Important Mahāyāna Ideas in the Upāyakauśalyaparivarta of Saddharmapuṇḍarῑkasūtra

By Upali Sramon


The Saddharmapuṇḍarῑkasūtra is one of the nine dharmas or the fundamental religious treatises known as Vaipulyasūtra-s of Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition. The Word vaipulyasūtra itself is used in Upāyakāuśalyaparivarta (verse, 118) while emphasizing the sacredness of these texts. Of all the nine treatises, it has been said, “Saddharmapuṇḍarῑkasūtra occupies the most important place…” (See, E.W. Marasinghe, p.608). It was completed around the second century B.C.E. Its prominence is reflected on the prevalence of its several ancient translations into Chinese and Tibetan languages. It has 27 seven chapters written in a mixture of prose and verse in the language or dialect known to the scholars as Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (BHS). Upāyakāuśalyaparivarta is the second chapter of Saddharmapunḍarῑkasūtra. In this essay I briefly note down the important doctrinal aspects that one may learn from this chapter.

The word upāyakauśalya, skillful means, itself is a very new innovation on the part of the Mahāyanists. This concept explains the various methods of interpretations, indications, explanations, illustrations the Buddha follows in preaching the dharma or law as manifestation of his skillfulness (E.W. Marasinghe, p.610). The concept of skillfulness gained much prominence in later time and a particular text named ‘Upāyakauśalyasūtra’ was written on this concept. However, Saddharmapuṇḍarῑkasūtra was the first to use this term and to give it a doctrinal significance.

To the bafflement of his Arahant disciples, the Buddha says in this sūtra that Buddhahood is the most supreme attainment. The Buddha calls himself the king of dharma (dharmarāja, verse- 71). His Power, mysticism, virtues, knowledge or wisdom, etc. are glorified to the extent far superior to humans and gods. Repeatedly, it is said that, the Buddha is unique, and his knowledge is very profound, difficult to understand, unthinkable etc. Therefore Arahants and even Pratyekabuddha-s (privately enlightened Buddhas whose service is very limited) are advised to aspire for the attainment of Perfect enlightenment (Sammāsambuddha or abhisambuddha). Thus there is a sharp contradiction to the Theravādins who were contented with the attainment of Arahathood.

This idea is related to the idea of superior (mahā) and inferior (hῑna) vehicles (yāna). Of all the vehicles or paths that one may think of and resort to, for the attainment of enlightenment, the Buddha-vehicle (Buddhayāna) is the supreme. It has particularly been said that, the Buddha-s emerge in this world, for one purpose – for the manifestation of Buddha-knowledge. He does it not by following a lower vehicle (hῑnayāna; verses 123 & 125). Here the Theravādins, although the word is not used, are expressly denounced as the followers of lower vehicles (hῑnayāna). Furthermore, the hῑnayāna is elaborately explained as comprised of śrāvakayāna – the path followed by the category of all disciples, Arhatyāna – the Arhants, and Pratyekabuddhayāna – Pratyekabuddhas.

The manner in which the ideological conflict on the superiority and inferiority of attainments of Buddhahood and Arahantship – or the mahāyāna and hῑnayāna – existed at that time is very clearly reflected in an early paragraph of this chapter on Upāyakauśalya. Here it is said that, as the Buddha started to emphasize that Buddhahood is the most supreme attainment and that the arahants and pratyekabuddhas cannot fully comprehend the skillfulness of the Buddha, the disciples were very much perplexed. Therefore Venerable Sāriputra requested thrice repeatedly to explain the idea in detail. After rejecting twice by saying that beings won’t be able to understand the idea fully, the Buddha, finally consented to talk about it on the third time. At this moment, five thousand disciples comprising monks, nuns, male laities, and the female laities, gently paid their respect to the feet of the Buddha and left the assembly (see, P.L Vaidya, p.28). These five thousand disciples are therefore regarded as the representatives of hῑnayānists who were proud (ābhimānikaṁ) and did not have strong will-power to aspire for Buddhahood (P.L Vaidya, p.26 ff.). Although, such a conflict may not have happened during the time of the Buddha, it certainly did around the time of the writing of Saddharmapuṇḍarῑkasūtra.

There is a humanistic orientation to the emergence of Buddha. Here the Buddha says – “I also see the poor beings and sinners destitute of wisdom and merits. They are confined in the distress of saṁsāra. Again and again they are plunged in suffering which is incessantly renewed. Clung to craving like the yak by its tail, all the time blinded by passions, they neither see the Buddha– the great beings nor the dharma that takes/leads one across suffering. The minds obstructed in six realms, remain fixed in inferior views, running from suffering states to suffering. I have great compassion for them.” (Verses, 110-112) Therefore the Buddha emerges as the rescuer of all these distressed beings and shows them the path of eternal peace (verse, 105).

Since Buddhayāna is the best vehicle, all the beings should aspire for the attainment of Buddhahood. There is, however, no restriction to who can become the Buddha. All the disciples who are already ardently following the path, those who may have misunderstood it for the moment, the human beings who only heard of the Buddha or his dharma, those who are still unaware of them – they will all be able to become Buddhas. Not only humans, even, non-human beings, and any being for that matter, would one day be reborn as human being, hear the dharma, and become enlightened. Therefore, all the living creatures are Bodhisatvas – beings destined for enlightenment. The fundamental basis on the path of enlightenment is devotion to the Buddha. Some of the devotional practices that germinate the seed for enlightenment or Buddhahood are like building stūpa-s, paying homage to the Buddha and his relics, offering flowers and incenses to Buddha image respectfully etc. It is said that even if a child while in his studies, games, entertainment draws an image of the Buddha, that too would result in the attainment of Buddhahood (verse, 87).

As one proceeds on the path of enlightenment, higher enlightenment factors are recommended. These include the six perfections or pāramitās, in contrast to the ten in Theravāda tradition. They are the practice of giving (dāna variously translated as charity, liberality etc.), virtues (śῑla – morality, restraints etc.), tolerance (kṣānti – patience), courage (vῑrya, exertion), meditation (dhyāna), and inculcation of wisdom (prajñā) (see, verses 75-76).

The most radical of all the ideas is the fact that according to the Saddharmapuṇḍarῑkasūtra, the Past Buddhas can reappear on special occasions. Accordingly, it is maintained that the śākyamuni Buddha was reluctant to preach the dharma thinking the people in the world are so blinded by ignorance and illusion that they would not be able to understand the profound doctrine. They will disregard it as they do to the words of children. Therefore, the Buddha decided to silently pass away. (Verse, 117) However, on reflecting that previous Buddhas having attained enlightenment served this world, he too decided to preach the dharma. On this decision the past Buddhas emerged in all directions and complimented him saying ‘Amen’ (sādhu) (verses, 119-123). According to Theravādins, however, the attainment of Parinirvāna is regarded as the complete extinction. The arahants too, on their attainment of arahanthood, declared that they won’t be reborn. Therefore the mention of the re-emergence of past Buddhas is very much contradictory to Theravādins.

In brief, we may say that this chapter talks about the most important concepts of – the skillful means of the Buddha (Upāyakauśalya), the various ways Bodhisatva begins his path of enlightenment, and the supremacy of Buddhahood. Indeed, these are the very ideas illustrated whole throughout the Saddharmapuṇḍarῑkasūtra with many wonderful and dramatic stories. In that consideration, we may say that Upāyakauśalyaparivarta introduces the fundamental concepts of Mahāyāna that one may expect to learn from the Saddharmapuṇḍarῑkasūtra.