The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2021
12 September 2021
The Karmapa began by reminding everyone how the people of ancient India had taken little interest in recording dates. Hence, the Buddha’s dates had not been recorded clearly, and it was problematic to establish the dates of his birth and death.
When did a system of dating first develop in India? Researchers hold different positions on this issue, but many scholars support the idea that a tradition of dating, based on the reigns of the emperors, first developed when Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha assumed power in Northern India [c.322 BCE]. This was only a few years after Alexander the Great had invaded India [327/326 BCE] and at the beginning of the Mauryan empire.
As to the Buddha’s dates, academics from East and West have been trying to establish these over the last two hundred years. The Karmapa suggested that the priority is to establish the date of the Buddha’s parinirvana and work backwards eighty years to his birth. There are no disputes that he lived to eighty.
When was the Buddha’s parinirvana? The Karmapa explained that more than sixty dates have been posited for the parinirvana, but the most common method was to begin with the time of the Emperor Ashoka and work backwards. What sources are available to help us establish the date? There are no historical records left from ancient India, but there are the letters written by the Greek ambassador, accounts by Chinese pilgrims, the Buddhist scriptures, and the pillars and rock inscriptions of Ashoka. The rock inscriptions of Ashoka are generally undisputed, and from these, we can calculate Ashoka’s dates and the length of his reign. However, the question remains: how many years before Ashoka did the Lord Buddha pass into parinirvana? This is a complex and profound question that the Karmapa promised to discuss in detail next year. Meanwhile, he showed a slide of some of the suggestions.
- 1085 BCE: Faxian of the Qing Dynasty visited India in the 4th century CE and recorded what was said in India at that time.
- 949 BCE: Faling of the Tang Dynasty
- 543 BCE: Sri Lankan tradition in the “Mahāvaṃsa” the “Great Chronicle”. [Sri Lanka is in the Theravada tradition and part of the Southern transmission of Buddhism. Written in the 5th century CE, this is the historical chronicle of Sri Lanka written in Pali].
- 485 BCE: “Notes from the Noble Beings”: a well-known text, notes of the great masters of the Buddhist tradition, recorded after the Buddha passed away
- 483/479 “Samantapāsādikā”, a text of the Theravada tradition, gives two dates
- 477 BCE: Wilhelm Max Müller, a European scholar
- 386 BCE: Hakuju Ui—a Japanese scholar
In the past few years, scholars have examined these dates and raised objections to them. These days there are two main positions:
- The Buddha passed away before 500 BCE.
- He passed away in 386 BCE.
The Thai tradition follows the Sri Lankan tradition in saying it was 543 BCE.
For the benefit of the monks and nuns who had not received a secular education, the Karmapa digressed at this point and explained the origins of the Christian Western dating system of AD/BC and its reformation into CE/BCE.
He then showed two photographs. The first was of the vase of the Buddha’s relics which belonged to the Shakya clan, excavated in India at the end of the 19th century at Piprahwa. Researchers have confirmed that the inscription is written in an ancient script, he explained. The vase is in the Kolkata Museum, but the relics were given chiefly to the King of Thailand and then distributed to other Buddhist countries. The second photo was of the Lion Capital of the Ashokan pillar preserved in the museum at Sarnath.
The Buddha’s Principal Disciples
Having briefly explained the Buddha’s life story, the Karmapa introduced a few of the Buddha’s most important disciples.
The Vimalakirti Sutra lists the ten principal disciples as Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, Maha Kashyapa, Subhuti, Purna, Mahākaccāna, Anuruddha, Upali, Rahula, and Ananda. The Theravada tradition has a slightly different list in the “Sutra of the Ten Elders”.
Rahula, Ananda, Anuruddha, Nanda, and Devadatta were Kshatriya caste, and the first three were counted among the ten great śrāvakas. Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, Maha Kashyapa, Purna, Subhuti, and the three Kashyapa brothers [Uruvilvā-Kāśyapa, Nadī-Kāśyapa, and Gayā-Kāśyapa] were from the Brahman caste. Except for the three Kashyapas, they were also among the ten great śrāvakas. Yasa and Gavājpati were from the Vaishya caste and were also among the ten great śrāvakas. The final two of the ten great śrāvakas were Upali and Sunidha.
The Karmapa emphasised that the Buddha’s students included members of all castes. There were Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras because the Buddhadharma eliminates all distinctions of caste or clan; anyone may practise. Not only were there disciples from all castes, but there were also women śrāvaka disciples. For example, there are famous bhikshunis including the Buddha’s aunt Prajapati, his queen, Yashodhara, and Utpalivarna. The achievements of both bhikshus and bhikshunis were acknowledged.
In addition there were many great lay disciples who went for refuge to the Buddha, including the kings Bimbisara and Ajatashatru of Magadha, King Prasenajit of Kosala, all the Shakya people, the Mallas, the Licchavis, the Kauśāmbis, Anathapindada, the elder Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā, the young Jivika the great physician, the elderly woman Viśāka, and others. In brief, the Buddha’s students could be found from all social backgrounds and levels of society, high and low. Some were siblings, parents, or in the same clan; some were friends—with no distinction of male or female or old and young. If you consider the best or most senior of his students, there were more than 1,250. At that time in India, the population was much smaller and travel was more challenging, so this is an amazing number to be gathered together.
At that time, many different religions and philosophies were competing with each other for supremacy, but only Buddhism would become one of the world’s great religions, the Karmapa pointed out. If you ask why that must be so, there are many different reasons, causes and conditions, he explained. If we compare Buddhism with the Brahmanical religions of that time, it was much more comprehensive and had a broader view. Also, Buddhism was in many ways a rebellion against the customs of caste, asceticism, and rituals which focused only on the external aspects of religion. The Buddha himself paid great respect to spiritual practitioners of that time, including Brahmans and the shramanas. He treated everyone with respect. It was nothing to do with their caste; he recognised that the Brahmans had good prajna and conduct. As the Buddha’s reply to his student Subhadra shows, he regarded social status and caste as irrelevant. He distinguished between people according to whether or not they kept the eight branches of the noble path, the prajna, and ethical conduct.
Sutras such as the Theravadan “Assalayana Sutta” and “Kannakatthala Sutta” show clearly the vast and broad view of the Buddha. Another good example is Upali. Though he came from a low-caste family, he was praised for having the purest discipline and being learned in the Vinaya; he was highly respected by the other sravaka disciples.
The “Sutra of Verses on Dhyana” in the Theravadan tradition quotes the testament of Sunidha.
The Karmapa paraphrased this as: “Firstly, I was born in a low caste and am very poor and deprived. I have to hurry about as someone else’s servant. I am a sweeper.” The Karmapa elaborated here that the “Sutra of the Wise and Foolish” gives the further detail that Sunidha cleaned latrines, so his job was to clear the excrement.
Sunidha’s words continue: “So, everyone looks at me and ridicules me. Everyone looks down at me and they look at me out of the corner of their eyes [a sign of disgust]. They see me as inferior and the worst. No matter how they consider me, I always have to be subservient and respectful to everyone, bowing and using polite words. One day, I followed some of the great disciples and by chance, met the Buddha on the way. I threw away the things I was holding and immediately knelt before the Buddha. The loving and compassionate Buddha came to me. I prostrated at his feet and asked him to accept me as his student. Then the Buddha, the Teacher who has no rival on this earth, turned his face towards me, and said, “Very well, bhikshu” That was the first dharma I heard from the Buddha”.
Thus the Buddha was someone who saw poor and disadvantaged people as friends. Bhikshu is the highest status. Master Aśvaghosa’s “Treatise of the Great Multitude” describes in great detail how Sunidha and Upali went forth. This shows the Buddha’s extraordinary courage and strength. He showed respect to the most inferior in society and gave them the chance to practice the Dharma. This reveals the exceptional quality of the Buddha, his loving compassion and his blessing.
Another thing we need to take note of is that the Buddha established a new tradition when he taught in colloquial, which had never happened before. Evidence for this is found in the twenty-fifth book of the Vinaya of the Mahīśāsaka school and the 38th book of the Sarvastivāda Vinaya. Two Brahmans went forth and were reciting sutras with other sangha members, but the pronunciation of the words and the grammar were all completely at odds with Sanskrit—the sangha was reciting the sutras in colloquial dialects! The Brahmans became very angry. One day, they explained this to the Buddha. They said, “The Bhikshus are from different castes and clans and have disparate levels of education, so they are reciting the sutras in their own local dialects and colloquial languages. Reciting them like that is an offence against the Buddha’s words”. They were expressing the traditional Brahmanical view, the Karmapa commented. When the Brahmans recited the Vedic texts they believed that to make even one mistake in pronunciation was an offence against the gods.
The Brahmans suggested that in the future, when reciting sutras, it was best to recite them in Sanskrit.
The Buddha answered them in a completely opposite way. “It is not necessary to recite sutras in languages or scripts that come from elsewhere. It’s fine to recite them in your own dialect or colloquial language. In the future, if instead of using your own native language, you use a foreign language, that’s an offence,” he said.
The main point here is the Buddha’s intent that the dharma be taught in order to benefit all sentient beings, not just some. Thus, the Buddhist scriptures have to be simple and easy to understand. If they are, many people will be able to access them, irrespective of their educational level.
The Karmapa suggested that after the Buddha achieved enlightenment, the Buddha’s teaching of the dharma shows many Mahayana features. Nobody was compelling the Buddha to teach the dharma, and he could have chosen to stay within the peaceful expanse, but, instead, he decided to teach for the benefit of all sentient beings. This shows the courage of the Mahayana; it is a sign of one of the greatest qualities of the Mahayana.
The Spread of Buddhism
Originally, the Buddhist community was located in northern central India in Magadha. The four great, sacred sites of Buddhism are: to the north of central India, Lumbini where the Buddha was born and Kushinagar where he passed into nirvana; to the south, the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya where he attained enlightenment; and, to the west, the Deer Park in Sarnath, where he turned the wheel of Dharma for the first time.
After the Buddha’s parinirvana, the sangha gradually spread outwards from this central region, spreading the teachings. First, it spread gradually westwards and then southwards. To the south of the central lands, the Vindhya mountains made a natural border, and to the east, the hot climate deterred settlements. Buddhism’s following in the south increased rapidly, but it spread slowly in the west, due to the firm belief people of those regions had in the Brahmanical religion.
Among the ten great srāvakas, Mahā Kaccana was from Avanti. He returned to his homeland and taught many people the dharma, as is described in the Vinaya scriptures. Purṇa, son of Mettiya, was from Sunāparanta, which was on the western coast of India. Emperor Ashoka later erected a pillar in that area. It is just north of the large modern city of Mumbai. Purṇa also returned to his homeland and taught many the dharma and gained many students.
Many merchants from all over India came to the central regions and became Buddhist. As they returned to their homelands, they spread the dharma there, which was very influential in spreading it. Similarly, Kaccana spread the dharma in Mathurā, which is near present-day Delhi.
The Role of the Sangha
In the Buddhist religion, the sangha has the responsibility of spreading the dharma. The reason is that the sangha use their time listening to, contemplating, and meditating on the dharma, and their task is to spread the dharma. Lay practitioners also practice dharma but they have many household activities and do not have as much time as monastics.
When we speak of the sangha, we mean the “harmonious sangha or community”. Students who followed him considered the Buddha the satthar or teacher, the one who taught them the path and had one-pointed faith in him. His followers were called śrāvaka (Pali: sāvaka), which means “those who listen or listener” because they listened to the Buddha teaching the dharma. It is not only a term used in the Theravadan tradition.
The Karmapa referred to a sutra from the Theravadan tradition where analogies are drawn between the sangha and the ocean. The sangha is said to have eight wondrous qualities:
- Just as the ocean gets deeper, the sangha also gradually train in the path and their qualities of realisation grow greater.
- Just as the ocean’s waves do not cross the shoreline, the śrāvakas do not violate discipline.
- Just as corpses do not stay in the ocean but are cast upon the shores, those among the sangha who violate discipline have offences.
- Just as a hundred different rivers enter the ocean and disappear into it, the sangha members discard caste and clan and are called the children of the Shakyas.
- Just as the entire ocean is the same in tasting salty, the entire sangha has the same flavour of liberation.
- Just as a hundred rivers flow into the ocean and it never decreases or increases, no matter how many individuals in the sangha achieve nirvana, the sangha never decreases or increases.
- Just as there are many jewels in the great ocean, the sangha also has many wondrous qualities of intelligence, discipline, and so forth.
- Just as there are many large fish among the fish in the ocean, there are many superior individuals in the sangha.
Those who wished to enter the sangha, from any caste or social class or ethnicity, high or low, were allowed to enter. The life of a monastic was primarily a wandering lifestyle, where they must move without staying in a fixed location. Thus, what they needed for their livelihood was extremely simple and had to be easy to carry. These were called the six requisites: three dharma robes, an alms bowl to eat from, a water filter, and a mat to spread on the ground. Originally the robes were mainly made from cotton, but later they were also made from linen, silk, and wool. A lot of material was needed to make the three dharma robes, and it was difficult to get them from begging, so, for that reason, sangha members had few robes.
As they wandered from place to place, they were never sure what the next place would be like. The bhikshus often had to stay outside in the open or under trees. Apart from the rainy season, there is little rain in India, so it is not so difficult to stay beneath a tree. There were many among the śrāvaka disciples who wanted to practise special austerities. Later these practices were compiled and called “the qualities of austerity”. Some texts give twelve qualities, some thirteen. Some members of the sangha were known for practicing these qualities. For example, Maha Kashyapa became famous for strict observance of the qualities of austerity.
The Origin of the Buddhist Scriptures
After the Buddha passed into parinirvana, Maha Kashyapa realised that if the teachings of the Buddha were left unsafeguarded, they would quickly disappear. He had the idea of holding a council or saṃgīti. He gathered the bhikshus together, explained his concerns, and they agreed. Following this agreement, five hundred senior disciples of the Buddha met at Rajgir and compiled the teachings of the Buddha. This is known as the First Council. The word ‘council’ has been translated by some as meaning “reciting together”. Perhaps what happened was that the disciples recited together the dharma they had memorised. Many scholars maintain that the First Council did not take place. However, as it is recorded in the texts of the eighteen different schools, the Karmapa pointed out, it’s more probable that it happened.
There were two primary disciples at the council. One was Ananda, who had accompanied the Buddha everywhere and heard everything he taught; he recited the dharma. The second was Upali. He was regarded as the most learned in Vinaya, so he was tasked with reciting the Vinaya. What they recited later became part of the Tripitaka—the three baskets—as the Basket of Sutras and the Basket of Vinaya. The third basket—the Basket of Abhidharma—appeared a little later. In order to make it easy to memorise the Sutras and Vinaya, important points were recorded simply in the sutras or arranged in verses known as the “gathas”.
Later some commentaries were added to the sutras and background stories to the gathas. These compilations were known as the “gateways to the dharma”. Later sutras also appeared in prose form, but the word sutta implies short verses easily memorised. The prose sutras appeared approximately one hundred years after the Buddha’s parinirvana, according to many researchers.