The Mahayana Background: the Logic of Compassion

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  • Topic: Buddhism, Mahayana, Pure Land Buddhism
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  • Published : March 25, 2012
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The second aspect of our consideration of the Mahayana background of Shinran's teaching is what I call the Logic of Compassion. Although we cannot go into great detail, I hope to indicate in this discussion that Shinran stands clearly within the constant effort of Mahayana Buddhism to plumb the depths of Buddha's compassion, and to constantly widen its embrace. Through the ages, sensitive, perceptive and courageous persons perceived new angles and implications in Buddhist teaching by which they expanded the horizons of Mahayana. In such a fashion, as a result of his own religious experience, Shinran carried the Mahayana tradition to its deepest understanding of religious existence. Though he differs at points with the tradition, he carries forward its most profound intention. This is of the most significance in our comprehension of Shinshu. However, in order to make clear this evolution, we must take a broad view of the development of Indian and Buddhist religious tradition.

Buddhism began against the background of the emergence of Upanishadic mysticism in ancient India, roughly during the period 800-600 B.C.E. This ancient mysticism was a spiritual protest against the religion of the Vedas, which was aristocratic, and based on sacrifice and magic. It was ancient sacrificial religion catering to an economic elite and imposing an aristocratic and priestly dominance on all of the people in every caste. However, Upanishadic mysticism undermined this Vedic social arrangement by relegating sacrifices to a secondary position, after the cultivation of the spirit to achieve Union with Brahman, their name for the Absolute, the central force of meaning and power in the Universe. The later rejection of this sacrificial system gave rise to a doctrine of non-injury or Ahimsa which later became a central idea in Hindu and, still later, in Buddhist tradition. The mystical tradition in India took various forms, and there were numerous teachers. In his own time, an age of great search and experimentation, Gautama Buddha studied under several teachers, and he himself eventually became a teacher in the same pattern as those others. He never regarded himself as the founder of a new tradition, but simply as a teacher of reform and radical new insights in the tradition into which he was born.

Upanishadic mysticism protested the elitism of the aristocratic classes in achieving spiritual goals, but then fell into an elitism of the spiritual and intellectually competent. So, too, did Buddhism as time passed. Although the Upanishadic approach to religion was universal, it was the universality of competency. It was a selective universality, universal in time and place, but not universal for all kinds of people. A similar pattern befell Buddhism, which in some schools taught a system of five species of people, among whom were certain types who could not become Buddhas. This aristocratic and individualistic tendency of early Buddhism can be observed in the "The Dhammapada," from the following verses:

"By one's self the evil is done, by one's self one suffers; by one's self evil is left undone; by one's self one is purified. The pure and the impure stand and fall by themselves; no one can purify another." [1]

Dr. Suzuki has written concerning Buddha's parting words, where he urges his disciples to be their own lamps and refuges:

"'Self power means 'to be a lamp to yourself,' it is the spirit of self reliance and aims at achieving one's own salvation or enlightenment by the practice of the Eightfold Noble Path or Six Virtues of Perfection. If this is impossible in one life, the devotee of self power will not relax his efforts through many lives as was exemplified by the Buddha who underwent many a rebirth in order to perfect himself for his supreme enlightenment. Recruits for the self-power school must therefore be endowed with a strong will and high degree of intelligence. Without intelligence he will not be able to grasp the full...
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