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Buddhism and the New Reformation

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by Sangharakshita

Tape No 7: Buddhism and the new Reformation

San gharaksh ita (SIDE 1): Friend s, most of you k now or remem ber, perhaps I can say that something mo re than a year ago, I gave a talk on the subject of `Buddhism and the Bishop of Woolwich'. That talk wasn't given here, in th e vihara, it was given not so very far away at Berg? H ouse in Hampstead. On that occasio n so far as I remem ber w e had a rather small gathering. I think the weather wasn't particularly propitious on that occasion, or for w hatsoever other reason it might have been, but we had rather few er people than we usually get for talks o f this so rt.

How ever that didn't matter very much because the talk was tape-recorded so we had it as it were perm anently for p osterity, ready to h and dow n. And th at talk h as been played not on ly here at the vihara but elsewhere many, I might even say, many many times and has in fact become quite well known. Many of you do know that it has got as far as the episcopal ears of the Bishop of W oolw ich himself. He also has sat or had to sit and listen to this p articular talk and out of this there have been some rather interesting developments and not the least of which, I suppose, is that some months ago the Bishop and myself had a personal meeting and discussion. Now that isn't I believ e the end o f the sto ry. He I think is just back from holid ay; I am just on the point of going away for a little rest, but we shall it seems be meeting again. B ut meanwh ile I thou ght it m ight b e a go od id ea to have a sort of follow-u p to this talk on `Buddhism and the Bishop of Woolwich'. And that is the reason why today we are having for our subject `Buddhism and the N ew R eformation'.

Now the religion which w e in the West kno w as Buddhism, which is usually referred to in the East as Dharma or Dhamma or Cho, whatever else it may be, and the religion which is known as Ch ristianity, the teaching of the Buddha on the one hand and the teaching of Christ on the other, are tw o very radically different systems in m any ways. Those of you who have come along regularly will be quite aware of the fact that I would b e almost the last person to identify these two religions or these two systems. At the same time, we must recognise the fact ­ we must see the fact ­ that both of these great systems, Buddhism on the one hand and Christianity on the other, are in fact what we popularly call `religions', not a word very much in favour at present but we don't have any other word which we can use in its place. Some time ago I rem ember in India, I hit upon the working equivalent of, instead of `religious', saying `normative' which I thought rather good but it didn't catch on at all. So I just went back to `religious' and in the same w ay to `religion'. Now both of these systems, both of these religions, Buddhism and Ch ristianity, besides both being religions in the full sense of that term, both find themselves today faced by, we might even say beset by, surrounded b y, or almost overwhelmed by, especially in the case of Christianity, problems of various k inds.

Christianity is trying to face up to some of those p roblems, Buddhism also is trying wh ere necessary to face up to some of those problems. And it is therefore inevitable inasmuch as both are religions, both are facing up to what are very often the same so rt of problems, it's inev itable that we can learn from each other. Now in the last talk, that is to say the one on Budd hism and the Bishop of Woolwich, I was more concerned with what the B ishop could possible learn from us. But I do know from my own personal encoun ter with him, that he is a quite open-minded man and he did express his w ish to make a pro per stu dy of B udd hism. I pointed out to him th at it cou ldn't be don e by reading ju st two or three books, that he would have to embark on a serious course of study and I think it not at all impossible that he might be thinking of doing that. In fact I think that in the course of his holiday, he will be getting through quite a lot of Buddhist literature.

One of the things I felt the Bishop, in fact Christianity generally, could learn from the Buddhist tradition is in this matter of what I have described as the `non-theistic' approach. For modern Christianity, for modern Christians, one might say God has become a considerable source of embarrassment. Many of them feel, as the Bishop of Woo lwich seems to feel, that the churches and the Christian religion generally could get along much better w ithou t Him altogether. Now that's a rath er radical conclusion but it seems that's the sort of conclusion the have been almost forced to. Well Buddhism supplies the example, as I pointed out at len gth in that talk on `Budd hism and the B ishop of W oolwich',Buddhism supplies the example of a religion, faith, a way of life, wh ich has go t on w ithou t the idea of god , without recourse to belief in god, or prayer to god very well indeed fo r about 2500 years. So this is perhaps the principle point on which Christianity in general and the Bishop of Woolwich perhaps in particular ­ inasmuch as he represents a sort of advanced guard of contemporary Christian thou ght, at least in this country ­ can learn from us, can learn from Budd hism. But in this talk I am concerned with a rather different approach.

In this talk I am concerned more, not so m uch with wh at he can learn from us, but with what we possible, w e hope, can learn from him. In particular wh at we can learn from him w ith regard to the contemporary relig ious situation. We need to apprise ourselves of this, we need to know about it because we are confronted by it at, we may say, almost every turn. Some Budd hists, especially in the East, like to sit back as it were, complacently and feel or think that there are no problems for Buddhism. The approach of some Eastern Buddhists, if I may say so, is a trifle naïve. Just as in the old days people used to quote the bible as the solution for every difficulty and every problem, in some Eastern B udd hist countries you just hear it said "well, the Buddha has said... " and that is very often considered to represen t the last word on the subject. When you say "well, the Bud dha has said... " the d iscussion is closed. But it isn't so easy as all that and we certainly realize in this country, those of us who are B uddhists, that it isn't as easy as all that. We do feel quite definitely that sometimes with regard to these various pro blems, we do have a b it of an edge over C hristianity.

As I have already pointed out, we are not embarrassed by the idea of god. We've got on very well without h im all these centuries and w e con tinue to get on very well without h im. So this is a particular problem w e don't have to face up to, the fact that modern man isn't interested, broadly speaking, generalizing, in this personal theistic, anthropo morphic sort o f app roach to religion. At the same time though we don't have this sort of problem, though we're n ot faced by this so rt of problem, we do live, even tho se of u s wh o are Buddh ists, we do live, or should live, or try to live in the modern world, right in the midst of the 20th centu ry with all its remarkable developments and problems. And this modern world, in the midst of which we find ourselves, willingly or unwillingly, is a very complex on e, a very difficult one and one in short in which it isn't always at all comfortable to live. So people dream rath er nostalg ically of the past. Th ey think perhaps they would like to have lived in the days, the heroic age say of ancient Greece or some think they would like to have lived in the Middle Ages ­ the ages of faith when there were no intellectual problems such as we are beset by today or when intellectual problems arising within a religious context w ere just technical prob lems, little problems of exposition or presentation but within a wider generally agreed doctrinal framew ork But this sort of nostalg ic thin king and dreaming is all right for an occasional afternoon and doesn't really in the long run help us very much. We are in the midst of the 20th century. We do live in this modern world of ours, a very complex and difficult one, and we do as religious people need to know what problems it has, what needs it has, and to try to become more and more deeply awa re of those problems and of those needs. It's not as though we can stand aloof, it's not as though we can even be really objective because w e ourselves willy- nilly, inasmuch as we live at this time and in this place are involved in all those problems and share those needs.

Now this talk has been called `Buddhism and the New Reformation'. `The New Reformation' of course is the title of the Bishop's second book, that is to say the one he w rote after `Honest to God'. We always call `Honest to God' his first book, and `T he N ew Reformation' his second book even though he has written quite a number of books apparently on various aspects of theology before he wrote `H onest to God'. It's a very small book , by the way, as most of you w ho have seen it remember. This is perhaps because the Bishop realized very well that even though what he had to say was very valuable if he enshrined it ­ or entombed it we may say ­ in a tome, a weight tome of 500 pages noone would have read it except the review ers and the professional theologians. So he has produced a second book of just over 100 pages which he realizes q uite well is all that the av erage layman these d ays can stand of religion, in one dose. Now this book consists of 4 chapters. One is called `Troubling of the Waters'. Chapter 2 is called `Starting from the other end. 3 is called `Towards a genuinely lay theology' and 4 is called `Living in the Overlap' ­ all quite arresting titles, you'll agree.

Now each of these chapters is concerned with a particular ...

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