When we read many of the Mahayana sutras, The Lotus Sutra for example, or the extraordinary Flower Garland Sutra, what immediately strikes us is the incredible array of fantastical imagery. We’re quite bemused by it. Often we read through the sutra rather impatiently, trying to get past all this visual stuff and get to the point.
We’re a bit like a primitive anatomist, who, when opening up a body, sees all this gunk; all this myofascial goo, and discards it, because he thinks the real business of anatomy is the organs, not this weird connective tissue.
The sumptuous visual quality is even more striking when compared with the Pali sutras, which are mostly very practical. Somebody comes to the Buddha, asks him a question, the Buddha inquires about his particular circumstances and then gives his response.
The emphasis on the visual in Mahayana seems to start with the origin of Mahayana itself: the prajnaparamita sutras. It’s important to note that the start of their composition occurred around the same time as the start of the Abhidharma literature.
For the first few hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the sutras were just transmitted orally. They have the pattern that you’d expect of an oral transmission: there’s a lot of repetition and formulas to enable the sutra to be remembered more easily.
Then there’s a change: the sutras are written down. Once they are, it’s much easier to compare them; to try and fit them together into a coherent philosophical system. This is what the Abhidharma literature attempts to do, and it’s what Nagarjuna attacks.
But alongside that, in opposition, is the prajnaparamita literature. Instead of a philosophical structure, there is this mass of visual imagery and repetition.
It’s hard for us to make sense of this because for us, in our culture, with its predominance of writing, we associate ‘vision’ (seeing) with the mind and we probably associate ‘hearing’ with intuition. To make sense of this emphasis on the visual in Mahayana, we need to understand that the assumptions in classical India were exactly the opposite.
Because of the initial preservation of the sutras by recitation – by hearing – hearing was associated with the intellect and by extension, when we’re hearing arguments – the Abhidharma scholars trying to make all these sutras into a coherent system – we’re doing so, as it were, with our ears. By contrast, ‘vision’ (sight) is associated with immediacy, with receptivity, with a kind of wholeness coming all at once without the mediation of the intellect. If we can understand that, then we can see what is going on with the emphasis on the visual in the Mahayana sutras.
What we need to be careful of is not to think of this as making fantastical claims about the nature of reality (reality corresponding with these extraordinary visions) but rather as a poetic description of the ways in which different beings can see; see in that intuitive and complete and arrived sense.