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Buddhism and the Bishop of Woolwich

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 6: Buddhism and the Bishop of Woolwich

Mr Chairman and Friends, As you've just heard this is the penultimate talk in a series, the second of the two series which we have had this year. And in the course of this series we have dealt with quite a wide variety of topics, and especially with Buddhism in relation to these topics.

Now this evening we come to what some of you might consider a rather strange topic, that is, as Mr Walsh has already told you, the topic of Buddhism and the Bishop of Woolwich. Now some of you may be wondering what could there possibly be in common between and Eastern religion like Buddhism and an Anglican Bishop like the Bishop of Woolwich, and you might therefore be wondering why this particular topic, this particular subject, has been included in this particular series.

Now, I'm afraid I must accept the responsibility for the inclusion of this topic in our series personally. And in order to make clear why I included this particular topic - Buddhism and the Bishop of Woolwich - I must take you, as it were, back with me to Kalimpong. As Mr Walsh has told you, I have spent in India upwards of twenty years, and in India my headquarters were situated at a place called Kalimpong up in the Himalayan foothills not very far from the more famous township of Darjeeling. Now, as you can imagine that little place of about 15,000 inhabitants situated within sight of Tibet, situated within sight of the magnificent snow ranges which interpose between India and Tibet. It's rather cut off from the outside world. It's a rather quiet little place. Or at least it was until quite recently, and not very many sounds from the outside world do penetrate there. But about three years ago, even in that far away place, even in this remote little township of Kalimpong, nestling among the hills at the foot of the mighty Himalayas, we heard echoes of a little debate - one might even say controversy - which was going on here in this country. In Kalimpong at our monastery I received from time to time different magazines and journals from this country, mainly of a religious nature. And I couldn't help noticing that in so many of them, about three years ago, there appeared references to a book which had then recently been published, called, Honest to God. I remember that one of the journals I was receiving regularly, it was in fact the weekly paper, was The Enquirer, which is one of the organs of the Unitarians. And they featured for many many months, as far as I remember, weekly articles and letters and discussions on this particular book. And other journals, other magazines, even the daily press apparently, gave quite a lot of coverage to this particular book and its ideas and the debate and the discussion which arose out of this publication.

So coming to understand, coming to know in this way, that this book had created quite a stir in England, and knowing also by that time that I would in all likelihood find myself back in England before very long, I made, as it were, a sort of mental note that one of things that I'm going to do when I get settled down a little in England, is to read this particular book.

So not very long after my arrival at the Hampstead Vihara, I happened to be browsing through our library and I found a rather battered, rather dog-eared copy of this particular book which had obviously been read by quite a large number of people frequenting our Vihara, our monastery. So being, as I may say, something of a bookworm whenever I see a book in which I'm interested one is to read it. There's no question of any delay. So that night itself I sat up quite late and I finished it at one sitting. And I must say that I found this little book by the Bishop of Woolwich, Honest to God, of very great interest indeed. And when I say that I found it of interest I don't mean that I found it merely of academic or theoretical or intellectual interest, but something much more than that.

As I'm sure all of you know, in the course of the last century in the West generally, and in this country also, there has been a great growth, a great development, in the study of what we may call comparative religion. Now this study was confined at first to scholars, to university circles, and especially to the professional or the (aterlist). But gradually as the decades went by religious people, people who weren't interested in philology or philosophy technically, or in anthropology or sociology but in religion came to pay more and more attention to the various religions of the world other than their own. And this I feel was a very very significant development. When religious people, that is to say Christians, in this country, started giving serious consideration to the other great religions of the world, taking them not just as anthropological curiosities, not as something exotic, but as religions, as faiths, in which people believed and by which they lived and in which, therefore, there must be something of value, even though they might not choose to regard that something as being quite so valuable as what they found in their own religion.

Now I must say frankly that after my return to this country, after an interval of twenty years, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the degree of interest in non-Christian religions, including - perhaps I might even say especially - Buddhism, that there is among sincerely religious people, which means for the most part Christian people, in this country.

I must say at the same time that this surprise was all the more of a more surprise and all the more pleasant in as much as my encounters in India with what one might call the professional representatives of the various Christian churches in the form of the missionaries, had not been of the happiest nature! I feel now, after having had a certain amount of contact with various Christian bodies and individuals in this country in the course of the last seven or eight months, that the missionaries and the attitudes of the missionaries, especially towards other religions, are certainly not representative of the more advance religious thinking in this country today. I remember not so many years ago I went from Kalimpong to a place very near the Bhutan border called Padong - it's about sixteen miles from Kalimpong. As you notice proper names in this area all end in ong, so from Kalimpong I went to Padong, and there's a fair there, an annual fair to which the village people of that area brought their produce and there were prizes and exhibitions and things of that sort; so various Christian missionaries had quite literally set up their tents and were busy proclaiming the gospel and distributing tracts, and amongst other people they buttonholed me! So one of them said to me, `Look here, we have to tell you plainly that your fate after death is going to be far worse, far more terrible, than that of other people. So I of course inquired why.

So they said, or this particular person said, `Well not only have you gone astray yourself in becoming a Buddhist, but you are leading also others astray. So your fate will be much worse than the fate of the others.

Now I must say that this sort of attitude I certainly haven't encountered in this country. And I've come to the conclusion that that sort of attitude is more or less out of date, and it would seem that those who go to places like India as missionaries, as propagators of the gospel are people who, one might say, almost can't fit in to the religious world and religious life of this country today. They are, as it were, anachronisms, so they leave this country Since my return here, during this last seven our eight months I must say that my own contacts with Christians of various denominations have been extremely cordial, and especially I'd like to mention the Anglicans, the Methodists, the Quakers and the Unitarians. Of course some people will tell you that the Quakers and Unitarians are not really Christians, at least they're not admitted to membership of the World Council of Churches, but we won't go into that today.

And I have been very gratified, very pleased to find, that amongst these various bodies - the Anglicans, the Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, there are quite a number of people who are interested in Buddhism. I remember no so many weeks ago I spent a very pleasant weekend at a place, in fact it was at an old farmhouse near Maidstone in Kent, and there was a group of young Methodists staying there, and every evening we sat up very very late discussing Christianity, Buddhism, Methodism, Wesley, the Buddha, Zen, and so on and so forth, and I was surprised, and again pleasantly surprised to find, that one of these young men who was a lay preacher in the Methodist church had acquired not only quite a sound understanding of Zen but was extremely appreciative of it also, and felt, when I suggested to him that there was something even in John Wesley's own teaching and example faintly resonant of Zen.

It hadn't occurred to him before but when I pointed out one or two resemblances and parallels he at once conceded that there was a very interesting resemblance.

So this, I feel, is a very, not only favourable but very pleasing situation in which we find in this country that there are many religious people, even members of churches, who are not only interested in Buddhism theoretically but who are willing to learn from Buddhism, even though without actually becoming Buddhists. Such being the situation it's only right and only natural I feel that there should be some Buddhists who are interested in following and understanding developments, modern developments, within the field of Christianity. Not so very long ago, you know, there were held in Rome two Vatican Councils, and it was very interesting to note what widespread interest they aroused, not only in Christian countries and Christian ...

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