1.8  The Development of Buddhism in India

1.8.1  Four Councils and 18 Schools

Indian Buddhism was dealt the coup de gr‚ce by the armies of the Prophet Muhammad between the 10th and the 13th centuries AD, and had indeed been in decline for a long time before that. However, for more than a millenium after the Buddha's Parinirv‚na it was very active in India.

The major features of Indian Buddhism can be broken down as follows:

  1. The establishment of the Word of Buddha (Buddhavacana) as an oral tradition: its much later commitment to writing.
  2. The holding of various councils or assemblies of the Sangha, some of which may be apocryphal.

These were:

bulletThe First Council, held at R‚j‚gaha immediately after the Parinirv‚na: 500 senior monks (Arahats) met under the presidency of Mah‚k‚shyapa to recollect the word of Buddha:The monastic conduct "Vinaya" (Upali) and the teachings themselves "SŻtra" (Ananda): The language was probably M‚gadhÓ and Buddha's Vinaya and SŻtra were translated into many local languages: The scattered communities of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis kept a healthy latitude to grow organically and creatively, untramelled by any authoritarian constraints and pressures with various versions of Buddha's teachings;
bulletThe Second Council, held at VesalÓ about 100 years after Parinirv‚na: There developed a schism between the traditionalist line of the orthodox line of the Elders (Sthaviras) which led later to the Sthavirav‚da (the Way of the Elders) and the more lax group of Mah‚sangha which put Arahats on a much lower level: They also played down the human aspect of the Buddha and promoted the concept of a magical manifestation of a transcendral principle which paved the way for the foundation of the Mah‚y‚na: A second group parted from the Sthaviravada which became known as Pudgalavadins (Pudgala: Personalists: a person posseses ultimate reality): another group which parted from the Sthaviravada were the Sarv‚stiv‚dins which promote some form of marterialism: "All- Things-Exist-School";
bulletThe Third Council, held at P‚taliputra (modern Patna) under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka Maurya (Ashoka was influenced by the Bikkhu NigrŰdha), grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, about 200 years after Parinirv‚na (under the presidency of Tissa Moggaliputta): Ashoka erected over his empire the Rock Edicts: "Do not perform sacrifices ... be generous to your friends ... do not be involved into quarrels ... try to be pure of heart, humble and faithful ... do not think only of your good points, remember also your faults and try to put them right ... ": He sent his missionaries as far as northern Africa and Greece, with limited success, only the mission to Sri Lanka was a lasting success: Ashoka regarded himself a Chakravartin, a great enlightened world ruler: as an aid to promoting Buddhism on a popular level, the J‚taka Tales were evolved: After the death of Ashoka, Buddhism became adopted by the Greeks in northern India, and one of their kings, Menandros (Pali: Milinda reigned: c 155-130 BC) was a champion of the Dharma: His debate with Bikkhu N‚gasena resulted in the post-canonical dialogue: The Questions of King Milinda (Milinda-P‚nha);
bulletThe Fourth Council, held under the patronage of the Scythian King Kanishka at Jalandhar or in Kashmir around 100 AD in order to resolve differences within the Sangha. This council is not recognised by the Therav‚dins: A monastery for 500 monks was built, and they wrote commentaries on the basic scriptures: A legend survives that the entire canon was engraved on copper sheets and deposited in a StŻpa, but these have never been traced.

The division of the Sangha into numerous schools, traditional numbered at 18 (within the traditional Buddhist school of HÓnay‚na and excluding the Mah‚y‚na and tantric schools): From these only Therav‚da has survived: According to Therav‚da there was a fourth council at Aloka Cave in Sri Lanka where the entire scriptual canon was rehearsed, revised and committed to writing on palm leaves, in the Pali language. The canon is also called Tripitaka (three baskets):

3.1 Vinaya Pitaka: which consists of:

bulletSuttavibhanga: 227 rules listed in the P‚timokkha which are applicable to bikkhus and bikkhunis;
bulletKhandaka (Chapters): which details the rules and which is subdivided into:
  1. Mah‚vagga: The Greater Section;
  2. Culavagga: The Lesser Section;
  3. Pariv‚ra: An Appendix.

3.2 SŻtra Pitaka: which consists of five main sections of collected discourses:

bulletDigha Nik‚ya: 34 longer SŻtras;
bulletMajjhima Nik‚ya: 152 medium length SŻtras;
bulletSamyutta Nik‚ya: 2857 connected SŻtras, arranged in 52 groups;
bulletAnguttara Nik‚ya: 2198 SŻtras, arranged in an 11-fold numerical categorisation;
bulletKhudadaka Nik‚ya: 15 separate works: including the Dharmapada.

3.3 Abhiddharma Pitaka: is a later addition which consists of seven texts:

bulletDharmasanganÓ: Enumeration of dharmas;
bulletVibhanga: Further analysis of Dharmas;
bulletDh‚tukath‚: Discussion of elements;
bulletPuggalapannatti: Description of individuals;
bulletKath‚vatthu: Discussion of the points of controversy between the HÓnay‚na sects: defence of the Therav‚da view;
bulletYamaka: Book of Pairs;
bulletPsatth‚na: Book of Relations.

The emergence of the highly developed Abhiddharma, or commentarial tradition which resulted into rigorous analysis of Buddha's teaching, which was more practical orientated, and the development of coherent and integrated philosophical systems.

3.4 The popularisation of Buddhism, especiallly under Emperor Ashoka.

3.5 The emergence of the Mah‚y‚na, and the consequent major division into Mah‚y‚na and HÓnay‚na. The development of the M‚dhyamika and Yog‚c‚ra schools of Buddhist philosophy.

3.6 The Emergence of Tantra.

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The Buddha of the Future, Maitreya, 7. Century A.D., late Gupta Period, Mulbekh, Ladakh 
Photo: Copyright: Klaus Dierks

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Buddhist Monk in the Mulbekh Gompa, Ladakh 
Photo: Copyright: Klaus Dierks


1.8.2 The Mah‚y‚na School

Around AD, a highly significant new wave of development began to assert itself within the liberal spiritual tradition of Buddhism: Mah‚y‚na (Great Vehicle) in contrast to the older school of HÓnay‚na (Lesser Vehicle). The Mah‚y‚na represented a great creative flowering of various potentials that had hitherto lain latent in the Buddha's basic teachings. Various influences from southern India, the North-West and even Iran and the Mediterranean world formed Mah‚y‚na. The main trends are the following: The Bodhisatva Idea

A new type of spiritual hero emerges who not seeks release from the painful rebirth cycle by himself like Arhats and the Pratyeka Buddha but would rather assist others (Bodhicitta: Wisdom-heart). The aspiring Bodhisattva practices "Six Perfections" (p‚ramit‚): giving, morality, patience, vigour, meditation and wisdom. He also passes through ten stages (bhŻmi) on his way to Buddhahood. The first six stages correspond to p‚ramit‚. The higher four stages bring him to the level of celestial Bodhisattvas of the class like Avalokiteshvara or Manjushri. At the same time compassion (karun‚) was elevated together with wisdom (prajn‚) to be the ultimate virtues. Buddhist compassion has connotations of being able to feel the suffering of others as if they were one's own. Skill in means (up‚ya) is also emphasised.

As heirs to the Mah‚sanhikas the Mah‚y‚nas play down the role of the historical Buddha to be replaced by a transcendental principle which has manifested over untold aeons in innumerable forms and in innumerable places. Various mythical Buddhas emerged like Amit‚bha, the Buddha of Infinite Light who resides in the western paridise (Sukh‚vatÓ) where followers of the "Pure Land Sect" hope to merit rebirth.

As a development of pre-existing notions, the Mah‚y‚na accorded the Buddha three bodies (Trik‚ya Doctrine):

  1. Nirm‚nak‚ya: his body of "transformation" in which he appears to the world to salvage the suffering;
  2. Dharmak‚ya: wherein he is one with the eternal Dharma that lies beyond all dualities and conceptions;
  3. Sambhogak‚ya: his "Bliss" body that appears to Bodhisatvas in the celestial realm where they commune with the Truth of Mah‚yŚna.

It becomes now possible to direct prayers (pŻj‚: similar to bhakti cults in Hinduism) to Bodhisattvas instead of intensive personal effort to achieve spiritual progress. The laity becomes more important and plays an additional role to the traditional monastic order which still plays the central role in Buddhism. A new Mah‚y‚na-SŻtra, the VimalakÓrtinirdťsa centres around an enlightened householder.

At the core of Mah‚y‚na philosophy lies the notion of Emptiness: ShŻnyat‚, the absence of any kind of enduring or self-sustaining existence. This is very much in line with Buddha's original an‚tman. Another term is tathat‚: "thusness" or "suchness" which signifies Emptiness in its immanent aspect. Buddha is sometimes called Tath‚gata (He who is thus gone). The Tath‚gata-garbha (garbha=germ) doctrine, on the other hand, proposes the doctrine of an immanent Absolute: the manifestation in form of a transcendental principle.

The structure of our everydays language doesn't allow us to describe things as they really are. It carves the world up into separate bits and pieces and so distorts reality which is not in itself fragmented in that way. Therefore Mah‚y‚na-Buddhism developed the principle of the two truths:

  1. Conventional Truth: everyday's common-sense truth, basically distorted but open to skillful manipulation;
  2. Absolute Truth: the things as they really are: empty and beyond thought and description. In terms of the Absolute Truth Nirv‚na and Sams‚ra are identical.

The new Mah‚y‚na ideas are put down in a set of new SŻtras, one of the most magnificent outbursts of human history which took about five centuries. They are usually longer and more mystical and poetic, encrusted with rich imagenary than their counterparts in the original Pali-Canon. The Saddharma-PundarÓka (White Lotus of the true Dharma), the VimalakÓrtinirdťsa (Exposition of VimalakÓrti) and the vast Prajn‚p‚ramit‚ (Perfection of Wisdom) are examples of these new SŻtras.

But, Mah‚y‚na and Hinay‚na followers had still many aspects in common: they practice the same Vinaya, recognise the same five categories of faults and are attached to the same "Four Noble Truths". The Hinay‚na followers remained the majority until the 8th century. An unsystematic phase of Mah‚y‚na development existed from 100 BC to 500 AD and the systematic phase started after 150 AD. The systematic phase saw the emergence of two schools: the M‚dhyamÓka and the Yog‚c‚ra. For the followers of M‚dhyamÓka "wisdom" is most important while for the followers of Yog‚c‚ra "meditation and trance" is at the core.

The M‚dhyamÓka (M‚dhya means middle: Middle Path) School was founded by the South Indian philosopher N‚g‚rjuna around 150 AD. His major work is the MŻla M‚dhyamÓka-k‚rik‚ which is based on ShŻnyat‚ and negates all dualities with a worldly and a higher truth. In the early 5th century the School subdivided into two sub-schools:

  1. Pr‚sangika (founded by Buddhap‚lita);
  2. Sv‚tantrika (founded by Bh‚vaviveka).

Asanga (c. 310-390) and his younger brother Vasubhandu (c. 320-400) founded in the 4th century the Yog‚c‚ra or Vijn‚nav‚da School. They took a more positive approach than the followers of M‚dhyamÓka: all is mind or consciousness: hence their doctrine of citta-matra: "mind only": according to this view, the objects of this world do not exist per se but are created from and by mind. To explain how this is done, they put forward the idea of store consciousness (‚laya-vijn‚na), a kind of collective unconsciousness in which the seeds of all potential phenomena are stored and from which they ceaselessly pour into manifestation.

The Yog‚c‚rins perfected the Trik‚ya Doctrine, the theory of the Three Bodies of the Buddha and took Buddhist Logic to a high pitch of development. The greatest logician was Dign‚ga (around 350 AC), a pupil of Vasubandhu. Monastic universities were established in N‚land‚, Vilabhi, Vikramshil‚, Jagaddala and Odantpuri.

1.8.3 Tantra

Between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD Mah‚y‚na developed into the "third turning of the Wheel of Dharma": Tantra or Mantray‚na (Secret Mantra Vehicle) or Vajray‚na (Diamond Vehicle) was born. It is sometimes labelled "Esoteric Buddhism": Tantric scriptures are a fourth addition to the original three pitaka of Vinaya: SŻtra and Abhidharma. It is based on the M‚dhyamÓka teaching of ShŻnyat‚. Tantra transforms the gross body, speech and mind into those of a Buddha by specific practices in close relationship with a Guru: the special hero of Tantra is the Siddha or Adept (Master).

This brings us into the fields of Yoga which are related with Hindu Tantra (around Shiva together with his Shakti). Buddhist Tantra which emerged later mainly from Tibet (mainly the Gelugpa School) was heavily influenced by Hindu Tantra. Tantra involves a great deal of symbolism and ritual with the following Tantric phenomena:

  1. Yidam: the tantric pantheon is composed of a phantasmagoria of incredible deities (male and female): some benign like Avalokiteshvara or Tara, others are fearsome like Mah‚k‚la, Yam‚ntaka, Guhyasam‚ja and Chakrasamv‚ra: they are emanations of the supreme tantric Buddha: Vajradh‚ra or ¬di-Buddha.
  2. Dhy‚ni-Buddhas: One tantric deity family is represented by the five Tath‚gatas or Dhy‚ni-Buddhas: Vairocana, Akshobya, Ratnasambhava, Amith‚ba and Amoghasiddhi.
  3. Mandala: It is a meditation aid, an sacred place. It is a model of the cosmos and of the total human being: macrocosm and microcosm: Mandala consists of a series of concentric precincts converging on a focal sanctum, guarded by a Yidam or some other potent form of Ultimate Reality.
  4. Mantra: These are highly- compressed power-pack formulae, usually of Sanskrit origin (Om Mani Padme HŻm). Some verbal formulae called dh‚rani and paritta (blessings) were used since early Buddhist times.
  5. BÓja (or Seed) Mantra: This is a consonant which embodies the heart essence of a particular tantric deity.
  6. Mudr‚: Literally a "symbol": It is a ritual gesture of the hands imbued with deep symbolic significance.
  7. Mah‚mudr‚: "The Great Seal": it signifies more than the subjective realisation of Emptiness: it is the Buddha nature, the basic mind within all sentient beings.
  8. Vajra (tib. Dorje) and Ghanta (bell): These are the most important sysmbols in Tantra: Vajra is derived from the thunderbolt of the Hindu God Indra: It symbolises "skillful means" and the diamond-like quality of ShŻnyat‚ - when "skillful means" are allied to wisdom, which is symbolised by the Ghanta. Other ritual objects include dagger (phurba), skull-cup, tigh-bone trumpet etc.

Generally Tantra is divided into four main categories:

  1. Action Tantra (Kriy‚tantra);
  2. Performance Tantra (Cary‚tantra);
  3. Yoga Tantra (Yogatantra);
  4. Supreme Tantra (Anuttarayogatantra).

The oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma Pa opted for a sixfold classification: Inner Tantra and Outer Tantra: Outer Tantra represents Action, Performance and Yoga Tantra while the Inner Tantra replaces the Supreme Tantra by thee new categories: Mah‚ Yoga; Anu Yoga and Ati Yoga. Highest Yoga Tantra is, in tantric eyes, the apogee of the Buddhist Path which cannot be achieved by anyone. Each person must, therefore, find his/her appropriate level. The Tibetans divided all Buddhist teachings into SŻtra and Tantra: SŻtra includes both Mah‚y‚na and Hin‚y‚na.

Everybody who practices Tantra should have attained a high degree of stability and concentration through samatha and a clear understanding of Emptiness. Those initiated into tantric cults have to uphold grave vows (Samaya). Each pupil (Chela) has got its Guru with a special compatibility between the two for an effective "dharmic connection". The Tantra Path is a quick way to Enlightenment, if the Highest Yoga Tantra is followed.

When the Chela is ready to begin serious practice, his Guru will initiate him/her into the Mandala of his chosen Yidam. Guru Yoga: develop faith into the Lama-guide. The ritual is known as Abhisheka, for instance the K‚lachakra Initiations. At the topmost level of Yoga Tantra, there are two main stages: the Generation Stage (Preparatory: to conjure the Yidam and Mandala out of primal emptiness of his mind to visualise the Yidam and to dissolve him back into Emptiness) and the Completion Stage (Full Buddhahood is achieved by special yogic means: the three-body configuration according to the three bodies of Mah‚y‚na-Buddhism (Nirm‚nak‚ya, Dharmak‚ya and Sambhogak‚ya) will be finally achieved). The most subtle body consists of fine channels called nadi along which a number of plexus points or chakras are disposed. A so-called "wind energy" circulates through this system, which is basically inseparable from consciousness, but in its most gross forms manifests passions like anger and lust. In the unregenerate individual, the nadi are knotted up, so the movement of the wind energy is vitiated. Using the virtuoso powers of concentration perfected by means of intensive practice at the Generation Stage, theTantric Yogi seeks to direct and dissolve the wind energy into the minute Bindu (droplet) situated in the heart chakra. If this is achieved, conceptual thought automatically and instanteneously ceases and what remains is nothing less than the primordial state itself: Mah‚mudr‚.

Controversy surrounds Buddhist Tantra - and indeed seems to have done from the earliest times - on account of its apparently unconventional methods and symbolism. In a recent conservation, a western student was discussing the demise of Buddhism in India with a learned Bikkhu: "The reason can be summed up in one word", the Bikkhu said: "Islam?" entured the westener: "No - Tantra" came the reply.

A strong sexual, dualistic notation exists in Tantrism, derived from Hindu-Tantra. The masculine denotes the active force of "skillful means" (Up‚ya) and the feminine the passive quality of "wisdom" (Prajn‚). The four stages of relationship between men and women (looking, smiling, touching and physical union) are also used as analogies for the kind of relationship that are possible with one's choosen deity. As for sexual Yoga, there is a tradition that this may be practised in certain very special and closely controlled circumstances during the Completion Stage of highest Yoga Tantra - but only by advanced practitioners who have transcended egotism and generated perfect Bodhicitta.

Tantra embodies all the strengths of all forms of Buddhism that developed hitherto, and to them it adds the magic dimension. So it could be said to be a logical culmination and completion of the process of development of Buddhism: All aspects of human being are mobilised in the great adventure of Enlightenment. Tantra also offers people ways and means of integrating the magical into their lives and applying it to authentic spiritual purposes.

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"Wheel of Life Mandala (Bh‚vachakra)" (left) and Dharmapala in the Pemayangtse Gompa in western Sikkim 
Photo: Copyright: Klaus Dierks

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