How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

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Khalil Bodhi
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How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Khalil Bodhi »

Hey everyone,

First let me state that I have the utmost respect for Mahanaya and Vajrayana teachings and have been highly influenced by them. So much so, in fact, that I am currently taking the FPMT's course on a Wheel of Sharp Weapons and have made my main brahmavihara practice tonglen at present. However, one thing that I can't quite get set straight in my head are the idea of extra-canonical Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

How do you, as practitioners, reconcile the existence and teachings of beings who are never mentioned in the Pali Canon? Clearly, numberless beings have benefited from the teachings of the Mahayana and Vajrayana but if Avalokiteshvara and Amitabha are such important characters why did the Lord Buddha not mention them?

Again, I want to stress that this is a real problem for me and not an interesting question solely posted to spark debate. Please forgive me if I've offended anyone but I am truly interested in how to wrap my head around these things.

Mettaya,

KB :anjali:
To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
-Dhp. 183

My Practice Blog:
http://khalilbodhi.wordpress.com
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Lhamo
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Lhamo »

Khalil Bodhi wrote:...

How do you, as practitioners, reconcile the existence and teachings of beings who are never mentioned in the Pali Canon? Clearly, numberless beings have benefited from the teachings of the Mahayana and Vajrayana but if Avalokiteshvara and Amitabha are such important characters why did the Lord Buddha not mention them?

...
For me this is very easy, because I don't consider the Pali Canon to be THE only teachings given by the Buddha. I also have greatest respect for the Pali Canon, but I don't regard this collection as Buddhas only teachings.

My main access to Buddhadarma is not only reading, but the role-model and teachings of my teachers. This (1), practical meditational experience(2) and reading (3) of Mahayana-Sutras, Lamrim and also Palicanon sometimes - gives the full-screen of what is Dharma to me.

So, for me Avalokiteshvara is not a story from a doubtful source, but he is a fact I can practically interact with. And he is just another aspect of the one and only metaphysical Buddha. "Buddha" is a state of mind, and the historical Buddha was teaching from there.

And: I have also never been mentioned in the Palicanon, and still it seems I exist. :) I mean: why must every Buddhist truth be written in the Pali Canon? The PC was not written by the Buddha, but some people collected his stories and wrote them down. Why should we strictly assume, this collection is all and everything that was taught by the Buddha? And why assuming a whole bunch of Mahayana-scholars and -saints are only spreading their own phantasies? :)
Difficult topic. :popcorn: :meditate:
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SarathW
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by SarathW »

Can someone explain me the final goal of Mahayana.
The way I understand they do not teach Nibbana.
The aim is to become a Bodhisatta and come back to this world again and become enlightened Buddha.
Am I correct?
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Khalil Bodhi
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Khalil Bodhi »

Thanks Lhamo. I figured that the reasoning had to do with questioning the Pali Canon. The problem is that even if you look at the Chinese Agamas and Tibetan Kangyur (sp?) they make no mention of these figues either. It's always possible that there was an extra-canonical dispensation to davata and nagas but why did Lord Budha explicitly state that there were no secret teachings?

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .vaji.html
32. Thus spoke the Venerable Ananda, but the Blessed One answered him, saying: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?
Anyway, thank you for your reply and I'll keep practicing those teachings from these great traditions which seem to me to be in accord with my own idiosyncratic interpretation of the Dhamma and help me to cultivate the brahmaviharas. :anjali:
To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
-Dhp. 183

My Practice Blog:
http://khalilbodhi.wordpress.com
Abhaya
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Abhaya »

Like Lhamo, I'm also not convinced that the Pali Canon is the end-all, be-all of the Buddha's teachings. Just because something is in the Pali Canon does not make it true. Just because something is not in the Pali Canon does not make it false. That said, I've read the first four Nikayas (plus parts of the fifth I've been able to access) in their entirety several times and use them as a standard of reference. If a Mahayana Sutra grossly contradicts a core teaching of the Buddha in the Pali Canon (e.g., anatta), then I'm inclined to believe that sutra is either apocryphal or contains some heavy, likely misinterpreted upaya. The existence of other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas does not contradict my reading of the Pali Canon, which itself already contains several inconsistencies and implausibilities, no more or less so than the Mahayana Sutras.
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Abhaya »

SarathW wrote:Can someone explain me the final goal of Mahayana.
The way I understand they do not teach Nibbana.
The aim is to become a Bodhisatta and come back to this world again and become enlightened Buddha.
Am I correct?
The goal of Mahayana is embodied by the Bodhisattva, who delays their own liberation in order to assist others on the path to liberation. As long as there are still beings trapped in the cycle of Samsara, the Bodhisattva vows not to leave them behind. Nirvana is still a core teaching of the Mahayana, but it is not taught in an individualistic manner.
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Lhamo
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Lhamo »

Khalil Bodhi wrote:Thanks Lhamo. I figured that the reasoning had to do with questioning the Pali Canon. The problem is that even if you look at the Chinese Agamas and Tibetan Kangyur (sp?) they make no mention of these figues either. It's always possible that there was an extra-canonical dispensation to davata and nagas but why did Lord Budha explicitly state that there were no secret teachings?

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .vaji.html
32. Thus spoke the Venerable Ananda, but the Blessed One answered him, saying: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?
Anyway, thank you for your reply and I'll keep practicing those teachings from these great traditions which seem to me to be in accord with my own idiosyncratic interpretation of the Dhamma and help me to cultivate the brahmaviharas. :anjali:
Well, I can't give you an appropriate answer, since I didn't hear of most of these scriptures which do not mention Avalokiteshvara... I'm coming from the other side: having a venerable teacher, who teaches about Avalokiteshvara in theory and practice. I couldn't care less, if some Chinese or Pali scriptures do not mention him. Also the Lamrim (by Tsongkhapa) doesn't mention Avalokiteshvara or other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and it is the Sutra foundation of the Gelug traditon. This doesn't hinder the Gelugs to practice Avalokiteshvara. Nothing of the tantras is mentioned in the sutras. That's normal. You can't find everything in the sutras. :)

Avalokiteshvara is the compassion aspect of the Buddhas mind. It is a diety to do meditational work with, in order to achieve and to deepen that aspect. It is not so very important for this work, if he was a historical person or not. The diety is empty, like me and you.

One quality of the Buddha is to be able to teach each and every being in it's personal appropriate way. If the teachings were uniform, this would be a complete contradiction to the purpose of the Dharma teachings: fetching every being from were they are and make them saints. :heart:
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Khalil Bodhi
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Khalil Bodhi »

Thanks everyone! :heart:
To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
-Dhp. 183

My Practice Blog:
http://khalilbodhi.wordpress.com
johnny dangerous
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by johnny dangerous »

Khalil Bodhi wrote:Hey everyone,

First let me state that I have the utmost respect for Mahanaya and Vajrayana teachings and have been highly influenced by them. So much so, in fact, that I am currently taking the FPMT's course on a Wheel of Sharp Weapons and have made my main brahmavihara practice tonglen at present. However, one thing that I can't quite get set straight in my head are the idea of extra-canonical Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

How do you, as practitioners, reconcile the existence and teachings of beings who are never mentioned in the Pali Canon? Clearly, numberless beings have benefited from the teachings of the Mahayana and Vajrayana but if Avalokiteshvara and Amitabha are such important characters why did the Lord Buddha not mention them?

Again, I want to stress that this is a real problem for me and not an interesting question solely posted to spark debate. Please forgive me if I've offended anyone but I am truly interested in how to wrap my head around these things.

Mettaya,

KB :anjali:

You need to read up on the Three Bodies concept I think."Buddha" means something very different in Mahayana ultimately than it does in Theravada, and this ...expanded (sorry if that's insulting, it's the only word I can think of) view of what Buddha is is really integral to understanding Mahayana IME, let alone Vajrayana.

As to how it's reconciled, generally there is a spectrum of understanding, but a succinct way to put it is that in Mahayana Pali Canon teachings are seen as foundational, but provisional. but are only one version of the teaching - that which was heard and understood by arhats, and leads to the fruit of arhatship. The way I have heard traditional teachers explain it is that the exoteric teachings of Shakyamuni were what one group "heard", the Mahayana yet another, and the Tantras another. At least some of these fall under the category of revelation or similar that are describe or happened outside normal time/space/historical circumstance. Weird stuff for some maybe, secular Buddhism it ain't:)


The other big issue is:

In the modern world, Western Theraveda practitioners associate themselves quite deeply it seems with an academic, text-critical Buddhist view, and so it has become de-rigeur to validate teachings on whether or not they come from a "historical Buddha". From a Mahayana perspective, Shakyamuni was Nirmanakaya, but he is not the only Buddha...I am sure that this sort of idea is quite foreign if you come at Theraveda from the text-critical perspective, but on some level Mahayana practitioners indeed believe that Mahayana was taught by Buddha, and that other Buddhas are "real" in the sense that they are Sambhogakaya emanations.

So basically, it will be confusing if you insist on text-critical approaches to Buddhism as being the final say as to what a Buddha is, though anyone can benefit from practices regardless. Mahayana believes there are other valid forms of understanding what "Buddha" is, and tends to be less concerned with textual criticism, at least of the sort that is preference in Theraveda..all IME of course.

Hope that helps, and isn't divisive, I believe we can all benefit from each others pov...just trying to give as accurate an answer as I can in terms of the main points involved in your questions:)
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by johnny dangerous »

SarathW wrote:Can someone explain me the final goal of Mahayana.
The way I understand they do not teach Nibbana.
The aim is to become a Bodhisatta and come back to this world again and become enlightened Buddha.
Am I correct?
AFAIK know, basically you are correct.

Mahayana teaches that it is a path to full Buddhahood rather than arhatship - Samyaksambodhi..which transcends the duality of Samsara and Nirvana..sometimes called "non abiding Nirvana". In many Mahayana schools it is taught that samsara and nirvana are ultimately inseparable.

That is not to start some big argument, IMO there are Theravedins that practice something akin to Mahayana, and Mahayanists who practice something akin to Theraveda...just how the tradition views itself, to the best of my knowledge:)
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Khalil Bodhi
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Khalil Bodhi »

johnny dangerous wrote:
You need to read up on the Three Bodies concept I think."Buddha" means something very different in Mahayana ultimately than it does in Theravada, and this ...expanded (sorry if that's insulting, it's the only word I can think of) view of what Buddha is is really integral to understanding Mahayana IME, let alone Vajrayana.

As to how it's reconciled, generally there is a spectrum of understanding, but a succinct way to put it is that in Mahayana Pali Canon teachings are seen as foundational, but provisional. but are only one version of the teaching - that which was heard and understood by arhats, and leads to the fruit of arhatship. The way I have heard traditional teachers explain it is that the exoteric teachings of Shakyamuni were what one group "heard", the Mahayana yet another, and the Tantras another. At least some of these fall under the category of revelation or similar that are describe or happened outside normal time/space/historical circumstance. Weird stuff for some maybe, secular Buddhism it ain't:)


The other big issue is:

In the modern world, Western Theraveda practitioners associate themselves quite deeply it seems with an academic, text-critical Buddhist view, and so it has become de-rigeur to validate teachings on whether or not they come from a "historical Buddha". From a Mahayana perspective, Shakyamuni was Nirmanakaya, but he is not the only Buddha...I am sure that this sort of idea is quite foreign if you come at Theraveda from the text-critical perspective, but on some level Mahayana practitioners indeed believe that Mahayana was taught by Buddha, and that other Buddhas are "real" in the sense that they are Sambhogakaya emanations.

So basically, it will be confusing if you insist on text-critical approaches to Buddhism as being the final say as to what a Buddha is, though anyone can benefit from practices regardless. Mahayana believes there are other valid forms of understanding what "Buddha" is, and tends to be less concerned with textual criticism, at least of the sort that is preference in Theraveda..all IME of course.

Hope that helps, and isn't divisive, I believe we can all benefit from each others pov...just trying to give as accurate an answer as I can in terms of the main points involved in your questions:)
:goodpost: Thanks for that. Do you have any recommendations for a good resource on the three bodies?
To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
-Dhp. 183

My Practice Blog:
http://khalilbodhi.wordpress.com
johnny dangerous
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by johnny dangerous »

Khalil Bodhi wrote:
johnny dangerous wrote:
You need to read up on the Three Bodies concept I think."Buddha" means something very different in Mahayana ultimately than it does in Theravada, and this ...expanded (sorry if that's insulting, it's the only word I can think of) view of what Buddha is is really integral to understanding Mahayana IME, let alone Vajrayana.

As to how it's reconciled, generally there is a spectrum of understanding, but a succinct way to put it is that in Mahayana Pali Canon teachings are seen as foundational, but provisional. but are only one version of the teaching - that which was heard and understood by arhats, and leads to the fruit of arhatship. The way I have heard traditional teachers explain it is that the exoteric teachings of Shakyamuni were what one group "heard", the Mahayana yet another, and the Tantras another. At least some of these fall under the category of revelation or similar that are describe or happened outside normal time/space/historical circumstance. Weird stuff for some maybe, secular Buddhism it ain't:)


The other big issue is:

In the modern world, Western Theraveda practitioners associate themselves quite deeply it seems with an academic, text-critical Buddhist view, and so it has become de-rigeur to validate teachings on whether or not they come from a "historical Buddha". From a Mahayana perspective, Shakyamuni was Nirmanakaya, but he is not the only Buddha...I am sure that this sort of idea is quite foreign if you come at Theraveda from the text-critical perspective, but on some level Mahayana practitioners indeed believe that Mahayana was taught by Buddha, and that other Buddhas are "real" in the sense that they are Sambhogakaya emanations.

So basically, it will be confusing if you insist on text-critical approaches to Buddhism as being the final say as to what a Buddha is, though anyone can benefit from practices regardless. Mahayana believes there are other valid forms of understanding what "Buddha" is, and tends to be less concerned with textual criticism, at least of the sort that is preference in Theraveda..all IME of course.

Hope that helps, and isn't divisive, I believe we can all benefit from each others pov...just trying to give as accurate an answer as I can in terms of the main points involved in your questions:)
:goodpost: Thanks for that. Do you have any recommendations for a good resource on the three bodies?
geez.. the Uttaratantra is amazing, but that's kind of jumping into the deep end. Lemme give it some thought... here's the wiki for overview, but I'll bet you've looked at that:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trikaya
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambhogak%C4%81ya
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Lhamo
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Lhamo »

johnny dangerous wrote:
Khalil Bodhi wrote:Hey everyone,

First let me state that I have the utmost respect for Mahanaya and Vajrayana teachings and have been highly influenced by them. So much so, in fact, that I am currently taking the FPMT's course on a Wheel of Sharp Weapons and have made my main brahmavihara practice tonglen at present. However, one thing that I can't quite get set straight in my head are the idea of extra-canonical Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

How do you, as practitioners, reconcile the existence and teachings of beings who are never mentioned in the Pali Canon? Clearly, numberless beings have benefited from the teachings of the Mahayana and Vajrayana but if Avalokiteshvara and Amitabha are such important characters why did the Lord Buddha not mention them?

Again, I want to stress that this is a real problem for me and not an interesting question solely posted to spark debate. Please forgive me if I've offended anyone but I am truly interested in how to wrap my head around these things.

Mettaya,

KB :anjali:

You need to read up on the Three Bodies concept I think."Buddha" means something very different in Mahayana ultimately than it does in Theravada, and this ...expanded (sorry if that's insulting, it's the only word I can think of) view of what Buddha is is really integral to understanding Mahayana IME, let alone Vajrayana.

As to how it's reconciled, generally there is a spectrum of understanding, but a succinct way to put it is that in Mahayana Pali Canon teachings are seen as foundational, but provisional. but are only one version of the teaching - that which was heard and understood by arhats, and leads to the fruit of arhatship. The way I have heard traditional teachers explain it is that the exoteric teachings of Shakyamuni were what one group "heard", the Mahayana yet another, and the Tantras another. At least some of these fall under the category of revelation or similar that are describe or happened outside normal time/space/historical circumstance. Weird stuff for some maybe, secular Buddhism it ain't:)


The other big issue is:

In the modern world, Western Theraveda practitioners associate themselves quite deeply it seems with an academic, text-critical Buddhist view, and so it has become de-rigeur to validate teachings on whether or not they come from a "historical Buddha". From a Mahayana perspective, Shakyamuni was Nirmanakaya, but he is not the only Buddha...I am sure that this sort of idea is quite foreign if you come at Theraveda from the text-critical perspective, but on some level Mahayana practitioners indeed believe that Mahayana was taught by Buddha, and that other Buddhas are "real" in the sense that they are Sambhogakaya emanations.

So basically, it will be confusing if you insist on text-critical approaches to Buddhism as being the final say as to what a Buddha is, though anyone can benefit from practices regardless. Mahayana believes there are other valid forms of understanding what "Buddha" is, and tends to be less concerned with textual criticism, at least of the sort that is preference in Theraveda..all IME of course.

Hope that helps, and isn't divisive, I believe we can all benefit from each others pov...just trying to give as accurate an answer as I can in terms of the main points involved in your questions:)
Very :goodpost: ... :thanks:
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Iconodule
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Iconodule »

As an interesting side note, the Theravada monk/ scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi (who translated a lot of the Nikayas into English) has been residing at a Chinese Mahayana monastery in the US for years. He is even the chairman of the Yin Shun foundation. As far as I can tell, he and the Chinese monks have the greatest mutual respect and study each other's work.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend. - St. Isaac of Syria
johnny dangerous
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by johnny dangerous »

Iconodule wrote:As an interesting side note, the Theravada monk/ scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi (who translated a lot of the Nikayas into English) has been residing at a Chinese Mahayana monastery in the US for years. He is even the chairman of the Yin Shun foundation. As far as I can tell, he and the Chinese monks have the greatest mutual respect and study each other's work.
There seem to be examples of this kind of thing here and there, at least in Western Dharma circles.

http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books9/Ajahn ... untain.pdf

This is a book by Ajahn Amaro that is basically a Theravadin who gets not only has affinity with Mahayana concepts, but has some affinity and understanding of Dzogchen. IIRC it was a retreat involving both Theravadins and some of Tsoknyi rinpoches Dharma students.

This of course really drives anyone orthodox up the wall, and many will put it down. Even in my cursory readings of the Thai Forest guys, it's not hard to see how they arrived at similar place to some Mahayana schools. A lot of times once things get focused on practice it appears it's easier for people to put aside differences.

The teachings often seem to say that one of the things that makes Mahayana Mahayana is Bodhicitta motivation, and Bodhicitta is not something you cultivate by just by joining a certain organization, calling oneself a certain thing, etc. While Mahayana focuses on it, I think it can exists in other traditions too, and that even some non-Buddhist schools have a nascent version of it.

Of course that's just personal opinion, not doctrine. My pov is that doctrine is a starting point for practice, but that limitations are provisional..I've seen a lot of good teachers say that if we are confused in what we are doing, then it's best o be narrower, if we can handle it and practice fruitful though- nothing wrong with a wider view.
TexasBuddhist
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by TexasBuddhist »

Yes, that would be a Mahayana class led by a Bhikshu or Experienced Buddhist.
johnny dangerous
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by johnny dangerous »

TexasBuddhist wrote:Yes, that would be a Mahayana class led by a Bhikshu or Experienced Buddhist.

Huh?
TexasBuddhist
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by TexasBuddhist »

johnny dangerous wrote:
TexasBuddhist wrote:Yes, that would be a Mahayana class led by a Bhikshu or Experienced Buddhist.

Huh?

Mahayana Buddhism
Iconodule
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by Iconodule »

TexasBuddhist wrote:
johnny dangerous wrote:
TexasBuddhist wrote:Yes, that would be a Mahayana class led by a Bhikshu or Experienced Buddhist.

Huh?

Mahayana Buddhism
Are you from Fort Worth area by any chance?
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend. - St. Isaac of Syria
TexasBuddhist
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Re: How to Understand the Mahayana in Light of the Pali Canon

Post by TexasBuddhist »

Iconodule wrote:
TexasBuddhist wrote:
johnny dangerous wrote:

Huh?

Mahayana Buddhism
Are you from Fort Worth area by any chance?
Yes, Granbury on Hwy 377 connects you to Ft. Worth
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