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Religion - Ethnic and Universal

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by Sangharakshita

The Higher Evolution of Man

Tape 78: Religion: Ethnic and Universal I think most of you know that I was in the East for a period of some 20 years, mostly in India but also for a shorter period in Ceylon, Malaya, Sikkim, Nepal and a few other places. Some 12 years I happened to spend in Kalimpong, which at one time was very much in the news. Kalimpong is a small township situated in the foothills of the Himalayas some 4000 feet above sea level. And it is situated in a very interesting, even a very strategic spot; it is situated precisely at the juncture of India and Tibet and Nepal and Sikkim and Bhutan. To the south you have the great Indian sub-continent, to the north you have Sikkim and then Tibet, then away to the West there is Nepal, away to the East is Bhutan. So Kalimpong is right in the centre, right at the juncture of all these territories. So it is naturally a very cosmopolitan sort of place where one can meet in a matter of moments not only Indians, Nepalese and Sikkimese but Bhutanese, Tibetans, even Chinese, Europeans, even sometimes the odd American. It is a very cosmopolitan place.

So here some years ago, on the outskirts of this town, about two miles out of town, I established a small Vihara, a sort of hermitage, and this commanded (and often I remember this) a really magnificent view of the Himalayas. I remember as soon as I sat up in bed in the morning, even without sitting up maybe, I could look straight out through the window and there, above the foothills, above the mountains, I would see shining in the distance the snow peaks of the great Kanchenjunga range. At dawn this was a very, very beautiful sight because, first of all you would see them glimmering a sort of ghostly white and then as the sun rose they turned a brilliant crimson and then a glowing gold; and then the gold would die away and they would be left a dazzling white. And I saw this sort of sight almost every morning of the year, especially at this time of the year, which is Autumn in Kalimpong, when the skies are blue and clear and cloudless and when the peaks of the Himalayas shine forth even more brilliantly and vividly then usual.

So it was here, with this sort of view before me, that I established this Vihara, this hermitage, and in this spot I studied and meditated and wrote books and received friends for many, many years. And every now and then, perhaps once or twice a year, I would go out on tour down to the Plains, down to the heat, down to the perspiration of India, and especially wander among the ex-Untouchables in Central and Western India, who had been converted to Buddhism. But I always made a point of being back in Kalimpong for the rainy season which, traditionally in Buddhist countries, is observed as a retreat. And this was my period of seclusion. During this period, for three to four months, I didn't step outside the Vihara, outside the hermitage. And not only was it for me a period of seclusion, it was also a period of reflection. If you haven't experienced the rainy season, it is very difficult to describe the sort of effect it has upon the mind.

One doesn't get just an occasional shower of rain. The rain just comes falling down steadily, without intermission, day after day, night after night, and it falls down with a very gentle and soothing sound; it muffles every other sound. So you naturally feel in a very reflective, even in a very meditative mood.

So here was I, shut up in my Vihara, during the rainy season, with the rain falling all around, no visitors, just my few books, meditation, study, reflection. And at this time I used to take up and reflect upon all sorts of problems. Not exactly problems in the psychological sense but questions which required some sort of examination, some sort of elucidation, especially problems connected with Buddhism, history of Buddhism, Buddhist thought, Buddhist doctrine, and with the spiritual life generally. Sometimes, by dint of protracted reflection and thought during this rainy season retreat, one would succeed in solving or resolving one problem or another. But there was one problem I remember, there was one question, which kept coming up again and again, year after year, rainy season after rainy season, to which there appeared to be no answer and no solution, at least not for a very long time. And this question wasn't anything very abstract. It wasn't anything profoundly philosophical, deeply metaphysical, or anything like that. In a sense it was an historical, almost a sociological question; but one which had nevertheless all sorts of philosophical, social, religious and spiritual implications. It was, moreover, a question which arose quite naturally in the course of one's study of the history of Buddhism, especially in India. It was a question, too, which people very often used to ask me. Now, of course, you are wondering what was this question. I don't suppose anybody has any idea what it might have been. But the question was this: Why did Buddhism disappear from India? And when one thinks of it, considers it, tries to go into it, this is really quite a question. Buddhism didn't really disappear from India until the 11th or 12th century of our era. Buddhism began, as we all know, as the teaching of the Buddha, the Enlightened One, about the year 500 BC. And it flourished in India for upwards of 1500 years. It was at its height, at the height of its development and its influence from around 200 BC to around 400 or 500 AD. It was in the course of this period, during which it spread all over India, that it produced some of the greatest spiritual masters, some of the greatest spiritual teachers and thinkers that the world has ever seen, produced some of the greatest religious, and the greatest spiritual art and literature and so on. But after that glorious efflorescence we see only gradual, as though inevitable, decline and disappearance. Something, we may say, almost unprecedented in the history of religions in the world. Now why did this happen? Why was it that after 1500 years, Buddhism Lecture 78 - Religion: Ethnic and Universal - Page 1 - apparently so suddenly, almost so catastrophically, disappeared from the face of India, disappeared from the Indian religious scene? Now as I mused on this question, as I reflected on this question, all those years, during the rainy season, I soon saw that there was no short, no simple answer to this question. No such answer was, in fact, possible. There is no one reason, no one factor responsible for the disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its origin. All sorts of factors, all sorts of reasons are involved, though admittedly some are more important than others. Not only that. As I thought over this question, as I reflected upon it, as I tried to go more and more deeply into it, I saw that the ramifications of this question extended very far beyond the history of Buddhism, very far beyond Buddhism itself. It was out of a consideration of some of these ramifications that I was led eventually to recognise the importance of the distinction between ethnic religion on the one hand and universal religion on the other.

---oOo--- And this is of course our subject for tonight, RELIGION: ETHNIC AND UNIVERSAL. How this particular subject fits into our general evolutionary scheme of things, we shall see a little later on. Just for the moment, I want to remain with this question of why Buddhism disappeared from India. I want to deal, as briefly as I can, with some of the main reasons for its disappearance. This will help us to establish the nature of the distinction between Ethnic religion on the one hand and Universal religion on the other. It will also clarify to some extent the nature of the relationship between these two, ethnic and universal religion. And this in turn will pave the way for a general consideration of the characteristics of these two kinds of religion. Why then, we may ask, did Buddhism disappear from India? We can list some four or five main reasons, all of which are inter-connected. Now the order in which we deal with them is not very important, so I shall take them just as they come.

1. First of all, centralisation of monastic life. It may come as a surprise to some of you at least to learn that originally in Buddhism there was no such thing as monasticism, no such thing, that is to say, as coenobitical(1) monasticism, that is to say monks living permanently in monasteries and confined to one particular place. There was no monasticism in that sense. There were no monks, in fact, in that sense.

There were only what were known as wanderers, parivrajakas, people wandering about from place to place, of course on foot. Not attached to anywhere, not tied anywhere, and living on alms. Just going to people's doors every day, once or twice, and just accepting whatever was offered to them in the way of food, whether cooked or uncooked. And this is how they used to pass their lives, just wandering from place to place, unattached, living on the alms of other people. During the rainy season, they took shelter. In India you can't go roaming around during the rainy season. The rains are far too heavy. So during the rainy season, these people just stayed sequestered in one place and they practised meditation, very often, during this period. They put up either in some mountain cave or in a hollow tree, we are told, or else in a hut in somebody's garden, or a little lean-to shed against the wall of somebody's house, and when the rains were over, forth they would go, they would start wandering again.

And they also memorised some simple sayings of the Buddha, very often in verse form, and as they roamed about they would chant these, recite these to themselves, and if two or three of them were going along the road together they would chant and recite together as they went along. Sometimes groups of them would congregate together, ...

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