By Upasika Nancy R. Lethcoe

      To teach one how to become a Buddha, a Tathagata, was the Asta’s1 formulator's implied goal. But how, we may ask, did those who developed the bodhisattva ideal, view the Buddha? What type of holy person did they seek to emulate?

The Asta, presents four different, but complementary, portraits of the Buddha: 1) as an Enlightened Being possessing unique powers and attributes, 2) as a Teacher, 3) as a Savior, and 4) as an object of worship.

As an Enlightened Being the Buddha is basically still an historical person who received the prediction under Dipankara [A 49], gained All-Knowledge from the Perfection of Wisdom [A 58, 210,211, 249,256-272, 28l], and who will eventually pass away leaving his relics for men and gods to worship [A 58,94] and his bodhisattvas to foster all the good qualities in the world [A 75].2

 The Buddha's superior knowledge is described in two ways. First, he knows and sees all dharmas including the future conduct of bodhisattvas (A 299-230):

It is wonderful to think that in past, future, and present dharmas there is nothing that the Tathagata has not seen, not heard, not felt, and of which he is unaware. There is no dharma that he has not cognized, there is no conduct of any being that he is unaware of. He has cognized even the future conduct of those Bodhisattvas who are zealous for enlightenment, who are full of earnest intentions, who have exerted vigor. [Conze's translation"].

This claim for the Buddha's omniscience goes far beyond statements in the Nikayas, but is consonant with the late canonical position. Usually, the Buddha's omniscience is described as All Knowledge,3 a non-dualistic, purely cognitive state. These descriptions of the Buddha's knowledge derive from two earlier theses: a) that a Buddha or Arhat knows that he knows Nirvana when he knows Nirvana” [M I 523]; and b) that when an Arhat knows Nirvana, he does not make distinctions like, "Now I know Nirvana" [M I 4]. This conflict between wanting, on the one hand, the Arhat or Buddha to be the final authority concerning his own omniscience and, on the other, recognizing that the confirmatory cognition of anatman (absence of a self) cannot involve a distinction between the cognizer and the cognized, continues into the Prajnaparamita literature. Unlike later works, no direct appeal is here made to the two-fold theory of truth, or knowledge, although the Asta, does sometimes have Sariputra praise Subhuti for "speaking in accordance with the highest reality."

The Asta, attributes to the Buddha, as an Enlightened Being, the standard powers claimed by other holy men as well as some uniquely Buddhist ones including the six supernatural powers, the ten (Tathagata) powers, and the eighteen Buddha-dharmas. For the Asta's formulators, certain magical and semi-magical powers constituted the Buddha's "audio-visual" aids. For example, to illustrate the point that all dharmas are, like illusory men, the text depicts the Buddha as first displaying his magical power whereby all members of the assembly can suddenly witness the Buddha Aksobhya's assembly.  After withdrawing the vision, he develops a parallel between this obvious illusion and the not so obviously illusory perception of the phenomenal world [cf. also A 199, 466].

The second portrait of the Buddha depicts him as a Teacher. Unlike the Western tradition of preaching or lecturing (also found in the Saddharmapundarika), the Nikayas and to a greater extent the Prajnaparamita literature show the Buddha as a master of intrapersonal instruction via dialogue. Throughout, the text favors the assumption that verbal reports represent an accurate indication of the speaker's understanding or level of meditational attainment--provided the listener is skilled at recognizing the connections (e.g. c.f. [A 5,8].) For those on the early stages of training, the dialogue runs along straight-forward, informational lines. However, once the topic turns to bodhisattvas who are supposed to be coursing in the perfection of wisdom, all speeches reflect the difficulties or delights of describing a non-dualistic state, which by its own nature and the nature of language is beyond all linguistic formulations; any speech suggesting a real distinction between the act and actor constitutes evidence against the speaker's having actually "coursed in perfect wisdom."

Originally the Asta, apparently did not associate skill in means with the Buddha's method of teaching. However, by the late Asta, period, the early Asta's statement that skill in means is taught only in the prajnaparamita sutras is used as the starting point for the quite different statement that the Tathagata uses various methods (upaya) to teach the perfection of wisdom [A 238].4

One major problem facing the early Buddhist community, particularly those advocating doctrinal reform and/or development, was how to keep an open tradition. To solve this problem, the Asta's formulators advanced the position that once a disciple has trained in the Buddha's Dharma and "realized its true nature," then whatever he teaches cannot contradict the Dharma's true nature [A 4]. In other passages, the text explicitly states that these disciples receive the Buddha's anubhava, a type of spiritual authority akin to grace, which guarantees the religious veracity of their statements [A 25, 44].

The third major description of the Buddha is in his role as a Savior, a leader of beings from the tumultuous sufferings of this world to the calm peace of Nirvana. The Buddha, however, is not seen as the leader of a rugged group of monastic individualists who merely want the way pointed out. He is the leader who provides the physical and spiritual resources to support those who are following his path.

Before receiving assistance, a person first must become "ready" by serving under former Jinas [A 208, 466], planting good roots in their presence [A 208, 299, 459], having a good friend [A 208, 299], and not rejecting the perfection of wisdom when they hear it [A 459]. All of these actions the devotee undertakes through his own efforts. The text mentions eight specific instances in which the Buddha helps a devotee or newly-set out bodhisattva: 1) to hear and practice the perfection of wisdom [A 251, 254];  2) to overcome worldly ills [A 53]; 3) to resist Mara [A 222]; 4) to train in Thusness [A 222-224]; 5) to correctly communicate the Dharma [A 25,44, 19l]; 6) to become irreversible (by being brought to mind, samanvaharati, and receiving the prediction, cf. Also [A 449-454], 7) to obtain a good rebirth [A 448, 473], and 8) to dedicate one's merit [A 150]. The Buddha uses his Buddha-eye, spiritual power (anubhava), might (adhisthina), and grace  (parigraha) to help beings. He may also "bring them to mind," which constitutes a form of protection from all physical and spiritual harm. He 'allows' [A 150] bodhisattvas to dedicate their merit when it is done correctly and 'sanctions' their teaching others when it is in accordance with dharmata the true nature of Dharma). Finally, he gives them the prediction, which guarantees that a bodhisattva will eventually become a Buddha.

The community wherein the Asta, developed stopped short of describing the Buddha as a universal savior. Although there are no limitations based on sex, age, race, economic status, etc., the Buddha does only help those who have acquired good roots. Those who reject the Dharma do so because they have accumulated bad karma by not worshipping former Buddhas (when they had the chance), failing to respect the Dharma, and lacking faith in it.  Consequently, they are now dominated by ignorance, which leads them to continued rejection of the Dharma and causes them to influence others to also reject it. Defamers of the Dharma are the only persons the text describes as being reborn in hell. They are not saved by either the Buddha or the Bodhisattvas, but must remain there for innumerable aeons until all their bad karma has been consumed. The text has the Buddha justify this position by appeals both to the deterrent effect their punishment will have on potential wrongdoers and to the seriousness of their actions, which prolong the sufferings of all beings [A 178-184].

Finally, the Asta, portrays the Buddha as an object of worship, although not the supreme object–that position it reserves for the prajnaparamita. One might ask why, in a text devoted to the cultivation of a non-discriminatory, non-dual, cognition of the All-knowing, should worship of the Buddha be condoned, let alone prescribed? Is this a mere empty gesture to placate the rising forces of devotionalism and fill the monastery treasuries?

The answer clearly is no. If a person attempts to undertake the advanced meditations such as the THREE D Doors to Deliverance (Emptiness, Signlessness, and Wishlessness) without proper preparation, then he will fall away from the bodhisattva path, give up the search for Enlightenment, and abandon all beings. The Asta, is concerned with demonstrating what conditions are necessary in the bodhisattva’s training to keep him from giving up the search for All-Knowledge. According to its analysis, worship of the Buddha yields good roots; good roots are a pre-requisite for hearing the Dharma of Perfect Wisdom; hearing the Dharma prepares one to accept it, practice, and eventually course in it; through coursing in the perfection of wisdom, one acquires the skill in means (for oneself) necessary for entering the Three Concentrations without fear of backsliding or realizing Nirvana. Thus worship of the Buddha's relics forms the very foundation of the religious life. The Asta also states that one should worship the Buddha, not just simply out of a desire for self-advancement, but because the Buddha has won Enlightenment 'for our sakes' [A 34]5 and because he helps all beings [A 254]. In these cases, the clearly joyous acts of worship described in the text serve as "Thank You" ceremonies.

      In conclusion, we have seen that the Asta portrays the Buddha as a semi-historical person who having won Enlightenment, teaches his disciples and uses various powers to help them overcome physical and spiritual obstacles. He does not save everyone, but is always in some cognitive way present to aid his devotees. One should worship the Buddha because he won Enlightenment not just for his own sake, but for the welfare of all beings and because by the act of worship one acquires the good roots conducive to success in the religious life. Although the text does not explicitly state it, it nevertheless does seem to hold that the Buddha by presenting himself or his relics as objects of worship provided beings with a means of acquiring the good roots whereby they may eventually win Enlightenment themselves and save others.

Upasika Nancy Lethcoe is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University.


Everything has a nature. If you understand the nature of a thing you can interact with it in an appropriate manner without upsetting the balance of natural laws. Failure to understand can create disharmony and bring injury, unrest, or even destruction to yourself and your surroundings. If you wish to look more deeply into this principle, you will find the weekend classes on "Medicine: Its Nature and Application" of interest. The classes will be held on Saturday or Sunday afternoon at Gold Mountain during the 1975 summer study and practice workshop. For registration information call or write Gold Mountain Monastery. The classes are open to the public and require no prerequisites.