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Kalyanavaca, London, UK
Sanghajivini, Newcastle, UK
Suriyavamsa, Glasgow, UK
Ratnaghosha, FBA Chairman
Coleen, FBA Team
Nagabodhi, London, UK
Padmavajri, East Sussex
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... disciples. We can call that period the period of archaic Buddhism. As I say it lasted about a hundred years.
After that we have a period of about fifteen hundred years which falls quite naturally into three great periods, each of about five hundred years, and in the course of each of those five hundred year periods we find that one particular form, one particular development of Buddhism was dominant. The first five-hundred year period was the period of what is generally called Hinayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Little Way, or the Little Path, or the Little Vehicle. This represents a sort of systematisation, a sort of what shall I say, a sort of consolidation of the Buddha's teaching, along certain lines, for instance, the spiritual ideal of that period, the spiritual ideal of the Hinayana was what is known as the Arahant. The Hinayana had the Arahant ideal. The arahant was one who had gained nirvana, one who had gained enlightenment, but he had gained it so to speak for himself alone, he wasn't so concerned with other people, he wasn't so concerned with what was happening to other people, he wasn't so much concerned with helping other people. And that did represent to some extent a sort of narrowing down of the original ideal of the Buddha himself.
On the more philosophical side, Hinayana Buddhism was responsible for the development of what is called the Abhidharma. Dharma is the general word for the Buddha's teaching, it also means truth or reality, but generally, more generally just teaching or doctrine. Abhi means higher or superior or further, so the Abhidharma was a sort of systematisation of the Buddha's teaching and it tended sometimes to be of a rather as it were analytical nature. For instance, the Buddha was very much concerned with the extirpation of what we would generally call egotism or selfishness and to this end he had taught his doctrine of what is called the five skandhas, that is to say he had analysed the individual being into rupa or form, I'm giving very approximate translations, vedana, feeling, samjna, perception, samkara or acts of volition, and vijnana or acts of consciousness.
Now the Abhidharma developed this. It developed this very, very much further, and it analysed all these elements into their constituent elements until it had a sort of short list of ultimate elements. I expect you recognise the sort of pattern. Different schools had different lists. But some of them had very long lists indeed, some of them had lists which included several hundred, or if you sub-divided it even further several thousand items and these different items, these ultimate elements into which the whole of existence, mental as well as physical, had been analysed, tended to be regarded as ultimate and these also were known by the name of dharmas. This is rather confusing as in Buddhism you've got this word dharma used in all sorts of different ways. Dharma means the teaching, dharma means something like cause or condition, dharma also means one of these ultimate elements, as well as meaning idea in a very general sense, in the sense of mental object, so the Abhidharma tended to reduce the whole phenomena of existence, all the phenomena of existence, to a finite number of discreet ultimate entities. And this development reached its apogee in a school called the Sarvastivada. I won't go into their refinements upon this teaching, we'll see its significance of it in a minute when we come on to the Mahayana and the Madhyamika. But anyway this was the sort of development which took place within the Hinayana during that first five hundred year period with regard to the Abhidharma.
And then on the more practical side - of course I'm covering quite a lot of ground quite rapidly so I'm generalising rather wildly in a way that I wouldn't perhaps care to do in front of a gathering of Buddhist scholars, because scholars are always apt to question one's little generalisations, one can only get away with that sort of thing in front of a non- specialist audience. But there was, in the case of the Hinayana, rather an emphasis on the practical side, on the monastic life, and on asceticism. I won't say anything more than that.
But then, after the first five hundred year period during which the Hinayana was dominant came the second five hundred year period, during which the Mahayana was dominant.
Now Mahayana means Great Way, or Great Vehicle, I can't stop to explain why it is so called, but broadly speaking the spiritual ideal of the Mahayana is that of the Bodhisattva, the Bodhi Being. Now we saw that the Arahant ideal consisted in the striving for enlightenment for one's own sake only, not paying very much attention to the plight or the fate of other people. In the case of the bodhisattva ideal it is quite different. The bodhisattva ideal we may say is the ideal of spiritual altruism, even of transcendental altruism carried to unprecedented heights. The bodhisattva is one who is not concerned with his individual salvation or his individual enlightenment, that is to say separate from the salvation or separate from the enlightenment of other beings. There's a sort of more popular, more exoteric form of this teaching which maintains that the bodhisattva actually gives up actually sacrifices his individual enlightenment so that he can, instead of disappearing into nirvana, remain in the world, remain in the samsara, and continue to help other living beings. That is rather exoteric, that is a rather sort of exoteric presentation of the bodhisattva ideal. What in fact the bodhisattva does, what in fact the bodhisattva realises, is that the salvation or the enlightenment of one is inseparable from the salvation or the enlightenment of all. The Mahayana has a sort of ideal of what one might only describe, using very un-Buddhistic terminology, as sort of cosmic emancipation, or cosmic salvation, and the bodhisattva sees that he has to devote himself to this, that it is not actually possible for anybody to be totally enlightened all by themselves. You can't sort of shut yourself up in a separate nirvanic compartment, while others do not have any experience of nirvana. You just can't do that, the nature of existence is such, existence, every part of existence is so wonderfully inter-related that there is no such thing as individual enlightenment. This, the bodhisattva sees, this the bodhisattva realises. So he devotes himself to the great cause of what may be called universal enlightenment, universal salvation, and he's prepared to endure, to suffer life after life, birth after birth, death after death, in every life, in every birth, pursuing this path of devoting himself to the cause of universal enlightenment, trying to carry the whole of the human race forward, at least a few steps on the path that will lead eventually to the enlightenment of all. So this is the great Bodhisattva Ideal, this is the spiritual ideal of the Mahayana which I've just sketched in in very rough outline.
And then on the philosophical side we have in the case of the Mahayana the great teaching of sunya, we have the Sunyavada. Sunya is a very wonderful word, it means empty, and it means full, it means zero in Indian mathematics, the sunya is the zero, sunya is their word for zero. Now we saw that the Hinayana, we saw that the Hinayana Abhidharma, especially in the form of the Sarvastivada school, tended to reduce the whole of existence to a limited number of ultimate psycho-physical elements. The Mahayana seized upon this point, especially did the Madhyamika school in the person of Nagarjuna, seize upon this point, and it subjected the views of the Sarvastivadins, what are called the pan-realistic views of the Sarvastivadins to a rather devastating criticism.
And to cut a long story short, the Madhyamika school showed that you couldn't have a finite list of ultimate elements, it showed that no element whether physical or mental or anything else, could be regarded as ultimate, as final. You could go on sub-dividing and sub-dividing and sub-dividing, but when you'd sub-divided as it were to infinity, when you'd sub-divided all possible sub-divisions, when perhaps you'd realised that they were nothing but mental constructions in the long run, then what did you have? What was left? And the answer was that what you had left was the sunyata, the void, the emptiness. So in this way the Mahayana, and especially the Madhyamika reduced the dharmas as they were called to sunyata. This is what is called technically the Dharmanaratmya or the selflessness of all dharmas, selflessness in the sense of not being ultimate, of all dharmas, of the Mahayana, of the Sunyavada, especially of the Madhyamika teaching. So according to the Mahayana, according to the Madhyamika especially, what one has to realise ultimately was this voidness, and enlightenment, they maintained, consisted in the realisation of the ultimate voidness of all phenomena, the ultimate emptiness and the ultimate fullness too.
Now to pass on from that to something less sublime, less elevated, on the practical side the Mahayana did not stress the monastic life, did not stress asceticism nearly so much as the Hinayana had done. The Hinayana had tended to teach that if you were serious about the spiritual life, if you were serious about the attainment of enlightenment, then you should become a monk, you should retire from the world. But the Mahayana did not take quite that view, it did not actually discard monasticism, but it made the point that what was important was not whether you were living as a monk or whether you were living as a layman, what was important was that within the particular situation that you found yourself, you must make every possible effort to follow the bodhisattva path and realise the bodhisattva ideal. You should make every possible effort to help not only yourself but other living beings with whom you were in contact ...