English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


...... ... .  . .  .  .
Mahayana Buddhism in Practice
Dr. Peter Della Santina

We have looked at the origins of the Mahayana tradition and at three representative sutras that belong to he formative period of its canonical literature. We have also looked at the development of Mahayana exegetical thought, at the doctrine of emptiness, at the central importance of mind in the Buddhist tradition, and, in so doing, at the philosophies of the Middle Way and Mind Only schools. Finally, we have discussed the subsequent syncretic development of Mahayana philosophy. Having done all this, it is important to devote some time to the practice of the Mahayana path. The Mahayana is not only a highly developed and profound philosophy and psychology, it is also an accessible, dynamic vehicle for the achievement of Buddhahood. Although religious and philosophical developments may be its backbone, the Mahayana is also a very attractive and vibrant path to many people in different cultures throughout Asia and in parts of the Western world.

It is said that the Mahayana path begins with the awakening of the enlightenment thought (bodhichitta). But even before the awakening of bodhichitta, there are certain important preliminaries that need to be cultivated if one is to embark on the path to Buddhahood. As we examine briefly these preliminary practices, it will become clear that the Mahayana is not a path different from or independent of the Buddhist path as a whole. Rather, it is an enhancement of the Buddhist path in general.

The first of the preliminary practices is the cultivation of faith, or confidence. Like a seed, faith is said to precede all things. Faith is like a treasure because one can call on it when in need; it is also said to be like hands and feet because it is a means of getting what one wants. Hence the cultivation of faith is the beginning of the Mahayana path. In this context, we can divide faith into three levels: (1) clear faith, which consists of a clear appreciation of the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; (2) aspiring faith, which means that, having developed a clear appreciation of the qualities of the Triple Gem, one aspires to achieve these qualities for oneself; and (3) confident faith, which means that, once clear faith and aspiring faith have been firmly established, one's faith gradually becomes unshakable. Through these three levels of faith--from appreciation to aspiration to confident certainty--one's faith is developed to a point where its progress and effects are irreversible.

The cultivation of faith is combined with the taking of refuge. The path to enlightenment and Buddhahood is a long one, on which the obstacles are many and our own deficiencies numerous, so it is necessary to have a support, a stabilizing influence. This support is provided by the practice of taking refuge. Through the act of taking refuge, we acquire a guide, a path, and a community, all of which contribute to our progress on the path.

The cultivation of faith and taking of refuge are followed by contemplation of the precious nature of the human form, that is, of the rare circumstances of human birth and opportunity to practice the Dharma. Nagarjuna said that one who uses a jewel-adorned golden vessel for vomit and spittle is surely foolish; similarly foolish is one who uses the precious human form for the practice of unwholesome acts. If we consider the causes of human birth, the rarity of human birth, and the difficulty of securing a situation in which we are able to practice the Dharma, then surely, having secured all the opportune conditions, we must practice the Dharma quickly. To motivate ourselves to do so, and to take up all the practices that will eventually culminate in the attainment of Buddhahood, we contemplate the rarity and precious nature of the human form and of conditions conducive to practice of the Dharma.

This contemplation is followed by meditation on death and impermanence. This meditation is an incentive to practice; it is also a key to understanding the ultimate truth. Just as the cultivation of faith and the taking of refuge complement each other, so contemplation of the precious nature of the human form and meditation on death and impermanence are complementary.

These contemplations are followed by careful consideration of the truth of the universality of suffering in the six realms, accompanied by contemplation of the law of karma. The preliminary practices are meant to transform one's attitudes to such an extent that one is ready to begin practicing the Mahayana path. The result of the preliminary practices is twofold: (1) enthusiasm for an elevated and exalted goal, the goal of Buddhahood; and (2) disengagement from, or renunciation of, all attachment to the things of this life and to the cycle of samsara as a whole. At this point, as Shantideva said in his Introduction to the Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicharyavatara), one is ready to expel attachment to the world the same way one would cough up spittle.

The Mahayana path only begins when disengagement from the world has been achieved with conviction. This is why it is a mistake to regard the Mahayana as intrinsically more worldly than, say, the Theravada path. When renunciation has thus been achieved, we come to the beginning of the path per se, which is the awakening of the enlightenment thought praised by all Mahayana masters. In a way, as we shall see, this awakening of bodhichitta is also the end of the Mahayana path.

The enlightenment thought is awakened through cultivation of great love and great compassion. Great love and great compassion are the altruistic wish that all sentient beings be happy and free from suffering. Love and compassion follow upon understanding the equality of all sentient beings. This awareness of the sameness of all that lives is the great universality of the Mahayana tradition and of Buddhism as a whole. Each and every living being is alike in wanting happiness and fearing suffering.

This awareness of the equality of all living beings is not only the foundation of Buddhist morality, it is also the foundation of great love and great compassion and of bodhichitta, the resolve to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all living beings. We cultivate great love and great compassion by contemplating the sameness of all sentient beings. We amplify and extend this feeling of love and compassion by considering the relationships that bind us to all that lives.

In this context, we should remember that at one time or another all sentient beings have been kind mothers to us. If we remember the kindness of our own mothers, then we must also remember the debt we owe them. Just as it would not be right to allow your mother to continue to suffer, so it is not right that all sentient beings, who have at some time or another been kind mothers to you, should continue to suffer in samsara. It is in this sense that the wish for all to be happy and free from suffering implies the wish to attain Buddhahood--because, despite our cultivation of the wish that all beings become happy and free from suffering, we are at present unable to do anything for them.

No one other than a fully enlightened Buddha can secure the goal of ultimate happiness and freedom from suffering for all beings. No matter how much we may try to do so, no matter how much great love and compassion we feel for living beings, unless and until we ourselves have achieved supreme and perfect enlightenment, we will not be able to secure the real happiness of living beings. Recognition of the sameness of all living beings; recognition of the debt we owe all living beings who have at one time or another been our kind mothers; the consequent wish for all to be happy and free from suffering; and recognition of our present inability to do anything to achieve this goal--all these culminate in the awakening of the enlightenment thought, namely, the determination to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all living beings.

It is this moment of enlightenment consciousness which transforms a miserable wretch living in a prison into a son or daughter of the Buddha. This bodhichitta, or consciousness of enlightenment, is divided into two categories: (1) the relative, or conventional, enlightenment thought, and (2) the ultimate enlightenment consciousness. The conventional enlightenment thought is the determination or resolve to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all living beings. In the conventional enlightenment thought, we still perceive the dualities of subject and object, samsara and nirvana, ignorance and enlightenment. Because the resolve to attain Buddhahood is based on these dualistic conceptions, it is called 'conventional.' The ultimate enlightenment consciousness, which we can metaphorically term 'the Buddha mind,' is a state in which dualities no longer have any meaning.

Let us look a little more closely at the conventional enlightenment thought and at the means of transforming it into the ultimate enlightenment consciousness. The conventional enlightenment thought is itself divided into two categories: (a) the aspiring enlightenment thought, and (b) the applied enlightenment thought. The former is the mere wish or aspiration to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, and is analogous to the decision to travel to a distant country. The latter is the implementation of the means of achieving Buddhahood, and is analogous to actually making such a journey.

Specifically, the applied enlightenment thought entails practice of the Six Perfections of generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. It is the practice of these perfections that transforms the mere determination to achieve enlightenment (or conventional enlightenment thought) into the Buddha mind (or ultimate enlightenment consciousness).

It is important to remember the special role of meditation and wisdom in the practice of the perfections. Mahayana masters from the great Nagarjuna in India to Hui Neng in China have stressed that there is no meditation without wisdom and no wisdom without meditation. This means that, for Buddhists, a concentrated mind without insight is an unproductive and inconsequential achievement. It is only when such a mind is coupled with wisdom that meditation is productive of real freedom. Similarly, without a concentrated mind, insight cannot be achieved.

Wisdom is the crown of the Six Perfections. It is the perfection of wisdom--the penetrative, direct understanding of emptiness--that transforms the practices of generosity, morality, patience, energy, and meditation into perfections. It makes them transcendental. Without the perfection of wisdom, there is no perfection of the other five practices. This is why it is said that the perfection of wisdom is like firing a clay jar, for left unfired, the 'jar' of the other five perfections is easily shattered. Similarly, if a Bodhisattva does not practice the perfection of wisdom, he or she can be easily overcome.

It is also said that the other five perfections are like blind men who will never reach their destination on their own, but who can do so with the help of a single sighted guide. Similarly, without the perfection of wisdom, the other five practices cannot lead to the goal of Buddhahood. Why is the role of the perfection of wisdom unique among the Six Perfections? It is in the light of the perfection of wisdom that we see the emptiness of the subject, object, and action of the other five perfections. These are the three 'pure circles' mentioned in Mahayana literature: the purity, or emptiness, of the subject, object, and action. In the perfection of generosity, for instance, it is the perfection of wisdom that causes us to understand the emptiness of the giver (the subject of the action of giving), the emptiness of the recipient (the object of giving), and the emptiness of the gift.

Similarly, in the perfections of morality, patience, energy, and meditation, it is through understanding the perfection of wisdom that one understands the purity or emptiness of the subject, object, and action present in every sphere of action. In every practice, too, it is understanding the perfection of wisdom that enables one to act perfectly to achieve the perfection of generosity, the perfection of morality, and so forth. It is in this context that we need to appreciate the unique role of the perfection of wisdom.

We have arrived at the attainment of the ultimate enlightenment consciousness, or the enlightened mind of a Buddha, with its perfect understanding of emptiness. At this point we might wonder whether the Buddha mind has any room left for compassion, in light of its understanding the emptiness of the object of compassion (living beings), the subject of compassion (the practitioner), and the activity of compassion. The answer is that, at this point, the Buddha mind undergoes a spontaneous or voluntary association with suffering.

Let us look at an example that illustrates the compatibility of wisdom and compassion on the stage of enlightenment. Suppose you dream that you are trapped in a burning house. Naturally, you are distressed. Suppose, then, that you eventually awake and realize that the suffering you experienced in the dream was not real. Suppose, too, that on the following night you observe your roommate or partner thrashing about in bed, muttering 'Fire! Fire!' or something similar. You know, in your awakened state, that your friend's fear and anxiety are groundless, and yet, to the person experiencing it in a dream, the suffering is real enough. Notwithstanding your knowledge of the emptiness of that suffering, your wisdom is automatically accompanied by compassion, by the wish to relieve the suffering of your friend.

It is this reintegration with the world of illusion, this voluntary reassociation with fictitious suffering, that finds its expression in what are called 'the four secondary perfections of the enlightened ones'--namely, skillful means, resolution, power, and knowledge: (1) the perfection of skillful means enables the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to implement countless devices for the liberation of living beings; (2) the perfection of resolution enables them to shape the particular forms of the activities they employ; (3) the perfection of power enables the enlightened ones to work spontaneously and effectively for the benefit of others; and (4) the perfection of knowledge provides them with all that knowledge of the conditions and attitudes of sentient beings which is necessary to effect their liberation.

The four secondary perfections may also be termed soteriological or altruistic perfections. They are the automatic and spontaneous fulfillment of the enlightened ones' intent to free all living beings. All these activities of the enlightenment consciousness expressing itself in skillful means, resolution, power, and knowledge are a spontaneous reflection of the enlightened state. It is said that, just as a wind chime spontaneously and appropriately gives forth the right sound in response to the currents of air that blow against it, so the enlightened ones respond spontaneously and appropriately to each and every current of karmic energy emanating from sentient beings with a kind of automatic, effortless activity aimed at the liberation of all.

The state of Buddhahood is the culmination of the practice of the six basic perfections. The practice of the Six Perfections results in the accomplishment of the two accumulations of merit and of knowledge. The perfections of generosity, morality, and patience result in the accumulation of merit, while those of meditation and wisdom result in the accumulation of knowledge; the perfection of energy is necessary in both cases.

These two accumulations result in the twofold being of Buddhahood--(a) the form dimension (rupakaya), and (b) the truth or transcendental dimension (dharmakaya). The accumulation of merit through the practice of the perfections of generosity, morality, and patience is manifested in the form dimension. The accumulation of knowledge through the practice of the perfections of meditation and wisdom is manifested in the truth dimension. We can therefore see, in the practice of the Six Perfections, the causes or seeds of the being of a Buddha. In the practice of the six basic perfections, we can see the seeds of the Buddhas' two-dimensional being as form and truth. In the practice of the four secondary perfections, we can see the seeds of the Buddhas' activities directed toward the liberation of all sentient beings.

This twofold division of Buddhahood in terms of the form and truth dimensions is congruent with the classification of the three bodies (or dimensions) of Buddhahood: the terrestrial, celestial, and transcendental. The form dimension can be divided into (i) the terrestrial body, and (ii) the celestial body, but the truth or transcendental dimension has no division at all since it is inconceivable, inexpressible, and beyond name and form of any kind. The form dimension, however, takes innumerable names and forms. We can call the terrestrial body (or dimension) the earthly manifestation of Buddhahood because it is accessible to all of us all the time, regardless of our state of spiritual development. In contrast, the celestial or exalted dimension is manifested only to the spiritually advanced.

These three bodies or dimensions of Buddhahood operate together to effect the liberation of sentient beings according to their natures and capacities. The terrestrial dimension manifests especially in the appearance of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, and also in the appearance of enlightened living beings (spiritual friends) and inanimate things. The celestial dimension manifests itself in the appearance of the heavenly Buddhas, like Amitabha and Akshobhya, and in the exalted Bodhisattvas, like Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri.

This three-dimensional nature of Buddhahood reflects the unity of samsara and nirvana, of enlightenment and ignorance, of a pure vision of the universe and an impure vision of it. It also reflects the complete and total freedom of a Buddha. It reflects his or her freedom from the cycle of birth and death, and freedom to exercise his or her enlightening influence in countless, inconceivable ways for the liberation of all sentient beings. This is the greatness of the Mahayana conception of Buddhahood, the greatness of the goal of the Mahayana path.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 187-197].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 1-5-2000

Return to "Buddhist Philosophy"

Top of Page