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Buddhadharma : Spring 2014
SPRING 2014 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 73 oral discourses, while the Sanskrit texts are long, elaborate, ornate, and not at all repetitious. They could not possibly have been transmitted orally for genera tions before they were finally committed to writing; they were literary products from their beginnings. To me, this has always been one of the strongest argu ments against those who claim that the Mahayana sutras are discourses spoken by the historical Buddha. The two sets of literature may have been committed to writing at about the same time, but the Pali texts had a long prehistory as orally transmitted discourses. McMahon also points to a weakness in traditional Buddhist pedagogies. Stu dents in traditional study programs do not learn about Buddhisms in general but only about their own form of Bud dhism. If they do study other forms of Buddhism, it is usually to refute them. If Theravadins and Mahayanists both studied each others’ suttas with empathy and the intent to understand each other fully and accurately, we probably would not need the oppositional terms “Hinay ana” and “Mahayana.” Buddhadharma would be much richer as a result. Though academic literature on Bud dhist history is relatively abundant, few books address historical issues in ways that appeal to Buddhist practi tioners. This book is far from complete in explaining how and why Mahayana Buddhisms emerged when they did, nor does it address all of the issues about the emergence of Mahayana that are interesting and important to Buddhist practitioners. Nevertheless, given that so few books directly address this topic, it is a welcome addition to the meager lit erature on the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism. The book may be too techni cal and daunting for the casual reader, but anyone seriously interested in the topic will find it has much to offer. In particular, those who teach Mahayana Buddhism should familiarize them selves with the materials discussed in this book. The term “emergence” grounds this book firmly in the awareness that reli gions do not spring forth fully formed the moment they appear on the his torical stage, nor do they endure in stable, changeless forms. Rather, they develop and change in response to changing social, economic, and cultural conditions—that is to say, in differing historical contexts. If one accepts his torical consciousness, it is no longer necessary to regard ahistorical narra tives as historically accurate accounts of the origins of Mahayana teachings. One can easily accept the thesis that regarding the bodhisattva ideal as the norm for all practitioners developed at a certain point in Buddhist history. It is more important to understand why this development occurred than to debate whether or not it should have happened. Historical consciousness, which makes a distinction between legend and history, regarding only empirically veri fiable events as historical, is a modern phenomenon. It is a product of the Euro pean enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The develop ment of historical consciousness has been challenging to traditional religions because they so often claim transcen dent, nonhistorical, nonhuman origins and profess to be unchanging since their early beginnings. Historical conscious ness denies these claims. But for Buddhists, historical con sciousness should not present a problem. How can a religion that posits allper vasive impermanence at the core of its teachings exempt itself and its forms from that teaching? Instead, Buddhists can easily call upon our teachings on impermanence and interdependence to understand how and why our forms and teachings change when they do. There is no need for either aspiring arhats or aspiring bodhisattvas to have heart attacks when they hear about new Bud dhist teachings or learn new information about Buddhism that challenges their longheld beliefs. REVIEWS