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The Path to Liberation for the Buddhist Laity

What is the path to liberation for the Buddhist laity? This is a question hard to answer only in a few words. If a number of Buddhist devotees coming from different parts of Asia were asked, they would give more than one reply. It is hard to define not because there is so little of it but because there is so much.

In the Buddha’s time, the question might never be raised among them. With his transcendental wisdom (sarvathajnata), the Buddha mastered so thoroughly all the paths of liberation as well as Buddhist practitioners’ various capacities that he could lead them to the ultimate aim successfully. What they had to do then was to listen to him devotedly and did their best to cultivate his teaching. Such was their way of practicing Buddhism and among them, as it is recorded in many Buddhist texts, many achieved liberation.

After the Buddha’s parinirvana, their practice gradually changed. As lay practitioners, they had to depend on the Sangha, yet the Sangha changed, too. The passing away of their great teacher had left a vacancy that none of the Sangha could fill. Without him as a firm support, his disciples had to rely on themselves for everything—managing the Sangha affairs, preserving and interpreting the Buddha’s teaching, propagating it in different parts of India. It was indeed not a light burden for them—those who were trying to fulfill, by themselves, the task that would be perfectly achieved only by an Enlightened One. In his lifetime the Buddha himself was the only authority in solving most of important affairs concerning the Dharma and the Sangha. Several events skillfully treated by him could have become great hindrances to the Dharma and the Sangha if they had been dealt with by anybody who was not capable of attaining such great wisdom and compassion. It seems that his immediate disciples realized this burden so early that they tried to carry out two major tasks soon after their teacher’s passing away—collecting as much teaching of his as possible and keeping up the Sangha’s unity. Whether the Buddha’s teaching was collected personally or collectively, earlier or later, his disciples certainly had a great success; for no religion in the world today has such great literature as Buddhism. Thus the first task might be carried out effectively, but what about the next one.

During his more than forty-five years’ preaching, the Buddha kept all the time to the aim of liberating all sentient beings out of the cycle of Life-and-Death, yet the teaching he resorted to was not always of one and the same form. Indeed, various cases of achieving liberation by his disciples under his direct instruction showed that the Buddha was rarely strict and partial in his teaching. On the contrary, he was very free to offer various paths of liberation so that each devotee could, in his particular circumstance, reach some level on his way. Probably there had not been anything called “the only way toward the cessation of suffering” as it was recorded in some interpretations later. Indeed, the Noble Eightfold Path is academically interpreted to be the best way [1] toward the final aim but it is not the only one. Many, many monks, nuns as well as lay people in the Buddha’s time are said to have reached the goal without strictly cultivating the so-called noble path.[2] This discloses the fact that to bear in mind some recollection of his teaching is not sufficient for those who want to make it effective for either their own or others’ cultivation, especially those teachings concerning such highly abstract matters as mind, enlightenment, nirvana. The Buddhist teaching in general is the way of cultivating the mind—an aspect in which any achievement is normally too abstract to gain some common approval from those who have not shared the same experience Furthermore not any of this teaching can be put into practice without some interpretation of it. As a result, if some have grasped a teaching in a certain way, they may find it much easier to agree with what they have personally experienced of it than to accept it interpreted in another way. This may have caused some aspects of the Buddha’s teaching to be elaborately studied, systematized and developed while the others either superficially taken up or unfairly neglected. More than forty-five years of preaching was a period long enough for the Buddha to present his complete view of all that he thought to be necessary to those who would walk on the same path as his. And after he had passed away, he left a great treasure of literature for them. Certainly his disciples tried their best to preserve his precious heritage as well as possible; and their mission was not only to preserve it but also to propagate it, to make it accessible to every type of mentality. The latter task, however, seemed to be not so easy for them to accomplish as the former one. No doubt their common ideal was to present Buddhism as a whole and, in thus doing, the safest way for them was probably to keep firm to what they had been taught and try to expound it according to some unanimous way of interpretation. If the entire Pali canon treasured in Sri Lanka, inclusive of the Abhidhamma literature, is exactly the same as all that the early Sangha collected and developed right after their teacher’s death, it may be found that they had succeeded far more in forming some fixed dogma of the Buddha’s teaching  than in setting forth a commonly satisfactory presentation of Buddhism as a whole. No doubt their interpretation must have been based upon their own knowledge and experience acquired under the direction of the Buddha, which sufficiently authorized any interpretation they offered. But to meet the needs of all types of mentality such a fixed and one-sided way of interpretation seemed to be not enough. The essential significance of the Middle Path, for instance, which is recorded in Samyutta-Nikaya and denotes the avoidance of the two extreme views concerning the reality of all things [3] is completely ignored in the whole literature of Abhidhamma and shifted to the level of a purely moral way of living by avoiding self-indulgence and self-mortification. This may prove that in Buddhism it is only with the perfect wisdom of an Enlightened One that a preacher can successfully assist people of various capacities in their quest for liberation, and that any presentation of Buddhist teaching may easily fall into some partial vision unless a complete view of it is attained by preachers through their abandoning ‘the ignorance freed from the defilement’[4] . This appeared to be an exceedingly irrelevant requirement for the early Sangha since none of them professed such a comprehensive and intensive knowledge as the Buddha’s as they were all refusing to pass the threshold of Buddhahood. Accordingly the early Sangha had succeeded in interpreting and systematizing the way to liberation in the scope of a cultivator’s aspiration for Arhatship and keeping up the Sangha’s activity for several decades. But the unity of this religious community, which had been once founded and ever made glorious by an extremely talented leader, seems to have been maintained only by means of some traditional authority. For it was about a century after the Buddha’s parinirvana, that is, probably right after the passing away of the last member of the early Sangha, that there was found the arising of the need, among the subsequent generations, for more comprehensive and intensive interpretations of Buddhist teaching. Then the Sangha was inevitably split in two—Sthaviravadins and Mahasamghikas. If relying exclusively on some judgement recorded in an account from Sri Lanka [5] , any Buddhist today would easily arrive at the conclusion that it was due to some incapacity of some members of the Sangha for observing the strict disciplinary code of such a noble monastic life and cultivating the wonderful teaching of such a holy path of liberation that they had committed offenses against traditional Buddhism. Nevertheless, what went on to happen after the first “schism” of Buddhism right inside India of the day and what is being manifested by the “unorthodox” Buddhist religion in the world today will surely not allow us to admit such a simple conclusion. The fact that not only did the Mahasamghikas but also the Sthaviravadins go on to be divided into many different sub-sects is the most obvious evidence that the need for a perfect presentation of Buddhism as a whole, that is, both the Buddha’s teaching and the Buddha himself, is the major motive for so many systems of interpretation in the sectarian period. Indeed, it is really hard for a scholar of Buddhism today to state that what such well-known sub-sects as the Lokottarakas, the Sarvastivadins, and so on have contributed to the development of Buddhism in its literature and propagation does proceed from those who “twisted the teaching round” or “destroyed much of the spirit by holding to the shadow of the letter”.

From a popular standpoint the historical appearance of two and then eighteen to twenty, so to speak, different systems of doctrinal interpretation concerning the essentials of Buddhist teaching from the end of the early Sangha onward may show a tragic image of the exceedingly divided community of Buddhist monks. From a deep standpoint, it marks the first period of Buddhist development, which reveals to us that what the Buddha has transferred to the world during his more than forty-five years’ appearance on earth can hardly be strictly molded in any fixed dogma without losing its universal multiplicity. The Buddha’s apparently simple teaching conveyed in such practical parables as those of “blind men’s speculations as to an elephant”, “the fish’s doubt as to the tortoise’s personal experience of ‘swimming on the ground’”, and so on remains the valuable reminder for Buddhist practitioners that there is always much more to Buddhism than any speculations made by a particular individual with naked eyes and logical reasoning. Indeed, various ways of interpreting Buddhist teaching attempted by many different sects ceaselessly advanced new views of different aspects of Buddhist teaching, which were conducive to forming the first stage of development both in Buddhist literature and in the Sangha’s activity; but it did bring about no change for the Buddhist laity.

Preoccupied with preserving the Buddha’s teaching handed down from the preceding generations and developing it according to their own exegeses, most of them [the Sangha] tended more and more to withdraw away from the lay community. They had compiled a great number of valuable exegeses and commentaries on the way for the Sangha to attain Arhatship but they had left nothing for Buddhist lay people to attain the same aim. The only way they could help them was to repeat the Buddha’s discourses as to the duties of a Buddhist layperson in relation to the Sangha, his family and society. They advised them to lead a good life to be reborn in higher heaven. And if some of them asked for a path to the Sainthood, they would be answered, always the same, “Join the Sangha”.

Some of them might obey the Sangha’s instruction and be content with a religious way of living as an ordinary follower; but some might not submit themselves to their fate. The vivid images of some of their ancestors, who had successfully liberated themselves out of the cycle of transmigration under the direct instruction of the Buddha himself, undoubtedly remained a long-standing aspiration in their mind and ceaselessly discouraged them from seeking for another bondage to any lifetime throughout the Threefold World. But how could they make their dream true while the path to liberation required so many conditions? Everything was too noble for them to adapt themselves to unless they decided to become members of the Sangha—noble practitioner (aryapudgala), noble community (aryaSangha), noble path (aryamarga), noble fruit (aryaphala). It is said that there was some tendency of idealism and popularization in some sects in contrast to that of sterile formalism and secluded nobility in the others; but it was not strong enough to make a great change in the whole background of Buddhism and not intensive enough to set forth some effective practice for those lay people who were not satisfied with the perspective of being continually drawn into the vortex of transmigration. If the Buddha’s teaching went on to be scholastically developed, it would be meant only for the happy few. Indeed, for lay people the Noble Eightfold Path was not the way but the goal. How could they gain a noble view or an insight into the reality of Dharmas, and the like in the midst of a world where they were at all times overwhelmed and submerged by so many afflictions and illusions? And if they did not renounce the world to cultivate such complex methods as suggested, for instance, in the Abhidhamma-pitaka, how could they have a right view of the Dharmas as they are, to speak nothing of entering the Stream of Sages? If the Buddha’s words had been as fixed and dogmatic as only what their spiritual instructors were interpreting and handing down to them, there would never have been such lay people , who were initiated to gain an immediate escape from the bonds of defilement and ignorance before entering the Sangha, as Yasa, Khema, Baddaji, Sumana, and so on.

Historically the glorious images mentioned above had not been earnestly evoked in Buddhist lay people’s mind for nearly several hundred years after the Buddha’s parinirvana until the appearance of those monks who could not endure seeing Buddhism solitarily enclosed within separate monasteries and gradually faded into a purely scholastic doctrine by some development of doctrinal argumentation. They appealed to the Sangha for a truly practical and comprehensive survey of all the aspects of Buddhism. So much of what the Buddha had declared to the world was neglected in the sectarian period that it needed being vividly restored. If the Sangha, being concerned only about their own happiness, focused their attention exclusively on developing what related closely to their path of liberation, Buddhism would be in danger of becoming step by step alien to its original function as a missionary religion and eventually it would soon die away in monasteries. In order to keep Buddhism original in its energy and make it alive in a society so abundantly permeated with many different religious and philosophical systems as India of the day, an attempt of preserving and presenting the Buddha’s teaching in some particular aspect was not enough.  The way toward the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment trodden by the Buddha could not be counted as starting only from the time he decided to leave the palace in Benares for an ascetic life. What he declared explicitly about his own quest for absolute freedom reminded Buddhist devotees that a complete triumph over defilement and ignorance, which guaranteed a human being’s absolute freedom, could not be plainly gained through some years’ effort but through immeasurable merits in countless lives in the past[6] . For that reason, the former lives of the Buddha, for instance, could not be preserved merely as the unrelieved images magnificently congealed in a Buddhist’s mind of a hero whose deeds were wise and clever enough to gain worldly success and temporary welfare for himself or some other beings but not expressive enough of his aspiration for the ultimate salvation of all suffering beings. The main theme and the intrinsic meaning of these lives needed being so profoundly and effectively interpreted and systematized that they could become a path to liberation for everybody as it had been useful for the Buddha himself.

The Buddha’s parinirvana could not be interpreted as an entire extinction of what is of an Enlightened One. His physical body perished but all that he had experienced in his enlightenment and, thereby, had made himself a being transcending all the bonds of defilement and ignorance, of the cycle of Birth and Death could not be limited in space and time as in the case of any unenlightened being throughout the Threefold World. The Buddha’s ideal, therefore, could not be interpreted as being embodied in any form of worldly elements, even in that of the Sacred Scriptures. Any words of the Buddha which are repeated, recited and reported are exactly no longer the same ones, for they have lost all the elements of a Buddha’s power[7] . In his lifetime the Buđha used to speak, for instance, “Come, O Bhikku!” (Pali, Ehi Bhikkhu!) for the purpose of admitting him into the Sangha. Later the statement was recorded in the Scriptures but none of his disciples was capable of using it in the same way It is not because they did not understand the meaning of the expression but because they did not attain the level of an Enlightened One to make use of what is called ‘skill-in-means’ in Buddhism. The Buddha’s teaching is generally considered to be means for cultivators to achieve the ultimate aim; but it is not of the ordinary sense of the term, that is, a means leading to an aim, and hence being quite different from an aim. The Bodhi-Mind, for instance, which a Buddhist practitioner in some traditions of Buddhism is taught to develop within himself at the first stage of his process of transformation, is viewed as a means to abandon all causes and conditions for the arising of defilement and ignorance and at the same time to encourage him to move to the ultimate goal; but it is, in turn, the essence of the highest aim in Buddhism[8] . Thus, a skillful means is that which proceeds only from the Buddha’s wisdom, or at least, from the wisdom similar to that of the Buddha. Such a means, when it is recorded in the Scriptures and adopted by somebody, must certainly be modified by the instructor’s level of understanding, the listener’s capacity and his particular circumstance It is only with some experience of the same as the Buddha’s that a practitioner penetrates truly into what he has taught. The theorists of the second stage of Buddhist development, therefore, cannot accept the idea of the Buddha’s ideal ‘existing’ in such a restrictive form of Scriptures. From their view it is expressed in the Scripture but it is not the Scripture itself. Furthermore, it is too superficial to form such a conception as to the ideal of all the efforts to be made in Buddhism since Buddhism would then become something like a type of Nihilism if the ultimate significance of its whole teaching were meant to lead to an entire extinction.

Therefore, they, on the one hand, tried to reaffirm the ideal of Buddhism in its highest sense, that is, transcending the concepts of extinction and non-extinction. In other words, the Buddha’s ideal must no doubt be beyond conditions of any kind, even the abstract description through human language From such a view, the Scriptures may be considered as a means but not the ‘body’ of Dharma. In thus doing their first achievement is to abandon the dualistic view of Nirvana as a state of antithetic negativity more or less formed in any evaluation of the ultimate aim of Buddhism and, at the same time, place it back in its original meaning, that is, being beyond the range of human beings’ karmic consciousness. On the other hand, they tried their best to make the ideal accessible to every type of mentality. For this purpose, they courageously refused to participate in endless discussions made by the sects about the orthodoxy of Buddhist teaching. According to them, the meaning of orthodoxy must be understood in the highest sense of the term if the Sangha do not want to watch Buddhism fade away step by step in monasteries. The first and last motive of every Buddhist practitioner’s aspiration for enlightenment, even in the case of the Buđha, is nothing but that for the benefit of all beings. The reason why the Original Buddhism had succeeded in making the background of Indian society better and better was that its leader himself together with a few of his earliest disciples had resolutely affirmed the motive in their first presentation of Buddhism to the public. Any attempt to preserve Buddhism in its exactly similar form was, of course, a worthwhile mission; but in order to develop Buddhism as successfully as in the early time it is the very essence but not the form of Buddhism that needs being preserved and presented. Thus, in addition to preserving the early scriptures as noble means for a small number of practitioners, they spared no pains to compile a voluminous body of Buddhist teaching, which could convey the Buddha’s words in a much more practical and comprehensive manner, so that not only one but also many, many paths would be found and followed by anyone who would go on with his attempts of attaining absolute freedom.

It is not possible here to give a complete account of all that has been achieved in the second stage of Buddhist development, which has been graphically designated as ‘the greater vehicle of Buddhist teaching’ (Mahayana). Nevertheless, the two points mentioned above—the development of the Bodhisattva Path and the awakening of Buddhist practitioners’ faith in the transcendental existence of Buddhas—may be typical enough to give a definite image of an open escape for Buđhist lay people out of the formalistically doctrinal dilemma encountered in the sectarian period. The former reminded them that the path to enlightenment was, too, meant for them. The latter awakened them that, besides what they could see with their naked eyes and think of in the range of their karmic consciousness in the Realm of Desire, they could not ignore the mutual relation between their practice of Buddhist teaching and the Realm of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. For them the two stages in the development of Buddhism are equally essential to their aspiration for absolute liberation as both present the way to liberation out of the cycle of transmigration. However, in practice, it is due to the ideal of saving all sentient beings, which is affirmed not only as a mission after one’s own enlightenment but also as the essence of one’s course toward enlightenment, that a lay practitioner can distinguish between them. The difference will perhaps become clear with the help of the following parable.

“Let’s suppose that there is a famine somewhere, a terrible famine of the kind that still happens in Africa. People are gaunt and emaciated, and there is terrible suffering. In a certain town in the country which has been struck by this famine, there live two men, one old, one young who each have an enormous quantity of grain, easily enough to feed all the people The old man put outside his front door a notice that reads: ‘Whoever comes will be given food.’ But after that statement there follows a long list of conditions and rules. If people want food they must come at a certain time, on the very minute. They must bring with them receptacles of a certain shape and size And holding these receptacles in a certain way, they must ask the old man for food in certain set phrases that are to be spoken in an archaic language. Not many people see the notice, for the old man lives in an out-of-the-way street; and of those who do see it, a few come for food and receive it, but others are put off by the long list of rules... When the old is asked why he imposes so many rules, he says ‘That’s how it was in my grandfather’s time whenever there was a famine What was good enough for him is certainly good enough for me. Who am I to change it?’ He adds that if people really want food they will observe any number of rules to get it. If they won’t observe the rules they can’t be really hungry. Meanwhile the young man takes a great sack of grain on his back and goes from door to door giving it out. As soon as one sack is empty, he rushes home for another one. In this way he gives out a great deal of grain all over the town. He gives it to anyone who asks. He’s so keen to feed the people that he doesn’t mind going into the poorest, darkest and dirtiest of hovels. He doesn’t mind going to places where respectable people don’t usually venture The only thought in his head is that nobody should be allowed to starve Some people say that he’s a busybody, others that he takes too much on himself. Some people go so far as to say that he’s interfering with the law of karma. Others complain that a lot of grain is being wasted, because people take more than they really need. The young man doesn’t care about any of this. He says it’s better that some grain is wasted than that anyone should starve to death. One day the young man happens to pass by the old man’s house The old man is sitting outside peacefully smoking his pipe, because it isn’t yet time to hand out grain. He says to the young man as he hurries past, ‘You look tired. Why don’t you take it easy’ The young man replies, rather breathlessly, ‘I can’t. There are still lots of people who haven’t been fed.’ The old man shakes his head wonderingly ‘Let them come to you! Why should you go dashing off to them?’ But the young man, impatient to be on his way, says ‘They’re too weak to come to me They can’t even walk. If I don’t go to them they’ll die’. ‘That’s too bad,’ says the old man. ‘They should have come earlier, when they were stronger. If they didn’t think ahead that’s their fault.’ But by this time the young man is out of earshot, already on his way home for another sack. The old man rises and pins another notice beside the first one. The notice reads: ‘Rules for reading the rules.’”[9]



It is recorded in the Buddhanusmrti-Paramita Sutra (The Perfect Remembrance of Buddha) that Sucandra, a wealthy Buddhist layman, once said to the Buddha,

“O Bhagavat, just as a blind turtle [that surfaces from the depths of an ocean only once every hundred years] chances to encounter a tree trunk with a hole [suitable for nesting], it’s so hard to be reborn as a human. [It’s hard to be reborn as a human] but it’s ten thousand times harder to be born in the Buddha’s time. It’s hard to be born in the Buddha’s time, but it’s ten thousand times harder to hear the Dharma. It’s hard to hear the Dharma, but it’s countless times harder to practice in accordance with the Dharma.

Why is it so, Bhagavat? From my view, among the eighty-four thousand wonderful Dharma-gates that have been taught by the Tathagata for the purpose of enabling all sentient beings to understand and penetrate into Buddha-Wisdom, there should be a wonderful Dharma-gate for saving evil, deluded and suffering sentient beings. Today, for the sake of all suffering beings in the Dharma-Ending Age as well as the wealthy men, lay people, Brahmanas, Ksatriyas, Sudras in the city of Rajagrha, I entreat Bhagavat to make pity on us, showing us a very easy path to liberation, a shortcut to achieve Buddha-Wisdom.

As Bhagavat has ever taught, sentient beings of this world (Jambudvipa) in the Dharma-Ending Age are stubborn, mind-scattering, burdened with heavy karma, eager for the five sensual pleasures, undutiful to parents, not respectful to the elders, unwilling to take refuge in the Triple Gem, incapable of observing the Five Precepts, ready to do evil of all kinds, refuting the saints, and so forth. Therefore I think that there should be a very easy, very simple, very favorable path for them to avoid falling into evil paths, cease the cycle of transmigration throughout the Threefold World, enjoy the pleasures of Dharma, and swiftly attain the Supreme Enlightenment.

Why is it so, Bhagavat? About a thousand years after your passing away, it’s the Dharma-Ending Age when sacred texts gradually disappear, sentient beings are of mean capacity, stupid, firmly self-grasping, full of defiled thoughts and false views, fond of doing evil. Therefore, it’s inevitable for them to reap [in retribution] earthquakes, famine, infectious diseases, wars, floods, crop failures, storms, drought, sages’ disappearance, sentient beings’ shorter and shorter longevity. Even though some of them make up their mind to practice [Buddhist teaching], they cannot cultivate precepts, meditation, wisdom, ‘non-outflow’ emancipation. Nor can they cultivate the Four Mindfulnesses, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Right Efforts, the Four Immeasurable Minds, the Six Perfections, that is, the Perfection of Charity through the Perfection of Wisdom. They cannot cultivate the means of Insight (vipasyana) for understanding and penetrating into Buđha-Wisdom; nor can they attain the stages of Srotaapanna, Sakrdagamin, Anagamin, Arhat. They cannot realize the First Stage of Dhyana through the Fourth Stage of Dhyana; nor can they realize the Wonderful Mind of Nirvana. They cannot enter deeply into the Immeasurable Samadhi and the Spiritual Power of Non-restricted Salvation (abhinjna-vikridita) of Bodhisattvas. They cannot penetrate into the solemn, supreme realm of Buđhas; nor can they strew the Seat of Meditation with grass and beat the drum of Dharma to conquer Maras.

Therefore we, Buddhist lay people, think that we must raise the Bodhi-Mind to entreat Bhagavat to declare a wonderful Dharma for the benefit of all suffering beings in the Dharma-Ending Age”

Obviously, Sucandra’s entreaty gives us, to some extent, a brief description of Buddhist practitioners’ general circumstance about one thousand years after the Buddha’s parinirvana.  Some details of his exposition concerning the afflictions we may reap from our faults and the Dharma-gates we cannot go through may be more or less experienced or understood by most of Buddhist lay people today. According to Buddhism this is the time when Buddhist teaching can no longer be so effectively practiced and realized as earlier since people are not capable of cultivating the path to Supreme Enlightenment themselves. This is the reason why Sucandra asked the Buddha for a suitable path for them; however, what is stated at the end of his entreaty reveals to us that it is not the major motive of his whole exposition. The source from which Sucandra and all the lay people at the Buddha’s discourse can raise their concern about all sentient beings in the future is the Bodhi-mind, or rather, their very development of the Bodhi-mind.

‘To develop the Bodhi-Mind’ is the decisive factor in a lay Buddhist’s religious life. Without it his decision to have taken refuge in the Triple Gem and practiced the Five Fundamental Precepts remains nothing but a good impression that would die out easily whenever he is so much indulged by good opportunities in life that he feels unnecessary to depend upon such spiritual support and merits for his “success” and “happiness”. To avoid such a fatal failure that has repeatedly happened in his countless lives, a Buddhist devotee must have something much more powerful than a momentary impression. In his decision of taking Buddhism as a refuge he has awakened within himself a faith in the values of the Buddhas’ teaching in transforming his life, yet the faith is too passive to keep him consistent in his process of religious transformation. What he needs at his first steps on the path is not something like a piece of coal but like a burning one. It is only with something energetic like this that he can keep up his long path to the ultimate liberation. And here the Mahayanists suggest that he should turn his faith into an inexhaustible ‘aspiration’ for Supreme Enlightenment. In Mahayana teaching this transformation is commonly designated as ‘the development of Bodhi-mind’.

Terminologically, ‘to develop the Bodhi-mind’ is a literal translation of the Sanskrit expression bodhicittopada. This is a rather ambiguous way of translating. To avoid any misunderstanding of it, which may be caused by such a convenient way of translating, a reader of Buddhist literature can find the detailed descriptions of it in some Buddhist texts, especially in Gandavyuha, Dasabhumika in the Avatamsaka or its reference in many other texts and treatises. The most remarkable point mentioned in advance here is that, since its restoration in the second stage of Buddhist development, “to develop the Bodhi-mind” has become the source of all religious inspirations of millions of Buddhist lay people in their firm course toward the ultimate liberation. It is not an ordinary event in their spiritual life, which arises and perishes in the endless course of mental states. But it is the vital energy that proceeds from their absolute faith in the highest ideal (Supreme Enlightenment) of Buddhism and, in turn, becomes the pivotal motive for all of their religious practice Through many descriptions as to its wonderful functions recorded in the Avatamsaka, it is found that any knowledge acquired from such emphatically psychological treatises as those preserved in the Abhidhamma literature may be of no avail for those who attempt to master the true meaning of the expression. For the term bodhicitta used in the expression is not included in any detailed descriptions of conciousnesses and their accompanying mental states and functions which are elaborately analyzed and enumerated in these treatises. Nor does bodhicitta denote the mind of partial enlightenment as is it attained by a Sravaka or a Pratyekabuddha; but it means the mind toward the Supreme Enlightenment that is attained by a Buddha through his abandonment of ‘the ignorance freed from the defilement’. A Sravaka or a Pratyekabuddha also attains enlightenment but their enlightenment is not supreme because it is only deprived of ‘the ignorance defiled by the defilement’[10] . The meaning of the expression may be much more intelligible if it is understood in its unabridged form anuttarayai samyaksambodhaye cittam udpadyam, raising the mind toward Supreme Enlightenment.[11]

The best way of mastering the whole meaning of this cardinal event in a Buddhist layman’s religious life, therefore, is to refer directly to the texts mentioned above.  Yet some descriptions of the essence and functions of the mind as a whole found in some Mahayana treatises may be of no little value for an initial in the Path of Bodhisattva. As assumed in Vijnaptimatratasiddhi,[12] to attain the Supreme Enlightenment means not to possess something that has never existed in a human being but to transform his eighth defiled consciousness into the wisdom described as a ‘great perfect mirror’, that is, totally deprived of ‘the ignorance freed from the defilement’, through his efforts of developing the taintless, ‘non-outflow’ seed therein. As described in The Awakening of Faith,[13] the Supreme Enlightenment cannot be attained unless the practitioner transforms his mind, which has been ‘perfumed’ by defilement and ignorance, into its originally pure state through his efforts of practicing concentration (samatha) and meditation (vipasyana). From these two explanations comes the faith in Mahayana Buddhism that the capacity of becoming perfectly enlightened is latent in each being and, at the same time, that the aggregate of consciousness (vijnanaskandha) is not composed of only one common function, that is, being aware of the presence of an object as it is normally interpreted in the Abhidhamma literature.

Accordingly Mahayana practitioners are recommended with some wonderful functions of mind and they are able to visualize some picture of transforming their mind toward bodhi; but how can they expect some attainment of it even though it is latent within them? At the first stage of their religious transformation process, any ideas, conceptions, or images they can raise of the Bodhi are simply the arising of imaginations as to what they have never experienced. They arise and perish as momentarily as any other mental states. Such a mental state can hardly enable man to be consistent in his long journey to the ultimate liberation, a journey that is to be carried out in innumerable lifetimes. Thus, ‘to develop the Bodhi-mind’ cannot be understood as forming an idea, a thought, a conception, a decision, etc. as to enlightenment. A practitioner must do something else through which his mind is at all times kept orientated toward bodhi. In Buddhism the ideal that has enough power to transcend all the values and achievements found within and without the world is the Supreme Enlightenment that Buddhas have attained. To raise the Mind-toward-Supreme-Enlightenment and keep it alive is to awaken and develop the faith in Buddha-Nature inherent within a person, which has long been distorted by various influence of his own actions and circumstances. Once this faith is awakened and turns into something similar to a consistent ‘aspiration’ for the absolute ideal or to an unshakable ‘vow’ of realizing Supreme Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, the entire process of religious transformation of a practitioner is no doubt to be controlled and directed by unthinkable powers and functions of such a mind. In so far as they orient their mind toward Supreme Enlightenment, they can find it easy to overcome their own aspirations-in-ignorance—a better rebirth in a particular heaven, a temporarily joyful realm, an unsafe liberation for themselves only, for example. Furthermore, according to Vijnaptimatratasiddhi, the faith in the Bodhi is a good influence, or more graphically, a good ‘seed’ (Skt. bija) in our mind. To put faith in Bodhi is to uncover and force the seed to grow up into a tree with an immense shadow over the Mind-Ground, on which those seeds that do not correspond to it naturally weaken and gradually perish.

It is due to this principle that a Mahayana Buddhist appears not to be so much concerned about the practice of contemplating and analyzing the so-called evil states of mind. In so far as something of genuine energy has not yet been produced within him to keep him consistent along the path, there would be nothing capable of guaranteeing his unsteady attempts of observing and meditating his mental states whatever. In his case, the only way to make a room light is not to find how to drive the darkness but to turn the light on. In other words, “he does not worry about the arising of ignorance but about being delayed in attaining enlightenment”. It should not be misunderstood that it is nothing but a way of escaping from the existent state of defilement and ignorance, and that, in thus doing, a practitioner is none other than one living in illusions. In Buddhism not any of mental states arises without at least two causes and remains in the two consecutive moments in the same state; so are any forms of defilement and ignorance It is, therefore, unnecessary to waste time and energy in destroying them by reviving them as ‘dead’ objects of mind. The problem is to provide no more causes and conditions for their repeated arising. And this is one of the major differences in practice among many different traditions of Buddhism. Some hold that it is really necessary for a practitioner to be aware of all evil phenomena, physical or spiritual, and prevent them from arising by keeping himself away from them as much as possible. Such a practice is apt to lead to a secluded way of living.  Some hold that the best way is, on the one hand, to let them go by since to pay so much attention to them is to give more conditions for the development of the seeds of same nature  and, on the other hand, to abandon their causes and conditions by making great efforts to develop the bodhi-mind. The cause for the arising of suffering of any kind—either defilement or ignorance—is desire or ‘thirst’ (Skt. trsna), which can appear in every subtle form, even in the most righteous one, for it is always strengthened by karmic consciousness. Nirvana, for instance, is normally interpreted as the aim of a Buddhist practitioner, yet the idea of Nirvana as total extinction is in reality the cause for the arising of great desires. Once the symbol of Nirvana, or rather, of a blissful state becomes the object of a practitioner’s mind, his karmic consciousness is ready to decorate it habitually with all kinds of mental states inclined to grasp something desirable for themselves. The more he longs for Nirvana, the more he is stirred by the arising of such mental states. Theoretically, many methods of controlling and eliminating them are presented in some commentaries, especially those compiled in the sectarian period; but Mahayanists seem to have neglected them. According to them the most practical way of treating a poisonous food is to reject it at once but not to continue eating it owing to some possession of its antidotes in hand. Therefore, in Mahayana teaching Nirvana for a Bodhisattva is described as ‘Nirvana-without-abode’, that is, any necessary place suitable for saving sentient beings in the midst of the world. Moreover, he does not abandon all kind of hindrances to Nirvana by contemplating them with the help of karmic consciousness but transcends them in the light of his mind toward Supreme Enlightenment. It appears to be another extremely “desirable” goal of Buddhism, but in the practitioner’s mind it is not the cause or condition for the arising of any desire. For his vow to attain Supreme Enlightenment is in essence rooted in wisdom and compassion. He makes a vow to attain the supreme goal not because he wants to be supreme, not because it is a goal, but because it is the only way for him to save all sentient beings out of desire, the cause of suffering. If there were not any suffering beings at all, he would not certainly need to practice Buddhist teaching, to speak nothing of attaining Supreme Enlightenment. Here we are again reminded of the primary motive of the Buddha’s Great Renunciation and later his refusals of every form of bliss offered by contemporary ascetics of the day. His resolution to leave the palace and later his religious companions for the ultimate goal proceeded not from his desire but from his vow. Various sensual desires of a worldly life failed to overcome his vow; nor did holy desires of a religious life. Those who have not raised such an absolute faith in their own capacity of becoming perfectly enlightened and have not experienced how powerfully such a great vow can assist a practitioner in resolving causes and conditions for the arising of hindrances of all kinds in Buddhism will certainly find it extremely difficult to accept such an apparently “metaphysical” practice. But in the history of Buddhist development millions of practitioners in Eastern Asia have chosen it and the Buddha’s words have continued to be spread vividly into the hearts of many suffering people in different parts of the world. Instead of contemplating the mind of desire, they make a vow to share everything they are possessing of with anyone who needs; instead of analyzing the mind of compassion, they make a vow not to live on other beings’ flesh and blood and bone; instead of grasping the Dharma for themselves, they make a vow to bring it to everybody. For them the Buddha’s teaching is not meant for leading a life with which they aspire to be much highly nobler than the suffering world; nor is it a refuge from unhappy circumstances of the world. Their living is a long struggle for a truly happy life for the world of which they are members. The moment their living is no longer nourished by the aspiration for Supreme Enlightenment is the tolling for their deaths as Buddhist practitioners. They do not have any more reasons to exist in spite of their appearance in the form of Buddhist monks or laymen. For their existence on earth is composed of nothing but a great vow of saving countless sentient beings, abandoning endless afflictions, practicing immeasurable Dharma-gates, and realizing Supreme Enlightenment.¨


[1] “maggan’ atthangiko settho” Dhammapada, v. 273

[2] Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, Assaji, Sariputra, Khema, Yasa, etc.

[3] “That things have being, O Kaccana, constitutes one extreme of doctrine; that things have no being is the other extreme. These extremes, O Kaccana, have been avoided by the Tathagata, and it is a middle doctrine that he teaches.” Samyutta-Nikāya 22. 90. 17 (Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translations, Harvard Oriental Series, 1922, p. 166)

[4] Abhidharmakośa, La Vallée de la Poussin‘s translation, English version by Leo M. Pruden, Asian Humanities Press, 1991, vol. 1, p. 55.

[5] “The monks of the Great Council (Mahāsaṃgīti) twisted the teaching round. They broke up the original scriptures and made a new recension, a chapter put in one place they put in another, and distorted the sense and doctrine of the Five Nikayas. These monks—who knew neither what had been spoken at length nor what had been spoken in abstract, neither what was the obvious nor what the higher meaning—put things referring to one matter as if they referred to another, and destroyed much of the spirit by holding to the shadow of the letter. They partly rejected the Sutta, and the Vinaya so deep, and made another rival Sutta and Vinaya of their own.” (Dīpavamsa 5. 32ff.; as translated and cited by T. W. Rhys Davids, Buddhism, Its History and Literature, New York and London, 1896, p. 193)

[6] “anekajāti samsāram sandhāvissam anibbisam/ gahakārakam gavesanto dukkhā jāti punappunam//” Dhammapada, v. 153

[7] Abhidharmakośa, ibid. vol. IV, chap. 7, pp. 1136-1146.

[8] Avataṃsaka, Gaṇḍavyūha, Taisho, vol. 10, No. 293. Cf. D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, vol. III.

[9] Sangha/Drama: 15 #2348 & 1799, recited by Minh Thanh, The Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism, Taiwan, 1998, pp. 351, 352, 353.

[10] Abhidharmakośa, ibid.

[11] Gaṇḍavyūha, Idazumi, MS., p.154, recited by D.T. Suzuki, ibid.

[12] Taisho, vol. 31, No. 1585.

[13] Taisho, vol. 32, No. 1667.

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