Buddhism in Korea

The carved image of the standing Buddha (마애불입상) on Gayasan, South Korea.
© Straitgate / Wikipedia Commons / Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Buddhism in Korea has a long and distinguished history, but not always a smooth one.

Today Korea is divided, North and South. Secretive North Korea is officially an atheistic state, although there is a Korean Buddhist Federation that is part of the government. Buddhist clergy are, in effect, public employees  Estimates of the number of Buddhists in North Korea range from 100,000 to just over one million.

South Korea is roughly 23 percent Mahayana Buddhist, 28 percent Christian, and about 46 percent of Koreans claim no religious affiliation. In recent years that has been considerable tension between South Korea’s Buddhists and fundamentalist Christians.

Early Buddhism in Korea (372-917)

Buddhism officially was introduced to Korea in 372 CE, while the Korean peninsula was divided into three kingdoms. A monk, an emissary from one of the several kingdoms in China, arrived with copies of sutras and Buddha images. It is suspected the Koreans already had some knowledge of Buddhism, however, through informal contact with other travelers.

Shamanism had been the primary religion of the Korean people before Buddhism and has remained part of Korea’s religious culture. Shamanism appears to have been blended into Buddhism soon after its introduction.

In the 6th century one of Korea’s three kingdoms, Silla, grew to become the dominant power of the Korean peninsula. Buddhism became the official religion of Silla during the reign of King Pophung (514-539). From then until late in the 8th century, many monks from Korea traveled to China to study and bring teachings back home.

One of these monks was Wonhyo (617-686), one of the most influential monks and scholars of all of Korean history. His extensive writing was influential in China and Japan as well as Korea.

Wonhyo was particularly interested in doctrinal coherence, and he surveyed the schools that had been transmitted to Korea by then, including HyayanTiantaiPure Land, and Ch’an (Zen). He systematically presented these diverse schools in a larger framework of Buddhist teaching to resolve their differences. The result is called Tongbulgyo or T’ong pulgyo, which means “interpenetrated Buddhism.”

Late in the 8th century Ch’an Buddhism, called Seon in Korea, became particularly prominent. Nine Seon monastic centers, called the Nine Mountains, were established.

A Golden Age (918-1392)

The Goryo Period was a time of political unity and stability in Korea, and Buddhism flourished, supported by the monarchy. Some consider this to be the golden age of Korean Buddhism.

The Korean Buddhist canon was published during this time. 81,000 of the woodblocks of this printing are stored at the Haein-sa on Mount Kaya, South Korea.

Prominent masters during this period included Jinul (1158-1210; also spelled Chinul) who is considered the founder of the Jogye order of Seon Buddhism, a dominant school in Korea today. Jinul was a reformer who integrated Hyayan teachings into Seon. He also encouraged meditation on koans.

As will happen with powerful institutions, toward the end of this period Buddhist institutions fell into corruption.

Persecution of Buddhism (1392-1910)

For the next five centuries, the Joseon Dynasty reigned in Korea and suppressed the practice of Buddhism. During this time Buddhist funerals and begging for alms were forbidden, and monks and nuns were restricted in their travels. Several thousand temples and monasteries were closed, and all schools but Seon Buddhism faded away in Korea.

Seosan Daesa (1520-1604) was a notable Seon master from this period. Seosan organized an army of warrior monks to repel a Japanese invasion of Korea that occurred between 1592 and 1598.He also made important contributions to the development of Seon. Most lineages of Seon in Korea today can be traced back to Seosan.

The Japanese Occupation (1910-1945)

Japan annexed Korea in 1910, which had the effect of ending the persecution of Buddhism. However, pressure was put on Korean monks to adapt to Japanese monastic practices. This included the ending of celibacy, since the Meiji Emperor had ended celibacy in Japanese Buddhismin the 19th century. The Japanese also insisted on loosening restrictions on wine and meat

.Some monks adapted; some did not. No Korean nuns accepted the Japanese adaptations, however.

In 1924 a new lay movement called Won Buddhism was established by Pak Chungbin ((1891-1943). Pak believed that the Buddhist teaching of Trikaya was represented, in one way or another, in all religions. Although Won’s doctrines are Buddhist, in organization and ceremonial observance it resembles Protestantism.

1945 to Today

Korea was liberated from Japan at the end of World War II, but almost immediately it was divided between North and South.  Most religion is suppressed in North Korea, although the government-run Buddhist institution, the Korean Buddhist Federation, does survive.

South Korean monks almost immediately were thrown into a turmoil over celibacy. The dominant Jogye order of Seon Buddhism insisted in a return to full monastic rules, including celibacy. After much rancor and court battles, the married monks were turned out of the monasteries and properties restored to the celibate Jogye.

In recent years there also has been considerable friction between Korea’s Christian fundamentalists and Buddhists. The fundamentalists have even attacked several monasteries and destroyed Buddhist art. For more on this development, see “Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea.”

Liu Tiemo, the “Iron Grindstone”

According to legend, Liu Tiemo (ca. 780-859) was born into a Chinese peasant family that lived near Mount Hua, in north central China. She was a short, plain girl who grew up helping her father farm a rich man’s plot of land. The family was poor and often hungry. When she was old enough to leave, she left.
Liu wandered through mountains and towns, often seeking shelter in convents. Eventually she asked to be ordained. She worked hard at study and meditation. After a few years she left the convent and began wandering again.
Zihu Heshang:

Liu Tiemo encountered nuns, monks, and teachers, and won a reputation as a fierce debater. When she met Master Zihu, he told Liu Tiemo that he’d heard she was hard to handle.”Who says this?” asked Liu.

“It’s conveyed from left and right,” Master Zihu replied.

“Don’t fall down, master,” she said, and turned to leave. He struck her.

Liu Tiemo sought out Master Guishan, and studied with him. Master Guishan was a famous teacher with 1,500 students, most of them men. Of these 1,500 he named only 43 his dharma heirs. One of these was Liu Tiemo. By now people were calling Liu “the Iron Grindstone,” because she ground to bits anyone who dared challenge her in debate. It was said she was as sharp as a stone-struck spark.

Blue Cliff Record, Case 24:

The Iron Grindstone is remembered in a koan.Iron Grindstone Liu arrived at Guishan. Guishan said, “Old cow, you came hah!”

Grindstone said, “In the coming day at Lookout Mountain (Taishan) there is a great assembly to provide monks with a vegetarian meal. Venerable, will you be leaving to go back there?”

Guishan relaxed his body and lay down to sleep.

Grindstone then left.

You can find a dharma talk explaining this mystical exchange here.

Shantideva’s Lecture

Shantideva (ca. 685-763; sometimes spelled Santideva) is best known as the author of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara, or The Way of the Bodhisattva. This accomplishment marks him as one of the patriarchs of Mahayana Buddhism. He was also the author of a lesser-known work, the Siksasamuccaya (“Training Anthology”).

For all of his importance to Mahayana Buddhism, however, we don’t know that much about him. The biographies written over the centuries probably are made up of folktales. But here is his standard biography.

Shantideva’s Story

Shantideva was said to have been a crown prince of a kingdom in what is now the western Indian state of Gujarat. The night before his coronation, Manjusri Bodhisattva came to him in a dream and told him to renounce his throne and instead dedicate himself to seeking enlightenment.

In another version of this story, on the night before his coronation Shantideva’s mother gave him a ceremonial bath in scalding water. When he complained, she said, “My son, this is nothing compared to the pain of being king.” After the bath, the prince departed.

After renouncing his throne the former prince lived for a time as a wandering mendicant. In time he came to the great learning center at Nalanda. He was ordained as a monk at Nalanda and given the name Shantideva, which means “god of peace.”

At Nalanda, Shantideva came across as a slacker. No one ever saw him study. He didn’t show up for practice debates. He was called “Three Realizations” because, it was assumed, his only activities were eating, sleeping and defecating.

It would not do to harbor such a do-nothing at Nalanda. The great monastery depended on the support of wealthy patrons to survive. In return, the patrons expected the monks to study and teach the dharma. If the patrons learned their donations were supporting the likes of Shantideva, they might withhold support.

So he had to go. Or else he had to be shamed into getting down to work. But how could that be accomplished?

It was decided to invite Shantideva to present a teaching to the entire university. This was a great honor usually given to the most accomplished students. He was to give his talk while sitting on a throne, which in some versions of the story was placed on a high platform without any stairs, to make him struggle to get to his seat.

On the day of the talk, Shantideva entered the great hall and made three prostrations to the throne. Then he effortlessly seated himself, to the astonishment of the audience.

Then he asked, “Should I teach you something that other monks have already presented? Or would you like to hear something new?” The audience called for the new teaching.

“Very well,” Shantideva said. And he proceeded to recite the verses of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara. These verses described the power of bodhicitta and how to cultivate it. They reviewed the Six Perfections and explained how the perfections also opened the heart to bodhicitta.

When his talk reached the sixth perfection, the Perfection of Wisdom, Shantideva began to rise into the air. He floated higher and higher, until the assembly only heard his voice but no longer saw him. Then his voice faded as well, and he entirely disappeared from Nalanda, never to return. In some versions of the story he is said to have returned to the life of a wandering mendicant.

Ruins of Nalanda

The Way of the Bodhisattva: An Introduction to the Bodhisattvacharyavatara

The  Bodhisattvacharyavatara, or “Way of the Bodhisattva,” by Shantideva is a seminal text of Mahayana Buddhism and a treasure of the world’s religious literature. Today it is primarily associated with Tibetan Buddhism, but its significance to all of Mahayana cannot be overstated.

The Bodhisattvacharyavatara, written about 700 CE, is said to present the entire spectrum of Mahayana teachings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, ‘If I have any understanding of compassion and the bodhisattva path, it all comes from studying this text.

The title is also sometimes translated “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” or “Undertaking the Way of the Bodhisattva.” There is also a shorter Sanskrit name, Bodhicaryavatara, which means “Entering the Path of Enlightenment.”

Shantideva (ca. 685-763; sometimes spelled Santideva) was a monk and scholar of the Madhyamika school who taught at the great learning center at Nalanda. Little else is known about him, although he is the subject of many fables and myths.

Contents of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara

The Bodhisattvacharyavatara is written in verse and describes the path to enlightenment, beginning with the arising of the desire to realize enlightenment for the sake of others (bodhicitta). Early Chinese and Tibetan manuscripts of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara are not arranged in exactly the same way, but the version of the text commonly translated into English has ten chapters.

The first three chapters focus on bodhicitta. Shantideva describes the power of bodhicitta to enlighten all beings and explains how to nurture bodhicitta in ourselves. This section also introduces us to the bodhisattva vow to save all beings. For example, this well-loved passage is in Chapter 3*:

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to cross the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

Read More: Bodhisattva Vows

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 focus on working with emotions and defilements. This middle section also elaborates on the Six Perfections or paramitas. The perfections of generosity and morality are explained in Chapter 5. Chapter 6 is centered on the perfection of patience, explaining how defilements in our minds keep us mired in selfishness and impatience.

In chapters 7, 8 and 9 Shantideva continues to elaborate on the paramitas. Chapter 7 is focused on the perfection of energy or diligence, and Chapter 8 is on the perfection of meditation. Chapter 9, on the perfection of wisdom, is considered the most challenging part of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara.  Here Shantideva goes most deeply into Nagarjuna‘s Madhyamika philosophy and the emptiness of phenomena.

Chapter 10 is a beautiful and lyric dedication of the merit of his work to all suffering beings, including beings in the hell realm.

Studying the Bodhisattvacharyavatara

There are several translations of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara in English; some are available in PDF form on the Web. If you are working with a teacher, he or she may prefer one translation over another. I am most familiar with the translation by the Padmakara Translation Group and published by Shambhala. There is a “companion” book to this volume, which is a commentary by His Holiness the Dalai Lama titled For the Benefit of All Beings: A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva (Shambhala, 2009).

Another very readable guide to the Bodhisattvacharyavatara is Pema Chodron’s No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva (Shambhala, 2003). Chodron notes that Chapter 9 needs a book to itself and for that points the reader to Transcendent Wisdom by the Dalai Lama and B. Alan Wallace (Snow Lion, Rev. Ed. 2009).

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*Translations by Padmakara Translation Group (Shambhala Publications, 1997, 2006).

Do We Really Make Our Own Reality?

 The claim that “we make our own reality” pops up frequently in Buddhism, and the claim often is repeated in mind-body-spirit circles. But what does “make our own reality” really mean?

From a Buddhist perspective, it doesn’t mean that once you’re enlightened you can fly or step in front of speeding trains without harm. Whatever your spiritual status, expect to continue to be subject to the laws of physics.

So what does it mean? To a Buddhist, “we make our own reality” could be understood in different ways, and some Buddhists disagree with the statement entirely. It’s probably the case that Mahayana Buddhists are more likely to agree with it than Theravada Buddhists. And if you do find some truth in it, you may understand the phrase in different ways as your practice matures.

© Moyan Brenn / Wikipedia Commons / Creative Commons License

The Fruits of Karma

Some of those who object to the idea of making our own reality say that it’s a misunderstanding of the first verses of the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha found in the Pali Sutta-pitaka.One of the early translations of the Dhammapada, by F. Max Muller, begins All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.” A more recent translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu begins “Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart.”

This verse is about karma. It is said karma is created by body, speech and mind. But in fact mind comes first; whatever we do with body and speech begins with mind — a thought or an intention. . Note that the original Pali uses variations of the word manas for “mind.”

Read More: “Manas: The Mind of Will and Delusion

However, I think it can also be argued that karma creates our reality, or at least a lot of it. Karma is the action created by intention, and in Buddhism it’s understood that the life you have right now was built by all the choices, and the intentions, you made so far.

But when we say that karma created your reality, be clear that karma refers only to volition action. There are other natural laws in the world — such as physics — that are not affected by karma. Karma doesn’t create natural disasters, for example, but the karma of your life will affect how you handle being in one.

Projected Reality

At this point, you might be thinking this “make your own reality” thing isn’t so cool after all. But there are other ways to look at it.

One of these ways is psychological. People who are frequently angry create a lot of problems for themselves, while someone with a generous heart may inspire generosity in others. What you project out into the world is reflected back to you by the world.

The poet Walt Whitman expressed this when he wrote.,

I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete,
The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken.

It is sometimes said your “outer” reality is a reflection of your “inner” reality, although the “outer” and “inner” really aren’t two separate things.

The Six Realms are sometimes interpreted to refer to personality types or mental states rather than physical places. People driven by addictions might be said to be in the Hungry Ghost realm, for example. So in this case the “realm” you are in is an allegory for your mental state.

Yogacara

The Mahayana philosophy of Yogacara is primarily concerned with the nature of experience. In particular, it analyzes how a mental function called vijnana, awareness or consciousness, connects sense objects with sense organs to create experience. For example, vijnana intersects a visible object with the eye to create the experience of sight. Vijnana also connects perception (samjna) to ideas to create thinking.

Read More: The Five Skandhas

Yogacara is a sophisticated philosophy that takes most of us a long time to comprehend. It proposes that the sense objects we see, feel, taste or hear are not “real” but are creations of vijnana.

This isn’t as off the wall as it might seem. Today’s neuroscentists say that the way we experience all the phenomena “out there” really is mostly a fabrication of our brains and nervous systems. Color, for example, is something our brains create from sensory impulses. The red in a rose is in our heads, not in the rose. This is also true of the way the rose smells and feels.

So, according to Yogacara, we really do “make our own reality”; we’re just not conscious of it.

The Ten Suchnesses: A Teaching From the Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most revered scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. The sutra is known for its sumptuous allegorical imagery and its promise that all beings will realize Buddhahood.

Believed to have been written in the 2nd century CE, in 6th century China the Lotus Sutra was recognized as the supreme sutra by the Chinese monk Zhiyi (Chih-i), founder of the Tiantai school, which would be called Tendai in Japan. In part through Tendai influence, the Lotus became one of the most influential sutras in Japanese Buddhism. It deeply influenced Japanese Zen and also is an object of devotion of the Nichiren school.

The Ten Suchnesses are a teaching originally developed by Zhiyi based on passages from the Lotus Sutra. Suchness, in Sanskrit tathata, means “reality.” It is sometimes understood that suchness underlies reality, and the appearance of things in the phenomenal world are manifestations of suchness. The Ten Suchnesses are an exploration of the deepest nature of reality.

Many teachers and scholars over the years have written commentaries drawing deep lessons from the Ten Suchnesses, and this article is only a very brief introduction.

1.  Such a Form

In this case, “form” also means “appearance.” This is the form of individual phenomena that we can observe. Sometimes this is called “the suchness of the mark,” or what marks the particular thing being observed.

2.  Such a Nature

Nature means characteristic, particularly the kinds of characteristics that you might not “see” right away. It’s the nature of bees to make honeycombs, for example. It is the nature of daffodil bulbs to flower in the spring.

3.  Such an Embodiment

Sometimes “such a substance,” this one is a bit difficult to explain, especially in Buddhist terms. It is sometimes explained as an individual’s principal quality. In humans, this may refer to the quality of their skandhas.

4.  Such a Potency

This is a power or energy appropriate to the embodied being, particularly in potential form. The potency of a sunflower seed is to grow into a really big flower.

5.  Such a Function

This is sometimes “such an influence.” This is the potency manifested; the sunflower seed actually sprouting, rooting, and growing.

6.  Such a Primary Cause

Cause is hugely important in Buddhism (see karma). Primary cause refers to a direct or internal cause. Most of the time, this is explained as mind. As it says in the Dhammapada, “Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation; some translators say “mind” instead of “heart.”) The sutta tells us that a defiled heart and a pure heart cause very different effects.

7.  Such a Secondary Cause

This suchness is sometimes called “such a condition.” This refers to the conditions affecting an individual that either help or hinder it. For example, our sunflower seed needs to be planted, especially where it can grow roots.

8.  Such an Effect

Now the primary cause and the secondary cause come together to create an effect, which could be a big, flowering sunflower.

9.  Such a Recompense

This is sometimes “manifest effect” or “reward.” A manifest effect of our sunflower is not just its striking appearance, but also that its seeds provide food for birds and other creatures. Some of those seeds might grow into new sunflowers.

10.  Such an Ultimate Integration

Here all ten factors coalesce into a seamless whole. The sunflower is the sprout is the soil is the rain is the finch feasting on its seeds. Some commenters link this suchness to Dependent Origination, or the way all phenomena are linked to all other phenomena. Our sunflower is not just a component within a garden but is a manifestation of all phenomena everywhere — of suchness.

The Emperor Ashoka, Patron of Buddhism

One of the most important figures in Buddhist history was not a monk or sage, but an emperor. The Emperor Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BCE) is credited with making Buddhism a major religion throughout Asia.

Ashoka ruled a vast empire that spread from modern-day Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal, including most of modern-day India. Through his patronage, Buddhism not only spread throughout this empire but into Sri Lanka as well. It is believed Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries may have traveled as far as Egypt and Greece.

For more general biographies of Ashoka, see Ashoka the Great: India’s Mauryan Empire and Ashoka the Great: King of the Mauryan Empire of India. This article is going to look more specifically at Ashoka’s relationship with Buddhism.

The Edicts of Ashoka

The history of ancient times often is pieced together from questionable evidence. There are some things we know for certain about Ashoka, however, because of the edicts he left on pillars and rocks throughout his empire.

Historians believe these edicts are Ashoka’s own words.

In one “rock edict,” for example, Ashoka expressed regret for the deaths caused by his military conquests, in particular the slaughter of the people of Kalinga, which was in the same area as the state of Odisha, India. After the Kalinga War (ca. 265 BCE) Ashoka repented of violence and became a lay Buddhist.

From the edicts, it is clear that Ashoka’s rule was guided by the dharma. Buddhism became Ashoka’s state religion. People were not required to convert to Buddhism, however. Indeed, one of Ashoka’s most famous edicts called for tolerance of all religions in his realm. He desired “that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.”

In his edicts Ashoka did not attempt to teach Buddhist doctrines. Instead, he promoted harmony, peace, justice and compassion, based on Buddhist principles. He instructed officials to help the poor and sick, and he called for restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, both human and non-human. He promoted the virtues of kindnessgenerosityequanimity and truthfulness.

The pillars and rocks bearing the edicts have been found scattered throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. One particularly significant pillar was erected at Lumbini, the site of the historical Buddha’s birth. This site was lost for a thousand years until a German archaeologist found the Ashoka pillar in 1895.

Ashoka pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia Commons.

Ashoka and the Monastic Sangha

Another source of information on the life of Ashoka are Buddhist chronicles kept in Sri Lanka, called the Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa. With these texts it is less certain than with the edicts where history ends and legend begins, however. The chronicles tell us that Ashoka sent his son Mahinda and his daughter Sanghamitta — a monk and a nun — to the court of King Tissa of Ceylon. Soon the King and his court were converted, and Buddhism has been practiced in Ceylon — today’s Sri Lanka — for 23 centuries.

Read More: Buddhism in Sri Lanka

More stories about Ashoka were recorded a text called the Asokavadana, which is believed to have been written by monks living in what is now the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. These accounts probably are more legend than fact, however. In later centuries, Chinese pilgrims to India recorded stories they were told about Ashoka, but by then Ashoka’s life was remembered in myth.

However, it is apparent that Ashoka’s influence had a major impact on Buddhism. Before Ashoka, the Buddha’s teachings could be found only in a portion of present-day India, primarily in the Upper Ganges Valley. After Ashoka, Buddhism was known far beyond India.

Buddhist chronicles say that Ashoka personally convened the Third Buddhist Council in about 250 BCE at Pataliputra, an ancient city in what is now north central India. His purpose was twofold. One, he was responding to reports of heretical views and dissensions among the monks at Pataliputra. Ashoka is said to have interviewed each monk personally and dismissed monks who held beliefs contrary to the Buddha’s teaching — in particular, belief in an eternal, unchanging self.

Second, Ashoka appointed knowledgeable monks to go forth as emissaries to teach the dharma. This part of the story is confirmed by the edicts. These monks were assigned nine destinations, including Gandhara, Kashmir, Greece, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, and Thailand.

Not all missions were successful. Buddhism did not take root in Thailand or Burma for a few more centuries after the Third Council. However, the missions to Greece and Egypt may have had some interesting effects. Scholars have long noted some blending of Hellenic and Buddhist thought that began about that time. There is also some archaeological evidence of Buddhists living in Alexandria.

The Mauryan Empire did not survive long after Ashoka’s death. The pillars and rocks bearing Ashoka’s edicts remained, but the Indo-Aryan language in which they were written faded from public memory. Outside of Buddhist chronicles Ashoka was forgotten, until British scholars translated the edicts in the 19th century. Thanks to this work, Ashoka is remembered today as a great and humane monarch.

Self, No Self, What’s a Self?

Philosophers eastern and western have wrestled with the concept of self for many centuries. What is the self?

The Buddha taught a doctrine called anatta, which is often defined as no-self, or the teaching that the sense of being a permanent, autonomous self is an illusion. This does not fit our ordinary experience. Am I not me? If not, who is reading this article right now?

To add to the confusion, the Buddha discouraged his disciples from speculating about the self. For example, in the Sabbasava Sutta (Pali Sutta-pitaka, Majjhima Nikaya 2) he advised us not to ponder certain questions, such as Am I? Am I not?, because this would lead to six kinds of wrong views:

  1. I have a self.
  2. I have no self.
  3. By means of a self I perceive self.
  4. By means of a self I perceive not-self.
  5. By means of not-self I perceive self.
  6. The self of mine that knows is everlasting and will stay as it is forever.

If you are now thoroughly baffled — here the Buddha is not explaining whether you do or don’t have a self; he is saying that such intellectual speculation is not the way to gain understanding. And notice that when one says I have no self, the sentence assumes a self that doesn’t have a self.

So, the nature of the no-self is not something that can be grasped intellectually or explained with words. However, without some appreciation of anatta you will misunderstand everything else about Buddhism. Yes, its that important. So lets look at the no-self more closely.

Anatta or Anatman

Very basically, anatta (or anatman in Sanskrit) is the teaching that there is no permanent, eternal, unchanging, or autonomous self inhabiting our bodies or living our lives. Anatman is contrasted with the Vedic teachings of the Buddhas day, which taught that there is within each of us an atman, or an unchanging, eternal soul or identity.

Anatta or anatman is one of the Three Marks of Existence. The other two are dukkha (roughly, unsatisfying) and anicca (impermanent). In this context, anatta often is translated as egolessness.

Of critical importance is the teaching of the Second Noble Truth, which tells us that because we believe we are a permanent and unchanging self, we fall into clinging and craving, jealousy and hate, and all the other poisons that cause unhappiness.

Theravada Buddhism

In his book What the Buddha Taught, the Theravadin scholar Walpola Rahula said,

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of a self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of me and mine, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism,and other defilements, impurities and problems.

Other Theravadin teachers, such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu, prefer to say that the question of a self is unanswerable. He said,

In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible.

In this view, even to reflect on the question of whether one has or does not have a self leads to identification with a self, or perhaps an identification with nihilism. It is better to put the question aside and focus on other teachings, in particular the Four Noble Truths. The Bhikkhu continued,

In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism teaches a variation of anatta called sunyata, or emptiness. All beings and phenomena are empty of self-essence.

This doctrine is associated with a 2nd century philosophy called Madhyamika, school of the middle way, founded by the sage Nagarjuna. Because nothing has self-existence, phenomena take existence only as they relate to other phenomena. For this reason, according to Madhyamika, it is incorrect to say that phenomena either exist or dont exist. The middle way is the way between affirmation and negation.

Read More: The Two Truths: What Is Reality?

Mahayana Buddhism also is associated with the doctrine of Buddha Nature. According to this doctrine, Buddha Nature is the fundamental nature of all beings. Is Buddha Nature a self?

Theravadins sometimes accuse Mahayana Buddhists of using Buddha Nature as a way to sneak atman, a soul or self, back into Buddhism. And sometimes they have a point. It is common to conceive of Buddha Nature as a kind of big soul that everyone shares. To add to the confusion, sometimes Buddha Nature is called original self or true self. Ive heard Buddha Nature explained as a big self, and our individual personages as a the small self, but Ive come to think that is a very unhelpful way to understand it.

Mahayana teachers (mostly) say that it is incorrect to think of Buddha Nature as something we possess. Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) made a point of saying that Buddha Nature is what we are, not something we have.

In a famous dialogue, a monk asked Chan master Chao-chou Tsung-shen (778-897) if a dog has Buddha nature. Chao-chous answer — Mu! (no, or does not have) has been contemplated as a koan by generations of Zen students. Very broadly, the koan works to crush the concept of Buddha Nature as a kind of self we carry around with us.

Dogen wrote in Genjokoan —

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. / To study the self is to forget the self. /To forget the self is to be enlightened by the 10,000 things.

Once we thoroughly investigate self, self is forgotten. However, I am told, this doesnt mean that the person you are disappears when enlightenment is realized. The difference, as I understand it, is that we no longer perceive the world through a self-referential filter.

The Mahabodhi Temple

The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya marks the place thought to be where the historical Buddha realized enlightenment. It is arguably the most important of the holy sites related to the life of the Buddha. In spite of its significance, however, much about the temples history has been lost to time. And the temple today is an object of contention between India’s two great religions, Buddhism and Hinduism.

 Bodh Gaya is in the Bihar state of north eastern India, bordering Nepal. Buddhist history says that it was here that the Buddha realized the way to liberation from suffering would be found in mind and not in aestheticism, and he sat in meditation under a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa), called the Bodhi Tree, until he realized enlightenment. Historians arent certain exactly when the Buddha lived, but the enlightenment probably happened late in the 5th century BCE.

Read More: The Story of the Buddhas Enlightenment

Early History of Mahabodhi Temple

According to Buddhist history, the first small temple at Bodh Gaya was built by the Emperor Ashoka, a patron of Buddhism who reigned most of what is now India and a great deal more from about 269 BCE to 232 BCE. This temple may have been replaced in the 1st or 2nd century CE. The current temple probably dates to the 5th or 6th century CE, and it remains one of the oldest brick structures in India.

As centuries passed Buddhism declined in India for a host of reasons, and Hinduism became the dominant religion.

In the 12th century northern India was invaded by Muslim Turks, and the area had Muslim rulers for the next several centuries. The Mahabodhi Temple fell into neglect. By the 15th century it had been completely abandoned by Buddhists.

Read More: Why Buddhism Declined in India

Mahabodhi Temple detail by Andrew Moore, https://www.flickr.com/photos/andryn2006/8570930682 , Creative Commons License

The British Exploration

The revival of Mahabodhi came from an unlikely place — Britain. Great Britain ruled India from 1757 to 1947, a period of history called the British Raj. In the late 18th century assignments to India were highly sought after by young English gentlemen seeking fortunes or adventure.

In the mid 18th century the religions of India and southeast Asia had seemed just a hodgepodge of idolatry to Europeans, but the British adventurers began to sort it out. For example, in 1797 a British surgeon named Dr. Francis Buchanan published an account of Buddhism that used the English word Buddhism for the first time in print.

In 1811 this same Dr. Buchanan and a group of assistants traveled to northeastern India and came upon a crumbling ruin of a temple inhabited by Hindu ascetics. Dr. Buchanan recognized that the weathered stone carvings of the temple were images of the Buddha. The Hindu ascetics had treated the old temple with respect but had no idea of its original significance. With much sleuthing Dr. Buchanan learned that the temple had once been a great center of Buddhism, but it wasnt clear to anyone why. It would be a few more years before the significance of the Mahabodhi Temple was fully appreciated by either the British or Indians.

By the 1880s British and other travelers were publishing accounts of the deplorable state of the temple, and the British government undertook a restoration. This drew the attention of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a Buddhist activist of what was then British Ceylon. Dharmapala campaigned to have the temple returned to Buddhist control, a request that met with resistance from Hindu clergy. Hindus had come to regard the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu and considered it to be their temple, too.

Eventually a compromise was reached — control of the temple was taken over by the state government of Bihar, which established a management committee to be made up of five Hindus (including the chair) and four Buddhists. The Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee still is in charge today, although in 2013 policy was changed to allow the Gaya District Magistrate to act as chairman even if he isnt Hindu. There is also an advisory committee that includes representatives of Buddhism from several other countries.

Still, to this day there are Buddhist activists calling for Mahabodhi Temple to be returned to Buddhists.

The Temple Today

The temple today is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  According UNESCO, the present temple is one of the earliest and most imposing structures built entirely in brick from the Gupta period. The temple complex covers nearly 12 acres; the main pyramid temple is 180 feet tall. Next to the temple is a huge pipal tree said to be a direct descendant of the Buddhas Bodhi Tree.

For a first-person account of a visit to Mahabodhi, see Review of Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya by About.com India Travel Expert Sharell Cook.

Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana

The Mahayana Sraddhotpada Sastra, or “Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana,” is a synthesis of Mahayana Buddhist doctrines that was enormously influential in the development of Buddhism in east Asia. The text is credited with resolving hotly debated issues of its time involving Buddhist metaphysics and enlightenment.

Origin of the Mahayana Sraddhotpada Sastra

The sanskrit word sastra, sometimes spelled shastra, means “rules,” and in Buddhism it describes a text that may be a commentary to a sutra or scripture but is not scripture itself. This “Awakening of Faith” sastra has traditionally been attributed to Asvaghosa, a 2nd century CE Indian philosopher and poet.

However, scholars today believe the text is of Chinese origin. History records that an Indian monk named Paramartha completed the first translation from Sanskrit into Chinese ca. 550 CE, but it’s very possible this “translation” is the original text and Paramartha was its author. No earlier Sanskrit text is known to exist, although that is not at all unusual for Mahayana literature.

A second “translation” was produced by a monk named Siksananda in about 700 CE. It’s interesting to note that the sastra’s first English translator, D.T. Suzuki, still assumed Asvaghosa was the author and believed Paramartha and Siksananda had translated different Sanskrit versions. Suzuki’s translation, published in 1900, is of the Siksananda version but with divergences from Paramartha explained in footnotes

The Korean monk Wonhyo (617-686) was among the first to recognize the sastra’s significance. Wonhyo’s commentary on the sastra impressed Fazang (or Fa-tsang, 643-712), the prominent Third Patriarch of the Huayan school in China. Through Fazang’s influence the sastra became seminal in the Buddhism of China and Japan, and through Wonhyo it became a foundation of Korean Buddhism. It is considered part of the Chinese Canon.

Wisdom of The Awakening of Faith

The Awakening of Faith resolves a doctrinal dispute that had arisen within Mahayana regarding tathata, which means “suchness” or “thusness.” In Mahayana Buddhism, tathata is the true nature of reality, pure and boundless, beyond description or conceptualization. The word is sometimes used interchangeably with sunyata, or emptiness, and it is sometimes called “the absolute.” But what is the relationship between tathata and phenomena?

Drawing on Tathagatagarbha and Yogacara teachings, Awakening of Faith proposes that tathata is not some pure realm separate from the phenomenal world, but rather that tathata expresses itself as phenomena. Put another way, the phenomenal world — marked with imperfection, impermanence and ego — is not separate from the perfect and unchanging Buddha Nature, or enlightenment. This is so even if we don’t see it ourselves, and in this sense we are all already enlightened. This is the faith to which we awaken.

This understanding changed how Mahayana Buddhists understood enlightenment. Enlightenment was no longer a goal, or the end stage of a process. We are all already enlightened! However, our suffering is real; our ignorance is real. Because this is so, we practice the Eightfold Path in order to realize for ourselves what we already are.

Awakening of Faith proposes that original enlightenment or Buddha Nature was our natural state even before we were born. As ordinary human beings we do not see this. But in this life we may cultivate an initial enlightenment that is the basis of a final enlightenment, which is the original enlightenment.

In Mahayana Buddhism, enlightenment is not thought of as a quality that some people possess and others do not. It is what we all are. We practice not to gain something, but to clarify what is already present and manifest it in the world.