Introduction to the History of Buddhist Thought The Buddha (1) • A. Who and what was the Buddha? – A divinity? – A philosopher? – An ascetic? • B. The word buddha is not a name but a title. (Gethin, p. 8) – It means “one who has woken up,” hence, “the awakened one/the enlightened one.” – Other titles of the Buddha include a Blessed one (Bhagavan), an Arhat, one who understands the world, the teacher of both gods and men, etc. The Buddha (2) • C. Siddhartha Gautama died at the age of eighty. – Shakyamuni means “the sage of the Shakya people.” • D. What is the nature of a buddha? (Gethin, pp. 27-34) – A Buddha is a being who has in some way transcended and gone beyond the round of rebirth. – A Buddha is a being sui generis. – A Buddha is one whose body is Dharma. The Buddha (3) • E. If the Buddha is not God or a god, can we count Buddhism as a religion? (Siderits, pp. 5-8) – If we expect all religions to be theistic, then Buddhism might not qualify as a religion. – Since the Buddha acknowledged the existence of a multiplicity of gods, should we think of Buddhism as polytheistic? – Buddhism is a religion if by this we mean that it is a set of teachings that address soteriological concerns. The Dharma (1) • Buddhism cannot be reduced to a collection of theoretical writings nor a philosophical system of thought. (Gethin, p. 35) • It should be noted that the Buddha explicitly refuses to engage in philosophical speculations. • The Buddha declined to answer such questions as “whether the world is everlasting or not,” “whether the world is finite or infinite,” “whether the living being is identical with the body or separate from it,” “whether the Blessed One lives on after death or not,” etc. • Buddhism is more a soteriology than a philosophy. • It is concerned with bringing about for its practitioners liberation, freedom, from states and experiences held to be negative, unpleasant, not wanted. (Williams, p. 2, pp. 34-37) The Dharma (2) • What lies at the heart of Buddhism is dharma. • According to Indian thought, Dharma is that which is the basis of things, the underlying nature of things, the way things are; in short, it is the truth about things, the truth about the world. • Dharma is the way we should act. • The various schools of Indian religious and philosophical thought and practice all offer slightly different visions of Dharma—different visions of the way things are and the way to act. The Dharma (3) • The aim of the Buddha’s teachings is to put into practice a particular way of living the “holy life” or “spiritual life” that involves training in ethical conduct (sila), meditative and contemplative techniques (samadhi), and the direct realization of the very knowledge (prajna). (Gethin, p. 36) • A sense that knowledge is not properly communicated by the written word colors the traditional Indian attitude to learning in general: knowledge must be passed from teacher to pupil directly. (Gethin, p. 37) The Dharma (4) • Where do the Buddhist canons come from? – Immediately after the Buddha’s death, his teachings are said to have been recited. – They were then assembled into some sort of corpus appropriate for memorization and oral transmission. – They were not written down for some centuries. (Williams, p. 30) – According to the Buddhist tradition, the first “communal recitation” took place some three months after the Buddha’s death at the town of Rajagrha in northern India where 500 arhats took part in this Buddhist council. (Gethin, p. 40) The Dharma (5) – In this meeting, the Buddha’s teachings were divided into two classes: the general discourses of the Buddha (the sutras) and his prescriptions for the lifestyle of the Buddhist monk (the vinaya). – Later canonical collections of Buddhist writings were often referred to as “the three baskets” (tripitaka): the basket of discipline, the basket of discourses, and the basket of “further dharma” (abhidharma). – Over the years, different schools of Buddhist transmission and sometimes understanding developed a number of different versions of the canonical corpus. The Dharma (6) – Thus, we have the Theravada (Pali) Canon, the Mahasamghika Canon, the Sarvastivada Canon, and so on. – The only complete canon of an early Buddhist school surviving in its original Indian language is the Pali Canon. – Three principle “canons” of Buddhist scriptures survive today corresponding to the three main traditions of Buddhism: • 1. the Pali or Theravada canon of the southern tradition of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, • 2. the Chinese Tripitaka of the eastern tradition of China, Korea, and Japan, and • 3. the Tibetan Kanjur and Tenjur of the northern tradition of Tibet and Mongolia. The Dharma (7) – The Sutra Pitaka is divided into four sections: Nikayas (collections) or Agamas (books of textual tradition). – There are differences among scholars on how far we can use these sources to know exactly what the Buddha himself taught. (Williams, pp. 32-33) • The first position stresses the Pali Nikayic materials to be the canonical texts containing the authentic doctrine of the Buddha himself. • Scholars of the second group express extreme scepticism about retrieving the doctrines of earliest Buddhism, especially of the Buddha himself. • The third group maintains that it is possible to tetect in the texts that now exist earlier and later segments and thus sometimes earlier and later doctrines. The Dharma (8) – In the centuries following the Buddha’s death, various schools of Indian Buddhism began to evolve, preserving their distinctive recensions of the Sutra and Vinaya Pitakas, and developing their characteristic understandings of Abhidharma. – Against this background, the Mahayana sutras began to appear. – The production of Mahayana sutras spans a period of some six or seven centuries. – Nagarjuna, Asanga and Vasubandhu are the three most famous writers of treatises and commentaries on the Mahayana sutras. The Dharma (9) • Siderits divides the development of Buddhist philosophy into the following three phases: – 1. Early Buddhism: the teachings of the Buddha and his immediate disciples; – 2. Abhidharma: the development of rigorous metaphysical and epistemological theories by various school, the most famous of which are Sarvastivada (Vaibhasika), Sautrantika, and Theravada; – 3. Mahayana: philosophical criticism of aspects of Abhidharma doctrines, together with an alternative account of Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology. The major schools are the Madhyamaka and the Yogacara schools. The Sangha (1) • In the early phase of their transmission, the only access to Buddhist “texts” was by hearing them directly from someone who had heard and learnt them from someone else. • This oral transmission of the texts was an activity that went on primarily within the Sangha, the community of ordained monks (bhiksu) and nuns (bhiksuni). • Members of the Sangha taught not only other members of the Sangha but also lay people as well. • The study of Buddhist theory always took place in a context of practice. The Sangha (2) • The Sangha did not remain united for long and soon fell apart into a number of schools. • About one hundred years after the death of the Buddha, a dispute among the Sangha arose concerning ten points of Vinaya. (Gethin, pp. 51-54) • A group of senior monks convened at Vaisali, decided against the ten points, and initiated a second communal recitation of the scriptures. • After this meeting, the Sangha formally divided into two schools: the reformist sthaviras (“elders”) and the majority mahasamghikas (“those of the great community”). • In the century or so following this fundamental division of the Sangha, further schools emerged. The Sangha (3) • The primary sub-schools of the Sthaviras focus on certain technical points of Abhidharma. • The Vatsiputriyas and their sub-schools adopted a particular position on the ontological status of “the person” (pudgala). • Another group developed a particular understanding of the way things exist in past, present, and future time; they were known as “advocates of the doctrine that all thins exist” (sarvastivadin). • Another group were known as “advocates of the doctrine of analysis” (vibhajyavadin). • Indian Buddhist tradition generally speaks of “eighteen” such schools, but more than thirty are known to us, at least by name. The Sangha (4) • After the emergence of the Mahayana, the practitioners of Buddhism are often referred to as followers of the Bodhisattva path, leading to the attainment of the samyak-sambuddha, and followers of the sravaka (“disciple”) path, leading to the attainment of arhatship. Some Technical Terms • Sramana: 1. one who strives (Gethin, p. 9); 2. the renouncer of society, the “drop-out” (Williams, p. 9); 3. a wandering renunciant, one whose life is dedicated to finding answers to certain spiritual questions (Siderits, p. 15); 4. the ascetic (Kalupahana, p. 12). • Yathabhutam: as it is. • Bhiksu: one who begs his alms. • Dhyana: meditation. • Samadhi: concentration. • Bodhi: awakening, enlightenment. • Samsara: wandering, the round of rebirth. • Varna: the caste system. • Brahmanas: brahmins, priests. • Ksatriyas: rulers, warriors. • Vaisyas: generators of wealth. • Sudras: servants.
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