Cittā’s gātā


A recent article about a Japanese scroll in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston mentiones how this scroll is considered to be the first in which an actual landscape is depicted, not a Japanese landscape, but an Indian one: Vulture Peak near the city of Rajgir in the state of Bihar. Vulture Peak is one of those places that frequently occur in Buddhist canonical texts, both the Southern and the Northern manuscripts.

One of Buddha’s contemporaries, the bhikkhuni (senior female monk) Cittā, daughter of a king or chieftain and over 80 years old climbed the slopes of Vulture Peak and had an enlightening experience. Her gātā (song, poem) occurs in the so-called Therīgātā, the “songs of the senior nuns (therī)”.
Following the absolute correct transliteration of Hermann Oldenberg and Richard Pischel (“Therī-gāthā”, PTS, London 1883, p. 126, 28-30) the second half of the gātā runs as follows:

Having laid down my upper robe (samghāti), having put down my almsbowl (patta),
leaning against a hard rock (amhi selamhi) the liberation of my heart overwhelmed me.

These two sentences are followed by a thanksgiving at the address of the Buddha’s Teaching (buddhassa sāsanam).

nikkhipitvāna samghātim pattakam ca nikkujjiya/

nissannā(1) c’amhi selamhi atha(2) cittam vimucci me(3)/

tisso vijjā anuppattā katam buddhassa sāsanam.

1: Skr.: nissah – overwhelming, powerful. We cannot overlook the fact that “pure Pali” does not exist. Cittā had learnt the Vedic lore written in Classical Sanskrit (either in Brahmi or in Devanagari script). She adopted the regional language Pali but couldn’t help inserting a Sanskritic word such as a declination of nissah: nissannā.

2: Atha is an indeclinable copulative and is used in enumerations: and, and, and: ánd I laid down my robe, ánd I put down my patta, ánd I leaned against a rock, ánd I was overwhelmed.
3. cittam vimucci me: my heart/mind/thinking (root: cit) became liberated (vimucci). Compare the “… akuppā me cetovimutti” in Buddha’s First Teaching (Dhammacakkappavattanasutta) : the liberation (vimutti) of my heart (ceto) is undeniable and final (akuppā). (“Me” is pronounced as in “case”.)

Two individuals published their translation of this verse of Cittā’s online.
In “First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening” (Berkeley, 1991) we find :

Robe thrown down,
bowl turned over,
leaned on a rock,
then great darkness opened.

One instance in the Therā-/Therīgātā (Th 1, 1034) has a passage containing ‘darkness’. It has andhakāra, being (mental and fysical) blindness, and also darkness, dullness, bewilderment.
Generally the root tam or tim, dark(ness), is used. Nor a declination of andhakāra or one of tam/tim occurs in the original transliteration.

Another online source, Sutta Central-site, allowed a translation into German language. It closely follows (if not copies) the above translation with one exception: the mention of ‘SELBST’ (written in capitals! — ‘self’):

Die Robe hab ich abgelegt,
die Bettelschale umgestülpt,—
im Fels ich stützte da das SELBST:
Die Dunkelmasse ich durchdrang.

As stated, the editors blindly followed the above-mentioned “great darkness”, and added the Self to the mix.
Speculating on what could have caused these editors to use ‘self’ (Pali: atta, Skr. atman) is useless and would amount to the category of wrong speech. Suffice it to say that the root cit (as in ceto…) cannot be translated as ‘self’. Nor committed Oldenberg and Pischel an orthographical error in writing atha instead of atta. Both the Brahmi and the devanagari alphabets give the sounds th(a) and tt(a) as two very distinct characters; no transliteration mistake is possible. Besides, a sentence with atta instead of atha would have become unintelligable.

Nibbuta and upekkhā/upekshā

What enlightenment is, is the most foolish question one can ask. Only the enlightened could say and s/he’s not talkative, at least not the Buddhist one.
Nevertheless, as a result of recent publications about a Tibetan master who emerged from his solitary retreat, a master who since can’t stop smiling, the question popped up again, and the concept of “being extinguished” and its accoutrements needs to be addressed.
I’m not going to analyse the master’s state of mind. That would be disrespectful. Instead I will delve a little bit in a couple of enlightenment-related words that are etymologically nearly identical in Buddhism and Hinduïsm, but cover very different contents in each of these philosophies.

“Being extinguished”, i.e. being enlightened, or having attained, is in the Pali language, the holy language of the Theravāda or Small Vehicle “aggi nibbuto“. Aggi meaning ‘fire’, nibbuto meaning ‘it is extinguished’. As far as the few texts go that Franklin Edgerton studied, of which he produced a dictionary a similar concept does not appear in Mahāyanistic Hybrid Sanskrit manuscripts. Hence the condition of being enlightened seems to be treated / appraised / analysed differently in both main streams of Buddhism. The Northern enlightened person doesn’t stop smiling – so it seems, his Southern counterpart looks content but doesn’t raise the corners of his lips or shows his teeth.

The classical Sanskrit of the Hindu and pre-Hindu philosophies has the words ‘agni‘, fire, and ‘nibbuta‘, but as far as the Monier-Williams dictionary goes there is no combining of the two, at least not in the sense of ‘being enlightened’, ‘having reached extinction’.

Nibbuta in the Buddhist sense of the word is closely related to another word: upekkhā. This word too appears in Hindu of pre-Hindu scriptures: upekshā.

Roshen Dalal in his “Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide” states that upeksha is “the cultivation [of] indifference to the vices of others.”
The Monier-Williams dictionary has a list of possibilities; upeksha denotes a number of negative states of mind: “overlooking”, “disregarding”, and/or “indifferent”.
The first radio-speaker on Buddhism in England, a Hindu scholar, and those writers and translators who delved into the Buddhist lore used this Monier-Williams Hindu-based translation when speaking about the Buddhist concept of upekkhā. They concluded that the Buddhists too considered life full of suffering (dukkha – Pali / duhkha – Sanskrit). To alleviate this suffering, they went on, the Buddhists longed for a new life and on the way to rebirth (reïncarnation, they used the hinduïstic concept) they cultivated upekkhā, the above-mentioned negative states of mind with regard to everything worldly.

It has taken nearly 100 years before this broken pot was mended and put upright. Upekkhā in the Buddhist sense of the word means, roughly, equanimity, not indifference. Dark Dream (what’s in a name) has a very nice explanation of the constituant parts of upekkhā: “Upekkhā is formed from the prefix upa and the root ikh meaning, “to see.” The prefix upa generally means unto, to, towards, near, with; it has the notion of bringing towards or with.”
Dark Dream’s commentators generally hack his apposition to this other word of apekhha to pieces, but I think he deserves better; those Theravādin can be so harsh and unforgiving.

To give a very nice insight into the intrinsic meaning of the Buddhist upekkhā a passage out of the (Greater) Lion’s Roar (PTS MN  I.12; 79-80), a Theravāda (or Small Vehicle) text in which Buddha reminisces on his path towards enlightenment when he was still on the path of the sadhu, the life-denying ascetic, though already possessed with fully developed loving-kindness (metta) and upekkhā:

“Then I lay down to sleep in a charnel ground (a field of bones where the dead, i.e. the sadhus and the poorest who would/could not be cremated, were abandoned), leaning on a skeleton. A bunch of cows (gomandala) having come up to me, dribbled  on me, splattered their stool on me,  showered me with dust and stuck twigs into my ears. But not by me was an evil heart created against them. This then came to be for me through abiding in upekkhā (even-mindedness, equanimity).”

The timeline

Reading Romila Thapar’s “The Past Before Us” (Harvard 2013, pp. 390-399) we again come across the dogmatised opinions about Buddhism among a fair number of academics, in this case the dogmatised order of events as far as the coming-to-be of the Buddhist Scriptures goes. What is relevant in this case is that here we have two fiels of study that hardly ever meet: the secular academic world that seems to be a closed vessel that turns around on itself, and the world of scholar-monks who try to reach out but whose words fall on deaf ears since they are deemed not “objective”.

The timeline

Here’s the proper timeline as far as the coming-to-be of the Buddhist Canon goes:

Sources that fed Unesco with information about Gáutama, or Gótama, or Sákyamuni Buddha’s year of birth take it that this event took place in the year 623 B.C. There is however no absolute certainty about this year, and despite Ms Thapar’s and others’ research we will probably never discover a source that is absolutely reliable as to Buddha’s year of birth.


According to scholar-monks who study the Buddhist history, seven days after Buddha’s demise, at the age of 80, the Elder monk Kássapa (Kásyapa in Sanscritic parlance) decided that the teachings needed to be written down. As for the venue, most sources point in the direction of Vebhāra near the city of Rajgir in India (Vebhārapasse sattapanniguhā — Amarnath Thakur, Buddha and Buddhist Synods in India and Abroad, p. 113). Of the Seven Grottoes (Sattapanni [Pali] or Saptaparni [Sanscritic]) only six remain; over the centuries there may have been landslides or earthquakes that changed the landscape.
Much later sources, e.g. the monk Ashva-ghósa (approx. 80 – c. 150 CE) mention Mount Grdhrakūta (Vulture’s Peak) as the venue for what has become known as the First Council. Here the memorised teachings were recited and subsequently written down.
The scribe who wrote down the Mahāparinibbana Sutta (whether or not in a summarised version), i.e. the Teaching concerning Buddha’s Great Demise, remembered Buddha’s words on Vebhāra: “… how pleasant the Sattapanni cave on the slope of Mount Vebhāra; …”
It is highly likely that these words indeed came from Buddha’s mouth.

Already in Buddha’s time monks migrated. They settled down in larger or smaller communities and produced texts that tried to both honour the memorized earliest teachings as well as elaborating on them. These first migrating monks could not yet rely on written sources; what they knew was orally transmitted.
As of a number of years after Buddha’s demise this oral transmission could be replaced by copies of texts produced at Vebhāra, or somewhat later in different vihāra (monasteries) across Northern India.

This endeavour to “export” Buddha’s teachings steadily continued. In the year 67 AD the first Buddhist text, imported from regions West of India proper, was imported. As time went by China would elaborate on imported Buddhist texts by having them translated and commented. Thus several Buddhist sects arose in accordance with the culture encountered.

A number of new Sūtra written in Serindia, , i.e. regions West of India, probably as of the 2nd Cent. BC, prove to be both teachings as well as commentaries and elaborations, apparently catering for an audiance of religionists belonging to different religions.
As to the new texts written in India proper and in Serindia, André Bareau in his “Les sectes bouddhiques du petit véhicule” gives a summary of some 18 pre-mahāyana Buddhists sects of which some sejourned for a longer or shorter period of time in the caves of central and western India (Bhaja, Karle, Kanheri etc.). Some of these sects are pre-third century, others came to be in later centuries, e.g. in the Western regions of todays Pakistan and Afghanistan — although an exception ought to be made for the city of Táxila in Pakistan, the name of a city that appears in early Scriptures as a place of (Vedic) learning.

During the first migration, after Buddha’s demise but prior to the early mahāyanistic period, there have been scribes who rewrote the sections of the early canonical texts they carried along — let’s remember that it is impossible to fold the entire Canon, whether Northern of Southern in a backpack. Sometimes these scribes embellished, or extended, or more or less altered some, or most of the texts they carried along, texts they considered to be the core teachings of Buddha.
For example, merely looking at the pre-3rd century Pali Canon we more than once come across two versions of one and the same teaching, e.g. the Cūla-suññattasutta and the Mahā-suññattasutta (PTS MN 121, 122), or the Mahā-Sakuladáyisutta and the Cūla-Sakuladáyisutta (PTS MN 77, 79) — Cūla = short; Mahā = long.

The 3rd century

Whether or not the Indian king Asoka had a son and a daughter by the name of Mahinda and Sangha-mitta, and whether or not these two brought a set of the Buddhist Canon to Sri Lanka, somewhere during the 3rd cent BC, as stated in the Mahāvamsa (the Great Chronicle) the dissemination of Buddhism in Sri Lanka began in that century. Considering the mere volume of the texts it is highly likely that what is now known as the Pali Canon arrived there in batches, whether or not commissioned (if you go to India, bring us something we don’t have yet).
This dissemination amongst the population led to a “council”, that is, an ironing-out of defects or misconceptions according to the majority sub-sect in the Mahā-vihāra, the Great Monastery. This council was held during the reign of Valagamba (104-77 BC). It formalised and solidified the extant collection of texts. The monks of Alu-vihāre, rock caves in the neighbourhood of Mátale, published — if that is the word — this collection on a fresh set of “ola-leaves“, palm leaves, that to this days are the primary source of the theravāda sect of Buddhism. No alterations to this set of texts have since been made.

Around the 6th century

In Northern India the position of Buddhism seems to have become untenable. In the parlance of sportsmen: Saivism, Mimámsa, Nyāya and Vaishésika — some Hinduïstic, some philosophic, some atheïstic — had won the match. One of the earlier Mahāyana Scriptures, the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, possibly dating from the 6th century, testifies to this effect.

As of the 13th century

With the invasion of Turkic-Afghan troops, as of the year 1207, the last vestiges of Buddhism nearly completely disappeared from India’s soil, with the exception of some pockets in remote areas of todays Bengal. Richard M. Eaton, in his “The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier” (1978, Univ. of California Press) quotes geographer, zoologist, and botanist Francis Buchanan (1762 – 1829) who in 1789 travels to Bengal. Further South, writes Eaton, among the jhúm cultivators of Ukhia, he [Buchanan] found a form of Buddhism that he said “differs a good deal from that of the orthodox Burma …. their chief god was Maha Muni …”.
Nor Buchanan nor Eaton knew, or knows as far as Mr Eaton goes, that Mahāmuni, the Great Sage, is another epithet of Buddha. Nor did at least Buchanan know that Buddha is not a ‘god’ in the theistic sense of the word.

After the invasion of the Turkic-Afghan troops that devastated the remainder of the walled-in Buddhist vihāra, thinking that these were military settlements, another migration of Buddhism took place, to the North in the direction of Tibet and China, and to the South in the direction of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. The northern route led again to new sub-sects of Buddhism with again new texts, i.e. new interpretations; the Southern route stranded on a 3rd century canonised set of teachings that were not to be tampered with.

“Tathāgata Tathāgata”

Many years ago a Taiwanese Bhikshunī (female monk) who taught at the Foguangshan Buddhist highschool in Kaohsiung but lived outside, in her own little temple together with her mother who had equally become a bhiksunī, handed me a version of the Lotus Sūtra. At that time I travelled around, no longer satisfied with the Srilankan-inspired theravāda teachings, but yet insecure about which road to take instead. The text of the Lotus Sūtra struck me like a hammer’s blow though after a short while this hammer turned out to be the thunderbolt that awakened me to the teachings of the Mahāyana.
I never became a true or staunch Lotus Sūtra adept. Nevertheless I wish to think of this bhiksunī, whose name I forgot, as a bodhisattva who wholly fulfilled her bodhisattva vows.

One of these days this memory arose after reading a short sentence in today’s Hindi that runs: “Hindu Hindu ek rahen“. Translated it means: “All Hindus ought to be united”.

Hindu Hindu …” reminded me of a passage in the second chapter of the Lotus Sūtra that to this day constitutes a puzzle to all Sanscrit scholars who study the Buddhist lore.

Bhikshu Kongmu gives us the Chinese redering of the Sūtra’s passage. It reads: “wéi fó yú fó năi néng jiù jìn zhū fă shí xiàng“.
His translation reads: “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fully understand the true character of all things.” “Fó yú fó” being the Chinese rendering of “Tathāgata Tathāgata” in the original Sanscritic text that underpins todays translations.

Over the years a number of Lotus Sūtra have been discovered, but the version most used is the complete text once hidden in one of the Mogao-caves in Dunhuang, now Western China.

Long before Bhikshu Kongmu’s solution of the enigma Indologist Kern, who is remembered as the first to translate the Lotus Sūtra into English (and who did not hesitate to incorporate an “amen” into the second chapter) rendered the text as “None but a Tathāgatha can impart to a Tathāgata those laws which the Tathāgata knows.”

Today, given the “Hindu Hindu ek rahen” we might translate the sentence “Tathāgata Tathāgata … etc” with: “Only Buddhas can understand those things“, or “only Buddhas (i.e. only Tathāgata [plural]) can impart Buddha-knowledge.”

The Lion’s Roar

August 22, 2015

In recent days a spokesman for the Shiv Sena, either an Indian political party or a hindutva pressure group, or both, remarked that the true Hindus in his country should give a awe and fear inspiring “lion’s roar” in order to reclaim their rightful position as dominant (and domineering) religion.

Buddhists are aware of the saying “lion’s roar” and interpret this as the words uttered by someone, expecially Sakyamuni Buddha, who attained enlightenment.

Considering the Puránas, a collection of (pre-Hindu) Vedic scriptures of which the oldest go back to approx. 3000 BC, and the youngest, it is said, date back to Buddha’s era, being approx. 600 BC, we read descriptions of man-made and natural noises as being “lion’s roars”. And at the same time we realise how Buddha adopted this concept of “lion’s roar” and placed it in an entirely different context, no longer an environment of absolute violence and terror, but that of individual realisation of enlightenment within a framework of “ahimsa“, non-violence.

One of the Vedic, i.e. pre-Hindu Puránas describing the “exploits” of Hindu god Shiva deals with the sack of Tripura, the “three cities” east of Bengal and south of Assam.
Carl Olson’s translation (Hindu Primary Sources: A Sectarian Reader, p 414) says, “At Táraka’s death, a ghastly lion’s roar rose up from the gana lord(1) along with the awful screech of conches. When Maya (litteraly ‘illusion’), standing nearby, heard the delighted shouts of the Pramáthas and the sound of their instruments, he said to Vidyumálin who stood at his side, “What is this great noise I hear coming from many mouths, sounding like the ocean roar? Tell me, Vidyumálin, what is the reason for these drums? The gana lords attack, and the bulls of elephants flee!” Snared by the hook of Maya’s words, that foe-conqueror Vidyumálin, blazing like the sun, went to the front of the battle with the gods and reported excitedly, “A hero as great as Yama, Varuna, Mahendra and Rudra, the brave Táraka who was the storehouse of your glory, the chief mainstay of every battle, has fallen to the ganas in the fight!”. When the Pramáthas saw Táraka crushed, his terrified eyes wide open and blazing with fire like the sun, their hair bristled with delight, and they began to roar like the clouds ….”

(1): gana = flock, troop, multitude, number, tribe.

I.e. a “lion’s roar” in the original Vedic sense of the word was a “ghastly sound”, comparable to the victorious screams of a great many soldiers, the roar of the ocean, the sounding of the (war)drums, the thunder among the clouds.

Of course the southern branch of Buddhism has the Cula-sihanáda Sutta (MN 11 – The Shorter Discourse on the Lion’s Roar) and the Mahá– ditto. In these teachings Buddha tells his monks how they should cultivate towards the moment in which they are rightly allowed to give a “lion’s roar”, a sihanáda in Pali, siiha meaning “lion”. There is however no mention of which words would indicate this “lion’s roar”, i.e. how by-standers could judge whether enlightenment had been achieved or not.
We have to turn our attention to the Dhamma-cakka-ppaváttana Sutta, the Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma/Dharma to find out a little more. At the end of this short teaching — short, but packed with every aspect of Buddha’s teachings — we read his own words:

(athāham bhikkhave, sadevake loke samārake sabrahmake sassamanabrāhmaniyā pajāya sadevamanussāya anuttaram sammāsambodhim abhisambuddho paccaññāsim.)

Monks, at that moment I could rightly claim that in this world with its deva(2), mārā brahma, sāmana and brahmin, with its princes, gods and men, that I had reached ultimate Buddhahood, that I had become a Buddha among Buddhas.

(Yāvañca pana me dassanam udapādi akuppā me cetovimutti,)

At that point I knew, I saw, the liberation of my heart/being (ceto) is undeniable,

(ayamantimā jāti natthidāni punabbhavoti.)

This is my last existence, after this there is no more coming-to-be.

(2) plural s ought to be omitted.

In this Buddhist understanding of the words “lion’s roar” there is not even a shadow of violence, not even a slight comparing yourself with others, but mainly a very personal, calm and lucid recognising of having obtained the highest fruit of cultivation in the Buddhist sense of the world.

Early Western translators of Vedic texts slighted the Buddhist canon by saying that it is unmanly, softish and not prepared to consider “the real world” of which war is considered to be an integral part.
But really, is ahimsa unmanly, unworldly, unrealistic, softish? Look at the so-called ISIS and judge for yourself. Will their himsa prevail and live on into a next century? Think not.

Han tombs and Jingtu Buddhism – 1


Qinghua Guo in his “The Mingqi Pottery Buildings of Han Dynasty China, 206 BC-AD 220, Architectural Representations and Represented Architecture”, p. 183 (Sussex Academic Press 2010) speaks of hollow bricks belonging to “tombs of the Han culture from the mid-western Han phase” that were “perhaps unearthed soon after 1910, during the construction of the Longhai railway between Zhengzhou and Luoyang conducted by Belgian engineers.”

Between the years 1911 and 1917 a Belgian physician by the name of Fernand Buckens, in this capacity hired by the Chinese Railroad Company that built the Beijing-Hankou line in coöperation with Belgian engineers, spent considerable time unearthing and documenting a number of tombs of the Hou Han period in Northern China. Settled in Zhengzhou in the Henan-province Buckens supervised a section of the Beijing-Hankou line, more specifically the line that starts at Zhengzhou and ends at Xian. In 1909 China nationalized all railroads that were built by foreign companies, and it seems that the Zhengzhou-Xian line had the honour to be the first as it was already partly state-owned.

Halfway this line is the ancient capital of Northern China, Luoyang, near the river Luo (called Lo Ho in pre-revolutionary days). Luoyang has been one of the most important places for Buddhism entering China. Here we find the Baima Sze, the tempel of the White Horse that carried the first Buddhist text on his back to China, the Sutra in 42 Sections.

Some of the late Han tombs –- according to Fernand Buckens’ estimation dating from the first upto and including the fourth century –- show characteristics that reveal Amidist Buddhist influences.

Amidism or Jingtu has for a long time been the step-child of western studies into Buddhism; we come across many studies into the manuscripts found at the “library” in the Mogao caves and at Gilgit, a western region that centuries ago lived under the influence of Chinese garrisons, but for a long time little attention has been given to the three scriptures woven around the character of Amitábha Buddha, Omitofo in Chinese.
The Japanese could have been the first to give scholarly attention to these Sutras, but in China the Amidist teachings were for a long time put into practice though not subject to linguistic studies or otherwise.
Those scriptures are the Larger Sutra on Amitayus, also called the Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life or the Sukhávati vyúha in Hybrid Sanskrit, the Smaller Sutra on Amitayus, also known as the Smaller Sukhávatí vyúha, and the Sutra on contemplation of Amitayus, in equally Hybrid Sanskrit the Amitáyurdhyána Sutra, in Chinese the Guan wu-liang-shou jing.

Although familiar with the main principles of Buddhism, studies that he conducted with Édouard Chavannes’ (1865-1918) publications at hand, as well as those of others, for instance publications by the hand of Léon Wieger SJ (1856- Xi’an 1933), Fernand Buckens resorted solely to the Confucianist Liji (The Book of Rites ) and Yi Li (Etiquette and Rites). Generally speaking this approach has proven to be correct. In these scriptures one finds the rules and regulations concerning the gifts that should accompany the dead, and how they ought to be offered. Nevertheless, with the advent of Buddhism in the early years of the Christian era these regulations were to be enhanced and embellished, and those who enhanced them found justification in certain passages in specifically the Smaller Sukhávatí vyúha, which is the text Amidist temple-societies recite twice-a-day.

To be cont’d

Han tombs and Jingtu Buddhism – 2

The following is an attempt to prove that a certain layer of the first to fourth century Hou Han society in and around Luoyang recognised parts of ancient burial rites, or rather the rationale behind them in certain passages of the Smaller Sukhávatí vyúha. That is to say, they had a “they (these Buddhists) too do these things, you know” attitude, a state of mind that invariably leads to a strengthening and celebrating of what is already there.


First there is the offering of food to the dead (Buckens, pp 81/2, 92[1]). This Confucian custom, delineated in the Liji, found justification in the above-mentioned Buddhist Sutra. In this Sutra it is said that the Land of Utmost Joy (Sukhávatí), is the place where the deceased go to in order to be able to listen to Buddha’s sermons, and from where they offer sacks of “wonderful flowers” to “millions of Buddhas in other localities”. The text goes on saying that “at mealtime they return to their own country to eat and stroll”.

Very early in his years in China Buckens turned into a thorough archaeologist and anthropologist. In his archeological surveys he tried to understand what he encountered at the hand of wat a Sinologist like J.J.M. De Groot [2] and others put to writing. These observations lead us, readers of the 21rst Century, to the conclusion that the Hou Han-gentry that had amassed sufficient wealth to lay their deceased to rest in larger stone tombs, considered these deceased as having passed into Amitábha Buddha’s Land of Utmost Joy (Sukhávatí) where one is able, so we read, to cultivate with the ultimate goal of Buddhahood.

Both the Confucianist Books of Rites and Etiquette specify the implements to be given to the dead in order to provide their spirits with feelings of ease and comfort in their new environment. This notion came to be fortified by the Smaller Sukhávatí vyúha’s above-mentioned passage where the dwellers in Buddha’s Land of Utmost Joy daily return to “their own country” where they “eat their own kitchen” as the Chinese saying goes. The newly converted Buddhists gladly complied with the Confucianist rule of offering “the five types of grains”, being wheat, rice, beans, and two types of millet, and justified this by referring to this Smaller Sukhávatí vyúha’s passage: this is how we did it in the past, and this is how Buddhists do it in the present.

We should not think that mourners offered the deceased food on a daily basis; Buckens points to the ritualised format in which the offerings were made: miniature pots, miniature furnaces, horses, straw attendants and spoons sufficed. The intention counted – which is in accordance with Buddhist teachings. Hence the offering to the dead, performed by family-members in Chinese temples are restricted to ceremonies once or twice a year, on anniversaries and on specific holy days.

The more or less informed Hou Han-population perhaps ill-understood the Amidist notion of an afterlife, or an existence, or a mental realisation in Buddha’s Land of Utmost Joy. And because they presumably enthousiastically took to this ill-understood and flabbergastingly new interpretion of nirvana or enlightenment this society anchored itself in this pre-Buddhist concept of the chen (spirit) and applied it to the dweller in Sukhávatí. Chen is a concept that is intimately linked with that of “conscious breath”. And “conscious breath” is identified as the qi (chi), the active principle of life.

Another one of Buckens’ remarks (p.88) points into the direction of the Himalayan (Tibetan) notion of the in-between, the bardo. Buckens presumes that the guardians that watched over the entrance of the tomb, watched over a “brother of the clan” who presumably had fallen asleep and could very well wake up one day. Here Buckens made an error of judgement, but it allows us to suggest that the pre-Buddhist ghost-warrior outside the tomb eventually came to be identified as a guardian angel, more specifically the Chinese-Buddhist Wei-To who would interfere in case of disturbance of either the cultivation in Sukhávatí, or of the disturbance of the deceased in bardo, that is, on his subconscious way to another life. Here too the ancient pre-Buddhist concepts were not laid to rest but came to be enhanced and embellished by Buddhist notions, whether or not these notions were well understood.

The conclusion of all this is that the Chinese — the Americans of the East as far as adapting and reshaping goes — for a long time never really left the old beliefs behind, but fortified them by adding and redefining new Buddhist notions. Suffice it to say that as time went by the newly aquired knowledge of the Buddhist lore gained the upperhand. The 7th Century Buddhist Amidist monk Shandao has been one of the first to lead the population back to the three mentioned Amidist sutras without resorting to ancient concepts of chen or guardian angels. However, since Shandao stressed the assured rebirth in Sukhávatí áfter this life on earth many a monk and nun who suffered hardship in Xian (Chang-an), those day the capital of northern China, hastened to his or her death. As a result Shandao’s stress on deliverance only after death became a burden to society and gradually came to be replaced by the notion of “Pure Land in this Life”: if the mind is pure, the Land is pure.

[1]: Fernand Buckens: “Les antiquités funéraires de Honan”, Bulletin de la Société d’anthropologie de Bruxelles, Tome XXXVI, 1921, pp. 59-164

[2] J.J.M. de Groot, 1854-1921.