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The Origin and Development of the Bodhisattva Ideal

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by Sangharakshita

Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal

Lecture 65: The Origin & Development of the Bodhisattva Ideal Mr Chairman and Friends, I'm going to start this evening by asking a question, a question which perhaps the majority of you will not have anticipated. Usually, of course, one comes along thinking that one just has to sit back and listen, and take it all in, and no demands will be made upon one, much less still any actual question. But this evening I'm going to start off with a question, which, in any case as I've said you might not have anticipated. And the question is - the question which I think we have very seriously to consider - the question is: Why do we have these lectures? Or one can put it in another form, and one can ask: Why does one come to these lectures? Now a number of possible replies, of course spring to one's lips - some people might think that we have these lectures, courses of lectures, because we - that is to say 'The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order' - are (for want of a better term) a religious organisation. And of course it is well known that religious organisations always do have lectures or they have sermons, so that we also naturally have them. Some people might just think in this way. Others again might think well it's only natural, we had them last year and presumably the year before that (laughter) we'll go on having them this year too! It's a sort of - part of the natural order of things by this time.

But I'd like to suggest at the outset that it isn't perhaps quite like that. The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is, for want, as I've already said, of a better term, a religious movement. I don't like this word 'religion' or 'religious' but it seems to be the only one that we have which is in any way adequate, even though it is liable to misunderstanding, and one therefore may say that as a 'religious' (inverted commas) movement, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order represents one of the various growing points of what we have in the past sometimes described as the Higher Evolution. We're familiar with the idea of evolution in general, how lower forms of life evolve into higher forms of life.- and by the higher .evolution we mean. the evolution of man, unenlightened man, into a state of Enlightenment, into a state of Buddhahood, as a result of his own spiritual growth, his own awareness, his own determination, and so on. So that we find that our Movement, our Organisation (if you like) represents the evolutionary process become, as it were, self-conscious, self-aware, not just blindly striving and thrusting upward like a plant into the sunlight, but knowing where it is going, what it is doing, and how and why it is functioning. So all our activities, all our activities conducted under the auspices of, in the name of, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, are intended as, in a way, manifestations of this upward evolutionary trend, from a lower to a higher degree of perfection which constitutes the Higher Evolution of humanity, of the whole human race. And this is something which we should do well to bear in mind. We have various kinds of activities, as most of you know: there are meditation classes held several times a week, there are now sutra study classes - classes in which canonical Buddhist texts are studied, are analysed, pondered upon. We have, also, our retreats when we all go away, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty of us go away together at a time, to some quiet place in the country where we get away from it all, and where we simply occupy ourselves with Buddhism and the spiritual life. We have also as we very well know now an arts group, which has under it's wing such activities as poetry reading, and I believe now a music group, and so on. And of course, we have our Yoga class which meets here in this very room once a week, and of course we have lectures, and we even have receptions, we even have things like tea-parties. But, we should never lose sight of the fact that all these activities, the most extraordinary and also the most ordinary, are all parts of our common theme, our common function, which is, as it were, to assist in this Higher Evolution of that portion, that section, of humanity with which we ourselves are personally in contact. So that all these different kinds of activity, whether it's the meditation class, the lecture, the Yoga class, and so on. These all represent, we may say, different aspects of the spiritual evolution of those who are participating. This is their function. This is their meaning. This is their purpose. If they don't fulfill this purpose, if they don't establish this meaning, then they are nothing.

So, we may say that in all these activities of our Movement there is nothing merely formal, there's nothing merely theoretical. It's all part of a great upward wave, if one may use the expression, of spiritual life and spiritual activity, what we call the Higher Evolution. And this applies very much to these lectures which we have from time to time. The purpose of these lectures, the purpose of these talks, is not merely to convey information about Buddhism. They may, of course, incidentally do that. This is one of their subordinate functions -.to acquaint people with the history of Buddhism, the life of the founder, the development of the schools, the fate and the fortune of Buddhism in the East. All this sort of information can very well legitimately be imparted. But it's not the primary function, it's not the primary purpose of these lectures to purvey information, even information about Buddhism, even information about the Path, even information about Enlightenment, if one can speak in those terms. The primary purpose, one may say, of these lectures, of all these lectures, is to enable those who attend to experience, through the medium of the spoken word, a higher degree than is usually the case of being and awareness. This is the meaning, this is the purpose, this the function, of these lectures. In other words when we attend, when we come here, when we sit down, when we listen, when we take it all in, we're not just hearing about Buddhism, we're not just absorbing information. But we are, if we are receptive, if we are attentive, if we are aware, then we are participating, while we listen, in the spiritual life of Buddhism. We ourselves are living Buddhism at the moment of our participation. It might even be said that if we fully participate, if we experience though the medium of the spoken word, then we are in fact being Buddhism, as we sit here.

Now, obviously one must approach Buddhism, in these lectures, in such a way that this sort of experience becomes possible. This also means that one must select topics within the field of Buddhism which make this possible, which assist this sort of process, this sort of experience. And today, as you all know, we're starting the fourth series of lectures under the auspices of the FWBO (the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order). For the next eight weeks we shall be dealing with, we shall be considering 'Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal'.And let me say at once that as soon as we start considering this topic, this subject of the Bodhisattva Ideal, then we step immediately right into the heart of Buddhism. One could hardly have anything less peripheral, more central, more immediate, more direct, of greater spiritual import, than this. If one comes into contact with the Bodhisattva Ideal then one is placing, as it were, one's hand on the very heart of Buddhism, and one is feeling, as it were, the beating of that heart.

Now tonight it falls to us to consider the Origin and the Development of the Bodhisattva Ideal. But before we go onto that principal topic of the evening, just a few words about the series as a whole. Most of you, I think by this time, will have seen, will have encountered, if only at the door as you came in, our latest Newsletter. And you, no doubt, will have noticed the illustration on the cover of that Newsletter. It shows a hand - evidently the Buddha's hand; there's a robe hanging down - a hand which is holding just a few leaves. And, this illustration illustrates the Buddha's parable of the Simsapa leaves. It is said that the Buddha was one day wandering, as often was his custom, in the forest, in the depths of the Indian jungle, presumably to get away from the heat of the Indian day - wandering with a few of his disciples. And the Buddha often taught in a very simple, a very direct way, not always with long and elaborate discourses. So on this occasion, it is said, he just bent down, and he scooped up a handful of leaves. And then he asked his disciples, 'Tell me, what do you think?- These leaves which I hold in my hand, as compared with all the leaves of the forest, are they few or are they many? So the disciples of course replied, 'Well, in comparison with all the leaves in the forest the few leaves which you hold in your hand, these are as nothing, They are just a handful.' So the Buddha said 'So it is with all the truths which I have seen, which I have understood, which I have realised, as compared with what I have been able to reveal to you'.

So this is something upon which we need, often, to ponder. Even the Teaching, though the scriptures are voluminous they represent just a fraction of the Buddha's infinite knowledge, his infinite understanding, his infinite experience.

So the Dharma, the teaching, Buddhism, is, in any case to begin with, a handful of leaves. But in this series we are offering, as it were, just a few leaves from that handful itself, not even the whole handful. The Bodhisattva Ideal is a very, very vast subject. It is conterminous practically with the whole of Buddhism, and one cannot possibly hope to exhaust this subject, even in the course of eight lectures. And therefore the series as a whole is entitled simply 'Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal'. Not only ...

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