Category Archives: Dharma Talk

Discussion, interpretation, and speculative exegeses of the Buddhadharma from a universal, non-sectarian perspective.

Discourse on the True Teaching of the White Lotus

Presented to the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, June 10, 2017
Dedicated to the Toronto Centre of Gravity Buddhist Association




Introduction + Chapters 1 – 9 


Renowned in the West as the Buddhist “New Testament,” the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, literally the Discourse on the True Teaching (dharma) of the White Lotus Flower (or, conversely, the White Lotus Flower of the True Teaching), is the basis of the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools, and is highly regarded by Mahayana Buddhists. It might be described with equal justification as the Buddhist Quran, in that it claims to reestablish the original and true spiritual teaching. Many East Asians regard the Lotus Sutra, as it is commonly called in English, as encoding the final, highest and ultimate teachings of the Buddha. The book exists in Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, and Vietnamese versions.

According to Kogaku Fuse (1934) the book was composed in four main stages or phases. Chapters 1 or 2 to 9 are the earliest. Fuse believed that the verse sections were composed before the prose sections. According to Fuse, the earliest sections were composed in the first century BCE, about the same time that the Pali Canon was first written down and the Prajnaparamita literature appeared, but Tamura puts this date somewhat later, about 50 CE, a date that Fuse associates with the prose section of chapters 1 to 9 and 17. Tamura places the composition of chapters 10 to 22 about 100 CE and chapters 23 to 28 about 150 CE. Dates of chapters vary somewhat depending on the authority.

The English translation of the Chinese text of the Lotus Sutra that I have used for this talk is based on The Threefold Lotus Sutra (1975), translated by Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tamura, and Kjiro Miyasaka. I have also referred to the highly esteemed Sanskrit translation of H. Kern (1884) that appeared in Max Muller’s Sacred Books of the East series, Vol. XXI, still used by scholars such as A.K. Warder. The Lotus Sutra is often bound together with the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings and the Sutra of Meditation of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue, as it is in The Threefold Lotus Sutra, as a preface and an epilogue respectively. In this talk I will, however, focus on the Lotus Sutra. I have also approached the Lotus Sutra as a single synthetic work, working through the chapters in their standard order without regard to any questions of chronology. I have however broken the talks up based on the chronology, so this talk will largely be about the earliest section of the Lotus Sutra, yet even here there is disagreement, for some authorities ascribe a later date to the Introductory chapter (chapter 1). I have discussed my reasons for this ahistorical approach in my essay, “Hermeneutics and the Problem of Tradition” (chapter 1 of Dharma Talks).

Whatever its development, the number of chapters of the final form of the Lotus Sutra, 28, is the number of the Moon (4 x 7), an important symbol of the dharma in the Pali Canon. 28 is also the number of historical Buddhas listed in the Buddhavamsa, culminating in Gotama (Maitreya is #29). Sixteen is also a lunar number, being the number of the lunar phases or kalas (4 x 4).

Like another Chinese sutra, the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, the Lotus Sutra has been credited with at least one enlightenment experience (that of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), reviver of the Rinzai school of Japanese Zen, while reading the third chapter).

Scholars have identified three themes in the tripartite division of the sutra: the One Vehicle of the Wonderful Dharma, i.e., the essential oneness of all Buddhist ways; the Everlasting Original Buddha, the primordial Buddha archetype or paradigm; and the Way of the Bodhisattva, emphasizing the method or path.

The Lotus Sutra and the Pali Canon

There is growing acceptance of the view that the original language of the earliest sections of the Lotus Sutra was not Sanskrit, but a Prakrit language, like Pali (Kern finds vestiges of Magadhi and Pali in his translation of the Sanskrit version of the Lotus Sutra). Although clearly an early Mahayana text, the Lotus Sutra is filled with references to the Pali Canon. As we know from my talk on “The Early Buddhist Schools,” the Mahayana grew out of the early Hinayana schools rather than as a reaction against them, as is commonly but falsely believed.

The Lotus Sutra includes many references which will be familiar to readers of the Pali Canon: including places (Mount Grdhrakuta, Vulture’s Peak, the Buddha’s favourite place in Rajagaha), people (Maha-Kasyapa, Sariputra, Maha-Maudgalyayana, Ananda, Rahula, Yasodhara, et al.), doctrines (arhantship,  nirvana, parinirvana, Four Great Truths, hearers, void or emptiness, perfect wisdom, self-born, self-concentration, skilfulness, mantras, tathagatas, wheel of causes and effects (i.e., interdependent origination), samsara, sixty-two false views, and many others), and even events (e.g., the enlightenment of and subsequent preaching by the Buddha and the pattern of remembering similar situations with disciples in past lives),[1] but the Lotus Sutra represents a radical reevaluation of the meaning and significance of the Buddhist project as it introduces a new understanding of the goal of attainment and the character of the path itself. This is presented in the Lotus Sutra itself as the fulfilment and completion of the Hinayana (the “basic” or “fundamental” vehicle) rather than as its antithesis.

While it is fashionable to say that the Lotus Sutra is rhetorical and has no real content, in fact one can identify over a hundred concepts throughout the Lotus Sutra, all organized around the central revelation of the Lotus Sutra, identified by A.K. Warder with the fifteenth chapter of the book.[2] Warder is probably referring to chapter 15 of Kern’s Sanskrit edition, which is chapter 16 of the Chinese edition, since chapter 12 was split in two in the fifth or sixth century. However, none of the content was lost, although there are subtle differences between the Sanskrit and the Chinese versions. Scholars remain undecided as to which version came first. We’ll be discussing chapter 15 of the Lotus Sutra in the third talk of this series. 

The Symbol of the Lotus

The Sanskrit word “pundarika” means “lotus flower,” as well as the colour “white.” Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains all revere the lotus. Buddhists regard it as a symbol of body, speech, and mind. Rooted in the mud of samsara, the lotus flower blooms on the surface of the water, untainted by the mud from which it draws its nourishment. It also symbolizes non-attachment since water rolls easily off its petals. Many Asian deities are depicted sitting on lotus flowers. When the Bodhisattva was born, lotus flowers were said to bloom in his footprints. Padmasambhava is also said to have been born sitting on a lotus flower at the age of 8 years old, a trope that we also find mentioned in the Lotus Sutra (Kern, op. cit., cap. xi, p. 252; cf. Kato et al., op cit.,cap. xii, p. 210). 

The Idea of the Tathagata

Tathagata is a somewhat mysterious word that the Buddha uses throughout the Pali Canon with reference to himself, and infrequently with reference to arhants. It is generally translated as “one who has thus gone” or “one who has thus come.” The word is used as though it was familiar to its audience, but has not been found in any pre-Buddhist literature. Even as early as Buddhaghosa (5th century CE) the exact meaning of the word was uncertain. In his commentary on the Digha Nikaya, Buddhaghosa gives eight alternative definitions: he who has arrived or walked in such a way; he who has come to the knowledge of reality; he who has won, discerned, or declares truth; he whose deeds accord with his words; and the great doctor whose medicine cures all ills.

The Anguttara Nikaya says that the Tathagata is called such because what is “seen, heard, sensed, and cognized, attained, searched into, and pondered over by the mind” is fully understood. Tathata refers to “thusness” or “suchness,” reality as it is. Richard Gombrich has suggested that the word means “one like that.” The word appears in the Mahabharata where it says, “Thus (tatha) is gone (gati) of those who have realized the Truth.”

In the Pali Canon, the Tathagata is described as immeasurable, inscrutable, hard to fathom, and not apprehended. Similarly, the Lotus Sutra refers frequently to the “mystery of the Tathagatas.” The Tathagata is free of latent tendencies (samskaras), and thus beyond the comprehension of other beings. They are “deep, immeasurable, unfathomable, like the mighty ocean.” Although this is sometimes taken to imply that the Tathagata has no post-mortem existence, this is strictly speaking not necessarily implied, since it does not follow that because something cannot be seen that it does not exist. The Buddha explicitly rejects nihilism, and his use of the tetralemma is far more profound than simple negation. Edward Conze says that in the Mahayana view the Tathagata refers to the true inherent selfhood of the human being. However, we must remember that this “selfhood” is not the inherent self-existing atomic “noun” self (atman) of the Upanishads but a continuous but essentially transient momentary consecution of sentience. It is the process philosophy of Whitehead or the “I seem to be a verb” of R. Buckminster Fuller.

Chapter I Introductory

The Lotus Sutra begins with the traditional words, “Thus have I heard,” referring to a story or tradition that is handed down from the past. Thus, the sutra explicitly identifies itself with the Buddhavacana, the Buddha-word, despite its obvious non-historical or trans-historical character. The authors of the sutra, whoever they were, must have understood this and yet they chose to present the sutra in a trans-historical context in order to make two points: (1) to identify the sutra with the Buddhavacana, and (2) to demonstrate the transience and non-self of historicity itself, and by this means to demonstrate the absolutely atemporal and transcendent nature of the True Dharma that leads to utter emancipation. In other words, the form and format of the Lotus Sutra itself is a dharma teaching!

That said, the sutra opens with the Buddha teaching the monastics on Vulture’s Peak, a favourite place of the Buddha outside Rajagaha. The sutra improbably identifies the impossible number of twelve thousand arhants, and proceeds to name the top twenty-one. The names are familiar to us from the Pali Canon, but the situation is anything but “Paliesque.” The reader is transported into an alternate universe in which the ordinary limitations of time and space do not apply. This world is the world of the pure mind. In case the reader hasn’t got it yet, the sutra goes on to describe three-quarters of a million also present, including monastics, bodhisattvas, various “divine sons,” “four great heavenly kings,” eight Dragon Kings, and other kimnaras, gandharvas, asuras, and  garudas. The inclusion in this list of four asura kings is very interesting in light of a long passage in the Vinaya where the asuras are spoken highly of and associated with concealed treasures and another passage in the suttas where many asuras came to honour the Buddha. These references echo an archaic teaching wherein the devas and asuras were not at war. The whole pyramid culminates in King Ajatasatru, the king of Magadha whose father, Bimbisara, supported the Buddha. After murdering his father and following a policy of violent expansion based on conquest, rather like Ashoka, Ajatasatru began to worry about the afterlife and became a supporter of the Buddha like the father that he had murdered. However, he also patronized the Jains. Nevertheless, the Buddha said that had Ajatasatru not been a murderer, his righteousness was such that he would have become an arhant.

According to the sutra, the Buddha preached the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, which is often published as a preface to the Lotus Sutra. The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings gives teachings on virtue, preaching, and merit. After preaching the sutra, he entered an altered state of consciousness or trance state called “the contemplation of the station of innumerable meanings.” His body and mind became perfectly still. The sky rained flowers and the earth shook! From his Ajna chakra in the centre of the forehead a vector of attention emanated in the form of a beam of intense white light that illuminated eighteen thousand eastern worlds, revealing all sorts of beings including living and deceased buddhas, seekers, and bodhisattvas. The assembly marvels at this spectacle, including Maitreya, the Future Buddha, who asks Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, the cause of it all. Manjushri tells Maitreya and the assembly that the Buddha will now declare the Great Dharma that is hard to believe. Manjushri attributes the ultimate origin of this teaching to a transhistorical Buddha called “Sun Moon Light Tathagata.”

Manjushri says that the Buddha taught three paths for three different sorts of person: For the “hearers” he declared the Four Noble Truths, based on the principle of dukkha or universal suffering and leading to nirvana. For the solitary practitioners he declared the doctrine of interdependent origination, based on the principle of emptiness, leading to self-realization. In addition, for the bodhisattvas he taught the Six Perfections, based on the principle of compassion, leading to Buddhahood. “Sun Moon Light” also taught the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, which teaches the path of bodhisattvahood, and entered trance as the Buddha had done.

Manjushri goes on to articulate many varied ways that one can seek the Buddha-way, including the cultivation of the merit of giving; monasticism; memorizing, reading, reciting, studying, and realizing the Buddha-knowledge; renunciation; guru-worship; and the cultivation of the qualities of radiance; energy; morality; forbearance; meditation; charitableness; science; and wisdom or indifference; and finally the practice of stupa worship.

When Manjushri had finished the Buddha emanated another laser beam that illuminated eighteen thousand eastern Buddha lands.  Manjushri says that he was the Bodhisattva “Mystic Light,” the disciple and successor of the Buddha “Sun Moon Light,” and that Maitreya was the Bodhisattva “Fame Seeker” who was a disciple of “Mystic Light.” Manjushri announces that the Buddha is about to preach the True Dharma.

It seems to be a universal spiritual idea, found in many religions including Gnosticism and native American spirituality, amongst others, that the universe is a vast, intricate and labyrinthine, multidimensional and interconnected network where all sorts of sentient beings appear in effectively infinite numbers at all stages of spiritual development and in all sorts of conditions over vast ages of time. This is the fundamental cosmic conception of Buddhism, which modern science is just beginning to appreciate after 2500 years. Everything in the Lotus Sutra is of astronomical proportions, which is in turn commenting on the original teachings of the Buddha themselves and the kind of world that they reveal to the pure mind of the enlightened observer.

Chapter II Tactfulness (Skilfulness)

Rousing from his trance, the Buddha declares to Sariputra, the disciple foremost in wisdom, that the Buddha wisdom and its wisdom school cannot be understood or entered respectively by mere hearers or solitary practitioners. Nevertheless, countless buddhas throughout time have used many teachings and skillful methods to lead living beings to the ultimate realization. The skill and wisdom of the Tathagata, however, is perfect; his mind has grasped the Infinite. Only a Buddha can know the Reality of All Existence in its totality. The hearers and solitary practitioners in the assembly are perplexed, including Sariputra himself, but the Buddha declines Sariputra’s request to explain his meaning, declaring that the worlds of gods and men are not prepared to know the truth. On the second request the Buddha declines again, stating further that gods, men, and asuras are not prepared for the truth and that stupid and arrogant monastics might fall into hell if they heard the answer.

After the third request, the Buddha relents, in accord with custom, whereupon five thousand monastics and householders walk out of the assembly because of their ignorance, spontaneously purifying the assembly as during the uposatha observance described in the Pali Canon. Sariputra, however, remained. The Buddha tells Sariputra that this doctrine is only revealed by a Buddha every three thousand years to teach human beings the Buddha wisdom concerning the pure mind that is true but translinquistic. This teaching is only for bodhisattvas. It is the truly universal, non-sectarian dharma teaching, the singular truth to which all of the contingent skillful methods and systems of Buddhist philosophy and doctrines testify implicitly, leading beyond reason to the realization of perfect wisdom.

This process is eternal and ongoing. In a degenerate age (such as that in which we live), the dharma is taught by skillful methods to accommodate all the different imperfections of beings, to bring as many beings as possible to realization. The Buddha declares especially that arhants should seek out Buddhahood and declares that, in the end, all those who aspire to Buddhahood, even if only for a moment, will achieve Buddhahood, in accordance with the inexorable law of karma whereby every cause must result in an effect and every effect must be the result of a cause.

Chapter III A Parable

Sariputra is ecstatic listening to the Buddha’s words, but he asks why the Buddha preaches the dharma of the “great vehicle” by means of the “small vehicle”? Immediately Sariputra himself blames it on the karmic limitations of the Buddha’s hearers, who set up arhantship in place of Buddhahood as the goal of the path. Later, the Buddha says that samsaric beings need samsaric means and must realize the nature of samsara, illusory as it is, before they can realize the wisdom of the Buddhas, “reality as it is.” This is of course an implicit reference to the Hinayana. The Buddha teaches realization by means of three vehicles: the hearers, which leads to the realization of nirvana; the solitary practitioners, which leads to self-realization; and the way of the bodhisattva, which leads to the perfect wisdom of Buddhahood. The arhants pursue “science with a master,” and thus are epiphenomenonal, but the Buddhas are primogenitary. No one can deny this. The solitary practitioners and Buddhas are self-ordained (“self-born”) and pursue “science without a master.” Interestingly, the texts all agree that Buddhahood is possible even in a dark age where the dharma is not known.

The Buddha tells Sariputra that in fact he, the Buddha, “caused” Sariputra to pursue the way of the bodhisattva many ages ago, and facetiously compares Sariputra’s attainment of nirvana (lit. “extinction”) with ignorance of reality (the antithesis of enlightenment that is traditionally characterized by the memory of past lives). The Buddha preaches the Lotus Sutra to reawaken the memory of Sariputra’s bodhisattva vow. The Buddha predicts that Sariputra will be reborn many ages in the future as a Buddha called “Flower Light Tathagata.” The Buddha goes on to describe his Buddha-land in highly ornate language, which echoes similar language used in the Pali Canon.

The assembly spontaneously removes their robes [sic] and they offer them to the Buddha as an homage. Devas, brahmas, and divine sons all pay homage to the Buddha with robes and flowers. Suddenly the robes themselves start to dance in the sky to the sounds of celestial music! A voice is heard declaring that the Buddha has rolled the wheel of the dharma for a second time since Varanasi, the place near Sarnath where the Buddha delivered the sermon called “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma” in the First Dispensation, circa 455 BCE. Thus, the Lotus Sutra announces the advent of a Second Dispensation of the True Dharma about 50 CE. This is also the end of the first five hundred year cycle as it happens.

The Buddha tells Sariputra the famous parable of the burning house, immortalized in the poem of Bertolt Brecht.[3] A great elder, old and rich, lives in a huge house with only a single small door but with hundreds of inhabitants including many non-human beings and thirty young sons. Like the elder himself, the house is old, and a fire trap. Suddenly it bursts into flames! The elder realizes that although he can save himself, his children are so preoccupied by their games that they have no impulse to flee. He calls to his children to flee, but they are so innocent and preoccupied by their amusements that they heed him not. Therefore, the father lies to his children, declaring that outside the gate they will find many toys for them to play with. This device is identified with what the translator translates as “tactful means” (upaya), more conventionally translated as “skillful” or “expedient means” or method. Thus, the children rush outside and escape the fire. However, instead of giving the children toys he gives each of them a fine chariot, with curtains, bullocks, servants, and guards. Note the symbolism of the chariot. In Cabala, the chariot (merkabah) is a symbol of the Great Work. We also find the symbolism of the chariot in the Tarot trump of the same name.

The message of the parable is that skillful method is a deception designed to lure the ignorant into the true dharma, where the lie is a metaphor for the truth that incorporates the cognitive limitations of those to whom it is addressed. On the other hand, one could also say that truth itself is a form of falsehood, since all cognitions are limited, mere labels. Thus, the truth of the dharma is translinguistic. Because it is translinquistic, it can only be learned from one who has already realized it, i.e., a Tathagata.

Chapter IV Faith Discernment (Disposition)

Subhuti and several other arhants are awestruck and ecstatic. Rising and arranging their garments [sic], and making obeisance to the Buddha, they ask the Buddha for a parable of the dharma, referring to the void, formlessness, and nonfunction.[4] These apparently refer to the Hinayana “three gates of emancipation,” but the Sutra of the Dharma Seal is Mahayana.

The Buddha tells a parable of a man who runs away from his father as a youth and stays away for several decades. As he grows older, he becomes needier. He wanders about the countryside looking for food and clothing. Thus, he returns to his native land. In the meantime, his father has become rich. Over the course of the years, he has missed his son, regretting his leaving, and wishing to find him so that he can bequeath his possessions to his son, other than whom he has no heirs. By chance, the son arrives at his father’s house. The father recognizes the son, but the son does not recognize the father. Rather, he sees the wealth of the man and flees, thinking that he might be seized. The father sends servants after the son, who try to subdue the son by force but he resists. The father, realizing that this method will not work, develops a stratagem. He employs his son under the guise of a common householder, and over the course of the years, he befriends his son, until finally he reveals publically that this is his son and his heir. In this way, he tactually brings his son to the truth of himself, but not in such a way as would traumatize or overwhelm him.

The father is the Tathagata; the arhants are the Buddha’s sons. Through arhantship and the realization of nirvana, the Tathagata brings his “sons” to the realization of the Buddha or Tathagata wisdom of the bodhisattva path of the single way. Thus, the Lotus Sutra is saying that Hinayana is really Mahayana, or at least the prelude to Mahayana, but the arhants do not know this. Put another way, Hinayana reveals the same dharma from the perspective of samsaric ignorance. Mahayana, from the perspective of enlightenment, which transcends nirvana and samsara altogether. Nirvana itself is just part of the dualistic Hinayana construct.

Chapter V The Parable of the Herbs (On Plants)

The Buddha tells Kasyapa, the arhant who recited the verse portion of the previous chapter, that a Tathagata is full of merit and cannot lie, a doctrine that we also find propounded in the Pali Canon. He is the king of the dharma. His exposition of the dharma is skillful (upaya). The dharma of the Tathagata leads to the “stage” of “perfect knowledge.” Having perfect understanding of the dharma, he reveals the wisdom of perfect knowledge, all-knowing intelligence, or Buddha wisdom to all.

The Buddha compares the Tathagata to a cloud pouring down rain throughout the universe, fertilizing every sort of medicinal plant. “From the rain of one cloud [each] according to  the nature of its kind acquires its development, opening its blossoms and bearing its fruit. Though produced in one soil and moistened by the same rain, yet these plants and trees are all different.” From the diversity of life, the Buddha infers the manifestation of the dharma adapting itself to the conditions in which it manifests. This is of course a characteristic of living beings. The Tathagata spreads the dharma throughout the “three-thousand-great thousandfold world” (the chiliocosm), including gods, men, and asuras, which might be compared to the current scientific understanding of existence as consisting of a vast number of planets, solar systems, galaxies, and universes in potentially infinite proliferation. Buddhism understood that the structure of existence is recursive, i.e., infinitely differentiated through repetition, like a fractal, and totally interconnected at the most fundamental level based on the law of causality (karma). The Buddha teaches the dharma to all beings in all ways, as it is written in the Pali Canon, “each for himself,” thus benefitting all beings and bringing them all to the dharma according to each one’s inherent nature and momentary capacity, effecting the regeneration of the world, beyond the duality of nirvana and samsara.

The Tathagata teaches the “unitary essential law” that consists of deliverance from mortality, abandonment of nihilism, extinction of the extremes, and finally the perfect knowledge or wisdom concerning the “seeds” by which everything grows and develops according to its own nature. Only the Tathagata knows which stage each seed-being is at. The final resolution is the “final nirvana of eternal tranquility, ending in return to the void.” The realization of the essential emptiness of existence is the way.

Chapter VI Prediction (Announcement of Future Destiny)

The Buddha predicts that Mahakasyapa will become a Buddha called “Radiance Tathagata” in the far future. The Buddha enunciates the doctrine of the three dharma stages or phases, called Righteous Law, Counterfeit Law, and Decline of the Law. After the decline of the Law, a new Buddha appears to renew the dharma and regenerate the process. Each of these stages lasts for many ages, and thus lies beyond historical time. The transcendent Buddha paradigm or archetype itself acts in the world timelessly, revealing the dharma. The Buddha makes similar predictions with respect to other arhants in the assembly.

Chapter VII The Parable of the Magic City (Ancient Devotion)

Chapter vii of the Lotus Sutra introduces a trans-historical Buddha named Universal Surpassing Wisdom. This Buddha had sixteen sons prior to his enlightenment. According to the Sanskrit version of the Lotus Sutra, the “Brahma heavenly kings” travel vast distances (“five hundred myriad kotis of domains,” a koti itself referring to tens or hundreds of millions or more), coming from all directions in search of the luminous phenomenon that attends the enlightenment of Universal Surpassing Wisdom, to the Bodhi tree in the “western quarter” in their “aerial cars” (the Chinese commentaries describe them as mobile like carriages), where they circumambulate him hundreds of thousands of times and strew him with flowers. These “aerial cars” are themselves described as luminous. The alternative translation, “palaces,” suggests that these “aerial cars” are inhabited. I have discussed the relationship between the UFO phenomenon and Buddhism in my talk “Buddhism and the UFO Phenomenon” (chapter 9 of Dharma Talks, q.v.).[5] They entreat the Buddha to reveal the dharma after 180 ages of ignorance.

The Buddha introduces the topic of time dilation, declaring, “by the power of my Tathagata-wisdom, I observe the length of time as if it were only today.” He also alludes to the Buddhist cosmology, specifically the realm of the thirty-three. Usually this is interpreted with reference to the thirty-three gods of the Vedic pantheon. Here however the translator considers the number to refer to the number of “heavens.” Trayastrimsa is of course the topmost realm of the worlds of Sumeru and the second realm of the Gods of Desire, two realms above the human, between the Four Great Kings and Yama, the god of death.

Universal Surpassing Wisdom teaches the Four Great Truths and the Law of the Twelve Causes, aka Interdependent Origination, in both forward and reverse order, culminating in the annihilation of old age, death, grief, lamentation, suffering, and distress, in response to which billions and trillions of beings have their minds freed. Finally, he preaches the Lotus Sutra to his four sons and their followers. However, although half of the assembly accepted and believed in the Lotus Sutra, half doubted it. After this Universal Surpassing Wisdom went into retreat and practised meditative absorption for 84,000 ages. Meanwhile, his sons disseminated the Lotus Sutra.

Universal Surpassing Wisdom emerges from his retreat and declares that everyone who believes in the Lotus Sutra will attain “the Tathgata-wisdom of Perfect Enlightenment.” The Buddha (Sakyamuni, the original speaker of the Lotus Sutra) identifies himself with the sixteenth son of Universal Surpassing Wisdom (the sixteenth kala is the “excellent” or “supreme” kala). All of Universal Surpassing Wisdom’s sons became buddhas in different places, and the Buddha himself teaches the dharma under different names. Thus, the Buddha teaches the fundamental axiom of the perennial or ancient philosophy, of which historical Buddhism is just one thread.

The Buddha distinguishes between two nirvanas, initial and final, the former mechanical and imperfect, but the distinction is still mysterious. In fact, we find a parallel distinction in the Pali Canon, between nirvana “with residue” (or “substrate”), which the Buddha experienced at the age of 35, and “final nirvana” (parinirvana), without substrate, which the Buddha experienced at the age of 80, when his physical body died. This is called “[real] extinction.” Only by the skillful method (upaya) of the single or Buddha vehicle of the Tathagata, which is identical with the bodhisattva way, is final nirvana attained. The Lotus Sutra can only be understood by those who have penetrated or comprehended the dharma of the void or emptiness, which the Buddha said is the essence of the Law of the Twelve Causes.

The Buddha teaches a parable where a group of travellers on a long, windy, and difficult path, led by a seasoned guide, becomes exhausted and distraught at not reaching the goal and wants to turn back. Thus, the guide conjures the mirage of a beautiful city where the travellers can rest, and tells them that is the goal. Therefore, the travellers enter the illusory city with great hope, satisfied and refreshed, certain that they have reached the end. Once they are happy, the guide tells them that the city is illusory, and entreats them to make the final trek to the Place of Jewels, the true goal. Thus, they come to final emancipation. This story is not unlike the story of the raft in the Pali Canon.

Chapter VIII The Five Hundred Disciples Receive the Prediction of Their Destiny (Announcement of the Future Destiny of Five Hundred Monks)

Purna, son of Maitrayani, one of the ten disciples of the Buddha, noted for his eloquence, stands up and praises the Buddha. The Buddha praises Purna in return, declaring that next to himself Purna is the most lucid. The Buddha predicts that he will become the Buddha “Radiance of the Law Tathagata.” The Buddha declares that his “Buddha-land” will be as large as a chiliocosm, wherein the gods will inhabit “palaces … in the sky.” We have already noted the alternative translation of “palaces’ as “aerial cars,” and the context makes it clear that here we are referring to a universe, not a planet. The sutra states that men and gods will behold each other in these celestial palaces. Interestingly, his Buddha-land will have no females, because there will be no carnal passion (presumably they will be “spontaneously born,” like the devas in the Pali Canon). The inhabitants of Purna’s Buddha-land will be luminous and have the power of flight. The Buddha then proceeds to predict the future destiny and Buddhahood of 1,200 arhants.

The arhants declare their realization that the arhant nirvana is unsatisfactory and that more remains to be done. The Buddha originally taught Perfect Wisdom, which is implicitly identified with Buddhahood, but the arhants settled for partial or incomplete nirvana because that was the simpler path. Now they realize that arhantship is merely a stage on the path to Buddhahood, that is, the path of the bodhisattva, and they declare their aspiration to the final, real nirvana of complete and perfect Buddhahood.

Chapter IX Prediction of the Destiny of Arhants, Training and Trained (Announcement of the Future Destiny of Ananda, Rahula, and the Two Thousand Monks)

The Buddha goes on to predict the future Buddhahood of his disciples. Ananda will become the Buddha “Sovereign Universal King of Wisdom [great as] Mountains and Oceans Tathagata.” Ananda’s attainment of Buddhahood is his reward for an ancient vow to treasure the dharma.

The Buddha predicts that Rahula will become the Buddha “Treader on Seven-Jewelled Lotuses Tathagata.”

The Buddha tells Ananda that 2,000 arhants will attain Buddhahood in the far future.

The Message of the Lotus Sutra So Far

The Lotus Sutra is rooted in the Pali tradition and maybe even in the Pali or at least a similar Prakrit language. Although it appears extremely innovative, we know from our talk on “The Early Buddhist Schools” that about half of the early Hinayana schools were moving towards a more speculative, innovative, and imaginative understanding of the dharma where arhantship was regarded as a stage of the path rather than as its end. The original stratum of the Lotus Sutra goes back to the first century BCE, the same time that the Pali Canon was first written down. The Lotus Sutra is highly revered by Mahayana Buddhists and has even been credited with catalyzing enlightenment in at least one advanced reader. Three essential ideas have been identified in the Lotus Sutra:

  • The ultimate oneness of all teachings;
  • The primordial Buddha archetype;
  • The bodhisattva vow as the essence of the method.

The lotus is a Buddhist symbol of body, speech, and mind. The lotus flower is an emblem of realization, untainted yet rooted in the mud of samsara. Similarly, the bodhisattva enjoys the fruits of realization but remains involved in the world.

In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha refers to himself as the Tathagata, a somewhat mysterious word that may mean something like “he who having come, has gone by this way to reality itself,” thusness or suchness. The Lotus Sutra is the ultimate revelation of the essential mystery of the Tathagata.

The Lotus Sutra declares itself to be Buddhavacana, yet is presented in an obviously transhistorical way, thus raising the question of what it means to be Buddhavacana and the nature of reality itself. The phantasmagorical world of the Lotus Sutra is an imaginative dharma display from the perspective of realization rather than the samsaric perspective of the Pali Canon.  The Lotus Sutra is a sort of opera, where the Buddha is the central figure of a vast cast of innumerable sorts of beings, including arhants and bodhisattvas, all engaged in a series of grand gestures, displays, and speeches, in the course of which the Buddha progressively reveals a superior and indeed superlative, transcendent understanding of the dharma. It is a remarkable coincidence that the Lotus Sutra originated about the same time as Yeshua taught the Gospel to the West in Galilee and Jerusalem.

The cosmology of the Lotus Sutra is the cosmology of Buddhism: an extended horizontal dimension consisting of a virtual infinity of universes, galaxies, solar systems, planets, beings, and atoms, as a single plane of a vertically extended series of planes of greater or lesser degrees of energy, sentience, suffering, wisdom, and power. These are the divine realm, the human realm, and the hellish realm. The whole system operates in accordance with the law of cause and effect (karma) and the principle of interdependent origination.

This includes astronomical phenomena and luminous aerial cars or palaces, time dilation, and travel through higher dimensions of existence over vast scales of time. Here gods and men are said to interact.

The Buddha’s teaching method is described as a stratagem, whereby an infinity of buddhas throughout time have sought to communicate the dharma to suffering beings by the most effective methods adapted to the strengths or limitations of the hearers themselves, thus creating the appearance of a great diversity of methods whereas there is in fact only one method that leads to one singular end: supreme nondual emancipation. The dharma is like a rain nourishing the diversity of beings everywhere in the multiverse without distinction.

The Lotus Sutra declares that all methods are merely preparations for the path of the bodhisattva, without which perfect wisdom and enlightenment cannot be experienced. Moreover, the Buddha declares that ultimately all beings who aspire to enlightenment, even but for an instant, will experience enlightenment eventually in accordance with the law of cause and effect (karma). All possess the hidden “gem” of Buddha nature within themselves, and therefore enlightenment is everyone’s self-nature.


[1] Kern, op. cit., cap. ii, pp. 54ff, vv. 112-24). Cf. Kato, op. cit., p. 72.

[2] See A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism, 3rd rev. ed.  (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2000), p. 375f.

[3] Brecht, “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House.”

[4] Kern has “vanity,” “purposelessness,” and the “unfixed.” The Pali words sunnata, animitta, and appanihita mean “emptiness,” “motiveless,” and “free from desire.” Akira has “nonsubstantiality,” “signlessness,” and “wishlessness” (History of Indian Buddhism, p. 56).

[5] Cf. “The Buddha-vehicle is the ratha ekakakra, the one-wheeled carriage, each wheel being trinabhi, three-naved, as in Rig-veda I, 164, 2” (Kern, op. cit., p. 81 fn. 2). “Nave” refers to the hub of a wheel. The Rig Veda says, “Seven to the one-wheeled chariot yoke the Courser; bearing seven names the single Courser draws it. Three-naved the wheel is, sound and undecaying, whereon are resting all these worlds of being.”

Dharma Energy

Presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, April 29, 2017


The Philosophical Idea of Energy

In the Western philosophical tradition “energy” was originally an Aristotelian term denoting “actuality” or “existence in actuality.” More broadly, energy is defined in the physical sciences as the ability to do work. Energy exists in two states, kinetic and potential, both of which are real. Thus, energy is one of the universals of science, inherent in all physical systems. In general, it refers to activity or power of action.

In Pali, the English word “energy” is often used to translate viriya, defined by Tamilcube as “vigour, energy, effort, strength.” This word appears frequently all through the Pali Canon, along with such close synonyms as “power,” “strength,” “effectiveness” (upaya), “fire” (teja), “zest,” “ardor,” etc. (see Appendix). According to PED, it is derived from vira, cognate with Latin vir, virtus, “virtue,” from Vedic Sanskrit, meaning, “man, hero, chief,” as well as “people, humanity,” much like the English word “man.” Similarly, the Pali vira means “manly, mighty, heroic; a hero,” even “divine.” The Majjhima commentary states that the higher stages of arhantship are produced by “manly strength.” Viriya refers to “the state of a strong man,” i.e., vigour, energy, effort, exertion. In Sanskrit, it is virya,seminal energy, strength, power,” also translated as “courageous engagement” by Peter Harvey in his Introduction to Buddhism. The Tao Te Ching has a similar concept, Te, the complement of Tao, often translated into English as “virtue,” which comes from the same Indo-European root as vira, and implies the same connotation of manliness that underlies the classical conception of virtue. Sometimes it is translated as “character.”

The Indian View of Male Sexuality

Already it is clear from the foregoing that there is a special and specific association between the concept of virtue and male sexual energy, also called bindu in Indian literature (the Sanskrit word bindu also occurs in the Pali, where it means a ‘drop, spot, or cipher’; cf. bija and oja). Male sexuality played a significant role in early Buddhism in that it became the focus of monasticism, enshrined in the first training rule of the Vinaya, the prohibition of sexual intercourse. [1]

In his study of images of masculinity, sex, and the body in Indian Buddhism, A Bull of a Man (2009), author John Powers discusses the traditional Indian view of male sexuality. Powers makes it clear that in Indian tradition, including Buddhism, sexual and spiritual energy are cognate concepts. Thus, the Buddha is simultaneously a supreme spiritual master and a virile ksatriya warrior, handsome, with large quantities of semen and saliva and strong sexual desire. Therefore, the prohibition of sexual intercourse is not a prohibition of sexuality as such but rather of its profanation. Many of the Buddhist monastics are represented as extremely virile and attractive young men (the Pali Canon mentions young men frequently, implying that young men were particularly attracted to the Buddhadharma) who were eagerly sought after by women in charnel grounds and elsewhere (Powers, Bull of a Man, p. 277 n. 13). The Buddha himself is represented as so handsome and charismatic that women were overcome by desire or actually fainted in his presence. Sariputta was initially attracted to the Buddhasangha by the “surpassing beauty” of Upasena, a Buddhist monk (ibid, p. 154). Sariputta subsequently became the “monastic partner” of Maudgalyayana, who were inseparable for the rest of their lives, dying two weeks apart.[2] Sariputta became renowned as the monk foremost in wisdom, and Maudgalyayana as the monk foremost in psychic powers.

Powers writes,

In ancient India, semen was associated with the energy of life, and men who recklessly shed their seed were said to become physically diminished.[3] Excessive ejaculation leads to various morbidities and premature death. By contrast, the heroic ascetic who retains his seed is the most manly and virile of men and enjoys robust health, tremendous physical energy, and mental alertness, and he also develops supernatural powers (siddhi). Those who practice celibacy and other acts of austerity accumulate an energy called tapas, which literally means ‘heat.’ Sages who remain chaste for long periods and who combine this with advanced levels of meditation can even challenge the gods in terms of power and wisdom. (ibid, p. 79)

Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya makes this association with virility clear: “For a faithful disciple who is intent in fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation it is proper that he conduct himself thus: ‘Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up on my body, but my energy shall not be realized as long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, manly energy, and manly persistence” (MN 70:27; cf. SN 12:22, 21:3, AN II:5(5)).[5] These are the same words used in the vow that the Bodhisattva took at the foot of the Bodhi tree prior to his Enlightenment (Ja 171, 24-27).

As with the prohibition of eating after noon, which was originally an Ayurvedic practice to optimize health, based on the waxing of the agni, the digestive fire, the Buddhist prohibition of sexual intercourse has complex cultural resonances. In traditional Indian belief, as in the Hellenic view, the female principle is identified with the somatic, physical polarity of existence, whereas the male is identified with the psychic, spiritual polarity, in a vertical hierarchy of value. Powers writes, “Buddhists, like other religious groups of the time, viewed the male body as naturally more conducive to self-control than the female body was. Females are depicted as constantly oozing fluids and as prone to emotional instability, while men are physically stronger, more controlled, and less subject to the vagaries of emotion” (ibid, p. 110). Thus, male celibacy (or seminal retention) is not actually anti-sexual, but anti-somatic. The Vinaya amply refutes the notion that monastics were actually asexual. Monastics must be celibate, but they must also be sexually unimpaired (ibid, pp. 84, 85). We find this doctrine, as well as its associated problems and difficulties, in Catholicism and Mormonism too. Thus, “the sage becomes more potent and more desirable as a result of avoiding sex” (ibid, p. 77). In order to understand the Buddhist view we must avoid projecting Judaeo-Christian notions of shame and guilt onto Buddhism, the sexual frankness of the original writings of which have offended more than one translator. By his own admission, the Buddha indulged extensively in sexual intercourse while a bodhisattva in his final rebirth. According to the accepted account, the Buddha engaged in sexual intercourse right up until his 29th year, merely six years before his Enlightenment. Powers explicitly recognizes “more and better sex” as a goal of spiritual practice (ibid, p. 99).

In the myth of Chandra, the god of the moon, which is also a symbol of dharma in Buddhism and of soma in Hinduism, is associated with the uposatha observance. Soma, the ritual beverage of the Vedic sacrifice, and the drink of the gods, is also associated with semen. The consumption of soma confers immortality and is said to be able to restore vitality lost due to excessive sexual activity. Its silver-white colour identifies it as a lunar substance (ibid, p. 79). Semen was also regarded as medicinal. Says Powers, “Indian medical lore holds that semen is produced by a process of refinement of the elements comprising food and that semen pervades the tissues of the entire body. … It is also ‘a formative principle in all bodies in the universe.’ … Semen is the source of physical vitality (in some sources menstrual blood is the female equivalent). Buddhaghosa differentiates among various types of semen and rates their relative quality” (ibid, p. 128). Powers writes that “men who practice self-control can retain their semen and thus acquire power” (ibid, p. 279 n. 62). These ideas are developed in the last great Buddhist tantra, the Kalachakra, circa 966 CE, but are clearly archaic in origin.

The Concept of Energy in the Pali Canon

Energy, in its three phases of arousal, endeavour, and exertion (SN 46:2(2)(ii)), is referred to frequently all through the Pali Canon in stock lists, including the Four Bases of Power, the Five Faculties or Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Eight Causes and Conditions of Wisdom, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Ten Perfections (see Fundamental View). The Buddha says that he does not know of anything that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decline as energy (AN I:61(1)). The Buddha says that the enlightenment factor of energy is both physical and mental (SN 46:52(2).ii). It is “nourished” by frequent and careful attention to the elements of arousal, endeavour, and exertion (SN 46:2(2).ii). Bodhi comments that these three elements refer to the initial and intermediate phases of the development of energy, culminating in “full intensity.” The phallic connotation is obvious. The Buddha says that energy is aroused, developed, and fulfilled by faith (SN 48:50(10) and discriminating the dharma with wisdom (SN 46:3(3), 54:13(3).ii), leading to mindfulness, concentration, wisdom, faith, and rapture (SN 48:50(10). Alternatively, he warns that arousing energy “in a badly expounded Dhamma and discipline dwells in suffering” (AN I:324(9)). Energy is aroused “for the attainment of the as-yet-unattained, for the achievement of the as-yet-unachieved, for the realization of the as-yet-unrealized” (AN IV:80(10)).

Energy appears in the Suttavibhanga as the first cause leading to jhana, in the practice referred to throughout the Vinaya by the stock phrase “putting forth (arousing) energy.”

In the Anguttara Nikaya, we encounter “the power of energy” as a synonym for the arousal of energy:

One generates desire to abandon those qualities that are unwholesome and reckoned as unwholesome; those that are blamable and reckoned as blamable; those that are dark and reckoned as dark; those that should not be cultivated and are reckoned as not to be cultivated; those that are unworthy of the noble ones and reckoned as unworthy of the noble ones. One makes an effort, arouses energy, applies one’s mind, and strives for this. One generates desire to obtain all those qualities that are wholesome and reckoned as wholesome; those that are blameless and reckoned as blameless; those that are bright and reckoned as bright; those that should be cultivated and are reckoned as to be cultivated; those that are worthy of the noble ones and reckoned as worthy of the noble ones. One who makes an effort, arouses energy, applies one’s mind, and strives for this. This is called the power of energy.

Elsewhere, “putting forth energy” appears as the culmination of a dharma talk. In the Mahavagga we have something approximating to an instruction in “putting forth energy,” in the form of the story of Sona Kolivisa, who received ordination and stayed in the Cool Grove. Through this story, we also begin to understand the intensity of the energy that is “aroused” by the Buddha and his followers. While he was pacing up and down, i.e., practising walking meditation, Sona’s body put out so much energy that “his feet broke.” As a result, the pathway became covered with blood. Presumably, this means that he cut his feet from so much walking barefoot. Sona began to consider returning to the life of a householder. The Buddha came, saw the blood and asked the monastics about it. Rather than condoning such extreme effort, the Buddha went to Sona, and through the famous metaphor of the lute, he taught Sona how to regulate his psychosomatic energy.

 What do you think about this, Sona? Were you clever at the lute’s stringed music as when formerly you were a householder? When the strings of your lute were too taught, was your lute at that time tuneful and fit for playing? When the strings of your lute were too slack, was your lute at that time tuneful and fit for playing? When the strings of your lute were neither too taught nor too slack, but were keyed to an even pitch was your lute at that time tuneful and fit for playing? Even so, Sona, does too much output of energy conduce to restlessness, does too feeble energy conduce to slothfulness. Therefore do you, Sona, determine upon evenness in energy and pierce the evenness of the faculties and reflect upon it.

Energy that is too slack or too lax leads to lassitude or laziness, whereas energy that is too tense or forceful leads to restlessness. Thus, the Buddha teaches the middle way between extremes, energetic balance, and evenness of the spiritual faculties as a basis for concentration. Because of the practice of “evenness in energy” Sona, “pierced the evenness of the faculties” [?], realized the supreme goal of the path by direct knowledge,  and achieved nirvana (see also SN 51:20(10)(ii), AN VI:55(1)).

lgshivasealTeja means ‘heat, radiance, glory, power,’ and is thus a near synonym of viriya. In the Majjhima Nikaya (43:22), “heat” and vitality are equated, standing in the same relationship to each other as radiance to flame. The “condition of heat” (tejodhatu) is referred to all through the Vinaya as an advanced spiritual attainment. This attainment is attributed to two monastics, Dabba the Mallian and Sagata, who was the Buddha’s personal attendant (thus dating the story to the first twenty years of the Buddha’s career, before Ananda became his personal attendant) and “chief of those good at the heat condition.” The story of Sagata is of particular interest because it has him using his “heat condition” to repel the “heat” of a hostile naga. It is repeated in somewhat expanded form of the Buddha himself, where he is called Angirasa (‘the Resplendent One’). One suspects that the association of the teja with a serpent is not arbitrary, since the Indian tradition describes a serpent-power (kundalini, ‘coiled one’) that is more than analogous to the concept of psychic heat, which also figures prominently in the Tibetan tradition. Kundalini awakening is a real physical syndrome that has been described by Dr. Lee Sannella in his book, The Kundalini Experience. If one looks closely at the oldest Indian representation of a cross-legged yogi, the so-called Pashupati seal of Indus Valley Civilization (c 2350-2000 BCE), the figure clearly exhibits an erect phallus! Here we begin to see clearly that the Buddhist concept of “energy” has some unusual characteristics and that any identification with “vigour” or similar such abstractions is simplistic at best. The Jungian notion of libido may be very close to the Buddhist conception. In the story of the naga serpent, the equation of heat and psychic power is explicit: “Truly the great recluse is of great psychic power, of great majesty, in that he can master by heat the heat of the fierce serpent king who has psychic power and is a terribly venomous snake.” The description suggests the visionary phenomena of psychedelic experience: “Then at the end of that night the serpent’s flames became extinguished but the multicoloured flames of him of psychic power remained, and multicoloured flames, dark green, then red, crimson, yellow and crystal-coloured were on Angirasa’s body.”

The supreme example of the power of energy appears in the Book of the Great Decease (Mahaparinibbana). The Buddha, knowing that his time was near, took Ananda to Capala Shrine (MN 16:3.1) and gave him a teaching called the Four Roads to Power (iddhipada). This practice is associated with the brahma Sanat Kumara (Pali Sanankumar). The Four Roads to Power involve the concentration of intention, energy, consciousness, and investigation by an effort of will (MN 18.22, 26:28). The Buddha tells Ananda that by this practice, the Buddha might live out “his age,” the meaning of which is ambiguous but may refer to the human lifespan of a hundred years or a historical epoch of millions of years, but Ananda, always a bit slow despite his phenomenal memory, did not beg the Buddha to live on before the Buddha declares his intention to die in three months. Too late, Ananda asks the Buddha to live on after he renounces the “force of life” (MN 16:3.1, 3.38), but a Buddha’s word is absolute and cannot be reversed. “Conscious dying” is of course a feature of Tibetan Lamaism and is widely attested.

MN 16:26 identifies five shackles in the heart: sensual pleasures, body, form, eating and sleeping, and theism. When these are overcome, the monastic develops the basis for spiritual power consisting of concentration due to zeal, energy, purity of mind, investigation, and enthusiasm.

The Buddha says that the “energy enlightenment factor” is aroused in one who develops the “investigation of states” enlightenment factor, which arises as result of mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and mind objects (the Four Foundations of Mindfulness) (MN 118:32). From this aroused energy, “unworldly rapture” arises. Rapture develops into tranquility. Tranquility develops concentration. Concentration develops equanimity.

Right Effort, the sixth stage of the Noble Eightfold Path, is divided into the Four Right Exertions: restraint, abandonment, cultivation, preservation,[4] in which the faculty of energy is seen (SN 48:8(8)), associated with strength, firmness, and not shirking (9((9)). According to the Devatasamyutta, energy clears the noble path by dispelling drowsinesss, lethargy, laziness, discontent, and torpor. Bodhi comments that ”The clearing of the path comes about when one expels the mental corruptions by means of the path itself, with the energy (viriya) conascent with the path.” The Sagathavagga says that energy overcomes suffering and associates it with initiative, toil, struggle, and striving “for the attainment of the as-yet-unattained, for the achievement of the as-yet- unachieved, for the realization of the as-yet-unrealized.” The Nidanavagga alludes to the possibility of using “spiritual power” or energy to teleport [sic] from one distant location to another.

In the Mahavagga the Buddha reveals a practice that he developed as a Bodhisattva, prior to his enlightenment, which he calls the Four Bases of Spiritual Power:

It occurred to me: ‘Here, a bhikkhu develops the basis for spiritual power that possesses concentration due to [desire, energy, mind, and investigation] and volitional formations of striving, thinking: ‘Thus my [desire, energy, mind, and investigation] will be neither too slack nor too tense [recalling the metaphor of the lute that we have discussed]; and it will be neither constricted internally nor distracted externally.’ And he dwells perceiving after and before: ‘As before, so after; as after, so before; as below, so above; as above, so below; as by day, so at night; as at night, so by day.’ Thus, with a mind that is open and unenveloped, he develops the mind imbued with luminosity. (SN 51:11(1))

Internal constriction refers to sloth and torpor, whereas external distraction refers to disturbance because of “the five cords of sensual pleasure,” i.e., pleasure in the objects of the five physical senses. Bodhi suggests that the phrase “’as before, so after as after, so before’ means maintaining consistency in the practice of meditation.” According to the text, “as below, so above; as above, so below” refers to the analysis of the body as consisting of numerous taints: “There are in this body head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, contents of the stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, seat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, snot, fluid of the joints, urine” (SN 51:20(10).i). “As by day, so at night; as at night, so by day” means that the practice is practised all the time. According to the commentary, “developing the mind imbued with luminosity” means that one perceives an internal mental or psychic illumination with the same intensity and vividness that one perceives the light of the sun. Thus, “enlightenment” is not a metaphor but a real psychosomatic experience.

Energy is achieved by cultivating indefatigability on striving: “Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up in my body, but I will not relax my energy so long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, energy, and exertion” (AN II: 5(5)).[5]

The Buddha repeats this instruction for desire, energy, mind, and investigation. This is of course an elaboration of the Four Roads to Power that we encountered in the Majjhima Nikaya. This exercise leads directly to the development of “the various kinds of spiritual power,” referring to siddhis, including self-multiplication; invisibility; the ability to pass through matter; weightlessness; levitation; the ability to explore other worlds, both astronomical and transcendent; clairaudience; telepathy; memory of past lives; and direct clairvoyant perception of karmic causality. This stock list of spiritual powers is a recurrence of a proto-tantric thread that runs all through the Pali Canon and became highly developed in Vajrayana Buddhism, especially in Tibet, and is also experienced, as I have discussed before, in the context of the UFO phenomenon and psychedelic states of consciousness. The references to “as before, so after; as after, so before” etc. and to “a mind that is open and unenveloped” suggests the practice of the expansion of consciousness that one finds in the famous metta meditation. Finally, the Buddha says that the ultimate fruit of the practice of the Four Roads to Power is the destruction of the taints, resulting in the taintless liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, realized by and for oneself with direct knowledge or gnosis. Once again, the Pali Canon makes it clear that wisdom is the essential salvific principle, as I have discussed elsewhere.

Concentration is explained as “one-pointedness of mind” (SN 51:13(3).  Desire is desire for the renunciation of evil unwholesome states and the development and maintenance of positive wholesome states using the four faculties of desire, energy, mind, and investigation.  These terms suggest the four yogas of the Indian system: bhakti, the yoga of love, devotion, or worship (desire); hatha, the yoga of arduous physical effort; and jnana, the cognitive yoga of mental or philosophical inquiry, whereas the reiterated references to “volitional formations of striving” subsumes karma yoga (cf. Vivekananda’s Four Yogas).

Ananda tells the Brahmin Unnabha that the Four Bases of Spiritual Power is the practice by which desire is abandoned, which he identifies with the goal of the Buddhist path (SN 51:15(5)). Interestingly, therefore, it is by desire, i.e., striving, that desire is abandoned. Immabha objects to the practice on exactly this point, an argument that Ananda refutes, pointing out that when desire is gratified it abates. Similarly, when the desire for arhantship is satisfied, desire abates. This is reminiscent of the Buddha’s distinction between wholesome and unwholesome pleasures, only the second of which he rejects. This in turn became the basis for his rejection of physical asceticism as a way.

The Buddha also says that the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the development of the bases for spiritual power (SN 51:19(9)).

While on retreat, it occurred to Ananda that the practice of asceticism is successful for one who relies half on good friends and half on “manly effort.” When he returns he asks the Buddha about this, who declares that “this is the entire holy life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path” (SN 45:2(2); cf. AN IX:1(1)(5)). Spiritual friendship and energy are thus equated.

Related Doctrines

We have already discussed the correlation between the concept of energy in the Pali Canon and the lunar soma juice.  Soma appears in the Pali Canon as amata, referring to the immortal or deathless state, but also to ambrosia, cognate with Sanskrit amrita, the divine water of immortality, “churned” by the gods from the one world ocean. Energy is cognate with other concepts in the Pali Canon, including karma, the essential kinetic or energetic principle itself; will or intention, which creates karma; craving, which is the human kinetic principle in its fallen, debased, passionate, or “attached” state; and siddhi, spiritual, magical, or psychic powers that are said to result from intense spiritual practice.

We also find the principle of energy implicit in other doctrines of the Pali Canon with which we are familiar: merit, the stored accumulation of positive karmic potential; the transfer of merit, by which merit may be intentionally directed, shared, and increased; the power of truth, which figures prominently in the Jatakas but also appears elsewhere in the Pali Canon; and the act of truth, by which the potential power of truth may be utilized to create change, usually by means of a vow or affirmation. The kinetic principle also appears in the concept of mantra, by which the repetition of a verbal formula with awareness and intention can facilitate spiritual transformation including siddhis; and in mantra-yoga, the original term for Tantra, the yoga of energy or power.

These concepts correlate with similar concepts in other, post-Pali Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions, including the Indian concept of kundalini, the psychosomatic “serpent” energy “coiled’ or potential at the base of the spine, which the Buddha may have experienced during his practice of asceticism; Tibetan tummo or “psychic heat,” which can be generated to protect the body even in conditions of extreme cold; Chinese qi, the energy of vitality or life, which can be used to affect people at a distance as well as for healing in the practice of Qigong; and finally sexual yoga, which is greatly developed in certain highly esoteric traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, especially Kalachakra.

Zoroastrianism refers to the khvarenah (xvarenah), literally “glory” or “splendour,” referring to a divine mystical force or power associated with kingship and luck. The word is derived from Proto-Avestan *hvar, “to shine,” thus associating it with the devas, the “shining ones.” The word is also attested in Sogdian farn and Khotanese pharra, which refers to the high position or dignity of a Buddha. Khvarenah  is also associated with the haoma, a divine plant cognate with Vedic soma, possibly ephedra, a precursor of methamphetamine that excites the brain and increases body heat.[6] It is still used in Chinese medicine and was also used as a tea by native Americans and Mormon pioneers.

These concepts, doctrines, and practices are not aberrations but rather developments of concepts found in seminal form all through the Pali Canon, and will constitute the subject of Part II of this talk.

Some Synonyms and Cognate Terms for Energy (viriya)

Ardent (atapi)
Arising (uppada)
Arousal (arambha)
Delight (nandi)
Desire (chanda)
Enthusiasm (ussolhi)
Exertion (opakkama, sankhara)
Fire (teja)
Intention (sankappa)
Life (ayu, jivita)
Light (aloka)
Luminosity (obhasa, pabhasa)
Manly effort (viriya)
Heat (usma)
Power (bala, iddhi)
Radiant (abhassaro)
Rapture (piti)
Shining one (deva)
Stirring (eja)
Striving (padhana)
Virtue (silava)
Vitality (ayu)
Zeal (chanda)


Part II

Recapitulation of Part 1

Last time I introduced the topic of energy (Pali viriya), as an important element of the Buddhist path, and associated it with words relating to masculine sexuality. In the Indian tradition, male sexuality is explicitly associated with the spiritual quest, an association that is confirmed by depth psychology. As a man on the verge of self-perfection, the bodhisattva in his final rebirth is portrayed as a virile, healthy, attractive, and sexually active male. The fact that the Buddha was not chaste during his early years created a difficulty for him in the context of the social norms of his time, resulting in accusations of laxness that dogged him all through his life. This is documented in the Pali Canon. Seminal retention was highly valued, and there is no indication that the Buddha was not completely chaste after the age of 29 although he was comfortable consorting with a royal harlot towards the end of his life. In this respect, he was rather like Yeshua, the Galilean bodhisattva, and quite unlike the self-righteous religious moralists of his time and ours.

The Buddhist description of energy (“virility”) is clearly phallic. It is aroused, persisted in, and “exerted.” This may even be the ideological justification for the spiritual misogyny that we find all through the Pali Canon. (However, the Buddha does not appear to have drawn this conclusion.) Arousing energy alone is not sufficient, however. It must also be moderated or it can become a source of instability. “Arousing energy” is in fact the literal meaning of arya, “noble” (lit. “striving”). “Putting forth energy” is especially associated with mental concentration as well as the so-called “walking meditation.” There are also references to a “condition of heat,” those expert in developing this condition, and therefore the implication of a yoga of heat, perhaps similar to that found in Tibetan Buddhism. This “heat” is associated with the snake, as in later Indian traditions associated with the kundalini energy at the base of the spine. The power of energy is also associated with the power of truth and the act of truth. Energy is aroused “for the attainment of the as-yet-unattained, for the achievement of the as-yet-unachieved, for the realization of the as-yet-unrealized,” and is even associated directly with the attainment of nirvana through the light and luminosity symbolism that is associated with the attainment of enlightenment – an association that is not only in the English. Energy is also associated with the attainment of psychic powers, including a “force of life” that promotes longevity and the experience of ecstatic, visionary, and even psychedelic states of mind.

I also identified cognate concepts that appear to be similar to energy that developed in Buddhist traditions, presumably based on the texts I have been citing. Once again, we see Buddhist traditions drawing on the same texts that we also find in the Pali Canon. These concepts include soma, karma, will, craving, siddhi, merit, power of truth, mantra, kundalini, tummo, and qi.  I’ll be discussing some of these traditions in this talk, especially kundalini yoga, tummo yoga, qijong, and sexual yoga.

Kundalini Yoga

The concept of “kundalini” appears to have originated during the Upanishadic period (9th-3rd cent. BCE). The word means “coiled.” It is also the name of the goddess Durga, a form of Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy and divine feminine creative power. Kundalini was used as the name of a “serpent-like” shakti in the eleventh century. The Yoga Kundalini Upanishad was codified in the sixteenth or seventeenth century.

variants_5416Kundalini refers to a psychophysical or psychosomatic “spiritual energy” or “vital force” associated with the area at the base of the spine, in the triangular-shaped sacrum bone, the so-called muladhara chakra. Interestingly, the word “sacrum” means “sacred.” Kundalini is symbolized as a coiled serpent. The signs of kundalini awakening include a variety of physical symptoms, including spasmodic jerking, sensations of electricity, heat, visions, unusual sounds, sexual arousal, emotionality, headache, increased blood pressure, accelerated heartbeat, pain, sensitivity, altered states of consciousness, and disturbances of sleep or appetite. These symptoms may persist for various periods of time but are usually self-resolving if allowed to pursue their own course.

Kundalini yoga is also known as laya yoga (lit. “union by absorption”). It is a Hindu school of yoga influenced by Shaktism and Tantra. Its goal is to “awaken” – a word also used by the Buddha – kundalini. Techniques used to achieve this include meditation, breath work or pranayama, chanting mantras, and physical postures (asanas) or exercises. Practitioners say that kundalini awakening feels like an electric current running along the spine.

Kundalini yoga is a synthesis of hatha yoga (lit. “union by effort”) , kriya yoga (lit. “union by action”), and laya yoga. Two classic textbooks of this yoga include the Hathayogapradikpika and the Shivasamhita. The Shivasamhita refers to four yogas used to activate the kundalini potential: mantra yoga, hatha yoga, laya yoga, and raja yoga (lit. “royal yoga” or perhaps “union by will”) and states that kundalini realization is trans-dual.

The Buddha refers to an illumination that he experienced because of his ascetic practices, which he associated with severe physical pain: “But although tireless energy was aroused in me and unremitting mindfulness was established, my body was overwrought and uncalm because I was exhausted by the painful striving. But such painful feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain” (MN 36:20-25, repeated in MN 85 and 100). This experience was effected by means of intense mental concentration, extreme breath work, and self-starvation. This sounds typical of kundalini awakening. Gopi Krishna, for example, was in an extremely painful dysfunctional state for sixteen years before his kundalini finally became balanced and calm.

When “awakened” or activated, the kundalini is “directed” through the central nerve channel of the spine (the sushumna) through six energy centres or chakras, whence it “penetrates” the seventh chakra, the sahasrara, located at the top of the head, inducing an ecstatic state.[7]

Methods to awaken kundalini are divided into active and passive. Active methods include physical exercises, concentration, visualization, breath work, meditation, and chanting. The passive method is surrendering oneself emotionally to the guru, whence the cult of guru worship or “bhakti yoga” that we find in popular Hinduism and in Buddhism too.

Further Reading

“The Sacrum Bone.” Sahaz E-zine (April 2001), Vol. 2:4.

Sivananda. Kundalini Yoga. Divine Life Society.

Woodroffe, John,  The Serpent Power. 1918.

Tummo Yoga



Tummo (pronounced ‘dumo’) refers to a form of Tibetan breath work based on the Six Yogas of Naropa (11th century); the 12th century Lamdre (Tib. “path”) teachings, regarded as the highest or chief practice of the Shakya school; Kalachakra (10th-11th centuries); and Anuyoga, the second highest practice of the Nyingma system of Tibetan Buddhism, second only to Atiyoga or Dzogchen. The Tibetan word tummo means “fierce [woman]” or “inner fire.”

The fundamental conception of tummo is familiar to us as the system of energy channels or nadis that run all through the body, especially the central spinal cord, and two adjacent channels that run on either side of the spine, associated with “solar’ and “lunar” energies. In tummo, the three lowest chakras are visualized to focus bodily awareness on the area below the navel. Vital energy, conceptualized as a “wind” (Skt. prana), is activated, accumulated, and forced into the central channel by a combination of breath control and other yogic exercises. As it accumulates, the energy creates a “psychic heat” (Tib. drod) that destroys karma.

Tummo is the practical basis of karmamudra, which I’ll discuss shortly in the context of sexual yoga. Interestingly, tummo practitioners wear clothes of special colours to intensify the tummo fire.[8]

The mastery of tummo is part of the completion stage of the Anuttarayoga Tantra. The completion stage follows the generation state. Completion stage “with marks” is based partly on tummo yoga.

Tummo, which is really the Tibetan version of kundalini yoga, also known as candali (Skt. candala, “outcaste”?) yoga was developed as a practice by the Tibetan mahasiddhas (associated with Padmasambhava) between the 8th and 12th centuries. Milarepa was a prominent practitioner of candali yoga.

The ability of tummo practitioners to withstand extreme cold is well attested. In Tibet, the tummo adept is required to spend the night on a glacier glad only in a cotton cloth. If he survives the night, he is considered to have mastered the tummo practice. The Dutch daredevil Wim Hof uses similar techniques to withstand extreme cold, and has been studied by scientists.

The following summary of tummo yoga is based on the classic translation of a Tibetan block print entitled (in English translation) “An Epitome of the Six Doctrines.”

The Yoga of the Psychic Heat consists of five preliminary exercises and three fundamental practices. The essential method is to sit cross-legged, purify the body through a series of intensive visualizations and breathing exercises, and then through the force of meditative concentration activate and direct the “psychic heat” up through the spine to illuminate the brain and the whole body. The result is that one experiences an all-pervading bodily warmth and bliss. Easy to say, hard to do! The complete instruction consists of about forty pages, and presupposes very advanced imaginative and meditative skills. There are several Western witnesses to tummo yoga, including the adventurer Alexandra David-Neel, Lama Anagarika Govinda, and anthropologist Dr. John Crook.

Further Reading

W.Y. Evans Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. London: Oxford University Press, 1935; 2nd ed. 1958; rpt. 1967.



Literally “the practice of vital energy,” qigong is used in Chinese martial arts like gongfu to cultivate and balance qi, or “life energy.” Similar in principle to “walking meditation,” qigong coordinates bodily movements, breath work, and meditation. Qigong is traditionally a secret esoteric practice handed down by lineages of transmission and is especially associated with Taoism. The term is Taoist and originated during the Tang dynasty (7th-10th centuries). There are many forms of qigong, including 75 ancient and 56 modern forms. Today qigong combines Taoist “internal alchemy,” ancient meditations called “cultivating qi” and “standing meditation,” and a breathing exercise called “guiding and pulling.” Qigong plays a role in traditional Chinese medicine for its healing qualities, Confucianism to promote longevity and develop character, and as a form of meditation in Taoism and Buddhism. Since the Cultural Revolution in China, the Communist Party has worked to consolidate qigong theory and practice on a scientific basis. The Qigong Science and Research Organization was established for this purpose in 1985, but the Chinese government has also cracked down on the practice since 1999. The Chinese Health Qigong Association, a state-run agency established in 2000, officially recognizes nine forms of qigong.

The concept of qi is not too dissimilar from the Indian concept of prana, the vital “wind” that is associated with the vitality of the body, but also associated with a universal or cosmic energy. It is based on a theory of energy flow throughout the body, nerve meridians or channels, energy centres, and balancing qi in meridians or other pathways, much like kundalini yoga.

Qigong incorporates five basic techniques: intentional movement, rhythmic breathing, awareness visualization, and chanting or sound. In addition, qigong practice incorporates a soft gaze and an expressionless face; solid stance; relaxation; and balance and counterbalance, where one moves in relation to a centre of gravity. The goals of qigong practice include equanimity, tranquility, and stillness. Practising with little or no motion is generally considered the highest form of qigong practice. One can see the similarity to Buddhism here right away.

0Qigong may be classified as dynamic, static, meditative, and external.  Dynamic or active qigong, called dong gong, is based on repetitive stretching and fluid movements, breathing, and awareness. Static qigong, called jing gong, involves holding postures for extended periods, similar to yoga. An example of a qigong posture is the Horse Stance, which I learned from my chiropractor who was an ethnic Chinese Tai Chi master. External or meditative qigong focuses on meditation, breath work, visualization, and chanting. External qigong utilizes external supports including herbs, food, drinks, massage, physical manipulations, and interaction with other living organisms including treatment by a therapist who directs and transmits qi. Qigong meditation combines slow stylized movements, deep breathing, mental concentration, and visualization of qi in the body.                      

Sexual Yoga

In his Introduction to Buddhism (2nd ed., 2013) Peter Harvey refers quite openly to “sexual yoga,” so I will use that term here.

Tantric Buddhists re-evaluate the body, based on the early Buddhist insight that nirvana is realized through the body. The great Theravadin scholar-translator, Buddhaghosa, went so far as to state that this realization is unique to the dharma. The Guhyasamaja Tantra advances sexual yoga, including pleasure as the path to Buddhahood (enjoying desire without attachment requires a far more rigorous discipline than simple abstinence). Sexual yoga is mostly practised in the first Tibetan Buddhist school, the Nyingma, founded by Padmasambhava in the 8th century. Only partners with years of physical training can practice sexual yoga. The seminal fluid, symbolizing the bodhicitta, is retained and visualized as ascending through an energy channel in the back to the top of the head (the Tibetan version of the sushumna). Even among the conservative Gelugpa, founded by Tsongskapa, sexual yoga is still practised by monastics as a visualization.

The Nyingma have nine grades, levels, or degrees of realization and practice, the top three degrees being Atiyoga (equivalent to Dzogchen), Anuyoga, and the Mahayoga (working with the yidams, symbols of “enlightened energy”; the mental body; and the six yogas of Naropa). According to Harvey, Anuyoga is seen as particularly appropriate for the passionate. While visualizing the energy in the energy channels, and chanting and visualizing mantras, the male is visualized as a male deity and the female visualized as the yidam’s consort or shakti. These embody skilled means and wisdom. In the esoteric twilight language of the Tantras, the penis is called the Vajra (the diamond-thunderbolt representing indestructibility and irresistible force) and the vulva the lotus flower. The sexual energy is inhibited and sublimated, visualized as ascending the spine till it reaches the top of the head, where it generates a blissful state of non-dual radiant clarity; skilled means and wisdom are joined, all concepts and images vanish and there is direct gnosis of emptiness. This yoga is performed in a calm state and with deliberation, so that the energy is directly experienced, “reversed” or “inverted” (“the method of reversal”) and finally transmuted into wisdom.[9]

Although the Pali Canon is clearly misogynistic and anti-sexual, and the sangha was clearly (intended to be) chaste, it is reasonable to include sexual energy in the category of the Buddhist conception of energy, and we have clearly established this is our discussion of the Buddhist concept of viriya or ‘virile energy’ with reference to the oldest Buddhist texts in the first part of this talk. In his final rebirth as a bodhisattva, the Buddha was clearly highly sexed, to put it directly, up until his renunciation at the age of 29, six years prior to his Enlightenment. Thus, the Pali Canon paints the picture of a virile male who transcends his own sexuality in the act of renunciation, rather than a eunuch, whether asexual or repressed, which is more commonly associated with monasticism in the West. The Pali Canon itself states that arhantship is only available to humans for the first two thousand years after the Parinibbana, i.e., approximately 1600 CE (1100-2100 CE allowing for rounding).[10] Once again, the present century is perceived as a time of great significance. Sexual yoga might also be associated with the path of the householder, who is clearly not celibate but who may practise meditation according to the Pali Canon. Even according to the Pali Canon, it is possible for a householder to achieve arhantship. Thus, the prohibition of sexual intercourse according to the Vinaya does not necessarily prohibit the possibility of a Buddhist sexual yoga. Moreover, in fact one finds this to be historically the case. There are even indications in the Vinaya that an unknown but significant number of monastics were not celibate, even during the time of the Buddha.

In Tibet, sexual yoga is called karmamudra, literally “action seal.” This is a Vajrayana or Tantra practice of union with a consort, either physical or visualized. Karmamudra is considered equivalent in attainment to visualization of the yidam and tummo yoga. According to the six Yogas of Naropa, it is either a yoga in its own right or an aspect of tummo yoga. The traditional Tibetan view is that karmamudra is necessary to achieve Buddhahood, although this is not universally held today, including by the present Dalai Lama. This explains the otherwise inexplicable significance of the Bodhisattva’s enthusiasm for women during his youth.

The mastery of tummo yoga is considered to be the prerequisite to practise karmamudra properly. Thus, it is a very advanced practice. Women communicated it through secret oral instructions. Women also wrote seven eighth century tantric texts. In Tibet, non-monastic yogis mainly in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools would practice karmamudra, especially treasure (terma) seekers, ngagpas (non-monastic practitioners of Dzogchen), and hereditary lamas. The practice of karmamudra has also come to the West along with some Tibetan dharma teachers, such as Kalu Rinpoche, with mixed results. See, for example, anthropologist June Campbell’s book, Traveler in Space. There is also a book review online.[11]

Sexuality has featured prominently in the Indian tradition, including Krishna, Ramakrishna, and Aurobindo and the Mother, and others. Even the chaste Krishnamurti had an illicit affair (and Gandhi too, apparently)!

There are also autonomous Western traditions of sexual yoga associated with the gnostic Christians, Swedenborg, William Blake, John Dee and Edward Kelley, Pascal Beverly Randolph, Karl Kellner, Aleister Crowley, Adi Da, and others. Other ancient civilizations, including the Sumerians, Greeks, and Romans carried out sexual orgia in the context of spirituality amounting to a yoga.

The essential metaphysical principle of sexual yoga is the realization that nirvana and samsara are ultimately one in the trans-dual reality. The essential reality of the phenomenon is always enlightenment. This is the ultimate teaching of interdependent origination. Phenomena themselves do not create suffering, it is craving that reifies sentient energy into illusory objects of attachment (kinetic and static). Therefore, all energy is essentially emptiness; the realization of emptiness is enlightenment. The phenomenal, therefore,  can through realization be transmuted from a factor of ignorance into a factor of enlightenment by the skilled means (upaya) of quenching desirous attachment. As Ananda himself states in the Pali Canon, desire disappears entirely when it is completely satisfied (SN 51:15(5)). Therefore, “quenching” (nirvana) is also the ultimate satisfaction of desire. The Buddha never renounces the principle of wholesome pleasure, and nirvana itself is seen as blissful. In order to realize this in practice one must be very advanced towards the realization of emptiness and thus emancipation, for anyone else would not be able to overcome attachment and thus intensify even more one’s bondage to rebirth Therefore, by definition only the very advanced yogi can practise sexual yoga – or a bodhisattva in his final rebirth! At the same time, there are also degrees of practice but and householder forms of sexual yoga logically follow. By following these the householder may be assured of complying with the Third Precept.

In conclusion I’d like to read an explicit description of Tibetan sexual yoga, also called the secret and wisdom empowerments, found on page 233 of chapter 7 of Paul Williams’s Buddhist Thought, by Anthony Tribe, which perfectly summarizes all the of the foregoing. However, Yarmouth is in a general region so in deference to Linden Labs I will refer you to the blog.

The secret and wisdom empowerments were controversial in India for the sexual elements in them. They may still seem shocking today. The secret empowerment, which follows the completion of the jar empowerments, requires the person being initiated, who in the texts is generally presumed to be male, to lead the woman who will be his tantric partner to the Vajra-master. The Vajra-master sexually unites with her. After ejaculating, the Vajra-master collects some of the combined sexual fluids, which is symbolically equated with bodhicitta, form the woman’s vagina. This he places on the tongue of the person being initiated who must swallow it without hesitation, exclaiming ‘O Bliss!’ (Candamaharosana Tantra iii). For the wisdom empowerment the Vajra-master returns the woman to the person being initiated who in turns unites with her. As he does so, he (in theory) should experience a series of four states of bliss (ananda).

Further Reading

Harvey, Peter. Introduction to Buddhism. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

“I Was a Tantric Sex Slave.” The Independent.

Tribe, Anthony. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, by Paul Williams. Chapter 7: Tantric Buddhism in India. London: Routledge, 2000.

The Nine Yanas of Nyingma

The ancient school (Nyingma) divided the entire Buddhist path into three vehicles and nine stages. The vehicles are called vehicles because they are means of going (cf. the “chariot” (Heb. merkabah) as a symbol of the “great work” in Cabala).[12] The stages are called stages because they are stages of the way. Anthony Tribe interestingly observed that “this division is broadly chronological. Kriya tantras are generally earlier than the Carya, with the Carya generally preceding the Yoga tantras” (Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought (2000), p. 203). All of these divisions are ultimately divisions of two things, the path and the fruit, which are in turn the kinetic and static aspects of the one ultimate trans-dual reality, the dharma itself.

Each stage is characterized by view, meditation, and activity. In the table that follows, I have focused on clarifying the practice or practices associated with each stage expressed in the simplest and most direct language possible. Many of these practices are cultural adaptations of universal technqiues found all through the perennial philosophy, but are presented in deliberately involved, obscure, and often ambiguous language (the so-called “twilight” language) so are difficult to identify clearly, which is why I have chosen to focus on them here. The table collates multiple references, not all of which agree.

Nine Yana’s of the Nyingma System

Inner  (Internal) Tantra – The Way of Transformation

Atiyoga(yana) (mahamudra) Dzogchen
Anuyoga(yana)(anuttara yoga) (“completion or perfection stage”) Sexual yoga; meditation on the mental body, chakras, winds, energy channels, and essential consciousness (some sources place six yogas of Naropa here)
Mahayoga(yana) (“generation or development stage”) Sexual elements and forbidden/impure substances; working with the yidam,[13] subtle body and six yogas of Naropa[14] (other sources say identification with the deity and their consort or shakti)

Outer (External) Tantra – The Way of Purification

Yogatantra (yogayana) Minor sexual elements (some sources say identification with a deity)
Caryatantra (upa(tantra)yana, ubhaya) Self-identification with a deity (deity yoga) (some sources say regarding the deity as a brother or a friend)
Kriyatantra (kriyayana) Rituals of protection, purification, mantras, and mandalas; deity worship

Sutra – The Way of Renunciation

Bodhisattva Cultivation of the perfections; bodhicitta; realization of emptiness; 37 factors of enlightenment
Pratyekabuddha Tranquility and insight meditation; method of reversal (interdependent origination)
Shrvaka Self-control (ethics) (some sources put insight and tranquility meditation here)
——— [Ngondro]

See Peter Harvey, op. cit., pp. 128 f., 204, 356.

As you can see, sexual yoga is specifically associated with the eighth degree of Anuyoga. Anuyoga corresponds to the Tantric completion phase, already mentioned. In this grade, one visualizes the mental body, chakras, winds, energy channels, and the bindu – lit. “semen,” identified with the vital or essential consciousness (vinnana). One meditates on and experiences the identity of nirvana and samsara as the unity of emptiness and wisdom. The Anuyoga tantras number three thousand pages in Tibetan text. A quick search on Amazon shows that there is one book on Anuyoga in English – Key to Opening the Wisdom Door of Anuyoga, by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche.

Further Reading

Dilgo Kyentse. “The Nine Ways.

Harvey, Peter. Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche. Key to Opening the Wisdom Door of Anuyoga.

“Nine Vehicles of the Nyingma.”

Zenkar, Alak and Thubten Nyima. “A Brief Presentation of the Nine Vehicles.”


[1] “Should any bhikkhu — participating in the training and livelihood of the bhikkhus, without having renounced the training, without having declared his weakness — engage in the sexual act, even with a female animal, he is defeated and no longer in communion” (trans. Thanissaro). The qualification is typical of the Pali Canon and indicates one of the means by which some bhikkus sought to evade the injunction.

[2] The Pali Canon implies that Sariputta and Maudgalyayana were even accused of homoerotism, an accusation that the Buddha rejected, stating that that they were only friends. Their cremated remains were housed together in the famous Third Stupa and at the Satadhara Stupa, with Sariputta in the south and Moggallana in the north (the same relations to the Buddha that they had in life). However, the statement that Sariputta was attracted to the sangha by the ”surpassing beauty” of the male monastic, Upasena, clearly implies that he was homosexual, which need not imply that that Sariputta and Maudgalyayana had anything more than a “platonic” relationship, however. Maudgalyayana was violently murdered at the age of 84. See Wikipedia, “Relics of Sariputra and Mahamoggallana.”

[3] Cf. Gen. 38:8-10: “And Judah said unto Onan, Go into unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.” According to an early Rabbinic tradition, this passage refers to masturbation. The Egyptians also regarded semen as a potent and even dangerous substance, and prohibited its wastage. (KJV) (ed.)

[4] Explained as the non-arising of unarisen bad unwholesome qualities, the abandoning of arisen bad unwholesome qualities, the arising of unarisen wholesome qualities, and the maintenance of arisen wholesome qualities respectively (AN IV:69(9)).

[5] Compare the notorious Abignitantra, “तुम्हारी हड्डियों पर अपना मांस लटका दे, और अपनी आँखें अनगिनत तक अपनी शोकहित वासना से चमकते हुए, अज्ञात के लिए अपने जुनून के साथ, उसके लिए वह ज्ञान से परे है जो एक के पास है।”.

[6] The identity of soma or haoma is a matter of dispute. The mainstream view equates it with ephedra, an amphetamine, whereas others hold that soma was a  psychedelic. Whatever its ultimate identity, everyone agrees however that it was a mind-altering substance.

[7] In addition, there are two adjacent channels, the ida (Skt. “comfort”) and pingala (Skt. “tawny”) lunar and solar channels, associated with the left and right sides of the body respectively. The channels wind around the sushumna in a figure 8, similar to the DNA helix. Where they intersect at the forehead, throat, heart, solar plexus, abdomen, and sex organs they generate the corresponding chakras. If you overlap this description onto a map of the internal organs of the human body, you discover an interesting coincidence; the chakras correspond to the glands of the endocrine system in the order pineal, pituitary, thyroid, thymus, pancreas, gonads, and adrenals.  The endocrine system secretes hormones directly into the circulatory system to regulate the organs of the body and is described as an “information signal system.” I have described the Indian system of chakras. The Tibetans have a similar but slightly different variation of this description, which I will not go into today.

[8] David Icke was instructed by his spiritual teachers to wear turquoise, associated in Buddhism with the goddess Tara or Dolma, the Buddhist “Liberation Goddess,” to purify and intensify his psychic energy.  Interestingly, a Tibetan Buddhist tradition is that “wearing ‘living’ turquoise is therefore very desirable, as it will give long life to the wearer” (

[9] See Harvey, op. cit., pp. 191, 193, 205, 208, 296, 356f. The Dalai Lama tells us that Tibetan tradition teaches us that we experience the state of “radiant clarity” or “clear light state” momentarily when we sneeze, faint, sleep, orgasm, or die (The Universe in a Single Atom (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005), p. 157).

[10] Anguttara Nikaya (trans. Bodhi), p. 1805, n. 1747.

[11] “I Was a Tantric Sex Slave.” The Independent, 10 February 1999.

[12] The so-called “work of the chariot” has some similarities to kundalini, including the notion of a primal energy that is awakened and directed upward through seven heavenly realms or “wheels” to the highest divine state associated with illumination and bliss.

[13] “The yidam represents awakening and so its appearance reflects whatever is required by the practitioner in order to awaken” (Wikipedia). The Tibetan notion of a yidam may be compared with concepts such as the egregore, patron saint, loa, totem, power animal, or even “holy guardian angel” in different traditions. The yidam symbolizes enlightened energy or “Buddha-nature,” and is thus an emanation of one’s own mind (in its ultimate aspect). Working with the yidam involves high levels of concentration and visualization. Any Tantric deity may be a yidam.

[14] The six yogas of Naropa include the yogas of psychic heat (Tib. tummo), illusory body, lucid dreaming, clear light, intermediate state (Tib. bardo), and consciousness transference (Tib. phowa). See Harvey, op. cit., p. 354.

The Early Buddhist Schools

Talk presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, August 27, 2016.

The Eighteen Schools

The Five Points of Mahadeva

Views on Arhantship

The Forty-Eight Doctrines of the Mahasamghikas

Theravadin Claim to Primacy


The Eighteen Schools

z_p-37-sambuddhatva-02Even before he died, the question of how best to preserve the dharma of the Buddha was already being debated. One group wanted to enshrine the Buddha’s teachings in a kind of formalized textual transmission similar to the Vedas, but the Buddha declared that the teachings should be transmitted in the common language of the people.[1] The Pali Canon shows that Ananda was consciously memorizing the Buddha’s talks, and there is even evidence of a power struggle that emerged in the wake of the death of the Buddha’s two chief disciples, Sariputta, the disciple foremost in wisdom, and Moggallana, the disciple foremost in psychic powers, who was brutally murdered (it is not clear whether his killers were rival monastics or robbers). The Buddha himself had been the object of an abortive murder attempt by his cousin Devadatta, who thought that the rules of the sangha were too lax, an accusation that dogged the Buddha throughout his life. Toward the end of his life the Buddha seems to be dissatisfied with the sangha, and when Ananda suggested that he appoint a successor, the Buddha refused to do so, stating that the dharma itself should be the leader and the teacher of the sangha after his death (parinibbana).

After the parinibbana, a faction arose within the Buddhist order (sangha) declaring that now that the Buddha was gone, the monastics could do what they pleased. At least this is the Theravadin interpretation. However, since the Buddha himself said that the minor rules of the Vinaya might be abolished after his death, it seems possible that this is also a politicized account by conservative monastics who were attached to the rules of the Vinaya and a more liberal group who wanted to institute a more liberal Vinaya based on the Buddha’s statement. In any case, Mahakassapa, the disciple foremost in asceticism, convened a meeting of the sangha at which all of the rules of the Vinaya were upheld, including apparently intentionally discriminatory rules for female monastics.[2]  Whether this was due to Mahakassapa himself is unclear, since Mahakassapa had declared that the number of monastic rules is inversely proportional to the spiritual development of the sangha, implying that the rules are in fact a symptom of degeneration and not the reverse (this is the opposite of the common view today that the Vinaya rules themselves are a sort of spiritual training). This view also corresponds to the historical development of the sangha. Nonetheless, the First Buddhist Council instituted a rigorous Vinaya that was also explicitly misogynistic and which led ultimately to the disappearance of the female monastic order, the bhikkhunisangha.[3] I have discussed this in detail in other talks. All of this can be documented in the Pali Canon.

The Buddha emphasized the importance of the ideological unity of the Buddhist community and to this end he established rules by which future Buddhist teachings might be evaluated as well as a legal requirement of consensus or, failing that, majority rule in the context of respect for elders. This is set out in the Vinaya itself. Of course, sustaining such a democratic structure as the sangha expanded and diversified became increasingly difficult in a time when travel and communication were difficult to impossible. The sangha was actually unified for only about a century. During the Second Buddhist Council, a minority reformist group of elders advocated a new arrangement of the rules of the Vinaya, which included new rules – something that the Buddha himself expressly forbade – and when unsuccessful they broke away from the majority Mahasamghikas to found the Sthavira nikaya. Thus, the first schism was not a matter of doctrine but of monastic discipline and organization. 

The next three hundred years saw the emergence of numerous schools and sects, many geographically based, splitting off from the original two, traditionally referred to as the Eighteen Schools. Different authorities present different lists of these schools, often referring to the same or similar schools by different names, including the Sri Lankan Dipavamsa (3rd-4th cent. CE); Mahavamsa (5th cent. CE); the Samayobhedo Paracana Cakra, a Sarvastavadin work attributed to Vasumitra; Vinitadeva, a Mulasarvastivadin monastic of the 7th–8th centuries CE; the Sariputraparipriccha, a Mahasamghikan history; and various Chinese Mahayana sutras. For the purpose of this talk I have utilized a list based on noted University of Toronto Buddhologist A.K. Warder in chapters 8 and 9 of his book Indian Buddhism (3rd rev. ed., 2000), consisting of eighteen schools presented in approximate chronological order. Interestingly, he says that this list of eighteen schools corresponds to the status quo circa 50 BCE, the approximate date when the texts of the Pali Canon were first committed to writing and the beginning of the emergence of the Mahayana literature as a distinct genre, beginning with the Prajnaparamita literature of the first century BCE. However, whereas Warder simply discusses these schools as they arise in his book, with numerous side references and repetitions, I have organized them into a chart to make the derivation of the schools clear, which Warder did not do. The diagram itself is therefore my original work. I strongly suggest that you follow along using this chart throughout the talk so you can situate what I am saying in the context of the progressive development of the early schools of Buddhism for the 350-year period from c. 400 BCE to c. 50 BCE.


Keep in mind too that although I will allude to the Mahayana, none of these schools is Mahayanist. They are in fact all “Hinayana” schools, although of course that term is not appreciated by everyone, for which reason I refer collectively to the term “the Eighteen Schools” in my book, Conversations with the Buddha, instead of using the terms hinayana or sravakayana. After discussing the schools, I will conclude with some interesting implications and observations.

If you are keen, you might notice that the names of the schools on the chart, which follows Warder, differs slightly from the names of the schools in the corresponding sections of the talk. The reason for this is that I have used the equivalent Wikipedia headings where they differ from Warder in order make it easier for students to look them up. I have also included additional resources in the references at the end of the paper. As with all Buddhist scholarship, opinions vary. In general, I have followed Warder and sought to effect a broad synthesis wherever possible.

1. Sthavira nikāya

(4th cent. BCE)

The Sthaviravada, literally, “the sect of the elders,” precipitated the first Buddhist schism by splitting away from the Mahasamghikas during the Second Buddhist Council (circa 334 BCE). Contrary to the last teachings of the Buddha according to the Pali Canon, the Sthaviravadins wanted to add new rules to the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code of discipline, against the will of the majority. Scholars now agree that the Mahasamghika Vinaya, which has fewer rules than the Sthavira Vinaya, is the oldest.

The Sthaviravadins split up into the Sarvastivada, Vatsiputriya, and Vinbhajyavada schools.

The Vatsiputriya split up into the Dharmottariya, Bhadrayaniya, Sammitiya, and the Sannagarika schools.

The Vibhajyavada split up into the Mahisasaka, Dharmaguptaka, Kasyapiya, and the Tamraparniya schools. The Tamraparniya school became known as the Theravada in the fourth century of the common era, and is the immediate precursor of the modern Theravadin school of Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere. As you can see, the Theravada is nine schools removed from the original presectarian Buddhism, through the Sthavira which it claims as its own origin, and therefore cannot possibly be said to be identical with original Buddhism as claimed by its proponents, nor can the modern Theravada be accepted as a proxy for the Eighteen Schools of the Hinayana, which did not originate from the Theravada as we shall see.

2. Mahāsāṃghika

(3rd cent. BCE)

Mahasamghika, “the Great Sangha,” originated in Magadha, where the Buddha spent much of his time. It is regarded as the precursor of Mahayana Buddhism. The numerous suttas situated in Rajagaha (especially the Digha Nikaya) originated here. Several cave temples are associated with them. A Chinese account of the second century states that they wore yellow robes. A Tibetan source says that the robes bore the emblem of an endless knot or a conch. The doctrines of the Mahasamgha included:

  • Ultimate and conventional truth
  • The trans linguistic character of dharma
  • The conventional nature of language
  • Emptiness
  • The nature of bodhisattvas
  • The fallibility of arhants, making arhantship in effect an advanced stage of the path
  • The reification of Buddhahood
  • The infinity of the number of Buddhas
  • Intentional rebirth

The Mahasamghikas regarded the Abhidhamma as non-canonical.

Since the Mahasamghikas were the majority and the Sthaviaravada the breakaway minority, it is clear that the Mahasamghika must be regarded as the original post-sectarian Buddhist school with the Sthaviravadins as the schismatics. It is important to make this distinction from the perspective of Buddhist law, which seeks consensus, supports majorities, and shuns schismatics. In fact, to form a schism is a violation of the Vinaya, entailing initial and subsequent meetings of the community until the schism is resolved.

3. Pudgalavada

(3rd cent. BCE)

The Pudgalavada includes the Vatsiputriyas and the Sammitiyas. The Personalist school separated from the Sthavira about 280 BCE. The essential doctrine of this school was the reality of the person. The Theravada, Sarvastivada, and Madyamaka schools opposed this doctrine.

4. Ekavyāvahārika

(3rd cent. BCE)

The “single unified transcendent meaning school,” the Ekavyavaharika separated from the Mahamsamghika during the reign of Ashoka.

According to the Samayabhedoparacanacakra of Vasumitra, the Ekavyavaharikas, Kukkatikas, Lokottaavadins, and Mahasanghikas held forty-eight theses in common. The 48 views they held in common are connected with the nature of the Buddha, the bodhisattva, the arahants, and the stream entrants; mind and mental states; dormant passions and their outbursts; and the unconditioned. They also held that arhants are imperfect and fallible. They also held nine divergent views enumerated by Vasumitra concerning causation by self, others, and both and the coexistence of discrete thoughts.

5. Kukkuṭika (Gokulika)

(2nd-3rd cent. BCE)

The Kukkutika originated in the place-name of a major center of the Mahasamghikas. The name means “cinder,” and alludes to the universality of suffering. They held views similar to the Ekavyavaharika, Kukkutika, and Lokottaravada schools. Their center was in Varanasi in eastern India. According to an Indian source, the Kuklkutikans did not accept the Mahayana sutras as the word of the Buddha, the Buddha vacana. They disappeared between the fourth and ninth centuries of the common era. 

6. Sarvastivada

(3rd cent. BCE)

The Sarvastivadins – lit. “the theory that all exists” – believed in the reality of the Three Times. They split from the Sthavira during the reign of Ashoka. The Sarvastivada influenced Buddhism for a thousand years, and were a major school. A Chinese source states that they wore dark red or black robes. They believed in three Buddhist vehicles – the way of the hearers, the way of the solitary buddhas, and the way of the bodhisattvas. They did not take refuge in the historical Buddha, but in the dharmakaya, the “truth” or “reality body.” Like the Mahsamghikas, they regarded arhants as fallible and imperfect. They also contested the view of the Mahisasakas that women are spiritually inferior. A nearly complete Sarvastivadin canon has recently been discovered in Afghanistan, the study of which should greatly add to our understanding of the early Buddhist canon.

7. Lokottaravāda

(circa 200 BCE)

Lit. “those who follow the transcendent teachings,” the Lokottaravada emerged out of the Mahasamghika. They flourished in the northwest. The Lokottaravadins accepted the Mahayana sutras as Buddhavacana. Most of their canon has been lost, except for the Mahavastu, an early biography of the Buddha. The Infinite Life Sutra also owes much to their influence. The Ekavyavaharikas, Kukkutikas (aka Gokukkas), and the Lokottaravadins were doctrinally indistinguishable and were largely geographic rather than doctrinal in character. They distinguished two kinds of emptiness, emptiness of self and emptiness of phenomena. They upheld the Mahasamghika views concerning the transcendent nature of buddhas and bodhisattvas, the fallibility of arhants, and the Three Vehicles and provided special instructions for bodhisattvas, including the ten foundations (bhumis).[4] There are an infinite number of pure lands, Buddhas, and tenth-stage bodhisattvas. All buddhas are equal in attainment. One thousand buddhas will follow the historical Buddha, including Maitreya, the Future Buddha of the Pali Canon.

8. Dharmottariya 

(2nd cent. BCE)

Warder says that little is known of this school. It appears to have split from the Vatsiputriya along with the Bhadrayaniya, Sammitiya, and the Sannagarika during the second century BCE. He says that they were centred on the Aparanta region on the coast of Maharastra at the great port of Surparaka the capital. Their doctrines are similar to those of the Mahasamghikas from which they derived.

9. Bhadrayaniya

(2nd cent. BCE)

The Bhadrayaniyas were located on the edge of the Maharastrian plateau behind the great port of Surparaka, called Nasika.

10. Saṃmitīya

(2nd cent. BCE)

The Sammitiya split from the Vatsiputriya school in the Sthavira tradition. According to Buddhologist Etienne Lamotte, the Sammitiya were the largest non-Mahayana sect in India. They affirmed the reality of the person. They were reputed to be extremely narrow-minded and intensely anti-Mahayana, destroying both texts and statues of the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist schools.

11. Sannagarika 

(2nd cent. BCE)

No information.

12. Bahuśrutīya

(3rd cent. BCE)

Lit. “well learned,” the Bahusrutiya split off from the Mahasamghika school. It was founded by Yajnavalkya about 200 BCE. According to an Indian source, Yajnavalkya founded the Bahusrutiya school in order to promote a more profound discourse than that of the Mahasamghika, based on the idea of a superficial and profound meaning (conventional and ultimate truth). The Bhusrutiyas accepted both Hinayana and Mahayana teachings. Specifically, impermanence, suffering, emptiness, non-self-identity (anatta), and emancipation (nirvana) were considered to be ultimate truths, whereas the other teachings are mundane truths. They also believed that arhants are fallible. The Tattvasiddhi Sastra may have been influenced by this school.

13. Prajñaptivāda

(3rd cent. BCE)

The Prajnaptivada school, reputedly founded by Mahakatyayana, seceded from the Bahusrutiya.  They flourished in Magadha until the tenth century of the common era. Their main doctrine was that phenomena are the product of conceptualization. They distinguished between conventional and ultimate truth and between reality and mere concepts. Conditioned phenomena suffer because they are mere concepts or notions. They denied that suffering inheres in the skhandhas or the five elements, contrary to the Sarvastivadins. The Noble Eightfold Path is eternal, immutable, and indestructible. The path cannot be cultivated through contemplation, but only through the cultivation of “all-knowledge” and the accumulation of merit. All attainments are the result of karma and merit. The Buddha’s teachings are nominal, conventional, and causal. Therefore, they are only provisional. The Prajnaptivadins adhered to the two-truths doctrine, articulated the relationship between skillful means and wisdom, and may have influenced the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. The Bahusrutiyans and the Prajnaptivadins are particularly associated with the rise of the Mahayana.

14. Mahīśāsaka

(4th cent. BCE)

Founded by the monastic Purana, the Mahisasaka originated in the Vanti region of India during the Second Buddhist council in the fourth century of the common era.  They spread northwest and down to southern India including Sri Lanka, where they coexisted with the Theravada before they were absorbed by the latter. According to a Chinese source, the Mahisasakans were said to wear blue robes. They were said to be deeply involved in the practice of meditation, especially meditation on the Four Noble Truths. They held that everything exists in the present moment. A gift given to the sangha is more meritorious than a gift given to the Buddha. Early on, they rejected the doctrine of the intermediate state, but subsequently they came to accept it. The Infinite Life Sutra was composed by Mahisaskan monastics. The Mahisasakans were misogynists who believed that women could not become buddhas, a view that one also finds expressed in the Pali Canon. Because women cannot change the nature of their minds or bodies, they will cause Buddhism to decline.

15. Kāśyapīya (Haimavata)

(circa 190 BCE)

This school was named after Kasyapa, one of the missionaries of  Ashoka sent to the Himalayan region. They split off from the Vibhajyavadin school in the second century BCE. They survived to the seventh century CE. According to a Chinese source they are described as wearing magnolia robes. They were an eclectic school and although nominally in the Sthavira tradition, they adopted doctrines from the Mahasamghikans. They believed that past events exist in the present in some form. They believed in the fallibility of arhants; because they have not completely eliminated desires, their perfection is incomplete and it is possible for them to relapse. The Gandhari Dhammapada may belong to this school. The Chinese canon also preserves an incomplete translation of the Samyutta Nikaya that may belong to this school.

16. Dharmaguptaka

(2nd cent. BCE)

The Dharmaguptakas split off from the Mahisasakas. Their Vinaya became the basis of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese monasticism. Their name means “preserver of the dharma.” They believed that the Buddha’s teachings are superior to those of the arhants by virtue of his status as separate from the sangha. Therefore, venerating buddhas generates more merit than venerating the sangha (the opposite of the Mahisasaka view). They also advocated the merit of venerating stupas. They distinguished between the path of a hearer and the path of a bodhisattva. Thus, although formally in the Sthavira tradition, the views of the Dharmaguptaka are similar to those of the Mahasamghikas. They rejected the Sarvastivadin monastic rules on the grounds that the original teachings of the Buddha have been lost. According to a Chinese source, they wore black or deep red robes. Originating in Aparanta, the Dharmaguptakas flourished in northwest India in the first century CE. Some scholars believe that they may have been founded by a Greek Buddhist monastic. They made major inroads in Iran, Central Asia, and China. Their Vinaya is still followed in China, Vietnam, and Korea. A Dharmaguptaka version of the Digha Nikaya is also extant in Chinese translation. It consisted of four less suttas than the Theravadin version. A Dharmaguptaka Anguttara Nikaya is also extant, as well as a Dharmaguptaka Abhidharma. A sixth century CE Indian monastic named Paramartha identifies the Dharmaguptaka with the Mahayana.

17. Caitika

(1st cent. BCE)

The Caitika or Caityaka school flourished among the mountains of southern India, centred on Andhra, whence they derived their name. Led by Mahadeva, they emerged out of the Mahasamghika in the first or second century BCE. They are reputed to have owned the Great Stupa of Sanchi, commissioned by Ashoka in the third century BCE. They are also associated with the Ajanta Caves and the veneration of anthropomorphic Buddha images. They valued the path of the bodhisattva above that of the hearer, and they regarded arhants as fallible and subject to ignorance. They emphasized the transcendent character of the Buddha. A.K. Warder suggests that the Caitikas were the immediate precursor of the Mahayana. It has also been proposed that the great Prajnaparamita literature arose out of this school. They also elaborated the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha, related to the Buddha-nature or Buddha-principle. They were also the reputed compilers of the ancient collection of Mahayana sutras entitled the Sutra of the Heap of Jewels (Maharatnakuta Sutra), consisting of forty-nine texts of varying lengths. The Caitika held that the Buddha’s actions and speech were transcendent, but that some might only perceive the conventional or mundane interpretation. 

18. Sailas

(1st cent. BCE)

The Apara Saila and Uttara (or Purva) Saila schools split from the Caitika around the Andhra city of Dhanyakataka, where the Caitikas also originated. The Madhyamaka Mahayana philosopher Candrakirti quotes the Purva Saila tradition in support of his doctrine that principles do not originate and cease in reality, so that the doctrine of Dependent Origination is a conventional teaching only. The oldest parts of the Ratnakuta collection are also attributed to the Purva Saila school  by various authorities.

The Five Points of Mahadeva

Mahadeva is a somewhat mysterious figure who, according to the Theravadin account, declared Five Points about thirty-five years after the Second Buddhist Council, circa 300 BCE. However, some modern scholars have suggested that Mahadeva was actually the founder of the Caitaka school about two hundred years later, i.e., in the first century BCE. Although the historicity of this account is somewhat controversial, there is no doubt that the Five Points refer to an important controversy to do with the perfection of arhants on which the schools were thoroughly divided. These points or theses were:

  1. Male arhants can have nocturnal emissions.
  2. Arhants can be ignorant.
  3. Arhants can doubt.
  4. Arhants need guidance.
  5. Arhants may attain the path by means of a verbal ejaculation [sic].

The gist of the first four of these points is that arhants are imperfect and fallible and therefore cannot represent the highest stage of the Buddhist path. As we have seen, the schools were divided on this question, including several Sthavira schools. The oldest Sthavira school to hold this view of the imperfection and fallibility of arhants was the Sarvastivada. The Sarvastivada also criticized the Mahisasaka view concerning the inferiority of women. In both of these respects, the Sarvastivada exhibits similarities to the Mahasamghika school, despite being a school in the Sthavira line. Warder dates the secession of the Sarvastivada from the Sthavira during the reign of Ashoka (third century BCE).

Views on Arhants

9e7ea4282d8bb7d8035ce2be9a4daab4One of the interesting things that emerges out of the foregoing study is the position of the early schools (all pre-Mahayana, remember) on the status of arhants. We are accustomed to think of arhansthip as the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path, based on the Pali Canon, the only surviving complete early Buddhist canon, preserved by the Theravada school, yet the picture appears very differently when we catalog the positions of the early Buddhist schools on this question.

The Sarvastivada, Kasyapiya, Dharmaguptaka, Mahasamghika,Ekavyāvahārika, Lokottaravāda, Bahuśrutīya, Pajñaptivāda, and the Caitika schools all regarded arhants as imperfect in their attainment compared to buddhas and therefore fallible, despite being emancipated. I think that this ambiguity or paradox has to do with the doctrine of Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada), as I have explained in previous talks,[5] as well as the historical fact of the primogeniture of the Buddha. Significantly, three of these schools fall under the conservative Sthavira, the same school with which the Theravadins identify themselves. Even the Mahisasakas – another Sthavira school – also appeared to believe that women could become arhants, but not buddhas, implying that arhantship is inferior to buddhahood. Clearly, there was no consensus on this point. We are accustomed to thinking of the arhant as the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path, although the Pali Canon itself clearly considers Buddhahood to lie beyond arhantship, because this is the view of the Theravadins, the only early Buddhist school to survive today.

The Buddha also prescribed different spiritual strategies for different people, based on their personal predilections and stages of development, including intentional rebirth, deva rebirth, and rebirth in the Brahma worlds, which are clearly not the highest goal according to the Buddha. There is even an arhant rebirth (in the Pure Abodes). The metta or loving kindness meditation, which is often mentioned throughout the Pali Canon, by itself does not lead to arhantship. As we have shown in this paper, the Theravadin claim to be identical with presectarian or original Buddhism is historically false. On the other hand, the doctrine, associated with Mahadeva, that arhants are imperfect and fallible explains certain difficulties with the arhant concept in the Pali Canon, including the fact that it is a non-Buddhist concept generally (but not universally) associated with an intermediate samana stage (e.g. by the Jains) and the Buddha’s statement and the evidence of the Pali Canon that it could be achieved relatively easily, in as short a time as one to seven days depending on the text, which seems an awfully short time to achieve the complete transcendent self-perfection that the Buddha took eons to develop, even with the aid of the Buddhavacana!

The Forty-eight Doctrines of the Mahasamghikas 

When Martin Luther decided to challenge the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church in November 1517 he summarized his “disputation” in ninety-five theses, which he nailed to the front door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Similarly, the  Doctrines of the Different Schools (Sama-yabhe-dopa-racana-cakra)  of Vasumitra records forty-eight special theses attributed to the Mahāsāṃghika, Ekavyāvahārika, Lokottaravāda, and the Gokulika schools. Vasumitra was a monastic who led the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir about the second century and helped to compile the Great Commentary of the Abhidhamma. Whether this is the same Vasumitra who wrote the Doctrines of the Different Schools is unclear. The book exists in English translation under the title Origins and Doctrines of the Early Indian Buddhist Schools. These are summarized on pages 18 to 32. Many of these propositions correspond to insights that I have had because of my study of the suttas of the Pali Canon. I have only just begun to study these, but in simplified summary form, they are as follows: 

The Forty-eight Theses of the Mahasamghika 

  1. Buddhas are transcendent.
  2. The Tathagata is undefiled.
  3. Tathagatas preach the righteous law.
  4. The Buddha can expound all of the doctrines in a single utterance.
  5. The speech of the Buddha is always true.
  6. The sambhogakaya or “energy body” of the Buddha is infinite.
  7. The divine power of the Tathagata is infinite.
  8. The Buddha is immortal.
  9. The Buddha never tires of enlightening beings.
  10. The Buddha neither sleeps nor dreams.
  11. There is no hesitation when the Buddha answers a question.
  12. The realization of the Buddha is trans-linguistic.
  13. The Buddha understands everything at once.
  14. The wisdom of the Buddha is infinite.
  15. Buddhas know that they have extinguished all defilements and will not be reborn.
  16. Bodhisattvas are not gestated in the normal way.
  17. The bodhisattva’s final birth is indicated by the appearance of a white elephant.
  18. Bodhisattvas are born by Caesarian section. Caesarian section was known in India as early as 1500 BCE, which also might explain the reason for Maya’s reputed death seven days after the Buddha’s birth.
  19. Bodhisattvas do not harbour thoughts of greed, anger, or harming others.
  20. Bodhsivattvas may be reborn in good or bad states to help others.
  21. One who has realized truth can meditate on all of the aspects of the Four Noble Truths simultaneously.
  22. The five sense consciousnesses conduce to both passion and dispassion.
  23. Beings in the form and formless worlds all possess all six sense consciousnesses.
  24. The five sense organs in themselves are impercipient.
  25. One can speak even in a meditative state.
  26. Perfected beings are unattached.
  27. Stream entrants know their own state.
  28. Arhants are subject to temptation, ignorance, doubt, are dependent on others, and the path is realized by utterances.
  29. Suffering leads one to the path.
  30. The words of suffering can help one to realize the path.
  31. By wisdom, one annihilates suffering and experiences bliss.
  32. Suffering is a kind of food.
  33. One can remain in a meditative state indefinitely.
  34. A Buddhist in an advanced state of realization can still retrogress.
  35. A stream enterer can retrogress but an arhant cannot (because he has no passions).
  36. There is no worldly right view or right faith.
  37. Everything is good or bad. Nothing is morally neutral.
  38. A stream enterer has destroyed all of the bonds.
  39. Stream enterers cannot commit matricide, patricide, murdering an arhant, causing a schism, or cutting a Tathagata.
  40. All Buddha sutras are inherently perfect.
  41. There are nine ultimate or absolute things: extinction realized by wisdom, extinction not realized by wisdom, ordinary space, infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, neither perception nor non-perception, karma, and dharma.
  42. Mind is inherently pure.
  43. Subconscious passions are neither mental nor do they become conscious.
  44. Conscious and unconscious passions differ.
  45. Past and future are not real.
  46. Mental objects can be known or understood.
  47. There is no intermediate state of existence between death and rebirth.
  48. Stream enterers are capable of meditation. 

Theravadin Claim to Historical Primacy 

The earliest reliable historical accounts situate the origin of the Theravada – the “doctrine of the elders” – in Sri Lanka about 200 BCE, two hundred years after the parinibbana.[6] According to tradition they were founded by Mahinda, the son (or brother) of Ashoka, who became a Buddhist monastic. Originally, they were called the Tamraparniya, “the Sri Lankan lineage.” Warder does not include either the Tamraparniya or the Theravada in his list of the Eighteen original Schools. Warder does not refer to either of these schools in his book, Indian Buddhism. Disputes concerning doctrine and practice caused the school to divide into three sub-schools, the Mahavihara, Abha-yagiri-vihara, and the Jata-vana-vihara, each of which was named after its associated monastery. These schools were reunited in the 12th century by the Sri Lankan king, under the guidance of two forest monastics of the Mahavihara school. Thus, Theravada Buddhism became associated with nationalism and even fascism.

The Tamraparniya/Theravada is an offshoot of the Vibhavyavada school, which derived from the Sthavira minority that split off from the Mahasamghikas, through six intermediate schools (see chart).  As I have already explained, this schism was illegal under Buddhist ecclesiastical law and thus all subsequent developments were also illegal. The Theravadins clearly have no direct succession from original or presectarian Buddhism, contrary to their dogmatic claim to represent the original teachings of the Buddha. Moreover, the term “Theravada” did not come into use before the fourth century of the common era, when it was used in the Dipavamsa to designate the national spiritual heritage of Sri Lanka. According to a Chinese source, Mahayana Buddhism was also practiced in Sri Lanka in the seventh century. The Mahayanists were associated with the Abhayagiri monastery, whereas the “Hinayana” Buddhists were centred on the Mahavihara monastery. As I have mentioned, Sri Lankan Buddhism itself was not unified until the twelfth century. Theravada doctrine was codified by Buddhaghosa in the fifth century of the common era. Thus, the Theravada is one of the latest of the so-called “early” schools.

Theravadins consider buddhas and arahants to have reached the same level of spiritual development; thus, arhants must be perfect and infallible. As I have shown, this view was by no means universally accepted by the early schools. Since the arhants of the First Buddhist Council and the Pali Canon itself are clearly misogynistic, this commits modern Theravadins to the view that women are spiritually inferior to men, a position still held in Thailand.  The bhikkunisangha died out in Sri Lanka during the thirteenth century. Some scholars (e.g., Melford Spiro, Buddhism and Society) consider Theravada Buddhism to be a composite of many separate traditions, overlapping but still distinct. The Theravadin Vinaya, with 227 rules for monks and 311 for nuns, both enshrines the misogyny of the First Buddhist Council and preserves a larger number of rules than the Mahasamghika, for which reason the Mahasamghika Vinaya is considered the oldest Vinaya extant (and also invalidates all other Vinayas). According to Mahakassapa, a larger number of rules indicates degeneracy, not spiritual superiority, which also corresponds to the historical account of the Pali Canon.


poderesunidos-allan-bennett_6According to Ajahn Sucitto, a British-born Theravada Buddhist monastic,

It wasn’t originally a counterpoise to Mahāyāna, although it became subsequently defined, and has defined itself, as such. In fact, the terms ‘Mahāyāna’ came into being around the first century, long before the term ‘Theravāda’ was applied to a ‘school’ of Buddhism. The German scholar, Hermann Oldenberg referred to ‘Theravada’ to describe the Pali Vinaya texts he was translating – and published in 1879, but it wasn’t until the early years of the twentieth-century that the term ‘Theravāda’ was employed (by the English bhikkhu, Ven Ananda Metteyya) to describe the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Burma and S.E. Asia. Even then the term was not officially used in the Asian homelands until the gathering of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Colombo in 1950.

Theravada Buddhism has been characterized by a series of collapses and revivals. Each time, the tradition became more consolidated, which of course also implies a loss of diversity. This phenomenon of simplification over time is well-known to students of hermeneutics. According to Ajahn Sucitto, the Sri Lankan sangha disappeared during the eighteenth century and had to be revived from Thailand. This is the oldest lineage in Sri Lanka today – a mere three hundred years old.

David Chapman, in his essay, “Theravada Reinvents Meditation,” notes that

in the early 1800s, vipassana had been completely, or almost completely, lost in the Theravada world. Either no one, or perhaps only a handful of people, knew how to do it. Vipassana was reinvented by four people in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  They started with descriptions of meditation in scripture. Those were vague and contradictory, so the inventors tried out different things that seemed like they might be what the texts were talking about, to see if they worked. They each came up with different methods. Since then, extensive innovation in Theravada meditation has continued. Advocates of different methods disagree, often harshly, about which is correct. …

In the mid-1800s, these texts were revered because supposedly they showed the way to nirvana. However, the way they were practiced was for groups of monks to ritually chant the text in unison. This is like a bunch of people who don’t know what a computer is reading the manual out loud, hoping the machine will spring to life, without realizing you need to plug it in. …

In the 1880s, there is no evidence that anyone in Sri Lanka knew how to meditate. One biography of [Anagarika] Dharmapala [a Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist and writer] says flatly that “the practice had been neglected and then forgotten.” It’s possible that there were a few monks somewhere who still practiced vipassana, but there is no evidence for that. We do know that he travelled extensively in Sri Lanka, and “in spite of all his enquiries he never succeeded in finding even a single person, whether monk or layman, who could instruct him in… meditation practices.

Chapman makes two further points that are of interest here:

  • Asian Theravada repeatedly reinvented meditation under the influence of Western ideas. Chapman is doubtless thinking of Theosophy here.
  • “Guys” [males] who were “into” extreme asceticism, which the Buddha expressly forbade, reinvented Theravada meditation. This fascination with asceticism continues in Theravada today.


Chapman, David. “Theravada Reinvents Meditation.

Dhammika, S. Broken Buddha: Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism.

Natier and Prebish. “Mahasamghika Origins: The Beginning of Buddhist Sectarianism.”

New World Encyclopedia.  “Theravada Buddhism.”

Sucitto, Ajahn. “What is Theravada?”

Sujato. “Bhikkuni Sangha and the Authenticity Project.”

Sujato and Brahmali. “Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts,”

Vasumitra. Origin and Doctrines of Early Indian Buddhist Schools. Trans. Masuda.

Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism.



[1] This is the prevailing modern interpretation. However, some scholars interpret the Pali in the opposite sense.

[2] Many modern scholars doubt the story that Ananda had to convince the Buddha to admit women to the sangha based on his reluctance to ordain his stepmother, Mahapajapati, based on contrary evidence in the canon that a nun’s order (bhikkunisangha) already existed when Mahapajapati presented herself to the Buddha. The account also makes no “theological” sense, since it implies that the Buddha was irresolute and did not know his own mind. The overall evidence of the canon is that the Buddha did not discriminate against women and ordained women on an equal basis with men. It is, however, possible that the Buddha delayed creating the bhikkunisangha for a time due to social prejudice.

[3] The eight “heavy rules” (garudhammas) for nuns include inconsistent textual references that indicate that it was not instituted by the Buddha, including references to a probationer ordination that did not exist at the time of Mahapajapati’s purported ordination.

[4] The bhumis are characterized by the realization of joy, elimination of defilements, illumination, wisdom, meditation, emptiness, cessation, arhantship, dharma realization, and finally self-perfection.

[5] To recap, the chain of “interdependent origination” (paticca + sam + uppada) includes two links (nidanas), craving (tanha) and ignorance (avijja), which are subject to intention, thus two points where the chain can be broken, resulting in liberation. Contact comes at the approximate midpoint of the chain, resulting from feeling and giving rise to clinging (desirous attachment), and is reversed through the practice of dispassion. Ignorance is the first link and therefore the root or “first cause” of the chain, resulting from birth, ageing, suffering, and death (interpreting the diagram as a cycle or “circle”) and giving rise to “constructive activities” (sankharas), and is reversed through the practice of wisdom, which is both the beginning and the goal of the path (Right View). Wisdom is the essential salvific principle, from which dispassion automatically follows. Interestingly, these two accomplishments, dispassion and wisdom, correspond exactly to the two stages of emancipation, the arhant and the Buddha respectively, with the Buddha preeminent due to the singular role of ignorance in the chain, which we see reflected in the primogeniture of the Buddha and the dependence of the arhants upon him.

[6] 344 years if one accepts the traditional Theravadin date of the parinibbana of 544 BCE.