Theravada, Mahayana and the New Religions: Changing Perspectives in Regard to the Saha World
by Ryuei Michael McCormick
"Bhikkhus, there are these two kinds of search: the noble search and the ignoble search. And what is the ignoble search? Here someone being himself subject to birth seeks what is also subject to birth; being himself subject to ageing, he seeks what is also subject to ageing; being himself subject to sickness, he seeks what is also subject to sickness; being himself subject to death, he seeks what is also subject to death; being himself subject to sorrow, he seeks what is also subject to sorrow; being himself subject to defilement, he seeks what is also subject to defilement.The Buddha then goes on to state that all of these things are also subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement using the same formula as in the previous paragraph. Gold and silver, however, are exempted from such things as sickness, death and sorrow as they are not organic. They are, however, subject to ageing and defilement, since even non-organic phenomena can deteriorate over time or become mixed or diffused with other elements. Despite the differences between these various phenomena, the point is made that none of them can be relied upon to bring permanent fulfillment nor can they enable us to to escape our own vulnerability to life's inevitable dissolution and end. The ignoble search, then, refers to the futility of expending our time and energy trying to gain and maintain happiness within the world through one's family and/or possessions. On what should we expend our time and energy? On the noble search for nirvana (nibbana in Pali):
"And what may be said to be subject to birth? Wife and children are subject to birth, men and women slaves, goats and sheep, fowl and pigs, elephants, cattle, horses, and mares, gold and silver are subject to birth. These objects of attachment are subject to birth; and one who is tied to these things, infatuated with them, and utterly committed to them, being himself subject to birth, seeks what is also subject to birth."2
"And what is the noble search? Here someone being himself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeks the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbana; being himself subject to aging, having understood the danger in what is subject to aging, he seeks the unaging supreme security from bondage, Nibbana; being himself subject to sickness, having understood the danger in what is subject to sickness, he seeks the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbana; being himself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, he seeks the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbana; being himself subject to sorrow, having understood the danger in what is subject to sorrow, he seeks the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbana; being himself subject to defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to defilement, he seeks the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbana. This is the noble search.3It is clear from this passage that one should turn away from the world and seek instead the peace of nirvana. In fact, judging from this passage it would seem as though the world should be totally rejected and not given any further thought. There probably were many Buddhist monks and nuns who did take an attitude of total indifference and aloofness in regard to the world and others in their search for personal liberation from suffering. The idea that one should seek one's own liberation and leave the rest of the world to fend for itself is criticized in Mahayana Buddhism as being a Hinayana or Small Vehicle idea of Buddhism because it is a self-seeking ideal of self-liberation only. Mahayana polemics aside, the Pali canon of the Theravadin tradition may not be a Mahayana recension of the Buddha's teachings, but there are in fact many passages within it which do uphold the ideal of an altruistic and compassionate concern for the world. In the following passage, for instance, the Buddha sends his disciples into the world in order to share the Dharma with others:
Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus: "Bhikkhus, I am free from all shackles whether human or divine. You too are free from all shackles whether human or divine. Go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. Teach the Dhamma that is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end, with the meaning and the letter. Explain a holy life that is utterly perfect and pure. There are beings with little dust on their eyes who will be lost through not hearing the Dhamma. Some will understand the Dhamma. I shall go to Uruvela, to Senanigama, to teach the Dhamma."4The Pali canon of the Theravada, literally the "Teaching of the Elders," is said to be the recorded teachings of the Buddha prior to the innovations of the Mahayana sutras. In fact, the Theravada prides itself on its conservative adherence to the actual doctrines and monastic precepts of the historical Buddha. In the Mahayana canon, those sutras or discourses which correspond to the Pali canon are collectively known as the Agamas, the "Source Teachings." In them, are those discourses which preserve the very same themes of renunciation and the quest for nirvana. In fact, many of the discourses in the Agamas are simply different recensions of the same discourses collected in the Pali canon. In the Mahayana, however, the Agamas are referred to as the Hinayana teachings. As far as the Mahayana Buddhists were concerned, these teachings may have had occasional references to compassionate concern for the world, but they were too few and far between.
The enlightening beings also conceive this overwhelming determination: "If I attain complete perfect enlightenment first without having established all sentient beings on the path of unsurpassed liberation, I would be violating my original vow - that would never do, so I should first cause all sentient beings to attain unexcelled enlightenment and nirvana without remainder, and then after that fulfill buddhahood. Why? Sentient beings have not asked me to set my mind on enlightenment - I of my own accord act as an unsolicited friend to sentient beings, wishing to first cause all beings to fully develop their good potential and attain omniscience...."5While the Hinayana Buddhist (whoever might fit that description) seeks nirvana in order to escape the various realms of transmigration within the world of birth and death, the bodhisattva voluntarily stays within the world of birth and death in order to guide others to nirvana. The bodhisattva even volunteers to take up the suffering of others while at the same time transferring all of their merit to them for the sake of universal liberation from suffering. The language used to describe the bodhisattva's resolution in this regard might even strike those who have grown up in a Christian environment as very similar to the Christian doctrine of vicarious atonement. Again, the Flower Garland Sutra provides a very moving example of this resolve:
They also form this thought: "I should accept all sufferings for the sake of all sentient beings, and enable them to escape from the abyss of immeasurable woes of birth and death. I should accept all suffering for the sake of all sentient beings in all worlds, in all states of misery, forever and ever, and still always cultivate the foundations of goodness for the sake of all beings. Why? I would rather take all this suffering on myself than to allow sentient beings to fall into hell. I should be a hostage in those perilous places - hells, animal realms, the nether world, etc. - as a ransom to rescue all sentient beings in states of woe and enable them to gain liberation."6At this point, it must be pointed out that those who aspire to the compassion of a bodhisattva are in danger of falling into an attitude of sentimentality, pity or condescension instead of genuine compassion. The aspiring bodhisattva might even acquire a martyr complex or messianic delusions of grandeur if their vows are not balanced by the perspective of the perfection of wisdom which sees through the duality of self and other, savior and saved. All of these mistaken ideas and attitudes could be called the near enemies of compassion in the sense that they are often mistaken for genuine compassion and they constantly threaten to subvert authentic expressions of compassion. Perhaps in an effort to help the aspiring bodhisattvas maintain their humility and perspective, some Mahayana sutras introduced the idea of gratitude as an important motivational element of Buddhist practice. The following example of this is from the Meditation on the Mind Ground Sutra:
Worldly and transcendent debts of gratitude are of four kinds. There is the debt of gratitude to one's father and mother. There is the debt of gratitude to all sentient beings. There is the debt of gratitude to the ruler of the country. [Finally] there is the debt of gratitude to the Three Treasures [Buddha, Dharma and Sangha].7In Mahayana Buddhism, all phenomena give rise to one another. All phenomena derive their temporary and provisional existence from the interdependent network of all other phenomena. This means that all of us depend upon each other and all things in order to be who we are. All of us must have parents in order to come into the world. All of us require the assistance of innumerable living beings in order to acquire food and shelter, companionship, an education, and all of the other things which make life worth living. As human beings, we all grow up with the benefits as well as the constraints of a given language, heritage and culture which all contribute to our character and world view. Finally, for those who seek to free themselves of life's inevitable suffering and to awaken to the true meaning of life, there is always the possibility of encountering the Three Treasures and taking refuge in them. According to the Meditation on the Mind Ground Sutra, we would not even be who we are if it were not for our parents, our fellow beings, our homeland (represented by the ruler) and the Three Treasures. This Mahayana teaching demonstrates the truth that all existence is interdependent existence and therefore the basis of our interactions with others should be a deep feeling of gratitude and appreciation. A good example of this kind of awareness is provided by the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:
During a conference on religion and peace, a Protestant minister came up to me toward the end of one of our meals together and said, "Are you a grateful person?" I was surprised. I was eating slowly, and I thought to myself, Yes, I am a grateful person. The minister continued, "If you are really grateful, how can you not believe in God? God has created everything we enjoy, including the food we eat. Since you do not believe in God, you are not grateful for anything." I thought to myself, I feel extremely grateful for everything. Every time I touch food, whenever I see a flower, when I breathe fresh air, I always feel grateful. Why would he say that I am not? I had this incident in mind many years later when I proposed to friends at Plum Village that we celebrate a Buddhist Thanksgiving Day every year. On that day, we practice real gratitude - thanking our mothers, fathers, ancestors, friends, and all beings for everything. If you meet that Protestant minister, I hope you will tell him that we are not ungrateful. We feel deeply grateful for everyone and everything.From this example, we can see that gratitude as an approach to the world is present within the Mahayana. Gratitude is in fact a consequence of the teaching of emptiness, whereby all things are empty of self-existence and come into being through interdependent relationships. In spite of this, the Mahayana tradition, as a whole, rarely elaborates upon the idea that the world itself should be viewed with gratitude. The Meditation on the Mind Ground Sutra, for instance, was never as influential as sutras like the Lotus or the Flower Garland which dwell at great length upon the theme of compassion for others. The four debts of gratitude are mentioned in passing in Buddhist liturgies and in case 37 of the Gateless Gate, but they are rarely the subject of a discourse in and of themselves. In the Pure Land tradition, teachers such as Rennyo (the 15th century reformer and popularizer of the Jodo Shinshu) did emphasize gratitude to Amitabha Buddha. However, they would rarely direct that gratitude to the world which they were hoping to be liberated from. This is illustrated in the following passage from one of Rennyo's letters:
Every time we eat a meal, gratitude is our practice. We are grateful for being together as a community. We are grateful that we have food to eat, and we really enjoy the food and the presence of each other. We feel grateful throughout the meal and throughout the day, and we express this by being fully aware of the food and living every moment deeply. This is how I try to express my gratitude to all of life.8
If you wish to attain faith and entrust yourselves to Amida, first realize that human life lasts only as long as a dream or an illusion and that the afterlife [in the Pure Land] is indeed the blissful result in eternity, that human life means the enjoyment of fifty to a hundred years, and that the afterlife is the matter of greatest importance. Abandoning the inclination toward all sundry practices and discarding the tendency to avoid certain things, entrust yourselves single-heartedly and steadfastly to Amida and, without concerning yourselves with other buddhas, bodhisattvas, and the various kami, take refuge exclusively in Amida, with the assurance that this coming birth is a certainty. Then, in an outpouring of thankfulness, you should say the nembutsu and respond in gratitude for Amida Tathagata's benevolence in saving you.9Shinran (the 13th century founder of the Jodo Shinshu) took this focus on Amida to the radical extreme of refusing to even recite the nembutsu for his own parents on the grounds that only through the salvation offered by Amitabha Buddha could he possibly repay his debts of gratitude to all sentient beings. Shinran seem to have felt that one could not even hope to repay one's infinite debt of gratitude to all sentient beings without showing gratitude to the infinite saving power of Amitabha Buddha first. For all practical purposes, the focus of gratitude is entirely upon Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land. Any gratitude shown towards this world would be viewed as misguided self-power effort from this radical Pure Land perspective. The following passage from Shinran's Tannisho makes this clear:
I, Shinran, have not once said the Nembutsu for the sake of fulfilling my obligation of filial piety toward my late parents.Most other Pure Land teachers did not take things to the radical extreme that Shinran did. Still, the less radical Pure Land teachers, and the Mahayana as a whole never tried to put gratitude on an equal footing with compassion and did not develop any substantial doctrines dealing with gratitude towards the world in and of itself.
The reason is that all sentient beings have been my parents and my brothers and my sisters during my innumerable past lives. When I become a Buddha in the next life, I must save every one of them.
If the Nembutsu were a good act which we could perform by our own efforts, we could direct the merit that we acquire by saying it towards saving our parents. But since this is not the case, we should discard self-power and attain Buddhahood quickly. Then, through supernatural abilities and expedient means, we will be able to save all beings, beginning with those with whom we have past bonds, no matter what kind of karmic suffering they may be experiencing in the six realms of mortal existence and the four modes of birth.10
When Shakyamuni Buddha was a prince, his father, King Suddhodana, could not bear losing his only heir and therefore would not allow him to renounce his royal station. The king kept two thousand soldiers posted at the city's four gates to prevent him from leaving. Nevertheless, the prince eventually left the palace against his father's will. In general, it is the son's duty to obey his parents, yet on the path to Buddhahood, not following one's parents may ultimately bring them good fortune. The Shinjikan Sutra explains the essence of filial piety as follows: "By renouncing one's obligations and entering nirvana one can truly repay those obligations in full." That is, in order to enter the true way, one leaves his home against his parents' wishes and attains Buddhahood. Then he can truly repay his debt of gratitude to them.11Nikkyo Niwano's essays, however, have a very different emphasis. His concern is not that people are misdirecting their gratitude towards worldly phenomena, but that they do not appreciate nor do they respond with gratitude to the unearned blessings which make their lives possible in the first place. In a feudal and agricultural society, gratitude to the balance of nature, to one's neighbors, and to those in authority is simply common sense. After all, in feudal times one's dependence upon nature, one's neighbors and the feudal order were an immediate and direct matter of life and death. In an industrialized and capitalist society, however, consumerism and self-interest are far more common than gratitude. In the free markets of the industrialized world, one must compete for almost everything. There is no time to be grateful to one's competitors in the economic or political arenas or to the natural world which is now a resource to be managed. It is this kind of society that Nikkyo Niwano is addressing when he emphasize the importance of cultivating a sense of gratitude. In the following passage from an essay entitled "Gratitude," Nikkyo Niwano uses the traditional Mahayana principle of interdependence in order to show that gratitude is the proper response to all the people and things which make our life possible.
There is a strong tendency today to give logical explanations for everything and to deal with things as matters of rights and duties. For example, some people think that when a parent raises a child, the parent is only obeying an animal instinct, so there is no particular reason for the child to be thankful. Some think that it is only natural for teachers to teach, since after all they receive salaries. Pursuing this line of thought, one concludes that plants give oxygen just because they are alive, and that the sun gives light and heat as just a natural phenomenon. In other words, there is no cause to be thankful.In Korea, this emphasis on gratitude is even more central in the teachings of Sot'aesan Taejongsa, the founder of Won Buddhism. In an attempt to counteract the aloof and world denying attitudes of traditional Korean Buddhism, Sot'aesan utilized his own unique version of the four debts of gratitude or Four Graces as a concrete way of showing how to "change a life based on resentment into a life based on gratitude."13 Sot'aesan's version of the Four Graces bear a resemblance to the four debts of gratitude of the Meditation on the Mind Ground Sutra, and it is possible that they were inspired by that sutra. As shown above, the four debts of gratitude were composed of parents, sentient beings, the ruler and the Three Treasures. Sot'aesan's version consists of heaven and earth (representing the natural world), parents, brethren (referring to all fellow beings including animals), and law (in the sense of "law and order," which includes but is not limited to the Buddha Dharma).
There is no way for such thinking to make people happy. It can only make people egoistic, cold-hearted, puffed up, and lonely. By contrast, we cannot imagine how much happier it makes us to be grateful to our parents, to the people around us, to the plant kingdom, and for the blessings of heaven and earth. If the number of people who feel such thankfulness grows into the thousands and millions, not only will they support one another with affection, but they will be able to exist in harmony with the plants, the oceans, and the atmosphere. The planet will become a peaceful, comfortable place to live.
When one looks at how the world is formed, one can understand that everything is interdependent, and is connected in some way. Nothing exists entirely in and of itself. Our environment is one of constant, interrelated change, in which the death of one thing becomes the source of life for another. With everything so interdependent, a grand but subtle harmony is built up. As a consequence, we can say that it is most natural to live in grateful acceptance of every encounter with those who share this bond. Conversely, as long as we do not forget to see things as they are, the feeling of gratitude for all things will surely spring forth.12
By awareness of Graces and Requital of Graces is meant that one should be aware of, and feel deeply, the way in which one is indebted to Graces of Heaven and Earth, Parents, Brethren and Laws; when following the way of being indebted, one is to requite these Graces. Even if one is confronted with a case in which one is forced to bear a grudge, one is to find a source of Grace and, by changing resentment to gratitude, one may be able to requite Graces.15In this passage and in the more detailed descriptions of each of the Four Graces in The Scripture of Won Buddhism, it is made very clear that the grace is something which makes our existence in this world possible and that it is bestowed upon us by the natural world and the beings within it. In Won Buddhism, grace is primarily immanent and operates within and through the things of this world. Of course, this is no different from what is taught in the Meditation on the Mind Ground Sutra and it is certainly in keeping with the teaching of the Flower Garland Sutra and the Buddhist tradition as a whole that all thing exist solely in terms of interdependent origination.
Kwang-Jun asked again, "How do we practice our faith in the Truth of Won?"Now that we have come to the end of this brief survey of Buddhist attitudes in regard to the world, I would like to make a few observations. It must not be forgotten that while the themes of renunciation, compassion and gratitude were each given precedence in three subsequent Buddhist movements, they are by no means restricted to those movements in which they arose. In this area, as well as in many others, there is a significant amount of overlapping between the Theravada, the Mahayana and the New Religions. Thich Nhat Hanh, especially, is a good example of this overlapping. As a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh draws upon both the Pali suttas of the Theravada and the Sanskrit sutras of the Mahayana. In his teachings, one finds renunciation of materialism and self-interest, compassion for others and a keen sense of appreciation and gratitude. Renunciation and compassion as well as gratitude are also found in the teachings of Nikkyo Niwano and Sot'aesan Taejongsa. The association of the Theravada with detachment, the Mahayana with compassion and the New Religions with gratitude is merely a matter of emphasis and not exclusivity.
The Great Master answered, "The way is to believe in the Truth of Won as our object of faith and to pray for all blessedness and happiness from the Truth. Il-Won-Sang is composed of the Four Graces, and the Four Graces comprise all beings in the universe. All things that we see in the universe are nothing but Buddhas. Therefore, at all times and in all places we must be very respectful and cautious toward all things, keeping a pure mind and a pious manner as if we were before the real Buddha. You are also to try to practice Offering Worship to Buddha directly in all things with which you are involved, thereby creating blessedness and happiness in your real life. In a word, this is the way to turn a partial faith into a perfect one, and a superstitious belief into an actual one."16