Practical Companion – 10

This series titled Practical Companion is for intermediate practitioners.

This post covers some sensitive issues in the Buddhist world in regard to the various traditions and methods of practice. How do we know which method is suitable for us? How do we know if we have joined a credible Buddhist organization? How do we know if our teacher is qualified?

Examine our method of practice


Most of us probably learn Buddha Dharma from books, youtube, the internet, friends, teachers, courses, etc. There are so many resources available, but not all who claim themselves Buddhist are Buddhist. Some may contain inaccuracies and some are from dubious sources. Therefore, it is essential for us to authenticate and check before believing, accepting, and practicing what was taught to us.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism and its sutra appeared later than the Theravada sutta. It is generally agreed by historians that Mahayana Buddhism appeared after Theravāda Buddhism. Consequently, proponents of Theravada Buddhism would accuse Mahayana Buddhism of being fake. I think that is too extreme.

In my posts on Amitabha Sutra, I attempted to show how major Theravada teachings were “coded” into it. Therefore, Mahayana sutras are likely to be Buddha’s words being presented in a manner that appeals to a wider population.

For example, both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism have their own versions of Shakyamuni Buddha’s parinirvana. In Theravada Buddhism, the message presented to its reader is that Buddha had passed beyond Samsara and Buddhists have to rely on their own practices to save themselves. In other words, you are on your own!

Whereas, the Mahayana version provides the reader assurance that Buddha is still watching over us and eternally existing somewhere out there? Thus, the Mahayana sutra appears more “compassionate” and assuring. That compromising approach opens the heart of bewildered beings so that they may lend their ears to Dharma. For people who yearn to have a god-like Buddha to worship, Mahayana scriptures provide amble resources to awe and inspire us. This principle of flexibility to “trick” people into listening Dharma is explained in the Lotus Sutra.

But how much compromise can we make before Buddha’s words become twisted and corrupted?

Moreover, explaining sutras used to be done by a Tripitaka master only. This is because the creative manner in which the sutra is written requires a knowledgeable person to decipher, cross-referencing different Buddhist topics and disciplines. Unfortunately, this is not easily achievable in the past, and even today.

This gave rise to many deviations in the interpretation of practices. For example, the “hidden” 37 limbs of Enlightenment within the Amitabha sutra is not commonly known. Consequently, some schools or teachers of Pureland Buddhism interpreted their practice as similar to worshipping Amitabha Buddha for a ticket to heaven. The emphasis on jhana/samadhi becomes sidelined.

To make matter worse, practitioners of various sutras started to group into factions and sects. Without comprehensive all-round education, each sect starts to develop their unique philosophical explanations of the Dharma when they hit a wall while interpreting the creative Mahayana sutra literally.

The takeaway from the above is that we need to study more widely. Don’t limit ourselves to just the Mahayana sutra and scorn the Theravada Sutta as lowly.

Changing the face of enlightenment

In its competition with other religions, iconography for Buddhist worship also became more creative. The image of a serene bald beggar-monk who seems to be falling asleep no longer provides spiritual comfort to the new worshippers. Instead, we need a pantheon of Bodhisattvas with multiple arms holding terrible weapons to awe the new Buddhists.

Since when, does a sword, arrow, shield, staff, etc have any role to play in our practice of upholding non-violence? Thus, the Thera (elders) denounced this new Buddhist movement of ancient India.

Instead of honoring the arhats (bald monks), we worship Mahasattvas decked in fine jewelry and fabric. This is understandable because an egoistic person who worships money more than anything else, wouldn’t be receptive to the message of a beggar monk, right? “Why should I live my life as a beggar?” “Why should I renounce my layman’s life to find happiness?” “I am happy as a successful merchant.” But that message of renunciation to find happiness is exactly how a Theravada monk would teach!

In this context, it makes sense to depict “rich” looking Mahasattvas (in images of laymen) flanking or subjudgating a beggar monk (Buddha). It gives us a sense of assurance that we won’t lose all our material comfort by becoming Buddhist. We get the best of both worlds. The world of lavish indulgence and the peace of enlightenment. In that manner, iconographies of enlightened monks, the arhats are positioned to the sides or completely absent.

For a person who values family and clansmanship, the message of renunciation and detachment in Theravada sutta is upsetting and unspeakable.

Can we fault the Mahayanists? I think not. This is because in Theravāda Buddhism, these groups of money-hungry, power-hungry, god-worshipping, and “mundane” people who don’t appreciate the message of renunciation would probably be brushed off as “foolish” men according to the Pali sutta. On the contrary, Mahayana Buddhism reaches out to all of them.

SO when the name-calling starts, all hell breaks loose. While the Theravadian would call the “new” Buddhist foolish for listening to heretic teachings, the Mahayana would scorn the Theravada for being lowly Hinayana.

Personally, I think we should learn the best from both worlds?

From the above, we should hopefully have a balanced view of the Theravada and Mahayana systems of Buddhism. Appreciate the pros that each offers.

Spreading the words

Another thing about popular Mahayana Sutras is the “marketing” element in it. You’ll find that many sutras advocate a practice of faithfully worshipping the sutras! While Theravada suttas exhort you to practice morals, renunciation, detachments, meditations, etc to earn good karma, which seems to be the hardest things to do for most people. Popular Mahayana Sutra defines spiritual practices to be as simple as reciting them, copying, printing, preaching, sharing, and yes, even worshipping the sutra on a beautiful altar! For that effort, you gain tons of merits far greater than the highest mountains or the deepest ocean.

It is as if the author was desperately recruiting salesmen to market the sutras and make them more widely circulated? This naturally, encouraged the mass reading and circulation of Buddhist literature up till today!

Ingenious right? However, this created a new phenomenon. Buddhists began to align their faith to a particular sutra. This gave rise to various sects with their own preferred holy books.

While Theravada Buddhism does not teach that Buddha can remove sins, Mahayana promotes it with gusto. One just needs to pray to a particular Buddha or chant a certain mantra to remove their bad karma.

The above are some of the differences between Mahayana and Theravāda Buddhism.

Last but not least is the spiritual goals of Mahayana Buddhism.

In Mahayana Buddhism, one aspires to become a Samyaksam Buddha such as Shakyamuni Buddha. Stories of Shakyamuni Buddha’s previous lives provide us a framework of how He perfected His virtues and ultimately became a Samyaksam Buddha. That process is tedious and long.

On the contrary, Theravada Buddhists advocate attaining final enlightenment in this very life and be done with Samsara. According to Theravada sutta, Buddha had taught everything to us. Nothing was withheld. There is only one type of enlightenment and the enlightenment of Shariputra or Mauglayayana or Shakyamuni Buddha is the same. Enlightenment is enlightenment. Unfortunately, this idea is not easily understood by ordinary people. In our mundane world, there is always a hierarchy. Surely Buddha is better than his disciples?

On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism claimed that Buddha did not teach everything to the arhat. Thus, what is recorded in the Theravada sutta is only a partial truth at best. Buddha lied for their benefit. Otherwise, the Arhats would have lost their will for ultimate enlightenment. Thus, the arhats are not fully enlightened but partially enlightened only.

Confusing huh? So how do we navigate through all these conflicting accounts? I think it makes sense for us to use our common sense and also to look at common principles amongst the various schools of Buddhism.

  1. Refuge in the triple gems is common
  2. Four Noble Truth is common
  3. The eightfold path is common
  4. Observance of morality (aka. precepts) is common
  5. The importance of attaining Jhana/ Samadhi is common
  6. The development of wisdom to exit samsara is common
  7. Positive mental qualities like loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity is common.
  8. Achieving tranquility and peace in our minds is common
  9. Abandoning greed, hatred and ignorance is common

Furthermore, the Mahayana system never denies the Arhat’s enlightenment, we only say it is incomplete. I don’t know about others but I will be extremely happy if I can be a Sotapanna in this lifetime.

To do that, I will just need to achieve Jhana, then investigate the phenomenon of a self. Then experience non-self. This doesn’t contradict with Mahayana system of emptiness. Along the way, just remember that we are aiming for ultimate happiness. Therefore, if our practice causes anxiety, depression, or anger, then probably something is wrong.

Last but not least, we should recall the history of how Dharma was propagated and spread. Be objective and dare to be open-minded. Read widely and study widely. There may be different methods for stilling the mind, but ultimately, they should lead to the same enlightenment.

That’s all for now. May all be well and happy.

Vajrayana Buddhism – To be continued in the next post

Core Buddhism – The Dharma Seals

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