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The Nature and Development of Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

... the position, the place of the moon in the heavens.

So in all these various ways - in the parable of the raft, in the advice to Mahaprajapati Gotami, in this analogue of the finger and the moon - Buddhism makes it so clear that all its great teachings, its doctrines, its philosophies, its practices, have one aim and one end only, and that is Enlightenment. All are means to that great end.

We might say perhaps that Buddhism takes greater precautions against the possibility of its followers mistaking the finger for the moon than any other teaching, than any other tradition.

We don't read, so far as I know, that Christ ever said to his disciples `Be careful that you don't take my words too literally.' We don't read that Mohammed, for instance, ever said to his followers, or ever warned his followers, that when I speak about the delights of heaven and so on, I'm not to be taken too literally, this is just to help you on your way. We don't read that in the case of either Christianity or Islam these warnings were ever given. But certainly in the Buddhist tradition, the Buddhist teaching, and in the Hindu tradition and Hindu teaching also to some extent, this is insisted upon again and again and again. Because human nature is such that we always tend to cling on to that which is the means and treat it as though it was the end itself, especially in matters of religion.

In this respect it's very instructive to notice, as I've pointed out to some of you, that the third of the ten fetters by which we're fettered, bound down to conditioned existence, according to the Buddha's teaching, is what is called silavrata pramarsa. Now this is a Sanskrit expression which simply means - sila is ethics, moral rules; vrata is religious observances; pramarsa is clinging or attachment. So clinging or attachment to ethical rules and religious observances is according to Buddhism a fetter. Not that these observances, not that these practices, are wrong in any way, but that clinging to them constitutes a fetter.

In other words, this represents, we may say, conventional religiosity. Conventional religiosity is a hindrance to Enlightenment. This is a very hard truth for many people to swallow. This is perhaps the main point of Krishnamurti's teaching. I don't personally agree with everything that Krishnamurti says - I think he goes far too far in some directions - but this which he says is certainly valid - that too many people have become bogged down, too many religious people have become bogged down in religion itself. They're treating it not as a means to an end - Enlightenment or any other end - but as an end in itself. There's no need to multiply examples. So far as the religious life of this country is concerned, we can find examples enough all around us, so there's no need to mention any one specifically. We do even find this sometimes, despite all the Buddha's warnings, within Buddhism itself.

Silavrata pramarsa is sometimes translated by the early translators as `no dependence on rites and ceremonies', but really this has nothing to do with rites and ceremonies. As I've said, sila is ethical rules, as in the case of the pancha sila; vrata is religious observance. Let us use all these things by all means. Let us have our pujas; let us have our meditations; let us have our organisational activities, our study of the texts. Let us have all these things. But let us always remember that they are only of use, only of value, to the extent that they lead us in the direction of Enlightenment.

And therefore we have to ask ourselves periodically, as I ask all of you periodically, `Is what I am doing, is what I am studying, is what I am practising, what I am observing, really helping me in the direction of Enlightenment, or am I going mechanically on week after week, month after month, just like a squirrel in a revolving cage? Have I just got into a sort of religious conditioning? Am I just settling down comfortably in some sort of religious doctrine or practice or group? Or am I using those facilities in such a way that I do get a little nearer to Enlightenment?' This is the question we have to ask ourselves constantly. It's not enough to declare, well, I'm a Buddhist. It's not enough even to keep up one's daily meditation. The point is, is one getting nearer to Enlightenment? Is one making some progress? Are these things in which one is engaged, which one is studying, which one is practising, functioning as a means of helping one towards the end in the direction of which they point? Now in this connection there's a rather interesting of what we may call interpretation which arises. We've spoken of the Buddha's experience of Enlightenment as constituting the nature, the essence, of Buddhism. We've spoken of the Buddha communicating or trying to communicate that experience of his to others, so that they also might have that experience for themselves. And we've spoken of Buddhism as essentially this communication.

But we have also to take note of the fact, of the point, that in communicating his experience, his spiritual experience, his transcendental experience, whatever we may like to call it, the Buddha had perforce to make use of contemporary language. This is something we don't always appreciate, or don't always appreciate very clearly or very definitely. Of course, he had to use, we all know, a contemporary Indian language. It wasn't Pali; it was probably Magadhi or Kosali or something of that sort. No doubt he spoke several languages or dialects. But it isn't that merely that one means. He had to express himself, he had to communicate what he had to communicate, his experience of Enlightenment, in terms of contemporary language not just in the linguistic sense, philological sense, but also in the sense of ideas.

And this brings us to another very interesting and very important question of interpretation.

Some scholars, some historical scholars, dealing with Buddhism, sometimes make the statement that the Buddha borrowed such and such an idea from his predecessors. For instance, you can open some little popular books on Buddhism and they'll tell you almost on the first page that the Buddha borrowed the idea of karma and rebirth from existing religious traditions. Sometimes of course they'll also tell you that it didn't fit in very well with his own discoveries, but that's neither here nor there.

But this sort of way of looking at things, one might say, is extremely crude and extremely superficial. The Buddha's purpose, the Buddha's aim, was to make himself understood. So when you speak to people you have to use their language, not just in the linguistic sense, but the language of ideas which is familiar to them. So when the Buddha spoke to people in India, northeastern India mainly, 500 BC, though his experience was beyond words, beyond thought even, though it was something in a sense incommunicable, when he wanted to communicate something of it, to suggest it, to convey some hint of it at least, he had not only to use the language in the literal sense of his day, or languages, but also the language of ideas which was understood by the people to whom he was speaking. Of course, he used that language, that language of ideas, in his own way, and no doubt in using it, modified it, sometimes entirely reinterpreted it.

To give just a couple of very simple sociological examples, he reinterpreted the word brahmana. Brahmana in the Buddha's day usually meant just a priest, a hereditary priest. But the Buddha reinterpreted this word and made it stand for a very high spiritual idea. In the same way vasala. Vasala means an outcast, in the literal sense. But the Buddha used it in the sense of an unworthy person, a spiritually degenerate person. And in this way he transformed the meaning of many of the terms which he used.

Now this brings us directly to a very important question of great significance not only for Buddhism but for other religions too, and this is the whole question of the relationship between what we may call the founded and what we may call the ethnic religions. A founded religion is a religion which has a definite individual founder. We can say that Christianity was founded by Christ, we can say that Mohammedanism or Islam was founded by Mohammed, and we can say that Buddhism was founded by the Buddha: just one individual figure to whom the whole tradition can be quite decisively and definitely traced back, so that you can say that had there been no Christ, there would have been no Christianity; no Mohammed, no Islam; no Buddha, no Buddhism.

So these are the founded religions, sometimes called the missionary religions. But you've also got what are called the ethnic religions, religions which have grown up among people; there's no single founder. They seem to have grown up, as it were, as the product of the whole people, the whole race, the whole group, like Judaism. Moses was a very prominent figure in the history of Judaism, but you can't say that Moses founded Judaism. In the same way, Sri Krishna, Brahma, they're very prominent in the history of Hinduism, but no Hindu says that Brahma and Krishna founded Hinduism. So in the same way with other ethnic religions, like those of Japan. Shinto: Shinto has got no founder, it just grew up on the soil of Japan.

So we have these two groups. We've got the founded religions, the missionary religions, and the ethnic religions. Now the ethnic religions are chronologically prior to the founded religions, and we find that every founded religion arises within the matrix, as it were, of an ethnic religion. You never get a missionary religion appearing out of the blue, as it were. You never get a founded religion appearing out of the blue, as it were - always within the matrix of an ethnic religion. So in this way Christianity arises within the matrix of Judaism. Islam arises within the matrix ...

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