The Buddhist Schools: Theravada and Mahayana * Mahayana Buddhism – Gaurav Manandhar * Facts and Details.

The different forms of Buddhism can be understood by becoming familiar with the two major schools that arose out of the Buddha’s basic teachings:


The two major schools of Buddhism, Theravada and the Mahayana, are to be understood as different expressions of the same teaching of the historical Buddha. Because, in fact, they agree upon and practice the core teachings of the Buddha’s Dharma. And while there was a schism after the first council on the death of the Buddha, it was largely over the monastic rules and academic points such as whether an enlightened person could lapse or not.

Time, culture and customs in the countries in Asia which adopted the Buddha-dharma have more to do with the apparent differences, as you will not find any animosity between the two major schools, other than that created by healthy debate on the expression of and the implementation of the Buddha’s Teachings.

Theravada (The Teachings of the Elders)

In the Buddhist countries of southern Asia, there never arose any serious differences on the fundamentals of Buddhism. All these countries – Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, have accepted the principles of the Theravada school and any differences there might be between the various schools is restricted to minor matters.

The earliest available teachings of the Buddha are to be found in Pali literature and belongs to the school of the Theravadins, who may be called the most orthodox school of Buddhism.

This school admits the human characteristics of the Buddha, and is characterised by a psychological understanding of human nature; and emphasises a meditative approach to the transformation of consciousness.

The teaching of the Buddha according to this school is very plain. He asks us to ‘abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify our mind’.
These can be accomplished by The Three Trainings: the development of ethical conduct, meditation and insight-wisdom.

The philosophy of this school is straight forward. All worldly phenomena are subject to three characteristics – they are impermanent and transient; unsatisfactory and that there is nothing in them which can be called one’s own, nothing substantial, nothing permanent.

All compounded things are made up of two elements – the non-material part, the material part. They are further described as consisting of nothing but five constituent groups, namely the material quality, and the four non-material qualities – sensations, perception, mental formatives and lastly consciousness.
When an individual thus understands the true nature of things, she/he finds nothing substantial in the world.

Through this understanding, there is neither indulgence in the pleasures of senses or self-mortification, following the Middle Path the practitioner lives according to the Noble Eightfold Path which consist of Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. She/he realises that all worldly suffering is caused by craving and that it is possible to bring suffering to an end by following the Noble Eight Fold Path.

When that perfected state of insight is reached, i.e.Nibanna, that person is a ‘worthy person’ an Arhat. The life of the Arhat is the ideal of the followers of this school, ‘a life where all (future) birth is at an end, where the holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done has been done, and there is no more returning to the worldly life’.

Mahayana (The Great Vehicle)

The Mahayana is more of an umbrella body for a great variety of schools, from the Tantra school (the secret teaching of Yoga) well represented in Tibet and Nepal to the Pure Land sect, whose essential teaching is that salvation can be attained only through absolute trust in the saving power of Amitabha, longing to be reborn in his paradise through his grace, which are found in China, Korea and Japan.

Ch’an and Zen Buddhism, of China and Japan, are meditation schools. According to these schools, to look inward and not to look outwards is the only way to achieve enlightenment, which to the human mind is ultimately the same as Buddhahood. In this system, the emphasis is upon ‘intuition’, its peculiarity being that it has no words in which to express itself at all, so it does this in symbols and images. In the course of time this system developed its philosophy of intuition to such a degree that it remains unique to this day.

It is generally accepted, that what we know today as the Mahayana arose from the Mahasanghikas sect who were the earliest seceders, and the forerunners of the Mahayana. They took up the cause of their new sect with zeal and enthusiasm and in a few decades grew remarkably in power and popularity. They adapted the existing monastic rules and thus revolutionised the Buddhist Order of Monks. Moreover, they made alterations in the arrangements and interpretation of the Sutra (Discourses) and the Vinaya (Rules) texts. And they rejected certain portions of the canon which had been accepted in the First Council.

According to it, the Buddhas are lokottara (supramundane) and are connected only externally with the worldly life. This conception of the Buddha contributed much to the growth of the Mahayana philosophy.

Mahayana Buddhism is divided into two systems of thought: the Madhyamika and the Yogacara.

The Madhyamikas were so called on account of the emphasis they laid on the middle view. Here, the middle path, stands for the non-acceptance of the two views concerning existence and nonexistence, eternity and non eternity, self and non-self. In short, it advocates neither the theory of reality nor that of the unreality of the world, but merely of relativity. It is, however, to be noted that the Middle Path propounded at Sarnath by the Buddha had an ethical meaning, while that of the Madhyamikas is a metaphysical concept.

The Yogacara School is another important branch of the Mahayana. It was so called because it emphasised the practice of yoga (meditation) as the most effective method for the attainment of the highest truth (Bodhi). All the ten stages of spiritual progress of Bodhisattvahood have to be passed through before Bodhi can be attained.

The ideal of the Mahayana school, therefore, is that of the Bodhisattva, a person who delays his or her own enlightenment in order to compassionately assist all other beings and ultimately attains to the highest Bodhi.

Three Essentials In Practising the Teaching of the Buddha

1. Faith and Determination

2. Loving Kindness and Compassion

3. Wisdom

The philosophy expounded by the Buddha is very profound and broad. It is so broad and profound that sometimes ordinary people have difficulties in finding a right entrance into it. They do not know where to start. However, this does not imply that the Buddha’s Teachings are confusing or disorganised. On the contrary, Buddhism has very logical, well-reasoned and practical principles.

Wise men in the past commented that all the methods taught by the Buddha, whether the expedient or ultimate paths, serve the sole purpose of leading one to Buddhahood.

– Whether it is the path that leads one away from evil, and towards the right aspirations (the principle of the Five Vehicles)
– or the path that leads to disentanglement from worldly desires and to freedom (the principle of the Three Vehicles);
– or the path that turns one away from the practice of the Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas and redirects one to Mahayana thought (the principle of the one Vehicle);

The Buddha explained the paths to enlightenment in all these various ways for the benefit of sentient beings in all their corresponding variety. It is for this great reason that the Buddha appeared in this world.

From the stand point of one who wants to learn about Buddhism, it is important to understand that all the methods taught by the Buddha are in fact processes in the Bodhisattva’s practice. They are the Bodhi paths that lead to Buddhahood. Due to the differing conditions, causes, times and places into which we were born, the best ways towards Bodhi (Enlightenment) may differ for each of us. But if we try to seek the truth of nature through the various methods we will realise that there are no great differences in the teachings of the Buddha.

Three themes characterize all the teachings and encompass them as one coherent whole. These themes are as applicable to the practice of “One Vehicle” as they are to the “Three vehicles” and “Five vehicles”.

Thus, we call these themes the
“The Three Essentials in Practising the Teaching of the Buddha”.

1.1 The Three Essentials of Practice Defined

What are these Three Essentials of Practice?
As stated in the Sutra of Great Prajna they are;
– “To maintain mindfulness of supreme Bodhi (the mind of enlightenment),
– to centre oneself on compassion, and
– to learn the skilful means of emptiness (the wisdom of non-grasping or subtle intangibility)”.

The Great Prajna Sutra emphasizes the all-inclusive practice of a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva must learn all methods of practice, (which are in fact nothing more than the ways of cultivating goodness and wisdom). All these methods should comply with the Three Essentials, which are their foundation.

The ultimate aim of all practices is to attain perfection in these three virtues. Thus, these themes are in fact the heart of practising the Bodhisattva way. As the ancients said, “If we did not find the right direction of practice we would be wandering blindly around the eight thousand methods and teachings taught by the Buddha, just like walking in the darkness. If we could find the right direction of practice, the twelve divisions of the Mahayana Canon, would be as clear as ordinary simple conversation to us.”

1. Mindfulness of the heart of wisdom, or the Supreme Bodhi (wisdom of the Buddha), as the ground of faith and determination.

This is the perfect and ultimate merit of the Buddha that was attained through His enlightenment. Practitioners should contemplate always the wisdom of the Supreme Bodhi. One should have faith that the Buddha has attained the Supreme Bodhi and that the Supreme Bodhi may bring us the vision of splendour and boundless merits. Belief in the merits of the Supreme Bodhi arouses our determination and joy for it, and further inspires us to seek it out. In other words, appreciation of the wisdom of Supreme Bodhi meaningfully translates into our determination to attain perfect enlightenment.

2. Great Compassion.

Great Compassion may refer to sympathy or loving kindness and compassion in general, in a wider sense, it refers to loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.

To be compassionate is to have the mind intent upon relieving living beings from their miseries. To have loving kindness is to be intent upon giving living beings enjoyment and happiness.

All the practices of the Bodhisattva begin with the mind of loving kindness and compassion.

The mind of loving kindness and compassion is always first and foremost. As stated in the Sutra, “The status of a Bodhisattva is attainable through the mind of compassion, it is not attainable by merely meritorious deeds”. Without loving kindness and compassion, all virtues and wisdom will not comply with the practice of a Bodhisattva. Thus, the great mind of loving kindness and compassion is indeed the heart of the Bodhisattva’s practice.

3. Emptiness (The wisdom of non-grasping or subtle intangibility) as the wisdom of Prajna.

This is the wisdom of non-attachment and supreme emptiness. The wisdom of emptiness that was cultivated under the guidance of the compassionate vow (i.e. the Bodhisattva vow) will not be just a dull emptiness and still silence. It is a great skilful characteristic. By possessing this wisdom, the practice of loving kindness and compassion can be successful and hence lead us to the attainment of the fruit of Bodhi.

Thus, these three themes, the Bodhi vow, the Great Compassion and the Wisdom of Emptiness are the real essences of the path of the Bodhisattva.

1.2 The Three Essentials in the Superior Practice of the Bodhisattva

The great Bodhi vow, the Great Compassion and the great wisdom of the Bodhisattva are an extension of the purest practices of all humans and devas as well as the Two vehicles. Summarising the merits of all teachings, in terms of aims, humans and devas practice to become saints or to be reborn in heaven. They look forward to the worldly reality, beauty and virtue.

The practice of the Two Vehicles cultivates the mind to the extinction of worldly desire and Nirvana. It promotes the mind of leaving the deluded world. And the practice of the Bodhisattva emphasises the cultivation of the great Bodhi vow.

Loving kindness to living beings, in the practice of humans and devas, is aroused due to sympathy towards other living beings. In the practice of the two vehicles, it is the sense of universal altruism that gives rise to loving kindness.

In the practice of the Bodhisattva, it is the wisdom of emptiness (the realisation of Dependent origination, non-self and non-attachment) that gives rise to loving kindness.

In terms of the cultivation of wisdom, in the practice of human and devas, wisdom refers to worldly knowledge. In the practice of the Two Vehicles, wisdom is one-sided dogma In the practice of the Bodhisattva, it is the wisdom of non-discrimination in all aspects.

The response of the mind to the external environment varies among the three realms of practice. The mental activities involved are basically the activities of faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion, and wisdom. The distinction among the three realms is that practitioners in each realm practise them at different levels.

From the above analysis, it can be seen that the three main themes of the practice of the Bodhisattva are beyond all others, they encompass the practices of all virtues.
– The Embodiment of Dharma: Faith and Determination;
– Loving Kindness and Compassion;
– Wisdom: In Human and Devas Practice
To be a saint and to be reborn in heaven
Sympathy to living beings
Worldly knowledge

In Two Vehicle Practice
To leave the deluded world
Sense of universal altruism

One-sided dogmaIn Bodhisattva Practice
The Bodhi vow
Mind of loving kindness and compassion
Wisdom of Prajna

As we begin practising the teachings of the Buddha, either as a lay person or as an ordained follower, we should learn the practice of the Bodhisattva as this is the only way to Buddhahood.

The real merits of the Bodhisattva are within these three themes. We should always reflect on ourselves: “Have I practised? Have I put effort into the practice of these three themes?” If not, how can we call ourselves a Bodhisattva? We should always remind ourselves to practice and to look upon the Bodhisattvas as our example.

2. A Comparison of the Confucian, Christian and Buddhist approaches to the Three Essentials

The main themes in the practice of the Bodhisattva way are faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion and wisdom. They constitute in fact a process of purification and improvement of the human mind according to its natural ability.

These have some similarity with the other worldly practices such as Confucianism and Christianity. However, the worldly practices or ideologies tend to cling to one aspect and regard that as the whole, or adopt one aspect and neglect the rest. Hence the practice becomes incomplete.

Confucianism, which represents the mainstream of Chinese culture in China, advocates the Three Virtues, namely knowledge, benevolence and bravery. It takes them as they become moral values for dealing with people and living life in society.

In brief, knowledge may be compared with wisdom, benevolence with loving kindness and compassion and bravery with faith and determination.

There is a saying in Buddhism, “Faith instils determination and determination instils diligence (right effort)”. With sincere faith we can arouse our greater determination. And with sincere determination, one will naturally become diligent and put right effort into practice.

In short, faith leads to determination and determination will lead to bravery and diligence. This is the development of energy from faith. Diligence and bravery are needed in all meritorious deeds, but it has to begin with faith and determination.

Confucianism over-emphasises the common relationship among human beings, and lacks inspiration. Hence, it is difficult to arouse sincere faith and determination in its followers. Without strong faith, the virtue of bravery cannot be fully expressed.

The concepts of “being wise”, “being the saintly”, “the Law of Heaven”, “the conscience”, and “the fear of Heavenly commands, fear of the saint and fear of commandments of the authority”, all weaken the cultivation of faith and determination.

The idea of bravery becomes “one who knows how to feel ashamed is close to being considered brave”. This ideology is difficult to spread among the general population, and the faith that arises from this ideology of “to be reborn in heaven” or “to attain Buddhahood”.

The Chinese nation which has long been under the influence of Confucianism is withering and becoming weaker each day. It has failed to arouse the virtues of bravery from faith, and the Chinese lack strong motivation and enthusiasm for life. From the view of promoting human nature or strengthening the Chinese nation, and cultivating of sincere and dedicated faith and bravery, this decline is something that the Confucianists should take note of.

Christianity (Catholic and Christian) conditions the contemporary culture and spirit of the West. It also has three main themes: faith, hope and love. Christians believe in the existence of God and because of their faith in God there is hope of a bright future for them. Because God loves us, we must in turn love others. Everything was created by God.

These teachings are of course very different to the teachings of Buddhism. However, in general, we may consider faith and hope to be equivalent to faith and determination in Buddhism, and love equivalent to loving kindness and compassion in Buddhism.

Although Christians claim that they have a rational belief in righteousness, it does not emphasise the virtue of wisdom in nature. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, their eyes brightened. This is the beginning of self-awareness and development of human knowledge. However, for the theist, this is a sin, and is the source of death. Teaching as such is shaken by the development and achievement of modern scientific cultures nowadays.

The Sravakas (the people who lived in the Buddha’s time and listened to his teachings personally) placed less emphasis on the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion. There were Sravakas who stressed faith and wisdom but there were none who stressed compassion.

This is just the opposite to Christian practice. Christians emphasise faith and love but lack wisdom. The Sravakas stressed faith and wisdom, but undervalued loving kindness and compassion. Both modes of practice are narrow and incomplete.

The practice of the Mahayana Bodhisattva, which puts great emphasis on the equal practice of all the three themes, is undoubtedly more complete.

Although the teachings of Confucianism are not complete, Their three virtues are closest to the practice of the Bodhisattva.

The Pure Land sect in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism (originated in India and completed in China) also has three main themes. They are: faith, determination (dedication) and practice. The order of faith, determination and practice delineates the process. From faith determination arises, and with determination, effort to practice arises.

When we say the words “to practice” most people interpret it as “practicing diligently” without the concepts of loving kindness and compassion or wisdom. Some Pure Land practitioners practice by chanting the name of the Amitabha Buddha but do not cultivate wisdom or compassion and loving kindness.

This type of person will have to wait for a long while before they can fulfil their wish to become enlightened and return to this world in order to relieve the suffering of the worldly beings. This is the result of the imbalance development and negligence of Mahayana philosophy in practice.

When the Pure Land sect spread to Japan, it immersed into its theistic tradition and changed itself into the “Truth” sect, promoting the ideology of rebirth with faith and determination. Even the chanting of the name was not important anymore. This is similar to the Christian doctrine, where those who have faith will be saved.

In short, other religions or ideologies do emphasise the Three Essentials in one way or another but not all. It is important for us to remember that, the main themes of the practice of the Bodhisattva are the completion and perfection in the cultivation of faith determination, wisdom, loving kindness and compassion.

3. Finding, entering and advancing in the Buddhist practice of the Three Essentials

1 Different ways of entering the practice

In the practice of the Bodhisattva, we should not emphasise one practice and neglect the others. However, as a beginner, one may find entrance through one (or two) of the gates.

Those who are interested in philosophy psychology or theoretical subjects may investigate the righteousness and profundity of the teaching and hence arouse an interest in learning the teachings of the Buddha. These are people who enter through the gate of wisdom.

On the other hand, those who are engaged in social welfare work and who are fond of rendering assistance to others, are close to the Buddha’s teaching on relationship with others. They praise and appreciate the loving kindness and compassion of the teaching of the Buddha and hence begin to practise them. These are people who enter through the gate of loving kindness and compassion.

In addition, there are others who admire the perfections of the Triple Gem, or who because of the special experiences that they have had with the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, decide to practice the teachings of the Buddha. These are people who enter through the gate of faith and determination.

Due to differences in the spiritual potential of living beings, beginners may find entrance through different ways.

In brief, people who have more greed may enter through the door of loving kindness and compassion. Those who have more hatred may enter through the door of wisdom and those who have a simple mind may enter through the door of faith and determination.

2 The importance of the balance practice in faith determination, loving kindness and compassion, wisdom – the Three Essentials

However, after beginning our Buddhist practice, we should not remain confined to studying and practising in a particular fashion permanently. Otherwise, there will be no improvement even after ten years or even twenty years of learning, and its consequent benefits will be poor.

We should understand that even in the practice of Two Vehicles, there are people who emphasise faith whilst the others emphasise wisdom. This is mainly due to differences in individual spiritual potential, and does not mean that such practitioners stay permanently in one stage of that they only possess either faith without wisdom, or wisdom with out faith.

Both the Nirvana and Pitaka Sutra state that “Faith without wisdom leads one to become more ignorant and wisdom without faith leads one to a perverted view. “If we rely on faith only and do not cultivate understanding and wisdom we will be unable to comprehend the Triple Gem and the methods that we are learning. In that case, the real benefits of the Dharma would be beyond us. For those who practice in this manner, in their minds, they believe Buddhism is no different to the worship of ghosts or Gods. It is just an ignorant faith-superstition. This kind of attitude is in fact very commonly found in the circles of Chinese Buddhists nowadays.

It is more dangerous for one to have wisdom without faith. The Nagarjuna Bodhisattva said that, “If we try to attain ‘emptiness’ without the foundation of faith and precepts, such a concept of ‘emptiness’ will be a perverted one.” This perverted view of ‘emptiness’ rejects the Truth of the Law of Cause and Effect. Such a mistake is made due to self-approbation and the lack of pure faith in the merits of the Triple Gem. The foolishness of superstition is less than the foolishness of perverted views. Perverted view may lead one to Hell. Thus, it can be seen that faith and wisdom must be practised together, neither should be neglected.

In the teachings of the Great Vehicle, there is a ‘superior Bodhisattva of Wisdom’, and a ‘Superior Bodhisattva of Mercy’. We should note the word “Superior”, which simply means that they have greater emphasis on those aspects. If there is only wisdom without compassion or compassion without wisdom, the practice cannot be considered the practice of a Bodhisattva. Both compassion and wisdom must be cultivated together. Even if one practises compassion and wisdom together, if the merits and determination of compassion are not strong enough, one will be anxiously seeking for self-salvation and the attainments of wisdom for oneself only, one deteriorates to a selfish practitioner (Hinayanist) and cannot attain perfect enlightenment.

If one’s mind of loving kindness and compassion is strong but weak in wisdom, in the process of practising the Bodhisattva’s way one may be defeated and become a “Defeated Bodhisattva”.

This is because the practice of the Bodhisattva cannot be successful without the skilful means of the wisdom of emptiness (wisdom of non-grasping). Thus, one may enter Buddhism through any one of the gates, however, if one is thinking of progressing and advancing further into the teaching and learning of the practice of the Bodhisattva, one must develop balanced strength in all these three areas, loving kindness and compassion and wisdom. These three areas of development will supplement each other and gradually lead the practitioner to a higher stage.

When one gains the profound wisdom of the Buddha, one is perfect in the practice of all three themes. This is the attainment of the great Bodhi or great Nirvana, in other words, Buddhahood. Some people think that it should be sufficient to just become expert in one theme, it is not necessary for one to learn all three together.

In fact, if one really becomes expert in one theme, one will naturally understand the interrelationship of the three and how they complement each other in order to lead one to completion. One theme may be used as the starting point of practice and its main focus. Looking deeply in this way one sees how each theme enfolds all the others at the same time. It does not imply that one is giving up the practice of the other merits.

We, who are practising the Bodhisattva’s perfections and aiming for the fruit of Buddhahood, should ask ourselves, are the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas incomplete in their practice of the three themes? Do they have faith without wisdom, or have wisdom without faith? Buddha means the perfection of all merits. Thus, those who are determined to learn from the Buddha, should look upon the perfect merits of the Buddha as their goal and strive forward diligently.

4. The role of the Three Essentials in mental development, practice and attainment

Those who sincerely develop the mind of Bodhi and make the effort to practise the perfection of the Bodhisattva, must equip themselves with the essentials of Mahayana practice, even though they may have inclinations towards certain aspects. The essentials are: faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion, and wisdom. Without the foundation of Bodhisattva teachings, one’s faith and determination will be similar to benevolence and knowledge in Confucianism; one’s loving kindness and compassion will resemble the faith and wisdom of the Sravakas; and one’s wisdom will be equivalent to faith and love in Christianity.

The only practice that can fully convey the Truth of Buddha’s teaching, and can become the supreme way of practice for human beings, in the practice of the Bodhisattva-the unification of faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion and wisdom. These three themes supplement each other and lead one to the attainment of perfection.

The three themes are the essentials and cannot be ignored or neglected. In the process of learning, there is a certain order of progress. One progresses from emphasis on one aspect to another according to their order until the completion of the course. To begin practice from the mind of a worldly person, we must know the order of practice. If we boast about perfection and completion, all these will be just empty words of mouth and reality will prove that our success is illusion.

The Order of practice

The sutras and abhidharma have given many explanations about the practices paving the Path of the Bodhisattva. Generally speaking, it can be divided into two smaller parallel paths:
– the Path of Prajna
– and the Path of Skilful Means.

The stages of the Paths are as follow:
– To begin the practice of the Bodhisattva, one must first develop the mind of Bodhi (mind of enlightenment).
– With the mind of Bodhi one can then step into the practice of the Bodhisattva. This is the stage that emphasises the importance of faith and determination.
– After the initiation of Bodhi mind, one progresses in practice. The practice of the Bodhisattva emphasises benefitting others. The accumulation of virtues and wisdom is not only for oneself. This is the stage that emphasises compassion.
– When one is equipped with virtues and wisdom, and balance in the practice of compassion and wisdom, one then attains the wisdom of equanimity and non-discrimination. This is the stage of Prajna (wisdom of emptiness).

The above are stages along the Path of Prajna. The realisation of the wisdom of emptiness in the Path of Prajna represents the development of the mind for the Path of the Skilful Means.
– This is the supreme mind of Bodhi. It is the unification of faith and wisdom-the pure attainment.
– From then on, the Bodhisattva put great emphasis on relieving the sufferings of all living beings and the adornment of a pure land. This is the practice of loving kindness and compassion with wisdom.
– At the stage of perfection, one realises the supreme Bodhi the wisdom of all wisdom.

The order of progress along the Path of Skilful Means includes the development of the supreme Bodhi mind, the practice and attainment of perfect wisdom. Together with the Path of Prajna, there are five stages. These are stages that a Bodhisattva must go through in the process of practice, and it is something that those who are practising the Path of the Bodhisattva should always bear in mind.

The Path of Prajna
To develop the Bodhi vow
To practice loving kindness and compassion
To attain the wisdom of emptiness
To abide with equanimity in faith and wisdom

The Path of Skilful Means
To develop a pure and joyful mind
To adorn and purify the pure land in all matters
To attain the perfect fruit of enlightenment

These two paths and five stages can be summarised into three:
– the first is the development of the mind,
– the middle three are the practice (the practice of compassion to wisdom in the Path of Prajna, and wisdom to compassion in the Path of Skilful Means),
– and the last one is the attainment of Buddhahood.

They are the stages of practice from worldly beings to Buddhahood, which is in fact the purification and improvement of the three virtues (three virtues of the Buddha, perfection in detachment, compassion and wisdom) to the state of perfection.

In summary, the worldly beings are ignorant, impure and full of desires. From the state of a worldly being, one arouses one’s faith and determination in pursuing Buddhahood, through the practice of loving kindness and compassion one progresses towards the attainment of the wisdom of emptiness. The wisdom of emptiness is also the Bodhisattva’s faith and determination (the pure mind of supreme joy). It is the unification of faith and wisdom.

With this faith and determination (no yet perfect), one continues the practice of compassion and loving kindness more broadly until one attains the perfect stage of wisdom. This is also the time when one’s wisdom, loving kindness and compassion, faith and determination attain perfection. The practice of the Bodhisattva is boundless and profound. For one to practice the perfection of Bodhisattva from the stage of a worldly beings, one must always hold on to these Three Essentials as the guiding principles of practice.

5. The Three Essentials and the recitation of the Buddha’s name, vegetarianism, and sutra chanting

The various ways of practice in the countless methodologies introduced by the Buddha boil down to the practice of the Three Essentials. They are very broad and profound.

Now, let’s discuss the expedient ways for a beginner.

To recite the name of the Buddha, to be vegetarian and to chant (to intone) the sutras are the main ways of practice for most Chinese Buddhists. They represent beginners steps along the Path of Bodhisattva.

1 Recitation of the Buddha’s name

The purpose of reciting the name of the Buddha is to arouse one’s faith and determination. A Bodhisattva’s faith and determination is the development of the Bodhi mind, and the maintenance of mindfulness on supreme Bodhi. The Buddha is the person who has realised the supreme Bodhi — the wisdom of all wisdom. He has majestic appearance and boundless power. He embodies all wisdom and incomparable loving kindness and compassion. Since his practice as a Bodhisattva, he has done countless meritorious acts benefiting others.

One should respect and admire the Buddha. The Buddha preaches the Dharma, and because of Dharma, the Sangha exist. Hence, the Buddha is also the embodiment of the Triple Gem. Thus we should look upon Buddha as our all encompassing refuge and ideal example at all times.

With respect and admiration for Buddha’s merits, and sincere appreciation of His kindness and compassion, one’s faith and determination to practice will be strengthened. This is the main purpose of the practice of “reciting the name of the Buddha”, and “praising the development of the mind of Bodhi”, advocated by many of the Mahayana Sutras.

We recite the name of the Buddha to remind ourselves of the virtues of the Buddha, the marks of the Buddha, the essence of the Buddha, and the pure land of the Buddha. Expanding the scope of this practice leads into practices such as paying respect to the Buddha, praising the Buddha, making offerings to the Buddha, repentance in front of the Buddha, rejoicing in the merits of the Buddha and encouraging the promotion and distribution of the teachings of the Buddha; these are the broader means of practising.

The Prajna-Paramita Discourse states the “The Bodhisattva enters into Dharma with strong and diligent faith (determination), and happily accumulates the merits of a Buddha. This is ‘an easy path’ that was specially introduced by the ‘Superior Faith Bodhisattva’ in the Mahayana Teaching.

This ‘easy path’ is also the expedient alternative to the “difficult path” (the Path of Prajna and Skilful means that emphasise wisdom and compassion). Thus, “The Commentary on the Ten Stages of Bodhisattva” written by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva states that: “A beginner should practice reciting the name of the Buddha, repentance, promotion of the doctrine of the Buddha and other methods as mentioned above, so that the mind may be purified and faith strengthened. Thereafter he may be able to go a step further into the practice of wisdom, loving kindness and compassion.”The Sraddhotpada Sutra also says that: “Beginners should learn such methods in order to strengthen their faith, as living beings are weak minded.”

By teaching them to “concentrate on the name of the Buddha”, this will help them to maintain and strengthen their faith so that they do not fall back.The main purpose of the practice of reciting the name of the Buddha is to initiate the faith and determination in those in whom they have not yet developed, and to strengthen and maintain faith and determination in those in whom they have. To recite the name of the Buddha is to recite with the mind. Also to remember the virtues of the Buddha whilst reciting with intense concentration is a skilful means of initiating one’s faith and determination. The normal practice of reciting by mouth is just a convenience among the conveniences, it is not the best way of practice.

2 Vegetarianism

To be vegetarian means not to eat meat. Vegetarianism is a tradition of Chinese Buddhism. It is not necessary for one to be a vegetarian in order to become a Buddhist. Theravada Buddhists in Sir Lanka and Buddhists in Tibet and Japan do take meat as an accepted part of their diet.

Some Chinese Buddhists thought that to be vegetarian is the Hinayanist practice, and not the teaching of the Mahayana. This is a great misunderstanding. In actual fact, vegetarianism is a practice specially advocated in the Mahayana teachings. This can be found in sutras, such as the Lankavatara, Nirvana and Angulimala Sutras.

There are various reasons for not eating meat, but the main reason is to cultivate one’s loving kindness and compassion. As the sutras say: “Eating meat nips compassion in the bud”. A Bodhisattva should always seek to benefit others and to relieve the sufferings of all living beings. If one is cruel enough to kill beings and eat them, then where is one’s mind of kindness and compassion?

The practice of the Bodhisattva emphasises the mind of compassion. Hence, the virtue of vegetarianism is certainly the conclusion of the Mahayana teaching.

3 Sutra Chanting

The chanting of sutras is also an expedient way of practice. Although the practice may have other purposes its main aim is to develop wisdom.

There are three stages in the practice of wisdom before the realisation of the true Prajna (the wisdom of enlightenment).
– hearing
– thinking and analysing
– practising

These three stages of cultivating wisdom can also be classified into the Ten Righteous Practices (The Ten Ways of Devotion to the Buddha’s Teaching), namely:
– to copy sacred texts
– to offer places for keeping and maintaining sutras or Dharma writings
– to preach or give such exposition of Dharma to others
– to listed attentively to their exposition
– to read them
– to teach others about them
– to intone them
– to explain them
– to think and analyse them
– to practise them.

In this traditional schema, the first eight are practices of wisdom through hearing. Sutra chanting reminiscent of schools in olden days when one would intone the text before giving an explanation of it. After one intones the sutra one becomes familiar with it. Then one may eventually understand it or at least seek such an understanding. These are the expedient paths in practising wisdom through hearing.

4 Righteous practice of the Expedient Path

The most common methods of practice amongst Chinese Buddhist are the recitation of the name of the Buddha, vegetarianism (releasing lives) and chanting the sutras. These are in fact expedient steps for anyone who wants to begin the practice of the Bodhisattva. These are expedient measures that will strengthen one’s faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion, and wisdom as stated in the Mahayana teachings.

However, some people stress the merits of chanting the sutras whilst placing little value on the understanding of their meanings. In this case, the chanting will not expedite the development of wisdom.

On the other hand, those who advocate the practice of vegetarianism and the release of captive lives may emphasise their practice of these two methods but may not show loving kindness and compassion towards sufferings human beings or act to protect and help them. They only care about other living beings but neglect their calling to care for and protect human beings. This perversion of practice arises due to ignorance of the purpose behind true practice and cannot lead to the development of true loving kindness and compassion.

By comparison, reciting the name of the Buddha cultivates one’s faith somehow or other as the action reminds one about the virtues of the Buddha. However, the problem is that most followers incline towards superstitious acts whilst others are only seeking personal salvation. Thus it is very rare to have someone who will develop the Bodhisattva’s faith and determination in seeking attainment of Buddhahood and relieving the sufferings of all living beings through practising the recitation of the Buddha’s name.

Recitation of the name of the Buddha, vegetarianism and chanting the sutras are the supremely expedient practices on the path to the perfection of Bodhisattvahood. But due to the lack of enthusiasm in seeking wisdom and the lack of loving kindness and compassion, the practices are faith oriented. As a result, the full benefits arising from the skilful application of these expedient practices, cannot be fully expressed. This is the sad and source of deterioration in Chinese Buddhism.

Practising in this manner cannot be considered the practice of a Bodhisattva, nor can it reflect the greatness and beauty of the Dharma. Those who practice in this way will not be able to save themselves, let alone save the world. When we are practising the path of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva, we must understand clearly the aim of these expedient practices. We should not recite the name of the Buddha just for the sake of reciting; become a vegetarian just for the sake of becoming a vegetarian, or chant the sutras just for the sake of chanting. We should recite the name of the Buddha hoping to develop our faith and determination; become a vegetarian in order to strengthen our loving kindness and compassion; chant the sutras with the aim of developing our wisdom. These are methods of practice and their aim is to cultivate one’s faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion, and wisdom.

Thus, one who is sincere in practising the Teaching of the Buddha and is learning the Path of the Bodhisattva, should practise the recitation of the Buddha’s name in a righteous way and develop great determination and effort in seeking the attainment of Buddhahood and relieving the sufferings of all living being. From the practice of vegetarianism and releasing captive lives one should cultivate loving kindness and compassion and take part in social welfare activities that are of benefit to mankind. From the chanting of sutras one should go a step further into understanding their meanings, and hence develop wisdom.

In doing so, these expedient practices will fulfil their purposes and lay the foundations for one to progress along the Path of the Bodhisattva. These are only initial steps. There is still a long journey ahead. We should start here and strive forward in pursuit the boundless Teaching of the Buddha.

Translated by Neng Rong, edited by Mick Kiddle, Proofread by Neng Rong. (16-6-1995)



Mahayana Buddhism (The Great Vehicle)
By Gaurav Manandhar

Mahayana Buddhism, also known as the Great Vehicle, is the form of Buddhism prominent in North Asia, including China, Mongolia, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.

Mahayana is one of the main existing branches of Buddhism and the Sanskrit word “ Mahayana” means great vehicle.

The other existing branches of Buddhism are Theravada and Vajrayana but under some classification, Vajrayana is classified as a part of Mahayana Buddhism.

Mahayana refers to the path of Bodhisattva to attain the Enlightenment to help all the sentient beings from all sufferings and pain. This is called “Bodhisattvayana” or the “Bodhisattva Vehicle”.

Over the years, the Mahayana subdivided into more schools which practices different doctrines and spread from India to China, Tibet, Korea, Japan and thus became the dominant form of Buddhism . The people following and supporting Mahayana Tradition is around 53.2% of the total Buddhism practitioners and Theravada tradition is around 35.8% and Vajrayana tradition is around 5.7%.

There are many other traditions that follow the principle of Mahayana Buddhism . They are Zen, Chinese Chan, Pure Land, Nichiren, Tiantai, Vajrayana (according to some tradition), Tendai and Tibetan Buddhism.

The teaching of Mahayana is quite distinctive than that of Theravada. In Mahayana, bodhisattvas who are likely to manifest the great compassion postpone the final enlightenment to help and assist those beings still suffering from the cycle of rebirths. Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes interpreted as more devotional form of Buddhism since Buddha and Bodhisattva are greatly respected and worshiped.


The origin of Mahayana Buddhism is still quite a mystery, but there are some views about the origins of Mahayana. It states that Mahayana emerged as a separate school from another existed school Theravada. But some historical record shows Mahayana had been developing long before that.

“Traces of Mahayana teachings appear already in the oldest Buddhist scriptures. Contemporary scholarship is inclined to view the transition to Mahayana as a gradual process hardly noticed by people at that time.” Heinrich Dumoulin, Historian.

During the 1st Century BCE, the name Mahayana was found to distinguish the Mahayana tradition from Theravada tradition. Theravada was called “Hinavana” during the same century. These are the works of Buddhist monks who oppose the idea of attaining the Enlightenment by oneself and accused Theravada of being a selfish tradition.

During the time of early Mahayana Buddhism, the Mahayanists developed four major types of thought. They are:
– Madhyamaka
– Yogacara
– Buddha Nature
– Buddhist logic

Bodhisattva Ideal

The Mahayana is one of the three alternatives through which one can attain the state of Nirvana. The Mahayana emphasis is on postponing one’s liberation so that one may help, assist and guide all the sentient beings to the state of Nirvana.

According to Mahayana teachings, a high-level Bodhisattva possesses a mind of great compassion and wisdom.

“The most essential part of Mahayana is its emphasis on Bodhisattva ideal, which replaces that of the arhat, or ranks before it.” Ananda Coomaraswamy

According to Mahayana teachings and practices , six perfections are needed to Bodhisattva. They are:
– Perfection of giving or generosity
– Perfection of good conduct or behavior
– Perfection of Patience
– Perfection of vigor and diligence
– Perfection of Meditation
– Perfection of wisdom

Trikaya or Three Body Doctrine

The concept of Three Body Doctrine of Buddha is purely Mahayana concept. Mahayana Tradition believes that Lord Buddha have three bodies. They are:

Nirmanakaya Body

It is also known as appearance body or material body of Sakyamuni Buddha .

Dharmakaya Body

Also known as Dharma body which refers that the eternal Dharma lies beyond all conceptions and dualities.

Sambhogakaya Body

Also known as The Bliss or Enjoyment body in which Bodhisattva appears in a celestial realm.


Agamas is a collection of early Buddhist scriptures. There are five agamas in Buddhism and together they comprise Suttapitaka of early Buddhist Schools. The five agamas are:

1. Dirgha Agama – Long Discourses
2. Madhyama Agama – Middle-Length Discourses
3. Samyukta Agama – Connected Discourses
4. Ekottara Agama – Numbered Discourses
5. Ksudraka Agama – Minor Collection

Three Turning of Wheels of Dharma

The turning of Wheels of Dharma refers to understanding of a sutra of teachings of Lord Buddha which was originally devised by Yogachara School.

The three turning of Wheels of Dharma are as follows:

First Turning

Consist of teaching of Four Noble Truths, other elements of Tripitaka (abhidharma, sutrapitika, and Vinaya). It is said to have taken place at Deer Park of Sarnath.

Second Turning

Second Turning mainly emphasis on emptiness and compassion. And these two elements form bodhicitta which is an epitome of Second turning. Second Turning is said to have taken place at Vulture Park in Bihar.

Third Turning

Third Turning mainly emphasis on Buddha nature and Tathagatagarbha doctrine. The third turning of Wheels of Dharma is said to have taken place in Shravasti and other Indian locations such Kushinagara.



Mahayana Buddhists believe in a multitude of heavens, hells and descriptions of nirvana and have great reverence for Bodhisattvas “Buddhist “saints” on the verge of nirvana who stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others.

Mahayana Buddhists believe that salvation is accessible to all those who have faith and regard their religion as a way of life that can be embraced by any one. They also enjoy philosophical discussion and intellectual gymnastics and enlist the help of female deities and magical forces and worship a pantheon of gods, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Mahayana Buddhists see The Buddha as the sum total of everything there is; discount his historical personage; view his life on earth in magical and transcendent terms; and have Bodhisattvas and Buddhas that address issues important to ordinary people. The Supreme Buddha became an all knowing force that pervaded every part of the universe, like a creator God.

Mahayana Buddhism places an emphasis on the process of attaining nirvana through the purification of the consciousness and has been “expanded” to respond to the needs of local people it severed. It follows a number of mythologies and ontological doctrines. They see true reality as “Emptiness”; define ten stages which Bodhisattvas must pass through to reach Buddhahood; and see everything being connected by a kind of cosmic thread rooted in true reality.

Voidness and Three Types of Buddhahood

Mahayana Buddhism says that there are three aspects of Buddhahood, which it describes by regarding Buddha as having three bodies (trikaya):
1. Dharmakaya: Buddha is transcendent – he is the same thing as the ultimate truth;
2. Sambhogakaya: Buddha’s body of bliss, or enjoyment body;
3. Nirmanakaya: Buddha’s earthly body – just like any other human being’s body.

Dr. W. Rahula wrote: “There are three types of Buddha:
-Samma Sambuddha (a supremely enlightened one), who gains full enlightenment [by perfecting ten qualities and gaining the magical ability to teach] by one’s own effort alone
– Pacceka Buddha who is fully, independently enlightened but has not developed the Ten Perfections to a lesser degree than the Samma Sambuddha [and therefore is not skilled in showing others the way to enlightenment],
– the Savaka Buddha who is an arahant-disciple of a perfectly enlightened Buddha. The nirvana of the three types is exactly the same. The only difference is that the Samma Sambuddha has many more qualities (paramitas, paramis, or perfections) and capacities which are useful in teaching than the other two types.

“Some people think that the Voidness (Sunyata) discussed by Nagarjuna is purely a Mahayana teaching. However, it is based on the Buddha’s teaching of Impersonality (anatta) or no-self and Dependent Origination, both found in the original Theravada, Pali language texts.

On one occasion Ananda asked the Buddha, “People say the word Void. What is Void (Sunya)?” The Buddha replied, “Ananda, there is no self, nor anything belonging to a self in the world. Therefore, the world is empty.” This idea was used by Nagarjuna, who wrote the small remarkable book, Madhyamika Karika. Apart from the idea of Voidness, the concept of the “store-consciousness” in Mahayana Buddhism also has its seed in Theravada texts. The Mahayanists have simply developed it into a deep psychology and philosophy.”

Doctrine of Skillful Means

Skillful Means is regarded by some as the most important doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism. According to the religious scholar J.C. Clear: Skillful means refers “to strategies, methods, devices, targeted to the capacities, circumstances, likes and dislikes of each sentient being, so as to rescue him and lead him to Enlightenment. “Thus, all particular formulations of the Teaching are just provisional expedients to communicate the Truth (Dharma) in specific contexts.” “The Buddha’s words were medicines for a given sickness at a given time,” always infinitely adaptable to the audience’s conditions.”

Taigen Dan Leighton wrote: “Skillful Means, upaya in Sanskrit; fang-pien in Chinese; hoben in Japanese, is an essential concept in Mahayana Buddhism.

Skillful means, sometimes translated as tactfulness, expedients, or ingenuity, is the practice of applying awakening teaching to the diverse variety of students or practitioners.

Discussed in a number of Mahayana Buddhist sutras espousing the bodhisattva ideal of universal liberation, the Buddha’s application of skillful means accounts for the earlier teachings of the arhat ideal of individual self-purification. The Buddha teaches skillfully in a variety of modes recommending different practices and teachings, because suffering beings have various different capacities, and must be led to the path toward awakening through appropriate approaches.

“The idea of skillful means became crucial to the adoption of Buddhist ideas into China, and thereafter in all of East Asia. Skillful means is fully expressed and elaborated in the Lotus Sutra, probably the most influential Buddhist text in East Asia. Several colorful parables depict aspects of skillful means. In the parable of the burning house, a man comes home to find his house in flames and his children playing inside. When he tells them to flee the house they refuse, as they would rather play with their toys. The father finally entices them from the house with descriptions of many colorful carriages waiting outside. They exit to find only one ox cart, symbolizing the One Vehicle of Buddha’s Way that can carry everyone. The One Vehicle includes all the various skillful teachings for saving beings from the flames of worldly suffering. The sutra emphasizes that the father in the parable was not lying, as he lured the children from the burning house to save them.

“Another Lotus Sutra parable tells of a caravan leader encouraging those he guides with the vision of a phantom city in the distance. When they have rested after reaching this city, which represents the early idea of nirvana as escape from sufferings of the world, the caravan leader informs them that the true goal, the universal liberation of all beings, remains ahead, and they must now proceed.

“In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha uses skillful means based on his all-knowing eye that accurately discerns the capacities of different beings and the teachings that would benefit them. But in the Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) Sutra, skillful means is one of ten paramitas or transcendent practices engaged in by all bodhisattvas, not only by fully awakened buddhas. These practices are often in a list of six, ending with prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom or insight. But the Avatamsaka offers four more practices beyond prajna, including upaya as one of the endless modes of liberative activity for use by all Mahayana devotees.

“The idea of many teachings and practices applied skillfully to the single aim of spiritual awakening is an appealing approach for a modern Western understanding of the sometimes confusing abundance of Buddhist schools. Moreover, skillful means might be a way of respecting the pluralism of all religious traditions in our contemporary global interconnectedness. All traditions may be equally respected for the value of their teachings as they apply to different peoples’ particular approaches to ultimate religious truth, and to primary principles such as kindness and compassion.

“Skillful means was historically the approach that allowed Chinese Buddhism to incorporate and make sense of all of the Indian Buddhist teachings. The various synthesizing Chinese Buddhist schools developed systems for classifying the whole range of teachings, called p’an-chiao in Chinese. However, the Chinese schools all used the idea of skillful means hierarchically, with their own favorite sutras at the pinnacle of their sectarian classifications, for example the Lotus Sutra for the T’ien-t’ai school and the Flower Ornament Sutra for the Hua-yen. Thus skillful means could be misused in a patronizing manner toward so-called “lesser” schools.

“Western practitioners sometimes have challenged the idea of skillful means as a slippery slope in which the ends justify the means. But the overriding importance of the bodhisattva practice of vow or commitment to benefit all beings, another of the later paramitas, informs any application of skillful means, and mitigates against any harmful activity except under the most urgent and unusual circumstances.

Manifestations of the Skillful Means

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The doctrine manifests itself in many ways. One key feature is that skillful means assumes the ends justify the means. More specifically in the context of Buddhism, the idea is that most people are such slaves to their desires and so beset by spiritual ignorance that they will never begin walking the Eightfold Path without being bribed, tricked, frightened, or otherwise motivated into doing so. Clever means, therefore, are necessary to persuade or cajole people into living their lives more in accord with Buddhist principles. Skillful Means take on a variety of forms depending on the sophistication and circumstances of those they are meant to help. In whatever form they may take, Skillful Means are intended as provisional stepping stones to be discarded after a person reaches a higher level of comprehension.

“Skillful Means are not only for persons at low levels of spiritual progress. Meditation and other techniques of advanced practitioners also qualify as Skillful Means. Because Buddhist enlightenment cannot really be described in words, even the Eightfold Path is a form of Skillful Means. Recall also that the Buddha’s first sermon was the first act of Skillful Means. Indeed, Buddhism itself is Skillful Means on a large scale. Buddhism, in other words, is a provisional set of teachings and practices to point seekers in the direction of nirvana.

“The doctrine of Skillful Means, for all practical purposes, authorizes telling lies if those lies serve noble ends. It is in this context that Buddhist preachers sometimes lectured to the masses about the realms of starving ghosts and hells. The idea was to frighten people into good (or at least better) behavior. Buddhism also developed heavens as Skillful Means, but there was a serious problem in describing heaven. If the idea is to use the reward of rebirth in paradise to lure people at low spiritual levels into better behavior, what sort of description would be appealing? How about, “If you live a morally upright life, you will be reborn into a place where you can sit on a lotus flower in a peaceful state of spiritual bliss for thousands of years?” Probably not. Or, what about, “If you live a morally upright life, you will be reborn in a paradise where you can be lazy, eat anything you want, get drunk every day, smoke pot to your heart’s content, have sex any time and any way you like, and beat anyone you don’t like to a bloody pulp?” In fact, a few descriptions of Buddhist heavens did take this sort of approach.”

Taigen Dan Leighton wrote: ““The practice of skillful means reminds us to listen to others respectfully, honor their differences, and recognize that others may have different needs and benefit from different teachings and practices. Following the model of the bodhisattva of compassion, we must not self-righteously cling to any particular method. We can learn various useful approaches, and as we learn to trust and respond with whatever is at hand, our skillfulness can develop.”

Wheel of Life and the Six Courses of Mahayana Buddhism

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The Six Courses (rokudo) is a foundational concept in Mahayana Buddhism. Here, we examine the Six Courses from three different but interrelated perspectives: (1) as skillful means, (2) as metaphysics, and (3) as psychological theory. The first perspective introduces a new doctrine; the second revisits the idea of karma as energy that drives the process of reincarnation. The third perspective reveals a distinctive characteristic of Buddhism, namely, its insights into human psychology. Because perspectives two and three are closely interconnected, we examine them both in the same section.

“The classic depiction of the Six Courses is a large wheel, a recurring symbol in Buddhism. The large wheel that describes the Six Courses is sometimes called the “Wheel of the Dharma” the “Wheel of Life,” the “Wheel of Truth,” or the “Wheel of Becoming.” Regardless of its name, the wheel represents the cosmos as a whole, and illustrates the doctrine of dependent origination.

“The wheel’s spokes create spaces for illustrating the Six Courses. The innermost circle features a snake, representing hatred or anger, a bird (usually a cock), representing lusts or desires, and a pig representing ignorance. Collectively known as the “Three Poisons,” the snake, bird, and pig feed on each other, propelling the wheel around and around. In more elaborate depictions, there is a second inner ring, dark on the right side and light on the left. The dark side features a human figure in the process of spiritual deterioration. The light side features people advancing toward nirvana. Simpler depictions usually omit this second inner ring. The “outermost ring” features twelve images representing: (1) ignorance, (2) karmic formations, (3) consciousness, (4) name and form, (5) the bases of consciousness, (6) contact, (7) feeling, (8) yearning or desire, (9) clinging or attachment, (10) becoming, (11) birth, and (12) old-age-and-death. These twelve items are linked with the Five Heaps in Buddhist doctrine and illustrate the doctrine of “dependent origination”. But we shall not be concerned with the outer ring here.

Our main concern is with the Six Courses (six different realms of existence). The top half of the wheel contains three relatively favorable realms: (left) warlike demi-gods; (center) deities and Buddhas; and (right) humans. The bottom three realms are less appealing: (right) beasts; (bottom) hells; and (left) starving ghosts. Arranged as a hierarchy, the realms would be, in descending order: 1) deities and Buddhas; 2) warlike demi-gods; 3) humans; 4) beasts; 5) starving ghosts, and 6) hells. In practice, many Buddhists were especially interested in the last two realms: starving ghosts and hells. We, too, will focus our attention on the bottom two realms. There are variations in the way these realms are depicted in Buddhist art. Some wheels contain only five realms, leaving out the warlike demi-gods. Others leave out the demi-gods and subdivide the realm of beasts into two, thus maintaining a total of six. Some depictions of the Six Courses take a form other than a wheel. This deviation from the wheel format is sometimes found in Chinese depictions, which are apt to show the Six Courses in a hierarchical array, usually next to what looks like a courtroom.

“Returning to the classic wheel depiction, within each realm, even the three on the bottom, there is a Buddha or bodhisattva to symbolize that anyone, even a sufferer in hell, can someday achieve enlightenment. Each realm contains subdivisions. The human realm, for example, usually depicts birth, old age, sickness, and death. That of hells depicts up to eighteen different varieties of hell (and even more sub-hells, or “places”). There are also different kinds of starving ghosts. The large, half-human creature holding the whole wheel is actually turning it. Interpretations of this creature differ, but we should think of it as karma powering the cycle of samsara.”

Skillful Means, the Six Courses and Buddhist Heaven and Hell

According to a selection from a much larger description of a classic Buddhist heaven, the “Heaven of Thirty-Three,” who main intended audience seems to have been males pursuing, or thinking about pursuing, formal religious austerities: There [in the heaven], celestial nymphs with their playfulness captivate the wearied minds of those ascetics who had, in their life on earth, decided to purchase Paradise by first paying the price in austerities. They are always in the prime of their youth, and libidinous enjoyment is their only concern. They can be used by anyone who has done the required meritorious deeds; and for the celestial beings no fault is attached to possessing them. They are in fact the choicest of all rewards of austerities.

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Meditate, fast, and live a life of simple poverty, because the heavenly nymphs are waiting to reward you after you die! This message might well be appealing to many men, but would it not be contrary to the whole spirit of Buddhist teachings and goals? Yes it would be contrary, and the same scripture quoted above goes on to describe a disciple named Nanda, who resumed his meditation after hearing about the heavenly nymphs “in order that he might win them one day.” But Nanda’s teacher warned him that the pleasures of paradise are only temporary, and “the day must come when the deities fall to earth” and wail in distress over the loss of their previous, pleasurable existence.

In conclusion:

“Recognize that Paradise is only temporary, that it gives no real freedom, holds out no security, cannot be trusted, and gives no lasting satisfaction! it is better to strive for final release.” (Buddhist Scriptures, p. 224.) Because attempting to inspire better behavior by holding out a promise of heavenly delights was morally awkward and impractical, the typical emphasis in Skillful Means was on negative incentives, namely, starving ghosts and hells. Ghosts and hells were quite easy to describe–just look around at what goes on in human society.

Death and Judgment in Terms of the Six Courses

“In conceiving of the Six Courses as a form of Skillful Means, what actually happens at the time of death? In a typical description, a fiery cart manned by hideous-looking officials carries the deceased to the court of King Yama. King Yama was an infernal Chief Justice, whose court happens to be located adjacent to the realm of hells. The officials who go to pick up the dead convey her or him across a vast river and then into a waiting room. Why the waiting room? Because the court system has a vast backlog of cases pending, and it will be a while — several years perhaps — before King Yama and his secretaries get around to someone’s file. In the meantime, the deceased sits in the waiting room. There, s/he does not listen to piped in music but to the screams of those suffering in the various hells. Sitting there thinking about the past lifetime of sin and shortcomings, he or she might have no desire to get on with a speedy hearing.

“But all must have “their day in court.” And in all too many cases, after reading the thick file containing notations of every good and bad deed in the person’s lifetime, the infernal king finds little with which to be happy. Of course, should the good deeds outweigh the bad (metaphysically: a reduction in the karmic balance or burden), King Yama smiles and decrees that the person shall be reborn into a higher realm of existence than in the previous lifetime. This rebirth could be as a higher level of human being or even into one of the two realms higher than humans.

“For those, however, whose the bad deeds outweigh the good, rebirth into a lower realm is required. In relatively mild cases, the deceased might be reborn into a lover level of human society. For worse cases, rebirth as some sort of animal may be in order. For the worst sort of offenses, however (like neglecting to make generous donations to Buddhist temples!), hard time as a starving ghost or in one or more of the hells will be necessary to repay the cosmic debt. As the infernal king recites the list of offenses, the deceased might protest his or her innocence. “I didn’t do that! You’ve got the wrong person!” the defendant might plead. Justice will be done, however, thanks to a 100 percent effective video replay system, the “Soul Mirror.” Forced to face this mirror, the deceased sees all past offenses replayed before his or her eyes. There can be no denying one’s karmic debt, and the worst offenders are carted off to the realms of starving ghosts or hells to work off this debt for a few tens, hundreds or thousands of years–whatever is necessary. Once the debt is repaid, the person in question is reborn as a human to try it all over again.

“You should know that there are numerous variations in the ways this process of judgment might be described. The above paragraphs explain it in the simplest terms. In some versions, for example, the deceased endures ten trials by ten different “kings” of hell. Even here, however, the trial before King Yama and his soul mirror is the most important one. Regardless of the details, however, the basic idea of a judgment in an other-worldly courtroom is a consistent feature of the Six Courses as Skillful Means.”

Starving Ghosts

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Starving ghosts have a grotesquely distended belly, but the rest of the body is emaciated. The neck and throat in particular is extremely thin. These creatures are wracked by a constant hunger and thirst that can never be satisfied. They roam the earth (but are normally invisible to ordinary people) constantly seeking things to eat and drink. In their desperation, they will consume nearly anything, even putrid material and excrement. These pathetic creatures are desperate for assistance and succor, but, being invisible, go unnoticed and ignored. The only creatures that notice the starving ghosts are various demons, who enjoy tormenting any ghosts they may encounter.”

“To better serve the purpose of frightening people into good behavior, Buddhists developed a list of specific varieties of starving ghosts. For example, there were Carrion-Eating Starving Ghosts. Those who were monks in a previous life but violated their monastic rules (by eating food intended for the needy, for example) are reborn as this type of ghost. They wander around graveyards, constantly seeking out rotten flesh and bones to eat. “Excrement-Eating Starving Ghosts” consist of those who refused to give donations to Buddhist monks out of greed. They constantly seek out feces and urine for their sustenance. Vomiting Starving Ghosts, in their former lives, were heads of households who denied food and other necessities to their wives and children out of greed, despite living well themselves. They are repaid by becoming ghosts whom demons force constantly to vomit. And there are many other varieties, each tied to a specific moral offense.

“As Skillful Means, a Buddhist might portray” the realms of Starving Ghosts and hells “as places “out there” into which a sinner falls. In fact, however, they are “in here,” that is, in our heads. Consider the grotesque appearance and life of a starving ghost. In terms of the Four Noble Truths, what is a starving ghost? It is the embodiment of desires, in all their ugliness. Through our desires, we make ourselves into starving ghosts, and we put ourselves into numerous hells.”

Hells in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: There were also many varieties of hell, each for a specific type of offense. One guilty of many offenses might have to spend time in several different hells before burning off enough acquired karma to be reborn as a person again. The whole realm of hell is a massive operation and requires a large staff of hell wardens and attendants to keep the place running and to ensure that residents stay on task. There are clients in need of being boiled in cauldrons, beaten and smashed with various types of objects, burned up by various types of flames, and so forth. This is hard work, but the dedicated staff is up to the task. Indeed, they seem to love their work, no doubt because they know they are making the cosmos a better place with each crack of the whip or swing of the iron rod.

“In both China and Japan, artists exhausted their creativity making detailed paintings and drawings of the hells. Buddhist monks would often display them to popular audiences (most members of whom would be illiterate) and describe the horrors of each hell in vivid detail. Did these monks really believe that specific places called hell really existed? Were these hells really part of proper Buddhist doctrine? As Skillful Means, yes; as literally real, external places to which one goes, no. In other words, at higher levels of Mahayana teaching, hells did not exist (nor did starving ghosts) as specific, separate entities. If portraying them as such would help frighten the ignorant masses into better behavior, however, it is the duty of the Buddhist clergy to help the masses by doing so.”

Specific hells exist for mothers who neglected their children, those who were corrupt government officials, anyone who killed a living creature on purpose, and enemies of the Buddhist religion, to name a few. The following is a description of the Hell of Shrieking Sounds, which is for Buddhist monks who tortured animals: “Many monks for such cause arrive at the Western Gate of this hell, where the horse-headed demons with iron rods in their hands bash the heads of the monks, whereupon the monks flee shrieking through the gate and into the hell. There, inside, is a great fire raging fiercely, creating smoke and flames. The bodies of the sinners become raw from burns and their agony is unbearable.”

The following excerpt is a description of several of the many hells from a tenth-century Japanese Buddhist work: “Outside the four gates of hell are sixteen separate places which are associated with this hell. The first is called the place of excrement. Here, it is said, there is intensely hot dung of the bitterest of taste, filled with maggots with snouts of indestructible hardness. The sinner here eats of the dung and all the assembled maggots swarm at once for food. They destroy the sinner’s skin, devour his flesh and suck the marrow from his bones. People who at one time in the past killed birds or deer fall into this hell. Second is the place of the turning sword. It is said that iron walls ten yojanas in height surround it and that a terrible and intense fire constantly burns within. The fire possessed by humans is like snow when compared to this. With the least physical contact, the body is broken into pieces the size of mustard-seeds. Hot iron pours from above like a heavy rainfall, and in addition, there is a forest of swords, with blades of exceptional keenness, and those swords, too, fall like rain. The multitude of agonies is in such variety that it cannot be borne. Into this place fall those who have killed a living being with concupiscence. Third is the place of the burning vat. It is said that the sinner is seized and placed in an iron vat, and boiled as one would cook beans. Those who in the past have taken the life of a living creature, cooked it, and eaten of it, fall into this hell.”

The following excerpt describes some of the activities of the hell wardens: “With a fish-hook the wardens pull [the sinner] out [of the great Caustic River], put him on dry land, and ask him: ‘What then, my friend, do you want now?’ And he answers: ‘I am hungry, Sir!’ On hearing this, they prize open his mouth with a red-hot iron crowbar, and push into his mouth a red-hot ball of copper, all afire, aflame, and ablaze. And that burns his lips, mouth, throat, and chest, and passes out below, taking with it the bowels and intestines.”

Rebirth in Mahayana Metaphysical, Psychological and Sexual Terms

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: It is also possible to interpret the Six Courses as a concrete image or metaphor for the more abstract process of karma-driven reincarnation. This interpretation would have greater appeal to persons at a relatively high level of religious sophistication. In this section, we illustrate the Six Courses as metaphysics by quoting extensively from Buddhist scripture. The following excerpts are all from a section called “Seeking rebirth,” which states that “if you [the recently deceased] still continue to feel a desire to exist as an individual, then you are now doomed to again re-enter the wheel of becoming.”

Along with the metaphysical teaching of karma, we also see another important dimension: the psychological. In this more sophisticated view, King Yama is actually one’s own mind: “You are now before Yama, King of the Dead. In vain will you try to lie, and to deny or conceal the evil deeds you have done. The Judge holds up before you the shining mirror of Karma [the Soul Mirror], wherein all your deeds are reflected. But again you have to deal with dream images, which you yourself have made, and which you project outside, without recognizing them as your own work. The mirror which Yama seems to read your past is your own memory, and also his judgment is your own. It is you yourself who pronounce your own judgment, which in its turn determines your next rebirth. No terrible god pushes you into it; you go there quite on your own. The shapes of the frightening monsters who take hold of you, place a rope round your neck and drag you along, are just an illusion which you create from the forces within you. Know that apart from these karmic forces there is no Judge of the Dead, no gods, and no demons. Knowing that, you will be free!

At first the recently deceased tries to delude himself or herself, denying the many evil deeds of the past life. But karma cannot be denied, and these deeds have set up desires in the person that propel him or her into a new rebirth and another round of misery. And it is all in the mind. There is really no external agent. We seek new births by our own deluded desires. By realizing the nature of this process, we can stop it. Notice that this passage offers a possible way out. In the visual depiction of the Six Courses, the Buddhist divinity within each realm symbolizes this way out. Notice also that in the view described here, we have returned essentially to the Four Noble Truths.

The process of rebirth continues as follows:
“If you have deserved it by your good deeds, a white light will guide you into one of the heavens, and for a while you will have some happiness among the gods. Habits of envy and ambition will attract you to the red light, which leads to rebirth among the warlike [demi-gods], forever agitated by anger and envy. If you feel drawn to a blue light, you will find yourself again a human being, and well you remember how little happiness that brought you! If you had a heavy and dull mind, you will choose the green light, which leads you to the world of animals, unhappy because [they are] insecure and excluded from the knowledge which brings salvation. A ray of dull yellow will lead you to the world of the ghosts, and, finally, a ray of the colour of darkish smoke will lead you into the hells.

As in the passage on the judgment cited above, this passage also ends with a possible way out: “Try to desist, if you can! Think of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas! Recall that all these visions are unreal, control your mind, feel amity towards all that lives! And do not be afraid! You alone are the source of all these different rays. In you alone they exist, and so do the worlds to which they lead. Feel not attracted or repelled, but remain even minded and calm!” [Conze, p. 231] Again, it is karma that causes the rebirth, but since karma is nothing but our desires, we have the power to extinguish it at any time and stop the process. We make our own destiny, and the Six Courses are all in our heads.

“The final passage we examine connects karma, psychology, and rebirth with the biological fact that sexual intercourse causes birth. The first half of the passage describes the powerful urge to be reborn within the newly deceased: “An overpowering craving will come over you for the sense-experiences which you remember having had in the past, and which through your lack of sense-organs you cannot now have. Your desire for rebirth becomes more and more urgent; it becomes a real torment to you. This desire now racks you; . . . whenever you try to take some rest, monstrous forms rise up before you. Some have animal heads on human bodies, others are gigantic birds with huge wings and claws. Their howlings and their whips drive you on, and then a hurricane carries you along, with those demonic howlings in hot pursuit. Greatly anxious, you will look for a safe place of refuge.”

It turns out that this place of refuge is in the sex act: “Everywhere around you, you will see animals and humans in the act of sexual intercourse. You envy them, and the sight attracts you. If your karmic coefficients destine you to become a male, you feel attracted to the females and you hate the males you see. If you are destined to become a female, you will feel love for the males and hatred for the females you see. Do not get near the couples you see, do not try to interpose yourself between them, do not try to take the place of one of them! The feeling which you would then experience would make you faint away, just at the moment when egg and sperm are about to unite. And afterwards you will find that you have been conceived as a human being or as an animal.”

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Some voyeuristic spirit of a recently deceased person sees a couple having sex and the passions build up uncontrollably. He or she then jumps in between the couple and ends up being reborn as their baby. Notice the underlined part. Again, the text reminds us that there is a way out of the process at any time, if only we rectify our minds by casting out the desires within them…Life is, after all, suffering. The Six Realms do indeed exist — inside our heads as psychological states. It is within each person’s power, therefore, to determine his or her own rebirth. The same goes for the attainment of nirvana, which is outside the Six Courses entirely. (Strictly speaking, Mahayana doctrine holds that the Six Courses are nirvana and nirvana is the Six Courses — but we need not concern ourselves with this matter here.)”

Facts and Details


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