The Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature by AIBS Team

The Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature: Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra by Maitreyanātha/Āryāsanga Together with Its Commentary ( Bhāsya) by Vasubandhu. Translated from Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese by L. Jamspal, R. Clark, J. Wilson, L. Zwilling, M. Sweet, R. Thurman. Preface by Robert A. F. Thurman. New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies co-published with Columbia University’s Center for Buddhist Studies and Tibet House US, 2004. Hardcover, xliv + 368 pages.

This superb publication, which was in the making for thirty years, is the product of the combined effort of a whole team of Tibetan and Western experts. The intrinsic difficulties of understanding and then translating this important Mahāyāna scripture can be readily appreciated, as can the team’s admirable dedication to the project.

The originator of the root text, the Mahāyāna-Sūtra-Alamkāra (“Ornament of the Discourses of the Great Vehicle”), was the transcendental (or celestial) bodhisattva Maitreyanātha, the future Buddha. He impressed the teachings found in this scripture directly on the mind of the great adept Asanga (4th century A.D.), who acted as Maitreya’s scribe. In his introduction, Robert Thurman makes it clear that rejecting the traditional ascription of this foundational work to a celestial being would be merely a matter of “prejudice, a bit of modernist, materialist, secularist ideology” (p. xvii). I have to agree.

In his Prologue to Maitreya’s teachings, Asanga states that his divine guru’s exposition of the teachings of the Mahāyāna-Sūtras, which is itself Dharma, “gives the utmost joy” “like good news read in a letter.” Indeed, the Alamkāra contains, as Chapter 1 seeks to establish, authentic Buddhist teachings; Mahāyāna is perfectly valid and based on Gautama the Buddha’s teachings. As Vasubandhu, Asanga’s brother, observes in his commentary: “Therefore one should not fear [ Mahāyāna].”

There are 21 chapters in all, and they cover a wide range of topics culled from the Mahāyāna discourses—from going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha to the idea of enlightenment, spiritual type ( gotra, which is quirkily rendered as “gene”), the “great enthusiasm” for enlightenment, the nature of enlightenment, spiritual practice, the bodhisattva’s extraordinary powers, the six “perfections” (here called “transcendences”) of a bodhisattva, the signs of spiritual maturity, teaching the Dharma, precepts, liberating action, and worship.

The teachings are pristine, succinct, and eminently applicable. The English translation is a marvel of lucidity. All too often scriptures of this kind remain a sealed book even after they have been translated, because the translator chose to use a highly technical language. Thus the present work is extremely user friendly despite its specialized content. Both dedicated Buddhist practitioners and professionals in the fields of Buddhism, the history of religions, comparative religion, ethics, philosophy, and related areas of inquiry will find this translation reliable and most helpful. It sets a great example for other similar efforts to make Buddhist teachings accessible to Westerners.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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