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Origins and Development of the Mahayana


Peter Friedlander

BODDHSATTVAS OF THE FOREST AND THE FORMATION OF THE MAHAYANA
By Daniel Boucher
Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi, 2011, pp. xxiii+287, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 4 April 2012

This is an excellent book, one which should be on the list of anybody interested in the question of the origins of the Mahayana. Studies of this issue have come a long way since 1907 when D.T. Suzuki, in his Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (1907) started with a set of premises about what the Mahayana should be and then tried to read back into the past from that to find its origins. Perhaps the most influential twentieth century development in understanding the origins of the Mahayana is to be found in the works of the Japanese scholar Akira Hirakawa who arg-ued in the nineteen fifties that its origins lay in cults which developed around stupas rather than in monastic communities, and these views are best known through an English tran-slation of one of his works A History of Indian Buddhism (1990). This idea was then challen-ged by a number of authors. First, Gregory Schopen, who argued from the mid-1970s, for instance in some of the articles in his work Bones, Stones and Buddhist Monks (1997), that inscriptional evidence shows that the origins of the Mahayana were perhaps much later than many had thought and lay within the monastic Sangha itself. Yet another counterpoint was also argued by Reginald Ray in his Buddhist Forest Saints (1994) in which he argued that the origins of the Mahayana lay in traditions of forest dwelling monks involved in medita-tion. This was then followed by an innovative and powerful theory in A Few Good Men by Jan Natier (2003) in which she proposed that Mahayana should be seen as an elitist move-ment within monastic Buddhism. Finally in this sequence of ideas we have this book itself, in which Boucher puts forward an argument similar to Natier's and proposes that the Mahayana's origins are to be found within monastic Buddhism amongst groups focusing on developing hierarchies of superior practices based on continued residence in monasteries combined with forest based ascetic practices. Both Natier and Boucher argue against one of the dominant conceptualizations of Mahayana and argue that an initial sense of Mahayana, literally 'great vehicle' was not that it was great, in the sense of allowing many to ride in it, but rather it was a vehicle for the elite, the great, only. This is a radically diffe-rent understanding than Hirakawa's argument which sought the origins of Mahayana as a popular lay tradition. Boucher starts in his introduction by su-ggesting ...


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