return to religion-online

Essays in the History of Religions by Joachim Wach

Joachim Wach was born in 1898 in Chemnitz, Saxony and died in 1955. Wach insisted there was a definite distinction between the history of religion and the philosophy of religion. He felt an inquiry into the difference must be carried out by employing the religo-scientific method (Religionswissenschaft). Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, 866 third Avenue, New York, NY 10022, in 1988. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Mahayana Buddhism

General readers are perhaps best acquainted with the philosophy and the art of Mahayana -- which are certainly two essential areas of expression. However, in some ways these two are better suited to lead one away from the study of Mahayana than to bring him to it. A friend of philosophical clarity or religious sincerity or a proponent of "classical" tastes in art would understandably turn away from these "baroque" manifestations with repugnance. But philosophy and art are indeed rather secondary to the religiosity that feeds and fires Mahayana. As matters stand, we can best come to know this orientation through the study of the holy scriptures. To be sure, even here we are hindered by widespread prejudices when we want to bring our friends to the study of Mahayana Buddhism. Let us examine the most popular of these prejudices.

The argument that very few people are equipped to approach the sources is invalid; many people have studied the Himayana scriptures in translation to their deepest inward benefit and their greatest profit. But for many the Mahayana scriptures are reputed to be atrociously long-winded and tedious. In this case people are usually thinking of the Lalitavistara and Mahavastu, the only scriptures associated with Mahayana that are also rather well-known in broader academic circles. Perhaps many people have been discouraged from reading a Mahayana sutra by its -- at times exceptionally extensive -- enumeration of names and objects, its profusion of numbers and stereotyped concepts, and its eternal repetitions. I shall later write a few more words explaining all this; but right now we must remember that ultimately every human race, every people, every religious, political, and social group has its own style of thinking and speaking. If we want to take an interest in non-Christian religions, then we must take the trouble to try and enter into this style and to understand it. To the student who has perhaps come to these writings from studies in folklore or fairy tales and who is now "disillusioned" by their long-windedness, we might say that no religious text is easy and entertaining reading. Finally, in reading such texts one must keep in mind the end to which they were written, namely, religious edification. I find that the Mahayana sutras, in their own way, bear comparison with the Himayana sutras very well. But we must not make the mistake of approaching the one phenomenon with a criterion constructed from the other one and thus of wanting to judge it on the basis of an ideal which is wholly different from its own.

As for the aesthetic impression, first of all, it would naturally be wrong for us to expect that the Mahayana sutras should have the same simplicity and unity that are in some sense proper to the sutras of the Lesser Vehicle. Just to mention a single factor that naturally determines the character of their aesthetic form, the Mahayana sutras are devoted to the exaltation of the Mahapurusa; unlike, for example, the literature of the southern canon, they do not praise the Buddha primarily as a teacher and a man. Even while reading certain parts of the Majjbima-Nikaya -- not to mention any of the later or more abstract writings -- much of what is presented there will seem diffuse, complicated, and verbose. But if the reader can acquire the inner composure and stillness that will permit him to penetrate the spirit of this literature, to understand it and to enjoy it, then he will also be able to understand the style of thinking and speaking that the Indians created for themselves. Whoever wishes to become familiar with Mahayana must simply accept a much bigger criterion; he must become broader and more open -- I might say more elastic -- so that he can acquire the inner momentum that will enable him to think, feel, and move with his subject.

When we first come into the presence of the gigantic dimensions that dominate everything here, they take our breath away -- when we have just barely entered this world, we become deaf, blind, and confused. Let us suppose that during a walk through the narrow streets of a small town we were suddenly to stand before a building the size of the cathedral at Cologne. At first we would see nothing at all; we would have no conception of the totality before us. If, however, we had been prepared for such a sight, our eyes would have no difficulty in probing and encompassing the mighty planes and heights; then our own feelings of smallness and oppression would not interfere with the elevating effects of such a view in the same way as in the first instance. Once we have acquired the momentum that permits us to breathe in India’s more or less tropical world; once we have become especially broad and open, so that we do not shrink from even the most monstrous of concepts, letters, and numbers, then the world of Mahayana can be unveiled for us in all its beauty and sublimity. We must first achieve an inner relationship to this whole world; then we will be able to grasp the inner necessity, which rules here as in any organic structure and which, of course, is also involved in the problem of the relationship of content to aesthetic form. We must be able to understand that all this repetition and accumulation, all these colossal numbers and spaces are not just the play of an imagination gone mad; this is not a question of "play" at all -- or if it is, then the word must be given a very deep and philosophical meaning. Again, just to cite a single example, the practice of formulating fixed and stereotyped figures of speech, already reflected to a lesser degree in the Himayana scriptures, becomes here a kind of codification of a quantity of rigid formulas which seem to threaten all life with suffocation. Thus any reference to the Buddha is always accompanied by the same massive and rigid retinue of names and predicates. This "stylization" extends so far that even in describing the trees that might adorn the realm of a Buddha, there is talk not of ten or one hundred or even one thousand but of hundreds of tens of millions (koti) of trees -- and they are not ordinary trees but trees of diamonds and other precious materials. The Lotus is overflowing with such examples.

What must be taken into account here is a difference in the character of the aesthetic forms. The great, incontestable, and immediately evident value of a noble expression, of a beautiful form, dare not be underestimated -- and we are referring here not only or even primarily to its aesthetic value but above all to its religious value. Today we have again become more conscious of the significance of this kind of value in its "sociological" reference, that is, in its capacity for creating and preserving society. Cult is the nucleus of all objective religion. Surely it is not by chance that Himayana has been able to win and hold only a comparatively small number of people, while even today Mahayana binds hundreds of millions. The Mahayana scriptures reflect a high degree of objective religion. It is also expressed through Mahayana’s aesthetic forms. Today it is difficult to avert misunderstanding in using the antithesis "internal-external" because so much mischief has been done with it. Nonetheless, I should like to suggest that the form of the holy scriptures of Himayana, conforming to the more introverted nature of Himayana piety, is significantly more "subjective" than that of the Mahayana writings -- a religious literature that constructs a monstrously rich, manifold, variegated, and complicated "objective" world.

Let us consider another prejudice which still frequently obstructs our appreciation of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana is supposed to be completely unoriginal and dependent; it is a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism -- possibly an unfortunate mixture, to be understood and interpreted only as a degeneration of the original teaching of the Buddha. No one will contest the complex character of this form of religiosity.

On the contrary, probably the most important and instructive work incumbent on the history of religions at the present time is the historical analysis of Mahayana Buddhism. Furthermore, if we consider the teachings of "original" Buddhism to be identical with the nucleus of the older sources of the Himayana scriptures, then we must immediately admit that these teachings, as well as the whole "religion of Buddha," underwent a marked change in their later development; and we can readily understand how, from the standpoint of the "classical ideal" this development might be viewed as nothing but deprivation and decline. If, for the time being, we refrain from passing judgments, then all of the preceding discussion can signify only that it would be very rewarding to focus historical studies on the origins of Mahayana Buddhism. But we cannot deny that, no matter how great the influence of forms already in existence may have been at its inception, and no matter how complex and manifold and colorful its components may appear to be in historical analysis, Mahayana Buddhism is nonetheless a unique phenomenon, which we cannot "explain" by summarizing its constituent elements. For no matter how many concepts, images, and phrases were borrowed and adopted from other religions, and no matter how superficial their reception has often been, there is a new center here. We must understand the dogmas, concepts, and forms as being its modes of expression. The number of intermediate structures and transitional phenomena between Himayana and Mahayana makes no difference; we will never circumvent the necessity of confessing that in Mahayana, as opposed to the "old" form, something specifically new came into being out of a basic outlook that was new -- something that had its own structure and its own value.

Nor can we completely explain the novelty by talking about Buddhism’s reception among non-Indian peoples, whose characteristic traits are to be made responsible for its transformation, although the findings of folk psychology would have considerable significance in an investigation of this problem. All kinds of heterogeneous "foreign influences" have been more or less unilaterally postulated in the origin of Mahayana. But at the same time people have attempted to deny as many external influences as possible and to demonstrate that Buddhism is an exclusively Indian phenomenon. Undoubtedly -- the research of de la Vallee Poussin above all has shown this -- there already existed in the oldest form of Buddhism known to us a number of traits, at least in embryonic form, that later attained their full development for the first time in Mahayana. By its limited recognition of Himayana, the Greater Vehicle shows that its teachers did not break with the old forms. But the transformation of the old forms was so radical that we can readily say it would not have been possible to this degree without an impetus from the outside.

A question relevant in this context is whether the transformation of Buddhism into Mahayana was effected primarily through the intervention and influence of one or more outstanding personalities, for example, Nagarjuna or whoever the "founder" of Mahayana might be, or whether it happened because the influence of the "masses" forced concessions and thus brought about a change in the original religion. Here too, there is of course no "either-or" answer; rather we must try to ascertain the way and the degree to which both factors actually operated. Such a discussion would also be important because it would help to explain the remarkable and much-noted fact that in Mahayana we find, beside some very crude, coarse, and primitive beliefs, rites, and customs, the most sublime and subtle ideas and teachings. And these, indeed, do not only exist side by side -- they are frequently mixed, as in the peculiar piety of Tibetan Buddhism. Sublime speculations on the emptiness of things and the nature of the savior are intermingled with the use of the prayer-wheel and a belief in ghosts. And of course things are not so comfortably arranged that the theoretician can find the higher speculations and more sophisticated practice existing exclusively in the circles of the highest spirituality -- among scholars, for example -- and then observe the masses abiding in the simple spirit worship of their fathers. Everything is intermixed and intermingled. The historical and philosophical problem opens into that of the sociology of religion. It is enough for us to remember the circumstances in Japan. How was Buddhism transformed within the individual sects under the influence of the sociological structure, and how did its specific religiosity in turn affect the latter?

To many of us it may seem questionable to conceive of or to comment upon Mahayana Buddhism as a totality. They will point out the wealth of national differences, sects, schools, and views that are all comprehended under the name. But all of these call themselves Mahayanist, as even today we speak of Protestantism in general, referring to the sum of those empirical phenomena that call themselves by this name. As one comes to know a great religion more and more accurately, one comes to see within it more and more significant and fundamental differences and divisions -- until finally the whole readily appears to be only a "unity of contrasts." How great are the tensions which Heiler has pointed to in Catholicism and Glasenapp in Hinduism! I cannot doubt that, if the time comes when Mahayana Buddhism is presented as a whole, a very similar discovery will be made.

Is there such a thing as the "spirit" of Mahayana? Is there something that will permit us to grasp this phenomenon as a unity, are there instances that are characteristic of it, especially in the context that has been introduced here? There are three approaches, it seems to me, through which one can attempt to determine the essence of Mahayana Buddhism; in the areas of religion, of philosophy, and of ethics, it has set up an ideal that gives us an insight into its essence. We can learn about it if we ask first, "What is its attitude toward God?" second, "What is its attitude toward mankind?" and third, "What is its attitude toward the ‘world’?" At the same time, the answers to these questions will highlight the differences between Mahayana and Hinayana.

First of all, however, we have to make a few literary remarks --especially with regard to the text from which we shall proceed.

If we would want to paint a picture of Himayana Buddhism based on its scriptures, it would not be difficult. Both the Pali Canon (of which a very significant part is available to us even in our own language) and a few works in Sanskrit inform us about it. We even have the complete canon of a Hinayana sect, the Pali-Tipitaka. No complete Sanskrit canon is extant. It is characteristic of Mahayana and its "henotheizing" and bibliolatrous tendencies that each of the Mahayana sects usually has its own particularly sacred book.

The crown of the Mahayana scriptures in all respects is and continues to be the Saddharma-Pundarzka.1 The significance of its content and its religious and aesthetic value are well known. Unfortunately, when scholars have taken an interest in this work it has too often been muddied by apologetic concerns, which make impartial evaluation very difficult. It is no accident that this was the first of the Sanskrit scriptures of the northern school, and one of the first texts of the entire Buddhist literature, to be translated into a European language. In the second volume of his epoch-making Introduction au Bouddhisme, Eugène Burnouf offered a translation of "Le Lotus de la bonne loi."2 Hendrik Kern’s new English translation of the text in 1884 was largely based on it.3 Burnouf devoted exceptional love and care to the work -- the second half of the second volume and the third volume consist of notes and appendices intended to help clarify philologically, factually, and historically some of the more important concepts of the Saddharma-Pundarzka sutra. Even today, in spite of their many dated suppositions and constructs, these volumes are still indispensable to the continuing study of the Lotus, although they are more helpful in clarifying specific concepts than they are in introducing and evaluating the spirit of the work.

Perhaps it would not be out of place for us to remember a few outstanding dates in the history of a book that has been a source of supreme wisdom for so many thousands of people. We do not know when the Saddharma-Pundarzka was first written. Moriz Winternitz, who objects to Kern’s predated quotations for the earlier sources, would date the original form of the book at about A.D. 200. Burnouf has fixed different dates for the sections in Sanskrit prose and the Gathas of "mixed" Sanskrit that follow each chapter. Today it is believed that the work originally consisted entirely of poetry, in which short prose passages were scattered to introduce the verse and to bind it together. Then, as the language of the poetry became obsolete, the prose passages were expanded. Without exactly being a commentary, they undertook an explanation. The work was translated into Chinese several times -- these dates are generally accepted. The first Chinese translator was Dharmaraksa (265-316); an incomplete translation by an unknown author is equally old. Kumarajiva followed (384-417); contemporary with his translation is a Tibetan version. The translation by Jñanagupta and Dharmagupta is dated 601. In the meantime, Vasubandhu wrote a commentary on the Saddharma-Pundanka.

The book, as we have it, consists of twenty-seven chapters which are very unequal in length. Chapters 21 through 26 are later additions; this has been proved on the basis of internal and external evidence. Thus the older text includes Chapters 1 through 20 and Chapter 27, which serves as an epilogue. According to Kern and Winternitz, the remainder would have been added around 250 as Parzsistas (addenda).

In translation, the work is not excessively difficult, even for the reader who is not well-versed in this literature. Compensating for the long and boring enumerations of names and numbers which we have already talked about are the entirely unique and beautiful similes scattered throughout the book. They are of the highest religious, ethical, and aesthetic value. In fact, this is what is so singular about this work; again and again, beside many things that are "late," that is, superficial, sophistic, and scholastic, we find in it much that is simple and straightforward, reflecting genuine sensitivity. On the whole, we cannot deny that it has a highly meaningful human content. It reveals genuine wisdom, genuine goodness, genuine piety. The good doctor, the anxious father, and the wise leader are figures that are eternally human; they come to us and accompany us; they have something to say to every one of us. Who would not put up with many things that seem odd, exaggerated, or circumstantial -- with many things that to us, born under a different sun and in a different time, seem to be tasteless or even laughable -- for the sake of human enrichment and of aesthetic and religious elevation? In spite of the hieratic and ceremoniously rigid style of the work, is there not a great deal of life here -- life in the people whose words we hear, and whose acts we witness, and life above all in the Buddha Sakyamuni and in the great disciples who have been transformed into archangels?


Now let us discuss briefly Mahayana’s attitude toward God, toward mankind, and toward the world.

Traditionally, people have considered "atheism" to be one of the chief characteristics of the teaching of the Buddha according to the Lesser Vehicle. This view is doubtless correct. Another feature often emphasized in addition to atheism is its autosoteriology, the belief that each individual stands on his own feet and must accomplish his own salvation. The discoverer of the way to salvation thus has only a minimal role.

The old gods of Brahma-heaven recede completely into the background; where they appear, they are dii otiosi, they are one class of the beings which are all in need of salvation through the Buddha. By the time of the Buddha, little remained of the once important and powerful Vedic gods who had again and again interfered in the life of the individual. The era of the Brahmanas and Upanisads had developed a Weltanschauung that left no room for personal creators and world-destroyers or for good and evil lords. Its worldview substituted for lordship an impersonal and blind fate; man could only acknowledge its regularity and seek to escape it. This philosophy or metaphysic led immediately to an ethic, and the ethic was identical with the teaching of salvation. For the most part, the older form of Buddhism adopted this worldview, although it introduced many important changes. The most decisive one is that personal power was once again conceded a place in the system. In the Upanisads, salvation had remained a task that was uniquely and entirely the accomplishment of the individual person. All community and all leadership in the deeper sense of the word were hopelessly excluded from this individualistic and aristocratic system. The teaching of the Upanisads is more of a philosophy than a religion. But even though the older Buddhism remained very much aware of its fundamentally autosoteriological conceptions, it also recognized that the Buddha was decisive as the leader to salvation. We must bear in mind what a radical alteration was implied for the worldview when even the supreme law which regulated everything appeared to have been ruptured at a certain point, in that decisive moment when the Bodhisattva attained enlightenment. Here the ethic, which in Buddhism is also identical with the teaching of salvation -- perhaps even more than it had been in the Brahmanic system -- has much more latitude; it has a task that is metaphysically meaningful -- suspending at one point the cosmic law, unraveling it, as it were. But, as we have said, what is most decisive is the reinstitution of the leader-personality.

To be sure, there are many different opinions concerning the role assigned to the Buddha in the oldest form of Buddhism. Even the texts do not give us any wholly unified body of information. On the one hand, people like to quote the words of the dying master which have been handed down to us in the Mahaparinibbana-Sutra.4 On the other hand, we have evidence testifying to the "uniqueness" of the savior. The much-noted cool and abstract way of thinking of the oldest Buddhism surely corresponds very well to the figure of a master who fundamentally had no metaphysical nobility that would in any way have elevated him above the other creatures. At that time men probably saw in the Buddha only a teacher who had attained release and who taught release as a primus inter pares. For all that, he was as such still distinguished in the eyes of his disciples from the many lesser teachers of salvation who lived and worked around him, for he claimed to be the first -- without a "model" -- to have found this salvation. This must have distinguished him from all the other teachers, who were always aspiring to deliverance in the sense of the Karma- or Jñana-marga or according to some other "instruction." We find in the southern canon a codification of the teachings of the Buddha and ideas about his appearance which strongly emphasize characteristics that are rationalistic and individualistic. We have no reasons for doubting that many things pointing in this direction were in fact present in the proclamation of the master. On the other hand, it is in my opinion entirely wrong to want to interpret the rise of Mahayana only in terms of its opposition, its contradiction, or its reaction to Hinayana. The most important motives and factors at work in its development are of an interior and "necessary" nature. In any religion with a founder there develops within a certain length of time a cult of the founder. We cannot here attempt to search out the objective and psychological motives behind this fact. But it is noteworthy that some tendencies in this direction developed even in southern Buddhism, as indicated by the Nidanakatha and, generally speaking, by the Jataka. De la Vallée Poussin, who has done us the great service of keeping precisely this continuity in mind and of dealing with it, has -- following Minayeff, Foucher, and others -- thoroughly studied the Lokottaravadin texts in light of their significance for the understanding of the "transitions." These texts adhere to a supernatural conception of the Buddha, without considering themselves to be Mahayanist. A few more words must be said on this point.

I believe that we should accustom ourselves to the idea that there may have been men among the disciples and followers of Sakyamuni whose experience of the Buddha was very different from that of the men whose spirit speaks to us out of the canon of the South. And surely these men were not only the poor and the simple in spirit, not only the listeners on the fringes who were not capable of grasping the "true meaning" of the Buddha’s teaching or their like. We must realize that disciples of the Buddha -- and especially the most significant of them -- were not types; they were individual people. It has correctly been said that the great disciples all look alike in the scriptures; Hermann Oldenberg once said that they are not persons, they are the incarnate common spirit of the Buddha’s disciples. I think that this is an interesting observation which shows us the direction in which we are to look. The work of redacting and canonizing has already been done here; we stand before its results. It is obvious that the sects of the Pali Canon stylized the portrayal of the disciples no less than they did that of the master -- in their own way. But others have also drawn their pictures, and we can learn from their portrayals how they understood the appearance of the master and his disciples and the teaching.

Let us consider the circle of Socrates or that of Jesus. No one will deny that in the writings of Plato and Xenophon or in the Gospels we have "portrayals" which show us the figure of a master as seen through a temperament. They involve more than a temperament, of course; they have been comprehended and molded by an individuality. To be sure, things are different in India insofar as the type predominates there and the individual elements disappear -- as Oldenberg has correctly emphasized. But of course individual variations did and do exist. It just happens that people do not consider them to be what is ultimately important; on the contrary, it is the general that is essential. All variations from the norm are evaluated negatively. Moreover, the philosophical and historical idea of orderliness obviously would also have had some influence on the origin and the career of the portrayals. Without saying more, it is evident that men of different natures would have come together in a circle like those which the great masters, including the Buddha, gathered around themselves. If one were to question each of the disciples about his experience of the master, he would find that crucial differences would come to light already in the experience itself, that is to say, in the perception of it, and that further significant differences would appear in the way of formulating an expression of that experience. Thus, for example, in spite of the fact that we can presuppose in every instance a certain "will to clarification," a "realist" on such an occasion outlines a different picture from that of the "idealist," and so on. Can anyone doubt that a report on Jesus by Peter would have been different -- would have had to be different from one by John or Andrew or by any of the other disciples? Would not an Ananda have seen and loved "another" Buddha than the Buddha of Ajñata Kaundinya or of any other man? And what holds true for the immediate disciples would of course be true to an even higher degree for those who followed after them, for all the "pupils and followers." To be sure, it is difficult even in the Gospels of the New Testament to extricate and to distinguish individual characteristics and to separate that which is late and worked over from the precipitate of the primary impression. To undertake such a project with the sources of Buddhism must seem to be almost impossible. We must remember moreover the Indian aversion, already mentioned, to anything singular, abnormal, or individual. The kind of work that has achieved such rich results in the study of the New Testament canon can never be exercised on the Buddhist scriptures. Rather we must attempt to make as clear as possible the forms of this experience in their manifoldness and their differences. And that which we have said up to now about the master also holds true in many respects for the tradition of the teaching in the more limited sense of the word. Here too we know comparatively little about the individual traditions that must have circulated before and after the codification. But even if many remnants did not allude to them, we would have to infer their existence from studying the historical and philosophical presuppositions of the development of the objective religious establishments. We are not at all prejudging anything about chronology, that is, about establishing the dates of the teachers and writings of the Mahayana schools -- their roots are in the earliest times; rather we are trying to give the psychological and objective points of departure in which the speculations of the later schools were grounded and out of which they are therefore to be understood. We cannot explain any "variation" with the aid of "time" alone -- then, for example, there would be no reason for the earlier Himayana to have persisted alongside the later Mahayana; rather we must take into consideration the great range of inner possibilities which existed from the very beginning.

Scholars have rightly paid attention to the "pre-education" that must be posited for most of the Buddha’s disciples and audience. Were there not adherents of many different orientations among them, yogins and ascetics of every conceivable kind? Thus many of the ideas and categories which they brought with them to their experience of the Buddha gave direction to the development of the existing tradition and above all assisted in its codification and systematization.5 When the dogmatics applied the predicate Mahapurusa to the Buddha -- as we know, the Mahapurusa is characterized by a number of specific primary and secondary physical and spiritual attributes -- or that of Cakravartin -- this does not imply, as de la Vallee Poussin has already and very appropriately remarked, that they were "idealizing" or recalling attributes of the historical Sakyamuni. Rather they were utilizing certain terms out of the treasury of preformulated concepts to give expression to the still living -- perhaps still immediate --impression of the majesty and divinity of the Buddha. It is neither by chance nor by caprice that they adopted precisely those concepts which had originally been filled with a different content. Such concepts offered a perception of the appearance of the Buddha in which the experience "Buddha" was not exhausted in the appearance of the teacher; rather they were grounded in the (religious) experience of a "supernatural" manifestation.

We are accustomed -- and the texts of the southern canon encourage us in this direction -- to viewing the Buddha as a good and sublimely tranquil man. But now we have seen that he could also be experienced as Mahapurusa or Mahasattva. The ideas expressed in these and in similar dogmatic formulations must in time have spread further and further. A certain explanation by de la Vallee Poussin is very interesting in this connection; in it he shows how identical terms might have been understood in both realistic and supernaturalistic ways. Mahasattva could have implied divinity, but it could also have designated someone (human) of a superior nature. There were "minimizers" who interpreted, for example, Sakyamuni’s saying that he would remain in the world until the end of this kalpa to mean that he would remain for a human lifetime, that is, for a hundred years. Later on, as the tradition and the teaching gradually developed and took on form, the different tendencies which had been present from the very beginning -- let us call them the realistic and supernatural tendencies, although the difference in meaning would have been great -- must inevitably have become unwieldy and thus incapable of being expressed through a unified terminology. If the extreme realists would already have had reservations about a middle-of-the-road understanding which was only colored by supernaturalism, as perhaps reflected in the Lokottaravadin, then extremely supernatural conceptions such as those found in the writings of the Mahayana teachers must have aroused their deepest displeasure. On the other hand, we can thoroughly understand that those minds that had, in accordance with their nature and experience, known the Buddha to be God could not have been satisfied with a moderately "supernatural" understanding like that expressed in the three sections of the Nidanakatha -- not to mention the teachings of the Sthaviras.

It is necessary for us to distinguish between the basic conception, which is for the most part very old, and the dogmatic formulations of the respective schools, sects, and branches that developed the original teachings and in time organized, refined, or coarsened them. Often we do not recognize the predispositions already present in the origins until their final consequences have been drawn. Thus, although the formulation of the theory of a simultaneous plurality of Buddhas was of course a late development, nonetheless even here the idea of absolute "uniqueness" was ruptured by the recognition of a number of Buddhas preceding Sakyamuni. When we come to the supernaturalists of the Greater Vehicle each scripture outdoes the other. The Buddhas are infinitely multiplied in time and in space. There are hundreds of millions of them. There are countless Buddha-realms, each of them comprehending multimillions of worlds. Thus countless Buddhas are reigning in any given second. This is Mahayana. How can we understand such concepts? Might not all of this be simply an invasion of the old Hindu pantheon or the unbridled license of a mad imagination playing with faces and, ultimately, only with names and numbers?

We can probably characterize the central experience of Mahayana, as far as content is concerned, as follows: it is the discovery that there is (a) God. Was the founder and the master of Buddhism this God? He was also God, but this God was not manifest in him alone. He is revealed through countless manifestations. It is said that the pantheon of Mahayana is very large. Who is the greatest among these -- gods? We do not wish to ask such a question, for it reflects a perspective peculiar to our own way of thinking. The pious Mahayana Buddhist may rejoice in an abundance of manifestations of the Divine. In prayer to each of them he pours out the fullness of his devotion to God. In back of all of them there stands the Dharmakaya, the true Being, which is concretized in the Tathagata. We have seen that what was decisive in the appearance of the Buddha as against the teaching of the Upanisads was the reintroduction of personal power into the worldview of the Indians; the thought of help, of merciful help, was thoroughly impressed upon them. In the preaching of the Buddha it probably remained in the background. The older Buddhism of the Pali texts permits it to play only an insignificant role. But there came a time when this thought -- which perhaps only a few had at first grasped with enthusiasm -- became the consolation of millions. Even if it had been unimportant in the Master’s preaching, had not the very appearance of the Buddha been a manifestation of "help"? And now this thought was quickened with the religious ardor characteristic of the Indian people and was grasped with enormous intensity. This merciful help must be great, infinitely great, and near, infinitely near. There is no more living expression for the intensity with which this thought was thought than the godhead of Mahayana -- incessantly multiplying, always clothing itself in new manifestations, always descending anew into the world of men, always prepared for new sacrifices. We could hardly wish to interpret this pluralistic perception of God as monotheism, nor are we referring to the late and philosophically abstract speculation on the Adi-Buddhas. Merciful, saving love -- this is Sakyamuni, this is Amitabha or Amitayus, as well as the many others who can often be differentiated from one another only by name. This is the breath and the substance of those beings who have been specifically created by the Mahayana belief -- the Bodhisattvas. We meet most of these great deities in the Saddharma-Pundanka. At its center, however, is the Buddha Sakyamuni. In other Mahayana sutras it is more often Amitabha who appears as "God" -- as we have said, for the believer such a change creates no problems. It is not just a matter of his being tolerant and broad-minded in regard to his own life and that of the stranger; what is decisive for him is the fact that there is a helpful deity whom he will call upon now as Sakyamuni, now as Amitabha, as he prefers. To be sure, the veneration of the Buddha Amitabha has drawn those who seek the help of this god into a closer union. He has an exuberant cult, and many sects follow this particular form of the Mahayana teaching. It has rightly been said of the Amida religion that it is bhakti-marga; here all commands are subordinated to one -- the believer must put his faith and trust in Amitabha who, as a result of his especially high and merciful vow, is now enthroned as the king of Sukhavati, the western land of the blessed.

In the Saddharma-Pundarika, the Buddha Sakyamuni is called God. The sutra wishes to show him to us in his total splendor. Thus he is enthroned in immeasurable glory on the heavenly Grdhrakuta surrounded by a heavenly audience in whom all the categories of beings are represented. If we permit this proclamation of the Buddha to work upon us, we are powerfully reminded of two of Rudolf Otto’s characteristics of the Holy -- "majestas" and "augustum." We feel something of the "Power" of the Lord of the World which corresponds to man’s feeling of his own lowliness, insignificance, and finitude. It is the sanctum which man knows to exist over against himself. Otto has rightly emphasized that the awe that introduces itself in this connection is not merely a kind of fear before that which is overpowering; the tu solus sanctus is also a song of praise, which "so far from being merely a faltering confession of the divine supremacy, recognizes and extols a value, precious beyond all conceiving."6

This is evident here. And something else is very important the "awe" which the majesty of the Buddha arouses in us is not just a consequence of our awareness of his deeds, as is the case in Himayana where the Buddha is venerated because of his great accomplishment. Contrary to the rationalistic strains in Buddhist thought, for which the impetus to admiration and worship is grounded in the knowledge of the Buddha’s capacities, here, beside and before anything else, the nonrational comes into its own; the numinous makes itself felt and demands a response that is spontaneous and not based on rational deliberation. This is to say, the ethical supremacy of the Buddha -- his matchless love and compassion -- is not the final or the exclusive basis for his worship. What distinguishes the Lord even before his supreme moral worthiness is something other, which makes men shudder even when they only perceive the presence of the Buddha from afar. In other respects, the Saddharma-Pundarika is no more "monotheistic" than is Mahayana in general. The ‘’majesty’’ is not concentrated only in the figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni --although in contrast to other sutras it also focuses on him -- rather, as we have already intimated, it rests also upon the Tathagatas who come before the "present" Lord and after him, the great Bodhisattvas whom we have already mentioned. Perhaps it is worth pointing out, in order to avoid misunderstanding, that the description of majesty, which is intended to make us capable of seeing it and to lead us to it, is not like that of the Old or even the New Testament. There is no strong emphasis on the unique and the individual -- no Rembrandt-like concentration of light on the figure who stands in the center; here the technique used is "duplication"-- multiplication and integration. We cannot deny that the endless repetitions and all the other artifices whose aesthetic significance we have already pointed out are wholly suited to arouse an impression of solemn sublimity and numinous presence. Thus these long series of words create in us an effect like that of the eternally identical strophes of a litany, attuning the mind to solemnity and devotion.

A similar effect is produced by the dialogue -- the "dramatic performance," according to Kern -- characteristic of the Saddharma-Pundarika. But through the dialogue the strict solemnity is once again reinvested with life; it builds a bridge, so to speak, to the Master who is enthroned in his majesty. When a voice reaches him, and when he raises his own, men are again drawn nearer to the Buddha, and a glimmer of "humanity" is again lent to him. The dry schema theism-pantheism does little to help one appreciate the theology and the piety of the Lotus. The Saddharma-Pundarzka is a fine example of the type of piety in which the "Thou" and the "He" in man’s relationship7 to God are united -- not mixed. Each comes into its own -- the awe before the majesty of the "He" and the trusting and devoted dependence of the creature on the "Thou" (Father).8 Corresponding to them on the side of the Godhead are the throne in its divine glory and the love, the friendly concern for the children. The latter is particularly well expressed through the concept of the upayakausalya of the Buddha.9 Again and again we are illumined in new ways and on new levels which the Tathagata has devised in accordance with his vow, the greatest act of his compassion, to awaken and to save men who are suffering and in error. The sutra is inexhaustibly rich with deep and fine similes which express this anxious love.10 The wisdom of the Tathagata is so high, his knowledge is so deep, that to the man who is blind, erring, and engrossed in the world it must seem to be absolutely incomprehensible.11 However -- and what Mahayana shows to us is the highest reconciliation between God and man -- this compassionate love turns to each man with the appropriate means and in unique ways in order to show him that he too has within himself the potential not only of ending his own suffering but also of one day being himself transformed from one saved to a savior, a Tathagata. This thought binds together two diametrically opposed ideas -- that of the majesty and glory of God, and that of the "deification" of men. In the Mahayana of the Saddharma-Pundarika the two are reconciled.


The central experience that determines Mahayana piety also determines its ethic -- the experience of (a) God, the idea of merciful help. The decided contrast between Mahayana and Hinayana is thereby also defined for this area; Mahayana is heterosoteriological rather than autosoteriological. This is affirmed with all its consequences. Two consequences above all are drawn from the idea of heterosoteriology. First, it is said -- somewhat in contrast to the teaching of the southern school -- that the significance of the one who leads men to salvation is exemplary. Not the teaching of the Buddha but -- stressing the idea of personal power -- his conduct, his life are decisive. The criterion for the individual’s deeds lies not in himself but in the Buddha. It follows that the highest command can no longer be the attainment of individual salvation -- as Pali Buddhism formulates the goal of its way of life -- but rather the imitation of the Buddha, who in turn is understood to be not merely a model for the attainment of one’s own salvation, in the Hinayanist autosoteriological sense, but a universal world savior. Thus in the ethical system of Mahayana the "Other" receives a distinctive significance. The Other is first of all a master and a model, and specific tasks and duties arise from this perception -- emulation, veneration, adoration, service. Second, the Other is in need of help, and again specific tasks and duties arise in this connection --above all, compassion. Thus the "formal principle" that dominates the Mahayana ethic is the idea of imitation. Mahayana also knows a Nirvana. This is one of the chief factors that enables all of Buddhism to consider itself a unity. However, true to the idea of imitation, the goal of the "conduct" prescribed by the Mahayana ethic can never be to attain this Nirvana (whose precise nature is still unknown to us) as quickly as possible. In general, the Mahayanist questions the possibility of attaining Nirvana within a single existence. Mahayanacarya is Bodhisattvacarya. To a supernatural conception of the Buddha there must also correspond a supernatural conception of the discovery that marked the high point in his life. In the Hinayanist teaching, as we know, the content of the Buddha’s knowledge is the Fourfold Truth and the Eightfold Path; there is nothing "supernatural" about it. To the Mahayana Buddhist, this knowledge is somewhat different.12 It is an all-embracing and all-penetrating omniscience which is higher than all reason. Even the Buddha could not attain it in a single night as the fruit of a single meditation; it required infinite exertion throughout many existences. And because the true Buddhist imitates the Buddha, he must also strive after this omniscience and begin the career of a Bodhisattva. The one who is on the right Way is not the Arhat, not the Pratyeka-Buddha, who is trying to win as soon as possible for himself and by his own strength the Truth that was once discovered by the Teacher. It is the Bodhisattva, who is striving after Buddhahood on the difficult Path of the ten stages. From this perspective, the disciple of the Lesser Vehicle must seem to be an egotist -- "what does his holiness mean to me, if he is holy only for himself," asks Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, the ethical mirror of Mahayana. He is lacking the one thing that characterizes the Buddha of Mahayana -- love, and specifically a positive, active love. It is evident that the Hinayanist’s imperturbable striving after his own salvation must seem to the Mahayanist to be highly inconsistent. The "I" wants freedom -- but is it not true that nullifying the "I" is one of the first demands of the Buddha, and did not he himself act quite differently? Compassionate love marked his career from the Urzeit on; whoever wishes to follow him must learn and practice this love. Through love the Buddha was able to acquire the means of bringing the world to salvation. He acquired the Buddha-knowledge and thus an insight into the true nature of things; and he was thereby enabled, first, to reveal the goal to men and, second, to acquire a treasury of merits through which he could practice the Way for them. Thus it is necessary for one who would follow the Buddha to prepare himself in two ways -- with the equipment of knowledge (jñanasambhara) and the equipment of merit (punyasambhara). It is necessary to practice the "perfections" or virtues through which one becomes a Bodhisattva.

Now, it should not surprise anyone who knows the Buddhism of the Pali texts that knowledge is an aid to salvation. But how does the concept of merit fit into Buddhism? It is understandable only in the light of Mahayana’s world of beliefs, but in that context it makes a good deal of sense. Whatever is accomplished by compassionate love cannot be lost. Mahayana knows that it is possible for one to forgo enjoying the fruits of his good deeds for the sake of others. The Buddha did it and the Bodhisattva does it after him. Thus the merit of the being who has worked his way up to a higher level reverts to man: this is the consummation of the thought of merciful help. It could not be further from the kind of thinking that, oriented to the salvation of the individual soul, wants to lock up the "I" in its own special realm, denying both its obligation to others and its claim on others. At the same time it represents the most complete nullification of the "I" with its "I"-possessed world of thoughts and wishes. Nothing happens for one’s own profit, but everything is for the sake of others: "to do good not for the sake of heavenly rewards, but to help the creatures; to covet Buddhist knowledge and sanctity in order to give to the ignorant and sinful."13 Like the Holy Universal Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas who follow after them take upon themselves the heaviest burdens in order to serve all suffering creatures. They forgo an early entry into Nirvana and resolve to wander over and over again through many ages and many existences. They take the vow which Sakyamuni took -- to become a perfect Buddha, for only such a Buddha can save mankind. They heap merit upon merit for the sake of all -- they do not even spare their own bodies, as we are shown by the magnificent example of the Bodhisattva Sarvasattvapriyadarsana in the Lotus.14

How can we describe the career of the Bodhisattva -- a subject to which the Saddharma-Pundarika also makes constant reference? De la Vallée Poussin, our best authority on these matters, has discussed it in many places. We shall follow his description, summarizing that which is most important for our purposes.15 In the first step, the disciple, acting either on his own or under the guidance of a master, reflects on the advantages of the Bodhi-vow, performs good works in order to free his soul, and finally takes the Bodhi-vow (pranidhi). All this gives rise to "Enlightenment Thoughts" and makes the young man a beginner (adikarmika). Thus there is first of all a time of preparation for the prospective Bodhisattva, during which his disposition toward Bodhisattvahood is strengthened and he directs his thoughts toward the vow that he will one day recite. Above all, it is during this period that the wish to become a Buddha ripens in him. This can be aroused in various ways. Perhaps some preacher has called the disciple; perhaps he thinks about the miraculous "body" of the Buddha perhaps he is moved by compassion for the suffering creatures. At this stage the Buddha-thought is still subject to fluctuation and interruption. The good works are still few in number; they still require conscious deliberation and decision. There is still a considerable gap between "willing" and "doing." During three periods the aspirations of the disciple are purified. First comes the time of the "future Bodhisattva" whose stages of development can first in any proper sense of the word be called bhumi (stories or stages). They are, respectively, the Gotrabhumi in which, just as the embryo carries within itself the potentiality of what it will become, so the future Bodhisattva already exists in potentiality -- above all, he is good and without hate -- and the Adhimukticaryabhumi, in which the "dispositions" begin to bear fruit and the "aspirations" begin to sprout. After this time of preparation there follow the ten stages of Bodhisattvahood proper. In the first stage, the "Joyful," the candidate becomes a true Bodhisattva -- as a future Bodhisattva, he had still been an ordinary man -- and enters into his supernatural career (lokottarapati). It is realized through the growth of the Buddha-thought (cittopada) which is an expression of pure compassion. By this time the latter has become fixed and enduring. It no longer fluctuates as it did during the time of preparation. It becomes the determinative and immutable vow that leads to Buddhahood (sambodhiparayana). The five terrors16 disappear for the one who has taken the sins of all beings upon himself. From now on the Holy One will experience no more evil rebirths. In the next stage he binds himself by the eight resolves (mahapranidhana). These include, for example, paying homage to the Buddhas, proclaiming the Teaching, and bringing all beings to Buddhahood. At the third and fourth levels the Bodhisattva purifies this stage, in which he has acquired a number of qualities which in turn will enable him to ascend higher and higher. Among the latter are faith, compassion, good will, indefatigability, acquaintance with the books of the Teaching, reverence for himself and for others, worship of the Buddhas, etcetera. Because his love has been strong, and because they once took a vow to remain visible to those who would follow them, the Bodhisattva of the next stage is permitted to enjoy the sight of the Buddhas. He worships them and helps all creatures and in this way brings both the latter and himself to maturity. At the next level he becomes the ruler of a "continent." As he advances, he exchanges this lordship for rule over the increasingly more beautiful and more extensive realms of each of the paramitas. But the Bodhisattva, liberated from all egotism, now frees all the creatures from it. The seventh bhumi is "Power." Whatever the Bodhisattva does is accompanied by the following thought, "May I become the first of beings [that is, a Buddha], so that every creature may take refuge in me." The Bodhisattva is successful in whatever he does. He possesses miraculous powers, by means of which he converts untold multitudes; he lives for hundreds of kalpas [ages] and displays hundreds of Buddha-bodies, attains unheard-of knowledge and accomplishes unheard-of wonders. Thus he completes the "active" career of the first seven stages and prepares himself for the career of knowledge and of supernatural virtue (jñanabhijñacarya). From now on his knowledge and the depth of his meditation will be equal to his "merit." In the eighth, the "Immovable" stage, the Bodhisattva is inwardly so detached from all the activity of the world that he seems to be approaching Nirvana. In accordance with a vow which they had taken as Bodhisattvas, the Buddhas remind him of what he must still acquire before reaching Buddhahood (the ten powers and the four abilities) and of the conversions which he must still bring about. Therefore, the Bodhisattva remains in existence and performs miracles -- without activity, strictly speaking. He is now capable of infinitely multiplying himself and knows and surveys the universe to which he descends in various magical forms. The Bodhisattva attains the ninth stage, the stage of the "Good Ones," by appropriating the knowledge called pratisamvid; he perfects his knowledge of the proclamation of the Teaching (pratibhana). The tenth stage is called "the Cloud of the Dharma." The Bodhisattva has now become worthy of the royalty of the Teaching, through which one becomes equal to the Buddha. He lets fall the rain of the Teaching. He attains the most profound level of meditation; he achieves countless "deliverances," as well as magical formulas and powers. He is still a Bodhisattva and pays homage to the Buddhas, but he is a Bodhisattva who has become Tathagata.

Thus the Buddha-thought has borne its finest fruit. The vow is perfectly fulfilled. We are reminded of the great songs of praise in the Saddharma-Pundarika, in which the Buddha reveals to all the Bodhisattvas who have completed the course their destiny to supreme and perfect enlightenment.17

At this point we must ask: What, actually, are the perfections that give rise to the Buddha-thought and bring it to ripeness? They fall into two groups, that of knowledge and that of merit. Essentially, the decisive virtue is prajña. It is strengthening prajña that contributes most to the destruction of the seeds of existence. One must guard against thinking that this knowledge is something wholly, or even only predominantly, "rational. "

At this point it should be made clear that Mahayana demands, besides the ethical virtues and abilities, something purely "spiritual." That "spiritual" something, above all else, makes the Bodhisattva career possible and, as the Lotus tells us again and again, constitutes both its reward and its highest goal. The other virtues -- charity (dana), compassion (karuna), morality (sila), patience (ksanti), energy (virya), meditation (dhyana) -- are to be valued only when their end is the attainment of Buddhahood. This qualification helps us to understand the great significance of intentionality as a factor in the assessment of the ethical value or merit of an act. It also explains the distinction made between natural virtue (laukika) -- whose exercise is unguided by knowledge -- and supernatural virtue (lokottara) -- which it becomes when knowledge illumines and defines it. It also becomes evident in this connection that omniscience, the supreme knowledge according to Mahayana, is not something that is individually and egotistically centered. It is authenticated in the act that builds a bridge to one’s fellow man.

Charity is the humblest but also the most important of the virtues; strictly speaking, it is charity that gives rise to the "Buddha-thought." Charitable compassion consists of liberality, alms-giving, affability, kindness, and participation in the joy and sorrow of others. In exercising such compassion, one is even permitted to violate the other prescriptions. We are told, however, that it must not be unreasonable or excessive. Spiritual gifts as, for example, proclaiming the Teaching, are more highly valued than any of the others. The second most important virtue is morality, and in this respect Mahayana emphasizes "positive" conduct in addition to the negative abstinence of the southern school. At the heart of such conduct is self-respect -- the preacher’s endeavor to keep constant guard over the condition of his body and soul, to prevent the unjust act and to promote the good deed. For the Bodhisattva, impatience and anger are the greatest sins. Anger originates in dissatisfaction as the latter, in turn, originates in pleasure and displeasure. This feeling must be conquered through patience, which consists both of steadfastness in enduring sorrow and injustice and of knowledge of the Truth. By coming to know the cause and the nature of suffering, and thus also of anger, we are able to overcome them. Then, too, the enemy is entitled to love. Energy is also necessary if one would succeed in equipping oneself with merit and knowledge. Its enemies are weakness of the body and the spirit, attachment to the pleasures of the world, discouragement, and its consequence, self-contempt. One conquers the latter by meditating on the dangers to which one is exposed, by despising pleasure, and by keeping in mind the career of the Buddha, from its beginning in the humblest existence to its culmination in the highest knowledge. To increase his energy, the Buddha exercises his "armies": desire for the good; pride in his task, in his power, and in his endurance and pride against the passions; joy in his work and in the measure and free disposition of his strength; abandonment to the battle against the passions; and self-mastery. The final virtue is contemplation or meditation. It presupposes isolation of the body -- the life of solitude -- and the mind as well as indifference to all worldly pleasures. It creates a condition in which the mind is enabled to penetrate the thoughts to which it is applied and thus to be penetrated by them. The perfection of contemplation consists of practicing the dhyana and sampatti of ancient Buddhism. It involves studying the holy truths and meditating on the impurity of the passions: in meditating on friendliness -- in order to destroy hate; in meditating on dependent origination -- to disperse error; and, finally, in studying all the teachings concerned with the nature of things. Thus the spirit is purified and "made free."

Just as exercising the punya virtues requires the direction of knowledge, so knowledge must also be nourished by compassion. By means of such dispositions and activities -- and this concept is important for characterizing Mahayana -- the "field" of the Bodhisattva is "purified." That is to say, he creates in and around himself an atmosphere in which the supreme virtues prosper, and in which the Bodhi-thought can grow to ripeness. Thus the virtues of merit produce the "natural body" of the Bodhisattva (rupaka-ya); but the equipment of knowledge effects the Dharma-Being (dharmakaya), in which everything divine is one. And with it the circle is closed.


In conclusion, let us briefly sketch our third topic -- the philosophy of Buddhism, or its way of looking at the world. It is seldom expressed in the Saddharma-Pundarika. At present, relatively few of the source texts from which we can obtain information about this most difficult subject have been made accessible to us. Nonetheless, Western scholars from Burnouf and Wassilijew to de la Vallée Poussin and Walleser time and again have directed their attention to the philosophical problems of Mahayana. The difficulty is great for a number of reasons. Beyond the linguistic prerequisite, the researcher needs philosophical training to help him understand both the entire way of looking at things and the individual concepts. On the other hand, nothing could be more dangerous than importing Western ideas into the subject matter or working with categories adopted from the history of Western philosophy. Western philosophy is based on presuppositions different from those of Indian, Chinese, or Japanese philosophy and it has developed along different lines.

It has often and rightly been said that southern Buddhism, as it is reflected in the Pali canon, is hostile to metaphysics. In spite of the great role that philosophical debate plays in the Abhidhamma and Sutta-Pitaka, the Buddha -- in the mirror of the writings --remains agnostic. We shall never learn what the historic Buddha thought about such things, but it is probably not hasty of us to assume that he only rarely and never clearly discussed philosophical and especially metaphysical questions. Surely there were also men and circles in ancient Buddhism and in the southern school who were especially concerned about the philosophical exploration, establishment, and development of the Teaching -- the third basket of the canon bears witness to them. But on the whole, in Pali Buddhism, philosophical and metaphysical concerns are subordinated to ethical and psychological interests. It is certainly no accident that psychological questions again and again come to, the fore in Hinayana Buddhism; its individualistic and subjectivistic orientation is also illustrated by its great liking for the analysis and classification of mental processes. Thus no comprehensive philosophy ever developed out of the teaching, which was fundamentally positivistic and ultimately hostile to metaphysics. The practical interest, which outweighed everything else in this branch of Buddhism, was too strong. In Mahayana everything is different. The theoretical interest visibly grew during the course of its development and dogmatic formulation. It is true that certain of the schools continued to be exclusively or predominantly oriented toward the practical. But others went on to ponder more deeply the abstract questions, the philosophical and metaphysical presuppositions of the Teaching. The development of philosophical thought was effected under the influence of dogmatic and theological considerations -- this much we can learn in spite of the darkness shrouding its history. Later one segment of Mahayana scholarship devoted itself with particular zeal to treating the fundamental metaphysical problems without, however, going beyond the limits of orthodoxy (defined rather broadly, to be sure). Walleser, who has studied this problem thoroughly, emphasizes rightly that the original teaching "of course carried within itself the nucleus of further developments, but in and of itself it was still completely indifferent to metaphysical and systematic interpretation."18 Indeed, this is another instance of the observation made in our first section -- so much already exists in potentiality at the beginnings of this wonderful teaching of salvation. If here one thing was drawn forth and another left untouched and there the opposite happened, still a very general direction had been given. The heterogeneity in the development of the individual systems testifies to the broad range given to interpretation.

Significant differences of opinion had already existed in Hinayana as, for example, on the nature of the ego. The Pudgalavadin, advocating the teaching of the concrete ego, confronted the Skandhavadin, who opposed the doctrine, while the sequence theories of the Sautrantika were already approaching views later developed in Mahayana. It is not very far from this position to those of the two principal schools of Mahayana. In Madhyamika the elements, which had still been accorded some degree of reality by the "transitoriness" of Sautrantika, are "nonexistent"; the Vijñanavadin or Yogacarya school developed the theory of Thought-alone out of the doctrine of the dominance of thinking in the ego realm. In compensation, and in order to preserve the authenticity of their interpretation, the Mahayana schools expanded the theory of adaptation and the teaching of the manifold truth. The insight into the "voidness" of everything that exists is the quintessence of Mahayana philosophy; it is the content of that knowledge which we know to be the highest of the "perfections." It is quiet, stillness -- Nirvana. Although it has been called perhaps the most radical "nihilism" that has ever existed, Madhyamika does away with both affirmation and negation; when both modes of action have been quieted, the spirit enters into perfect stillness.

How can such a philosophy be reconciled with the ethic we have just described? Or with the theology which the ethic presupposes? In order to answer such questions we must remember that the insight into the unreality of everything that exists -- even the Buddhas, the beings who belong to them, and the Teaching are illusory -- is not intended for everyone. It does not stand at the beginning of the path; rather; the individual can win it only as the fruit of a long, difficult, and tiresome labor, throughout which he believes and hopes as the theology teaches and lives and works as the ethic commands. It is not at all true that the metaphysics of Mahayana contradicts its active ethic, as we often read. Rather, the knowledge of which it is comprised is the result of faithful conduct. Such a conception would be deeper than that of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. There "disillusionment" enters the individual existence suddenly and unexpectedly and when, as may happen, it comes at the beginning of that existence, nothing is left to the one who is "saved" but the senseless and aimless vegetating of his only gifts. The same thing is naturally true of Hinayana. But Mahayana moves the saving knowledge for which it strives out of the present existence and in doing so preserves the possibility of an active ethic. Thus the world, which to the eyes of the Hinayanist is in a state of the deepest and most hopeless misery, acquires a brighter luster. We are permitted to exercise our disposition toward the good and thus to aspire after that insight which will unveil for us its final, conclusive, and true nature.

As an expression of the outlook on life reflected in these thoughts we should also study the Saddharma-Pundarika, a splendid testimonial to the wisdom of the East.



1. I shall refer to the work by this title, which is very difficult to translate accurately -- Burnouf says Lotus de la bonne loi; Kern, The Lotus of the True Law or Lotus.

2. Published in Paris, 1852.

3. In The Sacred Books of the East, ed. F. Max Müller, vol. 21 (Oxford, 1884), with a significant introduction. In quoting, I follow this translation.

4. "It might be, Ananda, that you are therefore thinking: the Word has lost its master, we no longer have a master. You must not think this, Ananda. The teaching, Ananda, and the Order that I have taught you and that I have proclaimed, this will be your master when I have gone."

5. This, of course, does not mean that the apparatus of dogmatic concepts used later had already been perfected before the appearance of the Buddha and that it was only "transplanted," as it were. Such a conception ignores completely the individuality, originality, and internal coherence of historical manifestations.

6. Rudolf Otto, Das Heilige; the quote is from The Idea of the Holy, trans. John Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press [Galaxy], 1958), p. 51ff.

7. These terms are taken from R. Otto.

8. Thus in the Lotus, chap. 3, p. 76, the Tathagata is the father of the world, who has obtained the supreme perfection in his knowledge of the correct means (see below) and who is very merciful, patient, benevolent, and compassionate.

9. "Upayakausalya"-- Burnouf translates the title of the second chapter as "habilité dans l’emploi des moyens," Kern as "skillfulness." The term implies above all the discovery and application of special means -- sometimes controversial (the reproach of untruth) -- for saving creatures. It is "politic" in the sense of the capacity for finding the right means for the moment. Cf. Lotus, chaps. 2, 3, 5, 7, and 15.

10. A few of the most beautiful are that of the burning house (chap. 3), of the lost son (4), of the magic herb and the potter (4), of the magic city (7), of the jewel sewn into the garment (8), of the well-digger (10), of the crown jewel (13), and the doctor (15).

11. It is thus stressed again and again that there is in truth only one teaching (e.g., 2.68 [p. 48], 5.81-82 [p. 141]). Most of the similes are used in order to implement this idea.

12. Of course these Truths were also acknowledged in Mahayana. Cf. the frequent references to them in the Lotus (e.g., chap. 1, p. 18; 7, p. 171).

13. De la Vallée Poussin, Bouddhisme, Opinions sur l’histoire de la dogmatique (1909), p. 297.

14. Cf. Lotus, chap. 22.

15. (Editors’ note.) For the remainder of the section on the ethics of Mahayana, Wach follows quite closely de la Vallée Poussin’s article "Bodhisattva" in the 1922 edition of James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. This schema, he says, is based on the five most important texts on the subject.

16. These are the fears of the wants of life, of evil repute, of death, of evil rebirths, and of the "gatherings."

17. Lotus, chaps. 8, 9, 10, 12, etcetera.

18. Walleser, Die philosophische Grundlagen des älteren Buddhismus (1904), p. 12.

Viewed 78089 times.