The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings
13 September 2021
At the beginning of today’s teaching – which was the last of this year’s Mar Ngok Summer Teachings – His Holiness the Karmapa reminded the audience of how Buddhism spread after the Buddha had passed away and the organization of the Sangha in general. After the Buddha had passed into nirvana, his teachings were spread widely by his students throughout the north-west of India and gradually throughout the whole of India.
Around the time that Ashoka ascended to the throne, the Sangha had split into two factions, called the Sthaviravāda (Theravada) and the Mahasanghika. Thus, “Buddhologists” or researchers call Buddhism before the split “Original Buddhism,” and Buddhism after that time “Nikāya Buddhism” (Buddhism of the schools”). The Karmapa added that as there was some dispute regarding the terminology among later scholars who used different names, he would not discuss this further at the moment.
The Sthaviravāda (Theravada) and the Mahasanghika are called the two root schools. This is the general way in which they are described. However, there are different presentations within Tibetan Buddhism on the one side and in the Theravada tradition on the other. The Theravada tradition is more accepted and more influential right now. According to the Theravada tradition, there are those two basic schools: the Theravada and the Mahasanghika.
What is normally said in the Tibetan tradition, is that the two basic schools, the Sthaviravāda (Theravada) and the Mahasanghika are the primary division but that. within these schools there later appeared many sub-schools. These are known as the “secondary schools”. They are also referred to as tenets or philosophical schools, each holding different positions.
With regard to how many different secondary schools developed, His Holiness continued, there are likewise minor differences in the explanations given by different scholars. What is generally accepted is that the two basic schools split into eighteen secondary schools. However, there is not a single way of identifying them in order to clearly describe what they were.
It is estimated that the initial split into two factions occurred in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, but there is some dispute about that. There is no agreement among the Indologists when speaking about dates because there was no tradition of recording dates in writing in India.
After Nikāya Buddhism had developed in India, the Mahayana tradition appeared. Mahayana Buddhism had developed and spread in India by the time that the Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese during the Han dynasty. This is also evident from the travel writings of the Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang. However, when and how that began exactly is still a topic of research and discussion. His Holiness the Karmapa said that he would elaborate more on that topic next year.
One thing one can say definitely is that by the 4th century CE, a quarter of the monasteries in India were Mahayana and that the Mahayana by then had spread widely. After the Mahayana tradition had developed, the Vajrayana began to develop. In general, scholars accept that the Secret Mantra, i.e.,the Vajrayana tradition arose from within the Mahayana tradition.
After the Secret Mantra tradition arose, it spread from India into China, and then from China into Japan. These traditions have continued in an uninterrupted manner. Another transmission lineage of the Secret Mantra tradition spread from India into Nepal and then Tibet. At that time, Nepal was a part of India and thus was considered an area of Northern India. Thus, the Secret Mantra had spread widely.
Matters Related to Mantra in Original Buddhism
Sometimes, people wonder whether the teachings of the Secret Mantra were actually taught by the Buddha or not and if there was Secret Mantra before its teachings spread widely.
In what followed, His Holiness the Karmapa spoke about whether Secret Mantra had spread during the period of Original Buddhism.
These days, most scholars and researchers say that Original Buddhism was following prajna, and that within Original Buddhism, prajna was emphasized, not skillful means. On the other hand, in Secret Mantra, we speak of skillful means such as pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and destroying, and thus the emphasis in Secret Mantra lies in skillful means.
Researchers also say that there is no connection between the Buddha’s achievement of wisdom and Secret Mantra. This is because they see it as if the Buddha realized the nature of phenomena through prajna, i.e., he achieved Buddhahood by means of realizing the nature of how all things exist and that by doing so, he eliminated all ignorance. This is what we mean when we speak about the Buddha having gained omniscience, or having awakened to Buddhahood. This, according to the researchers, has no relation to the teachings of Secret Mantra.
The reason for this is that within society, the achievement of the siddhis, i.e., the accomplishment of the skillful means such as pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and destroying are somewhat related to superstition.
Within the Vinaya scriptures, there are four sections which are scriptures of Original Buddhism found in the Theravada tradition, and also in Chinese. When they describe how the Buddha attained enlightenment, they say that he achieved wisdom (ñāṇa), prajna (paññā), awareness (vijjā), and luminosity (āloka). These are primarily related to knowing the nature of reality and achieving wisdom.
The word vijjā (Skt. vidyā ), the Pali and Sanskrit term for ‘awareness’, means ‘things become clear’; it can also mean ‘known objects’ or ‘mantra’. In a sutra of the Theravada school called the Sutra of Brahma’s Web and others, it is said that at a later point in time, the teachings of the Secret Mantra had spread widely in society because of its quick results. Thus, everyone was enraptured by it and had superstitious faith in it. In this sutra it is also said that one cannot practice mantra associated with superstition, divination and so forth.
However, in the Vinaya scriptures it says that one may use mantras for one’s own protection and may also use true words. The vidyā (vijjā) mentioned in the Sutra of Brahma’s Web refers to the mantras which are not allowed—awareness mantras which are connected with superstition. Members of the sangha are not allowed to use these mantras. What it says in some Theravada sutras is that one is not allowed to use the vidyā mantras, but in other sutras it says that one may use things that are called by similar names to the vidyā mantras. What this shows is that the Buddha prohibited some types of vidyā mantras, but not all.
In the Vinaya, there is mention of the ‘Gang of Six’ who trained in the pointless mantras. So the Buddha made the rule prohibiting the use of these mantras that are associated with worldly superstitions. However, there is no precept prohibiting this in the 250 precepts of Bhikshus, yet it is included in the precepts of Bhikshunis.
It is clear that within Original Buddhism, awareness mantras that were common at that time in Indian society, were prohibited. However, in the context of the Buddha achieving enlightenment, the term vidyā appears. In the schools of Original Buddhism, it was not clearly explained what was meant by achieving vidyā.
In any case, vidyā means ‘awareness’ and avijjā/avidyā means ‘ignorance’ which are opposites. Thus, when the nature is realized, it is awareness which is the opposite of ignorance. And when it is said in the Vinaya scriptures that the Buddha achieved wisdom, prajna, awareness and luminosity, it is related to Secret Mantra. Even though such words are not frequently used in the original scriptures, it is a crucial point.
Likewise, when we recite the ten epithets of the Buddha, we say, “The one with awareness and conduct.” That awareness is understood as the three types of clairvoyance. The Theravada school says that awareness refers to the clairvoyance of the extinction of all defilements and so forth.
The word ‘awareness’ thus does not necessarily refer to the awareness mantras of superstition and blind faith; awareness mantras can also be used for good purposes and can also be understood as an aid to achieving the realization of the true nature.
In the later Mahayana scriptures, it mentions “the mantra of great awareness, the unsurpassed mantra, the mantra equal to the unequalled, the mantra that completely pacifies all suffering…” [from the “Heart Sutra”] Here, in the “mantra of great awareness” or the “maha vidya mantra”, the awareness is vidyā itself, which is the same as mentioned in the Vinaya scriptures. What is added is the word ‘mantra’ which, when joined, becomes the “mantra of great awareness”. At that point in the Prajnaparamita, there is immediate mention of the mantra, or the mantra of transcendent prajna, referring to a more profound way of understanding awareness, which is closer to the Secret Mantra.
Thus, the term vidyā, as it appears in the scriptures of Original Buddhism, has a connection to the teachings of Secret Mantra Buddhism as well. Within the Vinaya scriptures of the Theravada school, it says that we can recite protection mantras, which are called paritta, which is thus accepted in Original Buddhism. Thus, even though reciting pointless mantras is prohibited in the scriptures of Original Buddhism, there is that exception. There is not a unilateral ban on using mantras. For example, in the Pali Vinaya scriptures, it says that one may recite protective dhāraṇa mantras in order to protect oneself, such as when having been stung by bees or in the case of food poisoning, venomous snakes, or spells cast by others’ sorcery and so forth. The Vinaya scriptures have stories of the Buddha teaching protective mantras to pacify the poisons of the four types of nagas. One needs to recite these mantras with a loving, compassionate mind towards the nagas. Moreover, there is mention of mantras to subdue snakes. In the later Mahayana scriptures, the dharani of Great Mayuri appears, which probably has developed from the mantras to subdue poison mentioned in the original scriptures. Likewise, in the Theravada tradition, there is a very well-known sutra called the “Sutra Requested by King Milinda” who was a great Greek king. In it, King Milinda had a question-and-answer with a bhikshu and it contains quite a few mantras. Thus, even at that time, there was the tradition of reciting various mantras. You could not use mantras to kill your enemies but you could use special mantras to protect your own life.
The third aspect are the so-called true words, the “satya-vacana”, which are asserted to have a special power because of the power of the truth. The Buddhist scriptures mention many benefits from reciting these words of truth. For example, in the Jataka tales, a child who was bitten by a poisonous snake went to a sage practicing asceticism who spoke true words that neutralized the poison. Moreover, in one Theravada sutra, there is a story of Angulimala, who first was a murderer and then became the Buddha’s student. When going on alms round, he met a woman who was pregnant but unable to give birth. He went to the Buddha to ask for his advice. The Buddha replied that he should go back to the pregnant woman and say true words. Having recited true words and making supplication prayers for the child to be born comfortably and easily, the woman was able to give birth healthily.
Likewise, in the Mahayana, there is a lot of discussion about true words. From one perspective, mantras are ‘true words’.
Summing up, in Original Buddhism not all mantras were prohibited. There is also a connection between awareness mantras and enlightenment. There may not have been so much recitation of mantras, yidam deities and rituals as in the complete presentation of Secret Mantra. These came later after tantra had spread widely. However, in Original Buddhism, it’s possible to say that some mantras were recited, and mantras were used for the benefit of other sentient beings.
The Politics of that Period
During the latter part of Buddha’s life, the king of Magadha was Ajatashatru. Ajatashatru had seized power by imprisoning his father, but became an intelligent king who gained control over many regions of central India and solidified Magadha’s power. Several generations after him, the minister Susunāga took power and the Susunāga dynasty began, which disintegrated quickly. Subsequently, there was the Nanda dynasty. This dynasty took control over many parts of India and had a great military strength. But only 22 years after gaining power, this dynasty collapsed. Then, the great king and well-known Greek emperor Alexander the Great came to power, and invaded several areas in Northwest India (327/326 BCE), but withdrew his troops and died in 323 BCE in Babylon; thus, India just barely escaped coming under Greek control. If the Greeks had been able to invade the whole of India, there would have been a danger to the spread of Buddhism.
At the same time as the Greeks invaded, the young Indian king Chandragupta Maurya led an army that brought down the Nanda dynasty. He then eliminated the Greek threat from the north-west, and took control over about half of India, establishing a powerful empire. He reigned for 24 years. He was followed by his son Bindusāra who reigned for 28 years. Then, Bindusāra’s son, Ashoka, came to power around 268 BCE.
In what followed, His Holiness discussed the reign of Emperor Ashoka , as it was a critical period for Original Buddhism; at that time, there was the growth of Buddhism and its division into two main factions, though not yet the eighteen sub-schools. Thus, researching Ashoka is significant for research into Original Buddhism.
Ashoka’s name means “no sorrow.” He reigned from around 268 BCE. Based on the inscriptions on the pillars and rocks that Ashoka had inscribed, we are able to know when Ashoka reigned. In the 13th of Ashoka’s 14 Rock Edicts, the time of Ashoka’s reign is calculated by the dates of five Western kings, and it mentions how Ashoka sent ambassadors to surrounding kingdoms. These five Western kings ruled five neighboring countries, including Syria, Egypt and Macedonia. We can calculate when Ashoka came to the throne by the dates when those kings reigned.
Ashoka spread Buddhism not only in India but also to neighboring countries by sending ambassadors to those countries. Buddhism at that time spread throughout many countries in Central Asia and was the largest religion in the world. This was due to the influence of Ashoka who made a great effort to spread Buddhism, which made its way as far as Europe.
For a country like India with no tradition of recording history, the dates of Ashoka are crucially important for ancient Indian history and the history of Buddhism. The length of Ashoka’s reign is given in the Sri Lankan history called the Mahavamsa and (in an Indian history text) called the Purana as 36 years. It is not necessary to mention that the primary source for research into Ashoka’s history is the inscriptions on the pillars. However, we can also look at the Sri Lankan histories, the Mahavamsa, the Samantapasadika, as well as the life of Ashoka, Parinirvana Sutra, and the Divyāvadāna from the Northern Tradition.
Traditionally it is said that Ashoka was very cruel when he was young and killed many people. Later however, he became a Buddhist and began to rule as a dharma king, so he was called the Dharma King Ashoka. If we look at the inscriptions on pillars, he became Buddhist around seven years after ascending to the throne and took the lay precepts. During the first two-and-a-half years of his reign, he took little interest in Buddhism, but eight years after becoming king, he realized how many innocent people were slaughtered in war, how people were taken prisoner, exiled and separated from their families, and how spouses were separated. Seeing these horrific things, he saw the wrongs of war and realized that victory through violence is not true victory. The dharma victory is the ultimate victory. One year later, he not only began to stay with the sangha, he also began to strive at practice, and ten years after ascending to the throne achieved manifest enlightenment, sambodhi.
Some scholars say the meaning of sambodhi is that Ashoka saw the truth. Some say that he went to Bodhgaya. In any case, Ashoka had begun to make pilgrimages to Buddhist sites. Twenty years into his reign he visited Lumbini and erected an Ashokan pillar there.
Twelve years after ascending to the throne, in order to publicize the dharma he had realized or experienced, he began to make inscribed pillars, for future generations to see. This continued until the 27th year of his reign. He carved inscriptions in rock faces that had been polished to a smooth surface, which are called “rock edicts.” There are also edicts on polished sandstone pillars, which are called pillar edicts. The edicts are of two lengths, major and minor. The major rock edicts are at places such as Girnār that are in the border regions of India. Seven have been found, and in addition, there is an edict with fourteen sections. That is the longest edict and an exemplar among the inscriptions.
The minor rock edicts are found in seven locations in central and southern India. They describe how Ashoka practiced True Dharma and so forth, so they are related closely to Buddhism. In an inscription discovered at a placed called Bairāṭ, he gives an introduction to the “seven gateways to dharma.”
There are also major and minor pillar edicts. There are six or seven major pillar edicts, found in six sites in the central region. Their content is similar to the rock inscriptions; they only speak of topics related to dharma. There is an inscription made in the 26th year of Ashoka’s reign. The minor rock edicts are found in the ruins of Buddhist sites such as Sarnath and Sanchi. These describe Buddhist rules such as that the sangha may not split into factions, etc. The capitals of the pillars have carvings of various animals. In particular, the pillar at Sarnath has the image of the four lions with a dharma wheel around them. This excellent carving became the symbol of India after it achieved independence.
Inscriptions were found over the course of the 19th century, and some were also discovered in the 20th century. For example, in 1949 an inscription in Aramaic was found at Rampāka in Afghanistan, in 1958 an inscription in both Greek and Aramaic was found in Kandahar. In 1966, a rock edict was discovered in Delhi. So far, thirty have been discovered. From the time when James Prinsep first deciphered them in 1837, the rock edicts have been helpful for research, but scholars are still unable to completely decipher their content.
The Dharma of Ashoka
The way that Ashoka understood the dharma was that all beings should respect each other, based on the foundation of the Buddha’s teaching that all people are fundamentally equal. In addition, it includes appropriate ethical conduct such as one must be loving to all living creatures, speak the truth, be broad-minded and meditate on patience, offer protection to the unfortunate, and so forth. One must regard people lovingly.
During his reign, Ashoka had hospitals built for humans and also animals, planted many trees and plants, built wells to provide people with drinking water, established buildings at the roadside for people to rest, and thus did many things to keep people and animals healthy. Moreover, he often stressed the importance of offering service to others and being polite to elders, taking care of friends, not being disdainful, and being generous. This shows his high regard for human rights and loyalty. He encouraged generosity to the poor, spiritual practitioners, and brahmans. He also put a stop on the hunting of animals, encouraged going on pilgrimages (dharma-yātra) and visited the sacred sites of the teachers of different religions. Ashoka was not just generous in a material way, but also gave the Dharma, thus he basically strove to alleviate the mental as well as physical suffering of others. He said that people should keep only a few things and be content. All this is described in his rock inscriptions.
He was diligent in his royal duties of governing, and requests could be made of him whenever, whether he was eating, in the queen’s palace, or in a park. In Ashoka’s opinion, governing in accord with the dharma and bringing benefit to the world was the king’s responsibility. All the king’s efforts are to repay debts to all sentient beings. He also said all sentient beings were his children.
In order for the dharma to remain a long time, thirteen years after he ascended to the throne, Ashoka ordered that every five years, ministers would have to go on a “dharma-mahāmātra” trip around the entire empire to give dharma advice, and ensure the dharma would remain long in the empire.
Service to the Sangha
Though Ashoka was Buddhist, he viewed all religions and philosophies equally. In the rock edicts, the emperor said he made offerings to all the teachers, or pārṣada, of all religions. He asked that all religions remain in all regions. In the edicts, he appointed a minister especially for the Buddhist sangha, one minister for the Brahmans and Ājīvika religions, and one for the Jain Nirgrantha religion.
Regarding Ashoka’s building of stupas, the pillars mention only Konākamana. But the Sutra of Ashoka translated into Chinese in the 6th century says that he built 84, 000 stupas for the relics of the Buddha and that it benefited many beings. Also, at the encouragement of Upagupta, whilst on pilgrimage to sacred sites, he built stupas at Lumbini, Sarnath, Bodhgaya, Kushinagar etc. He also built monasteries for Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, the sutra says. At the time of Faxian and Xuanzang, only ruins remained of the stupas. However, later archaeological research proved they were built at least in Ashoka’s time if not earlier. Thus, we can say Ashoka built many stupas.
As His Holiness the Karmapa had mentioned before, Ashoka became Buddhist and because of spreading the dharma became known as Dharma Ashoka. He saw that the sangha practiced dharma as it should be done, and supported them greatly. However, at the same time the sangha grew more prosperous and got corrupted; Ashoka was so generous to the sangha that it severely affected the finances of the kingdom. The “Sutra of Ashoka” tells how, “In the latter part of Ashoka’s life, the ministers prohibited him giving to the sangha and in the end Ashoka himself did not have even the power to give half of an āmalaka fruit he held in his hand.” This explanation shows how bad the situation became in the latter half of Ashoka’s life. Indeed, after the death of Ashoka, the Maurya dynasty’s power declined quickly, and the empire was destroyed.
At this point, His Holiness the Karmapa concluded this year’s teachings.
Khen Rinpoche Kalsang Nyima’s Concluding Speech
Khenpo Kalsang Nyima, director and chief official of the Karma Shri Nalanda University in Buddhist Studies at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, gave a speech expressing everyone’s gratitude and appreciation to the Karmapa for these teachings.
Initially, he paid homage to His Holiness and expressed the gratitude of the sangha members in all the monasteries and nunneries in India and Nepal, those who had listened in Tibet, and the worldwide audience on the webcast.
Sangha members had greatly enjoyed the teachings, which exceeded their expectations, and found them to have been really beneficial.
His Holiness’ presentation of Indian history was comprehensive, an informative experience, enhanced by the way in which the Karmapa had brought his own intelligence to bear in presenting the teachings in this way. He praised His Holiness the Karmapa for bringing out the special qualities of the Buddha and making his audience understand the subtle points and details. He requested His Holiness to continue speaking about non-Buddhist philosophies as this would be very helpful for gaining a better understanding of the view.
Hearing the story of the hardships Buddha went through, after he had developed renunciation until the time he turned the wheel of dharma for all sentient beings regardless of caste, showed the Buddha’s love and concern for his students. The Karmapa’s teachings had been vast and profound and thotough. They had added to the knowledge of the participants but also changed their thinking.
Khen Rinpoche reported that for many people in Tibet it was the first time they heard His Holiness teach, and seeing His Holiness had given them greater encouragement and inspiration than before.
Finally, Khen Rinpoche Kalsang Nyima requested His Holiness to look upon us with love and compassion and expressed all the sangha members’ deep appreciation and gratitude. He expressed everyone’s hope that these Mar Ngok teachings might continue without interruption and made supplication prayers that His Holiness may continue to turn the wheel of Dharma, and that he may live long, bringing benefit to all living beings and to this world.