THE POWER OF ‘TRUE WORDS’: ‘ORIGINAL BUDDHISM’, FORBIDDEN MANTRAS AND THE REIGN OF BUDDHIST EMPEROR ASHOKA (‘Origins of Secret Mantra’ by 17th Karmapa)

“Within Original Buddhism, one was not allowed to recite mantras to overcome enemies, but you could use special mantras to protect your body and life. We can say clearly there was a tradition of reciting them.”

“Thus, there may not have been so much recitation of mantras, yidam deities and rituals as in the complete presentation of Secret Mantra. These only came later after Tantra had spread widely. However, reciting mantras and curing illnesses and benefiting sentient beings with them, were used like that in Original Buddhism.”

–17th Karmapa

Here is the final day write-up of the ‘Origins of Secret Mantra’ teachings (Day 14) by HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje.

First, the Karmapa reminded the audience of how Buddhism spread after the Buddha had passed away and the organization of the Sangha in general.  He then spoke about how the Buddhist community split into two ‘factions’: ‘Original Buddhism (the first hundred years after Buddha passed away) and after that time “Nikāya Buddhism”. After Nikāya Buddhism spread then the Mahayana spread, and that is when secret mantra began.

The Karmapa then spoke about whether Secret Mantra had originated within the period of Original Buddhism. This included a discussion of the use of mantras in Original Buddhism, in particular Vidya (or awareness) mantras. Some mantras were said to be prohibited, especially those used to kill (or destroy) enemies. Buddha also advised people, such as Aṅgulimāla, to speak ‘true words’ in order to bring benefit and protection to oneself and others. Karmapa reflected that mantras are examples of ‘true words’ as well.

The final part of the teaching was on the reign of Ashoka, his conversion to Buddha Dharma, the rock and pillar edicts and his tragic demise.

The Karmapa stated he would continue speaking on the topic next year, in particular the origins of Secret Mantra in Mahayana Buddhism.

Music? For the great Ashoka and his Lion Pillars: Listen to the Lion by Van Morrison.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 8th October 2021.

Origins of Secret Mantra in Original and Nikāya Buddhism 

“After the Buddha had passed into nirvana, his teachings were spread widely by his students. In particular, throughout the north-west of India and gradually throughout the whole of India.

Around the time that Ashoka ascended to the throne, the Sangha had split into two factions, called the Sthaviravāda (Theravada) and the Mahasanghika. Before it split into factions,  “Buddhologists” or researchers called it “Original Buddhism,” and Buddhism after that time “Nikāya Buddhism” (Buddhism of the schools”). Later, scholars had many different names for these, there was some debate regarding the terminology, he would not discuss this further at the moment.

The Sthaviravāda (Theravada) and the Mahasanghika are called the two root schools. This is the general way in which they are described. However, the way it is described within Tibetan Buddhism and in the Theravada tradition are different.  The Theravada explanation is more accepted and influential right now. According to the Theravada tradition, there are those two basic schools: the Theravada and the Mahasanghika. This is different from what we normally say in the Tibetan tradition, is that the two basic schools (or split), the Sthaviravāda (Theravada) and the Mahasanghika are the primary division. However, within these schools there later appeared many sub-schools and these are known as the “secondary schools”.  They are also referred to as tenets or philosophical schools, each holding different positions.

With regard to how many different secondary schools developed, we cannot say definitely how many there were. There are likewise minor differences in the explanations given by different scholars. What is generally accepted is that the two basic schools split into eighteen secondary schools. However, if we want to identify these schools. there is no single way of identifying them iand clearly describing what they were. Thus, the way it is described in the Theravadan. Tibetan and Northern traditions are all different.

When did they split into two factions? It is estimated that the initial split probably occurred in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, but there is some dispute about that. There is no agreement among the scholars when speaking about dates because there was no tradition of recording dates in writing in India. So each scholar has to use their own research and intelligence and that is why they cannot completely match.

After Nikāya Buddhism had developed in India, the Mahayana tradition appeared. There are old Buddhist scriptures translated into Chinese during the Han dynasty. There are also  the Indian travel writings of the Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang. At that time, the Mahayana had begun to spread in India. However, when and how that began exactly is still a topic of research and discussion. I will speak about that more next year.

One thing one can explain clearly is that by the 4th century CE, a quarter of the monasteries in India were Mahayana. So at that time, we can say that the Mahayana by then had spread widely. Generally, we can say that the secret mantra arose within the Mahayana. Scholars do recognise this. 

After the Secret Mantra vehicle arose, it spread from India into China, and then from China into Japan. For example, the tradition of Vajrayana in Japan was the traditions that were practiced during the Tang dynasty in China. These traditions have continued uninterrupted.

Another transmission lineage of the Secret Mantra tradition spread from India into Nepal and then Tibet. At that time, Nepal was a part of India and thus was considered an area of Northern India. Thus, the Secret Mantra had spread widely.

As you all know, Nepal was like a part of India. It was a Northern part of India. In that case, the secret mantra had spread widely. There were the teachings during the time of Buddha and after he passed away, that is called ‘Original Buddhism’. From the time it split into two factions, that is the period of the Nikāya Buddhism. Within which there are the two main schools and the sub schools. After the Nikāya Buddhism spread then the Mahayana spread and that is when secret mantra began.”

The relation of Secret Mantra to Original Buddhism  – prajna and skilful means

Sometimes, people wonder whether the teachings of the Secret Mantra were actually taught by the Buddha or not. Was there Secret Mantra before its teachings spread widely? These are interesting questions.  I will speak about whether Secret Mantra had spread during the period of Original Buddhism – during the time of Buddha and around one hundred years after he passed away. This is  a very big question and I will have an opportunity to speak more about it next year. Since it is connected with the origin of mantra, there is no choice but to speak about it now.

These days, most scholars and researchers say that Original Buddhism was following prajna/wisdom, and prajna was emphasized more than skillful means/method. On the other hand, in Secret Mantra, we speak of skillful means such as pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and destroying, and thus the emphasis in Secret Mantra lies in skillful means.

Some researchers also say that there is no connection between the Buddha’s achievement of prajna/wisdom and Secret Mantra. This is because they see it as if the Buddha realized the nature of phenomena through prajna, i.e., he achieved Buddhahood by means of realizing the nature of how all things exist and that by doing so, he eliminated all ignorance. This is what we mean when we speak about the Buddha having gained omniscience, or having awakened to Buddhahood. He achieved that primarily through prajna. Thus, according to some researchers, it has no relation to the teachings of Secret Mantra.

It is explained by some, that the reason for this is that within society, the achievement of the siddhis, i.e., the accomplishment of the skillful means such as pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and destroying are somewhat related to superstition. It is not how ordinary people think in society. 

Whatever other scholars say, within the Vinaya scriptures, there are four sections which are scriptures of Original Buddhism found in the Theravada tradition, and also in Chinese. Within these, when they describe how the Buddha achieved enlightenment, they say that he achieved wisdom (jñāṇa), prajna (paññā), awareness (vidya: vijjā), and luminosity (āloka). it was because he attained all these four that he achieved Buddhahood. These are all primarily related knowing the nature of reality and achieving wisdom; to illuminating the nature as it is.”

Vidya/Awareness mantras and the use of mantras and ‘true words’ for protection
OM syllable begins most mantras and is considered a mantra in its own right

“The word vijjā (Skt. vidyā ), the Pali and Sanskrit term comes up, which means ‘things become clear’. We can translate it as ‘awareness’, it can also mean ‘known objects’ and many things. It can also mean ‘mantras’. Within mantra, we speak about secret mantra, awareness and dharani mantras. Awareness mantras are termed vidya.  According to the Vinaya scriptures it says the Buddha achieved enlightenment, the vidya is understood as attaining that. However it can also mean mantra.

In a sutra of the Theravada school called the Sutra of Brahma’s Web [2] and others, it says that at a later point in time, the teachings of the Secret Mantra had spread widely in society because of its quick results. Thus, everyone was enraptured by mantras and had a lot of superstitious faith in it. In this sutra, it also says that one cannot practice mantra associated with superstition, divination and so forth.

However, in the Vinaya scriptures it says that one may use mantras for one’s own protection and may also use true words. The vidyā (vijjā) mentioned in the Sutra of Brahma’s Web refers to the mantras which are not allowed—awareness mantras which are connected with superstition. Members of the sangha are not allowed to use these mantras. What it says in some Theravada sutras is that one is not allowed to use the vidyā mantras, but in other sutras it says that one may use things that are called by similar names to the vidyā mantras. What this shows is that the Buddha prohibited some types of vidyā mantras, but not all.”

Prohibited Mantras and the Gang of Six

“Which mantras did Buddha prohibit? There are many types of mantras that may not be used or recited. For example, in the Vinaya, there is mention of the ‘Gang of Six’ ( sadvargika) who trained in the pointless mantras. So, the Buddha made the rule prohibiting the use of these mantras that are associated with worldly superstitions. However, there is no precept prohibiting this in the 250 precepts of Bhikshus, yet it is included in the precepts of Bhikshunis.

It is clear that within Original Buddhism, awareness mantras that were common at that time in Indian society, were prohibited. However, in the context of the Buddha achieving enlightenment, the term vidyā appears. In the schools of Original Buddhism, it was not clearly explained what was meant by achieving awareness or vidyā. 

In any case, vidyā means ‘awareness’ and avijjā/avidyā means ‘ignorance’ which are opposites. Thus, the realisation of the nature is the opposite of ignorance. And when it is said in the Vinaya scriptures that the Buddha achieved wisdom, prajna, awareness and luminosity, it can be explained and is related to Secret Mantra. Even though such words are not frequently used in the original Buddhism scriptures. However, the places where it is used are actually very crucial words.

Also, when we recite the ten epithets of the Buddha, we say, “The one with awareness and conduct.” That awareness is understood as referring to the three types of clairvoyance. The Theravada school says that the awareness refers to the clairvoyance of the extinction of all defilements and so forth.

The word ‘awareness’ thus does not necessarily rmean the awareness mantras of superstition and blind faith. It is clear that awareness mantras can also be used for good purposes, and can also be understood as an aid to achieving the realization of the true nature.This point does occur within the teachings of Original Buddhism. 

Later, in the Mahayana scriptures, it mentions “the mantra of great awareness, the unsurpassed mantra, the mantra equal to the unequalled, the mantra that completely pacifies all suffering…” [from the “Heart Sutra”]. 

Here, when it says the “mantra of great awareness” it says “maha vidya mantra”, the vidyā is the same as mentioned in the Vinaya scriptures. What is added to it is the word ‘mantra’ which, when joined, becomes the “mantra of great awareness”. At that point in the Prajnaparamita, there is immediate talk about the mantra, or the mantra of transcendent prajna, which is an even more profound way of understanding awareness, which is closer to the Secret Mantra. This is another crucial point.

Thus, the term vidyā/awareness in Original Buddhism, it has a connection to the teachings of Secret Mantra Buddhism as well. 

Paritta/protection mantras
King Milinda asks questions. From Hutchinson’s story of the nations, containing the Egyptians, the Chinese, India, the Babylonian nation, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, the Phrygians, the Lydians, and other nations of Asia Minor.

“Within the Vinaya scriptures of the Theravada school, it says that we can recite protection mantras, which are called paritta, which is thus accepted in Original Buddhism. It says that some are allowed to be recited and some are not. 

There is not a unilateral ban on using mantras. For example, in the Pali Vinaya scriptures, it says that one may recite protective dhāraṇa mantras in order to protect oneself, such as when having been stung by bees or in the case of food poisoning, venomous snakes (to neutralise the poison), or spells cast by others’ sorcery and so forth.  Likewise, in the Vinaya scriptures there are four types of nagas. There are stories of the Buddha teaching protective mantras to pacify the poisons of these nagas. One needs to recite these mantras with a loving, compassionate mind towards the nagas. Moreover, there is mention of mantras to subdue snakes.

 In the later Mahayana scriptures, the dharani of Great Mayuri appears, which probably has developed from the previous mantras mentioned in the original scriptures. Likewise, in the Theravada tradition, there is a very well-known sutra called the “Sutra Requested by King Milinda” who was a great Greek king. In it, King Milinda had a question-and-answer with a bhikshu and within it there are quite a few mantras [3].

Thus, even at that time, there was the tradition of reciting various mantras. So within Original Buddhism, one was not allowed to recite mantras to overcome your enemies, but you could use special mantras to protect your body and life. We can say clearly there was a tradition of reciting them.”


Recitation of True Words
The Buddha teaches Aṅgulimāla

“The third aspect are the so-called true words, the “satya-vacana”, which are words said to have a special power because of the power of the truth. The Buddhist scriptures have many stories that talk about the benefits from reciting these words of truth. For example, in the Jataka tales, a child who was bitten by a poisonous snake. So they went to a sage practicing asceticism and asked him to help. He spoke true words that neutralized the poison. 

Moreover, in one Theravada sutra, there is a story of Aṅgulimāla, who first was a murderer and later became the Buddha’s student. When going on alms round, he met a woman who was pregnant but unable to give birth. he wanted to help but he did not know what to do.  He went to the Buddha to ask for his advice. The Buddha responded that he should go back to the pregnant woman and say true words. Having recited true words, he said ‘if it is true, may this child be born easily and comfortably’. Due to reciting these true words, the woman was able to give birth healthily [1]. Likewise, in the Mahayana, there is a lot of discussion about true words. 

Summing up, in Original Buddhism not all vidya, or all mantras were prohibited. Many were prohibited but not all.  From one perspective, mantras are actually ‘true words’.  There is also a connection between awareness mantras and enlightenment. We can see this, as I said before, in the Vinaya scriptures, when I talked about Buddha attaining enlightenment and the vidya. I will speak in more detail about this next year. 

There may not have been so much recitation of mantras, yidam deities and rituals as in the complete presentation of Secret Mantra. These only came later after tantra had spread widely. However, reciting mantras and curing illnesses and benefiting sentient beings with them. were used like that in Original Buddhism. It is not unreasonable to say that.

The Politics of that Period – Magadha power and Nanda dynasty

During the latter part of Buddha’s life, the king of Magadha was Ajatashatru. Ajatashatru had seized power by imprisoning his father, and done these bad deeds. Later, he became an intelligent king who gained control over many regions of central India and solidified Magadha’s power. 

Several generations after him, the minister Susunāga took power and the Susunāga dynasty began. However, it disintegrated quickly. Subsequently, there was the Nanda dynasty. This dynasty took control over many parts of India and had a great military strength. However, after 25 years after gaining power, this Nanda kingdom disintegrated. 

Alexander the Great

“Then, there was the well-known Greek emperor Alexander the Great came to power, who invaded several areas in Northwest India (327/326 BCE), but then later withdrew his troops. This is the map (see image) you can see the Nanda region and where Alexander came. 

After he withdrew his troops,  he died in 323 BCE in Babylon. So he could not continue invading India. Thus, India could not come under Greek control. If the Greeks had been able to invade the whole of India, there would have been a danger of harm to the spread of Buddhism.

Chandragupta Maurya

“At the same time as the Greeks invaded, there was the Indian king Chandragupta Maurya, he was the first King of the Maurya dynasty. When he was young, he  led an army that brought down the Nanda dynasty. He then continued to lead hi armies into North-West India and eliminated the remaining Greek power from the north-west, and took control over about half of India, establishing a powerful empire. 

These are images of Alexander’s invasion of India. The Maurya dynasty became stronger.  You can see on the map, at first Magadha was a small area and it grew larger. The Emperor established the dynasty and reigned for 24 years. He was followed by his son Bindusāra who reigned for over 28 years. Bindusāra’s son was the Emperor Ashoka, who probably came to power around 268 BCE.”

Ashoka dates and the rock edicts
Ashoka in Brahmi script

“Now, I will give a brief introduction to Ashoka’s life. The reason is not only his reign is close to the spread of Original Buddhism; but also at that time, there was the growth of Buddhism and its division into two main factions, though not yet the eighteen sub-schools. So at that time, Buddhism was still close to the original form. Thus, researching Ashoka is significant for research into Original Buddhism.

Ashoka’s name means “no sorrow (or suffering).” He probably reigned from around 268 BCE to 232 BCE. How do we know when he reigned? Based on the inscriptions on the pillars and rocks that Ashoka had inscribed, we are able to know when Ashoka reigned, many of which we can still see. 

“One of the edicts mentions five Kings in the West. In the 13th of Ashoka’s 14 Rock Edicts, the time of Ashoka’s reign is calculated by the dates of these five Western kings. In his inscriptions he says’ one year after I came to the throne’ or ‘two years after….’ but it does not say the exact year. How can we know the time he became Emperor. We can say it was at the same time as these five Kings. 

Ashoka did not just rule India, he also sent ambassadors to  neighboring countries, including Syria, Egypt and Macedonia. He writes the name of five of these Kings (see image, the coloured names). We can calculate when Ashoka came to the throne by the dates when those kings reigned.”

“Ashoka spread Buddhism not only in India but also to neighboring countries by sending ambassadors to those countries. This is India here (see map), he spread Buddhism in that huge area. In particular, if we look at the inscriptions, he would send his ambassadors for about four or five years. Thus, Buddhism at that time spread throughout many countries in Central Asia and was the largest religion in the world. This was due to the influence of Ashoka who worked hard to spread Buddhism not only in Asia , but also which then made its way to Europe.

We cannot say the date Ashoka came to the throne but the discrepancies cannot be larger than two and ten years range in range difference. The reign and dates of Ashoka are crucially important for ancient Indian history and the history of Buddhism. 

How long did Ashoka reign? The length of Ashoka’s reign is given in both the Sri Lankan history called the Mahavamsa and (in an Indian history text) called the Purana (which is mixed with many myths) also says he reigned for 36 years. The primary source for research into Ashoka’s history is the inscriptions on the pillars. However, after that, we can also look at the Sri Lankan histories, the Mahavamsa, the Samantapasadika, as well as the life of Ashoka, Parinirvana Sutra, and the Divyāvadāna from the Northern Tradition.”

From cruel youth to wise, Buddhist Emperor Ashoka
Lumbini Rummindei pillar at time of discovery in 1896, with location of the inscription, which was hidden about 1 meter under ground level.

“Traditionally it is said that Ashoka was very cruel when he was young, and killed many people. Later however, he became a Buddhist and began to rule as a dharma king, so he was called the Dharma King Ashoka. 

If we look at the inscriptions on pillars, he became Buddhist around seven years after ascending to the throne and took the lay precepts. That is explained in the inscriptions. During the first two-and-a-half years of his reign, he took little interest in Buddhism, but eight years after becoming king, he realized how many innocent people were slaughtered in war, how people were taken prisoner, exiled and separated from their parents and families, and how spouses were separated. Seeing these horrific things, he saw the wrongs of waging war. He realized that  even though he had achieved power through destructive means, victory through violence is not true victory. The actual, dharma victory (Dharma vijaya) is the ultimate victory. 

One year later, he not only began to stay with the sangha, he also began to strive at practice. Ten years after ascending to the throne, the texts say that he achieved the three enlightenments, sambodhi. There are many different explanations of the three enlightenments.  One of these is that Ashoka saw the truth and nature of things as they are. Some say that he went to Bodhgaya. In any case, Ashoka later began to make pilgrimages to Buddhist sites. He went himself to these sacred sites. Twenty years  after achieving enlightenment he  erected an Ashokan pillar at Lumbini. That is written on the pillar there, that he erected it twenty years after ascending to the throne [see image above].

Twelve years after ascending to the throne, he wanted to promote and publicize the dharma he had realized or experienced. So , he began to make inscribed pillars in rock, for future generations to see. If he had not written these on rock, there would have been nothing to see about dates of the Buddha’s birth and so on and huge discrepancies in them. I would be difficult to converge on the dates. This showed great foresight of Ashoka. This continued until the 27th year of his reign. “

Ashoka’s Rock Edicts

“The edicts were inscribed on huge rocks and boulders. There are different sizes, larger and smaller. They were carved inscriptions in rock faces that had been polished to a smooth surface, which are called ‘rock edicts. There are also edicts on polished sandstone pillars, which are called ‘pillar edicts’. 

The edicts are of two sizes of rock edicts, major and minor. The larger, major rock edicts are at places such as Girnār that are in the border regions of India. Seven major inscriptions have been found. and in addition, there is an edict with fourteen sections. That is the longest edict and an exemplar among the inscriptions.

The minor rock edicts are found in seven locations in central and southern India. They describe how Ashoka practiced True Dharma and so forth, so they are related closely to Buddhism. In an inscription discovered at a placed called Bairāṭ, he gives an introduction to the “seven gateways to dharma (see image above).”

Ashoka’s Pillar Edicts

 

“There are also major and minor pillar edicts. There are six or seven major pillar edicts, found in six sites in the central region. Their content is similar to the rock inscriptions; they only speak of topics related to dharma. There is an inscription made in the 26th year of Ashoka’s reign. The minor rock edicts are found in the ruins of Buddhist sites such as Sarnath and Sanchi. Sanchi is very well-known.  These describe Buddhist rules such as that the sangha may not split into factions and so on. These were edicts given to the Buddhis sangha, as I mentioned the other day. 

The pillars, especially the minor ones, have carvings of various animals. In particular, the pillar at Sarnath has the image of the four lions with a dharma wheel around them. This excellent carving became the symbol of India after it achieved independence (see image below).

“When were they found? Inscriptions were found over the course of the 19th century, and some were also discovered in the 20th century. For example, in 1949 an inscription in Aramaic was found at Rampāka in Afghanistan, in 1958 an inscription in both Greek and Aramaic was found in Kandahar. In 1966, an Ashokan rock edict was discovered in New Delhi. So far, thirty have been discovered in the 20th Century. 

The inscriptions are in ancient scripts. However, in 1837, James Prinsep researched and deciphered the inscriptions and from that point, the rock edicts have been helpful for research. However,  scholars are still unable to completely decipher their content.”

The Dharma of Ashoka – kindness to animals and medical care

“Here (above) are some letters during the time of Ashoka, such as the word ‘Buddha’ and ‘Shakyamuni.’ This image is a carving on the Sanchi stupa of Ashoka on a chariot. The Sanchi stupa was first built by Ashoka and then by later Kings. This shows where the inscriptions and rock edicts of Ashoka were found.

The way that Ashoka understood the dharma was that all beings should respect each other, based on the foundation of the Buddha’s teaching that all people are fundamentally equal. In addition, it includes appropriate ethical conduct such as one must be loving to all living creatures, speak the truth, be broad-minded and meditate on patience, offer protection to the deprived and unfortunate, and so forth. One must regard people lovingly. Likewise, he said you have to respect all living creatures and must not kill them. Even if one has to kill an animal, like some sentient beings might be pregnant or nursing, they were not allowed to be killed. 

During his reign, Ashoka had hospitals built for humans and also animals, planted many trees and plants, built wells to provide people with drinking water, established buildings at the roadside for people to rest, and thus did many things to keep people and animals happy and healthy. 

Moreover, he often stressed the importance of offering service to others and being polite to parents and elders, taking care of friends, not being disdainful, and being generous. This shows his high regard for human rights and loyalty. He encouraged generosity to the poor, spiritual practitioners, and brahmans. This shows his high regard fro human rights and people.

He also put a stop on the hunting of animals and he himself stopped hunting. He also instituted the tradition of going on pilgrimages (dharma-yātra) and visited the sacred sites of the teachers of different religions. 

Ashoka was not just generous in a material way, but also gave the Dharma. Basically, he strove to alleviate mental as well as physical suffering. He said that people should keep only a few things and be content and not hoard too much and have few desires. All this is described in his rock inscriptions.

He was diligent and worked hard and requests could be made of him whenever, whether he was eating, in the queen’s palace, or in a park. He would not say ‘oh I am busy, why are you bothering me?’ He was always open to requests at any time. In Ashoka’s opinion, governing in accord with the dharma and bringing benefit to the world was the king’s responsibility. All the king’s efforts are to repay debts to all sentient beings. He also said all sentient beings had treated him well in the past so he needed to repay their gratitude. That all sentient beings were like his children.

In order for the dharma to remain a long time, thirteen years after he ascended to the throne, Ashoka ordered that every five years, ministers would have to go on a “dharma-mahāmātra” trip around the entire empire to give dharma advice, and ensure the dharma would remain long in the empire.”

Respect for all religions and building of stupas

“Even though Ashoka was Buddhist, he viewed all religions and philosophies equally. In the rock edicts, the emperor said he made various offerings to all the teachers, or pārṣada, of all religions. He also wrote: ‘may all religions remain in all regions’. In the edicts, he appointed a minister especially for the Buddhist sangha, one minister for the Brahmans and Ājīvika religions, and one for the Jain Nirgrantha religion. For example, we have the Department of Religious Affairs, like that. This shows he viewed them all equally. However, he himself was a Buddhist that is clearly indicated in the inscriptions. This happened seven years after he ascended to the throne. 

Regarding Ashoka’s building of stupas, the pillars mention only Konākamana. But the Sutra of Ashoka translated into Chinese in the 6th century says that he built 84, 000 stupas for the relics of the Buddha and that it benefited many beings. Also, at the encouragement of Upagupta, whilst on pilgrimage to sacred sites, he built stupas at Lumbini, Sarnath, Bodhgaya, Kushinagar etc. He also built stupas for Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, the sutra says. At the time of Faxian and Xuanzang, it is written about these stupas, however at that time only ruins remained of the stupas. They heard that these had been built by Ashoka. Later archaeological research proved they were built at least in Ashoka’s time if not earlier. Thus, we can say Ashoka built many stupas for the relics of the Buddha and great arhats.”

Great Ashoka Stupa Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh state, India. It is one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the country and the largest stupa at the site.

“So first, Ashoka became Buddhist and because of spreading the dharma became known as Dharma Ashoka. I think if there had been no Ashoka, it would have been difficult for Buddhism to have spread widely.  He had great respect for the sangha because he actually practiced dharma as it should be done, and supported them greatly. However, at the same time the sangha grew more prosperous they also got corrupted; Ashoka was so generous to the sangha that it severely affected the finances of the kingdom. 

The “Sutra of Ashoka” tells how, “In the latter part of Ashoka’s life, the ministers even prohibited him giving to the sangha. In the end, it says that Ashoka himself did not have even the power to give half of an āmalaka fruit he held in his hand. This explanation shows how bad the situation became in the latter half of Ashoka’s life and how he had lost most of his power. Indeed, after the Ashoka passed away, the Maurya dynasty’s power declined quickly, and the empire was destroyed. 

Next year I will continue to speak about the division into the 18 sub-schools, the development of the Mahayana and the origin of Secret Mantra Vajrayana.”

Further Reading

Analayo, Bhikkhu (2008), “The Conversion of Angulimāla in the Saṃyukta-āgama”, Buddhist Studies Review25 (2): 135–48,

Gombrich, Richard (2006) [1996], How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings (PDF)

Groner, Paul. “The Fan-wang ching and Monastic Discipline in Japanese Tendai: A Study of Annen’s Futsū jubosatsukai kōshaku.” In Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, ed. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] “He goes to the Buddha and asks him what he can do to ease her pain. The Buddha tells Aṅgulimāla to go to the woman and say:

Sister, since I was born, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well.

Aṅgulimāla points out that it would be untrue for him to say this, to which the Buddha responds with this revised stanza:

Sister, since I was born with noble birth, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well. [emphasis added].

After Aṅgulimāla makes this “act of truth”, the woman safely gives birth to her child. This verse later became one of the protective verses, commonly called the Aṅgulimāla paritta. Monastics continue to recite the text during blessings for pregnant women in Theravāda countries, and often memorize it as part of monastic training. Thus, Aṅgulimāla is widely seen by devotees as the “patron saint” of childbirth. Changing from a murderer to a person seen to ensure safe childbirth has been a huge transformation.”

[2]The Brahmajāla Sūtra (Fànwǎng jīng), also called the Brahma’s Net Sutra, is a Mahayana Buddhist Vinaya Sutra. The Chinese translation can be found in the Taishō Tripiṭaka. The Tibetan translation can be found in Peking (Beijing) Kangyur 256. From the Tibetan it was also translated into Mongolian and the Manchu languages. It is known alternatively as the Brahmajāla Bodhisattva Śīla SūtraFàn Wǎng Púsà Jiè Jīng).

The Brahmajala Sutra has a list of ten major and forty-eight minor rules known as the Bodhisattva Precepts. The Bodhisattva Precepts may be often called the “Brahma Net Precepts” (Fànwǎng Jiè), particularly in Buddhist scholarship, although other sets of bodhisattva precepts may be found in other texts as well. Typically, in East Asian Mahayana traditions, only the 10 Major Precepts are considered the Bodhisattva Precepts. According to the sutra, the 10 Major Bodhisattva Precepts are in summary:

  1. Not to kill or encourage others to kill.
  2. Not to steal or encourage others to steal.
  3. Not to engage in licentious acts or encourage others to do so. A monk is expected to abstain from sexual conduct entirely.
  4. Not to use false words and speech, or encourage others to do so.
  5. Not to trade or sell alcoholic beverages or encourage others to do so.
  6. Not to broadcast the misdeeds or faults of the Buddhist assembly, nor encourage others to do so.
  7. Not to praise oneself and speak ill of others, or encourage others to do so.
  8. Not to be stingy, or encourage others to do so.
  9. Not to harbor anger or encourage others to be angry.
  10. Not to speak ill of the Buddha, the Dharma or the Sangha (lit. the Triple Jewel) or encourage others to do so.

Breaking any of these precepts is described as a parajika (Skt. Unforgivable) offence.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahmajāla_Sūtra

“The Fanwang jing (Brahma’s Net Sūtra) is a highly regarded apocryphal text in East Asian Buddhism that provided a set of uniquely MahĀyĀna precepts. According to tradition, the sūtra was spoken by the Buddha, recorded in Sanskrit in India, and then translated by KumĀrajĪva (350–409/413) into Chinese in 406. In fact, however, it is now known that the Fanwang jing was composed in China by unknown author (s), sometime during the middle of the fifth century c.e. The sūtra purports to be the last chapter of a longer Sanskrit text, and its full title is Chapter on the Mind Ground of the Bodhisattvas of the Fanwang jing. However, there is no conclusive evidence that this framing text ever existed.” https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fanwang-jing-brahmas-net-sutra

[3] “Milinda-panha, (Pali: “Questions of Milinda”) lively dialogue on Buddhist doctrine with questions and dilemmas posed by King Milinda—i.e., Menander, Greek ruler of a large Indo-Greek empire in the late 2nd century BCE—and answered by Nagasena, a senior monk. Composed in northern India in perhaps the 1st or 2nd century CE (and possibly originally in Sanskrit) by an unknown author, the Milinda-panha is the one noncanonical work whose authority was accepted implicitly by such commentators as Buddhaghosa, who quoted it frequently. It is also one of the few postcanonical works of the Theravada school that was not produced in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), though its authority there remains unquestioned.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Milinda-panha

2 thoughts on “THE POWER OF ‘TRUE WORDS’: ‘ORIGINAL BUDDHISM’, FORBIDDEN MANTRAS AND THE REIGN OF BUDDHIST EMPEROR ASHOKA (‘Origins of Secret Mantra’ by 17th Karmapa)

  1. Is interesting that both in case of king Aśoka and Buddha disciple Angulimala ,acts of killing did not prevent them from achieving realization.
    On top of it in previous life king Aśoka was poor teenager boy who offered Buddha handful of
    sand and that karma brought powerful result of rebirth as king.

    1. Of course. We have been killing and acting non-virtuously/selfishly for countless eons. If it is not possible to attain enlightenment by committing the ten non-virtues then there would be no path/Dharma to follow. Karma must be respected though. There are many stories where even Bodhisattvas on the bhumis, had past negative actions like killing catch up with them. Fortunately, the same karma goes for the ten virtues/perfections.

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