Is Mahayana The Genuine Teaching of the Buddha?

D T SuzukiAlthough he is criticized by some today, D. T. Suzuki is still regarded as the man who “brought Zen to America.” In the days when I first started seriously reading about Buddhism, there were very few books available. Walk into any bookstore, at least in the Midwest and in New Orleans where I lived at the time, you would probably find the same measly five or six books. Invariably, one would be The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, and there was sure to be something by D. T. Suzuki.

D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966) was not an ordained Buddhist priest or dharma teacher, he was first and foremost a scholar, a professor of Buddhist philosophy.  For a while, in his forties, he was an active Theosophist. Later he and his wife, Beatrice Lane, also a Theosophist, founded the The Eastern Buddhist Society.

While he is associated mostly with Zen Buddhism, Suzuki was also an expert on Japanese Kegon and Jodo Shinshu. His books and essays, and his translations of Japanese, Chinese and Sanskrit Buddhist literature, were absolutely instrumental in introducing Buddhism to the West.

In recent years, Suzuki has been accused of complicity with Japanese nationalism during World War ll, most prominently by Brian Victoria, whose book, Zen at War, in my opinion, based on the section regarding the Soka Gakkai, has some serious flaws. Victoria’s account of Suzuki’s views has been refuted by Kemmyo Taira Sato in “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War.”

Yesterday a reader asked how, knowing that the Mahayana sutras are not the actual words of the Buddha, was it possible for me to identify with Mahayana. A very reasonable question. One that I am sure many have wrestled with. You can read my response below. However, here is a better answer to that question by Prof. Suzuki himself, from Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism:

Mahayana literally means “great vehicle” and Hinayana “small or inferior vehicle,” that is, of salvation. This distinction is recognised only by the followers of Mahayanism, because it was by them that the unwelcome title of Hinayanism was given to their rival brethren, — thinking that they were more progressive and had a more assimilating energy than the latter. The adherents of Hinayanism, as a matter of course, refused to sanction the Mahayanist doctrine as the genuine teaching of Buddha, and insisted that there could not be any other Buddhism than their own, to them naturally the Mahayana system was a sort of heresy.

In spite of this distinction, the two schools, Hinayanism and Mahayanism, are no more than two main issues of one original source, which was first discovered by Shakyamuni; and, as a matter of course, we find many common traits which are essential to both of them. The spirit that animated the innermost heart of Buddha is perceptible in Southern as well as in Northern Buddhism. The difference between them is not radical or qualitative as imagined by some. It is due, on the one hand, to a general unfolding of the religious consciousness and a constant broadening of the intellectual horizon, and, on the other hand, to the conservative efforts to literally preserve the monastic rules and traditions. Both schools started with the same spirit, pursuing the same course. But after a while one did not feel any necessity for broadening the spirit of the master and adhered to his words as literally as possible; whilst the other, actuated by a liberal and comprehensive spirit, has drawn nourishments from all available sources, in order to unfold the germs in the original system that were vigorous and generative. These diverse inclinations among primitive Buddhists naturally led to the dissension of Mahayanism and Hinayanism.

Hinayanists insisted, and some of them still insist, that to have an adequate and thorough knowledge of Buddhism, they must confine themselves solely to the study of the Pali, that whatever may be learned from other sources, i. e., from the Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Chinese documents should be considered as throwing only a side-light on the reliable information obtained from the Pali, and further that the knowledge derived from the former should in certain cases be discarded as accounts of a degenerated form of Buddhism. Owing to these unfortunate hypotheses, the significance of Mahayanism as a living religion has been entirely ignored; and even those who are regarded as best authorities on the subject appear greatly misinformed and, what is worse, altogether prejudiced.

No Life Without Growth

This is very unfair on the part of the critics, because what religion is there in the whole history of mankind that has not made any development whatever, that has remained the same, like the granite, throughout its entire course? Let us ask whether there is any religion which has shown some signs of vitality and yet retained its primitive form intact and unmodified in every respect. Is not changeableness, that is, susceptibility to irritation the most essential sign of vitality? Every organism grows, which means a change in some way or other. There is no form of life to be found anywhere on earth, that does not grow or change, or that has not any inherent power of adjusting itself to the surrounding conditions . . .

The same mode of reasoning holds good in the case of Mahayanism, and it would be absurd to insist on the genuineness of Hinayanism at the expense of the former. Take for granted that the Mahayana school of Buddhism contains some elements absorbed from other Indian religio-philosophical systems; but what of it? Is not Christianity also an amalgamation, so to speak, of Jewish, Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other pagan thoughts? In fact every healthy and energetic religion is historical, in the sense that, in the course of its development, it has adapted itself to the ever-changing environment, and has assimilated within itself various elements which appeared at first even threatening its own existence. In Christianity, this process of assimilation, adaptation, and modification has been going on from its very beginning. As the result, we see in the Christianity of to-day its original type so metamorphosed, so far as its outward appearance is concerned, that nobody would now take it for a faithful copy of the prototype.

Mahayanism a Living Faith

So with Mahayanism. Whatever changes it has made during its historical evolution, its spirit and central ideas are all those of its founder. The question whether or not it is genuine, entirely depends on our interpretation of the term “genuine.” If we take it to mean the lifeless preservation of the original, we should say that Mahayanism is not the genuine teaching of the Buddha, and we may add that Mahayanists would be proud of the tact, because being a living religious force it would never condescend to be the corpse of a by-gone faith. The fossils, however faithfully preserved, are nothing but rigid inorganic substances from which life is forever departed.

Mahayanism is far from this; it is an ever-growing faith and ready in all times to cast off its old garments as soon as they are worn out. But its spirit originally inspired by the [the Buddha] is most jealously guarded against pollution and degeneration. Therefore, as far as its spirit is concerned, there is no room left to doubt its genuineness ; and those who desire to have a complete survey of Buddhism cannot ignore the significance of Mahayanism.

It is naught but an idle talk to question the historical value of an organism, which is now full of vitality and active in all its functions, and to treat it like an archeological object, dug out from the depths of the earth, or like a piece of bric-&-brac, discovered in the ruins of an ancient royal palace.

Mahayanism is not an object of historical curiosity. Its vitality and activity concern us in our daily life. It is a great spiritual organism; its moral and religious forces are still exercising an enormous power over millions of souls; and its further development is sure to be a very valuable contribution to the world-progress of the religious consciousness. What does it matter, then, whether or not Mahayanism is the genuine teaching of the Buddha?


3 thoughts on “Is Mahayana The Genuine Teaching of the Buddha?

  1. Truly remarkable articles on Mahayana Buddhism adaptability. Mahayana Buddhism believes the true path left by Lord Buddha but tried to adapt in accordance to time and situation. Buddhism is all about gaining knowledge from your own self and adapting to the needs of one self is a remarkable action.

  2. Very interesting, if this is the case perhaps we can stop arguing among ourselves that Mahayana was what was the spoken words of the Buddha. Maybe we should just focus on what he actually said, and for that, I am interested to know what he originally taught as captured historically.

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