Friday, November 2, 2018

"Thus have I heard" - The time and place of the deliverance of this sutra and the qualities of the audience – commentary on the section 1 and 2 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

Now let’s move to the 2nd fragment of the Larger Sutra which describes the qualities of the Bodhisattvas in audience.
Many members of our school do not fully understand the term Bodhisattva in Mahayana. Also, when we read the 22nd Vow of Amida, also presented in this sutra, and which is generally accepted to mean that we return to this world as fully Enlightened Persons or Buddhas to save all beings, some of us are puzzled that in the respective vow there is no mentioning of the word "Buddha", but only "Bodhisattva". However, there is no contradiction between the two. The reason is that, in Mahayana, the term “Bodhisattva” does not only refer to a highly evolved person who is extremely close to Enlightenment, but also to a Buddha who manifests as Bodhisattva. There is clear evidence for this in many Mahayana sutras, and also in the writings of various Buddhist masters. For example, in the Ojoraisan, Master Shan-tao himself presented Avalokitesvara as already enlightened:

“Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, out of great compassion,
Does not stay in the Bodhi which He has already realized.
Enfolding all the five states of samsaric existence in His bodily light,
He observes beings at six times of a day and responds to their needs with three kinds of act.
The light of His body of response is the colour of purple gold;
His majestic physical characteristics are limitlessly superb.
Extending always a hundred kotis of illuminating hands,
He embraces all who are karmically related to Him
and takes them  to the home country of Amida.”[3]

Certainly Master Shan-tao was well aware of the Mahayana view of great Bodhisattvas who already attained perfect Enlightenment, and became Buddhas. But are all bodhisattvas the same? According to Mahayana, there are two types of bodhisattvas:

1. Bodhisattvas in aspiration who have made the vows of becoming Buddhas for themselves and all beings, but who are still on the path and still unenlightened (not Buddhas yet). Anyone who made the four Bodhisattva vows[4] may call himself or herself a bodhisattva in aspiration. Some bodhisattvas may be very much advanced and on various higher levels, even extremely close to Enlightenment, but as long as they have not reached perfect Enlightement I also include them in this category.

2. Bodhisattvas who already attained Buddhahood or perfect Enlightenment but who do not remain secluded in their Enlightenment. These are in fact, ancient Buddhas who manifest as Bodhisattvas. In this category we find Avalokitesvara, Mahasthamaprapta, Samantabhadra, Manjusri, Maitreya, and many others.
While Avalokitesvara (Kannon in Jap) and Mahasthamaprapta (Seishi in Jap) are the two Bodhisattvas who accompany Amida Buddha, the other three, Samantabhadra, Manjusri and Maitreya, were also assembled at the Vulture Peak when Shakyamuni preached the Larger Sutra:
“Mahayana bodhisattvas also accompanied the Buddha, including all those of this Auspicious Kalpa, such as the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva Manjusri and the Bodhisattva Maitreya. There were also the sixteen lay bodhisattvas, such as Bhadrapala, as well as the Bodhisattva 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.[5]

About them the sutra says:

“With such roots of virtue, all the Bodhisattvas in the assembly had reached the
shore of Emancipation. They had acquired the Buddha's immeasurable merit and attained the sacred, pure and inconceivable wisdom. Innumerable Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas, such as these assembled there all at once.”[6]

As we clearly see in the above quote taken from the first and second sections of the Larger Sutra, the three Bodhisattvas, Samantabhadra, Manjusri[7] and Maitreya, the other sixteen lay Bodhisattvas and in fact, all the Bodhisattvas in the assembly”, already attained Enlightenment - "had reached the shore of Emancipation".

The whole section two of the Larger Sutra describes the virtues of the Bodhisattvas in the audience. Thus, each one of them follows ad infinitum the same pattern as Siddharta Gautama who became Shakyamuni Buddha, that is, they are Buddhas who manifest as Bodhisattvas.  It is like the story of Shakyamuni Buddha repeats itself over and over again in all universes:

He first dwells for some time in the Tusita heaven[8] where Maitreya is now dwelling - "first dwelling in the Tusita Heaven, he proclaims the true Dharma", and then, “…having left the heavenly palace, he descends into his mother's womb. Soon after he is born from her right side, he takes seven steps. As he does so, an effulgence illuminates everywhere in the ten quarters and innumerable Buddha-lands shake in six ways. Then he utters these words, ‘I will become the most Honoured One in the world.’" [9]

After a childhood and youth filled with various achievements and pleasures he "encounters old age, sickness and death", and "he realizes the impermanence of the world". Then he "renounces his kingdom, wealth and throne, and goes into the mountains to practice the Way. After sending back the white horse that he has been riding, together with the jewelled crown and ornaments which he has been wearing, he takes off his magnificent clothes and puts on a Dharma robe. He cuts his hair and shaves his beard, sits upright under a tree and strives at ascetic practices for six years in accord with the traditional way".[10]

After realizing the futility of the ascetic practices he washes himself in the river, eats moderately and then he takes a sit under the Bodhi tree "with his legs crossed". Then "he emits a great flood of light to inform Mara of this. Mara and his army come to attack and tempt him, but he brings them under control with the power of wisdom and makes them all surrender. Then he attains the supreme Dharma and realizes the highest, perfect Enlightenment".[11]

After this attainment of Enlightenment, exactly like Shakyamuni in our present world, he goes on teaching the Dharma, thus guiding others to the attainment of freedom from birth and death:

"[…] destroys wrong views, removes afflictions, flushes the gutters of desire, protects the Dharma-castle, opens the Dharma-gate, washes off the grime of the passions, and reveals the pure white Dharma. He unifies everything in the Buddha Dharma, and thus proclaims the right teaching".[12]

And at the end of his physical body, he "demonstrates that he passes into Nirvana"[13], or in other words, he puts on the show of disappearing into the non-comprehensible state of beyond form and non-form, but in reality, according to the Larger Sutra, he "endlessly brings sentient beings to emancipation"[14], which means that his activities in various manifestations continue in other places of the universe, where he starts again the same story.
The sutra says:

"Just as a magician with his perfect skill can create at will various illusions, including images of man or woman, at will, so the Bodhisattva, having thoroughly learned all the methods of emancipation and attained serene awareness of reality, can freely teach and transform beings. He manifests himself everywhere in innumerable Buddha-lands, performing acts of compassion for sentient beings, tirelessly and with diligence".[15]

Simply stated, let’s imagine that you, the reader of these lines, are a Buddha and I, Josho, am a stupid unenlightened person, which I am, of course :) You attained Enlightenment many kalpas ago, in the distant past, but because you have Compassion for Josho and other beings of this earth, you decided to manifest yourself here. If Josho is attached to his own personal power, then you need to show Josho that a person like himself can become a Buddha and in order to encourage him to start practicing you take the appearance of a person who is unenlightened and who passes through the same difficulties like him. So, you play this game for Josho because his mind cannot be convinced in another way. After “many struggles” you attain Enlightenment and thus prove to Josho that it’s possible for him too, to become enlightened. Josho is thus encouraged to start practicing, thinking that if you, his friend or teacher, struggled and attained it, then he can do this, too. Also, if Josho or others become deeply aware of their own limitations and incapacity to become a Buddha like you, in the present life, and because indeed most of the people from your time and especially after you leave your physical body, will be incapable to attain Enlightenment in their present life, you start teaching to them Amida’s method of salvation. Because you are a Buddha, your listeners will trust your various teachings and follow them. But what they and Josho do not know is that you were Enlightened from the very beginning of your life in their realm and that all your years spent among them were just a useful mean for them and others to entrust to you and to your teaching.[16]
You can find a similar explanation in the Lotus Sutra, too, where Shakyamuni is also described as a Buddha who actually attained Enlightenment many eons ago and plays this game many times for the sake of unenlightened beings. We should also remember that Shinran Shonin regarded Shakyamuni Buddha as a manifestation of Amida Buddha in human form (Nirmanakaya):

“Amida, who attained Buddhahood in the infinite past,
Full of compassion for foolish beings of the five defilements,
Took the form of Sakyamuni Buddha
And appeared in Gaya[17]

So, these are the Mahayana Bodhisattvas who gathered to listen to the Larger Sutra together with “twelve thousand monks, all great sages who had already attained supernatural powers”. Certainly, such great beings who witnessed the teaching presented that day on the Vulture Peak have always been promoting and protecting its transmission to later generations.




[1] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.3
[2] Followers of Theravada school which rely on the sutra canon in Pali.
[3] Shan-tao’s Liturgy for Birth – Ojoraisan, compiled by Master Shan-tao, annotated translation by Zuio Hisao Inagaki, edited by Doyi Tan, Singapore, 2009, p.90-91
Also, in the Great Compassion Dharani Sutra (Maha Karuna Dharani Sutra), Avalokitesvara is again presented as an ancient Buddha who manifests as Bodhisattva:
“Then, Ananda asked the Buddha: "Bhagavan, what is the name of this Bodhisattva-Mahasattva, who is so good to teach us this Dharani?"
The Buddha said: "This Bodhisattva is called Avalokitesvara, the Unrestricted One, also called Nipping a Lariat, also called A Thousand Bright Eyes. Virtuous man, this Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva has unimaginable mighty and holy powers. Uncountable kalpas before, He had already been a Buddha named True Dharma Brightness Tathagata. Because of the power of His great compassionate vows, and in order to call upon all Bodhisattvas to comfort and please all living beings, He appears as a Bodhisattva. All of you, including the Bodhisattvas, Brahmas, Gods of the 33 heavens, dragons, and divinities, should show respect to Him, do not despise Him.”
[4] The four Bodhisattva vows are: 1. no matter how perfect a Buddha would be, I vow to become like Him, 2. no matter how profound the Dharma (the teaching) would be, I vow to fully understand it all, 3. no matter how numerous the passions would be, I vow to conquer them all, 4. no matter how numerous the beings would be, I vow to save them all.
[5] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.3
[6] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.7
[7] Manjushri Bodhisattva is also presented in some sutras, including Surangama Samadhi Sutra, as an ancient Buddha who attained Buddhahood in the past, but who continues to re-manifest as a Bodhisattva:
“’At that time the elder Mahakasyapa addressed the Buddha,  "World-Honored One, I suggest that Dharma Prince Manjusri has already been a Buddha in a past life. He has himself sat in the seat of Enlightenment and turned the Wheel of the Dharma, and He has manifested entry into Parinirvana to sentient beings.’
 The Buddha said, ‘Thus it is, thus it is. It is as you have spoken, Kasyapa. Long in the distant past, an immeasurable and innumerable [number of] inconceivable immeasurable eons ago, there was a Buddha who was called Paragon of the Dragons [as well as by the ten titles] Tathagata, He Who Should Receive Offerings, Of Correct and Universal Understanding, Sufficient in Wise Practice, Well-Gone, He Who Understands the World, the Unsurpassed One, He Who Disciplines Humans, Teacher of Humans and Gods, and WorldHonored Buddha. A thousand Buddha lands south of this world, there was a country called Universal Equivalence, which had neither mountains nor rivers, neither stones nor rocks, and neither hills nor dales. The land there was as flat as the palm of one's hand, and on it grew a soft grass, like that in Kalinga. When Paragon of the Dragons Buddha attained unsurpassable and perfect Enlightenment and first turned the Wheel of the Dharma in that world, He created an assembly of seven billion Bodhisattvas through His teaching. Eight billion people became Arhats, and ninety-six thousand people resided as Pratyekabuddhas [lit., resided within the dharmas of the causes and conditions of Pratyekabuddhas]. Afterward, there were also an immeasurable number of Sravaka monks.
Kasyapa, the life span of Paragon of the Dragons Buddha was four million four hundred thousand years, during which time He saved humans and gods and then entered into Nirvana. His physical relics were divided and distributed around the world, and there were erected thirty-six hundred-million stupas, at which sentient beings made offerings to him. After that Buddha died, the Dharma remained for ten thousand years. When Paragon of the Dragons Buddha was about to enter Nirvana, He conferred a prediction [of future Enlightenment] on Brilliance of Wisdom Bodhisattva, saying, 'After I am gone, this Brilliance of Wisdom Bodhisattva will achieve unsurpassable and perfect Enlightenment. He will again be called Brilliance of Wisdom [Buddha].' 
Kasyapa, could that Paragon of the Dragons Buddha of the world Universal Equivalence be anyone else? You must have no doubt! Why? It was none other than Manjusri, the Dharma prince. Kasyapa, you should now perceive the power of the Surangama Samadhi. It is by its power that the great Bodhisattvas manifest entry into the womb, are born, leave home, proceed to the Bodhi Tree, sit upon the seat of Enlightenment, turn the wondrous Wheel of the Dharma, enter into Parinirvana, and distribute their relics, without ever dispensing with the Dharma of the Bodhisattva and not entering final extinction at Parinirvana.". Surangama Samadhi Sutra, translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva, English translation by John McRae, BDK English Tripitaka 25-II, 25-III, Numata Center for Translation and Research, Berkeley, California, 1998, p.79-80
[8] All those who become great Buddhas spend their prior life in the Tusita Heaven.
[9] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.4
[10] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.4
[11] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.4-5
[12] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.5
[13] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.5
[14] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.5
[15] The Three Pure Land sutras, translated into English by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, revised second edition, BDK English Tripitaka12-II, II, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2003, p.5-6
[16] When you read verses about great Bodhisattvas who postpone their own attainment of Enlightenment until all beings enter Nirvana, those refer to the profound truth that their Enlightenment has no trace of ego, and that the Nirvana they attained is not a personal Nirvana (they did not attain it for themselves), but a continuous awareness of the suffering of others and a constant effort to save them.   How else can it be, when a Buddha has Infinite Wisdom and Infinite Compassion? It is something natural for a Buddha to immediately return to Samsara, in many forms, to help all unenlightened beings, while retaining His Nirvanic state of mind. The aspiration of the Bodhisattva Path is to become a Buddha for all beings, so once a Bodhisattva actually becomes a Buddha, He will continue to manifest in Samsara, taking up various forms, from the highest to the lowest, and going to all the worlds and universes to turn the wheel of Dharma. Thus, He plays again and again the skilful game of a beginner who leaves family, starts practicing, and finally attains Enlightenment, doing all these in order to encourage beings in various worlds to practice the Dharma themselves.  
We who entrust to Amida Buddha will also become such active Buddhas who manifest as Bodhisattvas after we are born in His Pure Land, after death. This is what Amida promised in His 22nd Vow, and this is the meaning of the term "bodhisattva" from that vow.
[17] Hymns of the Pure Land - The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.349 In Shinran’s day, Gaya – the place where Shakyamuni attained Enlightenment – was sometimes confused with Kapilavastu, his birthplace (note of the translator).

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