(102) Section 4: The Rise and Fall of Polytheistic Civilization II
Chapter 1: The Indus
8-1 The Silk Road and Buddhism in East Asia
So what exactly is Mahayana Buddhism? The encyclopedia Britannica has this to say:
Mahayana, (Sanskrit: “Greater Vehicle”) movement that arose within Indian Buddhism around the beginning of the Common Era and became by the 9th century the dominant influence on the Buddhist cultures of Central and East Asia, which it
Central to Mahayana ideology is the idea of the bodhisattva, one who seeks to become a Buddha. In contrast to the dominant thinking in non-Mahayana Buddhism, which limits the designation of bodhisattva to the Buddha before his
awakening (bodhi), or enlightenment, Mahayana teaches that
anyone can aspire to achieve awakening (bodhicittot-pada)
and thereby become a bodhisattva. For Mahayana Buddhism,
awakening consists in understanding the true nature of reality.
While non-Mahayana doctrine emphasizes the absence of the
self in persons, Mahayana thought extends this idea to all
(Britannica Online Encyclopedia, “Mahayana Buddhism,” by
Jonathan A. Silk, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mahayana)
One man responsible for one of the most perceptive (and accessible) interpretations of pre-sectarian Buddhism’s “development” into Mahayana Buddhism happened to be one of Japan’s greatest historical novelists, Ryotaro Shiba (1923-1996). (Mahayana Buddhism once derogatively referred to early Buddhism as the “Inferior” or “Small Vehicle.”)
In Kono Kuni no Katachi, Shiba has harsh words for the Pre-sectarian Buddhists and their self-interested pursuit of salvation and Arhatship. As a contrast to their religion, which he describes as intended for the “one-in-a-million prodigy,” he brings up Mahayana Buddhism:
For early Buddhists, the generative force for Mahayana Buddhism came in the form of a simple question:
Enlightenment is a wonderful thing, but if ordinary people have
no chance of attaining enlightenment, why not worship those
who have? Imagine what Siddhartha Gautama would have
thought? Never in a million years would he have dreamed of
being worshiped as a god after his death…. The original Buddhism saw enlightenment as the objective.
There was no thought of salvation…
Quite remarkably, Mahayana Buddhism brought with it the idea
(Ryotaro Shiba, Kono kuni no katachi, Bungeishunju Ltd.,
In another one of his essays, in Kegon (Avatamsaka) to be exact, a title derived from the Kegon Kyō (Avatamsaka Sutra), one of the fundamental sutras of Mahayana Buddhism, Shiba discusses the sutra’s influence on the Japanese people.
The Avatamsaka Sutra itself describes Buddhas, those who have achieved enlightenment, as Vairocanas (from “shining light”), and describes the origin of the universe as existing in a state of mutual dependence with the Vairocanas. In other words, Vairocanas are at times seen as the personification of Buddhism’s idea of emptiness, and are at other times considered a symbol of the “selflessness” (namely the practice of Bodhisattva) that is the path to Buddhahood.
△ Great Buddha of Nara, Todaiji Temple, Nara, Japan. ©duca_v2
In the end, the sutra certainly made a profound impression on Emperor Shōmu (701-756, reigned 724-749). With a yearning to appease his people and to bring peace and stability to the imperial family, the ruler issued an official rescript to erect a massive gilt bronze statue of the Buddha—a request that demanded enormous resources and (at the time) a unique-in-the-world casting to build what we know now as the “Great Buddha.” The Great Buddha still stands as the central focus of Todai-ji Temple Daibutsu-den Hall in Nara. Inside, the seated figure, completed in the year 749, soars into the temple’s heights some fifteen meters. Soon after its completion, a ceremony to consecrate the massive statue with a ceremonial insertion of the pupils was carried out in 752. For the period, large cast-bronze effigies of the Buddha were extremely rare, even in China, then, the most advanced Asian nation.
Before long, Mahayana Buddhism had triggered a new wave of sculptural commissions. But the Buddha of pre-sectarian Buddhism was the historical Siddhartha Gautama; his followers considered him their magnificent superior, a beloved teacher.
This is why, in this early Buddhism, besides the stupa and the remains (or relics) of Siddhartha (shari in Japanese) contained inside, only the so-called Buddha footprints (often stone engravings on platforms of an imprint of the Buddha’s foot) and the teachings of the Siddhartha himself formed the corpus of Buddhist symbolism and iconography.
Gandhara—a Merging of Buddhist and Ancient Greek Culture
Ancient India was home to another prominent Buddhist leader, one equally admired as the Buddhist patron King Ashoka. Kanishka I of the Kushan dynasty, the great uniter of northwest India in the second century, reigned over an area that reached all the way to Gandhara (east to northwest Afghanistan), a region known for its strong cultural interchange with Greece.
△ Buddhist Stupa in Swat, Pakistan. ©sakhanphotography
And in Gandhara was the Indo-Greek king Menandros Milinda or Menander I Soter (reigned 155-130 BC), who, born to a Greek family, was known for his conversations with the sage Nagasena of the early Buddhist schools. Today, in the classical Buddhist text (sutra) The Questions of King Milinda, we can read about Menander’s questions, and read firsthand Nagasena’s cogent and clear answers to enigmatic questions covering everything from “emptiness” to the idea of “luck.” Many have described the sutra as reading more like an excerpt from one of Plato’s dialogues than a typical Buddhist scripture, and I agree:
'It is like milk, which when once taken from the cow, turns,
after a lapse of time, first to curds, and then from curds to
butter, and then from butter to ghee. Now would it be right to
say that the milk was the same thing as the curds, or the
butter, or the ghee?'
'Certainly not; but they are produced out of it.'
'Just so, O king, is the continuity of a person or thing
maintained. One comes into being, another passes away; and
the rebirth is, as it were, simultaneous. Thus neither as the
same nor as another does a man go on to the last phase of his
'Well put, Nâgasena!'
(The Sacred Books of the East: The Questions of King Milinda,
trans. T. W. Rhys Davids, [Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1890])
Clearly, India was not the only culture that left its imprint on Gandhara. Greek influence remained strong in the region and was, given its location on the Silk Road that connected Europe with China, a kind of cultural bridge between India and China.
Gandhara was also the birthplace of the Buddhist statue as a consequence of its exposure to Greek sculpture.
When Gandhara was under the influence of the Kushan dynasty, Mahayana Buddhism had already taken hold. Put simply, Buddhists were already worshiping the Buddha.
Early Buddhist statuary were, just like Greek statues, made of marble. Their form, however, was “Hinayana-esque,” that is, sculptural depictions of a starving and emaciated Siddhartha. Gradually, this severe aesthetic gave way to a peaceful and dignified Buddha as divine.
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Editor/ Noriko Knickerbocker , Aquarius Ltd.
Translator/ Matthew Hunter , Aquarius Ltd.
©Motohiko Izawa 2018-2019 All rights reserved. No reproduction or republication without written permission.