“Pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism”

Recently a colleague asked me to read his intriguing paper that I anticipate will be well-received when it is published, but one issue I had was the use of the term “pre-Mahāyāna”. A few weeks later, a MA student asked me to read over his thesis, in which he frequently used the term “Mainstream Buddhism”.

These terms are basically employed to avoid using word “Hīnayāna”, which was originally a pejorative expression used in Indian Mahāyāna to refer to their opponents who, contrary to the superior bodhisattva path, merely sought arhatship. I feel, however, that “pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism” are inadequate.

Here I would like to present my thoughts on the matter. This issue is actually relevant to East Asian Buddhism, too, and I'll address this point at the end.

The term “pre-Mahāyāna” is problematic since this assumes the relevant literature we presently possess, that apparently postdates Mahāyāna literature, was, in fact, produced before the emergence of any Mahāyāna movement or its texts.

However, this is not necessarily the case, since the extant “Hīnayāna” canons date to the Common Era, around which time, if not earlier, Mahāyāna literature already existed. Let me quote some relevant remarks from Gregory Schopen:

We know too that the earliest source we have in an Indian language other than Pāḷi – and this, according to Norman, is a translation – appears to be the Gāndhārī Dharmapada, the manuscript of which may date to the second century C.E. Of our Sanskrit sources, almost all from Central Asia, probably none is earlier than the fifth century, and the Gilgit Manuscripts, which appear to contain fragments of an Ekottarāgama, are still later. Our Chinese sources do not really begin until the second half of the second century, and it is, in fact, probably not until we arrive at the translations of the Madhyamāgama and the Ekōttarāgama by Dharmanandin in the last quarter of the fourth century that we have the first datable sources which allow us to know – however imperfectly – the actual doctrinal content of at least some of the major divisions of the nikāya/āgama literature. It is from this period, then, from the end of the fourth century, that some of the doctrinal content of the Hīnayāna canonical literature can finally be definitely dated and actually verified. Not before.1

Mahāyāna literature was introduced into China alongside texts that would be later classified as “Hīnayāna”. This occurred even before the Chinese translation of the Āgamas. On the basis of the available evidence, it doesn't seem to me that you could say that “Hīnayāna” texts in their extant forms must predate the Mahāyāna. It seems fairer to suggest that both of these types of Buddhist literature in their earliest extant forms stem more or less from the same period. On that point, it is erroneous to suggest that the “Hīnayāna” constitutes a “pre-Mahāyāna” form of Buddhism.

I would agree that the content of “Hīnayāna” probably reflects early Buddhism better than anything in Mahāyāna literature, but the fact remains that the extant body of literature is not actually “pre-Mahāyāna”.

Some might suggest that modern Theravāda constitutes an example of “pre-Mahāyāna Buddhism” that is still active in the present day. According to the proponents of modern Theravāda, of course, their tradition is a true transmission of what apparently existed from the Buddha’s own lifetime twenty-five centuries ago, but this is an emic, not etic, view.

Southeast Asian Theravāda is not so ancient. Theravāda in Sri Lanka claims to be able to trace itself back to the time of Aśoka, and although you can find evidence to support the claim that Aśoka, in fact, transmitted some form of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, was that Buddhism really what would later designate itself as “Theravāda”?

Who defines "Buddhism"?
Again, the living tradition claims an unbroken lineage back to this early century, but then so do Mahāyānists (the latter also claims to have accounts from the time of the Buddha too). Why favor the claims of one Buddhist school over another? Theravāda’s history seems more realistic based on what we know at present, but religious orders don’t necessarily preserve reliable histories (the varying views about Devadatta among early Buddhist schools reflects this issue). Based on the extant literature mentioned above, Theravāda as a coherent lineage might not be much older than what we identify as early Mahāyāna.

With respect to “Mainstream Buddhism”, again I think we need to ask, “According to who? And when?” Buddhism had a long history in India. Sarvāstivāda might have been more mainstream than Mahāyāna for the first five to six centuries of the Common Era, but in the seventh century we see monks such as Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664) and Yijing 義淨 (635–713) reporting on and also studying Mahāyāna subjects at the great monastery of Nālanda, around which time the fledgling project of Buddhist Tantra was underway. For the next five to six centuries, Mahāyāna-related traditions were clearly in the mainstream. Again, the idea of a “Mainstream Buddhism” as an alternative to “Hīnayāna” is problematic.

Are there any good solutions to the problem at hand? I'd like to suggest simply referring to texts as much as possible by their sectarian affiliations, at least where possible. Grouping Sarvāstivāda and Mahāsāṃghika, for example, together under a single umbrella term such as “Śrāvakayāna” is problematic, since these two Buddhist lineages seem to have considered themselves mutually separate. They did not together constitute any sort of monolithic entity. Their views of who and what the Buddha was also differed considerably.

As Joseph Walser has discussed in Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture, there is also evidence to suggest that Mahāsāṃghika, or some members of it, as well as some Dharmaguptakas, accepted or experimented with Mahāyāna ideas.2 On a related point, the bhikṣu ordination lineages in India were all based on explicitly non-Mahāyāna vinaya texts, and Mahāyāna monks, even elsewhere in Asia such as Tibet and China, still ordained via orthodox vinaya conventions (whether they actually followed the primary vinaya codes or not is a separate issue). In light of these points, an identification of a “Mainstream Buddhism” that ignores all the considerable overlap between Mahāyāna and everything else is based on a weak foundation.

Finally, with respect to East Asian Buddhism, I think that the labels Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna are suitable for the simple fact that this distinction was, and still is, observed by East Asian Buddhists. I used to think “Śrāvakayāna” might be more sensitive and proper when referring to non-Mahāyāna texts, but if you read Chinese Buddhism, the common and almost universal term employed is “small vehicle” 小乘, i.e., Hīnayāna.

This distinction was by no means merely scholastic: it directed authors and whole lineages away from texts considered Hīnayāna toward an entirely Mahāyāna-centered focus.

The predictable result was most things considered Hīnayāna seldom becoming influential in East Asia, which even includes the vinaya. Although there is indeed an enormous amount of vinaya literature translated into Chinese, with numerous relevant commentaries written by native East Asian monks, I am of the impression that the vinaya never actually strongly defined Buddhism anywhere in East Asia. It arguably still does not, despite the vinaya revivalism in post-WWII Chinese Buddhism (at least in Taiwan) and frequent calls for monastic discipline.

To sum up, I think the terms “Pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism” shouldn't be used. They are clearly problematic from both emic and etic perspectives. What do you think?

1 Gregory Schopen, “Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism The Layman/Monk Distinction and the Doctrines of the Transference of Merit,” in Indian Monastic Buddhism Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaelogical Evidence (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2010), 25.

2 Joseph Walser, Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 50–52.

Earning a Doctorate Degree

On the 7th of September, 2017, I was awarded my doctorate degree following successful completion of my dissertation titled "Buddhist Astrology and Astral Magic in the Tang Dynasty". Over the past few years on this blog, I've often discussed parts of my research, so I will not go into details about my study, but, rather, here I'd like to talk about the long path to earning a doctorate.

I initially started my undergraduate studies in 2003 at the University of Manitoba. Without much thought, I took Greek and Latin, but didn't do so well for a number of reasons, one of which was that I had no idea how to study a new language. Despite that first bumpy year, I recovered and took up Japanese as a new major, largely owing to my interest in martial arts at the time, however I was increasingly interested in East Asia as a whole. In the following year, I also started looking at Classical Chinese.

After two years of studying Japanese, I had the opportunity to study for a year at Kokugakuin University, and so off I went to Japan for a year of mostly studying Japanese. During that year I remember having several months of time in which there were no classes, so I also studied Classical Chinese and then modern Mandarin in the hopes of being able to enter second-year Chinese upon returning to Canada. At the time I felt it would be better to transfer to a university with a more established Asian Studies program, so I transferred to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where I spent two years.

Undergraduate Years

My time in Edmonton was quite fruitful. It was there that I started to seriously read about Buddhism. In addition to taking relevant classes, I also attended local Buddhist temples (Tibetan and Vietnamese).

After a few years of studying Japanese and Chinese, I tried my hand at reading Buddhist texts in classical Chinese translation. I remember I started with the Chinese translation of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (中論), which, given its standard vocabulary and running commentary, wasn't that difficult. This was encouraging at the time, since I was reading by myself without any guidance. I read other works by native Chinese authors alongside English translations, spending many long hours at various cafes in Edmonton doing just this.

Toward the last year of my undergraduate program, I applied for a scholarship offered by the Ministry of Education in Japan, which provides full tuition and living expenses for a graduate degree. I was successful, and Komazawa University was happy to take me on as a MA student.

The view from my dorm room in Japan.

Between 2009~2011, I mostly researched a commentary on the bodhisattva precepts by the Huayan patriarch Fazang 法藏 (643–712), and wrote a thesis in Japanese while living on a mostly nocturnal schedule under the influence of fresh matcha tea.

During my MA program, I visited Taiwan and later India, Nepal and China. My first trip to India was in January of 2011, during which time I visited the four main Buddhist pilgrimage sites in northern India. It was a challenge at times navigating my way around India, but nevertheless it was an overall gainful experience, and along the way I met many new friends. Taiwan was also an accommodating country to visit, especially as an aspiring scholar of Chinese Buddhism.

In an auto-rickshaw in New Delhi.

While in Nepal in early 2011, however, I received an e-mail notifying me that my application to a PhD program in a university in Canada had failed. In retrospect, I probably should have applied to several programs, but I mistakenly figured I was good to go. It was too late at that point to extend my Japanese scholarship, so I had no choice but to graduate and exit the country.


So, in August of 2011, I returned to India and went to Leh, Ladakh in the north for four or five months to sit atop a mountain, read Chinese Buddhist texts and meditate. I spent those months mostly alone, either reading or sitting on the meditation cushion.

My room in Leh (2011)

Although I had failed to get into a PhD program, I still thought of myself as a scholar, albeit without any title or status. I was determined to continue studying Buddhism, while also extensively reading modern secondary sources. At the same time, it was enriching getting to know living Buddhist traditions.

Leh, Ladakh

Once the cold of the Himalayan winter set in in Leh, I migrated south to Dharamsala, where I spent about a month's time. I attended a talk by the Dalai Lama, socialized with a lot of the wandering Dharma seekers, and became increasingly haggard in appearance.

ID for Dalai Lama's Talk (2011)

The predictable problem at this time, however, was my lack of income. Fortunately, I was able to get a job with Dharma Drum Mountain as a translator of written materials. I relocated to Taiwan after India, being based in Taipei for about a year.

Dharma Drum Mountain (Taiwan)

Over the course of that year, I translated two books by Sheng Yen on monastic codes and the vinaya. In the process of doing this, I learnt a lot about the vinaya and its various complex procedures and rules.

It was by coincidence that during my year in Taiwan translating vinaya-related materials, I was invited to ordain as a monk in India. I had often thought about going down this path in earlier years, or at least trying it out for awhile, since I was happy when immersed in a Buddhist environment. So, I relocated to India and became a monk.

I initially spent time in Delhi and Bodhgaya before going to Singapore for about two months when my visa in India expired (the "visa run"). Afterward, I spent a little while in Nepal and then went back to Leh to do a short retreat for a few months.

My friend during retreat in Leh

In mid-2014, however, I had the opportunity to enroll in the PhD program at Leiden University, and I no longer wished to be a part of the Buddhist sangha for a number of reasons, so I left that life behind.

Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya

To give some background to my research project, early in 2014 it was becoming increasingly apparent to me that astrology played a significant role in East Asian Buddhism, yet modern scholarship had not yet delved into this topic as much as was clearly necessary. I did a preliminary study of the primary texts and came to think that this might work well as a PhD project. So, with this topic in mind, I pitched a proposal to Leiden University and started as a PhD candidate in the summer of 2014.


The Dutch system includes a system for "external" or "self-funded" PhD candidates, so effectively you are required to produce a dissertation, which is approved by a committee. There are no coursework requirements. I was therefore not subject to any residence requirements, so at the invitation of Dharma Drum Mountain, I went back to Taiwan to spend a few months making use of their library.

Jinshan (near Dharma Drum Mountain)

Following this I was awarded the BDK Canada Graduate Student Fellowship, which enabled me to relocate to Japan for one year to do my research there. This was immensely beneficial since a great many articles that I had to acquire were in printed journals that have never been digitized, or even made available outside Japan in many cases.

Nara, Japan

It was a productive year there and, much to my good fortune, I was subsequently awarded the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellowship in 2016, which helped me to relocate to Leiden.

This fellowship requires the fellow to carry out a proposed research project. Over the course of ten to eleven months, I carefully went through several texts related to Buddhist and Daoist astrology in East Asia, all the while adding my findings to the framework of my dissertation. At the same time, I produced a few peer-reviewed papers, which have now been published.

Kuyō hiryaku 九曜秘曆

In the end, I felt that producing 100,000 words (excluding bibliography) wasn't as challenging as proofreading the document repeatedly (I imagine there are many typos and errors remaining). My committee, all of whom provided critical and helpful feedback, signed off on the dissertation, and awhile later the Dean issued me a letter giving me permission to request a thesis defence date. At that point I just had to make the final edits and get the dissertation printed. On September 7th of this year, I was awarded a doctorate degree.

So, is there any advice I can offer prospective or current PhD students?

I suppose the first thing I would suggest is to maintain a productive schedule. Spend at least eight hours per day doing your research and writing, but remember to rest as well. I generally work Monday to Friday, and rest on weekends. I admittedly also like playing video games in the evening, which helps my mind settle down after a day of intense intellectual work. A long walk and then a glass of wine before bed also helps. Having a regular sleeping pattern is also essential.

With respect to a topic, I had the fortune and challenge of dealing with a topic that hadn't been subject to any comprehensive treatment. Scholars of astrology generally don't know Buddhism, and Buddhist Studies only has a few people alive today who know much about astrology. In addition, I was particularly interested in the art record, so for the first time I was also examining illustrated manuscripts.

This challenge was made easier by having already attained literacy in Classical Chinese, Mandarin and Japanese. Competence in the required languages for your study is critical. I wouldn't have been able to do my project without literacy in Japanese, but more importantly, literacy in Classical Chinese was absolutely essential. Ideally, I would advise having strong literacy in your target language(s) before you start your PhD.

It also goes without saying that having a solid interest in your topic will ensure your motivation remains consistent. I enjoy reading Buddhist texts, but at the same time I found taking on the subject of astrology as a new field of learning to be equally enjoyable. It was invigorating seeing how Buddhism related to astrology over the centuries, especially in East Asia, where Iranian horoscopy was actively practiced from the early ninth-century. Perhaps one of the benefits of specializing in these two areas is that I have very different materials to read, which keeps things interesting.

Finally, if you have the good fortune to have a regular income as part of your PhD program, make the most of that time. It is ideal to be able to research without the burden of financial uncertainty.

I am grateful to all my friends, family and colleagues for all their support, criticism and assistance. From this point on, I plan to continue researching astrology in East Asia, but I will also branch out and start taking a critical look at medieval Chinese Buddhist historiography and its relation to state historiography. This blog, as it has for several years, will continue to discuss my findings.