CHAPTER 4: PRELUDE TO ASVAGHOSHA'S GREAT WORK

The one and only Supreme Reality is manifested in two ways, the transcendental and the phenomenal.


0.1 Mahayana Buddhism

Original Text in Chinese

        論曰:有法能起摩訶衍信根,是故應說。

Literal Translation
      Sasteras mention teaching to awaken Mahayana. Thus must tell.


Interpretation

It is mentioned in the treatises that there is a teaching to awaken the faith in Mahayana Buddhism. Thus, I must explain it.


Commentary

Buddhist literature is collective known as the Tripitaka, which means the Three Baskets of Sutras, Sasteras and Vinayas. Sutras are scriptures recording the works said by the Buddha himself. Sasteras are treatises on important topics written by Buddhist masters. Vinayas are codes of monastic rules and associated stories.

Asvaghosha makes clear that this book is a sas¬tera. The material of this sastera, however, is taken from many sutras, like the Langkavatara Sutra (Leng Jia Jing), Avatamsaka Sutra (Hua Yen Jing), Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutra (Wei Mo Ji Jing) and Nirvana Sutra (Ni Pan Jing). This means the teaching described in "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" was taught by the Buddha himself.

Some critics say that these Mahayana sutras were not written by the Buddha, and therefore were forgery. In fact the Buddha did not write any sutras at all. At the first Buddhist Council of five hundred disciples at Rajagrha about four months after the Buddha's pari¬nirvana, the Buddha's teaching was reviewed, discussed and composed into sutras. The Buddha's teaching in the form of sutras was transmitted orally and recited by followers in various languages popular in India at that time, but the two most import-ant languages were Sans¬krit in the north and Pali in the south. It was only a few hundred years later that the sutras were first recorded in writing.

In the 4th century BCE, i.e. about a hundred years after the Buddha's parinirvana, Sanskrit became the paramount language in India, whereas Pali almost dis-appeared. In the 1st century BCE the Pali edition of the Tipitaka ("Tripitaka" in Sanskrit) was found in Sri Lanka. Only in the 5th century, i.e. about one thou¬sand years after the Buddha's parinirvana, the Buddhist master, Buddhaghosa, from the Indian kingdom of Mandaha went to Sri Lanka to copy the Pali Tipitaka, which later formed the core of the Theravada teaching.

No Buddhists of any traditions would deny the Agama, the main body of the Pali cannon, and which emphasizes the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path, as the basic teaching of the Buddha. But to say that this is his only important teaching, suggest¬ing that all other profound teaching concerning the cosmos and the metaphysical dimension as later adul-teration, or as incorporated from the Chinese, not only ignores the historical background of Buddhist litera¬ture, but also underestimates the Buddha's and other great Indian minds. We must not forget that Buddhism was the prin¬cipal religion and philosophy in India for about twenty centuries, and the Indians were a highly civilized people with profound knowledge and experience of spiritual and metaphysical achievements. Would they willingly embrace a religion that does not go beyond the physical dimension?

In China, perhaps except in Chan (or Zen) Buddhism which mainly developed in China and later in Japan though the original impetus was still from India, it was the Chinese who generally learned from the Indian teachers. This can be easily verified by the fact that most of the important scriptures in Chinese Buddhism have Indian origins.

Mahayana and Theravada are the two main traditions of Buddhism. The third tradition, Vajrayana Buddhism, is derived from Mahayana. Vajrayana means "Diamond Vehicle".

Mahayana means "Great Vehicle", indicating that its aim is universal salvation, in contrast to Hinayana, meaning "Small Vehicle", which emphasizes personal Enlightenment. Now the term "Theravada" is generally used instead of "Hinayana", because the use of the latter term may be interpreted as being disres¬pectful. Theravada means "Council of Elders". When Buddhism took on two distinctive courses of deve¬lopment after the second Great Buddhist Council at Vaisali in the 4th century B.C., one branch, known as Sthaviras, was led by the Council of Elders, who insisted that this branch was the original Buddhism taught by Guatama Buddha. Theravada was one of the tra-ditional eight Hina¬yana schools that developed from the Sthavira, but as all other Hina¬yana schools (perhaps with the except-ion of Sarvasti¬vada, which was prominent then but now relatively unknown), have become extinct, the term Theravada is now loosely used to include all Hinayana schools.

The other branch was the Mahasanghika, from which the traditional ten Mahayana schools developed, and later spread to China and other places. Mahasanghika means the School of Majority, because theirs was the majority view of that time. There were a number of doctrinal disputes, even among the Hinayana schools, such as whether the past and the future were real, whether space and nirvana were conditioned or uncon¬ditioned, whether dharma was just a conventional reality, and whether the self or soul existed. But the main point of contention that led to a split between the Mahayana and the Hinayana was whether an Arahat was perfectly enlight¬ened. The elders believed that he was, whereas the majority believed he was not.


0.2 Five Parts

Original Text in Chinese

        說有五分,云何爲五?一者因緣分,二者立義分,
        三者解釋分,四者修行信心分,五者勸修利益分。


Literal Translation

      Mention five parts. What five parts? One, Cause and Effect; two, Establishing Meaning; three, Explanation; four, Faith and Practice; five, Encouraging Benefits.


Interpretation

It is mentioned that there are five parts in the awakening of faith in Mahayana Buddhism. What are these five parts? They are as follows:

    1. Explaining the Cause and Effect, i.e the reasons for writing the treatise.
    2. Establishing the Meaning of the basic philosophy to be discussed.
    3. Detailed explanation of the philosophy.
    4. Discussion of the faith and the methods required to practise the teaching.
    5. Enumerating the benefits that can be derived from the teaching so as to serve as encouragement.


Commentary

The prelude, therefore, sets out the structure of the treatise, illustrating that Asvaghosha was both a systematic and thoughtful writer. Commentators sum up Asvaghosha's great work in a poetic expression: "One Reality, two ways of manifestations, three dimensions of universal application, four aspects of faith, and five areas of practice".

This means that the one and only Supreme Reality is manifested in two ways, the transcendental and the phenomenal. Cosmic reality is limitless in form, characteristics and uses, and operates eternally in the past, present and future. To realize cosmic reality we must have faith in the truth, the teacher, the teaching and the discipline. In our spiritual cultivation, we need to practise charity, discipline, tolerance, perseverance and mind training.

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