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The Growth of a Mahayana Sutra

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by Sangharakshita

... stream of spiritual energy, certainly in the later, more advanced stages of his spiritual career. So the Mahayana, the Great Way, the Great Vehicle, encourages everybody to become a Bodhisattva. It encourages everybody to aspire to the highest spiritual real isation, that is to say, to Supreme Buddhahood for the sake of all. In other words, the Mahayana encourages everyone to cooperate in what it thinks of, what it describes as the great work of universal deliverance, or universal emancipation, or if you like, the great work of universal transformation. And for the Mahayana therefore the Bodhisattva Ideal is a universal ideal. It's universal in its aim, which is nothing less than supreme Buddhahood, universal in scope, its scope being all sentient beings, and universal also in its frame of reference, which is infinite space and boundless time.

Lecture 123: The Growth of a Mahayana Sutra - Page 3 __________________________________________________________________________________________________ Now the Bodhisattvas are often described as heroes, even as great heroes - Mahaviras. But of course we have to admit not everybody wants to be a hero. Not everybody wants to be a Bodhisattva, not even among followers of the Mahayana. Strange to say, some people are quite reluctant to gain supreme Buddhahood.

They have to be encouraged, they have to be helped, they have to be given a helping hand - not to say a crutch or two. So the Bodhisattva adopts a variety of what we technically call skilful means, sometimes translated as `expedient means'. And these are different means, different methods, of helping people spiritually in accordance with their present stage of development, in accordance with their particular temperament, their particular position in life, their general outlook on life and so on - even without their noticing that they are being helped in some cases. In other words, the Bodhisattva tries to meet people half way. He tries to meet them, to encounter them, on their own ground. He speaks, he tries to speak, he tries to learn their language. He tries to communicate with them in their language. He tries to make things easy for them, as easy, that is to say, as is compatible with the objective requirements of the spiritual life.

Even a Bodhisattva, great as he may be, willing as he may be, helpful as he may be, cannot do it for you.

He can only encourage, he can only guide, he can only advise, he can only inspire. Your own active cooperation is always required, even if that activity of yours consists simply in being receptive to his influence. Sometimes, of course, the Bodhisattva helps simply by being around - not necessarily by being around in as it were his official Bodhisattva's capacity complete with his jewelled headdress and his lotus throne - he may sometimes leave those behind - but by being around simply as a positive, as a friendly, as a sympathetic, as a warm-hearted human being. Sometimes the Bodhisattva helps by encouraging people just to perform skilful actions, helps them not to be afraid of doing something good, helps them to observe the precepts, to offer food, (especially this is so in the East, to the wandering monks), to cooperate in building temples and monasteries and centres. Sometimes the Bodhisattva helps by encouraging people in the performance of simple devotional acts - acts which are simple in form but so meaningful in content like offering flowers to the Buddha, or reciting mantras, or going on pilgrimage to holy places.

And in this way, as the Bodhisattva helps people, as he meets them half way, as he learns to speak their language, there comes into existence the more popular side of the Mahayana, not to say the more ethnic side. And this more popular side does not represent a degeneration of the teaching. It represents a kind of bridge, a bridge between ordinary worldly life on the one hand and purely spiritual life, even transcendental life, on the other. This popular side of Buddhism, of Mahayana Buddhism, represents a degeneration only when it becomes an end in itself, which usually means when there are no Bodhisattvas around to remind us of what the meaning and purpose and function of it all is, or when the ultimate goal of Supreme Buddhahood is lost sight of - when, in a word, people build houses on the bridge, instead of passing across the bridge to the other side.

Now popular Mahayana is very widespread indeed. It covers, or at least covered, the greater part of Asia.

We may say popular Buddhism itself is very widespread indeed. And popular Buddhism, and especially popular Mahayana Buddhism, often incorporates various elements from the indigenous culture of the country, the people to which in the course of centuries it has spread. In India, where the Mahayana arose, it incorporated elements of Indian, indigenous Indian culture, belief and practice. And it did the same thing when it went to China, when it went to Japan, when it went to Tibet, and so on. And we may say that popular Mahayana is so widespread or has been so widespread, has been so abundant in growth, so luxuriant in its development, that some modern scholars have tended to think of the Mahayana itself as an essentially popular movement. But this a great mistake. The Mahayana certainly is a popular movement, historically speaking, but at the same time the Mahayana is very profound. And it's not just intellectually profound, it's spiritually profound.

And the spiritual profundity of the Mahayana is exemplified particularly in the teachings which centre upon Perfect Wisdom or, as it sometimes rendered, `Transcendental Wisdom' or the `Wisdom that has gone beyond' - gone beyond, that is to say, gone to ultimate reality. And this ultimate reality to which Perfect Wisdom has gone is known technically in the Mahayana as sunyata, which literally means the Voidness, sometimes translated as Emptiness. But it's not voidness in the sense of vacuity, not emptiness in the sense of vacuity. It's void, it's voidness, in the sense that it is beyond all concepts, beyond thought, beyond the reach of the rational human mind. Perfect Wisdom is sometimes regarded as the highest spiritual faculty that intuits the Voidness, and voidness, sunyata, as what is intuited by Perfect Wisdom - the one is as it were the subject, the other the object. But at the same time in reality from the standpoint, if there is such a thing as a standpoint in this connection, from the standpoint of sunyata there's no such distinction, there's just one unbroken awareness, not divided, not bifurcated into the polarity of subject and object.

Lecture 123: The Growth of a Mahayana Sutra - Page 4 __________________________________________________________________________________________________ And the Bodhisattva has to develop Perfect Wisdom - it's that which makes the Bodhisattva a Bodhisattva.

He has to realise voidness, realise sunyata, has to remove, has to transcend the distinction between self and others, and only then, paradoxically, can he work for others, only then can he help others. So the Bodhisattva Ideal does not represent a kind of humanitarianism, not even a religious humanitarianism. The Bodhisattva Ideal represents the wisdom of the Voidness breaking through into, functioning in the midst of the world, in the midst of the affairs of everyday life.

Now we might think that because the Mahayana emphasises Wisdom, it neglects faith and devotion, but again this would be a mistake. In the Mahayana, devotion is also emphasised. Indeed, in the Mahayana devotion in all its forms, some of them very colourful forms, is particularly intense. And that devotion in the Mahayana is directed not only to the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, but to the ideal Buddha, if you like the universal Buddha, the eternal Buddha, to the Buddha who occupies the centre of the spiritual universe of the Mahayana - directed in fact to a number of different forms of that Buddha, different aspects of that Buddha. There is, for instance, Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. There is Vairocana, the Buddha of Sun-like Splendour. And in the same way, the devotion of the Mahayana is directed to the great, as it were archetypal Bodhisattvas, Bodhisattvas who are, or who have become, streams of suprapersonal, spiritual energy, like Avalokitesvara, the Lord who looks down in compassion, Manjusri, the gentle-voiced one, the Lord of Wisdom, Samantabhadra, the universally beneficent, and Ksitigarbha, the Earth Womb, who descends into the depths of the states of suffering. The devotion of the Mahayana is directed towards all these great beings.

So the Sutra of Golden Light is a Mahayana sutra. It exemplifies many of the general characteristics of the Mahayana movement, exemplifies for instance its universality, its emphasis on the Bodhisattva Ideal, its spirit of intense devotion, its plurality of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. But it also possesses certain special features of its own, as we shall see. But it's time we passed on to the second question.

The Sutra of Golden Light is a Mahayana sutra, but what exactly is a sutra? What is a sutra? A sutra in brief is a Buddhist scripture, rather it's one kind of Buddhist scripture, perhaps we can say the most important and the most representative kind of Buddhist scripture. Now what is a scripture? A scripture means simply a writing, a scripture is simply something written down. But the sutras, the Buddhist sutras, and least of all the Mahayana sutras, are not primarily literary documents. They are literary recensions of oral traditions and it's very important to remember this, very important to understand this, that they are literary recensions of oral traditions.

We must never forget that the Buddha himself, the historical Sakyamuni, did not write anything. It's not even certain - and this should perhaps ...

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