Under the reign of the Buddhist King Asoka, reign c. 268—239 B.C., the first Buddhist missionaries left India for Sri Lanka. From this missionary effort grew the Theravada “Tradition of the Elders” Buddhism that now dominates all the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia with the exception of Vietnam. Along with the Theravada tradition came the Buddhist concept of a “righteous king,” exemplified by Asoka himself. During the history of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia, a close relationship has existed between the Buddhist samgha and Buddhist political leaders.


I. Two of the ways Buddhism changed as it expanded out of its homeland in the north of India

          A. Disputes in the samgha generated a series of sectarian movements known as nikayas

          B. Buddhist artists developed different ways of representing the concept of the Buddha in visual form

          C. Many of the early sectarian movements, like many of the early Buddhist artistic styles, are now historical artifacts. We can study them in museums or read about them in texts, but we cannot meet them on the street

          D. One of the early sects, however, is still active – the Theravada tradition

          E. Asoka

          proclaimed himself a “righteous king” dhammaraja or protector of the dharma

          conquest by dharma – dhammavijaya

          Rock Edit XIII

                   Eight years after his coronation, King Devanampriya Priyadarshi conquered Kalinga. One hundred and fifty thousand persons were departed, one hundred thousand were killed, and many times that number perished. Now that the Kalingas have been taken, Devanampriya is zealous in his study of Dharma. Devanampriya feels sorrow at having conquered the Kalingas …. Indeed, Devanampriya wishes all beings to be safe, restrained, and even-keeled in the face of violence. For Devanampriya considers the foremost form of conquest to be Dharma-conquest


          Another rock edict express Asoka’s policy to promote the dharma:

          King Devanampriya Priyadarshi says: I have had banyan trees planted along the roads to provide shade for beasts and people, and I have had mango groves planted. And I have had wells dug and rest areas built every mile, and here and there I have had watering holes made for the enjoyment of beasts and humans. . . Of course, previous kings as well have sought to please the people with such facilities, but I am doing this so that people may follow the path of Dharma.


King Asoka sent out missionaries to spread the Buddha’s teaching, and his actions have served as a model for “righteous kings” throughout the Buddhist world.

          A righteous king protects and promulgates the dharma

          In return, the king is recognized as “legitimated” by the religious authority of the monks

          In some situations, the king disciplines and reforms the samgha to make sure that it adheres to proper discipline and does not interfere in the affairs of the state

          Asoka himself set an example for the control and discipline of the samgha when he said:

          Any monk or nun who causes a schism in the Samgha will have to wear the white robes of a layperson and will no longer e able to dwell in a monastic residence. This order should be made known to both the community of monks and the community of nuns…and a copy of this edict shall be given to the laity.



Near the beginning of the common era, a movement appeared that called itself the Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle,” in contrast to the Hinayana, or “Lesser Vehicle.” The word “Hinayana” was used to refer to previous Buddhist traditions. While Mahayana texts trace their origin to the Buddha himself, the actual origin of Mahayana remains a mystery. There is no mystery, however, about the fundamental teaching of the Mahayana. Mahayana texts promote the ideal of the bodhisattva, or “future Buddha” who does not attempt to achieve nirvana as an individual goal but vows to return again and again in the cycle of samsara to seek the welfare of others.

I. The Mahayana emerged as a reform movement in the Indian Buddhist community around the beginning of the common era.

          A. Eventually the Mahayana spread to China, Tibet, Japan, Korea and Vietnam

          B. The name “Mahayana” comes from the literature of the movement itself

                   1. Mahayana texts refer to themselves as a “Great Vehicle,” in contrast to the Hinayana, or “lesser Vehicle,” that preceded them.

                   2. An important source of this contrast is the parable of the burning house in the Lotus sutra.

II. Indian legends trace the origin of the Mahayana to a “Second Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma” on the Vulture Peak in Rajagriha during the life of the Buddha

          A. claims to be the teaching of the Buddha himself, delivered to a special assembly of bodhisattvas from which other Buddhist practitioners were excluded.

          B. tradition says that the Mahayana was concealed from several centuries until the world was ready to receive it, then the sutras of the Mahayana were brought forth and promulgated across India

          C. Scholars are uncertain about the actual origin of the Mahayana

                   1. There are suggestions in later Mahayana tradition that practitioners fasted and meditated to receive visions and revelations from great Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Perhaps some of the early texts of the Mahayana also came in this way, although this could not be true of some of the more elaborate literary sutras

                   2. Some scholars have suggested that the Mahayana arose in circles of lay people who were worshipers of particular stupas. This view has now been discredited. It seems clear that the Mahayana had a strong monastic component for the very beginning


III. The bodhisattva ideal is one of the Mahayana tradition’s most important innovations

          A. A bodhisattva is a “Buddha-to-be” or “future Buddha” who does not attempt to go straight to nirvana but returns to this world to help others along the path

                   1. The bodhisattva ideal includes laymen and laywomen, as well as monks and nuns

                   2. The bodhisattva cultivates two important virtues: the wisdom (prajna) that leads to nirvana and the compassion (karuna) that serves the interests of other sentient beings

                   3. The bodhisattva path can be represented as a two-way street or as a circle leading toward nirvana, then returning to the world of samsara

          B. The bodhisattva ideal is contrasted to the arhant ideal in which a man or woman attempts to achieve nirvana for himself or herself by leaving the world of samsara behind

          C. Some people say that a bodhisattva renounces nirvana in order to lead all other beings to nirvana

                   1. this is not strictly accurate

                   2. a bodhisattva aspires to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all other beings

                   3. eventually, even bodhisattvas become Buddhas when their aspirations have reached fruition and their practice of the path is complete

          D. The bodhisattvas described in Mahayana literature are often human beings life ourselves – people who are engaged in the world

                   1. Vimalakirti was a wise layperson

                   2. Queen Shrimala

                   3. Sudhana

          E. such worldly figures had a radical effect on the spread of Buddhism, which was no longer seen as a philosophy based on monasticism but now had direct appeal for lay people

          F. In classical Mahayana literature, the most important conceptual expression of the bodhisattva path is the “mind of awakening,” in bodhicitta

                   1. the “mind of awakening” is a combination of wisdom and compassion

                   2. it is expressed in the form of an aspiration “May I achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all other beings!”

                   3. It also can be viewed as the nature of one’s own mind

          G. Formal accounts of the bodhisattva path are divided into a series of stages

                   1. one account of the path divides it into six perfections (paramita); generosity, moral conduct, patience, courage, mental concentration, and wisdom

                   2. Another account divides the path into ten stages (bhumi), but these are not radically different for the path of six perfections


Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Along with the human beings who aspired to the bodhisattva ideal are an array of heavenly beings called “celestial” Buddhas and bodhisattvas, who had accumulated the wisdom and compassion to save living beings who turned to them for help. Among the many important celestial bodhisattvas is Avalokiteshvara, the “Lord Who Looks Down” with compassion. In China, Avalokiteshvara is worshipped as the compassionate deity Kuan-yin. In Tibet, Avalokiteshvara’s compassion is seen in the figure of the Dalai Lama. The best known celestial Buddha is Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. According to tradition, Amitabha resides in a celestial paradise known as the Pure Land, and Amitabha has vowed to save anyone who chants his name with faith. Devotion to Amitabha as had great influence in China and is now one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in Japan.


I. Advanced practitioners of the bodhisattva path achieve extraordinary, superhuman powers

          A. These powers make it possible for them to reside in the heavens and to function as the Buddhist equivalents of Hindu gods

          B. Buddhists insist that the bodhisattvas have gone far beyond Hindu gods in power and in the understanding of reality

          C Celestial bodhisattvas and Buddhas are the focus of devotion throughout the Mahayana world


II One of the most important celestial bodhisattvas in India and elsewhere in the Mahayana world is Avalokiteshvara

          A. Avalokiteshvara is the great bodhisattva of compassion

                   1. in the Lotus sutra he is described as a protean deity who takes any form that is appropriate to save the person who calls his name

                   2. devotees of Avalokiteshvara invoke his compassion by chanting the mantra “om mani padme hum”

                   3. This mantra is sometimes translated, “Ah, the jewel in the lotus,” where om is the sacred syllable of the Vedas and hum a sound that conveys power. As a mantra, however, the power of this phrase resides in the syllables themselves rather than in their meaning

                   4. In India and Tibet, Avalokiteshvara was associated with Tara (“the Protectress”) who is the female manifestation of his compassion

          B. In Tibet, under the name Chenrezig, Avalokiteshvara is thought to be the patron deity of the Tibetan nation, taking form as the monkey who was the progenitor of the Tibetan people and also a succession of Dalai Lamas

          C. In China, Avalokiteshvara was known as Kuan-yin (“one who hears sounds”)


III. Maitreya is venerated widely as the Buddha of the future

          A. Maitreya is thought to be present in a Buddhist heaven know as Tushita (“Pleasurable”).

          B. Devotees of Maitreya not only invoke his aid, but, in some traditions, make a visual ascent to Maitreya’s heaven to see him face to face

          C. Hsuan-tsang visited India in the seventh century

          D. A popular and well-known image of Maitreya as Hotei, the fat, laughing Buddha of Chinese tradition


IV. Manjushri (“charming splendor”) is the bodhisattva of wisdom and the patron deity of scholars

          A. in his right hand, he carries the sword of wisdom

          B. in the left hand he carries a coy of the Mahayana sutra called the “Perfection of Wisdom”

          C. Manjushri is the Buddhist counterpart of the popular Hindu goddess Sarasvati


V. When he was still a bodhisattva the Buddha Amitabha vowed that when he became a Buddha, he would create a Pure Land known as Sukhavati (Pleasurable)

          A. Amitabha’s vow stipulated that anyone who chanted his name with faith, especially at the moment of death, would be reborn in this land

                   1. In Sanskrit, the chant is “Namo Mitabhaya Buddhaya” (Homage to Amitabha Buddha)

                   2. Like the invocation of Avalokiteshvara’s name, this practice was a deliberate attempt to open the possibility of salvation to anyone who approached the deity with sincere faith


          B. Devotion to Amitabha Buddha (often known as Pure Land Buddhism) has been particularly influential in China and Japan

                   1. The Pure Land tradition represents the largest Buddhist group in Japan today

                   2. It is represented in North America by the Buddhist Churches of America

          C. The practice of Pure Land Buddhism raises a question about “salvation by faith”

                   1. How could a tradition that placed so much emphasis on self-reliance be transformed into a tradition of reliance on a celestial or otherworldly savior?

                   2. It is felt that the tradition is a natural outgrowth of the bodhisattva’s compassion. In the Mahayana, it is important to act with compassion and to receive the compassion of others

                   3. The passage to enlightenment has been stretched out over many lifetimes as a bodhisattva returns to earthly life many times to help others

                   4. The length of the bodhisattva path puts more emphasis on the virtues that help a person get started on the way to awakening. It is less important to have perfect wisdom (that can come later), than to develop the faith that begins the path

                   5. It is also important to receive gratefully the compassion of others

                   6. These changes of emphasis make possible a view of salvation that is different from anything seen before in Buddhism