A Mahayana Story

- through Francois Leclercq

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What is Mahayana the name of?

Before entering into other considerations, it is undoubtedly appropriate first to clarify the meaning of this Sanskrit term, to glimpse more of what Mahayana is the name. It is an expression associating the adjective maha with the noun yana and which is literally translated as “great vehicle”. The greatness in question here is not so much about height as it is about width or breadth. The Mahayana is thus the ample vehicle and even, in a sense, the vehicle of the ample. It is opposed in this to a vehicle that would be narrow or small, and that the Mahayana tradition named Hinayana, pointing under this expression to a set of schools of ancient Buddhism, such as those of the Sthaviravada, the Sarvastivada or even the Pudgalavada... Thus, Mahayana is not opposed to Hinayana as two rival schools would be opposed. Neither are "schools" of Buddhism; and the Great Vehicle includes many schools which also opposed each other. What the notion of Mahayana as opposed to Hinayana seeks to point out is a fundamental difference in perspective that the word yana indicates in a way.

The vehicle that is the Mahayana is, in a way, a public transport, unlike the Petit which is only individual.

This is one of the points of originality of the Large Vehicle to call itself "vehicle". The notion of yana is almost absent from the texts of the ancient tradition. The very Mahayanic introduction of the term “vehicle” introduces the possibility of different modes of transport on the Buddhist path. What are these differences? In different speeds, in number of passengers transported and in different forms of travel. The vehicle that is the Mahayana is, in a way, a public transport, unlike the Petit which is only individual. The practitioner of the Great Vehicle essentially walks with all beings, even if he is alone, thus pushing the logic of the non-ego up to "identification with others, by practicing the inversion of oneself with others », as this great representative of the Great Vehicle who is Shantideva says.

The birth and development of Mahayana in India

From a historical point of view, we agree to determine the emergence of Mahayana in the first century BC, both in northwestern and southern India, not far from major monastic centers and close to such devotional monuments as the Stupas, such as those of Sanchi and Amaravati. What allows such a dating is obviously the presence of texts and works that testify to reflections and references specific to the Large Vehicle. So it is with art and architecture. When only the Buddha is represented dressed in his beggar's robe and with his alms bowl, or even when he is not represented in person, but only by symbols of his presence (wheel, empty throne, etc.) , we are then dealing with the modes of representation of ancient Buddhism. But when appear young princes with the paces of gods, with the multiple arms, provided with lotus, with sword, with sceptres; when to the fixed stiffness of the meditative postures is added a form of swaying, even sensuality, in short when the bodhisattvas appear, then one can be sure of having entered Mahayanic country.

In China, meditation has just made its debut in schools and businesses.

However, given that India remained a civilization of orality for a long time, the presence of Mahayanic or proto-Mahayanic texts dating from the first century cannot fully attest to the real beginnings of the Great Vehicle which could very well have been professed orally well. before writing down the lessons. A great council was thus organized around 305 BC, at Pataliputra (not far from Patna), during which a sort of schism took place and following which the Mahasamghika school distinguished itself, whose positions on the nature of the Buddha and the status of the Arhat (one who attains Nirvaṇa) recall that of the Mahayana.

Be that as it may, the Mahayana does not really claim to be a reform of Buddhism, but rather a more original reception of the word of the Buddha. This is how the founding texts of the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana-Sutras, written in Sanskrit, imitate the traditional scenography of the texts related to the very word of the Awakened One, and all begin by taking up the famous sentence of the disciple Ananda relating the About the Buddha: “Thus I heard, the Buddha was then at…”.

Another question is whether the Mahayana is originally a movement of secularization, assumed by lay people against the stranglehold of the monks on the whole of the Buddhist path. Several clues point in this direction, in particular the fact that in the Sutras of the Great Vehicle intervene lay people or women who take charge of teaching. Nevertheless, the great figures of the Mahayana remain mostly monks and the great centers of Mahayana studies, such as Nalanda or Vikramasila were monasteries. Be that as it may, a greater openness is clearly remarkable, and the difference between regular and secular paths is much less marked in the currents of the Greater than of the Lesser Vehicle.

In India, the Mahayana experienced two major interpretative currents, which were themselves subdivided under the influence of great masters. The first of them is called Madhyamaka, literally "the Middle Way". It was founded by Nagarjuna in the XNUMXnd century AD and developed under the influence of figures such as Bhavaviveka, Candrakirti and Shantideva. Masters of meditation as much as of argumentation, the proponents of Madhyamaka seek to reveal the absence of their own identity, the non-substantiality of phenomena. The second responds to the names of Yogacara or Cittamatra and was founded in the XNUMXth century by Asanga and his half-brother Vasubandhu. It seeks to show how the ordinary mind distorts experience and shields its originally awakened dimension. The countries won over to the Mahayana inherited the teachings of these two currents, favoring the second for China and Japan; the first for Tibet.

The Mahayana reached its apogee under the Pala dynasty (XNUMXth-XNUMXth century) whose rulers were ardent Buddhists. However, under the blows of the Turkish-Mughal armies who destroyed the monasteries, the Great Vehicle disappeared from India in the XNUMXth century, even though it had already reached all of Asia, as far as Japan.

The Teachings of the Great Vehicle

Three points seem to us to be particularly attached to the Teachings of the great vehicle:

– The first, from the Lotus Sutra, affirms that the fruit of the path is not the accession to Nirvaṇa, that is to say the beyond of sorrows, but the obtaining of Awakening (Bodhi). The goal of the path is therefore not to put an end to ill-being, but to discover a dimension of existence so open that it integrates all beings. The champion of this perspective is called the bodhisattva, the one who devotes himself to enlightenment to liberate all beings.

– The second fundamental teaching of the Great Vehicle relates to the union of a radical form of detachment which culminates in the idea that all phenomena are free of their own identities, with the cultivation of an infinite tenderness with regard to all beings. The bodhisattva's heart is thus both vacant and full of affection, and this paradox which meditation cultivates is the essence of Mahayana.

– The third original theme is the teaching of the Tathagatagarbha which affirms that Awakening is not the result of a practice, that it is therefore not obtained but constitutes the most original dimension of existence. Consequently, all beings are originally enlightened. There is therefore no privilege in the face of enlightenment that can be discovered by anyone, regardless of their condition.

The Great Vehicle Chinese Adventure

It is in 51 AD that tradition places the entry of Buddhism into China. Around the year 65, Emperor Ming of the Han sent an embassy to India, which brought back monks and texts, notably the Sutra in Forty-Two Sections, which was the first teaching of the Buddha translated into Chinese. To welcome them, he had the Temple of the White Horse (Baima Si) built in Luoyang. Buddhism nevertheless remains confidential until the third century.

The great event is undoubtedly the arrival of the Kuchean monk Kumarajiva in Chang'an (now Xi'an) in 401, and the launch, under his direction, of a veritable school of translation which establishes, through the transcription of about twenty major works of Mahayana, the solid scriptural bases which will be used for the construction of the schools of Chinese Buddhism.

Shortly after, the Indian monk Buddhabhadra arrives who translates the collection of Avataṃsaka sutras into Chinese. His teaching will influence the creation of the famous Tientai and Huayan schools, of which Zhiyi and Fazang were respectively the most illustrious representatives. Thanks to the advice of Kumarajiva and Buddhabhadra, the monk Huiyan also founded the Pure Land school (Jingtu also known as "Amidism"), which remains one of the most popular in Asia (Vietnam, Korea, Japan).

In the XNUMXth century, the Indian monk Paramartha arrived in Nanjing and undertook the translation of texts relating to the Yogacara current (or Cittamatra) and laid the foundations of the Faxiang school, created by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang in the following century, and which would travel became legendary as far as India for receiving there the teaching of the masters of Nalanda and bringing back with him a number of original texts. The Indian monk, Bodhidharma, also made his entry into China at the very beginning of this century and established the Chan school (Japanese Zen), whose posterity would flourish.

The period from the 842th to the 845th century, between the reign of the Sui and Tang dynasties, is considered the golden age of Chinese Mahayana. This favorable time was brutally interrupted by Emperor Wuzong, who outlawed Buddhism from XNUMX to XNUMX. Most of the Buddhist schools disappeared shortly afterwards. Only the Chan and Jingtu schools will survive.

A century later, under the Song dynasty (960-1279), the Mahayana regained strength. In 983, Emperor Taizu ordered the printing of the great Chinese Buddhist canon (the Dazangjing). The censuses made in 1021 count five hundred thousand monks in the Empire, and it is around this century that Buddhism really begins to touch the working classes.

In the 1279th century, under the Yuan dynasty (1368-1368), Chinese Buddhism came under the control of Tibetan lamas. Under the Ming dynasty (1644-XNUMX), Buddhism is caught in a general movement of syncretism. The Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist teachings are increasingly linked to form the Sanjiao (the "triple teaching"). The secular community becomes more present and Buddhism continues to enter the popular consciousness, mingling with other beliefs.

From the end of the empire (1911) until the advent of the People's Republic (1949), the decline of Chinese Buddhism continued. The communist party then creates the Chinese Buddhist Association which allows the recognition of a right of worship as well as the control of the latter. The Cultural Revolution will deal a violent blow to Buddhism. Nevertheless, a net resurgence began in the 80s and Buddhism has been winning the favor of the youngest and most dynamic strata of Chinese society for the past ten years. Meditation has just made its entry into schools and businesses.

It was through China and under the influence of Chinese schools that Mahayana first reached Korea (XNUMXth century) then Japan (XNUMXth century). This influence is so significant that all the trends of Buddhism present in these two countries model the Chinese currents, in particular Korean Seon and Japanese Zen, which are copies of one of the most original schools of Chinese Mahayana, Chan.

A short history of Chan then of Zen

The tradition of Chan Buddhism traces the fundamental intuition that guides all the teaching of this school to an episode of the Lankavatarasutra (one of the canonical texts of the Great Vehicle). The Buddha picks a flower, no one in the assembly reacts, except Kasyapa who smiles at him. Sakyamuni then announces that he will be his successor and will thus have to continue the transmission of the dharma after his death. Nothing is said, but everything is obvious: Kasyapa had a glimpse of the meaning of enlightenment on the occasion of the gesture of the Buddha; they recognized themselves in the same experience, transmitted without mediation, from spirit to spirit.

The whole teaching of Chan, the meaning it gives to meditation (from which it takes its name) is an interpretation of this episode which could be summarized as follows: first enlightenment, then the way or the dharma . The received idea would, indeed, that the dharma is what leads to enlightenment. For the masters of the Chan school, for Bodhidharma who is its founder, there is no dharma until one is in contact with enlightenment. It is therefore necessary, in a way, to be awake in order to be able to practice the path of Awakening! The path is no longer the laborious quest for an illumination to come – and therefore largely fantasized –, but a stay where the sudden experience of Awakening is gradually tamed, so as to be there properly. remains. However, and this is one of the salient points of Chan, the taming of this awakened dimension of existence must pass through extreme attention to the ordinary.

This banality of the formidable to which Chan is attached has its source in the depths of the Chinese mentality, which is sensitive to the ordinary. It is often reported, in fact, that this school of Chinese Buddhism is the one that comes closest to Taoism. Indeed, it seems obvious that there is an encounter between the Taoist thought of the ordinary wisdom of the “saint” and the “banality” of enlightenment. This sense of the ordinary, the followers of Chan had and still have, and it guides their listening to the dharma in such a full way that one can say that it is "the most Chinese school of Buddhism”.

As we mentioned, the founder of Chan is not Chinese, but Indian. Named Bodhidharma, he came to China at the request of Emperor Wu of Liang (502–557). He then retired to the monastery of Shaolin, where he meditated in a cave facing a wall (this practice remains in Zen). There he meets his first disciple, Huike, who will cut off his arm to prove his determination to him and will become the second Patriarch of the Chan school. The line continues without incident until the sixth Patriarch, undoubtedly the most famous, Huineng (638-713). Illiterate, his appointment as Patriarch caused a schism between Southern Chan, of which he was the founder, and Northern Chan, which was entrusted to Shenxiu. Subsequently, Chan split again into other branches marked by the extraordinary personality of masters such as Linji or Baizhang, who became famous by introducing field work into the monastic way, thus making the communities self-sufficient. It was under his initiative that Chan practices affected not only traditional sitting meditation, but also everyday tasks, so that no part of human experience escapes enlightenment.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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