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Some Historical Background and the Buddhist Forest Tradition

As Reginald Ray notes, the Mahayana branch of Buddhism was from the beginning primarily a forest tradition, non-monastic in character. This claim is supported by early Indian sutra texts. Ray states:

The Ugrapariprccha Sutra remarks that "the bodhisattva who has left the world must reflect that the forest life was ordained by the Buddha" and that in following the forest life "there is fulfillment of the Pure Law." ... The Ratnagunasamcayagatha takes a similar view, mentioning that the Buddha wandered freely without a home; advocating this as the highest life of the renunciant bodhisattva; and saying that in this way complete buddhahood should be sought. The Rastrapalapariprccha Sutra similarly presents the forest life as normative for the bodhisattva, who is to live in the forest practicing the dhutagunas and meditating. The Samdhinirmocana Sutra also understands the forest life to have been ordained by the Buddha and sees the bodhisattva renunciant as the one who most purely fulfills this ideal. These "Mahayana" forest texts do not present their kind of Buddhism as anything new. Instead, they see it as simply a continuation of the normative forest ideal established by the Buddha in the beginning, which they understand as his highest teaching. For them, this is the original bodhisattva Buddhism, and they understand it as nothing other than original Buddhism in its most quintessential form (Ray, Buddhist Saints in India, p. 407).

Ray cites Lamotte in describing the development of esoteric traditions within Buddhism from this early period, mentioning the advanced and secret nature of some of the Buddha's early teachings. These ideas included "the presentation of this teaching to a privileged circle of disciples; the transmission of certain important texts to great bodhisattvas; the keeping secret of these teachings for many centuries in mysterious and inaccessible regions." (Ray, Ibid, p. 410)

This secrecy contrasts with the more popular, easily understandable ideas of Buddhism like the four noble truths, non-violence and non-attachment. As Ray notes,

Let us recall that the motif of secrecy is one frequently found, explicitly or by implication, in the materials that surround the Buddhist saints of the forest. The Indian Vajrayana in its early forest days is called guhyamantra (secret mantra), and this expression reflects an important characteristic of this tradition: the core teachings are given by masters only to qualified and properly prepared disciples. This general pattern is one we find implicit in the very structure of the Buddhist saintly tradition: the inner circle of close disciples clearly receives a different sort of instruction from the larger penumbra of followers and devotees." (Ray, p. 410)

How much can we say of these early secret forms of Buddhism? Very little. They were not recorded, many were carried down by oral tradition in the teachings of the Buddhist yogis who wandered through the forests, the 'forest saints' who never became a part of institutional Buddhism. Because of this, many teachings were lost over the centuries.

As an example of an esoteric tradition of Buddhism, one which has been largely lost, we may look at the Sahajiya Buddhist tradition of northeastern India. It has survived in rare writings found in northern Bengal. These texts were written in local languages and called the Caryapadas and Dohas. In these poems and songs, Sahajiya Buddhist practitioners or siddhacaryas described their inner experiences, and their contacts with supernatural guides. These poems spread and were popular throughout northern India. In this example we shall focus on their religious mysticism, as an example of the esoteric Tantric Buddhism of the eighth through twelfth centuries CE in Bengal.

These caryapada poems and songs included the use of dharanis or mantras, mudras, mandalas, attainment of supernatural powers, initiation or abhisheka rituals (more popularly called diksha) and visualization and identification with gods and goddesses of the inner or sambhogakaya worlds as important aspects of esoteric practice. They elaborate on the spiritual or inner physiology of the body, with control of vital winds, and sexual yoga practices which evoke and redistribute subtle energies. Ultimate emptiness (sunyata) and compassion (karuna) become personified as male and female figures, and their spiritual union could create great bliss (mahasukha). The human body becomes the reflection of the universe, and what happened in one could affect the other. Other ideas include the illusory nature of the physical world (which is neither existent nor non-existent), the universe as a place of eternal change, the limitations of rational knowledge, and many metaphors for the mind, body and the formless Void. Some poems were based on the idea of Sahajiya yoga, 'easy' or 'natural' yoga, which described the body as a mass of subtle psychic rivers which the yogin must navigate to attain bliss. The poems also included social criticism, and images of the local landscapes, especially boats and rivers.

Sahajiya sadhanas or spiritual practices involved personification of the female element (as the supernatural figures of Candali, Dombi, Savari, Nairamani, etc). The rituals were usually described in metaphors- the lotus and the thunderbolt must meet in the body, uniting through bliss; the moon melts onto the blazing house; the dazzling goddess moves upwards through the burning house and brings cool winds of joy into the darkness. The naked yogin sees the divine woman (Dombi), and she sings and dances and reveals the truth. He is mad with bliss, and their marriage teaches both spiritual ideals and practices. (For further data, see Shashibhusan Dasgupta, Obscure Religious Cults).

This form of Buddhism has largely been lost, surviving today through songs of modern Sahajiyas, who are primarily Hindu Vaishnava these days, and in the songs of Bauls, wanderers who travel singing esoteric and other types of religious and local folk songs. These texts are used here as examples of a lost set of Buddhist spiritual practices, from which we have only remnants. Recovery of past beliefs is an important part of religious scholarship.

Doing practices that are guided by yidams is one way to regain access to esoteric Buddhism. Such access may be difficult or impossible to obtain today because so many of these practices have been lost in modern Buddhist traditions.

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