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Buddhism and Biography  

Ben Van Overmeire

The Buddhist religion has a long and rich tradition of biographical literature. This literature has functioned to unify distinct and often contradictory elements of Buddhist ritual, practice, and doctrine, adjusting these elements to specific historical situations. Scholarship on the function of literary characters in making narrative worlds coherent supports this argument: when readers engage characters, they draw together textual and non-textual data to construct beings that are similar to themselves. This connection of a specific situation with a larger whole, a connection that is at the same time an organization, can be observed in how Buddhist biographies are built. Biographies of Shakyamuni, for example, contain many traces of changes motivated by local conditions. The body of Shakyamuni is used to authorize these changes: the local is situated at the heart of Buddhism. Biographies of Chinese Buddhist saints attest to the same process, as can be seen in the shifting representation of Indian saints in China or the literary transformations of the Patriarchs of the Chan school. While these changing representations reflect changes in historical Buddhist communities, they can also produce attitudes and regulate behaviors. The debate on the portrayal and effects of women and animals in Indian Buddhist texts provides an illustration of this, as does scholarship on how saintly ideals regulate behavior. The case of Buddhist autobiography, a genre at times so closely connected to biography that it is nearly indistinguishable from it, provides a final example of how identity is structured in Buddhist biography.

Article

Śāntideva’s Introduction to the Practices of Awakening (Bodhicaryāvatāra)  

Stephen E. Harris

The Introduction to the Practices of Awakening (Bodhicaryāvatāra; hereafter, BCA) is a short verse text presenting the training practices for developing the virtuous character of the bodhisattva, the Mahayana Buddhist exemplar who commits to remaining in samsara to save all beings from suffering. The text was written by the monk scholar Śāntideva, a Mahayana Buddhist of the Madhyamaka school who resided in India, at the monastic university of Nālandā c. 8th century ce. The text had significant influence in India and Tibet and continues to be an influential source for contemporary Buddhist practice. It interweaves ritual, meditation, and philosophical argumentation as mutually supportive aspects of bodhisattva practice. The text takes as its themes the development of bodhicitta, the wish to become a fully enlightened buddha, and the development of the perfections of virtue that constitute the bodhisattva’s character. Śāntideva presents four chapters dedicated to specific perfections: patience (chapter 6), effort (chapter 7), concentration (chapter 8), and wisdom (chapter 9). The text also emphasizes the development of compassion, introspection, and mindfulness. A significant feature of the text is its incorporation of philosophical argumentation into contemplations designed to develop virtuous character. Passages often function simultaneously as arguments meant to convince an interlocutor (or oneself) of their claims, as well as meditations to develop the virtue in question. This repeated use of reasoning as a means of developing virtue largely accounts for the text’s philosophically important status. This has resulted in the BCA becoming an important source for the developing academic field of Buddhist ethics. Two of Śāntideva’s arguments in particular have received considerable scholarly interest: his argument that accepting the tenet of dependent origination entails the irrationality of anger, which he gives in chapter 6; and his argument that accepting the nonexistence of the self rationally entails a commitment to altruism, which occurs in chapter 8. Śāntideva’s sequence of meditations on exchanging self and others, in which the bodhisattva imaginatively takes up the position of other persons as a way of developing compassion, has also generated great interest, both in the Tibetan tradition and in contemporary scholarship.

Article

Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet  

Roger R. Jackson

Mahāmudrā, “the Great Seal,” is a Sanskrit term (Tibetan: phyag rgya chen po) that connotes a wide range of concepts and practices in Indian Mahāyāna and, especially, Tibetan Buddhism, most of them directly or indirectly related to discourse on ultimate reality and the way to know and achieve it. The term first appeared in Indian tantric texts of the 7th or 8th century ce and gained increasing prominence in the final period of Buddhism’s efflorescence on the subcontinent, particularly in the sometimes transgressive Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras and the works of such charismatic great adepts (mahāsiddhas) as Saraha, Tilopa, and Maitrīpa. By the 11th century, Mahāmudrā had come to refer, in India, to a hand gesture signifying clear visualization of a deity, one of a number of “seals” (with or without hand gestures) that confirm tantric ritual procedures, a consort employed in sexual yoga practices, a meditation technique in which the mind contemplates its own nature, the great bliss and luminous gnosis that result from advanced subtle-body practices, a way of living in the world freely and spontaneously, and the omniscient buddhahood that is the final outcome of the tantric path. It also came to be synonymous with such concepts as emptiness, the middle way, sameness, the co-emergent, the natural mind, luminosity, the single taste, non-duality, meditative “inattention,” buddha nature, non-abiding nirvāṇa, and a buddha’s Dharma Body—to name just a few. Although little discussed during the period of Buddhism’s introduction to Tibet (c. 650–850), Mahāmudrā came to the fore on the plateau during the so-called Tibetan Renaissance (c. 950–1350), finding a place of greater or lesser prominence in the ideas and practices of the religious orders that formed at that time, including the Kadam, Sakya, Shijé, Shangpa Kagyü, and—most notably—the powerful and influential Marpa Kagyü, for which it is a pivotal term, referring to the true nature of the mind, a style of meditation aimed at the realization of that nature, and the perfect buddhahood resulting from that realization. Although it has all these meanings and more, Mahāmudrā became best known as a contemplative technique in which the mind realizes, and settles within, its own true nature: as empty and luminous. It was brought to the center of Kagyü religious life by Gampopa (1079–1153), and studied, practiced, and systematized by generations of great Kagyü scholars and meditators. In later times, it sometimes inspired syncretic formulations, which combined the practices of Kagyü Mahāmudrā with those of the Nyingma Great Perfection (Dzokchen), or the Gelukpa analysis of the emptiness of all existents. Over the course of a millennium or more in Tibet, the Great Seal informed ritual, prompted ecstatic poetry, provoked debate, became the focus of yogic retreats, and was used as a lens through which Indian Buddhist thought and Tibetan institutional history might be viewed. With the post-1959 Tibetan disapora and the subsequent spread of Tibetan Buddhism outside Asia, Mahāmudrā has become a topic of interest for scholars and practitioners in many and varied settings, and a part of the vocabulary of educated Buddhists everywhere.

Article

Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma  

K.L. Dhammajoti

Abhidharma had its origin in certain systematizing, analytical, and exegetical features found in the Sūtra, particularly, mātṛikā (summary list), abhidharma-kathā (discussion about the doctrine), vibhaṅga (“analytical exposition”), and upadeśa (exegetical elaboration). Buddhist philosophies may have been primarily initiated and vigorously elevated in the Abhidharma tradition. However, while the Abhidharma treatises undoubtedly exhibit highly developed scholastic and hermeneutical components, Abhidharma is essentially a soteriology. The Sarvāstivāda Ābhidhārmikas consistently claim that Abhidharma is truly “Buddha-word,” being the sine quo non for ascertaining the true intents of the sutras—it constitutes the ultimate authority for discerning the definite and explicit discourses (nītārtha-sūtra) of the Buddha. Sarvāstivāda, the “All-exist School,” was undoubtedly one of the most important Buddhist schools in the period of Abhidharma Buddhism. Since its establishment around the 2nd century bce, it exerted tremendous impact, directly or indirectly, on the subsequent development of Indian Buddhism. This school possesses a complete set of seven canonical Abhidharma texts, nearly all of which are now preserved in Chinese translation, and one, the Prajñapti-śāstra, is preserved in a complete Tibetan translation. A huge compendia, The Great Abhidharma Commentary (Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā), whose gradual compilation must have spanned over more than half a century and was fully completed around 150 ce, is now extant only in Chinese. This compendia, encyclopedic in scope, defines the doctrinal positions of the orthodox Sarvāstivādins based in Kaśmīra, who subsequently came to be known as the Vaibhāṣikas. The central thesis of the school is sarvāstivāda or sarvāstitā (/sarvāstitva), which claims that all “dharmas”—fundamental realities or real entities of existence—sustain their unique intrinsic natures throughout the three periods of time. That is, whether future, past, or present, a dharma’s intrinsic nature remains the same, even though its mode of existence (bhāva) varies. This thesis was vehemently challenged by the Vibhajyavādins (Distinctionists) who denied the reality of the past and future dharmas. The reverberation of this “Sarvāstivāda-versus-Vibhajyavāda” controversy can be observed to have generated decisively significant doctrinal implications throughout the history of Buddhist thoughts. The Savāstivāda school was also known as Hetuvāda, a “school which expounds on causality.” Kātyāyanīputra (c. 150 bce), often regarded as the effective “founder” of the Sarvāstivāda school, was credited with the innovation of a theory of sixfold causes, of which the coexistent or simultaneous causality was the most important legacy. For the first time in human history, he systematically articulated a form of causality in which the cause and its effect coexist simultaneously. This theory contributed importantly to Buddhist doctrinal development, particularly its epistemology. Mahāyāna Yogācāra had embraced it from their very inception, finding it indispensable for the establishment of many of their fundamental doctrines, including “store consciousness” (ālaya-vijñāna) and “cognition-only” (vijñaptimātratā).

Article

Maritime Buddhism  

Andrea Acri

The spread of Buddhism across Asia has been studied mainly from a perspective focusing on the transmission through the overland routes popularly known as “Silk Roads” and emphasizing Central Asia as an important transit corridor and contact zone between South and East Asia. However, recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the significant role played by the sea routes or maritime “Silk Roads” in shaping premodern intra-Asian connectivity. This has paved the way for an appreciation of the important contribution of the southern rim of Asia—especially South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia—to the genesis, transformation, and circulation of various forms of Buddhism. Evidence of the long-distance transfer of Buddhism from its northeastern Indian cradle to the outlying regions of South India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and China via the maritime routes goes back to the early centuries of the Current Era. From the 5th century onward, written and material vestiges from the southern rim of Asia became more substantial, testifying to an efflorescence of long-distance maritime contacts that were to last several centuries. As is shown by textual, epigraphic, and art historical materials—including icons, ritual accoutrements, dhāraṇīs, manuscripts, and monuments—Buddhist cults, imaginaries, and ritual technologies flourished across the vast swathe of littoral, island, and hinterland territory that can be conceptualized as the sociospatial grouping of “Maritime Asia.” Buddhist vestiges recovered from the Indian Subcontinent littorals, Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, peninsular and coastal mainland Southeast Asia, and what are now called the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine islands, speak in favor of the existence of pervasive and sustained multidirectional Buddhist exchanges among interconnected nodes linking South Asia and the Western Indian Ocean to China, Korea, and Japan through the maritime routes. A polycentric, geographically wide, and maritime-based approach is necessary to fully appreciate how religious, mercantile, and diplomatic networks acted as catalysts for transmission of Buddhism far and wide across Asia over nearly two millennia.