Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

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Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Lazy_eye » Mon Nov 09, 2015 3:59 pm

All,

Most of the scholarship that I've read on the development of Buddhism agrees that Mahayana sutras were relatively late developments (probably around the 1st century AD, with the Hellenistic world and Central Asia trade routes seen as key vectors for its diffusion). I'm curious to know, however, if there are any academic scholars who argue that some or all of the Mahayana sutras actually date from the time of the historical Buddha, and if so, what is the basis for their argument?

Beyond that, I would like to know more about the current scholarly views on the provenance of the Mahayana sutras. I'm familiar with a couple of theories that have been presented:

1. Paul Williams suggests that Mahayana developed out of a forest hermit tradition in which great emphasis was placed on deep samadhi states, during which the practitioner could encounter a Buddha, ask questions or receive teachings. (See here, pages 40-41)

2. Paul Harrison, along similar lines, suggests “a convergence of meditation and textual transmission in the forest environment, stimulated into a new burst of creativity as a result of a technological development, the advent of writing."
Here the specific circumstances of the real world combine with visions in deep states of meditation or dream to transform received oral tradition into a new kind of Buddhism. The resulting revelations are not completely novel, but deeply conditioned by context and by tradition. Although dismissed as poetic fabrications...or even demonically inspired nonsense by their opponents...
they are in fact creative recasting of material already accepted as authentic buddhavacana [‘words of the Buddha’] by the wider community.


(This is cited in Williams's book; see link above.)

3. Guang Xing argues that Mahayana doctrines developed out of the transcendental Buddha concept of the Mahāsāṃghika, which provided the doctrinal basis for dharmakāya, saṃbhogakāya, and nirmāṇakāya as understood in Mahayana. See here. Guang Xing's thesis also ties in with the views of Williams and Harrison, as Mahāsāṃghika devotionalism/transcendentalism would also provide a context for the samadhi states referenced above.

All three of these scholars are able to suggest ways in which Mahayana may have developed within a framework that allowed for doctrinal innovation while simultaneously legitimizing these innovations with reference to the Buddha -- none, however, go so far as to suggest that they weren't actually innovations at all but actually date from the historical Buddha's time.

I'd be interested to know what other scholarship is out there on the topic. My overall impression -- which could be quite wrong -- is that a great deal of attention has been paid to identifying the contents of Early Buddhism, but relatively little academic attention has been focused on where the Mahayana sutras came from and how.

Thoughts?

P.S. Since this is the Academic Discussion forum, I'd like to request that we steer clear of wholesale dismissals of academic scholarship, or rejections of textual-historical methods as a priori irrelevant; I'm specifically interested in academic perspectives on these questions and this seems to the correct subforum for this.

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby MiphamFan » Mon Nov 09, 2015 4:38 pm

Conze says that Mahayana and Theravada (as in the Pali Canon authors, not Hinayana in general) both worked from the same material but while Mahayanis added more embellishment to the texts, Theravadins expunged what looked like Mahayana to them.

Material like the Salistamba Sutra shows that there was some very early doctrines phrased similarly between them. E.g. Dependent origination dates from this period. Beyond that we cannot know much for sure, it is entirely possible some Mahayana ideas date back to that period but were expunged by Theravadin redactors from the Pali canon.

I find this quite believable. The Pali Canon itself really is no earlier than the 1st century CE.

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Admin_PC » Mon Nov 09, 2015 4:48 pm

Just some more resources...
phpBB [video]


Peter Harvey gives his theories of the origin of Mahayana on page 108 of "An Introduction to Buddhism Teachings, History and Practices 2nd Edition".
EDIT: I'll try to transcribe it when I have more time.
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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby jundo cohen » Mon Nov 09, 2015 5:19 pm

Jayarava had a well written blog post recently, highlighting recent publications by David Drewes and Seishi Karashima:

Early Mahāyāna: Everything You Know is Wrong
http://jayarava.blogspot.jp/2015/07/ear ... ow-is.html

"Mahāyāna was not a distinct sect. It did not involve the worship of bodhisattvas. It was not developed by lay people. It was not an offshoot of the Mahāsāṃghikas. It was not a single religious movement." Drewes (2010a: 59)


However, whatever its origins,the Mahayana is what it is. We do not drive in the same design of automobile as that of Henry Ford (although they share having a motor and wheels) nor the same plane as the Wright Brothers (although the same aeronautic principles hold), why would we need to ride in the same Buddhism as the Honored Founder? Further, different vehicles are suited to different riders and methods of travel.

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Berry » Mon Nov 09, 2015 6:26 pm

i have the Peter Harvey Book mentioned by Pork Chop and in the introduction on page 4 it says:

Mahayana texts were composed from around the Ist Century BCE, originating as written, not oral, works. In time, they were recorded in a form of the Indian presige language, Sanskrit. While many are attributed to the Buddha, their form and and content clearly show that they were later re-statements and extensions of the Buddha's message. The main sources for our understanding of Mahayana teachings are the very extensive Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist Canons.


There's an online version of the second edition available to read at Google Books - and Chapter 4 (from page 88) is titled "Early Developments in Buddhism".

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=u0sg9LV_rEgC&pg=PA110&lpg=PA110&dq=the+nature+of+mahayana+and+its+attitude+to+earlier+schools&source=bl&ots=bRwd6mfxK4&sig=KRvk8FzHT_pDJihcOk8UWS1NagM&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=the%20nature%20of%20mahayana%20and%20its%20attitude%20to%20earlier%20schools&f=false


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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Admin_PC » Mon Nov 09, 2015 6:33 pm

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Lazy_eye » Mon Nov 09, 2015 7:23 pm

jundo cohen wrote:However, whatever its origins,the Mahayana is what it is. We do not drive in the same design of automobile as that of Henry Ford (although they share having a motor and wheels) nor the same plane as the Wright Brothers (although the same aeronautic principles hold), why would we need to ride in the same Buddhism as the Honored Founder? Further, different vehicles are suited to different riders and methods of travel.


Sure, I agree entirely -- discussions on the origin of Mahayana are not the same thing as debates over the legitimacy and/or value of Mahayana.

From the very interesting material that has been posted, it appears that the "visionary meditators in the forest" angle is something of a dead end, and there are problems with linking Mahayana back to the Mahasamgika as well (although Charles Willemen, in his talk, notes that the Mahasamgika were the first to refer to a "Great Vehicle.") If the paper by Drewes is on target, then it would appear that:

David Drewes wrote:Early Indian Mahayana was, at root, a textual movement that developed in Buddhist preaching circles and centered on the production and use of Mahayana sutras. At some
point, drawing on a range of ideas and theoretical perspectives that had been developing for some time, and also developing many new ideas of their own, certain preachers began
to compose a new type of text – sutras containing profound teachings intended for bodhisattvas -– which came to be commonly depicted as belonging to a new revelation that
the Buddha arranged to take place five hundred years after his death. Who these preachers were is not fully clear, but a fair guess would be that the first of them may have
begun as preachers of more traditional texts. Mahayana preachers gave their imaginations free rein to expand the old Buddhist world and locate it within an infinitely more vast
and glorious Buddhist universe with new religious possibilities for all. They attributed great power to their texts and preached that they could enable people not only to quickly
attain arhatship, but Buddhahood as well. In time, the new movement came to identify itself exclusively with the pursuit of Buddhahood and denigrate the pursuit of lower religious
goals. Although the new preachers faced frequent criticism and rejection, they clearly were able to find audiences for their texts. Along with dharmabhanakas and their
students, we can consider the more regular or committed members of these audiences to be early Mahayanists. At some point the movement gathered steam, leading to an explosion
of Mahayana sutras in the first centuries CE.


https://www.academia.edu/9226471/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_II_New_perspectives

My aim in the OP was to try and get an idea of what's out there in terms of recent scholarship and thinking, so thanks to everyone who posted links and articles. I am combing through them and may have follow-up questions later.

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Mon Nov 09, 2015 8:18 pm

Sure, I agree entirely -- discussions on the origin of Mahayana are not the same thing as debates over the legitimacy and/or value of Mahayana.


90% Of the time they are, actually.

In many cases IMO the reason to establish provenance via modern ideas of scholarship within Buddhist circles is to redefine the traditional idea of what is Buddhavacana, by making an intentionally fuzzy line between scholarship which is motivated by history, and which is motivated by religious ideals. The real question is what Buddhists decide to define as "authenticity"..for sure, claiming that authenticity of Buddhavacana is limited only to what can be discovered by modern scholarship methods is, in fact, a way of de-legitimizing other approaches.

Not saying anything about this thread, which is quite interesting..just saying, it's important to realize that a discussion like this can never be impartial, despite the (fairly naive) idea our culture has about the impartiality of academic study.
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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Lazy_eye » Mon Nov 09, 2015 9:26 pm

Johnny Dangerous wrote:90% Of the time they are, actually.


From what I've seen, that's true -- but does it have to be? Suppose one has a genuine interest in the question(s)?

For sure, claiming that authenticity of Buddhavacana is limited only to what can be discovered by modern scholarship methods is, in fact, a way of de-legitimizing other approaches.


Such a claim would be very strong, and not one I would accept. Arguments about what does and does not constitute Buddhavacana seem sectarian almost by definition.

But a more moderate claim -- that modern scholarship can give us clues about what Siddartha Gautama, the historical figure, is most likely to have taught -- seems tenable to me and does not have to reflect a sectarian bias. It can simply reflect the desire to know what is what.

Not saying anything about this thread, which is quite interesting..just saying, it's important to realize that a discussion like this can never be impartial, despite the (fairly naive) idea our culture has about the impartiality of academic study.


Agree that it would be naive to assume perfect impartiality. The argument I would make on behalf of academic study is that it's the closest we're likely to get to impartiality -- and closer than any of the alternatives, save becoming an omniscient Buddha.

(True, some academics seem to believe they are omniscient Buddhas...but that's another story!).

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Mon Nov 09, 2015 9:40 pm

Such a claim would be very strong, and not one I would accept. Arguments about what does and does not constitute Buddhavacana seem sectarian almost by definition.


What is an argument about "authenticity" or provenance of Sutra, other than a search for legitimacy of some sort? You have to realize that relying on modern text criticism, archaeology etc. to decide what is Buddhavacana, or just what is "authentic" in some more vague, undefined sense is not some neutral position, it is a position with it's own set of biases and implicit conclusions. If its not an attempt to define Buddhavacana, then it seems reasonable to ask: What exactly is it? What does someone hope to gain through this search that could inform Buddhist practice?




From what I've seen, that's true -- but does it have to be? Suppose one has a genuine interest in the question(s)?


No, not necessarily. There could be any number of reasons for genuine interest, but if it's not, then what is the answer to the first question...it really hinges on that. IF the "genuine interest" is something other than a desire to create spiritual authenticity, what is it?

he argument I would make on behalf of academic study is that it's the closest we're likely to get to impartiality


What bearing does that kind of "impartiality" have on the practice Buddhadharma though? What is the purpose of taking modern notions of historical validity (which are quite new in terms of Buddhist ideas of authenticity, obviously) and using them to establish some kind of authority? Exactly what do we expect these findings to be authoritative of?

I'm not trying to stir the pot BTW, i'm honestly curious and want to chew on these questions . Some of the most contentious conversations on the board are about this very subject, but I've never seen anyone adequately explain just what the value of these sorts of discussions is supposed to be to people's practice, or view if anything. I wonder whether a big part of this is not simply that people have some default idea that modern notions of historicity simply are "truer" than any other approaches.

But a more moderate claim -- that modern scholarship can give us clues about what Siddartha Gautama, the historical figure, is most likely to have taught -- seems tenable to me and does not have to reflect a sectarian bias.


For many forms of Buddhism what Siddartha Gautama actually taught publicly is not the full story by any means. By definition, if one is taking this approach, one is choosing to focus on the notion that our modern piecing together of historical records (well, often just informed speculation)of Shakyamuni Buddha has some kind of spiritual primacy. Again, if it doesn't, then what exactly is it's purpose for Buddhists?

I'm not debating the relative merits of historical study of and within itself, I'm asking: if the desire for answer here is not one of creating some kind of spiritual authenticity, then why are these findings more important than any other historical findings? I don't doubt an answer exists, I just have yet to see anyone give a clear explanation of it.
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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Admin_PC » Tue Nov 10, 2015 12:47 am

Here's the quote that I promised earlier...
The Rise of the Mahayana - Harvey p 108 wrote:The movement which became known as the Mahayana started to arise some time between 150 BCE and 100 CE, as the culmination of various earlier developments (Williams, 2009:21-44). Its origin is not associated with any named individual, nor was it uniquely linked to any early school or fraternity, though it drew on both Mahasamghika and Sarvastivadin trends, and its philosophical ideas in India both built on and critiqued Sarvastivada Abhidharma, as a kind of 'Sarvastivada-plus'. It may have arisen at around the same time in the south-east and north-west. Reginald Ray suggests it started among forest meditators of the south-east and was then taken up especially in the north-west(1994: 251-92, 404-17). It had three main ingredients: first, a wholehearted adoption of the Bodhisattva path, which various early schools had outlined; secondly, a new cosmology arising from visualization practices devoutly directed at the Buddha as a glorified, transcendent being. These first two relate, respectively, to the concerns of the Jatakas and Avadanas. Thirdly, a new perspective on Abhidharma, which derived from meditative insight into the deep 'emptiness' of phenomena (see p.81) and led to a new philosophical outlook. These three ingredients respectively emphasize compassion, faith and wisdom. There developed a new orientation to traditional Buddhist teachings and an upsurge of novel interpretations, whose gradual systematization established the Mahayana as a movement with an identity of its own.

The Mahayana emerges into history as a loose confederation of groups each associated with one or more of a number of new Sutras (Pali Suttas). These attained a written form, in Middle Indian dialects, very soon after they were composed. Scribal amendments then gradually transformed their language into 'Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit', which approximated to classical Sanskrit, the prestige language of India. The texts were often added to over time, as seen by their different versions in Chinese translations, some of which are earlier in form than surviving Sanskrit versions. As the ideas of different Sutras were drawn on, later Mahayanists integrated their ideas and systematized them in various competing ways, depending on which text was seen to contain the highest, fullest truth. This process continued in the lands of Northern and Eastern Buddhism, which also took on differing broad emphases of their own.

Anyone accepting the new literature as genuine Sutras - authoritative discourses of the Buddha - thereby belonged to the new movement. This did not necessitate monks and nuns abandoning their old fraternities, as they continued to follow the monastic discipline of the fraternities in which they had been ordained. The Mahayanists remained a minority among Indian Buddhists for some time, though in the seventh century, perhaps half of the 200,000 or more monks counted by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) were Mahayanist (Williams, 2009:44).

Traditionalists denied that the new literature was 'the word of the Buddha' (Buddha-vacana), like the early Suttas. This early material did include teachings and inspired utterances of the Buddha's major disciples, but these were accepted as 'the word of the Buddha' as he had agreed with the teachings, or because of his general praise for such disciples. Even after these were all dead, some remembered material was added to the Suttas if it harmonized well with the existing corpus in style and content. The new Sutras were very different in style and tone, but were defended as 'the word of the Buddha' through various devices. (McQueen, 1981 and 1982; Williams, 2009:38-44) First, they were seen as inspired utterances coming from the Buddha, now seen as still contactable through meditative visions and vivid dreams. Secondly, they were seen as the products of the same kind of perfect wisdom which was the basis of the Buddha's own teaching of the Dharma (Pali Dhamma) (Asta. 4). Thirdly, in later Mahayana, they were seen as teachings hidden by the Buddha in the world of serpent-deities (nagas), until there were humans capable of seeing the deeper implications of his message, who would recover the teachings by means of meditative powers. Each explanation saw the Sutras as arising, directly or indirectly, from meditative experiences. Nevertheless, they take the form of dialogues between the 'historical' Buddha and his disciples and gods.

The initial new Sutras were regarded as the second 'turning of the Dharma-wheel' (see p. 24), a deeper level of teaching than the early Suttas, with the Buddha's Bodhisattva disciples portrayed as wiser than his Arhat (Pali Arahat) disciples. Because of the liberating truth the Sutras were seen to contain, there was said to be a huge amount of karmic fruitfulness in copying them out, and disseminating, reciting, expounding, understanding, practising and even ritually venerating them. Such claims suggest defensiveness on the part of a new, small movement trying to establish itself. Some of the Mahayana Sutras may have been in part produced by the new breed of charismatic Dharma-preachers who championed them (Kent, 1982). These monks and some laypeople, directed their preaching both within and beyond the existing Buddhist community, to win converts. This they did by extolling the virtues of perfect Buddhahood, so as to elicit a conversion experience of profound psychological effect. This was the 'arising of the thought of awakening (bodhi-citta)', the heartfelt aspiration to strive for full Buddhahood, by means of the Bodhisattva path.

The new perspective on scriptural legitimacy led to the Mahayana having an open, ongoing 'revelation', which produced a huge outpouring of new Sutras in India in the period up to around 650 CE. These were composed anonymously, often by a number of authors elaborating a basic text, to produce works frequently running to hundreds of pages in length. In contrast, the early Suttas are ninety-five printed pages long at the most, and often only run to a page or two. In certain early Suttas such as the Mahasamaya (D.II.253-63), the Buddha is a glorious spiritual being surrounded by countless gods and hundreds of disciples. The Mahayana Sutras developed this style. In them, the Buddha uses hyperbolic language and paradox, and makes known many heavenly Buddhas and high-level heavenly Bodhisattvas, existing in many regions of the universe. A number of these saviour beings, Buddhas and in time Bodhisattvas, became objects of devotion and prayer, and greatly added to the appeal and missionary success of the Mahayana.

So, as you can see, his writings on this delve a little deeper than the earlier quote.

You may also want to check out some of these other links:

Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism - By Bibhuti Baruah - 2000 - pps 78-80

Buddhism: The early Buddhist schools and doctrinal history, Volume 2 - By Paul Williams - 2005 - pps 26(last para) - 33

A Survey of the Doctrines of the Abhidharma Schools (Notes) - Chapter 02

Figments and Fragments of Mahayana Buddhism in India - By Schopen - 2005 - start with Chapter 1

Once Again on the Origin of Mahāyāna Buddhism - By Tilmann Vetter and Anne MacDonald - 2001 - pp 59-90

Gandhara Buddhism - By Brancaccio and Behrendt - 2006

Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies - ASPECTS OF THE STUDY OF THE (EARLIER) INDIAN MAHAYANA - By Ruegg - 2004

Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies - THE KALAWAN COPPER-PLATE INSCRIPTION: EARLY EVIDENCE FOR MAHAYANA-TYPE THINKING? - By Ruegg - 2005

The Indian Roots of Pure Land Buddhism - By Jan Nattier

Reflections on the Origins of Mahayana - By Bronkhorst - 2012

I think what you'll find is a lot of speculation and maybe not so much agreement.
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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby tingdzin » Tue Nov 10, 2015 2:42 am

I comment with some timidity, having not yet read all the above selections.

I think that there can never be a single "origin of the Mahayana sutras". To begin with, the so-called Mahayana is a catchall term for ideas and literary works which reflect a variety of concerns and approaches, some of which even seem contradictory; all they really have in common is that they claim some sort of commonality with earlier ideas and books. There is no reason at all to suppose that they all had the same starting point. It may well turn out that some streams of "the Mahayana" had their origins among monks in what is now Andhra Pradesh, while others arose among ethnic Persians in Central Asia, and others in China itself. Jayarava's blog article is dead on in many respects, in my opinion.

Investigation of historical developments within Buddhism, while fascinating in themselves (at least to me) is best used as other history is, to find patterns and anomalies in past human behavior, rather than to promote the superiority of one's own preferred type (this sort of literature is generally second- or third-rate from a scholarly viewpoint anyway), to assert the importance of one's own area of study, or to "deconstruct" the legitimacy of Buddhism as a whole (which certain prominent scholars have as their own hidden agenda). When reading academic works, it is useful to keep this at the back of your mind.

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Lazy_eye » Tue Nov 10, 2015 3:04 pm

tingdzin wrote:I think that there can never be a single "origin of the Mahayana sutras". To begin with, the so-called Mahayana is a catchall term for ideas and literary works which reflect a variety of concerns and approaches, some of which even seem contradictory; all they really have in common is that they claim some sort of commonality with earlier ideas and books. There is no reason at all to suppose that they all had the same starting point. It may well turn out that some streams of "the Mahayana" had their origins among monks in what is now Andhra Pradesh, while others arose among ethnic Persians in Central Asia, and others in China itself. Jayarava's blog article is dead on in many respects, in my opinion.


I think that's a good point. One thing that seems almost certain is that the Mahayana sutras did not all originate at the same time and in the same place. And we probably didn't even need scholarship to tell us that -- a reader who is sensitive to varieties in style and subject matter would arrive at that conclusion just by studying the sutras themselves.

One thing that I found interesting about Drewes' theory is that he argues for the centrality of dharmabhanakas -- a type of preacher or teacher -- in producing and propagating the Mahayana sutras.

David Drewes wrote:Preachers called dharmabhanakas are mentioned significantly more frequently in Mahayana sutra literature than bhanakas or dharmakathikas are mentioned in any genre of non-Mahayana text...
The term dharmabhanaka is not known to occur in non-Mahayana Indian Buddhist texts, which strongly suggests that this type of preacher was peculiar to the Mahayana.
As we would expect, Mahayana texts depict dharmabhanakas as people who memorize texts, recite them, and teach them to students who travel with them. They also depict
them as people who preach sutras to assemblies in monasteries and towns and in private homes. In their preaching they are depicted as taking questions from audiences, responding
to hostile objections, and making an effort to speak in a dynamic, inspiring manner. They are often identified specifically as monks, but some passages obliquely suggest that
they may sometimes have been nuns or laypeople. In scenarios predicting that Mahayana sutras will be revealed five hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the future revealers of
sutras are often identified as dharmabhanakas, suggesting that they were often, perhaps typically, the authors of these texts. Dharmabhanakas are commonly depicted as choosing to
be reborn in this world out of compassion for beings. Mahayana sutras typically attribute the status of irreversible bodhisattvas to them, and the Dasabhumika Sutra, Bodhisattvabhumi, and Ratnagotravibhaga each state that bodhisattvas become dharmabhanakas on the ninth bodhisattva bhumi. Many sutras contain jatakas and avadanas that depict well known
Buddhas and bodhisattvas, including Shakyamuni, Dıpamkara, Aksobhya, Amitayus, and Manjushrı, as having been powerful dharmabhanakas in former lives. Very frequently,
Mahayana sutras enjoin slavish devotion to dharmabhanakas. The Astasahasrika, for instance, enjoins its listeners to follow dharmabhanakas, treat them as if they were Buddhas, and give
them all of their property. The Pratyutpanna recommends following dharmabhanakas for a period of up to 10 years, or even an entire lifetime, treating them as if they were Buddhas,
giving them all of one’s property, obeying them, and serving them ‘as a slave serves his lord.’ Several sutras even recommend making offerings to dharmabhanakas of one’s own
flesh, blood, and life. Material of this sort occurs widely in Mahayana sutra literature. Apart from Buddhas and ‘celestial bodhisattvas,’ Mahayana sutras do not glorify any other figures
in this way. Overall, this material strongly suggests that dharmabhanakas were the primary agents of the Mahayana movement.


This is intriguing, because several existing schools of Mahayana are both teacher-centered and text-centered. In Zen, for example, there is an emphasis on the necessity of the teacher, to the point that some would argue that Zen cannot be practiced without one. The great teachers, like Dogen, stand at the center of their schools and the students to this day study their texts (in Dogen's case, the shobogenzo). I wouldn't use the loaded-sounding term "slavish devotion," but certainly there is an apprentice-master relationship. Moreover, the act of taking refuge in Buddha is sometimes defined as taking refuge in the concept of the teacher (with one's own teacher as a manifestation). Other East Asian traditions, notably the Japanese Pure Land sects and Nichiren, also retain this combination of text and teacher-centered practice. I know very little about Vajrayana, so maybe someone could say whether there is a similar pattern there.

By contrast, in non-Mahayana (sravakayana) having a teacher is desirable but not really essential. The teacher's role in any case is primarily to transmit the suttas and Abhidharma, with fairly strict constraints placed on interpretation.

BTW, thank you PorkChop for that comprehensive set of links and references, and the extract from Harvey. It's really useful to have all this material in one place!

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Indrajala » Thu Nov 26, 2015 6:05 am

Lazy_eye wrote:I'm curious to know, however, if there are any academic scholars who argue that some or all of the Mahayana sutras actually date from the time of the historical Buddha, and if so, what is the basis for their argument?


Nobody in present academia in the Anglosphere or East Asia would argue this.

For a time many in the Theravāda world thought their position as custodians of the 'original Buddhism' was secure, but scholarship has determined that not even the Pāli canon or any part of it can be said to date from the time of the historical Buddha. Not everyone agrees with this, but those who argue that the material does date that far back tend to be devout Buddhists, so their arguments are basically emotional, but wrapped up in analysis. They're usually willing to concede that the vinaya is a later creation, but hold steadfast that the suttas are true records of the Buddha's teachings.

That being said, I personally think the Pāli canon is based on material that can presumably be traced back to the Buddha, though this is still speculative (there is no evidence) and not the same as saying the texts themselves record the true testimony of the Buddha. Likewise, I think early Mahāyāna texts are based on a common body of lore and practices that can be traced back to the Buddha.


3. Guang Xing argues that Mahayana doctrines developed out of the transcendental Buddha concept of the Mahāsāṃghika, which provided the doctrinal basis for dharmakāya, saṃbhogakāya, and nirmāṇakāya as understood in Mahayana. See here. Guang Xing's thesis also ties in with the views of Williams and Harrison, as Mahāsāṃghika devotionalism/transcendentalism would also provide a context for the samadhi states referenced above.



Some Indian literature (at least in Chinese translation) admits that the Mahāyāna emerged from the Mahāsāṃghika tradition, with some accepting the new scriptures and others denying them. As the story goes, the teachings were given by the Buddha but forgotten and then reintroduced by a long lived yogi who spent a few centuries in retreat. What this indicates is that there was an awareness that the historical record lacked any mention of the Mahāyāna for a few centuries. The early Buddhists were aware of their own history even though we presently don't have so much intact history. Some seem to assume that Buddhists in India didn't keep histories, but they actually did. They're just lost and most of them were never translated into other languages like Tibetan and Chinese.

This is why the Śrāvakayāna schools were perplexed by Mahāyāna scriptures and asked where they came from. Some accepted them as buddhavacana while others rejected them.

One problem we might run into is the assumption that scholastic documents, which are the bulk of what we have available to us, reflect how Buddhism actually was 'on the ground' in India. If you read Buddhist texts, you'll get an image of monks not handling money or drinking, but if you look at things with a critical hermeneutic along with archaeological evidence (inscriptions, unearthed objects, etc), the picture is quite different. For example, it seems plenty of monks in India drank wine, took wives, practiced astrology and functioned as court officials. The textual traditions forbid all of this and sometimes is quite insistent monks really must not do such things, but that all just indicates the authors of these texts were upset and perceived a real problem in their time.

In light of that, the reality on the ground might have been far more complex than we presently imagine. Perhaps some Mahāyāna advocates felt threatened, which is a tone you see in earlier works but less so in later texts, but then perhaps it wasn't such a big deal for most of the sangha and laity who were more interested in gaining merit, building stupas, getting divination done and making money (Buddhist monks and laypeople in general really loved making money and were especially good at it too).

My point is that the Mahāyāna probably emerged in an environment which in actual reality didn't care so much about it. It was definitely a minority ideology and practice when it first emerged, but it doesn't appear it was widely organized or orchestrated by any hierarchy at that point.



I'd be interested to know what other scholarship is out there on the topic. My overall impression -- which could be quite wrong -- is that a great deal of attention has been paid to identifying the contents of Early Buddhism, but relatively little academic attention has been focused on where the Mahayana sutras came from and how.


There is a lot of attention paid to the origins of Mahāyāna actually. The archaeological evidence and eyewitness accounts are especially instructive. See the following if you have a moment:

https://sites.google.com/site/dharmadep ... a-buddhism
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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Admin_PC » Thu Nov 26, 2015 5:15 pm

:good:

Indrajala wrote:As the story goes, the teachings were given by the Buddha but forgotten and then reintroduced by a long lived yogi who spent a few centuries in retreat.
The wiki page points out that the yogi was Yājñavalkya and that he founded the Bahuśrutīya school of the Mahāsāṃghikas. The page attributes this to AK Warder's Indian Buddhism from 2000. Two issues immediately spring to mind:

1. Yājñavalkya is also the name of a major figure in Vedic philosophy, and is featured in the Upanishads, particularly the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. You almost wonder if this is the same figure, if this is a symbolic representation of an interpretation influenced by the Upanishads (esp the Brihadaranyaka), or if this symbolizes something else entirely that I'm just not aware of. Have you come across any mention of ideas like this?

2. This story comes from AK Warder's book, which is from 2000, does it still hold up to recent findings? For example, Richard Salomon's work was one of the first published works on finds from Gandhara and that didn't come out until 1999, with the bulk of published works on the topic not coming out until after 2000 and as recently as 2012. Has any of this work challenged any of the assumptions that went into Warder's writings?

Indrajala wrote:The early Buddhists were aware of their own history even though we presently don't have so much intact history. Some seem to assume that Buddhists in India didn't keep histories, but they actually did. They're just lost and most of them were never translated into other languages like Tibetan and Chinese.
This is why I probably put more stock in the stories by Faxian and other pilgrims from China who were able to interview people first hand to have a clearer picture of at least what traditional histories had been maintained until the start of the 5th century CE. You've provided the link before, and I'll do so again now; the BDK is providing a translation of Faxian's journey for free download as pdf.

Indrajala wrote:The textual traditions forbid all of this and sometimes is quite insistent monks really must not do such things, but that all just indicates the authors of these texts were upset and perceived a real problem in their time.
In support of this, that passage in the Nirvana Sutra about people taking up arms to protect the Dharma, is about going after monks who openly didn't uphold proper precepts and protect the Dharma. They probably wouldn't mention it if it hadn't become widespread.

Thanks for the additional link!
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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Indrajala » Sat Nov 28, 2015 5:56 pm

Last edited by Indrajala on Sat Nov 28, 2015 5:57 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Indrajala » Sat Nov 28, 2015 5:56 pm

PorkChop wrote:You almost wonder if this is the same figure, if this is a symbolic representation of an interpretation influenced by the Upanishads (esp the Brihadaranyaka), or if this symbolizes something else entirely that I'm just not aware of. Have you come across any mention of ideas like this?


I don't think it is the same figure if this is really the case.


2. This story comes from AK Warder's book, which is from 2000, does it still hold up to recent findings? For example, Richard Salomon's work was one of the first published works on finds from Gandhara and that didn't come out until 1999, with the bulk of published works on the topic not coming out until after 2000 and as recently as 2012. Has any of this work challenged any of the assumptions that went into Warder's writings?


Warder is a bit dated and there's been a lot of work on Indian Buddhist history since then.

You've cited a few works like Guang Xing and others. The Brill works on Buddhist Studies are generally worth looking into if you're looking for really detailed studies. Bronkhorst's Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism might be of interest, though some object to his model. I have some objections to his conclusion about the status of astrology in Buddhism in India which I'll address in a forthcoming paper hopefully in print next year. Nevertheless, Bronkhorst's work is worth reading cover to cover.

For later discussions of Tantra and its origins see Verardi's recent work:

http://barc.ryukoku.ac.jp/research/upfi ... ddhism.pdf



In support of this, that passage in the Nirvana Sutra about people taking up arms to protect the Dharma, is about going after monks who openly didn't uphold proper precepts and protect the Dharma. They probably wouldn't mention it if it hadn't become widespread.


If you're interested, read the article by Verardi above and then get his book Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India. It explains a lot and will prove probably quite enlightening.
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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby tingdzin » Sun Nov 29, 2015 4:25 am

PorkChop wrote:1. Yājñavalkya is also the name of a major figure in Vedic philosophy, and is featured in the Upanishads, particularly the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. You almost wonder if this is the same figure, if this is a symbolic representation of an interpretation influenced by the Upanishads (esp the Brihadaranyaka), or if this symbolizes something else entirely that I'm just not aware of. Have you come across any mention of ideas like this?


It was not uncommon in the Tibetan tradition (and may be true for the Indian as well) to have a whole stream of thought or knowledge to be embodied in a single figure. Thus in old Tibetan material there are mentions of Greek medicine having been brought to Tibet by "Galenos" (when Galen really lived a long, long time before this happened), or certain Chinese sciences having been introduced by "Kong tse" (Confucius, even longer).

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Dharma Flower » Thu Dec 29, 2016 9:19 pm

I've had doubts in the past about the Mahayana sutras, because they weren't written down until hundreds of years after the Buddha taught them. I then reminded myself that ancient India was an oral culture, in which important religious texts like the Rigveda were faithfully passed down for hundreds of years before taking a written form:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vedic_cha ... ansmission

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Re: Mahayana origins and provenance of Mayahana sutras

Postby Dharma Flower » Sat Dec 31, 2016 6:12 am

The more I learn about the ancient Indian mindset of the Buddha, the more I realize how shortsighted us modern Westerners can sometimes be in evaluating his teachings.


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