Ignorance of the Buddhadharma is no Excuse, 3: some things never change

Huikai (慧愷, d. 568) was a disciple of Paramārtha, and wrote the preface to the latter’s translation of Asanga’s Summary of the Great Vehicle (Mahāyānasaṃgraha, T. 1593). Talking about the introduction of Buddhism to China, Huikai describes the behavior of enthusiasts of his time to be like one riding a horse who lets go of the reins, while at the same time whipping the horse to go faster and faster:

Whip in hand and loosening the reins, like the billows in a rapid torrent, [people] galloped off toward either the depths or the shallows and became confused about what is clear and what is obscure. Thenceforth, being excessively fervent and enthusiastic, none failed to run astray in their own directions. Their grasp of the teachings of the ancients and the practices of the patriarchs followed their own dispositions, and the opaqueness of their interpretations exceeded all limit. (Keenan translation, Numata series, 3–4; electronic version available here)

I would assume that also like today, each of those riding their own hobby horse of an interpretation felt fully justified to claim that it was the true meaning of what the Buddha taught. A few pretty catch phrases and quotes torn out of context, and away we go, plunging across the countryside like Don Quixote, both drunk and myopic.

But rather than just this cynical note to end the year on, we can take heart—Huikai was looking back across five or six centuries, while the Anglophone world has only known Buddhism for about a century and a half. We’ve still got plenty of time to make a complete hash of it.

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