The Lalitavistara and Sarvastivada

By Thomas, E. J.
Indian Historical Quarterly
16:2 1940.06 p. 239-245

p. 239 The position of the Lalitavistara-sutra in its relation to Pali Buddhism has been variously judged. The work was described by Rhys Davids some fifty years ago as, "a poem of unknown date and authorship, but probably composed in Nepal, and by some Buddhist poet who lived sometime between six hundred and a thousand years after the birth of the Buddha."(1) This illustrates the extraordinary misconceptions then prevailing, as well as the attitude of the Pali school, which sought to reconstruct the early history of Buddhism from Pali sources alone. But the Lalitavistara is not a poem, there is no probability that it was composed in Nepal, and it contains passages as old as anything in Pali. It was against this attitude of the Pali scholars that the late L. de La Vallee Poussin protested in his Buddhisme, etudes et materiaux (pp. 2-4) where he wrote: "Pre-occupied in establishing the history of Buddhism and in starting by fixing its origin, the orientalists abandon the path so intelligently opened up by Burnouf; they relinquish the examination of the Northern sources, and take no account of them, they attach themselves passionately to the exegesis of the Southern Scriptures, which in appearance are more archaic and better documented. The results that these labours give us are of the highest importance, both for the history of religions in general as well as for that of Buddhist and Indian ideas. Oldenberg's book is a perfect exposition: Pall Buddhism cannot be better described, its intellectual and moral factors more artistically demonstrated, or a more precise exposition given of the idea that a Singhalese doctor makes of his religion and his destiny. Oldenberg's error was to entitle his book, Buddha, his life, his doctrine and his community. He should have added, `according to Pali sources and the principles of the Singhalese Church."' And he went on: "Far front giving us the key to the origin of Buddhism and the understanding of its historical evolution, the examination of the canon and the Pali ------------------------ 1. Hibbert Lectures, p. 197. p. 240 chronicles gives us information about only one of the sects of the Southern school. Futher, these accounts have an absolute value only for an epoch relatively late in the history of this Church. To describe the fortunes of the community, the constitution of the Sangha, the formation of the Scriptures, and the life of the Master according to documents which date from the first or the fourth century of our era is an illusory undertaking. Consecrated by the faith and piety of the schools, learnedly elaborated, proud of a regularity (suspect, although exaggerated by certain authors) , the Pali canon boasts of an authenticity of little probability. Like the Buddhist monks of naive piety and imperfect critical sense European scholars have not hesitated to admit this authenticity. It was only at a recent epoch taht the books were fixed in writing; but does not India offer us in the fastidious preservation of the Vedas a marvellous example of memory and fidelity? This pious hypothesis does not hold against the facts." These incisive words of the industrious scholar whose loss we are still deploring are not yet obsolete. They still stand as a protest against the idea that by excising the marvellous and the contradictory in the accounts of the Pali school it is possible to arrive at a sound historical basis. It may be here remarked that the recent investigations of Mrs. Rhys Davids have been equally destructive of the theories of Oldenberg and T. W. Rhys Davids, though without advancing on the lines suggested by La Vallee Poussin. Although this article is concerned with the doctrinal relations of the Lalita-vistara with the Sarvastivada school, it is necessary to say something about the structure of the sutra. When the Sanskrit text was first published (1877-8) it was found to contain many verse passages embedded in the prose. The question was raised as to which was the older, the prose or the verse; but it ws a futile proceeding to try and solve the problem by setting up rival theories of the structure of the sutra without looking for the sources of the verse passages. It can now be seen that many come from the canon of the Sarvastivadins. On the other hand, when we find a passage in Sardulavikridita metre, it suggests a very late period of literary activity. But there is now no doubt that not only many of the verses but also many of the prose passages are textually taken from the p. 241 Sarvastivadin scriptures. That there was such a canon was not even recognized when Childers declared, "the North Buddhist books have no claim to originality, but are partly adaptations of the Pali sacred books, made several centuries after Gautama's time, and partly late outgrowths of Buddhism exhibiting the religion in an extraordinary state of corruption and travesty."(2) The real facts have been stated by La Vallee Poussin. It should be almost self-evident that the most widely-spread group of schools in India, the Sarvastivadins, a group that continued to flourish widely long after the Pali school had been cut off from its Indian home, should have had a canon of its own. Although not entirely identical with the Plai, the structure of the Agamas and much of the wording is the same. As La Vallee Poussin said, "We speak in the singular of the canon. It is not doubtful that a considerable body of scriptures served as basis for the two canons of Sthavirian sects, the canon in the Pali language and the Sanskrit canon of the Sarvastivadins. This body of scriptures may be referred to under the name of the Buddhist canon." (3) It is from the Sarvastivadin source that the ancient passages both prose and verse, in the Lalita-vistara were take. How the whole sutra was compiled will need more detailed investigation. Here we have only to consider how the Mahayana compiler or compilers of the Lalita-vistara dealt with the doctrinal matters in the passages incorporated. Althought the metaphysical doctrines of Mahayana are not ignored, the whole interest is concentrated on the nature of a Bodhisattva and his attinment of Buddhahood, when he becomes an omniscient Tathagata. The Boddhisattva-doctrine itself was not new, for all the schools recognized it, as well as the doctrine of a Tathagata with his ten powers. But while according to the older doctrine the --------------------- 2. Childers' Dictonary, preface, p. xii. 3. Le dozme et la philosophie du Bouddhisme, p. 97. p. 242 Bodhisattva in his last birth was a being who still had to learn the painful facts of old age, sickness, and death, in Mahayana he knew the essential doctrines already and had acquired all the qualities of a Buddha except those peculiar to a Tathagata. At the very beginning of the actual sutra (ch. 2) we are told how the Bodhisattva was dwelling in the excellent abode of Tusita. Then follow over four pages of epithets beginning thus: "Adored by adorable ones, having obtained his abhiseka, praised, lauded, and extolled by hundreds of thousands of gods, having obtained the abbiseka produced from his vow, having acquired the full and purified buddha--knowledge due to all the buddha-qualities, having won the highest perfection of skill in means, knowing the brahma-states of great friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, having reached the peak of fulfilment of all the bodhipaksikadharmas consisting of the stations of mindfulness, the right effort, the bases of psychic power, the faculties, the powers, the parts of enlightenment, and the way, having his body adorned with the marks and minor marks due to the accumulation of unmeasured merit." (Lal. p. 8). Nor were these attainments lying dormant, for we are told that while the Bodhisattva was in his seraglio, "He was not deprived of hearing the doctrine, or deprived of meditating on the doctrine. Why was that: It was because the Bodhisattva had long shown reverence for the doctrines and reciters of the doctrine, he was eagerly earnest for the doctrine, delighting in the doctrine, unwearied in investigating the doctrine, exceedingly liberal in bestowing the doctrine, teaching it without reward, ungrudging in the gift of the doctrine, not having the closed fist of a teacher." (Lal. p. 215). Yet the narrative retains the story as told in all schools, and when the Bodhisattva acts like an ordinary man of the world, it is repeatedly said that this is due to lokanuvartanakriyadharmata, the rule of acting in accordance with the practice of the world. In the same way, when as an infant he was being taken to the temple, he knew that It was unnecessary as he was devatideva, but he consented to go "in accordance with the custom of the world." When in the older story he first learns the dark facts of human life, he is distressed and returns to his palace in agitation of heart. p. 243 The Lalita-vistara retains the accounts of his asking what an old man, a sick man and the others were, but adds the words, jananncva, although he knew, for he was not really an ignorant youth, but a Bodhisattva already understanding the reality of existence, and he asked in accordance with the dharmata, the rule of action followed by all Bodhisattvas. These are instances of direct modification of the story, but the latter portion of the Sutra gives example of a different way of expressing the special teaching introduced into the narrative. The traditional course of events remains unchanged. The contest with Mara is recounted with the addition of much mythological detail, then the attainment of the four dhyanas, the divine eye, the remembrance of the former births, the chain of causation and the destruction of the asravas, all given in the words of the older sutras. The events at the Bodhi tree follow, the journey to Benares, and the first sermon. Most of the essential narrative is given in the words of the older texts and the Mahayana protions are distinct insertions. These display what may be called devotional Mahayana, for although sunyata and such Mahayana doctrines are taken for granted, no attempt is made to emphasise them or expound them. When the Bodhisattva is going to the Bodhi tree Brahma Sahampati informs the gods, and his speech consists of a repetition of the Bodhisattva's achievements. It might have been thought that after the recital of the chain Of causation some explanation of the formula in the style of Nagarjuna would have been given, but what follows is chiefly a series of stutis by various gods. In one of them Buddha replies, and gives a verse account of his enlightenment, but the nearest approach to any Mahayana metaphysics is where he says he has attained by enlightenment the void of the world (jagacchunyam), which arises from the chain of causation, and which is like a mirage or a city of Gandharvas. That the standpoint is Mahayana can be seen from the p. 244 use of certain terms, such as dharmatathata, bhutakoti, tathagatagarbha, use of certain terms, such as dharmatathata, bhutakoti, tathagatagarbha, and sunya. Even maya occurs, but in the sense of "deceit, and it merely illustrates the dependence on Sarvastivada, in this case on the Abhidharma.(4) The terms occur along with matasrya and irsya, and they also occur together in the Sarvastivadin list of upaklesas, and here are mentioned among the forest of vices (klesaranya) which Buddha had cut off. The additions to the first sermon are more extensive, but still without any tendency to develop the doctrine. It is followed by a versified version of the chain of causation addressed to Kaundinya, the first of the five disciples. Then Maitreya, one of the Bodhisattvas present asks Buddha for the sake of Bodhisattvas present to expound how the Wheel of the Doctrine has been turned. But no exposition is given. What follows is little more than a string of epithets. Buddha replies; "Profound, Maitreya, is the Wheel, for it cannot be acquired by grasping: hard to perceive is the Whell through the disappearance of duality...." This list then passes into a description of the Tathagata: "Even so, Maitreya has the Wheel of the Doctrine been turned by the Tathagata; through the turning of which he is called Tathagata; he is called fully enlightened Buddha; he is called Svayambhu; he is called Dharmasvami; he is called Nayaka; he is called Vinayaka; he is called Parinayaka; he is called Sarthavaha.... " This extraordinary list continues for over fourteen pages, and this, Buddha tells Maitreya, is the turning of the Wheel and a summary exposition of the virtues of the TAthagata. If explained at length the Tathagata might expound for a kalpa or the rest of a kalpa. Of real explanation there is nothing, although in a poem immediately following the turning of the Wheel is said to be anutpadam. This is the very word which forms the basis of the system of Nagarjuna in his Madhyamakarikas. There can be little ------------------------- 4. Lal., p. 486. Maya is translated `esprit de deception' by La Vallee Poussin in his translation of the Abhidharmakosa. vol. I, bk. ii, $ 27. Cf. Mahavyutpatti, 104. p. 245 doubt that this avoidance of points of difference and metaphysical subjects of dispute is due to the fact that the sutra is intended for lay people. The compilers have aimed at harmonising the old accounts with the more exalted conception of the Bodhisattva. There is one place where a severe judgment is passed on the holders of other views. In the account of the Bodhisattva's passing from the Tusita heaven and being conceived Ananda expresses his wonder, and Buddha replies that in the future there will be some who will disbelieve that the Bodhisattva passed through the processes of conception and birth. But those who reject the excellent sutra, whether monks or lay people, will be hurled at death into the hell of Avici. Faith is needed, and Buddha illustrates by a parable: "It is as if, Ananda, a certain man had a son, and the man was of fair speech, received presents, and had many friends. The son, when his father died, was not left desolate, but was well received by his father's friends. Even so, Ananda, any of those who shall believe in me I receive as my friends -- those who have taken refuge in me. The Tathagata has many friends, and these friends of the Tathagata, truth-speakers, not speakers of falsehood, I hand on. They that are truth-speakers are friends of the Tathagata, the Arhats and perfect Buddhas of the future. Faith should be practised. Herein this is what I make you to understand." But the basis of the faith has been changed. The sport, lalita, of the Bodhisattva is not merely his sport in the seraglio, but all the acts which as Bodhisattva he had to perform. His fight with Mara is expressly said to be done in sport, and finally the whole sutra is said to be played (vikridita) by the great Bodhisattva.