The Conception of Buddhahood in Earlier and Later Buddhism

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    The

    journ l

    of

    the

    Oriental SOciety of Australia.

    The Conception of Buddhahood in Earlier and Later Buddhism

    no. 1 2

    1970

    87 118

    0030 5340

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    Tlft e C ~ n e e p t i o n

    of

    u d i U ~ a h o o d n E U I

    9

    l ie.·

    and L{deB Buddhism

    I

    A J. PRINCE

    niversity

    of

    ydney

    All great religions have a dual character.

    On

    the one hand,

    s

    repositories of timeless truth, they are impervious to change; but

    on the other hand,

    s

    social institutions, as living traditions of

    doctrine and practice, they are subject like all worldly things to

    the temporal processes of growth and decay. As circumstances

    change, religions are obliged to change with them: the teachings

    must be continually explained to new audiences with new pre

    judices and preconceptions, the persecution and patronage of

    governments require counter-measures

    or

    fresh adaptations, and

    the criticisms of philosophers, heretics and the adherents of other

    religions have to be accommodated or refuted.

    To all these pressures two kinds of response are possible. One

    is

    to resist change by holding all the more firmly to established

    doctrine; and the other is to adapt to change by enlarging the

    scope of the original teachings to include new areas of concern.

    These two responses may give rise to quite distinct traditions and

    organizations, or they may manifest themselves within the same

    tradition. And of course even the individual may respond in one

    or the other way at different times according to circumstances.

    In Buddhism, as is well known, there are two major trends, one

    towards a predominantly conservative approach, and the other

    towards a freer development of doctrine. The former may be

    called Earlier Buddhism (since the commonly used term

    Hinayana is a pejorative

    one),

    while the latter, since it did not

    emerge as a separate movement till four or five centuries after

    the Buddha, might be referred to as

    Later

    Buddhism , although

    it

    is

    usually known as the Mahayana , the

    Great

    Way

    (or

    Vehicle) . What I propose to examine in this paper is the

    development, from the earlier school of thought to the later, of

    one specific aspect of Buddhist doctrine: the concept of

    buddhahood.

    Anyone who turns from the earliest Buddhist canonical litera

    ture to the sutras of the Mahayana cannot fail to be struck by the

    different way in which the figure of the Buddha is presented in

    each case.

    On

    the one hand we find a wise

    but

    apparently quite

    human teacher moving, for the most part, in a plausibly historical

    Indian setting, and teaching more or less ordinary people doc

    trines which are

    at

    least superficially intelligible; while on the

    other hand we are confronted with a resplendent figure who seems

    no longer of this earth,

    or

    of any time or place, expounding

    87

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     n considering the problem in this paper, therefore, I shall

    follow a different approach. To start with, I shall use as a basic

    framework around which to organize my data, not the alien

    concept of godhead but the purely Buddhist doctrine of the

    Trikaya, the three bodies or (better) triple body , of the

    Buddha, which came to be accepted by the Mahayana as the

    definitive expression of its views on buddhahood. With this

    doctrine in mind, I shall first of all study the portrait of the

    Buddha which appears in the Pali suttas, the canonical discourses

    of

    the Theravada. I choose the Theravadin tradition as repre-

    sentative of Early Buddhism partly because of its antiquity and

    conscious conservatism, which place it at the greatest remove from

    the Mahayana, and partly because its canon is complete and

    readily accessible, both in Pali and in English translation.) Next,

    I shall try to suggest how and why this early view of buddhahood

    might have developed into something approximating the

    Mahayana conception.

    n

    doing so, I shall confine my attention

    strictly to Buddhist doctrine

    as

    expressed in the canonical litera-

    ture, leaving aside speculations about possible outside influences.

    The contributions of early schools other than the Theravada must

    also be passed over in silence, owing to lack of space.

    And

    finally,

    I shall consider, in terms of the Trikaya, the picture of the

    Buddha that emerges from some of the most important Mahayana

    sutras.

    I I

    From the suttas of the Pfili Canon it would not be difficult to

    draw a portrait of the Buddha that would strike a secular his-

    torian as

    at

    least plausible, if not necessarily accurate,3 One could

    call

    this historical figure (as those of his contemporaries who were

    not his followers did) the recluse (S. sramana, P. samana

    Gautama (P. Gotama) ,4 and his biography, according to the

    3 The following abbreviations will be used:

    P. Pil li

    S. Sanskrit

    AN A nguttara Nikaya

    N

    Digha Nikaya

    MN

    Majjhima Nikaya

    SN Samyutta ikaya

    Dhp Dhammapada

    Sn Suttanipfita

    Roman and

    Arabic (or,

    more

    properly,

    Indian)

    numerals indicate

    the volume

    and

    page number(s)

    of

    the Pil Ii text in the Pil Ii

    Text

    Society's editions. Translations are usually

    my

    own, although I have

    sometimes

    had

    to rely on existing translations owing to the lack

    of

    a

    Pil Ii

    text.

    4 Proper names and technical terms will be given in their Sanskrit

    form, where

    t ~ t

    c1iffers

    from

    the Pil.li, except where the reference

    is

    to

    specifically P§li literature (e.g.

    sutta ).

    89

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    suttas, would run roughly as follows. Born into the nobles clan

    of the Sakyas,

    6

    he left home when still a young man, despite his

    parents' protests,

    7

    to become a wandering ascetic. After studying

    under two teachers

    8

    and acquiring and losing five disciples of his

    own,9 he found in the end the truth he was seeking.1

    o

    Then

    having gathered a nucleus of followers, which

    he

    gradually

    developed into a monastic order, he travelled from place to place

    in North-eastern India preaching, answering questions and n ~

    gaging in debates. Finally, at the age of eighty or SO,l1 having

    established a body of well-trained disciples,12 he passed away in a

    small township called Kusinagara (P. Kusinara),13 after which, in

    the phrasing of the texts, devas and men see him no more .1

    4

    t should be noted that these events, and others pertaining to

    the life of the Buddha, have always been taken for granted

    as

    historical facts by all schools of Buddhism. Nevertheless it must

    be remembered that the Judaic belief in the religious significance

    of history, conceived of as a process that is irreversible and

    limited in duration,

    is

    not shared by Buddhism, which, like

    Hinduism and J ainism, sees the flow of time as endless and

    cyclical, and therefore does not regard the individual events which

    make up the stream as being of any importance in themselves.

    What really matters, on the contrary,

    is

    release from history into

    a timeless and transcendental realm which can be experienced but

    not defined.

    We find therefore, in the Suttapitaka, that the Buddha

    is

    chiefly concerned with showing the way to this deliverance from

    temporal phenomena, and he stresses that his own personality,

    as

    an individual of such and such a clan, is a matter of no impor

    tance whatsoever. Thus, when, shortly after his Awakening, he

    approaches the

    five

    ascetics who had formerly been his disciples,

    and they greet him by name and as avuso

    a

    polite term

    of

    address used between equals), he rebukes them, saying: Monks,

    do not address the Tathagata by name or as avuso. The

    Tathilgata, monks, is one perfected (araham), truly and com

    pletelyawakened (sammasambuddho) .lS Then there

    is

    the well-

    known passage in which the Buddha, on being asked what sort of

    5 Lineage

    of

    the Silkyas given at

    DN

    I 92-3. (Note

    that

    this and

    following references are intended