Friday, 30 August 2013

The Teacher of The Law

Last time I looked at Shakyamuni’s enlightenment after overcoming temptation from the devil under the Pipal (Bodhi) tree, and this time I wanted to look at how he started to teach this profound wisdom and how his teachings developed until the time of his death.

Turning to Chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra, we find that Shakyamuni wanted to teach people but worried they wouldn’t be able to grasp this profound teaching.  T’ien-T’ai believed from his research - and the following extract - that Shakyamuni tried to teach the Flower Garland Sutra and the interconnectedness of everything to the local people during this 21 day period, and their inability to understand gave him cause for concern.  In his earlier teachings Shakyamuni mentioned the re-appearance of Mara encouraging him not to teach this law to others as they wouldn’t understand it.  This was followed by the appearance of Brahma to encourage him to share this wisdom with the world.  In the Lotus Sutra we don’t have the appearance of Mara, but the text shows that Shakyamuni was struggling to think of how he could teach people and whether his efforts would be worthwhile or not. 

“When I first sat in the place of enlightenment and gazed at the tree and walked around it for the space of three times seven days I pondered the matter in this way.  The wisdom I have attained, I thought, is subtle, wonderfull, the foremost.  But living beings, dull in capacity, are addicted to pleasure and blinded by foolishness.  With persons such as this, what can I say, how can i save them?

 At that time the Brahma kings, along with the heavenly king Shakra, the four heavenly kings who guard the world, and the heavenly king Great Freedom, in company with other heavenly beings and their hundreds and thousands and ten thousands of followers, reverently pressed their palms together and bowed, begging me to turn the wheel of the Law.

Immediately I thought to myself that if I merely praised the buddha vehicle, then the living beings, sunk in their suffering, would be incapable of believing in this Law.  And because they rejected the Law and failed to believe in it, they would fall into the three evil paths.”  (LSOC2, p76 - 77)

Previous teachings mention that next Mara said to Shakyamuni that rather than live with the knowledge that he would be unable to save people he should take his own life and enter nirvana, but again in the Lotus Sutra we find this as an internal thought process that is quickly resolved, when Shakyamuni decides to break this wisdom down into more manageable chunks of information that would be easier for people to understand:

“It would be better if I did not preach the Law but quickly entered into nirvana.  Then my thoughts turned to the buddhas of the past and the power of expedient means they had employed, and I thought that the way I had now attained should likewise be preached as three vehicles.  (LSOC2, p 77)
This internal dialogue is interesting because it shows that a Buddha, or someone enlightened to the reality of the universe, is not a God or someone who has escaped from the suffering and pain of everyday life.  They still face the same trials, temptations, desires and sufferings as others, but choose to make continuous efforts, drawing on this Buddhist wisdom, to make the right choices in their life.  

Throughout the rest of his lifetime, Shakyamuni taught thousands of sutra in an effort to lead people towards Buddhahood and to fulfil his “... vow, hoping to make all persons equal to [him], without any distinction between us.”  (LSOC2, p70).  Some of these sutra were very short and some very long, some were based on useful practices and skills, others based on useful knowledge.  Some were stand alone teachings, some refuted what had gone before and others confirmed that previous sutra were the true path to Buddhahood.  In 6th century China, T’ien-T’ai categorised all of these teachings into periods and he came up with the following: 

Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Garland Sutra)
Shakyamuni’s first attempt to lead people to enlightenment proved too challenging at the time and he realised he would need to break the teaching down into smaller steps that people could understand.
This was the start of the Hinayana, or Therevadan, teachings.  Both the Therevadan and Vinaya schools come from this period, as do the early schools of RITSU and  SHINGON.
Early Mahayana Sutra, including Vimalakirti, Muryoju, Amitayus & Amida Sutras.  This period also included some of the esoteric sutras.
At this time Shakyamuni refuted the earlier teachings and started to teach the provisional Mahayana teachings.  Some of them focus on ways to be reborn into a perfect land in the next life.  The PURE LAND school comes from these teachings, as do some of the later ideas of the SHINGON and RITSU schools and the ZEN schools.
Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, The Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra
These refute the provisional Mahayana teachings and lead people to a higher level Mahayana teaching, such as supreme wisdom, non-substantiality, etc. in preparation for his final teachings.
Immeasurable Meanings Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Sutra on How to Practice Meditation on Bodhisattva Universal Worthy and the Nirvana Sutra
The earlier teachings allowed followers to overcome the earthly desires that were understood to cause suffering and achieve a state of peace and calm, but Shakyamuni now felt the time was right to reveal in The Lotus Sutra how all people could acquire the same profound enlightenment he himself had attained.  These teachings are the foundation of the early Tendai schools and Nichiren Buddhism.

As you can see, the final years of Shakyamuni’s life were dedicated to revealing the complete wisdom that he had awoken to more than 40 years before.  He now felt that he had laid all of the groundwork necessary and, although he still knew that “the door to this wisdom [was] difficult to understand and difficult to enter”  (LSOC2, p56), he decided the time was right to teach the complete truth of the universe, life and death and how to achieve absolute happiness in this lifetime.   This ultimate teaching was the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra, including it’s opening and closing sutra, and his final teaching, delivered on the day he died, was the Nirvana Sutra.  This DIDN’T replace the Lotus Sutra, but confirmed that the Lotus Sutra was his final teaching which contained the complete wisdom of his enlightenment.  He also wanted to warn his followers that Mara (the Devil King) would change his shape into that of a Buddha and try to destroy Shakyamuni’s correct teaching.  For this reason, the Nirvana Sutra also advised his disciples that they should continue to follow the Mystic Law of the Universe, rather than deifying or worshipping him (or any other future Buddhist leaders).  

NEXT TIME – A look at some of the early Buddhist teachings.

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