Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

"Buddha and God" (3)

 

     Even animals make offerings to Buddha, as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra tells us:

      "Also, there were lion kings there ... Bearing various flowers and fruits, they came to where the Buddha was, touched his feet with their heads, stepped back, and sat down to one side. ... Also, there were buffaloes, cows and  sheep present, who were as numerous as the sands of 20 Ganges, who all came to the Buddha and gave forth wonderfully fragrant milk ... There were (also) present all the kings of the bees ... They brought in many flowers, came to where the Buddha was, touched his feet with their heads, walked around him once, stepped back, and sat down to one side." (ibid. p. 17).

     Turning to the Shrimaladevisimhanada Sutra, we are presented with the following adulatory and venerating words of prayer of the great Queen Shrimala, who is inspired and empowered by the Buddha's wisdom:

      "Lord and Saviour - your Kayas [bodies] and Glory beyond analogy are inconceivable and beyond all conceptual representation. Salutations - O Lord and Saviour of the World. You have the inconcceivable creative, living essence ... Salutations - O Victorious King of Dharma. You know all that is knowable ... Salutations - O you who are measureless, Salutations - O you who are beyond all conceptual representation, Salutations - O you who are inconceivable, Salutations - O you whose kayas [bodies] are boundless. Lord and Saviour, take me now into your protection." (The Shrimaladevi Sutra, tr. by Dr. Shenpen Hookham, Longchen Foundation, Oxford 1998, p. 18).

     We notice the characteristic stress on the incomprehensibility of Buddha, and the employment of the term, "Saviour", in the foregoing homage to the Lord. It is of course a vital aspect of God, or of God's divine messengers, that they can save us from the suffering generted by our sins. In Buddhism, too, there is the teaching that by venerating the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, "Amitabha-Amitayus", we can be liberated from our karma and delivered  into that Buddha's Land of Happiness ("Sukhavati") from which there is no slipping back into the world of karmic misery.

     The larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra all but begins with the words: "Adoration to Amitabha! Adoration to him whose soul is endowed with incomprehensible virtues!" ("The Larger Sukhavati-Vyuha Sutra" tr. by Max Müller, in Buddhist Mahayana Texts ed. by E.B. Cowell and others, Dover, New York 1969, orig. 1894, p. 1). And the smaller Sukhavativyuha  Sutra tells of how, when one is dying, one will be born in Buddha Amitayus's Land of Happiness (a Paradise attainable prior to one's reaching Nirvana) if one prays accordingly while thinking on Amitayus. Interestingly, the gaining of this paradisiacal world is not dependent on one's having generated masses of good karma (although this is contradicted in some versions of the sutra) -  but merely by dwelling in thought upon Buddha Amitayus, as Buddha relates:

      " ... all beings ... ought to make fervent prayer for that Buddha country. And why? Because they come together there with such excellent men. Beings are not born in that Buddha country of the Tathagata Amitayus as a reward and result of good works performed in this present life. No, whatever son or daughter of a family shall hear the name of the blessed Amitayus, the Tathagata, and having heard it, shall keep it in mind, and with thoughts undisturbed shall keep it in mind for one, two, three, four, five, six or seven nights, - when that son or daughter of a family comes to die, then that Amitayus, the Tathagata, surrounded by an assembly of disciples and followed by a host of Bodhisattvas, will stand before them at their hour of death, and they will depart this life with tranquil minds. After their death they will be born in the world Sukhavati, in the Buddha country of the same Amitayus, the Tathagata. Therefore ... every son and every daughter of a family ought with their whole mind to make fervent prayer for that Buddha country." ("The Smaller Sukhavati-Vyuha Sutra" in Buddhist Mahayana Texts, op. cit., p. 99).

This is reminiscent of a Christian's praying to Jesus for entry into Heaven. Buddha (in his varying guises - here as Amitayus) is Leader into Paradise. Buddha is seen as the Supreme Being who can save humanity. The famous Lotus Sutra specifically records Buddha as saying that the entire world (viewed as of a threefold nature in Buddhism) is his domain and that he is its father and Saviour:

      "Now this triple world, All is my domain; the living beings in it all are my sons. But now this place abounds with distresses; and I alone am able to save and protect them." (The Threefold Lotus Sutra, tr. by B. Kato, W.E. Soothill, et. al., Kosei, Tokyo, 1975, p. 98).

     In the Avatamsaka Sutra, we read of how Bodhisattvas (aspirants to Buddhahood) see all the countless manifestations of Buddha in the cosmos and worship them severally and as one. We have to remember  that although there are infinite numbers of Buddhas, in essence  there is only One. As Robert Thurman, expert on Tibetan Buddhism, wites: "In the absolute sense, there is only one Buddha, as the Truth Bodies ["Dharmakayas"] of different Buddhas cannot be distinguished from each other." (The Tibetan Book of the Dead tr. by Robert A. F. Thurman, Thorsons, London 1994, p. 249). The Avatamsaka Sutra ("Gandavyuha") speaks of the Bodhisattvas who are " ... intent upon one and the same inconceivabe body of all buddhas." ( The Flower Ornament Scripture, op.cit., p. 1, 265). It is precisely to Buddha, sometimes viewed as one, sometimes as multiform, that these Bodhisattvas make their religiously inspired offerings. We read:     

     “The Buddhas are as infinite as living beings;

      They [Bodhisattvas] generously present offerings to them all.

      All kinds of wonderfully scented flowers,

      Jewels, clothes, pennants, and parasols,

      They distribute throughout the cosmos,

      Determined to offer them to all Buddhas …

 

      With their whole bodies they successively bow

      In respect for those boundless Victors [i.e. Buddhas];

      They also praise them with their words

      Forever and ever more.

 

      Their offerings to one Buddha

      Are as numberless as sentient beings;

      Thus do they make offerings to one Buddha

      And to all Buddhas in the same way.

 

      They provide for and laud the Buddhas

      Throughout all ages of the world;

      The ages of the world may come to an end,

      But [Bodhisattvas’] offerings never cease.

 

      In the various ages of all worlds

      They cultivate practices there,

      Honoring and attending one Buddha

      Tirelessly throughout all ages.” (“Ten Dedications”, from The Flower Ornament Scripture, op. cit. p. 690).

 

Clearly such devotion could only be called forth by wht is the Highest of the High. It is nothing less than the God-Principle which these Bodhisattvas are worshipping.

 

     Of course the real veneration of Buddha does not focus on his earthly, physical body – it is directed towards Dharma, Buddha’s unchanging Essence. By giving up earthly pleasures and practising the spiritual attainments that come from following Dharma, the Bodhisattva is truly according with Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha speaks of such correct reverence and practice in the Bhadrakalpika Sutra:

 

     “But the ones who have true reverence for me are those who,

      after having listened to these Sutras, give up all pleasures and

      abide in the pure attainments. For example, the way Subhuti

      worshipped me: rejecting the need for my physical presence,

      he worshipped the Dharma itself – for why should there be

      veneration of my material body?” (The Bhadrakalpika Sutra, tr.     

      as The Fortunate Aeon, Dharma Publishing, Berkeley 1986, Vol. 1, p.71).

 

As the Buddha indicates in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, it is within “Dharmata” (the Essence of Dharma and all phenomena) that virtuous people expect to behold Buddha. They do not fixate on his terrestrial appearance, but seek him out within the Essence of Reality (“Dharmata”):

 

     “All good men and women desire to see me, to respect me,

      to see me in Dharmata …” (The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., Vol. 7, p. 11).

 

And the definite teaching is that, by reverentially seeking Buddha thus, Buddha will indeed be found.

 

     [To be Continued …]