Sunday, February 24, 2019

The first teaching assembly of Amida Buddha – commentary on section 13th of the Larger Sutra

In the center of this image Amida sits on a glorious
lotus-throne and His hands are in the mudra of
Dharmacakra-pravartana (mudra of turning the
Wheel of Dharma). Source of image:

“The Buddha said to Ananda,  ‘The number of Sravakas at the first teaching assembly of that Buddha was incalculable;

so was the number of Bodhisattvas. Even if an immeasurable and countless number of humans multiplied by millions of koṭis should all become like Mahamaudgalyayana and together reckon their number during innumerable nayutas of kalpas, or even until they attain Nirvana, they still could not know that number. Let us suppose that there is a great ocean, infinitely deep and wide, and that one takes a drop of water out of it with a one-hundredth part of a split hair. How would you compare that drop of water with the rest of the ocean?’

Ananda replied, ‘When the drop of water is compared with the great ocean, it is impossible even for one skilled in astronomy or mathematics to know the proportion, or for anyone to describe it by any rhetorical or metaphorical expression.’
The Buddha said to Ananda,  ‘Even if people like Mahamaudgalyayana were to count for millions of koṭis of kalpas, the number of the Sravakas and Bodhisattvas at the first teaching assembly who could be counted would be like a drop of water, and the number of sages yet to be counted would be like the rest of the ocean.’”

The time when a Buddha first teaches the Dharma in a universe is called “the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma” and His first audience is called “the first teaching assembly”. When Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, first taught the Dharma in the Deer Park at Sarnath[1], only five human disciples were present. However, I am sure other invisible beings were there too, like anytime when He taught something.

The first turning of the Wheel of Dharma by Amida Buddha (after Dharmakara became Amida and established the Pure Land) and His “first teaching assembly” were very different.
First of all, it took place not in a samsaric realm, like Shakyamuni’s, but in the Pure Land! Second, those who attended were perfectly Enlightened or very close to perfect Enlightenment. In this section of the sutra the term “sravaka” was not used in the sense of a disciple of Amida already Enlightened in His Pure Land (like in section 12th), but of a person in the spiritual state of aspiring for personal freedom from birth and death, and who, after hearing Amida’s sermon, he awoke the aspiration for attaining perfect Buddhahood for all beings (not only for himself like before), entrusted to Him and was thus able to advance to the level of a perfect Buddha capable to save everybody.
Also, the term bodhisattva here refers to bodhisattvas in aspiration, who were still unenlightened but very close to Enlightenment, and who were thus able to attain Buddhahood in the Pure Land after hearing Amida’s teaching, and to Enlightened Bodhisattvas (Buddhas manifesting as Bodhisattvas) who simply wished to see Amida and be present there out of respect for Him and to encourage others, including their disciples, to entrust to Him.

The number of these sravakas and Bodhisattvas is incalculable and Shakyamuni uses again complicated analogies to make us understand how impossible it is to count them. Mahamaudgalyayana was renowned among Shakyamuni’s disciples for his great supernatural powers, but even if all humans become like him it would still be impossible to calculate the number of those gathered to hear the Dharma from Amida at His first turning of the Wheel of Dharma and His first teaching assembly.

Certainly, during that meeting, all participants attained perfect Enlightenment in His Pure Land and became its first inhabitants, still working even now to assist Amida in the salvation of all beings. Also, the already Enlightened Ones (Buddhas who manifest as Bodhisattvas) who attended it, praised His Name and His method of salvation and promised to encourage all beings directly or indirectly to entrust to Him, say His Name in faith and wish to be born there. It is my firm belief that not only some Buddhas attended that first assembly, but ALL Buddhas from the ten directions were present as this would be very much in agreement with Amida’s 17th Vow.

What a wonderful cosmic event that was! 

to be continued 

[1] It seems that the first sutra taught by Shakyamuni was the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta where He explained the Four Noble Truths.

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