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Barbara O'Brien

The Mahadeva Controversy

By January 29, 2014

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As I mentioned in the last post about early Buddhist history and why it gives me a headache, one of the stories about what was either the Second Second Council or the First Third Council features a monk named Mahadeva. The academic historians don't agree on much, but one of the things they're pretty sure about is that this guy Mahadeva never existed. Or, if someone by that name did exist, he didn't do the stuff attributed to him.

One of the reasons early Buddhist history is a thorny forest of conflicting stories is that several different sectarian groups arose fairly quickly after the historical Buddha's passing, and each of these developed its own version of what happened. Further, some of them took to making up stories to make themselves look better and other groups worse, in violation of at least a couple of Precepts. Some of those stories are still in circulation in spite of the fact that their original purpose is long gone and original context long forgotten.

Mahadeva was said to have proposed points of doctrine, to which the assembled monks at whatever council it was could not agree, and this brought on the Great Schism that caused the division of Mahayana and Theravada.  I don't have all the details at hand, but it seems somebody made up the Mahadeva story early in the first millennium CE -- some few centuries after the alleged council took place -- to discredit the Mahasanghika, a now-extinct sect that developed some pre-Mahayana doctrine. The stories are, basically, some old slander that paints Mahadeva and the Mahasanghika as terrible heretics. But the stories are not based on anything Mahasanghika actually taught, I don't believe.

As near as I can tell the Mahadeva stories aren't taken seriously any more except in the Nichiren school. Nichiren (1222-1282) took the Mahadeva/Mahasanghika stories very seriously.  In his collected writings Nichiren called the alleged Mahadeva and his fellow-traveling Mahasanghikas out as the worst heretics ever.

Ironically, it could be argued that Mahayana, which includes Nichiren's school, more closely resembles the actual Mahasanghika sect than any other sect kicking around in the late first millennium BCE.

Whatever. There's been chatter on message boards accusing Daisaku Ikeda, spiritual leader of the lay Nichiren organization Soka Gakkai International, of saying something nice about Mahadeva, and people are bent out of shape about it. What Ikeda might have said and whether he really said it I do not know (and, frankly, don't care). But it's clear at least some people are passionate about this.

January 29, 2014 at 5:29 pm
(1) charles olimpio says:

why are you a Buddhist if you don’t believe any of these people existed Yiou are a mind boggling disciple

January 29, 2014 at 9:07 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

“why are you a Buddhist if you don?t believe any of these people existed”

Why does it matter whether some people in old stories existed or not?

January 30, 2014 at 3:07 am
(3) jarby says:

And what is it that matters at all ? :-)

January 30, 2014 at 9:31 am
(4) Mila says:

re: “And what is it that matters at all ?”

What “matters” to us is, typically, what we’ve made into matter, i.e. made rigid, solid, a “real thing” not to be messed with :)

re: “… and people are bent out of shape about it”

egos “stay in shape” (i.e. maintain the illusion of their “real existence”) by finding things to get “bent out of shape about.” It’s premium ego-food, the activity par excellence for sustaining ignore-ance :)

January 30, 2014 at 10:37 pm
(5) karma uggie says:

how do we know if what we study is the Buddha’s teachings or some manufactured gossip?

January 31, 2014 at 9:26 am
(6) George Deane says:

to me the most important fact of the Buddhist conferences is that its commitment to the existentialist nature of life – that the nature of existence’s suffering and discontent and its deep probing into its causes, with the bonus of providing us with an ingenious way to extricate ourselves from its tentacles. Actually, I’m not sure if this was actually discussed at these conferences but Buddhism since its founding has never wavered in its commitment to understanding the very life we live and experience without coping out with extraterrestrial solutions. If religion (and I take Buddhism to be a religion) is true, its truth and validity must be discovered in this life, the very one we live, and not some fairy tale after life.

February 12, 2014 at 9:55 am
(7) Timmy says:

I was curious if you ever considered changing the page layout of your blog?
Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so
people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two pictures.
Maybe you could space it out better?

February 12, 2014 at 1:42 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

It’s About.com’s layout, not mine.


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