Devas in the Attic

Light of Liberation: A History of Buddhism in India
Dharma Publishing, 1992. BQ286.L54

Today I had to plug through many history books of the sort described in my last post. Some were fascinating in their own right (The Search for the Buddha was a roller-coaster ride, guiding me through the excitement of discovering a lost civilization in the midst of colonial India) but few told me anything new about Buddhism, even the ones which were purportedly about Buddhist history. For some reason there is a book of “history” attributed to Daisaku Ikeda in this library, full of inaccuracies and quite obviously cribbed from other texts by a ghostwriter. But just because a book is written from an insider perspective doesn’t mean it is necessarily ignorant of real Buddhist history. My favorite book today actually presents Early Buddhism from an unapologetically Tibetan perspective.

It is refreshing, after reading so many books which shrug or speculate about the origin of Mahayana scriptures, to read one which proclaims, apparently without any embarrassment, that Buddha left some of his higher-level sutras with nagas, devas, and gandharvas for safekeeping, and that the most difficult sutras, for the sake of expedience in the limited time given to Buddha on earth, were proclaimed in higher realms that “humans and devas alike could not normally access … on their own”, but which it was possible to visit “through the perfection of a profound samadhi”. Like a passworded chatroom! (125)

Well, I don’t mean to laugh at these cosmic fantasies. Rather, it is disappointing that historians who search for the “real” early Buddhism often fail to report them, because learning the way that Tibetan Buddhists themselves think about the most powerful sutras is the best way to understand them. Think about it this way: for those monks who had only material understanding, Buddha explained the simple teachings of dependent arising and nonself. Then, when he appeared to be meditating in this world, he held a special conference for his best disciples and gave them the sort of insights only perceivable by a Buddha. These teachings were, of course, held back from the general public until the sudden Mahayana revolution of the first and second centuries CE, when they were revealed. (300)

A lot of useful territory is covered in this account, so let’s just talk about what interests me. First is the Trial of Ananda, an incident where Mahakashyapa blocks Ananda from attending the First Buddhist Council on the following grounds:

  1. Ananda had requested that women be admitted into the order.
  2. Ananda had not asked the Buddha to remain in the world.
  3. Ananda had [stepped] on the Buddha’s robe [while sewing it].
  4. Ananda had once given impure water to the Buddha.
  5. Ananda had not clarified with the Buddha which Vinaya rules were to be always kept and which could be sometimes set aside.
  6. Ananda had shown the Buddha’s unclothed corpse to the Sangha.
  7. Ananda had shown the corpse of the Buddha to women, who profaned it with their tears. (159-160)

I don’t know about you guys, but to me this list damns Mahakashyapa as a prude and an old fuddy-duddy, while making Ananda out to be the more compassionate and eager of the two. I guess he does seem a little absent-minded, though.

It is also interesting to see the constant citation of Bu-ston, whom I imagine to be a sort of Eusebius of Mahayana Buddhism. Well, this book is a lot more readable than those confusing histories based on Eusebius… when we get to the Mahayana section, especially, our teachers like Nagarjuna and Asanga travel to the land of the nagas, extremely high mountains, and even Tushita Heaven to study with Maitreya. They hear truths so powerful that they cannot understand them. Yes, even if the Mahayana canon is just “fanfiction”, this does sound like an interesting subject to read more about.

Posted: March 18th, 2010 | Book Reviews