The Lalitavistara and Sarvastivada
By Thomas, E. J. Indian Historical Quarterly 16:2 1940.06 p. 239-245
The work was described by Rhys Davids some fifty years ago as, "a poem of unknown date and authorship, but probably composed in Nepal, and by some Buddhist poet who lived sometime between six hundred and a thousand years after the birth of the Buddha."
But the Lalitavistara is not a poem,
they relinquish the examination of the Northern sources, and take no account of them, they attach themselves passionately to the exegesis of the Southern Scriptures, which in appearance are more archaic and better documented.
The results that these labours give us are of the highest importance, both for the history of religions in general as well as for that of Buddhist and Indian ideas. Oldenberg's book is a perfect exposition:
Pall Buddhism cannot be better described, its intellectual and moral factors more artistically demonstrated, or a more precise exposition given of the idea that a Singhalese doctor makes of his religion and his destiny.
And he went on:
To describe the fortunes of the community, the constitution of the Sangha, the formation of the Scriptures, and the life of the Master according to documents which date from the first or the fourth century of our era is an illusory undertaking.
Consecrated by the faith and piety of the schools, learnedly elaborated, proud of a regularity (suspect, although exaggerated by certain authors) , the Pali canon boasts of an authenticity of little probability.
It was only at a recent epoch taht the books were fixed in writing; but does not India offer us in the fastidious preservation of the Vedas a marvellous example of memory and fidelity? This pious hypothesis does not hold against the facts."
These incisive words of the industrious scholar whose loss we are still deploring are not yet obsolete.
though without advancing on the lines suggested by La Vallee Poussin.
When the Sanskrit text was first published (1877-8) it was found to contain many verse passages embedded in the prose.
The question was raised as to which was the older, the prose or the verse; but it ws a futile proceeding to try and solve the problem by setting up rival theories of the structure of the sutra without looking for the sources of the verse passages.
But there is now no doubt that not only many of the verses but also many of the prose passages are textually taken from the
but are partly adaptations of the Pali sacred books, made several centuries after Gautama's time, and partly late outgrowths of Buddhism exhibiting the religion in an extraordinary state of corruption and travesty."(2)
The real facts have been stated by La Vallee Poussin.
It should be almost self-evident that the most widely-spread group of schools in India, the Sarvastivadins, a group that continued to flourish widely long after the Pali school had been cut off from its Indian home, should have had a canon of its own.
As La Vallee Poussin said, "We speak in the singular of the canon. It is not doubtful that a considerable body of scriptures served as basis for the two canons of Sthavirian sects, the canon in the Pali language and the Sanskrit canon of the Sarvastivadins.
This body of scriptures may be referred to under the name of the Buddhist canon." (3) It is from the Sarvastivadin source that the ancient passages both prose and verse, in the Lalita-vistara were take.
How the whole sutra was compiled will need more detailed investigation. Here we have only to consider how the Mahayana compiler or compilers of the Lalita-vistara dealt with the doctrinal matters in the passages incorporated.
Althought the metaphysical doctrines of Mahayana are not ignored, the whole interest is concentrated on the nature of a Bodhisattva and his attinment of Buddhahood, when he becomes an omniscient Tathagata.
The Boddhisattva-doctrine itself was not new, for all the schools recognized it, as well as the doctrine of a Tathagata with his ten powers. But while according to the older doctrine the 2. Childers' Dictonary, preface, p. xii. 3. Le dozme et la philosophie du Bouddhisme, p. 97.
Bodhisattva in his last birth was a being who still had to learn the painful facts of old age, sickness, and death, in Mahayana he knew the essential doctrines already and had acquired all the qualities of a Buddha except those peculiar to a Tathagata.
Then follow over four pages of epithets beginning thus:
"Adored by adorable ones, having obtained his abhiseka, praised, lauded, and extolled by hundreds of thousands of gods, having obtained the abbiseka produced from his vow, having acquired the full and purified buddha--knowledge due to all the buddha-qualities,
the bases of psychic power, the faculties, the powers, the parts of enlightenment, and the way, having his body adorned with the marks and minor marks due to the accumulation of unmeasured merit." (Lal. p. 8).
Why was that: It was because the Bodhisattva had long shown reverence for the doctrines and reciters of the doctrine, he was eagerly earnest for the doctrine, delighting in the doctrine, unwearied in investigating the doctrine, exceedingly liberal in bestowing the doctrine, teaching it without reward, ungrudging in the gift of the doctrine, not having the closed fist of a teacher." (Lal. p. 215).
Yet the narrative retains the story as told in all schools, and when the Bodhisattva acts like an ordinary man of the world, it is repeatedly said that this is due to lokanuvartanakriyadharmata, the rule of acting in accordance with the practice of the world.
The Lalita-vistara retains the accounts of his asking what an old man, a sick man and the others were, but adds the words, jananncva, although he knew, for he was not really an ignorant youth, but a Bodhisattva already understanding the reality of existence, and he asked in accordance with the dharmata, the rule of action followed by all Bodhisattvas.
The traditional course of events remains unchanged.
The contest with Mara is recounted with the addition of much mythological detail, then the attainment of the four dhyanas, the divine eye, the remembrance of the former births, the chain of causation and the destruction of the asravas, all given in the words of the older sutras.
It might have been thought that after the recital of the chain Of causation some explanation of the formula in the style of Nagarjuna would have been given, but what follows is chiefly a series of stutis by various gods.
In one of them Buddha replies, and gives a verse account of his enlightenment, but the nearest approach to any Mahayana metaphysics is where he says he has attained by enlightenment the void of the world (jagacchunyam), which arises from the chain of causation, and which is like a mirage or a city of Gandharvas.
use of certain terms, such as dharmatathata, bhutakoti, tathagatagarbha, and sunya. Even maya occurs, but in the sense of "deceit, and it merely illustrates the dependence on Sarvastivada, in this case on the Abhidharma.(4)
The terms occur along with matasrya and irsya, and they also occur together in the Sarvastivadin list of upaklesas, and here are mentioned among the forest of vices (klesaranya) which Buddha had cut off.
The additions to the first sermon are more extensive, but still without any tendency to develop the doctrine. It is followed by a versified version of the chain of causation addressed to Kaundinya, the first of the five disciples.
"Profound, Maitreya, is the Wheel, for it cannot be acquired by grasping: hard to perceive is the Whell through the disappearance of duality...." This list then passes into a description of the Tathagata:
Of real explanation there is nothing, although in a poem immediately following the turning of the Wheel is said to be anutpadam. This is the very word which forms the basis of the system of Nagarjuna in his Madhyamakarikas.
There can be little ------------------------- 4. Lal., p. 486. Maya is translated `esprit de deception' by La Vallee Poussin in his translation of the Abhidharmakosa. vol. I, bk. ii, $ 27. Cf. Mahavyutpatti, 104.
In the account of the Bodhisattva's passing from the Tusita heaven and being conceived Ananda expresses his wonder, and Buddha replies that in the future there will be some who will disbelieve that the Bodhisattva passed through the processes of conception and birth.
"It is as if, Ananda, a certain man had a son, and the man was of fair speech, received presents, and had many friends. The son, when his father died, was not left desolate, but was well received by his father's friends.
The Tathagata has many friends, and these friends of the Tathagata, truth-speakers, not speakers of falsehood, I hand on. They that are truth-speakers are friends of the Tathagata, the Arhats and perfect Buddhas of the future.
Faith should be practiced. Herein this is what I make you to understand."
But the basis of the faith has been changed. The sport, lalita, of the Bodhisattva is not merely his sport in the seraglio, but all the acts which as Bodhisattva he had to perform. His fight with Mara is expressly said to be done in sport, and finally the whole sutra is said to be played (vikridita) by the great Bodhisattva.