Theravāda-Mahāyāna Dialogue: A Mahāyāna Perspective
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2003 Conference of the International Network for Engaged Buddhism
Thematic Workshop in Session B: Inter-Buddhist Dialogue
July 20-25, 2003/ Seoul, Korea
Therav?da-Mah?y?na Dialogue: A Mah?y?na Perspective
Professor, Dongguk Universiy, Korea
I. Necessity for Dialogue within Buddhist Community
The purpose of this essay is to seek a way of unity and methods of collaboration among Buddhists by raising a basic issue for dialogue between Therav?da and Mah?y?na traditions. In every religion, intra-religious conflict often creates more serious problem than conflict with other religions. It goes without saying, therefore, that intra-religious dialogue should precede inter-religious dialogue.
As the history of Buddhism shows, there have been conflict and antagonism among Buddhist sects. There were already twenty schools in the era of Abhidharama Buddhism. Mah?y?naBuddhism also divided more than thirteen sects. Today’s Buddhism worldwide is divided into three main traditions, that is, Therav?da and Mah?y?na, and Vajray?na. Since there are so many traditions and types of faith and practice in Buddhism, even devotees themselves often get confused. Some Buddhists argue for the superiority of their own schools without deep understanding about other traditions. As a result, it has been difficult to find neither Buddhist identity nor unity in the religious community.
Movement towards dialogue and communication among Buddhists should proceed from dialogue between Therav?da and Mah?y?na - both representative of present-day world Buddhism - towards movement for deeper-level dialogue between other sects. In order to do that, history of Buddhist thoughts and culture should first be comprehended. And common unity rather than differences should be discovered through dialogue between different traditions.
This essay first briefly examines the differences between Therav?da and Mah?y?na Buddhism in terms of the views of Buddha- body, scriptures, doctrines, ethics, practice, and faith. And it will show a few hurdles that need to be overcome to acquire mutual understanding and to quest for commonly shared essence. This process will help us to find a way of creative dialogue among Buddhist communities and common practical goals.
II. Therav?da vs Mah?y?na: Seeking Foundation for Dialogue
Mah?y?na Buddhism was a new Buddhist movement that started around the 1st Century BC in opposition to Hinayanistic tendency of Abhidharma traditions. It was a big wave that marked a historic watershed in Buddhist history. Mah?y?na Buddhist movement was not that of a single religious sect led by a particular individual, but was various faiths and Scriptures that became gradually unified and developed into the ideology called Mah?y?na. By the 3rd Century, unified Mah?y?na doctrine and order had been established.
1. Who is a Buddha?
The question of "Who is a Buddha?" was the most significant question for all the sects in Buddhism. When Gautama Buddha was alive, there was no being that could be called a Buddha other than the historical Buddha. The Buddha was also called Tath?gata, and he showed both human and superhuman aspects, and was seen as the highest teacher of all humans and divines. In Mah?y?na Buddhism, dharma-k?ya -oriented ideology was advanced which is a eternally imperishable body of a Buddha.
They believes the historical Buddha is a mere incarnation of Dharama-body. The Prajñ?-p?ramita-s?tra says that Prajñ?-p?ramita (perfection of wisdom) is the Tath?gata’s Dharma-k?ya.“ The Sadharma-pundarika-S?tra uses the term of eternal Buddha rather than the that of dharma-k?ya. The eternal Buddha is a Buddha who was enlightened a long time ago, and the life of Tath?gata is infinite . He exists forever. The eternal Buddha comes into being that surpasses the Buddhas of past or the future. In the Buddha-Avatamsaka-mah?vaipulya-s?tra, Viricana Buddha, the dharma-k, Viricana Buddha, the dharma-k?ya Buddha, is manifest as a Buddha that has omnipresent nature and infinity, therefore the Buddha in Mah?y?na Buddhism is elevated into vast and transcendental light. This idea of the Buddha-body was later developed into that of v?p?ka-k?ya meaning the body that resulted from the achievement of bodhisattva vows.
2. The Issues of Authenticity of the Scriptures
The authenticity of Mah?y?na sutras is a subtle issue that has been under controversy with the vicissitudes of Mah?y?na Buddhism. The samg?ti (compilation of scripture) was held four times before Mah?y?na Movement. But with establishment of Mah?y?na Buddhism, new sutras were compiled. Beginning part of Mah?y?na sutras also mentions the specific names of the place and attendants with the phrase "Thus have I heard (Evam may? ?rutam)" that is typically used to describe sutras in order to claim some authority. However, if the sutras were established 600 years after death of the Buddha, then the orthodoxy and authority of the sutras seem problematic.
The theory that Mah?y?na sutras are not the word of the Buddha was first raised by Buddhists who criticized Mah?y?na movement, and they condemned Mah?y?na s?tras, calling them teachings of Mara. However, the Mah?y?na-s?tra-lamk?ra (Ta-ch’eng-chuang-yen-ching-lun) argues that "If a person achieves enlightenment, and teaches Dhrama, it is recognized as the word of Buddha." This attitude is completely different from Therav?da interpretations of the sutras. Mah?y?na believes that something is the truth not because it was spoken by Buddha, but because everything that spoke the truth can be considered as the Buddha’s teachings. Thus, in Mah?yana tradition the notion of Buddhist scripture has eventually expanded.
3. Ideological Differences
The special doctrines and characteristics in Mah?y?na scriptures are Boddhisattva ideals, doctrine of multi-Buddha, positive interpretation of Nirvana, Sanskritization of sutras, emphasis on worship and rituals, important role of lay Buddhist, doctrine of vows, positive interpretation of precepts, Practice of mantra and darani, other-power Faith, etc. In particular, new terms appear such as ‘six p?ramit?s’, ‘generating Bodhi-citta’, ‘the ten bhumis’, ‘attainment of Buddhahood’, three-body of the Buddha’, ‘emptiness’, ‘Tath?gata-garbha.’ Among these, two concepts that Mah?y?na Buddhism contributed to the cultural history of humankind are Bodhsattva ideal and doctrine of sunyata (emptiness). The latter became the ideological foundation of Mah?y?na, whereas the former became the driving force that made Mah?y?na Buddhism successful as a religion.
4. Precepts and Religious Ethics
Mah?y?na Buddhism criticized conservative precepts and emphasized opened autonomous ethics. Although it inherits morality of early Buddhism, Mah?y?na Buddhism differentiate the meaning of Sila, depending on whether the precepts are kept in a self-centered way or in a Mah?y?na way. Precepts of Bodhisattava are positive and active ones that are always related to mind Karma based on motivational ethics and hope for redeeming mankind. The spirit of Sila in Mah?y?na Buddhism carries meaning only when they are for enlightenment and for the whole mankind. They are not passive commandments that avoid committing the evil, but active ones that expand the good.
The idea of karma in early Buddhism emphasized self-responsibility. However, Mah?y?na brought about the idea of transformation of merit (parin?man?) in which good deed produced by oneself is channeled not only to the wellbeing of oneself, but also to that of others. That is, there are two types of parin?man?. One is to channel one’s good deed to one’s own enlightenment, another is to channel it to merit for the wellbeing and enlightenment of others. The latter is different from doctrine causality which emphasizes that one’s karma is bound to come back to oneself.
5. Religious Faith and Practice
Therav?da emphasizes faith in self-power, whereas Mah?y?na adopted elements of faith in other-power. The Pure-Land school believes in Buddha’s original vows that will establish idealistic Buddha-land and redeem mankind who aspire to be reborn there. Faith in Amitabha Buddha teaches that one’s sins can be easily lifted and enlightenment achieved all by Buddha’s Grace and original vows. Teaching of the Pure-land came from Buddha’s warm compassion towards agonizing humankind. Faith in Rebirth to the Pure-Land earned empathy from the general public and opened the door for popularization of Mah?y?na Buddhism. Apart from it, there is Ch’an (Sun, Zen) Buddhism that denies any scriptural teaching but teaches ways of seeing one’s nature and attain Buddhahood. Esoteric Buddhism focuses on practice of mantra.
III. Search for Mutual Understanding and Common-ground
1. Are Hinay?naand Theravada, Therav?da and Early Buddhism, Synonymous with Each Other?
Devotees of Mah?y?na Buddhism used the term Mah?y?na to emphasize the greatness of its own teachings. However, it can be problematic whether or not it is appropriate to call anything other than the tradition of Mah?y?na as Hinayana. In this regard, it would help to refer to Walpola Rahula’s views: “Therav?da Buddhism went to Sri Lanka during the 3rd Century B.C. when there was no Mah?y?na at all. Hinay?na sects developed in India and had an existence independent from the form of Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka. Today there is no Hinay?na school in existence anywhere in the world.”
In effect, the sects that was criticized as Hinay?na at the time when Mah?y?na Buddhism was arising might be the Sarv?stiv?da or the Sautr?ntika. For that reason, World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) decided not to use the term ‘Hinayana’ to refer to Buddhisms in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Khmer, and Laos. It is equally inappropriate to identify today’s Therav?da Buddhism with early Buddhism. The Therav?da only believes in P?li scriptures that are believed to be closer to Buddha’s live voice than any others. If early Buddhism is identified as Hinay?na, the Buddha’s fundamental teachings might be reduced to interior teaching which is quite a troubling dilemma. By the same token, it is wrong to call the five Nik?yas, i.e., early Buddhist scriptures, as Hinay?na scriptures. Mah?y?na should be understood not as a particular sect, but as a concept that came into being through dialectical negation of distorted form of Buddhism.
2. What are the similarities between Therav?da and Mah?y?na?
From the perspective of history of religion, the idea of Mah?y?na mainly came from doctrine of the Mah?samghika. In fact, however, its root was already preached in original Buddhism. The major principles of Mah?y?na were mostly found in the Five Nik?yas. Walpola Rahula sees no big differences between Therav?da and Mah?y?na in terms of fundamental lessons due to the following reasons: (a) Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher. (b) The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools. (c) The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools. (d) The Paticca-samuppada or the Dependent Origination is the same in both schools. (e) Both reject the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world. (f) Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Panna without any differences.
The M?dhyamika doctrine of ??nyat? which is a central teaching in Mah?y?na is just a reinterpretation of Anatta and dependent origination in early Buddhism. The origins of Yogacara thought is also easily found in early scriptures.
3. Is Therav?da orthodox? And is Mah?y?na heterodox?
Therav?da argues that it succeed to the orthodox Buddhism, based on the fact that it believed in the Sutra which was regarded as the one that historic Buddha himself preached. Therefore, it implies that the orthodoxy of Mah?y?na should be denied, and furthermore Therav?da should be absolutized. However, Therav?da is not the new religion departed from Sakyamuni Buddha, but the one originated and developed from early Buddhism. Even though, Therav?da criticizes that Mah?y?na was not originated from Buddhism and regard faith in many Buddhas as a heretic. Besides, the Therav?da advocates show their concerns that ignoring historic Buddha may result in an evil course. Also they argue that excessive tolerance and generosity will dilute the innocence of Buddhism and as a result, they regard Mah?y?na and Esoteric Buddhism as Hindu-Buddhism deviated from the essence of Buddhism.
However, it is necessary to point out that the Sutra is not about the truth itself, but to teach us how to reach the truth. Buddhism is merely m?rga(way). The doctrines in the Five Nik?yas are also contextual truth according to its audience and the necessity at that time. Therefore, if the principle that all Sutras is an instrument is not well understood, it may cause huge misinterpretation of the Mah?y?na’s profound truth. Therefore, the Diamond s?ra (Vajrachedikha-prajñ?-p?ramit?-s?tra) warns that we should not stick to even the sermon that Buddha himself preached as the Absolute truth. In Buddhism, it is said that the obsession with Dharma is one of the agonies that should be discarded along with the obsession with oneself. If it is believed that the truth has its substance, this idea can cause the obsession with its own creed, resulting in conflicts of hatred and contradiction.
4. How can we understand fath in other-power?
It cannot be denied that the Mah?y?na beliefs such as Avalokitesvara Boddhisattva, Amitabha-Buddha, Maitreya Buddha, and Ksitigarbha Boddhisattva are formulated by the influences from other religious culture. However, its value cannot be underestimated from the viewpoint of orthodoxy based on historicism. The advantage of Buddhism is that when it is spread out to other culture, it is harmonized with the previous local belief. It also should be noted that at the same time, it has never lost its inclusive religious system based on self-power and the ideal of ultimate awakening.
Buddhism has a inclusive character. Inclusivism may be defined as a religious system which accepts other religious teaching, but only recognizes its preliminary values while putting its superiority to Buddhism. The other-power also aims the ultimate awakening. This principle of inclusivism can be applied to not only the dialogue within a religion, for example, the one among various sects, or religious bodies, but also the Buddhism’s understandings of other religions.
V. Proposal for Creative Dialogue and Practice
1. The attitudes of orthodoxy and superiority should be abandoned.
One of the barriers between Therav?da and Mah?y?na is so-called orthodox belief system. The argument that Therav?da is inherited its historical orthodoxy from Buddha, and the arrogant attitude of ignoring Mah?y?na based on the belief that the only the five Nik?yas is the genuine and innocent preaches directly from Buddha should be corrected.
In Mah?y?na, its superiority should be abandoned which is generated from the three-y?nas, i.e., ?r?vaka-y?na, pratyeka-buddha-y?na, and bodhisattva-y?na. Also sectarian attitudes, saying that Mah?y?na is a complete teaching (Nit?rtha), and Hinay?na is a incomplete teaching (Ney?rtha) should be abolished. Finally, the error of over-simplification that views early Buddhism including the abhidharma Buddhism and Hinay?na as same should be corrected.
2. Hinay?nistic elements in modern Buddhism should be abandoned.
In fact, Hinay?nistic elements exist in every Buddhist tradition not as a specific sect, but as non-Buddhistic phenomenon, For example, Bhiksu-centered samgha system, distorted preaches, selfish Buddhists, false Sutras, lack of will to practice, sectarianism, exclusivism, and Buddhists who neglect their duty of practicing mercy, or obsess with formality of Buddhist precepts: these are Hinay?na Buddhists. In this context, Hinay?na means the non-Buddhistic ways that should be overcome, and Mah?y?na means the will to rise above and reform Hinay?na. In this regard, the term of Mah?y?na and Hinay?na will be used not as the terminology indicating a certain sect, but as the concepts of extensive value determination.
3. The formulation of the new Buddhist scripture is necessary.
The new formulation of Samghiti for universal Buddhist scripture is now requested. Through official meetings of three traditions, the new Buddhist doctrines should be reviewed and recognized officially. Its process of canonization for all Buddhist should be agreed by Buddhism scholars and leaders from all three traditions. Especially, the official agreement on the authenticity of Mah?y?na s?tras from all Buddhism traditions is crucial.
4. The common creed and standardized ceremony should be established.
For the establishment of the common creed and standardized ceremony, it is necessary to consider following things; the standardization of Three Refuges, reinterpretation of panca-sila (Five Preceps) or 10 Sila, the establishment of new buddha-body theory, and the determination of central doctrine in Buddhism including early Buddhism, Therav?da, Mah?y?na, and Vajray?na tradition, etc.
5. Universalism should be pursued in traditional diversity.
By understanding the history of Buddhist doctrine, the development and extension process of doctrine and its continuity should be recognized from the cultural and religious perspective. Also the diversity of Buddha’s preaches and the uniqueness of Buddhist culture in many countries should be accepted.
6. Each community should learn from each other through dialogue and mutual interchange.
For mutual learning and growth through dialogue among Buddhist communities, Buddhists around the world should participate actively in INEB, WFB, or IPM (International Pancasila-samadana Movement). The Korean headquatre of WFB has established IPM since 1993. The IPM is designed to set common ethical rules among Buddhists traditions of Therav?da, Mah?y?na, and Vajray?na. The Five Precepts can be extended globally as common ethical movement, because it may be accepted by any communities that have a prejudice against religion, country, people, race or religious sect.
7. The collaboration principles among sects and its action plan should be discussed.
Facing the new century of globalization, it is time for Buddhist communities to open the age of dialogue. The dialogue among Buddhists begins with the understandings of each tradition’s history, and should be developed to notional, ethical and practical dimension. To start a new chapter of mutual understanding among three traditions, the education of creed, ceremony, history and culture in each tradition is necessary.
The tradition interpenetration Buddhism in Korea, can be a good model for further studies as one of the principles of collaboration among Buddhism traditions. The characteristics of Korean Buddhism are based on harmonization Buddhism, and they cover from sectarian Buddhism to reconciliated Buddhism. Korean Monk Wonhyo (617-686) in Shilla dynasty stated in the Thematic Essential of Nirvana-sutra that it united all sutras from diverse traditions, returned countless branches of the truth to the one proved the utmost fairness of Buddha thought, and finally reconciliated many disputes. In fact, the Buddhism escapes from all beliefs and boundaries, and denies any dogmatic fixation of the truth. The open mind beyond all barriers and boundaries should be the base for the dialogue among Buddhism communities.
8. The Buddhism always needs new interpretation.
Buddhism does not die with Buddha. As Mah?y?na accomplished a drastic development in Buddhism by reinterpreting the wisdom and mercy which are the central concept of Buddha’s awakening, Buddhists today should play an important role in improving our society through creative interpretation of Buddhist doctrines. The new way of Mah?y?na now is to seek right solution actively to salvation of the poor mind, social inequality and poverty, teenage problems, environmental pollution, human rights, materialism, and scientism. Therefore, the true meaning of Mah?y?na lies on the way back to the original teaching of the Buddha by correcting distorted form of Buddhism through its 2,600 years history.