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The Nature and Development of Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 5: the Nature and Development of Buddhism

Sometimes it happens in the course of our study of Buddhism - this is the experience of many of us, especially at the beginning - that we cannot see the wood for the trees. In a sense rather different from the sense in which I shall use this expression later on, there's no such thing as Buddhism for the beginner. He goes along perhaps hoping to hear about Buddhism, but he's either given a discourse on the Theravada or on Zen or on Tibetan Buddhism, but he seems never to get anywhere near Buddhism. He hears a lot about morality, a lot about meditation, a lot about wisdom, a lot about philosophy, a lot about mindfulness, but it doesn't always seem to hang together in one organic relationship. There are lots of trees, as it were, but no wood.

So the beginner very often becomes confused, even lost, and he wanders sometimes, very disconsolately and very confused. I've found people in this plight at the summer school. You probably know, as I've mentioned before, the summer school, to which some of us will be going later on this week, is a very wonderful institution, people enjoy it very much, but after a few days you find some of them wandering about in the rather extensive grounds in a condition of what one might describe almost as punch drunk. They've been hit by Zen, and Zen as you know packs a very powerful punch. They've been caught on the rebound, as it were, by Theravada, which is also pretty stiff and strong, and then the Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism also sometimes, and so they just stagger about the compound with a glazed look in their eyes, murmuring or muttering to themselves `Zen, Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism'.

But Buddhism itself, it seems, swims into their ken very late in their Buddhist career. So sometimes therefore, it's very good, at least periodically, to take what we may call a bird's eye view of the whole terrain, to forget about this school and that school, this doctrine and that doctrine, this teaching and that teaching, and try to have a sort of universal conspectus of the whole vast field, to try to get up and up and have a sort of - bird's eye view is perhaps a figure of speech rather out of date, you might say astronaut's eye view - of this cosmos of Buddhism.

And this is what we're going to do, or try to do, very briefly, this afternoon. It's very useful, we may say, to have a sort of general historical framework within which one can fit all the information one acquires, all the insights one acquires, as regards the teaching of the Buddha.

So that's what we're going to do this afternoon when we study the nature and the development of Buddhism.

Now first of all the nature of Buddhism. What is Buddhism in its ultimate essence? What does it really mean? What is really behind it? Whence does it really spring? I remember - these sorts of comparisons come naturally to mind - I remember that not so very many weeks ago I was at a place called Delphi. Some of you may have heard of that place. It's a place where in ancient times there was the oracle of the god Apollo. So I remember that when we were looking over that place, when we were just walking through the olive trees on the slopes of the hill on which Delphi stands, we came across a little spring. So this little spring of water was bubbling very vigorously from rock to rock in a sort of little cascade and one didn't at first pay it any great attention. But later on one found that the same little cascade reappeared higher up - it was falling down from different levels. And then one went higher up still and one found that this was none other than the famous Castellian spring. If you drink it you're supposed to become a poet on the spot. And it welled out from between two great rocks, two cliffs almost, in a very mysterious sort of way - you couldn't quite see where it came from or how it came. So in this way we tracked back this little spring to its source.

In the same way we can trace back, we can track back, Buddhism to its source, its very deep source, in a way its very mysterious source. And what is that? What is the ultimate source of Buddhism itself? The ultimate source of Buddhism, we may say, that which constitutes in the deepest sense the nature of Buddhism, that from which Buddhism in its entirety starts; to change one's figure of speech, the germ or the seed of Buddhism, whence the whole mighty tree and expanded, is the Buddha's spiritual, if you like transcendental, experience - what we call the experience of sambodhi, or supreme perfect Enlightenment. Everything comes out of that. Sometimes the connection may not be very clear. Sometimes the living waters of Buddhism get as it were lost among the stones and the sand. But if you follow, if you trace back, if you track back, then sooner or later one comes to this living, this ever-living source and fount, that is, the spiritual experience of the Buddha himself, his experience of supreme perfect Enlightenment, by virtue of which he did become the being whom we call Buddha, Enlightened, awake, aware.

And what we call Buddhism, what is traditionally called the Dharma in Sanskrit, Dhamma in Pali, chur in Tibetan, is only - though perhaps one shouldn't use the word only - but it is essentially the sum total of all the different ways in which the Buddha and his disciples after him strove to communicate to others some hint, some suggestion, of that experience, so that they might be inspired, might be helped eventually to have, to know, that experience for themselves. That's why, if we leave aside for the moment all the complexity of Buddhism, all the schools and the systems, the teachings, the doctrines, the philosophies, it's a very simple matter. Buddhism, the Dharma, the way of the Buddha, is nothing else than simply the means to this experience, the way to Enlightenment.

It's very easy to forget this. It's very easy to become preoccupied with Buddhist culture, or with languages, with history of Buddhism and so on. But basically and essentially Buddhism is nothing but the means to Enlightenment, the way to Enlightenment, for each one of us.

Now, the fact that Buddhism itself is not an end in itself, is only a means to an end, is brought out very powerfully, even dramatically, in a number of passages in the scriptures, most of which I'm sure are quite well known to most of you because I dwell upon them - I insist upon them, in fact - frequently in various ways. The famous parable of the raft: this is one of the parables of the Buddha which one always tells to newcomers because it does convey so explicitly, so concretely, what in fact Buddhism is, what it's trying to do. It's simply a raft. It's simply something to get you across to the other shore.

This shore of course represents our present ego-bound existence, with its suffering, its disharmony. And the other shore of course represents what we aspire to be, what we ideally are, our goal; in other words Enlightenment or Nirvana or the Dharmakaya, or whatever else one cares or wishes to call it. And Buddhism is simply that raft which carries one over the intervening waters from this shore to that shore. That's its only function. And as the Buddha himself explicitly tells his monks in this very same passage, when you get to the other shore, you don't need the raft. The raft, he said, I teach as something to be left behind. So to put that into more contemporary phraseology, religion itself is something to be left behind, it's a means to an end, that end of course being Enlightenment.

Then think of those marvellous words of the Buddha to his aunt and foster-mother Mahaprajapati Gotami. Even in the Buddha's day Buddhism had become a bit confused.

There were many apparently contradictory versions. One disciple said this, another disciple said that. So even someone who was so close to the Buddha as his own aunt and fostermother, who had followed in his footsteps later on and become a nun, and was dwelling in the forest - even someone of that calibre could become confused. So she went to the Buddha, she asked him personally, how are we to know your teaching? How are we to know what you really taught? - the same question that people often ask today. What did the Buddha really teach? How can we know his teaching? How can we recognize it? So she was in the same situation. She said `Lord, your disciples are teaching so many things as Dharma. I'm becoming confused. How can we recognize what is your teaching?' So the Buddha said in effect, `You can recognize it by inner results. You can recognize it by its transforming influence on your own life. Whatever conduces to freedom from conditionings, to passionlessness, to inner peace, to tranquillity, to detachment, to solitude, to awareness, to fewness of desires, to inner illumination, to the higher life in the broadest sense, take that as my teaching.' In other words, the criterion is not external, not logical, not philosophical; it's pragmatic, it's empirical. But the pragmatism is spiritual, the empiricism is, we may say, transcendental empiricism. That's the criterion. So she went away happy. She knew.

If we go further along in the history of Buddhism, if we look at the Japanese tradition, Japanese Buddhist tradition, we'll find that interwoven with it in so many places there is this very beautiful analogue of the finger pointing to the moon. You use the finger to indicate the moon, but you pass from the finger to the moon. You don't mistake the finger for the moon.

So in the same way you pass from a religious teaching, from a religious practice, to Enlightenment, to spiritual experience. You don't remain stuck, as it were, with that teaching, with that doctrine, with that practice, with that method, hanging on to it, hugging it, as it were, and think that you've got religion there. No, one sees the moon, and one uses the finger to find ...

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