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Sutra of Golden Light

by Sangharakshita

Study Group Leaders Questions and Answers based on the lecture series:

Transformation of Self and World in
The Sutra of Golden Light
Second Transcriptions Edition - July 2002/2545
[Numbers in square brackets refer to the page numbers of the first edition. These original page
numbers are still used in the ‘Unedited Seminar Index’, available separately from Transcriptions]
Present: Sangharakshita, Dharmadhara (Chairman) Nagabodhi, Kovida, Prasannasiddhi,
Mangala, Sona, Bodhiraja.
First Lecture: The Growth of a Mahayana Sutra - 24th February 1987Sangharakshita: So who’s going to read the questions?
Dharmadhara (Chairman): We are each going to read a question and I’m going to co-ordinate -
chair - the questions.
S: All right. In what order are we going to have them?
Chairman: First of all, a question from Abhaya on the oral tradition of The Sutra of Golden Light.
That’s his first question. Then Abhaya’s second question on the Vajrayana Sutras. We erased the
third question because it was duplicated; that was the one on other series. The third question is
Ratnabodhi’s on other sutras; and the fourth question is Abhaya’s on redressing the balance
between the Mahayana and the Hinayana. That was the question which we didn’t erase; the other
duplicate was the one we erased. Then my question on the FWBO context of the series in 1976.
Then my question on the Gnostics. Then the question on the Holy Grail. And then, if we have time,
Prasannasiddhi has a supplementary question of his own.
S: All right.
Chairman: So this is the first evening of the Questions and Answers on The Sutra of Golden
Light, and the first question comes from Sona on the oral tradition of The Sutra of Golden Light.
Sona: This is a question, in fact, from Abhaya.
S: Yes, it’s good to mention who the question is really or originally from.
Sona:
Bhante, in the lecture you speak of The Sutra of Golden Light as growing out of successive literary
deposits from an oral tradition. With respect to this and other Mahayana sutras, I can see how they
have grown out of literary deposits but not how they relate to an oral tradition. They do not have
the obvious oral characteristics of the Pali suttas such as repetitions of formulas, and passages
repeated many times which are identical except for the substitution of a single word or phrase.
What exactly is the evidence of their connection with an oral tradition?
S: Yes, the real question is that last sentence: ‘What exactly is the evidence of their connection
with an oral tradition?’ I don’t think that we can say that there is any direct evidence. The evidence
is indirect, or one can even say that it’s a matter of deduction rather than induction. In this [2]
connection, we have to bear in mind two points: the Mahayana sutras are sutras; in other words,
they purport to be the personal teaching of the Buddha himself. They purport to be Buddhavacana.
On the other hand, the Buddha himself did not write anything. He taught only orally, and his
teachings were written down subsequently. So if we accept - and, of course, we don’t have to
accept if we aren’t convinced - if we accept that the Mahayana sutras are Buddhavacana, and if, of
course, we know that they were written down some several hundred years after the Buddha, then,
of course, we have also to accept that there was a period of oral transmission. It’s exactly the same
with the Pali Canon. There’s no difference in principle, because it’s known that the Pali Tipitaka
wasn’t written down in Ceylon until nearly 500 years after the Buddha’s Parinirvana. And we
know that the Buddha himself didn’t write anything, so in that case, too, if the Tipitaka is accepted
as Buddhavacana, it must be a deposit from an oral tradition, just as in the case of the Mahayana
sutras.
It is, of course, open to one to say that the Mahayana sutras were simply composed at the time that
they were written, but that would mean rejecting the Mahayana sutras as Buddhavacana. None the
less, it’s not really quite so simple as that, even, because Abhaya goes on to say: ‘They’ - that is,
the Mahayana sutras - ‘do not have the obvious oral characteristics of the Pali suttas such as
repetitions of formulas, and passages repeated many times which are identical except for the
substitution of a single word or phrase.’ I think that can be explained by the very different natures
of the Theravada and the Mahayana traditions. The Theravada is very much concerned with the
letter, with verbal accuracy, so it’s only to be expected that in the Pali suttas you would find these
repetitions of formulas and passages repeated many times. And it’s only to be expected that you
would not find that in the Mahayana sutras; the Mahayana sutras being more concerned - or the
Mahayana tradition being more concerned - to transmit the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching.
So when I say that The Sutra of Golden Light - in fact when I say that the Mahayana sutras are
deposits from an oral tradition, I am not thinking in terms of those deposits being a literal word-
for-word writing down of something which was already existing in exactly that oral form. I am
thinking rather of ideas, or ideals, which were in circulation, perhaps in a number of different
alternative renderings, and which were reduced to writing and at the same time given, perhaps, a
‘literary’ form which they didn’t have when they were circulating orally more or less in the form of
just ideas. That would be more in accordance with the nature of the Mahayana as such. [3]
But there is very little direct evidence that that was the case. I think the important point is whether
one does accept some kind of spiritual continuity between the teaching of the Buddha and the
Mahayana sutras as we have them today. But someone must have produced them; so if you
maintain that The Sutra of Golden Light and, say, The Saddharma-pundarika Sutra and the
Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and all the others have no connection with the Buddha, are not in any
sense a deposit from an oral tradition, then you have to posit a whole galaxy of remarkable
spiritual personalities who were responsible for producing those sutras - personalities who left no
trace, no record of themselves whatever. If one thinks of something like the Avatamsaka Sutra,
which is in process of being fully translated now, it is an extraordinary work; well, who produced
that - if the leading ideas, so to speak, don’t go back to the Buddha, at least essentially? Maybe not
in the form of ideas, but in the form of a spiritual inspiration.
Anyway, is that reasonably clear?
Sona: Yes, thank you.
Chairman: Prasannasiddhi has a question.
Prasannasiddhi: I always thought that when it was said that Mahayana sutras were
Buddhavacana, it was more in the metaphorical sense, that they were spoken by the Eternal
Buddha. You seem to say that they definitely have a source with the Buddha.
S: Well, the Mahayana tradition is, or seems to be, that they were spoken by the historical Buddha.
Some Mahayana sutras begin with the Buddha on the Vulture’s Peak. But one must also remember
that the ancient Buddhists, whether Theravada or Mahayana, and perhaps especially the Mahayana
Buddhists, didn’t distinguish between what we would call historical and what we would call
mythical in the way that we do. So it is open to one to believe that the Mahayana sutras weren’t
preached by the historical Buddha in the literal sense, in the sense that had you been there, had you
been around in middle India in 500 BC, you would have heard the Buddha preaching those sutras
in exactly those words. But you are at liberty to believe that the Mahayana sutras were written
down after the parinirvana of the Buddha by yogis or mystics or meditators who, in their
meditation, had heard the Sambhogakaya Buddha preach in that particular way. But that is not the
actual Mahayana tradition. Because, as I said, in those days they didn’t distinguish between the
historical and the legendary or mythical in the way that we do.
Bodhiraja: Do you think there was what could be called the Mahayana oral [4] tradition, or are the
Mahayana texts literary renderings of the same oral tradition that the Pali Canon was the rendition
of?
S: Well, there was an oral tradition - one has to posit an oral tradition - and no doubt there were
different strands in that. I think a lot of what one finds in the Pali Canon represents a working up of
certain elements in the total oral tradition, let us say. There were certain elements in the total oral
tradition which the Theravadins ignored or which they didn’t preserve. This is where the
importance of the Mahasanghikas comes in, because the Mahasanghikas seem to have preserved
traditions which did go back to the Buddha, but which were ignored by, or unknown to, the
Theravadins. So it’s not that you have one particular oral tradition with the Mahayanists, or rather
the Mahasanghikas, giving different versions of that one same tradition. It’s more that each school
gave a sort of selective rendering, ...

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