Mayahana Buddhism


For decades, eminent scholars such as Etienne Lamotte and Hirakawa Akira have greatly contributed to our understanding of Mahayana and to the elucidation of its often nebulous origins. However, more recent scholarship has shown that some of their conclusions might have proven indefinite, if not premature. In chapter sixteen of his work, A History of Indian Buddhism from Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana, Hirakawa argues for an originally lay this-wordly, and socially distinct Mahayana Buddhism, and for its stemming from three sources: Nikaya Buddhism, biographies of the Buddha, and lay-administered stupa worship. While some truth might underlie Hirakawa's enunciated sources of Mahayana, they fail to adequately support his claims that the "Greater Vehicle" was essentially mundane, non-sectarian and lay-oriented. As shall be demonstrated, the situation from which Mahayana arose was not as one-sided as Hirakawa would have it.

Hirakawa's first lists Nikaya Buddhism as one of the origins of Mahayana Buddhism, but he seems to treat both types of Buddhism as separate socio-religious entities. An alternate, some might say more accurate way of approaching the situation would consist in viewing Mahayana as a pan-Buddhist movement, thus pervading all of Nikaya Buddhism. As Harrison would put it, "all ordained Mahayanists were members of a nikaya, but not all nikaya members were Mahayanists" (1995: 56). This would explain the different sectarian influences which one observes when studying the spectrum of Mahayana scriptures. Hirakawa alludes to this point with reference to transpiring Sarvastivada, Sammatiya and particularly Mahasanghika teachings in Mahayana sutras, but he fails to properly elaborate on the matter. Instead, he resorts to classifying the relation between Nikaya and Mahayana Buddhism as "clearly not a simple one" (260).

Hirakawa regards the early Mahayana following as an entity that is relatively distinct from Nikaya Buddhism, and secondly, as a predominantly lay entity. Numerous scholars, including Etienne Lamotte, have refuted the first clause and its associated implication of a Mayayana-Hinayana divide. For example, Paul Harrison writes that rather than considering Nikaya Buddhism as one of the origins of the Mahayana, he would rather call it its "matrix," thereby postulating a much more intimate and permanent relationship (1995: 59). He goes on to say that there is no strong textual support to uphold the view of Hinayana versus Mahayana friction (from Gombrich 1998: 47). Already, Hirakawa's qualification of Mahayana as a lay, this-wordly, and altruistic tradition opposed to a more eremitic, clerical Hinayana tradition concerned with the salvation of one's own salvation looses its footing: its very conceptual framework, which resides in dualistic categorisations, seems inadequate. Mahayana Buddhism did not develop as an independent sect; rather, it grew within the very bosom of (often monastic) religious communities. If there is to be a cleavage at all, it should therefore be interpreted as a spiritual or doctrinal one rather than a social one. The subject of the disparities between lay and monastic thus becomes a less pressing one. In fact, it is a "non-issue" and as Gombrich argues, if the vision of an organised and distinct order of Mahayanists is a hallucination, there is no need for us to investigate its fictitious historical roots (1998: 55). Whether or not this so-called movement arose out of the lay-administered worship of stupas is impertinent. Nonetheless, this question shall be addressed because of the important volume of debate that has focused on it.

The second clause of Hirakawa's argument, namely that early Mahayana was predominantly of lay character, is another point of contention on which critics have been particularly vociferous. This topic is most comfortably discussed in the context of Hirakawa's third source of Mahayana Buddhism, stupa worship. But before embarking on this discussion, which will constitute the bulk of this effort, it is noteworthy to mention that Hirakawa's second source has been met, at least to my less than exhaustive knowledge, with little resistance.

Hirakawa purports that although a great deal of the biographies of the Buddha find their origins in Nikaya Buddhism, the associated genre of literature eventually transcended sectarian lines in a fashion that would inspire the ethos of Mahayana Buddhism (260). It is undoubtedly a complex feat to determine if the authors of such texts, often referred to as those of the "vehicle that praised the Buddha," had "pro-lay" and iconoclastic intentions in mind when writing the biographies. It is clear however, that they expound many of the teachings that Mahayana would later consider its own. Nevertheless, if Mahayana grew at the very core of Nikaya Buddhism, it is ultimately irrelevant to underline the fact that biographies of the Buddha were informed by meta-sectarian impulses. Since most recent scholarship considers the claim that Mahayana Buddhism was in its earliest form a distinct social group inaccurate, Hirakawa's buttressing of it with evidence from the biographies of the Buddha is a futile effort.

Hirakawa's third source for the origination of Mahayana Buddhism is perhaps his most controversial. It essentially supports that the Mahayana grew out of an identifiable order of principally lay bodhisattvas whose central practice consisted of stupa worship. From this it is inferred that "Mahayana Buddhism was originally concerned with laymen" and that "doctrines for lay bodhisattvas play a prominent role in the oldest Mahayana sutras" (Hirakawa 270). In addition, it is said that the Mahayana concern with a saviour Buddha can be traced to the worship of sutras.

A number of scholars have actually built their reputations around the rebuttal of this thesis. Gregory Schopen for instance, has convincingly argued that the stupa cult was shunned upon by a number of important early Mahayana sutras (Williams 22). Conversely to Hirakawa, Schopen suggests that early Mahayana revolved around the cult of the book, or text (on the basis of its association to the notion of dharma-kaya), which was in direct contrast to stupa worship. Indeed, a great deal of early Mahayana sutras advertise the boundless benefits and merits that are gained by memorising, worshiping, or simply reading a sutra. The Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra, arguably one of the earliest extant Mahayana texts, offers a good case in point:

    If worlds as numerous as the sands of the Ganges Were filled with precious gems and used as a gift, And if someone accepted one verse of this and preached it, The merit of that reverent recitation would exceed the former (Harrison trans.1998: 102).

In the same text, bodhisattvas are defined, among other things, as having a studious energy that is hard to match; "they immerse themselves in the sutras, they constantly immerse themselves in the sutras" (9). Echoing what has been said with regards to Mahayana's Nikaya origins in the first part of this work, Schopen concludes that,

    since each text placed itself at the centre of its own cult, early Mahayana (from a sociological point of view), rather than being an identifiable single group, was in the beginning a loose federation of a number of distinct though related cults, all of the same pattern, but each associated with a specific text. (Schopen 181, in Williams 22).

Besides disproving Hirakawa's stupa worship position, Schopen also indirectly negates the possibility of a doctrinally homogeneous early Mahayana which could support the claim that it was a cohesive and distinct school of Buddhism.

Furthermore, if Schopen's contention is to be taken as authoritative, the laity would have played a much smaller role than originally proposed. As Williams notes, there is no historical evidence of lay people constructing or preaching new sutras, neither is there evidence of lay doctrinal traditions in Buddhism at the root of Mahayana (23). Granted, many early Mahayana sutras embrace the role of laity in Buddhism, but the texts themselves remain the product of monks.

Gombrich follows a similar line of argumentation by proposing that the rise of Mahayana is attributable to the use of writing (1990: 21). Early Mahayana texts and doctrine were preserved precisely because they were written down. Only monastic circles had the authority, logistic capacity and organisational skill to hand down Mahayana texts (and by extension, teachings) to future generations. As such, the argument that the Mahayana somehow represented an "underground," subversive, and independent teaching disseminated among the laity remains an unlikely one.

Some have argued Hirakawa's position with respect to the alleged lay origins of Mahayana to be anachronistic and indicative of modern trends in Japanese Buddhism. Paul Williams has written that Japanese scholarship's emphasis on lay orders of Bodhisattvas engaged in altruistic activities is reflective of the self-image, interests and concerns of contemporary Japanese Buddhism (20). Harrison has also quite skillfully paraphrased Tyrell's comment on Adolf von Harnack's work and applied it to the work of Hirakawa, warning us of the potential academic faux pas of "reading back" into history (1995:67).

We must not however revert to the opposite extreme and discount the formative role that the laity played in the development of Mahayana Buddhism. Much like the gap between Mahayana and Nikaya Buddhism has been grossly exaggerated, so has the schism between monastic and lay. In fact, Harrison, relying mainly on Durt's work, has remarked that the categories of "lay" and "monastic" stem from inappropriate and simplistic Western conceptualisations (1995: 59). The inadequacy derives from the terms upasaka and upasika. They are usually translated as "layman" and "laywoman" but should refer to "persons hovering just below ordained status, those who are, as it were, semi-ordained" (Harrison 1995: 59). The discrepancy between these terms and those of bhiksu and bikhsuna is much less pronounced then Hirakawa would suggest. The Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra actually tends to efface distinctions between monks and the "bodhisattvas wearing white." The spiritual demands and requirements are equally stringent for both groups and on one occasion, the sutra even interchanges categories when referring to the chief protagonist, Bhadrapala. Whether this inconsistency is deliberate or inadvertent, it reflects Mahayana's inclination towards spiritually categorising its adherents rather than socially segregating them. Rather than reversing the conventional hierarchy and placing the laity above the clergy, Mahayana Buddhism and its glorification of the often lay bodhisattva advertises the absolute worth of bodhicitta and bodhisattvahood. Harrison interprets this as a polemical superseding of the bodhisattva over the Nikayanist sravaka: "That is to say, if even the lay bodhisattva is superior to the ordained sravaka, how much more so the ordained bodhisattva (1995: 67). Mahayana texts, much like any primary or historical document, must be considered in all their opacity, and as results of complex socio-historical and even religio-political webs; rarely are they directly reflective of the context in which they were written.

Before concluding, a brief parenthesis should be made to clarify Hirakawa's position on the soteriological character of Mahayana. Dependant on the misconception of Mahayana as an originally lay movement is the belief that bodhisattvas concede their Buddhahood to save the (lay masses) from which they purportedly came. It has been demonstrated above that the role of the laity and masses in comparison to that of the exclusive clergy in Mahayana was by no means emphatic. In actuality, bodhisattvas are hailed as beings that are distinct from the populace, being extremely talented and having super-human powers. Mahayana thus appears in its elitist garb, starkly contrasting with its usually inclusive (and to some degree, consequently non-ascetical) depiction. As the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra stipulates, "they [bodhisattvas] acquit themselves in debate quite differently from the masses" (Harrison trans. 1998: 9). Throughout the same text, their magical powers are enumerated, thus highlighting their hieratic and supramundane character. As such, Mahayanists might be inclined to worship bodhisattvas and seek deliverance from them, but without going to deeply into the soteriological (and to some extent ontological) paradox of the boddhisattva path, it is sufficient to say that Mahayana is not a "devotional shortcut" as Harrison puts it. Once again, the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra clarifies the issue: "they [bodhisattvas] never fail to be those among men who are going to achieve the attainment of Buddhahood for themselves, without ever turning back" (Harrison trans. 1998: 9). The initial message of Mahayana thus clearly resounds: bodhisattvas should not be worshipped and expected to relinquish their spiritual attainments for the deliverance of their devotees. Instead, the Mahayana adherent should strive to become a bodhisattva.

Scholarship on the formation of the Mahayana tradition has oscillated back and forth between dualistic categorisations and binary oppositions. Hirakawa for one, has sided with a wordly, lay and non-sectarian view of Mahayana. This view transpires and is simultaneously supported by means of three sources that he enounces as responsible for the rise of Mahayana, namely Nikaya Buddhism, biographies of the Buddha, and stupa worship. The first and second sources have elicited the most scholarly debate, and recent trends tend to indicate that assumptions regarding Mahayana Buddhism are currently in the process of being debunked in favour of more balanced or just interpretations of the tradition. Perhaps it is inappropriate to read so far ahead into the history of Mahayana Buddhism, but it seems that Chang Shang-ying's pilgrimage to Wu-T'ai Shan offers striking insight as to what Mahayana originally was. The Sung intellectual's experience on the sacred mountain is a genuine encounter with the transcendent, "beyond the distinction between the mundane (lokiya, shih-chien) and the supramundane (lokottara, ch'u-shih-chien) (Gimello 123). Much like Chang Shang-ying's experience collapses two levels of religious discourse, early Mahayana (whether through texts or practice) seems to collapse the dualisms between laity and clergy, this-wordly and other-wordly, sectarian and homogeneous, via positiva and via negativa, or cultic and non-cultic by paradoxically juxtaposing them. If recent scholarship is indicative of future trends, upcoming scholarship on the origins of Mahayana will hopefully gain inspiration from the subject of its studies and follow suit by avoiding the academic pitfalls or reductionist tribalism and overly simplistic binary oppositions.


1 For a full of rendition of this view, see Gregory Schopen. "The phrase 'sa prthivipradesas caityabhuto bahvet' in the Vajracchedikha: notes on the cult of the book in Mahayana," in Indo-Iranian Journal 17


Cited Works

Gimello, Robert M. "Chang Shang-ying at Wu-t'ai shan," in Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China, edited by Susan Naquin and Chun-fang Yu, 89-149. Studies on China 15. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Gombrich, Richard. "Organized Bodhisattvas: A Blind Alley in Buddhist Historiagraphy," in Suraycandraya: Essays in Honour of Akira Yuyama on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, edited by Paul Harrison and Gregory Schopen, 43-56. Indica et Tibeta 35.

Swisttal-Odendorf: Indica et Tibeta Verlag, 1998. Gombrich, Richard. "How the Mahayana Began," in The Buddhist Forum, v. I, edited by Tadeusz Skorupsi, 21-30. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1990.

Harrison, Paul Maxwell, trans. The Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra. Berkeley: The Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1998.

Harrison, Paul Maxwell. "Searching of the Origins of the Mahayana: What Are We Looking For?" in The Eastern Buddhist, n.s. 28, no. 1 (1995): 48-69.

Hirakawa, Akira. A History of Indian Buddhism from Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana, trans. by Paul Groner (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1990).

Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.