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Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism

by Sangharakshita

... the text itself and our approach to
it. As you all know, it is Suzuki's 'Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism'. I am hoping that we
can get through the whole text in ten days, which will be quite an undertaking, quite an
achievement, if we do manage it. If it is, in fact, hopeless to try to do that, we shall
probably know by tomorrow and readjust accordingly, but I am going to aim, at least for
the present, at getting through the whole text in ten days. I rather suspect that there are
quite a few passages that won't need much discussion, whereas there will be other pas-
sages on which we need to concentrate, and passages which even raise matters of very
deep and general interest that we can sort of go into rather more thoroughly even than
the text itself requires.
In a way we shall be studying two things; first of all, Mahayana Buddhism itself, the im-
portance of which need not be emphasized, and secondly, Dr Suzuki's own approach to
and understanding of Mahayana Buddhism. We may not always agree with him, and in
any case this is a very old book, as books on Buddhism in English go. It appeared prac-
tically seventy years ago, but it is still one of the best, possibly the best, and certainly it
hasn't been decisively replaced by anybody, but even so it does carry on it, or carry with
it, some marks of the time at which it was written - that is, just at the turn of the century -
and therefore there are not only some of the things that we won't be able to agree with,
but also certain bits that are rather dated, and we can see that. But even though we are
studying an old text of this sort, in this way, that itself will be something additionally in-
structive. We shall see first of all how Suzuki himself approached Mahayana Buddhism,
seventy years ago, and we shall see in some cases how our understanding has even
improved since then. We shall see Suzuki, for instance, having to take care to guard
himself against certain misunderstandings which are not likely to arise now. In that re-
spect there is a rather quaint and outdated bit, and that will be quite interesting from an
historical point of view; and there will be a few things, I think, on which we are now bet-
ter informed than Suzuki himself was in those days. For instance, in connection with As-
vaghosha's 'Awakening of Faith' and a few other topics of that kind.
So it will be doubly instructive, the whole study. First of all we shall be studying, as I
said, Mahayana Buddhism itself, and then we shall be studying, secondarily, the ap-
proach of a very great Mahayana Buddhist mind to the Mahayana around the beginning
of the [twentieth] century when he was trying, practically for the first time in English, cer-
tainly for the first time in English systematically and completely, to expound what Ma-
hayana Buddhism was all about. And again, as you know, Suzuki is more famous for his
books on Zen, which he started writing only fifteen or sixteen years after this book came
out, when he was in his, well, when he was middle-aged, and we can see a certain
amount of connection between his approach to the Mahayana here, in this book, and
his approach to Zen in some of his later writings. And I think it is very advisable that in
any case we should take up this book before taking up any of his writings on Zen. To go
straight into the writings on Zen can be rather misleading, due to no fault of Dr Suzuki.
One is helped, I think, very much, in understanding his approach to Zen, by reading his
book on Mahayana Buddhism first.
So we are going to go through the text as rapidly as we can - consistent [2] with a
proper understanding. We won't delay and we won't get lost in side issues, and I sug-
gest we skip Alan Watts' preparatory essay. He does rather go on about Buddhism and
science, which I think isn't exactly relevant here, although it's interesting in its way, and
those who are interested can read it by themselves. If there is any point arising out of
that preface that anybody would like to discuss, perhaps we can do it right at the end,
when we review the ten days' work.
So let's go straight on into the Introduction. I suggest also we ignore the footnotes. The
footnotes are often of either purely scholarly interest, or purely historical interest, and
are often quite outdated, so I suggest we ignore those. There may be the odd one which
is relevant, in which case I'll draw attention to that.
Now we start off with the Introduction, on 'The Mahayana and the Hinayana Buddhism'.
We are going to try to get through the whole of the Introduction this morning. It is di-
vided into four sections: we'll try and get through two before coffee, and two after; and
they do cover some very important ground. So let's go round, as we usually do, clock-
wise, reading a paragraph each, in turn, and stopping to discuss or explain or enquire
whenever necessary. If anybody wants to comment or to raise any point or any query
just sort of butt in, or if there are several people, just sort of raise your hand, as it were,
and let's see how we get on. Right, let's start then.
"The terms 'Mahayana' and 'Hinayana' may sound unfamiliar to most of our readers."
Sangharakshita: Oh, just one point before we begin. Can we try and get pronunciations
right, especially as Dr Suzuki has given us diacritics. Let's say Mahayana and Hinay-
ana, not Mahayana, or Mahayana; let's get it quite right: Mahayana and Hinayana.
Lokamitra: "The terms 'Mahayana' and 'Hinayana'"
S: Hinayana.
Lokamitra: Hinayana.
S: You're still saying 'Hinnayana'; it's 'Heenayana'.
Lokamitra: Heenayana.
S: That's right. A long sound.
Lokamitra: "may sound unfamiliar to most of our readers."
S: See how out of date we are already, yes?
"perhaps even to those who have devoted some time to the study of Buddhism. They
have hitherto been induced to believe that there is but one form of Buddhism, and that
there exists no such distinction as Mahayanism and Hinayanism."
S: Hmm. What was that one form of Buddhism, do you think?
Vajradaka: Theravada.
S: Yes, it was the Theravada Buddhism of the Pali canon, which became known in
English-speaking circles much before the Mahayana became known. It wasn't so on the
continent. Both in French and in German, and even in Russian, there were books - very,
very reliable books - dealing with the Mahayana, but not in English. For instance, in
France there was Burnouf's 'Lotus of the Good Law', which was on the Saddhar-
mapundarika Sutra, which contains a very lengthy and very scholarly introduction on
Indian Buddhism including the Mahayana, but there was nothing like that [3] in English.
So what Suzuki says is applicable mainly to the Anglo-Saxon English-speaking scene.
"But, as a matter of fact, there are diverse schools in Buddhism just as in other religious
S: Seventy years ago people had to be told this; that there were diverse schools in
Buddhism just as in other religious systems.
"It is said that, within a few hundred years after the demise of Buddha, there were more
than twenty different schools, all claiming to be the orthodox teaching of their master.
These, however, seem to have vanished into insignificance one after another, when
there arose a new school quite different in its general constitution from its predecessors,
but far more important in its significance as a religious movement. This new school or
rather system made itself so prominent in the meantime as to stand distinctly alone from
all the other schools, which later became a class by itself. Essentially, it taught every-
thing that was considered to be Buddhistic, but it was very comprehensive in its princi-
ple and method and scope. And, by reason of this, Buddhism was now split into two
great systems, Mahayanism and Hinayanism, the latter indiscriminately including all the
minor schools which preceded Mahayanism in there formal establishment."
S: This is very much a summary, this particular paragraph, of a very rich and complex
development, but it is quite substantially correct, as a summary, even now. There is
nothing we have learned about the history of Buddhism since which modifies the mean-
ing of this paragraph in any way. As a summary of what happened it is still completely
"Broadly speaking, the difference between Mahayanism and Hinayanism is this:"
S: Hmm. Just one other point: Suzuki seems to have tried to popularize the terms Ma-
hayanism and Hinayanism, and several other Japanese scholars too. These have sim-
ply not caught on. We now say simply Mahayana and Hinayana, and I think that is bet-
ter; anyway the terminal sound 'ism' has quite an unpleasant sound in some people's
Ratnapani: Can we drop the 'ism' as we go through?
S: Well, if Suzuki does, we can. (laughter)
"Mahayanism is more liberal and progressive, but in many respects too metaphysical
and full of speculative thoughts that frequently reach a dazzling eminence: Hinayanism,
on the other hand, is somewhat conservative and may be considered in many points to
be a rationalistic ethical system simply."
S: Here is a very broad and very general characterization of the two yanas, which is
again broadly and substantially correct, though it must also be pointed out that words
like 'liberal', 'progressive', and ...

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