where did the mahayana come from

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where did the mahayana come from

Postby jcsuperstar » Fri Jan 16, 2009 9:54 am

where did the mahayana come from, i know they butted heads in sri lanka so they must had had an idea about how this arose.
what is the classical idea here?
whats "our side of the story"?
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Anders » Fri Jan 16, 2009 10:48 am

The classical idea is that the Mahayana sutras the Buddha spoke were preserved by bodhisattvas and other beings in different realms and then revealed at later times as needed.

The modern idea is that the mahayana sutras were a forum for extra-agamic debates happening across the various schools, using the sutra format to authenticate their ideas.

My own take is a bit of both. My picture is something along these lines (bear in mind, my narrative assumes the mahayana sutras are authentic dharma, so adjust your lenses accordingly): After the time of the Buddha, not everyone congretated into neatly lined schools and the like. Geographical isolation and the like could easily create situations where communities of bhikshus would form around a lineage of highly realised beings, that originated around arhats that might have received only a few choice teachings from the Buddha before going off on their own. As they did not have contact with the wider community who invested the resources to establish a set canon of the Buddha's teachings, these people might formulate the teachings in different ways that didn't chime with how the established orthodoxy interpreted the teachings, as they relied mostly on their own realisation and went on their own conceptualisations of this to express it. Probably quite a few of these groups were also interacting with classes of enlightened beings beyond the human realm.

All of this is of course predicated on a 'handful of leaves' notion, that is to say although the Buddha laid bare all the necessary tools to become liberated he did not not teach all the possible ways of expressing this and did not express the wider implications of liberation or of how this took place in other realms. Included in this, was the way to become a buddha.

So fastforward a few hundred years of these groups developing like this and you can imagine what would happen when some wandering Vibhajjavadin, who was wellschooled in the canon that had been established and studied in the commentarial tradition that had grown around it, stumbled across a group like this who had developed a dharma rethoric along the lines of 'minds are not minds, they are called mind, neither past, present or future mind can be grasped' and furthermore, claimed to have a hotline to some Buddha they called Ashokbya in the eastern direction along with a select few 'bodhisattva' beings, apparently in training to become Buddhas that they were getting kinds of 'pure vision' from, teaching the Dharma. And that these people were aspiring for the same(!). Well, one can hardly blame such a bhikshu for thinking this was total adharma.

Actually, it's not quite so black and white. A lot of the notions we think of as being Mahayana today, such as the status of the Buddha, the two truths, the view of emptiness, upaya and such developed among the 18 early schools. There was clearly very different ideas going around of what the Buddha really meant based on the early sutras in the early schools. But there were also a lot of developments going in very different directions than this, primarily the abidharmic literature being developed by the Vibhajjavadins and Sarvastivadins.

In that scenario, the purpose of the mahayana sutras were twofold. One was to establish the actual meaning of the Buddha's teachings (a project everybody were busying themselves with). For example, the prajnaparamita sutras show very distinct traits of implicitly dialoguing with the realist teachings of the sarvastivadin abidharma. The other was to reveal the implications and variety of dharma-related phenomena left unsaid by the Buddha as being authentic expressions of the Dharma. For example, Nagarjuna is said to have received the Avatamsaka sutras from a group of nagas. That could refer to intelligent serpents, but naga is also en epithet of wise ones, so perhaps a theory that might appeal more to modern sensitivities is that he received it from just such a group as I've postulated here. The avatamsaka btw is what I would class very definitely as a 'pure vision' sutra, ie a teaching received from a Buddha with a very clearly structure and purpose for delineating the dharma in a specific way.

I think a work like the biography of Ajahn Mun is a good modern snapshot of how such 'proto-mahayana' developments might have taken place. Here's a meditation master, who spent a lot of his time on the fringes of Buddhist society in the forest with forest masters (not unlike how it is believed the prajnaparamita groups developed), chatting up Buddhas in other realms, receiving teachings from 'deceased arhats' and describing how what he learned about reality every day since becoming an arhat was vaster than could ever be described in scripture.

This is more or less how I see the early mahayana developments. At the end of the day, I think if one has an intuition that the mahayana sutras were spoken by enlightened beings, I think it holds up. If not, it can be substituted for the deluded misapprehensions of mystics who had strayed from the Dharma. But I think these basic intuitions and inclinations are generally the only worthwhile basis for determining whether the Mahayana is authentic or not, unless of course you're an arhat with the divine eye and such and can check up on it yourself.
Last edited by Anders on Fri Jan 16, 2009 10:57 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Jan 16, 2009 10:56 am

Greetings,
Anders Honore wrote:The classical idea is that the Mahayana sutras the Buddha spoke were preserved by bodhisattvas and other beings in different realms and then revealed at later times as needed.

That's not the Classical Theravadin perspective though.

Please be mindful of the intention of this sub-forum.... "If it's not in the Tipitaka or the Commentaries, it's off-topic."

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Retro. :)
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Anders » Fri Jan 16, 2009 10:59 am

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings,
Anders Honore wrote:The classical idea is that the Mahayana sutras the Buddha spoke were preserved by bodhisattvas and other beings in different realms and then revealed at later times as needed.

That's not the Classical Theravadin perspective though.

Please be mindful of the intention of this sub-forum.... "If it's not in the Tipitaka or the Commentaries, it's off-topic."

Metta,
Retro. :)


I took the OP's 'classical take' and 'our side of the story' as meaning inviting classical takes from both sides, but ok, I'm sorry if it was inappropriate. Feel free to remove if it's OT.
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Jan 16, 2009 11:03 am

Greetings Anders,

Anders Honore wrote:I took the OP's 'classical take' and 'our side of the story' as meaning inviting classical takes from both sides, but ok, I'm sorry if it was inappropriate. Feel free to remove if it's OT.


No problems... we'll leave it because the information may well be of interest to members, and it is obvious your comments were well intentioned.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


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One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Element » Fri Jan 16, 2009 11:10 am

jcsuperstar wrote:where did the mahayana come from, i know they butted heads in sri lanka so they must had had an idea about how this arose. whats "our side of the story"?

According to Ajahn Sujato, traditional view is it began from monks who wanted less Vinaya rules, but disagrees.

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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby jcsuperstar » Fri Jan 16, 2009 11:30 am

that does explain whyd they make up soooooo many discourses though....
and doesnt the dharmagupta (which i think most mahayana monks have always taken the vinaya from) have more rules than the theravada?
i'll listen to sujato, cause i dig his work, but at first glance that doesnt seem like it'd be the reason
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Dhammanando » Fri Jan 16, 2009 2:40 pm

Hi JC,

jcsuperstar wrote:whats "our side of the story"?


Not very much is said on the subject, for the polemical thrust of post-canonical Pali texts is directed chiefly against the doctrines of the Sabbatthivāda (Skt. Sarvāstivāda school) and its many off-shoots and the various Puggalavādin schools. In comparison with these gigantic schools, the Mahāyāna movement was a pretty insignificant development until it spread out of India.

Nonetheless, what little the Theravādins did have to say is not especially flattering. As mentioned by Element, the Mahāyāna is held to have been the work of the heirs of the decadent faction at the Council of Vesālī.

In the Saddhammappatirūpaka Sutta the Buddha says:

    “Just as, Kassapa, gold does not disappear so long as counterfeit gold has not arisen in the world, but when counterfeit gold arises then true gold disappears, so the true Dhamma does not disappear so long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world, but when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma disappears.

    “It is not the earth element, Kassapa, that causes the true Dhamma to disappear, nor the water element, nor the heat element, nor the air element. It is the senseless people who arise right here who cause the true Dhamma to disappear.”
    (SN. ii. 224; CD. I. 681)

Buddhaghosa's commentary to this sutta states that the counterfeit of the true Dhamma is twofold: counterfeits of attainments in the true Dhamma (adhigama-saddhamma-patirūpaka) and counterfeits of the scriptures of the true Dhamma (pariyatti-saddhamma-patirūpaka). The former is identified with the ten defilements of insight (see Paṭisambhidāmagga II. 102-3), and the latter with various named texts or collections. One of these is the Vedalla Piṭaka, which is elsewhere identified with the sūtras of the Mahāyāna. In fact in later tradition all the named texts are said to be of Mahāyāna provenance.

In his Vinaya Commentary on the pācittiya rule prohibiting the line-by-line recitation of Dhamma with a non-bhikkhu (VinA. iv. 742-3), Buddhaghosa names the same texts and judges that reciting them with a non-bhikkhu would not render a bhikkhu guilty of this offence, for the texts are not Dhamma.

In his commentary to the Mahāpadesa Sutta (AA. iii. 158-60), he again names the texts and states that their claim to being Dhammavinaya must be rejected, on the grounds that they don't make known the elimination of lust and other defilements.

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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Individual » Fri Jan 16, 2009 4:34 pm

jcsuperstar wrote:where did the mahayana come from, i know they butted heads in sri lanka so they must had had an idea about how this arose.
what is the classical idea here?
whats "our side of the story"?

In addition to what others have said above, I would add: In case anyone is doing this (maybe not), it's a mistake to necessarily associate Theravada with early, pre-sectarian Buddhism, and it is a mistake to include all presently existing Buddhist schools under the title "Mahayana", simply because they are not Theravadin. That is, the history and nature of the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism (to China) should be distinguished from the Indian transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, since they both have different canons of literature, and seemed to have developed separately, given the fact that the Sutta Pitaka is included in full in the Chinese canon (as the Agamas) but only partially in the Tibetan canon. Also, the Tibetan canon has a considerable amount of tantras which are not in the Mahayana canon. That is, we need to distinguish the origin of "Mahayana" Buddhism from the "Tantric" Buddhism of Tibet. According to Mahayana mythology, higher revelations were made by their meditating monks, discovering scriptures... According to Tantric mythology, revelations even superior to those of Mahayana were made by their "tertons".
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby tiltbillings » Fri Jan 16, 2009 6:23 pm

Mahayana from its inception onwards has never been a singular movement; rather, it is a collection of movements that have adopted, more or less, some common overarching features, the primary one being the bodhisattva doctrine.

This collection of movements, which we can call the Mahayana, arose out of the “Buddha-ology” that developed after the death of the Buddha. As we see in the suttas, while the Buddha was alive he kept in check speculations about his nature, also keeping interest in him personally in check. Most, if not all of the Buddha’s recounting of his life in the suttas, are put in terms of what lead to his awakening.

After the Buddha’s death, no longer being there to keep things in check and in balance, considerable speculation arose as to who and what the Buddha was and how he became the Buddha. A lot of the various ideas floated are dealt with in the Kathavatthu, such as the docetic idea that the Buddha was a manifestation, a projection, of a being awakened eons before. This is an idea held by Mahayanists, and famously expounded very early on in the Lotus Sutra.

To a lesser or greater extent, all schools elevated the Buddha, focusing on his uniqueness. This, within the Mahayana, was pushed to an extreme, giving us a Buddha that exists forever as a saviour who supposedly frees all sentient beings. As the Buddha was aggrandized, deified within the Mahayana, the strong connexion between the Buddha, what it meant to be a Buddha, and the arahant as clearly outlined in the suttas was shattered.

The focus in the Mahayana became the Buddha and becoming a buddha. Bur even before the rise of the Mahayana, arising out of the post-mortem “Buddha-ology,” the basic features of the bodhistta path as a path of practice were developed by the various Mainstream Buddhist schools. Whereas in the Mainstream schools a bodhisatta practice was an option for those who were so inspired, it was not a doctrinal necessity for everyone.

Keeping that in mind:
"... even after its initial appearance in the public domain in the 2nd century [the Mahayana] appears to have remained an extremely limited minority movement - if it remained at all - that attracted absolutely no documented public or popular support for at least two more centuries. It is again a demonstrable fact that anything even approaching popular support for the Mahayana cannot be documented until 4th/5th century AD, and even then the support is overwhelmingly monastic, not lay, donors ... although there was - as we know from Chinese translations - a large and early Mahayana literature there was no early, organized, independent, publicly supported movement that it could have belonged to."

-- G. Schopen "The Inscription on the Ku.san image of Amitabha and the character of the early Mahayana in India." JIABS 10, 2 pgs 124-5


As a very small, essentially ignored by the Mainstream schools, movement, the Mahayana clearly developed as an oppositional movement. This is famously seen the dichotomy of the greater insights and compassion as found in the Mahayana versus the poor and at best temporary insights and attainments of the less able, less compassionate hinayana (a term of remarkable ugliness when applied to the teachings of the Buddha that is put into the mouth of the Buddha by the Mahayana).

The point is that much of its doctrinal thrust was oppositional and its doctrines crafted so that the Mahayana saw itself to be better than those of its perceived opponents. It is not that there are not genuine and useful critiques by the Mahayana of some aspects of the Mainstream schools, and it is not there are not useful insights developed by the Mahayana, but the unskillful, oppositional, and vituperative us-vs-themism nature of how it developed its doctrines seriously undercuts the nature of what it claims itself to be.

Now, as Ven Dhammanando has shown there is not a sustained critique of the Mahayana within the Theravada. That seems to be mostly the case across the board with the Mainstream schools who pretty ignored the Mahayana. Some comments here and there in their commentarial literature, but little sustained response to the Mahayana, while the Mahayana, as a minority movement trying to assert and distinguish itself, argued against the Mainstream schools, claiming of itself its superiority, and various factions within the Mahayana argued pointedly against each other, claiming superiority over each other.

While it has not happened yet, it would be quite possible for the Theravada, a Theravadin scholar or scholars, to mount a sustained critique of the Mahayana. It might be of interest, but I am not sure in the end it would be useful. It would likely add to the ongoing negativity that is already generated by the Mahayana’s unskillful us-vs-themism and not really change anything.

The Theravada clearly does not need the Mahayana, nor does it need the problems that the Mahayana has generated for itself by many of its doctrinal innovations that move far outside what the Buddha taught. What the Theravada offers is a full, complete path to practice that follows closely to the record we have of the historical Buddha’s teachings, and that is what is worth emphasizing.
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Will » Fri Jan 16, 2009 6:28 pm

This is interesting, but very much off topic. Why not move it to Dhammic Free for all or the Lounge?
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby tiltbillings » Fri Jan 16, 2009 6:36 pm

Will wrote:This is interesting, but very much off topic. Why not move it to Dhammic Free for all or the Lounge?


Or to General Theravada discussion, since it would be nice to have a discussion of the Mahayana from a Theravadin point of view. To some degree there needs to be a corrective to the virulent presentation of a triumphalist, supersessionist Mahayana we find elsewhere.

On the other hand, it would also be of considerable value to discuss with the Mahayanists here points of connexion in a way that was never allowed elsewhere because of unthinking hard-line approach of some Mahayanists. Fortunately, we have signed up here some very knowledgeable Mahayanists who are not locked into the triumphalist, supersessionist mind set. That should allow for a far better atmosphere for dialogue.
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Dharmajim » Fri Jan 16, 2009 6:48 pm

I agree with tilt that what today is referred to as "Mahayana" was never a unified movement in India. Rather it consisted of a cluster of tendencies and interpretations whose only unifying factor is their acceptance of non-Nikaya/Agamic texts as authentic.

I think one can find the source of these tendencies, the seeds from which they developed, in the Classical Theravada literature. I would specifically focus on the Jatakas and similar literature. In addition the Apadanas provide the seeds for some of the more devotional tendencies.

The Jatakas form a bridge between the Theravada and the 'Paramitayana'. [An aside: I've started referring to the 'Mahayana' tradition as 'Paramitayana' in order to avoid the entire Hina/Maha dichotomy.] The virtues, such as patience, generosity, etc., that are illustrated in the Jatakas are the canonical foundation for the view that the Perfections are the surest set of practices for the practitioner. This, I think, is the central idea that gave rise to the Paramitayana traditions from the Perfection of Wisdom Discourses right through to the Lotus Sutra, etc. Historically I think what gave birth to this tradition is the placement of the paramitas at the center of practice and interpretation; this would necessarily replace such practice structures as the 37 limbs.

Best wishes,

Dharmajim

P.S. I think moving this thread to 'General Theravada' would be appropriate.
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Dhammanando » Fri Jan 16, 2009 8:07 pm

Greetings all,

Since the OP asked specifically for the classical Theravada perspective on the Mahayana's origin, I would prefer to let this thread remain where it is. But if you wish to discuss this topic from a broader range of perspectives, feel free to initiate a new thread in the General Forum.

Best wishes,
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Cittasanto » Fri Jan 16, 2009 10:50 pm

Hi Dhammanando

Dhammanando wrote:Nonetheless, what little the Theravādins did have to say is not especially flattering. As mentioned by Element, the Mahāyāna is held to have been the work of the heirs of the decadent faction at the Council of Vesālī.


I remember reading about Maha-kassapa hearing about the Buddhas death! and one of his followers then suggesting a more lax attitude to the vinaya, and another during the Buddhas life before the Buddha retreated to the forrest for some months and again imediately after!
sorry I don't know the exact referances in the suttas but seams relevant as a back story to the discussion here?
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby jcsuperstar » Fri Jan 16, 2009 11:23 pm

the reason i asked the question here was/is i wanted the mahavihara answer, i know mahayana conspects came to sri lanka and had to be driven out, so i assumed they would have had to come up with a pretty good argument not only against these new trends but why they came to be..

i hae never really seen any modern institutional attacks on the mahayana
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby tiltbillings » Fri Jan 16, 2009 11:37 pm

i know mahayana conspects came to sri lanka and had to be driven out, so i assumed they would have had to come up with a pretty good argument not only against these new trends but why they came to be..



I don't remember the details, but the period we are talking about the Mahayana was forcefully imposed and the forcefully deposed. It had more to do with politics of having something imposed upon a people than anything else.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Element » Sat Jan 17, 2009 12:39 am

tiltbillings wrote: I don't remember the details, but the period we are talking about the Mahayana was forcefully imposed and the forcefully deposed. It had more to do with politics of having something imposed upon a people than anything else.

Indeed. The history of change, rise & fall of religions, sects, interpretations, etc, is strongly linked to secular politics.
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Ben » Sat Jan 17, 2009 12:42 am

tiltbillings wrote:
i know mahayana conspects came to sri lanka and had to be driven out, so i assumed they would have had to come up with a pretty good argument not only against these new trends but why they came to be..



I don't remember the details, but the period we are talking about the Mahayana was forcefully imposed and the forcefully deposed. It had more to do with politics of having something imposed upon a people than anything else.


Hi Tilt

The introduction of Ven Nanamoli's translation of the Vissudhimagga mentions this period of Sinhalese history. For anyone who has a copy,it is well worth reading. However, the introduction concerns itself with the pali tradition within sri lanka and only briefly mentions the rise of sanskrit and mahayana on the mainland sub-continent.
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Re: where did the mahayana come from

Postby Dhammanando » Sat Jan 17, 2009 1:54 am

Hi Manapa,

Manapa wrote:I remember reading about Maha-kassapa hearing about the Buddhas death! and one of his followers then suggesting a more lax attitude to the vinaya,


Yes, that's the incident that prompted Mahākassapa to convene the Council of Rājagaha. But the Council of Vesālī that I mentioned happened a century later. This was prompted by the monks of Vesālī adopting various corrupt practices and trying to gain acceptance for ten novelties that served to make the Vinaya laxer.

and another during the Buddhas life before the Buddha retreated to the forrest for some months and again imediately after! sorry I don't know the exact referances in the suttas but seams relevant as a back story to the discussion here?


That's the schism of Kosambī, prompted by two rather stiff-necked monks and their respective disciples.

Best wishes,
Dhammanando Bhikkhu
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    “Who lives without reverence lives miserably.”
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