Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundation

"Mahayanas," that's what I comes to mind when I think of Paul Williams' Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundation. Boy was it naive of me to imagine that Buddhism could be neatly cut into two camps--Theravada and Mahayana. Far from it. To say that Mahayana is a singular, cohesive entity is the equivalent of saying that China and India are the same country because they both are located in Asia. Mahayana is as rich and varied in beliefs, doctrine, and practice as any widespread religious tradition. In fact, after reading the book, I have a hard time identifying what they all have in common!

"Mahayana" is an all-encompassing term, used to refer to everything from Pure Land to Zen, from Nichiren to Vajrayana, and from varying doctrines like Original Enlightenment to Buddha Nature, to the Dharmakaya and Tantra. It's a vast body of literature that represents a breadth of differing teachings, some of which openly contradict one another. Sure, there's the Bodhisattva ideal (as opposed to the Theravadin emphasis on the Arhat) and the common elevation of the Buddha (sometimes to an almost cosmic level, with an accompanying devotional dimension), but many of the Mahayana schools differ so much that it's hard (at least for me) to see why they're all considered "Mahayana." For some of them have practically jettisoned the Buddha's original teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths, entirely.

This is because Mahayana development was not an organized movement. It spanned several hundred years, in regions all across Asia. Many of the Mahayana themes are developments or expansions on the Buddha's original teachings (take sunyata or emptiness, for example, an elaboration on the principle of anatman, or no-self.). However, many of them were new, perhaps developments resulting from meditative experiences. Soon, denominations, responding to the human spiritual need for an object of worship, became more visionary and even devotional.

Before I read Williams' book, I might have questioned whether these traditions were in fact "Buddhist," but as Williams points out, this is simply being legislative. In an upcoming post, I will explore Critical Buddhism, which claims to do just that--define what is, or more importantly, what is not, Buddhism. But more of that later.

What I walked away from Mahayana Buddhism with is a richer understanding and appreciation for the diversity of traditions conveniently lumped together and called Buddhism. It's a scholarly work, so it's a little dry at times (I felt completely lost during the Yogacara chapter, but then again that's a complicated subject, to say the least); but one that I think all Buddhists should read. Williams is a Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy and Co-director of the Centre for Buddhist studies at the University of Bristol. He's not some nitwit with a blog claiming to be an authority on Buddhism (like me!); he the real deal. This book, to quote its jacket, is commonly regarded as "the standard introduction to the field, used internationally for teaching and research." It was originally written in 1989, but was revised in 2009, so it's very current.

It's a little pricey, but well worth the money. If you're looking for some solid facts on Mahayana Buddhism, this is a great place to start. Soon I intend to read D.T. Suzuki's Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. (I downloaded a Kindle copy for 99 cents on Amazon--can't beat that!). I look forward to comparing the two.

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