Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Intimate Idea of the One Vehicle


In the transplantation of Buddhism to the West, the One Vehicle of the Buddha Dharma is often misunderstood.  The terms “the West” and “westernization” are admittedly problematic generalizations in themselves, but are handy labels for the cultural world view into which Buddha Dharma is now being transplanted from the Eastern countries of Japan, Korea, Vietnam, China, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, etc.  This accommodation, acclimation, and acculturation process is sometimes called the modernization or naturalization of Buddhism, and when focused on Buddha Dharma in the USA is often called the Americanization of Buddhism. 
Western/American Buddhists need to address justifications of their existence as a distinct group within Western/American culture. The cultural conditions of India were not the same as the cultural conditions of China, Korea, and Japan, and none of them are the same as the cultural conditions of the West. It is necessary for Western Buddhists to reach some form of accommodation with Western values and sociopolitical structures and functions in order for Buddha Dharma to take root and thrive in the Western cultural ground. In China, the two main streams of cultural conditions and values that Buddhism had to address were Confucianism and Daoism.  In the West, the two main streams of cultural conditions and values that Buddhists must address are the Judeo-Christian God-based theologies and scientific materialism. 
On the one hand, we in the West need to engage in the two-pronged hermeneutical process of first identifying the teaching of the Buddha Dharma and then correctly interpreting it. On the other hand, we need to make accommodations to Western languages and perspectives that allow for the transplantation of Buddhist ideas without corrupting their meaning. Already in the last 50 years, we have seen examples of both successful and corrupted accommodation strategies. In my view, one of the most promising bridges for transplanting Buddha Dharma to the West and making sense of the apparently confusing variety of Buddhist schools and practices is the One Vehicle.

To understand, appreciate, and support this process of transplantation, we should look at the history and prior experience of how Buddhism came to the East (i.e., to China) from what was considered their West in India. And to understand how the Chinese made sense of the confusing diversity of Buddhism we must have an appreciation of how the Chinese "analyzed the teachings" (panjiao) as they received them in unorganized and disorganized piecemeal translations from missionaries of different lineages and sects. However, none of the Chinese analyses of the teachings (panjiao) can be understood without appreciating the role of the One Vehicle.  Likewise, on the other hand, all of the limitations and shortcomings of the traditional Chinese taxonomical systems for the teachings may be understood by their mistakes related to the One Vehicle.

The Chinese correctly understood that the One Vehicle teaching was the orienting principle that make sense out of the diversity of the Buddhist teachings, however, they still fell prey to the human weakness of sectarianism. This is especially ironic because the One Vehicle movement itself was formed as the response to Buddhist sectarianism in India as exemplified by what was called "the 18 Schools."  However, when the One Vehicle came to China, the Chinese commentarial masters all too often failed to fully appreciate the One Vehicle and lost sight of the forest for seeing the trees. 

So while they often, and correctly, saw the One Vehicle as the "complete" or "perfect" (as in the perfection of a circle) teaching, they failed to see and understand the One Vehicle's universal inclusiveness, and instead they either took the One Vehicle as a separate teaching, distinguished from the other vehicles or took the One Vehicle as primarily attached to one Sutra and then claimed that that their favorite one Sutra was the superior sutra to all others.  Both these ideas are deeply mistaken. Thus, analyses of the teachings were created that gave "pride of place" to the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Flower Garland Sutra (Avatamsaka, Huayan), etc. But by putting a single One Vehicle Sutra above the other One Vehicle Sutras, these systems revealed that they really did not understand the purport of the One Vehicle. 

Also, some of the commentators argued that the One Vehicle was a "fourth vehicle" that was separate from and in addition to the Three Vehicles. This, too, was a grave mistake.  To understand the One Vehicle is to see that all the One Vehicle Sutras are equal without any of them being above the others, and to realize that the One Vehicle is not a separate vehicle but is the perspective that includes and embraces the Three Vehicles harmoniously.

Of the Chinese developers of the panjiao analyses of the teachings, only Guifeng Zongmi (780-841)developed a classification system that understood the One Vehicle as a nonsectarian movement that was the essence of the Zen, and the Zen motto of not being established on writings. Thus, his analysis of the teachings was not established on one sutra or another, but on the teachings as they were organized across and throughout the sutras.  Zongmi was both a master in the Huayan school and the Zen school, so he was uniquely situated to see that the One Vehicle was not solely appropriated to the Huayan Sutra (the Flower Garland Sutra) but was the essential teaching presented in all the One Vehicle Sutras such as the Flower Garland, Lotus, Nirvana, Lankavatara, Samdhinirmocana, etc.  Bodhidharma, the ancestral anchor of all of the Zen teaching lineages was said to have brought the "One Vehicle lineage of Southern India" to China for the correct understanding of the Lankavatara Sutra.

Especially troubling within some of the systems for analyzing the teachings was the creation of a spurious category called the "separate" teaching of the One Vehicle. This idea proclaimed that the One Vehicle was a fourth vehicle wholly separate from the Three Vehicles of disciples, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. Most, but not all, of the Huayan commentators adopted this erroneous view, however, due to his Zen training Zongmi did not.

I recently translated a small section of the  Samdhinirmocana Sutra on this point. The  Samdhinirmocana Sutra is a One Vehicle Sutra that is often mistakenly called a "Yogacara Text" because it was adopted by the Chinese Yogacara proponents who appropriated certain sections of the Sutra to their Yogacara doctrines.  In this Sutra, the Buddha engages in questions and answers with ten bodhisattvas including Subhuti, Maitreya, Avalokitesvara, and Manjusri.  In the section of exchange with Avalokitesvara, Avalokitesvara asks about the One Vehicle teaching because it seems that the Buddha is saying all the prior teachings are within the One Vehicle and not separate from it.  The Buddha makes it clear that the vehicle of the disciples and the vehicle of the bodhisattvas are themselves not really separate, but only appear separate because of the way they are taught. Here's my translation:


Avalokitesvara bodhisattva again addressed the Buddha and declared, “World Honored One. it is such that the World Honored One articulates as if the Listener-disciple Vehicle and again as if the Great Vehicle are only the One Vehicle. What is the intimate idea of this?”

Buddha told Avalokitesvara bodhisattva saying, “Good Son, it is as if from within the Listener-disciple Vehicle, that I proclaim and articulate the own-nature of every kind of the various things (dharmas), and actually designate the five clusters (skandhas), or the internal six loci, or the external six loci, and such are the classifications. Then accordingly, from within the Great Vehicle, I articulate that Dharma that is identical with the One Dharma-realm and identical with the One Universal Principle.

"For that reason, I do not articulate that the nature of the vehicles is different, or from within them that there are such words by which the false meanings may give rise to discriminating one classification [of vehicle] as aggrandized and one classification as diminished. Or again, that from various vehicles, different principles of the Way are designated that oppose each other and thus are unfolded to convey and generate disputations. So within this is what is called the intimate idea.” (T16n0676_p0708a13 to a21)


[Note: The internal six loci are the six "places" of sensory reception, and the external six loci are the six "places" of sensory data, and together the six inner loci and six outer loci are the twelve loci, the twelve ayatanas (十二處) or locations within the field of the mind.]
Thus, all the commentators who argued that the One Vehicle was a separate teaching of the principles of the Way were in direct opposition to the actual One Vehicle and specifically to this sutra's presentation of the One Vehicle. The One Vehicle does not pump up the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and deflate the teachings of the Two Vehicles of Arhats (fully accomplished disciples) and pratyekabuddhas. If anyone claims that the Great Vehicle is enlarged by the One Vehicle, while the vehicle of the disciples and Arhats is lessened by the One Vehicle, then that person does not perceive or receive the intimate idea of the One Vehicle.

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