The Cult of Saints and Buddhist
Doctrines of Absence and Presence
In the evidence examined in previous chapters, we have seen certain tensions, sometimes oppositions, between two ways of considering the Buddhist saints. On the one hand is the view that the Buddhist saints of the forest are the primary reference point for normative Buddhism. On the other is the view that tends to play down the saints and to find the heart of normative Buddhism elsewhere, in the characteristic values and preoccupations of settled monasticism. This raises the question of whether, at least to some extent, this divergence of views is not an isolated instance, but is rather connected with two distinguishable, sometimes quite different, understandings of what Buddhism is and should be. The present chapter takes up this question by focusing on ways in which these two views tend to express themselves in Buddhist doctrine and, in particular, where they stand in relation to the important question of the extent to which, and the way in which, the Buddhist saint, after death, is immanent within or absent from the deluded world.
This section presents an analysis of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra for the light it may shed on early monastic attitudes to questions of the absence and presence of saints. The text will be considered here in its various versions, with primary reference to the Pāli. 1 The Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra tends toward what may be termed a doctrine of absence in relation to the question of the Buddha's status subsequent to his parinirvāṇa. 2 This doctrine of absence begins to become clear in the curious position that the text takes with regard to monastic participation in the cult of the Buddha. The Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra has, in fact, a great deal to say about the cult of the Buddha, both as a living saint and after he has passed away. In addition, the text suggests the role monastics should play in the various dimensions of the Buddha's cult--this is generally a restricted one. In relation to the deceased Buddha, the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra mentions two different types of ritual activity, the cultic treatment of the body of the Buddha after his passing and the cult of the stūpa, built over his postcremation remains.