27 November 2015


It was ten years ago yesterday that I started this blog. This is essay no.447. I was going to write a review and reminiscence of the years, but frankly this turned out to be a boring task that did not interest me. So here instead is another essay exploring Buddhist doctrines. It seems more relevant to celebrate ten years of writing by more writing in the inquisitive and skeptical mode that I hope characterises my project/object. 

We all have "Ah ha" moments. I enjoy it when some new piece of information lights up my mind and makes me reassess what I know. I'm lucky enough to have experienced this many times. There is a process of reorganising that goes on. In some cases, it can go on for years. One of these occurred for me in 2006. I was newly ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order and went to attend some lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich at SOAS, in London. These later became a book, but hearing the professor talk us through the various arguments that he was making and having the opportunity to ask him questions at the end of each lecture was invaluable. I wish every non-fiction book I read came with 10 hours of the author talking about it and available to answer questions.

Now I realise that I was ignorant at the time and it is slightly embarrassing to admit this, but during one of the lectures Professor Gombrich said something about dharmas being the object of the manas or mind sense. As we know the early Buddhists saw cognition (vijñāna) as a function of this mind sense, as just as the eye sense (cakṣu-indriya) has form (rūpa) as its object (alambana), so the manas has dharmas as its object. I must have heard this at some stage, but for some reason it hadn't registered. When I heard Prof. Gombrich say it a light-bulb came on. To repeat: dharmas are the object of the manas. This is perhaps the single most important axiom of Buddhist doctrine that I know. It is vital to keep this in mind. 

Dharmas are the object of the manasIt is dharmas that arise in dependence on conditions. Conditionality, first and foremost, refers to this.
One of the first insights that came to me on the basis of gaining this understanding was that when we say "things arise in dependence on conditions", by "things" we actually mean dharmas. It is dharmas that arise and cease. Later, I realised that dharmas don't arise in the mind because Buddhist texts lack the metaphor: MIND IS A CONTAINER. Dharmas are cognized by the manas, but not in the manas. Dharmas arise in the experiential world, loka. This is a subtle point, but quite important when we are trying to understand the Buddhadharma from the point of view of early Buddhists.

The fact that it is dharmas qua mental objects that arise in dependence on conditions, rather than anything more substantial, is central to making sense of many other Buddhist teachings. For example, the trilakṣana or "three marks" apply to dharmas. In other words, when we say "All conditioned things are impermanent", again by "things" we mean dharmas. And dharmas are conditioned because they only arise when a sense object (alambana) and sense faculty (indriya) meet giving rise to sense cognition (vijñāna). And this brings us to the so-called unconditioned dharmas.

There is an experience one can have, relatively easily I gather, in which all sense experience and all mental experience stops. By cultivating the meditations known as arūpāyatana (sometimes called the higher- or arūpa- dhyānas) one comes to experience emptiness (suññatā) as it is defined in the Pāḷi Canon (see especially MN 121, 122). Compare also the Buddha's experience described in my 2008 essay Communicating the Dharma. As I understand it, if there is no sense or mental experience then technically no dharmas are arising or ceasing in this state. Mental activity (and therefore karma) has ceased while one is in this state. It is also sometimes called a "temporary liberation of the mind" (sāmāyika cetovimutti) to distinguish it from states of liberation that are thought to be permanent (I'll return to the issue of permance shortly). It may also be called nirodha-samāpatti "attainment of cessation", or  saññā-vedayita-nirodha "cessation of sensations and perceptions".

This experience of cessation threw up a major problem with Theravāda solution to the problem of action at a temporal distance. Linking actions to temporally distance consequences required an unbroken stream of mental events. But the most obvious interpretation of the experience of cessation is that dharmas stop arising. This would interrupt the connection and destroy the mechanism of karma. When they thought about it, sleep also posed the same problem. In order to preserve karma the Theravādins had to invent a whole new type of dharma called the bhavaṅgacitta that arose to fill the gap in mental events during cessation or sleep, but remained unconscious so as not to spoil cessation (by arising into awareness). Compare my description of this problem in Action at a Temporal Distance in the Theravāda. Yogācārins, who also accepted the Doctrine of Momentariness as a solution to Action at a Temporal Distance also had to bridge this discontinuity. They did this with an invented entity called ālayavijñāna. Unlike the bhavaṅgcitta this new entity is constantly present in all mental events as a kind of background to awareness, a solution that brings its own problems because the ālayavijñāna starts to look eternal. Both bhavaṅgacitta and ālayavijñāna are ad hoc solutions solely designed to maintain continuity and neither really achieves their aim.

It seems to be this experience of cessation that unlocks the insights sought by Buddhists. Vedantins also cultivate these kinds of states and what seems to distinguish them from Buddhists is that Vedantins take the experience of emptiness to be an absolute. Or, they might say, that in a state of emptiness one is in contact with the absolute, with Brahman. By contrast, Buddhists, on the whole, reject absolutes except in one interesting case: asaṃskṛta-dharma.

Asaṃskṛta Dharma

In an almost hackneyed passage from the Udāna, the Buddha says:
atthi, bhikkhave, ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ. no cetaṃ, bhikkhave, abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, nayidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha.
There is [something that is] unborn, unreal, unmade, unconditioned. If there were not, it would not be possible to understand escape from [something that is] born, real, made, conditioned. 
In Pāḷi the words jāta, bhūta, kata, and saṅkhata (born, real, made, conditioned) are all past participles acting as adjectives of something unspecified. The ambiguous nature of the sentence makes it perfect for Romantic projections, but very difficult to actually understand. Another related adjective is amata 'deathless' which is equivalent to ajāta, only focussing on the other aspect of repeated death and rebirth. Buddhists appear to have decided that the unspecified something being described here was a dharma, and that this dharma was nirvāna. But nirvāna cannot simply arise and pass away like other dharmas. So Buddhists said that nirvāṇa is not conditioned, i.e. asaṃskṛta (Pali asaṅkhata), which means that it does not, it cannot, arise and pass away. Clearly if nirvāna could cease, that would be a major problem for the mythology of Buddhism as it would make nirvāṇa a temporary experience like any other experience. Having attained, or obtained, nirvāṇa, a Buddha must always have it. In fact as my last essay points out this permanence itself became a problem for the Mahāyānist religion. 

But an asaṃskṛta dharma is really very deeply problematic. If there are no conditions for the arising of the dharma and we argue that it has been cognized by the Buddha, then it must always be present which in the Buddhist worldview means that it exists as a permanent entity. So already we have something eternal. However, eternality is forbidden by axiom. It is also logically inconsistent for any dharma to be eternal. That is simply not how our minds work. The importance of the insights into dharmas qua mental events, is that they are constantly arising and passing away. The Kaccānagotta Sutta points out that "real" or "unreal" (astitā or nāstitā) in this context are meaningless terms, precisely because a dharma that arises cannot be permanently non-existent and a dharma that ceases cannot be permanently existent. Neither permanent existence (i.e. realness) nor permanent non-existence can possibly apply to dharmas. And yet, here we are, with a permanently existing dharma at the heart of Buddhist doctrine in a glaring apparent contradiction. Worse, if we do not have a permanently existing dharma then the entire mythology of Buddhism collapses.

Another way of looking at the problem is that dharmas are the objects of the manas. Another axiom of Buddhist psychology is that mental events occur one at a time: one citta follows another citta. So if a dharma is asaṃskṛta it must always be present or always be absent from our experiential world. But if we allow the existence of a mental event which is always present, then it constantly takes up that single slot in the manas. An asaṃskṛta dharma can neither arise nor cease. Thus if it exists, then it must always exist. If it exists we must be aware of it to the exclusion of all else. If it doesn't exist it is irrelevant. If there were an asaṃskṛta dharma only two possibilities exist: we would only ever be aware of that one dharma to the exclusion of everything else; or we would never be aware of it. This same logic pervades the writing of Nāgārjuna with respect to svabhāva.

If we argue that we might not be aware of the existence of an asaṃskṛta dharma, then this is a simple contradiction. To be unaware of a dharma (mental event) is the same as it not being cognized and this is tantamount to saying that it has ceased and been replaced by another mental event arising; or that it has not arisen. A dharma is a dharma because it is cognized. According to the universally accepted model of the mind, without cognition nothing arises. This is also an argument against the possibility of the bhavaṅgacitta - a mental even that is not cognized is a contradiction in terms. 

This means also that any kind of argument along the lines of nirvāṇa being obscured by adventitious defilements is also a logical contradiction. Obscured here, with reference to dharmas means did not arise. And if tathāgatagarbha is not a dharma then what is it? So the ideology of Tathāgatagarbha is caught in a logical inconsistency, which leads to this kind of circular logic: If there is a tathāgatagarbha and we are not aware of it right now and always, then there is not a tathāgatagarbha

We might argue that it can work if the dharma has a permanent existence that is independent of any mind. But this contradicts the very definition of dharmas as the objects of the manas. Additionally an unchanging permanently existing real object independent of the mind would create problems for the universe. How would an unchanging entity interact with a constantly changing world? Interaction is change, so interaction would be impossible. This may be why some modern Vedantins, perhaps under the influence of Sāṃkhyadarśana, deny freewill. If you believe in absolute being in any sense, then the logical conclusion is that all change is mere illusion. Under these conditions there can be no freewill because it would contradict the fundamental assumptions the worldview is based on. we begin to see why the early Buddhists were right to reject any kind of absolute being. It's a philosophical disaster. Absolute being wrecks everything and results in a kind of nonsense world, where everything interesting is just a trick of perception. 

But if an asaṃskṛta dharma is a wrecking ball in Buddhist metaphysics, why on earth would they have adopted one (or three in the Vaibhāṣikavāda)? I'm not sure I understand this, but I have some preliminary thoughts. Firstly, of course, they were trying to use their simple philosophy to explain the experience of cessation. But as well as temporary cessation some early Buddhists experienced a seemingly permanent transformation of their minds. In mythic terms they wanted to see the Buddha , the anthropomorphic face of this transformation, as having crossed a threshold from which there was no coming back. And since their goal, in common with most, if not all, North Indians at the time was to end rebirth. If the Buddha had succeeded in his goal that would involve, at the very least, the end of rebirth. This quality the Buddha attained was at first hailed as his greatest success, though for Mahāyānists it was his greatest failure, because it left them without a saviour. 

In an experiential world in which everything changes, there is no possibility of a irreversible change. If everything changes, then reversibility is always a possibility. Thus if nirvāṇa were to involve an irreversible change, then necessarily something non-changing had to be introduced into the mix. That doing so broke Buddhist metaphysics was probably a consideration, but I imagine it seemed like the lesser of two weevils. By introducing an asaṃkṛta dharma, the early Buddhists opened up the possibility of a permanent change. This enabled them to have an afterlife which mimicked some features of the Brahmanical afterlife, i.e. ending rebirth, without explicitly committing them to absolute being. 

To get around absolute being, the early Buddhists argued that questions about the afterlife of someone who had experienced nirvāṇa, i.e. "someone in that state" (tathā-gata), had to remain unanswered or undifferentiated (avyākṛta). The early Buddhist position was that there was no way to know something that was absolute - for the reasons outlined above. Later Buddhists also rejected this axiom. When Kūkai returned from China with Tantric teachings one of the roadblocks he struck was his claim that the teachings came from the dharmakāya, personified as Mahāvairocana. At that time, in line with Mahāyāna orthodoxy, the Japanese mainstream considered the dharmakāya to be "formless, imageless, voiceless, and totally beyond conceptualisation" (Hakeda 1972: 82). They saw the dharmakāya as an absolutely transcendent state of being (rather like the Brahmanical brahman in fact). Because of this, they understood that no direct communication was possible. Kūkai set about undermining this by pointing to existing scriptural passages in which the dharmakāya Buddha does communicate and eventually won over the majority and went on to hold the highest post in the imperial government's ecclesiastical hierarchy. Absolutes are poison to Buddhist philosophy and practice.


So this idea of asaṃskṛta dharmas, although in some ways essential to Buddhism, is actually illogical and unworkable. It creates more problems than it solves. In our times the idea of unconditioned dharmas almost inevitably comes to be treated as an absolute: The Unconditioned (with definite article and capital letters). We have the same problem in the Triratna Community now with Sangharakshita's new take on dhammaniyāma, it has quickly replaced The Unconditioned to become The Dhammaniyāma. Lord, help us. 

As convert Buddhists we are expected to take up certain articles of faith. We have to accept, first and foremost, that  Buddhism does not require us to take up articles of faith (!); that karma creates a just world; that the afterlife in which this justice is enacted involves rebirth; that the sequence of lives is supposedly like one thought arising after another (or at least that the same model applies in both domains); that the Buddha achieved a kind of permanent transformation not reproduced by anyone we'll ever meet; and that certain nonsense propositions such as asaṃskṛta-dharmas are in fact sense. The first article makes it almost impossible to talk about the others because they are not really acknowledged for what they are. To give up or reject these articles of faith is to risk being expelled from the friendly and compassionate embrace of the religious community. Many converts are assiduous in learning the rhetoric with which these articles of faith are defended (I know I was). Some quite sophisticated arguments have been developed over the years and these can be deftly wielded by adepts to win arguments. But winning arguments about Buddhist doctrine is a pyrrhic victory.

It's a bit like the emperors new clothes. No one wants to be thought an idiot, so they go along with saying that they can see the fine new garments the emperor is wearing. To even admit that we don't understand something like asaṃskṛta-dharmas is to risk being looked down on by those who pretend to understand. To actively say that a central doctrine of Buddhism does not make sense sets off a whole new layer of defences in those who believe Buddhism makes sense of everything. Sceptics learn the meaning of peer-pressure. It has taken me many years of research and writing to get to a position where I feel confident about expressing my doubts and the consequences of doing so. I'm fortunate to have a small group of like-minded friends I can talk openly with about these issues.

I would like to say that I believe these articles of faith are being unravelled, but I don't think this is the case yet. Those who are questioning the traditional articles of faith are often merely replacing them with more acceptable articles of faith. Most are silenced by direct or indirect peer pressure. Apologists for traditional Buddhism are stepping up their efforts to preserve the faith and these śraddhāpālas are often able to exploit positions of power and influence within organisations to ensure that their followers fall into line. And underneath it all we want Buddhism to be right. Just like religieux everywhere, like human beings everywhere, we want certainty, absolute certainty.

What I'm saying is that we won't find it in the doctrines of Buddhism, which were broken from the start. I'm truly sorry about this, it was a wonderful dream while it lasted. And it's clear that the Buddhists of ca 200 BCE - 400 CE knew this and were scrambling to salvage Buddhism from its own incoherence. They patched something together, but it's not the raft that will take across the ocean.



Hakeda, Y.S. (1972) Kūkai, Major works: Translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. New York: Columbia University Press.

20 November 2015

The Ambivalent Religion: An Alternate History of Mahāyānism.

Some weeks ago I summarised a bunch of recent research on the origins of the Mahāyāna. It turns out to have been an amorphous movement made up from a number of distinct cults, to have emerged from within Mainstream Buddhism, from within Mainstream Buddhist monasteries, and to have taken many centuries to coalesce as "the Mahāyāna" (with a possible name change due to a misunderstanding as Sanskrit took over from Prakrit). Eventually, some forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism became the mainstream in North India, others probably remained as outliers.

A lot of my recent work has involved identifying internal contradictions in early Buddhist doctrines. At first I didn't go looking for these, it was just that when I started paying close attention they stood out. And at first I had no intellectual context for them because all the historical narratives are of unity and coherence increasing as we go back in time. In trying to get some background I realised that the problems I was seeing were once live issues for Buddhists. They recorded some of their arguments about these matters in texts. While each sect was developing it own attempts to reconcile the contradictions, they were also trying to discredit their Buddhist opposition. Generally speaking, if you take any given formulation of Buddhist doctrine there is a record of a concerted effort by other Buddhists to discredit it. 

In previous essays and a published article (Attwood 2014), I explored how some Mahāyānists tinkered with the theory of karma, doing away with the inevitability of consequences and introducing some mythology about how meeting the Buddha could eliminate evil karma, as well as a number of religious exercises which could do the same. In this essay, I want to explore another aspect of the way Mahāyānists reacted to the doctrine of karma. 

I've seen some secularists argue that karma and rebirth are not essential to Buddhism. But my view is that karma and rebirth are central to classical and traditionalist accounts of Buddhism. Indeed, I've shown that as problems with the metaphysics of Buddhism became apparent, in the form of a conflict between karma and pratītyasamutpāda, that Buddhists refined their accounts of pratītyasamutpāda to ensure the continued working of karma and rebirth. They were not beyond tinkering with karma as well, but I will endeavour to show in this essay, that what they have in mind in doing so, was concerns about rebirth and the ending of rebirth. 

In their most basic forms karma and rebirth enact a twofold myth common to many religions: the myth of a just world, and the myth of an afterlife (in which justice is enacted). In previous essays, I've showed that the two almost inevitably go together because as the world of everyday experience is clearly unjust, so the other world is naturally conceived of as just. To some extent, this emerges from the basic concepts and metaphors associated with ontological dualism (see Metaphors and Materialism). For Buddhists, karma is the supernatural monitor that "sees" all actions and ensures that we get the fate we earn. In India that fate is experienced primarily as repeated death and life; or in escape from repeated death and life. 

However, in trying to ensure that no permanent entity persisted in the process, Buddhists created an internal contradiction, first explicitly noted by Nāgārjuna: karma requires personal continuity to be the basis of an effective morality (we have to feel a connection to the consequences of our actions or we don't restrain our unwholesome urges); but pratītyasamutpāda, as conceived by early Buddhists, denies personal continuity, thus cutting a person off from the results of their actions. This basic self-contradiction led to a number of innovations prominent amongst which is the doctrine of momentariness adopted by the Theravādin Abhidhammikas and the Yogācārins. 

Early Mahāyāna theorists created a whole other problem for themselves. The Buddhist afterlife (seen from the moral point of view) is a hybrid of the two principle types of afterlife that I identified in my taxonomy. Without an effort, one cycles around dying and being reborn according to one's actions. However, with effort one can be liberated from this cycle and escape from being reborn. Buddhists were extremely reluctant to say much more about nirvāṇa other than that it meant not being reborn. They produced a few metaphors, largely drawing on standard North Indian imagery (cool caves, dried up streams, lotus flowers, etc) of the kind that crops up across the board in Indian literature. The frequent refrain of those who achieve the goal of Buddhism in early Buddhist texts is that they will not be reborn. But the specific question of what happens to a tathāgata (one who is "in that state") after death is inexplicable (avyākṛta).

As an aside in one of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad creation stories, just after Brahman has created the world and the gods we find:
tad dhedaṃ tarhy avyākṛtam āsīt | tan nāmarūpābhyām eva vyākriyatāsau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa iti | BU 1.4.7
At that time this world was undifferentiated (avyākṛta); it was distinguished only in terms of name and form (nāmarūpa): [the one with] this name [has] this form.
So it's possible that the choice of words used when refusing to discuss the post-mortem state of the tathāgata was borrowed from this Vedic myth.

In the generations after the Buddha, the stories about him became inflated: he became more magical, more knowledgeable, more powerful. All the worldliness of the Buddha was gradually eliminated from the stories about him. The Buddha became superhuman and took on more and more godlike powers - he walks and talks at birth for example. We can to some extent see this process at work and it's also common in other hagiographies. In this inflationary process was the roots of a tectonic dilemma. If the Buddha was godlike and had infinite compassion for people (and indeed all living beings) then why did he have to die? Even more crucially, why did he have to stop being reborn?

Once in India, being reborn was just an ordinary part of life. By the time the early Upaniṣads were composed rebirth was seen as a burden. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad quietly slipped in the idea of ending rebirth and joining with brahman as a superior goal to a good rebirth within saṃsāra. Brahman is a kind of universal consciousness, a world-spirit that parallels, or perhaps originates, the element of spirit in us. A common image for the relation between absolute and relative being (sometimes erroneously used by Buddhists) is that people are like waves: brahman is water and it can take the shape of an individual wave (ātman) that appears to be independent, but ultimately the waves are water and returns to the ocean. And the Upaniṣads conceived of the end of rebirth as going to brahman. Sometimes brahman is personified as a god, Brahmā, and a theistic variety of Brahmanism is attested in the early Buddhist texts. But Buddhists rejected this kind of cosmology or theology and simply refused to speculate on the Buddha after his death, except to say he was not reborn and that he had "opened the doors to the deathless" i.e. made this escape available to everyone. In this Gautama to some extent resembles the culture hero Yama who opened the way to the ancestors for Brahmins.

The disappearance of this increasingly superhuman Buddha from the scene was a problem for Buddhists. He became an "otiose god", to use a phrase from Witzel (2012), who could play no further role in our lives. The fact that he simply died like an ordinary human being was difficult enough, but his disappearance forever seems have been deeply troubling, particularly for Mahāyānists. One of the places in which this dilemma is openly discussed is the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra, where a bodhisatva called Ruchiraketu does a bit of logic.
  • Puṇya leads to long life.
  • The Buddha practised the perfections over an incalculable number of lifetimes.
  • Therefore, the Buddha has an incalculable store of puṇya.
  • Therefore, the Buddha should have an infinitely long life. 
  • However, the Buddha died after only 80 years. 
In other words, the received facts about the Buddha's life were at odds with the beliefs about the Buddha that had developed in the meantime. Ruchiraketu then has an expansive visionary experience (not unlike some of the visions described by the well known lunatic and darling of the Romantics, William Blake) in which supernatural Buddhas explain that the Buddha's lifespan is, in fact, infinite. The world of appearances seems unrelated to the true nature of tathāgatas, though we are not told why or how in this text.

In the early model of Buddhism, the Buddha instructed many disciples who went on to recreate his experience for themselves and become liberated from rebirth. People who did this are arhat (worthy). The arhat instructed many disciples of their own and so the community of arhats grew. But within a few generations this scheme seems to have been failing. We don't know the details, but we do know that Mahāyānists began to criticise arhats in their literature. They seem to have seen this scheme of passing on teachings as a failure and the arhats as unworthy. They seem to have have two main responses.

The first response was to invent new Buddhas in other universes who were not dead and therefore still able to intervene in human affairs. This gave rise to texts such as the Suvarṇabhāsottama, Akṣobhyavūyha and Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras; and eventually to what we know as "Pure Land Buddhism". Despite the fact that our Buddha died and disappeared beyond comprehension, in a next door universe, usually Abhirati or Sukhāvatī, there was another Buddha who was very much alive, omniscient, and omnipotent. This powerful figure would intervene at death and allow the worshipper to be reborn in a land where liberation was easy. No nasty sex or other forms of ritual pollution (that Buddhists seem to have assimilated from Brahmanism) just bliss and flowers and ambrosia and nirvāṇa. Paradise, in other words, as envisaged by celibate men living in the Central Ganges Valley in the early first millennium CE. This form of theistic Buddhism went on to be one of the most popular, if least demanding, forms of Buddhism and remains very popular. It is easily compatible with WEIRD sensibilities because it is so very close to familiar forms of messianic theism.

A sub-thread of the development of theistic Buddhism was the cult of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya is sometimes portrayed as a kind of immanent Buddha, who is taking a keen interest in human affairs and can't wait to get into the fray, he's just waiting for the previous dispensation to completely die out. This ought to have taken about 1500 years by some accounts, and to have been considerably accelerated by the ordination of women. However, as time went on Maitreya's birthday became further and further off, until it was infinitely far off. I think this is partly because he got tangled up in the deification of the Buddha, whose dispensation could not be seen to die out. Someone as fantastic as the Buddha would not teach a Dharma that only lasted a few hundred years. It would have to last forever. That this conflicts with other aspects of the developing culture of Buddhism is awkward, but not surprising. 

The second response was a lot more complicated. The reasoning seems to have been that the Buddha was a lost cause. He was gone and not coming back (and his replacement wasn't due for an infinitely long period of time). However, there were really hardcore practitioners who attempted to emulate the Buddha (or at least the stories about him). They already referred to themselves as bodhisatta, which we have reason to believe originally meant "committed (sakta) to awakening bodhi". These bodhisaktas conceived of a way that they could be better than the Buddha, or at least better than the arhats, by not disappearing from the world. They retained a commitment to the fundamental worldview in which karma gave rise to rebirth unless one was liberated. And they also inherited a tradition which said that the most helpful thing one could do is become liberated and teach others to liberate themselves. So they reasoned that if they got to the brink of liberation, a point where they have all the advantages of intense meditation practice, they could hold back from being liberated from rebirth. Being unliberated they would be bound to be reborn (they overlook the traditional view that breaking the fetters ensures the end of rebirth within a fixed number of lifetimes and the metaphysical problems that implies), but being so highly attained they could take control over the process, retain all their knowledge, and being eternal good guys in the fight against duḥkha. In other words, by a few twists of metaphysics they made themselves into immortal superheroes.

The superhero myth continued to play out. Fictional characters who embodied this new ideal began to appear in literature and then in art (quite some time later). Ironically, given that Buddhist karma and rebirth was originally a rejection of the general idea of beings reincarnating, the superheroes found a kind of apotheosis in Tibetan men who were proclaimed to be the (re)incarnation of imaginary superhero figures (tulku). Lineages of reincarnated superheroes were established along with procedures for recognising new avatars. Though curiously the young children had to be educated from scratch to be bodhisatvas, rather than being born with all their knowledge intact. Coincidentally, this turned out to be an excellent political strategy for preventing the dissipation of monastic power and wealth under the control of a celibate clergy.

It wasn't enough simply to proclaim themselves superheroes. Their own superiority had to be combined with a negative campaign against the existing mainstream, which may explain the negative attitude towards Arhats in some texts. Those who merely repeated the human Buddha's example and liberated themselves from rebirth had to be portrayed as men of lesser talents and ability, whose selfishness resulted in a lesser attainment. By this time the Buddha had achieved apotheosis and become an eternal god who manifested in human form, but was, in fact, eternal. This enabled Mahāyānists to establish a mental split between the human Buddha and a cosmic Buddha, as evidenced by the Suvarṇabhāsottama. The Buddha, that is the selfish figure of Gautama who died and won't come back, became increasingly irrelevant to Buddhism. Why emulate the mere human being (who isn't coming back) when there was a god-like, omnipresent dharmakāya who would save all beings from suffering, however long it took? Why this cosmic Buddha did not continue to manifest in human form, repeatedly and in parallel, is a question that ought to plague Buddhism the way that the absence of the second coming of Jesus plagues Christianity. Omnipotent beings are not limited to one body at one time. If I was omnipotent, I would simply manifest sufficient avatars to accomplish the goal. Apparently this never occurred to Buddhists or it was a step too far even for the most credulous. 

The negative spin campaign against arhats had three main focusses: the hero of the early Buddhist saṅgha, Śāriputra, the arhats themselves, and the distinction between the mainstream and this new cult of immortal superheroes. New texts were composed on the model of early "sutras" which expounded these new ideas. Śāriputra becomes a figure of mockery (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa), the arhats are dismissed as irrelevant and selfish (Saddharmapuṇḍarikā), and a new pejorative (probably caste based) term for the Mainstream is coined: hīnayāna meaning "defective vehicle", to contrast with mahāyāna (Cf Hīnayāna Reprise). It is in creating this false view of mainstream Buddhism that "the Mahāyāna" really crystallizes as a distinct approach. The common enemy of early Buddhists is usually Brahmins, whereas, in the post-Abhidharma period, it is conservative Buddhists. For a movement which proclaims itself as the most sublime human aspiration, this is pretty dirty politics. It's fairly obvious that this dark side of the Mahāyāna is not motivated by love, compassion, or wisdom. And yet apologies for this misanthropic behaviour are still being made. Where is the critique of any of this in the modern literature of Buddhism or Buddhist studies? It may well exist, but I've never seen it. 

The new cults seemed to have some positive elements as well. They produced intellectuals who grappled with the self-contradictions they found in early Buddhism and who tried to improve upon early attempts at reconciliation. Up to a point, such people were able to look back and see the best of early Buddhism. Nāgārjuna in the 2nd Century CE is at the threshold for this. Two centuries later, Vasubandhu is almost wholly forward-looking. From this point on no school of Buddhism looked to the early Buddhist texts for new ideas. They just made them up or borrowed them from other religions. Not until the Protestant reformation of Sri Lanka and Modernist Buddhism did we rediscover the early Buddhists. Ironically we mistake them for authorities and fail to see the mistakes they made, privileging them on the basis that they are older. We erroneously associate age with authority, but in the history of Buddhist ideas the peak of coherence is not reached until the mid-First Millennium CE.

The new cults also engaged in comparative studies of Buddhist doctrine, though usually with a strong sectarian bias. The Prajñāpāramitā movement seemed to carry on an intellectual current of early Buddhism which emphasise experience and meditation. It offered a useful if somewhat cryptic critique of the incipient realism of the Abhidharma. On the other hand, some of the enduring appeal of Mahāyānist thinkers is in arguing over what they said and what they meant. Nāgārjuna is the prime example of this. There are many ways to interpret his words, but after some 1800 years there is no consensus on what the author intended. His commentators could not agree and modern day Mādhyamikas either regress into a false certainty of one interpretation or incessantly rehearse the commentarial arguments. WEIRD scholars still build careers on reinterpreting his oeuvre. Medieval Buddhists also engaged in philosophical debates with thinkers from other Indian traditions, though by this time what was meant by Buddhist philosophy is almost unrecognisable from early Buddhism. 

Rather than being a single cult, Mahāyāna developed as a number of competing cults, often with very little in common beyond their Vinaya ordination. The advent of the Gupta Empire (3rd-6th Century CE) must have helped this as they opened up trade routes that spanned the sub-continent and allowed disparate elements of the movement to communicate and move around more freely. The resulting collection of cults gradually took over as the mainstream. As they became the mainstream there was an imperative to integrate the disparate aspects of the movement into a more coherent whole. Indian Buddhist intellectuals began to pull the disparate threads together and weave them into something more coherent. 

As with the same impetuous in early Buddhism in response to the Mauryan Empire, the formation and powerful influence of the Gupta Empire in North India likely had a huge effect on Buddhism. During the Gupta period, Sanskrit became the main language of the literati and scripts evolved to handle the more complex task of encoding Sanskrit (with its extra vowels and conjunct consonants). Mahāyānist texts, composed in Prakrit began to be translated into Classical (i.e. Pāṇinian) Sanskrit. By this point, the Theravādins were relatively isolated in Sri Lanka and committed to using the less prestigious Prakrit (or vernacular) that came to be called Pāḷi (the word means 'line'). The willingness to embrace Pāṇinian Sanskrit became another distinguishing feature of Mahāyānist literature.


From its own propaganda, Mahāyāna is a superior form of Buddhism that was the natural successor to the inferior form that initially took centre stage. It's difficult to generalise about such a broadly based movement since many of the separate cults that contributed to the movement had very different ideas and ideals, and superiority is a rather subjective judgement. What we now think of as "the Mahāyāna" is a synthesis of a variety of cults, largely filtered through centuries of adaptation to Chinese, Japanese and to some extent Tibetan culture (depending on who one is talking to). 

Not only did Mahāyānist not solve the doctrinal problems of early Buddhism, they introduced a whole raft of new problems through their failures. If early Buddhists could be described as metaphysically reticent, then Mahāyānists are metaphysically exuberant. They invent whole universes as required. In their literature and art, the Buddha undergoes apotheosis. This partly to explain away his rather disappointingly un-godlike human incarnation and all too final death. And yes, there is a contradiction here: Gautama is simultaneously elevated to virtual godhood and reduced to a bit player. New superhero figures emerge and multiply. Emphasis shifts away from dead Gautama, and towards these new buddhas who are still active in their own worlds, and to superheroes who are not so selfish and graceless as to stop being reborn. These imaginary characters continued to become more and more magically potent and godlike. They approached omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence. In some strains of Buddhist thought, the dharmakāya Buddha is the universe. 

My point is that although we call it Buddhism, the religion of the Mahāyānists is a wholly different religion from what came before. It certainly has some roots in Buddhism, but it repudiates much of what made Buddhism identifiably Buddhist while retaining some pan-Indian features such as karma and rebirth. 

The new religion of Mahāyānists employed a number of dirty tricks to establish itself, but having taken over, acted as though this was simply the natural order of things. They could not quite make Buddhism disappear, but they managed to discredit most of it by the time they were driven out of India. The religion of Mahāyānists these days markets itself as the religion of compassion and (unless pulled up on it) claim that compassion was their innovation. It wasn't. By compassion ancient Buddhists generally meant "teaching the Dharma". Mahāyānists did not invent it or introduce it.

Despite many openings for criticism, most scholars of Buddhism join with Buddhists in taking Mahāyāna on its own terms, or limit themselves to describing Mahāyāna as they find it, careful not to disturb anything. No one ever asks the Dawkins questions, "Why would you believe something that is obviously false?" And yet, because of the proliferation of metaphysical speculation, imaginary beings, and imaginary worlds, the Mahāyāna religion is far more open to such criticism than it's more conservative cousins. My conclusion is that scholars are in love with their subject and don't want to say anything bad about it. We're afraid of being asked to leave the temple, or being thrown out.

On the other hand part of the reason that Mahāyānism receives so little critical attention is that it dovetails into a Romantic worldview so well. It is full of hyperboles, epitomes, acmes, essences, embodiments, and archetypes that appeal to the Romantic imagination. It does not simply allow for magical thinking, it positively encourages it. So for the Romantic escapist, Mahāyānism is fertile ground. One can easily become caught up in the hyperbole, the colour, the excitement, and let us not forget the interminable arguments, and forget for a while that one is a limited, short-lived being whose life is probably quite dull, boring, and pointless. Mahāyānism is a high-quality drama that distracts us from reality while preaching that the very distraction is reality. Which is quite brilliant from a marketing point of view. And if the cracks start appearing one can confidently fall back on some perplexing pseudo-wisdom culled out of context from the Diamond Sutra or that old fraud Nāgārjuna. It's all just śūnyatā. Isn't it? 


Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012). Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. 
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