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Wisdom Beyond Words

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 179: Wisdom Beyond Words

Saddhaloka and friends Last year, as I expect all of you remember, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. And this year we've been celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Western Buddhist Order itself. And of course 25 years is quite a long time, but of course it isn't really a very long time in the context of the history of Buddhism itself. The history of Buddhism goes back not just 25 years but 25 centuries. But in the context of the average human life, in the context of our three score years and ten, twenty five years is quite a sizeable slice.

Of course, when we started the FWBO, when we started our meetings, when we started our meditation classes, in that now historic, not to say mythic, basement in Monmouth Street, in what most chroniclers of our movement describe as the West End of London, but is actually in central London, in fact east central London, at that time there were people who thought that the FWBO was not going to last very long. Some of them thought, and some of them even said, that well, here is Sangharakshita. He's spent twenty years in India, and quite out of touch with things here in Britain. He's come back. He's got these few enthusiastic youngsters around him, mostly sort of hippies, and they've started this new Buddhist movement, but it's not going to last very long.

It's going to peter out after a while. It's just going to disappear, it's just going to fade away and be perhaps just a little footnote in the history of - well, I won't say the history of what, but in the history of something else.

In fact I might even go so far as to say there were a few people at least who were rather hoping that the FWBO wouldn't last, because they didn't quite like the look and the sound of it. Not that they necessarily had any personal experience of it, but from what they heard, from what they gathered, they weren't really quite sure that it was a really worthwhile addition to the British Buddhist scene. But the FWBO has in fact lasted. It's lasted 25, 26 years. And it's not only lasted, it's not just survived; it's grown, it's developed, it's expanded, one might even say proliferated, in a way that nobody, whether friends or those who were not so friendly, could possibly have imagined in those early days. We have now, I believe, regular permanent activities and centres in at least thirteen different countries. I need hardly detail to you what we do have now.

So the question that arises, the question that we have to ask ourselves, and which perhaps people outside the FWBO also ask sometimes: why is it that the FWBO has lasted? I can remember in those early days - the sixties, seventies - all sorts of religious groups, movements, started up, and I'm sure most of you haven't even heard the names of those movements which did in fact fade away. So why didn't we fade away? Why have we lasted? Well, I suppose we could say in just a few words that we've lasted, the FWBO has lasted, because it has a strong foundation. And that foundation is of course, as we all know very well, our common Going for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. But more than that, the edifice of the FWBO doesn't just have a strong foundation. It also has pillars, it also has supporting pillars. It's supported by five mighty pillars, and it's on account of those pillars, as well as on account of its foundations, that it's lasted. It's supported by what I've called the five pillars of the FWBO. No doubt quite a few of you will recall that on the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of the FWBO I spoke about these five pillars at some length.

So what are these five pillars? First of all there's the pillar of ideas. And then there's the pillar of practices, especially meditation practices, with which in fact we started our movement. Thirdly there's the pillar of institutitions - institutions like our public centres, our residential spiritual communities, our team-based Right Livelihood businesses, our spiritual friendships. These are all institutions. And then there's the pillar of experiment. We recognize that new situations may require new approaches, so that we have to experiment, have to find out which particular new approach may suit which particular situation. And finally, fifthly, there's the pillar of imagination, of vision, as embodied especially perhaps in myth, in symbol.

So these are the five pillars of the FWBO. And it's on account, very largely, of these pillars, as well as on account of its foundation in our Going for Refuge, that the FWBO has lasted all these years. All these pillars are important. We can't manage, we can't do without a single one of them.

But at the moment I'm concerned just with one pillar. I'm concerned with the pillar of ideas. And as I said two years ago in my talk, ideas in the broadest sense occupy a very important place in human life - individual human life, collective human life. Sometimes even ideas change history.

They change the destinies of nations and of peoples. It's therefore not surprising that ideas should occupy an important place in Buddhism itself, in Buddhist teaching, in Buddhist tradition.

Some of these ideas of Buddhism will be familiar to you. Others will be not so familiar. Some of these ideas of Buddhism we may find, or some of us may find, easy to understand, but others we may find rather difficult, even very difficult to understand. And one of the ideas that at least some people have difficulty with is the idea of what I've come to call, what I've come to refer to, as the idea of spiritual hierarchy.

Now what is a hierarchy? So let's turn, as I very often do in the course of these lectures, to the dictionary, that most valuable of books. I was happening to read - this is just by the way - I was happening to read a Buddhist magazine just a few hours ago, and there was a report by a Buddhist lady in America who was teaching poetics, Buddhist poetics, and she said one of her students, a young man, said that if you wanted to write poetry, the first thing you did was to tear up your dictionary. And she said: No, young man. Don't tear up your dictionary. The dictionary is the most useful book that a poet could possibly have.' And I'm inclined to agree with that lady who was teaching Buddhist poetics. It's probably the most - well, next to the Buddhist scriptures themselves - probably the most valuable and useful book that any Buddhist could possess - especially of course the larger Oxford English dictionary, which is of course in 12 substantial volumes.

So next to the Bible and Shakespeare, or Shakespeare at least, a good dictionary would be my favourite desert island companion - preferably Johnson's dictionary of course. But anyway, let's take the help of the dictionary on this occasion. According to the dictionary a hierarchy is a system of persons or things arranged in a graded order. So this is helpful. But it doesn't go far enough. What is a `graded' order? Well, a grade is a position or degree on a scale. And a system of persons or things is said to be arranged in a graded order when they are arranged according to their respective positions or degrees on a common scale. And of course there are many such scales, of many different kinds. There's a scale of size. There's a scale of weight - which some of us may get on to every morning. There's a scale of quantity, a scale of quality, and so on. And there's also a scale of, for want of a better term, spirit - spirit more in the sense of Hegel's geist than in the sense of the English word spirit.

A spiritual hierarchy is therefore a system of persons and/or states arranged according to their respective positions or degrees on the scale of spirit. Spirit, we may say, corresponds approximately to the Pali/Sanskrit citta, especially perhaps to kusala citta. In Buddhism there are many different hierarchies, in Buddhist teaching, in Buddhist tradition, in Buddhist art, Buddhist literature - many different hierarchies. Let me give just a few examples.

There's what we may describe as the cosmic hierarchy - that is to say, the hierarchy of the different levels or planes of `objective' existence within the cosmos. First, beginning at the bottom, we have the plane of sensuous desire, the kamaloka. And then above that there's the plane of subtle or archetypal form, the rupaloka. And then, thirdly, there's the plane of no subtle or no archetypal form even, the formless plane, the arupaloka, as it's usually translated. These three planes are all planes of what we call conditioned existence - that is to say, existence which arises in dependence on conditions and ceases when those conditions cease. And above them, above the kamaloka, the rupaloka, the arupaloka - above them, so to speak, is the plane of the unconditioned - that is to say, the plane of that which neither arises nor ceases, the plane of that which is in a word eternal - eternal not indeed in the sense of having no beginning or ending in time, rather in the sense of transcending time altogether.

Then in Buddhism there's the hierarchy of beings within the cosmos, within this cosmos. At the bottom of this hierarchy we have beings in states of suffering, beings who can even be said to be literally in hell. And right at the top we have just the opposite; we have the gods, enjoying states and conditions of bliss. And in between there are the hungry ghosts, the asuras or anti-gods, who are always fighting the gods, animals, and human beings. And these six kinds of beings are of course the beings occupying the six realms depicted in the Tibetan Wheel of Life, with which I'm sure practically everybody here is familiar.

So here in this hierarchy, the hierarchy of beings within the cosmos, there is a scale of happiness.

The gods, at the top, enjoy the greatest happiness, human beings rather ...

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