Buddhism and Transcendental Visions

In my discussions with Buddhists I often find that many think a transcendental vision of the Buddha is entirely a product of later Mahāyāna thinking. This is probably due to the fact that the only extant Śrāvaka school is Theravāda and their conception of Śākyamuni is not transcendental. However, we need to keep in mind the definition of "Buddha" differs from school to school in the greater historical context. Even amongst the early Śrāvaka schools there was no universal consensus on the qualities of the Buddha.

One good work which outlines this is The Concept of the Buddha by Venerable Guang Xing.

Consider the following:

The concept of the Buddha was significantly advanced at the time of the early Indian Buddhist schools, especially the Sarvāstivāda and the Mahāsāṃghika. The Sarvāstivādins were more empirical in their approach. They summarized and synthesized the attributes and qualities of the Buddha as described in the early sutras before formulating, for the first time, the two-body theory: that of the rupakāya and the dharmakāya. The rupakāya, according to the Sarvāstivādins, although impure, is endowed with the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks as well as a one-fathom halo. The dharmakāya is endowed with the eighteen exclusive attributes: the ten powers, the four kinds of intrepidity, the three foundations of mindfulness and great compassion. None of the constituents of either the rupakāya or the dharmakāya are innovative; rather, they consist of the qualities of the Buddha which were already present in early Buddhism. Some of them, such as the ten powers and the thirty-two major marks were simply taken from the Nikāyas and the Āgamas with further explanations. Other qualities, for instance the eighty minor marks and the one-fathom halo, were taken after careful synthesis. (p75)

Venerable Guang Xing also elaborates the Mahāsāṃghikas' concept of the Buddha:

The Mahāsāṃghikas’ religious philosophy was based more on faith than on reason, and accepted whatever was said by the Buddha or, more precisely, whatever was taught in the Nikāyas and the Āgamas. As a result, they developed the concept of a transcendental (lokottara) Buddha based on the superhuman qualities of the Buddha, as discussed in Chapter 1 above. Two aspects of the Mahāsāṃghikas’ concept of the Buddha can be identified: the true Buddha who is omniscient and omnipotent, and the manifested forms through which he liberates sentient beings with skilful means. Shakyamuni was considered but one of these forms. The true Buddha supports the manifested forms that can appear in the worlds of the ten directions. In Mahayana Buddhism, the former aspect – the true Buddha – was developed and divided into the concept of the dharmakāya and the concept of the sambhogakāya; the latter aspect – the manifested forms – was developed into the concept of nirmaṇakāya. Thus, the Mahāsāṃghikas are the originators of the idea of the nirmaṇakāya, and the manifested forms can have many embodiments. Furthermore, they also introduced the theory of numerous Buddhas existing in other worlds. (p53)

Even from a Śrāvaka position the Mahāsāṃghika approach is still based entirely on Āgama literature. They also did not accept Abhidharma as canonical. However, their vision and interpretation of the Buddha was quite different from that of Sthaviravāda / Theravāda.

Now in such a transcendental interpretation of the Buddha (lokottara) it follows that since the true Buddha manifests forms through which he liberates sentient beings with skilful means one could continue to be taught by the Buddha though Śākyamuni had long since passed away from the physical world.

Those seeking the same transcendent state could have been taught the Mahāyāna by the Buddha in pure visions. The Mahāyāna, though not taught by Śākyamuni on Earth, was still a teaching by the Buddha nevertheless. A lot of Mahāyāna scriptures are obviously not meant to be understood as having been taught by Śākyamuni in the ordinary physical world. Basically, Śākyamuni, who was later identified as a nirāmaṇakāya, did not teach the Mahāyāna, but that is not problematic at all. The Mahāyāna was likely first taught in visions to those few individuals capable of grasping its import. The Mahāyāna proponent could even suggest that the omniscient Śākyamuni was fully aware that the Mahāyāna would eventually emerge over time and that this was even planned.

Even by the Mahāsāṃghika approach this is plausible. They would not have accepted such visions as canonical, but those few individuals having them would presumably have taken them quite seriously and perhaps taught them to others.

Although the Mahāsāṃghika saw Buddha as representing something transcendental, they still sought Arhatship and not Buddhahood. However, in time some would have asked if it is possible to achieve the same transcendental state that they saw as the true Buddha. In other words, some individuals would have asked questions concerning the origins of their teacher and then took it one step further and pondered whether or not it was possible for anyone to recreate the same path to Buddhahood. They were motivated by compassion and concern for sentient beings. The true Buddha as they conceived it presumably could have revealed to them in visions the means and methods necessary to achieve something beyond Arhatship. The result perhaps were the first Mahāyāna sūtras.

Within the history of Buddhism there are numerous cases of individuals having visions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas while receiving extensive teachings from such transcendental beings. One famous example of this is the Mahāyāna-sūtrālamkāra-kārikā which was penned by the physical Asanga, but is said to have been composed by Maitreya, the future Buddha, in Tuṣita Heaven. Some scholars have suggested Maitreya was Asanga's teacher, but tradition holds that it really was Maitreya in Tuṣita who composed and transmitted the text to our world via the medium of the flesh and blood Asanga.

In the larger Buddhist world of today this sort of phenomenon still occurs. It is not uncommon in Asia to hear of practitioners who have had visions and received useful teachings as a result. I know one bhikṣuni (a Buddhist nun) who once showed me some exquisite Chinese poetry of Buddhist content which she says was transmitted to her from Bodhisattvas. While my knowledge of Chinese poetry is far from extensive, I could at least say it was well-written. She showed me page after page of poems which she explained was not written by her, but by Bodhisattvas who borrowed her hand. In India a few months ago I heard of similar cases. In one case I heard of a monk who had a vision of Kāśyapa Buddha which drove him to visit holy sites in India.

Setting aside whether or not a person really believes that such transcendental beings exist, it is nevertheless true that didactic visions are not at all uncommon within spiritual communities both past and present. However, in the Buddhist context I suspect Theravāda might not appreciate such visions as much as Mahāyāna traditions do.

Pilgrim's Tale VI

The is the last part in my account of my pilgrimage. Part V please click here.

From Shanghai I flew to Kansai International Airport in Osaka. I settled into a cosy hostel called UK Osaka. It is a small hostel, but the atmosphere made it feel like I was staying at a friend's apartment. I have stayed at many backpacker hostels before, but this was actually one of the best.

The next day I headed to Nara, which is less than an hour away from Osaka by train. I hadn't been back to Nara in about six years. Fortunately I arrived at the perfect time of the year when sakura or cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

Nara is famous for having been the capital of Japan between 710 - 784 CE. It is famous for having many old sites, both shrines and temples, as well herds of tame deer which wander the parks freely. Traditionally the deer were considered to be messengers of the gods. The locals sell shika senbei 鹿煎餅 which are baked crackers that are fed to the deer.

Kōfuku-ji 興福寺 is one of several notable temples in the city. It was originally built in 669 CE, but was relocated to Nara in 710 CE. When I visited a number of major buildings were undergoing extensive reconstruction. It will take several years for them to be completely refurbished and available to the public again. However, the iconic Tōkondo 東金堂 (East Golden Hall), which is a national treasure of Japan, and Five-Story Pagoda are still available for viewing.

Inside the hall are a number of aged statues and sculptures. The Nikkō-Bosatsu 日光菩薩 / Sūryaprabha (on the left with gold backing) dates from the 7th century CE. The other statues have various dates up to the 16th century.

The Nan'endō 南円堂 (South Octagonal Hall) is a site in the Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage (西国三十三所) where pilgrims visit a number of temples and shrine dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon 觀音菩薩, otherwise known as Avalokiteśvara, Guanyin or Chenrezig.

Another temple of note in Nara is Gangō-ji 元興寺 which was founded in the late 6th century and originally called Asuka-dera 飛鳥寺. It is said to be the first Buddhist temple to be constructed in Japan. The original temple was built in a different location during the Asuka period (538 to 710 CE) and in 718 it was relocated to Nara. Unfortunately, none of the original architecture remains, though the main hall dates back to the 13th century. Interestingly, the original temple was crafted by craftsmen and artists from the kingdom of Paekche on the Korean peninsula. They accompanied a group of monks who brought Buddha relics and were received by the court. Early Buddhism in Japan did not actually come from China. In reality it came from Korea.

The temple also has a small museum on site housing a number of artefacts. I found this statue of Acala rather impressive:

The almost symbolic Tōdai-ji 東大寺 was founded in the early 8th century. It served as a kind of university and center for Buddhist studies throughout the centuries.

The central figure inside the temple is Vairocana Buddha 毘盧遮那佛.

Earlier I wrote an entry about all the statues inside the temple, so if you're interested please click here.

After visiting Nara for the day I retired back to the hostel in Osaka. The next morning I made my way to Kōyasan for the first time in this life. It takes about two hours by train and cablecar. The train takes you to the foot of the mountain and from there you take a cablecar to get to the top.

The Kōyasan station is still some distance from the town itself. I decided to forego the bus and took the long route which was very rewarding given the near silent roadway, beautiful scenary or fresh mountain air.

On the west side of town you approach the Daimon 大門 or Great Gate.

From there you proceed into what looks like an otherwise normal mountain town.

After walking for a few minutes you arrive at the Danjō Garan 壇上伽藍 temple complex which was designed by Kūkai 空海, otherwise known as Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師 (774–835), the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan. The central point of the complex is the Konpon Daitō 根本大塔 stūpa.

Inside a statue of Mahāvairocana 大毘盧遮那 / 大日如來 is enshrined. Mahāvairocana in Shingon Vajrayāna is a symbol for the dharmakāya.

Another pagoda at the site is the Saitō 西塔, which while originally built in 887 CE was reconstructed in 1834. Japan traditionally built with timber which unfortunately has meant that many buildings throughout Japanese history have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt again and again.

A short distance away is the head temple of the Koyasan Shingon sect. Kongōbuji 金剛峯寺 as it stands now was built in the 19th century.

The temple also has a rock garden:

Onwards to the far side of town I stopped in for lunch and enjoyed a bowl of udon with mountain vegetables.

Oku No In 奥之院, the mausoleum of Kūkai, is in a vast graveyard which is home to countless gravestones and memorials for such famous Japanese figures as Oda Nobunaga, Shinran and Hōnen among others both old and recent.

It is a rather calm and serene place shaded by tall trees. I was surprised to see that modern companies have their own private plots presumably arranged for their employees. The graveyard, though quite ancient, is still used and being expanded upon.

Finally after walking the long stretch of pathway I arrived at the mausoleum of Kūkai which is surrounded by a kind of moat. Out of respect visitors are asked to refrain from all photography once crossing the bridge.

It was here where Kūkai's bones and ashes are emtombed that I finished my two month pilgrimage. I had visited countless temples in Hong Kong, India, Nepal, China and Japan. I made an offering of three candles to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, commiting myself to purifying body, speech and mind. I also paid my sincerest respects to Kūkai, the founder of Shingon.

It was a long trip of over sixty days and worth it. I have absolutely no regrets about the trip. In fact, I would say it was the greatest and most beneficial thing I have ever done in my life so far. I learned a great deal about myself, life, Buddhism, other cultures and history all the while meeting both old and new friends along the way. It was the generous people along the way that I owe the greatest gratitude toward. I made many new friends and had the good fortune to meet several old friends.

It was truly a positive and rewarding experience. The merit and good fortune I must have to be able to make such a journey was only possible because of the blessings of my teachers both past and present. To them I owe immeasurable gratitude.

Buddhaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
Dharmaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
Saṃghaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

For Part I click here.

Pilgrim's Tale V

This is a continuation of my account of my pilgrimage. For Part IV please click here.

After staying in Nepal for a few weeks I departed for China. It was a short flight past the Himalayas to Hong Kong. The Himalayas are quite tall even when seen from the plane.

I spent a few days in Hong Kong again to get my visa to enter mainland China. I had coffee with Venerable Huifeng again, wandered around for awhile and then repacked my bag for Guangzhou. Guangzhou is only a few hours north of Hong Kong by train. It is a clean and well organized city with a rather long history of commerce and trade, but unfortunately few ancient things remain.

Fortunately I know a local named Jennifer who was happy to take me to a few of the notable temples in the city. The first was Guangxiao Temple 光孝寺. Chan Patriarch Huineng 慧能 is said to have trained here in the 7th century CE.

The main shrine houses an exquisite statue:

The grounds are tidy with plenty of greenery and curious items to inspect.

Inside the art gallery of the temple one finds this stone tablet which says, "May the Emperor live one-hundred million years!" This is clearly a relic from a time long ago in China.

I also found this jade incense cauldron quite nice.

In walking distance one can get to Liurong Temple 六榕寺, otherwise known as the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. This temple was built in 537 CE. The defining feature of the temple is the Thousand Buddha Stupa 千佛塔.

After visiting these two temples Jennifer took me to her favourite vegetarian restaurant in Guangzhou. The flavour was certainly different from Taiwanese-style Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, but was tasty nonetheless.

The dish on the left is a kind of fake meat dish made from ground vegetable roots complete with strips of fake bacon. On the right is rice gruel with boiled vegetables. I think anyone unaccustomed to actual Chinese tastes might not find this so appetizing, but I found it quite delicious.

Just near the restaurant in the jade market district is another temple whose name I fail to remember. On the wall outside in big letters reads, "Be mindful of the Buddha, become the Buddha."

The temple also has a hall of Arhats which is a common feature in most Chinese temples. Some have a garden of Arhats, others a hall.

Guangzhou has a good museum called The Museum of the Nanyue King Mausoleum 西汉南越王博物馆. It houses the actual tomb of the Nanyue King Zhao Mo (reigned 137-122 BCE). The Nanyue Kingdom was in conflict with the Western Han dynasty and was destroyed by 111 BCE. Besides the actual tomb itself, the museum includes a collection of artefacts from various time periods. It also has a collection of earthenware pillows.

Traditionally in China people slept with firm headrests which are nevertheless still pillows.

There are also a number of Buddhist items from the Silk Road.

Visitors can enter the main tomb and then go into the main gallery to see the contents. Judging from the height of the ceiling I will suspect that the ancient Nanyue peoples were generally much shorter than me.

One characteristic item of royal Han Dynasty burials was the jade suit. In this time period it was fashionable to wrap dead royalty in a suit of jade. Incidentally, they also sacrificed concubines and servants before placing them in the tomb. The seals and remains of the king's concubines were also found inside.

After Guangzhou I boarded a train for Shanghai and eighteen hours later I was on the east coast of China.

The Shanghai museum has a number of absolutely beautiful classical pieces of art both Buddhist and other.

One temple of note in Shanghai is Jing'an-si 靜安寺 which dates back to 274 CE, but was relocated where it is now in 1216. However, much of the temple is entirely rebuilt and new. On the outer wall facing the street there are also shops selling bags and other merchandise.

I did not spend as much time in China as I would have liked. Fortunately I had several friends I could meet with who showed me around both Guangzhou and Shanghai. I really only got a taste of China. I think in the future I would like to travel around China extensively.