Amitabha Buddha in Early Indian Buddhism

While continuing my read of the book Bones, Stones, And Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers On The Archaeology, Epigraphy, And Texts Of Monastic Buddhism In India, I was struck by a certain passage regarding an inscription where the Buddha Amitabha is mentioned.  The book explains that the inscription was made in the 26th year of King Huveṣka (Huvishka), which is roughly 166 C.E. by a layperson of some wealth. The inscription is said to be the “earliest, indeed the only, reference to the Buddha Amitābha in Indian inscriptions and is, therefore, one of the few hard facts we have concerning this Buddha and his cult in India proper”. (pg. 39)

The inscription reads (translations by author above):

bhagavato buddha amitābhasya pratimā pratiṣṭhapita buddha pūjāye

“[an] image of the Blessed One, the Buddha Amitābha, was set up for the worship of the Buddha”.

Then ends with:

imena kuśalamulena sarva(satana)anuttarajñānaṃ prātp(i)m (bha) (va) (tu)

“through this root of merit may there be the attainment of supreme knowledge by all beings.”

I find this really fascinating for a few reasons:

  • It definitely reaffirms that the existence of Amitabha Buddha in India was very sparse until the 2nd century C.E.
  • The fact that northern India at this time was ruled by the Kushan Empire out of Pakistan (and not a native Indian empire) suggests that this could have been imported from outside of India.  The layperson above is described as belonging to a family of merchants, caravan traders and bankers.  So, it’s likely had travelled to and from other parts of the Kushan Empire.
  • Also, the fact that inscription was made in reference to the reigning king at that time further suggests influence from the Kushan culture.

Further, the Kushan Empire was originally Zoroastrian, though it later became Buddhist under King Kanishka (Huvishka’s predecessor).  This definitely lends credence to the old theory that Amitabha had origins outside of India, or at least borrowed from Zoroastrian culture.  Perhaps local traditions mixed with imported iconography from Persia, but the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism¹ suggests that iconography of Amitabha Buddha in the Gandhara region, the heart of the Kushan Empire, predates anything in India proper.

Interesting stuff.

¹ I am the lucky owner of a copy.

Learning Things The Hard Way

Sometimes you just learn things the hard way.  This video I made recently was kind of off-script, but I wanted to talk about some recent experiences I had with Zen.  My experiences so far have been fairly positive (besides the sore knee), but it’s also a matter of finding what’s right for you.

I’ve taken a break from Zen practice,¹ and have kind of dabbled in Jodo-Shu practices lately for various reasons outlined in the video.  I haven’t really quit anything, or committed to anything, but just seemed like the right thing to do for now.

Who knows where I’ll be next year, or even next week.  :p

P.S.  The photo above is one I took at Chion-in temple in Kyoto, Japan. The status is a young Honen, before he took tonsure.

¹ Which is kind of a shame since I had kept it up almost daily for 7 weeks.  Better than being a three-day monk.  ;p

A Historical Look at the Pali Canon

Recently, I started reading a collection of essays on early Indian Buddhist history and archeology called Bones, Stones, And Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers On The Archaeology, Epigraphy, And Texts Of Monastic Buddhism In India by Professors Gregory Schopen and Donald S. Lopez Jr.  The book’s stated intention is to show how studies of early Buddhist history have a kind of Western-Protestant bias1 that relies mostly on textual evidence, even archeological evidence proves otherwise.  It’s been a surprisingly interesting read.

One of the topics addressed is the question of how Buddhist texts are evaluated by age and authenticity.

The Pali Canon, for example, is assumed to be the oldest source of Buddhist textual information, and the authors concede that point, but notice the dating (emphasis added):

We know, and have known for some time, that the Pāli canon as we have it—and it is generally conceded to be our oldest source—cannot be taken back further than the last quarter of the first century B.C.E., the date of the Alu-vihāra redaction, the earliest redaction that we can have some knowledge of… (pg. 23)

But immediately after, they warn readers that:

…and that—for a critical history—it can serve, at the very most, only as a source for the Buddhism of this period. (pg. 23)

Later on page 27, they further clarify that the most reliable date is from 29-17 B.C.E.  This is 400-500+ years after the historical Buddha lived.

The book later shows texts did exist in earlier times, but in a scattered form and not in a single canon.  For example during the time of King Aśoka (3rd century B.C.E.):

Although Aśoka in his Bhābrā Edict specifically enjoined both monks and laymen to recite certain texts, which he named, he nowhere in his records gives any indication that he know of a canon, or the classification of texts into nikāyas [divisions of texts used in the Pali canon]. (pg. 24)

Additionally, although the Pali Canon is the oldest known compilation, it that existed centuries after the historical Buddha, not every text or story in the Canon is necessarily the oldest.

The book illustrates a good example of this.  There is a particular story, found in the textual collections of the Mahāsāṇghika, Mahīśāsaka, Dharmaguptaka and in the Pali Canon which concerns the Buddha’s discovery of a stupa for his deceased disciple Kāśyapa. The book explains that all four versions are fairly consistent, though each one embellishes with literary cliches and such. However, seeing these four texts, one would assume that the fact they are pretty consistent would mean “the essential elements of this account must go back to a very old or presectarian stage of the tradition” (pg 28).

However, it turns out there is an obscure fifth source in the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya textual collection at Gilgit. In this version, which has much less literary “padding”, there is no mention of a stupa at all, just the relics of Kāśyapa. The authors postulate that this version is older than the ones found in other collections.

The four versions above are consistent, presumably, because they draw upon a later, more polished version of the story.

This applies to a lot of other things related to early Buddhist historical studies, but the point of this post is focused on the Pali Canon. There’s a general Western assumption that because it is the oldest, it is therefore more accurate than other Buddhist sources at understanding what the early Buddhist community was like, how they lived, etc.

But there’s a few problems with this:

  • The Pali Canon is centuries after the Buddha, so no living person who compiled the canon lived during the time of the Buddha, and cannot attest to whether the texts they draw upon are true or not. They rely on tradition just as much as other early Buddhist schools did.
  • The Pali Canon uses a lot of literary padding, similar to other compilations by other schools.  For example many sutras often end with the same stock ending (translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

    “Magnificent, lord! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. We go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May the Blessed One remember us as lay followers who have gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.”

    Or just look at the repetitive nature of lists enumerated in the Pali Canon sutras. No natural human would talk this way, and so it’s obvious that the information was edited for easier recitation, compilation and memorization.

  • The book also shows in greater detail than can be explained here, that archeological evidence doesn’t always agree with what textual sources imply.  One big example cited by the book is the many examples of stupas that are erected at places like Bhāhut and Sāñci, using donations not by lay-people but mostly by monks, which implied monks did own at least some property despite textual sources implying they didn’t.

Essentially, what the book argues is that information from early Buddhist history and culture should be not exclusively drawn from textual sources, but must be weighed against other evidence, even when it bears some uncomfortable truths (such as monks/nuns owning property).  This rubs against the Western-Protestant cultural tendency toward sola scriptura (by text alone),² but it gives us a more rich and human-centric understanding of how people lived and practiced Buddhism in that era.

1 Another example here.

² In other words, just because a sutra says so doesn’t always mean it’s the final word.

Only Doing the Bare Minimum

Something I noticed in the Contemplation of Amitabha [Buddha] Sutra recently:¹

7. Then the World-honored One said to Vaidehī, “Whoever wishes to be born there [the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha] should be practice the three acts:
first, caring for one’s parents, attending to one’s teachers and elders,
compassionately refraining from killing, and doing the ten good deeds;
second, taking the Three Refuges, keeping the various precepts, and refraining from breaking the rules of conduct; and third, awakening aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta), believing deeply in the law of causality, chanting the Mahayana sutras, and encouraging aging people to follow the teachings. These three are called pure karma.”

The Buddha further said to [Queen] Vaidehī, “Do you know that these three acts are the pure karma practiced by all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future as the right cause of enlightenment?”

But how do you reconcile this with another statement made later when the Buddha describes the nine-grades of followers who are reborn in the Pure Land?  Here he is describing the situation of the lowest level of the lowest grade:

When he is about to die, he may meet a good teacher, who consoles him in various ways, teaching him the wonderful Dharma and urging to be mindful of the Buddha; but he is too tormented by the pain [wracked with guilt and imminent rebirth in the lower realms] to do so.  The good teacher than advises him, ‘If you cannot concentrate on the Buddha then you should say instead, “Homage to Amitāyus Buddha”‘. In this way, he sincerely and continuously says, ‘Homage to Amitāyus Buddha’ (Na-mo-o-mi-t’o-fo) ten times. Because he calls the Buddha’s Name, with each repitition the evil karma tha twould bind him to birth and death for eighty koṭtis of kalpas is extinguished….

The first statement seems fairly clear from a Buddhist perspective: if you aspire for rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha, you should also aspire to assiduously follow the pure Buddhist practices to generate the necessary karma to effect rebirth in the Buddha’s Pure Land.

But the second statement provides a kind of “failsafe” in that if one hasn’t been doing these things, and is otherwise destined to be reborn in the lower realms², then simply reciting the name will extinguish the negative karma and allow one to be reborn.

The trouble though, is that I feel some Buddhists focus so much on the second statement that the whole point of the rest of the sutra is obscured.

I hear (and have met) some Pure Land Buddhists, teachers and writers, describe themselves with a mixture of apathy and self-pity: I am a bad Buddhist, I can’t even follow one precept, I think all kinds of unwholesome thoughts, I’m terrible at meditation, and so on and so forth.  I resonated with this for a long time, but now not so much.

Part of me thinks that this is kind of using the Pure Land teachings as a crutch, especially when one cannot cope with their own failures in Buddhist practice.  They fail, and then just resign themselves using explanations such as Dharma Decline, karmic circumstances, personal faults, etc.

But I really believe this sutra is telling us to keep trying, and keep making an effort, because it’s not just about doing the bare minimum to be reborn in the Pure Land, but to really cultivate wholesome qualities, develop insight, do good, and one’s rebirth in the Pure Land just reflects that.  It’s about effort, not results.  The author of the sutra realized that not everybody can be a great saint, and achieve the highest possible class of rebirth in the Pure Land, hence the second statement is intended to be inclusive.  At the same time, the fact that sutra encourages over and over again to practice wholesome deeds, meditate and live a virtuous lifestyle also means that the sutra doesn’t want you to just do the bare minimum either.

Find your comfort zone, and push the boundaries a little bit, day after day, week after week.  The results will not just speak for themselves in the hereafter, but in this life too.

That’s Buddhism at its best.

¹ Translation by Hisao Inagaki in The Three Pure Land Sutras by BDK English Tripitaka.

² The realms of animals (raw survival), hungry ghosts (constant craving and hunger) and hell (torment, strife, etc).

Happy Birthday, Shakyamuni Buddha!

Hello Dear Readers,

April 8th, according to the Solar Calendar, marks the birth of the historical Buddha, known by Buddhists as Shakyamuni Buddha or “the Buddha of the Shakya clan”.  For folks who follow Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese Buddhism, the Buddha’s birthday falls on different dates according to the lunar calendar.

This video is just a brief overview of the Buddha’s Birthday in the Mahayana tradition and how can appreciate the life of the Buddha.

Enjoy and wishing you warm celebrations!

Doug

P.S. More on the baby Buddha as the lone, world-honored one

Ohanami: Cherry Blossom Viewing

Recently the family and I took a visit to the University of Washington to view the Japanese cherry-blossoms or sakura (桜).  This is a tradition in Japan called ohanami (お花見) which just literally means “flower viewing”.

We missed last year’s viewing due to bad weather,¹ so were happy to view them this year, especially since Little Guy is now old enough to kind of understand.  At the very least, the kids could get some fresh air.  🙂

Here are some photos of our visit:

Untitled   Untitled

My daughter took a few photos too:

Untitled   Untitled

…and she snuck in a photo of me and her little brother:

Untitled

Happy Spring, everyone!

P.S. Past ohanami at the UW and in Japan.

Coping With Failure

A few months back, I was at the local Half-Price Books and found an old copy of Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken.  Normally I shy away from Western Zen books because they tend to be either self-help books with little actual substance, or too dismissive of traditional Buddhist culture.  But it turns out this book was surprisingly engaging and helpful in understanding the Zen path.  I realized at the time that I had misunderstood a lot from my half-assed encounters online, etc.

One thing that always really stood out was this quote:

All of us fear failure, to one degree or another, and prefer not to try something that seems too difficult….However, it is important to understand that Zen training is also a matter of coping with failure. (pg. 27)

I feel that in a lot of ways, my Buddhist practice and choice of path has been dictated by this fear of failure.  You might even call it pride and arrogance.  Later, Rev. Aitken writes:

In the same way, we train ourselves to find our true nature by ignoring the egocentric whims that say, “No, I will sleep in this morning,” or “No, I don’t feel like zazen just now.” (pg. 32)

I have dabbled in various Buddhist practices, including Zen, but inevitably get frustrated almost immediately, quit as soon as I felt lazy, or fear I can’t do it in the long-run, because I can’t bear to do anything less than perfect.  Seen from the outside, this seems quite stupid, but that’s the kind of internal thinking we can subject ourselves too.

This time around though, I realized that the important thing is not to get caught up in over-thinking about this, and just do it.  This is how I’ve learned to cope with failure at my Buddhist practice: don’t overthink it; just keep doing it.  A few weeks ago, I forgot to practice meditation for 4 days, but I didn’t allow myself to get discouraged.  I just picked it up again, and have been keeping it up for a few weeks since.

The nice thing is that the practice has gained momentum, and I have learned to enjoy the practice more, and see it less as a chore.

So, the problem was never the Buddhist practice itself, it was my own inability to cope with failure, but that’s all part of the growth that comes with walking the path.  🙂