The fate of Buddhism in the Dark Ages, which began in 700 BCE and hit rock bottom in 500 CE, is no different than the fate of all branches of human knowledge in that period. A global decline in knowledge impacted everything from astronomy to agriculture, mathematics to medicine. As for the degeneration of Buddhist thought in general in the Dark Ages, it is concretely reflected in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy in particular. Mahayana Buddhism strongly influenced all other developments in Buddhism in India and East Asia and is the most widely popular sect of Buddhism today.
From the start, it should be said that Buddhism itself, even without the degeneration it underwent, is a Dark Age religion expressing its principles in Dark Age terms. "Life is suffering," the first "Noble Truth" of the Buddha, is hardly an inspiring or even absolutely true statement. It may have been a fitting declaration for the Dark Age ear, but clinging to it as if it is an ideal way to express truth is itself a degenerate attitude. Hence rectifying Buddhism does not merely mean to go back to the original practices of pranayama and asceticism that the Buddha taught and lived, but to also express the principles underlying them in ways that do not reflect the limits of the dark times in which the Buddha lived.
Mahayana Buddhism stands, and can be initially understood, in comparison and contrast to Theravada Buddhism. Early Buddhism is called by later Mahayana Buddhists "Hinayana," or the Little Vehicle. The term Mahayana (Great Vehicle), when compared to Hinayana, seemingly places earlier strains of Buddhism in a derogatory light; the Mahayanists felt their system offered spiritual salvation to the masses through several approachable means while Hinayana was only fitted to those few rare ascetics who could completely renounce worldly ambitions. But if you sense a shade of competitiveness, get used to it. East Asian Buddhism is replete with examples of one-upmanship.
An initial examination of the decline in Buddhist thought as expressed in Mahayana will invariably spotlight the concept of nirvana. Mahayanists originally did not consider their path to be a superior path, per se, but only a more accessible one. Like a large bus, it could fit in more people than could a motorcycle, they believed. Mahayana offered external aids to worship while Hinayana did not. Mahayana could be approached by those who were immature, spiritually speaking, while Hinayana was only for the spiritual elders of humanity. Hinayanists, in turn, objected to the term Lesser Vehicle, refusing to confound the doctrine of the Buddha merely so that it could fit human frailties.
Mahayana's disagreement with Hinayana's approach to enlightenment highlights a major source of confusion that both of these sects have in regard to spiritual salvation. This disagreement goes to the heart of what the state of nirvana implies. It's like two Christians arguing over heaven, which of course also happens all the time since both heaven and nirvana are laden with Dark Age cultural informers.
The Mahayanists considered those who attained to nirvana to be selfish, in their spiritual realization, to the plight of others; that is, spiritual attainment is a group event, not a solo act, for Mahayanists. If Mahayana practices can indeed bring throngs of people to a Buddhist salvation, than it would clearly be superior to a school of thought that can only bring one or two adepts in a generation. A few Hinayanists, motivated by pride, described arhats, or those who attain nirvana, as above the suffering of others, furthering the perception of the aloof solitary seeker.
Mahayanists felt that those arhats who attained to such knowledge were perforce ascetics of sorts who stood apart from the world. In this assessment, Mahayanists disregard the very example of the Buddha, an ascetic who apparently worked tirelessly for decades for the spiritual benefit of others. Mahayanists were certainly right to distrust the example of an enlightened being who had no care for others, but where did they get this warped example of enlightenment in the first place? Instead of reassessing what it meant to the expansion of the sense of self to realize nirvana and acknowledge that a self-realized mystic would necessarily identify with the self in everyone, they stuck with their misconception of nirvana realization, sadly furthered by Hinayanists. While the Buddha praises the yogi who realizes the infinite, the Mahayanists magnificently contradict him by practically exalting those who renounced nirvana for the welfare of others. Hence, the nonsensical bodhisattva, a being who imagines starving helps starving people, was born.
Of course, that Mahayanists considered it possible for those who followed their easily accessible path to eventually attain the same knowledge as the arhat, though perhaps more slowly, with the added benefit of helping countless others along the way, begs further analysis as well. Where are the throngs of people in the Dark Ages enlightened by Mahayana doctrine, apart from the crowds suddenly enlightened, absurd as it sounds, by a discourse from a Patriarch that is slightly less inspiring than a modern-day self-help book?
Wherever they are, the Mahayana Buddhist idea of nirvana deserves critical analysis. Why did the doctrine define those who attained it to be selfish? What did nirvana mean to them? Why was the ideal of the bodhisattva glorified?
Another issue worth investigating is the devotional one. Buddhism, in large part, failed to respond to the devotional need in humans to worship a god or supreme being, so the idea that the ultimate reality could be classified was borrowed from Vedanta and developed. Dharmakaya is the absolute, impersonal God, or Brahman. Sambhogakaya is the cosmos as a finite manifestation of Brahman, a personal God, or Isvara. Nirmanakaya is the body of the avatara.
This trinitarian categorization, with its rough parallels between it and other religions, opens up a whole cosmology of possible worship. Though it does not constitute real knowledge or a description of the real state of affairs, as a model it reconciles, among other things, intellectual and personal need. It is neither true nor not true, in this sense, but rather true to the human inclination to center the sense of self by using an external object of devotion. How this license to worship devolved into escapist cults is another matter.
The Buddha, for his part, was not ignorant of the place, use, and power of devotion on the ascetic path. A love of the larger self is the best possible expression of love of God. A devotional love for God may have little place in many strains of Buddhism today, despite the available forms of worship, but this dryness has always undone itself.
The techniques of meditation and worship popular among Buddhists today can be scrutinized as well. Mahayana Buddhism borrowed much from the tantra lexicon (kundalini, cakras, nadis, etc.) and yoga systems of earlier Indian traditions, not unlike the adoption of Jewish liturgy by the forming Christian movements and Jewish asceticism by Christian ascetics. These practices devolved over time in ways related to the devolution of the philosophy surrounding nirvana.
Most Mahayana Buddhist rituals, if not all, are also borrowed from Hindu-style puja. The Buddha had nothing to do with these developments, though he is often given credit for them; in fact, he would have certainly fought many of them even as he fought the ritualized worship of his time and the authority such external forms of worship gave to the priest.
Another major issue for discussion is the doctrine of the atman, the self or soul. Mahayana Buddhism does not admit to the atman, but their lack of admission is more a willingness toward equivocation since the qualities of the atman were not understood by the Dark Age mind. The teachings of non-atman in Mahayana Buddhism reduce to little more than teaching no ego. Of course, Samkhya and the Buddha also taught no ego, but atman is not only not ego, but it does not imply, as many think, individuation.
Atman was used to refer to the ego, but it was also used to refer to the expansive self and ultimately the infinite self. Mahayana Buddhists read "individualized being" in the term atman when in fact atman-realization spells the very end of an individuated being. Self-knowledge is the death of the ego; self, atman, and nirvana, therefore, are fairly synonymous terms. Buddhists scholars are correct in stating that “no atman” did not mean "no self" but Buddhists in general today fail to differentiate between teachings informing an attitude to take in life and teachings making positive assertions of the state of things.
The doctrine of no self is at bottom little different than the Vedic doctrine of neti neti, "not this not this." All the teachers of higher age Vedanta, not just the Buddha, would not make useless philosophical speculations concerning the ultimate reality. A deep study of no self reveals that the Buddha ever taught no narrow self, not no expansive or infinite self. He could not teach no self anymore than he could teach no nirvana.
Therefore, we must also look at the Buddhist ideas of the ego and self. How did the concept of atman degenerate into an individual ego or the support of one?
When the Buddha was questioned in regard to the philosophical specifics of the self, nirvana, creation, etc., he is said to have kept silent as he did not consider the answers to such questions to be worthy of investigation. Assumedly, he felt they were poor questions born of false impressions of the self and its progress in self-knowledge. Of course, he would be correct; a million answers to such questions will not, of themselves, lead to self-knowledge.
But the silence of the Buddha arguably created too large a vacuum that Buddhists needed to fill with the cosmology and philosophy of Mahayana. Buddhists respond by saying that Mahayana was an attempt at reconciling the practical issues and contradictions in the Buddha's message. Unfortunately, the Dark Ages were on and knowledge declined after the Buddha's passing leaving later Buddhists left to grope for proper questions and answers with a blinded intellect.
Mahayana has been characterized by Buddhists as the work of highly sensitive minds who, while perhaps indulging in intellectual curiosity at times, struggled with the Buddha's idea of release from the bondage of suffering. Samkhya as the Buddha taught it certainly left unanswered questions, but the Buddha had a purpose in that. Answers are there, he taught, but they are not to be groped after with the mind, especially in the Dark Ages, which he certainly knew the world had entered.
Mahayana Buddhists argued that the Buddha's lack of practical explanation made it difficult for one to follow the precepts without a great many obstacles forming along the way. Mahayana therefore was concerned with devising upaya, "skillful means," for making liberation accessible to everyone. But liberation, especially in the Dark Ages, was never considered by the Buddha to be accessible to everyone and Mahayana, with its "skillful means," did not change this inevitability one iota. Dark Age Buddhist texts speak of whole halls of listeners, whole worlds even, attaining sudden enlightenment through these skillful means when at best they might have honestly related that whole groups of people were merely converted to Buddhism. Further, the "skillful means" that they provided in the Dark Age now only take the modern Buddhist's attention away from the genuine necessities and higher age practices of the ascetic path that the Buddha followed and taught.
The paths that these skillful means present are quite diverse. One could have faith in the Amitabha Buddha and secure rebirth in the Lotus or Pure Land, which of course would constitute pure escapism. Another is the philosophical discussions of Nagarjuna and the practice of "Maha Mudra." Yet another skillful means is the practice of a degenerate form of tantra that involves a lot of superstition and little celibacy. The higher age tantrikas approached tantra as a healthy and natural practice of sex and pranayama, with continence, that was a useful aid to the ascetic not unlike devotion, proper diet, and proper exercise are useful.
But then anything could be justified as a skillful means, including violent actions and war. In the name of enlightenment, much like in the name of God, what action is off limits? Toss in a little authority of a bogus "silent teachings" that prohibits as much as it says (nothing), and you have Buddhism in the Dark Ages, and today.
The Buddha's teachings, like the teachings of all yogis, explained that nirvana is attained through discipline and self-mastery. But these teachings are never intended for the masses because the masses aren't, by definition, interested in discipline and self-mastery. Would the Buddha and his predecessors consistently teach this discipline if, all the while, there were a simpler and easier path? Of course not, but the Mahayanists hoped that it would be so.
What can we then conclude in regard to the characterization of Mahayana as the Greater Vehicle - in contrast to the "Lesser Vehicle" of Theravada - in that it offers easy liberation to everyone? Mahayana was naught but an effort to give the intellectual semblance of liberation, the idea that you are spiritually free, without the effort to attain freedom or the state of self-knowledge of actually being free.
While disciples of the Buddha and other yoga masters were ever taught to transmute all worldly inclinations into the single pursuit of self-knowledge, Mahayana Buddhists confounded this teaching through several false assumptions and the conclusions that arrived from them. What were these assumptions? How did they philosophically reason their way from hours of pranayama and a life of asceticism to repeating the name of Amitabha Buddha and the so-called five M's of decadent tantra?
The first assumption Mahayanists made, which will be coming back to again and again, was that the state of desirelessness implied a freedom from the desire for knowledge, nirvana, liberation, etc. If the state of nirvana represents a desireless state, they asked themselves, how then can one desire not to desire?
This is a typical Dark Age Mahayana question burdened with a false assumption. For thousands of years, yogis taught desirelessness not in relation to knowledge and the bliss of nirvana, but strictly in relation to sensory experiences. Desire of itself was never a bad or evil thing; it all depended, like most things in this world, on how it was directed because it is directed awareness. Desire that directed the consciousness inward toward the very seat of desire in the will, mind, and feeling was not only of spiritual benefit, but was desirable. The spiritual aspirant, if anything, was ever taught to use discrimination as a means to cultivate spiritual desires to replace material desires, i.e. inward flowing energy patterns to replace outward flowing ones.
Another reason their question is the wrong one is that nirvana is not a desireless state. It is only qualified as desireless from the vantage point of those still with desire. Desirelessness has no meaning in the state of nirvana. It only has meaning to those living in the range of perception we call finitude.
Another assumption Mahayanists made was that it was the little egoistic self of its own efforts that would destroy itself and remove selfishness. This erroneous assumption was due to their ignorance of the relationship between the ego and the expansive self. How, the Mahayanists asked, could the self destroy itself when the very act of destroying was an act of selfishness?
Selfishness is not bad or evil, as it all depended on the boundaries, the parameters, of the self in question. Selfishness, one way or the other, is in fact inevitable. We are all equally selfish, but our selves are not equal. When the narrow self learns to actively identify with all things, not merely love or tolerate others as beings apart from itself, it moves in the direction of expansion to the infinite self. Where the self is boundless and infinite, selfishness is not only good, but the highest good.
The ideal of the bodhisattva was of one who is selfish for all? Only, how can one attain such selfishness unless one has self-knowledge, or self-realization? While Mahayanists believed that arhats who attained nirvana were selfish, the real truth was that those who attained nirvana were sublimely selfish, which is the purest spiritual selflessness.
Dark Age Mahayanists did not understand that the consciousness of the egoistic self is none other than the undivided consciousness of the infinite self. The former is a case of narrowed consciousness and identity centered in the senses and supported by sensual desire, while the latter is a case of infinite consciousness centered microcosmically in the spine and brain and macrocosmically in everything, dissolving all causal divisional misperceptions of space-time along with it.
Ignorant of the mechanics of the expansion of consciousness, Mahayana Buddhists thus came to the erroneous conclusion that the Buddha taught that the self must undo itself, which of course would be impossible. But instead of realizing that they came to the wrong conclusion and had misunderstood the Buddha's teachings, they devised more skillful means to reconcile the contradiction when there never was a contradiction in the first place.
There was never any paradox, and even if there were, no skillful means they would devise could ever address it. All of the prescribed actions, thoughts, and philosophies -- even the "non-effort" or "renouncing nirvana" ideas - would ever bridge the gap between the finite and the infinite. In the end, Buddhists philosophically decided to merely equate the two, finite and infinite, and deify the bodhisattvas that renounced the latter.
While some Mahayana scholars had faith that the Buddha deep down knew of the paradox in his teachings (when there never was one), other Mahayana scholars felt that the Buddha and his disciples were probably not even aware of this supposed paradox. Again, both groups failed to realize that the very existence of this paradox in their minds relied upon on their own false, intellectual, and Dark Age conceptions of self and nirvana.
To Mahayanists, nirvana was a one-way ticket out of the cycle of rebirth. This false assumption led them to think that attaining nirvana was a selfish act. What they did not understand was that nirvana was only a one-way ticket out of forced rebirth, maya/karma induced rebirth, the very divisional idea of rebirth in fact.
Nirvana was interpreted by the Mahayanists to be like any other material gain. They lacked discrimination between worldly and spiritual desires, lumping both in the same "bad" pile. Nirvana was some sort of car that one drove away in, leaving everyone else stranded. They would have been wiser to see nirvana as merely absolute knowledge, the realization of which did not preclude the freedom to take rebirth in the world of relative knowledge for the liberation of others.
The Mahayanists however, like most modern-day Buddhists, felt that the idea of the bodhisattva was intrinsic to the logic of the Buddha in that it supported the idea of not grasping. How can we be taught, they asked themselves, non-grasping when we are taught at the same time to strive after nirvana?
Samkhya teaching of non-grasping refers to not grasping after sensory impressions, restless thoughts when introverting the senses, limiting feelings, misery-producing material desires, etc. All this non-grasping was the effort needed in yogic training to realize nirvana. Nirvana was never something to be attained through grasping for it or through positive efforts to attain it, but was the natural result of efforts in ceasing to grasp after finitude. One cannot earn infinite, and as the self is infinite, one does not have to. One simply has to increase the intuitive capacity until the knowledge of a self unbound by division is realized.
So it appears that the Mahayanists argued something that never needed to be argued in the first place; the Buddha never taught to grasp after nirvana. And even to grasp after nirvana properly will only amount to not grasping after samsara. So, concluding that the teachings of non-grasping meant that the yogi should renounce nirvana is utterly contradictory in itself. That is, if non-grasping (which is perforce in relation to the phenomena of mind, sense, will, feeling, etc.) were really practiced to the hilt, the state of nirvana is inevitable.
Hence the paradox of the bodhisattva selfishly attaining nirvana by and for him/herself, thus demanding that the bodhisattva renounce nirvana, vanishes. Nothing is left, then, but an attempt at glorifying the unwillingness to go deeply within behind the building of temples, good works, faith, etc., finding narrowing pride in one's sacrifices of nirvana, self-imposed ignorance for the good of others, and demeaning what seems illogical in the Buddha's teachings and in so doing betraying their own lack of self-knowledge attained in the realization of nirvana. The bodhisattva becomes Buddhism's Dark Age version of the Christian martyr.
How did Mahayanists ever think that one who was ignorant of nirvana could ever guide others to it? How would anyone ever realize nirvana through the help of the bodhisattva when everyone's ideal role model was a being who ever renounced nirvana in favor of helping others realize knowledge that he/she had never realized? How could the Bodhisattva, or anyone else, be sure the Bodhisattva knew what he or she was talking about? Mahayanists, of course, thought that they would truly attain nirvana by renouncing it, but where was their philosophical or practical failure? Why is the history of Mahayana Buddhism practically devoid of self-realized masters, weighed as such by the standards of higher age yoga? More of such questions will be investigated next month.
In this sense, Buddhism is more nefarious than Christianity. Masses of unenlightened fools are almost acceptable among Christians because the religion, with its tenets, practically demands no enlightenment and plenty of foolishness. It is one thing for a religion to claim something ridiculous that no one can disprove, such as that all Christians go to eternal heaven, but another to claim something that can be easily verified. Enlightenment happens here and now, before death. A religion like Buddhism, openly based on the life of a yogi, should either be seriously cultivating yogis within its ranks or should be shunned for failing this task. Perhaps with a little rectification, more Buddhists will renounce the misguided skillful means born in the Dark Ages and focus on the means of pranayama and asceticism that have been available from time immemorial.