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The Approach to Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

... by them.

So one felt, or I felt that this is the truth, the absolute truth. Not only that but there was also the experience or the if you like intuitive understanding or realization that this is nothing new; it is not that I didn*t know it yesterday and now I*ve come to it today- not that - but when it was known it was as though (or one shouldn*t even say as though), it was in fact that it had been always known; not that one got to know it then before one didn*t know it and afterwards one did know it but when one knew it one not only knew it but one had always known it, so in fact there was no coming to know it. So in this sense also there*s no question of becoming a Buddhist, not that up to the age of sixteen one wasn*t a Buddhist one was something else, and from the age of sixteen one was a Buddhist, not that, but at that time one realized that one had in fact been a Buddhist in a sense without knowing it all the time. So this was my own experience. Now this happened in London but I didn*t learn of the existence of a Buddhist movement in London `till considerably later, and this occurred when I happened to be reading a translation of the Tao Te Ching: a certain Chinese Taoist work, and at the back there was an advertisement for a magazine called Buddhism in England. Buddhism in England is now known as The Middle Way, It is of course the organ of the Buddhist Society at Ecclestone Square. So after seeing this advertisement I wrote off for this magazine, got it, became a subscriber, and entered into correspondence with the editor who was then Clare Cameron who is still alive, still in this country and still in touch with me, and in course of time I started writing articles for The Middle Way or rather Buddhism in England, the first of them being I remember on the subject of the unity of Buddhism, a subject which I*ve pursued with some enthusiasm ever since. Now eventually I plucked up my courage, went along to the society (it was then in Great Russell Street, now there*s a bookshop on that same premises), joined the society and started attending meetings. So during those two years, from the time of reading the Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Wei Lang, up to the time of going to the society at Great Russell Street, although all this happened twenty five years ago I wasn*t in contact with a single other Buddhist.

Now there have been many changes since then in the Buddhist movement in this country and here in London, but I know that there are still quite a number of people in the position which I described, especially people living outside London, far away in what we Londoners call the Provinces. So very often this question of the approach to Buddhism often does constitute a very real problem; how to get in touch, how to make contact. For us who are in or have been in a number of years it seems obvious well you just come along and you join, but for someone who has never heard of the existence of a society, doesn*t know where or how to begin looking it is a very real problem indeed.

Only the other week in this very place, in this vihara, a young man from the provinces came along, and he told us that he had been interested in Buddhism for about a year, he had written us one or two letters, but he*d had no contact with ant other Buddhist, never even met, never even seen any other Buddhist. So it was a great relief to him apparently to talk to someone about Buddhism, to be actually able to speak this word Buddhism, to discuss Buddhism with other people who were also Buddhists. So it seems to us we were saying that very ordinary things, answering very elementary questions, but so far as he was concerned apparently, all these comparatively trite or comparatively commonplace remarks of ours, mainly in answer to his questions were in fact pearls of wisdom; and one started wondering what is it that I am saying because this person is receiving It so gratefully and so appreciatively. Whereas it doesn*t seem as though one is saying very much at all. And in the course of conversation he happened to say to a young man who had opened the door to him, he said "don*t you know, you*re the first Buddhist that I*ve ever seen in my life". So there was this sort of historic occasion. So this is also a sort of warning to us. It shows us how very careful we must be; we may be at any time the first person, or the first Buddhist person that somebody else has ever seen. Now one has to be very careful therefore, especially when one is at the vihara. Because there may come a knock on the door, and you may go to open it, and you don*t know who is standing there; it might be someone who has become interested in Buddhism, who has plucked up courage to come and knock on the door of the vihara and make a few inquiries; and it may be that of all his subsequent career, whether he becomes a Buddhist in the end or not or takes interest or not is determined by the face, by the appearance, by the approach, by the response of the person who opens the door. And that might be you any time.

If you open it with a smile then at least that makes an initial good impression. If you open it with a frown, supposing you*re having a nice little chat down in the kitchen, and then there*s this knock on the door and you feel `what a nuisance, what on earth is that*, so you rush up and open the door with a bit of a scowl: `what do you want?* Well what sort of effect does that produce? The person may not come again. In fact some months ago or more than a year ago we did have one or two cases of this sort I*m afraid, and people well they did come again but they told me the reception the first time they came. the expression on the person*s face who opened the door wasn*t really very encouraging and I might not have come again.

So it shows us that all the time we must be very very careful indeed and as we go about, as people get to know, as the subject of religion comes up, and we say perhaps with much hesitation, with a certain amount of bashfulness `well you know I am interested in Buddhism* you might even say `well I am a Buddhist* (might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb), that it may very well be that the person to whom you are speaking has never seen a real live Buddhist before. That is assuming or course you are a real live Buddhist and not a dead and stuffed one! So it*s something that really deserves some really serious thought and attention. The course of someone*s whole spiritual life can be affected, for better or for worse by this impression of you, your knowledge, your sincerity and so on at that particular moment.

Anyway this is somewhat of the nature of a digression, so let us get back to this main question of the approach to Buddhism. Let*s discuss it to begin with in very general terms, and after that towards the end if we have time (I*m not quite sure whether we shall have) we shall discuss it with specific reference to conditions here in this country. Now it*s possible to approach Buddhism in very many different ways, and some of these ways are more adequate than other ways, a few are even positively wrong. what we have to do in the first place is to approach Buddhism as Buddhism. Now what does one mean by that? It surely seems obvious enough that one should approach Buddhism as Buddhism. But it isn*t really so, we don*t always do that; in the course of the first talk religion was defined as the achievement of a state of spiritual and psychological wholeness, and in that state relating to others, to other people and to Reality, Ultimate Reality.

Religion is also the sum total of all the doctrines, all the teachings, all the methods conducive to this particular achievement, so Buddhism reflects this definition. Perhaps it reflects it more purely and more clearly, in a less distorted form than any other teaching. In its own language Buddhism is the Way to Enlightenment, it*s the raft, or the Dharma is the raft to carry us over to the other shore of Nirvana, perfect peace of mind, freedom, Insight, wisdom, compassion and so on. Or in more modern terms Buddhism or the Dharma is the instrument as I*ve already said of the higher evolution of mankind, the evolution of mankind, each individual human being that is to say from unenlightened to an enlightened state or condition of supreme Buddhahood.

So unless one understands this, to begin with, this above all, one cannot really approach Buddhism, one can hardly really begin to approach it; one may approach something or think that one is approaching something but that will not be Buddhism; at best it will be a rather serious, rather unfortunate distortion of Buddhism.

Now let me give you just one or two examples of this. From time to time at the vihara here we have the pleasure and privilege of receiving visitors from different Buddhist countries.

Sometimes from Thailand sometimes from Burma, Japan, Tibet and so on. And some months ago we had a very charming visitor from Japan. He was a Shin Buddhist priest, that is of the Shin sect, quite a prominent figure in the religious life, the Buddhist life of his own country; and he was on a world tour. So he naturally called on us, called on the Buddhist Society, and in the course of conversation he said to me `I must tell you about something which pleases me very much*, he said `on my way from Japan to London I called in at various places and amongst others I called in at Rome*, and he said `not only did I call in at Rome but I had the honour of an audience with the Pope*, he said `not only that but the Pope gave me a letter, and in this letter he expressed very high appreciation of Buddhism*. Now when I heard this to be quite frank I became a bit suspicious. I felt `well the Pope expressing high appreciation of Buddhism, doesn*t sound quite Pope-like to me* so I said `Have you any objection if I see this letter?* So he was delighted to show it to me, he produced it out ...

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