The Last Blade of Grass? Universal Salvation and Buddhism (2)

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  • ABSTRACT

    This paper is an attempt to tease out the meaning and philosophical implications of the Bodhisattva Vow after it escalated in the context of some Mahāyāna teachings from a simple aspiration to become a Buddha in order to show many other beings the path to liberation into a promise to save all sentient beings in the world ‘down to the last blade of grass.’ This amounts to a promise of bringing about universal salvation. The paper investigates whether this promise and the very notion of universal salvation fit at all into the body of mainstream Buddhist doctrines and can be accommodated within Buddhism’s ultimate message of liberation. The paper is not a research paper in the strict sense, it is rather a piece of individual philosophising on the given theme, albeit based on scriptural evidence. It should fit, within the context of the academic discipline known as ‘History of Religions’ or ‘Study of Religions,’ under the label of ‘Philosophy of Religion.’ It first investigates briefly the origin of the notion of universal salvation as it appeared in Zoroastrianism and in early European thought, and whether it is relevant to the three monotheistic religions. It then looks at the main traditions of Asia to see if the notion is applicable to them. The core part of the paper is then concerned with the emergence of the idea of liberation for all, ‘down to the last blade of grass,’ as expressed in some formulations of the Bodhisattva Vow in Mahāyāna Buddhism, and whether it is in any way foreshadowed in early Buddhism. Finally I ponder the apparent absurdity of the vow’s claim and, in an attempt to make sense of it, suggest a novel philosophical interpretation which might appear ‘unorthodox’ and contentious to some. But is it?


  • KEYWORD

    Bodhisattva Vow , Three Y?nas , Buddhay?na , ‘Permanent’ Bodhisattvahood , ?laya Vijn?na

  • VI. The Great Bodhisattva Vow―its genesis

    The earliest instances of a Bodhisattva Vow whose aim is the liberation of all beings can be found in different texts of the Prajñāpāramitā literature in many variations. This complex of texts of different lengths may have started emerging in the first century BCE, but it was subject to frequent reformulations and additions for a few centuries thereafter. It is therefore reasonable to regard the formulation of the full Bodhisattva Vow (to save all beings) as later than its various forms taken by the Bodhisattvas vowing never to enter nirvāṇa and to render continuous assistance to suffering beings without promising to save all of them. But eventually the vow culminated in formulae explicitly expressing the wish to save all sentient beings. That no doubt amounts to the aspiration for universal liberation (Pagel 1995, 131).

    The variegated vows of Bodhisattvas who promised to save all beings before they themselves would enter nirvāṇa became in time very numerous and are scattered in a considerable number of Mahāyāna texts. Their study and analysis could provide material for a large research paper or even a book. Some are very simple and some very elaborate. Some are vague and ambiguous and others are very definite in how they are going to go about their task. In one of the simplest the Bodhisattva makes a resolution for the sake of highest enlightenment, as he ‘...must liberate all sentient beings’ (Pagel 1995, 106‒7). ‘Sentient beings’ include plants (Schmithausen 1991), so this vow is as potent as the one containing the famous phrase ‘down to the last blade of grass.’ The problem is that in some texts Bodhisattva Vows are combined with ‘the Metaphysic of Śūnyatā’ (Oldmeadow 1997, 188). It starts already in the Prajñāpāramitā texts and that is where the problem of the meaning of the vow is placed outside the sphere of rationality. It enables, e.g. in the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, contradictory formulations such as “...all beings I must lead to Nirvana...and yet, after beings have thus been led to Nirvana, no being at all has been led to Nirvana”  (Conze 1958, 57). This trend has continued throughout the centuries and through different texts to culminate eventually in the paradoxical formulations of Zen Buddhism which perhaps represents, from the point of view of Western rational philosophical tradition, the highest form of relativism.

    The accounts and explanations of sympathetic Buddhologist scholars do not provide an adequate assessment of the possible common sense meaning of these Bodhisattva Vows. In the attempt to explain the ‘insider’ position they sometimes provide interpretations which resemble the irrational excesses of postmodernism. Oldmeadow (ibid.), whose paper is partly responsible for my preoccupation with the idea of universal salvation in Buddhism, follows the irrational tendency of adopting explanatory criteria from the Prajñāpāramitā texts when he says: “Clearly any adequate understanding of the bodhisattva ideal rests on an understanding of śūnyatā.” He then walks perilously close to monism in utilising as an aid for interpretation the equation of saṁsāra and nirvāṇa with which one can explain everything, yet which in reality explains nothing. The thrust of his paper is expressed not really by his Conclusion, but by a preceding quotation he took from the work of a prolific writer on comparative religious and philosophical topics with no true scholarly credentials (Schuon 1968, 144):

    This hardly makes any sense at all. Schuon, a gifted poet and a charismatic speaker with a kind of cult following, flourished at the time of the proliferation of New Age type literature to which he contributed with his eclectic writing in the spirit of religio perennis and which, surprisingly, had some appeal even for some newly appointed academics during the expansion of new universities and religious studies within them.

    Surely, it is the task of scholarship to present a critical historical account of a religious topic and if a scholar is assessing it also as a philosopher of religion, to do so on a rational basis and in terms of conceptual clarity without totally bypassing logical criteria. When no definite conclusion can be reached on some issue, the best approach is to apply at least the principle of logical probability.

    On this basis my starting point is to regard the Pāli Canon, and in particular the Suttapiṭaka, as the reasonably reliable source of our knowledge of the Buddha and his teachings, especially where its contents are corroborated by parallel texts of the partially preserved Sanskrit Canon, some of it known only from Chinese and/or Tibetan translations. Some of it requires critical assessment, but the overall picture of early Buddhism which we possess can be accepted as originating from the missionary activities of an historical personality known as the Buddha. He was by all accounts originally a member of the aristocratic class and destined to become a ruler, but was probably well versed in the religious and philosophical ideas of the time, including rebirth, and became at some point of his life convinced of the basic futility of temporary aims, such as ruling a country. Being aware of the tradition held among ascetics and wandering philosophers that there is a possibility of finding the final liberating truth, he renounced his worldly career to pursue this goal. He eventually experienced what he regarded as total enlightenment (sammāsaṁbodhi) with confirmation of the truth of rebirth and his own total liberation from it into a transcendental dimension of nibbāna (nirvāṇa) during his lifetime which made him into a teaching Buddha, revered by many, for the greater part of his life. He died of a combination of illness and old age and, while being remembered as a charismatic teacher of a path to liberation, he became also the focus of a following which developed into a massive movement and, besides generating a religious tradition with devotional practices and elaborate rituals, branched out into numerous sects with sp