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The Approach to Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

19: The Approach to Buddhism

Today is the first talk in the series, our new series for the new year, entitled Introducing Buddhism. In the first talk which we had some two weeks ago we discussed the necessity of religion. And we saw that religion in the broadest sense representing we may say the achievement of what I then called, psychological and spiritual wholeness, is necessary for those who have become self-aware as the instrument of their higher evolution. And it is necessary only for those who have reached the point where that higher evolution begins or where in fact it can alone begin, the point of self-awareness. For others we may say, though this is perhaps rather unconventional, it isn*t necessary or it hasn*t yet become necessary.

Now last week we tried to give an answer to the question: why Buddhism? Assuming religion to be necessary in the sense in which I*ve already defined it as necessary, then why follow Buddhism in particular? Religion doesn*t after all exist in the abstract, we speak very often in terms of Religion with a capital `R* but really there*s no such thing; all that you really have at all are concrete individual religions, and last week we saw that altogether there are eleven of these; that is counting only the major living religions of the world, not counting the dead ones, not counting those of minor importance even though they are still alive.

So the question arises when one has all these religions, when one is confronted by the richness of all this material as it were, what is the reason for choosing Buddhism, the teaching of the Buddha, in preference to all the rest? So last week as we pursued this inquiry we saw that very broadly speaking there are two groups of religions, the ethnic on the one hand and the universal on the other; the ethnic religions being those professed by certain ethnic groups, confined to a certain geographical area or limited to a certain race of people; and the universal being those which were not so confined and so limited, which were addressed to mankind as a whole irrespective of geographical location.

Now, our choice when we take up this question of choice of religion is obviously limited to the universal religions because in order to belong to an ethnic religion like Hinduism or Judaism one has to be born into it. So the universal religions to which our choice is in fact restricted are only three in number, these are of course Buddhism (in chronological order I*m giving them), Christianity, and Islam; these are the three great universal religions of the world.

So for anyone who is seriously considering this choice of religion, in practice in effect his choice is limited to these three.

Now, these three themselves in turn fall into two groups, there*s a theistic group and a non- theistic group; there is a group of those that believe in a personal god/supreme being, and a group of those that do not, who believe in some personal or supra-personal non-creative principle instead. Now it is a fact that what we may call the theistic idiom is no longer intelligible to a very large number of religious minded modern people; if one speaks this idiom one will no longer be understood by them. so we find that amongst the universal religions Buddhism is the only one which is non theistic; Christianity and Islam, the other two universal religions are theistic. So to that extent they appear as limited to many modern people who no longer speak or even understand the language of theistic religion. So we find that amongst this group of three universal religions Buddhism is the only one which is non theistic, which lays down a complete system of ethics, psychology, meditation, metaphysics and so on but without any reference to any god or supreme being. So this as we saw is really the basic reason for its appeal, the reason above all other reasons why an increasing number of people in the West are taking to this particular teaching, this particular tradition, or this particular religion. The fact that it offers them what we may call a non theistic universal religion, something which they can follow, something which they can try to practice, something which speaks a language and idiom which is intelligible to them; and all the other reasons: that it teaches a comprehensive system of meditation, that it*s tolerant and so on, all these other reasons although good in themselves and valid in themselves are comparatively secondary. The basic issue is this of non theistic universal religion.

So this is the primary answer to the question why Buddhism? Most people take it up basically, essentially or intrinsically for this reason because it is a non theistic universal system of spiritual self development. But having settled this .question as we did last week another question arises in its place in turn. We*ve spoken in the first talk of religion as the instrument by means of which the self aware person pursues the course of what we called the higher evolution. So Buddhism of course answers to this description. Buddhism is also a religion or teaching or system which functions as an instrument by means of which the self aware person, the person who is spiritually alive, conscious of himself, of his spiritual destiny pursues the course of the higher evolution from unenlightened humanity right up to Enlightened humanity or Buddhahood. In fact we may even go so far as to say that Buddhism is in fact better adapted to such an end than any other spiritual teaching which is known to us.

But the question which arises is of how to make contact with it, assuming it is the instrument for this higher evolution, how is one to lay hold of that instrument? How is one to get a grip on it? How is one actually to make use of it as distinct from knowing about it or contemplating it or seeing pictures of it? Now for those who live in a Buddhist country, for those who happen to be born in say Japan, or in Tibet in the old days, in Ceylon or Thailand, this isn*t a problem at all or certainly not a problem in the same degree or to the same extent. So that in these countries whether or not people actually practice it Buddhism is always available, it*s always laid on as it were, it*s always at hand; if you want to meditate well, certainly within a few miles from your home you*ll find a vihara, a monastery where you can do that; if you want to study the Buddhist scriptures again, within a few miles of your home wherever you may happen to be, in any of these Buddhist countries you*ll find some learned monk who*s capable of instructing you. Or if you*re troubled by the deeper questions of religion and the spiritual life, the profounder, more far reaching questions well the chances are that in your country or in your district there are at least a few people, a few monks, or even a few lay people who have plumbed and fathomed, comprehended these questions for themselves, and who therefore can deal with and satisfactorily answer your questions and your difficulties.

So there in these Eastern Buddhist countries the situation is quite different; making contact with Buddhism, laying hold of the instrument, this doesn*t represent a problem or a difficulty at all. But in the West, including this country it*s a very different story. We may know Buddhism from books, but broadly speaking we*ve no contact with Buddhism, with the Buddha*s teaching as an actual way of life or as a culture, no contact at all. Sometimes even one has, in this country and even more so in some of the other European countries like Finland or Italy or Hungary where there are just a very very few Buddhists indeed, no real contact even with other Buddhists. One becomes very much aware of this fact in the course of one*s work in this country; every now and then one meets people or one receives letters from people who tell one that they*ve been Buddhist or considered themselves as Buddhists for a long time: quite a long time, even for a matter of years; but then they say or they write that they*ve never met another Buddhist. Perhaps in isolation for years, occasionally one meets people of this sort at the summer school, I met two or three of them only last year at the summer school, and they said this is the first time we*ve had contact with other Buddhists, and they said it*s quite impossible to convey what that means to us.

I can say that many years ago this was my own individual case for a couple of years, and some of you might even have had a similar experience. In my own case (if you don*t mind me reminiscing autobiographically for just a few minutes), in my own case I became a Buddhist or considered myself a Buddhist at the age of about sixteen, so I got started pretty early. I came to this realization as one can say that I was a Buddhist after reading two very important Buddhist texts; one was the Diamond Sutra or Vajracheddika Sutra, and the other was the Sutra of Wei Lang as in our ignorance we used to call it in those days (now I understand one has to call it the Sutra of Hui Neng or the Platform Sutra), in those days we simply called it the Sutra of Wei Lang.

So what happened was, when I got hold of these two works, when I went through them ,I went through them very quickly, in any case they*re very short books, `though very profound, very concentrated in content, I had a sort of experience, a sort of intuitive apprehension one might say that this is the truth, that so far one has not come across, or one has not come into contact with anything which surpasses this or even approaches this, that the truth is here, not truth in the sense of a particular set of words, a particular set of teachings or doctrines even, but truth in the sense of some metaphysical, some transcendental dimension which suggested by the words or hinted at by the thoughts and ideas and teachings which essentially was beyond them all but nevertheless in some way communicated or mediated ...

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