Reading Chinese Buddhist Texts and Honouring Different Traditions

Leshan Buddha. From

I have recently co-authored a reader in Chinese Buddhist texts (Lock and Linebarger 2018) . The reader is intended for students who have basic literacy in Chinese but need a lot of help in reading and understanding the difficult language in which most Chinese Buddhist texts are written.

I would of course be very happy if readers of this blog could pass on information about the book to anyone they think might be interested. However, my main purpose here is not to promote the book. Rather, it is to work through issues that I have had to think about while preparing texts for the book.

The reader contains twelve units, each focusing on one text, or group of related texts. Eleven of these units deal with well-known Mahayana (Great Vehicle) sutras, such as the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra, and with treatises, commentaries and other texts from the Chinese Mahayana tradition. Only one unit focuses on extracts from the Chinese Agamas, which are sutras that parallel the Pali Nikayas and are texts associated with what is sometimes called “Mainstream Buddhism,” “Early Buddhism” or somewhat disparagingly “Hinayana (Small Vehicle) Buddhism.” This is, of course, no accident. Chinese Buddhism is overwhelmingly Mahayana in orientation.

I am aware that some of my friends associated with Theravada or Southern Tradition Buddhism wonder why I bother with Mahayana texts at all. I have even been told that all Mahayana sutras are simply forgeries and so should be ignored.

I can understand why some people might say this. Just like the Agama sutras, the Mahayana sutras usually begin with the phrase “thus have I heard,” which traditionally is held to imply that they contain the words of the Buddha as remembered by Ananda, who was his cousin and one of his closest followers. The Mahayana sutras are also typically set in places, such as Vulture Peak in Rajagaha, in which many Agama sutras are said to have been delivered. Yet scholars are overwhelmingly of the opinion that even the earliest Mahayana sutras were composed long after the historical Buddha’s death.

I do not know how many followers of Mahayana Buddhist schools today believe literally that the Mahayana sutras record the words of the historical Buddha as spoken roughly two and a half millennia ago. Very few, I suspect. I personally have no problem in accepting that these sutras are not the recorded words of the historical Buddha, yet can still be regarded as “authentic” Buddhist texts. It seems to me only natural that a tradition should develop over time, and that the essential truths of the dharma may need to be interpreted and re-expressed in different eras, in different cultural contexts, and for different kinds of people. This does not, of course, mean that anything goes. The bottom line, it seems to me, is that whatever “expedient means” a Buddhist text may use to express the dharma, it should encourage the cultivation of positive qualities such as kindness, compassion, equanimity and wisdom, and discourage hatred, greed and delusion. What it says should also be consistent with the ‘four noble truths’ as set out in mainstream Buddhism.

I have found a YouTube video of a talk with Ven. Analayo very helpful in thinking about this. He points out that the understanding we now have of the chronological development of the different Buddhist traditions is relatively recent and it gives us opportunities that previous generations may not have had. He compares the different traditions of Buddhist teachings to different colourful flowers, which we should neither reduce to simple black and white “this is right and this is wrong,” nor “take all these different colours and put them into a blender,” getting just grey. He suggests we allow all these colours to sit side by side , recognising that at different times Buddhists had different conceptions of the Buddha and had different types of practices, and that within each of these contexts, different teachings were meaningful.

Taking such a perspective in responding to the charge that Mahayana sutras are forgeries, we can recognise that for Theravada Buddhists, the term “Buddha” normally refers only to Siddhattha Gotama (Siddartha Gautama) after his awakening under the Bodhi tree. However, most Mahayana Buddhists have a much broader conception of “Buddha,” one that goes beyond the spatial and temporal specifics of Siddhattha Gotama’s life. This allows them to think of these sutras as directly inspired by the Buddha, even if not literally spoken by the historical Buddha himself.

I personally respond best to the concept of a ‘flesh and blood’ Buddha who was born probably some time in the 5th Century BC into the Sakya clan or community somewhere near the present Indian and Nepalese border. His name seems to have been Siddhattha Gotama. He was someone who faced the same kinds of angst and suffering as we all do. He left home in his 20’s, studied and practised with several teachers before he finally ‘awoke’ at about the age of 35. He spent the rest of his life wandering around what is now Northeast India, building a community and trying to convey the insights stemming from this awakening, until he died at the age of 80. His teachings are very challenging to put into practice, but on the whole fairly straightforward and easy to understand, at least intellectually.

I cannot, of course, prove that such a person actually existed, nor that these details of his life are correct, nor that he taught what I think he taught, but this is the Buddha that I feel most comfortable with.

I do not, however, usually respond well to the conception of a God-like Buddha, unlimited in time and space, who has three bodies like the Christian Trinity and is able to perform all kinds of miraculous feats. Nor do I usually respond well to teachings that seem overly mystical or obscure. I have also never felt drawn to the worship of Avalokitishvara or Amitabha.

But this is just me. And I can see some of the factors that have conditioned me to have these kinds of reactions. One factor must certainly be the inept attempts of religious education teachers at my secondary school to convince us of the truth of stories about an omnipotent, omniscient creator of the universe and his son Jesus, not to mention the Holy Spirit and flocks of angels and saints. Another factor is through my education and work as a teacher coming to value clear, logical language. Whenever I come a across a metaphor, I want to immediately unpack it into its literal meaning. Whenever I come across ambiguity, I want to disambiguate it. Whenever I come across vagueness, I want to clarify it. This tendency to literal mindedness is probably why I so often struggle to appreciate poetry. Poems that some people find inspiring can leave me baffled and irritated.

Other people are different from me. They have no negative reactions to things in Buddhism that remind me of aspects of the religion I rejected when I was in my teens. They can also respond imaginatively and intuitively to images that leave me cold. This is the beauty of having so many different ‘expedient means’ for expressing the dharma.

I am intrigued by the work of scholars who claim to have uncovered chronological strata even within the Agama/Nikaya texts and who are trying to identify the oldest parts of these texts, which they presume to be closest to what Siddharta Gotama actually taught. However, once again, I see no reason to take the findings of these scholars as guides to what we should or should not regard as authentic Buddhist teachings. If we did that, we would have to reject not only all Mahayana texts, but also those parts of the Agama/Nikaya sutras they tell us were added later, as well as the entire Abhidhamma.

I’ll just finish up by very briefly mentioning some things in Mahayana texts that I do respond positively to. Firstly, there is the Bodhisattva ideal. Although aspiring to seek awakening for all sentient beings may seem somewhat over ambitious, I think it can be a useful reminder that one should be practising not just for one’s own benefit but also, or even primarily, for the benefit of others. Secondly, the comparisons of life to a dream or a mirage in, for example, the Diamond Sutra, if they are not taken too literally (e.g. leading one to feel that facts such as climate change don’t matter because they are “not real”) can be very useful in encouraging us not to grasp on to passing phenomena believing they can bring us happiness, or not to obsess about present problems that will eventually dissolve.

Thirdly, the concept of “expedient means,” as developed for example in the Lotus Sutra is very useful in discouraging us from thinking that a certain presentation of the dharma is ‘the truth’ and all other presentations are wrong. Fourthly, masters like Huineng talking about samadhi and wisdom, as reported in the Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra, or Zhiyi , writing about calming and insight meditation, often seem to speaking from their own experience and offer practical and useful advice. Finally, Chan (Zen) gongan (koans) and commentaries on them, though sometimes baffling, are often very refreshing in the way they cut through the kind of bullshit and blah, blah, blah that I am undoubtedly too fond of. I am sure there is much more in Mahayana texts that could be of value to someone like me, but these are the aspects that spring to mind right now.

Leave a Reply