Sanskrit and Buddhism

In academia students of Buddhism are encouraged to study Sanskrit for even a basic understanding of the language is a substantial aid in understanding both Tibetan and Chinese texts. While the earliest Chinese translations were based on non-Sanskrit Middle Indic texts, later on it was primarily Sanskrit. The Tibetans crafted much new language to reflect the Sanskrit texts which they generally faithfully translated.

In the present English speaking world a lot of commonly used  Buddhist terms are Sanskrit like saṃsāra, dharma and nirvāṇa, though of course translations in some cases are more common like "sentient being" for sattva. Theravāda Buddhists naturally use Pāli, though with everyone else there is a decided preference for Sanskrit terms, which are seen as original and default. In the absence of a standardized English Buddhist lexicon, I also prefer using Sanskrit terms for their precision. However, Sanskrit as a language used to convey Buddhadharma was a somewhat later development in Buddhist history.

It seems sometime shortly after the start of the common era, the Buddhists of northwestern India under the Kuṣāṇas (30-375) adopted Sanskrit as their lingua franca. Prior to this there was a process of sanskritization, most notably with Gāndhārī. Until such time Buddhists understandably used their own regional languages. These Middle Indic languages did not stem from Sanskrit, though in due time plenty of people came to believe they in fact did. Nevertheless, it begs the question as to why then longstanding Buddhist traditions would feel compelled to adopt Sanskrit. The widespread adoption of Sanskrit for inscriptions as well is reflected in the archaeological record, which Johannes Bronkhorst in his work Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism notes as follows:

For some four centuries, from the time of Emperor Aśoka (3rd cent. bce) onward, they used only Indo-Aryan languages other than Sanskrit. Sanskrit does not make its appearance in inscriptions until the early centuries of the Common Era. Then it gradually takes over and becomes the inscriptional language par excellence in the whole of the South Asian subcontinent and much of Southeast Asia.1

Bronkhorst suggests that Brahmanism was able to secure long-term political influence and power in India in the face of other religious-social ideologies at the time because it offered not only useful priestcraft sought after by rulers, but also because Brahmins offered both sound political advice and practical social theories. This is why much of the subcontinent came to adopt Sanskrit as a lingua franca. Until that time states and people, including Buddhists, had little reason to use Sanskrit. He states, “Sanskrit was the archaic language of a group of people, the Brahmins, whom the Buddhists had no particular reason to imitate or please.”2

However, when Brahmins gained for themselves influence and power they also introduced Sanskrit which in turn ended up as the language of elites as reflected in the archaeological record. This is indeed why Indian Buddhism came to use Sanskrit instead of other equally intelligible Middle Indic languages as it had before for several centuries. The emergence of vihāra systems (i.e., the vinaya-based monastic system) around the common era is what prompted Buddhist institutions to adopt a language suitable to their benefactors. 

It seems conceivable that as monastic institutions grew and required steady sources of substantial income they depended more on the upper echelons of society rather than on common peoples. The Jains on the other hand relied more on common peoples, which helps to explain their resistance to Sanskrit. In other words, Buddhism underwent a process of gentrification via the adoption of Sanskrit and the development of sophisticated monastic systems (in contrast to the homeless mendicant lifestyle of many of their predecessors). The mundane matters related to dealing with brahmanized royal courts is what drove Buddhists to adopt the language of a community often hostile to them:

They did not do so because they liked Sanskrit, or because they liked the Brahmins whose language it was. Nor did they do so for some inherent quality that this language supposedly possesses. They did so because they needed to defend their interests at the royal courts in Sanskrit. They had to use Sanskrit at the courts because Brahmins had been able to secure themselves a central place at the courts by way of their indispensable skills, not because rulers had supposedly “converted” to Brahmanism. This, as far as I can see, is the most plausible explanation of this otherwise puzzling change of language.3
Bronkhorst also suggests this helps to explain why several eminent and quite successful early authors like Nāgārjuna all hailed from Brahmin backgrounds. Having been born and raised in a Sanskrit environment and trained to write eloquently in said language, they were in a privileged position to become representatives of the religion. While many of their peers were no doubt erudite, in the early centuries of the common era there was a pressing need to write in Sanskrit and this gave special opportunities to Brahmin born Buddhists. This incidentally also acted as a means through which Brahmin ethics and ideas passed into Buddhist thought. One can clearly see this in such works as Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya and the Upāsaka Śīla Sūtra which define sexual misconduct much the same way Kautilya's Arthaśāstra does where anything other than vaginal intercourse is defined as misconduct.

Proponents of the Vedas regarded Sanskrit as a divine language (daivī vāk) and in due time Buddhists who had adopted it likewise came to see it in a similar vein. Sanskrit became the original language from whence others emerged, and more importantly was often regarded as the only correct language (interestingly Theravāda believed Pāli to be the original language, while the Jains believed it was their sacred language Ardha-Māgadhī).

It is notable some foreigners were convinced of this as well. At least one eminent Chinese monk of ancient times states that, as matter of fact, Sanskrit is the language of the gods. The famous pilgrim monk and scholar Xuanzang (602-664) 玄奘, who visited India between 633-645, was quick to point out “accented” forms of the language that he disapproved of. The character e (meaning "accented") appears 93 times in his travel account the Record of Travels to Western Lands 大唐西域記. He describes the languages of India as follows:

《大唐西域記》卷2:「詳其文字,梵天所製,原始垂則,四十七言也。寓物合成,隨事轉用。流演枝派,其源浸廣,因地隨人,微有改變,語其大較,未異本源。而中印度特為詳正,辭調和雅,與天同音,氣韻清亮,為人軌則。隣境異國,習謬成訓,競趨澆俗,莫守淳風。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 876, c9-14)

Their letters were established by Brahma and have been passed down from their beginnings until now, being forty-seven in number. The combine to form words according to the object [declension?] and shift in use according to the action [inflection?]. It has spread around and branched off, its source being deep and broad. Due to regions and peoples there have been some changes, though the words are generally not different from the original source. Central India is especially proper, their diction being elegant and the same sound as devas with a character sharp and clear, which is a model for people. The neighboring countries have become accustomed to erroneous pronunciation. In their chaotic ways and base nature they do not maintain genuineness.

That last remark might stem from Bhartṛhari’s Vākyapadīya who noted the divine language had been corrupted by inept users. Xuanzang was a proficient user of Sanskrit and likely had access to the traditional grammars in his study of the language. The frontier peoples speaking a bastardized version of the language is a reflection the widespread conception that all such dialects originally stemmed from a pristine divine source. Clearly Xuanzang believed this.

Maṇḍala at Kōyasan, Japan.
The script of Sanskrit itself came to hold especial significance in East Asia. The Siddhaṃ script in China and Japan was notably employed for esoteric practices. Xuanzang was, I assume, familiar with it. It became especially prominent with the introduction of Mantrayāna into China in the 8th century. By the time Kūkai (774-835) arrived in 804 it was a widely studied script. Kūkai spent the early part of his stay in Chang'an studying Sanskrit at the monastery Liquan-si 醴泉寺 under the two Indian monks Prajñā and Muniśrī, knowledge of which he conveyed back to Japan. Even today in Japan the script is a core component of Shingon practices and art. 

It is noteworthy that the script and Sanskrit vocabulary held great symbolic value for practitioners, though the grammar itself was not widely studied (prescribed grammar in East Asia was a largely alien concept until the 19th century even with exposure to Sanskrit in ancient times, a topic I discuss here). However, Sanskrit phonetics did influence Chinese understanding of their own language. The famous polymath Shen Kuo 沈括 (1031-1095) was aware even in his day of Sanskrit influences on Chinese linguistics. In his work the Dream Pool Essays 夢溪筆談 he states the following.


The methods for the study of phonetics have been gradually refined since Shen Yue 沈約 [441–513] dealt with the four tones and when Indian Sanskrit studies arrived in China.

Returning to India, at some point late in Buddhist history it seems there was a strong reaction against the entrenched widespread preference for Sanskrit, at least among some proponents of Vajrayāna. This was not unusual given the Vajrayāna propensity for practical adaptation and benevolent dissent. Vesna Wallace explains as follows:

The author of the Vimalaprabhā declares that his reason for elaborately describing the characteristics of the kālacakra‐maṇḍala in the abridged Kālacakratantra, as they were taught by Mañjuśrī in the Ādibuddhatantra, is to eliminate the self‐grasping (ahaṃkāra) of the sages who propound class discrimination (jāti‐vādin). The bearers of the Kālacakra tradition in India considered class prejudice as most intimately related to the Hindu doctrines of a personal god and creator (Īśvara) and of an independent, inherently existent Self (ātman). They also saw class prejudice as creating the linguistic bias of extolling the excellence of the Sanskrit language and showing disdain for vernacular languages. They were fully aware of the ways in which the Kālacakratantra's theoretical, practical, and linguistic features contradicted the cultural, religious, and social norms of the mainstream Brāhmaṇical tradition. The Kālacakra literature interprets those features not only in terms of their conversionary activity and the Kālacakratantra soteriology but also in terms of the Kālacakratantra's social theory. It explains the grammatical inaccuracies and lexical syncretism of the Sanskrit language of the Kālacakratantra as a: (1) skillful means of eradicating the conceit of those attached to their social class, knowledge, and proper words, and (2) skillful means of making the Buddhist tantric teachings accessible to a diverse audience, which speaks different languages and dialects. The Vimalaprabhā affirms that individuals who are overcome by a false sense of self‐identity grasp onto the “single, parochial Sanskrit language” and teach, as attested by the Mahābhārata, 6, 1, 84, that a single word well‐pronounced yields one's desires in heaven. It accuses the Brāhmaṇic sages of writing the Dharmas of the Bhagavadgīta, Siddhāntas, and Purāṇas in the Sanskrit language out of greed for material things. It asserts that Brāhmaṇas wrote these scriptures in Sanskrit in order to prevent the Vaiśyas, Śūdras, and other low social classes from reading their scriptures and gaining knowledge of their Dharma and various sciences. The Vimalaprabhā states further that the Brāhmaṇic author of these scriptures knew that if lower classes were to gain knowledge, they would stop revering the Brāhmaṇas for their special qualities. It contrasts the selfish motivation of the conceited Brāhmaṇic sages to the altruistic motivation of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who are free of grasping onto social discrimination and linguistic bias. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do not exclusively use the Sanskrit language to teach and redact the Buddhist teachings, for they also resort to the “omniscient language” (sarvajña‐bhāṣā), using the expressions of vernaculars and languages of different countries. Relying on the meaning of the teachings, they use different vernaculars and different grammars in order to bring others to spiritual awakening. Although this characterization of the Buddhas' universal language is also found in the writings of Mahāyāna, it is most emphasized in the Buddhist tantras.
The Paramādibuddhatantra also advocates the usage of a lexically syncretized language that would benefit people of all social classes, ethnic groups, and mental dispositions. According to the Paramādibuddhatantra, the Buddha himself expressed this sentiment in the following words:
When one understands the meaning from regional words, what is the use of technical terms?
On the earth, a jewel is called by different names from country to country, but there is no difference in the jewel itself.
Likewise, the various redactors of my pure Dharma use diverse terms in accordance with the dispositions of sentient beings.4

Thus in due time there was a reaction in the opposite direction whereby at least some Buddhists rejected the preference for Sanskrit and perhaps more striking Brahmanization. Given the late period of the Kālacakratantra (circa early 11th century, see page 65 here), this is especially noteworthy because Buddhism in India had already fallen into a long period of decline and decay. Even three centuries prior pilgrims like Xuanzang and Hyecho 慧超 (704–787) reported the Buddhist holy sites like Kushinagar and Kapilavastu as desolate ruins. As I discussed in an earlier post, I suspect by the time Xuanzang and Hyecho visited said holy sights Buddhism had long since been in a state of decay in India. If there were either pious devotees or large numbers of monastics they should have been able to maintain the sights, but instead they were described as largely abandoned.

A few centuries later the Kālacakratantra emerged in an environment where Buddhism was even further along in its decay, to say nothing of dominant Hindu ideologies and the invasions into India from the west. It was there that polemical remarks were directed at rival ideologies coupled with an attempted iconoclastic movement against the Sanskrit monopoly. Whether it succeeded or not, it does speak to concerns at the time and an awareness among some about class struggle and discrimination which the proponents of the Kālacakratantra sought to remedy.

It seems Sanskrit Buddhism still retained its heavily brahmanized form in India until its final demise. Sanskrit Buddhism was lost in India, but preserved in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. It was in 1824 that the British diplomat Brian Hodgson found numerous Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts there. The study of Sanskrit Buddhist texts continues to the present day, and much importance is placed upon them for Mahāyāna Buddhists who look to India as the mother from whence their traditions were born.

However, when we consider the history of brahmanization of Buddhism on the subcontinent and all the heterodox influences that inevitably came with it, many questions and perhaps doubts will emerge in respect to doctrine and legitimacy which need to be honestly addressed. This is not to say thing we should actively seek out and identify influences from Brahmanism and then purge them, but simply discuss their value and source, and then naturally move on, much like how we examined Buddhism and Confucianism. In the future perhaps we can look more closely at some of the influences from Brahmanism on Buddhism.


1 Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 46.
2 Ibid., 124.
3 Ibid., 129.
4 Vesna A. Wallace, The Inner Kālacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 119-120.

Innumerable Buddhas and the Mystical Mahāyāna

Tejaprabhā Buddha
Generally speaking Buddhism in the English speaking world is attractive to educated individuals. Consequently, such individuals bring with them any number of predispositions and prejudices owing to their educational backgrounds. The mainstream default ideology of the contemporary western world is materialism coupled with a strong sympathy towards secular humanism. This is what is taught in schools and is basically the state sanctioned ideology of western countries regardless if it is recognized as such. This means that alternative approaches to understanding reality are often refitted to accommodate the status quo, much like how Buddhism in India came to adopt many of the party lines of Brahmanism (for example acceptance of caste). A lot of people want a Buddhism which is rational, material and immediately tangible, and consequently display hesitation when it comes to the more mystical and transmundane aspects of it which are held as suspect by the greater community of intellectuals.
Contemporary western circles interested in Buddhism (not specifically Theravāda or Mahāyāna) sometimes display both a decided predilection for the “historical Buddha” Śākyamuni and hesitant reservations about other buddhas, which are considered later developments and hence unimportant. Many people are concerned with getting back to the “original Buddhism” and this is usually attempted via the Pāli canon, though in recent years there has come to be an appreciation for Gāndhārī. In the “original Buddhism” there is sought a pure and untainted philosophy free of disagreeable religious elements.

I think this reveals something about a contemporary and common western rationalistic mindset which, rooted deep in materialist assumptions, relegates transcendental experience and knowledge to superstition or at best interesting fiction. Nevertheless, we have to bear in mind that the idea of a “historical Buddha” is a modern creation. While not all ancient Indian thinkers accepted the existence of countless buddhas simultaneously existing, they still had a view of many past buddhas. Nāgārjuna in his Mahāprājñāpāramitā Upadeśa notes the difference of opinion as follows.
《大智度論》卷91 序品〉:「譬如鹿未被箭時不知怖畏,既被箭已,踔圍而出。人亦如是,有老、病、死苦,聞唯有一佛,甚難可遇,心便怖畏,勤行精進,疾得度苦。以是故佛於聲聞法中不言有十方佛,亦不言無。若有十方佛,汝言無,得無限罪;若無十方佛,而我言有,生無量佛想,得恭敬福。所以者何?善心因緣福德力大故。」(CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 126, a29-b7)

For example, when a deer is not yet wounded by an arrow it does not know fear. Once it has been wounded it leaps around and flees. People are also like this. When there is the suffering of old age, illness and death, they hear there is just one buddha and that it is very difficult to encounter them. Their mind then experiences fear. Diligently practicing they quickly attain liberation from suffering. Consequently, the buddha in the śrāvaka-dharma did not speak of there being buddhas in the ten directions. He also did not say they did not exist. If there are the buddhas of the ten directions and you say they do not exist, then you are guilty of limitless transgressions. If there are no buddhas of the ten directions though I say there are, then I produce immeasurable thoughts of the buddha and obtain the merit of veneration. Why is this? It is because the meritorious power of the causes and conditions of a virtuous mind is great.

This might bring Pascal's Wager to mind. Regardless of we might think of this line of thought, it does indicate that in ancient times as now plenty of people assumed that only one buddha existed, at least in a single period of time. Classical Buddhism of course universally acknowledges the existence of past buddhas. By Śākyamuni Buddha's own admission he was neither the first nor would he be the last buddha. The common grouping of buddhas includes seven in the following order (Sanskrit/Pāli):

1. Vipaśyin/Vipassin
2. Śikhin
3. Viśvabhū/Vessabhū
4. Krakucchanda/Kondañña
5. Kanakamuni/Konāgamana
6. Kāśyapa/Kassapa (not to be confused with Śākyamuni's disciple Mahākāśyapa)
7. Śākyamuni

The Buddhadharma appears and vanishes in cycles. In a given age there will be a time when nobody knows of the liberating Dharma. An individual at some point becomes awakened and once again turns the “Wheel of Dharma” (dharma-cakra). In due time the teaching fades from the world and is completely forgotten. This time frame is never fixed. During the dark age when the Buddhadharma is not immediately available, some individuals achieve awakening and liberation on their own by contemplating the twelve links of dependent origination and hence become pratyekabuddhas, but never teach their method of liberation to anyone. It is only a buddha who restarts the turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

If buddhas are all preceded by other buddhas stretching into the infinite past, then logically there has been many more than seven. There would be infinitely more. This is why later on in Buddhist history we see a myriad of buddhas categorized into sets of one-thousand in a given mahākalpa (one definition given is 1,334,000,000 years). A mahākalpa is further divided into four kalpas which comprise the formation (vivarta-kalpa), existence (vivarta-siddha), destruction (saṃvarta), and non-existence (saṃvarta-siddha) of the universe. A kalpa is further divided into twenty antara-kalpas or small kalpas The unit of one-thousand buddhas appears during the vivarta-siddha kalpa or the kalpa when the world is fully formed. Our present circumstances can be outlined as follows:

Past Mahākalpa
Present Mahākalpa
Future Mahākalpa
Viśvabhū was the last (1000th) buddha of this kalpa. Śākyamuni was the fourth buddha of this kalpa. Maitreya will be the fifth.

The present kalpa started relatively recently in terms of cosmic time. In due time the Buddhadharma as taught by Śākyamuni will be forgotten and thereafter in some distant future Maitreya will become the fifth buddha of this kalpa. Mahāyāna literature provides names for thousands of buddhas of the past and future. They are often recited as part of liturgy.

The existence of countless buddhas is quite a profound idea, but especially if you view a buddha as a kind of transcendental force among beings. As I discussed before elsewhere, the vision of the Buddha as taught by the Mahāsāṃghikas was quite different from the Sthaviravāda/Theravāda. The Mahāyāna, which no doubt emerged from the Mahāsāṃghika branch of early Buddhism, likewise had a perspective of the buddha as a transcendental force (i.e., the dharmkāya). In that sense if there are immeasurable worlds and incalculable beings suffering and likewise innumerable tathāgatas arising, then regardless if in our world there is no immediate buddha walking the earth, one can be confident there are still buddhas simultaneously “standing nowhere like infinite space” and as a result of their transcendental nature still interacting with the world in subtle ways.
Amitābha Buddha

Consequently, Śākyamuni becomes just one of many buddhas is the vast expanse of cosmic time and space. This provides the ideological framework and justification for devotion to Amitābha Buddha or Vairocana Buddha instead of Śākyamuni, who is not derided in any way, but just counted as one of many buddhas. As I wrote about earlier, the iconic bronze buddha statue at Tōdai-ji in Nara, Japan is Vairocana Buddha, specifically the one mentioned in the Brahma Net Sūtra 梵網經 which quotes Vairocana Buddha directing the buddhas present at the assembly to transmit the Dharma to “innumerable Śākyamunis”. Now, granted, this sūtra is thought to have emerged in China, but nevertheless it does demonstrate that early on in the 5th century people there saw Śākyamuni as just one of many buddhas. There was clearly no sense of a “historical Buddha”. In the sūtra it is Vairocana Buddha who holds supreme precedence.

The obvious response to this sort of thing is to ask if somebody just made this up for whatever reason. As with much religious literature you can never be quite sure about these things. However, we do have records of eminent Buddhist masters having visions of bodhisattvas and buddhas, and subsequently producing insightful texts as a result. Probably the most notable example of this is the Mahāyāna Sūtrālamkāra (in the recent English translation entitled The Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature) which as tradition holds was composed by the tenth stage bodhisattva Maitreya and transmitted to Asaṅga (4th c.).

Some decades ago Sylvain Lévi accepted the text as divine inspiration just as traditions holds, while the Japanese scholar Ui Hakuju insisted that Maitreya was a human person and probably a teacher to Asaṅga. Paul Demiéville defended Lévi, suggesting Maitreya was the source of Asaṅga's inspiration, but that the authorship was really to be attributed to Asaṅga. The introduction to the recent English translation of the text is adamant about Maitreya being the author (while it is not specified, this sounds like Robert Thurman who is the editor-in-chief of the book):

Thus, the modern prejudice that a celestial being named Maitreyanatha, renowned as the bodhisattva who is the next buddha on Earth, waiting in Tushita heaven, could not exist since there are no celestial beings, there are no heavens in the desire realm, there is no such thing as a genuine revelation, and so on, is nothing but a prejudice, a bit of modernist, materialist, secularist ideology, no more or less rational than a belief in all of the above.

It goes on to say that unless there is solid evidence to demonstrate otherwise, the Maitreya story is the "best working hypothesis".1

In reality this is not so unusual. In ancient India transmundane sources of knowledge were not so uncommon. As Richard L. Thompson in his work Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy points out, the classical Indian astronomical treatise entitled the Surya Siddhanta is attributed to demi-gods.2 In other words, such knowledge was originally not of this world according to tradition. Now of course this attribution might have occurred to sanctify the knowledge as a means of acquiring prestige and consequently resources (or to legitimize the body of knowledge, which was in part originally foreign).

Incidentally, if you are interested in classical Indian astronomy see Richard L. Thompson's paper “Planetary Diameters in the Surya-Siddhanta” available here. The ancient Indian astronomers often had accurate astronomical knowledge, which again they curiously attributed to transmundane beings (modern scholarship, however, attributes such knowledge to a Greek transmission of astronomical knowledge into India).

The point here is that transmundane knowledge and visions were (and still are) part of the classical Indian intellectual heritege. Some Mahāyāna literature is directly attributed to beings beyond the world. I suspect a lot of it actually emerged in this fashion. Some sūtras even expressly state that the teaching is not given in an ordinary worldly environment. For example, the first line of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra reads as follows:

《大毘盧遮那成佛神變加持經》卷11 入真言門住心品〉:「如是我聞。一時薄伽梵。住如來加持廣大金剛法界宮。一切持金剛者皆悉集會。」(CBETA, T18, no. 848, p. 1, a9-10)

Thus have I heard. At one time the Bhagavān was abiding in the Tathāgata's Blessed Vast Great Vajra Dharmadhātu Palace where all vajra-holders had assembled.

Clearly this is not in Magadha on the subcontinent. The teachings are given in a transmundane realm. The whole point though is not so much the venue, but the teachings contained within which the upholders of the tradition would call buddhavacana or "words of the Buddha".
In the English speaking western world, especially in the popular print, there is a tendency to shy away from or just outright sanitize Mahāyāna of any disagreeable mystical elements and refocus exclusively on mindfulness and the virtues of benefiting beings, compassion, kindness and generosity. While such virtues are not wrong, it is a reflection of a largely unrecognized desire amongst many modern people to warp their Buddhism into something that would be considered palatable with secular humanists.

This is entirely divorced from the original richness of Mahāyāna mysticism which in itself a process of transformation by which one becomes all the more compassionate, aware and lucid. The aim is to overcome suffering and there have been adepts for thousands of years singing praises about practice. To deny their message is to reject a potential cure for individual human woe. However, if the running assumption is that transmundane buddhas do not really exist and if you do experience such things you are probably schizophrenic, then the gateway towards profound transcendental experiences, which are time and again described in Mahāyāna literature as positive and desirable, closes and becomes inaccessible.

This ties in with why the teachings of transcendental buddhas and bodhisattvas are not given the same weight as what the “historical Buddha” taught. The academic literature speaks of the "authors of Mahāyāna sūtras", and hence transcendental teachings are suddenly made all too human, assumed to be mere deviant products of later people’s imagination and not at all the intent of Śākyamuni Buddha. Academics of course have every right to frame their discussions with such language, but some of the traditional accounts of where these teachings came from should be taken into consideration as well.

Besides visions of transcendental beings, what other mystical experiences are we talking about? I wrote about this earlier in respect to how precepts might be conferred in the absence of a master (see here). It would be worth restating a citation from the Brahma Net Sūtra here:

《梵網經》卷2:「若佛子。佛滅度後。欲心好心受菩薩戒時。於佛菩薩形像前自誓受戒。當七日佛前懺悔。得見好相便得戒。若不得好相。應二七三七乃至一年。要得好相。得好相已。便得佛菩薩形像前受戒。若不得好相。雖佛像前受。戒不得戒。若現前先受菩薩戒法師前受戒時。不須要見好相何以故。以是法師師師相授故。不須好相。是以法師前受戒即得戒。以生重心故便得戒。若千里內無能授戒師。得佛菩薩形像前受戒而要見好相。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1484, p. 1006, c5-15)

You sons of the Buddha! After the Buddha has passed, when one has a good attitude and mind desiring to receive the bodhisattva precepts, one may go before images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas to make vows and receive the precepts alone. One should practise confession for seven days in front of the Buddha. It is when one witnesses auspicious signs that the precepts have been obtained. If one does not attain auspicious signs, then one must after fourteen or twenty-one days, or even up to a year, attain auspicious signs. When the auspicious signs have been attained, one then may go before the images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas to receive the precepts. If one does not attain auspicious signs, then even if one receives the precepts before a Buddha image, the precepts will not [really] have been obtained. If there is physically present one Dharma Master who has previously received the bodhisattva precepts and one then goes before them to receive the precepts, then there is no need to witness auspicious signs. Why? It is because the Dharma Master's masters have successively transmitted them. There is no need for auspicious signs. Therefore, going before the Dharma Master to receive the precepts one obtains the precepts. This is because having produced a serious mind one thus obtains the precepts. If within a thousand miles there is no master who can transmit precepts, one then goes before images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas to receive the precepts, though one must witness auspicious signs.

Here “auspicious signs” is defined elsewhere:

《梵網經》卷2:「好相者。佛來摩頂見光見華種種異相。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1484, p. 1008, c17)

Auspicious signs are various odd signs such as the Buddha rubbing one's head, seeing light and seeing flowers.

In East Asia this is actually a specific type of repentance practice (repentance with signs 取相懺). The practitioner contemplates past faults and transgressions until such auspicious signs are witnessed. The idea is that such signs are an indication that past karma has been purified. When repentance of past misdeeds is done sincerely and such signs are observed it can be quite profound and transforming, effectively rejuvenating a person.

However, on a much more objective level, yogic practices can also produce measurable and observable physical effects.

In February 1981 a team of researchers led by Herbert Benson, a researcher from the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, visited three practitioners of Tum-mo yoga living in Upper Dharamsala, India with the assistance of the Dalai Lama. Tum-mo yoga itself is a practice where the wind element is ejected from the normal consciousness and forced into the central channel within the body, resulting in the production of internal heat. The article states, “The physiological changes are, therefore, a by-product of a religious practice.”3 

A few years later Benson's team recorded monks drying cold, wet sheets with body heat in frigid temperatures as well as documenting monks spending a winter night on a rocky ledge in the Himalayas at 15,000 feet (4572 meters). In the winter night even though temperatures dropped to zero degrees Fahrenheit (-17'c), the monks wore little more than woollen or cotton shawls. They promptly fell asleep without huddling next to one another and in the morning they awoke and returned to their monastery. It is particularly remarkable that there was no indication of them shivering.4

The practice of phowa is likewise remarkable. Later period masters developed methods of ejecting the consciousness out of the body either at death or before. It is one of the six yogas of Naropa. It is still actively practised today in Tibetan schools of Buddhism, one modern master being Ayang Rinpoche. Experienced practitioners are able to euthanize themselves through this meditation if they must, although this method is usually used at the time of death as an aid in the transference of consciousness. In an interview for Australia’s Broadcasting Corporation Lama Choedak Rinpoche explained how monks used phowa when the Chinese invaded Tibet:

“There were lots of stories about people when some of the monks were arrested and loaded in the truck, ready to take to the prison. They had already done their self phowa which we may call Buddhist version of euthanasia, to take themselves without allowing their captors to having to commit the terrible karma of killing or torturing them. They instead saw no purpose or meaning for them to remain in this hired body and therefore they wanted to leave in grace rather than in disgrace. So that kind of a sign and ability exists in the good practitioners.”5

Powers describes the basic method:

“...pronouncing the mantra hik sends the consciousness out, and the mantra ka causes it to return. The process is repeated three times, and one sign of success is the appearance of a small hole (or sometimes a pustule) at the fontanel, out of which a small amount of blood or lymph flows.”6

The practitioner is then said to find a suitable vessel to be reborn in. One might think of phowa as a kind of voluntary rebirth. In spite of scepticism concerning reincarnation, Ian Stevenson, an M.D. of the University of Virginia, spent much of his professional career collecting and verifying cases that were “suggestive of reincarnation” noting, “Whatever may be the merits and proper interpretation of these cases, their mere existence has provided a continuing stream of apparent empirical support for the religion of Hinduism, and for Buddhism also.”7

There is naturally a great deal of scepticism towards his work. Some criticism is directed at the fact that most of his cases, but not all, are reported in places where reincarnation is a commonly held belief. This is valid criticism, but it still does not erase the large amount of evidence produced by other researchers that suggests the reality of reincarnation. His successor at the University of Virginia's Division of Perceptual Studies Dr. Jim Tucker still carries on this research focusing on cases in the west. If a human persona can transcend the demise of the body (and the evidence suggests this is the case), then contemporary theories about the brain producing consciousness can be dismissed. It would also lend weight to the other claims made by ancient schools of thought which have been teaching this among other things.

In this post I hoped to briefly provide some details and thoughts about some of the general mystical and transmundane aspects of Mahāyāna Buddhism which I feel are not discussed enough. I sense there is a lot of hesitation and uncertainty about this subject in the western Buddhist world. The result is rejection of rich tradition and distilled wisdom that is aimed at overcoming suffering and transcending the ordinary world. The innumerable buddhas found in the Mahāyāna were never considered by Mahāyānists to be later fabrications. The devotion, scriptures and practices that involve them go hand in hand with the path of liberation from suffering. It is a tried and tested path. In a future post I hope to discuss the question of the validity of the Mahāyāna canon.



1 See The Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature (New York, NY: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2004), xvii-xviii.

2 Richard L. Thompson, Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy (Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004), 9.

3 Herbert Benson and others, “Body Temperature Changes During the Practice of gTum-mo Yoga,” Nature Vol. 295 (21 January 1982), 234

4 William J. Cromie, “Meditation changes temperatures: Mind controls body in extreme experiments,” Harvard Gazette, (April 18, 2002),

5 “Death and Dharma” (ABC National Radio, 22 July 2007),

6 John Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1995), 361.

7 Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, Second Edition (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974), 15.

Buddhism and Confucianism - Some Thoughts

Earlier I discussed Buddhism and Daoism and addressed the question of how much Daoism influenced Buddhism in China. I believe that the influence was small compared to how much the latter influenced the former. In terms of Confucianism, however, I believe the influence was a lot deeper in both obvious and subtle ways.

Since Buddhism first settled into China in the Eastern Han Dynasty 東漢 (25-220) there has always been and still is ongoing discussion about its compatibility with the traditional culture of highly prescribed and ritualized human interactions which is associated with Confucianism. While the term ‘Confucianism’ in English is problematic and even anachronistic when speaking about pre-Song Dynasty 宋朝 (960-1248) intellectual schools, it corresponds to Ru-jiao 儒教 in Chinese, which for our purposes is a distinct identity apart from Dao-jiao 道教 (Daoism) and Fo-jiao 佛教 (Buddhism). Incidentally, for a good article on the early development of Ru-jiao see "What Did It Mean to Be a Ru in Han Times?" by Anne Cheng.

On the surface some Confucian ideas such as the five constant virtues 五常 (benevolence 仁, justice 義, propriety 禮, wisdom 智, and trust 信) are quite compatible with Buddhist ethics, but going beyond that there are numerous incompatibilities as well. For example, until the Song Dynasty the Confucian tradition focused on the Five Classics 五經 (note: the Analects or Lun Yu 論語 is not included), one of which is the Liji 禮記, which formed the basis for Confuciuan thought. In it we find encouragement for violent revenge:


Qu Li I:
With the enemy who has slain his father, he should not live under the same sky. With the enemy who has slain his brothers, he does not even return home to retrieve his weapons. With the enemy who has slain his good friend, he does not live in the same country.

This idea was common sense among premodern Chinese intellectuals as studying (or memorizing) said text along with the other classics was part of a proper education. Everyone with a complete education knew the Five Classics and the ideas therein. Fazang 法藏 (643-712) addresses just this issue in his commentary on the Brahma Net Sūtra:


Question: In mundane ethics it is considered unfilial to not exact revenge against your father’s enemy. Why is it that here if you do exact revenge it is unfilial?
Answer: The path and the mundane are opposites. The mundane is based on the present and does not speak of causes, conditions and karmic results to come. Now if you repeatedly take revenge, the karma for suffering will multiply and it will make your father sink [into saṃsāra] forever. How could that be fulfilling the path of filial piety? Moreover, these enemies might have been one’s own parents in a past life. Now if you kill them, how could you accomplish filial acts? Thus it states, “It is not in accord with the path of filial piety.”

This is in reference to the aforementioned passage from the Liji. Fazang clearly wrote his commentary with educated laypeople in mind. He spent much of his career in Chang’an and was close to the imperial family, so we can assume his discussion of ethics also reflect that strata of society, though we can imagine commoners would have held the same ideas as well.

The Liji also prescribes animal sacrifices and meat eating. The former is of course incompatible with the Buddhadharma where the Buddha condemned animal sacrifice as a wicked and awful act. As for the latter, meat eating in Chinese Buddhism was especially taboo after the 6th century when meat eating was expressly forbidden under Emperor Liangwu's 梁武帝 reign (502–549), which I wrote about here.

The other texts of the Five Classics likewise generally reflect the same ideas and values expressed in the Liji. They reflect the values of ancient Chinese aristocrats, many of whom were warriors or involved in war given their profession of statecraft. They are not the work of sages preaching non-violence.

The Analects was not included in the five, but was later adopted as canonical by Zhu Xi 朱熹 in the Song Dynasty, where he included it in the Four Books 四書. If you ignore the Five Classics and focus just on what Confucius is quoted as saying in the Analects, then there is less objectionable material than in the Five Classics, but it must be understood that the aforementioned texts are the canon of Confucianism and form the core basis for their values, morals and outlook on life. It might also be noted that Confucius is thought to have edited the Five Classics, so he was an active participant in propagating texts which both prescribe animal sacrifices and encourage violence in certain circumstances (incidentally, animal sacrifice is still done in Taiwan, though the killed fowl are preserved and packaged ahead of time and sold at grocery stores). This does not seem to have entered into the minds of many Buddhist authors throughout Chinese history who often regarded him as a wise sage.

Nevertheless, by the time Buddhism became prominent in China Confucian ideas were quite mainstream. In the Tiantai text Commentary on the Sūtra for Humane Kings 仁王經疏 by Zhiyi 智顗 (538-597), the precept against killing is matched with Confucian virtue of benevolence while not stealing is matched with wisdom, not committing sexual misconduct is matched with justice, not consuming alcohol is matched with propriety and not speaking falsely is matched with trust. The five constant virtues are associated with the five Buddhist precepts.1

Some years before Zhiyi, Sengzhao 僧肇 (384-414?), a disciple of Kumārajīva (334-413), in his famous Zhao Lun 肇論 (The Treatises of Zhao) quotes Confucius as a valid authority in explaining some of his ideas. Thus we know early on prominent authors were interested in highlighting similarities between their indigenous Confucian ideas and Buddhadharma. This was harmless enough and even earlier in the 3rd century we see in the preface to the early Chinese translation of the Dharmapada a quote from the Indian monk Vighna, who brought the original text to China and translated it, and a subsequent remark citing Laozi and Confucius in a similar vein:

《法句經》卷1:維祇難曰:「佛言:『依其義不用飾、取其法不以嚴。』其傳經者令易曉,勿失厥義,是則為善。」坐中咸曰:「老氏稱:『美言不信、信言不美。』仲尼亦云:『書不盡言、言不盡意。』明聖人意深邃無極,今傳梵義,實宜經達。」(CBETA, T04, no. 210, p. 566, c9-14)

Vighna stated, “The Buddha said, 'Rely on the meaning without using adornments. Extract its teachings without embellishing it.' Those who transmit the sūtras should make it easily understood. Do not lose the meaning. This would be good.” Zuo Zhong Xian 坐中咸 stated, “Master Lao said, 'Sincere words are not fine. Fine words are not sincere.' Confucius also said, 'Written works do not fully express language. Language does not fully express meaning.' This explains that the sages' meanings are profound without limit. Now in transmitting the Indic meanings we should be practical and the sūtra will be communicated.”

I think it is reasonable to say that over the last eighteen or nineteen centuries that Buddhism has existed in China the ideas of Confucius have been largely respected and drawn upon if not simply because as a figure he was generally respected by everyone, but he was also just so well known. Still, the other aspects of Confucianism such as animal sacrifice could not be carried out by any orthodox Buddhist.

One other thing that comes to mind about Confucian influence in Chinese Buddhism is the religious theatre that is played out in shrine halls according to prescribed form and replete with orchestrated music and the assembly bowing and chanting together in unison. While of course musical instruments are to be seen elsewhere in the Buddhist world both at present and historically, I believe Chinese Buddhism very early on took a special appreciation for music, perhaps again owing to cultural trends rooted in such statements from Confucius as follows:


The Master said, "The mind is aroused by poetry. The character established through the rites. One is made complete through music.”

Now of course I have only personally observed contemporary ceremonies in Taiwan and China, though reading the Japanese monk Ennin's 圓仁 (794-864) journal from when he visited China in the mid 9th century and all the ancient musical instruments and procedures preserved in Japan, I am confident that the same level of musical performances were happening in China in the early times. Chinese monks and nuns often spend considerable amounts of time perfecting their art of playing "Dharma instruments". As Confucius suggested, music is employed a means of transforming an individual's character in a positive way. Chinese Buddhist ceremonies go to great lengths to have everyone skilfully recite from memory lengthy texts (the poetry) while the assembly does choreographed motions (the rites) complete with the "Dharma instruments" being played (the music). This in itself is considered essential practice and cultivation.

The intellectual exchange went both ways of course, especially in the post-Tang world. For instance, the Neo-Confucian school was interested in questions of a metaphysical nature and while they were often at odds with Buddhism albeit holding a begrudging respect towards them, they were nevertheless initially prompted to discuss such things by Buddhist metaphysics.

In a similar vein, Wang Yangming 王陽明 (1472-1529) was promoting a meditation method of quiet sitting 靜坐 which as a Confucian contemplative practice was likewise a part of Zhu Xi's philosophy. Quiet sitting here is different from most forms of Buddhist meditation, though nevertheless the Neo-Confucians were influenced by Buddhism, mostly likely Chan, in coming to have such practices.

The discussion about Confucianism and Buddhism still continues on in the present day and hopefully in a future post I can discuss this.


1 《仁王護國般若經疏》卷2〈1 序品〉:「以不殺配東方。東方是木。木主於仁。仁以養生為義。不盜配北方。北方是水。水主於智。智者不盜為義。不邪淫配西方。西方是金。金主於義。有義者。不邪淫。不飲酒配南方。南方是火。火主於禮。禮防於失也。以不妄語配中央。中央是土。土主於信。」(CBETA, T33, no. 1705, p. 260, c25-p. 261, a6)