The Project Gutenberg ebook of Hinduism And Buddhism, Volume II. (of 3)



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CHAPTER XVIII



THE BUDDHAS OF MAHAYANISM




This mythology did not grow up around the Buddha without affecting the central figure. To understand the extraordinary changes of meaning both mythological and metaphysical which the word Buddha undergoes in Mahayanist theology we must keep in mind not the personality of Gotama but the idea that he is one of several successive Buddhas who for convenience may be counted as four, seven or twenty-four but who really form an infinite series extending without limit backwards into the past and forwards into the future.[73] This belief in a series of Buddhas produced a plentiful crop of imaginary personalities and also of speculations as to their connection with one another, with the phenomena of the world and with the human soul.

In the Pali Canon the Buddhas antecedent to Gotama are introduced much like ancient kings as part of the legendary history of this world. But in the Lalita-vistara (Chap. XX) and the Lotus (Chap. VII) we hear of Buddhas, usually described as Tathâgatas, who apparently do not belong to this world at all, but rule various points of the compass, or regions described as Buddha-fields (Buddha-kshetra). Their names are not the same in the different accounts and we remain dazzled by an endless panorama of an infinity of universes with an infinity of shining Buddhas, illuminating infinite space.

Somewhat later five of these unearthly Buddhas were formed into a pentad and described as Jinas[74] or Dhyâni Buddhas (Buddhas of contemplation), namely, Vairocana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitâbha and Amoghasiddhi. In the fully developed form of this doctrine these five personages are produced by contemplation from the Âdi-Buddha or original Buddha spirit and themselves produce various reflexes, including Bodhisattvas, human Buddhas and goddesses like Târâ. The date when these beliefs first became part of the accepted Mahayana creed cannot be fixed but probably the symmetrical arrangement of five Buddhas is not anterior to the tantric period[75] of Buddhism.

The most important of the five are Vairocana and Amitâbha. Akshobhya is mentioned in both the Lotus and Smaller Sukhâvatî-vyûha as the chief Buddha of the eastern quarter, and a work purporting to be a description of his paradise still extant in Chinese[76] is said to have been translated in the time of the Eastern Han dynasty. But even in the Far East he did not find many worshippers. More enduring has been the glory of Vairocana who is the chief deity of the Shingon sect in Japan and is represented by the gigantic image in the temple at Nara. In Java he seems to have been regarded as the principal and supreme Buddha. The name occurs in the Mahâvastu as the designation of an otherwise unknown Buddha of luminous attributes and in the Lotus we hear of a distant Buddha-world called Vairocana-rasmi-pratimandita, embellished by the rays of the sun.[77] Vairocana is clearly a derivative of Virocana, a recognized title of the sun in Sanskrit, and is rendered in Chinese by Ta-jih meaning great Sun. How this solar deity first came to be regarded as a Buddha is not known but the connection between a Buddha and light has always been recognized. Even the Pali texts represent Gotama as being luminous on some occasions and in the Mahayanist scriptures Buddhas are radiant and light-giving beings, surrounded by halos of prodigious extent and emitting flashes which illuminate the depths of space. The visions of innumerable paradises in all quarters containing jewelled stupas and lighted by refulgent Buddhas which are frequent in these works seem founded on astronomy vaporized under the influence of the idea that there are millions of universes all equally transitory and unsubstantial. There is no reason, so far as I see, to regard Gotama as a mythical solar hero, but the celestial Buddhas[78] clearly have many solar attributes. This is natural. Solar deities are so abundant in Vedic mythology that it is hardly possible to be a benevolent god without having something of the character of the sun. The stream of foreign religions which flowed into India from Bactria and Persia about the time of the Christian era brought new aspects of sun worship such as Mithra, Helios and Apollo and strengthened the tendency to connect divinity and light. And this connection was peculiarly appropriate and obvious in the case of a Buddha, for Buddhas are clearly revealers and light-givers, conquerors of darkness and dispellers of ignorance.

Amitâbha (or the Buddha of measureless light), rising suddenly from an obscure origin, has like Avalokita and Vishnu become one of the great gods of Asia. He is also known as Amitâyus or measureless life, and is therefore a god of light and immortality. According to both the Lotus and the Smaller Sukhâvatî-vyûha he is the lord of the western quarter but he is unknown to the Lalita-vistara. It gives the ruler of the west a lengthy title,[79] which suggests a land of gardens. Now Paradise, which has biblical authority as a name for the place of departed spirits, appears to mean in Persian a park or enclosed garden and the Avesta speaks of four heavens, the good thought Paradise, the good word Paradise, the good deed Paradise and the Endless Lights.[80] This last expression bears a remarkable resemblance to the name of Amitâbha and we can understand that he should rule the west, because it is the home to which the sun and departed spirits go. Amitâbha's Paradise is called Sukhâvatî or Happy Land. In the Puranas the city of Varuṇa (who is suspected of having a non-Indian origin) is said to be situated in the west and is called Sukha (Linga P. and Vayu P.) or Mukhya (so Vishnu P. and others). The name Amitâbha also occurs in the Vishnu Purana as the name of a class of gods and it is curious that they are in one place[81] associated with other deities called the Mukhyas. The worship of Amitâbha, so far as its history can be traced, goes back to Saraha, the teacher of Nâgârjuna. He is said to have been a Sudra and his name seems un-Indian. This supports the theory that this worship was foreign and imported into India.[82]

This worship and the doctrine on which it is based are an almost complete contradiction of Gotama's teaching, for they amount to this, that religion consists in faith in Amitâbha and prayer to him, in return for which he will receive his followers after death in his paradise. Yet this is not a late travesty of Buddhism but a relatively early development which must have begun about the Christian era. The principal works in which it is preached are the Greater Sukhâvatî-vyûha or Description of the Happy Land, translated into Chinese between 147 and 186 A.D., the lesser work of the same name translated in 402 A.D. and the Sûtra of meditation on Amitâyus[83] translated in 424. The first of these works purports to be a discourse of Śâkyamuni himself, delivered on the Vulture's Peak in answer to the questions of Ânanda. He relates how innumerable ages ago there was a monk called Dharmâkara who, with the help of the Buddha of that period, made a vow or vows[84] to become a Buddha but on conditions. That is to say he rejected the Buddhahood to which he might become entitled unless his merits obtained certain advantages for others, and having obtained Buddhahood on these conditions he can now cause them to be fulfilled. In other words he can apportion his vast store of accumulated merit to such persons and in such manner as he chooses. The gist of the conditions is that he should when he obtained Buddhahood be lord of a paradise whose inhabitants live in unbroken happiness until they obtain Nirvana. All who have thought of this paradise ten times are to be admitted therein, unless they have committed grievous sin, and Amitâbha will appear to them at the moment of death so that their thoughts may not be troubled. The Buddha shows Ânanda a miraculous vision of this paradise and its joys are described in language recalling the account of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation and, though coarser pleasures are excluded, all the delights of the eye and ear, such as jewels, gardens, flowers, rivers and the songs of birds await the faithful.

The smaller Sukhâvatî-vyûha, represented as preached by Śâkyamuni at Śrâvasti, is occupied almost entirely with a description of the paradise. It marks a new departure in definitely preaching salvation by faith only, not by works, whereas the previous treatise, though dwelling on the efficacy of faith, also makes merit a requisite for life in heaven. But the shorter discourse says dogmatically "Beings are not born in that Buddha country as a reward and result of good works performed in this present life. No, all men or women who hear and bear in mind for one, two, three, four, five, six or seven nights the name of Amitâyus, when they come to die, Amitâyus will stand before them in the hour of death, they will depart this life with quiet minds and after death they will be born in Paradise."

The Amitâyur-dhyâna-sûtra also purports to be the teaching of Śâkyamuni and has an historical introduction connecting it with Queen Vaidehî and King Bimbisâra. In theology it is more advanced than the other treatises: it is familiar with the doctrine of Dharma-kâya (which will be discussed below) and it represents the rulers of paradise as a triad, Amitâyus being assisted by Avalokita and Mahasthâmaprâpta.[85] Admission to the paradise can be obtained in various ways, but the method recommended is the practice of a series of meditations which are described in detail. The system is comprehensive, for salvation can be obtained by mere virtue with little or no prayer but also by a single invocation of Amitâyus, which suffices to free from deadly sins.

Strange as such doctrines appear when set beside the Pali texts, it is clear that in their origin and even in the form which they assume in the larger Sukhâvatî-vyûha they are simply an exaggeration of ordinary Mahayanist teaching.[86] Amitâbha is merely a monk who devotes himself to the religious life, namely seeking bodhi for the good of others. He differs from every day devotees only in the degree of sanctity and success obtained by his exertions. The operations which he performs are nothing but examples on a stupendous scale of pariṇâmanâ or the assignment of one's own merits to others. His paradise, though in popular esteem equivalent to the Persian or Christian heaven, is not really so: strictly speaking it is not an ultimate ideal but a blessed region in which Nirvana may be obtained without toil or care.

Though this teaching had brilliant success in China and Japan, where it still flourishes, the worship of Amitâbha was never predominant in India. In Nepal and Tibet he is one among many deities: the Chinese pilgrims hardly mention him: his figure is not particularly frequent in Indian iconography[87] and, except in the works composed specially in his honour, he appears as an incidental rather than as a necessary figure. The whole doctrine is hardly strenuous enough for Indians. To pray to the Buddha at the end of a sinful life, enter his paradise and obtain ultimate Nirvana in comfort is not only open to the same charge of egoism as the Hinayana scheme of salvation but is much easier and may lead to the abandonment of religious effort. And the Hindu, who above all things likes to busy himself with his own salvation, does not take kindly to these expedients. Numerous deities promise a long spell of heaven as a reward for the mere utterance of their names,[88] yet the believer continues to labour earnestly in ceremonies or meditation. It would be interesting to know whether this doctrine of salvation by the utterance of a single name or prayer originated among Buddhists or Brahmans. In any case it is closely related to old ideas about the magic power of Vedic verses.

The five Jinas and other supernatural personages are often regarded as manifestations of a single Buddha-force and at last this force is personified as Âdi-Buddha.[89] This admittedly theistic form of Buddhism is late and is recorded from Nepal, Tibet (in the Kâlacakra system) and Java, a distribution which implies that it was exported from Bengal.[90] But another form in which the Buddha-force is impersonal and analogous to the Parabrahma of the Vedânta is much older. Yet when this philosophic idea is expressed in popular language it comes very near to Theism. As Kern has pointed out, Buddha is not called Deva or Îśvara in the Lotus simply because he is above such beings. He declares that he has existed and will exist for incalculable ages and has preached and will preach in innumerable millions of worlds. His birth here and his nirvana are illusory, kindly devices which may help weak disciples but do not mark the real beginning and end of his activity. This implies a view of Buddha's personality which is more precisely defined in the doctrine known as Ṭrikâya or the three bodies[91] and expounded in the Mahâyâna-sûtrâlankâra, the Awakening of Faith, the Suvarṇa-prabhâsa sûtra[92] and many other works. It may be stated dogmatically as follows, but it assumes somewhat divergent forms according as it is treated theologically or metaphysically.

A Buddha has three bodies or forms of existence. The first is the Dharma-kâya, which is the essence of all Buddhas. It is true knowledge or Bodhi. It may also be described as Nirvana and also as the one permanent reality underlying all phenomena and all individuals. The second is the Sambhoga-kâya, or body of enjoyment, that is to say the radiant and superhuman form in which Buddhas appear in their paradises or when otherwise manifesting themselves in celestial splendour. The third is the Nirmâna-kâya, or the body of transformation, that is to say the human form worn by Śâkyamuni or any other Buddha and regarded as a transformation of his true nature and almost a distortion, because it is so partial and inadequate an expression of it. Later theology regards Amitâbha, Amitâyus and Śâkyamuni as a series corresponding to the three bodies. Amitâbha does not really express the whole Dharma-kâya, which is incapable of personification, but when he is accurately distinguished from Amitâyus (and frequently they are regarded as synonyms) he is made the more remote and ethereal of the two. Amitâyus with his rich ornaments and his flask containing the water of eternal life is the ideal of a splendidly beneficent saviour and represents the Sambhoga-kâya.[93] Śâkyamuni is the same beneficent being shrunk into human form. But this is only one aspect, and not the most important, of the doctrine of the three bodies. We can easily understand the Sambhoga-kâya and Nirmâna-kâya: they correspond to a deity such as Vishnu and his incarnation Krishna, and they are puzzling in Buddhism simply because we think naturally of the older view (not entirely discarded by the Mahayana) which makes the human Buddha the crown and apex of a series of lives that find in him their fulfilment. But it is less easy to understand the Dharma-kâya.

The word should perhaps be translated as body of the law and the thought originally underlying it may have been that the essential nature of a Buddha, that which makes him a Buddha, is the law which he preaches. As we might say, the teacher lives in his teaching: while it survives, he is active and not dead.

The change from metaphor to theology is illustrated by Hsüan Chuang when he states[94] (no doubt quoting from his edition of the Pitakas) that Gotama when dying said to those around him "Say not that the Tathâgata is undergoing final extinction: his spiritual presence abides for ever unchangeable." This apparently corresponds to the passage in the Pali Canon,[95] which runs "It may be that in some of you the thought may arise, the word of the Master is ended: we have no more a teacher. But it is not thus that you should regard it. The truths and the rules which I have set forth, let them, after I am gone, be the Teacher to you." But in Buddhist writings, including the oldest Pali texts, Dharma or Dhamma has another important meaning. It signifies phenomenon or mental state (the two being identical for an idealistic philosophy) and comprises both the external and the internal world. Now the Dharma-kâya is emphatically not a phenomenon but it may be regarded as the substratum or totality of phenomena or as that which gives phenomena whatever reality they possess and the double use of the word dharma rendered such divagations of meaning easier.[96] Hindus have a tendency to identify being and knowledge. According to the Vedânta philosophy he who knows Brahman, knows that he himself is Brahman and therefore he actually is Brahman. In the same way the true body of the Buddha is prajñâ or knowledge.[97] By this is meant a knowledge which transcends the distinction between subject and object and which sees that neither animate beings nor inanimate things have individuality or separate existence. Thus the Dharma-kâya being an intelligence which sees the illusory quality of the world and also how the illusion originates[98] may be regarded as the origin and ground of all phenomena. As such it is also called Tathâgatagarbha and Dharma-dhâtu, the matrix or store-house of all phenomena. On the other hand, inasmuch as it is beyond them and implies their unreality, it may also be regarded as the annihilation of all phenomena, in other words as Nirvana. In fact the Dharma-kâya (or Bhûta-tathatâ) is sometimes[99] defined in words similar to those which the Pali Canon makes the Buddha use when asked if the Perfect Saint exists after death—"it is neither that which is existence nor that which is non-existence, nor that which is at once existence and non-existence nor that which is neither existence nor non-existence." In more theological language it may be said that according to the general opinion of the Mahayanists a Buddha attains to Nirvana by the very act of becoming a Buddha and is therefore beyond everything which we call existence. Yet the compassion which he feels for mankind and the good Karma which he has accumulated cause a human image of him (Nirmâna-kâya) to appear among men for their instruction and a superhuman image, perceptible yet not material, to appear in Paradise.

 


FOOTNOTES:




[73] In Mahâparinib. Sut. I. 16 the Buddha is made to speak of all the other Buddhas who have been in the long ages of the past and will be in the long ages of the future.

[74] Though Dhyâni Buddha is the title most frequently used in European works it would appear that Jina is more usual in Sanskrit works, and in fact Dhyâni Buddha is hardly known outside Nepalese literature. Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi are rarely mentioned apart from the others. According to Getty (Gods of Northern Buddhism, pp. 26, 27) a group of six, including the Âdi-Buddha himself under the name of Vajrasattva, is sometimes worshipped.

[75] About the same period Śiva and Vishnu were worshipped in five forms. See below, Book V. chap. III. sec. 3 ad fin.

[76] Nanjio, Cat. No. 28.

[77] Virocana also occurs in the Chândogya Up. VIII. 7 and 8 as the name of an Asura who misunderstood the teaching of Prajâpati. Verocana is the name of an Asura in Sam. Nik. I. xi. 1. 8.

[78] The names of many of these Buddhas, perhaps the majority, contain some word expressive of light such as Âditya, prabhâ or tejas.

[79] Chap. XX. Pushpavalivanârajikusumitâbhijña.

[80] E.g. Yashts. XXII. and XXIV. S.B.E. vol. XXIII. pp. 317 and 344. The title Pure Land (Chinese Ch'ing-t'u, Japanese Jo-do) has also a Persian ring about it. See further in the chapter on Central Asia.

[81] Vishnu P., Book III. chap. II.

[82] See below: Section on Central Asia, and Grünwedel, Mythologie, 31, 36 and notes: Taranatha (Shiefner), p. 93 and notes.

[83] Amitâyur-dhyâna-sûtra. All three works are translated in S.B.E. vol. XLIX.

[84] Praṇidhâna. Not only Amitâbha but all Bodhisattvas (especially Avalokita and Kshitigarbha) are supposed to have made such vows. This idea is very common in China and Japan but goes back to Indian sources. See e.g. Lotus, XXIV. verse 3.

[85] These Bodhisattvas are also mentioned but without much emphasis in the Greater Sukhâvatî-vyûha.

[86] Even in Hinayanist works such as the Nidânakathâ Sumedha's resolution to become a Buddha, formed as he lies on the ground before Dipankara, has a resemblance to Amîda's vow. He resolves to attain the truth, to enable mankind to cross the sea of the world and only then to attain Nirvana.

[87] See Foucher, Iconographie Bouddhique dans l'Inde.

[88] The Bhagavad-gîtâ states quite clearly the doctrine of the deathbed prayer (VIII. ad init.). "He who leaves this body and departs remembering me in his last moments comes to my essence. Whatever form (of deity) he remembers when he finally leaves this body, to that he goes having been used to ponder on it."

[89] See art. Âdi-Buddha in E.R.E. Asanga in the Sûtrâlankâra (IX. 77) condemns the doctrine of Âdi-Buddha, showing that the term was known then, even if it had not the precise dogmatic sense which it acquired later. His argument is that no one can become a Buddha without an equipment (Sambhâra) of merit and knowledge. Such an equipment can only be obtained from a previous Buddha and therefore the series of Buddhas must extend infinitely backwards.

[90] For the prevalence of the doctrine in mediæval Bengal see B.K. Sarkar, Folklore Element in Hindu Culture, which is however sparing of precise references. The Dharma or Nirañjana of the Śûnya Purâna seems to be equivalent to Âdi-Buddha.

Sometimes the Âdi-Buddha is identified with Vajrasattva or Samantabhadra, although these beings are otherwise classified as Bodhisattvas. This appears analogous to the procedure common in Hinduism by which a devotee declares that his special deity is all the gods and the supreme spirit.

[91] It would appear that some of the Tantras treat of five bodies, adding to the three here given others such as the Ânandakâya, Vajrakâya and Svabhâvakâya. For this doctrine see especially De la Vallée Poussin, J.R.A.S. 1906, pp. 943-997 and Muséon, 1913, pp. 257 ff. Jigs-med nam-mká, the historian of Tibetan Buddhism, describes four. See Huth, Ges. d. Bud. in d. Mongolei, vol. II. pp. 83-89. Hinduism also assigns to living beings three bodies, the Kâraṇa-śarîra, lingaś. and sthûlaś.

[92] Translated into Chinese by Dharmaraksha between 397 and 439 A.D.

[93] The prototype of the Sambhoga-kâya is found in the Pali Canon, for the Buddha says (Mahâparinib. Sut. III. 22) that when he appears among the different classes of gods his form and voice are similar to theirs.

[94] Watters, vol. II. p. 38. "Spiritual essence" is Fa-shên in Chinese, i.e. Dharma-kâya. Another pass age is quoted to the effect that "henceforth the observances of all my disciples constitute the Tathâgata's Fa-shên, eternal and imperishable."

[95] Mahâparinib. Sut. VI. i.

[96] Something similar might happen in English if think and thing were pronounced in the same way and a thing were believed to be that which we can think.

[97] See Ashtasâhasrikâ Prajñâ-pâramitâ, chap. IV, near beginning.

[98] It is in this last point that no inferior intelligence can follow the thought of a Buddha.

[99] The Awakening of Faith, Teitaro Suzuki, p. 59.





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