Studying Buddhist scriptures with a class of people from different parts of the world is a very unique experience. Although it is an on-line course, I have the opportunity to read and “listen” to the thoughts of different people through an on-line class forum.
Some people find it easier to relate to the pali canon because it seems more grounded in reality. It narrates a historical figure (Sakyamuni Buddha) teaching human beings how to get rid of their unskilful mental habits to become an Enlightened person that is free from mental suffering. There is no doubt that hardworking practitioners gain liberation from suffering through these scriptures and the method stated within.
When it comes to the study of Mahayana scriptures, some people cannot help but wonder if these are Buddhist “fairy tales”.
This is because, the source of Mahayana scriptures is itself so unbelievable. It is said that these precious and wonderful teachings of Buddha were kept hidden by the Naga (a mystical class of beings) until a later point in time when they were revealed to humans.
Consequently, the academics would argue that Mahayana scriptures that appear much later in history, must be created by scholars of a later time and not the original words of the Sakyamuni Buddha.
Personally, I was sceptical of the Mahayana scriptures when I first studied Buddhism. However, I prayed to myself that if these are really Buddha(s) teachings, then may I re-encounter them when I am ready. Here’s what I think. (I might be wrong)
I think Mahayana scriptures are wonderful because it is UNBELIEVABLE! (难信之法）
Why is UNBELIEVABLE good？
Because it is a “tool” to help me break my habit of mundane logical deduction and thinking. (Not saying that we have to be illogical to be enlightened)
We always like to infer and make assumption based on our mundane experience. However, this mental habit can be the exact road block in our mental transformation (aka Enlightenment)
What I am advocating is to have an openness in our mentality. Open to new possibilities.
For example, in some Mahayana sutra, it speaks of millions of beings arriving at Vulture Peak. (A very small space) This is definitely not possible from the mundane perspective. However, in spiritual training, we have to break through our physical constraint and “see” beyond. That means to be “open minded”. Not to restrict or limit our mind to our ordinary perception. Example: Entering meditative concentration, the sphere of perception “goes beyond” the physical body.
While reading some biography of great Theravada Masters, I found that some of them had shared experience similar to what is stated in Mahayana scriptures. For example, an elder monk confided in his close disciple of visits by Sakyamuni Buddha with an entire entourage of monks. (He was staying in a small hut the size of a single bedroom)
The Enlightened Masters does not argue because they experience what we cannot. It is the unenlightened folks that argue vigorously because they are still stuck in their own well.
The wonder of Mahayana scripture is not without danger. The danger is not with the scripture but with the practitioner.
We like to infer and draw conclusion based on our mundane perception. Perception that is rooted in the 3 poisons. Specifically the ignorance or delusion.
If we try to “interpret” the “fairy tale” found in Mahayana sutra using our mundane perception, then we had just created a “form”
In modern language, it is called fantasizing.
If you think that Enlightenment is something that is fantasised or imagined, then it is very far from the goal of Enlightenment. In Mahayana, we call it “ensnared by Form” or in another word being deluded. (着相)
One tell tale sign that something had gone wrong is the inflated ego. Beware that Ego doesn’t simply mean that the person will be acting all puffed up. The reversed side of unfounded humbleness can also be true. (now isn’t that tricky?)
It is very important to have a good mentor or friend to check up with when practicing mind training (No mater what tradition, Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana)
Mahayana scriptures can be a very wonderful mind training/ transformative tool. Don’t be put off by the “fairy tales”, be open minded.
Having said the previous, it does not mean that Mahayana approach is living in the “La-la land” Fundamentals like the 6 paramita is still important in real life practice.
Due to its “Dynamic”/ “Maha”nature, we need to equip ourselves with right Buddhist knowledge and understanding to benefit from it well.
When practicing mind transformation, it is good to constantly check ourselves for elements of greed, hatred and delusion in our mind.
Cultivating a compassionate mentality of wanting Enlightenment for others instead of ourselves is a good help (Not saying the Pali scriptural tradition are made up of non-compassionate people, just saying that the altruistic compassion mentality is a very important crutch for the Mahayana scriptural approach)
Last but not least, Sakyamuni Buddha does not behave erratically after Enlightenment. (Do not be over fascinated with deeds of enlightened “crazy” monks. Since we are unenlightened, trying to imitate or imagine their mind is our delusional habit)
Hope you enjoy Mahayana scriptures and give it a try. (the Kalama advice, remember?)