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One Vehicle for Peace
Ven. Walpola Sri Rahula
Chancellor, University of Keleniya, Sri Lanka
During the life time of the Buddha his teaching was known variously as Buddha-vacana ('Word of the Buddha'), Buddha-sasana ('Message of the Buddha' or 'Teaching of the Buddha'), Satthu-sasana ('Master's Message' or 'Master's Teaching'), Sasana ('Message' or 'Teaching') or Dhamma ('Teaching' or 'Truth'). At that time there was nothing called Theravada or Mahayana. According to the ancient chronicles of Sri Lanka - Dipavamsa (Chronicle of the Island, 4th century A.C.), Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle, 5th century A.C.) and the Samantapasadika (Comentary on the Vinaya) - the terms 'Theravada,' 'Teriya' or 'Therika' were for the first time introduced into the history of Buddhism after the first Council (Synod) held at Rajagaha (Rajagriha) three months after the Buddha's Parinirvana. At this Council, attended by five hundred Arahants who were immediate disciples of the Buddha and presided over by Mahakassapa Thera, all the teachings of the Buddha, both the Dhamma and the Vinaya, were recited during seven months and unanimously accepted as the genuine teaching of the Master. What was approved and agree upon at this Council was designated as 'Theravada' ('Orthodoxy of the Elders') or 'Theriya' or 'Therika' ('Tradition of the Elders').
Mahayana came into being several centuries later, about beginning of the Christian Era, and most of the early Mahayana Scripture were composed during the following few centuries. But Mahayana was elaborated and formulated as a system of Buddhist philosophy by two great Masters who might be considered as the founders of the two principal Mahayana schools: Nagarjuna (second century A.C.) established the Madhyamika system with his famous Mulamadhymaka-karika in which sunyata (voidness) philosophy is discussed and his enormous commentary on the Prajnaparamita is found. Asanga (fourth century A.C.) established the Yogacara-vijnanavada system with this monumental work Yogacarabhumisastra, consisting of 17 books.
Here a clarification of the terms Theravada (Orthodoxy of the Elders), Hinayana (Small Vehicle) and Mahayana (Great Vehicle) may be desirable and helpful. Hinayana and Mahayana are not known in the Theravada Pali literature. They are not found in the Pali Canon (Tipitaka) nor in the Commentaries on the Tipitaka, not even in the Pali Chronicles of Sri Lanka, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa.
It is universally accepted by scholars that the terms Hinayana and Mahayana are later inventions by Mahayanists. Theravada cannot be included in either of these divisions. Historically speaking Theravada already existed long before these two terms came into being. This same Theravada, considered to be the original teaching of the Buddha, was introduced to Sri Lanka and firmly established there in the third century B.C. during the time of Emperor Asoka of India. At that time there was nothing called Mahayana. This appeared several centuries later. Without Mahayana there could be no Hinayana. The Buddhism that went to Sri Lanka, with its Tipitaka and Commentaries approved and accepted by the Third Council in the third century B.C., remained there intact as Theravada, and did not enter the scene of the Hinayana-Mahayana dispute that developed later in India. It seems therefore illegitimate to include Theravada in either of these two categories. However, after the inauguration of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Sri Lanka in 1950, well-informed people, both in the East and in the West, use the term Theravada, and not the term Hinayana, with reference to the form of Buddhism prevalent in Southeast Asian countries like Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. There are still some outmoded people who use the term Hinayana. In fact, no Hinayana sect as a distinct community is known to be existing today anywhere in the world.
At the First International Congress of the World Buddhist Sangha Council held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in January 1967, at the request of the founder Secretary-General, the late Venerable Pandita Pimbure Sorata Thera, I presented a concise formula for the unification of Theravada and Mahayana, which was unanimously accepted. (This formula is now printed as Appendix IV in my Heritage of the Bhikkhu, Grove Press, New York, 1974).
This formula may be restated as follows:
But to the masses of less instructed and less advanced people, superficial beliefs, external forms, practices and observances are part of their religion. Those beliefs and practices should be appreciated sympathetically according to their relative value. Attachment to external observances and rituals (silabbata-paramasa) is a weakness, a bondage, a fetter (samyojana) from which one frees oneself as one progresses along the Path leading to the realization of Ultimate Truth, Nirvana. Not only attachment to observances, rites and rituals, but also attachment to ideas, concepts, beliefs, theories (dhamma-tanha) obstructs one's mind from seeing things as they are (yathabhuta). This is a hindrance not only to the realization of Truth, but also to achieving harmony and peace among peoples.
Buddhism is not an ethnocentric religion. It transcends all ethnic, tribal or national boundaries and limits. It does not carry with it any ethnic customs, habits or practices from one country or one nation to another. Buddhism, while exercising a profound influence over those countries throughout Asia where it spread and was established, naturally and graciously adapted itself to the cultures of those countries and nations. Hence the varieties of Buddhist culture - varieties of art and architecture, varieties of the statue of the Buddha, varieties of the garb of the members of the Sangha, varieties observances and ceremonies - from Tibet in the north to Sri Lanka in the south, from India in the west to Japan in the east. Yet the unity of the essential Dharma runs through all these external varieties linking them together like a silk thread running through the beads of different colors of a necklace. The Dharma, Truth, is one and the same. External forms are many and different.
The members of the Buddhist Sangha should not be influenced by aggressive, fanatical tendencies prevailing in some parts of the world today. The Sangha should preserve with dignity and courage the long established glorious tradition of Buddhist understanding and tolerance. In the long history of 2,500 years of Buddhism there has never been any war or persecution to convert people. Buddhist monks propagated the teaching of the Buddha throughout Asia, and now they do it in other parts of the world as well, always peacefully, through the force of their teaching, tolerance, inoffensive benevolent gentle attitude. The members of the Sangha can set an example to the world in this respect.
Today humanity is threatened with the possibility of a nuclear war, that means unimaginable and unprecedented destruction and suffering throughout the world. Two super-powers are threatening each other and are brandishing the latest weapons of annihilation. Those who wield power in the world seem to be devoid of mental health. Only the voice of the well-organized masses of people across the world may bring them back to sanity. There are more than one million members of the Buddhist Sangha in the world today, both Theravada and Mahayana. They have a tremendous influence over the masses. It is the bounden duty of the Buddhist Sangha to spread the message of compassion and wisdom among all peoples in order to achieve world peace. The greatest religious service is to promote understanding, harmony, peace and happiness among people, and not to fix labels of religion on each other's backs.
Source: The Research Institute for Pali Literature, http://www.ripl.or.kr
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last updated: 09-08-2005