The Usual Explanation Of The Canon

An eminent Chinese Buddhist scholar, well known as Ten Dai Dai Shi

(A.D. 538-597), arranged the whole preachings of Shakya Muni in a

chronological order in accordance with his own religious theory, and

observed that there were the Five Periods in the career of the Buddha

as a religious teacher. He tried to explain away all the

discrepancies and contradictions, with which the Sacred Books are

encumbered, by arranging t
e Sutras in a line of development. His

elucidation was so minute and clear, and his metaphysical reasonings

so acute and captivating, that his opinion was universally accepted

as an historical truth, not merely by the Chinese, but also by the

Japanese Mahayanists. We shall briefly state here the so-called Five


Shakya Muni attained to Buddhaship in his thirtieth year, and sat

motionless for seven days under the Bodhi tree, absorbed in deep

meditation, enjoying the first bliss of his Enlightenment. In the

second week he preached his Dharma to the innumerable multitude of

Bodhisattvas, celestial beings, and deities in the nine

assemblies held at seven different places. This is the origin of a

famous Mahayana book entitled Buddhavatamsaka-mahavaipulya-sutra. In

this book the Buddha set forth his profound Law just as it was

discovered by his highly Enlightened mind, without considering the

mental states of his hearers. Consequently the ordinary hearers (or

the Buddha's immediate disciples) could not understand the doctrine,

and sat stupefied as if they were 'deaf and dumb,' while the great

Bodhisattvas fully understood and realized the doctrine. This is

called the first period, which lasted only two or three weeks.

Bodhisattva is an imaginary personage, or ideal saint,

superior to Arhat, or the highest saint of Hinayanism. The term

'Bodhisattva' was first applied to the Buddha before his

Enlightenment, and afterwards was adopted by Mahayanists to mean the

adherent of Mahayanism in contradistinction with the Cravaka or

hearers of Hinayanism.

Bodhiruci says to the effect that the preachings in the

first five assemblies were made in the first week, and the rest were

delivered in the second week. Nagarjuna says that the Buddha spoke

no word for fifty-seven days after his Enlightenment. It is said in

Saddharma-pundarika-sutra that after three weeks the Buddha preached

at Varanasi, and it says nothing respecting Avatamsaka-sutra. Though

there are divers opinions about the Buddha's first sermon and its

date, all traditions agree in this that he spent some time in

meditation, and then delivered the first sermon to the five ascetics

at Varanasi.

Thereupon Shakya Muni, having discovered that ordinary bearers were

too ignorant to believe in the Mahayana doctrine and appreciate the

greatness of Buddhahood, thought it necessary to modify his teaching

so as to adjust it to the capacity of ordinary people. So he went to

Varanasi (or Benares) and preached his modified doctrine--that is,

Hinayanism. The instruction given at that time has been handed down

to us as the four Agamas, or the four Nikayas. This is

called the second period, which lasted about twelve years. It was at

the beginning of this period that the Buddha converted the five

ascetics, who became his disciples. Most of the Çravakas or

the adherents of Hinayanism were converted during this period. They

trained their hearts in accordance with the modified Law, learned the

four noble truths, and worked out their own salvation.

(1) Anguttara, (2) Majjhima, (3) Digha, (4) Samyutta.

Kondanynya, Vappa, Baddiya, Mahanana, Assaji.

The first is the sacred truth of suffering; the second the

truth of the origin of suffering--that is, lust and desire; the third

the sacred truth of the extinction of suffering; the fourth the

sacred truth of the path that leads to the extinction of suffering.

There are eight noble paths that lead to the extinction of

suffering--that is, Right faith, Right resolve, Right speech, Right

action, Right living, Right effort, Right thought, and Right


The Buddha then having found his disciples firmly adhering to

Hinayanism without knowing that it was a modified and imperfect

doctrine, he had to lead them up to a higher and perfect doctrine

that he might lead them up to Buddhahood. With this object in view

Shakya Muni preached Vimalakirtti-nirdeca-sutra,

Lankavatara-sutra, and other sutras, in which he compared Hinayanism

with Mahayanism, and described the latter in glowing terms as a deep

and perfect Law, whilst he set forth the former at naught as a

superficial and imperfect one. Thus he showed his disciples the

inferiority of Hinayanism, and caused them to desire for Mahayanism.

This is said to be the third period, which lasted some eight years.

This is one of the most noted Mahayana books, and is said

to be the best specimen of the sutras belonging to this period. It

is in this sutra that most of Shakya's eminent disciples, known as

the adherents of Hinayanism, are astonished with the profound wisdom,

the eloquent speech, and the supernatural power of Vimalakirtti, a

Bodhisattva, and confess the inferiority of their faith. The author

frequently introduces episodes in order to condemn Hinayanism, making

use of miracles of his own invention.

The disciples of the Buddha now understood that Mahayanism was far

superior to Hinayanism, but they thought the higher doctrine was only

for Bodhisattvas and beyond their understanding. Therefore they

still adhered to the modified doctrine, though they did no longer

decry Mahayanism, which they had no mind to practise. Upon this

Shakya Muni preached Prajnyaparamita-sutras in the sixteen

assemblies held at four different places, and taught them Mahayanism

in detail in order to cause them to believe it and practise it. Thus

they became aware that there was no definite demarcation between

Mahayanism and Hinayanism, and that they might become Mahayanists.

This is the fourth period, which lasted about twenty-two years.

Now, the Buddha, aged seventy-two, thought it was high time to preach

his long-cherished doctrine that all sentient beings can attain to

Supreme Enlightenment; so he preached Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, in

which he prophesied when and where his disciples should become

Buddhas. It was his greatest object to cause all sentient beings to

be Enlightened and enable them to enjoy the bliss of Nirvana. It was

for this that he had endured great pain and hardships through his

previous existences. It was for this that he had left his heavenly

abode to appear on earth. It was for this that he had preached from

time to time through his long career of forty-seven years. Having

thus realized his great aim, Shakya Muni had now to prepare for his

final departure, and preached Mahaparinirvana-sutra in order to show

that all the animated and inanimate things were endowed with the same

nature as his. After this last instruction he passed to eternity.

This is called the fifth period, which lasted some eight years.

Nagarjuna's doctrine depends mainly on these sutras.

These five periods above mentioned can scarcely be called historical

in the proper sense of the term, yet they are ingeniously invented by

Ten Dai Dai Shi to set the Buddhist Scriptures in the order of

doctrinal development, and place Saddharma-pundarika in the highest

rank among the Mahayana books. His argument, however dogmatic and

anti-historical in no small degree, would be not a little valuable

for our reader, who wants to know the general phase of the Buddhist

Canon, consisting of thousands of fascicles.