The Evolution of Mindfulness 3.
Week 3. Mahāyāna & Tantric Buddhism 1.
This week we are going to look at an exciting development in Buddhism – the emergence of the ‘Mahāyāna’ – the greater vehicle, and within this a further emergence of the ‘Mantrayāna’ – the vehicle of words of power. (Which we might think of as spells). These two together begin to seriously extend and change the earlier forms of meditative practice.
Somewhere around a hundred BCE and a hundred and fifty CE a new emphasis in Buddhist teaching slowly begun to emerge. Some monks, still within their established monasteries, became interested in and then became proponents of what became called the Mahāyāna – the greater vehicle to awakening. This new movement evolved its own scriptures, the Mahāyāna Sūtras, that were eventually written in Sanskrit, not Pali. These were also believed to have been taught by the Buddha, but given their late appearance hundreds of years after his death and being quite different in nature, this was a claim not all monks could accept. At first those monks following the Mahāyāna and those who did not lived together in harmony – the greatest ‘crime’ in Buddhism is to cause a schism in the Sangha – but eventually those who had not adopted the new Greater Vehicle became known by those who had as followers of the ‘Hīnayāna’ – the Lesser Vehicle. A description that those who continued to followed the historical Buddha’s teachings understandably did not accept. However, this did not represent an immediate problem and it was only some hundreds of years later that these mixed communities finally became expressly followers of the Mahāyāna. Today, within Mahāyāna Buddhism, the teachings are still arranged hierarchically with the lowest teachings being named Hīnayāna and those deemed superior Mahāyāna. Both together representing a graduated path rather than two paths in conflict. And there are further levels but that’s for next month. One important point: Theravāda is not to be confused Hīnayāna. Theravāda is the proper name for the School of the Elders. Hīnayāna is a pejorative term singularly used by Mahāyāna Buddhism and may only be legitimately used as the ‘entry level’ of Mahāyāna teachings.
What in essence makes Mahāyāna a greater vehicle? Those who embraced these new teachings believed that there was something ‘more’ about the Buddha’s awakening. The path that Gautama had followed was the ‘greater vehicle’ because it was the vehicle of the bodhisattva which was motivated by compassion for all beings and which ended in the accomplishment of all spiritual qualities in the perfect awakening of a fully awakened Buddha. In comparison, those who followed him, the disciples, followed an inferior or lesser vehicle that ended in arhatship, certainly liberation from suffering and the realisation of nibbāna but, being selfishly motivated, not on the same level. The arhat forsakes saṃsāra at his awakening, the bodhisattva hangs around until everyone else is on board. From our perspective we might say that this represented a shift from seeing the Buddha as a simple human being who taught that others could achieve exactly what he had achieved by following his path, to the beginning of the deification of the Buddha and the belief that his historical existence was the expression in time of a timeless, omnipresent principle of awakening. Put simply, Buddhism had got god back.
While we might question this, the ideal of the bodhisattva is very beautiful. A bodhisattva is one who has taken the vow to be reborn innumerable times so to attain the highest possible goal of complete and perfect Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. For the bodhisattva it is no longer sufficient to aim for and obtain ones own salvation, out of their great compassion the bodhisattva strives to end suffering for all. Embracing this ideal is to open our heart to all others who suffer as we do. It is the union of wisdom and compassion.
To achieve this an aspiring bodhisattva practices the six (or sometimes ten) pāramitā’s – the perfections:
1. the perfection of giving
2. the perfection of moral conduct or discipline
3. the perfection of patience
4. the perfection of vigour or diligence
5. the perfection of meditation
6. the perfection of transcendent wisdom
And as he or she does this they begin to transverse the very long bodhisattva’s path that consists of ten stages or bhūmis:
1. The Very Joyous – in which one rejoices at realising a partial aspect of the truth.
2. The Stainless – in which one is free from all defilement.
3. The Light-Maker – in which one radiates the light of wisdom.
4. The Radiant Intellect – in which the radiant flame of wisdom burns away earthly desires.
5. The Difficult to Master – in which one surmounts the illusions of darkness, or ignorance as the Middle Way.
6. The Manifest – in which supreme wisdom begins to manifest.
7. The Gone Afar – in which one rises above the states of the Two vehicles.
8. The Immovable – in which one dwells firmly in the truth of the Middle Way and cannot be perturbed by anything.
9. The Good Intelligence – in which one preaches the Law freely and without restriction.
10. The Cloud of Doctrine – in which one benefits all sentient beings with the Dhārma, just as a cloud sends down rain impartially on all things. To achieve this fully is to be a fully enlightened Buddha.
Looking at this list it is apparent that the path has significantly lifted its game. As a disciple of the Buddha I might believe liberation in nibbāna was achievable in my lifetime but now the goal seems to be aeons of practice away. Also interestingly there is a shift in the understanding of wisdom. Here wisdom remains the ultimate wisdom of knowing how things really are. This is a phrase we are very familiar with – for Buddhism to know how things really are is to be free of suffering and be awakened. However, the usual description of reality as transitory, not-self and unsatisfactory here starts to change as two aspects – transitory and not-self – begin to morph together and form their joint equivalent, emptiness, śūnyatā.
Śūnyatā and the Perfection of Wisdom
While Buddhism is obsessed by the nature of reality it has always had a problem describing it. This started with the Buddha using descriptions that were provisional – good for a starting point – and ultimate – as close as can be achieved in words. In the last session we saw how the monks had picked this up and in their Abhidhamma’s had tried to describe reality as accurately as possible using the idea that while we normally experience things as solid and existing, looking deeper, they are made up of particles/processes, dhammas, that are infinitely interlinked and rapidly coming and going. This two levels way of describing things became known as ‘relative’ and ‘ultimate’ truth.
However even the Abhidhamma description cannot be said to be really true – after all, truth, reality, is ineffable and so anything said can only be an approximation – an approximation that may help or hinder understanding equally. This deeper insight began to appear in a genre of sūtra’s (we are now going over to Sanskrit spellings) that began to appear at the same time as the emergent Mahāyāna. Their name – the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, the Perfection of Wisdom. They took all conceptual certainties and tossed them in the air!
Now, looked at again, the Abhidharma’s ultimate truth, that dharmas existed momentarily, became challenged. How can they exist if everything is in a constant state of flux? If everything is indeed transitory this must mean that things – while they look like they have periods where they remain stable and unchanging – nonetheless are actually never stationary. It’s not as if change works as a series of little hiccups – things changing then standing still, remaining unchanged, and then starting to change again. Rather, in exactly the same way ultimate truth reveals there is no unchanging self at the centre of the ever changing person, so ultimate truth also reveals that each ‘thing’ in the universe of things, each dharma, similarly is without an unchanging nucleus. Everything, persons and the myriad expressions of the ‘ten thousand things’, are equally revealed to be dream like phantoms, relatively existing but ultimately non-existent. Truly things are not at all how they seem! Perceived as such it could now be said that everything was empty – ‘empty of self existence’ is the technical way of saying it – empty, without, anything that stays the same. Emptiness then is a description of how things really are, a description of reality. It is not a thing, an ultimate reality with its own existence, it is simply an adjective that describes how things, everything, changes. However it is nonetheless a big deal. To really experientially know this, to know it as deep as it gets, is to have the transcendent wisdom of a Buddha.
Putting it into Practice
With the path of the bodhisattva came meditations that encouraged the six pāramitā’s and enabled the accomplishment of the ten bhūmis. Two of these, though not exclusive to the Mahāyāna, have attained special prominence, the practice of loving kindness, maitrī, and compassion, karuṇā, and the practice of giving and taking, tonglen.
Kindness and compassion
All of us who have been through our mindfulness courses will be at least familiar with the first of these. At the end of the whole day retreat we have always taught a loving kindness and compassion practice. Borrowing the words of Śāntideva, an eighth century Buddhist Monk renowned for his ‘The Way of the Bodhisattva’ – we also pray: “May all beings know happiness and the roots of happiness. May all beings be free of suffering and the roots of suffering.” Here it is an expression of kindness that we wish for all sentient beings happiness and expression of compassion that we all should be free from suffering. Kindness and compassion are joined in the two lines of the aspiration. Pema Chödrön, the American Buddhist nun, says that this practice opens our ‘soft spot’ and associates this soft spot with bodhicitta – our innate awakened mind/heart.
Giving and taking
The practice of giving and taking may also be familiar to some of us – we have taught it occasionally on the Tuesday evening follow ups. However it is a more ‘tricky’ practice as it requires that we sincerely make the wish to take the pain and suffering of all sentient beings – perhaps starting with just one or two – into ourselves and send them well being. Just think, breathing in I receive hatred, fear, jealousy, shame and arrogance and breathing out send compassion and wisdom. Sounds very bodhisattva-like to do but can we really mean it? Literally? Pema Chödrön says that this practice can reveal lot’s of blocks. It can bring us up against our own fear and resistance, our own small defences. That part of us that cuts off when we see horrific adverts on the TV begging charity for some hell hole in which people suffer. One question frequently asked is how can I take into myself the entire suffering of the world – it will break me? The answer to this is subtle and needs to be carefully understood so not to be simply colonised as another ego defence. It is that at the beginning of this practice we need to rest into our buddha-nature, to have a real sense of the spacious awareness that exists but is not ‘me’, and from this space do the practice. In this way we are not overwhelmed. It is not my limited and fragile personality that is encompassing the worlds sorrow but the limitless compassion of the our awakened innermost nature. However this perspective can easily become corrupted, pretending to rest in buddha-nature when in fact we are just cutting off from what we receive from others. Not feeling the soft spot.
Calm and a revised insight
There are other bodhisattva practices – Pema Chödrön mentions the cultivation of the Four Immeasurable’s – sympathetic joy, unconditional friendliness, compassion and equanimity, the ‘Abodes of the Gods’, the Brahmavihāras. There are also many other means to cultivate and strengthen our bodhisattva aspiration and motivation. Ways to keep it in the forefront of our minds during the cut and thrust of being in relationship with others. Of course the practice of calm abiding and insight continues to be central but here insight has a slightly different meaning that mirrors the evolution from impermanence to emptiness. Insight is insight into how things really are and how they are is empty. In this mindfulness and clearly knowing play their part, but here mindfulness is revealed in its most sublime form as the non-dual awareness of the awakened mind. Mindfulness, once no longer partitioned into subject and object is revealed as the ‘big mind’ that experientially is known as simultaneously spacious and brightly clear – the union of emptiness and clarity … but this is jumping ahead.
Just one more thing in this section before we finish. Above I said that Buddhism has always obsessed about its description of reality – neither wanting to suggest that it somehow ultimately exists nor the opposite that there is absolutely nothing there. It is beyond the scope of these notes to delve deeper here but let us register that the struggle to properly describe emptiness started a whole industry of philosophising that to this day has not arrived at consensus – still no one group agrees with anyone else. So if we remain muddled it would seem we are in very good company!
Buddhist’s love to chant. Last session we mentioned how the entire Sangha congregated to chant collectively the entire canon of the Buddha’s teachings. And perhaps this is no surprise as amongst the ranks of monks were a great many Brahmins. Former members of the priestly caste whose job in Brahmanic society was to invoke the gods through chanting prayers and using words of power – mantras – to achieve their ends. So it easily follows that during the centuries after the death of the Buddha and rise of the Mahāyāna that monks began to perform rituals to help with everyday things, smoothing the well being of lay and monastic life. Monks today can still be seen performing exactly the same tasks – rites for increasing the duration of a life, the cure of an illness or a smooth passage from one life to the next. One modern twist is that now these monastic services are available via the internet. We can contact a Tibetan Buddhist monastery on line and, for a suitable sum, have rituals done for ourselves or others. (https://www.gompaservices.com/TMS_test/en/_default.asp) Such services were seen as the skilful means of the bodhisattva and within the Mahāyāna we find two paths mutually assisting each other, the way of the Bodhisattva as above and the way of the Mantras – Mantra-naya – which, over the course of nine hundred years, was to evolve from its simple domestic origins into a whole new vehicle of awakening.
If it is easy to imagine how the monks would chant prayers for well being it is not so easy to understand what these first prayers consisted of. Today we have well over two thousand Buddhist texts called ‘Tantras’ but surprisingly the earliest texts were not originally called Tantras but a selection of names including, confusingly, sūtras. These earliest texts, over four hundred and fifty of them, are today collected together in what is called Kriyā Tantra – action Tantra – and date from the third to the sixth centuries CE. They use magical rituals to aid and protect those they are performed for, asking that the harvests be good, that we should be healthy, have many children and also as protection against wicked people and dangerous situations.The roots of these rituals seem to have come from several sources. As I said, the Brahmanic culture was already doing much the same thing – invoking gods and through offerings and the use of sacred words imbued with power requesting their help. Also, within the Theravādin communities there existed parittas – short protective chants, and within the Mahāyāna Sūtras, from the third century CE, were found dhāraṇīs – short formulas or clusters of power words (spells) for preserving and maintaining the Dharma and aiding its followers. To help us imagine this think of an Anglican Church service at harvest time. The ritual unfolds within the environment of the Church which is full of the images of divine figures. It gives thanks for a good crop in the hope that this will induce further good crops in the future. It contains hymns (chants) and prayers invoking and praising the deity. It has offerings – some of the fruit and grain. And it uses words of power to cement the power of the prayers – AMEN. Different in so many ways, structurally it remains the same.
Certainly by the seventh century Tantric practice, as a transformative spiritual practice, was beginning to emerge. This may have first come from the South of India and the Hindu worship of the deity Shiva – the creator and destroyer. This type of practice is typified by the visualisation of the deity and repetition of their mantra – the energy of what they essentially represent or embody. Around this practice are prayers that describe the deity and their actions in minute detail and within the Buddhist context, the taking of refuge and the dedication of merit. Finally, the practice ends with the dissolution of the deity back into emptiness – from where it initially emerged – and the practitioner resting in this open ground of awareness. Here calm abiding is associated with the concentration necessary for visualisation and mantra repetition and insight with resting in emptiness. An example of such a practice, (though a bit later), is the practice of Avalokiteśvara or Chenrezig in Tibetan. The ‘one who looks with the unwavering eye of compassion’. He is represented in many ways – one is with a thousand hands each with an eye seeing the suffering of sentient beings. His mantra is found on the lips of most Tibetans and carved on innumerable rocks throughout the Himalayas, Tibet and Mongolia. OM MANI PADME HUM. In China and Japan he becomes a she – Guanyin – but the message remains the same. Within the awakened mind lies limitless compassion, by opening ourselves to it one day it will flood out like a breached dam.
So, I think we have done as much as I wanted for this session. Next session we will look at how the Mantra-naya turns into the Vajrayāna, the adamantine vehicle that transforms sex and violence. Hold on to your hats.
Books / CD’s
Pema Chödrön, Noble Heart: A Self-Guided Retreat on Befriending Your Obstacles, Audio Book /CD.
Peter Harvey 2013, An Introduction To Buddhism, Teachings, History and Practices, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press.
Śāntideva, 2006, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala, Boston & London.
Paul Williams & Antony Tribe, 2000, Buddhist Thought, A Complete Introduction To The Indian Tradition, Routledge, New York and London.