three parts: The first, of one volume only, gives 64 hymns; the second, 2,664 commentaries on Tantric texts, in 86 volumes. The third part is less homogeneous. It gives, first of all, 38 commentaries to the Prajñaparamita in 15 volumes; then the Shastras of the Madhyamika School (vol. 16-33) ; then commentaries to a variety of sutras (vol. 34-43) and the Shastras of the Yogacarins (vol. 44-61). This concludes the Mahayana texts. Then follow ca 30 volumes of scientific works belonging to the Hinayana. With volume 94 of part 3, the distinctly Buddhist Shastras come to an end. They are followed by 30 volumes devoted to the translations of sanskrit works dealing with accessory subjects, such as Logic, Grammar, Medicine, various arts and crafts and social economics, and, finally, by 13 volumes of Tibetan works on technical subjects.
IV. A number of Sanskrit works are preserved, but there exists no collection or Canon of them.
In this book all the treatises enumerated under these four headings are regarded as authentic sources of Buddhist thought. The choice has been made in the past by men wiser than myself, and I have no reason to dispute it. The greater part of this book will be devoted to the discussion of beliefs and practices shared only by a section of the Buddhist community, which is divided into monks and laymen, Hinayana and Mahayana, and various schools of thought. A few beliefs have, however, been common ground for the whole Buddhist movement in all its forms and it is with them that we must now begin. We must, first of all, say a few words about the beliefs held concerning the Buddha, and in connection with that, discuss the supposed 'atheism' of the Buddhist faith. Secondly, a few points of doctrine are common to all Buddhists. They concern either the essence of the spiritual life, and are laid down in the "four holy truths." Or they concern the structure and evolution of the world, and are derived from Hinduism.
As the beliefs concerning the Buddha do not form part of our cultural heritage, they are anything but obvious to most people, and require careful explanation. The Buddha can be considered from three points of view:
As a human being
As a spiritual principle
As something in between the two.
I. As a human being, the Buddha Gautama lived probably between 560 and 480 B.C., in the north-east of India. The historical facts of his life cannot be isolated from the legend which all Buddhists accept. The existence of Gautama, or Shakyamuni (The sage from the tribe of the Shakyas), as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith. The Buddha is a type that has been embodied in this individual—and it is the type which interests the religious life. While it is possible, though by no means certain, that ordinary believers may have thought sometimes of the Buddha as a personal being, the official Buddhist theology does nothing to encourage such a belief. In the official theory, the Buddha, "the Enlightened," is a kind of archetype which manifests itself in the world at different periods in different personalities, whose individual particularities are of no account whatsoever.
It is obvious to Buddhists, who believe in re-incarnation, that Gautama did not come into the world for the first time at 560 B.C. He had, like everyone else, undergone many births, had experienced the world as an animal, as a man, as a god. During his many rebirths, he would have shared the common fate of all that lives. A spiritual perfection like that of a Buddha cannot be the result of just one life. It must mature slowly throughout the ages. His had been a long journey, of a length which staggers the imagination. It took slightly more than three immense aeons (kalpas, see p. 49) according to the usual reckoning. In terms of years that would be about 3 × 1051 years, or at least some number of that order of magnitude. During all that time, the future Buddha practised all virtues in all possible ways. The earth-witnessing posture of so many Buddha statues symbolises the Buddha's long preparation for Buddhahood. The legend tells us of Shakyamuni's struggle with Mara, the Evil One, the Lord of this world, just before his enlightenment. Shakyamuni tells Mara that he has proved his contempt for worldly power and grandeur when he sacrificed wealth, limbs and life so many times in so many lives. He points to the earth as his witness, and the deity of the earth rises out of the ground, to confirm his statement. She also bore witness to the fact that Shakyamuni had fulfilled the complete discipline and duty of a Bodhisattva. This parable hides a deep spiritual truth. Mara, who corresponds to Satan, is the Lord of this world and of this earth. He claims therefore that the Bodhisattva, representing that which is beyond this world and irredeemably hostile to it, has no right even to the piece of ground on which he is seated in meditation. The Bodhisattva, on the other hand, claims that through his innumerable deeds of self-sacrifice in his former lives, he has won a right to this little bit of earth.
2. If the doctrine of the Buddha had been just the saying of some person or individual, it would lack in compelling authority. As a matter of fact, it emanated from the spiritual principle, from the Buddha-nature, which lay hidden in that individual Shakyamuni, and which as we might say 'inspired' him to understand and to teach the truth. When the Buddhists consider the Buddha as a spiritual principle, they call him the Tathagata, or speak of his Dharma-body. The original meaning of the word 'Tathgata' is no longer known. Later commentaries explain the term as composed of the two words 'Hatha,' 'Thus,' and the past participle 'agata,' 'come,' or 'agata,' 'gone.' In other words, the Tathagata is one who has come or gone 'thus' i.e. as the other Tathagatas have come or gone. This explanation stresses the fact that the 'historical Buddha' is not an isolated phenomenon, but that he is just one in an endless series of innumerable Tathagatas, who appear throughout the ages in the world and always proclaim the same doctrine. The Tathagata is, therefore, essentially one of a group. Sets of seven, or twenty-four, or a thousand, Tathagatas were particularly popular. In Sanchi and Bharhut, for instance, the seven Tathagatas, i.e. Shakyamuni and his six predecessors, are represented in art by the seven stupas which contained their relics, or by the seven trees under which they won enlightenment. In Gandhara, Mathura, and Ajanta, the seven Buddhas are shown in human form, one practically undistinguishable from the other.
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