From Theravada to Mahayana
From India to China


 
In the process of its historical growth and evolution in India and elsewhere, Buddhism underwent profound changes as it adapted to local cultural norms and responded to changing sociopolitical predicaments, developing an astounding variety of teachings and traditions. With its lack of central authority and decentralized ecclesiastical structures, Buddhism came to encompass diverse and at times seemingly conflicting theoretical templates, rich arrays of ritual expressions, comprehensive ethical systems and monastic institutions, innumerable texts written in a variety of languages and genres, and a lush tapestry of popular beliefs and practices. [ICR, 113]
 
 
In Chapter 4 of Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience Donald Mitchell presents four characteristics that distinguish the Mahayana tradition from the “Tradition of the Elders” (Theravada; a.k.a. Hinayana).
 
The first characteristic notion found in developed Mahayana is the view that a Buddha, rather than an arhat, is the person who can be of most help to people who are suffering and in need of liberation. To achieve this condition of Buddhahood, one needs to follow the Bodhisattva Path. This bodhisattva life begins with what is called the “arising of the thought of Awakening,” or bodhicitta. This bodhicitta is really the altruistic desire, or heartfelt aspiration, to attain Buddhahood so that one can help others gain freedom from suffering. [Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 104]
 
 
At that time the Bodhisattva Infinite Thought rose up from his seat, and baring his right shoulder and folding his hands toward the Buddha, spoke thus: “World-honored One! For what reason is the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara named Regarder of the Cries of the World?”
       The Buddha answered the Bodhisattva Infinite Thought: “Good son! If there be countless hundred thousand myriad kotis of living beings suffering from pain and distress, who hear of this Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, and with all their mind call upon his name, the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World will instantly regard their cries, and all of them will be delivered. ...

Listen to the deeds of the Cry Regarder,
Who well responds to every quarter;
His vast vow is deep as the sea,
Inconceivable in its eons.
Seeing many thousands of kotis of buddhas,
He has vowed a great pure vow.
Let me briefly tell you.
[He who] hears his name, and sees him,
And bears him unremittingly in mind,
Will be able to end the sorrows of existence.
Though [others] with harmful intent
Throw him into a burning pit,
Let him think of the Cry Regarder’s power
And the pit will become a pool.
Or driven along a great ocean,
In peril of dragons, fishes, and demons,
Let him think of the Cry Regarder’s power,
And waves cannot submerge him. ...

Regarder of the World’s Cries, pure and holy,
In pain, distress, death, calamity,
Able to be a sure reliance,
Perfect in all merit,
With compassionate eyes beholding all,
Boundless ocean of blessings!
Prostrate let us revere him. 
A second characteristic of Mahayana teaching is the notion of a “higher-wisdom” (prajnaparamita) realizing “emptiness” (sunyata). This notion has to do with the awakened experience of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. For Mahayana, what one experiences with awakened consciousness is that all the “factors of existence” (dharmas), which we have seen were so carefully analyzed in the Abhidharma Pitaka, are “empty” (sunya) of existing independently, or “on their own.” In the language of Mahayana, all aspects of existence are “svabhava-sunya,” that is, “empty of own-being.” This means that nothing can exist on its own. [Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 105]
 
 
On the Four Noble Truths
Chapter 24

8. In teaching the Dharma, Buddhas resort to two truths: worldly conventional truth and ultimate truth.
9. Those who do not know the distinction between these two truths do not understand the deep reality in the Buddha’s Teaching.
10. The ultimate cannot be taught without resorting to conventions; and without recourse to the ultimate, one cannot reach nirvana.
 
18. Interdependent origination — that is what we call emptiness. That is a conventional designation. It is also the Middle Way.
19. There can be found no element of reality [dharma] that is not interdependently originated; therefore, there can be found no element of reality whatsoever that is not empty. [The Experience of Buddhism, 148]
 
So...
 

 
...who’s the parasite?

 
On Nirvana
Chapter 25
19. There is no distinction whatsoever between samsara and nirvana; and there is no distinction whatsoever between nirvana and samsara.
 
 
20. The limit of nirvana and the limit of samsara: one cannot find even the slightest difference between them. [The Experience of Buddhism, 150]
 

Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the lovely, the holy! ... Hear, O Sariputra, form is emptiness, and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 135]
 
A third characteristic of Mahayana teaching concerns the nature of consciousness. We have seen that one view of consciousness found in early Buddhist texts teaches that the mind is naturally pure and clear, having been stained by mental defilements. While in Mahayana there are many and sometimes conflicting notions concerning consciousness, we find a similar strand of thought. It claims that consciousness, prior to being affected by defilements, is the luminous clarity and nirvanic status of enlightened Buddhahood. This pure luminosity as the true essence of consciousness gives people the potential for Buddhahood. But ordinary conscious life generates conceptualizations and other mental formations that frustrate this potential. In the end, it is the mind that enslaves people in a life that is untrue and unsatisfying (dukkha); and it is also the mind that can set people free. [Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 105]

Finally, the fourth characteristic notion has to do with the nature of Buddhahood, the goal of the Bodhisattva Path. While the early Buddhist texts claim that the cosmos includes realms of hells, ghosts, gods, and Brahma beings, Mahayana expanded this vision of the cosmos by claiming that it also contains countless Buddhas residing in Buddha realms. In following the Bodhisattva Path, one can be reborn in one of these realms, where one can progress toward Buddhahood under the guidance and with the blessings of the Buddha of that realm. When one attains Buddhahood, one will also create a Buddha realm from where one will help others throughout the cosmos. In the meantime, one can receive guidance and blessings in this world, as well as visualize these “celestial” Buddhas and their realms and the advanced bodhisattvas that abide with them in ways that are spiritually transforming. These Buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas develop special skillful means (upaya) that they use to appear in the many world systems of the cosmos in order to help other beings become free from suffering and progress in the journey to Awakening and Buddhahood. [Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 105-6]
The BuddhistTransformation of China...
...or a Chinese Transformation of Buddhism?

In the course of their mutual encounters and multifarious interactions, which were not without occasional tensions and conflicts, Buddhism and Chinese traditions were each challenged and transformed. Buddhism added new features to Chinese civilization and contributed to the ongoing evolution of native cultural norms and expressions. On the other hand, in the process of its Sinification, which entailed adaptation to China’s social ethos and cultural milieu, Buddhism underwent significant changes that reflected distinctly Chinese worldviews and spiritual predilections. That made it into a multifaceted tradition that was perceived as both foreign and domestic, incorporating complext mixtures of alien and native elements and practices, which over the last two millennia has been a prominent and integral part of China’s multifaceted religious landscape. [ICR, 114]