I recently came across this polemic on quora, and found it quite thought provoking, im wondering if you agree with the assertions made in this piece?
"… [Why should anyone practice Mahayana Buddhism when Theravada Buddhism is closer to the actual teachings of Gautama Buddha?])
Your question and the comment by Pannadipa Tan Bk in particular demonstrate a very weak exposure to genuine Mahāyāna literature and teaching. I will be addressing Pannadipa Tan Bk’s comments to reply your question too. He hasn’t given any concrete example of anomalies and knotty issues in Mahāyāna, but rather felt it necessary to leave a vitriol without putting forth his arguments. He has projected his inability to understand Mahāyāna as the fault of Mahāyāna, which is unfortunate.
It looks like you are both naturally connected to Srāvakayāna teachings, which by no means proves that Mahāyāna is fake, or is not the words of the Buddha. In fact, this is the reason that the Buddha taught different types of teachings so that sentient beings of different capacities and inclination could relate with his method and get liberated. Many of you seem to have missed this point.
Coming back to the contents of your question and Pannadipa’s comment – you may think that you both are going to the root of Buddha Dharma but you have unknowingly fallen into the trap of “Protestant Buddhism.” Under the influence of their own cultural background i.e. Protestant Christianity, Protestant Buddhism was constructed by some European scholars in early 20s. Just like Protestants felt it necessary to find the original teachings of Christ, these European scholars constructed the idea of Early Buddhism, by the means of linguistic or historical reconstruction. However, recent scholarships have shown that such construction of Early Buddhism is not possible and any such construction is conjectural, based on personal bias and prejudice.
Here are some of the reasons Early Buddhism is a wrong idea, and Theravada Buddhism as the original teaching of the Buddha is a fiction. First, the term Theravada is retrospectively given by an European in the modern era. Many of you may not even know that the tradition that stem from the Mahavihara in Srilanka didn’t call themselves Theravada. So, you are using a term coined by an European about 2300 years after the Buddha. I don’t know how this will help you to understand the so called “original teaching.”
Furthermore, Pali texts have been linguistically altered. The texts were transferred to several different languages before it took the present shape. We don’t know in which language the Buddha spoke during his teaching period. Further, the Tripiṭaka that Mahinda, the son of King Asoka allegedly took, was from the western region of India. Modern scholarship has fairly established that present Pali used in these texts have the influence of Suraseni or the languages of Western region, where the Buddha didn’t visit in his life time. To add further – present Pali has been heavily Sanskritized, and has been standardized into the present form. Therefore, the present Pali text is linguistically unrecognizable, at least to the effect that we could infer using different layers of the texts in terms of linguistic chronology and construct the hierarchy of early and later period. Unless we can do that, it is impossible to establish linguistically whether certain texts were earlier than others. All such constructions are considered today conjectural or personal bias. Therefore, there is no Early Buddhism from the point of view of linguistics.
Second point – there is no physical evidence of Pali text, other than what we have today. The earliest manuscript is no less than common era. In fact, when these palm leaves were found in Gandhara region, there were other Mahāyāna texts too along with some Srāvaka texts. Hence, archeologically, there is no evidence that Pali texts are earlier.
Third point – the present construction of textual hierarchy is based on two things: Pali texts itself and some para-canonical Srilankan chronicles such as Depavaṃsa and Mahāvaṃsa. These texts were produced by the sectarian Mahāvihāravāsin, a traditional seat of Therāvāda orthodoxy. It goes without saying that they would definitely hold their tradition as the purest among all others. Hence, other than Therāvāda’s own text and sectarian literature, there is no concrete external evidence to prove that Pali texts were the only original words of the Buddha. Since we don’t have any archeological evidence or epigraphy or any other external means to prove these texts, all such constructions are based on personal whims and biases, and conjectures. Ashokan Pillar is the only first evidence, which is about 200-300 years after the Buddha. By then, Sarvāstivāda as well as other Buddhist Srāvaka schools had already evolved. Many of these Sravaka schools used to retain Mahāyāna Sūtras in Prākrita. Therefore, there is no means to prove that Pali texts are the only earliest texts.
Fourth point – Strictly speaking, the Pali text today is no older than Buddhaghosa, who belong to 5-6th century. There is no evidence of Pali texts before him, and Therāvāda that we have today is his construction (as well as later commentators). Traditional account tells us that Buddhaghosa burned all the earlier texts and converted to Pali. Therefore, Pali texts and commentaries that we have today should be dated only after Buddhaghosa. And many of the Srāvaka sutras had already reached China as early as 2-3rd century. Since Chinese had the culture of documentation, they have meticulously kept all the records of other Buddhist schools such as Sarvāstivāda, Dharmaguptaka and so forth. This means the Chinese texts are much earlier evidence of Srāvaka schools than Pāli texts we have today.
Fifth point – As mentioned, Mahāyāna texts were retained by some Srāvaka schools as early as Ashokan era. When Chinese travelers visited India, they found both Mahāyānists and Srāvakayānists living together under the same roof practicing their respective traditions with mutual tolerance and respect. These are the evidences that Protestant Buddhists would never mention in their writing. Further, some Srilankan sources tells us that Vaitulyavādins were already at the time of King Ashoka. These Vaitulyavādins are the Mahāyānist, as Mahāyāna texts are also called Vaitulya Sūtras because of their vastness of the content. Further, archeologically, earliest manuscripts so far found are those of Mahāyāna sutras in Gandhara. Furthermore, Pali tradition itself have materials to demonstrate that there are were different types of bodhisattvas. It is insane to think that the Buddha, who became the Buddha through certain path, didn’t teach that path to his students. Jātaka stories clearly tells us that the Buddha was building a career trajectory which was different than his Srāvaka disciples, who were meant to become only Arhat. Where is that path through which the Buddha became the Buddha? Why does Srāvaka texts itself mentioned different types of Bodhi, such as Sammasambodhi, Pratyekabodhi and Arhatbodhi, and these are not mentioned by these Protestant Buddhists? Why Buddhaghosa himself mentions these bodhi-s, who is about 1500 years earlier than these Protestant Buddhists and who had all means to verify these information (at least better than scholars today)? Furthermore, all Buddhist schools talk about three doors of liberation (vimutti-dvāra) ie. emptiness, wishlessness and signlessness. There are materials in Pali tradition itself that mentions “liberation through emptiness” but it is not elaborated in Pali tradition. Ācārya Nāgarjuna himself quotes a passage of Kaccāyana-gotta Sutta to prove that the Buddha had already taught śūnyatā in Srāvaka Piṭaka. These are the questions and issues, which are never addressed properly by Protestant Buddhists.
Within this context, to construct Therāvāda as earliest and Mahāyāna as the later is based on seer ignorance, personal bias and prejudice.
And, Pannadipa has alluded in his comment that Mahāyāna is that “beautifully adorned texts” that the Buddha cautioned not to read. There is no evidence for that, and there is no extra embellishment in the Mahāyāna texts. It is natural to praise the teacher, the leader and Buddhaghosa and Pali tradition also does that amply.
Rather, Pannadipa didn’t mention that in the same sutta the Buddha cautioned another important thing – In the Anagata-bhyani Sutta III, he cautioned that later “monks” will disregard the profound teachings based on śūnyatā (emptiness or void). He actually cautioned very clearly that monks themselves would reject the teaching of the Buddha that pertains to śūnyatā. You seem to be that person indicated by the Buddha, who seem to be under the spell of foreigners, Protestant Buddhists, who wrote articles cleverly and “beautifully” to delude the world.
Finally, you as well as Pannadipa may want to know that Mahāyāna is also based on the same four noble truth, 8 fold path, three seals, 37 limbs of bodhi, samatha/vipasyana, four jnānas and so forth. There isn’t any separate Mahāyāna without the foundation of Srāvaka Abhidharma. To construct Mahāyāna as something unrelated to Srāvaka schools is a clear sign that you haven’t properly understood Mahāyana teachings. In fact, Mahāyana teachings fill many of the lacunae that Pali tripitaka has failed to do. It shows how the Buddha practiced Pāramis and became the Buddha, having more capacity and ability than Sravakas. It demonstrates clearly how the Buddha could have 10 powers, as indicated in the Mahasihanada Sutta, which distinguished him completely from any of the Arhat disciples. Can anyone tell here how the Buddha had these 10 powers that not a single Arhat disciples had? Can Theravada explain us how this was possible by following Satta-visuddhi-magga, as explained by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga? In any case, if you have any concrete examples why so called Theravada is the original teaching, and if Pannadipa can indicate how there are ‘anomalies and knotty issues’ Mahāyana that he alluded in his comment, I would be happy to further discuss…" Bibek Sharma