Recently i was asked if The Buddha taught atheism. I could not give a simple answer, because there is an erroneous presupposition in the question. Mahayana Buddhism teaches the existance of infinite Buddhas, or incarnations of Lokesvara or the Adi Buddha, who preach the Dharma according to time and circumstance. The Buddha of Theravadin (T) Buddhism is not the same as the Buddha of Mahayana (M) Buddhism. The Gautama, Sakyamuni, or Siddhartha Buddha of the Theravadin (Southern or 'Hinayana') Buddhists has been considered by them to be an 'awakened' man, the only Buddha, unique in world history to his time. This Sakya Buddha OF THE THERAVADINS definitely taught not only atheism, but voidism.. However, the SAKYAMUNI Buddha of the Mahayana Buddhists was originally considered to be the latest of infinite salvific incarnations of Vishnu (Lokesvara). Not only did He teach a transcendental theism, but He was always considered to be an incarnation of the Adi Purusha, Bhagavan, HRIH / Amitabha the Dharma Kaya, Adi Purusha, the ADI BUDDHA Himself. These M Buddhists (Sakyamuni worshipers) were indistinguishable from Vaishnavas throughout the range of Vaishnavism, and only became perceived as belonging to a separate religion (Buddhism) as their traditions spread outside of India.
Is There Any Traditional Explanation For The Mahayana versus Hinayana / Theravadin Differences ?
According to Mahayana Tradition, when the Lord descended as Sakyamuni Buddha, he preached to the humble faithful and to the proud atheists both. Even in mixed assemblies, the atheists could not understand His Divinity and theistic revelations due to their offensive mentality. Those hearers who lacked the BODHI HEART OF COMPASSION could not hear / receive the revelation of the ADI BUDDHA'S GRACE MEDIATED THROUGH HIS SECOND PERSON'S INFINITE BODHISATTVA MANIFESTATIONS AND BUDDHA INCARNATIONS (INCLUDING SAKYAMUNI). The proud intellectual elitists brought their jnana / gnosis to the assemblies, and thus they took away with them the atheistic conception of Sakyamuni and His teachings which they had brought with them. They could not experiance His divinity, or even hear His theistic, bhakti / grace teachings about the infinite Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas and their infinite spirit-realms, the Adi Buddha (HRIH) and His spiritual Lotus Dvipa PURE LAND (hence PURE LAND BUDDHISM) . So it is that the Mahayanists explain why their canon of scripture and oral traditions contain some entirely different teachings than those of the Theravadins. Unfortunately, over time, the pure transcendental theism of Mahayana Buddhism became corrupted with 'esoteric' and then explicit voidism, creeping into it from the T Tradition. I will explain more on one of the mechanisms (foreign pilgrims in India) of this corruption later below. As a form of elitist gnosticism or jnana, the corruption of M Buddhism with atheism is analogous to the way that gnostic 'esoteric wisdom' teachings have introduced voidism and 'extreme apophatic' impersonalist teachings into Judaism and Christianity in the West.
The Theravadins have always claimed that theirs' is the original form of Buddhism, and this view has been adopted and promulgated widely in both the East and West, despite vast evidence to the contrary (more on this below). Sri Lanka has long been considered the ancient homeland of Theravadin Buddhism, from which it spread throughout South East Asia. There are vast differences between Theravadin ('Southern Buddhism') and Mahayana , or 'Northern Buddhism', which is closely related to Krishna-centric Vaishnavism. The Theravadins claim that the Mahayana Tradition is a later corruption of Theravada by Hinduism. Western academia has generally adopted this view. However, if we study the antecedents of Mahayana Buddhism in the PTAH CULTUS OF HELIOS IN EGYPT, it is clear that the PURE LAND BUDDHIST CORE OF MAHAYANA BUDDHISM GOES BACK AT LEAST AS FAR AS THE DOMINANT TRADITION OF HERU-ASAR-PTAH AT MEMPHIS CIRCA 3000 BC IN EGYPT. The ancient Eastern Hemisphere range of Northern Buddhism in fact pre-dated Sakyamuni Buddha by centuries to millinia, and included S.E. Asia, India north and east to Japan, and west to Europe and Egypt. There is also evidence of its presence among the Amerindians of the Western Hemisphere (several other volumes at least.)
Having long studied the Mahayana- Vaishnava connections and M. versus T. differences, on my Asian Independent Study through Marylhurst College in 1982, i visited ancient Buddhist sites, present temples and monasteries, lay and ordained practitioners, scholars, museum and private collections of sacred art and artifacts, libraries etc. collecting texts and icons, sketching and photographing them, and discussing them with experts and murti / icon makers from Japan, to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. As the Mainland USA Delegate to the academic 1982 World Hindu Conference, sponsored by the Governments of Tamil Nadu India, and Sri Lanka, i was a guest of the Sri Lankan Government, and given a tour of the most important ancient Buddhist and Hindu sites in Sri Lanka. Every one of the oldest TB sites had either and / or Jaya and Vijaya (Vishnu's heavenly temple gate-keepers) or a Devali shrine (with the stupa) clearly depicting Vishnu (Lokesvara ) descending to take His birth as Sakyamuni Buddha. The ancient and contemporary T Buddhist places of worship were pervaded with the rich iconography and symbolism of Vaishnavism, in spite of the fact that T Buddhism is militantly voidest and iconoclastic. When i asked the TB masters and monks why their holy places were full of such 'idols' and symbols, and why the masses were worshiping the mere 'awakened man' Sakyamuni with traditional Vaishnava-style pujas etc., they all disdainfully responded that the sentimentality of Hinduism had corrupted everything, and that it was very difficult for the common masses to understand the sublime teaching / truth of anatta / no self. Only the elite Arhants and their disciples could realize their non-being, and thus escape the cycle of samsara. As a aside here i would like to mention that when i asked about Krishna and Balarama, these same T Buddhists responded with a similar teaching to the one i encountered among some Jains in India. They considered Krishna (or Vasudeva) and Baladeva to be demons. The only elaboration on this that i could elicit, was that They caused a great war (the Battle of Kuruksetra), and (as with some Jains) They, or Krishna were in a hell for their sins in this conflict.
In spite of Sri Lanka's status as a kind of captital of Buddhist atheism / voidism, i only saw ancient evidence there of MAHAYANA Buddhism. Moreover, M B was still pervading the popular worship of the so-called 'Theravadin' masses. For instance, on Wesak, the thrice holy day of Sakyamuni's birth, enlightenment and 'nirvana', in the public places and temples i visited, everyone was chanting Mahayana Buddha's-births stories, which included references to his previous salvific appearances. His enlightenment and 'death' stories were also from the Northern canon / tradition, and full of so-called 'mythical' and transcendent elements. I could not find a single 'Theravadin' temple where lay buddhists were NOT worshiping Sakyamuni according to Mahayana Traditions. The TB priests disdainfully tolerated it and dutifully collected the 'Hinduized' faithfuls' offerings. After my studies in Sri Lanka, the purported ancient center and regional diffusion point for TB, i am convinced that Southern, or 'atheistic / voidest Buddhism' in the S. Eastern range is and was predominantly POPULARLY Mahayana, but treated as a low-class corruption by the elitist religious, who were the 'brahmin' class, patronised and made powerful by various dynasties. I conclude that the voidests have always been in denial regarding their true historical position in relationship to Mahayana Tradition.
In S.E. Asia, theistic Buddhist dynasties / rulers (Jayavaram etc.) were popular with the masses, and presided over the great 'Buddhist' works that have survived to today. Thus it is clear that the ' Buddhism' of Angkor Wat in Cambodia was Vishnu worship, and similar 'Buddhist' Vishnu temples can be found throughout S. East Asia, Austranesia and the Pacific Islands. It is this popular devotional (Bhakti) Buddhism which we find spread over enormous territories throughout the ancient world. Thus we can compare HERU-ASAR- PTAH iconography and symbolism from Egypt to Buddhist iconography and symbolism throughout the East, finding truely amazing consistancies and parallels. A wide range of other evidence connects the Eastern and Mediterranean forms of 'Buddhism'. For example, Memphite rock-cut temple and Necropolis techniques are found in the great Buddhist Ajanta Caves, and textual scholars have long noted the similarities between the Egyptian and Tibetan so-called 'Book Of The Dead'.
Just as the Elite Mayavadi Brahmins of India have used their influence to distort the world perception of India's religions, in the same way the powerful Theravadins have distorted the world view of Buddhism. The vast majority of so-called 'Hindus' are Vaishnavas. The next largest numerical groups are the Shaivites, and then the Devi worshipers. These are all bhakti, or devotional theistic traditions. The Atheistic and iconoclastic Mayavadi Brahmins have never been more than a tiny fraction of the population.,but because of their elite / privileged / powerful position, they have defined 'Hinduism' to the non-'Hindu' world. Thus practically any western textbook entry on 'Hinduism' will describe a popular exoteric 'polytheism' of thousands of gods, with prominent ones like Vishnu, Shiva, etc., and a 'higher' or 'esoteric' tradition of pantheism or monism, which ultimately denies the transcendant reality of the 'gods' in favour of an impersonal absolute...the energy field or ground of impersonal existance called Brahman. The parallel in Buddhism is that the Mahayana 'Great Vehicle / Way' has always been the dominant tradition, with countless believers throughout the East. It was once the main religion of China, Korea and Japan. The Hinayana, or 'Small Vehicle / Way ' was again mainly an elitest tradition of the few, and admittedly originally mostly confined to S.E. Asia. Still the Theravadins / Hinayanas have managed to define 'Buddhism' for the world.
The most outrageous example of this obscuration of the reality and importance of Mahayana, and especially PURE LAND Buddhism that i have personally encountered, was when i was working on my BA degree. At the end of an entire course on the history and thought of Buddhism, in which the Mahayana Tradition had never been mentioned a single time, and Tibetan Buddhism was re-interpreted in purely Theravadin terms, i asked the instructor / professor before the entire class about this indefensible ommision and distortion. Her response was predictible, that it was her class and she had the right to present what she thought was "significant" and "relevant"about Buddhism to her students ! I said that the class should have been identified as a Theravadin Buddhist class, and she should have at least acknowledged the existance of MB at the outset. I noted that as recently as the pre-communist era in China, that MAHAYANA BUDDHISM was the dominant Religion there. The Chinese atheists targeted Chinese MB as their # ONE religious object for destruction. Seeing MB for the theistic devotional tradition that it was, the militant atheists ruthlessly sought to root it out of the hearts, minds and lives of the Chinese people. As in Tibet, the Communists' wholesale slaughter of priests, monks and nuns, and destruction of their temples and monasteries, was followed by a cruel 're-education' campaign to 'break the masses of their superstitions'. Then some of the remnant of Buddhism left in China was appropriated by the Communists to teach Theravadin Voidism, which is in every way compatible with Communist atheism. Of course, this is what they have attempted to do to Tibetan Buddhism, by trying to appoint or control its High Lamas.
The Communists have revised history to fit their world-view and serve
their political agenda, but here in America, it was shocking to see how
the history of Buddhism at my college was being re-written to edit-out
the reality of the dominant MB Tradition ! I later found out that
the course instructor and her husband were Theravadin 'Masters' who regularly
taught their form of atheistic Buddhism at their 'yoga studio' in the area.
After receiving all 'A's from her throughout the course, she gave me a
final grade of 'B' for daring to raise the issue of Mahayana Buddhism in
her Buddhism Class ! I had waited to the very end to hear one
single word of acknowlegement that the majority MB tradition had ever existed,
and my grade was lowered for daring to bring it up ! This was the only
'B' i received in my whole college career ! I was an expert
on Buddhism taking the course because i needed the credits.
The rest of the students could not detect her bias. It was apalling to
see what she was getting away with in the name of objective education.
I watched her indoctrinate that class in Theravadin teachings, and totally
ignore the greater historical reality of 'Northern Buddhism'. As
tragic as this is, it is typical of the state of knowledge regarding 'Hinduism'
and 'Buddhism' in western academia today. Hinduism courses
are being taught that do not even recognize Vaishnavism as the dominant
Tradition, or even as a separate Tradition from Mayavadi Brahminism or
Shaivism ! Krishna in the GITA is most often presented as a
teacher of atheistic Advaita Vedanta ! Thus we must always consider
the sourse, and ask WHOSE KRISHNA ? WHOSE BUDDHA ?
Many Have Said That Mahayana Buddhism Is Related To Hinduism, Why Do You Claim It Is Specifically Krishna-Centric Vaishnavism That It Is Most Closely Connected To ?
I have made an interdisciplinary study of Mahayana Buddhism, specifically focusing on its core, which is the Pure Land Tradition. In this study, i have sought the oldest sources in each region, comparing texts and inscriptions with icons and symbols, related architecture, rites and prayers etc. While the scriptures of TB are in Pali, the original forms of the MB scriptures, Litanies of HRIH-Lokesvara and Tara / Kuan Yin, rituals and prayers are in Sanskrit. Because of my Vaishnava studies, i have been able to recognize the Vaishnava Names of God and Shakti, and specific Vaishnava related terms throughout the MB Sanskrit sources. Despite the corruption of MB theism with TB esoteric atheism / voidism, it is still very easy to recognize the Vaishnava basis of M Buddhism. Any Krishna-centric Vaishnava with a rudimentary familiarty with Sanskrit would recognize connections to their own tradition in the Sanskrit Pure Land sources like the SADDHARMA PUNDARIKA or the SUKHAVATI VYUHA. Throughout MB Sanskrit has been retained in much prayer an ritual. For instance, for Tibetan Ritual, the original Sanskrit forms have been preserved, and these retain their Vaishnava content, including some names of Vishnu, like Bhagavan. THE CULT OF TARA by Stephen Beyer is the authorised English presentation of Tara-Lokesvara's Tibetan Ritual, which gives the full Sanskrit in English transliteration. Sanskrit narratives from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, like the rites and thangkas etc. of Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhism, all contain Vaishnava Deity Names and Forms. Although there are differences in emphasis between the various Northern MB schools in ancient India, Afganistan, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, there is also a fundamental consistancy in the core of the MB Pure Land teachings, iconography and rites etc. For over 100 years, western scholars have commented on apparent connections between MB and Vaishnavism, but Vaishnavas have not been studying the historical and theological core / heart the the Pure Land Tradition in relationship to Krishna-centric Vaishnavism. At present, the general 'Hindu' perception of 'Buddhism' is that it is all voidest. I will have to address this in another paper. This perception has biased especially Vaishnava scholars against studying Buddhism. The western scholars have lacked the necessary familiarty with Krishna-centric Vaishvaism to recognize the detailed MB corrospondances on every level. Their observation that Sakyamuni in the Saddharma Pundarika is probably Vishnu is superficial and not pursued to its historical or theological conclusion. This is why it is essential for some Krishna Vaishnava scholars to take up the study of Pure Land Buddhism and explore these obvious connections to their lmits. The following are some of these connections. Since we are on the topic of Tibetan Buddhism , i will begin with MB in Nepal and Tibet.
OM MANI PADME HUM
Who Is The Jewel / Mani in the Lotus / Padme ?
Although Buddhism is considered to have arrived rather late in Tibet, it certainly existed at an early time in Nepal and Afganistan etc. Tibetan Buddhism is identical to Nepalese Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists fleeing the Chinese easily integrated into the MB worship communities of Nepal. Despite 'mother tongue' language differences, the Tibetan and Newarese etc. priests shared the same doctrines, icons, symbols, rites, and Sanskrit as an ancient liturgical language. In fact, Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhism are so similar to, and compatible with Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism in Nepal, that i frequently saw the same devotees worshiping at Vishnu, Shiva, Devi and Buddhist temples and/or shrines, sometimes all in the same day. The devotees clearly grasped that these were versions of the same tradition, but the Buddhist priests i interviewed invariably insisted that Vishnu was NOT lokesvara, Mahadeva was NOT Shiva and Tara was NOT Tara the consort of Vishnu ! When i went to the hereditary guild murti (icon) makers and asked for specific forms of Vishnu, they unhesitatingly handed me the corrosponding forms of the Buddhist Lokesvara ! Then i would say (in deference to the exclusivistic sectarian insistance of the Buddhist priests) "No. I don't want Buddha-Lokesvara, I want VISHNU" At this they would get perturbed with me and explain that 'everyone knows there is no difference...we only make one form of these murtis, and they are used by both the Buddhists and the Vaishnavas. We do not have separate forms of Vishnu to sell to you'. I visited over a hundred murti makers, dealers, collections and places of worship in Nepal, viewing approximately 5000 murtis...all with the same result. The 'canon' of Nepalese Buddhist iconography is fundamentally Vaishnava. Below i will explain how art historians associate this phenomenon with Buddhist iconography originating IN THE VRINDAVAN-MATHURA AREA OF INDIA.
So Who IS 'the Jewel in the Lotus' ? OM MANI PADME HUM is one of the main mantras of Nepalese and Tibetan M Buddhism. It is Sanskrit. It invokes 'the Jewel in the Lotus'. Mani means 'jewel' or 'pearl' and Padme means 'lotus'. These words do not refere to a mundane pearl in a lotus, or to mundane tantric intercourse as has been promoted by the late 'Tantrists'. The Mani refered to is the Dharma Kaya or Original Form of the Adi Buddha. He is called AMITABHA in Sanskrit, and Chen Rei Zei in Tibetan....thus the Mani Padme Mantra is sometimes refered to as the Mantra for Chen Rei Zei. Chen Rei Zei's highest unity with His Feminine Shakti is not depicted in full realistic detail, as with the multi-form of Tara and Lokesvara. Instead, the 'Original' or Dharma Kaya Form of Amitabha / Chen Rei Zei is depicted standing or sitting on His Shakti in Her Form as His Hladini Shakti Lotus-abode. Since secular scholars have long considered Amitabha to be in the class of 'supreme solar deities', it amazes me that there have not been any major studies ( that i know of anyway) comparing Helios of Rhodes (in the Minoan Era Mediterranean), with the Mani Padme Tradition of Amitabha. On ancient Rhodes, Helios Kouros (Krishna) was worshiped with His Beloved Rhoda. They were consideed to be the Transcendant Origin of all the gods and godesses. One of Rhoda-Kore's names on Rhodes was Nymphia. Nymphia means both Maid / Bride / Virgin and LOTUS. Rhoda means Red, Rose, or any Red or Pink Flower. Another by-name of Rhoda-Nymhpia was ASTERIA meaning Star. TARA means STAR. Asteria's symbol was the HEXAD, a pictorial pun on another one of Her numerous by-names HEKATE. The Hexad is the STAR, ROSE or LOTUS SYMBOL used for Shekinah & Eli-Yahu Bridal Mysticism in the Judeo-Catholic Traditions, and for the unity of Shiva & Shakti, Vishnu & Shakti and Lokesvara & Shakti. When the Star, Lotus or Rose / Red Flower has a Jewel, Bija, Circle, Pearl, Vajra or other Purusha / Masculine Deity symbol in it, this is an iconographic short-hand for depicting the unity of Krishna and Radha, Kouros and Rhoda, Eli-Yahu and Shekinah, Shiva and Shakti, Vishnu and Padme / Sri Laxmi, Lokesvara and Tara, and Their Dharma Kaya Forms as 'the Jewel in the Lotus'. From ancient Greco-Egyptian and related Jewish CIRCLE-LOTUS symbols, all the way to modern Tibetan and Japanese Pure Land Buddhist CIRCLE-LOTUS and related icons, the Original / ADI PURUSHA and PRAKRITI have been worshiped as 'the Jewel in the Lotus'. Two of the most important Pure Land Mahayana Buddhist texts, the 'LOTUS SUTRA' or SADDHARMA PUNDARIKA and the SUKHAVATI VYUHA both refere to this tradition. Sakyamuni Buddha reveals the TRI KAYA and Transcendent Buddha Realms, Salvation by Grace etc. in His LOTUS SUTRA. In the SUKHAVATI VYUHA, just as in the Vaishnava Tradition, the supernal Buddha Realms are Lotus island-lokas / planets in the spiritual sky where there is no material birth death disease or old age. The supreme Lotus Abode is that of Amitabha. In fact, He has created the entire PURE LAND of the Spiritual Sky, in unity with His Supreme Shakti / Padme. If we doubt Padme-Tara's association with Radha / Rhoda, then there are numerous ways to confirm it. All red or pink flowers are sacred to Tara ! These are offered to Her, and to step on or defile a red or pink flower is an offence to Tara. In ancient areas where the lotus or rose was not common, other red or pink flowers subsituted. For instance, the PINK RHODAdendron (ROSE-tree) was sacred to SITA in SRI LANKA and NEPAL. The red Chrysanthemum became associated with Mother Kuan Yin (Tara) in the Orient.
In the ancient Vaishnava Scripture the BRAHMA SAMHITA, Krishna is worshiped AS THE SUPREME WISH-FULLFILLING MANI (JEWEL) IN THE SUPREME LOTUS-ABODE OF GOLOKA VRINDAVAN ! His abode is called CHINTAMANI DHAM. In studying hundreds of icons of Amitabha / Chen Rei Zei i saw scores of variations on His Original Form. Like Krishna, He is a beautiful beardless, long haired youth, two armed, three-curved, dressed and ornemented exactly like Krishna, often blue in color, always on / in a lotus, often with a peacock feather...in all respects as the Dharma Kaya in this Form, He is the same as Krishna. He is often depicted on His Lotus in a mandala like the western mandorla or 'almond' shaped radiance. This usually represents His Feminine Shakti as Shekinah / Energy or Power, and is related to Hekate (Egyptian SEKHET) as CORONIS (Sanskrit HARINI). I saw dozens of murtis of CHINTAMANI LOKESVARA on His Lotus Abode with a KALPA VRIKSHA TREE, Which He holds, revealing Himself to be the wish-fulfiller of Chintamani Dham.! So Who is the 'Jewel in the Lotus ' and Who is the Lotus of Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhism ? All the interdisciplinary evidence related to the above confirms that the JEWEL-LOTUS IS THE SUPREME FATHER-MOTHER GOD/ESS WORSHIPED AT THE CORE OF INDO-EUROPEAN, SEMITIC, AFRICAN AND ASIAN DEVOTIONAL TRADITIONS, AND KNOWN TO KRISHNA-CENTRIC VAISHNAVAS AS KRISHNA AND RADHA.
The TRI KAYA and the Emanations and Incarnations of MANI PADME