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Mahayanists and the historical record - Page 2 - Dhamma Wheel

Mahayanists and the historical record

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths. What can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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BlackBird
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby BlackBird » Sun Apr 07, 2013 11:28 am

I have at times thought the same way Mike.

But applying a skeptical rigour, it became more important to cut right to the heart of the matter. That is, if I were existing during the Buddha's time, and I came across a teacher who claimed that enlightenment was possible but was not themselves enlightened, my fundamental question would be: Well where's your proof? Wheres your proof that your path leads where it says it does?

The Buddha claimed to be the enlightened one, many of his followers claimed to have attained arahantship, and the Dhamma encourages one to come and see for oneself. But if there was no Buddha, no arahants, no ariyans. The skeptic in me would ultimately come to think: "Well, where's the proof that this path leads where it says it does?"

That is why I ended up following Nanavira Thera's teachings. Because fundamentally here was a guy whom made the claim (to his preceptor and was later published following his suicide) that he had attained sotapatti. He said ya know, this is what's wrong with the traditional method, I've got a good reason to think so (sotapatti) they're quite mistaken, follow my method and you'll get there yourself, proof is in the pudding.

So I'm willing to try it out. Maybe if it doesn't work I'll return to a traditional interpretation at some point and I don't discount other people's methods or teachings like I once did, I say this to show you there are correlations between my faith in the Buddha and my faith in Nanavira Thera. Hopefully it clarifies my method of thinking on this subject: That my faith is predicated on truth and factuality (not to suppose yours or others are otherwise :))

metta
Jack
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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zavk
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby zavk » Sun Apr 07, 2013 12:11 pm

Hello Jack

I cannot comment on Mahayana understandings and practices. Nor can I comment on whether there is sufficient basis to assert unambiguously that the Buddha existed as a historical mortal being. What I would like to share, however, is how the question of historicity has become so important for contemporary, and especially, 'Western' Buddhists. What I write below is a very brief summary of ideas articulated by postcolonial research on the historical trend of 'modern Buddhism' or 'Buddhist modernism'. You make look up on this if you wish to explore further; or PM me and I could you point you to specific sources (but I only check in here occasionally).

As I'm sure you are already aware, the term 'Buddhism' was a Western invention. It was coined by Orientalist scholars of the early 19th century who had assumed that the shared iconography of colonised Asian lands (and non-colonised ones like Japan and Thailand), indicated that their diverse sacred traditions could all be traced to the same founder. This was a time when many artefacts (texts, statues, coins, etc) in Asian lands were being excavated - or a good case could be made that they were plundered - by colonialists and brought back to Europe to be studied. It is widely accepted today by many historians (especially those mindful of the continuing subjugating, minoratising after-effects of Western imperialism on the world) that this served a political function: to own another's cultural artefacts is a form of control, a way to assert ideological dominance.

So under such conditions, the search for the historical origins of the Buddha and the writing of his biography became a central task. Early Western Buddhist scholars, of course, required the help of native translators. But there wasn't exactly mutual respect and recognition in the working relation between them. It was not uncommon for European scholars to be very selective in what the native Buddhist presented to them, picking what appealed to their own views, and ignoring others that may require them to rethink their own views. Very often there was no acknowledgement of the native Buddhists' contribution - sometimes they were even disparaged by their European counterparts. And so it was, a historical biography of the Buddha as Gautama was pieced together. There are at least two problems to be noted about this process:

- These pioneering European scholars, who set the wheels in motion for the production of Western Buddhist knowledge, were working according to the prevailing *Biblical* scholarly norms of the time. According to the Christian paradigm of textual and historical analysis, Jesus of Nazareth was the founder of Christianity, a founder who must have been a mortal man. Could such assumptions simply be transposed onto the various expressions of the Dhamma found across Asian cultures? (We could note here that the earliest representations of the Buddha were NOT anthropomorphic - I cannot say with certainty what this means, but at the very least, it does indicate that things are not so straightforward).

- The Dhamma texts which the European scholars consulted - or those they deemed worthy of attention, at any rate - were composed for very different purposes and could not be interpreted in the same way as the texts of European civilisation. They also do not easily meet the European criteria for a biography. Yet, the task of identifying the mortal origins of Gautama was completed (as per above, by way of selective and decontextualised readings).

Armed with a textualised and supposed more 'original' and more 'authentic' Buddhism that is divorced from the reality of embodied on-the-ground practices - practices which the Europeans didn't think much of in the first place; otherwise why all the hoohah about portraying colonisation as a 'civilising' mission? - it didn't take long before Western critics began to denigrate traditional Asian Buddhist thought and practice as 'debased' or 'corrupted'. Such criticisms were articulated by colonialists and Christian missionaries, and served to perpetuate the ideological subversion of colonised peoples - since a key way to justify domination is to say, 'I know better than you. tsk tsk. Let show you the light, let me "enlighten" you.'

I better finish off.Contemporary 'Western' Buddhist understanding developed out of this colonial history, the after effects of which (sometimes violent) are still playing out today. But let me be clear. I am not saying that the ideas we are working with today are 'bad' or 'wrong'. Nor am I saying that there is no merit in exploring the historicity of the Buddha. What I'm trying to point out is the need to be mindful:

- The question of historicity - the task of identifying a more 'original' or 'authentic' Buddhism - is always and already enmeshed in a network of power relations and struggles.In other words, there are implications: the continuing marginalisation of postcolonial lifeworlds is one implication.

- To pursue this question of the historicity of the Buddha or 'original' Buddhism WITHOUT being reflexive about the history of this question itself - well, is one really being historically reflexive? Is one really engaging with historicity?

I think it is important to be mindful of these, so as to not conflate views with understanding.

Best wishes :anjali:
Last edited by zavk on Sun Apr 07, 2013 12:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.
With metta,
zavk

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BlackBird
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby BlackBird » Sun Apr 07, 2013 12:20 pm

Hi Zavk, thank you for your informative post. Incidentally perhaps, I tend to build my conception of the Buddha based on what appears in the Nikayas and I tend to treat anything written by a scholar be they Occidental or Oriental, with the same level of critical thought an analysis. You make an important point and it's worth bearing in mind :)

metta
Jack
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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James the Giant
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby James the Giant » Sun Apr 07, 2013 12:30 pm

All this meta-discussion is interesting, but does not address the original question.
Maybe ask over at DharmaWheel in a new thread. There weren't really any satisfying answers (for me) in
the 2009 thread "Historicity of Mahayana Sutras -- Does it matter?"
http://www.dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=41&t=309

Maybe the whole question is just not a factor for them.
Then,
saturated with joy,
you will put an end to suffering and stress.

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BlackBird
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby BlackBird » Sun Apr 07, 2013 12:33 pm

"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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James the Giant
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby James the Giant » Sun Apr 07, 2013 12:57 pm

Then,
saturated with joy,
you will put an end to suffering and stress.

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Lazy_eye
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby Lazy_eye » Sun Apr 07, 2013 1:09 pm

Hello,

The original question was:

"how Mahayanists establish faith when posed with the same question of historical attribution. Is the literal word of the Buddha just not that important in Mahayana? Do they reckon that those who wrote the later sutras were enlightened as well, and so justify their attribution to being the Buddha's word as being forgivable and not a detraction from the supposed dharma within the sutra?"

One answer is that the Mahayanists took up the notion of a transcendental, superhuman Buddha, one who is capable of appearing to highly-attained practitioners and providing them with teachings. The idea goes back to early Buddhism and was a feature of Mahasamghika thought and practice. It may derive from certain passages, in the Sutta Nipata, where the Buddha is presented in rather mystical and superhuman terms. Guang Xing's discusses this at some length.

If this is the case, then Mahayanists (and their Mahasamghika forebears) would be inclined to reject historicity as the basis for distinguishing legitimate buddhavacana, because they ultimately reject the notion of a human being who taught for a number of years and then died, leaving behind a limited number of teachings. A transcendental Buddha is by nature capable of appearing at any time, and can give teachings to those able to engage him. The more rationalist tendencies within Buddhism would of course dismiss this as mere hallucination.

Just sharing what I gleaned from my studies of this question awhile back, for those interested.

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daverupa
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby daverupa » Sun Apr 07, 2013 1:28 pm

That's the gist of the sort of response I've gotten, as well. Akashic Records, basically.

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pilgrim
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby pilgrim » Sun Apr 07, 2013 1:49 pm

For me,historicity is important but I could still accept the Mahayana if the later sutras were at least consistent with the Pali suttas. But a fair number of them like the Lotus sutra, Pure Land sutras are far beyond what I can accept as the Buddha's teachings. Even if there is some wisdom in them, such wisdom can be found in the Pali suttas, thus making these Mahayana sutras unnecessary at best and misleading at worst. Then when you consider the deities, rituals and tantric practices of Vajrayana, these are even further from the Buddha's teachings.

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BlackBird
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby BlackBird » Sun Apr 07, 2013 2:38 pm

"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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Dan74
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby Dan74 » Sun Apr 07, 2013 3:00 pm

_/|\_

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BlackBird
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby BlackBird » Sun Apr 07, 2013 3:03 pm

Good post Dan, my question would be, are conceptions of the trikaya different between Zen and Vajrayana?
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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Dan74
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby Dan74 » Sun Apr 07, 2013 3:19 pm

_/|\_

plwk
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby plwk » Sun Apr 07, 2013 3:29 pm


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Monkey Mind
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby Monkey Mind » Sun Apr 07, 2013 3:57 pm

Jack, I have been asking the same question as the OP for years. (I appreciate how gracefully you have tread on this topic.) One answer I received was especially helpful for my understanding, I don't know if this helps you with yours:

Buddha (Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni) taught using many metaphors, similes, and allegories. Many of these lessons would be lost to us today if it weren't for the commentaries, because the metaphor was culturally or linguistically bound and the language or culture has changed. The Mahayana traditions allow for/ believe in/ emphasize the possibility of modern day Awakened teachers who can paraphrase the Dharma into the language of today, in a way that is understandable/ accessible to modern people and local customs. So those traditions have produced Chinese Awakened teachers, Tibetan awaken teachers, Japanese awakened teachers, etc., and believe this continuity to be essential for the survival of the Dharma.

It is not enough of an explanation for me to change the flag I sail under, but it was enough that I don't worry so much about the other flags out there.
"As I am, so are others;
as others are, so am I."
Having thus identified self and others,
harm no one nor have them harmed.

Sutta Nipāta 3.710

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Mojo
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby Mojo » Sun Apr 07, 2013 4:12 pm


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Lazy_eye
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby Lazy_eye » Sun Apr 07, 2013 4:23 pm


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Prasadachitta
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Postby Prasadachitta » Sun Apr 07, 2013 4:59 pm

For me Historical accuracy is but one factor in confidence. Another factor is that the Buddhist Tradition as a whole Mahayana or Theravada has given rise to Awakened beings Like:

Tsong kappa, Nagarjuna, Dipa Ma, Milarepa, Sariputra, Achaan Cha, Padmasambahava, Pema Chodron, Buddhadasa, Atisha, Buddhagosa, Shantideva, Anagarika Dhammapala

Those are just a few and I personally regard all of these as Awakening to the Dhamma at least to some meaningful degree. I expect that there have been many more over the ages who either have not been recorded in any way, who I just haven't thought of today or who I don't know about. As far as Im concerned It is important that the core principles of what can be realistically attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha are not contradicted by later teachings. For me much of what can be found in the Mahayana is a helpful expansion on the Buddhas teaching by way of specific practices and doctrinal elucidation. Not to mention the helpful aspect of the arising of faith when hearing about the life stories of many of the practitioners within that branch of the tradition.

This is why I would never call myself either a Theravadin or a Mahayana Buddhist. I am a Buddhist first.


Prasadachitta
"Beautifully taught is the Lord's Dhamma, immediately apparent, timeless, of the nature of a personal invitation, progressive, to be attained by the wise, each for himself." Anguttara Nikaya V.332

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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

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