The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
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The Basic Doctrine of Mahayana
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The Fourth Council
And by the same token B.C.E. is used in the Buddhist context, which stands for Before Common Era, instead of B.C. meaning Before Christ. The Thais still continue to use the Buddhist year. For example the millennium, the 2000C.E. was the Buddhist year 2543.
He was a Kushana King, one of the central Asian people that ruled over the western India of Afghanistan and Kandahar. These were all Buddhist countries.They were part of the Buddhist world in the 1st cen. C.E.
This text was roughly translated by Edwin Arnold in the famous poem called ‘The light of Asia’, which was based on Ashvaghosa’s Buddhacarita. That poem had a great influence upon the spread of Buddhism, in the interest of Buddhism in the west. Anyway Ashvaghosa was the author of that text and several others including one beautiful text praising the Buddha.
It seemed that Ashvaghosa was invited to attend the council by Kanishka. But he declined because of his advance age. He was too old to travel so far to attend the council. Instead he wrote a letter to the King, the text called the Kanishkalekha. It is one of the whole classes of the Buddhist texts.
We find Nagarjuna writing a letter to a King (Goutamiputra Satakarni) in Suhrillekha. Later still, we find Buddhist scholar Atisha writing letters to various kings. We also find Chos-gyal–phags-pa, a learned Buddhist monk writes a letter to Kublai Khan. Perhaps this is the beginning of the letter writing to the kings. These were not the ordinary letters. They contained teachings.
Kanishkalekha is very beautiful. It contains many important dharma teachings and specially Ashvaghosa trying to persuade the King to give up hunting. He talks about how the king, the deer and so forth that he hunts are basically the same, they both love life and both fear death.
He talks about how the eyes of the deer look when the king is about to shoot them, and how the king should generate pity on them instead of taking their lives. Anyway it helps to determine the date of Ashvaghosa and Kanishka and to put the council sometime at the end of the 1st. cen. CE.
This council was different from other councils in couple of ways.
First of all determining the location of this council is a difficult issue. We are not hundred percent sure where the council took place? It certainly took place in the Northwestern part of India, may have been in Jalandhar in Punjab or may be in Kandahar or may be in some part of Pakistan.
We have Mula-Sarvāstivāda, the Root Sarvāstivāda and the Kashmiri Sarvāstivāda/Vaibhāṣika, with minor differences between the schools. In any case in the fourth council we had the domination of the Sarvāstivādins.
This proliferation of the schools, which began with the first eighteen schools but then they went on. The Buddhist schools tend to divide and sub-divide. This has been a characteristic of Buddhism. In fact it is still the characteristic of Buddhism, Buddhist school or Buddhist center in the modern context as well.
§ 1. Sarvāstivāda
Now, I should tell you little bit about the evolution of the Sarvāstivāda, because Sarvāstivāda was a very important school. (This is why) I said earlier the origin of the Mahāyāna was not a straight forwards, narrow and one directional evolution.
Different schools contributed in their own way to the evolution of the Mahāyāna. Now if you look at the Sarvāstivāda School from their philosophical point of view, they were very Pluralistic and Realistic school.
Sarvāstivāda multiplied and enforced the idea of the self-existing dharma, the self-existing factors. From that point of view they were Ābhidharmika School par excellence. They were most extreme Ābhidharmika School.
Because of this tendency to regard factors as real, as having svabhāva (self-existence, the term we will talk about a lot when we talk about the development of Emptiness doctrine in Mahāyāna) they got into trouble in the third council.
Then again how does the present exists without the past? If you don’t have past and future, what is present? There is no present without past and future also. You only imagine present in relation to past and future.
But how that happens since we are just a bunch of processes, just a collection of aggregates? That heap perish at the point of death. Then what is that and how that is combined with Karma? Where I do get that Karma?
(There are different answers to this. I am sure you know some of the answers. I know some of the answers. We don’t have to know all the answers now). But the Sarvāstivādins came up with a convenient solution.
Everybody come with past factors, the factors, which are real factors, that exist, that have real nature. That factor is called ‘prapti’ which means attribution or ownership. It is like a promissory note or like a report card. When you die and according to the report card you are born as a dog or a king in whatever state you are going to be born.
This is just about as far as you can go, as far as you can get away from the Mahāyāna view of dharma, which is ‘dharmanaitatmya’- non-self, the insubstantiality of the factors. Sarvāstivāda view is just about that, it is opposed to the Mahāyāna view with regard to the description of reality, the description of what actually exist.
2.1. Close relation with laity
First of all, they had very close and continuous relation with the laity. The Sarvāstivāda centers, the temples and the monasteries- most of them were in the cities, in urban areas. They had walkways where the population, the ordinary people can come and circumambulate the temple.
The monks were living in the borders; they would carry out their monastic duties. But the lay people use to come in the monasteries, circumambulate the temples and shrines. The monasteries were located in the cities in the urban centers. The monks had continuous contact
Now, of course, they also exist in the Theravāda countries, but in those days it was the characteristics of the Sarvāstivāda. For example, in Taxila, the great Buddhist center in the Northwestern sub continent of India the monastery was situated in the city.
The other point, which is more important, the Sarvāstivādins became extremely interested in the previous lives of the Buddha. They focused on the Jataka stories, on the various portrayals of the Jataka stories. They fostered and promoted the cult of the Jataka.
They were fascinated by the previous lives of the Shakyamuni. Then they began to talk about the Three Vehicle and the legitimacy and the acceptability of the three vehicles. So these are the Mahāyāna characteristics,
which were noticeable in the Sarvāstivāda. Finally, they began to promote the idea that their great teacher, for example one of the head of the Sarvāstivāda School, the monk by the name of Sanghamitra was a Bodhisattva and he would become a future Buddha. So by the 1st cen. CE
Sarvāstivāda had a conception whereby a whole row, a whole queue of their teachers lined up behind Maitreya wait to become future Buddha. Of course the first was Maitreya, then Sanghamitra then so and so forth. This is also very Mahayanic conception.
they promoted close relationship with the laity. They foster and develop the cult of Jataka based on the previous lives of the Buddha and they developed the conception of a long line of future Buddha, the long line of Bodhisattvas, the long line of the masters who were Bodhisattvas who would in course of time become Buddha. Thus they had a lot to contribute to the Mahāyāna.
The Mahāsaṅghikās concentrated on their conception of the Buddha emphasizing supramundane or super natural qualities of the Buddha.They did not talk a lot about the Bodhisattva Path or future Buddha and so forth. Sarvāstivādins, on the other hand did not talk much about the Buddha’s qualities but they did cultivate and develop perfections of the Bodhisattva career to become the Buddha.
The formative influences, which made up the Mahāyāna, came from various forces not only from Mahāsaṅghikās. Even the Vātsīputrīyas, according to the text, had contributed to the Mahāyāna. I will talk about it later. But the various schools- they all had something to contribute to the Mahāyāna conception. Mahāyāna conception was a product of multiple influences coming out of various schools that developed after the second council.
It is also not merely accidental or coincidental that Sarvāstivādins used Sanskrit as their medium of instruction or as their medium of their texts. We know that the Mahāyāna language is Sanskrit. So the formation and the development of Mahāyāna also depends upon Sarvāstivāda contribution. It is also indebted to the contribution of Sarvāstivāda.
§ 3. Sautrantika
The interesting issue that rose at the fourth council is that, by the fourth council, we have another school. There were two schools, which were most important schools; they debated on the orthodoxy, on the authenticity of their teachings at the fourth council.
One was the Sarvāstivāda that we were talking about; the other one is a relatively new, relatively ill-defined school. This school is called Sautrantika. The Sautrantika were the school that began to be critical of the Realism, Pluralism of the Sarvāstivāda. So many of the factors that
The meaning of the name Sautrantika comes from the term ’Sūtra’, that is, those who adhere to Sūtra. When you look into the textbooks on the evolution of the Buddhist schools, the principal division is noticed between the Sautrantika and the Sarvāstivāda.
The principle differences according to the most of the traditional text books is that, the Sarvāstivādins believed that the Abhidharma was the word of the Buddha whereas the Sautrantikas did not accept that. Sautrantikas say that they have to go back to the Sūtras;
Sanskrit. These are few pieces of puzzle that came into the hand of scholars; they are putting some kind of picture together of what happened during the five hundred years, from the time of Buddha until the 1stcentury CE. So the Sautrantikas rejected the Abhidharma.
This is also very interesting because they became very anti Mahāyāna because when the Theravāda or Hinayanists 1 said to the Mahayanists, ‘O look, we don’t accept your scriptures, we don’t accept the Mahāyāna Sūtras’.
The proponent of the Mahāyāna could always come back and say, ‘you people also don’t agree upon the Sūtras, you also don’t agree upon the text’, because the Sautrantikas do not accept the Abhidharma while the Vaibhāṣikas do.
So this is one of the issues that rose at the fourth council. Is or is not the Abhidharma the word of the Buddha? I don’t want to try to answer this question in the context of this course. Very briefly,
In fact, we have discourses in the Sutta Pitaka are Ābhidharmika in their character. Anyway, at this council the Vaibhāṣikas, the Sarvāstivādins, they were victorious, they won the debate at the council and the Sautrantikas were disgraced.
Again, the Sautrantikas did not go away and disappear. The Sautrantikas in a sense disappeared but they remained very important because of their critical attitude, because they became to some extent anti-realistic.
I want to make sure you understand what I mean by saying ‘realistic’ school as opposed to one that is ‘critical’. It is a very basic division in philosophy. What it means is that a Realistic school believe that things exist in their own right.
They exist by themselves. 1 I don’t like to use the word Hīnayāna. It is a polemical term that was evolved, according to some, as a result of the division in the second council, the Sthavira, the elders called the dissenting party(those who carried the salt in the horn and so forth), ‘papa bhikkhus’, the sinful monks.
The sinful monks retaliated by calling the elders the followers of Hīnayāna, i.e. Lesser Vehicle. I am not sure about the truth of the story, but it is the story that has come down to us for centuries.
In other words, it is just a product of mind. It is just something that exists by combination of circumstances. So this critical quality of Sautrantika became extremely important and became one of the major characteristics of Mahāyāna, particularly of the Madhyamaka School.
Even of the Yogacara School of the Mind Only School, where everything becomes mind. So in that sense, Sautrantika who were the losers at the fourth council nonetheless their idea also filtered through in the Mahāyāna doctrine and remained important because of that.
Although the Sarvāstivāda School actually from that point did not disappear, but it never really gain much more importance.
These were inscribed on the copper sheets. We have some literary production as the result of the views of the Kashmiri Vaibhāṣikas, the Vaibhāṣikas that were at the council. We have for example Abhidharmakosha of Vasubandhu, which convey the point of view of the Vaibhāṣikas.
This was the peak of the Sarvāstivāda contribution to the evolution of the Buddhist thought. On one hand, they had very elaborate treatment of the dharmas, very realistic Abhidharma(incidentally, more realistic even than the Theravāda Abhidharma) on the other hand they advocated the notion of Bodhisattva, the future Buddha and the cult of the Jatakas, the former lives of the Buddha. These were the contributions of the Sarvāstivāda.
After that, they continued to remain for several hundred years but they never really made any important philosophical contribution. So we have come to the end of the stories of the councils. I tried to highlight some aspects that were important or significant for understanding the origin of the Mahāyāna.
4. Mahāyāna at Early Stage
The councils never really addressed the issues of Mahāyāna. They never directly confronted the Mahāyāna. The councils were like meetings of several monks, something of that nature. They had their own strategies, their own point of view.
They were the meetings of the Hīnayāna schools belonging to the Abhidharma schools. They really did not address the issues or the challenges of the Mahāyāna. But, all of a sudden by the 1st. cen. CE we find the Mahāyāna became very popular. have been taught and established all over.
§ 1. Where did the Mahāyāna texts come from?
I struggled myself with this issue for a long time, because the Theravāda tradition gives us a very realistic, natural and a very normal account of the origin of the Theravāda texts, the Pali texts. They say, Ānanda remembered what the Buddha taught.
The Arhats got together at the death of the Buddha. They collected what Ānanda had remembered and recalled of the teachings of the Buddha and all the teachings were compiled. Thus we have Theravāda canon.
But, for the Mahāyāna, it is more difficult. It is more difficult because what does the Mahāyāna tell about their texts. We just have very brief reference of Mahāsaṅghikā making selection of their own texts. None of the Mahāyāna tradition paid too much attention to that. All of a sudden we have Mahāyāna texts appearing here, there and everywhere.
1.1. The legend
And if you look at the accounts of the Mahāyāna itself, what the writers, historians of the Mahāyāna say about the origin of the Mahāyāna texts? They say, that the texts came from Maitreya, the future Buddha.
The future Buddha gave a bunch of Mahāyāna texts to Asaṅga. Mañjuśrī, another Mahāyāna Bodhisattva came down from heaven to give some other texts. Nāgārjuna happen to notice, while giving a lecture one day outdoor, three young men disappeared beneath the ground.
Now it is easy for a Western objective historian to accept the traditional Theravāda account of the origin of their Canon, as it is fairly straightforward. It is quite straightforward, something we all can understand. In making allowances for the fact that the Theravāda Canon existed as the oral tradition and was not written down until five hundred years after the Parinirvāṇa of the Buddha, it leaves room for quite a few slips.
It leaves room for quite a few discrepancies in the sense that we all can admit that the monks had fantastically good memories, but even so, the oral tradition that goes on for five hundred years; we have to wonder if there weren’t some slippage, some change and some diversion from the original story? Still the process is within our normal range of experience, something that happens all the time. Change can take place. Of course there can be discrepancies.
In those days there weren’t any photocopies. In those days they didn’t have written texts. They had oral tradition. I am not saying oral tradition is not reliable. Surely it is. People used to rely on oral tradition those days. We now rely on our notes. That’s why we can’t remember anything.
But Mahāyāna story is more difficult to swallow. It had the Bodhisattvas, the future Buddhas came down to give texts and so and so forth. I was thinking about this problem. It was different probably in the 1st cen. CE. Nowadays if you tell someone that this text came down from Maitreya or the Bodhisattva, you tend to be skeptical and don’t believe that but in the 1st. century CE it was different. They would consider it was really important and special teaching.
I think it was a matter of prestige and importance in ascribing the origin of Mahāyāna Sūtras to the celestial beings, to the extra ordinary beings, to the future Buddha, to the Bodhisattva Maitreya and to the Nāgas in the 1st cen. CE. It was not something that made people skeptical. It was something that people believed, because in those days people believed.
Unfortunately, it is our own loss that we don’t believe.
We should believe more. We have become too scientific; we have become too objective. I am not against science, but in fact, we have narrowed our capacities, understanding and our ability to appreciate by demanding certain criteria.
The fact is that accept or not the major Mahāyāna texts, the major Mahāyāna texts were in existent in the 1st. cen. CE. Where did they come from? Did they come from Maitreya? Were they preserved in the memories of other schools? People like Purana, the people who were sort of outsider of the mainstream and who had other memories? This is quite possible.
Let us just put aside all these for a moment. I don’t think any school of Buddhism actually deny for a little bit of faith. Historical fact about the major Mahāyāna texts was in existent by the 1st cen. CE. This is the final point I want to make about the canon.
If you look the question objectively and scientifically, there is very little to divide Theravāda texts from the Mahāyāna texts, in the sense that the Theravāda texts were written down in about 50 BCE five hundred years after the time of the Buddha in the middle of the 1st cen. BCE.
The major Mahāyāna texts we know were already in existent in the 1st cen. CE. So in strictly historical terms, in terms of texts (when I say text, I mean the physical doctrine, the written text, the canon, not the tradition) we see there is hardly hundred years of separation of the Theravāda texts from the Mahāyāna texts.
Maybe not that much even, because some of the major Mahāyāna Sūtras like Lotus Sūtra and the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra could very well have been written down in the 1st cen. BCE. So what I am saying that the idea that the Theravāda texts were factually, historically and objectively earlier than the Mahāyāna Sūtras/Scriptures cannot be sustained satisfactorily. It cannot be proven. There is no hard evidence that the Theravāda texts or the Theravāda canon as written down were substantially older than the Mahāyāna canon or the Mahāyāna scripture.
If we are talking about oral tradition, then again, it is an open question because, just as the Theravāda texts could have survived in oral tradition, Mahāyāna texts could also have existed in oral tradition.
If we talk about document, talking about written text, the date is so close together, it is hard to make any judgment about priority and decide which one is earlier and which is later. The question of earlier and later is very shaky one. It is difficult to maintain and difficult to defend in objective, historical and scientific terms. So my point is, you cannot discard the Mahāyāna scriptures by saying that they were mere invention.
It is also true that in terms of written document, actual physical document. Not too many years ago the British Library came upon in quite a mysterious circumstances a set of texts from eastern Afghanistan, they were written in kharoṣṭhī and were dated from 1st – 2nd cen. CE.
They contained the Discourse of Rhinoceros and so forth. But apart from that, you know the oldest Buddhist printed text about which the most scholarship agree, is the Cutting of the Diamond Sūtra, the Vajracchedikā Sūtra which dated from 868 CE that is six hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.
This is the oldest printed document. So if we are talking about document, we don’t have any real evidence upon which to make a statement about whether Theravāda teaching or Mahāyāna teaching was earlier or older or first.
Now, let this question about the antiquity of canon put aside and talk about the psychology and sociology of Buddhism during this period, the period of five hundred years after the time of the Buddha. During this period you had, at best I can tell, three groups who were representing different inclinations and different interests within the Buddhist community. You had the Sthaviras, the elder monks, you had the junior monks and you had the laity or the lay people. These three groups reflex different degrees of inclinations.
The elders, the Sthaviras were very conservatives. Their interests were always in preservation. They would say, ‘keep all the precepts, don’t throw out even the most minor precept and hold fast to the doctrine as it was formulated during the first council’. Their philosophy and attitude were for conservation. ◌ Then you have junior monks, who were more liberal. They were interested in other ideas and open to other interpretations. They were willing in practice not in letters but to relax in some of the precepts.
◌ And finally you have the lay people who had their own interest. They their own agenda. They wanted a Buddhism that meant something to them in their everyday life. They wanted the Sarvāstivāda monasteries right in the middle of the city.
They all were not in a position to ride on the elephant and visit the learned monks in their monasteries in the forest. They wanted to be close to the Buddhist community, to their masters and to the monks.
So the elders, the juniors and the laity- they all had their own priorities and their own inclinations. The story of the rise and popularity of the Mahāyāna is really the story of how these three groups played off against each other and how they adopted, how they developed or made their choices, how they interpreted the teachings of the Buddha and how they interpreted Buddhism. The principal choice they had to make between the two ideals of the religious life.
The junior monks and the lay people –they were given choice. They could be Buddhist, follow the Buddhist path and have in mind the ideal of the Arhat, the ideal of the Individual liberation, the idea of entering into Parinirvāṇa.
This is one choice they can make given by the elders, the conservatives. On the other hand, the younger liberal monks of the Mahāyāna tradition offered them another choice. They say, “follow the example of the Buddha, be a Bodhisattva”.
Here you have liberal interpretation of the discipline (the monastic codes) you have many life-times to develop perfections, develop the quality and the end of the day you can become a Buddha with all the qualities, with all the attributes that the Buddha possesses.
So when the people of the 1st cen. CE were presented with the choice to become an Arhat to follow the way of the Elders to become an Arhat and disappear into Nirvāṇa or to become a Buddha, to follow the way of the Bodhisattva all the way to Mahāyāna, practice the Bodhisattva path, although it is long and difficult yet you will have a lot of interesting experiences on the way, and eventually you will become a Buddha.
Why not follow the Bodhisattva path? Why not take your ideal as the ideal Bodhisattva rather than the ideal of an Arhat? And I think that it was this choice that carry even today, for instance, that is why the Mahāyāna became so popular throughout India, throughout Central Asia.
That is why there was attraction of Mahāyāna in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. In most cases the Mahāyāna was eventually eliminated from these countries because of political and other reasons but the Mahāyāna gained great popularity because of this ideal of Bodhisattva.
It was very appealing and no matter in what condition you ascribe it to. (And in fact, I hesitate to say this in front of many members of the Saṅgha,) I believe there are many members of the Theravāda Saṅgha who pursue the Bodhisattva path, who aspire to become Bodhisattva.
So, I think, even in the Theravāda tradition you will find many practitioners, and it is possible as I told you earlier that Theravāda did not reject the Bodhisattva path. It did not reject the goal of Buddhahood. What it said that it is very difficult. It is a long road, so may as well strive to become an Arhat. But I think personally that Mahāyāna can be accounted for by its appeal, the attraction that the choice of Bodhisattva path it had.
In addition to that Mahāyāna had all other elements, we might call it “marketing technique” nowadays. It had all other things, like the figures of the Bodhisattvas, the glorious figures with all their supernatural qualities. Mahāyāna had all these what came to be called, skillful means, skillful devices the way whereby the pupil is led by stages so that if he cannot do this practice, he can do another practice. You have choices; you don’t have only one or two practices.
There are many different practices (according to your inclination and ability). Then you have great compassion of the Mahāyāna. The fact the Mahāyāna is always ready to hear, have compassion. If you make a mistake there is always another chance. “Alright, you made a mistake, you may not got it quite right this time, never mind, try again, it will be alright.”
This sort of attitude of the Mahāyāna won over the laity and that’s why Mahāyāna was able to achieve such great popularity throughout and as the result of this it became an important tradition within Buddhism and it spread through Central Asia, China and so forth.
and the emergence of the full-fledged Mahāyāna in the 1st cen. CE Before I move to the next topic – Mahāyāna element within the Pali sources, I like to make a last point. The point is what about the five hundred years between the lifetime of the Buddha and the emergence of the full-fledged Mahāyāna in the 1st cen. CE. The scholars have agreed now that the full-fledged Mahāyāna emerged by the 1st cen. CE.
So the point I want to make is, what about these five hundred years between the life of the Buddha and the 1st cen. CE which distinct the Theravāda /Sthaviravada tradition on the one hand and Mahāyāna tradition which was already popular and widespread on the other.
It is true that now we know more than hundred years ago, but that does not mean we know everything. We don’t know enough to make a complete picture about what happened during that five hundred years. This period is still very obscure and clouded and no wonder, it was two hundred years ago. And there were very few historical records. I will give you just one example, which will illustrate how little we knew about that period.
One hundred or so years ago there has always been existed in the Buddhist countries, in the Theravāda Buddhist countries particularly (but even in the Mahāyāna Buddhist countries) a legend about a great Buddhist Emperor called Ashoka who was converted to Buddhism and who
Then when the British begun to excavate various parts around India, they begun to come across these rock inscriptions, pillar inscriptions and so forth all over India. There were many of them. There were 32 major rock edicts and 18 minor edicts.
So they began to find one by one these rock inscriptions.
The British archaeologists who were working on this project became very much puzzled, because these inscriptions all referred to one “Piyadasi.” They all wondered about the identity of this ‘Piyadasi’.
They wondered who was this great king who went around inscribed on the stone with Buddhist Sutta? It took them quite a long time to put two together and realize that the Ashoka of the Buddhist legend and the Piyadasi of the rock and pillar inscriptions are the same person. It took them a long time to come around that conclusion.
For long time they wondered who was the Piyadasi. Incidentally there were earlier Indologists who doubted the Buddha ever existed. So you see when we try to put things together of the early period, the first five hundred years after the time of the Buddha, we have very limited materials to work with. We have very little hard evidence. Now it is getting better.
A lot of materials are coming right now not from that period but from the post Common Era period. They are throwing some light in the evolution of the schools within that five hundred years in question. It is still a period, which is very much shrouded and covered by the time.
I tend to be a little bit practical in this respect, from my point of view, and it does not matter too much. We have the Mahāyāna, we have the Theravāda and we have the teachings. If we are primarily interested in practice then really it doesn’t matter too much. It may be helpful to know all these to write a dissertation for a Ph. D. degree but not in liberation.
So we really don’t need to be worry about which school of the Mahāsaṅghikas tells which view because all the schools are now dust-all the schools that contributed to the Buddhism that existed later, developed later. In some degree it is academic “exercise.” We don’t have to worry too much about that.
Now I find it actually more interesting than the historical discussion of the evolution of the schools and here I want to talk about the elements of Mahāyāna that are found in the Theravāda tradition.
I began this course by referring to the fact that we need to look at the life, the career and the teachings of the Buddha to find the fundamental and the essential model for the Mahāyāna path/for the Mahāyāna tradition. I want to be more specific. I want to be textual.
I want to look at the Pali canon. I want to look for the evidence in the Pali canon for the important Mahāyāna doctrine. And there are lots. The lots do not mean in terms of quantity but the evidences of the Mahāyāna that are found in the Theravāda sources are very weighty and are very convincing. It carries a lot of importance.
First of all, I want to refer to the Buddha’s decision to teach. Now someone here raised a question in the morning, if the Buddha was so compassionate and he could have lived for an eon, why did he pass into Parinirvāṇa and abandoned everybody and why Ānanda had to take the blame (for not asking the Buddha to live).
There is also similar answer in the Pali canon also. Shortly after the enlightenment of the Buddha, which is recorded in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, the Buddha was thinking to himself, This dharma which I have discovered is very deep, very profound. Most people are too much caught up in the passion, in the poisons of this world.
They are not going to understand, and appreciate this deep dharma. If I were to explain the dharma to them and they don’t understand, it will be a nuisance to me, it will be trouble for me. So why should not I just rest. Why shouldn’t I just enjoy the fruit of realization?
Now again, if the Buddha is so compassionate why did he think in that way? But this is said in the Pali text. The Buddha decided to go away. Now what happened? Here you need the intervention of the gods even in the Theravāda tradition to make things happen. Because even according to the Theravāda tradition, the Buddha might never had the power if gods did not make him to see the old man, the sick man, the corpse and the ascetic. So the intervention of gods was very important.
The gods made him to see those sights. Here again (after the enlightenment) the Buddha was thinking retiring into Parinirvāṇa without teaching. There is another text where Mara comes to Buddha and said, “O. K. now yow have become a Buddha, why don’t you go into Parinirvāṇa.” But the Buddha refused.
According to the Ariyapariyasena Sutta when the Buddha reflected in this way (that it would betrouble for me; it would be nuisance for me if I try to teach and the people don’t understand it). Brahma Sahampati comes to the Buddha. He is the highest of the gods.
He knows what the Buddha is thinking. He kneels down in front of the Buddha and said, “Lord, please don’t think about retiring. Teach the dharma for the benefit of the world and so forth.” Now here one might say why the Buddha needed Brahma’s intervention? I think again it was for the prestige for the people of that time. It was something significant if the highest of the gods come and requested the Buddha to teach. It also makes the relationship between the Buddha and highest gods of the Brahmanical religion quite clear. The highest of the Brahmanical gods were the devotees, disciples and the supplicants at the feet of the Buddha. Anyway, Brahma Sahampati comes and said to the Buddha, “O lord, you must teach, otherwise the world would be at lost etc.” The Buddha reflects and thinks again and says, “Well, in fact there are some people in this world who have little dust in their eyes, they will be able to understand, they are not all close minded just as the some lotuses in the pond.”
So he decided to teach. Now to my mind, this is the beginning of the Mahāyāna, right there, when the Buddha decided to teach and not to retire into nirvāṇa. This is the beginning of the Mahāyāna. He decided out of compassion for the benefit of the beings of the world to teach. This is absolutely Mahayanic in its tone, in its character.
§ 2. The Mulapariyaya Sutta
The next point I want to make is that, you need to look in the text, in the Mulapariyaya Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. It is very difficult text. It is one of the two texts, which are different from the rest of the Pali Suttas.
Normally in the Pali Suttas after the Buddha delivered his sermons, at the end everybody is happy, everybody praise the Buddha. But the Mulapariyaya Sutta is one of the exceptions where at the end the discourse monks were not happy; they did not like the discourse. Although the commentary of the Sutta would explain that at the end of the discourse every body praise the Buddha and said how nice the discourse was but the actual text ends with the monks being dissatisfied with the Sutta as it was very difficult to comprehend.
But the point that I want to make about the Sutta is that, it distinguishes very clearly the Buddha from the Arhat. According to this Sutta, the Buddha is without any conception, the Buddha is free from all conceptions and the Buddha is free from all relations.
The Buddha’s mind, his consciousness is untraceable. So he is different from the Arhat. And he is different from the Arhat, why? Because even when he has precise omniscience of the Buddha, he is referred as an Arhat but he is also referred as “saṃyak saṃbuddha”, Perfectly Enlightened one (Pali: sammāsambodhi).
The achievement of the Buddha is different from the achievement of the Arhat. The Buddha has “anuttara-saṃyak-saṃbodhi”, highest perfect enlightenment, as it is said in the Mahāyāna tradition. And this is the characteristic of the Buddha that distinguishes the Buddha from the Arhat. Nowhere in the Pali texts we have any suggestion that the Buddha and Arhats are equal. The Buddha is always superior to the Arhats.
I will just tell you a story that illustrates this point; the time of the Buddha’s passing away, this is related in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta of the Pali text. The Buddha is passing away and Ānanda is standing near to the Buddha. The Buddha asked Ānanda to stand aside. [ One of the Arhat thought the Buddha’s rebuke to Ānanda very strange as Ānanda was Buddha’s faithful servant for all these years. Why did the Buddha rebuke him in this way at the point of death? So he asked the Buddha why did he rebuke Ānanda in this way? The Buddha said, there thousands, millions of devas, yakkhas and other beings crowded all around so tightly that one cannot put a blade or knife between one and the other and they all assembled to see the Tathāgata before he enters into Parinirvāṇa and Ānanda is blocking their view. He is standing between the Tathāgata and the assembly of the extraterrestrial beings.
Here also you can see immediately the difference between the Buddha and the Arhat. The Arhats were not aware of this fact. The Buddha could see all these beings walking together looking at the Tathāgata at that moment. So the Buddha had incredible power that the Arhats did not share.
Then we have various references in the Pali texts, which equate the Buddha with the dharma. The exact reference of this equation in the Pali texts is difficult to find. The equation of the Buddha and the Dharma runs like this, “The monk who sees Interdependent Co-arising sees the Dharma.
He who sees the Dharma sees the Buddha.” I found the first part of it, “The monk who sees Interdependent Co-arising sees the Dharma” in the Mahā-hatthipadopama Sutta, the Great Elephant Footprint Simile Discourse delivered by Sariputta. The last part, the important part I haven’t found it yet. It does exist in the Mahāyāna Sūtra called Shalistambha Sūtra.
Generally in the Pali texts, “He who sees the dharma sees the Buddha” suggests that the Buddha’s physical form is not that important. What is important is seeing the Dharma, he who sees the Dharma, sees the Buddha.
So again, here is the equation between the Buddha and the Dharma. The reality of the Buddha is not in the physical body; the reality of the Buddha is the Dharma, if you like what it came to be called “dharmakāya”, the dharma body of the Buddha in the Mahāyāna tradition. So we already have a suggestion of the ‘dhammakāya’ in the Pali texts.
§ 5. Is the Buddha an extra ordinary being?
There is a very interesting episode that took place during the lifetime of the Buddha. It is an amazing story. If you think about the story, it gives everybody lot of foods for thought. There was a cowshed belonged to a certain person.
The Buddha once wanted a shelter for the night. So he asked the owner of the cowshed whether he could stay in the cowshed for the night? The owner said he didn’t have any objection but there was another ascetic who came earlier and the owner had already given him the permission to stay.
Nowadays when you meet someone you usually exchange cards and introduce yourself as who you are and so forth. In those days you did not do that. You answer if you are asked but it wasn’t necessary to introduce yourself. So the Buddha didn’t say who he was. In the morning the Buddha asked the monk where he was going? The monk said he was going to such and such place to meet the Buddha. The Buddha said fine and the Buddha left.
Later the ascetic asked the owner of the cowshed about the identity of the Buddha. The owner said that he was the Buddha. The ascetic didn’t see the Buddha even though he spent the night with him in the same location.
He didn’t recognize the Buddha. So even during the time of the Buddha, even the Buddha was there in flesh and blood and even you spend the night with the Buddha you can miss him if you don’t have the right Karma /don’t have the right purity of mind. The ascetic realized his mistake. The story had a relatively happy ending, although the ascetic got killed but was reborn in one of the heaven. It makes you think, no? The Buddha could be in this room right now.
We wouldn’t know. So there is this element of mystery about the Buddha. You see it, you don’t see it, where is the Buddha? Can you see the Buddha? Even in the Pali sources, in the Theravāda tradition the Buddha has always been a super mundane being, not an ordinary being.
I know, it has been very popular in the last century to talk about the humanistic nature of the Buddha, the Buddha being a human. Surely, the Buddha was a man but after becoming a Buddha he was no longer a man in that sense.
The Buddha always referred himself as Tathāgata, he would say, Tathāgata would go to Uruvela and so forth. He referred himself in third person. So according to the Theravāda tradition the Buddha was always a super mundane being. I don’t think in any Theravāda countries the Buddha is considered as an ordinary human being. Some of you are from Thailand.
Some of you are coming from Sri Lanka and other Theravāda countries. You tell me, the Buddhists of Thailand and Sri Lanka and so forth do they regard the Buddha was an ordinary man? Of course not. This has happened, because in some extent, when Buddhism first went to the West hundred years ago or so, that was the period of rationalism. At that period Buddhism was promoted as rational.
To portray Buddhism as rational, the founder of the religion the Buddha was portrayed as a man, as an ethical teacher. So the picture of the Buddha as human being was got set into the Theravāda tradition. So you get lot of intellectuals in the Theravāda countries following the descriptions, the conceptions of the Buddha that was promoted in the West at that time.
The Buddha performed all kinds of miracles but the elder Kassapa just ignored them. The Kassapa happen to have a burning chamber where a Nāga supposed to live. So the Buddha asked the permission of the Kassapa brother, to stay in that chamber. The Kassapa brother said that the Nāga would burn anybody stay in that chamber. But the Buddha insisted to stay in that chamber. The Kassapa brother had to agree. The whole night the chamber burnt brightly giving forth flames. So everybody thought that the fire engulfed the Buddha. In the morning the Buddha came out of the chamber, perfectly well and serine and in his begging bowl he had a little snake, the Nāga that was difficult to subdue.
The Buddha survived staying in that burning chamber throughout the night. The Buddha performed all kinds of miracles. He performed miracles for the Shakyas and for the opponents. So the westernized version of Buddhism tends to ignore the miracles.
When I was in working on the school project in Singapore, the Government asked us not to put any miracles in the texts books. I don’t know why? Christians have their own miracles, why can’t we have our miracles? In fact, I rewrote that part of the text and put miracles.
Then there are questions of manifestations. What about the manifestations of the Buddha? What about the story of queen Kshema/Khema? She was the queen of King Bimbisara of Magadha during the time of the Buddha.
The King wanted her to become interested in the Dharma. So one day as a skillful device (upāya kauśalya), the King asked the queen to visit the beautiful bamboo grove knowing that the Buddha was staying. So she went to see the bamboo grove.
When the Buddha saw her coming, the Buddha created magically a figure of a beautiful young woman. As the queen Kshema had some interest in beautiful things, became fascinated by the beauty of that magically created woman. Undoubtedly she thought whether that woman was more beautiful than her or not.
So as she was looking at this beautiful woman, within the space of few minutes, the woman became old, her skin became wrinkled, her hair became white, her teeth fell out and collapsed on the ground and reduced to bones. And this was all a show.
And in fact queen Kshema understood the truth of impermanence. Soon she became a nun. In fact she became one of the famous and few nuns who even taught the monks on philosophy, on impermanence and on wisdom.
This is the debate between the Mahāyāna and the Theravāda about the supernatural nature of the Buddha how supernatural was he? Well, in the Theravāda tradition, they have one view, in the Mahāyāna tradition they have another view. There was no real debate that he was super mundane or not. He was certainly super mundane.
He was not an ordinary man. Then how extra- ordinary was he? Well, we will see when we read the Mahāyāna Sūtras. But there is no real argument about even looking at the Theravāda texts that the Buddha was certainly an extra ordinary being.
§ 6. Unanswered Questions
Now, we have the whole story of Buddha’s negations.
I don’t have the right word for that. We can call it Buddha’s Philosophy. One of the most important Mahāyāna text, the Mulamadhyamakakarika, in fact some people believe that entire MMK which is the great edifice of Nagarjuna was based on the Kaccayanagotta Sutta of the Pali canon. (We will be reading some excerpts from the writing of Nagarjuna’s text).
Even though, Nagarjuna is said to have discovered the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra from the Nāga world, in his text he almost exclusively cites quotations/the statements of the Buddha from the texts of the Pali Canon. So according to some Mulamadhyamakakarika is the commentary of Kaccayanagotta Sutta.
What does the Buddha say to Kaccayana? The discourse is on the right view.The Buddha said the world is refused to rely upon existence and non-existence. You cannot achieve liberation so long you rely on existence and non-existence. You have to go beyond existence and non-existence to achieve liberation. And in this same vein we have the famous silence of the Buddha. Why did not Buddha reply to those fourteen propositions? Why those fourteen were ‘avyakata’?
◌ whether the world is finite or not (both finite and infinite, neither finite nor infinite), (4) ◌ the world is eternal or not (both eternal and not-eternal, neither eternal nor non-eternal),(4) ◌ is soul identical with the body or not (both, neither). (4) ◌ does Tathāgata lives after death or not. (2)
The Buddha refused to answer any one of these questions. Actually there are four alternatives for the first three questions about the world is finite, infinite, both, neither; the world is eternal, not, both, neither. The Tathāgata lives after death, not, both or neither.
There are so many of them in the Pali canon. You find them in the Avyakata Sutta (AN 7.51), in the Culamalunkyovada Sutta (MN 63), in the Aggivaccagotta Sutta and in the Tittha Sutta and so on. You findthem again and again in the Pali canon and everywhere the Buddhacrefused to agree with these propositions. Why he refused to agree withcthese propositions? This has been the great perplexity for the scholars. Why did he remain silent? Some people would say probably the
Buddha did not know. Some people would say the Buddha was primarily considered ethics, these are meta-physical questions and the Buddha was not interested in them. These are not satisfactory answers. There are certainly some practical reasons for not accepting, not admitting these fourteen views. The Buddha more or less disclosed, more or less indicated the reasons by saying that these questions are tend to edification.
In Culamalunkyovada Sutta, he said, “It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ … “And why are they undisclosed by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undisclosed by me. “And what is disclosed by me? ‘
This is stress,’ is disclosed by me. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is disclosed by me. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is disclosed by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is disclosed by me. And why are they disclosed by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are disclosed by me.” (Go there)
Partly the reasons are obvious not about the first question about the world exists infinitely or whether it comes to an end – these are questions about time and space. The world exists or not, whether it is infinite or not, it has an end in space and time, and of course there is a reason not to answer these questions, because if you answer these questions either way or in any way, there is no point to practice. Why practice any way if the world is going to end tomorrow?
There is no point to practice. The world is going to end any way. If the world is not going to end, then again there is no point to practice no matter how much you practice you will never get out of it. So they are not answered.
The questions about the Tathāgata after death are also interesting. They are interesting because they could state the idea of Nirvāṇa has extinction. The Buddha explicitly said that Nirvāṇa is not non-existence.
It does not say Tathāgata after death does not exist. This also came in the discourse of Yamaka where Shariputra talked t. Yamaka had this idea that the Tathāgata does not exist after death. Shariputra told Yamaka that one cannot say Tathāgata does or does not exist after death. One cannot say he exists after death. And even more, even now, when Tathāgata is here among us walking here and there, talking to us, even now you cannot say whether he exists or does not exist, never mind after death. Even when Tathāgata is alive one cannot say whether he exists or does not exist.
Now there is the point about soul or self of living beings, whether it is identical with body or different from body? And again the Buddha refused to answer these questions. Why did he refuse to answer these questions? That is why everybody criticized Vātsīputrīyas and Sarvāstivādins because they had the doctrine of the existence of ‘pudgala’ and ‘trikaya.’ But the fact is that it is very difficult if you take a radical, an absolute view of ‘not self.’ It is difficult to
explain moral responsibility. It is difficult to explain rebirth and karma. You cannot say ‘not self ‘ as an absolute truth. This I found in the west. In west people are very happy to hear ‘not self’. They are happy to hear ‘not self’ because, they think, since there is no self, no- one is going to be reborn and one can do whatever one wants.
The thing is the Buddha taught ‘self’ to some people, to the materialists and certainly most of the people are materialists today certainly most people are materialists as in the past. To those people the Buddha taught ‘self’.
He taught ‘not self’ to those who believed in rebirth and karma, who believed in performing good actions and then because he did not want them to be trapped in Saṃsāra forever because of believing in ‘self’. So these fourteen questions are in many ways the heart of Mahāyāna Philosophy. They are the heart of Madhyamaka view of reality.
§ 7. Emptiness
He said, just as the flame of the oil lamp burn depending upon the wick and the oil, the flame does not exist in the wick, it does not exist in the oil, it does not exist anywhere in between, in the same way all things that exist in dependency. They are without self- existence, without svabhāva, hence are empty.
The Buddha said, all phenomena were like foam, like bubble, they had no substance. The Buddha used the parable of raft. He said, “you have to abandon all dharmas, you don’t have to hold even to the good dharma. The dharma is like a raft. Once you cross over the river you don’t carry the raft on your shoulder. You have to let go of it.”
The Buddha talked about the discourse dealing with śūnyatā. He said the monks of the future generation they will be interested in poetic discourses. They will be interested in the discourses adorned with pretty words made by the poets. They won’t be interested in discourses dealing with śūnyatā that goes beyond the world. This is very interesting thing. It shows that the Buddha regarded discourses dealing with śūnyatā as the highest, loftiest of the teachings.
§ 8. Mind-made
Buddhism is at least 80% about mind. Look at the system of Five Aggregates in which four are mental, only one is physical. Look at the Thirty-seven Bodhipakkhiya Dhammā, thirty-seven factors conducive to enlightenment.
(I did just to find a quantitative analysis of the thirty-seven factors). You can see out of thirty-seven factors, something like twenty-eight are mental factors.
So the mind has always a central role in Buddhism. And even in the Pali canon the conception about the nature of the mind being vigilant, pure, shining like a jewel, luminous, beyond water, air, fire and so forth is very much present. Moreover the creative nature of the mind is emphasized.
Everybody knows the first verse of the Dhammapada says, ‘Mind is the forerunner of all dhammas, all dhammas are mind made’. What do we mean by dhamma? The whole question is what we mean by dhamma? It can be interpreted as factors. Some people translated it as mental state.
You can also translate it as thing. Among all, certainly mind is ultimately the forerunner of all mental states. But if you say mind is the forerunner of all things and everything is mind-made then you right on the track of the “Mind Only” or the “Yogācāra Philosophy.”
The Buddha also taught about certain Asura King by the name of Vepacitta who was bound or freed according to his bad or good nature of his thought. His mind created his reality. His mind conditioned his reality that made him bound or free according to his mental state.
So all of these elements became central and argumentative doctrine of the Mahāyāna. They were suggested in the Pali Canon. It is not that they were absent in the Pali canon. They were there. Just one has to look at there. Professor N. Dutt has done a good job doing that.
Other people also have done that. It has become generally quite accepted that there are significant traces of Mahāyāna doctrine even in the Pali Canon. So let us accept that we have an integrated development, an organic evolution of Buddhism, a fundamental link between the Buddha’s teachings as we find in the Theravāda canon and in the Mahāyāna. It seems they are two different spectacles, different objects but the teachings are not essentially different. The question of difference is on the emphasis. We will explore that in next lectures.
Thus to trace the origin of the Mahāyāna we don’t have to go too far, not further than the figure of the Buddha, his career and his teachings. They are the good example of the Mahāyāna tradition. In this context we had mentioned some of the Suttas of the Pali canon, which demonstrate the Mahāyāna tendencies. In the first hour we are going to read some Pali Suttas in translation, which we have mentioned in our study where we find the traces of the Mahāyāna doctrines.
9.1. The Ariyapariyesana Sutta
Just after the enlightenment, the Buddha was reluctant to share his experiences with others. He thought his realization was too profound, hard to see, hard to realize and nobody would be able to understand his deep teachings because most of the people of this world are afflicted with all kinds of defilements and for them it would be difficult to see the truth of Interdependent Coarising.
Then Brahma Sahampati came and requested the Buddha to teach, as there are some people who have little dust in their eyes are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There are beings, who will be able to understand the Dhamma. So the Buddha decided to teach. The Buddha decided to teach out of compassion for the humanity who are falling away. They need to hear the Dhamma to come out of suffering of cyclical existence. So here we see the element of compassion that is one of the primary elements in the Mahāyāna, was the main reason for the Buddha’s decision to teach. In this connection we mentioned the Ariyapariyesena Sutta, which relates the whole story. It is important to go through the Suttas because they give you first hand information about the subject you are studying.
9.2. The Kaccayanagotta Sutta
This discourse deals with right view. Kaccayana wanted to know to what extent is there right view? The Buddha said that this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and nonexistence. Polarity means duality.
We think of anything with two sides. When we think about existence then we also think about non-existence. Likewise about right or wrong, good or bad, white and black. The existence of one thing depends on the existence of the other. They are dependent on each other. We think all in view of duality. Basic view is existence and nonexistence. In opposition to this view of existence and non-existence, the view of polarity, the Buddha taught the four Noble Truths, Middle Way, which equals to Interdependent Origination.
Interdependent Origination teaches the avoidance of extremes of existence and non-existence. Interdependent Origination leads to the appearance of the world. It has twofold functions, leading to bondage or to freedom. We can imagine it as a chain. It is like a chain in which all the twelve components are linked together. One component leads to the next component like a chain. When that chain is linked together it is bondage. When the chain is broken then there is liberation. Interdependent Origination is constructive when the chain is linked together which gives bondage. It is deconstructive when the chain is broken and it gives freedom.
9.3. The Aggi-Vaccagotta Sutta
This discourse is on the fourteen inexpressible propositions. In this discourse the Buddha refused to answer any of the fourteen questions put forward by wander Vaccagotta about the nature of world and Tathāgata. The Buddha refused to answer them as those questions lead only to distress, despair and suffering and they don’t lead to dispassion, cessation and calm. Moreover, for the same reason the Buddha also did not have any position of his own.
9.4. The Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta
In this discourse Malunkyaputta wanted to know the answers of the fourteen questions pertaining to world and the Tathāgata. He told the Buddha unless he knows all the answers he would return to his previous life as a layperson and leave this holy life.
The Buddha with the simile of a man struck by an arrow demonstrated that, whether he knows the answers or not, the cyclical existence of birth and death would continue. We are all struck by the arrow of suffering. We need to know how to end this suffering.
It is more important to find the way out of it. The wounded man will die before he gets all the answers about the nature of the arrow. These questions are not connected with the goal. They are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to peace and calm and are not helpful to attain liberation. Instead the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths.
9.5. The Tittha Sutta
They all had their own view about reality and they live arguing, quarreling and disputing regarding th about cosmos and the Tathāgata. They would argue that their view was right while and others’ were wrong. The Buddha pointed out that those wanderers of the other sects were blind.
They didn’t know what is beneficial and what is harmful. They didn’t know what is dhamma and what is non-dhamma.
If a group of blind people who never saw an elephant and they were asked to describe an elephant, the blind man who only felt the head of the elephant would describe the elephant is like a big water jar. Similarly, the blind man who felt the tail of the elephant would say the elephant is like a broom and so on and so forth. The point is all the blind people had only one view of the elephant and thus they were all wrong. So the views of the wanderers of the different sects were all wrong. Their view of the dharma was one-sided, not complete. All of them had attachment to their own view, which creates quarrel among themselves.
9.6. The Alagaddupama Sutta
Taken together, these similes focus on the skill needed to grasp right view properly as a means of leading to the cessation of suffering, rather than an object of clinging, and then letting it go when it has done its job. In the water-snake simile, it is stated that Dhamma should be understood in the proper manner. Wrong grasping of the Dhamma leads to long term harm and suffering just as the same way one tries to get hold of a water snake.
If the water snake were caught by the coil or by the tail, it would harm the catcher. But if it is caught with a cleft stick firmly pinned it down, then the watersnake catcher would not come to any suffering. So it is all about how one catches a water snake.
Likewise dharma should be understood properly to obtain long-term welfare and happiness. It all depends how you understand the Dhamma. If you take it in a wrong way you will face all kinds of trouble but if you take it in a right way you can avoid trouble. It is like a knife, the knife by itself is neither good or bad, But when you hold the knife properly, by its handle, it serves its purpose, it can cut vegetables, for example but if you hold it by its blade then it can cut your finger.
In the raft simile, it is stated that the Dhamma should be treated as a raft. It does not say that the Dhamma should be discarded like a raft as some may interpret it. One has to let go the raft once the river is crossed. One has to hold on to the raft properly in order to cross the river. Only when one has reached the further shore safely, one can let it go. So the teaching is the method, a vehicle to cross over any obstacle. One should not hold on to the teachings. They are the means to an end not an end by themselves.