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Human-Centered Buddhism. Venerable Master Yinshun. (1906-2005). Venerable Master Taixu . (1889-1974). Ven. Master Jen Chun. ( 1919-2011).

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Human-Centered Buddhism

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Buddhism for Human World:A Teaching that is in accordance to the Acceptance Level of the People從依機設教說明人間佛教Explaining Buddhism among Mankind as a Religion Suited to Conditions


A talk given in 1952 to the monastic residents of a monastery named Jing Ye Lin (淨業林)in Jiang Su (江蘇),

  • Recorded by Ven. Jenchun
  • Included in Buddha in Human Realm (佛在人間), pp.29-73.
  • Translated into English by Dr. Beng Tiong Tan (陳玟中) (Selected Translations of Miao Yun, Part VI, pp.44-190)

Riding the Buddha Vehicle through History: Buddhist Vehicles and Buddhist History in the Thought of Ven. Master Yin-Shun

  • By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
  • Tzung-Kuen Wen

Various purposes of Buddhist teachings

  • Characteristics of Buddhist Vehicles
  • How Buddhism assimilated and rejected Indian religious practices.
  • A general picture of the historical development of Buddhist teachings.
  • Human-centered Buddhism and Human Bodhisattva
  • What suggestion Human-centered Buddhism can provide to Buddhism in the west.
  • 1 Establishment of Doctrines and Vehicles in Accordance to the Acceptance levels of Sentient Beings
  • 1.1 Purposes of Various Doctrines
  • 1.2 Classifications of Doctrines and Vehicles
  • 1.2.1 Five Vehicles
  • 1.2.2 Three Vehicles and One Vehicle
  • 1.3 Historical Development of Buddhism
  • 1.3.1. Ven. Taixu’s Three Classifications of Mahāyāna
  • 1.3.2. Three Periods in the Historical Development of Buddhism

2 Analysis of Various Vehicles that are Tailored to the Temperaments of Sentient Beings

  • 2.1 Human Vehicle and the Celestial Vehicle based on Human Vehicle
  • 2.1.1 Religious Culture of India at the Time of the Buddha
  • 2.1.2 The Buddha’s Attitudes Towards Indian Religious Practices
  • 2.2 Śrāvaka Vehicle Based on the Human and Celestial Vehicles
  • 2.2.1 Śrāvaka Vehicle and Six Indian Religious Practices
  • 2.2.2 The Relationship between Śrāvaka Vehicle and Human-Celestial Vehicle

2.3 Bodhisattva Vehicle Based on the Human-Celestial and Śrāvaka Vehicles

  • 2.3.1 Two Types of Bodhisattva in Jātaka
  • 2.3.2 The Close relationship between Mahāyāna Dharma and Lay Disciples.
  • 2.3.3 How Mahāyāna Buddhism Assimilates Indian Celestial Practices
  • 3 Conclusion
1 establishment of doctrines and vehicles in accordance to the acceptance levels of sentient beings

1. Establishment of Doctrines and Vehicles in Accordance to the Acceptance levels of Sentient Beings

1 1 purpose of various doctrines
1.1 Purpose of Various Doctrines
  • Buddhist doctrines were tailored to accommodate to the spiritual levels of sentient beings.
  • The Four Siddhāntas as explained in the Mahāprajnā-pāramitopadeśa Śāstra (Great Treaties on Perfection of Wisdom), represent the four purposes of various doctrines given by the Buddha, after taking into account the dispositions of individuals.
worldly siddh nta
Worldly Siddhānta
  • Aim: draw out the interest or fulfill the wishes of the hearer.
  • Method: teach things listeners are familiar with or desire for
  • Examples
  • While meeting with a farmer he first talk about farming.
  • Following the Indian customs
  • Reciting hymns of praise after accepting offerings
  • The Buddha is called the teacher of celestial beings and human (śāstā deva-manuṣyāṇām)
  • Lay disciples are allowed to offer gifts to the deities.
  • Mahāyāna’s skillful means: “[The Bodhisattvas courtesans ] First lead them with the hook of desire, Then cause them to enter the Buddha’s wisdom.”
individually adapted siddh nta
Individually adapted Siddhānta
  • Aim: to encourage the audience to cultivate wholesomeness
  • Medthod: To teach in accordance to individual spiritual level so that wholesomeness will be cultivated
  • Example
  • For people reluctant to give gifts, explain the benefits of alms-giving .
  • Different from Worldly Siddhānta
  • Not to draw interest nor to fulfill wishes or desires of the listener.
  • Teachings given are not necessarily familiar to the audience, but surely consistent to Buddhist morality
therapeutic siddh nta
Therapeutic siddhānta
  • Aim: to restrain listeners from unwholesome deeds
  • Example
  • The Buddha teaches the contemplation of bodily impurities (aśubha-bhāvanā) for people with strong lust and greed;
  • Mindfulness of Loving-kindness (maitrī-smṛti) for people with strong hatred;
  • Mindfulness on Dependent Origination (pratyayatā-pratītyasamutpāda-smṛti) for people with strong ignorance;
  • Mindfulness of Breathing (ānâpāna-smṛti) for people whose mind wanders a lot;
  • Mindfulness of Elements (dhātu-prabheda-smṛti) for people with strong self-attachment.

Why are there these two purpose i.e., cultivating wholesomeness and restraining from unwholesomeness?

  • Restraining from unwholesomeness
  • From not only bodily and verbal unwholesome deeds but also mental defilements.
  • Example1: for one who is willing to practice alms-giving only
  • Example 2: for one who abstains from bodily and verbal wrong deeds only…
  • The reasons why some practices are praised while others are criticized
supreme truth siddh nta
Supreme-Truth Siddhānta
  • Aim: to reveal the highest truth, the reality perceived and realized by the Buddha himself.
  • Teachings delivered with this supreme-truth siddhānta are the heart of Buddha’s Dharma.
  • Nāgārjuna: The first three Siddhanta may be sabotaged and wrecked, the Supreme-truth Siddhanta cannot be wrecked in any way.
  • Take the teachings of Worldly Siddhanta as an example:
  • It depends on situations (customs, ability, dispositions), so it is flexible.
  • Its effect varies.
  • It serves as a skilful means.

As to the other two siddhantas: to cultivate wholesomeness and to restrain from unwholesomeness

  • The principle is the same, the ways to practice vary depending on time, regions, and individuals.
  • Ex.1 the path of ancient sages: Noble Eight-fold Path
  • Ex. 2 Morality
  • The teachings of the Buddha are just like the prescription given by a doctor to patients.
  • patients - prescription; hearers- Buddhist teachings
  • Buddhism adapted itself to various conditions in India.
  • When it spread to China, Japan, and South East Asia, it surely changes itself due to its adaptations to these places.

In conclusion, when one is spreading Buddha Dharma, in order to match the teachings of the Buddha with the spiritual capacities of the audience , one should

  • Pay attention to these four siddhantas
  • Know the difference between the first three and the last one
  • Not ruin the message of Buddha Dharma by misunderstanding skilful means as ultimate truth.
1 2 classifications of doctrines and vehicles
1.2 Classifications of Doctrines and Vehicles
  • Diversity of spiritual capability and dispositions - diversity of Buddhist teaching.
  • Buddhist teaching is also called “yāna”, vehicle.
  • Vehicle can take people from one place to another
  • The Buddhist teachings can carry people who put them into practice from the human realm to celestial realm, or even from the realm of worldling to the realm of sages.
  • The Buddhist doctrines can be classified as “five vehicles”, “three vehicles” or “one vehicle”.
1 2 1 five vehicles
1.2.1 Five Vehicles
  • They are 1. Human Vehicle, 2. Celestial Vehicle, 3. Śrāvaka vehicle, 4. Pratyekabuddha Vehicle, 4. Bodhisatva Vehicle or Buddha Vehicle.
  • Every vehicle has three aspects, i.e. 1. arousal of mind (aspiration), 2. goal, and 3. mthods
  • Five Vehicles can be regrouped into three vehicles: Human-Celestial Vehicle, Śrāvaka Pratyekabuddha Vehicle and Bodhisattva Vehicle.
human celestial vehicle
Human-Celestial Vehicle
  • 1. Arousal of mind: “mind of improvement”
  • Lives in human realm or celestial realm are relatively better than in the other four realms.
  • Some come to Buddhism in order to improve their present condition in this life.
  • They wish for better health, wealth, knowledge …..
  • 2. Goal: is to have more happiness in the present life and better rebirth in future lives.
  • 3. Methods: righteous human conducts, such as alms-giving, observing precepts.
  • If one practices with the “mind of improvement”, no matter how profound teachings he might learn, the result will be limited to rebirth in either human realm or deity realm.
r vaka pratyekabuddha vehicle
Śrāvaka Pratyekabuddha Vehicle
  • The dispositions of the practitioners in these two vehicles are similar.
  • 1. Arousal of mind: “mind of escape”
  • Rebirth in the human or deity realm is suffering. Everything in the world is impermanent and thus unsatisfactory.
  • 2. Goal: to stop rebirth in saṃsāra and attain Nirvāṇa
  • 3. Methods: emphasis on abandoning one’s own defilements.
  • With the “mind of escape”, people will gain only the fruitions of Small Vehicle even though they may practice the teachings of Mahāyāna
bodhisattva vehicle
Bodhisattva Vehicle
  • 1. Arousal of mind:
  • Bodhisattvas know the suffering of rebirth and death, but they also know that sentient beings suffer as much as they do, so they feel sympathy for sentient beings, and thus arouse Bodhicitta based on great compassion.
  • 2. Goal: Help sentient beings and attain Buddhahood.
  • 3. Means: practice the wholesome deeds that are beneficial to oneself and others
  • Buddhism does not go beyond these five vehicles. To follow the teachings of the Buddha without aspiration and practices of anyone of these five vehicles, is just fake. It does not avoid the suffering of awful realm.
1 2 2 three vehicles and one vehicle
1.2.2 Three Vehicles and One Vehicle
  • Human-Celestial Vehicle
  • not the core teachings of Buddhism
  • mundane, secular, worldly,
  • Similar motivation and practices are found in other religions (Confucianism, Taoism, Christianility, Islam)and disciplines.
  • Not show the uniqueness of Buddha Dharma
  • Three Vehicles (Śrāvaka, Pratyekabuddha, bodhisattva )
  • the core teachings of Buddhism
  • world-transcending, unworldly

One Vehicle refers to the One Great Vehicle.

  • The difference between “One Vehicle” and “Bodhisattva Vehicle (Great Vehicle)”
  • Doctrine of Three Vehicles: practitioners of any one of the three vehicles will all enter Parinirvāṇa eventually. The attainments of Arahants and Pratyekabuudha are ultimate, final.
  • Doctrine of One Vehicle: Arahants and Pratyekabuudha will turn from Small Vehicle to Bodhisattva Vehicle, which is the only one path, and attain Buddhahood eventually .
  • Tow approaches to the Great Vehicle: 1Directly Entering the Great Vehicle; 2 Returning to the Great Vehicle

Debates on Three Vehicles vs One Vehicle

  • The fundamental issue is whether the attainments in the Two Vehicles (śrāvaka, pratyekabuddha) are ultimate, last or final, beyond which no other exists or is possible.
  • The relationship of these Vehicles can be showed in a figure.

According to the doctrine of One Vehicle

  • The Three Vehicles are just expedient means. The Small Vehicle does not exist, and there is in fact only one vehicle, the Great Vehicle.
  • While realizing the nature of sameness of all dharma (samadharmatā), all practitioners converge in the same One Vehicle.
  • Therefore, the Prajñāparāmitā Sūtra says, All Buddhist saints will definitely accept the Mahāyānic teachings of perfection of wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā)
  • The Lotus Sūtra says, If aspirants of śrāvaka vehicle don’t have faith in the Mahāyāna, they must be conceited. Though they view themselves as arahants, they are not.

According to the doctrine of Three Vehicles

  • Doctrine of Two Vehicles and Doctrine of Bodhisattva Vehicle are both supramundane teachings.
  • But, the doctrine of Bodhisattva Vehicle is praised as the supreme among supramundane teachings. Because a bodhisattva works to help other sentient beings attain Buddhahood. It’s the unification of great wisdom, great compassion, great vow and great practices.
  • From the perspective of human-celestial Vehicle,
  • Bodhisattva Vehicle is the unification of mundane practices and supramundance practices.
  • While being engaged in worldly events, Bodhisattvas are disenchanted with the world.
1 3 historical development of buddhism
1.3 Historical Development of Buddhism
  • From the perspective that every Buddhist will eventually return to the One Vehicle, the three vehicles are in fact nothing but three types of Mahāyāna.
  • These three types of Mahāyāna do exist in the historical development of Buddhism in India.
1 3 1 ven taixu s three classifications of mah y na
1.3.1. Ven. Taixu’s Three classifications of Mahāyāna
  • Ven. Master Taixu had briefly explained these three types in his article “How do I classify and evaluate all the Buddhist doctrines.”
  • According to Ven. Taixu, there is only One Vehicle, the Mahāyāna, all sentient beings will attain Buddhahood in the end.
  • His divided the history of Buddhism into three periods:
  • 1 through Śrāvaka Vehicle to Mahāyāna
  • 2. through Celestial Vehicle to Mahāyāna
  • 3. through Human Vehicle to Mahāyāna
the period of true dharma
The Period of True Dharma
  • The first 500 years from the death of the Buddha (390 BC)
  • Most Buddhists follow Śrāvaka Vehicle in the very beginning. After having realized noble fruits of Śrāvaka, they turn to Mahāyāna.
  • For example, according to the Lotus Sūtra, bhikṣu and bhikṣunī ,who are either trainees (śaikṣa) or byeond-training (aśaikṣa), all made a resolution to attain Buddhahood and help sentient beings.
  • This trends continued even after the first five hundred years. Some people are recorded, such as Nāgājuna Deva Asaṅga Vasubandhu.
  • They might not have realized the fruits of the Śrāvaka Vehicle before they turned to Mahāyāna, but generally speaking they went forth and were fully ordained in the schools of Śrāvaka (Mainstream Buddhism).

They might learn the doctrine of Śrāvaka Vehicle before they came to learn Mahāyāna doctrine.

  • Or they appear as a member of Śrāvaka schools while practising the Bodhisattva Path.
  • Most of the monastic Bodhisattvas fall into this category.
  • These Boddhisattvas who practiced the Two Vehicles before entering Mahāyāna are wisdom-oriented.
  • They emphasize wisdom, don’t have enough compassion
  • They practice meditation diligently and earnestly desire for attainment of arahatship.
  • On the Bodhisattva Path, these Wisdom-predominant Bodhisattvas progress much slowly due to their compassion being less intense.
the period of semblance dharma
The Period of Semblance Dharma
  • It’s during the third 500 years after the death of the Buddha.
  • Buddhists mostly advanced to the Great Vehicle through the practices of Celestial Vehicle. They can be called Celestial Boddhisattvas.
  • Unlike Monastic Bodhisattvas, they were familiar with the deity (theistic) teachings of Brahmanism, and integrate these teachings as an expedient means into Buddha Dharma.
  • As a result, visualization of Buddhas or Boddhisattvas are equated with visualization of deities. For example, In Tantric Buddhism, Iṣṭadeva(tā) (tutelary deity) are represented by the images of Yakṣa, Rakṣa or Brahamā.
  • Celestial realms become the ideal world.
  • The Two Vehicles were given a lower status in Buddhism.
the period of degenerate dharma
The Period of Degenerate Dharma
  • It’s after 1500 years of the Buddha’s death, Ven. Taixu says.
  • Buddhists enter the Bodhisattva Path by the practice of Human Vehicle.
  • Attainment of Śrāvaka fruits is rare. Even Buddhists in the countries of Southern Buddhism emphasize such secular activities as education and charity.
  • Following the practice of Śrāvaka in forests is criticized as being selfish and running away from reality.
  • Devotion to the practice of Celestial-Vehicle Bodhisattva Path with the emphasis on dealing with sexual desires is reproached as superstitious and absurd
  • It seems that the suitable way is to follow the Bodhisattva Path through the teaching of Human Vehicle.

Ven. Taixu’s way of classifying bodhisattvas into three types is very meaningful: Human, Celestial, and Two-vehicle Bodhisattvas.

  • Two-Vehicle Bodhisattvas attach importance to wisdom
  • Celestial Bodhisattvas lay stress on faith (Pure Land Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism represent the practice of Celestial Bodhisattva)
  • Human Bodhisattvas put emphasis on loving-kindness and compassion and engage in various altruistic activities.
  • According to *Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa Śāstra, a bodhisattva may have more wisdom, compassion, or faith and effort. It’s true that a true bodhisattva should be equipped with all these three qualities, but with regard to the approach to Mahāyāna, there are these three different ways.
1 3 2 three periods in the historical development of buddhism
1.3.2. Three periods in the Historical Development of Buddhism
  • These three periods mentioned above can also be discerned in the historical development of Indian Buddhism of 1500 years.



first period early buddhism
First Period– Early Buddhism

Use the mandalas to Illustrate the differences in the doctrines and intended hearers between the three periods.

first period early buddhism43
First Period (Early Buddhism)
  • In Early Buddhism, the monastic sangha was the center.
  • The Buddha and his great disciples all lead a monastic life.
  • The unique attribute of this monastic life is liberty and freedom. They live a simple life, being content with whatever they have access to with respect to clothing, food and dwelling. They devote themselves to destroying defilements in the wilds.
  • In the middle ring, there are lay disciples from all walks of life.
  • They perform generosity and keep precepts, fulfill their obligations to their family, society and country. They also practice meditation with a emphasis on loving-kindness meditation.
  • They are able to win liberation from samsara, but they are not in the position of maintaining Buddhism.

The out-most layer consists of spirits and deities, ranging from Śuddhāvāsa deva (Deity of Pure Abode) to ghost and animals.

  • In Āgamas and Vinayas, devas, asuras, gandharvas and yakṣas sometimes came to join the dharma assembly, some came to protect Buddhism from being disturbed by evil spirits. They played only a insignificant role. They are characterized by two quality: greed and anger. The Buddha always taught them not to hurt people due to their strong greed and anger.
  • Monastic liberation is placed on the center of this period of Buddhism, where the disciples, inwardly, were devoted to meditation and wisdom, and outwardly, concerned for the outside world. There is less superstitious expedient means.
the second period
The Second Period
  • Mahāyāna Buddhism arose to gain its popularity around 500 years after the death of the Buddha.
  • The center of Buddhism hand changed. Lay disciples occupy the center of Buddhism in this period. Bodhisattvas such as Mañjuśrī,Avalokiteśvara, Samantabhadra, Vimalakīrti, Sudhana and Sadāprarudita, all appear as lay disciples.
  • The Vairocana Buddha, considered as the dharma body in Mahāyāna Buddhism was presented as a layman wearing hairs in a bun and a crown, with many precious decorations.
  • These Buddhas and Bodhisattvas display the virtues of great compassion, great wisdom and great practice and great vow. They are shown to emphasize such teachings as the six kinds of perfection and the four ways of favoring .
four ways of favoring
Four Ways of Favoring
  • catvāri saṃgraha vastuni
  • four methods of propitiation/attracting /winning/favoring1. Dāna - almsgiving (布施)2. Priyavacana - loving speech (愛語)3. Arthakriyā - conduct and action that benefits other (利行)4. Samanārthatā - co-operation with others (同事)
The root of Buddha Dharma became the One Great Vehicle which stresses on cultivating Bodhicitta and helping sentient beings.

During this period, the monastic community were moved to the right side, it no longer occupied the central place, it was regarded as the audience for whom certain expedient means were made. They became auditors in classroom.

They were depicted as blaming themselves for not knowing and practicing earlier the Boddhisattva Path. But, eventually, they all decide to turn to the Great Vehicle.


Deities (including spirits and animals) were elevated to the left side of the center. For example, the Vajradhara, a guardian of Buddhism during the time of the Buddha, was a yakṣa. In this period of Mahāyāna, it was honored as the transformation body of bodhisattva.

  • Even the king of Mara was perceived as great Bodhisattva.
  • These celestial Bodhisattvas, motivated by the qualities of compassion, wisdom, effort and vow, helped the Buddha to preach the teachings of the six perfections and four ways of favor. However they were deified a bit.
  • Other deities of lower class were mostly earnest guardians of Buddhism

The teachings of benefiting others in Mahāyāna Buddhism are full of the spirit of a Bodhisattva as described in the Jātaka stories. Meanwhile, there is an inclination of deities worship, and their role became notable gradually. So this is Buddhism getting more and more involved with humanization as well as deification.

  • Mahāyāna Buddhism flourished and became popular in India together with these two contexts, which had an great impact on its later development.
  • Mahāyāna Buddhism was not as plain as Early Buddhism , which valued living in community. Mahāyāna was relatively more adapted to Indian customs, it had an inclination towards the idea of mind-only and the greatness of individual.
the third period
The third Period
  • Compared to the first period, everything in this period is reversed.
  • The images of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas in the middle are mostly those of yakṣa and rakṣas, freaky and frightening.
  • with many heads, many hands, many weapons, wearing a necklace of skulls and treading on fierce deities or spirits.
  • In addition to these fierce or, to be precise, wrathful looks, there is images of man and woman hugging each other, which is called “greedy look”

The amiable lay Bodhisattvas were moved to middle ring, while monastic disciples relocated to the outermost layer. This can be clearly discerned from Tantric Maṇḍala.

  • Since deities (especially those of low rank) became the center of Buddhism, all heretic rituals and practices were integrated into Buddhism as expedient means.
  • Since deities (especially those of low rank) became the center of Buddhism, all heretic rituals and practices related deities were integrated into Buddhism as expedient means.
  • This is what Venerable Taixu means by speaking of advance to Buddha Vehicle through the practice of Celestial Vehicle.
summary of the three periods
Summary of the three periods
  • It can be seen that Śrāvaka Vehicle is the center of early Buddhism; Human (and celestial )Bodhisattva Vehicle is the center of Buddhism in the middle period; and Celestial Bodhisattva Vehicle is the center of Buddhism of later period.
  • Mahāyāna Buddhism, Buddhism of the middle period, inclined towards not only celestial Bodhisattva but also Human Bodhisattva. The idea of Human Bodhisattva was fully documented during the middle period of Buddhism in India.
  • In order to accommodate the deity culture in India, Buddhism in its later development assimilated the practices of Brahmanism and developed fully the idea of Celestial Bodhisattva.

Now, we advocate Human-centered Buddhism.

  • Since we’re humans, we should focus on humans. So we should learn the compassion and wisdom of human Bodhisattvas who are fully depicted in the early and middle periods of Buddhism.
  • In particular, we should develop wisdom out of compassion, and not to follow the teachings of Celestial Bodhisattva in the later period of Buddhism.
  • During the Tang Dynasty in China, it was only the beginning of the third period of Buddhism in India. The Buddhism in China was not as deity-influenced as in Tibet. The Buddhism in China was less deity-influenced and inclined moreto the teachings of śrāvaka vehicle.

In short, the pure practice of Human Bodhisattva is to arouse Bodhicitta as a human, to help sentient beings with the help of wisdom and compassion, and to go directly to attain the supreme enlightenment.

  • We should pay more attention to the middle period of Buddhism and shake off all the inclination of deity-influence
2 analysis of various vehicles that are tailored to the temperaments of sentient being

2 Analysis of Various Vehicles that are Tailored to the Temperaments of Sentient Being

Analysis of Vehicles’ Adaptations

2 1 the human vehicle and the celestial vehicle based on the human vehicle
2.1 The Human Vehicle and the Celestial Vehicle based on the Human Vehicle
  • Buddhist teachings used to develop in order to adjust itself to different capacities and temperaments of sentient beings. A look at why a doctrine was addressed to a particular person will show us the different characteristics of the Human, Celestial vehicles, the Two Vehicles and the Bodhisattva Vehicle.
  • Buddhism emerged in India, so it necessarily adjusted itself to the culture and people in India at that time.
  • Since Buddhism adapted itself to the temperaments of the people of a particular time and area, its doctrines may be characterized by the time period and geographical location.
  • In other words, Buddhist doctrines may be temporal and regional.

Buddhism is closely connected to ancient Indian culture. We have to see through this connection and not to be bound to it, so that we will not misunderstand an expedient teaching, which was made to accommodate ancient Indian culture , as the universal and everlasting truth.

  • Whishing to be reborn as a human being in the next lives come under the category of Human Vehicle. If one values the value of being a human being and do whatever righteous conducts one should do as a human being, he will definitely be reborn in the human realm as a result of his righteous conducts.
  • Likewise, following the way of Celestial Vehicle will definitely lead to a rebirth in celestial realm.
2 1 1 religious culture of india at the time of the buddha
2.1.1 Religious Culture of India at the Time of the Buddha
  • Before Śākyamuni appeared in India, there were the practices of Human and Celestial Vehicles, only that people make no difference between them. Their main interest lies in obtaining happiness in this human life.
  • In Buddhism, this is called dṛṣṭe-dharme sukham, “present-life happiness”.
  • However, this kind of happiness is transitory, it will disappear at any time. In addition, there are many flaws in this human world, such as natural calamity (storm, tornado, flood, landslide, earthquake), and man-caused disaster (killing and invasion in war). Therefore, there emerges the thought of rebirth in heaven.
  • This trend of thought was common to all ancient religions, and in Buddhism it’s called “after-life happiness”.

These two streams of religious thought are very close to the teachings of Human-celestial Vehicle.

  • However these teachings are not saying that human beings should practice Human Vehicle and deities should follow Celestial Vehicle, but that human beings can be reborn as a human or a deity according to their conducts. In both cases, one starts as a human being.
  • The ideas of eternal life and immortality were later introduced into Indian religions. This is similar to the Christian belief in the eternal life of heaven.
  • At that time, Indian people believed that most of the deities die eventually, so they tried to discover the way to immortality and concluded that only the highest god, Brahma, is beyond death. If humans can return to Brahma, they will enjoy permanent happiness. The idea of liberation underlies this concept of reunion with Brahma.

Repeated birth and death is a big puzzle, which needs to be resolved once and for all.

  • Buddhists go beyond present-life and after-life happiness to seek for the ultimate bliss of liberation.
  • For other Indian religions the solution is to be reborn in the Brahma world and to unite with Brahma, this is considered the ultimate happiness.
  • When the Buddha was born, the thought of ultimate liberation already permeated the whole of India. They tended to prefer heaven and believed that it is better than human realm.
  • Heaven is not only a place for after-life happiness but also a place for ultimate happiness if one is reborn in Brahma heaven.

In Indian religions, people followed six types of practice to obtain present-life happiness and better rebirth in either human or celestial realm.

  • They are: sacrificial offerings, incantation, morality, asceticism, seclusion, and yoga.
sacrificial offering
Sacrificial Offering
  • The Chinese also think that sacrificial offering to ancestors or deities such as Earth God, is a important thing. However, the significance of these practices is not understood fully now. In ancient China, religious sentiments are strong, sacrificial offering became the most important activity.
  • There were well-defined time-rules for performing the sacrifices on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. This is equally true for Judaism of Hebrew, Brahmanism in India and the local religion in China (the one later shared by Confucianism and Taoism). A solemn ritual of sacrifice would be performed on the occasions of marriage, death and harvest.
  • In China, sacrifice to the Heavenly Being (such as the God) is the most important sacrifice. The Chinese people gradually forgot this because It was performed by the king only.

As to the rite of sacrifice in ancient India (and also for religions such as Judaism and Zoroastrianism), fire was set up in house for the whole year, and would never be put out.

  • The things offered were ordinary human food such as fresh fruits, rice, grain, cheese, lamb and cow. The daily necessities were thrown into the fire as sacrifice.
  • It was thought that the smell of food and items burned would reach the gods, who being happy with the offerings will give in return their blessings, such as a good harvest, well-bred cattle and sheep, mental and bodily happiness, and a future rebirth in the human or celestial realms.

The Homa found in the Esoteric Buddhism originated from the oblation with fire in Brahmanism. There were more complicated rites of sacrifice that require to be performed by a priest with three different fires.

  • The belief of incantation/mantra was not only popular in India but also in many other ancient cultures, such as Taoism in China.
  • Incantation is always accompanied by special gesture together with some symbolical items.
  • The meanings of the incantations are somewhere between explainable and unexplainable.
  • The ancient people believed that the incantations were very powerful and could be used as a tool to communicate between human beings and divine beings or ghosts.

Incantation in India were sometimes part of the sacrificial rituals, where the motive was still upright. But, there were other incantations that are used with evil intention to benefit oneself by harming others. .

  • In ancient India, all the wholesome conducts supposed to be done by a human being, such as, abiding by the ancestral customs, fulfilling one's responsibilities to the family, and fighting for one's nation, can bring a better rebirth in the human and celestial realms.
  • For a sacrifice ritual, people were asked to make offerings to the priests. Thus, the practice of “generosity” was getting prevailing.
  • The priests would also admonish the institutors of a sacrifice to be honest and respectful, or observe some precepts so that the sacrifice would be effective. Here, some right conducts are involved.
  • Right conducts, such as abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and telling lies, were emphasized since ancient times.

These three kind of conduct mentioned above are the practices leading to present-life and after-life happiness. (Among them, sacrifice is also meant for ultimate happiness)

  • Asceticism contains the meaning of suppressing desires, for example, abstaining from material pleasure. It also means effort.
  • Most people can follow the three practices mentioned above. However, only a few would practice asceticism, they are the most diligent among religionists.
  • The aim of asceticism is to overcome material desires. For example, Gandhi was also an ascetic, led a life of strict self-discipline. He inspired millions of people miraculously, was a driving force behind independence movement of India.
  • There are some meaningless ascetic practices, which bring nothing but bodily injures, such as longtime standing, fasting, and lying down on thorns.

In Magadha and Aṅga, there were many ascetics, highly respected by the public. They practiced so to gain rebirth in the heaven and ultimate liberation.

  • Some people thought that the spiritual practice such as sacrifice, incantation are only formal, and that the family and worldly activities are obstruction to spiritual life.
  • For them, the genuine practice is to get rid of religious formality, and to practice diligently in mountains and forests.
  • This kind of thinking had been very popular even before the Buddha’s appearance.
  • Such kind of practitioners were called śramaṇa; among them, some, after having fulfilled their family responsibilities, renounced the world at around the age of fifty to sixty years old; others went forth and became a śramaṇa at a very young age.
  • The recluses usually followed the ascetic way and practiced yoga. In general, yoga is similar to meditation in Buddhism.
  • By suppressing worldly desires, controlling the breath and focusing the mind, one could achieve an extraordinary mental state and experience great freedom.
  • This experience of the mind and body in yogic practices was considered as the ultimate way to be reborn in the heaven or to liberate oneself from the round of rebirth and death.

In conclusion, of the six practices described above, sacrificial offerings and incantation were the most common practices, motivated by the wish of rebirth as a human or as a deity.

  • Morality is right conduct for humans, it severs as the foundation of advanced practice.
  • The aim of the other three practices (asceticism, seclusion, and yoga) was to take rebirth in the heavenly (Brahma) realm, which was believed to be the ultimate liberation.
  • The Buddha was born in India, he gave his teachings according to the dispositions of the audience. So, what’s the attitude of the Buddha towards these religious practices in India?
2 1 2 the buddha s attitudes towards indian religious practices
2.1.2 The Buddha’s attitudes Towards Indian Religious Practices
  • The Buddha did not include the practice of sacrifice in the Human Celestial Vehicle. He rejected the complex rituals of sacrifice as practiced in Brahmanism. This is similar to Jesus rejecting the emphasis of Judaism on sacrificial rituals.
  • As to incantation, the Buddha rejected it categorically.
  • In ancient India, the practice of sacrificial offerings to deities often involved killing cows and goats, spending a lot of fortune and employing much manpower. The Buddha said that this would only accumulate more unwholesomeness and bring no benefits.

However, the Buddha allowed that lay Buddhists make offerings to deities in a moderate way, using such items of incense, flowers, fruits and grains. This is a skillful means to guide sentient beings, and belongs to the Worldly Siddhānta.

  • This clearly reveals that, unlike Christianity or Islam, which denounces everything practiced in other religious, Buddhism does have the spirit of tolerance towards other religious practices.
  • Although tolerance is a virtue valued in the East, Buddhism sometimes deteriorated due to the misuse of this spirit in the part of some Buddhists, who did not know well the fundamental teachings of the Buddha.

Making offerings to ancestors was a common practice in both lndia and China.

  • Buddha was asked once, "Is it beneficial to make sacrifice/offerings to our ancestors?"
  • Buddha replied, "If our parents are reborn in the realm of the hungry ghost, offering can temporarily release them from the suffering of hunger. However, if they are reborn in the human, celestial, hell or animal realms, there is no need to make offerings to them because they do not live on sacrificial offerings."
  • The Buddha's response is some food for thought.

The person then asked, "If our parent was not reborn in the realm of the hungry ghost, do we still have to make sacrificial offerings?“

  • Buddha replied, "You can still make offerings because it is possible that your parents in the past lives may have been reborn in the realm of the hungry ghost."
  • The Buddha was not against making offerings to ancestors because this could allow the hungry ghosts to obtain some foods and would also avoid serious conflicts with the Indian custom.

In order to be reborn as a human or a celestial being, one needs to perform human-celestial right conducts. With these right conducts, one acquires happiness in this and future lives.

  • In contrast, wrong conducts such as killing and stealing will lead to suffering in this life and a rebirth in the lower realms after death.
  • The virtues in the Human-Celestial Vehicle include alms-giving (dāna), morality(śīla) , and meditation (bhāvanā). These are called the 'Three Meritorious Actions‘ (puñña-kiriya-vatthu).

First, alms-giving is to sacrifice what one possesses and to give away their possessions for the benefit of others, without attachment and unwillingness.

  • Second, morality, observing precepts is to counteract defilements, to build up a proper relationship with people and to guide oneself away from actions that were harmful to others.
  • Third, the practice of meditation is to purify the mind and to sever mental defilements. In this context, the point is to develop loving-kindness and compassion through meditation, to cultivate great sympathy of benefiting others. 

In the Human Vehicle, there are two types of practice : alms-giving and morality.

  • The practice of the Celestial Vehicle further includes meditation (mental development). To be reborn in celestial realms, one has to cultivate concentration. For example, by attaining the four dhyānas, one can be reborn in the four dhyāna realms in the form sphere.
  • Seclusion is another practice of the Celestial Vehicle (but this is not a necessary practice for taking rebirth in the sensual sphere).
  • The practice of yoga is a principal method for a rebirth in the celestial realms.

With respect to the asceticism, the Buddha adopted only its essence (shared by the Human-Celestial Vehicles), and taught wanting-little and contentment; diligence and lion-heartedness; a middle path which avoids self-mortification and sensuality-indulgence.


In short, the practices which Indian religions believed as leading to rebirth in heavens, which is the ultimate liberation for them, were modified and integrated into his teachings by the Buddha, who approved these practices as ways to rebirth in heaven realms, not to ultimate liberation.


Giving and morality, generally speaking, are the virtues of the Human Vehicle. If practiced excellently, they can ,with a little experience of meditation, lead to a rebirth in the celestial realm of sense sphere.

  • But, if one wishes to be reborn in the form or formless sphere, one must practice meditation [and seclusion].
  • So, the Human Vehicle lays importance on both generosity and morality, with more emphasis on morality. Without morality one will be reborn in the realms of the hungry ghost or animals.
  • The practice of the Celestial Vehicle is based on both morality and meditation, and meditation is given a greater weighting.

The Human Vehicle was tailored to the dispositions of the Indian people at that time. The practices of Human Vehicle represent the virtues of lay people. From a Buddhist perspective, they are the urgent needs of this human world.

  • However, the highest and profound teaching of Buddhism was not revealed in the Human Vehicle. This Human Vehicle is close to the teachings of Confucianism in China.
2 2 the r vaka vehicle based on the human and celestial vehicles
2.2 The Śrāvaka Vehicle Based on the Human and Celestial Vehicles
  • The Human-Celestial Vehicle was established by the Buddha to adjust his teachings to the culture and dispositions of Indian people at his time. On the basis of these two vehicles, the Buddha establish further the Śrāvaka Vehicle.
  • Originally, the term ‘śrāvaka’ (hearer) referred to the disciples of the Buddha. They were those who listen to the Buddha's teachings, practicing accordingly and attain liberation.
  • Later, it was used to specifically refer to a particular portion of Buddhists (who aspire for arahatship or Individual Buddhahood).
2 2 1 r vaka vehicle and six indian religious practices
2.2.1 Śrāvaka Vehicle and Six Indian Religious Practices
  • In explaining the Śrāvaka Vehicle based on the Human-Celestial Vehicle, we need to begin with its relationship with the six Indian practices mentioned above.
  • From the perspective of the Buddha, the common practices aimed at better lives and ultimate liberation are not without flaws.
  • The practices for liberation held by other religions are unrealistic and faulty fundamentally. In contrast, the Śrāvaka Vehicle, taught by the Buddha, is the genuine, complete and ultimate path.

To practice for the ultimate liberation one should follow the 'Three Undefiled Trainings' i.e. morality (sīla), concentration (samādhi), and wisdom (prajñā). Only with the help of these three trainings, can one abandon mental defilements, free oneself from the cycle of birth and death and attain liberation.

  • Other than these three trainings, there is no way leading to the goal of the final liberation.

Other Indian religions claimed sacrificial offerings as a part of the practice leading to ultimate liberation by a rebirth in the heavens. However, in Buddhism, this sacrificial practice has no place at all in the Śrāvaka Vehicle of Early Buddhism.

  • The authentic ultimate liberation, which is realized with Right View, has nothing to do with sacrificial offering.
  • It is to avoid unnecessary arguments (with the public) that the Buddha permitted offering to the deities and spirits to some extent in accordance to the Worldly Siddhānta. However offering is never adopted by the Buddha as a part of the world-transcending practices.

The practice of incantation originated from Indian theistic religions, which believed that the liberation of unification with the real “Self” (Brahma) can be achieved by mentally reciting 'Om‘. This incantation practice has no place at all in the Śrāvaka Vehicle of Early Buddhism.

  • The Buddha said, "Even if being seriously ill, suffering from enormous pain or facing death, those who see the truths will not resort to the help of a single incantation, a few incantations, or a few thousand incantations, whishing that it will relieve themselves from suffering or death.“
  • Thus, it can be seen that, only those who are ignorant and blind to the four noble truths would resort to incantation.
  • The pure genuine Supramundane Dharma stems from right understanding and right conduct, not from the sacrifice or incantation, which are influenced by the belief in deity.

Morality, keeping precepts diligently, was emphasized in the Śrāvaka Vehicle; it is the right path leading to the supramundane dharma.

  • Alms-giving, from the perspective of the supramundane liberation, does not always conform to the path of liberation. Alms-giving may be done out of vanity, or to draw large crowds, or to pursue good fortune and avoid bad fortune, or to have a comfortable living in the human and celestial realms.
  • These intentions are secular, and do not conform to the teaching of liberation in Buddhism. Despite the fact that alms-giving is praised in Buddhism, giving material items based on worldly intentions is not a way to ultimate liberation.

The supra-mundane practice emphasizes observing precepts. And keeping precepts embraces the essence of asceticism.

  • To keep precepts one should live a simple life and be content with rough clothing, simple food and moderate sleep.
  • Such ascetic practices as exposing oneself to the blazing sun or to freezing weather in winter, which was followed by some religious wanderers in India, were denounced in the liberation path of the Śrāvaka Vehicle.

Although his contemporaries regarded the yoga practices as a way leading to liberation, the Buddha viewed these practices as ways to develop concentration at most.

  • For example the four dhyānas, the four Immeasurables, and the formless-sphere concentration are just some states of concentration.
  • It is impossible to attain Nirvaṇajust through these state of deep concentration.
  • If concentration can free us from the round of rebirth and death, Buddhism will no longer be needed.

Other religions in India emphasized on concentration, but the essence of the teachings of the Buddha is wisdom. To end the round of rebirth, one has to extinguish ignorance [through wisdom] to abandon defilements and self-attachment.

  •  Some teachers in ancient India believed that the end of saṃsāra and the liberation of unification with the true self are achieved when yoga is practiced to the extent that the gross thoughts and subtle discriminative minds do not arise.
  • According to the Buddha, however, the gross thoughts and discriminative minds result from not being able to correctly understand the true nature of all phenomena.

If one just subdues the deluded thoughts by controlling the mind, without correcting the erroneous understanding, one achieves only certain state of deep concentration where the defilements are suppressed only temporarily, and still lying beneath the surface.

  • The reason why following the teachings of the Buddha necessarily leads one to the true liberation is that putting his teachings into practice will necessarily cut off the root cause responsible for the cycle of birth and death.

What is the root cause of birth and death?

  • The teachers of other religions stated that there exist a true “Self” (ātman) in each individual and Brahma is the entity of the universe. They perceived these two (Self and Brahma) as the "Little Self' and "Supreme Self' respectively, both are permanent, blissful and free in nature.
  • According to the Buddha, this kind of theory results from the wrong “view of identity” (satkāya-dṛṣṭi), which is the root of saṃsāra. In order to completely sever this major defilement, one needs to develop wisdom and realize that they are all impermanent (anitya), unsatisfactory (duḥkha), and non-self (anatāman), i.e. empty( of substance )(śūnya) .

This contrast clearly highlights the uniqueness of the Buddhist teachings.

  • Take weeding for example. Some gardeners in weeding cut only the head part of grass but not the roots. When it rains, the grass will grow again. This like the way of cutting off defilements in other religions. In contrast, following the teachings of the Buddha, Buddhists eradicate of the grass of defilements by pulling up the roots completely. It is impossible for the grass to grow up again.
  • Thus we see that it is important, as we learn Buddhism, to correct our wrong views. Through right understanding of impermanence, suffering, and non-self, one can develop wisdom and attain liberation.
2 2 2 the relationship between r vaka vehicle and human celestial vehicle
2.2.2 The Relationship between Śrāvaka Vehicle and Human-Celestial Vehicle
  • We shall discuss the relationship between the Human-Celestial Vehicle and the Śrāvaka Vehicle.
  • There are several types of Śrāvaka disciples.
1 r vaka vehicle lay disciples
1. Śrāvaka Vehicle - Lay disciples
  • Some people misunderstood that one must give up ordinary life in order to follow the teachings of the Buddha.
  • They don’t know that neither all bodhisattvas of Mahāyāna gave up household life, nor did all the disciples of the Śrāvaka Vehicle (= Early Buddhism).
  • Due to misunderstanding the point of the teachings of the Buddha, some Buddhists blindly imitate the life style of monastic disciples and regard that as the only genuine way.

In Original Buddhism, during the time of Sākyamuni Buddha (,which belongs to Śrāvaka Vehicle), many lay disciples attained the noble fruits.

  • For example, King Bimbisāra, King Prasenajit, Anāthapiṇḍika, Householder Citta, General Ṛṣidatta, scholars, famers, workers and merchants.
  • For Śrāvaka disciples, it is not necessary to go forth and give up household life. It will suffice if one find a way to cultivate right faith and right understanding, and practice the three trainings (śikṣā-traya), i.e. morality, concentration and wisdom.

Lay disciples observe the five precepts and sometimes the eight precepts, which are additional. They do not need to adopt the austere asceticism.

  • When Buddha first turned the wheel of Dharma in the Deer Park, he said that there were two types of people in this world.
  • First, there are the pleasure seekers indulge in the five sensuous desires. Obviously this is not the way to liberation. Second, the ascetics who are inclined to torture themselves. Clearly, this is also not the way to liberation.
  • In Buddhism, What should be followed is the Middle Path, which avoids the two extremes: self-mortification and sensuality-indulgence.

Buddhist lay disciples, whether they are farmers, workers, merchants, scholars, or soldiers, all lead a household life.

  • The difference between a lay Buddhist disciple and other laymen lies in the faith in the Triple Gem and the practice to abstain from indulging in the five types of sensuous pleasure.
  • They lead a righteous ordinary life during the day. When the night falls, they practice meditation for developing loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity (the Four Immeasurables), or develop wisdom through the contemplation of impermanence and non-self.

As long as they cultivate wisdom on the basis of morality, they can put an end to the cycle of rebirth and attain the ultimate liberation even without abolishing the ordinary life.

  • If one does not follow the three trainings, as taught by Buddha, no matter how one practices asceticism, worshipping, or incantation, such effort will all be irrelevant and in vain.

So we can see that Śrāvaka Vehicle was also adapted to the lay disciples, who were introduced to Śrāvaka Vehicle from Human Vehicle.

  • As long as one maintain right conducts of human and proceed to learn the three trainings while performing the daily duties for family and country, one is stll walking on the path leading to the ultimate liberation of Śrāvaka Vehicle.
  • Therefore, neither Bodhisattva Vehicle, which advocates the development of bodhicitta, nor Śrāvaka Vehicle advises that in order to attain liberation, it is necessary to lead a life of a recluse and practice in mountains or the wildness.
r vaka vehicle monastic disciples
Śrāvaka Vehicle - Monastic disciples
  • There are two types of monastic disciples.
  • One is the “free bhikṣus' or the forest-dwelling bhikṣus (the araṇya bhikṣus).
  • They prefer living in the araṇya (wilderness or forest) and tend to withdraw from society. They lead a simple and austere life for their personal benefits.
  • They devoted themselves to the development of concentration and wisdom, while avoiding the disturbance of worldly interactions.

The twelve disciplines of dhūtāṅga in Buddhism, are in fact practiced by this type of disciples (these disciplines are originally the practices among recluses at that time).

  • They may live without shelter and sleep under trees or even in graveyards.
  • They may wear only the garments made of cast-off rags, which were picked up from garbage heap or cemetery, washed and sewed together.
  • Some of the forest-dwelling bhikṣus were reluctant to go out for alms food. They simply ate anything available in the mountain and wilderness.

However, not all monastic disciples lead an ascetic and tough life as such.

  • The araṇya bhikṣus have the disposition of a Pratyekabuddha.
  • Venerable Mahākaśyapa, who was foremost in observing the disciplines of dhūtāṅga, once said,
  • “When Śākyamuni Buddha appears in this wor1d, I follow him. If śākyamuni Buddha does not appear in this world, I would still attain enlightenment.“
  • He dislikes worldly affairs and focused on living a reclusive life and practicing asceticism. He lacked enthusiasm in preaching the Dharma.

This way of practice might be called “the Śrāvaka Vehicle with the celestial practice as skillful means”.

  • The celestial practices of other Indian religions emphasized asceticism, meditation (especially, deep concentration) and seclusion. The forest-dwelling bhikṣus shows a inclination to this kind of disposition.
  • Thus the celestial practices were adopted as a skillful means in the Śrāvaka Vehicle.
  • In other words, on the basis of the celestial practices, the three trainings was introduced to guide these practitioners to the liberation of Śrāvaka.
  • The ways the forest-dwelling bhikṣus practiced are in contrast to the ways the lay disciples did.

Another type of bhikṣus is called the village-dwelling bhiksus. They are entirely different from the two types of śrāvaka disciples mentioned above.

  • These monastic disciples, such as Śāriputra, Pūrṇa, Katyayana, and Ānanda, practiced the three undefiled trainings diligently. They had little material desires, and lived on whatever was available to them.
  • They neither desired for luxury items nor rejected good items offered to them. Regardless of the lack of food and shelter, their minds remained at peace. This is the life style of village-dwelling bhikṣus.

They are different from the lay śrāvaka disciples with respect to their renunciation and alms-seeking and they are different from the forest-dwelling bhikṣus in that they lived together harmoniously and engaged themselves in Dharma preaching as well as their self-practice.

  • The villages-dwelling bhikṣus form a Saṅgha community under the guidance of the rules of Vinaya. The number of people living together in a saṅgha community may range from ten to a few thousands. The 'Six ways to Harmonies' were the principles that guided them on how to live together.
  • They practiced diligently towards liberation with the support of this harmonious community. This is very different from the forest-dwelling bhikṣus.  

Apart from observing the precepts and developing concentration and wisdom, the village-dwelling bhikṣus also went for alms-giving in towns and villages.

  • They travelled among people and preached to people regardless of their religious background. This in turn promoted the teachings of the Buddha to the public and helped purify the society.
  •  The village-dwelling bhikṣus abandoned secular life and lived in a Saṅgha community, but they still maintained a close relationship with society. They were the ones who spread the teachings of the Buddha across the country.

Śākyamuni Buddha also led a life of village-dwellingbhikṣu.

  • He was always at ease regardless of the external conditions.
  • For example, he would frequently be offered delicious food, but sometimes the offering was just rice left over in the pot and occasionally there was no food and he would come back with an empty bowl.
  • There were times when the Buddha lived under a tree and there was also times when he stayed comfortably in grand buildings such as Jetavana Vihāra and Mṛgāramātṛ prāsāda.
  • Sometime he wore the garment of cast-off rags but he would also accept the offer of expensive gold-threaded robes. Regardless, the Buddha would accept the offerings and situation joyfully.

The Tenderness Sutra in Madhyama Āgama said that Buddha enjoyed whatever requisites was available with ease and was praised by people for being content and wanting little.

  • The village-dwelling bhikṣus do not fall into the extremes of sensuality-indulgence and self-mortification.
  • On the one hand, they lived together in community, felt contented with little requisites, traveled to teach Dharma to people. They performed their duties just like the lay disciples performed the righteous human conducts.
  • On the other hand, they lead a monastic life. They don't get married, but live a celibate and simple life. This is indeed close to the celestial practice.

In the Śrāvaka Vehicle, the practice of lay disciples is based on the practice of Human Vehicle. In contrast, the forest-dwelling bhiksus valued more the celestial practices. The practice of village-dwelling bhikṣus is a compromised combination of the human and celestial practices.

  • The practice of asceticism and seclusion was popular at that time in India. To adapt his teachings to such a circumstance, Śākyamuni Buddha adopted the tradition of going-forth (pravrajita).
  • But, the village-dwelling bhiksus represented the main stream of the disciples in Śrāvaka Vehicle. It is obvious that their practices are based on Human vehicle with emphasis on observing precepts and cultivating wisdom.
2 3 bodhisattva vehicle based on the human celestial and r vaka vehicles
2.3 Bodhisattva Vehicle Based on the Human-Celestial and Śrāvaka Vehicles
  • The Mahāyāna Bodhisattva Dharma was introduced to accommodate to the temperaments of the Indian people too.
  • Although truth is universal and eternal, in response to the ever-changing circumstances of different eras, it is unavoidable that Buddha Dharma (Human-Celestial and Śrāvaka Vehicles) and Bodhisattva Dharma (Bodhisattva Vehicle) were adapted to the temperaments of the Indian people in different times.

The Buddha taught the teaching of Human-Celestial Vehicle to accommodate the common right conducts in India. He also set up the supramundane teachings of Śrāvaka Vehicle to accommodate the reclusive yoga-practitioners in India.

  • The Bodhisattva Dharma unifies the mundane and supra-mundane teachings and constitutes the most profound and perfect teachings ever since.
  • The Mahāyāna Dharma flourishes only about 500 years after the Buddha entered Parinirvaṇa. During the earlier period of Buddhism, the word “śrāvaka” was used to refer to all the disciples of the Buddha, there was no Small Vehicle nor Great Vehicle. However, we still can identify two Bodhisattvas in this early period of Indian Buddhism, namely, Sākyamuni Bodhisattva and Maitreya Bodhisattva.

Before Śākyamuni attained Buddhahood, he was a Bodhisattva who followed the Bodhisattva Path.

  • Maitreya Bodhisattva had initiated Bodhicitta but he is not yet a Buddha. According to the sūtras, sixteen youths from the South of India visited the Buddha and vowed to follow his teachings. One of them was Maitreya who made a vow to attain Buddhahood. Buddha predicted that he would be the next coming Buddha in the future.
  • Both Śākyamuni Bodhisattva and Maitreya Bodhisattva lead a life similar to the one of a monastic disciple: they also abandoned household life, observed precepts and went for alms food.

These two Bodhisattvas possessed more profound wisdom and greater compassion and vow to serve all sentient beings.

  • The śrāvakas, the direct disciples of the Buddha, with less wisdom and compassion, listened to Dharma from the Buddha and eagerly sought the attainment of Nirvaṇa. Thus, they are very different from the two Bodhisattvas.
  • Maitreya Bodhisattva was described as one who "neither abandons [all] mental defilements nor cultivates [deep] concentration". This clearly reveals the unique spirit of the Bodhisattva Vehicle.

The spirit is even more highlighted in the Jātaka, past-life stories of Śākyamuni, which explain in great detail how the Buddha could not bear to see sentient beings killing each other and consequently initiated Bodhicitta; how he had been practicing loving kindness and compassion diligently; and how he taught Dharma without rest even when he was ill and old.

  • This is truly in contrast to the lifestyle of some disciples of the Buddha, who were eager to attain Nirvaṇa, reluctant to teach Dharma. Some would even bear hunger to avoid contact with villagers instead of going out for alms food.
  • The three attributes of the Buddha, i.e. wisdom, compassion, and diligence, are far different from the spirits of Śrāvaka Vehicle.
2 3 1 two types of bodhisattva in j taka
2.3.1 Two Types of Bodhisattva in Jātaka
  • In order to attain Buddhahood, a Bodhisattva is required to accumulate merits for three Asaṅkhyeya Kalpas.
  • The stories about the practice of the Buddha as a Bodhisattva in his past lives were recorded in Jātaka.
  • In Jātaka, two types of Bodhisattvas are found: One is the Bodhisattva in the human realm and the other is the Bodhisattva in the other realms.
bodhisattvas in the human realm
Bodhisattvas in the human realm
  • Bodhisattvas often appear at the time when Buddha Dharma does not exist.
  • They may be born as kings, ministers, elders, and even followers of heretics. They may live on trades, labor work, hunting, sailing, crafts etc. They lead a household life and sought benefits for others.
  • There are about 500 stories regarding the Bodhisattva Path. Treading on the Bodhisattva Path, the Bodhisattvas, when requested, are willing to give away everything they have, such as their livestock, elephants and horses even their head, eyes, brain, marrow; country, city.

There is a story about a scabies-infected patient who was in search of a specific cure, ie the blood and bone marrow of a human who never get angry.

  • The patient came to ask for help from Śākyamuni Bodhisattva, who was then a prince. Out of great compassion, he donated his blood and bone marrow to the patient.
  • Noticeably, to accomplish the great vow of serving all sentient beings, a Bodhisattva is prepared to give everything away.
  • They seek for the Dharma earnestly and would be willing to do whatever it takes, including peeling off their skin to be used as paper, piercing oneself for blood to be used as ink, and breaking apart the skeleton to be used as pens. They would be a slave for the sake of Dharma, without feeling regret.

As the Chinese saying goes, " I would not regret dying in the evening provided I would have come to know the truth in the morning." The moral of this saying is fully revealed in the Bodhisattva Path.

  • Bodhisattvas would regard keeping the precepts intact as more important than their own lives. When there is no alternative, they would choose to give up their lives rather than break the precepts. They also develop, with great courage, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom.

The Six Pāramitās or the Ten Pāramitās in Mahāyāna Buddhism sum up the attributes of the Bodhisattva practices as described in Jātaka.

  • The resolution to practice what is difficult to practice and to endure what is difficult to endure fully represents the underlying spirit of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the willing to help sentient beings with various kinds of skillful means.
  • This was what Śākyamuni did before he attained Buddhahood.
bodhisattva found in other realms
Bodhisattva found in other realms
  • There are also bodhisattvas found in the other realms, especially in the animal realm.
  • According to the Jātaka, a bodhisattva may be born as a deer king, dragon king, elephant king, peacock king, bird king, monkey king etc.
  • Why was a bodhisattva reborn in the animal realm? According to the ancient legends, animals can speak just like human beings and their behaviors exhibit honorable virtues. The Jātaka use the stories of animal bodhisattvas to show the bodhisattva spirit.

For example, one of the stories stated that once, a bird had discovered a fire spreading in the forest.

  • Worried that the intense fire would take the lives of the creatures in the forest, it flew to a river, soaked its feathers in the water, then flew back to the forest, and flapped its wings to sprinkle water on the fire. It flew back and forth again and again without a rest.
  • Śakra, lord of the devas told the bird that it was silly to do so because it was just wasting its effort. The bird responded and said, It doesn’t matter if he can manage to put out the fire in the end, what matters is he should do his best to save his relatives and friends who are still trapped in the forest by the fire."

The bird in this story was Śākyamuni in one of his past lives.

  • The great compassionate vow of sacrificing oneself for others, as highlighted by the story, deserves to be praised and taken as an inspiring model by human beings.
  • There were profound lessons to be learned in Jātaka stories. Having understood the moral hidden behind the stories in the Jataka, people should follow the compassionate vow and great deeds of these animal Bodhisattvas, whether they are a deer, elephant, or snake. These great beings are inspiring and worth following.

If these stories are taken literally as facts, we may say, the animals in these stories were the metamorphosis of the bodhisattva, who, out of great loving kindness and great compassion, spares nothing and endures suffering in order to help sentient beings.

  • The bodhisattva path as showed in the Jātaka illustrates the bodhisattvas’ spirits of serving sentient beings and Buddha Dharma. The Tien-Tai School called this the 'Bodhisattva of Piṭaka Teachings.’
  •  The Bodhisattva practices as recorded in the Jātaka are recognized by various Śrāvaka schools. From these stories, we can tell that among human bodhisattvas, only a few are monastic disciples, the majority are lay disciples.

We see that the Jātaka stories highlight two important facts about bodhisattvas.

  • First, bodhisattvas are born not only as humans, but also as animals. Second, they are usually born in the time when there was no Buddha. They can be a king, minister, elder, lay disciple, and even follower of other religions.
  •  A bodhisattva is an outstandingly virtuous person, very rare. So, unlike the śrāvaka disciples who lived together in a community, bodhisattvas did not form a community. As described in the Jātaka, most of the bodhisattvas practiced individually. This is the reason why a bodhisattva community was never found in Mahāyāna Buddhism.

In Jātaka stories, a bodhisattva could be reborn as a deer king, dragon king, elephant king, and etc.

  • From these stories, some people deduced that bodhisattvas are present everywhere. So the belief that bodhisattvas could manifest in any form as he wishes to relieve the suffering of sentient beings became stronger and stronger.
  • In contrast, the human Bodhisattvas who performed the great noble deeds were looked down as “Bodhisattvas who simply practiced the six perfections” .

These two aspects had great impacts on the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India.

  • There is no doubt that Buddhism in its early stages had put a lot of efforts in promoting the practice of the human bodhisattva to accommodate the dispositions of Indian people.
  • However, with the idea that Bodhisattvas practice individually and may manifest in the form of other creatures, some Mahāyānists, who adhered to this superficial understanding, became inclined to the idealism and mysticism of the celestial bodhisattva practice.

Mahāyāna Buddhism became popular about five hundred years after the Parinirvaṇa of the Buddha. As it is said, "Avataṃsaka in the first three seven days”, “Saddharmapuṇḍarika and Mahāparinirvaṇa in total eight years ", some people believed that the Buddha taught Mahāyāna sūtras when he was alive.

  • In fact, the teachings of the Buddha were at first transmitted orally from one disciple to another. The time when Mahāyāna sūtras were compiled and distributed was not early.
  • The Mahāyāna sūtras themselves usually say that the sūtra to be given started to circulate in the world around five hundred years after the Parinirvaṇa of the Buddha. Clearly, this was the evidence indicating the time when Mahāyāna Dharma became popular.
2 3 2 the close relationship between mah y na dharma and lay disciples
2.3.2 The Close relationship between Mahāyāna Dharma and Lay Disciples.
  • The Mahāyāna sūtras, such as the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, Prajñapāramitā Sūtra, and Mahāsamnipata Sūtra, appeared successively, so they differ from one another in their contents.
  • Generally speaking, Mahāyāna Dharma did not flourish based on a foundation of monastic disciples.
  • The śrāvaka disciples, as explained before, are grouped into three categories. The promotion of Mahayana Buddhism is in fact closely related to the lay disciples. This is deduced from some observations.

The Mahāyāna sūtras say that the Śākyamuni Buddha adopted a monastic appearance on the ground of skillful mean (i.e. to accommodate the recluse communities of other religions in India).

  • The true body of the Buddha was in fact a layman with hairs, who wears a celestial crown and necklace of precious gem. This was exactly how the Vairocana Buddha looks.
  • Many of the bodhisattvas appeared as lay people; for example, Manjuśri, Samantabhadra, Avalokiteśvara, Sudhana, and Vimalakirtī. In contrast, the monastic bodhisattvas are rare.

The Mahāyāna teachings were not necessarily preached by the Śākyamuni Buddha; in most cases they were given by the bodhisattvas.

  • For example, Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva is described to deliver to other bodhisattvas many sūtras on the truths unique to Mahāyāna.
  • Similarly, the Avataṃsaka Sūtra was presented largely by Vajragarbha Bodhisattva and Merit-Forest Bodhisattva. The Vimalakirtī Sūtra and Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras are, for the most part, delivered by the disciples of the Buddha.
  • In most Mahāyāna sūtras, the role of the Śākyamuni Buddha was to reassure the teachings taught by others. This implies that Mahāyāna Dharma was mainly promoted by lay disciples.

This is due to the fact that lay Buddhists deeply respected the supra-mundane teachings of the Buddha and live in a secular world.

  • The teachings of the Buddha spread among lay people, from city to village, from village to wild areas. In this way, the lay disciples were inspired and influenced by the teachings of the Buddha.
  • So, a form of Buddhism which centers on the laity, emphasizes the righteous human conducts, and extols both renouncing the world mentally and actively helping other beings, began to gain great popularity.

Some examples of this can be seen from the sutras.

  • First, the chapter 'Entering the Dharma Dhātu' in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra refers to Sudhana Bodhisattva as a model of searching for the Dharma vigorously.
  • The first three bodhisattvas he visited and learnt from were monastic disciples.
  • The rest were kings, judges, mathematicians, navigators, engineers, wanderers of other religions etc. These bodhisattvas are those to be followed and learned from by persons who practice the Bodhisattva Path.

Another example is the Chapter of 'Skilful Mean' in the Vimalakīrt Sūtra. The Mahāyāna teachings are delivered by Vimalakīrti mainly to the laities.

  • He gave different teachings to different people of different societal classes, such as the Brahmin, Kṣatriya, and other class.
  • When he meets a king, he teaches him about the way to run the country. In school, he educated the pupils under the guidance of Dharma. He even preached the Dharma at brothels and taverns.

These two bodhisattvas, one trainee and the other trainer, both integrate the righteous human conducts into the Dharma and make it more rational.

  • All the righteous human conducts become the right practices of bodhisattvas. This is different from the śrāvaka monastic disciples, who tended to lead the life of a recluse and emphasized on the meditative practice rather than the development of compassion.

The Bodhisattva Dharma based on the right conducts of Human Vehicle was adapted to and promoted by the lay people in India. This can also be clearly detected from the Mahāyānic practices. The practices of three Vehicles are shown in the following figure.


The supra-mundane Śrāvaka Dharma pays less attention to alms-giving. In contrast, the Human-Celestial Dharma does not address (supreme) wisdom.

  • The Bodhisattva Dharma, which is rooted in the six pāramitās, unifies the worldly and supra-mundane practices and constitutes the highest teachings of Buddhism.
  • Because Bodhisattva Dharma emphasizes the practice of helping sentient beings, it recognized the value of alms-giving and absorbed it into the Bodhisattva Path.
  • In the Jatāka stories, alms-giving results from great compassion. The true meaning of alms-giving is sacrificing everything one possesses, whether it is wealth, time or effort, in order to help others and resolve their problems.

The bodhisattvas of Mahāyāna enter the world, thus they have to practice alms-giving as much as possible.

  • Since the bodhisattvas also keep renouncing the world in mind, they do not neglect the development of wisdom. Wisdom guides the wholesome deeds such as alms-giving; and alms-giving in turn helps cultivate the supra-mundane wisdom.
  • In this way, Bodhisattvas enter the world while renouncing the world; renounce the world while entering the world.

The development of patience and perseverance does exist in Śrāvaka Vehicle.

  • But since Mahāyāna Dharma aims to benefit both oneself and others, these two virtues are emphasized and elaborated in a more detailed and profound way in Mahāyāna Buddhism.
  • Compassion and skillful means are the salient characteristics of the Bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna Buddhism. They are the tools the bodhisattvas adopt to help sentient beings.
  • Regardless of the circumstances, the foremost task of a Bodhisattva is always to help sentient beings.

The great compassion is the kind of compassion which necessarily goes along with wisdom. It is close to benevolence and love, but still not the same.

  • Skillful means is for adaption. The skillful application of wisdom, which results from loving-kindness and compassion, is the skillful means through which bodhisattvas are able to help sentient beings effectively.
  • From the analysis above, the Bodhisattva Dharma is based on the right conducts of Human Vehicle. Unifying the supra-mundane and worldly practices, it advances from mundane practice to the ultimate supra-mundane realization.
  • When the teachings of the Buddha spread around India, it gained popularity among the householders. As a result of this popularity, Bodhisattvas Dharma inevitably became popular and thriving.
2 3 3 how mah y na buddhism assimilates indian celestial practices
2.3.3 How Mahāyāna Buddhism Assimilates Indian Celestial Practices
  • However, the flourishing of Bodhisattva Dharma also included the flourishing of celestial practices.
  • The public in India appreciated the humanism of actively benefiting others. However, due to the long-time influence by other Indian religions, the belief in the celestial practices was also popular among Indian people.
  • Therefore, when Mahāyāna Dharma reached the public, in order to avoid unnecessary conflict with other religious beliefs, while being still human-centered, it started to assimilate some celestial elements of these religious beliefs.
  • This was how the celestial practices began to develop in Mahāyāna Buddhism.

I have said previously that Śrāvaka Vehicle is adapted to the temperament of such śramaṇas in India as the three Kāśyapa brothers and Mahākāśyapa, who used to practice asceticism.

  • They all followed heretic leaders in the first place, but were subsequently converted to Buddhism.
  • In contrast, the Bodhisattva Dharma, which centers on the lay people, was adapted to the temperaments of the lay people in India, such as the Brahman caste.

The Bodhisattva Dharma, which is adapted to the lay people, (1) emphasizes the human practices, also (2) inclines to the celestial practices.

  • The Mahāyāna Bodhisattvas, such as Sudhana, Vimalakīrti and Bhadrapāla, one of the sixteen Great Bodhisattvas, are examples of the bodhisattvas in the human world.
  • While Buddha was giving his teaching, the bodhisattvas from other worlds also come to listen. Whether the bodhisattvas were from this world or other worlds, the human body they took can be said to be the body of (high-level) deity, it’s similar to human, but bigger in size and more dignified in appearance.

Brahmanism in India values sacrifice, incantation, and asceticism. In the course of development, Mahāyāna Buddhism assimilated these elements of Celestial Vehicle and integrated these three practices into Mahāyāna teachings.

adopted sacrifice
Adopted Sacrifice
  • For example, the practice of making offerings in Buddhism is somewhat similar to sacrifice, though fundamentally they are still different.
  • During the time of the Buddha, lay disciples made offerings such as clothes, food and medicine at the end of the rain season retreat.
  • They did so on normal days too. Some disciples may even offered a monastic building to the Buddha and the saṅgha.

The monastic disciples respect the Buddha and their teachers, provide services to them, and follow the advices given. All these can be called making offerings. Making offerings is an ordinary activity and has nothing to do with sacrifice.

  • However, after the Parinirvarṇa of the Buddha, making offerings is different than before.
  • As the Buddha was no longer in this world, the statues of the Buddha became the objects to which offerings were made.
  • Incense, flowers, lamp, ointment, fruit and music were offered to the Buddha statues. This kind of offering was different from the one during the time of the Buddha and resembled the sacrificial ritual of Brahmanism.

For people who understood the teachings, making offerings to Buddha statues is simply a way to show respect and faith toward the Triple Gem.

  • According to the legend, there was a time when the Buddha went away (to preach dharma in the heavens) and the lay disciples missed him so much that King Udayana assigned craftsmen to carve Buddha statues out of sandalwood.[173]

About one hundred years after the Parinirvaṇa of the Buddha, King Aśoka constructed 84,000 stupas to house the relics of the Buddha.

  • The role of these stupas is like the one of the Buddha’s statues. It is clear that the usage of Buddha statue was not popular in the beginning.
  • Only later, the Buddha statues became more and more popular, and Buddhists paid more attention than before to the decoration and appearance of a monastery.

These practices developed gradually in Śrāvaka schools and attracted more attentions in Mahāyāna.

  • Many magnificent Buddha statues were housed in the stupas or shrines, surrounded by flags (s. dhvaja), banners (s.pataka), and precious parasols, in addition to the offerings mentioned above.
  • In front of these statues, Buddhists would perform religious rituals including prostration, repentance, and singing hymns in praise of the Buddha. The combination of these practices and Mahāyāna Dharma opened a new page of the history of Buddhism.
skiflul means
Skiflul means
  • As stated in the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharmapuṇḍarika Sūtra):
  • "Having honestly set aside skillful means,

I’ll teach only the unsurpassed path.”


  • "I employ special skillful means,

To help reveal the ultimate truth. “


The meaning of these two verses can be explained as follow:

  • The Buddha led a monastic life to teach the śrāvaka disciples who inclined to renouncing the world; this was simply a skilful means.
  • And so is the statement that the Two Vehicles (Śrāvaka and Pratyekabuddha) are ultimate.
  • Now it is the time to set aside this skilful means and reveal the authentic truth of Mahāyāna.
  • However, to uncover the authentic truth of Mahāyāna, some new and special kinds of skilful means are needed.

These new kinds of skilful means, according to the sūtras, include:

  • repairing and building stupas and monasteries, offering decorations, prostrating before a Buddha statue, recollecting a Buddha, and praising a Buddha, etc.
  • “If persons with distracted minds

should enter a pagoda or monastery,

once they exclaim, 'Salute to the Buddha!’

then all attainBuddhahood."


Different kinds of skilful means in Mahāyāna, such as the practices of prostrating, making offerings, repentance, transferring merits, and requesting the Buddha to teach the Dharma, evolve on the memorization of the Buddha.

  • These practices constitute the ‘Easy Path' as explained in the Daśabhūmika-vibhāsā-śāstra and the “Ten Great Vows”, as described in the “Chapter of Entering Dharma” in the Avataṃasaka Sūtra.

On the one hand, Mahāyāna emphasized the practice of actively helping sentient beings in this human world, on the other hand, it developed to fulfill the religious sentiment of the common people.

  • Through these practices, one cultivates a strong and pure faith. On the basis of this faith, one is led to develop great compassion and practice the Bodhisattva path.
  • In Mahāyāna, the followers are taught, with skilful means, to accumulate merits and develop faith, Their minds are filled with solemnity and joy.
  • This way of teaching is different from that of Śrāvaka Vehicle, which directly puts emphasis on the direct development of wisdom and a life of diligence and simplicity.
  • The original teaching about karma of the Buddha is as follows: "Whether to take rebirth in celestial realm or to attain liberation, it depends on oneself only rather than others.“
  • When Mahāyāna teachings became popular, the idea of depending on the power of others [Buddha or Bodhisattva] gradually began to develop.
  • Incantation is one of the main practices in Brahmanism. According to Nāgārjuna, a difference between the Great Vehicle and Śrāvaka Vehicle is Dhāraṇī. Dhāraṇī is related to incantation.

In the early Mahāyāna sūtras, such as the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, and Mahāsamnipata Sūtra, there are the so-called Forty Two Syllables, i.e. Syllable Dhāraṇī.

  • When practicing the 'Syllable Dhāraṇī', it is not necessary to recite all forty-two syllables, but five, sixteen, or even just one syllable will do. The Eight Great Dhāraṇī is common in Mahāyāna Buddhism.
  • The 'Syllable Dhāraṇī' in Mahāyāna Buddhism is developed to accommodate the temperament of the Brahmin. According to Brahmanism, in order to attain liberation, one may recite the syllable 'Aum‘ and at the same time visualize the 'Brahman'—which has neither birth nor death, is the elemental substrate of everything.

If one visualizes the Brahman mentally and recites the syllable 'aum' verbally, he is able to see the “Supreme Self” and attain liberation when the practice fullly succeeds.

  • The forty-two syllables in Mahāyāna are based on the vowel 'A'. The vowel 'A' means “unborn and unceasing”, which is the nature of all phenomena.
  • Each one of the 42 syllables is connected with the vowel 'A'. In reciting these syllables one is contemplating the true nature of everything: “unborn and unceasing”.
  • The practice of "Syllable Dhāraṇī", as explained in the Avaṃatasaka Sūtra and Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, if practiced successfully, can leads to anutpattika-dharma-kṣānti.
  • This is contemplating the sound and form in order to penetrate Dharma nature. Though not much is said, this practice is similar to the function of incantation.

In the later development of Buddhism, Indra, Rakṣasa and Yakṣa etc. all recite mantras to protect Buddha Dharma.

  • Gradually, every action was accompanied with a mantra and mudrā, and this developed into the practices of Esoteric Buddhism.
  • Initially, Mahāyāna Buddhism adopted the incantation practice only as a skilful means. Unfortunately, Buddhists later forgot the purpose of this practice in the early time.
  • As a result, instead of transforming the practices of other religions, Buddhism itself was gradually influenced by other religions.

The early Śrāvaka Dharma was the most unsophisticated. And Mahāyāna Buddhism relatively emphasizes humanitarianism, and at the same time adopts much more celestial practices from other religions.

  • There are two main reasons for this. First, those who aspired to follow the Mahāyāna path at that time were mainly the ordinary folk, who were deeply influenced by Brahmanism. Second, when Mahāyāna emerged, the celestial practices in Brahmanism flourished again, which gradually became what is called Hinduism today.
  • The celestial practices adopted by Mahāyāna did succeed in response to the circumstance, but they also covered up the true spirits of Mahāyāna practices.
  • In regards to asceticism, some reclusive practice in the Śrāvaka Vehicle, such as the twelve Dhūtāṅga practices, still fall into the category of right path, in a strict and assiduous form.
  • However, many meaningless ascetic practices were adopted in the Mahāyāna Dharma at its later stage, such as burning one’s own arms, burning incenses on the head, and giving up the body.
  • In summary, the three important practices in the Indian religions: sacrifice, incantation, and asceticism were clearly absorbed and blended into the teachings of Mahāyāna.

Although there were śrāvaka practitioners when Mahāyāna Buddhism was flourishing, they were not the audience intended in the Mahāyāna sūtras.

  • In most Mahāyāna sūtras, the śrāvaka monastic disciples were criticized.
  • For example, in the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, when the goddess scatter flowers, the flowers touch on the Bodhisattvas and immediately fall off their bodies, but when they fall on the body of Śāriputra, they cling to it. Vimalakīrti then explained that Śāriputra had not severed all habituated tendencies (vāsanā).
  • Mahāyana sūtras also criticized the śrāvaka monastic disciples as the “burnt buds and broken seeds”, or “stupid dogs”.

In Mahāyāna Sūtra, the śrāvaka disciples, like Mahākaśyapa, also regret about their attainment of arhantship, which prevent them from turning to the bodhisattva path. (3 V)

  • Some Mahāyāna sūtras say that the śrāvaka disiples once initiated Bodhicitta before, but later forgot it.
  • The Lotus Sūtra further states that all trainees ( śaikṣa) and arahats ( aśaikṣa) among srāvaka disciple would enter into the Great Vehicle and work towards Buddhahood. (1 V)

In brief, during the initial development of Mahāyāna, the śrāvaka disciple were not the main concern of Mahāyāna Dharma, rather they are secondary to the practices of Human Bodhisattvas and Celestial Bodhisattvas.

  • It was only when Mahāyāna Buddhism gained its wide popularity that the Mahāyāna come to acknowledge that śrāvaka practitioners will eventually return to the Great Vehicle from the Small Vehicle, and advance to Buddhahood eventually.

“Relying on this human body to attain Buddhahood”(即人成佛) is the essence of Buddhism.

  • From the explanation showed above of how different teachings are adapted to the diverse temperaments of sentient beings, we can easily grasp the unique attributes of the teachings in Human Vehicle, Celestial Vehicle, Śrāvaka Vehicle and Bodhisattva Vehicle.
  • The Mahāyana Dharma turned the direction of Buddhism from the emphasis on the śravaka practices, which are adapted to the celestial practices of recluses, to the emphasis on the Bodhisattva path, which stresses the (righteous) human conducts, entering the world.

It’s true that, in order to make the Dharma more adapted to the common folk, Bodhisattva Dharma recognized certain celestial practices, such as sacrifice, incantation, asceticism, or even reclusion and yoga, and thus revolved gradually into a form of Buddhism where the attainment of Buddhahood necessarily relies on the practices of Celestial Vehicle.

  •  Nevertheless, the early Mahāyāna Buddhism was adapted to human beings, it emphasized more righteous human conducts and embraces a kind of libration which does not neglect the righteous human conducts.
  • This early Mahāyāna Buddhism indeed attaches much importance to righteous human conducts and meanwhile assimilates and purifies the celestial practices.

Although Bodhisattva Vehicle and Śrāvaka Vehicle in Buddhism are respectively adapted to people who incline to the righteous human conducts and people who incline to the celestial practices, these righteous human conducts and celestial practices in Buddhism are not the same in nature as those in other religions.

  • The practices of alms-giving, morality, meditation, and wisdom in Buddhism are the experience of purifying the mind and body, also they do not go beyond the human ethics.

The fact that Buddha emerged in this human world implies that that the Buddha values two things: this human world and the attainment of Buddhahood.

  • What we call 'Human-Centered Buddhism' is neither the same as the righteous human conducts as practiced by other religions, nor the same as the practices of Human Vehicle of Buddhism.
  • It is a form of Buddhism where one directly heads to the Bodhisattva path through the righteous human conducts, or to put it differently, one follows the Bodhisattva path without neglecting the righteous human conducts.

What was is said as “Relying on the world to leave the world” and “Leaving the world without neglecting the world” is now changed to be “Relying on the human body to attain Buddhahood” and “Attaining Buddhahood without neglecting human duties”.

  • To attain Buddhahood is to purify and develop the human nature. It is the ultimate perfection of the human nature.
  • We should understand that Human-Centered Buddhism does not amount to worldly charity activities. It provides a clear blue print for human beings, from the perspective of the ultimate Buddha Vehicle, on how a human can head directly to achieve Buddhahood.

[Recorded by Ren Jun]

  • (Translated by Dr. Tan Beng Tiong, edited by Mandy Phan, proofread by Venerable Neng Rong 22-1-2004.)