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The Texture of Reality

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 25: The Texture of Reality

Friends, We are continuing our series introducing Buddhism as today we are concerned with the texture of Reality and, as was announced last week, under this title we shall be dealing with what Buddhism calls traditionally the Three Laksanas - the three Signs or the 3 Characteristics.

Now Reality is rather a big word. It is not only rather big but we might say it is very abstract even a trifle vague and one could also say that Buddhism on the whole, in general, isn't very fond of abstract or vague terminology. If we take the example of Tibetan Buddhism we find that far from dealing in abstractions - far from dealing in vague generalities - it prefers very concrete images.

This is one of the things which impresses one at first very much about Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism is not only concrete it is almost, one might say, materialistic if one can have a contradiction in terms: it is a materialistic spirtuality. It's very concrete.

In the same way, or in the same spirit rather - not quite in the same way - another great school of Buddhism, that is to say Zen also avoids, as far as possible, abstractions and vague generalities. In some ways, Zen goes even much further than Tibetan Buddhism, rather than indulge in abstractions, Zen will either utter a piercing shriek or else give you thirty blows.

Now Reality, in any case, is not really a Buddhist word. In Buddhism we've got Sunyata, Tathata and so on - dharmakaya - but we haven't got really any true semantic equivalent of this word 'Reality'. There is no word in traditional Buddhist terminology of which Reality represents a satisfactory equivalent. So when we use this word 'Reality' in English, in speaking about Buddhism, we use it in a very makeshift, and very provisional sort of way. It isn't to be taken too literally and all the connotations which attach to it in general - Western, philosophical and religious usage - don't quite apply here in a Buddhist context.

Now the title of today's talk also speaks of the Texture of Reality. Now 'texture' is quite a different sort of word. 'Texture' isn't abstract, it is remarkably concrete. We speak, as you know, of the texture of a piece of cloth - cotton, silk or wool - they've all got a different texture which you can feel with your fingers quite easily. One also speaks of the texture of a piece of stone - if you put your fingers over a piece of marble the texture is quite different from what it would be if you put your fingers over a piece of granite.

This rather reminds me of an ancient Chinese custom. The Chinese as you probably know are very very fond of jade. There are all sorts of different kinds of jade: red and green and blue and white and black and so on. And they have all sorts of exotic names like 'Muttonfat jade' and 'dragon's blood jade' and things like that. And in the old days, I don't know if it goes on under the present regime, but experts used to be able to distinguish different kinds of jade just by feeling the texture of them under water with their fingertips - and with their eyes closed. They could know at once whether this was a piece of white jade or 'muttonfat' jade or purple jade - whatever it was - there were hundreds of varieties.

So this is a rather extreme example of what we mean by 'texture'. It is something very concrete whereas 'Reality' is something which seems rather abstract but it seems appropriate to use this more concrete expression to speak of the texture of 'Reality' because this implies that Reality is something to be felt even something to be handled - something to be experienced and, Buddhism after all, is as you surely know by this time, above all else practical. It comprises ethics, religion, spiritual tradition. It isn't just a system of philosophy in the western academic sense. Now, continuing to use this word 'Reality' provisionally, we may say that in Buddhism, broadly speaking, Reality is of 2 kinds: there is what we call Conditioned Reality and wht we call Unconditioned Reality. Or more simply, we can speak in terms of the Conditioned and the Unconditioned.

This distinction, we may say, is absolutely basic to Buddhist thought. You can't go very far in the study of Buddhism, especially in the study of Buddhist philosophy, whether the Abhidharma of the Theravadins or the Sarvastivadins, or in the study of the Madhyamika School, Yogacarya School, you can't go very far in your study of any of these schools, any of these traditions, without coming up against this basic distinction. In some of the schools, admittedly, the distinction is regarded as an ultimate distinction, but in other schools it is not so regarded, as we shall presently see.

Now `conditioned' in the original languages is samskrta. Samskrta literally means `put together' or `compounded'. `Sam' is `together', `krta' is `made' or `put' - so `compounded, put together'.

And `Unconditioned' of course is asamskrta - that which is not put together, that which is not compounded, that which is simple in the philosophical sense.

Now this word samskrta or asamskrta - conditioned or unconditioned - is the same word, interestingly enough, as the name of the language Sanskrit. `Sanskrit' is the Anglicised way of pronouncing it - it should be `Sanskrita'. It is so called, at least according to the Brahmin pundits, because it is the perfected language, the language which has been properly put together, beautifully put together - as opposed to the rough, crude and unpolished prakrit (including Pali) spoken by the common people, that is to say especially by the non-Brahmins. In modern India usage sanskriti, in languages like Hindi and Bengali and Marathi, means 'culture'. They speak of bharatiya- sanskriti, meaning 'Indian culture' and Western Sanskriti and so on. So in this way, one gets the suggestion, the connotation, that the conditioned, samskrta, is also the artificial, that which has been put together, that which has been compounded, that which has been perfected and so on; whereas the Unconditioned is the natural, that which has not been subjected to any of these processes.

Now this factor receives explicit recognition in later Buddhism especially in the Tantric form of Buddhism. The Tantrics have a very interesting word for Reality, they call it sahaja. Now sahaja literally means 'born with' or co-nascent, if you want a Latinism. `Saha' is `together', `ja' is `born' as in jati, birth. So Reality is said to be that with which one is born, that which is innate, that which does not have to be acquired.

Now, as I have said, this distinction between the Conditioned and the Unconditioned, the artificial and the natural, spiritually speaking, is absolutely basic to Buddhism, Buddhist spiritual life, Buddhist philosophy. And the distinction goes very far back indeed - it is found very, very early in the history of Buddhism. It is found even before the Buddha's Enlightenment and you can hardly go back further than that so far as Buddhism is concerned. You probably know that the Tripitaka - the three baskets of Buddhist scriptures - consists of a Sutra Pitaka, a Viniya Pitaka, an Abhidharma Pitaka. The Sutra Pitaka which is the collection of discourses of the Buddha consists of 5 great collections. The first is the Digha-Nikaya, the collection of long discourses.

The second is the Majjhima-Nikaya, the collection of medium-length discourses.

Now in the Majjhima Nikaya, in the collection of medium-length discourses of which there are 151, there is a rather interesting discourse called the 'Ariyapariyesana-sutta'. It is of rather special interest because it's what we may describe as an autobiographical discourse. In it the Buddha himself is represented as relating the story of his own life, especially from his earlier days at home in the palace with his parents until the time of his great Enlightenment. In this particular discourse, the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, he describes how he left home, how he became a wandering monk, and how he strove and struggled for Englightenment, practised terrible self mortifications and so on.

It's rather interesting that in this particular autobiographical discourse there's no mention made about the famous Four Sights. We all know the story of how the Buddha - or rather the Bodhisattva - is supposed to have sallied forth one fine morning in his chariot with his charioteer, and then to have seen successively the sick man, the old man, the corpse and then the monk, the wandering ascetic. Well, in this particular account there is no description of these Four Sights at all. It gives - the text gives - what we would describe as a comparatively naturalistic, even humanistic, description of how the Buddha came to give up the household life. It represents him - in his own words - as simply reflecting. It was a purely internal process, not connected so far as this account is concerned with anything external, anything which he saw, or anything which he heard - a purely subjective process going on within the depths of his own mind.

The Buddha relates how one day he was sitting at home in the palace, apparently withdrawn from his relations, his friends, his associates, sitting alone perhaps under a tree in the compound, perhaps in the evening when it is very cool, very calm, very quiet in India, and just reflecting.

And the text represents him as reflecting in this way. What am I? What am I doing? How am I behaving? I myself am a being subject to birth. That's obvious: I've been born, no-one can deny that. I'm subject to old age - one day I shall grow old. I'm subject to sickness - I sometimes fall ill. And one day I shall die - I'm subject to death. So this is the sort of being I am - I'm mortal, subject in this way, to birth, old age, sickness and death. So being such a being, what do I do? What is my whole life? What is my whole ...

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