The Usual Explanation Of The Canon
An eminent Chinese Buddhist scholar, well known as Ten Dai Dai Shi
(A.D. 538-597), arranged the whole preachings of Shakya Muni in a
chronological order in accordance with his own religious theory, and
observed that there were the Five Periods in the career of the Buddha
as a religious teacher. He tried to explain away all the
discrepancies and contradictions, with which the Sacred Books are
encumbered, by arranging the Sutras in a line of development. His
elucidation was so minute and clear, and his metaphysical reasonings
so acute and captivating, that his opinion was universally accepted
as an historical truth, not merely by the Chinese, but also by the
Japanese Mahayanists. We shall briefly state here the so-called Five
Shakya Muni attained to Buddhaship in his thirtieth year, and sat
motionless for seven days under the Bodhi tree, absorbed in deep
meditation, enjoying the first bliss of his Enlightenment. In the
second week he preached his Dharma to the innumerable multitude of
Bodhisattvas, celestial beings, and deities in the nine
assemblies held at seven different places. This is the origin of a
famous Mahayana book entitled Buddhavatamsaka-mahavaipulya-sutra. In
this book the Buddha set forth his profound Law just as it was
discovered by his highly Enlightened mind, without considering the
mental states of his hearers. Consequently the ordinary hearers (or
the Buddha's immediate disciples) could not understand the doctrine,
and sat stupefied as if they were 'deaf and dumb,' while the great
Bodhisattvas fully understood and realized the doctrine. This is
called the first period, which lasted only two or three weeks.
Bodhisattva is an imaginary personage, or ideal saint,
superior to Arhat, or the highest saint of Hinayanism. The term
'Bodhisattva' was first applied to the Buddha before his
Enlightenment, and afterwards was adopted by Mahayanists to mean the
adherent of Mahayanism in contradistinction with the Cravaka or
hearers of Hinayanism.
Bodhiruci says to the effect that the preachings in the
first five assemblies were made in the first week, and the rest were
delivered in the second week. Nagarjuna says that the Buddha spoke
no word for fifty-seven days after his Enlightenment. It is said in
Saddharma-pundarika-sutra that after three weeks the Buddha preached
at Varanasi, and it says nothing respecting Avatamsaka-sutra. Though
there are divers opinions about the Buddha's first sermon and its
date, all traditions agree in this that he spent some time in
meditation, and then delivered the first sermon to the five ascetics
Thereupon Shakya Muni, having discovered that ordinary bearers were
too ignorant to believe in the Mahayana doctrine and appreciate the
greatness of Buddhahood, thought it necessary to modify his teaching
so as to adjust it to the capacity of ordinary people. So he went to
Varanasi (or Benares) and preached his modified doctrine--that is,
Hinayanism. The instruction given at that time has been handed down
to us as the four Agamas, or the four Nikayas. This is
called the second period, which lasted about twelve years. It was at
the beginning of this period that the Buddha converted the five
ascetics, who became his disciples. Most of the Ēravakas or
the adherents of Hinayanism were converted during this period. They
trained their hearts in accordance with the modified Law, learned the
four noble truths, and worked out their own salvation.
(1) Anguttara, (2) Majjhima, (3) Digha, (4) Samyutta.
Kondanynya, Vappa, Baddiya, Mahanana, Assaji.
The first is the sacred truth of suffering; the second the
truth of the origin of suffering--that is, lust and desire; the third
the sacred truth of the extinction of suffering; the fourth the
sacred truth of the path that leads to the extinction of suffering.
There are eight noble paths that lead to the extinction of
suffering--that is, Right faith, Right resolve, Right speech, Right
action, Right living, Right effort, Right thought, and Right
The Buddha then having found his disciples firmly adhering to
Hinayanism without knowing that it was a modified and imperfect
doctrine, he had to lead them up to a higher and perfect doctrine
that he might lead them up to Buddhahood. With this object in view
Shakya Muni preached Vimalakirtti-nirdeca-sutra,
Lankavatara-sutra, and other sutras, in which he compared Hinayanism
with Mahayanism, and described the latter in glowing terms as a deep
and perfect Law, whilst he set forth the former at naught as a
superficial and imperfect one. Thus he showed his disciples the
inferiority of Hinayanism, and caused them to desire for Mahayanism.
This is said to be the third period, which lasted some eight years.
This is one of the most noted Mahayana books, and is said
to be the best specimen of the sutras belonging to this period. It
is in this sutra that most of Shakya's eminent disciples, known as
the adherents of Hinayanism, are astonished with the profound wisdom,
the eloquent speech, and the supernatural power of Vimalakirtti, a
Bodhisattva, and confess the inferiority of their faith. The author
frequently introduces episodes in order to condemn Hinayanism, making
use of miracles of his own invention.
The disciples of the Buddha now understood that Mahayanism was far
superior to Hinayanism, but they thought the higher doctrine was only
for Bodhisattvas and beyond their understanding. Therefore they
still adhered to the modified doctrine, though they did no longer
decry Mahayanism, which they had no mind to practise. Upon this
Shakya Muni preached Prajnyaparamita-sutras in the sixteen
assemblies held at four different places, and taught them Mahayanism
in detail in order to cause them to believe it and practise it. Thus
they became aware that there was no definite demarcation between
Mahayanism and Hinayanism, and that they might become Mahayanists.
This is the fourth period, which lasted about twenty-two years.
Now, the Buddha, aged seventy-two, thought it was high time to preach
his long-cherished doctrine that all sentient beings can attain to
Supreme Enlightenment; so he preached Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, in
which he prophesied when and where his disciples should become
Buddhas. It was his greatest object to cause all sentient beings to
be Enlightened and enable them to enjoy the bliss of Nirvana. It was
for this that he had endured great pain and hardships through his
previous existences. It was for this that he had left his heavenly
abode to appear on earth. It was for this that he had preached from
time to time through his long career of forty-seven years. Having
thus realized his great aim, Shakya Muni had now to prepare for his
final departure, and preached Mahaparinirvana-sutra in order to show
that all the animated and inanimate things were endowed with the same
nature as his. After this last instruction he passed to eternity.
This is called the fifth period, which lasted some eight years.
Nagarjuna's doctrine depends mainly on these sutras.
These five periods above mentioned can scarcely be called historical
in the proper sense of the term, yet they are ingeniously invented by
Ten Dai Dai Shi to set the Buddhist Scriptures in the order of
doctrinal development, and place Saddharma-pundarika in the highest
rank among the Mahayana books. His argument, however dogmatic and
anti-historical in no small degree, would be not a little valuable
for our reader, who wants to know the general phase of the Buddhist
Canon, consisting of thousands of fascicles.
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