Orality, writing and authority in South Asian Buddhism:visionary literature
 and the struggle for legitimacy in the Mahayana
David McMahan
History of Religions
Vol.37 No.3
Feb 1998
COPYRIGHT 1998 University of Chicago

            The doctrinal differences between the sutras of the Pali canon and 
            the Mahayana sutras composed in South Asia have been widely 
            commented on and debated by scholars, but seldom has attention been 
            given to what the strikingly contrasting literary styles of the Pali 
            and Mahayana sutras themselves might reveal about Buddhism in South 
            Asia. Scholars have had many productive debates on whether the 
            doctrine of emptiness is a radical departure from early Buddhism 
            whether the Mahayana introduces a subtle self (atman) that 
            contradicts the doctrine of anatman, and whether the Yogacara was 
            really "idealist" or not. But the literary styles in which these 
            doctrines emerge in the Mahayana sutras is so strikingly divergent 
            from that of the Pali sutras that an exploration of what might 
            contribute to this divergence might be as fruitful for the study of 
            the Indian Buddhist world as dud of their doctrinal differences. 
            Indeed, even attention to only the introductory passages of certain 
            sutras opens up a number of important issues in the study of 
            Notice, for example, the introductory passages to two sutras. The 
            first is an early Pali text, the Salayatana-vibhanga Suttam, which 
            discusses the sense fields (ayatanas). It begins: "Thus have I 
            heard. At one time the Lord was staying at Savatthi, in Jeta Grove 
            at Anathapindika. The disciples greeted the Lord, and the Blessed 
            one said: `Disciples, I will now discuss the distinctions between 
            the six sense fields.'"(1) This, of course, is the standard 
            introduction that is common to virtually all of the Pali sutras. The 
            Buddha then goes on to give a straightforward presentation of the 
            doctrine of the six ayatanas in the typical repetitive style of the 
            Nikayas, with many formulary expressions repeated often throughout 
            the text for purposes of memorization. Compare this with the 
            introduction to the Gandavyuha Sutra, a Mahayana text from about the 
            second or third century C. E., which is set in the same location: 
            "Thus have I heard. At one time the Lord was staying in Sravasti, in 
            a magnificent pavilion in the garden of Anathapindika in Jeta Grove, 
            together with five thousand dhisattvas, led by Samantabhadra and 
            Manjusri."(2) So far, except for the mention of the bodhisattvas, 
            the two passages are almost identical--but the similarities dissolve 
            quite abruptly. After the names and good qualities of a number of 
            the bodhisattvas present are listed, the bodhisattvas observe that 
            most beings are incapable of comprehending the great merits and 
            abilities of the tathagata, and they ask the Buddha telepathically, 
            not to tell them, but to show them (samdarsayet) these things. In 
            response, the Buddha enters a state of profound concentration, and 
            the pavilion became boundlessly vast; the surface of the earth 
            appeared to be made of an indestructible diamond, and the ground 
            covered with a net of all the finest jewels, strewn with flowers of 
            many jewels, with enormous gems strewn all over; it was adorned with 
            sapphire pillars, with well-proportioned decorations of 
            world-illumining pearls from the finest water, with all kinds of 
            gems, combined in pairs, adorned with heaps of gold and jewels, and 
            a dazzling array of turrets, arches, chambers, windows, and 
            balconies made of all kinds of precious stones, arrayed in the forms 
            of all world-rulers, and embellished with oceans of worlds of 
            jewels, covered with flags, banners, and pennants flying in front of 
            all the portals, the adornments pervading the cosmos with a network 
            of lights.... The Jeta grove and buddha-fields as numerous as atoms 
            within untold buddha-fields all became co-extensive.(3) 
            The text goes on in this vein for quite a few pages, describing in 
            the most lavish terms the luxuriant scene that suddenly arises 
            before the group right there in Jeta Grove, the sight of so many of 
            the Buddha's talks. There are endlessly winding rivers of fragrant 
            water that murmur the teachings of the buddhas; palaces that float 
            by in the air; countless mountains arrayed all around; clouds laced 
            with webs of jewels and raining down diamond ornaments, garlands, 
            flowers, and even multicolored robes; celestial maidens fly through 
            the air with banners trailing behind them, while countless lotus 
            blossoms rustle in the incense-filled air. After the initial 
            description of the scene, bodhisattvas from distant world systems 
            begin to arrive, and with each of their appearances, more wonders 
            are revealed penetrating to the farthest reaches of the most remote 
            worlds, then zooming back to the body of the Buddha, to the tips of 
            his hairs of the pores of his skin, within which are revealed 
            countless more world systems. 
            What can account for the striking stylistic differences between 
            these two texts, and why would many Mahayana sutras make such a 
            radical departure from the accepted genre of sutra composition 
            established by the earlier sutras? The standard answer would be, 
            perhaps, that the Mahayana, being originally a lay movement, was 
            more disposed toward literary extravagance, mythical imagery, and 
            themes appealing to the Popular religious imagination. All of this 
            is true, but it is not the end of the story. For a fuller 
            understanding of the stylistic differences between "Hinayana" and 
            Mahayana sutras, at least two more factors must be addressed. One is 
            the fact that the Mahayana was a written tradition, while many 
            pre-Mahayana Buddhist works of literature are written versions of a 
            vast corpus of orally transmitted sayings. One of the important 
            changes in Indian culture at the time of the arising of the Mahayana 
            was the development of writing. The beginnings of the widespread use 
            of writing in India contributed to some of the transformations 
            Buddhism faced a few hundred years after the founder's death and was 
            crucial to some of its most significant cultural and religious 
            developments. Literacy disrupted the continuity of the oral 
            tradition and reoriented access to knowledge from the oral-and 
            aural-sense world to the visual world. The transition from 
            pre-Mahayana to Mahayana Buddhist literature, then, provides a 
            valuable case study of the changes that may occur during the 
            transition from oral to written culture. 
            But the transition from orality to literacy was part of a wider 
            concern for the Mahayana--the difficulty of establishing legitimacy 
            and authority as a fledgling heterodox reform movement facing a 
            well-established monastic orthodoxy. The orality of early Buddhism 
            was not only an instance of historical happenstance but also an 
            important means by which the early Sangha made its claim to 
            authority. Pre-Mahayana Buddhism was, in fact, quite 
            self-consciously an oral tradition, relying on the oral recitation 
            and hearing of the Buddha's discourses--talks that were maintained 
            in the memories and mouths of monks who were, according to 
            tradition, repeating, generation after generation, the very words 
            that the Buddha himself spoke. This tradition of recitation, then, 
            was the way by which the Sangha established its claim to the 
            Buddha-vacana--the words of the Buddha--which conferred authority 
            and legitimacy to the early Buddhist community. 
            Initially, the Mahayana sutras, composed hundreds of years after the 
            Buddha's death, enjoyed no such institutional maintenance and 
            legitimacy and, thus, had to look elsewhere for legitimation. That 
            "elsewhere" was the higher visionary worlds supposedly visible only 
            to those more advanced followers of the Great Vehicle, whose 
            visionary capacities revealed the bases for the unorthodox doctrinal 
            claims of this new form of Buddhism. The Mahayana sutras bear the 
            marks of the movements efforts to legitimate its novel doctrines and 
            practices in the face of orthodox monastic communities with implicit 
            authority, which by and large rejected its innovations. The 
            otherwordly imagery in the Gandavyuha and other Mahayana sutras has 
            roots not only in the vivid experiences and religious inspirations 
            of early Mahayanists but also in the challenges that this heterodox 
            minority movement faced in its struggle for legitimacy, patronage, 
            and membership. 
            Early Buddhist culture was an oral culture. The earliest 
            archeological evidence of an Indian language being written in India, 
            with the exception of the Harappan seals, are the inscriptions of 
            Asoka dated circa 258 B.C.E. The early Buddhist sutras were not 
            written documents but verses committed to memory and recited by 
            monks who specialized in the memorization and recitation of what 
            were understood to be the words of the Buddha. The orally preserved 
            teachings were the substitute for the actual speaking presence of 
            the Buddha; they were not merely the words of the teacher, but, 
            after his death, they were the teacher itself. As the Buddha says in 
            the Mahaparinibbana Sutta: "It may be, Ananda, that some of you will 
            think `The word of the teacher is a thing of the past; we have now 
            no teacher.' But that, Ananda, is not the correct view. The doctrine 
            and discipline, Ananda, which I have taught and enjoined upon you is 
            to be your teacher when I am gone."(4) Hearing and the spoken word 
            were also inextricably tied to authority in early Buddhism. The 
            sravakas (hearers) claimed to have directly heard and reported the 
            words of the Buddha when he taught in India, and elaborate 
            institutional efforts were employed by the Sangha to keep these 
            words alive. The source of authority for the early teachings was the 
            fact that they were heard from the self-authenticating presence of 
            the Buddha. The repetition of these words was itself the Dharma and 
            was the link to the living presence of Gautama who was now gone 
            In an article on orality in Pali literature, Steven Collins shows 
            that the monastic Buddhist tradition was, even after the 
            introduction of writing, largely an oral and aural one.(5) The 
            traditional method of educating monks and nuns was for these 
            students to hear and commit to memory the words of their teacher, 
            and most of the words in the Pali literature referring to the 
            learning process are related to speaking and hearing.(6) The 
            monumental task of committing the received words of the founder to 
            memory and reciting them regularly was based on the need to maintain 
            the Dharma and protect it from corruption and innovation, as well as 
            on the mandate to train disciples and maintain mindfulness of the 
            teachings. Coffins maintains that the oral/aural aspects of Pali 
            literature are important "both as a means of preservation and as a 
            facet of the lived experience, the `sensual dimension; of Buddhist 
            `scriptures'"(7) From Collins's arguments, it is evident that this 
            "sensual dimension" was, in the first few centuries after the 
            Buddha's death, primarily oriented toward one particular sense--that 
            of hearing. 
            While Buddhist vocabulary was rife with visual metaphor, vision in a 
            literal sense and visual imagery were not emphasized as a way of 
            communicating the teachings, as the aniconic nature of early 
            Buddhism indicates. The earliest phases of Buddhism produced none of 
            the elaborate monuments and sculptures so characteristic of its 
            later developments. Making images of the Buddha was discouraged, and 
            the only early representations of the awakened one were aniconic 
            suggestions of his life and teachings such as the footprint 
            symbolizing both the Buddha's absence and the path that he left 
            behind. Hearing the words of the awakened one, either through being 
            in his presence during his lifetime or by hearing his teachings 
            recited, was the primary and perhaps only way of receiving and 
            engaging the teachings. Even after texts were being written down, it 
            was not for the purpose of their being read privately--the Vinaya 
            gives detailed lists of all the items of property a monk may have 
            but never includes books or writing utensils.(8) Rather, the 
            Buddha's words were committed to palm leaf so that they would be 
            preserved and read aloud in the context of instruction or public 
            By current scholarly consensus, it is only after the Buddha had been 
            gone for some four hundred years that the Sangha wrote down his 
            words. In and of itself, writing seems to have been held in some 
            degree of suspicion, as indicated by the niti verse with which 
            Collins begins his study: "Knowledge in books [is like] money in 
            someone else's hands: when you need it, it's not there."(9) Writing 
            was dangerous in that it relinquished control over the distribution 
            of the Dharma and removed the words of the Buddha even further from 
            their original source in his living speech and presence. Lance 
            Cousins has argued that systematic oral transmission within 
            institutions such as the Sangha is more likely to preserve texts 
            intact than writing would, because in the former situation, it takes 
            the agreement of a large number of people to make changes to the 
            text. Manuscripts, on the other hand, can be changed by any 
            individual scribe.(10) For an orthodoxy trying to maintain the 
            authenticity of its founder's teachings, writing was probably seen 
            as a danger that eventually became a necessary evil. Pali 
            commentaries claim that the writing down of sutras began only after 
            there was merely one man left alive who had a particular text 
            committed to memory and that the text was written down for fear of 
            its being lost forever.(11) Donald Lopez suggests that the 
            reluctance of the Sangha to commit the sutras to writing may have to 
            do with an "ideology of the self-presence of speech," that is, the 
            notion that only the Buddha's speech could truly present the Dharma, 
            the uncreated truth, as he discovered it and that writing stands 
            further removed from this truth--derivative, displaced, and 
            dead.(12) The repetition of words that were heard from the Buddha by 
            a disciple, then transmitted to his disciple, and so on through a 
            lineage of hearers, not only had the effect of rendering the Dharma 
            in the manner that most closely approximated its original utterance 
            but also provided a source for genealogical legitimacy. The 
            introduction of writing could not help but rupture this sense of 
            authentic presence and continuity. In the early Buddhist tradition, 
            then, the written word had little inherent value; it was seen, at 
            best, as a merely instrumental vehicle for the spoken word. 
            In the Mayana, however, the written word took on quite a different 
            significance, especially with regard to Mahayana sutras. Writing was 
            crucial to the development and character of the Mahayana in at least 
            dime respects: first, written texts were essential to the survival 
            of this heterodox tradition; second, they provided a basis for one 
            of the most important aspects of early Mahayana practice, that is, 
            the worship of written sutras themselves; and third, writing 
            contributed to a restructuring of knowledge in such a way that 
            vision, rather than hearing, became a significant mode of access to 
            The first point is offered by Richard Gombrich, who has suggested 
            that the rise and sustenance of the Mahayana was largely due to the 
            use of writing.(13) He notes that the task of preserving the immense 
            Pali canon orally was made feasible only through the considerable 
            efforts of the Sangha, which was organized enough to train monks in 
            the memorization and recitation of the oral teachings. The Sangha 
            had standards for determining whether or not an utterance was 
            authentic and should be considered the word of the Buddha; if it did 
            not meet these standards, it was not preserved.(14) Because the 
            preservation of extensive oral teachings required the institutional 
            organization and systematic efforts of the Sangha, teachings that 
            were not accepted and preserved by this collective effort most 
            likely withered away. Gombrich suggests that many monks and nuns may 
            have had unique visions or inspirations that led them to formulate 
            new doctrines and teachings, but if those teachings were not 
            preserved by the Sangha, they were lost forever. The Mahayana, 
            however, arose at about the same time writing was becoming prevalent 
            in India, and writing provided a means by which heterodox teachings 
            could be preserved without the institutional support of the Sangha. 
            Gombrich argues that this was a major factor in the ability of the 
            Mahayana to survive. 
            I would add to tins observation that the sacred status that many 
            Mahayana sutras ascribed to themselves, both as bearers of doctrine 
            and as material objects, encouraged their reproduction and 
            dissemination and thus contributed to their survival. In addition to 
            introducing the notion of sacred books to India, many Mahayana 
            sutras present the copying of these texts as a highly meritorious 
            act. A number of sutras devote a considerable amount of space to 
            extolling their own greatness and telling of the immense benefits to 
            be gained from reading, copying, memorizing, promoting, and 
            distributing them. The Saddharmapundarika Sutra (the Lotus Sutra), 
            for example, promises to those who promulgate even one of its verses 
            incalculable moral and spiritual benefits, including great wisdom 
            compassion, rebirth in luxurious heavenly realms, and 
            intensification of the sense capacities for receiving broad ranges 
            of stimuli; also included were more mundane benefits, such as an 
            abundance of food, drink, clothing, and bedding, and freedom from 
            disease, ugliness of countenance, bad teeth, crooked noses, and 
            imperfect genitals.(15) Even illiterate devotees of sutras copied 
            their script in hopes of gaining such benefits. Thus, writing, 
            combined with the promise of merit through reproduction of the 
            texts, gave many sutras a built-in promotional device and 
            distribution system. Evidently, what made the orthodox tradition 
            wary of writing--fear of losing control over teachings--was worth 
            the risk for Mahayanists, who were attempting to expand and spread 
            their movement. 
            According to recent scholarship, the earliest forms of the Mahayana 
            were probably cults centered around the worship of the movement's 
            new sutras, and these cults played an important part in the growth 
            of the Mahayana Certain Mahayana sutra manuscripts were considered 
            sacred objects with the power to consecrate places, thereby 
            establishing sacred sites and Mahayana centers of worship that were 
            similar to, and modeled on, stupa cults that were already prevalent. 
            To understand the importance of this phenomenon, it is first 
            necessary to consider briefly these sutra cults and their 
            socioreligious significance. 
            The primary sacred places that existed within the early Buddhist 
            tradition were designated by stupas--reliquaries containing remain 
            of the Buddha and, later, disciples or revered monks. Stupa building 
            and stupa reverence most likely started among the laity and was an 
            important part of lay practice. The eight stupas within which the 
            Buddha's relics were supposedly housed after his death became places 
            of pilgrimage and thriving centers of both religious and commercial 
            activity, populated by lay religious specialists as well as by 
            merchants who would all gather for religious services and festivals. 
            These centers may have been more popular among laypersons than the 
            monastic community, who were not permitted to participate in 
            commercial activities, pluck living flowers for offerings, listen to 
            worldly stories and music, or watch dancing, all of which were part 
            of the festivities at the strupas.(16) According to Akira Hirakawa, 
            the congregations that developed around these centers of worship 
            gradually developed into lay orders that were stupa cults not 
            directly tied to monastic Buddhism.(17) As iconic art began to 
            develop, the stupas often contained illustrated scenes from the 
            Jataka stories, detailing the amazing and selfless deeds of Gautama 
            in his past lives as a bodhisattva. Hirakawa speculates dud the 
            repeated telling and interpreting of these scenes to pilgrims by the 
            religious specialists gave rise to forms of Buddhism that emphasized 
            the salvific power of the Buddha and promoted worship and devotion 
            toward him. The stupas, therefore, were important factors in the 
            development of the devotional elements that would constitute certain 
            aspects of the Mahayana. Hirakawa also suggests that this was the 
            origin of groups that considered themselves to be bodhisattvas, 
            distinct from the Sravakas and Arbats, and who would be presented as 
            the most advanced disciples in most Mahayana texts.(18) 
            As much as stupa culture may have directly contributed to the 
            Mahayana, it also served as a complex arena of tension and conflict 
            between these cults and the wisdom schools. While Hirakawa makes a 
            good for the contributions of stupa cults to the development of the 
            Mahayana, he admits that the origins of some of the most important 
            Mahayana literature, the Prajanaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) 
            texts, must be sought for elsewhere.(19) This body of literature, 
            along with a number of Mahayana wisdom texts, downplays the value of 
            stupa/relic worship in comparison to devotion to the text itself, 
            that is, the written manuscript of a Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. The 
            reason for the devaluing of stupas in Mahayana literature is both 
            doctrinal and pragmatic. One of the earliest Perfection of Wisdom 
            texts, the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita (henceforth, Asta), contains 
            an interesting discussion indicating the ambivalence and tension 
            between stupa cults and the emerging groups devoted to Mahayana 
            wisdom texts. In one passage, the Buddha questions Sakra about the 
            value of the relics contained in stupas compared to the Perfection 
            of Wisdom, asking which he would prefer if he had the choice between 
            an enormous number of relics of all the tathagatas and one written 
            copy of the text. He, of course, chooses the Perfection of Wisdom, 
            arguing for its primacy over relics, since the Perfection of Wisdom 
            is the cause of the wisdom of the tathagatas, rather than its 
            depository.(20) The value of relics is derivative in that they, 
            being identified with the enlightened buddhas, are the results of, 
            and are pervaded by, the Perfection of Wisdom. Furthermore, he 
            claims, the Perfection of Wisdom supersedes relics (sarira) insofar 
            as it is itself the "true body of the Buddha," which is the body of 
            the Dharma (dharmakaya).(21) This passage illustrates the effort by 
            the followers of the Perfection of Wisdom to replace, or at least 
            augment, devotion to the physical remains of the Buddha enshrined in 
            stupas with both the message and physical presence of the written 
            text of the Prajnaparamita; invoking the traditional notion of the 
            functional equivalence of the Dharma body, as the collected 
            teachings of the Buddha, with the Buddha himself.(22) 
            In addition to the doctrinal disagreements between the emerging 
            textual traditions of the Mahayana and the stupa cults, more 
            concrete concerns regarding the establishment of places of worship 
            may have been operative. During the earliest developments of the 
            Mahayana, sacred places associated with the life of the Buddha were 
            controlled by the stupa cults connected to the orthodox traditions. 
            Evidence exists in the Perfection of Wisdom texts that the Mahayana 
            polemics against the Hinayana stupa cults were not only about 
            doctrine but were also about the struggle of the Mahayana to 
            establish its own sacred places. Gregory Schopen deals with this 
            issue in his study of the early Mahayana as a loose federation of 
            different "cults of the book" in which sutras themselves become 
            objects of worship and the cults who worshipped them were structured 
            similarly to stupa cults.(23) Schopen argues that the tradition of 
            the cult of the book drew from the idea that the presence of the 
            Buddha in a particular place during a significant episode of his 
            life rendered that place sacred. This was also the rationale behind 
            early stupa cults. The idea was combined with the notion expressed 
            in the stock phrase "Whoever sees the Dharma, sees the Buddha," 
            which indicated that wherever the teachings were set forth, the 
            Buddha was effectively present. From this idea, "it followed 
            naturally that if the presence of the Bhagavat at a particular place 
            had the effect of sacralizing that spot, then by extension, the 
            presence (in some form) of the dharmaparyaya [setting forth of the 
            Dharma, i.e., a sutra] must have the same effect"(24) Reciting a 
            text purporting to be the words of the Buddha over a particular 
            place, then, would render it sacred in the same sense in which a 
            stupa is a sacred place, that is, in that the Dharma was taught 
            there, and even in that it contained "part" of the Buddha himself, 
            in this case his Dharma body rather than merely his physical remain. 
            Schopen argues that this was one way in which early Mahayanists 
            dealt with the problem of "localization of the cult of the book" by 
            way of "authoritatively legitimating that spot as a cultic 
            center"(25) Tins was a way of establishing new sacred places that 
            probably served as permanent teaching centers that were not tied to 
            those sacred sites associated with the Buddha's life, which were 
            under the control of more orthodox groups. 
            Furthermore, the recitation of a sutra or formula at a particular 
            place was not the only way to consecrate the site; the presence of a 
            written copy of a sutra was understood to have the same effect. 
            Schopen argues that the shift from a primarily oral to a primarily 
            written tradition was important to the establishment of these 
            Mahayana cultic centers, because the presence of the written sutra 
            eliminated the need for oral consecrations by the monks who 
            specialized in reciting sutras (bhanakas). The written sutra could 
            serve as a focal point of the cult and as a permanent source of the 
            power and presence of the Dharma, independent of the need for 
            recitation.(26) This, in turn, fired Mahayanists from the need to 
            have the institutional sanction and support of the Sangha. 
            The transposition of the Dharma into physical form to be worshiped, 
            combined with the promises of great benefits gained from copying and 
            promoting the sutra, ensured that devotees would reproduce and 
            distribute the texts widely, expanding the influence and power of 
            the Mahayana cults and contributing to its devotional flavor. The 
            Asta presents a compelling picture of some of its cult's practices 
            in passages suggesting what activities are most meritorious with 
            regard to the sutra: 
            If a son or daughter of good family has genuine confidence and trust 
            in this Perfection of Wisdom [i.e., the Asta], is intent on it, has 
            a clear mind, has thoughts raised to awakening, has earnest 
            resolution, and bears it, grasps [its meaning], speaks it, studies 
            it, spreads it, demonstrates it, explains it, expounds it, repeats 
            it, makes it manifest in full detail to others, makes its meaning 
            clear, investigates it with the mind, and with superior wisdom 
            examines it thoroughly; then copies it in the form of a book, bears 
            it in mind and preserves it so that the good Dharma will last long, 
            so that the guide of the buddhas will not disappear, and so that the 
            bodhisattvas may incur benefits by means of this flawless guide; 
            indeed, that son or daughter of good family who makes this 
            Perfection of Wisdom his or her teacher, honors and respects with 
            flowers, incense, perfume, garlands, ointments, powders, raiment, 
            parasols, emblems, bells, banners, with lamps and garlands all 
            around it; whoever pays obeisance to it in these various ways will 
            generate great Merit.(27) 
            In addition to its emphasis on promotion and distribution, this 
            passage shows how a text like the Asta, usually known for its early 
            enunciation of the most abstract philosophical concepts of the 
            Mahayana, had more uses than just the development of the movements 
            theoretical foundations. In fact, it and other early sutras were the 
            object of perhaps some of the earliest forms of Buddhist bhakti or 
            worship, which suggests how inseparable the traditions of high 
            philosophy were from devotional practices. The passage also shows 
            another facet of the importance of the physicality of the Dharma in 
            the form of the written book in the early Mahayana. 
            Closely connected to this issue is another implication of the uses 
            of writing in the Mahayana--and particularly in its written 
            sutras--namely, that it challenged the traditional notions of sacred 
            space. As a heterodox minority movement the early Mahayana was 
            enabled through writing to expand and develop by granting to the 
            book the sacrality of the Buddha himself, thus providing lay 
            followers with forms of devotion and, through the consecrational 
            power of these manuscripts, creating new sacred sites under its 
            control. Cults of the book also attempted to establish a new 
            relation to sacred space that was not tied inevitably to those 
            traditional sacred sites associated with the life of the founder and 
            that were controlled by orthodox monks or stupa cults. The fact that 
            anywhere the text was placed could now become a sacred place 
            equivalent to those associated with the life of the Buddha had the 
            effect of de-emphasizing the significance of the specific, 
            localized, and temporal presence of Sakyamuni. Sacred space was now 
            mobile. This is perhaps the beginning of a marked tendency in the 
            Mahayana, which I will discuss later, toward a more general 
            dislocation of the sacred from the locus of the "historical" life of 
            Sakyamuni in favor of more abstract and unlocalizable understandings 
            of the sacred and of the Buddha. 
            A further way in which writing was significant to the Mahayana in 
            particular, and to all of Buddhism and South Asian thought, 
            practice, and literature in general, was that it shifted access to 
            and organization of knowledge from a primarily oral and auditory 
            mode to a primarily visual mode. In order to explore some of the 
            implications of this shift, it is necessary to make a digression 
            into some general theoretical observations about these two 
            cognitive-perceptual orientations and the effect that they may have 
            on consciousness and culture. While these general observations about 
            hearing, vision, and writing may be useful to a greater or lesser 
            extent depending on the specific cultures to which they are applied, 
            I outline them here because they seem relevant and applicable to the 
            case of South Asian Buddhism. 
            A number of scholars have attempted to elucidate the ways in which 
            vision and hearing each orient consciousness to the world in 
            distinctive ways. Drawing mainly from the work of Maurice 
            Merleau-Ponty and Hans Jonas, David Chidester notes that hearing is 
            associated with time and sequence, while seeing is associated with 
            space; that is, the eye sees objects in space while the ear hears 
            sounds arising and passing away in time.(28) The "dimension," as it 
            were, of sound is time, while the three dimensions of space are the 
            medium in which objects of vision subsist. Auditory experience is 
            inherently related to flux and discontinuity in that it structures 
            and presents things in a temporal sequence. The kind of sound that 
            is most important to this inquiry, the spoken word, is paradigmatic 
            of this sequentiality, being what Merleau-Ponty calls "an indefinite 
            series of discontinuous acts."(29) A word, like any sound, is an 
            event that is always passing away, always mobile. Because words are 
            always disappearing as they are pronounced, Walter Ong suggests that 
            orality is essentially dialogical and that, in oral cultures, 
            thought must be "shaped into mnemetic patterns ordered for oral 
            recurrence" and consist of rhythmic and repetitious patterns and 
            formulary expressions."(30) This, of course, is precisely the 
            constitution of the early Buddhist sutras, such as our example, the 
            Vision, on the other hand, suggests a different orientation toward 
            knowledge and its organization. The visual system is capable of 
            apprehending a variety of things simultaneously and is less tied to 
            temporal sequence. It apprehends a number of copresent things and 
            unifies them in the moment, making them more susceptible to 
            analysis. Chidester suggests that visual perception is more 
            conducive to the discernment of patterns and to detached 
            contemplation, while hearing, particularly hearing a voice, may be 
            more apt to induce action, since it informs the hearer of an event 
            or a change in the situation that calls for response.(31) These 
            observations apply not only to visually apprehended objects but also 
            to the written, as opposed to the spoken, word. Ong asserts that 
            writing "restructures consciousness" and dud the literate mind is 
            forever changed in its thinking and orientation to the world, not 
            only when engaged in reading or writing, but even when speaking, 
            hearing, and composing thoughts orally: "More than any other 
            invention, writing has transformed consciousness" because, among 
            other things, it "moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory 
            world, that of vision [and therefore] transforms speech and thought 
            as well."(32) 
            The implications of these suggestions on ways in which oral-aural 
            and literate-visual modalities structure consciousness and culture 
            cannot be fully drawn out in the limited space of this inquiry, but 
            some points about South Asian Buddhism in this regard can be noted. 
            The difference between accessing the teachings of the Dharma through 
            hearing and through reading undoubtedly had significant effects on 
            the ways in which Buddhists appropriated the sutras. Writing was a 
            medium that was uniquely appropriate to the Mahayana and its 
            creative reinterpretations of doctrine in that it fired access to 
            texts from being dependent on the collective activities of chanting 
            and recitation and thus from the need for the institutional sanction 
            of the monastic Sangha. Further, because the written manuscript 
            frees the reader from being locked into the temporal flow of the 
            recitation and to the particular place where the recitation is 
            performed, it lends itself to appropriation in ways very different 
            from those that are possible in either the performing or hearing of 
            oral recitation. Since the manuscript is present in its entirety, 
            rather than constantly passing away in time, as is the case with 
            oral utterance, a greater degree of analysis and reflection on the 
            material is possible. A reader can move back and forth through a 
            text at will, drawing correlations between different passages, 
            analyzing and comparing statements, and cross-referencing with other 
            texts. These activities allowed more individual reflection, 
            interpretation, and analysis, which may have predisposed readers to 
            novel interpretation, individual insight, and embellishment. 
            The analytic and interpretive activities to which writing lent 
            itself were not confined to the Mahayana but had an impact on all of 
            the Buddhist schools. It is around the time of the emergence of 
            writing that systematic philosophy and analysis of doctrine, such as 
            that found in the Abhidharma, begins to take shape. Ong has 
            suggested that analysis and philosophy are only possible in a 
            literate culture." If the early Pali sutras that we possess today 
            are anything like their oral antecedents (which they most likely 
            are), this is obviously not true in the case of Indian Buddhism. 
            Considerable theoretical reflection and analysis is present in these 
            texts. However, it seems clear that extensive analysis of the sutras 
            themselves arose in conjunction with the development of writing. The 
            attempt to systematize the teachings of the sutras into a consistent 
            order came about from the relative freedom from temporal sequence 
            that writing afforded. Abhidharma thought, with its extensive lists, 
            categories, correlations, headings, and subheadings, bears the marks 
            of literate composition in that it culls teachings from a number of 
            different sources and attempts to systematize, synthesize, and 
            categorize them. Such activities would be extremely difficult if one 
            were limited to the sequentiality that structures oral recitation of 
            memorized utterances. The simultaneous presence of written texts in 
            visual space is necessary for such work. The multiple categories and 
            subcategories in the Abhidharma and other commentarial literature 
            are, in part, the products of the ability to represent complex 
            classificatory schemas spatially. In contemporary books dealing with 
            the Abhidharma, one can scarcely come across a discussion of this 
            literature that does not contain at least one chart in which the 
            various elements of existence (dharmas) are laid out spatially, 
            allowing all the complex classifications and their relationships to 
            present themselves spatially. 
            The fixed, static nature of the book, and its passive 
            unresponsiveness, may also give it a sense of implicit authority and 
            unchallengeability on an intuitive level, particularly to those for 
            whom writing is a new phenomenon. Ong suggests that writing 
            establishes a "context free" or "autonomous" discourse that is more 
            detached from its authors than oral discourse and, therefore, cannot 
            be questioned directly.(34) These points are helpful when thinking 
            about the Mahayana and heterodox movements in general. Writing helps 
            in establishing an unorthodox movement because written words may 
            have their own implicit authority; they do not call for 
            justification, response, and argumentation as easily and immediately 
            as spoken words. Their soundless presence is perhaps mom likely to 
            evoke a sense of implicit legitimacy than is a human voice, whose 
            authority depends on the social position of the speaker in a given 
            context. The impassivity of the written word may evoke a sense of 
            authority that gives the appearance of being free from or floating 
            above social context, since the conditions of its production (at 
            least in the case of Mahayana sutras) are obscure. Its very 
            unresponsiveness may seem to elevate it above the spoken word, which 
            tends to call for an immediate response. In many cultures in the 
            early stages of literacy, writings confer on themselves a self 
            authenticating and sacred quality perhaps because of the mute, 
            unresponsive authority that they present or because sacred words are 
            among the things most likely to be written down.(35) Furthermore, by 
            providing a technology by which any literate person could access and 
            interpret the Dharma outside the context of the Sangha, writing 
            encouraged unorthodox insight, creativity, and dissent. The writer 
            could compose his or her own ideas, which would be present before 
            the eye, laid out with the same seeming permanence and 
            unassailability as the Buddha-vacana. The physical presence of the 
            written manuscript, in turn, contributed to the likelihood that 
            these ideas would not die the moment the author's voice fell silent. 
            Therefore, the inherently conservative tendencies of the oral 
            tradition, which strove to maintain the integrity of the words of 
            the founder through its various institutional practices and rules, 
            were subverted in part by the introduction of writing. 
            Finally, in looking at the introductory passages of the sample 
            sutras, the most obvious difference is that they are unmistakably 
            structured around different sense modalities, the sutra on the sense 
            fields being composed in mnemonic patterns for oral memorization and 
            recitation and the Gandavyuha being written as a visual extravaganza 
            not only in its barrage of vivid imagery, but in its frequent use of 
            visually oriented language and metaphor. The emphasis throughout the 
            text is on what is seen rather than what is heard. The emergence of 
            visionary literature is not confined to Mahayana Buddhism but is a 
            pan-Indic phenomenon beginning around the first or second century 
            B.C.E.--the same time as the emergence of writing. Parts of the 
            Bhagavadgita and the Pure Land texts are the most ready examples of 
            such visually oriented literature emerging around this period. It is 
            also noteworthy that visualization practices became more elaborate 
            and important in both Buddhism and Hinduism at this time. I would 
            not want to attribute all of this exclusively to the emergence of 
            writing, but the coincidence of a wave of visionary literature and 
            practice sweeping India at about the same time as literacy was 
            becoming widespread does suggest that writing and the attendant 
            shift to the visual sense modality played a significant part in the 
            development of visionary literature in India. 
            Of course, the implicit advantages of writing and written sutras 
            were not the only factors in the relative success of the Mahayana 
            movement(s) in South Asia. Aside from being composed in the 
            propitious medium of written language, the content of Mahayana 
            sutras written in South Asia went to great lengths to attempt to 
            establish the movement's authority and legitimacy--something that 
            would have been quite difficult for what was probably a minority 
            reform movement facing well-established and powerful monastic 
            institutions with their own claims to authority and legitimacy. The 
            contention of this article is that at least one factor in the 
            evocative imagery and rhetorical style of many Mahayana sutras 
            involved its use as such a strategy of legitimation. Before 
            examining a specific instance of such a use, though, it would be 
            helpful to place this claim in context by discussing some of the 
            ways in which the early Mahayana struggled against the more orthodox 
            schools' claims to exclusive authority based on possession of the 
            Buddha-vacana, the words of the Buddha. As we have seen, the early 
            Buddhist community's identity involved its role as the keepers of 
            the Buddha-vacana given by Gautama and, according to tradition, 
            memorized by his disciples and passed orally from generation to 
            generation. This community considered itself to be those who heard, 
            either directly or through others, the words of the Buddha. Thus, 
            the hearers of the Buddha-vacana were not only those who were 
            actually present at the talks of the Buddha, but also disciples who 
            received the teachings through hearing oral recitation. Although not 
            the only criterion for legitimacy, the most important and 
            unambiguous way in which a teaching was understood to be authentic 
            was that it was considered to be the very words that the Buddha 
            spoke.(36) Thus the Buddha-vacana was the primary seal of 
            Concern for the word of the Buddha continued in the Mahayana but 
            became a more complex issue. A sutra is a composition containing a 
            talk given by the Buddha and is therefore by definition 
            Buddha-vacana. Whether from the Pali canon or the Mahayana, all 
            sutras start out with the narrator uttering the same words: "Thus 
            have I heard . . ." (evam maya srutam). Following this is a 
            description of the particular place the sermon was heard, 
            individuals and groups dud were present, and so forth--all reports 
            that would seem to provide verification that the original hearer was 
            in fact in the specified place at the time of the talk. Yet it is 
            clear to modern scholars, as it probably was to most Buddhists in 
            ancient India, that the Mahayana sutras were composed quite a long 
            time after the death of Gautama and that it is highly unlikely that 
            the "historical" Buddha ever spoke any of them. Thus, the need to 
            explain the existence of these sutras and the attendant novel 
            doctrines was of great concern to the Mahayana and is an issue 
            addressed, directly or indirectly, in many sutras and commentaries. 
            It is impossible to reconstruct precisely the attitudes and 
            motivations of these early Mahayana, sutra writers--to imagine what 
            they conceived of themselves as doing when, hundreds of years after 
            the Buddha's death, they wrote the words "evam maya srutam." Perhaps 
            they had powerful insights that they were convinced were inspired by 
            the Buddha or perhaps stories and ideas generated in the 
            environments of the stupa cults eventually were considered to be 
            part of the Buddha's dialogues. These late sutra writers may have 
            simply had a far more liberal interpretation of what counts as the 
            word of the Buddha than did their orthodox contemporaries. It is 
            conceivable that many doctrines and practices that we now consider 
            uniquely Mahayana were in existence from very early but were simply 
            marginalized by those who determined the legitimacy of teachings; 
            thus we know nothing about them until the Mahayana became more 
            organized and began writing its own texts. 
            Despite the inevitable obscurity to historical investigation of the 
            intentions of these late sutra writers, many indications do exist as 
            to how Mahayanists construed their creative reformulations of the 
            Dharma and justified them to themselves and to outsiders once they 
            were written. A number of explanations were offered for the 
            emergence of these new sutras. According to one ancient 
            reconstruction of the Mahayana, the sravakas did not have the 
            capacity to understand the advanced teachings of the Great Vehicle, 
            so they were taught to otherworldly beings and hidden until teachers 
            emerged who could understand them.(37) Another explanation was that 
            the original hearers did not understand the content of these talks 
            but transmitted them anyway for later generations better equipped to 
            comprehend them.(38) The claim was prevalent that certain teachings 
            were revealed only to a select few. Many Mahayana commentators went 
            to great lengths to reconcile the teachings of the Hinayana with 
            those of the Mahayana by a careful reworking of the story of the 
            Buddha's life in which every teaching ever attributed to him was 
            understood to be given to particular disciples on various levels of 
            spiritual attainment. In these scenarios, less spiritually developed 
            people were given teachings of the Hinayana, while bodhisattvas and 
            other nearly enlightened being received the higher teachings of the 
            The text that is perhaps the most replete with explanations of novel 
            Mahayana doctrines and practices is the Lotus Sutra. The rhetoric of 
            the Lotus is suggestive of the polemical context in which these 
            doctrines and practices developed. It directly addresses the 
            contradictions between its Mahayana teachings and those of the 
            Nikayas, much like the Christian Church explained its relationship 
            to Judaism, by claiming supersession. It presents three specific 
            types of people on the Buddhist path--the sravaka, who hears the 
            words of the Buddha; the pratyekabuddha who attains salvation 
            through his own efforts and without a teacher; and the bodhisattva, 
            who renounces his own entry into nirvana until all sentient beings 
            are saved. After warning that this teaching would be quite 
            disturbing to both human beings and gods, the Buddha explains that 
            all of the teachings held by those on these three paths are merely 
            skillful means (upaya) that he employed to lead them all to the one 
            true vehicle to Buddhahood, the Mahayana. The teachings held by the 
            three archetypal figures on the path were given because the sravakas 
            and pratyekabuddhas were capable of understanding only limited 
            truths, such as the doctrine of causes and conditions, and of 
            attaining freedom from rebirth and suffering in the quiescence of 
            nirvana. In the most famous parable of the Lotus, these doctrines 
            were likened to promises told to children in order to lure them out 
            of a burning house.(39) At one time, says the Buddha, these inferior 
            teachings may have been necessary, but now the time has come to 
            reveal the full extent of the Dharma in the teachings of the Lotus. 
            The claim, then, that the Hinayana teachings were merely skillful 
            means to prepare disciples to receive the higher truth of the 
            Mahayana explained the discrepancies between the two, while at the 
            same time asserting the superiority of the new teachings. 
            The theme of secrecy was also an important factor in explaining 
            novel texts and contradictory doctrines. The arising of additions to 
            the Dharma and the discrepancies between sutras were sometimes 
            explained by the claim that the Buddha communicated secret Mahayana 
            teachings to certain people, at times even in the midst of giving a 
            Hinayana teaching. The most complex examples of this claim occurred 
            outside India, for example, in the Chinese systems of doctrinal 
            classification (plan chaio). Perhaps the most elaborate of such 
            systems was that of the great Chinese thinker Chih-i. According to 
            Chih-i, the Buddha taught different sutras to people with different 
            levels understanding and spiritual development, intuiting who was 
            ready to hear advanced teachings and who could only appreciate 
            limited teachings. After teaching the Avitamsaka Sutra immediately 
            preceding his enlightenment, he then moderated his approach, 
            proceeding from the more digestible Hinayana teachings through to 
            the Vimalakirtinirdesa, the Sunyavada teachings, and others, until 
            finally he revealed the perfect expression of the Dharma, the Lotus 
            Sutra. Most interesting is Chih-i's notion of the secret methods by 
            which the Buddha communicated all these divergent doctrines to 
            different people, according to their level of understanding. The 
            "secret indeterminate" teachings were those in which the Buddha said 
            the same thing in such a manner that different listeners, each 
            unaware of the other, heard the teachings in a different way and 
            thus came away remembering completely different discourses. In other 
            cases, the Buddha spoke secretly to separate individuals, each of 
            whom thought that he alone was the exclusive recipient of the 
            message; but, in fact, others were present, magically concealed from 
            each other so that, again, they came away with contradictory 
            teachings. In the "express indeterminate" teachings, Chih-i asserts 
            that the Buddha said the same thing, but different people--this time 
            all present and aware of each other--heard distinctly different 
            sermons; thus, again, each came away with different doctrines. All 
            of these explanations served, first, to explain the wide variety of 
            seemingly conflicting doctrines all claiming to be the words of the 
            Buddha, second, to impose a hierarchical structure on the various 
            doctrines with the teachings of one's own school on top; and third, 
            to try to determine the highest teaching, namely, that which was 
            closest to representing the Buddha's own enlightenment. 
            What is important about Chih-i's attempt to understand the great 
            diversity of teachings all claiming to be the words of the Buddha is 
            that it epitomizes the way in which, even after the Mahayana 
            attained dominance in China, the Great Vehicle struggled both to 
            subvert and reconcile itself to most orthodox Buddhist doctrine and 
            practice. Although it reached its most elaborate forms in China, 
            this effort began with the early MahAyAna in India. Virtually every 
            schools of Buddhism in India had its own version of which doctrines 
            had definitive meaning (nitartha) and which had merely provisional 
            meaning (neyartha), and since there were no univocally accepted 
            standards for deciding such matters, each school drew this 
            distinction on the basis of its own doctrinal suppositions. The 
            organization of doctrines based on the notion that some were merely 
            skillful means indicates the strong need felt by Mahayanists to 
            legitimate their novel teachings, while maintaining a connection of 
            lineage with Sakyamuni. It is noteworthy that, while the orthodox 
            schools often criticized the Mahayana as being inauthentic, the 
            Mahayanists never questioned the legitimacy of the Hinayana sutras, 
            that is, that they were records of talks that the Buddha actually 
            gave. The effort to authenticate the Mahayana sutras was aimed at 
            explaining how the Buddha actually gave doctrines that contradicted 
            each other--how a unity of thought and intention could be understood 
            to lie beneath the apparent discrepancies between the large and 
            small vehicles. The rhetorical devices used to establish legitimacy 
            in the MahAyAna were always a hermeneutic of inclusion--albeit an 
            inclusion that was also a subversion, for while the Hinayana sutras 
            were considered authentic, they were relegated to being merely 
            Having suggested the significance of writing and various strategies 
            of legitimation for the emerging Mahayana movement in South Asia, I 
            now return to the introductory passage from the Gandavyuha and to 
            the question of the pronounced difference in literary style between 
            the Hinayana sutras and many of the Mahayana sutras. Recall the 
            stark contrast between the sparse style of the Pali sutras and the 
            lush visionary images of the Gandavyuha. While the Gandavyuha is 
            probably the most effusive example of such literary style in 
            Buddhist writings, it is not alone among Mahayana sutras in 
            presenting dazzling scenes attendant on the Buddha's preparing to 
            deliver a discourse. Many such sutras begin in similar, albeit 
            toned-down ways. It is tempting to attribute the "magical" elements 
            in Mahayana literature to the fact that the movement began among the 
            laity and that these features were products of the popular religious 
            imagination. But, while the laicizing tendencies of the Mahayana 
            were certainly important to the development of many novel features 
            of these texts, the works themselves were obviously written by an 
            educated elite who were thoroughly familiar with all facets of 
            Buddhist doctrine and practice. Furthermore, in addition to the 
            nourishing of the popular need for salvific figures, and of the new 
            religious specialists' predilection for visionary experience, there 
            is embedded in these lavish presentations highly polemical rhetoric 
            designed both to explain the emergence of previously unknown sutras 
            and to establish them as superior to the Hinayana. Thus, the 
            visionary elements of Mahayana sutras, in addition to weaving an 
            aesthetically rich and fascinating fabric of symbolic imagery that 
            would nourish the Buddhist imagination up to the present day, made a 
            unique contribution to the aforementioned strategies of 
            legitimation. The Gandavyuha makes these polemical strategies quite 
            clear. Continuing with the passage presented at the beginning of 
            this study, we find that after the extensive description of the 
            transfigured Jeta Grove and the wonders attending the arrival of the 
            otherworldy bodhisattvas, the narrator points out that the sravakas 
            who were present, such as Sariputra, Mahakasyapa, Subhuti, and 
            others who are the frequent interlocutors of the Buddha in the 
            sutras, were completely oblivious to the entire miraculous scene. 
            The reason they did not see it is because, among other defects, they 
            "lacked the roots of goodness conducive to the vision of the 
            transfiguration of all buddhas ... and did not have the purity of 
            the eye of knowledge."(40) Furthermore, they did not have the "power 
            of vision" to see these things because they were of the vehicle of 
            the sravakas, who had neither the "developed bodhisattva's range of 
            vision" nor the "eyes of the bodhisattvas."(41) 
            Part of the significance of these elaborate visionary depictions, 
            then, is to establish a kind of spiritual hierarchy with those who 
            merely heard the words of the Buddha, the sravakas, on the bottom, 
            and those bodhisattvas who saw the true transfigured state of the 
            Buddha and his surroundings on top. The fact that the bodhisattvas 
            are depicted as seeing the vision, while the sravakas remain 
            oblivious, is at once an assertion of the value of seeing over 
            hearing and of the Mahayana over the "Hinayana." 
            While the Gandavyuha is the text that makes this strategy most 
            obvious, other Mahayana sutras employ similar devices, often 
            involving visions of the higher bodies of the Buddha. The Lotus 
            sutra, is one of the early Mahayana texts that lays the groundwork 
            for the importance of having visions of the Buddha, insofar as it 
            explicitly claims that the Buddha is actually a transcendent 
            being.(42) This theme is taken up in the sutra when the Buddha 
            discusses the countless numbers of beings that he has led to 
            Buddhahood in his past lives. In a rare moment of doubt and 
            confusion, Maitreya broaches the subject of how the Buddha could 
            have led to enlightenment these many beings in countless ages past 
            if Gautama had himself only attained enlightenment in this lifetime 
            and only relatively recently. The answer is a bombshell. The stories 
            of the Buddha's life, his leaving the household, his achieving 
            awakening under the bodhisattvas tree, and his warning that he would 
            soon be gone, were themselves all merely upaya, skillful means to 
            lead less developed beings toward the higher teachings of the Great 
            Vehicle. In fact, he reports he attained enlightenment innumerable 
            eons ago and has been teaching the Dharma in this and countless 
            other world systems for incalculable ages. The reason he teaches 
            certain beings that the appearance of a Buddha in a world is rare 
            and that he will soon be gone forever is so that they will practice 
            the Dharma with vigor and be diligent in striving for awakening. But 
            in reality, he says, he is always present and never perishes, is 
            unlimited by time and space, and is able to manifest in the world 
            whenever he is needed.(43) 
            The notions of the transcendence of the Buddha and the 
            fictitiousness of the received stories of his life were powerful 
            tools in the struggle of the Mahayana for legitimacy. First, these 
            ideas de-emphasized the "historical" Sakyamuni and presented many of 
            the core elements of orthodox Buddhism as irrelevant. Second, they 
            gave an additional rationale for the emergence of new sutras and 
            doctrines. The idea that the Buddha had not, in fact, passed into 
            nirvana but continued to teach on an as-needed basis could serve, in 
            combination with the doctrine of upaya, as an explanation for the 
            introduction of new teachings. Pauls Williams points out a tradition 
            in some Mahayana literature in which the origins of certain Mahayana 
            sutras were associated not with the historical Buddha per se but 
            with the visionary experience and inspiration by the supermundane 
            buddha or buddhas who exist in Pure Lands or buddha fields. He 
            offers a passage from the Pratyutpanna Sutra that gives instructions 
            for visualizing the buddha Amitayus in his Pure Land teaching the 
            Dharma and in which the meditator is actually given teachings by 
            this Buddha: "While remaining in this very world-system that 
            bodhisattva sees the Lord, the Tathagata Amitayus; and conceiving 
            himself to be in that world-system he also hears the Dharma. Having 
            heard their exposition he accepts, masters and retains those 
            Dharmas. He worships, venerates, honours and reveres the Lord ... 
            Amitayus. After he has emerged from that samadhi [meditative 
            absorption) that bodhisattva also expounds widely to others those 
            Dharmas as he has heard, retained and mastered them."(44) It is 
            possible, then, that some Mahayana sutras were the result of what 
            the author considered a direct visionary revelation of the Dharma 
            from a transcendent source, one that at once augmented and surpassed 
            the teachings in the Pali canon. 
            Another idea that comes into play here is the importance in Buddhist 
            literature of seeing a buddha. Even in the early literature the 
            sight of a buddha is considered to be auspicious, but nowhere are 
            the benefits extolled so much as in the Gandavyuha Sutra: 
            The word of a Buddha is hard to come by even in a billion eons; 
            How much more so the sight of a Buddha, which ends all craving.(45) 
            Those who have seen the Buddha, the supreme man, are certain of 
            [their own] enlightenment.(46) 
            All obstructions are removed when a Buddha is seen, 
            Increasing the immeasurable virtue whereby enlightenment will be 
            The sight of a Buddha severs all the doubts of sentient beings 
            And fulfills all purposes, mundane and transcendent.(47) 
            While in earlier texts, seeing the ordinary form of a buddha was 
            enough, the Mahayana increasingly emphasized the resplendent 
            enjoyment body (sambhoga-kaya), the body formed as a result of the 
            meritorious karmic accumulations of the buddha. 
            The idea of supermundane buddhas and the significance of seeing 
            their transcendent form deflected the importance of having heard the 
            words of Sakyamuni when he was in Jeta Grove. While hearing the 
            words of the Buddha was the basis for authenticity and legitimacy in 
            the orthodox traditions, it became less important, if not associated 
            with a handicap, according to certain Mahayana sutras: according to 
            the Gandavyuha, having heard a discourse from the finite form of the 
            Sakyamuni in an ordinary park merely showed the hearer's 
            limitations, that is, his inability to see the higher form of the 
            Buddha and his Pure Land, which is coextensive with the ordinary 
            Thus, in contradistinction to the ordinary settings of early sutras, 
            in which a group of simple monks gather in a park to hear the Buddha 
            give a talk, many Mahayana sutras begin by depicting the Buddha 
            revealing himself in his enjoyment body. In another Perfection of 
            Wisdom text, the Pancavimsatisahasrika, for example, before giving 
            his talk, the Buddha's body suddenly becomes radiant, and rays of 
            light emit from his "divine eye," his toes, legs, ankles, thighs, 
            hips, navel, arms, fingers, ears, nostrils, teeth, eyes, and hair 
            pores. This light illumines all the multiple world systems in the 
            triple cosmos. Only after an extensive description of the 
            resplendence of the Buddha's form and the attendant miraculous 
            events does he actually begin his sermon.(48) This preliminary 
            visual display is one of the primary means of attempting to 
            establish the legitimacy of the Mahayana sutra--perhaps more so than 
            the dubious claim of the narrator to have heard the sutra from 
            Sakyamuni. The idea of the transcendent Buddha allowed a reversal of 
            value with regard to the spoken word. The fact that the monks who 
            committed the Pali sutras to memory claimed to have heard the 
            teachings of the Buddha as a man in a specific place and time was 
            the seal of authenticity in the Pali sutras but is presented as a 
            sign of limitation in the Lotus and other Mahayana sutras. If the 
            Buddha were actually a transcendent being, and the ability to see 
            his higher form was contingent on ones spiritual development, then 
            hearing him preach in the voice of a man, in an ordinary body, at a 
            typical place and time, as depicted in the Hinayana sutras, was 
            simply an indication of the limited capacities of the hearer. 
            These elaborate introductions are intended to establish the 
            transcendent source of the teachings contained in the sutras and 
            serve to relativize the comparatively prosaic Pali accounts. While 
            Mahayana sutras continued invariably to begin according to standard 
            form--with the narrator claiming to have heard the dialogue in a 
            particular historical place and time, thus preserving the legitimacy 
            and connection to received tradition and lineage conferred by the 
            phrase "evam maya srutam"--the presentation of the transcendent form 
            of the Buddha in his Pure Land served to mitigate the importance of 
            any particular time or place. The tendency of the Mahayana sutras, 
            then, was to disembed the teachings from Deer Park and re-embed them 
            in a transcendent realm. The Mahayana attempted to transfer the 
            basis of legitimacy from the spoken word of Sakyamuni to the vision 
            of the transcendent Buddha, which rendered the specificity of the 
            places that the Buddha spoke during his lifetime less relevant. The 
            transfiguration of Jeta Grove shows that the locale in which the 
            Gandavyuha was given was not really Jeta Grove at all but a kind of 
            placeless place in which the wonders of the Buddha and his world 
            were revealed. The displacement of the Buddha's teaching parallels 
            the displacement of sacred spaces occasioned by the cults of the 
            book. Both tended to deemphasize the particularities of time and 
            place associated with the Buddha's life in favor of creating the 
            ideal of a universal sacred space that was at once everywhere and 
            yet nowhere in particular. The image of the ground turning into a 
            transparent diamond in our passage from the Gandavyuha is a most 
            powerful symbol of this displacement--rather than the hills, trees, 
            and other landmarks of Jeta Grove that must have been familiar to 
            the disciples who lived in the vicinity or had visited the place on 
            pilgrimage, the land becomes a uniform crystalline diamond extending 
            in all directions. Such a landscape allows for no distinction or 
            particularity and thus symbolizes the universality and 
            undifferentiation of all spaces--a condition that many Mahayana 
            sutras claim is true from a higher point of view. It reflects, thus, 
            the Perfection of Wisdom texts' assertion that all elements of 
            existence (dharmas) are undifferentiated, placeless (adesa), and 
            without locality (apradesa), like space itself.(49) 
            The foregoing consideration of the literary style of different 
            sutras opens up a number of issues involving the development, 
            sustenance, and establishment of the Mahayana. Writing allowed its 
            heterodox teachings to survive and instituted forms of sutra worship 
            that would serve to expand the movement, not only through spreading 
            its doctrines but by consecration of places. The development of 
            writing also shifted access to and organization of knowledge from an 
            exclusively oral/aural mode to one that included visuality, and this 
            allowed for greater analysis and commentary, as well as for dissent. 
            The Mahayana's embracing of the shift from oral/ aural to 
            literate/visual also challenged the authority of the orthodox 
            traditions in a number of ways, the most vivid example being the use 
            of visionary literature to establish authority and supersession. 
            Examining what was at stake in the conflicting claims between the 
            Mahayana and the more orthodox schools helps to elucidate the 
            concrete concerns that constituted the conditions under which these 
            Mahayana sutras were produced. All of this suggests some of the 
            social and historical factors that contributed to the intense visual 
            imagery of some Mahayana sutras and that made a highly visual 
            orientation well-suited to the Mahayana. 
            We should be careful not to oversimplify or overstate the point 
            here. It is not that Mahayana sutras were exclusively focused on 
            vision, and Pali sutras on hearing and recitation. In fact, some of 
            the resources for the visionary material in the Mahayana are found 
            in the Pali texts in a more subtle form, and these early texts also 
            contain many ocular metaphors, such as the frequent pairing of 
            knowledge and vision. Conversely, traditions of recitation and 
            mnemonic devices are not absent from Mahayana sutras, and some of 
            these sutras extol the virtues of those who are able to recite long 
            texts from memory. The point is, first, that the Mahayana tended to 
            emphasize vision to a greater extent than the orthodox traditions, 
            who emphasized hearing, and second, that these respective 
            orientations were specifically involved with each tradition's claims 
            to authority and legitimacy. 
            It would also be inadequate to claim that the sole function of and 
            reason for visionary literature in the Mahayana was to serve as a 
            strategy of legitimation. As was mentioned, much non-Buddhist Indian 
            literature at the time of the composition of these sutras was of a 
            similar visionary style, and in many ways these sutras reflect a 
            pan-Indic visionary trend in literature in the first couple 
            centuries before and after the beginning of the common era. However, 
            the polemical uses of such literature should not be overlooked, for 
            they shed light on the historical and social context in which the 
            Mahayana, emerged. Nor do these considerations necessarily mitigate 
            the impact and religious significance of this extraordinary 
            visionary literature and the visionary experiences they depict--they 
            do suggest, however, that even the most otherworldly visions are 
            often intertwined with this-worldly concerns. 
            (1) Salayatana-vibhanga suttam, in Majjhima-Nikaya, ed. Robert 
            Charles (London: Luzac, for the Pali Text Society, 1960), pp. 
            (2) Gandavyuha Sutra, ed. P. L. Vaidya, Buddhist Sanskrit Texts no. 
            5 (Darbhanga: Mithila Institute, 1960), p. 1 (hereafter cited as 
            (3) Ibid., pp. 4-5. 
            (4) H. C. Warren, trans., Mahaparinibbana Sutta, in Buddhism in 
            Translation (New York: Atheneum 1984), p. 107. 
            (5) Steven Collins, "Notes on Some Oral Aspects of Pali Literature," 
            Indo-Iranian Journal 35 (1992): 121-35. 
            (6) For example, Collins (p. 124) notes the following: vaceti, "to 
            make (the pupil) recite"; uddisati, "teaches, recites"; ugganhati, 
            grasps in memory"; adhiyati and pariyapunati, "learns (by 
            reciting)"; sajjhayati, "recites"; and dhareti, "retains (what he 
            has learnt in memory)." 
            (7) Collins, p. 129. 
            (8) Ibid., p. 128. 
            (9) Ibid., p. 121. 
            (10) Lance Cousins, Internet communication, Buddha-L discussion 
            group, February 7, 1996. 
            (11) Richard Gombrich, "How the Mahayana Began," in The Buddhist 
            Forum, vol. 1, ed. Tadeusz Skorupski (London: School of Oriental and 
            African Studies), p. 28. 
            (12) Donald Lopez, "Authority and Orality in the Mahayana," Numen 
            (1995): 20-47, quote on 39. 
            (13) Gombrich, pp. 21-30. 
            (14) For a discussion of rules for determining textual authenticity, 
            see Etienne Lamotte, "The Assessment of Textual Interpretation in 
            Buddhism trans. Sara Boin-Webb, in Buddhist Hermeneutics, ed. Donald 
            Lopez (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 1988), pp. 11-28. 
            (15) Saddharmapundarikasutra, ed. P. L. Vaidya, Buddhist Sanskrit 
            Texts no. 6 (Darbhanga: Mithila Institute, 1960), pp. 265-67; see 
            chaps. 17-19 for discussions of merit. 
            (16) Kajiyana Yuichi, "Prajnaparamita and the Rise of Mahayana in 
            Buddhist Spirituality, ed. Takeuchi Yoshinori (New York: Crossroad, 
            1993), pp. 143-44. 
            (17) Akira Hirakawa, A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to 
            Early Mahayana, trans. Paul Groner (Honolulu: University of Hawaii 
            Press, 1990), pp. 270-74. 
            (18) While Hirakawa associates the birth of the Mahayana directly 
            with the laity and the stupa cults, which be claims were almost 
            exclusively the domain of the laity, Paul Williams argues that the 
            laity did not themselves bring about Mahayana Buddhism. Rather, the 
            Mahayana, or at least its literature, was the product of monks 
            within the established traditions whose understanding of the Dharma 
            was more inclusive of the laity and their practices and 
            perspectives. See Paul Williams Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal 
            Foundations (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 20-23. 
            (19) Hirakawa, p. 274. 
            (20) "Perfection of Wisdom" is used in this sense as the state of 
            enlightenment or that which leads to such a state, as well as the 
            text itself. 
            (21) Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, ed. P. L. Vaidya, Buddhist 
            Sanskrit Texts no. 4 (Darbhanga: Mithila Institute, 1960), p. 49. 
            (22) Ibid., p. 96. The reference to dharmakaya is likely a later 
            interpolation; nevertheless, it shows one way in which the cult of 
            the Prajnaparamita attempted to supersede devotion to relics by 
            playing the terms sarira and kaya off of each other. 
            (23) Gregory Schopen, "The phrase `sa prthivipradesa caityabhuto 
            bhavet' in the Vajracchedika: Notes on the Cult of the Book in the 
            Mahayana," Indo-Iranian Journal 17 (November-December 1975):147-81. 
            (24) Ibid., p. 179. 
            (25) Ibid., pp. 178-79. 
            (26) Ibid. 
            (27) Asta, pp. 46-47. 
            (28) David Chidester, Word and Light: Seeing, Hearing, and Religious 
            Discourse (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 
            p. 9. 
            (29) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. 
            Colin Smith (New York: Humanities Press, 1962), p. 193, quoted in 
            Chidester, p. 9. 
            (30) Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the 
            Word (New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 34. While some of Oafs other 
            generalizations about oral cultures seem disproved by the case of 
            early Buddhism, such as the requirement that they are "agonistically 
            toned" (p. 43) and would never contain "a vehicle so neutral as a 
            list" (p. 42), the observation regarding mnemetic patterns certainly 
            applies to the early sutras. 
            (31) Chidester, p. 11. 
            (32) Ong, pp. 78, 85. See also, on the shift from ear to eye, 
            Marshall MacLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of 
            Toronto Press, 1962). 
            (33) Ong, p. 15. 
            (34) Ibid., p. 78. 
            (35) For examples, see Jack Goody, ed., Literacy in Traditional 
            Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968). 
            (36) The other three criteria were that it be the words of a 
            formally constituted Sangha, of a small group of elders, or of a 
            single learned monk. It should also be in harmony with the other 
            sutras and the Vinaya. 
            (37) Taranatha, Taranatha's Geschichte des Buddhismus in Indien 
            trans. Anton Schiefner (Tokyo: Suzuki Gakujutsu Zaidan, 1965), pp. 
            61 ff., cited in A. K. Warder, Indian Buddhism (Delhi: Motilal 
            Banarsidass, 1970), p. 6. 
            (38) Lopez (n. 12 above), p. 39. 
            (39) Saddharmapundarikasutra (n. 15 above), pp. 44-50. 
            (40) Gandavyuha (n. 2 above), p. 14. 
            (41) Ibid., p. 15. 
            (42) The notion of the Buddha as a transcendent, godlike being, 
            however, is not unknown in pre-Mahayana Buddhism. The Mahasamghikas 
            taught the notion of a supermundane buddha, e.g., in the Mahavastu. 
            See Williams (n. 18 above), p. 18. 
            (43) Saddharmapundarikasutra, p. 16. 
            (44) Williams, p. 30, citing the translation by P. M. Harrison in 
            "Buddhanusmrti in the 
            Pratyutpanna-buddha-sammukuvasthita-samadhi-sutra," Journal of 
            Indian Philosophy 9 (1978): 35-57, quote on 43. 
            (45) Gandavyuha, p. 23. 
            (46) Ibid. 
            (47) Ibid., p. 24. 
            (48) Edward Conze, trans., The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom 
            (Pancavimsatishasrika) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 
            1975), pp. 38-39. 
            (49) See, e.g., Asta (n. 21 above), pp. 196, 476.