revisiting an old post (Mahayanic Quagmire)


I wrote this in December, 2008, as I struggled with to come to an understanding of my practice. Practice, like anything, has ups and downs. When I first learned that the Buddhas and Bodhisattva I had become so invested in were, for the most part, conceptual, I was frustrating for a while but my understanding has grown since then.  I realized that the different personifications that the Mahayana Buddhas and Bodhisattva represent can be invoked within myself, and that’s where they become real. The Theravada path has been a good one for me, but I’ve stopped comparing the two as much as I did just over a year ago. Actually, the differences are mostly superficial, anyway. Some elements are emphasized differently, but they both still come down to wisdom and compassion.

The reason I’m revisiting it now is that I’ve been asked permission to have it posted elsewhere, and I find my mind has exhibited greater impermanence than the post has! The biggest difference is that the things that I was bothered by a year ago don’t really matter now. I’m no longer invested, I no longer really have much of an opinion on the subject. Re-reading it reminds me that my words became bigger than my understanding. At the same time, I remember that I wrote it in an attempt to gain some understanding. If there’s one thing I’ve grow to understand since then, it’s that our opinions and beliefs are really of no consequence  to what actually is.

Mahayanic Quagmire, first posted in December, 2008

While learning about Buddhism in Korea, the strongest influence on my discoveries has been the Mahayana tradition. The sutras are beautiful, elegant, and imperceptibly romantic. There is an abundance of Buddhas and Bodhisattva present to cover all grounds and heavenly directions.

First, to touch on just a few, there is Kwan Sae Eum Bosal (Kwan Yin in China, Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit, represented in the flesh by Tibetans in the form of the Dalai Lama.) She/He is a perfect personification of compassion; an archetype I feel the Dalai Lama fulfills well.  If your intentions are pure, she/he will be there when you are in need.

Next, there is Amita Buddha. He made a vow a few millennium ago to strive to awaken to full enlightenment, but refrain from Nirvana until all other sentient beings are rescued from their suffering. If you chant his name with pure intention you, will be reborn in his Pure Land, an appealing place for cultivation. Some people, while in their deathbed, tie a string from their finger to a statue of Amita Buddha, so that when they die he can pull them into the Pure Land.

There is also the Medicine Buddha, who has settled his Buddha Land just across from Amita’s. Reciting his sutra earnestly and with absolute faith will cure you of any physical or mental ailments.

Then there my favorite, the green haired monk, JiJang Bosal. He didn’t create his own land anywhere, he probably noticed the Dharma Realm was running out of real estate as it was. He made a vow to go straight to Hell and establish a Zen center there to help rescue sentient beings in the lowest realms. An important difference between a Buddhist idea of Hell and a Biblical one is that in Buddhism there is no eternity. Whether you end up in the lowest states of Hell or the highest levels of Heaven, unless it is the absolute of Nirvana, eventually, you will come out of it.

I have a hunch that your state of mind at the time of death has a great deal to do with where, how,or what shape you end up in, but since first hand memory of the experience eludes me, I can’t be certain of any of the possibilities. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much you study Buddhism. The only way to progress is practice. Once again, practicing a Mahayana way is as beautiful as its Bodhisattva. It starts with a few reluctant, self-conscious bows when you are with some Korean friends at a temple, allowing etiquette to trump pride. Out of curiosity, you stay in the hall one time when you happen to be there in time for the evening ceremony. Entranced by the monk chanting mysterious sutras and the room full of lay-people, mostly woman, echoing his chants you return in the following weeks. As you get more comfortable, you begin mimicking their bows, the feeling of oneness encourages you to continue, even when your spine stiffens and your thighs start to burn. You’ve already purchased a yeom-ju (malla) as a souvenir at the temple gift shop. Eventually, someone teaches you a mantra or two and it becomes more than just a tool for counting your bows. A friend, who is also foreign, tells you about a well known American monk living in Korea who has translated some influential writing. One book leads to another and the whole dimension of Mahayana is opened to you. That’s how it more or less happened for me, anyway.

For a time, I was meditating, chanting, bowing, and attending Ye-bul at BongEunSa regularly. I was able to chant the Heart Sutra easily, about a third by heart, and with a strong effort of concentration, once followed the entire way through Cheon Su Gyung, The Thousand Hands Sutra. My mind felt clear, I had little trouble in my personal life, and I felt very happy. I picked up a really good commentary on the Heart Sutra and decided to follow it up by reading the Medicine Buddha Sutra. I had carried home a gorgeous, hand carved, bronze statue of the Medicine Buddha that I picked up in Nepal and felt it would be nice to put it to actual use. I didn’t get very far into the sutra before I started losing interest. With just a few pages to  go, I closed the book for good. It was a cute story but it just didn’t jive with me. It was too much like a fantasy and not the sound actuality that I appreciate so much about Buddhism.

I had already figured out that JiJang was a myth, but I guess it was actually reading the Medicine Buddha Sutra made me realize how contrived all these Buddhas and Bodhisattva are. Even Amita Buddha was seized from my illusions of reality and flung into the categories of myth. Having already been through this with Santa Claus, I didn’t take it too badly, but I had become rather attached to the idea and truly hoped that Amita had some historical validity. At least there was still Kwan Sae Eum.  As a personification of pure compassion, Kwan Sae Eum Bosal is something I can conceptualize. Compassion is a key element of Buddhist practice and living. By cultivating compassion within myself, through her image, as far as I’m concerned, that is not only practical, effective, and real, it is also absolutely beautiful. Is it through this means that all of them find their grains of reality? But no longer could I imagine her watching over me, like an Arch Angel of Pure Land, ready to pick me up if I fall.

The problem for me is how the sutras are presented; “Just speak my name and I will save you. Hear my name being spoken and you will be reborn in a higher realm. Chant my mantra and everything in your life will be perfect.” They were written well over a thousand years ago for farmers and peasants who possibly had little education or intellectual cultivation. I’m certain the effects it had on society were profound, compassionate, and helped guide people in right livelihood, and perhaps some to enlightenment. For me today, in this place, in this body, with this mind, at this time (all of which are subject to impermanence), it amounts to little more than Buddhism packaged in a plethora of pagan deities. Perhaps that’s how it had to manifest itself to last through the centuries, and if it still invokes people today then it still has a purpose. For me, the thunder rolled away and faded and the momentum of my practice came to an abrupt halt.

In all fairness, the Seon (Korean Zen) books that I’ve read have little, if no mention at all of mythical Buddhas and Bodhisattva and are quite focused on mind and perception, clearing the dust from the mirror. The Heart Sutra, an exception to the typical Mahayana festival of Buddhas and Bodhisattva format, the truth it transmits is profound. For over a thousand-year history in Korea, Mahayana Seon monks have taught by example and with great writings to continue  guiding and inspiring us today. They are even more numerous and inspiring to me than the mythical beings they may have taken refuge in.

Most of the mythical Buddhas actually pertain to very little of what I’ve come into contact with, other than shrines in the temples. The little I did find was enough to cause doubt, though. The faith I have in Buddhism is a trust that Siddhattha Gotama knew what he was talking about. Recently, I have discovered Theravada texts and find them nothing less than grounded and perfectly reasoned. As dry as they come across compared to Mahayana sutras, the sobriety and directness of them resonate well within me.

I’ve been told that in the Pali Cannon, there are references to Bodhisattva, and even discussions between Buddha and Brahma and that it can only be speculated how much of the Pali Cannon came directly from the Buddha. I would like to find out more about these, though, and see how they compare to the Mahayana Sutras.


6 responses »

  1. Broadly speaking, the Korean Zen tradition, along with the Chinese Zen tradition, have freely incorporated Pure Land and other Buddhist traditions into everyday practice. I find it spacious and generous in this way, perhaps because it lacks the “fundamentalist” approach of some other Zen schools.

    There is a passage in the Hua Yen Sutra that has helped me understand not only the bodhisattvas and buddhas, but all troubling phenomena. Perhaps you will find something interesting in it, as well:

    “If you wish to thoroughly understand all the Buddhas of the past, present and future, then you should view the nature of the whole universe as being created by mind alone.”

    Thanks, Joseph!

    • Thank you, Barry.
      That passage sums it up pretty well!
      One thing I was able to see, going over this post again, is how much I’ve changed since writting it.
      When I was asked if some of my posts could be used for another project, the first thing that went through my mind was, “Anyone excpet this post!”
      As I read futher in the email, I saw that they especially wanted this one! haha
      I reworked it a little, tried to make it a little less ignorant…
      Part of the project is focussing on people’s experiences in Buddhism as opposed to scholarly views.
      They looking into what’s left when you strip away the stories and legends.
      It sounds like a good project~

  2. “The problem for me is how the sutras are presented; “Just speak my name and I will save you. Hear my name being spoken and you will be reborn in a higher realm. Chant my mantra and everything in your life will be perfect.” They were written well over a thousand years ago for farmers and peasants who possibly had little education or intellectual cultivation. ”

    Hi Joseph,

    I’m pretty sure that I made this same comment last time round!

    The thing is, I’m not so sure that I’m really all that more advanced than those peasants and farmers 1000s of years ago, or – if I am – that it helps all that much on the spiritual journey.

    Sure, I’ve studied a stack more sutras and books from a whole range of traditions across the globe, had an education in logic and critical thinking, etc – but I rather envy the simple faith of a person who sticks to the one sutra or mantra and invests his or her life into it.

    I must admit I am moving more and more into the direction of faith in the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, especially Amida and especially Kwan Seum Bosal. As you know, this is totally normal in Asia and probably the largest part of Buddhist practice.

    Okay, you can say they are conceptual, or external representations of one’s own Buddha-nature, or symbols, or whatever – but the fact is that for many people a devotional practice suits their nature, and faith is a wonderful Dharma door.

    So yes, I do see Kwan Seum Bosal as “watching over me, like an Arch Angel of Pure Land, ready to pick me up if I fall.” No doubt about it – and exactly as the Sutras describe it.

    Yes, of course, that works too if she is just a symbol, or if she is located only within internal Buddha-nature, etc. But, for me, knowing the Boddhisattva exists both inside and out is a great comfort and a real support.

    All the best Joseph,


    • Hi Marcus, I actually considered deleting this post. It came more out of confusion than understanding, and I have changed my view a lot since writting it. As I said in a comment to Barry, this post made me aware of my ignorance more than do anything else! It was good to look back on my thought and see how narrow they were. Mostly, as I said in the intro, most of these things are really non-issues, other than in my own mind!

  3. Hi,

    Ooops! Have I got the wrong end of the stick?

    Again! Sorry! Blimey, I do apologise. But, anyway, thanks for letting me make my comments!

    And great photos of spring by the way! 🙂


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