Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Mahayana, Chinese Buddhism, Summary and Critique

I found it interesting the extent to which Mahayana Buddhism can start to look a lot like Christianity the further it gets away from the original teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha left behind a number of basic teachings, including the Four Noble Truths, the Five Aggregates (or the Five Heaps) about human beings, the concept of nirvana, and that enlightenment is a realization of a truth which exists greater than the present existence. As the origins of these teachings drifted into the past, the text highlights how many similarities to Christianity arise.

The various schools of Buddhism which arose were almost inevitably because the Buddha did not really leave any instructions for succession after his death.1This is likely due to the Buddha's suggestion for each person to think for oneself in spiritual matters.2The text brought up an ironic points that though there does not appear to be any linkage between Buddhism and Christianity, both schools of thought arose during roughly the same time.3

The main issue I have with this Mahayana Buddhism is that it seems the original message has become a bit overlooked. Now it seems obvious that as time goes on, with any teaching, new understandings will be uncovered and expanded ideas brought about. That totally makes sense because it seems particularly inherent to Buddhism that the path to enlightenment (also the Fourth Noble Truth) continue grow as it is trudged.

However, Mahayana Buddhism introduces a new concept which contradicts the original teachings of the Buddha. For example, there is a Mahayana idea of the Buddha as a being existing simultaneously in three dimensional bodies.4This seems excessive in light of the original teachings. First of all, this concept in particular reminds me of the Trinity in Christianity. I think it could be argued that the Buddha's earthly body, heavenly body, and transcendent body, loosely match up with the Son, the Holy Ghost, and the Father.

Secondly, and most importantly, these three bodies appear to contradict the underlying fact of the Five Aggregates and nirvana. The Buddha taught that the idea of a continuing self or soul is an illusion.5Now, the third body of the Buddha, the transcendent body, does not seem to be in too much contradiction with the enlightenment the Buddha attained. In this transcendent state, the Buddha is “conceived of as identical with ultimate truth.”6Nirvana in part due to the wisdom associated with an awareness of ultimate truth7. The other two bodies appear to be much more substantial, which would be a step backward for him. Supposedly, when the Buddha died, his reincarnation was finished, but in this understanding of Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha does not appear to done with rebirth. If the Buddha is not finished with rebirth, then I would make the argument he is not really a Buddha, and not in nirvana. If the Buddha exists now in three bodies, this undermines the foundation of Buddhism.

Besides this contradiction, I think Mahayana Buddhism makes some interesting extensions on the original teachings.

1p. 57 from Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown, Oxford University Press, New York 1996. (All footnotes will pertain to this text.)
2p. 27, “he advised that each person should think for himself on matters of doctrine, cross-referencing views and opinions against the scriptures before deciding whether to accept them.
3p. 58, “Although there is no firm evidence of influence either way between Christianity and Buddhism, there are some similarities between Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism which it might be helpful to note.”
4p. 59-60, “which envisaged the Buddha as having 'three bodies' (trikaya) or existing in three dimensions: earthly, heavenly, and transcendent.”
5p. 47, “Specifically, the doctrine makes no mention of a soul or self, understood as an eternal and immutable spiritual essence.”
6from p. 60
7from p. 45 on wisdom and virtue in nirvana

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