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Understanding Mahāyāna Sūtras

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In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that readers are often confused and conflicted about how to approach the Buddhist sūtras and how to understand their application. The challenges posed have not occurred evenly across traditions, though. Due to the simpler instructions and literary style of the Pali Canon and the Chinese Āgamas, scholars and the general public can digest these fairly well, as less background and interpretation are needed. In the case of the Mahāyāna sūtras, though, there are often vast chasms between the manner in which these are used by actual Buddhist traditions, and the ways in which they are used by academics and casual readers who are approaching them from a completely different context.

For casual readers as well as academics and specialists, the typical approach is still simply to plod along through the Mahāyāna sūtras, slowly and painfully, disregarding any details which may seem strange or confusing, and then making a few simple comments or expressing some general opinions on their contents. It would be fair to say that such a person has understood only a small part of the material, and even of the aspects that are understood, it is usually unclear why the texts have their particular structures and contents. The Mahāyāna sūtras leave such readers, almost universally, with two major impressions given by the texts: that the scope of these works is very grand, and that it is very meritorious to read, study, and uphold such texts. Aside from these two points, there will perhaps be some other Information gleaned, such as ways for the reader to develop Merit, something about the principles of Karma, the basic conduct of a Bodhisattva, or some lessons about contrived Meditation methods. Not going beyond the initial stage by then applying the Sūtra teachings in practice, this sort of superficial understanding has remained common if not the norm.

In recent years, a few western scholars have begun to see that the Mahāyāna sūtras seem to imply a mode of study in which their teachings and practice are closely intertwined. However, the general understanding of the nature of this usage has not yet fully matured. For example, academics may readily point to passages in the Pure land sūtras that describe images to be visualized, but they have not yet recognized the underlying principles and relationships between the sūtras and the cultivation Path. Rather than staying on this point and investigating it fully, it is more common for scholars to wander off the trail by then engaging in narrow linguistic studies, or by limiting themselves with studies that focus on one particular text. Rather than attempting a full Investigation into the use of Mahāyāna sūtras in Buddhist practice, which will require looking at both ancient and modern usage, they will instead look for answers in historical Information on monastic institutions, or pick apart linguistic minutiae, attempting to find some irreducible atom of Truth. The result of this approach has been that relatively little progress has been made by scholars in understanding the Mahāyāna teachings on even a basic level.

The aforementioned method of reading without cultivating the methods prescribed, so typical for readers, can neither lead to an objective understanding, nor to a profound one. It will only reflect one’s own personal understanding, and this perspective will be very different from that of a more advanced cultivator. The reason for this is that the meanings of Mahāyāna sūtras unfold in accordance with one’s own particular realm of realization. Deeper understandings are contingent upon experience and the efforts one has made in practice. For example, if a reader seems to find only instructions on how to increase their Merit, and he or she is uncertain about the rest of the contents, then the text is telling this person something very directly: “You lack the Merit required for further teachings, and so you should carry out such-and-such practices. In addition, you should definitely continue to read and uphold this text, because it is very profound, and can help you along the way.” The sūtras are clear and each part of them has meaning. It is only if we have not fully carried out the practices that are comprehensible to us, that the other parts of the text remain so opaquely incomprehensible.

This principle should be no surprise, since it is explained clearly in the texts themselves (if we bother to read them and take them seriously). One major recurring theme in Buddhist traditions is that The Buddha teaches according to the capacities of his students. For the advanced Monks, for example, he would teach about Meditation, the Five Skandhas, and other topics. For others of less capacity, he would just teach about basic Morality, and cause and effect throughout different realms of existence. This pattern is illustrated consistently throughout the Āgamas, the Pali Canon, the Mahāyāna sūtras, and virtually the entire range of ancient Buddhist literature. One well known example of this is in the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, in the chapter containing the parable of herbs.

    “At that time innumerable thousands of myriads of koṭis of Sentient beings approach The Buddha and listen to his teaching. Then the Tathāgata, perceiving the faculties of Sentient beings — whether they are sharp or dull, diligent or idle — explains the teachings according to their capacities in a variety of immeasurable ways, gladdening and benefiting them all. Having heard his teaching, all of these beings are at peace in this World and are born into a good existence in the future. Through this they will receive peace of Mind and be able to hear the teaching. Having already heard the teaching they will become free from obstructions and be able to gradually enter the Path to the Dharma according to their capacities.”

This principle behind the Buddhist teachings is not only explained in the texts, but is even illustrated in the design of the 9th century Buddhist temple of Borobudur, which is the largest Buddhist structure in the World. At this temple, the first tier of stone reliefs is those which illustrate cyclic existence, along with the principles of Karma and its fruition. These Basic Principles of cause and effect can be understood by anyone, and they serve to inspire ordinary people to do good and to avoid Evil actions in order to increase their Merit. In the next tier of reliefs are teachings from the Jātakas and the Lalitavistara Sūtra. These works recount the past lives of The Buddha, and summarize his Life and essential teachings. The highest tier of reliefs illustrates scenes from the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra (part of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra), the teachings of which are very lofty. By carrying out the practices at each level, one develops a more advanced Perception of Truth, and is then able to understand the higher teachings naturally.

If we look to the modern Buddhist traditions that teach practice according to the Mahāyāna sūtras, we can see that their usage of the sūtras is still basically identical to that of Indian Buddhism. This is illustrated clearly in a contemporary documentary, Amongst White Clouds (2007), which presents the Buddhist practice of Chinese Monks and nuns who live as hermits in Zhongnan Mountains of Shaanxi province. In this film, we can again see the basic principle that the understanding one has of a Sūtra is essentially contingent upon their own level of understanding gained through Meditation and self-cultivation. We can also see that these texts are regarded as the essential guides to the enlightenment Path. In one scene from the documentary, the director and a Monk are sitting together in the Monk’s hermitage, drinking tea. The narrator then questions the Monk, saying, “You said when you walk this road, if you get lost, you can ask others for directions. But living alone in the mountains, you must still get lost sometimes. Who do you ask? How do you find the Path?” The Monk smiles slightly, as if amused by the question, and replies:

    “You read the texts, right? That’s who you ask. The texts contain the true Path to Buddhahood. With a little ability, wherever your Mind arrives, you see, ‘Hey, the text talks about that place!’ Your Mind is there, and the text talks about it, so you have arrived there, right? Now, if you don’t have this ability, then even if you read something in a text, if your Mind isn’t there, then you won't understand it. So you practice more. It’s easy to read a text, but difficult to understand it.”

In the above passage, the Monk is describing this precise method of Sūtra study and practice, which has been missed by so many readers and academics. Using this method, the reader must carry out practices according to his or her own understanding of the Sūtra, and when advancing through these practices, then other parts of the text will naturally become comprehensible. This usage fully conforms to the original history of Mahāyāna practice in Indian Buddhism, and to what scholars have been starting to discover in recent years. This method also allows us to understand, in a meaningful way, the manner in which Mahāyāna sūtras are to be utilized by those who wish to follow the Bodhisattva Path. When we thoroughly understand this point, that theory and practice must converge, then we are left with a clear Path ahead of us. We then have a set of principles that may be used across the entire genre of Mahāyāna sūtras, along with all their methods of cultivating realization.

Why, then, is this traditional method of learning and practice so unfamiliar in the West? The situation becomes clearer when we consider the manner in which the transmission of Buddhism has occurred. Rather than learning Buddhism from living Buddhist traditions, or even from the Buddhist sūtras themselves, it seems far more common for westerners to read Books About Buddhism. These Books are usually written by authors who also have very little proximity to living Buddhist traditions. In this sort of context, Buddhism may be explained as something completely different from the manner in which it is actually practiced. As a result, we commonly find Books claiming that Buddhism is simply a peaceful philosophy, or that Buddhism is a lifestyle, typically (and conveniently) without requirements of commitment, belief, study, or practice. The result of this is that many people claiming to be Buddhists do not even believe traditional Buddhist teachings, and may not engage in practice of the Dharma, or even in making Merit, and yet regard themselves as Buddhists. In such an environment, it should be no surprise that traditional methods of learning and practice have fallen by the wayside.

At the end of many sūtras, there is a final section indicating that after The Buddha had finished this particular teaching, then the Fourfold Saṃgha, along with all the other beings present, believed, accepted, and practiced in accordance. Whether the listener at the assembly happened to be a Monk, nun, layman, laywoman, or one of the eight kinds of Spiritual beings, each was able to hear the discourse and carry out its teachings in some manner. If a reader has not started down the Path by similarly learning, and then “believing, accepting, and practicing in accordance,” following the methods that he or she is able to understand, then a deeper comprehension should not be expected. Without fulfilling the basic requirements of cultivation, the reader will essentially remain at the stage of a beginner. However, when the reader is able to make progress in his or her practice, then the text will seem to open up, and the meaning of certain passages will naturally become more apparent.

When considering the Basic Principles of cultivation practice and their relationship to the Mahāyāna sūtras, it becomes clear that these teachings are very egalitarian. Although not everything may be understood by the reader, there are methods which are comprehensible to everyone, and these often indicate the methods that are most effective and applicable at that time. If readers are able to learn these methods and make some effort to practice them, then they can continue meaningfully along the Path, and in accordance with the sūtras. In that sense, following the practices of the sūtras is really not so difficult. It just requires dedicated study along with some Consistency in cultivating the methods described. Therefore, it is not only a few advanced Bodhisattvas who are able to carry out the methods prescribed in the Mahāyāna sūtras, but really anyone who develops the necessary resolve and is willing to carry out the teachings by “believing, accepting, and practicing in accordance.”