His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited the University of Michigan from April 21 to April 23, 1994. One of the events planned for his visit was a private seminar with the faculty and graduate students of the Buddhist Studies program on the topic of the origins of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. In the past, His Holiness has shown great interest in the discoveries of Western science, going so far as to say that on those points where Buddhist doctrine and scientific findings diverge, the Buddhist position should be discarded. For example, according to Buddhist cosmology, humans inhabit an island to the south of Mount Sumeru, a geography not confirmed by satellite photographs. The traditional map should, therefore, be replaced by the one accepted in the West. His Holiness’ position on this matter is quite liberal by Tibetan Buddhist standards. Other prominent lamas hold that Mount Sumeru and the four continents indeed exist as they are described in the traditional literature; it is only our karmic obstructions that prevent us from seeing them. But as the Dalai Lama says in his recent book The Way to Freedom, “The purpose of the Buddha coming to this world was not to measure the circumference of the world, and the distance between the earth and moon, but rather to teach the dharma, to liberate sentient beings, to relieve sentient beings of their sufferings.”
I thought it would be interesting, then, to discuss with His Holiness the current Western scholarship on the origins of the Mahayana, a topic that is of great interest to His Holiness and which has also been the subject of significant speculation in Buddhist studies in the last two decades. Would the Dalai Lama be as open to the findings of Western scholars of Buddhism (who call themselves “Buddhologists”) as he had been to the findings of Western scientists? The traditional view, of course, is that the Mahayana sutras were set forth by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni but were kept hidden until some four centuries after the Buddha passed into nirvana. Some of the sutras were kept by the gods, others by the nagas in the bottom of the ocean, whence they were retrieved by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. The authenticity of these sutras as the word of the Buddha is a central issue for the Mahayana; to claim that they are inauthentic is to transgress one of the Bodhisattva Vows. When I mentioned to His Holiness that our graduate students would be making a presentation to him on the origins of the Mahayana, he immediately asked whether they had supernormal powers, suggesting that only someone who had a clairvoyant knowledge of the past could know how the Mahayana began.
During the seminar, three students who were completing dissertations on Indian Buddhism made brief presentations to His Holiness. They explained how nineteenth-century scholars of Buddhism had seen the Mahayana as a degeneration of the original teachings of the Buddha. Later scholars saw the Mahayana as a lay movement responding to the conservatism of the monastic establishment. After this perceived split, which occurred between the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., two branches of Buddhism, the Hinayana and the Mahayana, developed along parallel but divergent courses. More recently, scholars (such as Gregory Schopen) have sought to look beyond the polemical Mahayana condemnations of the Hinayana and to consider archaeological, art-historical, and epigraphical evidence. This research suggests that the Mahayana did not begin as a single and self-conscious movement, but instead was a disparate collection of “cults of the book” centered around new sutras composed around the beginning of the common era. These were not lay cults, but ones in which monks and nuns were full and active participants. The evidence even suggests that so-called Mahayana and Hinayana monks often lived side by side within the same monasteries, following the same rules, engaging in many of the same practices, throughout the history of Buddhism in India. Indeed, the first epigraphic use of the term Mahayana occurs only in the fifth century C.E., some five hundred years after the composition of the first Mahayana sutras.
His Holiness listened attentively to all of this, sometimes stopping and asking his translator to clarify a term or a point. But at the end of the presentation he remained silent and only spoke after I asked him what he thought about what the students had said. “It’s something to know,” he said in Tibetan, using the term shes bya (literally, “object of knowledge”), evoking the Buddhist aphorism “Objects of knowledge are limitless.” That is, there are infinite things that can be known; hence it is important to consider carefully what is truly worth knowing. He went on to say that he has a friend, a great lama, who, when giving a tantric initiation saw all the past masters of the lineage appear in the air along the ceiling of the temple. He was certain that his friend was telling the truth. He conceded that what the students had told him was interesting and that it would be good for Buddhists to have some knowledge of Western scholarship on Buddhism. However, in the end, he seemed to view Buddhist practice and Buddhist scholarship (at least of the Western variety) as ultimately irreconcilable. He told the students that if he accepted what they had told him, he would be able only to believe in the rupakaya, the form body of the Buddha that appears in the world. He could not believe in thesambhogakaya, the body of complete enjoyment, which appears to advanced bodhisattvas in the splendor of the pure lands. And he could not believe in the dharmakaya, the Buddha’s omniscient mind and its emptiness. “If I believed what you told me,” he said, “the Buddha would only be a nice person.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your three free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.