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Buddhism and the New Reformation

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by Sangharakshita

... problem or a particular aspect of a problem or perhaps we shouldn 't even say `problem' at all. Perhaps to speak in these terms is rather too negative an d defensive. Perhaps we could say that each particular chapter is concerned with one particular area of opportun ity or area of ch allenge. First of all let me say a few words ab out th e title of this bo ok o f the B ishop of W oolw ich's `Th e New Reformation'.

Now when one speaks in terms of the new reformation it suggests of course that there has already been an old refo rmation. T he old refo rmation of course is that inau gurated by Martin Luther when he rather bellicosely nailed him, I think it w as 94 , I forget the exact number, of theses on the church door at Wu rtemburg and it is out of this old reformation of L uther's of course that there eventually emerged that welter of reformed and protestant churches ­ hundreds of them including of course our own dear old Church of England. And the reformation of course is the movem ent which w e can say split Christianity into two halves.

On the one hand, monolithically as it were, the Roman Catholic church, on the other, all the reformed and protestant churches.

Now, that's the old reformation, so what about the new reformation? The bishop, in his preface and elsewhere, thinks, in fact he's convinced, that the new reformation - or what he calls the new reformation - is already here and has in fact already begun. It seems that h e thinks essentially that reformation means the adaptation of this religion - Christianity - to the needs of our times. He's very deeply aware, as we've seen in his book 'Honest to God', that there's a great deal of theological and ecclesiastical lumber which needs to be cleared away, a lot of it is kept up in the attic of course, out of sight but even that doesn't help us very much.

He is of th e opinion that even the attic ought to be cleared, all the lumber taken down, taken out, and just burned. The essentials of these Christian message restated in a way that people can appreciate, in a w ay that they can und erstand. But of course, and h e's very strong o n this point also, w ithout any loss of integrity.

Now, it's an interesting thing that the Bishop is very well aware that this new reformation about which he speaks, in which in fact he is involved, cannot be confined to the west. On one page of The New Reformation he refers to Pallinder's? book 'The Christian Debate: Light from the East'. He makes it quite clear that he is quite well aware that whatever is said on this sort of subject within the limits of the C hristen dom , the Christian churches, is, as he put it, overheard elsew here by followers of other religions, especially by the Hindus and especially also by the Buddhists.

Now I feel that we can go even fu rther than this. It's not so much that Hindu s and Buddh ists and followers of other eastern religions, overhear what is going on in this way of the new reformation within Christianity itself. We can even go so far as to say I think th at we, that is to say the Budd hists, are currently having a sort of new reformation of our own though that may not be very obvious to western Buddh ists, that's simply because they have com paratively little contact with popular trad itional forms of Buddhism. But this new reformation, as we can call it, within the context of Buddhism itself is certainly we may say in evidence here and there in the eastern Budd hist countries.

With regards to the new of the term new , new reformation, in the case o f Bu ddh ism, it is perhaps a little out of place. It suggests that as it were like Christianity, Budd hism has had just one reformation. But in fact we can say that Buddhism has had sev eral reformatio ns already.

This of course raises the question again here within the context of Buddhism, what exactly do we mean by a reform ation? Basically we mean, that a reformation is a restatement of the essen tials of a religion in terms meaningful to a contemporary culture. It's not just a sort of locking away of the bad, that's what very often people tend to think, that a reformation means a cutting o ut, a getting rid of thing s som ething nearly, and preserving what is good . But it's much more than that. Reformation really means getting dow n to ro ck bottom , getting do wn to the essentials of what you think, the essentials of what you believe, the essentials of what you're trying to practise. Grasping that the essential, even you may say the intangible essence, and putting it across in a new way, a way which is more immediately relevant to the needs of the people around you than any of the old ways of putting it. Wh at you p ut across, or try to put across, that intangible essence of that whole, may be the same as what previous generations were trying to put across. Your way of putting it across must be uniquely your own, uniquely suited to the needs of your generation. It's this sort of putting across, whether doctrinally or institutionally, or in any other way, that we call a reformation.

Buddhism, as we all kn ow has had a v ery long history indeed. 2500 years of it, and a little more, and it's unthinkable we may say that in the course of those 2500 years Buddhism hasn't needed to restate it's message, to put it's message into fresh terms. If you assume that in the course of 2500 years Buddhism hasn't needed to restate it's message, you're really saying, you're really makin g th e statement, that in the course o f those 2500 years people didn 't change. The people among whom Bud dhism was spread, among whom it was preached and practised, didn't chan ge. In Ind ia alone, B uddhism has a history of 15 00 years, their period corresponding to the 4th centu ry of the Christian era in the west, to the 19th century - 1500 years. Obviou sly in a p eriod like that there's going to be a tremendous amount of change.

Think how much w e've ch anged in the co urse of 1500 years, so certainly the India of say 1000 AD, the India wasn 't anything like the India of 500 B C that is to say in th e Buddha's own day. ?? were different, attitudes were different, art works were different. So this being the case, it's inevitable that in the course of it's 1500 years development in India, it's 2500 of total history, it's inev itable that B uddhism should h ave ch anged. C hanged in the sen se that it's fundamental message of ethics was restated again and again and again in accordance with the changed needs of the times. Now w e know as a matter of historical fact that the message of Budd hism has been restated at least 4 times in the course of the 2500 of history, in other words we can say, we can assert that in the course of 2500 years of Bud dhist history that there have been 4 m ajor reform ations.

Now this may come as a surprise to some of you, some may say we've heard of the reformatio n in Europe in the 15th century but we've never heard of any Buddhist reformation, we haven't even heard of one, not to sp eak of 4. But th is is perhaps because we have tend ed to be misled by the world. We've all heard o f the 3 yanas of Indian B: Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Now these are usually described by just schools of Buddhism, or even sects of Buddhism- a very unfortunate expression. But basically these 3 yanas, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, are not schools, are not sects at all, they're really three successive stages in the development of Buddhism in India - I've gone into all this before as some of you know. Or we may say, rephrasing it again , they are 3 separate statemen ts or restatements of the essentials of the Buddha's teachings. Hinayana statement, Mahayana statement, Vajrayana statement. And it isn't perhaps too much, it's isn't stressing the terminology too far to describe each of them as in fact a reformation.

Now there is a difference when we think or when we speak of reformationin the 15th cen tury, in the 16th century in Europe, we think in terms of blood and violen ce an d slaughter and burning at the stake, forcible conversion. We've got all the bloody wars of religion which disfigured the face of Europe almost completely. ? final religious settlement. B ut of course in the history ofBuddhismwe don't have anything of that sort. We have rs but nothing forced, no bloodshed, comp lete tolerance, and this is of co urse is in acco rdance with the much more pacific and tolerant nature of Buddhism. Now it is incidentally significant and interesting that each of these yanas - the Hinayana, the Mahayana, the Vajrayana - was dominant in India for a period of about 500 years. A period in the course of which one might have expected in ancient times considerable cultural and other changes could take place. The Hinayana, the first of the stages of development, the first of these reformations as we may now say, the Hinayana isBuddh ismstates in terms w hich are predom inantly ethical and psycholog ical.

Th ere's a great stress on condu ct, on discipline, on pyscholog ical analysis, especially in th e form of the Abhidhamma. So these are the sort of terms that the Hinayana's presentation ofBud dhist works through. In modern times of course the Theravada is the most prominent representation o f this type of approach, it's one of the 18 sch ools of the Hinayana.

The Mahayana - this stage of development, this reformation, describes or expresses the essence ofB udd hismin terms wh ich are predom inantly devotional and metaphysical. Some might think it rather su rprising that the M ahayana should be both o f these things - devotional, attaching great importance to the devotion, to the worship of the Buddhas and Bodh isattvas, and also m etaphysical and p hilosoph ical approach, discou rsing at leng th on the nature of the Void, the nature of Reality, of Mind and so on.

Now the Vajrayana, the third state or third phase of development, ...

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