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Bodhisattva Practice in the Great Way, Part Two

Eric Cheetham, Middle Way (Volume 69:3 p. 179) November 1994

Ends and Means of the Further Teaching of the Mahayana

The proper context for traditional descriptions of Bodhisattva practice is the content of the first Mahayana sutras which represent a 'further teaching' that goes beyond what the Buddha had expounded before. That Further Teaching, the phrase itself expresses the general purpose of the Mahayana, was given to long-standing members of the Buddhist Order at a late stage in the Buddha's earthly life. We are told this explicitly in the Lotus Sutra, one of the first Mahayana sutras to appear, with a profusion of detail as to the circumstances of where and how it was delivered and who was there to receive it.

The great pronouncements of the One Way, Perfect Wisdom, and Full Enlightenment as the ultimate goal for everyone were never expounded in the first phase of the Teaching. Nobody in the Sangha had any idea that it was part of the intention of the Buddha, at some stage, actually to expound them. That first phase, is the teaching of Buddhism that you find in the Pali texts, in the Theravada. It is founded and derived from the Four Noble Truths, and is concerned with gaining freedom from suffering by the Eightfold Path to Nirvana. Only when his audience had made progress in that training, and that purification, could the Further Teaching, which the Buddha held until last, have the right impact and be properly understood: the true position is beyond the grasp of those who have not made the required preparations to meet it. The situation is analogous to the case, previously described, of mediaeval man being incapable of understanding and accepting that the earth is a sphere revolving around the sun. However, each and every being, is the present result of such a vast period of past growth and experience that no one other than a Buddha or a great Bodhisattva can be sure what their inner state of maturity may be. Therefore, in that situation, faced with those circumstances, the deep Dharma (and that is another phrase which is the equivalent of Mahayana) was designed so as to produce faint echoes of reality, even in people of today, who may well harbour traces of this teaching from other times and places in the past. So even the most tenuous and slender contact with the Mahayana is needful. Perhaps, in order to re-awaken old and forgotten propensities, or just to keep a hidden seed alive. All growth requires food. If there is no food available, whatever growth there is, or may be, stops and eventually dies. But when the Buddha first gave this Further Teaching, together with its inherent means of further expansion and adaptation, he was aware that the conditions amongst his audience, amongst his senior disciples who had been with him for years, and the rest of the congregation, were favourable for its presentation. Conditions and circumstances are extremely important. Those present in his assembly at that time, towards the end of his earthly life, were sufficiently matured to understand and accept this Further Teaching.

So what was this new revelation that had to await such special circumstances and such long periods of preparation? In effect, the whole matter really turns upon the True Nature of Samsara; of the world as we think it is! Here and now, we are only just aware of what Samsara is, and some of us are not aware at all of what Samsara is. That is one of the purposes of the Teaching, to make you aware, or to offer you the opportunity of becoming aware of what the Buddha and his great masters had to tell us about this subject. So, we are only just aware of Samsara, and even if we are aware of it we may not appreciate what is involved. That situation is part of our affliction with 'defective vision'. On the other hand, those in that great assembly, sitting before the Buddha, had spent most of their lives trying to overcome the demonic power of Samsara so they knew it well. The Buddha's great revelation, part of the Further Teaching, was that this very Samsara, this great arena of suffering and continued repetition of suffering, which goes on forever without stopping, the arena of continuous rebirth, is not, in reality, like that at all!

The very nature of the Buddha derives from the fact that he has Awakened to that Reality. He knows what the true state of affairs actually is, which no one other than a Buddha can perceive. Hence, he is often portrayed in iconography with a faint smile. At all times the assembled Arhats knew and understood that the Buddha was far and away beyond even their exalted status. (An Arhat is quite an exalted status; he is quite justifiably referred to as a Holy One. That is one of the meanings of Arhat, 'Holy One'. He has 'attained' Nirvana and has no more outflows. He has 'laid down the burden', and various other descriptions of that kind). The Buddha was Supreme and Unsurpassed. Those two words are part of his normal title. The Anuttarasamyaksambuddha: 'Supreme and Unsurpassed' is part of that word. Although there were many Arhats at one time, there was only one Buddha.

When the new revelation was suddenly thrown at them, quite without any preparation, they were all shocked and unbelieving. As well they might be! This revelation was that the whole purpose of the Buddha's appearance and Teaching was to lead them (that is those in front of him when he spoke) and everyone else too into his own full and perfect Enlightenment. He had never said that before! All his teaching was the Path to Nirvana. He had never said that the end of his teaching was to become a Buddha! I would suspect that some of them, at the time it was pronounced, had no idea that there was any difference between attaining Nirvana and a Buddha! They were indeed shocked! So this was the purpose of the Buddha's appearance and Teaching, only the Knowledge and Wisdom that is attained by a Buddha (as distinct from Arhats and anybody else), is true and perfect. And, in that mode, in that true and perfect mode, Samsara, and all beings in it, are of the same Nature: fully released from all the defilements; complete and perfect, just like the Buddha himself!

Now, the fact that other beings do not perceive this reality is due to their being sunk in the profound sleep of Ignorance, which manufactures a continuous dream of painful existence. Even Sariputra, who was the senior Arhat and disciple present on another occasion found this hard to swallow. And he mumbled to himself, that he has never found the world to be like that! Even the purified outlook of a great Arhat could only describe the world, or Samsara, as full of dangerous rocks and storms and chasms filled with filth. This is presented to us as what goes through Sariputra's mind after he hears the Buddha say that the True Nature of beings is of this kind. He does not agree that that is how it is. Of course, he is much too polite to say anything. But this was just the point at issue for the Buddha: his totally fulfilled wisdom surpassed that of his Arhats. Only the immense and transcendental power of the Buddha is capable of knowing directly what is really there all the time. Not just partially or occasionally but all the time.

In that situation -when the Buddha, unfortunately for Sariputra, knew exactly what was going through Sariputra's mind, the Buddha used that power to momentarily cleanse Sariputra's vision. And that enabled him to see, for a moment, with the perception of a Buddha, what was actually all around him. 'Then the whole world was transformed,' in the poetic language of the sutra, 'into a heap of flashing jewels'. No chasms of filth! The previous convictions of the Arhats, the monks who had not yet attained Arhatship, and the ordinary people in the assembly, about 'gaining' the extinction of suffering and ending Samsara for good, were, in this particular context, simply a means to a greater end; part of the preparation for something far larger. All that, these ideas about extinction of suffering, and suffering itself, Samsara itself, was dream-like and not really true. Or, not absolutely true. It had everything to do with struggling free of phantoms. fears and unreal situations. But the eventual outcome, often referred to as a 'Waking Up' (which is, in a manner of speaking, what the Buddha allowed Sariputra to do for a moment - to Wake Up!), shows the real world, different in kind from the nightmare that we constantly live our lives in. And, although the real world is there all the time, it is separated from us by the 'mists of a disturbed sleep'. So Sariputra, and the others in the assembly, were then told that they had been engaged in this interminable effort to wake up. That is what their path to Arhatship is all about: trying to Wake Up! and that they would assuredly do so. And when they did so, they would then be just the same as the Buddha, who is always Awake!

When all this finally dawned on Sariputra he became quite enraptured! He and three other senior Arhats forgot their age and cramps and all jumped up and danced for joy. And, we are told, they waved their robes about! But, of course, for these elderly gentlemen to jump up and start dancing about is a very risky performance. After a few steps, as the sutra says, they resumed their seats and recovered their composure. But at least Sariputra, Mahakasyapa, Mogallana and Purna had got the message! They did not all get the message: it did not penetrate the rest of them. But it did to the four.

This, then, was the great revelation of one of the first Mahayana scriptures, which is the Lotus Sutra, that the full Enlightenment of a Buddha is the true destination of everybody! That the terrible prospect of endlessly repeated Samsara is illusory. That is not to say it is not there! It is just unreal. Therefore, it does not really call for total suppression and escape by extinction.

Now, the real state of affairs, the Ultimate Truth or the Beyond, the Paramartha, which is only fully and continuously known by a Buddha, is not reached, and cannot be reached, by trying to abandon or extirpate Samsara. That way lies extinction, which is one of the words used sometimes to try and describe Nirvana, and that would not realise True Nature. So, this real state of affairs is not reached by abandoning Samsara. That is because the real state, the Paramartha, is Samsara itself in its True Nature. That is to say, Samsara devoid of all our misconceptions about it and all our fears of it; and all our pleasures in it as well. Access to that True Nature is open to all, because all beings partake of the same True Nature as Samsara. Or, if it is put in another way, in terms of Buddhist doctrine, one of the definitions of Samsara is: 'the Totality of all beings'. When you use the word Samsara, you are in one sense saying, "Everybody!" Not just everybody now, but everybody in the past, present and future: So, if the real state of Samsara is X, then the real state of the constituent beings is also X. So the True Nature of Samsara is the True Nature of all beings.

In so far as it can be described in mundane terms, the ultimate reality of Samsara and ourselves is that both are forever calm, perfectly fulfilled, beyond all disturbance and loss, transcendentally empowered, and completely beyond any mundane restriction.

Now, those few words, in terms of the Buddha-knowledge of the real nature of affairs, is what each one of us is but never knows anything about. 'Gaining' full Enlightenment means arriving at a non-dual existence which is co-terminate with that state of Eternal Reality. Or, in words that you may have heard before: You become what you have never stopped being! That state is not somewhere else, in heaven or another world. It is what exists here and now, and everywhere else, forever.

We are prevented from knowing and becoming this ultimate state because of our untrained raw grasping at, or running away from, the phantoms we create ourselves! Ordinary people in ordinary circumstances are totally distracted by the fever of self-wanting and by the widespread effects of everybody else's self-wanting. But the One Way to the Ultimate is always open, even if its complete fulfilment is not always possible without certain conditions. And because of the Buddha's own' supreme Right Knowledge, he knows it can be done and he knows how it can be done: he has done it!

Now, the Lotus scripture itself says that it is only repeating what has often been announced in the past by previous Buddhas; as far as Buddhas are concerned this teaching is nothing new. But to the people who sat in front of him when he first delivered it, it was shatteringly new! But that great revelation in the past gradually becomes opaque and confused by the passage of time, until it is restored to full clarity by every Buddha. He says, on several occasions, "This is the only reason why I come into the world, to preach this doctrine. Everybody's ultimate destiny is for Buddhahood!" And the Great Way, which in another form of phraseology is equivalent to the word 'Mahayana', to the crowning attainment of full Enlightenment can begin anywhere, at any time, by anybody, provided the circumstances are right. And this astonishing message is directed to us here and now, specifically. All the Mahayana sutras talk of the 'good people' of later ages who have not seen the Buddha but whose previous conduct makes them candidates for entry into the Great Way, or even re-entry. You can enter it and fall out of it! You can also, a most uncomfortable thing, this: fall into it! But the motivation needs to be aroused and the long, clear prospect of the Great Way seen, even from the far distance that we think we are from it. For that purpose the Buddha adopts all kinds of skilled means; so do his successive masters. The same themes will not awaken everybody. Some people can be awakened by the slightest whisper, and yet other people still do not wake up. Primarily, it is the Buddha's own example, which he relates himself, of his own innumerable previous lives devoted to the special practice of the Perfections which is the supreme means to these ultimate ends. The Arhats never practised the Perfections. All the Bodhisattvas have to practise the Perfections to become Buddha's!

So this is the main example, the Buddha's own experience of his own practices, which consist primarily of the Perfections. And there are, in the main, six special forms of training called the Paramitas: Dana - which is giving or generosity; Sila - which is Right (or Moral) Conduct; Ksanti which is patience (but, it does not mean what it says, as you will learn); Virya - which is energy or vigour; Dhyana - which we will just call for the moment 'meditation', but, as usual, it does not mean that either! And, finally, Prajna - which is Insight Wisdom and which has to do with that dreadful word Sunyata. Those are the six main areas of training, called the Paramitas, and that is the essence of the Bodhisattva Path.

One text tells us of the ideal form of the practice of the Perfections underpinned by Wisdom. In other words, in perfect Mahayana style, you have to have an inkling of and be orientated toward Perfect Wisdom before you start. But even from the very start, the training in their accomplishment has to be grounded in fundamental Right Conduct.

In a section of the 18,000 line Prajnaparamita sutra translated by E. Conze (pp. 216 and 226/7) there is a dialogue between the Buddha and the Arhat Subhuti. The Buddha tells Subhuti that from the beginning of the training toward Full Enlightenment the aspirant continuously purifies himself of all bad actions of body, speech and mind and encourages others to do the same.

The Buddha goes on to specify exactly what these bad actions are. Bad or unwholesome actions of body are i) taking life, ii) theft, iii) sexual misconduct. Bad or unwholesome actions of speech are i) lying, ii) slander, iii) harsh speech, iv) idle chatter. In the case of the mind, i) covetousness, ii) ill-will, iii) false views.

For such an aspirant, the Buddha goes on, so too are meanness, thoughts of immorality, anger, indolence, distraction and stupidity. In fact, any morality which is not perfectly pure can be called bad actions.

Even the prospect of the higher stages of the old Path of purity, when accompanied by a longing for such attainments are unwholesome. And further, the holding of certain 'notions' about such things as the five skandhas, the 12 sense-fields and the 18 elements are also to be discarded as part of the purification process, as are the notions of 'women and men', 'the triple world', 'wholesome and unwholesome' and 'the conditioned and the unconditioned'.

All these are included in bad actions of the body, speech and mind and they must be abandoned in the progress toward Perfect Wisdom.

In addition to this the aspirant gives gifts and encourages others to do the same. Such gifts include giving food to the hungry and anything that may be useful to those in need. In like manner each of the other five Perfections are practised.

Subhuti then asks what are the elements of the Path which are to be fulfilled before Supreme Enlightenment is reached. The Buddha answers that all the wholesome dharmas are the elements of that Path. And he elaborates further;

From the arising of the first thought of Enlightenment (bodhicitta) onward one such wholesome dharma is the Perfection of Giving (danaparamita) when it is performed without false imagination and discrimination such as; this is the gift I give to this person and it is I who gives it. None of these perversions are to be entertained because of the emptiness (sunyata) of own being.

Wholesome dharmas of this kind are the Bodhisattva's Path to Supreme Enlightenment and this Path is the way of salvation from the flood of Samsara and it rescues countless other beings in the process. All the six Perfections are to be acquired in the same way and these are the wholesome dharmas to be fulfilled for the purpose of reaching Supreme Enlightenment. Thus the Perfection of Wisdom sutra in 18,000 lines.

Now, each of these Perfections has to be completely perfected; or, as the scriptures say, fulfilled. And all of these Perfections, in combination and by their growth, bring to fruition the sixth, which is prajna - Perfect Wisdom. And it is by means of the Perfection of Wisdom, or prajnaparamita, that breaking-through the dense screens that separate us from the ever-present reality of full Enlightenment, can be achieved. It is done by acquiring the faculty of the Perfection of Wisdom. So the first approach is to somehow acquire the Perfection of Wisdom, and you do that by acquiring all the other perfections in due order. As we shall see, the adherence to these 'Six Special Modes of Behaviour' are tantamount to the embracing of the True Dharma. They are the means to the Ultimate End. They are the Path of the Bodhisattvas; that is to say: those destined for a Buddha's full Enlightenment. That is part of the meaning of the word 'Bodhisattva': to be destined for full Enlightenment. And the Path of those Bodhisattvas is laid upon and proceeds by means of those foundations, the Six Paramitas.

What is involved in each of the Six Paramitas relies upon one of the most authoritative early Mahayana texts on the subject, called the Mahaprajnaparamitaupadesa. Which means: 'The Commentary on the Great Perfection of Wisdom', composed, we are told, by the great Nagarjuna; but certainly expounded by one of the greatest of all teachers, Kumarajiva.

Kumarajiva had the task of explaining all this to the Chinese. The Chinese, like us now, knew little or nothing of the proper means to achieve the Ultimate. For the Chinese that Kumarajiva was confronted by, some did not even have any idea that there was an 'Ultimate'. Others, of course, knew very well what the Ultimate was, but they had never had this explanation of how to get to it so clearly expounded before. This is the way it always is: there are some, and there are some others! So when Kumarajiva came to China, in about 400 AD, he had to explain everything in detail. But first of all, we have a section from the Ratnakuta Sutra, which gives us an overall view of this scheme without going into too much detail; which is sometimes very useful ... Translated text in 'A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras' ed. G. C. Chang. pp. 368-369.

Queen Srimala, in this text, is directly inspired by the Buddha to explain the meaning and import of the True Dharma. In this section she elaborates on the Perfections (Paramitas).

She says that embracing the True Dharma is none other than the Perfections. This is done by beings adopting one or other of the Perfections according to their different inclinations. Some will give gifts, others purify their conduct and so on for each of the Perfections. In this way those beings are brought to maturity and established in the True Dharma.

Because of all this the Queen says; "...the embracing of the True Dharma is not different from the Perfections. The embracing of the True Dharma is the Perfections..."

That extract from the Ratnakuta Sutra, which is a collection of a number of smaller sutras, is from the Srimaladevi sutra. And the person who is saying all of that, face to face with the Buddha, is Queen Srimala. But notice, in that reading, the idea of maturing, or ripening; the Sanskrit word is paripurna. That is the essence of the whole process: we start off being either completely, or partially, or largely, unripe and sour. And by the process of these 'Modes of Behaviour' (Paramitas) we ripen, and this is not done in isolation. It cannot be done in isolation! It is done in the ordinary world; that is where it is meant to be done. So this maturing is the essence of the whole thing: your own maturing, and, in the process of your own maturing, you are encouraging and becoming an exemplar for others who may also embark upon this maturing process.

That extract offers us a general view of the means to the ultimate goal, i.e. the practice of the six Perfections. What is now necessary is a detailed description of what is involved in each of the six. As always right practice includes having right notions about what you are doing and why you are doing it. In the following articles of this series the great masters Nagarjuna and Kumarajiva will provide us with authoritative detail through the medium of their joint commentary on the Great Perfection of Wisdom sutra.

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