22 February 2008

Recollecting the Buddha

I have been doing a lot of reading around the practice of recollecting the Buddha and making the links between this practice and the development of Buddhist mantra. The practice generally revolves around the Buddha Vandana - the list of epithets for the Buddha - which occurs in many places throughout the Pali Canon and is explained in detail by Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga. The verses containing the epithets are also known as the "iti pi so gatha". My usual experience with the Visuddhimagga is that I find it turgid and confusing, however in summing up the benefits of practising the recollection of the Buddha, Buddhaghosa says:
And his body [sarīrampi], when the recollection of the Buddha’s special qualities [Buddhaguṇānussatiyā] dwells in it [ajjhāvutthañcassa], becomes [hoti] worthy of veneration [pūjārahaṃ] as a shrine room [cetiyagharamiva] - Vism VII,67.
I've been reading the scholarly literature on this subject and surprisingly none of the writers have made much of this passage. It is only one sentence but this seems to have enormous ramifications. It seems a rather remarkable thing for the usually dusty Commentator to say.

By cetiyaghara, translated as “shrine room” by Ñanamoli, we should probably understand a meditation hall with a stupa at one end, rather like the Caitya-hall at the Bhājā caves in Maharasthra. Although the dictionary definition of cetiya (Sanskrit: caitya) is "a sacred mound, cairn or monument", the term is virtuously synonymous with stupa. Allow me to labour the point here: the body of the one who is recollecting the Buddha can be treated as though it were stupa, or monument worthy of worship. The subjective imagined presence of the Buddha is worthy of the respect which was traditionally paid to stupas and relics of the Buddha. The stupa cult continues to this day and has even been transplanted in the West. It relies on the ability to imaginatively connect with the Buddha - to see the abstract shape of the monument in stone or concrete as something more than it's material form.

Even before the death of the Buddha his presence was invoked. The classic description of this comes at the end of the Sutta Nipatta where the new disciple Pingiya sings the Buddha's praises. He says:
“You see, Sir, said Pingiya, with constant and careful vigilance it is possible for me to see him with my mind as clearly as with my eyes, in night as well as day. And since I spend my nights revering him, there is not, to my mind, a single moment spent away from him" - Suttanipātta 1142
The practice of recollecting the Buddha must have been formalised quite quickly as it's representation in the Canon is rather formulaic, ie it always uses the verses from the Buddha Vandana. But in "Pingiya praises" we get a sense of the spirit behind the formulas. Once the Buddha died these kinds of practices would have taken on a new significance, the more so when everyone who had met him has also died. Within 50 or 60 years probably there would have been no one alive who had met the Buddha in person. So the person who could maintain the kind of imaginative contact with the Buddha that Pingiya could may well have been considered worthy of veneration. Some have argued that without direct contact with a Buddha that no Awakening would have been possible, but the canon itself shows that many people were liberated without having met the Blessed One. The texts I've been looking at show why this is so - given the inspiration and the method anyone can make progress in the Dhamma and be freed. Pingiya is freed by faith (saddha-vimutta) as are several of his companions.

We clearly see here the roots of the Pure Land traditions, and of Buddhist visualisation meditations. In Mahayana texts recollection of the Buddha continues to be important - Śantideva devotes a chapter of his Compendium or Śikṣasamuccaya to it. However the hearing or recollection of the name of the Buddha (or a Buddha) starts to emerge - in the Sukhavativyūha Sūtras for instance. A key moment in the history of mantra comes in the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra or White Lotus Sutra (the earliest reference I have found) when the practice of recollecting the name of the Buddha, is supplemented by calling the name (of Avalokiteśvara in this case). Of course the easiest way to hear a name is to say it yourself. Then a few centuries later in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra the chanting of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara is equated with recollection of his name, thus setting the scene for the Tantric revolution.

If we want to experience the presence of the Buddha in these difficult and testing times, we can. Like Pingiya there is no need for you to ever feel out of contact with the Buddha - simply bring him (or even her) to mind. There is a whole vast corpus of Buddhist art which has the precise function of helping us to make imaginative contact with the Buddha. In doing so you find your meeting, and according to Buddhaghosa you become like a holy shrine in the process and perhaps will inspire other people.

Ñaṇamoli. 1997. The path of purification. Visuddhimagga. (Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre) p.230. (=Vism VII,67.). The Pali reads: Buddhaguṇānussatiyā ajjhāvutthañcassa sarīrampi cetiyagharamiva pūjārahaṃ hoti

Suttanipātta 1142. trans. Saddhatissa 1985. The Sutta-Nipāta. (Surrey : Curzon Press), p.132.

image: votive stupa in the windhorse : evolution warehouse.
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