Theravada & Mahayana as One

Question: A teacher mentioned that the Lotus Sutra is fictional, that some of its contents do not accord with the Buddha’s instruction (e.g. making fun of the Arahants/Arhats). What do you think?

Answer: Some teachers of Theravada Buddhism tend to say Mahayana sutras are not true. But this in the view of Mahayana teachers, is very short-sighted, because the Mahayana teachings clearly complete the vision of the Buddha – to train beings how to realise the most supreme form of enlightenment. The Buddha’s ultimate aim is to teach us how to attain Buddhahood, to be like him; not just to settle for Arahanthood (which is the emphasis of the Theravada teachings), which even Theravada teachers admit to be lesser than the perfect compassion and wisdom attained in Buddhahood. E.g. no Arahant ever claims to be equal to a Buddha; not even in the Buddha’s time. Without Buddhas, there would be no Buddhism. This is how important Buddhahood is.

The Lotus Sutra is one of the key Mahayana sutras, which emphasise on the importance of cultivating universal compassion as a requisite on the path to Buddhahood, along with many other important teachings. Mahayana Buddhists believe that Mahayana sutras were also taught by the Buddha, while laying the foundational teachings found in Theravada Buddhism. But as each set of teachings are adhered to by different followers with different spiritual preferences and capacities, they might appear to be separate teachings, when they are actually one in spirit, as parts of the path towards Buddhahood. E.g. Even Arahants can aspire to become Bodhisattvas, who become Buddhas too, though one can aspire to be a Bodhisattva directly too.

I had studied the Lotus Sutra and many key Theravada suttas, and I don’t see how they might be at odds with one another. There is no making fun of Arahants in the Lotus Sutra, though the Buddha did admonish those who believe enlightenment for oneself is the be-all and end-all of the spiritual life – as this is spiritual selfishness. To qualify, to become an Arahant, one cannot be selfish. As such, the Buddha was not admonishing Arahants, but those with wrong motivations for attaining self-liberation, while not even considering giving rise to Bodhicitta – the aspiration to help all beings, along with oneself, be free from Samsara.

It can be confusing to learn Mahayana Buddhism from Theravada teachers, because they are generally less learned in the Mahayana teachings due to disregard of their worth. This is while there are more Mahayana teachers who learn Theravada teachings, because they clearly see them as the foundations of the Mahayana teachings. It is wonderful to learn the Dharma from many traditions, but it is important not to make the mistake of asking a teacher of tradition X, who is not proficient in tradition Y about it – just as we won’t ask an expert seafood chef how to cook good vegetarian dishes. I hope you get the analogy!

For liberation of oneself, teachings leading to Arhathood are important.
For liberation of everyone, teachings leading to Buddhahood are important.

Yet, for the Buddhadharma that includes teachings
leading to Arhathood and Buddhahood to exist and thrive,
there must be Buddhas continually arising from Buddhahood.

– Stonepeace

Related Article:
Basic Points Unifying the Theravada and the Mahayana

3 thoughts on “Theravada & Mahayana as One

  1. Richard Gombrich, Foremost Expert on the Pali Texts, Reveals the Truth that the Hinayana Buddhists Don’t Want You To Know

    “Modern editors of the Pali Canon, however, have generally contented themselves with trying to establish a textus receptus or ‘received text’. Let me explain. Most of our physical evidence for the Pali Canon is astonishingly recent, far more recent than our physical evidence for the western classical and biblical texts.

    While talking of this, I want to take the opportunity to correct a mistake in something I published earlier this year. In Professor K. R. Norman’s splendid revision of Geiger’s Pali Grammar, published by the Pali Text Society (Geiger, 1994), I wrote an introduction called ‘What is Pali?’ (Gombrich, 1994a). In that I wrote (p. xxv) that a Kathmandu manuscript of c.800 A.D. is ‘the oldest substantial piece of written Pali to survive’ if we except the inscriptions from Devnimori and Ratnagiri, which differ somewhat in phonetics from standard Pali. This is wrong. One can quibble about what ‘substantial’ means; but it must surely include a set of twenty gold leaves found in the Khin Ba Gôn trove near Śrī Ketra, Burma, by Duroiselle in 1926-7. The leaves are inscribed with eight excerpts from the Pali Canon. Professor Harry Falk has now dated them, on paleographic grounds, to the second half of the fifth century A.D., which makes them by far the earliest physical evidence for the Pali canonical texts (Stargardt, 1995). — Richard F. Gombrich

    Therefore, according to this reliable information, the Sanskrit text of the Lotus Sutra is older than the Pali texts that the Hinayana Buddhists arrogantly claim to be the only authoritative texts of the Buddha.

  2. The article is very well done. I would, however, like to add one thing: In the Buddha Sutta (SN 22:58) Gautama Buddha himself gives this distinction between a Tathagata (Buddha) and other enlightened monks (arahants):

    “The Tathagata — the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one — is the one who gives rise to the path previously unarisen, who engenders the path previously unengendered, who points out the path previously not pointed out. He knows the path, is expert in the path, is adept at the path. And his disciples now keep following the path and afterwards become endowed with the path.
    This is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing between one rightly self-awakened and a monk discernment-released.”

    In other words, there is only one historical Buddha at a time. It’s only when the path is forgotten that another Buddha can arise by rediscovering it. Arahants are fully enlightened but had a teacher guide them.

    In Gautama Buddha’s time things were memorized instead of being written down. It wasn’t until two centuries after his death that the teachings were recorded. The original writings were copied and disseminated, deteriorated, worn out, accidentally destroyed. It’s highly unlikely we have any of the originals but, even if we did, it wouldn’t tell us which occurred first or whether it was authentic. So let’s leave that to the scholars who are like the man shot with a poison arrow (MN 63). The real test is whether the system works or not. If both traditions work, they are both authentic.

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