III. Tales of Human Origins: The East 2. China and Buddhism

16 Jan

Finding the Origin of Man according to Buddhism is no easy trick to perform. The very assumption that there could even BE a beginning to the world, let alone Mankind, is questionable to most Buddhists. Nyanaponika Thera, I believe, puts this very well:

“In Buddhist literature, the belief in a creator god (issara-nimmana-vada) is frequently mentioned and rejected, along with other causes wrongly adduced to explain the origin of the world; as, for instance, world-soul, time, nature, etc. God-belief, however, is placed in the same category as those morally destructive wrong views which deny the karmic results of action, assume a fortuitous origin of man and nature, or teach absolute determinism. These views are said to be altogether pernicious, having definite bad results due to their effect on ethical conduct.”

The primary vehicle of the Buddhist idea of world-regulation  and even world-generation is the notion of karma. This notion, which is, in a nutshell, the scientific principle  “any action causes and equal and opposite reaction” is, as some commentators have said, embodied by what was much later proposed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, that “…there is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our thoughts.” Indeed, for certain schools of Buddhism the very subject we are studying would be classified a hopeless enterprise. According to Buddhism, our appearance in this world of illusion is a consequence of past karma. Time, like Life and Man, has no real beginning, and the concept of “infinity” is very prominent in this thought. Sri Ramchandra ji Maharaj of Shahjahanpur put it this way:

Thanks to Lori Wolfson for letting us use the drawing

“Infinite is the sky, infinite is the number of beings,
Infinite are the worlds in the vast universe,
Infinite in wisdom the Buddha teaches these,
Infinite are the virtues of Him who teaches these.”

Despite the numerous claims of Buddhism that seem to deny any Origin of Man, or even an omnipotent eternal creator or creators as we understand such things in the West, Buddhism, apart from its large dual manifestation as “Hinayana” and “Mahayana” types of Buddhism, nevertheless has been claimed to have esoteric books and interpretations of books which touch closely on the matter. Helena “Madame” Blavatsky, someone who we will consider at length later on when we get into some more modern and more controversial views about Man’s origin, claimed to have actually seen ancient books of Buddhist lore, and she wrote some huge ones of her own explicating this “esoteric Buddhism” doctrine she claims to have uncovered in her wide travels in the East. Buddha himself, supposedly asked by a student of his to explain the Origins of the Universe, replied that:

“…he would not go into a discussion of the origin of the Universe. To Him [Gautama Buddha], gaining knowledge about such matters was a waste of time because a man’s task was to liberate himself from the present, not the past or the future. To illustrate this, the Enlightened One related the parable of a man who was shot by a poisoned arrow. This foolish man refused to have the arrow removed until he found out all about the person who shot the arrow. By the time his attendants discovered these unnecessary details, the man was dead. Similarly, our immediate task is to attain Nibbana, not to worry about our beginnings” (source at Buddhanet, italics mine).

In fact such thinking is distinctly Eastern, and makes us recall some pre-Socratic ancient philosophies like that of Heraclitus (@500 BC), who we remember supposedly learned of his wisdom from the East, and who was fond of cryptic or as we would say today “Zen-like” koans such as “Into the same river we step and we do not step.” Let’s examine for instance the Buddha’s answer to the man wanting to know the Origin of the Universe. According to the arrow-shot analogy we are given as support for Buddha’s alleged opinion about the futility of searching for Origins, it is assumed that we are all afflicted from birth, a consequence of our being-in-the-world, with what amounts to, by analogy, an arrow doing us irreparable harm; we are now in this world of opposites for the sole purpose of extricating this malevolent influence from ourselves. If we try and consider WHY we have such an arrow stuck in us, or HOW it got there, or the fairness of it being there or not, we are, according to the Buddha here, not yet understanding of our true predicament, which is caught up in illusion and karma, or our our purpose, which is to purify ourselves from these arrow-like evil karmas.

Mahayana and Hinayana (theraveda) Buddhism Map

But besides the Mahayana (Southern) and Hinayana (Theraveda or Southern) schools of Buddhism (literally “the Big Boat and Little Boat”), there are many, many others, both ancient and modern, many schools and sects…not unlike Christianity, Islam, or even Judaism (see here, for example). The one thing all Buddhists sects seem to hold in common is that Man’s purpose on Earth is to perfect himself, to achieve Buddhahood. This idea of perfecting one’s self is common to nearly every religion we know of save the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the latter of which requires only repentance, the first, only obedience. I think even these, if you read between the lines, contain also such a proscription, and so such an idea we must note as one of the “common denominators” found in nearly all world-views.


But this does not and should not keep us from inquiring into the Origins of the World and of Man at the same time. Even the Bodhisattva, or one who, according to the Theraveda school, is on the path to enlightenment, still, it seems, would have to inquire into Origins, at least somewhat, to know his path, and achieve his enlightenment. The Buddha several times referred to his “days as a Bodhisattva” as a mere step to enlightenment, but when one understand the Mahayana meaning of this Bodhisattva, one could argue for it being the highest enlightenment of all, contrary to what even Buddha himself taught:

“Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, regards the Bodhisattva as a person who already has a considerable degree of enlightenment and seeks to use their wisdom to help other human beings to become liberated. In this understanding of the word the Bodhisattva is an already wise person who uses skillful means to lead others to see the benefits of virtue and the cultivation of wisdom” (Wikipedia).

Tibetan Buddha

On the surface, at least, there seems there are two Buddhisms, and these categorized unlike the divisions we have so far considered. There seems to be one type of Buddhism called “exoteric Buddhism” which is meant for popular consumption,  and yet another “esoteric Buddhism” full of ancient lore and supposed secrets, meant for those certain Tibetans and other monks who are further down the road on the Buddhist path of enlightenment. This latter is somewhat “secret” in that even good Buddhists do not even know such esoteric doctrines exist. Shingon, a Japanese import of such esoteric Buddhism, is another example. This makes very interesting reading, and besides A.P Sinnett, several authors, mostly Theosophists like also Blavatsky, reveal a whole different type of world-generation, nothing like the evolution to which we have been accustomed, but a different type of evolution, entailing such progressions as our “materializing” into the world over time, our “misty” or “fiery” bodies eventually becoming “solidified” in response to the changing human atmosphere. Later when we examine closer the controversial theosophists, we will learn, for example, that their claim is that “Man” is as old as the Earth, as has always been here in some form (see e.g. Blavatsky, H.P., The Secret Doctrine).


But let’s return for a minute to the notion of the Bodhisattva, the always-returning guiding spirit who more or less sacrifices his own salvation (or, in Buddhist terms, complete enlightenment and deliverance from the world of appearances) for the seemingly futile and endless job of helping others to achieve their own enlightenment:

“There are a variety of different conceptions of the nature of a bodhisattva in Mahayana. According to some Mahayana sources a bodhisattva is someone on the path to full Buddhahood. Others speak of bodhisattvas renouncing Buddhahood. According to the Kun-bzang bla-ma’i zhal-lung, a bodhisattva can choose either of three paths to help sentient beings in the process of achieving buddhahood. They are:

  1. King-like Bodhisattva – one who aspires to become buddha as soon as possible and then help sentient beings in full fledge;
  2. Boatman-like Bodhisattva – one who aspires to achieve buddhahood along with other sentient beings and
  3. Shepherd-like Bodhisattva – one who aspires to delay buddhahood until all other sentient beings achieve buddhahood. Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara, Shantideva among others are believed to fall in this category.

Tibetan doctrine (like Theravada, for different reasons) recognizes only the first of these…” (Wikipedia).

Further light may be shed on the task of the Bodhisattva by an understanding of the “vows” one must take to be such a helper. Interesting is that these vows also are different depending on which school one is part of.

Asanga (circa 300 AD) delineated 18 major vows and forty-six minor vows.[see note] These Bodhisattva vows are still used by the Gelukpa and Kagyu traditions of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. The eighteen major vows (as actions to be abandoned) are as follows:

  1. Praising oneself or belittling others due to attachment to receiving material offerings, praise and respect.
  2. Not giving material aid or (due to miserliness) not teaching the Dharma to those who are suffering and without a protector.
  3. Not listening to others’ apologies or striking others
  4. Abandoning the Mahayana by saying that Mahayana texts are not the words of Buddha or teaching what appears to be the Dharma but is not.
  5. Taking things belonging to Buddha, Dharma or Sangha.
  6. Abandoning the holy Dharma by saying that texts which teach the three vehicles are not the Buddha’s word.
  7. With anger depriving ordained ones of their robes, beating and imprisoning them or causing them to lose their ordination even if they have impure morality, for example, by saying that being ordained is useless.
  8. Committing any of the five extremely negative actions: (1) killing one’s mother, (2) killing one’s father, (3) killing an arhat, (4) intentionally drawing blood from a Buddha or (5) causing schism in the Sangha community by supporting and spreading sectarian views.
  9. Holding distorted views (which are contrary to the teaching of Buddha, such as denying the existence of the Three Jewels or the law of cause and effect etc.)
  10. Destroying towns, villages, cities or large areas by means such as fire, bombs, pollution or black magic.
  11. Teaching emptiness to those whose minds are unprepared.
  12. Causing those who have entered the Mahayana to turn away from working for the full enlightenment of Buddhahood and encouraging them to work merely for their own liberation from suffering.
  13. Causing others to abandon their Pratimoksha vows.
  14. Belittling the Śrāvaka or Pratyekabuddha vehicle (by holding and causing others to hold the view that these vehicles do not abandon attachment and other delusions).
  15. Falsely stating that oneself has realised profound emptiness and that if others meditate as one has, they will realize emptiness and become as great and as highly realized as oneself.
  16. Taking gifts from others who were encouraged to give you things originally intended as offerings to the Three Jewels. Not giving things to the Three Jewels that others have given you to give to them, or accepting property stolen from the Three Jewels.
  17. Causing those engaged in calm-abiding meditation to give it up by giving their belongings to those who are merely reciting texts or making bad disciplinary rules which cause a spiritual community not to be harmonious.
  18. Abandoning the either of the two types of Bodhicitta (aspiring and engaging).

According to Atisha the Pratimoksha vows are the basis for the Bodhisattva vows. Without keeping one of the different sets of Pratimoksha vows (in one of existing Vinaya schools), there is no Bodhisattva vow[see note]” (Wikipedia; see also the Berzina Archives).

A Buddha

As we can see these vows are more properly prohibitions or promises of keeping to a certain behavior. These vows mysteriously even resemble somewhat the “thou shalt nots” familiar to those in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the “ten commandments” when considered in their other formulations:

“The Brahma Net Sutra translated by Kumarajiva (circa 400 AD) has a list of ten major and forty-eight minor Bodhisattva vows. The ten major vows are as follows:

  1. Not to kill any living creature
  2. Not to steal anything
  3. Not to engage in any form of sexual misconduct
  4. Not to lie or use false speech
  5. Not to consume or distribute intoxicants
  6. Not to discuss the faults and misdeeds that occur by any Buddhist
  7. Not to praise oneself or disparage others
  8. Not to be stingy or abusive towards those in need
  9. Not to harbor anger or resentment or encourage others to be angry
  10. Not to criticize or slander the Three Jewels” (Wikipedia, ibid.)


And finally, there is the Zen and Chan interpretation, which asks only four such promises. These are:

1. I vow to liberate all beings, without number

2. I vow to uproot endless blind passions

3. I vow to penetrate dharma gates beyond measure

4. I vow to attain the way of the Buddha (see here and here).

Meister Eckhart, a very Eastern-minded Western mystic, once stated that the ideal for Man is to “Know nothing, want nothing, and have nothing.” This is one way to put the general mindset of the sincere Buddhist. Knowing presumes an arrogance and is doomed to failure, as the most important things we want to know cannot be discovered; wanting presumes desire, and desire is to be obliterated for any real enlightenment to occur; and having presumes ownership of things that are unreal and worthless in the long run.

But what of enlightenment? In so far as it is a want it is a desire to achieve enlightenment. Even if such enlightenment does not involve knowing, it is a goal and in fact an object of desire. Do not let me portray this paradox as unknown to the greatest of Buddhists, for they have discussed it and quite often. What they usually give is an admission that this is indeed a desire, only the highest type there is.

Buddhism is found in some form in China, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and others as the dominant religion in the regions. It is also found in nearly every Western country in the world to some degree, not unlike Hinduism. What we want to know of it, as an explication of its full doctrines would take an encyclopedia, is what is the Origin of Man, our humble topic. Kaiten Nukariya, translating the Gen-In-Ron, or Origin of Man by Kwei Fung Tsung Mih, technically a Confucianist or Taoist (both sometimes allied with Buddhism) approaches an answer to our question:

“Confucianists and Taoists of our age, nevertheless, merely know that our nearest origin is the father or the grandfather, as we are descended from them, and they from their fathers in succession. (They say) that the remotest (origin) is the undefinable (primordial) Gas in the state of chaos; that it split itself into the two (different) principles of the Positive and the Negative; that the two brought forth the Three Powers of Heaven, Earth, and Man, which (in their turn) produced all other things; that man as well as other things originated in the Gas.

“(Some) Buddhists, (however), maintain simply that the nearest (origin) is Karma, as we were born among men as the results of the Karma that we had produced in the past existences; and that the remotest (origin) is the Alaya-vijñana, (because) our Karma is brought forth by illusion, and (illusion by attachment), and so forth, in one word, the Alaya is the origin of life. Although all of (these scholars) claim that they have already grasped the ultimate truth, yet not in fact.

“Confucius, Lao Tsz [Lao-Tze, Lao-Tsu the Taoist], and Shakya, however, were all the wisest of sages. Each of them gave his teachings in a way different from the other two, that they might meet the spiritual needs of his time and fit to the capacities of men. (So that) the Buddhist and the outside doctrines, each supplementing the other, have done good to the multitude. They were all (intended) to encourage thousands of virtuous acts by explaining the whole chain of causality. They were (also intended) to investigate thousands of things, and throw light on the beginning and on the end of their evolution. Although all these doctrines (might) answer the purpose of the sages, yet there must be some teachings that would be temporary, while others would be eternal. The first two faiths are merely temporary, while Buddhism includes both the temporary and the eternal. We may act according to the precepts of these three faiths, which aim at the peace and welfare (of man), in so far as they encourage thousands of virtuous acts by giving warning against evil and recommending good. (But) Buddhism (alone) is altogether perfect and best of all, in investigating thousands of things and in tracing them back to their first cause, in order to acquire thorough understanding of the natures of things and to attain to the ultimate truth.

“Each of our contemporary scholars, nevertheless, adheres to one school of the (above mentioned) teachings. And there are some (even) among the Buddhists who mistake the temporary for the eternal doctrine. In consequence they are never successful in tracing Heaven, Earth, Man, and other things back to their First Cause. But I am now (going to show how) to infer an Ultimate Cause for thousands of things, not only from the Buddhist, but from outsiders’ teachings. First I shall treat of the superficial doctrines, and then of the profound, (in order to) free the followers of the temporary faiths from those (prejudices that prove to be) obstructions in their way to the truth, and enable them to attain to the Ultimate Reality. Afterwards I shall point out, according to the perfect doctrine, how things evolved themselves through one stage after another out of the First Cause (in order to) make the incomplete doctrines fuse into the complete one, and to enable the followers to explain the phenomenal universe” (Religion of the Samurai Introduction).

And he does indeed give an explanation of the type we are looking for in Chapter II of the Appendix of this book:


The Ekayana Doctrine that Teaches the Ultimate Reality

“This doctrine teaches us that all sentient beings have the Real Spirit of Original Enlightenment (within themselves). From time immemorial it is unchanging and pure. It is eternally bright, and clear, and conscious. It is also named the Buddha-nature, or Tathagata-garbha. As it is, however, veiled by illusion from time without beginning, (sentient beings) are not conscious of its existence, and think that the nature within themselves are degenerated. Consequently they are given to bodily pleasures, and producing Karma, suffer from birth and death. The great Enlightened One, having compassion on them, taught that everything in the universe is unreal. He pointed out that the Real Spirit of Mysterious Enlightenment (within them) is pure and exactly the same as that of Buddha. Therefore he says in Avatamsaka-sutra: “There are no sentient beings, the children of Buddha, who are not endowed with wisdom of Tathagata; but they cannot attain to Enlightenment simply because of illusion and attachment. When they are free from illusion, the Universal Intelligence, the Natural Intelligence the Unimpeded Intelligence, will be disclosed (in their minds).”

“Then he tells a parable of a single grain of minute dust containing large volumes of Sutra, equal in dimension of the Great Chiliocosmos. The grain is compared with a sentient being, and the Sutra with the wisdom of Buddha. Again he says later: ‘Once Tathagata, having observed every sort of sentient beings all over the universe, said as follows: “Wonderful, how wonderful! That these various sentient beings, endowed with the wisdom of Tathagata, are not conscious of it because of their errors and illusions! I shall teach them the sacred truth and make them free from illusion for ever. I shall (thus) enable them to find by themselves the Great Wisdom of Tathagatha within them and make them equal to Buddha”.’

“Let me say (a few words) about this doctrine by way of criticism. So many Kalpas we spent never meeting with this true doctrine, and knew not how to trace our life back to its origin. Having been attached to nothing but the unreal outward forms, we willingly acknowledged ourselves to be a common herd of lowly beings. Some regarded themselves as beasts, (while) others as men.

“But now, tracing life to its  according to the highest doctrine, we have fully understood that we ourselves were originally Buddhas. Therefore we should act in conformity to Buddha’s (action), and keep our mind in harmony with his. Let us betake ourselves once more to the source of Enlightened Spirit, restoring ourselves to the original Buddhahood. Let us cut off the bond of attachment, and remove the illusion that common people are habitually given to.

“Illusion being destroyed, the will to destroy it is also removed, and at last there remains nothing to be done (except complete peace and joy). This naturally results in Enlightenment, whose practical uses are as innumerable as the grains of sand in the Ganges. This state is called Buddhahood. We should know that the illusory as well as the Enlightened are originally of one and the same Real Spirit. How great, how excellent, is the doctrine that traces man to such an origin!”

Our Origin, then, is as old as the world. The spirit that is in us, this pure spirit that is for the most part obscured and covered by the plethora of illusion we acquire during every incarnation, is original. It is part of the ultimate universal spirit. While we may come and go, our spirit has always existed as a drop of the great Buddha spirit.

I’d like to hear some more views on this that we can incorporate. Next time we go a little more into Taoism and Confucianism, the other largest religions in the Eastern lands.


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