Mahayanists and the historical record

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
Dan74
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Dan74 »

BlackBird wrote:
Lazy_eye wrote:Hello,

The original question was:

"how Mahayanists establish faith when posed with the same question of historical attribution. Is the literal word of the Buddha just not that important in Mahayana? Do they reckon that those who wrote the later sutras were enlightened as well, and so justify their attribution to being the Buddha's word as being forgivable and not a detraction from the supposed dharma within the sutra?"

One answer is that the Mahayanists took up the notion of a transcendental, superhuman Buddha, one who is capable of appearing to highly-attained practitioners and providing them with teachings. The idea goes back to early Buddhism and was a feature of Mahasamghika thought and practice. It may derive from certain passages, in the Sutta Nipata, where the Buddha is presented in rather mystical and superhuman terms. Guang Xing's The Concept of the Buddha discusses this at some length.

If this is the case, then Mahayanists (and their Mahasamghika forebears) would be inclined to reject historicity as the basis for distinguishing legitimate buddhavacana, because they ultimately reject the notion of a human being who taught for a number of years and then died, leaving behind a limited number of teachings. A transcendental Buddha is by nature capable of appearing at any time, and can give teachings to those able to engage him. The more rationalist tendencies within Buddhism would of course dismiss this as mere hallucination.

Just sharing what I gleaned from my studies of this question awhile back, for those interested.
Ah very interesting. It is responses like these that I was hoping for. Answers to how Mahayanists tackle the problem, without setting it a side :D

Thank you for reporting back on your studies :)

metta
Jack
I guess I am uneasy with Lazy Eye's response because it seems to posit a "transcendental superhuman Buddha" as opposed to the immanent human us... This is very alien to Mahayana that I studied. The three bodies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trikaya/) etc are, a far as I can tell, founded on the teachings that the limitations and hindrances that we perceive are karmically conditioned and can be removed. That we can all transcend them, because they are empty, unreal, created by the mind. So this notion of a superhuman Buddha is possibly misleading.
_/|\_

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BlackBird
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by BlackBird »

Good post Dan, my question would be, are conceptions of the trikaya different between Zen and Vajrayana?
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." - MN. 70 Kitagiri Sutta

Path Press - Ñāṇavīra Thera Dhamma Page - Ajahn Nyanamoli's Dhamma talks

Dan74
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Dan74 »

BlackBird wrote:Good post Dan, my question would be, are conceptions of the trikaya different between Zen and Vajrayana?
I don't know but suspect they are hardly monolithic on this and other issues. Both traditions are informed by the same root texts (that I am thinking of), however.

I confess not to have much insight into the trikaya teachings and as for concepts, I try to steer clear of those!

Trikaya teachings, as far as I know, have not been used to ascribe the authorship of the sutras to the Buddha traditionally. Most Mahayana Buddhist have (and probably still do) believe them to have been taught by the historical Buddha.

As for me, I suspect the key texts were passed down orally for quite some time before getting written down. They may have originated with the Buddha, or an enlightened monk of a later time and over time acquired more importance and new authorship. It is kind of comical how some people seem to imagine an evil Mahayana monk sitting somewhere in the bushes and concocting a forgery with the Buddha's name on it. I don't think that's how things worked in those days.
_/|\_

plwk
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by plwk »

...are conceptions of the trikaya different between Zen and Vajrayana?
Here's some for your kind perusal...
The Late Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera's 'Trikaya - The Three Bodies of the Buddha'
The Sixth Patriarch's teaching on the Trikaya
The Four Kayas

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Monkey Mind
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Monkey Mind »

Jack, I have been asking the same question as the OP for years. (I appreciate how gracefully you have tread on this topic.) One answer I received was especially helpful for my understanding, I don't know if this helps you with yours:

Buddha (Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni) taught using many metaphors, similes, and allegories. Many of these lessons would be lost to us today if it weren't for the commentaries, because the metaphor was culturally or linguistically bound and the language or culture has changed. The Mahayana traditions allow for/ believe in/ emphasize the possibility of modern day Awakened teachers who can paraphrase the Dharma into the language of today, in a way that is understandable/ accessible to modern people and local customs. So those traditions have produced Chinese Awakened teachers, Tibetan awaken teachers, Japanese awakened teachers, etc., and believe this continuity to be essential for the survival of the Dharma.

It is not enough of an explanation for me to change the flag I sail under, but it was enough that I don't worry so much about the other flags out there.
"As I am, so are others;
as others are, so am I."
Having thus identified self and others,
harm no one nor have them harmed.

Sutta Nipāta 3.710

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Mojo
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Mojo »

The way I see it, our mental state is a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is Samsara and on the other side is Nirvana. Our actions and thoughts contribute to where on this spectrum our mental state is. So for me, it is completely unimportant whether the historical Buddha was real or not. He is an ideal at one side of the spectrum and any teachings that help cultivate a mental state on that side of the spectrum is a good one.

There is a verse from the Bible:

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?se ... ersion=NIV
Matthew 18:21-35
New International Version (NIV)

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. [ a]

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold [ b] was brought to him.

25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,' he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’

27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. [ c ] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master
everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.

33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’

34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”


So despite not believing in the divinity of Jesus, I hold this teaching in high regard as one that can help us cultivate a mental state on the Nirvana aside of the spectrum. And even if Jesus, the Mortal Son of Mary and Joseph, never actually lived, I still say this is a wonderful teaching. The teaching is wonderful on its own merit!

The Dhamma is wonderful on its own merit!

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Lazy_eye
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Lazy_eye »

Dan74 wrote: I guess I am uneasy with Lazy Eye's response because it seems to posit a "transcendental superhuman Buddha" as opposed to the immanent human us... This is very alien to Mahayana that I studied. The three bodies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trikaya/) etc are, a far as I can tell, founded on the teachings that the limitations and hindrances that we perceive are karmically conditioned and can be removed. That we can all transcend them, because they are empty, unreal, created by the mind. So this notion of a superhuman Buddha is possibly misleading.
Hi Dan :hello:

Yes, but can we agree that Mahayana is very broad and diverse? And Zen, particularly stemming from Dogen, has a pronounced rationalist strain, at least compared to other schools and traditions.

But if we look at the Avatamsaka Sutra for example -- well, it certainly seems to be presenting a transcendental vision. I don't know how else one could read it. There are also various early sutras (unfortunately I don't have the references handy, so I'm only as good as my word here!) that explicitly present this or that disciple as achieving profound meditative absorption and then being taught by a Buddha.

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Prasadachitta
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Prasadachitta »

For me Historical accuracy is but one factor in confidence. Another factor is that the Buddhist Tradition as a whole Mahayana or Theravada has given rise to Awakened beings Like:

Tsong kappa, Nagarjuna, Dipa Ma, Milarepa, Sariputra, Achaan Cha, Padmasambahava, Pema Chodron, Buddhadasa, Atisha, Buddhagosa, Shantideva, Anagarika Dhammapala

Those are just a few and I personally regard all of these as Awakening to the Dhamma at least to some meaningful degree. I expect that there have been many more over the ages who either have not been recorded in any way, who I just haven't thought of today or who I don't know about. As far as Im concerned It is important that the core principles of what can be realistically attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha are not contradicted by later teachings. For me much of what can be found in the Mahayana is a helpful expansion on the Buddhas teaching by way of specific practices and doctrinal elucidation. Not to mention the helpful aspect of the arising of faith when hearing about the life stories of many of the practitioners within that branch of the tradition.

This is why I would never call myself either a Theravadin or a Mahayana Buddhist. I am a Buddhist first.


Prasadachitta
"Beautifully taught is the Lord's Dhamma, immediately apparent, timeless, of the nature of a personal invitation, progressive, to be attained by the wise, each for himself." Anguttara Nikaya V.332

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Aloka
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Aloka »

Monkey Mind wrote: Buddha (Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni) taught using many metaphors, similes, and allegories. Many of these lessons would be lost to us today if it weren't for the commentaries, because the metaphor was culturally or linguistically bound and the language or culture has changed. The Mahayana traditions allow for/ believe in/ emphasize the possibility of modern day Awakened teachers who can paraphrase the Dharma into the language of today, in a way that is understandable/ accessible to modern people and local customs. So those traditions have produced Chinese Awakened teachers, Tibetan awaken teachers, Japanese awakened teachers, etc., and believe this continuity to be essential for the survival of the Dharma.
As a former Vajarayana practitioner, I can honestly say that I found Theravada and many of the Buddha's teachings in the Pali Canon a revelation and a much needed breath of fresh air.

The endless array of deities, protector deities, guru devotion, supplication to lineage gurus etc, as well as stories of former gurus being trasported up to 'heavens' -for example to receive teachings from Maitreya in Tushita Heaven, the 'protection chords', blessings and amulets ,the superstitions and add ons were all too much in the end.

So I'm not so convinced personally that it can be termed 'survival' of Dhamma, because with respect, it seemed rather like a different religion to me. It isn't my intention to offend anyone, I'm just being honest.


With kind wishes,

Aloka

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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Samma »

The dating of the earliest Mahayana sutras, like that of all ancient Indian texts, is extremely problematic. The earliest firm date we have for the existence is the late second century ce when a number of Mahayana sutras were translated into Chinese by Lokaksema. Many Mahayana sutras as we have them show evidence of a particular kind of literary history: an older core text is expanded and elaborated; thus the sutras translated by Lokaksema originated possibly a century or so earlier in India. Most scholars push the date of the earliest Mahayana sutras back into the first century BCE, but the production and elaboration of Mahayana sutras certanly continued for a number of centuries. For their part, however, the Mahayana sutras present themselves as teachings which, having been originally delivered by the Buddha himself, were not taught until the time was ripe (Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism, p. 224-5)
So hey, they may have just made stuff up and attributed it to the Buddha. But I suppose they would argue that pali cannon lost some teachings, is not the whole story, etc. Why not ask them:
http://www.dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=39&t=12214

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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Nyana »

waimengwan wrote:I would use inferential logic, if the practice of Theravada just stops at becoming a Arhat, then surely there are methods to become a Bodhisattva and Samyak Sambuddha like Shakyamuni.
The Theravāda commentators acknowledge that there are different vehicles for different levels of awakening. The path of a bodhisatta includes the development of the perfections over a very long period of time. This is explained in A Treatise on the Pāramīs by the Theravāda commentator Ācariya Dhammapāla:
  • We now undertake a detailed explanation of the pāramīs for clansmen following the suttas who are zealously engaged in the practice of the vehicle to great enlightenment (mahābodhiyāna), in order to improve their skilfulness in accumulating the requisites for enlightenment....

    In detail, to those whose minds are disposed towards the enlightenment of disciples, he gives a discourse establishing and purifying them (in progress towards their goal) by elaborating upon the noble qualities of whichever among the following topics is appropriate.... So too, for beings whose minds are disposed towards the enlightenment of paccekabuddhas and of perfectly enlightened Buddhas, he gives a discourse establishing and purifying them in the two vehicles (leading to these two types of enlightenment) by elaborating upon the greatness of the spiritual power of those Buddhas, and by explaining the specific nature, characteristic, function, etc., of the ten pāramīs in their three stages.
And Dhammapāla adds:
  • Since it [i.e. the great aspiration to realize mahābodhi] has as its object the inconceivable plane of the Buddhas and the welfare of the whole immeasurable world of beings, it should be seen as the loftiest, most sublime and exalted distinction of merit, endowed with immeasurable potency, the root-cause of all the qualities issuing in Buddhahood. Simultaneous with its arising, the Great Man enters upon the practice of the vehicle to great enlightenment (mahābodhiyānapaṭipatti). He becomes fixed in his destiny, irreversible, and therefore properly gains the designation “bodhisattva.” His mind becomes fully devoted to the supreme enlightenment in its completeness, and his capacity to fulfill the training in the requisites of enlightenment becomes established. For when their aspiration succeeds, the Great Men correctly investigate all the pāramīs with their self-evolved knowledge which prefigures their future attainment of omniscience. Then they undertake their practice, and fulfill them in due order, as was done by the wise Sumedha when he made his great aspiration.
The development of the perfections and the bodhisatta's aspiration are explained in A Manual of the Excellent Man by Ven. Ledi Sayādaw:
  • I shall now outline the ten ordinary perfections, the ten higher perfections, and the ten supreme perfections....

    One who can fulfil only the first ten attains the enlightenment of a Noble Disciple. One who can fulfil only the first ten and the second ten attains the enlightenment of a Solitary Buddha. One who can fulfil all thirty attains Supreme Self-Enlightenment...

    What is meant by “the Noblest Aspiration”? It is the verbal and mental undertaking that the bodhisatta had made at some point of time aeons before taking up the perfections. It was made in these terms:

    “As a man who knows his own strength, what use is there to get to ‘the yonder shore’ (nibbāna) alone? I will attain to Supreme Knowledge and then convey men and devas to the yonder shore.”

    That was the pledge that sent the ten thousand universes reeling and echoing in applause. That was the bodhisatta’s earnest wish. For he intensely aspired to Supreme Self-Enlightenment thus:

    “Knowing the Truth, I will let others know it. Freeing myself from the world, I will free others. Having crossed over, I will enable others to cross.”

    This fervent and most daring aspiration is called “the Noblest Aspiration.”

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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by Nyana »

BlackBird wrote:I am truly interested (without polemical or nasty intent) to understand how Mahayanists establish faith when posed with the same question of historical attribution. Is the literal word of the Buddha just not that important in Mahayana? Do they reckon that those who wrote the later sutras were enlightened as well, and so justify their attribution to being the Buddha's word as being forgivable and not a detraction from the supposed dharma within the sutra?
According to the Mahāyāna Adhyāśayasaṃcodana Sūtra as quoted by Śāntideva in his Compendium of Training (Śikṣāsamuccaya), four principles indicate that an utterance (or statement, teaching, etc.) is compatible with the speech of the Buddha:

(i) it is connected with truth, not with what is untrue;
(ii) it is connected with dharma, not with what is not dharma;
(iii) it leads to giving up defilement, not to increasing defilement;
(iv) it points out the praiseworthy qualities of nirvāṇa, not those of saṃsāra.

It's important to understand that the Mahāyāna is not a single school or tradition, and that Mahāyāna ideas likely developed over a considerable period of time. Historically, going back to the texts of Indian authors we can surmise that the Mahāyāna movements were not universally accepted by all Buddhists, even as late as the 6th - 8th centuries CE. Mahāyāna authors during this time period still felt compelled to engage in Mahāyāna apologetics in order to defend the Mahāyāna teachings. One of the most thorough defenses of the Mahāyāna is found in the fourth chapter of Bhāviveka's Tarkajvālā (6th century CE). He states Śrāvaka objections to the Mahāyāna and offers various replies giving reasons in defence of the Mahāyāna. It's an informative read for anyone interested in this aspect of Buddhist history.

Of course, long before Bhāviveka there are defences of the Mahāyāna in numerous Mahāyāna texts -- some of which include impassioned, defensive posturing and rather indignant name-calling. It's been suggested that this defensive rhetoric is a characteristic of small, embattled groups existing on the margins of more established, mainstream groups. For more see Rhetoric of a Marginalized Yāna.

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mikenz66
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by mikenz66 »

Hi Jack,

Yes, it is interesting how different your perception is from mine.

Your reply to my comment that I take faith from Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and hence historicity is not so important to me as to you is interesting. I think that this is relevant to the topic, in that, as I understand it, the various Mahayana schools put a lot of emphasis on awakened disciples from hundreds or thousands of years after the Buddha's time. Whereas it seems to me that some "Theravadins" here (presumably including you) have doubts that the Theravadin commentators (and therefore many modern-day teachers) understood what they were talking about, let alone that some of them were awakened (a strange conundrum).

You seem to be comparing, therefore, a "modernist historic" (as in zavk's post: http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.ph ... 20#p239573)form of Buddhism to Mahayana, not Theravada itself.
BlackBird wrote:I have at times thought the same way Mike.

But applying a skeptical rigour, it became more important to cut right to the heart of the matter. That is, if I were existing during the Buddha's time, and I came across a teacher who claimed that enlightenment was possible but was not themselves enlightened, my fundamental question would be: Well where's your proof? Wheres your proof that your path leads where it says it does?

The Buddha claimed to be the enlightened one, many of his followers claimed to have attained arahantship, and the Dhamma encourages one to come and see for oneself. But if there was no Buddha, no arahants, no ariyans. The skeptic in me would ultimately come to think: "Well, where's the proof that this path leads where it says it does?"

That is why I ended up following Nanavira Thera's teachings. Because fundamentally here was a guy whom made the claim (to his preceptor and was later published following his suicide) that he had attained sotapatti. He said ya know, this is what's wrong with the traditional method, I've got a good reason to think so (sotapatti) they're quite mistaken, follow my method and you'll get there yourself, proof is in the pudding.
So, as you say, you've rejected the general Theravada, so your question is not about Theravada vs Mahayana at all.

For me Ven. Nanavira is just another monk with some interesting ideas. I don't see any reason to take him (or various other modern interpreters) more seriously than some of the teachers I have read, know, or have known, most of whom have been/were monks considerably longer than Ven Nanavira. I simply don't buy into the "one or two people have it right, the rest don't" idea.

Sorry to be blunt. I have found it interesting to read, and/or meet, a variety of iconoclastic monks, so it's not that I think that such views are not worth considering. At the very least as a means of sharpening up one's analysis.

But if your faith is based on one very specific interpretation, then it seems to me that it may be somewhat fragile:
BlackBird wrote: So I'm willing to try it out. Maybe if it doesn't work I'll return to a traditional interpretation at some point and I don't discount other people's methods or teachings like I once did, I say this to show you there are correlations between my faith in the Buddha and my faith in Nanavira Thera. Hopefully it clarifies my method of thinking on this subject: That my faith is predicated on truth and factuality (not to suppose yours or others are otherwise :))
:anjali:
Mike

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manas
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by manas »

BlackBird wrote:One of the primary foundations of my faith in Theravada and Early Buddhism is the historical record, and the likelyhood that the Early teachings represent the true word of the Buddha, and that later writings were written by others who were probably not enlightened or at least of a status unknown, and thus not to be taken as Buddhavacana.

I am truly interested (without polemical or nasty intent) to understand how Mahayanists establish faith when posed with the same question of historical attribution. Is the literal word of the Buddha just not that important in Mahayana? Do they reckon that those who wrote the later sutras were enlightened as well, and so justify their attribution to being the Buddha's word as being forgivable and not a detraction from the supposed dharma within the sutra?

This is the reason I never became a Mahayanist. I think if the historical record was in doubt or at least foggy enough to warrant that the Mahayana sutras could have been the Buddha's word I probably would have become one.

metta
Jack
Maybe not everyone puts the same priority on what is regarded by most scholars as historically accurate. Some individuals might have different priorities in faith as in life, for the choices they make. I'm like yourself, when I first got interested in Buddhism I quickly investigated for myself, "ok which school is the most original and authentic one?" That was a big priority for me. But it might not be for everyone. Some might (just for example) tend to make life choices guided more by faith, intuition, or even the personality of the teacher. On that note, I do observe that despite not sharing some of their scriptures or beliefs, that some of the Tibetan / Mahayana masters are really kind, calm, wise human beings who inspire me. Consider Thich Nhat Hanh for example. His teaching style isn't my cup of tea, but goodness what an amazing human being! What an inspiring example of kindness, compassion and peace! Same goes for some Tibetan monks I've heard or encountered too. For some people, that could be what matters most to them, their topmost 'selection criterion'.

metta :anjali:
To the Buddha-refuge i go; to the Dhamma-refuge i go; to the Sangha-refuge i go.

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BlackBird
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Re: Mahayanists and the historical record

Post by BlackBird »

Mike

I have faith in the Sangha too, I don't think it's fair to assume I don't. Neither do I really think it's fair to make the judgement on what this discussion is and isn't about, when our meta discussion is quite separate from the OP.

The original discussion is not about Theravada vs Mahayana, and was never intended to be, it was me asking how Mahayana deal with the intellectual problem of justifying the ascription of the Sutras to the Buddha, when the evidence shows that they are probably not the word of the historical Buddha and furthermore and perhaps more important since it is more general: How the Mahayana generate their saddha when their texts and thus their doctrine was probably not spoken by the historical Buddha.

Finally I don't really know if it's a fair judgement to call into question the strength of my faith based on a single post you've read on a forum. In the depths of my ignorance and foolishness - my fall from grace - I never once gave up the idea that the Buddha as supremely enlightened, that the Dhamma was the path to enlightenment and that the Ariyan sangha was a living embodiment of both, and that the non-ariyan Sangha was a refuge unto itself for it's protectorship of Dhamma and the yogic way of life.

I didn't really ask you for you to reiterate how you feel about Nanavira and to express whether you feel he is what he says he is, to do so was in my opinion fairly gratuitous, when I brought it up simply to give you a parallel example of my thought process. Just as the original discussion was not Theravada VERSUS Mahayana, but simply one man's curiosity with how his Buddhist cousins deal with a conundrum, so too our meta discussion is not Nanavira Thera vs. Theravada. The willingness (in your previous post) to reduce everything to a polemic is quite at odds with my specific statement in my OP that I had no intention of this thread being such a thing.

Please do not mistake the severity of my words for me being upset, you haven't offended me - For offending me is a rather difficult thing to do these days. Nor is there any ill will, I still very much consider you with good will. I just suggest you should be more cautious in your judgements, I don't presuppose to judge the foundations of your practice or it's veracity. You could be spot on the mark and a sotapatti for all I know. But I don't know.

with metta
Jack
Last edited by BlackBird on Sun Apr 07, 2013 11:51 pm, edited 5 times in total.
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." - MN. 70 Kitagiri Sutta

Path Press - Ñāṇavīra Thera Dhamma Page - Ajahn Nyanamoli's Dhamma talks

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