Sacred Texts: Asia

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Sacred Texts: Asia

According to Buddhist tradition, questions regarding doctrinal authenticity first arose during the lifetime of the historical Buddha (c. fifth century b.c.e.). When asked how his followers should distinguish the true "word of the Buddha" (buddha-vacana ) from false teachings, he is reported to have said, "whatever is well spoken is the word of the Buddha." Later commentators understood this to mean that if a doctrine or practice accords with the Buddhist goals of liberation from cyclic existence (samsara) and the alleviation of suffering (dukkha ), and if it is concordant with the core doctrines of Buddhism, then it can be adopted and practiced by Buddhists, regardless of who originally taught it.

A more restrictive approach to questions of textual authority was presented in the Great Instruction Discourse (Mahapadesa-sutta, attributed to the Buddha but probably written after his death), in which he advises his followers to compare contested teachings with the corpus of discourses known to have been spoken by the Buddha. If a teaching or text accords with the oral instructions (Pali, sutta; Sanskrit, sutra ) and the rules for monastic conduct (vinaya ), then it can be accepted as authoritative. It should be noted, however, that the text assumes that only well-educated senior monksnot ordinary Buddhists who lack a thorough knowledge of the Buddha's teachingswill be able to make such determinations.

Shortly after the Buddha's death, a group of five hundred of his most advanced disciples convened to definitively settle the limits of Buddhist teaching. All were arhats, men who had eliminated mental afflictions and who would attain nirvana at the end of their lives. It was assumed that such people would not be hampered by faulty memories or sectarian biases. Anandawho had been the Buddha's personal attendant and had been present at all of his discourseswas responsible for reciting the oral discourses, while Upali recounted the Buddha's instructions on monastic discipline. After the recitation was concluded, the canon was declared closed, and the assembled arhats agreed that no new teachings would be recognized as the "word of the Buddha."

Contemporary Western scholars have questioned the historicity of the "first council," but the story is accepted as fact by the Theravada school, the dominant Buddhist tradition in Southeast Asia, which views it as an indication of the validity of its canon. This is written in an Indic language called Pali and is believed to have been definitively codified by the five hundred arhats. It is organized into three sections, called "baskets" (pitaka ): Vinaya pitaka, which was concerned with rules for Buddhist monks and nuns; Sutta pitaka, the Buddha's discourses on doctrine and practice; and Abhidhamma pitaka, containing scholastic treatises summarizing and explicating Buddhist doctrine.

Later Additions to the Buddhist Canon

Despite the confident pronouncement by the participants at the first council that the canon was closed, several centuries after the passing of the Buddha new texts began to appear in India that carried the title of "sutra," purportedly spoken by the Buddha during his lifetime. These were part of a new movement that referred to itself as "Mahayana" (Greater vehicle) and that characterized its opponents as "Hinayana" (Lesser vehicle). Proponents of the Mahayana sutras claimed that their texts superseded those of their rivals and were of "definitive meaning" (nitartha ), while those of the previous canons were relegated to the status of "interpretable meaning" (neyartha ). The opponents of Mahayana, for their part, categorically rejected these new texts as forgeries, and pointed out that they differed significantly from those of the earlier canon and contained new doctrines and practices that were not attested in the earlier texts. The Mahayanists responded by claiming that their sutras had been taught by the Buddha but were only revealed to his most advanced disciples.

Some Mahayana sutras set out hermeneutical principles that could be used to differentiate which texts are definitive and which are interpretable. According to the Teaching of Aksayamati Sutra (Aksayamati-nirdesa-sutra), which became normative for the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) school, the differentiating factor is doctrinal content: those texts that discuss the final nature of phenomena are definitive, while all others are of interpretable meaning. The final nature of phenomena is said to be their emptiness (sunyata ) of inherent existence (svabhava ).

Another hermeneutical schema was propounded by the Sutra Explaining the Thought (Samdhinirmocana-sutra), which became the primary scriptural source for the Yogic Practice (Yogacara ) school. In this text, the Buddha is presented as claiming that he taught his doctrines in three cycles, or "wheels of doctrine" (dharma-cakra ). The "first wheel" contains basic Buddhist doctrines that are contained in the early canon, which were taught for beginners and were not definitive. In the "second wheel" the literal interpretation of these doctrines was rendered problematic by the declaration that all phenomenaincluding Buddhist teachings and practicesare empty of inherent existence, and so the doctrines of the early canon lack the privileged truth status that conservative Buddhists had attributed to them. The "third wheel," represented by the Sutra Explaining the Thought, differentiates interpretable and definitive teachings and provides hermeneutical guidelines by which Buddhists (or at least those who accept them as normative) can differentiate the two.

The canonical situation of Indian Buddhism became even more confusing in later centuries when a new group of texts began to appear, again claiming to have been spoken by the Buddha. These were called "tantras" and contained significant innovations in doctrine and practice, although the basic path was that of the Mahayana. Like the Mahayana sutras before them, they claimed to supersede previous teachings and to represent the final "word of the Buddha" on doctrine and practice.

Regional Transmission

The profusion of canonical, protocanonical, and deutero-canonical literature in India presented significant difficulties for Buddhists in other Asian countries as the religion spread. Scholars of the tradition commonly identify three primary trajectories in the diffusion of Buddhism: Southeast Asian Buddhism, East Asian Buddhism, and Northern Buddhism.

According to tradition, Buddhism was first established in Southeast Asia by a mission led by Mahinda, a Buddhist monk who was the son of the Indian emperor Aśoka (ruled 272236 b.c.e.). After arriving in Sri Lanka, Mahinda reportedly converted its king to Buddhism, and the two founded the Mahavihara, the first Buddhist monastery outside of India. It became the seat of Buddhist orthodoxy in Southeast Asia for millennia. The dominant Buddhist tradition in the region is Theravada (Teachings of the Elders), which prides itself on its conservatism and adheres to the Pali canon. According to mainstream Theravada, their canon contains the only true "word of the Buddha," and all other purported teachings are spurious.

East Asian Buddhism mainly arrived via trade routes linking India to China and the rest of the region. Several of the oasis cities along these routes had established Buddhist centers, and these became a conduit by which texts, doctrines, and practices moved from India to China, and from there to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

The first outpost in the transmission process was a translation bureau established in the Chinese capital of Loyang in 148 c.e. by the Central Asian monk An Shigao. Together with a team of other Central Asian monks, he began rendering Indic texts into Chinese. The process of translation intensified in later centuries, and two primary techniques were adopted by Chinese translators: some coined new terminology for Indic technical terms that had no equivalents in Chinese, while others developed a system called "matching meanings" (ke-yi ), in which they appropriated terms (mainly from Daoism) that approximated Indic originals.

Both of these approaches had inherent problems. Translators who opted for the creation of a new technical vocabulary often ended up with neologisms that sounded odd to Chinese readers and that had little resonance for them. While they might be technically accurate, literate Chinese often perceived them as evidence of the foreign (and inferior) origins of Buddhism and its unsuitability for Chinese. The practice of "matching meanings," on the other hand, produced texts with terms that were well known to Chinese and that appeared to contain familiar doctrines, but there was considerable slippage between the original Indic terms and their Chinese equivalents. For example, in some texts the Sanskrit term nirvana liberation from the world and from rebirth, which is the result of the elimination of mental afflictions and the cultivation of wisdom and insightwas commonly rendered by the Daoist term "nonaction" (wu wei ), which is the ideal way of life of the Daoist sage, who lives in accordance with the rhythms of the Dao and avoids micromanaging affairs.

Such terminological ambiguity was compounded by the problems of textual transmission to East Asia. Buddhism only gradually gained adherents, and for centuries texts flowed into China haphazardly, brought mainly by pilgrims or missionary monks. The difficult terrain of the deserts of Central Asia and the vast distances covered by the trade routes limited what individual travelers could carry with them. Missionaries would bring texts that were important to them and seldom attempted to carry a representative sampling of Indian Buddhist literature. As a result, commentaries sometimes arrived in China before the texts on which they commented, and polemical texts arrived before those they were attacking. The Chinese Buddhist canon contains a plethora of texts from various regions of India, various schools and traditions, and from different periods of time. Many sutras exist in several variants, which are dated in the Chinese canon. These have provided scholars with evidence for when certain doctrines and practices developed in India, because later versions retrospectively added material as it became established in India. In addition, the Chinese canon contains portions of other Indian canons, which have revealed some of the doctrines and practices of schools that were influential at a certain point but later died out.

China was the conduit from which Buddhism was disseminated to the rest of East Asia. It first traveled to Korea, and from there it was exported to Japan and Vietnam. The Korean Buddhist canon is derived from the Chinese canon, and the canonical texts used in Japanese and Vietnamese Buddhism also derive from Chinese translations.

The transmission of Buddhism to Tibet and Mongolia was significantly different from that into East Asia. Like the Chinese, Tibetans adopted Mahayana Buddhism, but tantra was much more influential than in China. Also, while China had an advanced culture at the time when it first encountered Buddhism, Tibet was relatively backward culturally. Despite this, it was an expanding military power, and as it spread outward from the Tibetan plateau it encountered other civilizations that were far more advanced in science, technology, and culture. One result of this was that the Tibetan kings of the Yarlung dynasty (so called because its headquarters were in the Yarlung Valley of central Tibet) decided to import elements of the civilizations beyond their borders.

Beginning in the seventh century, the Yarlung kings converted to Buddhism and began a process of transforming Tibetan society. According to tradition, the first of the "dharma kings" (chos rgyal ) was Songtsen Gampo (Srong btsan sgam po; c. 618850), who is said to have been a physical emanation of the Buddha Avalokitesvara, who embodies compassion and is the patron Buddha of Tibet. He married princesses from Nepal and China, both of whom are said by tradition to have been emanations of the Buddha Tara, and the three worked together to convert the Tibetans to Buddhism. Although this is the consensus of histories written centuries later by Buddhist clerics, there is little contemporary evidence that Songtsen Gampo had any real interest in Buddhism.

Some of his successors, however, were clearly devout Buddhists, and they allocated significant resources to the importation of Buddhism. Tibetan students were sent to the great seats of Buddhist learning at monastic universities like Nalanda and Vikramasila, and Indian masters were invited to Tibet to spread the faith. During the early period of transmission (snga dar ), translation committees were established, often with government funding. Their task was to render the vast corpus of Indian Buddhist literature into Tibetan. Faced with the same translation issues that Chinese Buddhists had encountered earlier, the Tibetans opted for the development of a specialized vocabulary for Indian Buddhist technical terms. Many of these were Tibetan neologisms, such as the rendering of "passed beyond sorrow" (nya ngan las 'das pa ) for the Sanskrit term nirvana.

During this early period, translation equivalents varied considerably, and when the Yarlung dynasty fell in 842, translation activity was largely suspended. It began again during the "second dissemination" (phyi dar ), which was initiated by the arrival of Atisa (9821054) in Tibet in 1042. During this period translation bureaus were reconstituted, and standard Sanskrit-Tibetan lexicons were created in order to standardize terminology. In the fourteenth century, the Tibetan scholar Bu-ston (Bu ston rin chen grub; 12901364) reportedly codified the Tibetan canon by poring through the various manuscripts of translations of Indian Buddhist texts and selecting those he deemed to be the most accurate. These were arranged into two groupings: Kangyur (bKa' 'gyur, literally "translations of teachings") and Tengyur (bsTan 'gyur, literally "translations of texts"). The first section contained Indian Mahayana sutras and tantras, as well as texts on monastic discipline. The "Translations of Texts" section includes Indian philosophical texts and commentaries on sutras, along with some indigenous Tibetan works and translations of Chinese treatises. Most of this literature was imported from the libraries of the great monasteries of northern India, but at the same time tantric teachings, both written and oral, came to Tibet, mostly transmitted by Indian masters and their students. These often achieved a deuterocanonical status within tantric lineages, and many are still widely circulated and discussed.

During the early period of transmission of Buddhism, Tibetans mainly concentrated on translating Indic texts, but as they grew more confident in their understanding of the tradition, a vast corpus of indigenous works was composed. Over time, four main orders formed in Tibet: Nyingma (rNying ma), Kagyü (bKa' rgyud), Sakya (Sa skya), and Geluk (dGe lugs). Each of these in turn produced deuterocanonical texts, and the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya orders have compiled their own canons. The Gelukpa order mainly relies on the works of its founder Tsong Khapa (Tsong kha pa bLo sang grags pa; 13571419) and his disciples Kaydrup (mKhas grub rje) and Gyeltsap (rGyal tshab rje). All of these traditions continue to revere the Indic texts contained in the normative Buddhist canon, but in practice they are seldom studied today; instead, Buddhist students and scholars tend to rely on the works of their own traditions, supplemented by oral instructions by their teachers.

Questions regarding authenticity and interpretation remain important in Buddhism today. In most of Asia, the prime criterion for judging the validity of a given text is whether or not there is an Indian original. Given the vast size of the various Buddhist canons, however, this provides little help in deciding which texts or teachings should be regarded as definitive. Most Buddhist traditions base their decisions on what has been handed down to them by their respective lineages. Most of these privilege a particular text (or set of texts) and use it as the criterion for determining authoritativeness. Several East Asian lineages in particular have devised elaborate classification schemes that rank Buddhist teachings hierarchically, with those of their preferred text(s) on the top. It is rare for individual Buddhists to take the time to pore over the voluminous literature in their respective canons, and most interpret texts and doctrines in accordance with the traditions of their lineages.

See also Buddhism ; Daoism ; Zen .


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John Powers

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