An Introduction to the Origin and
Development of Northern Mahayana Buddhism
By Venerable Master Haiyun Jimeng
Two ways to understand the ‘origin’ of Buddhism
The ‘origin’ of Buddhism may in fact be understood in two ways. First, it may refer to the Buddha’s awareness, upon his enlightenment, of the ultimate truth of the universe and the meaning of life itself, an awareness that transcended the traditional concepts of the Indian society of his day. In Brahmin belief, there was a higher-than-human sphere, occupied by a God who created and governed the world. Since the Buddha had, through his profound practice and realization, attained the state beyond that of the heaven where there is neither thinking nor not-thinking (Naivasamjnanasamjnayatana), the doctrines that emerged from his spiritual experience where obviously bound to be different from those of other religious figures. In this sense it is the Buddha’s own supreme Enlightenment that is the ‘origin’ of Buddhism as a universal teaching which has transformed our world.
Secondly, if we probe into the origin of Buddhism as a social phenomenon, although it did indeed begin from the very moment when the long-sought Awakening finally came to Prince Siddhartha as he was seated under the Buddhi Tree, nevertheless, if we consider the nature of human life, we can see how closely Buddhism is related to it. Without human beings there can be no buddhas, nor can Buddhism exist without human beings. So, wherever people live, there the ultimate significance of Buddhism’s existence is to be found. In this regard, the buddha dharma would still exist in our world, no matter whether Prince Siddhartha had attained Enlightenment or not; it would just be that nobody had yet discovered it. So, the sutras say that through countless lives mankind had long been shrouded in the darkness of illusion, and that it was only when the Buddha came into the world that it was illuminated, like a dark room lit up by a lamp, so that we could all see the truth. Now the question may arise, whether people can possibly achieve Enlightenment all by themselves without the Buddha’s teachings. This is a key point for those who are seeking the path to illumination.
The practice in Buddhist way and non-¬Buddhist way
A seeker who is able to attain Enlightenment by his or her own efforts certainly has no need to follow the Buddhist way. A Disciple (Shravaka), for instance, can achieve a state of Enlightenment as a result of listening to the Dharma, while a Pratyeka¬buddha comes to this stage of attainment through his own wisdom. However, people with the great merit and keen understanding needed to make this achievement possible are very rare. Again, while it is true that there have been many pratyeka-buddhas who achieved Enlightenment entirely by themselves, their Enlightenment is not of the kind called Anuttarasamyaksambodhi (Unsurpassed, Perfect and Complete Enlightenment) that the Buddha himself attained. But what the Buddha teaches us is precisely this Unsurpassed, Complete and Perfect Enlightenment. Moreover, at the same time he discovered a secret, which is that all sentient beings have the Buddha- nature, the innate awareness that makes it possible for everybody to become enlightened.
Nevertheless, the word ‘enlightenment’ can have various meanings, depending on the state reached by the seeker. Even the awakened state attained by those who have endeavored to follow the Buddhist path may not be complete; some may have achieved correct awareness, while some may not have; and the ‘enlightenment’ others think they have achieved may in fact be quite false. In the Buddhist view, there can be several stages of Enlightenment. That attained by Disciples (Shravakas), for example, is called Sambodhi, or Complete Enlightenment; that which is attained by Bodhisattvas is called Samyaksambodhi, or Perfect and Complete Enlightenment; while the Enlightenment of the Buddha is called Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, or Unsurpassed, Perfect and Complete Enlightenment. In that case, given that everybody has the capacity to attain Buddhahood, and assuming that we are all prepared to make the necessary effort, which type of Enlightenment do you think we should try to achieve? Owing to the right karmic conditions, as well as to our previous merit, we now have the chance to meet here today and to hear the True Dharma that the Buddha has transmitted to us, so of course we should seek for the Unsurpassed, Perfect and Complete Enlightenment that he attained.
But what is it we mean exactly when we speak of the Buddha’s Unsurpassed Enlightenment? It is a realm of pure goodness and perfect beauty. The definitions of ancient people are perfectly valid, but we can too easily allow our understanding to be circumscribed by them. In struggling to awaken from our wandering in the ocean of mortality, we need to seek for something to rely on. Any sort of religion, even a false one, can serve this purpose, but if practitioners lack the guidance of the True Dharma, they can easily fall into deluded ideas or erroneous practices. When people feel the need for some kind of spiritual life, they may turn to one of the great monotheistic faiths, or they may even run off to a fortuneteller of some kind, or to a Feng-Shui master (practitioner of Chinese geomancy). All this goes to show that mankind has a need for spiritual fulfillment, for some ultimate refuge that they can trust in. But whether these religious teachings will lead to the ultimate truth or not is another matter. Naturally, every religious teacher tells his followers that his teachings are the best and most perfect of all; and this is also the case with Buddhist groups, including the group to which I myself belong. - Otherwise why would I be giving this Dharma lecture now? This is perfectly plausible for someone who has faith in his or her beliefs, but is it sufficient to leave the matter there? Take our Northern Mahayana Buddhism as an example. Which of the four schools, Chan, Pure Land, Discipline (Vinaya), and Esoteric, does not claim to be the ultimate way of practicing the Buddha’s teachings?
Nevertheless, no sooner does the idea of an ultimate teaching come into the mind of the teacher than this world Endurance (Sahaloka) turns into a world
impurity and decay. So, if a teacher tells you that his teaching is a special one, not to be found in any of the four schools I have just mentioned, you can be sure that in fact it is not in accordance with the Dharma, that it is a non-Buddhist teaching. But if someone says that his or her teachings are the essence of the four or the eight major schools of Buddhism, this person is certainly teaching the Buddhadharma, for the eight schools all have the same origin and derive from the same source.
To further explain what I have just said: there are some groups claiming to be Buddhist but practicing in a non-Buddhist way. For instance, there are some varieties of Pure Land teaching in which the Pure Land is described as being like a monotheistic heaven or paradise. Likewise, there are non-traditional precepts of their own. Worse still are those followers of the Esoteric School in Taiwan who have made a profession out of releasing the souls of the dead from purgatory, as Taoist priests do. Such practices do not belong to Buddhism, of course. All these things occur due to a misunderstanding or what Buddhism is really about. Certainly, no master is going to admit that his or her teachings are at fault, and yet any supposedly Buddhist teaching should at least be in harmony with the mainstream of Buddhism as represented by the fundamental doctrines of the eight major schools. Thus, it is important for those who are seeking to awaken from the illusive cycle or interpret life and pursue the truth. The reason the Buddha’s teachings are so helpful to us today is because they enable us to see the truth of human life and the real nature of the universe, so we should do our best to try and understand them.
Therefore, when talking about the origin of Buddhism, we first have to be clear about the difference between the origin of Buddhism in historical terms and the origin of Buddhism from within the stream of life itself. If you are looking at it from the historical angle, you are only concerned with external appearances, and with the way in which the Buddha attained Enlightenment. However, I must point out that the value of Buddhism lies not in its history but in its power to bring about the awakening of human nature. Whenever anyone awakens from the endless cycle of transmigration, there is the important point.
Why the Buddha should have been born from his mother’s right side
Of course, I’m not saying that the history of Buddhism is not important. Rather, I would say that if you just look at how Prince Siddhartha became a Buddha by studying stories about the way he was born and grew up, you will come to no better understanding than you would by reading a series of myths. For instance, it is said that the Buddha was not born from Queen Maya in the normal way, but emerged from her right side. How could this strange tale be true? Surely no woman has ever had a womb under her right arm. It makes no sense. Yet it becomes more intelligible if one can understand the Indian people’s way of thinking and their patterns of language. Reading the story with this in mind, we may come to realize why the ancient Indians told the story this way.
Let’s take this story as an example, then. The social background in Sakyamuni’s time was governed by a clan system in which people were categorized into four castes: Brahmis, kshatriyas, vaisyas, and shudra, according to their inherited duties. These four castes or classes were believed to have been born from different parts of the body of the Primordial Man (Purush). The brains, as the priestly class presenting the source of knowledge, were born from his head or mouth; the kshatriyas, as the military and ruling class, symbolizing force or power, from his shoulders and arms; the vaisya, as farmers and merchants, representing the freedom to make a living by trading, from his flanks or thighs; and the lowest, the shudras, who were serfs obliged to attain on their masters, from his feet. The style of language the ancient Indians used was based on this pattern.
Accordingly, we can now see why the Buddha should have been born from his mother’s right side, for this indicates the force of his teachings. This diligent practice of the Dharma has the power to bring about significant changes in our lives, or indeed, to completely transform them. The problem is that most people are not too serious about religious practice. They just think, “OK, I’ll try chanting the scriptures, try repeating the Buddha’s name, or try worshipping the attitude, such practitioners will only get tentative results. Therefore, as a serious practitioner you must make a determined effort, as if you were faced with some impending disaster; you need to be resolute if you want to achieve liberation from suffering in this very life.
Let’s take the practice of Chan meditation as another example. It is natural that you should feel some pain after sitting for a long time in a cross-legged posture; and yet, this pain can prove to be a very worthwhile investment. Why? Suppose that, by continuing to concentrate on the practice of contemplation for the rest of your life and patiently enduring, or even ignoring, the severe pain that may result from taking a meditative posture for those fifty, or let’s say even a hundred years, you are finally able to put an end to the cycle of birth and death and the seemingly endless sufferings of transmigration—would that be a beneficial investment and one that had repaid you amply?
Unfortunately, many people are not willing to endure the physical pain caused by practicing meditation, or they practice in a careless and
perfunctory manner. As a result of this carelessness, the accumulated karma of greed, hatred and delusion from countless previous lives may drag you to hell, and there you will have to suffer all kinds of pains and tortures for hundreds of thousands of aeons (kalpas). Wouldn’t you be willing then, at the price of only fifty or a hundred years of painful meditation, to trade the countless pains and tortures for the Pure Land’s golden soil, for its ponds with seven precious gems and water with eight virtues? Isn’t this obtaining a large profit with only a little investment? However, due to our ignorance of the true nature of transmigration and of the correct way to practice, we tend to blindly follow our habitual ways of so-called rational thinking. Moreover, many people, I believe, may have heard that some master has come here to give talks of Dharma, but they decide not to come on account of things which they think are more important. But what if they were encouraged to receive 500 Canadian dollars in reward for the attendance of the Dharma talks? In that case the lecture hall would be swarming with people today. Why? Being innocent about the tortures of the damned, people are not likely to care about promoting their spiritual life, and they eventually get no benefit from it at all.
Buddhism has its true ‘origin’ in the Awakening of human being
Therefore, what is important is whether Buddhist practitioners can become enlightened rather than what approach they are applying to their cultivation. In other words, a practitioner should faithfully comply with his or her teacher’s instructions on repeating the name of a Buddha or a bodhisattva, for example, till the mind becomes stable and completely focused on the repetition. As to how one carries out the repetition of the name, this is merely a matter of technique or skill; the main thing is to continue with the practice until mind and speech have become one and distracting thoughts no longer arise. From this point of view, we can see how Buddhism has its true ‘origin’ in the Awakening of human beings rather than in the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. Certainly, without Shakyamuni’s appearing on this Earth we could not have found the path to Enlightenment, but understanding this, shouldn’t we faithfully follow these supreme teachings, discovered by the Buddha’s own efforts in the course of his spiritual journey and subsequently transmitted to us? This is the true significance of Taking Refuge. Again, if we are unable to turn from the world of phenomena to that of eternal reality, we are no different from those who worship nature spirits in order to get blessings by making offerings to some temple. This is only a kind of folk religion and will not help us to reach the goal of ultimate Liberation. Instead, a true Buddhist should devote his or her life to following the path to Buddhahood and to complete liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Next, as for the real meaning of Buddhism, I would regard Buddhism as being a process of education as much as it is a religion. Essentially, the word ‘Buddha’ implies comprehension of spiritual reality, awakening, and an enlightened mind free from all illusion. A Buddha is thus an enlightened human being who has apprehended the ultimate reality of all phenomena. The suffix-’ism’ indicates some kind of teaching, philosophy, or ideology. So, Buddhism is a kind of teaching that is meant to educate us, to instruct us in the way to become awakened from the illusory ocean of transmigration. Now, try to think of what it was that brought you here today, that led you to sit here comfortably and listen to a talk on Dharma. Wasn’t it all due to a very close and strong connection with Buddhism that you have established through many reincarnations and countless kalpas?
Each of us, in pursing the path to Enlightenment, may have reached different states of comprehension, some having arrived at Perfect Enlightenment, and some perhaps even at Complete and Perfect Enlightenment. But none of us has yet reached Unsurpassed Complete and Perfect Enlightenment (Anuttarasamyaksambodhi), and thus we are not yet completely free from the cycle of birth and death. Likewise, if you look at your current life, you may think it’s pretty good to be able to live in a fine city like Toronto; and yet, is everything really perfect here? I suppose the answer could be “Well, it’s not too bad, even it is not perfect.” For might not all the problems other people have to cope with also happen to you? So how to be free from the bonds of transmigration becomes a practical issue that needs to be dealt with, and it is only through a true Awakening, at the highest level of awareness, that we can continue to improve our circumstances and transcend our sufferings.
IQ vs. BQ
If we pay a little attention to the kind of education Buddhism provides, we will see what distinguishes it from worldly education. One of the most obvious differences is that secular education gives different materials to children in accordance with the grade they have reached. This alone indicates that the two educational systems are very different. Secular education places great emphasis on developing a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ), while Buddhism values the development of people’s Buddha- nature Quotient (BQ). The latter derives from the very depths of our nature, and not from the accumulation of memorized knowledge. It is what the Avatamsaka Sutra calls ‘the wisdom of the Buddha’, and what the Maha¬prajnaparamita Sutra refers to as the ‘ocean of Omniscience’. Learning by developing one’s own nature instead of by conscious reasoning or study sets BQ education far apart from IQ education, in which one has to learn through repeatedly reciting or memorizing new things until the student becomes thoroughly familiar with the materials provided. So even if someone memorizes the whole Buddhist Canon, the Tripitaka, this is still to be considered an IQ way of learning. On the other hand, the BQ way of education would be that, when you are reading any of the twelve division of the Tripitaka, you continue to maintain awareness of your Buddha nature without being led astray by the IQ concept of learning through memorization and verbal analysis.
I suppose that everybody here has had similar experiences with regard to studying various subjects under the IQ education system. We have all followed the same pattern that our schools and families expected us to. For instance, if Children respond promptly and precisely, and are capable of remembering a great many things, everyone will praise them for their cleverness. On the other hand, if they are easily confused and slow to remember things, people will shake their heads and say they must have very bad karma. This is not true at all. It is these latter children who are the ones with good karma, while ninety-five percent of those who are considered so clever and quick to learn, I would venture to say, carry heavy karmic burdens and will experience a life of suffering. In contrast to what is commonly believed, those who are slow to learn and memorize, and show never manage to do things well, may be only slightly obstructed by their karma and may in the end enjoy great blessings. People of this kind, when they engage in spiritual practices, tend to achieve more with less effort, for though their memory may be poor, they often have a highly developed sense of appreciation and can easily find enjoyment in their own lives and in the beauty of nature. Such people tend to be more considerate than others, and can readily develop a mind of love and compassion. The wisdom that springs from this love and compassion is the wisdom of the Buddha.
From the Buddhist point of view, mind-¬consciousness is generally divided into two types: 1) the mind as an organ of perception (manovijnana), and 2) the mind as the central consciousness (manas), the source of the ego¬-sense and of intellectual awareness. When each of the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) comes into contact with a corresponding external object (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or idea), this data is fed into the seventh, organizing consciousness (the manas), which, in the case of ordinary people, seizes on it and transmits it in turn to the underlying store consciousness (alayavijnana). Let us suppose that this process requires three amperes of electric current. But the speed with which people learn and memorize has for centuries been deliberately enhanced by various methods of reward and punishment, such as the grading of students’ as A, B, C and so on, the imperial examination system in ancient China, or the values of Western utilitarianism. As a result of this human manipulation, those who remember more and perform better have made themselves better qualified for all kinds of competitive activities in their societies. As a result, there are always a great many people creating ever heavier karma in their efforts of learning and memorizing things for competitive purposes, and so the mind-consciousness has increased its electrical requirement from three amperes to three thousand amperes. If we reviewed the rapid progress mankind had made in the last two centuries, we can see how much this way of learning through abstract reasoning and memorization has done to promote achievements in the fields of science and technology. But when the mind-consciousness increases its ability to discriminate and to react quickly to what it perceives, this will steadily enlarge the capacity of the eighth, or store, consciousness. And once the functioning of the brain has been developed to this extent, all kinds of social and occupational problems are bound to keep emerging.
It is here that the practice of Buddhism proves to be helpful, for it teaches us how to learn things, not by memorizing a mass of knowledge but by developing our own Buddha- nature. Learning things by storing facts in the conscious mind will merely increase the load of the mind consciousness, but if we can keep the information acquired by the six sense¬ consciousnesses from their corresponding objects from flowing into the central mind- consciousness, and can lead it instead directly into the ‘ocean of Omniscience’, our Buddha wisdom will have a chance to mature. This is the Buddhist method of education. One speaks of the transformation of the eight consciousnesses into the four wisdoms, but the key point here is whether you know how to bring about such a ‘transformation’. According to Buddhism, the first step is to turn the mind-consciousness into Pratyavekshana-jnana, or Discriminative Wisdom. In other words, if we no longer discriminate one phenomenon from another with our mind-consciousness but rather, directly apply Discriminative Wisdom to all phenomena, we can then first transform the six sense-consciousnesses into All-accomplishing Wisdom (Krtyanushthana-jnana) at the very moment when they make contact with their respective objects. Then the seventh consciousness, the manas, will be transformed into the Wisdom of Equality (Samata-jnana), as a result of which one will be freed from clinging to the objects of the six senses; and finally, the eighth consciousness, the Alyaya¬-vijnana, will be transformed into the Wisdom of the Perfect Minor (Adarshana-jnana). This is what we should be striving to achieve. In this regard, we should all try to see how much inspiration Buddhism is capable of giving us, both in terms of the significance of the Dharma itself and also through the Buddhist approach to education.
What motivates people to practice Buddhism
Our next concern will be with what motivates people to practise Buddhism. Many religions hold formal ceremonies for new believers, such as baptism in Christianity, or pointing to the Hidden Gate in Taoism. So, we too have our Refuge Ceremony, and in order to become a Buddhist one needs to take refuge in the Triple Gem, or Three Precious Ones: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Briefly speaking, the term ‘Buddha’ refers to Enlightenment, Awakening, or comprehension of reality. But however, one defines it, it means that we should awaken to the purity of our own true nature so as to become free from the delusion and suffering of the cycle of birth and death. ‘Dharma’ then implies the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality of the universe, or the state of supreme Enlightenment, which is a state in which life in all its aspects has become perfect and complete. Thus the ‘Awakening’ I have just referred to is the ability to comprehend this supreme reality, with which it has to become one. If practitioners come to realize that this perfection and completeness of life is the real goal of their spiritual development, they will be in total harmony with the universe. As to the ‘Sangha’, this term refers to the body or assembly of monks and nuns, and is applied to any group of at least five such renunciants who are living and practising diligently together.
~ “Huayen World” Teachings and meditation methods in Mahayana Buddhism