Post-Buddhism: Nikaya and Mahayana Contrasts in Dharma

All the study and reflection I have done in early Buddhism and the recent study I’ve done in the Mahayana broke through to a new level of understanding. What was the Buddha pointing to? Where do we find awakening? Nikaya dharma, the early Pali canon, is all about the “human experience”.  The Nikaya is about the specific, empirical, moment-by-moment experiences that heal and liberate the self. The Mahayana dharma is about transforming those specific, moment-by-moment experiences into transcendent cosmic truths that uplift and benefit all. Traditional teaching connects the teaching by saying that “Hinayana teaches self is empty” and “Mahayana teaches that all phenomena are empty.” I was able to connect the two, but in a totally different way. I have made my own connection which is non-religious. Nikaya Buddhism is all about the “human experience”. The Mahayana is about universal “compassionate wisdom.” That’s how I came up with the new slogan for Engage!, “Human experience that ripens into compassionate wisdom.”

Nikaya dharma is about the human experience. It’s about specifics and particularities of human experience and earthly phenomena. It’s about the five senses, the body, sensations, feelings, consciousness, the mental experience, the inner experience of suffering or liberation. It’s about the human experience of being in the body. It’s about the Buddha’s own experience of being human. It’s about birth, life, sickness, death, the whole cycle of life. It’s about the path of everyday life, meditation techniques and practice. It’s about human lives and human conflict, ethics, relating to others socially. It’s the three poisons, greed-hatred-delusion, and their antidotes. It’s about dealing with one’s human faults, developing one’s human capacities, coming to terms with one’s limitations and overcoming them. It’s about personal awakening, and becoming part of a community, creating a community in a certain place and culture. It’s about freeing ourselves from the material world, overcoming our addictions, attachments and dependencies. It’s the everyday practice of the eightfold path and the precepts. It’s ascetic, often negative;  the five (or eight or ten) precepts. It gets rid of what’s in the way, stripping down existence to the bare essentials of life, and finding joy in that. It’s about personal liberation and how that fosters the liberation of people around us. It’s about spiritual friendship.

The Mahayana is just the opposite. It’s about transcendence, the divine, the spiritual, the religious, the sacred, the other worldly. It’s about transcendent concepts and experiences beyond the quotidian. It’s about touching and knowing the divine, transcendent qualities of the Buddha, about the transcendent qualities of the human spirit and human consciousness. It’s about universal compassion, the six paramitas.  It’s about cosmology, about overarching, all-encompassing realities. It’s about the grand quest of becoming a boddhisattva, saving all beings, extending the dharma to the farthest reaches of the universe, encompassing all people and all beings. It’s about drawing out the general from the specific, the cosmic lessons drawn from momentary experiences.

Nikaya dharma is about doubt, skepticism, deconstruction, breaking down wholes into parts. It’s about pragmatism, applying the teachings in everyday life. It’s about impermanence-as-process, the epistemology of knowledge, the phenomenology of the world. It’s about deconstruction and analysis. It’s about causes and conditions as dependent origination, about form, self and not-self, the social construction of self and identity. It’s about relativity at the human scale, on the scale of everyday life. It’s post-modern critique and analysis.

Mahayana is about holism and unity; it’s about seeing the whole from the parts; it’s about connecting things, Indra’s web, dependent origination as interdependence. It’s overwhelmingly positive, triumphant, world conquering. It’s Buddhist Nation-building. It’s about faith and belief in higher realms, higher states of consciousness, more evolved forms of being. It’s about beauty and cosmic truths, relativity on a grand, cosmic scale. It’s systems theory and networks.

Engaged Buddhism draws from both traditions. Social justice requires making distinctions, choosing between behaviour that is helpful or harmful, healthy or unhealthy, just or unjust. One needs to make ethical choices and distinctions, and the Nikaya dharma is a rich source for making those distinctions. One must also deal with people and situations that are real  in the phenomenological sense. The Mahayana, on the other hand, is about universal compassion, wisdom, justice, love, forgiveness, tolerance and non-judgement  for all beings. Like Nature herself, everyone is nourished and sustained from the earth, the “good” and the “bad.” Mahyana sees that everyone has buddhanature and is always already awakened to the truth. Mahayana sees that everyone deserves mercy and many chances to transform their lives.

These are two different and contrasting dharmas. I don’t believe in a “one dharma” approach to Buddhism, where it’s all about one or the other.  It’s the tension and contrast between the two forms of the dharma that gives birth to the “third”, to so many insights. If it was all just one experience, I wouldn’t learn that much from it. I need both: I need skepticism and pragmatism and doubt, and I also need holism, and unity and transcendence. Without both forms, my dharma life would not go anywhere. It’s the contrasting motion, front to back, back to front, that turns the wheel. It’s because I see the contrasts between the two traditions that I see the specific qualities of each. It’s because of the specificity and empirical groundedness of the Nikaya that I see the abstract, transcendent quality of the Mahayana. It’s because I see the transcendent quality of the Mahayana that I see the grounded, empirical quality of the Nikaya. And I appreciate both ways of looking at life, at myself and the world.

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