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The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism
Reviewed by Aaron k. Koseki

This volume represents a collection of papers presented at the Calgary Buddhism Conference held in September 1978 at the University of Calgary, Canada. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism is an especially valuable addition to the literature, not only because it has been more than fifty years since Har Dayal's classic study on this topic was first published, but also because the current volume tries to incorporate the most current research in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese sources by leading scholars in the field of Buddhist studies. The work should raise some questions on how to reorganize our understanding of this Buddhist doctrine, and the sophistication and somewhat specialized focus of some essays also leads to a heightened sense of expectation, particularly in light of the present inadequate range of translations and historical and philosophical studies on Buddhism as a whole in Western languages.

The stated intention of the editor of the book is to provide us with a better understanding of the bodhisattva doctrine given the information and research currently available to us. In this task of interpretation the content and context of the term bodhisattva is left undefined, and there is some lack of coherence in outlining the questions and problems to be addressed by the book as a whole. Perhaps these issues were discussed at the conference; at the same time, whatever the conference was, the book (ten primary essays linguistically divided among India, Tibet, China, and Japan) offers a range of topics that is extremely diverse everything from the evolution of the doctrine in Indian Buddhism to the impact of the so-called "new religions" of Japan and no one essay actually sets the tone and intent for the entire book. Despite this important deficit, the reader is given some insight into the overall state of the art of historical, philological, and humanistic research on this Buddhist doctrine as well as some glimpse of both the range and interests of scholars in the field. A major accomplishment of these essays is that they provide a corrective warning to any facile understanding of the meaning of bodhisattva.

Among the first group of papers on Indian Buddhism, Nagao Gadjin's essay, "The Bodhisattva Returns to This World," is the most interesting. One of the general problems in understanding the bodhisattva doctrine has been the notion of the bodhisattva's return to the empirical order. Nagao's essay gives us insight into this enigmatic problem through his analysis of the term "nondwelling nirvaa.na" (aprati.s.thita-nirvaa.na) and for his suggestion that the wisdom of emptiness (praj~naa) and upaaya are coinvolved in the bodhisattva context. The paper essentially evinces Nagao's overarching thesis, as seen in his numerous other works, of the organic relationship between the doctrine of emptiness and the dynamics of the bodhisattva's carrier, with wisdom providing the substance for the practical life and the rationale for the "bodhisattva's return" (sa^mcintya-bhavopapatti), a term contextually related to the samsaric realm.

The initial essays in Indian thought are followed by three essays on Tibetan Buddhism. Of these scholarly contributions, there is an article by Turrell Wylie, who, with his usual perceptive analysis, provides another excellent retrospective summary on the influence of the bodhisattva doctrine on Tibetan political history; an article by Herbert Gunther challenges the notion that Tibetan Buddhism was simply a mechanical transmission/translation of Indian Buddhism by analyzing the etymological derivation of the Tibetan term for bodhisattva, byang-chub sems-dpa. Of the Tibetan articles, Lobsang Dargyay's "The View of Bodhicitta in Tibetan Buddhism" is an especially valuable essay, not only because it demonstrates the traditional Tibetan pedagogical method of discussing a particular concept, but also because the article introduces us to the range of discussion on bodhicitta found in the Indo-Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. At present, because there is no comprehensive study on the evolution of this concept based upon a variety of textual studies, this essay should be read in conjuction with Minoru Kiyota's recent work, The Tantric Concept of Bodhicitta (Madison, Wisconsin: South Asian Area Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1982), which outlines the East Asian development of the term. Both contributions provide a point of departure in unraveling this important facet of the bodhisattva doctrine and allow for some tentative conclusions regarding how the term was originally used, under what circumstances the term became associated with enlightenment (for example, anuttarasamyaksambodhi), and under what circumstances it evolved into a Buddhist tantric concept.

The next group of articles on Chinese Buddhism are less philosophical and present a more integrative and dynamic picture of the bodhisattva tradition in Chinese religious history. The article by Yun-hua Jan, "The Bodhisattva Idea in Chinese Literature: Typology and Significance," divides Chinese bodhisattva literature into three categories birth (jaataka) stories, theoretical stages of spiritual development (for example, the Shih-ti ching), and savior bodhisattvas (for example, Kuan-yin) who provided the Chinese with a clearcut concept of a personal deity. Lewis Lancaster's contribution, "The Bodhisattva Concept: A Study of the Chinese Buddhist Canon," also offers several models of the bodhisattva concept in China and suggests that the original paradigm of the Jaataka bodhisattva was eventually transformed into "phantasma bodhisattvas" whose image was remarkably close to the docetic tradition of religions in West Asia. Both Jan's and Lancaster's articles complement each other and should be read together to gain a fuller appreciation of the Chinese appropriation of the bodhisattva concept. They offer some insight into why and how the Chinese came to recognize the truth (Dharma) in the Buddhist tradition.

The final group of articles examines the bodhisattva doctrine in Japanese religious history. L. Kawamura's contribution, "The Myookyoonin, Japan's Representation of the Bodhisattva," provides an excellent sketch of nembutsu practitioners in Japan and suggests that, while the "Pure Land sect does not claim that its adherents can attain enlightenment by the practice of precepts, the fully developed nembutsu practitioner ... displays a life of putting the bodhisattva's six perfections into practice" (p.xxi). The other two articles, one by Hisao Inagaki ("The Bodhisattva Doctrine as Conceived and Developed by the Founders of the New Sects in the Heian and Kamakura Periods") and the other by Minoru Kyota ("Japan's New Religions (1945-1965): Secularization or Spiritualization?", are somewhat problematical. While both essays are seemingly disparate, the two are connected in that both adhere to a common Japanese Buddhological perspective of religious history, namely, that of the influence of ekayaana Buddhism. Inagaki, therefore, analyzes Japanese religious developments between the Heian and Kamakura periods by linking the mappoo doctrine, the hongaku (" original enlightenment") theory, and the ekayaana ideal of universal liberation. Similarly, Kiyota's work, though ostensibly a study of the phenomenon of "new religions," is actually based on the same premise, namely, that the ekayaana ideal is tied to mass movements in Japanese religious history. While both articles are useful historical summaries, the oft-made semantic distinction between "Mahayaana and Ekayaana," though valuable in analyzing Japanese Buddhist history, is probably an insider's distinction, a result of Japanese questions and answers to the problems posed by East Asian (specifically, Chinese) Buddhism as a whole. Such a perspective generally follows faithfully the "charismatic" intent of the schools by dissociating the birth of the schools from the more objective history of ideas; its focus is on the scriptural basis for the school's (or founder's) mature Buddhological formulations and the semilegendary genius of its founding patriarchs. The former aspect tends to justify both Sinitic and Japanese Buddhist thought by the selective' scriptures that were read (for example, Pure Land, Lotus, La^nkaavataara), and how that selectivity (for example, nembutusu chanting alone, daimoku recitation, or "silent sitting") established the notion of "universal liberation" (that is, ekayaana) is too often taken for granted and left unexplained.

Other contributions in this initial section include papers by Peter Slater ("The Relevance of the Bodhisattva Concept for Today") and by Arthur L. Basham ("The Evolution of the Concept of the Bodhisattva"). Slater's paper argues that "meaning and value in life are not generally communicated by abstract creeds and philosophical speculation, but are typically expressed through stories which may be viewed from several different perspectives" (p. 3). In his analysis of major bodhisattva figures in Buddhist literature, Slater presents depth to the appreciation of the bodhisattva concept and attempts to show that, behind the intricate expressions of Buddhist doctrine, there is a humane ideal that belongs to the empirical world. Basham's contribution provides a retrospective summary of the bodhisattva concept in Indian Buddhism and is valuable for its suggestions which link the development of the concept to religious art and other historico-cultural aspects of Indian civilization.

The bodhisattva doctrine is a complex phenomenon. The collected essays do facilitate a better understanding of the wealth and dynamics of the doctrine. This publication is directed toward a diverse audience, and there is enough in it to satisfy both the generalist and the specialist. It is currently the best book available on the subject in English, and should find a permanent place in the scholar's library beside The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Sanskrit Literature.

Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Thich Nu Lien Hoa


Updated: 1-3-2001

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