Buddhism is a rich tradition which comprises many so-called vehicles, which might be thought of as sub-religions or sects. In its earlier form, it focused mostly on monastic practice. The earlier, Theravada school idealized arhats, or solitary meditators who went into the wilderness to work on their minds through contemplation.
As the tradition evolved and the societal needs exerted pressure on Buddhism, it developed a salvific Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) tradition, which better served the needs of the lay believers. This tradition emerged a few centuries after the death of the historical Buddha, also known as Siddhartha or Shakyamuni.
In general, it’s fair to say that Theravada is more psychological and that Mahayana has more of the trappings of traditional religion. However, I must confess that for many years I underestimated the depth and the maturity of the insight of many Mahayana sages, mainly because of my instinctual reaction against religiosity. This has been a mistake on my part. My recent exploration of Nichiren Buddhism and of the Lotus Sutra (a Mahayana scripture) is teaching me that Mahayana can be just as much about the inner life and the psychology of people as Theravada is, and that therefore it’s also a therapeutic humanism. Additionally, it has become clear to me that there are many nuggets of wisdom in the various layers of wisdom tradition that were built on top of Shakyamuni’s foundation when the Mahayana tradition was born, and later on when Boddhidharma brought it to China, and later on when the Tien-tai school emerged, when it was brought to Japan as Tendai, and then again when Nichiren reformed it, and even still after Nichiren within his lineage. There have been moments of enriched insight in each layer, which we can only glean if we take a sincere and humble look at the ripened fruits of the dharma.
Also, implicit in the missionary spirit in which ancient Epicurean philosophy was practiced and preached in antiquity, we must acknowledge many similar features in ancient Epicurean philosophy as we see in Mahayana: the use of various efficient means (upayas) to teach people according to their nature, ability and tendencies being one among them.
Understanding the Limits and Benefits of a Greater Vehicle
Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals, it is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.
Civilization, like intelligence, may serve well, serve adequately, or fail to serve its adaptive function.
Octavia Butler, in her Parable of the Seed
Having acknowledged my initial apprehensions about the need for a Greater Vehicle, let’s now move on to consider whether collective advancement translates into individual advancement. In my humble view, to to a great extent it can, and it must: society must allow and facilitate freedom to pursue tranquility, ease, and pleasure, without interfering in the rights and freedoms of other individuals.
Also, we can gain further insights into the need for a Greater Vehicle by studying the way in which it has been demonstrated that happiness is contagious. This means that collective advancement is required for individual advancement, or that at least it greatly favors it. Insofar as that is the case, the Mahayana path of Buddhism follows true insights. Epicurus’ choice of consecrating a Garden to the pursuit of philosophy demonstrates the need for a separate cultural space that facilitates the pursuit of happiness via association with others on the same path.
Having said all this, we must stress that it is absolutely clear that ataraxia is the result of personal effort and education, and that we must reject the Mahayana view that this collective advancement can “save” an individual soul or replace individual effort in any way, which is what many Mahayana sutras (scriptures) claim.
For instance, the US Constitution honors our right to pursue happiness and it could be argued that, as a humanist manifesto, it sets the stage for a kind of secular humanist Greater Vehicle which facilitates our collective advancement toward ataraxia, if we put individual effort into it. In other words, individual progress pre-requires a favorable environment, and then again the fact that so many Americans suffer from depression and mental health issues demonstrates that a collective (religious or secular) doctrine that affirms the right or responsibility to be happy does not automatically “save” anyone.
The benefits of any collective “vehicle” for liberation and happiness, although recognized and maybe even required, are limited. These vehicles represent merely opportunities which individuals may or may not take advantage of.
The Greater Vehicle, in the Epicurean tradition, finds expression in the hedonic covenant: an agreement among friends not to harm or be harmed, which is our golden rule and the foundation of societal justice. Friendship, safety, happiness, learning: all of these things must flourish within the framework of this societal agreement.
These reasonings will continue in future blogs.
PS. Author Justin Fenech explores through his fiction, in his new novel My Noon My Midnight, related philosophical questions about being happy for oneself or for others. He has also blogged recently about Epicurean themes and is active on our facebook group.