Buddhism: Teachers and Leaders | 6
Teachers of Buddhism
One of the most important biographical accounts of the Buddha’s life, the Buddha-carita, is also the first complete biography of the Buddha; it was written by Aśvaghoṣa (c. 80 – c. 150 CE).
Perhaps the most important theologian of early Buddhism was Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE), sometimes called “the second Buddha.”
Nāgārjuna is considered to be the founder of the Mādhyamika (Middle Way) school and is counted as a patriarch of both Zen and Vajrayana (Tantra).
Nāgārjuna is held in the highest regard by all branches of the Mahayana.
Another important early author was Kumārajīva (334–413), a Buddhist scholar and missionary who had a profound influence in China as a translator and a clarifier of Buddhist terminology and philosophy.
Buddhaghoṣa (5th century) was one of the greatest Buddhist scholars in the religion’s history:
He translated Sinhalese commentaries into Pali, wrote numerous commentaries himself, and composed the Viśuddhimagga (later translated as Path of Purification by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli).
Asaṅga (310-390) was the founder of the Yogacara (Consciousness-Only) school of Buddhism. He is closely associated with the Indian philosopher Vasubandhu (420–500). The two founded the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism.
Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa is one of the fullest expositions of the Abhidharma teachings of the Theravada school.
Dhammapāla (6-7th century) was the author of numerous commentaries on the Pali canon and stands as one of the most influential figures in the Theravada.
Śāntideva (7-8th century) is a later representative of the Mādhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism and author of two important surviving works, the Śikṣā-samuccaya (Compendium of Doctrines) and Bodhisattva Avatara (Entering the Path of Enlightenment), the latter of which is still used in Tibetan Buddhism as a teaching text.
The Buddha’s immediate disciples not only formed the first Buddhist community but also were responsible for orally preserving his teachings.
One of the most important of these early followers was Ānanda, the Buddha’s cousin, who accompanied the Buddha for more than 20 years and figures prominently in many early Buddhist texts.
Sāriputta, one of the Buddha’s first converts (along with Mahā-Moggallāna), was the Buddha’s most trusted disciple and was often depicted as the wisest. Sāriputta also served as the Buddha’s son’s teacher when he joined the Sangha (community of monks).
Another important early figure is Mahā-Kassapa, a Brahman who became a close disciple of the Buddha: Mahā-Kassapa presided over the first Buddhist Council at Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar)
and was later celebrated in Ch’an (Zen in Japan) as the receiver of the first transmission of the Buddha’s special, esoteric teachings,
when the Buddha, upon being asked a question about the Dharma, is said to have held up a flower and Mahā-Kassapa smiled, silently signifying his reception of this special teaching.
The Buddha’s aunt, Mahā-Pajāpati, also figures prominently in several early texts. Not only did she raise him after his mother’s death but she was ordained as the first woman admitted to Sangha.
The Greco-Bactrian king Milinda, also called Menander or Menandros, reigned over Afghanistan and Northern India in the latter half of the 2nd century B.C.E. and is one of the most important royal converts to Buddhism:
He had a series of discussions with a Buddhist monk, Nāgasena, which were compiled into a famous work entitled the Milindapañha.
Perhaps the most famous of all historical figures in Buddhism is the Indian king Ashoka (ruled 230–207 B.C.E.). He was the founder of the Maurya Dynasty and the first king to rule over a united India, as well as being one of Buddhism’s first royal patrons.
Ashoka abolished war in his empire, restricted killing for food, built hospitals, erected thousands of stupas (Buddhist burial mounds), and engraved a series of edicts on rocks and pillars throughout his empire that articulated the basic moral and ethical principle of Buddhism.
Ashoka was also instrumental in the spread of Buddhism outside of India:
His son, Mahinda (3rd century B.C.E.), was the leader of a Buddhist missionary enterprise to Śrī Lanka and was thus instrumental in the spread of Buddhism outside of India.
Another important early Buddhist king was Harṣā-vardhana (606–47). He ruled a large empire in northern India and became an important Buddhist convert:
Like his predecessor Ashoka, he is described in Buddhist texts as a model ruler—benevolent, energetic, and just, active in the administration and prosperity of his empire—and, like Ashoka, he is frequently invoked as a model for all righteous rulers.
There are many early historical figures outside of India: One of the most important records of the early Buddhist world comes to us from the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien (4-5th century):
Not only did he obtain many Sanskrit texts of the Pali Tipiṭaka that he translated upon his return to China in 414, but he also wrote an influential record of his travels that remains one of the most informative views of the early Buddhist world in India.
He was followed by another Chinese pilgrim, Hsüan-tsang (602–64):
Hsüan-tsang, like his predecessor Fa-hsien, was a Buddhist monk who travelled throughout India collecting doctrinal texts, which he then translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, and left a detailed record of his travels.
Hsüan-tsang was also the founder in China of the Consciousness-Only (Yogacara) school.
The 6th century South Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma is a central figure in Chinese and, later, Japanese Buddhism: He arrived at the Chinese court in 520 and is credited with founding the Ch’an (Zen) school of Buddhism.
Other important East Asian historical figures are Honen (1133–1212), also called Genku, who in 1175 established the Jodo (Pure Land) school in Japan;
Shinran (1173–1263), founder of the True Pure Land School of Japanese Buddhism, who is also credited with popularizing congregational worship and introducing reforms, such as salvation by faith alone;
and Nichiren (1222–82), founder of the Nichiren sect in Japan.
In Tibet the monk Padmasambhava (8th century) is one of the best-known and important figures. He is a Tantric saint who was instrumental in introducing Buddhism to Tibet;
mythologically he is credited with converting to Buddhism the local demons and gods who tormented the Tibetan people, turning them into protectors of the religion.
Atisha (982–1054) was an Indian monk and scholar who went to Tibet in 1038:
He is credited with entirely reforming the prevailing Buddhism in Tibet by enacting measures to enforce celibacy in the existing order and to raise the level of morality within the Tibetan Sangha:
He founded the Kadampa School, which later became the Geluk-pa school.
Like his Chinese counterparts Fa-hsien and Hsüan-tsang, Butön Rinchen Drup (1290-1364), a Tibetan Buddhist, translated much of the Buddhist sacred literature, including Tantra texts, into classic Tibetan and is sometimes credited with making the definitive arrangements of the Kanjur and Tanjur, the 2 basic Tibetan collections of Buddhist canon;
He also produced a history of Buddhism in Tibet that is among the most important documents for Buddhism’s early development in that region.
Butön catalogued all of the Buddhist scriptures at Shalu Monastery, some 4,569 religious and philosophical works and formatted them in a logical, coherent order;
He wrote the famous book, the History of Buddhism in India and Tibet at Shalu which many Tibetan scholars utilize in their study today.
Finally, two extremely important semi-historical figures are Marpa Lotsawa, “the Translator” (1012–96) and Milarepa (1040–1143):
Marpa was a Tibetan layman thought to have imported songs and texts from Bengal to Tibet, but he is best known and most venerated as the guru of Milarepa.
Milarepa was a saint and poet of Tibetan Buddhism who continues to be extremely popular:
His well-known autobiography recounts how in his youth he practiced black magic in order to take revenge on relatives who deprived his mother of the family inheritance and then later repented and sought Buddhist teaching. Milarepa stands figuratively as the model for all Tibetans.
One of the most important religious and social leaders in Tibet is the Panchen Lama, who ranks 2nd only to the Dalai Lama among the Grand Lamas of the Geluk-pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. His seat is in the Tashilhumpo monastery at Shigatse.
The current Dalai Lama (born in 1935) is the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists. He has lived in exile since 1959, when the Chinese invaded Tibet. The Dalai Lama has been instrumental not only in aiding the Tibetan people but also in spreading Buddhism to the West.
The Śrī Lankan Buddhist Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864–1933) stands as one of the most important Buddhist preachers of the modern era:
Dharmapāla was intimately involved in the restoration of Bodh Gaya in India, the birthplace of Buddhism, and with spreading Buddhism to the West.
He was a major reformer and revivalist of Ceylonese Buddhism and an important figure in its western transmission. He also inspired a mass movement of South Indian Dalits including Tamils to embrace Buddhism, half a century before B. R. Ambedkar.
One of the most important early scholars of Buddhism was T.W. Rhys Davids (1843–1922):
Rhys Davids was professor of Pali at London University and one of the founders of the university’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Along with his wife, Caroline, he pioneered the translation, study, and transmission of Pali text in the West.
Ānanda Metteyya (Charles Henry Allan Bennett; 1872–1923) is another important Western Buddhist. He became the first British bhikkhu (monk) and Buddhist missionary.
In 1903 Allan Bennett founded the Buddhasasana Samagama or the International Buddhist Society in London, UK.
He also started a periodical called Buddhism: An Illustrated Review and wrote 2 books on Buddhism in UK: The Wisdom of the Āryas (1923) and The Religion of Burma (1911).
Bhikkhu Ñanamoli (Osbert Moore; 1905–60) was a pioneer British bhikkhu and Pali scholar who went to Śrī Lanka and was ordained as a monk.
He translated The Viśuddhimagga into English as The Path of Purification; he also translated Nettippakarana (The Guide) and Paṭisaṁbhidā-magga (Path of Discrimination), as well as most of the sections of the Majjhima Nikāya and several from the Samyutta Nikāya.
Ayya Khema (Ilse Ledermann; 1923–97) was born in Berlin to Jewish parents; in 1938 she escaped from Germany and began studying Buddhism:
In 1978 she helped to establish Wat Buddha-Dhamma, a forest monastery near Sydney, Australia.
She later set up the International Buddhist Women’s Centre as a training centre for Śrī Lankan nuns and the Parappuduwa Nun’s Island at Dodanduwa, Śrī Lanka.