The gods of northern Buddhism

their history, iconography and progressive evolution through the northern Buddhist countries

by Alice Getty | 1914 | 98,662 words

Indispensable reference for art historians, scholars of Eastern philosophy and religion. Wealth of detailed scholarly information on names, attributes, symbolism, pictorial representations of virtually every major and minor divinity in Mahayana pantheon, as worshipped in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. 185 black-and-white illustrat...

Part II - The Teaching

Its Propagation And Modifications

(a) Primitive Teaching. Sakya-muni left behind him no writings; his instruction was entirely oral. It is, accordingly, impossible to form an idea of his doctrine except from the most ancient sacred books which constitute the primitive 'canons'. The religion founded by Sakya-muni did not form a wholly new element in the Hindu world. Like all the creeds of India, it was based upon two fundamental 'verities': transmigration, or 'renewed birth' (Samara in Sanskrit), and the remuneration, or 'the consequences' or 'the fruits of the deeds' (Karman). According to the Brahmanists and the various sects which existed in India at the time of the appearance of Buddhism, all living beings die only to be reborn in the form of other beings, superior or inferior [1] according to the deeds committed in their previous lives. Man, therefore, may be reborn as god or as beast, as he has proved good or evil in his human existence. Primitive Buddhism accepted this conception without criticism as an axiom, and, indeed, no sect — Brahmanist, Buddhist, Sankhya, or Jain — has ever sought to dispute or to deny what may be termed a national article of Hindu faith. But the discrepancy between Sakya-muni and the Brahmanists and other sectaries lies in the pre-eminently moral nature of his doctrine, a doctrine rather psychological than theological.

While the Brahmanists teach that there exists a God creator of all things (Isvara) and that the circle of transmigrations of the soul through material coverings must be terminated, by the virtue of offerings, sacrifices, and adoration of the gods, in the absorption of individual souls into the universal, primitive Buddhism, on the contrary, is an atheistic religion, or rather philosophy, recognizing neither creator nor organizer of the universe, neither personal soul nor universal, and admitting worship of deities as something secondary. The entire weight of its metaphysical edifice rests on a single basis — the idea of deliverance. But deliverance from what evil? From the interminable and fate-ordained circle of renewed births, which, with all its accompanying evils, seemed a thing of terror. But why and how must a man free himself from this circle of destiny in order that he may attain the condition of Buddha and may exist in another world, opposed to the Sansara and named Nirvana?

The reply to this last question is the essential stuff of the whole Buddhist religion. Sakya-muni formulated it excellently in his renowned discourse at Benares (see p. 20) when he announced the four holy 'truths' (Catvari aryasatyani), namely:

  1. the existence of pain (Duha);
  2. the definition of the cause of pain (Samtidaya);
  3. the suppression of this cause (Nirodha);
  4. the path which leads to this suppression, the so-called noble eightfold path (arya ashtangika marga).

It amounts to this, that all things existent are but passing; all that is born is condemned to death; all that is created is condemned to dissolution. In a word every pleasure is only the prelude to grief and pain; life brings on old age, the activity of our organs brings on disease, love brings on separation from the beloved, &c. (Truth 1).

This pessimistic conception, born in the brain of Sakya-muni more than 2,000 years before Schopenhauer, caused him to reflect on the cause of suffering (Truth 2).

This cause is the 'thirst for life', that impulse towards activity which we Western people, on the contrary, exalt. While man is under the domination of this 'joie de vivre', of this 'will to live', he is not liberated from the ties of rebirth (Truth 3).

To be delivered from the sorrows of Samara man must therefore be delivered from the 'thirst for life' (Truth 4). To explain better these 'verities' as well as the meaning of life the first Buddhist theologians invented a 'causal nexus', or connexion of causes (pratityasamutpada), comprising twelve causes (Niddna, literally, 'preliminary condition') which are formulated as follows:

  1. Ignorance (avidyd) produces the syntheses or concealed impressions or tendencies (sanskdra).
  2. The syntheses produce cognition or the substance of thought (vijnana).
  3. Cognition produces name and form (ndmarupa).
  4. Name and form produce 'the sixfold sphere' or six organs of senses (shoddy atana).
  5. 'The sixfold sphere' produces contact (sparsa).
  6. Contact produces feeling (vedand).
  7. Feeling produces craving or 'thirst' (trishnd).
  8. Craving produces grasping at, or attachment to existence (upddana).
  9. Grasping produces renewed existence or origination (bhava). [2]
  10. Renewed existence produces birth (jati).
  11. Birth (jati) produces
  12. Old age and death, grief, lamentation, distress, &c, i. e. the real or actual life (maram). [3]

This series of almost incomprehensible phrases forms the obscurest point in the Buddhist dogma, and one which the savants of the West have attempted to explain in various ways. However, the obscurity can be elucidated, if the formula be taken in reverse order, as Sakya-muni himself was accustomed to take it.[4]

Read in this way, the twelve 'causes' constitute in sum a development of the third Truth. To be delivered from old age, death, and what follows, man must be delivered from birth; to be delivered from birth he must be delivered from rebirth (renewed existence), and so on in succession through all the Buddhist metaphysic which explains 'the quality of life', up to the very last phrase, which declares that to be delivered from the syntheses man must be delivered from ignorance. But what is the nature of this ignorance?

The commentaries upon the Buddhist works inform us that it consists in lack of knowledge of the Buddhist religion. Here then we grasp the first point — for deliverance acceptance of Buddhism is a necessity. In like fashion one may go on to explain the other 'causes'. The second 'cause', Sanskdra, is a psychological conception; it signifies a sort of impress left by our actions upon our conscience, and capable, under certain circumstances and after a certain time, of manifesting itself in the form of new actions. This interpretation, as also that of the third 'cause', the primitive Buddhists were obliged to borrow from the school of Sankhya, which teaches that the 'concealed impressions' act upon a mental substance (Buddhi), which is the basal matter of a fine covering or ethereal body, forming the centre of the soul-life and called lingasarira.[5]

These concealed impressions may be envisaged as the actions of a man, which, coming slowly to maturity, have the property of manifesting themselves in the course of his reincarnations. Thus with the Buddhists this Sanskdra takes the place of 'the soul' of the Brahmanists.[6]

By 'causes' four and five it is signified that the individuality (name and form) manifests itself by the aid of the six organs of sense (the sixfold sphere), and that these put it in connexion with the exterior world (contact). Hence arise feeling, thirst, and the like, which lead to all the evils. But let us return to the third Truth. Summed up briefly, it is but a presentment of Nirvana, that is to say, of a kind of existence not subject to rebirths. But what is its nature? The Buddhist works do not anywhere explain this clearly. All that one can extract from them is that it is a condition of perfect blessedness, a state of sanctity or bliss. For our European logic it is existence outside all sensation, all desire, all will, all function — an existence, in fact, without life, which our mentality refuses to grasp.

The fourth Truth speaks of the way of salvation, of the path which leads to deliverance and ends in Nirvana. This way is made up of eight parts as follows: right belief or views, right resolve or aims, right words, right behaviour, right occupation or mode of livelihood, right effort or exertion, right contemplation or mindfulness, and right concentration or meditation and tranquillity.[7]

For the conduct of such a life it is clearly necessary to renounce the ordinary life for that of a monk, if not of an ascetic. The laity labours, so to speak, under a disability for 'deliverance'. Accordingly, more than one opponent of Sakya-muni has objected that if every one followed his precepts there would be no more men upon the earth; the result would be that 'gradual suicide' spoken of by the German poet Heine as implied in Christian asceticism. The theologians of Buddhism, however, came to a workable arrangement by formulating, parallel with this 'way of salvation', ten 'commandments', of which the first five are obligatory upon the laity for the attainment of salvation, while the whole must be strictly observed by monastics.

These 'commandments' are:

  1. Not to take life,
  2. Not to steal.
  3. To refrain from unlawful sexual intercourse (for the monks, from all sexual intercourse).
  4. Not to tell lies.
  5. Not to drink intoxicating liquors.
  6. Only to take food at certain specified times.
  7. Not to take part in dancing, music, performances, and similar pleasures.
  8. Not to adorn the body with flowers, nor to use perfumes and unguents.
  9. Not to sleep on any high or wide bed.
  10. Not to possess gold or silver. [8]

It must be borne in mind that the Buddhist understands each of these prohibitions in a very wide sense. Thus, for instance, according to the first commandment, it is forbidden to kill and in general to harm not merely men, but any living creature of whatever kind, even parasitic insects, for the injured creature may haply be the rebirth of a kinsman. According to the second 'commandment' man must respect the property of his neighbour to the point of appropriating no single article without the consent of its owner, even though it have no value of any kind.

(b) Subsequent Development of Primitive Buddhism. At the moment of his death Sakya-muni, who had organized the little religious community under his own direction, did not appoint a successor. One of his oldest disciples, Kasyapa, proposed to summon an assembly of five hundred Arhats (sages), whose business it should be to work out a 'canon' and to edit a rule for the common life of the monastics. This first council, held at Rajagriha, edited, according to tradition, the first two books of the canon, Vinaya, i.e. the statutes and rules of the community (its discipline), and the Sutras, or collection of Sakya-muni's Exposition of the Doctrine.

It is probable, however, that nothing at all was written at this council, but that its proceedings, as in the case of other half-civilized races, consisted of chanting and reciting by heart the words of the wisest among the wise men. It is, moreover, certain that the works cited above were written at a later period. Much later still the Abhidharma, a metaphysical treatise based on the Sutras, was added, and thus was formed the entirety of the Buddhist sacred code which is in full force to-day and is known as the Tripitaka ('the three Baskets', i. e. Collections). This code was drawn up in the MagadhI dialect of the Prakrit language, the speech of Sakya-muni's country. The absence of discipline and authority, and a too wide tolerance of ideas, which prevailed in the first communities, caused numerous disputes. Moreover, among certain of the Buddhist monastics there arose a slackness of morality which compelled the assembling of a second Council to prevent the ruin of the Doctrine.

This Council, held at Vaisall a century later than the first, was composed, we are informed, of seven hundred Arhats. Tt attempted, but unsuccessfully, to introduce a certain unity among the different parties and to re-establish the ancient discipline. The cleavages became more marked; the sects multiplied till there were already eighteen in the third century B.C. One of these, the Vibhjavadis, finished by gaining the ascendancy and caused to be drawn up in Pali a canon termed 'the orthodox', the most ancient now extant in written form which it assumed in Ceylon in 45 B.C. The canons of the other sects, which were reformers, were drawn up in Sanskrit and Prakrit and are known to us only through Tibetan and Chinese translations. Some fragments in the original language have been discovered, however, in Nepal, and quite recently in Chinese Turkestan. Towards the middle of the third century B.C. the learned among the sect of the Vibhjavadis succeeded in converting Asoka Piyadasi (Asoka the pious), king of North-east India, who in 242 B.C. ordered the assembling of the third Council in his capital, Pataliputra.

The thousand Arhats who came together drew up a final canon and resolved to send missionaries into the various countries to propagate 'the excellent law'. The propaganda met with its greatest success in Ceylon. The convent founded there by Mahendra (in Pali Mahinda) became the centre of Buddhism as codified by the Council of Pataliputra. Thence the creed spread into other regions. The Buddhists of India, however, continued their internal dissensions, and the fourth Council, convoked by Kanishka, the king of the Yue-Chi (Indoscythians), towards the year A. D. 100 at Jalandhara in Kashmir, ended in schism between the Buddhists of the 'south (Ceylon) and those of the north (India). The former refused to recognize its decisions, and held fast to the ancient doctrine which received the name of Hinayana (the little vehicle), while the representatives of the eighteen other sects accepted the new canon, drafted at the fourth Council, but not formulated definitely until a great deal later, which bears the title of Mahayana (the great vehicle). This canon was taken as the foundation of his teaching by the real founder of Mahayana, the monk Nagarjuna, who lived towards the end of the second century a.d.

The canon of the south (Hinayana) represents better than that of the north a state of Buddhism which, if not quite primitive, is at least the oldest known to us. It gives the rule of life of the monastics and a moral code much akin to that of the Brahmans and Jains. The canon of the north (Mahayana), on the other hand, which includes the canon of the south almost in its entirety, and is known to us only through translations (the Tibetan Kanjur and the Chinese Tripitaka, with an additional volume), is contaminated with metaphysical and, especially, with magical dissertations, formulas, incantations, and so forth (Tantra), borrowed from the Sivaites of India.

The difference of dogma between the two 'vehicles' is quite considerable. While the Hinayana preserves almost intact the 'primitive Buddhism' as we have sketched it above, the Mahayana adds thereto several innovations which completely change the meaning of the old faith.

Of these innovations the following are the chief: —

  1. The recognition of a supreme God (Adi-Buddha, see p. 2) and the worship of the divinities. These two articles were borrowed from the Brahmans, and were unknown to primitive Buddhism, in which the gods, belonging to the Sansara, or circle of rebirth, and consequently always liable to return to one of the lower states, were far below the Buddhas who were free of the Sansara and living in a very much higher world, that of Nirvana. The Mahayanists, on the other hand, relegated the Buddhas to the background, or rather made of them a sort of special divinity.
  2. The Mahayanists introduced the conception of the Bodhisattvas, predestined Buddhas-designate so to speak, who are accomplishing the last stages of their avatars before attaining to the dignity of Buddha (see p. 42).
  3. Again, the Mahayana recognizes the Manushi Buddhas, inhabitants of earth, and incarnations in flesh and bone of the DhyaniBuddhas or Buddhas of contemplation who dwell in heaven. It is the same also with the Bodhisattvas.
  4. The adoption of magical formulas and 'tantric' practices of mages and sorcerers, formally forbidden to the monastics by the canon of the South.
  5. Finally, the adoption of the theory of 'the void'. In the Prajna paramitd (ideal knowledge), the gospel of the Mahayana, attributed to Nagarjuna, the theory of 'the void' is developed at great length, as well as that of the adoration of the gods (the Bhakti of the Brahmans), and the whole is curiously interspersed with metaphysical discourses and magic. Since then there have been schisms among the Mahayanists themselves. [9]

In the sixth century Asanga founded the sect of the Yogacarya, which developed the magical side of Buddhism to its highest power. The adherents of the ancient teaching then took the name of followers of Madhyamika (the via media).

Footnotes and references:


To-day Northern Buddhism confesses the existence of six classes of living beings: two living upon earth, men and beasts; two living beneath the earth, the Preta (in Sanskrit) or Birit (in Mongol), condemned to an eternal hunger and thirst by reason of their narrow throats, which shoot forth fire when they desire to drink, and the inhabitants of hell, divided into twenty-two classes according to their torments; lastly two living in heaven, the Asura — who struggle continually against the gods — and, highest of all, the various divinities themselves.


It is only a question here of existence in one of the worlds of desire (kdmabhava) or of Sansara. Existences in one of the worlds of form (rupabhava) or in one of the transcendent worlds (arujxtbhava) is not considered by the causal nexus.


Cf. Mrs. G. A. F. Rhys Davids, A Buddhist Manual, London, p. 348.


This appears the more natural course from the psychological standpoint also.


This lingasarlra is often spoken of in the writings of modern European theosophists.


The term vijnana used by the Buddhists corresponds sometimes to the lingasarlra, sometimes to the Buddhi of the school of Sankhya. Elsewhere it signifies 'reason', intelligence, ideas, and forms one of the six elements of the universe (the other five being earth, water, fire, air, and ether), as well as one of the five aggregates (Skandha) which, combined, constitute every living man or animal, the four others being body, sensations, perceptions, and consciousness.


This translation of the original Pali terms is from Mr. Warren's Buddhism in Translation. Cambridge, Mass., 1900, 2nd edition. According to the Sanskrit-Tibetan texts one should read: 'the "perfection": of faith, judgement, speech, action, life, application, reflection or meditation, and extasy or contemplation.'


In the canon of the Northern Buddhists there exists in addition the prohibition against committing ten sins which are grouped together as follows: three sins of the body, murder, theft, adultery; four sins of speech, lying, calumny, insult, idle talk; three sins of thought, hatred, covetousness, dogmatic error.


A detailed exposition of the doctrine of Mahayana has been made by Alvaghosha, a poet attached to the court of Kanishka and author of ' The Life of Buddha '. It has been translated by S. Beal, Cowell, and Teitaro Suzaki (see Bibliography).

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: