Friday, November 2, 2018

"Thus have I heard" - The time and place of the deliverance of this sutra, commentary on section 1 of the Larger Sutra

Shakyamuni Buddha teaching
the Larger Sutra

“Thus have I heard” is the starting formula of any genuine teaching (sutra) of Shakyamuni Buddha. It represents the testimony of Ananda and other direct disciples of the Enlightened One, as well as their successors, that what they transmitted to us, the future generations, is the authentic teaching of Shakyamuni himself, and not something they invented. These words are always followed by the historical place where the sutra was delivered – in our case, the Vulture Peak in Rajagṛha, and the audience gathered there to listen to it:

“Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying on Vulture Peak in Rājagṛha with a large company of twelve thousand monks. They were all great sages who had already attained supernatural powers. Their names included the following: Venerable Ājnāta kauṇḍinya, Venerable Aśvajit, Venerable Vāṣpa, Venerable Mahānāma, Venerable Bhadrajit, Ven erable Vimala, Venerable Yaśodeva, Venerable Subāhu, Venerable Pūrṇaka, Venerable Gavāṃpati, Venerable Uruvilvākāśyapa, Venerable Gayākāśyapa, Venerable Nadīkāśyapa, Venerable Mahākāśyapa, Venerable Śāriputra, Venerable Mahāmaudgalyāyana, Venerable Kapphiṇa, Venerable Mahākauṣṭhila, Venerable Mahākātyāyana, Venerable Mahācunda, Venerable Pūrṇa maitrāyaṇīputra, Venerable Aniruddha, Venerable Revata, Venerable Kimpila, Venerable Amogharāja, Venerable Pārāyaṇika, Venerable Vakkula, Venerable Nanda, Venerable Svāgata, Venerable Rāhula, and Venerable Ānanda. All of these were elders.

Mahayana bodhisattvas also accompanied the Buddha, including all those of this Auspicious Kalpa, such as Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, Bodhisattva Manjuśrī, and Bodhisattva Maitreya. There were also the sixteen lay bodhisattvas, such as Bhadrapāla, as well as Bodhisattva Profound Thought, Bodhisattva Wisdom of Faith, Bodhisattva Emptiness, Bodhisattva Bloom
of Supernatural Power, Bodhisattva Hero of Light, Bodhisattva Superior Wisdom, Bodhisattva Banner of Wisdom, Bodhisattva Tranquil Ability, Bodhisattva Wisdom of Vows, Bodhisattva Sweet-smelling Elephant, Bodhisattva Hero of Treasures, Bodhisattva Dwelling in the Center, Bodhisattva Practice of Restraint, and Bodhisattva Emancipation.”[1]

As I said, “thus have I heard” indicates the authenticity of the teaching as the direct instruction of Shakyamuni Buddha, which should be accepted as it is. Unfortunately, there are some people nowadays who deny the authenticity of the Mahayana sutras in general, and of the three Pure Land sutras, in particular, saying that because they appeared later in written form, they are in fact, the creation of some monks. Many Theravadins[2] share the same opinion on this matter and claim that their Pali canon is the only authentic set of sutras. However, common sense dictates that the time when a Buddhist sutra was put into written form was not automatically the time of its creation. During Shakyamuni Buddha’s life and later, upon His physical death, His discourses (sutras) were transmitted orally and sometimes by His closest disciples through special states of mind called Samadhi for hundreds of years before they were put into written form. The Pali Canon was, in fact, preserved in the artificial language of Pali (which neither the Buddha nor anyone else ever spoke) while the Mahayana sutras were initially preserved in Sanskrit (a language which Shakyamuni, a highly educated person, may have spoken). 

Some make the claim that the Pali Canon of the Theravada school is the oldest and thus the most reliable collection of sutras. Positing that all the discourses or sutras originated from Shakyamuni, then the fact that some were put into written form earlier than the others is not proof of their exclusive authenticity or superior content. The Mahayana and Pure Land sutras did exist and were transmitted in the same timeframe with the sutras of the Pali Canon.

Each group of Buddhist disciples put into written form their own basket (pitaka) of recognized sutras, some earlier and some later. But no one can prove by documentary evidence that his school’s basket of sutras were actually preached by Shakyamuni while the others’ were not.
By the same token, no one can prove that Shakyamuni did not impart some sutras only to a group of special disciples which were open and more prepared to receive them than others and who, in turn, transmitted such sutras to their own chosen disciples in an uninterrupted succession, until one day they decided it was time to give them a written form. 

No one can check and investigate the Buddha’s mind or the minds of His closest disciples and their actions by means of documentary evidence. If we read about the Buddhist councils who compiled orally the discourses of the Buddha after His physical death, we see that the monks who attended such councils could all recite by heart dozens of those discourses and that all were accomplished Masters.

Also, we have seen in the first passages of the  Larger Sutra quoted above, that among the assembly gathered on the Vulture Peak where Shakyamuni delivered it, there were “twelve thousand monks […] all great sages who had already attained supernatural powers.” This aspect is extremely important because it is an indication about who were the monks who heard this sutra and later transmitted it to further generations. They were monks who had “attained supernatural powers,” and it follows that these monks used their mind power to accurately transmit this sutra by Samadhi to others. Among these monks we read the names of Venerable Mahakasyapa, Venerable Sariputra, Venerable Mahamaudgalyayana, etc. More than this, they were not the only listeners. Great transcendental Bodhisattvas like Samantabhadra, Manjusri and Maitreya, the future Buddha, were present too, and they all rejoiced at hearing the Amida Dharma, which can only mean they had faith in it and later helped in its promotion

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