To enter the Mahayana Buddhist path to enlightenment is to seek both to become free horn our dualistic, deluded world and to remain actively engaged in that world until all others are free. How an these two apparently contradictory qualities to be embodied in the attainment of buddhahood (dharmakaya)? How can one’s present practice accomplish that? These questions underlie a millennium-old controversy over buddhahood in India and Tibet that centers around a cherished text, the Abhisamayalamkara Makransky shows how the Abhisamayalamkara’s composite redaction, from Abhidharma, Prajnaparamita, and Yogacara traditions, permitted its interpreters to perceive different aspects of those traditions as central in its teaching of buddhahoo4. This enabled Indians and Tibetans to read very different perspectives on enlightenment into the Abhisamayalamkara, through which they responded to the questions in startlingly different ways.
The author shows how these perspectives provide alternative ways to resolve a logical tension at the heart of Mahayana though; inscribed in the doctrine that buddhahood paradoxically transcends and engages our world simultaneously. Revealin3 this tension as the basis of the Abhisamayalamkara controversy, Makransky shows its connection to many other Indo-Tibetan controversies revolving around the same tension: disagreements over Buddhahood’s knowledge, embodiment, and accessibility to being a (in Buddha nature and through the path). Tracing the source of tension to early Mahayana practice intuitions about enlightenment, the author argues that different perspectives in these controversies express different ways of prioritizing those practice intuitions.
“This is first-rate Buddhist scholarship, ranging over many centuries, dozens of texts, and two cultures, while never losing its focus on the crucial philological and doctrinal issues that animate it is intellectual history of a high order, the product of careful detective work, in which subtle leads and nuanced arguments are tracked and traced with linguistic skill and methodological sophistication in a convincing attempt to expose larger patterns of development. It significantly advance’s our understanding of a crucial, yet surprisingly under-studied area of Mahayana Buddhism—the doctrine of buddhahood—in the process clearing away a great deal of cant and cliché that long has been uncriticaliy accepted and perpetuated. It also illuminates the history relation and (sometimes) authorship of a number of central Mahayana texts, including the Prajnapiramita ruins and the great treatises of the Yogacara tradition. Family, it is written with remarkable clarity and force—for all its subtlety and complexity, the reader virtually knows where the discussion has been, where it stands, and where
it is headed.”
John J. Makransky teaches Buddhist Studies and Comparative Theology in the Department of Theology, Boston College.
This book draws from the research of my doctoral dissertation, which examined disagreements over Buddhahood as it is taught in the Abhisamayalamkara, a text much studied in Indian Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism. This book, however, carries that research several more steps. It explains how disagreements over the Abhisamayalamkara’s teaching of Buddhahood express alternative ways to engage a doctrinal tension at the very heart of systematic Mahayana thought. It thereby shows how long controversy over that text is systemically related to many other controversies over Buddhahood in India and Tibet, all of which express the same underlying tension. In the final chapter, the book identifies early Mahayana intuitions of practice that drove Mahayana doctrinal formation toward that tension. It argues that later controversies over the resolution of that tension represent a clash of alternative perspectives on Buddhahood, perspectives that differ in how they prioritize and systematize those intuitions of practice. Several such controversies over Buddhahood (in its relation to us and to our world) continue to the present day in living traditions of Asian Buddhist scholarship and praxis.
This book is written with three kinds of readers particularly in mind: (1) contemporary academic students and scholars who are interested in Mahayana Buddhist thought and practice; (2) traditionally trained Buddhist scholars in Asia and the West, whose knowledge of the texts under discussion here is continuous with their transmission in Asian Buddhist cultures over many centuries; (3) contemporary practitioners of Buddhism, most of whom are not scholars, but who desire clarification on reasons for the differing perspectives within Buddhist tradition on the doctrines they are now internalizing and the practices they are now performing. I am located somewhere within the intersection of all three of these groups, and there-fore write not only as an academic scholar of Buddhism but as a Mahayana Buddhist.
The questions that led me into the studies behind this book are presented at the beginning of the first chapter. They are inspired by two basic practices transmitted to contemporary Mahayana Buddhists from long tradition: (1) Mahayana practice of refuge in the Buddha, and (2) cultivation of bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment, to become Buddha, for the sake of beings. The questions are these: When we take refuge in the Buddha, what are we actually taking refuge in? When we aspire to become Buddha for the sake of beings, what are we actually aspiring to become, and how is our practice to fulfill that aspiration?
The precise answers to these questions have varied within Mahayana Buddhist traditions, even to the present day. Our authentic response to those questions must be based both on those traditions and on the realities of our individual and social practices as they continue to develop in new times and places. For contemporary Mahayana Buddhists, then, a first step toward finding our own response to such questions is to learn as much as we can about what Mahayana traditions, continuous with the ones we have inherited, have said about Buddhahood. Inasmuch as these traditions have sometimes disagreed in significant ways, we have to learn what the disagreements have most deeply involved, especially when viewed in their relation to Buddhist thought and practice as a whole. Only then can we begin to assess their possible implications for our own understanding and practice in the present.
That is the broad theological concern behind this book, which explores bases of disagreement over Buddhahood in some of the textual traditions of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism that are now part of our cultural inheritance in both Asia and the West. Because the book tries to dig rather deeply into ancient textual sources of disagreements on Buddhahood, and seeks to relate those disagreements to differing perspectives on Mahayana thought and practice as a whole, it should hold interest for scholars and students in Western universities and Asian Buddhist centers of higher learning. And because its underlying purpose is to clear a little more of the ground necessary for contemporary Mahayana Buddhists to discern what an authentic practice must become in our own place and time, it may be of some use to Mahayana practitioners of the present and future. At least that is my hope.
Without assuming that the reader knows Sanskrit, I do use Sanskrit terminology for many important terms throughout the book. I always provide the meaning in English for each context. But as the reader will soon appreciate, meanings of one Sanskrit term (like “dharmakaya”) vary significantly in different contexts. A single standard translation applied to all contexts would erase potential meanings. The book is therefore written in a way that will enable the interested reader to pick up key Sanskrit terms without prior knowledge of Sanskrit.
Scholars and students may find the entire book useful. Contemporary practitioners of Buddhism who are interested in the overall concerns of the book, but not in all the details of textual analysis, need not read chapters 7 and 8 in their entirety. One can get the gist of them from their introductory and concluding sections. These chapters present literary-critical analysis of key texts. The full content of them is for scholars who want details of the evidence and for others who may wish to use this book to open up questions on the relevance of historical context and literary criticism for the understanding of scared Buddhist texts.
In general, I have tried to write this book so that it may serve equally as a text for the university classroom, as a reference work on many of the key ideas and practices formative of Mahayana understandings of Buddhahood, or as a self-study manual for students of Dharma who want to dig more deeply into textual and doctrinal roots of Mahayana traditions in which they practice. If there is any merit in this book, karmic or otherwise, it comes from the Buddhas through all who have taught me. May it therefore come to fruition in the awakening of us all.
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