The Development of Northern Buddhism
Buddhas, Buddha, Power, Avalokitesvara, Personification, Manjusri
Leaving the early Buddha legends and the solid ground of history, the makers of the newer Buddhist doctrines in Nepal occupied themselves with developing the theory of Buddhahood and of the Buddhas;16 for we must ever remember that Buddha17 is not a proper name, but a common adjective meaning enlightened, from the root to know, perceive, etc. They made constant and marvellous additions to the primitive doctrine, giving it a momentum which gathered force as the centuries went on; and, as propaganda, it moved against the sun.
This development theory ran along the line of personification. Not being satisfied with "the wheel of the law," it personified both the hub and the spokes. It began with the spirit of kindness out of which all human virtues rise, and by the power of which the Buddhist organization will conquer all sin and unbelief and become victorious throughout the world. This personification is called the Maitreya Buddha, the unconquerable one, or the future Buddha of benevolence, the Buddha who is yet to come. Here was a tremendous and revolutionary movement in the new faith, the beginning of a long process. It was as though the Christians had taken the particular attributes, justice, mercy, etc., of God and, after personifying each one, deified it, thus multiplying gods.
What was the soil for the new sowing, and what was the harvest to be reaped in due time?
With many thousands of India Buddhists whose minds were already steeped in Brahministic philosophy and mythology, who were more given to speculation and dreaming than to self-control and moral culture, and who mourned for the dead gods of Hinduism, the soil was already prepared for a growth wholly abnormal to true Buddhism, but altogether in keeping with the older Brahministic philosophies from which these dreamers had been but partially converted to Buddhism.18
The seed is found in the doctrine which already forms part of the system of the Little Vehicle, when it tells of the personal Buddhas and the Buddhas elect, or future Buddhas. In the Jataka stories, or Birth tales, "the Buddha elect" is the title given to each of the beings, man, angel, or animal, who is held to be a Bodhisattva, or the future Buddha in one of his former births. The title Bodhisattva19 is the name given to a being whose Karma will produce other beings in a continually ascending scale of goodness until it becomes vested in a Buddha. Or, in the more common use of the word, a Bodhisattva (Japanese bosatsu) is a being whose essence has become intelligence, and who will have to pass through human existence once more only before entering Nirvana.
In Southern Buddhist temples, the pure white image of Maitreya is sometimes found beside the idol representing Gautama or the historical Buddha. While in Southern Buddhism the idea of this possibility of development seems to have been little seized upon and followed up, in Northern Buddhism as early as 400 A.D. the worship of two Buddhas elect named Manjusri and Avalokitesvara, or personified Wisdom and Power, had already become general. Manjusri,20 the Great Being or "Prince Royal," is the personification of wisdom, and especially of the mystic religious insight which has produced the Great Vehicle or canon of Northern Buddhism; or, as a Japanese author says, the third collection of the Tripitaka was that made by Manjusri and Maitreya. Avalokitesvara,21 the Lord of View or All-sided One, is the personification of power, the merciful protector and preserver of the world and of men. Both are frequently and voluminously mentioned in the Saddharma Pundarika,22 in which the good law is made plain by flowers of rhetoric, and of which we shall have occasion frequently to speak. Manjusri is the mythical author of this influential work,23 the twenty-fourth chapter being devoted to a glorification of the character, the power, and the advantages to be derived from the worship of Avalokitesvara.
The Creation of Gods
Possibly the name of Manjusri may be derived from that of the Indian mendicant, the traditional introducer of Buddhism and its accompanying civilization into Nepal. The Tibetans identify him with the minister of a great King Strongstun, who lived in the seventh century of our era and who was the great patron of Buddhism into Tibet. He is the founder of that school of thought which ended in the Great Vehicle,—the literature of Northern Buddhism.24 From Nepal to Japan, in the books of the Northern Buddhists there is certainly much confusion between the metaphysical being and the legendary civilizer and teacher of Nepal. The other name, Avalokitesvara, which means the Lord of View, "the lord who looks down from on high," instead of being a purely metaphysical invention, may he only an adaptation of one epithet of Shiva, which meant Master of View.
Later and by degrees the attributes were separated and each one was personified. For example, the power of Avalokitesvara was separated from his protecting care and providence. His power was personified as the bearer of the thunder-bolt, or the lightning-handed one; and this new personification added to the two other Buddhas elect, made a triad, the first in Northern Buddhism. In this triad, the thunder-bolt holder was Vagrapani; Manjusri was the deified teacher; and Avalokitesvara was the Spirit of the Buddhas present in the church. Before many centuries had elapsed, these imaginary beings, with a few others, had become gods to whom men prayed; and thus Buddhism became a religion with some kind of theism,—which Gautama had expressly renounced.
If any one wants proof of this reversion into the old religions of India, he has only to notice that the name, given to the new god made by personification of the attribute of power, Vagrapani, or Vadjradhara, or the bearer of the thunder-bolt, had formerly been used as an epithet of the old fire-god of the Vedas, Indra.
It were tedious to recount all the steps in the further development of Northern Buddhism.25 Suffice it to say, that out of ideas and principles set forth in the earlier Buddhism, and under the generating force reborn from old Brahminism, the Dhyani Buddhas (that is the Buddhas evolved out of the mind in mystic trance) were given their elect Buddhas; and so three sets of five were co-ordinated.26 That is, first, five pre-penultimate Buddhas; then their Bodhisattvas or penultimate Buddhas; and then the ultimate or human Buddhas, of which Gautama was one. Or, first abstraction; then pre-human effluence; then emanation.
All this multiplication of beings is unknown to Southern Buddhism, unknown to the Saddharma Pundarika, and very probably unknown also to the Chinese pilgrims who visited India in the fifth and seventh centuries. Professor Rhys Davids, in his compact little manual of Buddhism, says:27
"Among those hypothetical beings—the creations of a sickly scholasticism, hollow abstractions without life or reality—the fourth Amitabha, 'Immeasurable Light,' whose Bodhisatwa is Avalokitesvara, and whose emanation is Gautama, occupies of course the highest and most important rank. Surrounded by innumerable Bodhisatwas, he sits enthroned under a Bo-tree in Sukhavati, i.e., the Blissful, a paradise of heavenly joys, whose description occupies whole tedious books of the so-called Great Vehicle. By this theory, each of the five Buddhas has become three, and the fourth of these five sets of three is the second Buddhist Trinity, the belief in which must have arisen after the seventh century of our era."
Buddhism has been called the light of Asia, and Gautama its illuminator; but certainly the light has not been pure, nor the products of its illumination wholesome. Pardon an illustration. In Christian churches and cathedrals of Europe, there is still a great prejudice against the use of pipes, and of gas made from coal, because of the machinery and of the impure emanations. The prejudice is a wholesome one; for we all know that most of the elements forming common illuminating gas are worthless except to convey the very small amount of light-giving material, and that these elements in combustion vitiate the air and give off deleterious products which corrode, tarnish and destroy. Now though Buddhist doctrine may have been the light of India, yet to reach the Northern and Eastern nations of Asia it had, apparently, to be adulterated for conveyance, as much as is the illuminating gas in our cities. From the first, Northern Buddhism showed a wonderful affinity, not only for Brahministic superstitions and speculations, but for almost everything else with which it came in contact in countries beyond India. Instead of combating, it absorbed. It adapted itself to circumstances, and finding certain beliefs prevalent among the people, it imbibed them, and thus gained by accretion until its bulk, both of beliefs and of disciples, was in the inverse ratio of its purity. Even to-day, the occult theosophy of "Isis Unveiled," and of the school of writers such as Blavatsky, Olcott, etc., seems to be a perfectly logical product of the Northern Buddhisms, and may be called one of them; yet it is simply a repetition of what took place centuries ago. Most of the primitive beliefs and superstitions of Nepal and Tibet were absorbed in the ever hungry and devouring system of Buddhistic scholasticism.
|Written By William Elliot Griffis|
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