Theravāda-Mahāyāna Dialogue: A Mahāyāna Perspective

2003 Conference of the International Network for Engaged Buddhism
Thematic Workshop in Session B: Inter-Buddhist Dialogue
July 20-25, 2003/ Seoul, Korea
        Theravāda-Mahāyāna Dialogue: A Mahāyāna Perspective
                            by Yong-pyo KimProfessor, Dongguk Universiy, Korea
I. Necessity for Dialogue within Buddhist Community
The purpose of this essay is to seek a way of unity and methods of collaboration among Buddhists by raising a basic issue for dialogue between Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions. In every religion, intra-religious conflict often creates more serious problem than conflict with other religions.  It goes without saying, therefore, that intra-religious dialogue should precede inter-religious dialogue.
 As the history of Buddhism shows, there have been conflict and antagonism among Buddhist sects. There were already twenty schools in the era of Abhidharama Buddhism. MahāyānaBuddhism also divided more than thirteen sects.  Today’s Buddhism worldwide is divided into three main traditions, that is, Theravāda and Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna.  Since there are so many traditions and types of faith and practice in Buddhism, even devotees themselves often get confused. Some Buddhists argue for the superiority of their own schools without deep understanding about other traditions. As a result, it has been difficult to find neither Buddhist identity nor unity in the religious community.
Movement towards dialogue and communication among Buddhists should proceed from dialogue between Theravāda and Mahāyāna – both representative of present-day world Buddhism – towards movement for deeper-level dialogue between other sects. In order to do that, history of Buddhist thoughts and culture should first be comprehended. And common unity rather than differences should be discovered through dialogue between different traditions.
This essay first briefly examines the differences between Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism in terms of the views of Buddha- body, scriptures, doctrines, ethics, practice, and faith. And it will show a few hurdles that need to be overcome to acquire mutual understanding and to quest for commonly shared essence. This process will help us to find a way of creative dialogue among Buddhist communities and common practical goals.
II. Theravāda vs Mahāyāna: Seeking Foundation for Dialogue
  Mahāyāna Buddhism was a new Buddhist movement that started around the 1st Century BC in opposition to Hinayanistic tendency of Abhidharma traditions. It was a big wave that marked a historic watershed in Buddhist history. Mahāyāna Buddhist movement was not that of a single religious sect led by a particular individual, but was various faiths and Scriptures that became gradually unified and developed into the ideology called Mahāyāna.  By the 3rd Century, unified Mahāyāna doctrine and order had been established.
1.      Who is a Buddha? 
The question of “Who is a Buddha?” was the most significant question for all the sects in Buddhism. When Gautama Buddha was alive, there was no being that could be called a Buddha other than the historical Buddha. The Buddha was also called Tathāgata, and he showed both human and superhuman aspects, and was seen as the highest teacher of all humans and divines.   In Mahāyāna Buddhism, dharma-kāya -oriented ideology was advanced which is a eternally imperishable body of a Buddha.
They believes the historical Buddha is a mere incarnation of Dharama-body.  The Prajñā-pāramita-sūtra says that Prajñā-pāramita (perfection of wisdom) is the Tathāgata’s Dharma-kāya.“  The Sadharma-pundarika-Sūtra uses the term of eternal Buddha rather than the that of dharma-kāya.  The eternal Buddha is a Buddha who was enlightened a long time ago, and the life of Tathāgata is infinite . He exists forever.  The eternal  Buddha comes into being that surpasses the Buddhas of past or the future. In the Buddha-Avatamsaka-mahāvaipulya-sūtra, Viricana Buddha, the dharma-k, Viricana Buddha, the dharma-kāya Buddha, is manifest as a Buddha that has omnipresent nature and infinity, therefore the Buddha in Mahāyāna Buddhism is elevated into vast and transcendental light.  This idea of the Buddha-body was later developed into that of vīpāka-kāya meaning the body that resulted from the achievement of bodhisattva vows.
2. The Issues of Authenticity of the Scriptures
The authenticity of Mahāyāna sutras is a subtle issue that has been under controversy with the vicissitudes of Mahāyāna Buddhism.  The samgīti (compilation of scripture) was held four times before Mahāyāna Movement.  But with establishment of Mahāyāna Buddhism, new sutras were compiled. Beginning part of Mahāyāna sutras also mentions the specific names of the place and attendants with the phrase “Thus have I heard (Evam mayā śrutam)” that is typically used to describe sutras in order to claim some authority. However, if the sutras were established 600 years after death of the Buddha, then the orthodoxy and authority of the sutras seem problematic.
The theory that Mahāyāna sutras are not the word of the Buddha was first raised by Buddhists who criticized Mahāyāna movement, and they condemned Mahāyāna sūtras, calling them teachings of Mara.  However, the Mahāyāna-sūtra-lamkāra (Ta-ch’eng-chuang-yen-ching-lun) argues that “If a person achieves enlightenment, and teaches Dhrama, it is recognized as the word of Buddha.”  This attitude is completely different from Theravāda interpretations of the sutras.  Mahāyāna believes that something is the truth not because it was spoken by Buddha, but because everything that spoke the truth can be considered as the Buddha’s teachings.  Thus, in Mahāyana tradition the notion of Buddhist scripture has eventually expanded.
3.  Ideological Differences
 The special doctrines and characteristics in Mahāyāna scriptures are Boddhisattva ideals, doctrine of multi-Buddha, positive interpretation of Nirvana, Sanskritization of sutras, emphasis on worship and rituals, important role of lay Buddhist, doctrine of vows, positive interpretation of precepts, Practice of mantra and darani, other-power Faith, etc. In particular, new terms appear such as ‘six pāramitās’, ‘generating Bodhi-citta’, ‘the ten bhumis’, ‘attainment of Buddhahood’, three-body of the Buddha’, ‘emptiness’, ‘Tathāgata-garbha.’ Among these, two concepts that Mahāyāna Buddhism contributed to the cultural history of humankind are Bodhsattva ideal and doctrine of sunyata (emptiness). The latter became the ideological foundation of Mahāyāna, whereas the former became the driving force that made Mahāyāna Buddhism successful as a religion.
4. Precepts and Religious Ethics
 Mahāyāna Buddhism criticized conservative precepts and emphasized opened autonomous ethics. Although it inherits morality of early Buddhism, Mahāyāna Buddhism differentiate the meaning of Sila, depending on whether the precepts are kept in a self-centered way or in a Mahāyāna way.  Precepts of Bodhisattava are positive and active ones that are always related to mind Karma based on motivational ethics and hope for redeeming mankind.  The spirit of Sila in Mahāyāna Buddhism carries meaning only when they are for enlightenment and for the whole mankind. They are not passive commandments that avoid committing the evil, but active ones that expand the good.
 The idea of karma in early Buddhism emphasized self-responsibility. However, Mahāyāna brought about the idea of transformation of merit (parināmanā) in which good deed produced by oneself is channeled not only to the wellbeing of oneself, but also to that of others. That is, there are two types of parināmanā.  One is to channel one’s good deed to one’s own enlightenment, another is to channel it to merit for the wellbeing and enlightenment of others. The latter is different from doctrine causality which emphasizes that one’s karma is bound to come back to oneself.
5. Religious Faith and Practice
 Theravāda emphasizes faith in self-power, whereas Mahāyāna adopted elements of faith in other-power. The Pure-Land school believes in Buddha’s original vows that will establish idealistic Buddha-land and redeem mankind who aspire to be reborn there.  Faith in Amitabha Buddha teaches that one’s sins can be easily lifted and enlightenment achieved all by Buddha’s Grace and original vows.  Teaching of the Pure-land came from Buddha’s warm compassion towards agonizing humankind. Faith in Rebirth to the Pure-Land earned empathy from the general public and opened the door for popularization of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Apart from it, there is Ch’an (Sun, Zen) Buddhism that denies any scriptural teaching but teaches ways of seeing one’s nature and attain Buddhahood. Esoteric Buddhism focuses on practice of mantra.
III. Search for Mutual Understanding and Common-ground
1. Are Hinayānaand Theravada, Theravāda and Early Buddhism, Synonymous with Each Other?
 Devotees of Mahāyāna Buddhism used the term Mahāyāna to emphasize the greatness of its own teachings. However, it can be problematic whether or not it is appropriate to call anything other than the tradition of Mahāyāna as Hinayana.  In this regard, it would help to refer to Walpola Rahula’s views: “Theravāda Buddhism went to Sri Lanka during the 3rd Century B.C. when   there was no Mahāyāna at all. Hinayāna sects developed in India and had an    existence independent from the form of Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka.     Today there is no Hinayāna school in existence anywhere in the world.”
 In effect, the sects that was criticized as Hinayāna at the time when Mahāyāna Buddhism was arising might be the  Sarvāstivāda or the Sautrāntika.  For that reason, World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) decided not to use the term ‘Hinayana’ to refer to Buddhisms in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Khmer, and Laos.  It is equally inappropriate to identify today’s Theravāda Buddhism with early Buddhism. The Theravāda only believes in Pāli scriptures that are believed to be closer to Buddha’s live voice than any others. If early Buddhism is identified as Hinayāna, the Buddha’s fundamental teachings might be reduced to interior teaching which is quite a troubling dilemma. By the same token, it is wrong to call the five Nikāyas, i.e., early Buddhist scriptures, as Hinayāna scriptures. Mahāyāna should be understood not as a particular sect, but as a concept that came into being through dialectical negation of distorted form of Buddhism.
2. What are the similarities between Theravāda and Mahāyāna?
From the perspective of history of religion, the idea of Mahāyāna mainly came from doctrine of the Mahāsamghika.  In fact, however, its root was already preached in original Buddhism. The major principles of Mahāyāna were mostly found in the Five Nikāyas.  Walpola Rahula sees no big differences between Theravāda and Mahāyāna in terms of fundamental lessons due to the following reasons: (a) Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.   (b) The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools. (c) The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools. (d) The Paticca-samuppada or the Dependent Origination is the same in both schools. (e)  Both reject the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world. (f) Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Panna without any differences.
The Mādhyamika doctrine of śūnyatā which is a central teaching in Mahāyāna is just a reinterpretation of Anatta and dependent origination in early Buddhism. The origins of Yogacara thought is also easily found in early scriptures.
3. Is Theravāda orthodox? And is Mahāyāna heterodox?
  Theravāda argues that it succeed to the orthodox Buddhism, based on the fact that it believed in the Sutra which was regarded as the one that historic Buddha himself preached. Therefore, it implies that the orthodoxy of Mahāyāna should be denied, and furthermore Theravāda should be absolutized. However, Theravāda is not the new religion departed from Sakyamuni Buddha, but the one originated and developed from early Buddhism. Even though, Theravāda criticizes that Mahāyāna was not originated from Buddhism and regard faith in many Buddhas as a heretic. Besides, the Theravāda advocates show their concerns that ignoring historic Buddha may result in an evil course. Also they argue that excessive tolerance and generosity will dilute the innocence of Buddhism and as a result, they regard Mahāyāna and Esoteric Buddhism as Hindu-Buddhism deviated from the essence of Buddhism.
However, it is necessary to point out that the Sutra is not about the truth itself, but to teach us how to reach the truth. Buddhism is merely mārga(way).  The doctrines in the Five Nikāyas are also contextual truth according to its audience and the necessity at that time. Therefore, if the principle that all Sutras is an instrument is not well understood, it may cause huge misinterpretation of the Mahāyāna’s profound truth. Therefore, the Diamond sūra (Vajrachedikha-prajñā-pāramitā-sūtra) warns that we should not stick to even the sermon that Buddha himself preached as the Absolute truth. In Buddhism, it is said that the obsession with Dharma is one of the agonies that should be discarded along with the obsession with oneself. If it is believed that the truth has its substance, this idea can cause the obsession with its own creed, resulting in conflicts of hatred and contradiction.
4. How can we understand fath in other-power?
 It cannot be denied that the Mahāyāna beliefs such as Avalokitesvara Boddhisattva, Amitabha-Buddha, Maitreya Buddha, and Ksitigarbha Boddhisattva are formulated by the influences from other religious culture. However, its value cannot be underestimated from the viewpoint of orthodoxy based on historicism. The advantage of Buddhism is that when it is spread out to other culture, it is harmonized with the previous local belief. It also should be noted that at the same time, it has never lost its inclusive religious system based on self-power and the ideal of ultimate awakening.
 Buddhism has a inclusive character. Inclusivism may be defined as a religious system which accepts other religious teaching, but only recognizes its preliminary values while putting its superiority to Buddhism. The other-power also aims the ultimate awakening. This principle of inclusivism can be applied to not only the dialogue within a religion, for example, the one among various sects, or religious bodies, but also the Buddhism’s understandings of other religions.
 V. Proposal for Creative Dialogue and Practice
1. The attitudes of orthodoxy and superiority should be abandoned.
One of the barriers between Theravāda and Mahāyāna is so-called orthodox belief system. The argument that Theravāda is inherited its historical orthodoxy from Buddha, and the arrogant attitude of ignoring Mahāyāna based on the belief that the only the five Nikāyas is the genuine and innocent preaches directly from Buddha should be corrected.
In Mahāyāna, its superiority should be abandoned which is generated from the three-yānas, i.e., śrāvaka-yāna, pratyeka-buddha-yāna, and bodhisattva-yāna. Also sectarian attitudes, saying that Mahāyāna is a complete teaching (Nitārtha), and Hinayāna is a incomplete teaching (Neyārtha) should be abolished. Finally, the error of over-simplification that views early Buddhism including the abhidharma Buddhism and Hinayāna as same should be corrected.
2. Hinayānistic elements in modern Buddhism should be abandoned.
In fact, Hinayānistic elements exist in every Buddhist tradition not as a specific sect, but as non-Buddhistic phenomenon, For example, Bhiksu-centered samgha system, distorted preaches, selfish Buddhists, false Sutras, lack of will to practice, sectarianism, exclusivism, and Buddhists who neglect their duty of practicing mercy, or obsess with formality of Buddhist precepts: these are Hinayāna Buddhists. In this context, Hinayāna means the non-Buddhistic ways that should be overcome, and Mahāyāna means the will to rise above and reform Hinayāna. In this regard, the term of Mahāyāna and Hinayāna will be used not as the terminology indicating a certain sect, but as the concepts of extensive value determination.
3. The formulation of the new Buddhist scripture is necessary.
The new formulation of Samghiti for universal Buddhist scripture is now requested. Through official meetings of three traditions, the new Buddhist doctrines should be reviewed and recognized officially. Its process of canonization for all Buddhist should be agreed by Buddhism scholars and leaders from all three traditions. Especially, the official agreement on the authenticity of Mahāyāna sūtras from all Buddhism traditions is crucial.
4. The common creed and standardized ceremony should be established.
For the establishment of the common creed and standardized ceremony, it is necessary to consider following things;  the standardization of Three Refuges, reinterpretation of panca-sila (Five Preceps) or 10 Sila, the establishment of new buddha-body theory, and the determination of central doctrine in Buddhism including early Buddhism, Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna tradition, etc.
5. Universalism should be pursued in traditional diversity.
By understanding the history of Buddhist doctrine, the development and extension process of doctrine and its continuity should be recognized from the cultural and religious perspective. Also the diversity of Buddha’s preaches and the uniqueness of Buddhist culture in many countries should be accepted.
6. Each community should learn from each other through dialogue and mutual interchange.
For mutual learning and growth through dialogue among Buddhist communities, Buddhists around the world should participate actively in INEB, WFB, or IPM (International Pancasila-samadana Movement).  The Korean headquatre of WFB has established IPM since 1993. The IPM is designed to set common ethical rules among Buddhists traditions of Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna.  The Five Precepts  can be extended globally as common ethical movement, because it may be accepted by any communities that have a prejudice against religion, country, people, race or religious sect.
7. The collaboration principles among sects and its action plan should be discussed.
Facing the new century of globalization, it is time for Buddhist communities to open the age of dialogue. The dialogue among Buddhists begins with the understandings of each tradition’s history, and should be developed to notional, ethical and practical dimension. To start a new chapter of mutual understanding among three traditions, the education of creed, ceremony, history and culture in each tradition is necessary.
The tradition interpenetration Buddhism in Korea, can be a good model for further studies as one of the principles of collaboration among Buddhism traditions. The characteristics of Korean Buddhism are based on harmonization Buddhism, and they cover from sectarian Buddhism to reconciliated Buddhism.  Korean Monk Wonhyo (617-686) in Shilla dynasty stated in the Thematic Essential of Nirvana-sutra that it united all sutras from diverse traditions, returned countless branches of the truth to the one proved the utmost fairness of Buddha thought, and finally reconciliated many disputes. In fact, the Buddhism escapes from all beliefs and boundaries, and denies any dogmatic fixation of the truth. The open mind beyond all barriers and boundaries should be the base for the dialogue among Buddhism communities.
8. The Buddhism always needs new interpretation.
Buddhism does not die with Buddha. As Mahāyāna accomplished a drastic development in Buddhism by reinterpreting the wisdom and mercy which are the central concept of Buddha’s awakening, Buddhists today should play an important role in improving our society through creative interpretation of Buddhist doctrines. The new way of Mahāyāna now is to seek right solution actively to salvation of the poor mind, social inequality and poverty, teenage problems, environmental pollution, human rights, materialism, and scientism. Therefore, the true meaning of Mahāyāna lies on the way back to the original teaching of the Buddha by correcting distorted form of Buddhism through its 2,600 years history.