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The Word of the Buddha

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  Buddhist Scriptures and Schools Dharma: texts, practice, and realization The Buddha is author of no books or treatises. Moreover it is extremely unlikely that any of his immediate disciples wrote anything of his teachings down. And yet we are told that the Buddha devoted some forty-five years of his life entirely to teaching and that by the end of his life he was quite satisfied that he had succeeded in passing on his teachings carefully and exactly, such that they would long be of benefit and help to the world.

This state of affairs is worth reflecting on, for it reveals something of the nature of Buddhism. Buddhism cannot be reduced to a collection of theoretical writings nor a philosophical system of thought-although both these form an important part of its tradition. What lies at the heart of Buddhism, according to its own understanding of the matter, is dharma. Dharma is not an exclusively Buddhist concept, but one which is common to Indian philosophical, religious, social, and political thought in its entirety. According to Indian thought Dharma is that which is the basis of things, the underlying nature of things, the way things are; in short, it is the truth about things, the truth about the world.

More than this, Dharma is the way we should act, for if we are to avoid bringing harm to both ourselves and others we should strive to act in a way that is true to the way things are, that accords with the underlying truth ()f things. Ultimately the only true way to act is in conformity with Dharma. The notion of Dharma in Indian thought thus has both a descriptive and a prescriptive aspect: it is the way things are and the way to act. The various schools of Indian religious and philosophical thought and practice all offer slightly different visions The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools ( darsana) of Dharma-different visions of the way things are and the way to act. Of course, when we examine the teachings of the various schools, we find that there is often substantial common ground and much borrowing from each other.

Yet the.Buddha's vision and understanding of Dharma must be reckoned to have had a profound influence on Indian culture and, to an extent unparalleled by other visions of Dharma, on cultures beyond India. The Buddha regarded the Dharma he had found as 'profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, sublime, beyond the sphere of mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise'.

Thus knowledge of Dharma is not something that is acquired simply by being told the necessary information or by reading the appropriate texts. Knowledge of Dharma is not a matter of scholarly and ~ntellectual study. This does mean that such study may not have a part to play, yet it can never be the whole story. In fact according to an ancient and authoritative view of the matter knowledge of Dharma comes about as a result of the interplay between three kinds of understanding (prajnii/pannii): that which arises from listening (sruta/suta ), that which arises from reflection (cintii), and that which arises from spiritual practice (bhiivanii).2 The aim of Buddhism is to put into practice a particular way of living the 'holy life' or 'spiritual life' (brahma-cariya) that involves training in ethical conduct (fila/slla) and meditative and contemplative techniques (samiidhi) and which culminates in the direct realization of the very knowledge (prajnii/paniiii) the B·uddha himself reached under the tree of awakening.

Therefore what the Buddha taught is often referred to in the early texts as a system of 'training' (sik~ii/sikkha), and his disciples may be referred to as being 'in training' (saik~a/sekha) or 'not in need of further training' (asaik~a/asekha). Thus in certain important respects the nature of the knowledge that the Buddha was trying to convey to his pupils is more akin to a skill, like knowing how to play a musical instrument, than a piece of information, such as what time the Manchester train leaves tomorrow. That knowledge of Dharma was conceived of in this way explains in part why the written word was not originally the medium for its communication. Practical training is difficult to The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 37 impart and acquire simply on the basis of theoretical manuals; one needs a teacher who can demonstrate the training and also comment on and encourage one in one's own attempts to put the instructions into practice.

In fact a sense that knowledge is not properly communicated by the written word colours the traditional Indian attitude to learning in general: knowledge must be passed from teacher to pupil directly. This does not mean that at the time of the Buddha India had no literature. On the contrary, in the form of the 8-g Veda India has a literature that predates the Buddha by perhaps as much as a thousand years. But this literature is 'oral'.

It was composed orally, memorized, and then passed from teacher to pupil directly by a process of oral recitation for centuries, without ever being committed to writing. India is, of course, not the only culture to have an ancient oral literature; the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example, grew out of a tradition of oral composition, yet the oral origins of traditional Indian learning continued to inform its structure long after texts had begun to be committed to writing.4 In presenting its teachings to the world, the Buddhist tradition would thus point towards an unbroken lineage or succession of teachers and pupils: just as the Buddha took care to instruct his pupils, so they in turn took care to instruct theirs. The visible and concrete manifestation of this succession is in the first place the Sangha, the community of ordained monks (bhikkhu) and nuns (bhikkhunz).

Becoming a Buddhist monk or nun requires a particular ceremony that is legitimate only if properly carried out according to prescribed rules, which apparently go right back to the time of the Buddha himself. In particular the prescriptions for the ceremony require the presence of a minimum of five fully ordained bhikkhus of at least ten years' standing. Thus when someone ordains as a Buddhist monk there is in effect a direct link back to the presence of the Buddha himself. Of course, the principle of the passing of the teachings directly from person to person may also operate outside the Sangha, for members of the Sangha do not only teach other members of the Sangha, they teach lay people as well. Yet the Sangha remains the tangible thread of the tradition.

The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools So the Buddha's Dharma is mediated to us via the Satighaa community that ideally does not tnerely hand down some vague recollection of what the Buddha taught but actually lives the teaching. In the Pali commentaries written down in Sri Lanka in the fifth century CE a distinction was made between two kinds of monastic duty: that of books and that of practice (see below, pp. 104-5).5 The former is concerned with the study of the theory as preserved in Buddhist writings.

The latter is the stniightforward attempt to put the Buddha's system of training into practice, to live the spiritual life as prescribed by the Buddha and his followers. Although this formal distinction is found in the writings of a particular Buddhist school, the point being highlighted holds good for Buddhism as a whole.

Throughout the history of Buddhism there has existed a certain tension ~etween the monk who is a great scholar and theoretician and the monk who is a realized practitioner. Something of the same tension is indicated in the sixth and seventh centuries in China with the arising of the Ch'an (Japanese Zen) school of Buddhism, whose well- known suspicion of theoretical formulations of the teaching is summed up by the traditional stanza: A special tradition outside the scriptures; Not founded on words and letters; Pointing directly to the heart of man; Seeing into one's own nature and attainingBuddhahood. The same kind of tension is in part reflected in a threefold characterization of Dharma itself as textual tradition (pariyatti), practice (patipatti), and realization (pafivedha) once again found in the Pali commentaries.

The first refers to the sum of Buddhist theory as contained in Buddhist scriptures, the second to the putting into practice of those teachings, while the third to the direct understanding acquired consequent upon the practice. The rest of this chapter will primarily be concerned with Dharma as textual tradition. Dharma as textual tradition goes back to the teachings heard directly from the Buddha. These teachings were, it seems, memorized by the immediate followers of the Buddha.

For several The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 39 generations perhaps, the teachings of the Buddha were preserved and handed down directly from master to pupil orally without ever being committed to writing. It is tempting for us in the modern world to be sceptical about the reliability of this method of transmission, but it was the norm in ancient India; the use of mnemonic techniques such as the numbered list and frequent repetition of certain portions of the material within a given text aided reliable transmission.8 Indeed the evidence of the transmission of the Vedic texts, for example, is that oral transmission can be more reliable than a tradition of written texts involving the copying of manuscripts.

In the early phase of their transmission then the only access to Buddhist 'texts' was by hearing them directly from someone who had heard and learnt them from someone else, this oral transmission of the 'texts being an activity that went on primarily within the community of monks. Even after these texts began to be committed to writing their study was primarily a monastic concern.

Thus the ordinary lay Buddhist's access to Buddhist teachings was always through the Sangha: he or she learnt the Dharma by sitting in the presence of a monk or nun and listening to their exposition of the teachings. Thus, in so far as a monk or nun necessarily follows a way of life defined by the prescriptions and rules of Buddhist monasticism, the study of Buddhist theory always took place in a context of practice. It is only in the twentieth century-with the arrival of the modern printed book in tr.aditional Buddhist societies, and the demand in the West for books and information on Buddhism-that this state of affairs has begun to change.

That is, for· over two millennia it was only by some form of contact with the living tradition of practice that there could be any knowledge of Buddhism. The first recitation of scriptures: the four Nikayas/Agamas and the Vinaya According to a generally accepted ancient tradition, the first attempt to agree the form of the Buddhist textual tradition, what was remembered as the authoritative 'word of the Buddha', 40 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools took place some three months after the Buddha's death at the town of Rajagrha (Pali Rajagaha) in northern India when soo arhats took part in a 'communal recitation' (sar[lglti).

This event is commonly referred to in modern writings as 'the first Buddhist council'. Significantly the earliest Buddhist tradition attempts to resolve any tension between theory and practice by insisting that the first commmial recitation of scriptures was carried out by soo individuals who had each realized direct and perfect knowledge of Dharma. According to the accounts of this communal recitation, what was remembered of the Buddha's teachings fell into two classes: the general discourses of the Buddha, the siitra.s (Pali sutta ), and his prescriptions for the lifestyle of the Buddhist monk, the 'discipline' or vinaya.

Some accounts suggest there was a third category, miitrkiis (Pali miitikii) or summary mnemonic lists of significant points of the teaching. At any rate, later canonical collections of Buddhist writings were subsequently often referred to as 'the three baskets' (tri-pi{akalti-pi{aka): the basket of discipline, the basket of discourses, and the basket of 'further dharma' (abhidharma/abhidhamma), whose development is in part related to the use of the summary mnemonic lists or miitrkas.

Three principal 'canons' of Buddhist scriptures survive today corresponding to the three main traditions of living Buddhism: the Pali or Theravada canon of the southern t.radition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, the Chinese Tripitaka of the eastern tradition of China, Korea, and Japan, and the Tibetan Kanjur (bKa' 'gyur) and Tenjur (bsTan 'gyur) of the northern tradition of Tibet and Mongolia. All three of these collections are extensive.

Modern printed editions of the Pali canon run to some fifty moderately sized volumes; the Taisho edition of the Chinese Tripitaka comprises fifty-five volumes, each containing some I,ooo pages of Chinese characters; together the Tibetan Kanjur and Tenjur comprise 300 traditional poti volumes. When the contents of the three canons are compared it is apparent that, while significant portions of the Pali canon are paralleled in the Chinese collection, and there is considerable overlap between the Chinese Tripitaka and the Kanjur and Tenjur, Buddhism as l;l The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools whole does not possess a 'canon' of scriptures in the manner of the Hebrew Bible of Judaism, the Old and New Testaments of Christianity, or the Qu'ran of Islam.

It is also apparent that the Chinese and Tibetan canons do not represent en bloc translations of ancient Indian canonical collections of Buddhist texts, but rather libraries of translations of individual Indian works. made over the centuries . In the case of the Chinese canon this process of translating Indian texts began in· the second century cE and continued for over 8oo years; the process of arranging and cataloguing these texts continues down to the present century. In the case of Tibetan Kanjur and Tenjur the translation process was carried out between the seventh and thirteenth centuries, while the precise contents and arrangement of these two collections has never been fixed. · What of the Pali canon?

The use of the term 'Pali' as the name of the language of the Theravada canon of Buddhist scriptures derives from the expression piili-bhiisii, 'the language of the [[[Buddhist]]) texts'. This language is an ancient Indian language closely related to Sanskrit, the language of classical Indian culture par excellence. At the time of the Buddha, Sanskrit appears to have been very much the language of brahmanical learning and religious ritual.

The Buddha therefore seems to have deliberately and consciously eschewed Sanskrit, preferring to teach in the ordinary vernacular-the various Middle Indo-Aryan dialects, known as Prakrit, which were spoken across the north of India in the fifth century BCE.10 In the first century or so after the death of the Buddha, as Buddhism began gradually to spread across the Indian subcontinent, different groups of monks and the evolving schools of Buddhism appear to have preserved their own versions of the Buddha's teaching orally in their local dialect. However, as time passed there was a tendency for the language of 'the scriptures' to become frozen and increasingly removed from any actually spoken dialect. At the same time Sanskrit was becoming less an exclusively brahmanicallanguage and more the accepted language of Indian culture-the language in which to communicate learning and literature right across India.

Thus Buddhist scriptures were subject to varying degrees of 42 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 'sanskritization' ('translation' is too strong here since the order of difference between Middle Indian and Sanskrit is similar to that between modern English and Chaucer's or Mallory's English). Although basically Middle Indo-Aryan, the language of the Pali canon is thus something of a hybrid, preserving linguistic features of several dialects and showing some evidence of sanskritization. Theravada Buddhist tradition traces the Pali canon back to a recension of Buddhist scriptures brought from northern India to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE by Mahinda, a Buddhist monk who was the son of the emperor Asoka.

 Mahinda and his company brought no books, the texts being in their heads, but the tradition is that the Pali.texts were subsequently written down for the first time in the first century BCE. The historical value of this tradition is uncertain. Most scholars would be sceptical of the suggestion that the Pali canon existed exactly as we have it today already in the middle of third century BCE. We know, however, that what the commentators had before them in the fifth century CE in Sri Lanka corresponded fairly exactly to what we have now, and the original north Indian provenance and relative antiquity of much of the Pali canon seems to be guaranteed on linguistic grounds.U Significant portions of the material it contains must go back to the third century BeE: How many other versions or recensions of the canon of Buddhist scriptures existed in partially or more fully sanskritized Middle Indian dialects is unclear.

The Pali canon is the only one to survive apparently complete in an Indian language. Of the other ancient Indian versions of the canon, we have only isolated fragments and portions in the original Indian languages. More substantial portions are, however, preserved in translation especially in the Chinese Tripitaka. This, along with what Buddhist literature as a whole reveals about its own history, allows us to know something of the content of these other ancient Indian canons and also to identify the generally more archaic material- material that must be relatively close in time to the ancient Rajagrha recitation.

This material takes the form of the four primary Nikayas or 'collections' of the Buddha's discourses The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 43 -also known as the four Agamas or books of textual 'tradition' -along with the Vinaya or Buddhist monastic rule. These texts constitute the essential common heritage of Buddhist thought, and from this perspective the subsequent history of Buddhism is a working out of their implications.

This is not to imply that Buddhism can somehow be reduced to what is contained in these texts; one must understand that this 'working out' in practice constitutes much of what Buddhism has actually been and, today, is. Nevertheless, in the quest for an: understanding of Buddhist thought these texts represent the most convenient starting point. Today we have two full versions of this Nikaya/Agama material: a version in Pali forming part of the Pali canon and a version in Chinese translation contained in the Chinese Tripitaka. It is usual scholarly practice to refer to the Pali version by the term 'Nikaya' and the Chinese by the term 'Agama'.

Like the Pali canon as a whole, it is impossible to date the Pali Nikayas in their present form with any precision. The Chinese Agamas were translated into Chinese from Sanskrit or Middle IndoAryan dialects around the end of the fourth century CE, but the texts upon which they rest must like the Nikayas date from the centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. Portions of further versions of this material also come down to us in Tibetan translation in the Tibetan Kanjur.

The four Nikayas/Agamas arrange the Buddha's discourses in the first place according to length. The collection of long discourses ( dirghiigama/digha-nikiiya) comprises some thirty siitras arranged in three volumes; the collection of middle-length discourses (madhyamiigama/majjhima-nikiiya) comprises some 150 siitras in the Pali version and 200 in the Chinese. Finally there are two collections of shorter siitras.

The first of these is 'the grouped collection' (saf! lyuktiigama/saf!lyutta-nikiiya) which consists of short siitras grouped principally according to subject matter and dominated by the subjects of dependent arising, the aggregates, the sense-spheres, and the path. The oral nature of early Buddhist literature resulted in the proliferation of numbered lists, in part as mnemonic devices, and the 'numbered collection The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools (ekottarikiigama!atiguttara-nikiiya) consists of short siitras built around such a numbered list and grouped according to number rather than topic. In this book I generally quote from and refer to the Pali recension of these texts.

Using the Pali recension is in part a matter of convenience and not a question of thereby suggesting that the traditions it preserves are always the oldest and most authentic available to us, even if it is likely that this is generally the case. The Pali versions of these texts have been translated into English in their entirety (unlike the Chinese and Tibetan versions) and are readily available. That these texts have become widely known over the past century through their Pali form has sometimes led to an attitude which sees them as presenting the peculiar perspective of Theravada Buddhism.

But, as Etienne Lamotte pointed out forty years ago, the doctrinal basis common to the Chinese Agamas and Pali Nikayas is remarkably uniform; such variations as exist affect only the mode of expression or the arrangement of topics.U Far from representing sectarian Buddhism, these texts above all constitute the common ancient heritage of Buddhism. The failure to appreciate this results in a distorted view of ancient Buddhism, and its subsequent development and history both within and outside India.

From their frequent references to and quotations from the Nikayas/ Agamas, it is apparent that all subsequent Indian Buddhist thinkers and writers of whatever school or persuasion, including the Mahayana-and most certainly those thinkers such as Nagarjuna, Asaiiga, and Vasubandhu, who became the great Indian fathers of east Asian and Tibetan Buddhism-were completely familiar with this material and treated it as the authoritative word of the Buddha.

When disagreements arose among Buddhists they did not concern the authority of the Nikaya/Agama material, but certain points of its interpretation and the authority of other quite different material, namely the Mahayana siitras, which we shall return to presently. Alongside the four primary Nikaya/Agama collections of siitras the ancient Indian canons like the Pali canon preserved a 'minor' ( k~udrakalkhuddaka) collection of miscellaneous texts that were The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 45 also recognized as having the authority of the Buddha's word. This fifth collection included such works as the Dharmapada ('sayings on Dharma') and the Jiitaka or stories concerning the previous lives of the Buddha.

The four Nikayas together with a greater or lesser number of miscellaneous minor texts constituted 'the basket of discourses' (Siitra/Sutta Pitaka) for the earliest Buddhist schools.B The Pali canon, Chinese Tripitaka, and Tibetan Kanjur all preserve versions of the ancient 'basket of monastic discipline' (Vinaya Pitaka ): the Pali canon and Kanjur one each, the Chinese Tripitaka four, plus an incomplete-fifth. All six extant versions of the Vinaya fall into two basic parts. The first is a detailed analysis of the rules which constitute the priitimok:ja (Pali pii{imokkha) and which govern the life of the individual monk or nun.

The second comprises twenty 'sections' (skandhaka/ khandhaka) which set out the proper procedures for conducting the various communal acts of the Sangha, such as ordination Sutra and Abhidharma: the problem of textual authenticity The Nikayas/Agamas are collections of siitras or 'discourses' regarded as delivered by the Buddha. The older term for a discourse of the Buddha preserved in Pali is sutta. It is not clear what this term originally meant. When Buddhists started sanskritizing their texts they chose the word siitra.

This is a term which literally means 'thread' (compare English 'suture') but in a literary context refers especially to authoritative brahmanical texts consisting of a string of terse, aphoristic verses which a pupil might memorize and a teacher might take as the basis for exposition. Buddhist siitras, however, are not in this form. As Richard Gombrich has pointed out, it is perhaps more likely that Middle Indo-Aryan sutta corresponds to Sanskrit siikta, which means 'something that is well said' and was early in the history of Indian literature used to refer to the inspired hymns of the Vedic seers that make up the collection of the ~g Veda.

Early 46 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools Buddhists can therefore be seen as claiming a status on a par with the Vedas for the utterances of the Buddha.15 Be that as it may, a Buddhist siitra always begins with the words: 'Thus have I heard. At one time the Lord was staying at .. .'16 The later tradition understands these as the words of Ananda, the Buddha's attendant, introducing each discourse of the Buddha at the first communal recitation. The i!lclusion of this particular formula at the beginning of a Buddhist text indicates that the text claims the status of 'the word of the Buddha' (buddha-vacana).

It is clear that from a very early date there is a tacit understanding that to claim this status for a text is not exactly to claim that it represents only what has actually been uttered by the Buddha in person. Even in the Nikaya/Agama collections accepted as 'the word of the Buddha' by all ancient schools, there are siitras. presented as delivered not by the Buddha but by monks and nuns who were his chief pupils-some of them after his death. As indicated above, the notion of a fixed canon of Buddhist scriptures is somewhat problematic. And we must be careful not to impose inappropriate notions of 'canon' and authenticityderived, say, from Christianity-on the Buddhist tradition.

Even in the accounts of the first Buddhist council we are told of a monk who, on hearing of the recitation of the Buddha's teaching by the soo arhats, declared that he preferred to remember the teaching as he himself had heard .it directly from the BuddhaP For several centuries as Buddhism spread across the Indian subcontinent it is clear that, while the Buddhist community accepted and preserved a common core of textual material, this material constituted a 'canon' in only a rather loose and informal sense; that each and every collection of textual material should correspond exactly was not regarded by the early community as the critical issue.

This state of affairs is reflected in the discussion of 'the four great authorities' (mahiipadesa) to which a monk might appeal for accepting a particular teaching as authentic Dharma: that he has heard it from the Buddha himself, from a community of elder monks, from a group of learned monks, or from one learned monk. In each case the Buddha is recorded as having instructed monks The Word of Buddfta: Scriptures and Schools 47 to examine and consider the teaching in order to see if it conforms to what they already know the teaching to be.18 This is not quite as subjective as it sounds. The discourses of the Buddha as preserved in the Nikayas do not of themselves constitute a systematic exposition of Buddhist thought with a begiml.ing, middle, and end. Each discourse is rather presented as a more or less self-contained pi~ce on a particular theme.

And yet, the discourses as a whole do contain quite explicit indications of how these various themes relate to each other and fit together to form an overall structure and pattern.19 The final criterion for judging a teaching lies in an appreciation and understanding of this overall structure and pattern of the teaching. Thus at times the question of who originally spoke the words appears irrelevant to the tradition: 'Whatever monk, nun, male or female layfollower, god or ... Brahma might teach and proclaim Dharma, it is all considered as taught and proclaimed by the Teacher [i.e .. the Buddha).' Nevertheless the principle that certain texts represent the primary 'word of the Buddha', while others are the secondary work of commentators and scholars, remains significant to the Buddhist tradition. And the question of just which texts are to be counted as the word of the Buddha has, at particular points in the history of Buddhism, been a critical one.

The term abhidharma (Pali abhidhamma) means approximately 'higher' or 'further' Dharma. In many ways the extant works of 'the basket of Abhidharma', the third part of the ancient canon of Buddhist scriptures, can be seen as continuing the process of systematization already evident in the Nikayas. That some form of commentary and interpretation formed part of Buddhism almost from its inception is indicated by certain of the sutras in the Nikayas.

The Mahiivedalla Sutta, for example, recounts how a nun is approached and asked to comment on certain technical terms of the Buddha's teaching; in the Vinaya each rule of the monastic discipline is followed by 'a word analysis' which defines key terms of the rulings; and one of the later book of the Pali canon must be the Niddesa ('Exposition'), which takes the form of a commentary on a section of another work of the canon, the Suttanipiita ('Group of Discourses').

But The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools it is the Abhidharma par excellence that represents the earliest attempt to give a full and systematic statement of the Buddha's teaching on the basis of what is contained in his discourses. The traditional understanding is thus that while the sfltras represent the Buddha's teaching applied in particular circumstances at a particular time and place, the Abhidharma is the Buddha's teaching stated in bare and general terms without reference to any particular circumstances.

Something of the Abhidharma method must go back to the lifetime of the Buddha himself. Certainly much of its outlook and many of its principles must be regarded as still forming part of the common heritage of Buddhism, alongside the Nikaya/ Agama sfltra collections and the monastic rule of the Vinaya. Yet in addition to what is common, we begin to find in the Abhidharma literature interpretations and understandings of the Sutra material that are specific to particular schools of Buddhism.

We must be careful, however, to understand this situation in the light of our knowledge of just what constituted a Buddhist 'school' in ancient India, and avoid the trap of thinking that Buddhist 'schools' evolved and defined themselves in the same way as, say, Christian 'sects' or 'denominations'. We have substantial knowledge of the Abhidharma literature and systems of only two ancient Buddhist schools: the Sarvastivadins and the Theravadins. The only obvious similarity between their respective Abhidharma Pitaka collections, however, is that they both contain just seven works ).

Despite the great status and authority attributed to the Abhidharma and the claim that it is 'the word of the Buddha', both these schools explicitly acknowledge the work of the Buddha's chief disciples in arranging and transmitting the Abhidharma. From this point of view, the Abhidharma has for the tradition the status of a sfltra or set of headings expanded by one of the Buddha's disciples and then subsequently endorsed by the Buddha. Even so, some ancient Buddhists, such as the Sautrantikas or 'those who follow the Sutra', came to resist the notion that the Abhidharma had the full status of 'the word of the Buddha'.

Yet while such a group may have wished to deny the Abhidharma The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools the status of the Buddha's word, it is clear that they did not seek to question the method and principles of Abhidharma in their entirety; what they were concerned to question were particular interpretations and understandings current amongst, certain exponents of Abhidharma. To sum up, a typical ancient Indian 'canon' of Buddhist texts consisted of 'three baskets' (tripitaka): the Sfltra Pitaka or 'basket of discourses' (comprising four main collections of the discourses of the Buddha, often with a supplementary collection of miscellaneous texts), the Vinaya Pitaka or 'basket of monastic discipline', and the Abhidharma Pitaka or 'basket of further Dharma'.

Only one such ancient Tripitaka survives complete in an ancient Indian language, the Pali canon of the Theravadin tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. How many other recensions of this ancient Tripi taka existed is unclear, but the contents and arrangement of others may be partially reconstructed on the basis of the surviving fragments in Indian languages and Chinese and Tibetan translations; in this respect we have the fullest knowledge of the canon of the Sarvastivadins. The origin of the ancient Buddhist schools and their exegetical literatures In turning to the complex problem of the origin of the ancient Indian Buddhist schools, we must at the outset register that we are speaking primarily of divisions and groupings within the community of monks and nuns or Sangha.

In most cases the basis of such divisions would have been of little or no concern to the ordinary lay Buddhist in ancient India. In other words, we are not dealing with great schisms of the kind associated with the Reformation in the history of Christianity, or with one Buddhist group accusing another of 'heresy'. In order to. understand the processes at work here it is necessary first to consider the notion of formal division in the Sangha (smigha-bheda) from the legal perspective of the Buddhist monastic code encapsulated in the Vinaya.

Two communal ceremonies are fundamental to the constitution of the Sangha; the first is the ordination ceremony itself, the second is the fortnightly rehearsal of the rule (priitimok$al piitimokkha). As I have already mentioned, for an ordination to be legitimate the participation of at least five monks of ten years' standing is required. The priitimok$a ceremony involves the gathering together of the members of the Sangha in a given locale ity in order to recite the rule and confess any breaches; a valid ceremony requires a quorum of at least four monks.

Since both valid ordination and priitimok$a ceremonies are thus essential for any group of monks' claim to be monks, it follows that, even in the short term, only a schismatic group that includes at least four monks in its party is viable; for a schismatic group to be viable in the long term it must include five senior monks in its party. Clearly in the first century or so after the Buddha's death, as the numbers in the Sangha increased and it expanded across first northern India and then the whole subcontinent, the establishment of groups of monks around particular teachers, perhaps associated with particular views on certain issues of Abhidharma, was both natural and inevitable.

But as long as such groups followed essentially the same Vinaya and recognized the validity of each other's ordination lineage, movement between the groups would present no problem: monks from one group could legitimately attend and participate in the ceremonies of another group; there was no question of formal division in the Sangha. One should note here that holding a particular opinion or view on any matter-let alone on a moot point of Abhidharma philosophy- cannot be grounds for expulsion from the Sangha. The grounds for expulsion from the Sangha are sexual intercourse, taking what is not given, intentionally killing a human being, and falsely claiming spiritual attainments. The only opinion or view that is even to be censured according to the Vinaya is the view that sexual intercourse is not an 'obstacle'.

It is easy to see the practical reason why: it threatens the very basis of a celibate community. Since the Vinaya left monks and nuns largely free to develop the Buddha's teaching doctrinally as . they saw fit, there would be little incentive to provoke a schism on purely The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 51 doctrinal grounds. What was of public concern was living by the monastic rules, not doctrinal conformity. We are dealing here with orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

The implications of this state of affairs were not fully realized in the earlier scholarly studies of the formation of the Buddhist schools, such as Andre Bareau's important work, Les Sectes bouddhiques du petit vehicule. It is not surprising to find then that the earliest indication in Buddhist \Vritings of schismatic tendencies in the Sangha concerns interpretation of the Vinaya and not questions of Buddhist doctrine. As with the first 'communal recitation', the ancient sources that have come down to us via various schools are in broad agreement that one hundred years-the figure is likely to be approximate-after the death of the Buddha a dispute arose concerning ten points of Vinaya. A group of senior monks convened at Vaisali (Pali Vesali:), decided against the ten points, and initiated a second communal recitation of the scriptures.

The traditions preserved in the ancient sources concerning the Buddhist councils and the division of the Sangha into its various schools are complex and inconsistent. Despite the scholarly discussion that has been devoted to them, a satisfactory interpretation of these sources explaining the contradictions and presenting a coherent and consistent history of Buddhism in the centuries after the death of the Buddha has yet to be worked out. It seems clear that, at some point after the'Vaisali meeting, the primitive Sangha formally divided into two parties each of which thenceforth had its own ordination traditions.

The ancient accounts are inconsistent as to what provoked the split. Some suggest that it was the result of a dispute over five points, later associated with a monk named Mahadeva, concerning the nature of the arhat. That this was indeed the cause of the division was accepted by Bareau. Other ancient sources attribute the division to a disagreement over questions of Vinaya, and the more recent scholarship suggests that this is the explanation to be preferred.

According to this view a reformist group in the Sangha proposed tightening discipline on certain matters of Vinaya, while the majority were happy to leave things as they stood. Since the two parties failed to come to an agreement, the Sangha divided 52 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools into two: the reformist sthaviras (Pali thera) or 'elders' and the majority mahiisiirrtghikas or 'those of the great community'. The dating of this important event in the history of Buddhism is also extremely problematic since it hinges on the vexed question of the date of the death of the Buddha himself.

With the growing scholarly consensus that dates the Buddha's death at the end of the fifth century BCE or even the beginning of the fourth, it seems that we must place the event of the first division of the Sangha some time around the beginning of the third century BCE before the accession of the emperor Asoka (c.268 BeE); although it is not impossible that we should follow certain of our sources which suggest that the division occurred actually during the reign of Asoka. In the century or so following this fundamental division of the Sangha into the Sthaviras and Mahasa:q1ghikas it is clear that further schools emerged.

Yet the processes by which these schools came into being is not so clear; whether they occurred as the result of formal disagreements over some Vinaya issue that resulted in deadlock and was thus the occasion for formal division of the Sangha (i.e. smigha-bheda), or whether they merely represent de facto divisions of the Sangha that evolved haphazardly as the Sangha spread and grew, is not certain.

The names of the schools variously suggest characteristic teachings, geographical location, or the followings of particular teachers. At least some of the schools mentioned by later Buddhist tradition are likely to have been informal schools of thought in the manner of 'Cartesians', 'British Empiricists', or 'Kantians' for the history of modern philosophy.26 The primary sub-schools. of the Sthaviras focus on certain technical points of Abhidharma. The Vatsiputriyas ('followers of Vatsiputra') and their sub-schools adopted a particular position on the ontological status of 'the person' (pudgala/puggala) and were thus referred to as 'advocates of the doctrine [of the existence) of the person' (pudgala-viidin).

Another group developed a particular understanding of the way things exist in past, present, and future time; they were known as 'advocates of the doctrine that all things [past, present, and The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools future] exist' (sarviisti-viidin). Yet another group were known as 'advocates of the doctrine of analysis' (vibhajyaviidin). In some contexts this last group is represented as analysing existence as either in the past, present, or future, in oppositio,n to the Sarvastivadins; elsewhere the exact significance of the appellation is not made clear. The Sri Lankan Theravada or 'advocates of the doctrine of the elders' in facttraces its lineage through the Vibhajjavadins (Sanskrit vibhajyaviidin ). According to their traditions the Vibhajjavadins were the favoured party in a dispute that took place at Pa!aliputra during the reign of the emperor Asoka.

Bareau therefore concluded that this dispute concerned the split between the Sarvastivadins and Vibhajjavadins on the matter of the abstruse Abhidharma question of existence in the three times. The ancient accounts of this dispute are, however, confused and inconsistent.

Its basis, in so far as it is stated in the sources, seems to have been not so much the finer points of Abhidharma philosophy as a Vinaya matter: the fact that nonBuddhists were masquerading as Buddhist monks without being properly ordained or keeping to the rules of the Vinaya. The outcome is stated as the expulsion of the false monks from the Sangha and a third communal recitation (after those of Rajagrha and Vaisali) of the canon of Buddhist scriptures. The latter turned on-rather incongruously given the stated nature of the dispute-the exposition by Moggaliputtatissa of the Kathiivatthu ('Discussion Points'), a manual of moot Abhidharma points, which was thereafter counted as one of the canonical works of the Pali Abhidhamma Pi!aka. AsK. R. Norman suggests, it would appear that two different events have been conflated.

The relevance of such abstruse matters as existence in the three times of present, past, and future to the theory and practice of Buddhism may not be immediately clear to the reader, and is something I shall return to in Chapter 8. But the very technical. nature of these matters makes it, I think, extremely unlikely that they were ever the real impetus behind formal division in the Sangha. It is inconceivable that a Buddhist monk who did or did not adopt the position of, say, sarviistiviida should ever be charged with a Buddhist equivalent of 'heresy' and that this should The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools become an issue in determining whether he could participate in the formal ceremonies of the Sangha.

The failure to realize this is something of a shortcoming in Bareau's pioneering and scholarly study of the Buddhist councils. Certain non-Theravadin sources are also suggestive of a dispute at Pataliputra during the reign of Asoka, but they link. the dispute to the second communal recitation or, as we have seen, the question of Mahadeva's five points; only one of these sources -a relatively late one-mentions a third communal recitation in this connection.

Yet that some kind of dispute did occur at Pataliputra during the reign of Asoka receives some corroboration in the form of his so-called schism edict. Ancient Buddhist sources preserve various lists of schools which invariably state the total number to be eighteen while in fact listing rather more; the number eighteen seems to be ideal and symbolic.29 A rough assessment of the evidence in the light of the witness of inscriptional evidence, extant Vinayas, and the Chinese pilgrims, suggests that we should rather think in terms of four major groupings-the Mahasarpghikas, the Sthaviras, the Vatsiputriya-Sarpmatiyas, and the Sarvastivadins-with the Mahisasakas, Dharmaguptakas, and Kasyapiyas also representing significant sub-schools of the Sthaviras.

It is legitimate, I think, to see the exposition of the basic principles and method of Abhidharma as the product of the first generation of the Buddha's disciples. As such it obviously carried great weight and authority, and for much of the tradition was indeed 'the word of the Buddha'. And yet, even while granting it the status of the Buddha's word, in acknowledging the contribution of the early disciples in its transmission, the tradition itself retains a sense that the Abhidharma is one step removed from the Teacher himself. It is in this respect that I suggest that the early Abhidharma can be seen as the original 'commentary' upon the Buddha's teaching. But as Buddhism spread across the Indian subcontinent, subsequent generations of the Buddha's disciples further refined the Abhidharma systems of thought and contribut~d to the gradual evolution of the different schools.

Increasingly in this context the Buddhist tradition as a whole began The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 55 to acknowledge freely that its new literary productions did not have the status of 'the word of the Buddha' (that is, Siltra or Agama), but were rather commentaries (atthakathii, bha~ya, vibhii~ii) on or textbooks (sastra) of the teaching of the Buddha. · In all this there is no convenient point after which we can say we are dealing exclusively with self-conscious commentary.

Most of the commentaries and manuals come down to us in a form that post-dates the beginning of the Christian era, yet they refer to and record the views of 'the ancient teachers', and we can be certain that some of their traditions are considerably older, although it may not always be easy to determine precisely which. The exegetical literature of most of the ancient schools is lost. We only have significant knowledge of two traditions: the Sarvastivadins and the Thervadins, the Sri Lankan representatives of the Sthaviras.

I would like to single out two manuals that I shall be continually referring to throughout this book as providing convenient and at the same time authoritative summaries of Buddhist theory and practice. Both these manuals were produced in the fifth century CE but their authority has continued to be recognized down to the present day. The first is the Visuddhimagga or 'Path of Purification', a summary statement of Theravada teaching, whose text in English trans" lation runs to over 8oo pages. It is the work of Buddhaghosa, a monk who, so the story goes, travelled from north India to Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka and an important centre of Buddhist learning, where he took up residence in the Mahavihara (the Great Monastery). With access to earlier commentaries preserved in the Mahavihara, he produced, as well as the Visuddhimagga, definitive commentaries to the principal works of the Pali canon.

The Visuddhimagga is one of the classic texts of the Theravada or 'southern' tradition of Buddhism. The second manual is the Abhidharmakosa or 'Treasury of Abhidharma', which takes the form of a summary statement of the teachings and traditions of the Sarvastvadins in just less than 6oo verses. Its author, Vasubandhu, a monk who lived in north India, furnished these verses with his own commentary (bha~ya) which, in addition to expanding on the verses, provides a critique 56 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools of the Sarvastivada from the perspective of the Sautrantika school. In English translation the verses along with their commentary fill more than 1,300 pages.31 The Abhidharmakosa was translated into Chinese in the sixth century and again in the seventh; later it was also translated into Tibetan. It thereby came and continues to be one of the great theoretical texts of both east Asian Buddhism and northern Buddhism.

The Mahayana sutras In this manner, in the centuries following the Buddha's death, the various ancient schools of Indian Buddhism began to evolve, preserving their distinctive recensions of the Siitra and Vinaya Pitakas, and developing their characteristic understandings of Abhidharma. Against this background we find, beginning around the beginning of the Christian era, a rather different kind of Buddhist literature emerging. Hitherto unknown texts that begin with the words 'thus I have heard' -the traditional opening of the discourses of the Buddha~begin to appear. In other words, these new texts present themselves not as the commentary or understanding of a particular school of Buddhism, but as actual siitras. They thus claim the status of 'the word of the Buddha'. The texts in question are the early siitras of 'the Great Vehicle' (mahayana).

The origins of the Mahayana are complex (see Chapter 9), but this was not a sectarian literature disseminated by one of the existing schools nor did it lead to the development of a formal division of the Sangha (sarrtgha-bheda), with an associated Mahayana recension of the Vinaya. Indeed, the very idea of an exclusively Mahayana Vinaya seems only to have emerged in eighth/ninth-century Japan with the Tendai monk SaichO. At the time of the emergence of Mahayana literature in ancient India, members of the Sangha who were sympathetic to it followed their interest while remaining within the already existing schools and ordination lineages of the Sangha, almost invariably continuing to live alongside monks and nuns who did not necessarily share their interest.

The question of the status and authority of the new literature was thus initially not decided The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools along sectarian lines; monks from various of the existing schools would have been more or less favourably inclined towards the new stltras. In time, certain schools more formally and explicitly refused to acknowledge the authority of the Mahayana siitras, but such uncompromising attitudes were perhaps not relevant until as late as the fifth century CE.

The reason for this was that for the most part the new sfitras represented something of a minority and esoteric interest,.rather than a mass popular movement;. and this appears ·to have remained so for at least several centuries.32 According to the figures reported by the Chinese monk Hsiiantsang, by the seventh century monks following the Mahayana constituted about half of the Indian Satigha.33 But it is likely that this is an inflated figure. The production of Mahayana stitras spans a period of some six or seven centuries.

Just as the earlier sfitras of the Nikayas/ Agamas had already given rise to the Abhidharma andthe distinctive interpretations of a number of schools, so the Mahayana stitras are also associated with the production of treatises and commentaries associated with the emergence of new philosophical schools of Buddhism. Three writers should be singled out in this connection since I will be referring to them from time to time. The first is Nagarjuna, a monk probably from the south of India who lived in the second century CE arid was the author of the Madhyamaka-karika ('Verses on the Middle') as well as anumber of other works.

He is revered by the Buddhists of China · and Tibet as the founding father of one of the principal 'Sastra' systems of Mahayana philosophy, namely the Madhyamaka or Sunyavada. The other two authors can be taken together. Indeed, tradition has it that they were brothers. They are Asatiga and Vasubandhu, who lived in north India at the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century CE. According to tradition, questioned by modern scholarship , this Vasubandhu is one and the same Vasubandhu whom .

I mentioned above as author of the Abhidharmakosa. Together these two are regarded as the founding fathers of the other great 'Sastra' school of the Mahayana, namely the Yogacara or Vijfianavada, which expounded the theory that apart from consciousness or mind ( citta, 58 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools vijiitina) and the ideas and information ( vijiiapti) it processes, there is nothing. Mahayana Buddhism as a more or less separate tradition of Buddhism, with its clearly defined subdivisions and philosophical schools,. is to some extent the outcome of the history of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. As it evolved in China and Tibet, Buddhism came to adopt an exclusively Mahayanist outlook in a way that it never did in India.

As Buddhism began to fade from the Inpian scene in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Buddhists of China, Japan, and Korea to the east, and Tibet and Mongolia to the north, were left as heirs to-the Indian Mahayanist vision. To the south the Buddhists of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia became the only surviving representatives of the perspective of the non- Mahayana. Yet we must remember that much of what modern Buddhists in Sri Lanka, China, or Tibet have inherited from the past was held in common by both the Mahayana and non-Mahayana tradition.

And it is with this common heritage that I am mostly concerned in this book. At the same time we should not forget that the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia have all produced their own distinctive literatures, and continued to do so right up to the present day. Having briefly reviewed the development of the Buddha's teaching in the form of literary texts, I wish to turn in the next chapter to the actual content of that teaching. In the first place we shall focus on those basic principles which are presented in the four Nikaya/Agama collections of the Buddha's discourses and have been assumed and taken for granted by the subsequent Buddhist tradition.

Source

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