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Thread: how important is the Pali Canon within the Mahayana tradition??

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    Forums Member lotus_budd's Avatar
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    how important is the Pali Canon within the Mahayana tradition??

    hello!
    basically, i have been learning about the Pali canon and to my understanding it is sort of a key part of the Theravada tradition. so i was just wondering about its importance within the Mahayana Tradition...
    Thankyou!

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    Forums Member FBM's Avatar
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    I've been told that the Mahayana schools respect the Pali canon in its entirety, but maybe more as a history of Buddhism? When it comes to practice or doctrine, they tend to emphasize the sutras that are unique to the Mahayana. Some obvious exceptions, of course, in the Four Noble Truths and so forth.

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    Here's my views...based on what I have read and known...

    1. Generally, I would think that the individual early Indian Buddhist Schools' Agamas (Sutra Pitaka) or their entire Tripitaka Canon would have more impact in the Mahayana world than the Pali Canon. Now, the Agamas are held by scholars to be the nearest 'cousin' to the Pali Suttas.
    For example, the Pali's Five Nikayas have their near equivalents to the Five Parts of the Agamas (save for one category of Agamas which are not classed into the standard 5)

    a. The Mahayana Sutra Pitaka has 2 parts: Mahayana based Sutras and Tantras and a big collection of early Indian Buddhist Schools' Sutra Pitakas (except the Pali Canon) known as the Agamas. The Chinese, Korean & Taisho Tripitaka Canon have the biggest collection of several early Indian Buddhist Schools' stuff (Vinaya, Sutra & Abhidharma Pitakas) and the Tibetan Canon with only a fair amount.

    b. When one reads on ancient & traditional treatises on various subjects in the Mahayana & Vajrayana worlds, their references from non-Mahayana sources would normally be exclusively from the individual early Indian Buddhist Schools' Vinaya, Agamas and Abhidharma and not the Pali Canon. Perhaps, the modern ones may have some from the Pali Canon, since Theravada is the only surviving lineage from those days until today and with more exposure to it.

    c. It would not be fair to say that the 'Mahayanists' of the old days were totally not aware of the Theravadins and the Pali Canon, perhaps they were more aware & familiar with the other early Indian Schools and the 'polemics' were mainly about the latter rather than the former unlike today, where Theravada is the only surviving lineage from those ancient days, so the same polemics have been shifted and focused on them instead.

    For example the Chinese pilgrims like the Tang Dynasty's Tripitaka Acharyas Xuan Zang & Yi Jing and earlier ones like Fa Xian who noted them as 'Sthaviras' (Sanskrit for 'Thera') and their works from Sri Lanka and India, Arya Vasubandhu who mentioned on them as the honorable 'Tamraparniyas' in his 'Karmasiddhi Prakarana' (Treatise on Action) and the two Indian Vajrayana Acharyas who brought Vajrayana to Tang China (& to Japan via Kobo Daishi), Amoghavajra & Vajrabodhi who used to visit Sri Lanka in the days when Mahayana & Vajrayana was practiced side by side with Theravada on that island then, chiefly the famed Abhayagiri Vihara, which tolerated Theravadin, Mahayanist and Vajrayanist teachings and followers, akin to India's Great Nalanda University's open policy back then, as compared to the more orthodox & conservative Maha Vihara.

    2. Specifically, I can think of a few instances where the Pali Canon may have some importance to Mahayanists...
    a. As far as I have known, Mahayanists have a general respectful attitude for all of what they regard as taught by the Buddha, this includes the Pali Canon. For example, the Chinese Mahayana (which is also resonated in the Korean, Japanese & Vietnamese traditions) which has the 4 Great Vows (general Bodhicitta resolve statement) where the third one goes like, 'Dharma Doors are innumerable, I vow to cultivate them all'. So, Sutra Studies is regarded as part of this resolve, hence the Pali Canon is no exception.

    b. Now what may be observed is that amongst some, there is this 'addiction' to treatises, commentaries, sub commentaries and scholastic works, which some take it as a short cut synthesis / summary of the Buddha Dharma, instead of reading the actual scripture texts for themselves, in the name of saving time and research besides relying on what a scholar/master says. This habit I believe, is not a peculiar only to the Mahayana Tradition but all of Buddhism as well. Some of my Theravadin friends opined that the Burmese Theravada Tradition is famed for this. So, it's not only the Pali Canon but that of the Agamas & Mahayana based Sutras as well. You get quotes and snippets but not the full text and context.

    c. Until perhaps the last century or last few decades where interest in it have peaked in scholastic and interested/limited informed lay circles.
    I am mindful that there are factors that influence 'importance' like availability, language, exposure by own research/external source, openness of the lineage/school towards the Pali Canon and etc. For example, in the Bodhisattva Vows & Mahayana Sutras, one is to refrain from denigrating the Sravaka Path, what more the Sutras. Since as mentioned before, if the Agamas are widely used and quoted, why should the Pali Suttas be excluded?

    d. Another example, when Buddhist ecumenical meetings are held between various masters of the various schools, say a Vinaya conference, all three Vinayas (currently used are the Theravadin Pali Vinaya, the Chinese Dharmaguptaka and the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada) are discussed and deliberated on, especially these last 2 decades or more pertaining on the issue of Bhikkhunis/Bhikshunis ordination.

    e. Yet another example, I have heard of one Chinese Mahayana Pure Land Master who encouraged his students to include both the Agama Sutras & Pali Suttas in their scope of study. I had a chat with one Tibetan Vajrayanist friend once and was surprised when he told me his teacher would not mind if he read the Pali Suttas. I recall on a now defunct forum thread that there are circles in Taiwan, Hong Kong & the PRC which are translating the Pali Canon into the Chinese language and studied.

    f. Perhaps the Pali Canon would definitely have some lingering impact on those who may have been Theravadins before but are now Mahayanists and Vajrayanists...

    g. There is a tendency I observed that in some Mahayana and Vajrayana circles, that when they come across quoted non Mahayana Sutras in their traditional treatises & commentaries, they tend to think it's from the Pali Suttas and even when pointed out that it isn't so, their attitude tend to be 'It's all the same sravaka stuff'. So, the very few venture into reading Pali Suttas like that friend of mine as it's the most accessible compared to the less translated Agama Sutras which the bulk of it are still locked up in the Chinese or Tibetan languages and the ones in the other languages like English are coming in painfully slow.

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    Forums Member FBM's Avatar
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    That's really informative, plwk. Thanks for that. The latter part reminded me that I found an organization here in Korea a few years ago that is translating the Pali Canon into Korean. When I tried to contact them, however, I got no response. They may be defunct. Don't know.

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    Forums Member stuka's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lotus_budd View Post
    hello!
    basically, i have been learning about the Pali canon and to my understanding it is sort of a key part of the Theravada tradition. so i was just wondering about its importance within the Mahayana Tradition...
    Thankyou!

    They are by and large ignored in mahayana in favor of the teachings of others.

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    Forums Member srivijaya's Avatar
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    Hi plwk,
    A very good analysis of the general situation I think. A few things you mentioned, have struck me as particularly relevant, since as "modern" internet Buddhists we have access to an unusually eclectic mix of information and traditions.
    Quote Originally Posted by plwk View Post
    2. Specifically, I can think of a few instances where the Pali Canon may have some importance to Mahayanists...
    Very true. It requires an openness to do so though as it's not considered 'required reading' in some Mahayana circles.

    I vow to cultivate them all'. So, Sutra Studies is regarded as part of this resolve, hence the Pali Canon is no exception.
    Absolutely. Most people don't know that tantric vows require the practitioner to take refuge in both sutra and tantra. Unfortunately, sutra is often perceived as the 'poor relative' and tantra as the "real deal". This is entirely mistaken and the Pali cannon offers the best, most comprehensive and available sutta teachings of Buddha for our times. There may be other untranslated texts but they are not generally available.

    Now what may be observed is that amongst some, there is this 'addiction' to treatises, commentaries, sub commentaries and scholastic works, which some take it as a short cut synthesis / summary of the Buddha Dharma, instead of reading the actual scripture texts for themselves, in the name of saving time and research besides relying on what a scholar/master says. This habit I believe, is not a peculiar only to the Mahayana Tradition but all of Buddhism as well.
    Absolutely.

    Some of my Theravadin friends opined that the Burmese Theravada Tradition is famed for this.
    Indeed, they are a particularly interesting example as the Mahasi method is a very recent innovation which largely disregards (and in some cases discourages) Buddha's teachings on Jhana and yet regards itself as authentic. I have no idea if this method enjoys a monopoly in Burma?

    g. There is a tendency I observed that in some Mahayana and Vajrayana circles, that when they come across quoted non Mahayana Sutras in their traditional treatises & commentaries, they tend to think it's from the Pali Suttas and even when pointed out that it isn't so, their attitude tend to be 'It's all the same sravaka stuff'.
    Absolutely right alas. Ultimately the biggest losers are those who do not investigate the treasures to be discovered in the suttas for themselves but rely on assumptions and prejudice.

    Perhaps that will change over time, as the availability of material encourages seekers to explore.

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    @srivijaya
    Most people don't know that tantric vows require the practitioner to take refuge in both sutra and tantra. Unfortunately, sutra is often perceived as the 'poor relative' and tantra as the "real deal". This is entirely mistaken and the Pali cannon offers the best, most comprehensive and available sutta teachings of Buddha for our times. There may be other untranslated texts but they are not generally available.
    I beg to differ

    For example monks, in my tradition, at least, are not generally trained in Tantra at all until they've completed the full 22 year course of study in Sutra (so, they would be in their mod 30s). Also, in terms of popularity, Lam Rim teachings, which are entirely Sutra teachings, and include teachings shared with Theravada (on suffering, dependent origination, etc) as well as teachings on Bodhicitta and Wisdom, have always been the most popular in Tibet. Thousands of people attended a 28 day Lam Rim teaching of Pabongka Rinpoche, which became known as "Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand" and is considered the most heavily attended single teaching ever given in Tibet. The entirety of this teaching was from Sutras and at least 1/2 of the 850 page book by that name culled from the teachings comes from shared sutras/suttas studied by both Mahayana and Theravada.

    It's totally true that individual Suttas are not studied nearly enough within the Mahayana tradition. I'd like to see far more Sutta study classes, teachings and groups; I'd be among the first to sign up.

    Lastly, just one more example of the importance of Sutra vs Tantra within the Tantric tradition

    Tibet's most famous (one of two, actually) recent Gelugpa yogi (he passed a couple of years ago), Kirti Tenchog Rinpoche did many retreats in his life. After completing several Tantric retreats, the last one being a 7 year solitary retreat, he embarked on one final retreat---a 7 year Lam Rim (sutric) retreat. Many disciples believe that this deliberate choice of what you say is held to be a lower for of study, was a signal to all his students about the importance of Sutra study in our lives.

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    Forums Member srivijaya's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tjampel View Post
    monks, in my tradition, at least, are not generally trained in Tantra at all until they've completed the full 22 year course of study in Sutra (so, they would be in their mod 30s).
    Hi tjampel,
    I'm very glad to hear it and within the sangha generally one would expect this to be the case. My emphasis was more on the western laity and the perceptions given by some groups. Many people rush into taking "must-have" tantric vows before they really know what they are signing up for and there are groups which are happy to dish them out. The perception some of these people have of the Pali suttas is greatly distorted. That has been my experience, not that it's universal by any means, just that it can be found.

    Lastly, just one more example of the importance of Sutra vs Tantra within the Tantric tradition

    Tibet's most famous (one of two, actually) recent Gelugpa yogi (he passed a couple of years ago), Kirti Tenchog Rinpoche did many retreats in his life. After completing several Tantric retreats, the last one being a 7 year solitary retreat, he embarked on one final retreat---a 7 year Lam Rim (sutric) retreat. Many disciples believe that this deliberate choice of what you say is held to be a lower for of study, was a signal to all his students about the importance of Sutra study in our lives.
    An excellent example to set.

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    The Dharma is good in the beginning, middle and end...

    Of what use are 'lower' and 'higher'...
    when one's feet is still in the dust, what is 'higher'?
    when one's feet is in accord with cause and effect, what is 'lower'?

    when one's mind is under delusion, the Sutra turns us around
    when one's mind is free, the mind turns the Sutra around...

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    Forums Member Lazy Eye's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by plwk View Post
    Generally, I would think that the individual early Indian Buddhist Schools' Agamas (Sutra Pitaka) or their entire Tripitaka Canon would have more impact in the Mahayana world than the Pali Canon. Now, the Agamas are held by scholars to be the nearest 'cousin' to the Pali Suttas.
    For example, the Pali's Five Nikayas have their near equivalents to the Five Parts of the Agamas (save for one category of Agamas which are not classed into the standard 5)

    a. The Mahayana Sutra Pitaka has 2 parts: Mahayana based Sutras and Tantras and a big collection of early Indian Buddhist Schools' Sutra Pitakas (except the Pali Canon) known as the Agamas. The Chinese, Korean & Taisho Tripitaka Canon have the biggest collection of several early Indian Buddhist Schools' stuff (Vinaya, Sutra & Abhidharma Pitakas) and the Tibetan Canon with only a fair amount.

    b. When one reads on ancient & traditional treatises on various subjects in the Mahayana & Vajrayana worlds, their references from non-Mahayana sources would normally be exclusively from the individual early Indian Buddhist Schools' Vinaya, Agamas and Abhidharma and not the Pali Canon. Perhaps, the modern ones may have some from the Pali Canon, since Theravada is the only surviving lineage from those days until today and with more exposure to it...

    I am mindful that there are factors that influence 'importance' like availability, language, exposure by own research/external source, openness of the lineage/school towards the Pali Canon and etc.
    I wonder if in the digital age this situation has been turned on its head, especially for English-speaking practitioners. We are more likely to study Access to Insight (i.e. the Pali Canon) than the Agamas, if only because the latter haven't been translated and edited so systematically.

    I understand there are some extensive online collections of the Chinese canon -- but, for the most part, these are not translated. So Mahayanists in Asia and in the West could be getting a somewhat different picture.
    Last edited by Lazy Eye; 15 Oct 11 at 15:56.

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