Table of Contents
by Joseph Walser
While the past few decades have shown remarkable advances in our knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism, much of the work has attempted to mine early sources for their bearing on what modern scholars understand to be the general category of “Mahayana Buddhism.” But when the term “Mahayana” or its tokens (bodhisattvas, mandalas, etc.) appear in texts, inscriptions, or contemporary discussions, Mahayana sometimes marks a distinction from something else (i.e. from other Buddhist or non-Buddhist doctrines or practices) and sometimes is simply an epithet for Buddhism itself. Either way, the attempt to distinguish or not distinguish Mahayana is strategic and serves to do something for those engaging it. The journal Religions (Basel) is seeking proposals for a special issue on the Mahayana distinction and what it means or meant to Buddhists themselves. It seeks essays tracing the genealogies of the Mahayana distinction in specific loci of power (as reflected in texts or in material culture) in order to bring to light the variety of local issues and interests at stake in the association (or disassociation) with the movement. The deadline is Fall of 2019.
Allow me to give a brief example. On February 25, 1978 Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene presided over a ceremony placing an eleven-foot bronze pinnacle on top of the newly constructed “Peace Pagoda” near Adam’s Peak. The Pagoda was a joint project, designed and funded in part by a Japanese Nichiren association. At the opening ceremony, attended by some six hundred Japanese monks, Jayawardene delivered a speech in which he stated, “The two creeds - Mahāyāna and Theravāda - do not have much difference except in rituals. The Japanese follow the teachings [of the Buddha] in pristine glory.” Twelve years later, a Sri Lankan Siyam Nikaya monk named Palpola Vipassi who had been prominent in promoting and raising funds for the Pagoda project, flew to Japan to be initiated into the maṇḍalas of Shingon Buddhism. According to Ananda Abeysekara, Vipassi’s “conversion” received considerable media attention, and, “Soon the report was interpreted by a number of monks as an attempt by Vipassi and Japanese temples to introduce Mahayana Buddhism to Sri Lanka and wipe out the ‘pure’ (nirmala) Theravada Buddhist tradition.” The Theravada monk Labugama Lankananda, the head of Vipassi’s former monastic fraternity, characterized the threat facing Sri Lanka as “the terror of the Mahayana” (mahāyāna bhīshanaya), and within days, posters stating “Let us Terminate the Terror of the Mahayana” popped up throughout Colombo,” igniting a nation-wide debate involving monks, politicians, and lay Buddhists.
One of Abeysekara’s arguments is that the concept “Mahayana” has meaning only within its use at the intersection of specific debates vying for authority. The question of whether Mahayana is merely Buddhism itself or whether it is Buddhist anathema cannot therefore be addressed in the abstract. The meaning of the Mahayana distinction only achieves intelligibility by returning it to the specific uses in which we find it. Abeysekara adroitly demonstrates that the social judgements of identity between Mahāyāna and Theravāda and the competing rhetoric of the “terror of Mahāyāna” occupied a strategic place at the intersection of the longstanding economic and political interests of each. Hence, the grouping the two together under the rubric of “pristine Buddhism” by President Jayawardene cannot responsibly be removed from the locus of power described by his presidency, (particularly his interests in bolstering Japanese-Sinhala trade relations) just as the later emergence of the opposition to the threat of Mahayana has to be read against the backdrop of monastic disputes marking the changes in alliances with particular fraternities (parshavayas).
For this issue, I would like to ask for articles addressing the issue of how the Mahayana distinction was deployed in specific locales (“locale” can be functionally as large as Jayawardene’s Japan-Sri Lanka dialogue or as small as Vipassi’s Colombo). I invite contributions from text scholars, archaeologists, art-historians or anyone else working on Mahayana in any region.
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