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Buddhism in England

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 20: Buddhism in England

Sangharakshita Friends. As most of you know, today*s is the fourth in our new series for the new year, 1966, entitled Introducing Buddhism. Now before taking up today*s subject which is Buddhism in England, I shall just briefly recapitulate the content of the previous three talks, partly to remind those who were present for them, and partly, to inform, those who have not previously attended. After going through them briefly in this way, we shall know exactly where we stand at the beginning of this evening*s talk.

Now in that first talk of this series, the question was posed, and this was the title of the talk Is Religion Necessary? A very important question, one which people very often ask, and we saw in the course of the talk, that religion was necessary in a certain sense: it was necessary for those who had attained a certain degree of self-awareness, and it was necessary for them as the instrument of what we then called their higher evolution - that is to say their evolution from an unenlightened state to the state of enlightenment, or Buddliahood, or complete spiritual freedom. Religion we saw was not really for others, that is not for those who are not self- aware, not for those who do not wish to pursue and follow, the course of the higher evolution.

Now in the course of the second talk, the question was asked Why Buddhism?. Assuming religion to be necessary, for the sort of people that we*ve described, well why Buddhism? Why not some other system, some other teaching. We saw in that talk that there were eleven major religions in the world living today. I don*t need I think to mention them all individually now, but we did see in the course of that talk, that out of the eleven major religions, eight were what we call ethnic religions, confined to a particular ethnic, racial, linguistic group, and only three of those religions out of the eleven were universal religions, religions whose message was aimed at all men and all women, regardless of nationality, race and so on. We further saw that among the universal religions, the three universal religions, there was a theistic group, and a non-theistic group. The theistic group comprising Christianity and Islam, the non-theistic group comprising simply Buddhism. We saw therefore, or we came to the conclusion therefore that Buddhism was the only non-theistic universal religion, and we saw therefore that that was the basic reason why most of us in this country accept and follow Buddhism. The language of theism has become meaningless to many of us. We require some kind of religion as the instrument of our own higher evolution, having developed a certain degree of self- awareness. The ethnic religions are not available, are not even accessible to us; among the universal religions, two are ruled out on account of their theistic background, and the only one that remains therefore is Buddhism. In this way, we answered, or attempted to answer the question of Why Buddhism? Now last week, in the third talk of the series, we considered the whole question of the approach to Buddhism. And we saw that that approach, or the making of that approach was by no means an easy matter here in the West, in view of the fact that Buddhism is so recently established, and in view of the fact that we have hardly any contact with it if any at all as a living thing, as a living religious and cultural tradition. We saw however, that when we approach Buddhism, we should be careful to approach it in the first place as Buddhism, not as anything else; as a way to enlightenment, as the instrument of our own higher evolution. Not as just a humanistic teaching, not as just an ethical system, not as just an anthropological curiosity, but as above all else, the way to enlightenment, the way to Buddhahood, or the goal, the summit of our own higher evolution, the higher evolution in fact, of the whole race.

Secondly we saw, that we should approach Buddhism as a whole. In Buddhism there are so many schools, so many sects, traditions; teachings: Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and so on. So when we approach Buddhism, we should approach Buddhism as a whole, not approaching merely the Theravada, not approaching merely Tibetan Buddhism, or only Zen, but taking the whole Buddhist tradition in its length and its breadth, with its history of 2500 years, in all its richness, in all its diversity, its Indian, its Chinese, its Tibetan forms, and studying, distilling what is good out of each and every aspect, every strand even, of that tradition. And in the third place we saw that we should approach Buddhism with our whole being: not just intellectually, as people often do in the West; not just emotionally as they often do in the East; but intellectually and emotionally, with our intellect and with our feelings too; practically and theoretically, with our whole being, totally, without any reservation, without any little portion or any little corner of ourselves, which is left as it were, uncommitted to Buddhism. So we saw therefore, last week, in last week*s talk, that we should approach Buddhism in this manner: approach it as Buddhism approach it as a whole; and approach it with our whole being. So this is the approach to Buddhism in general terms; very general terms, even we may say in the most general terms an approach which holds good at all times and in all places.

But there*s also a more specific, even we may say, a more concrete approach to Buddhism.

That is to say, an approach to it in terms of conditions here and now in this country, in the midst of this 20th century. And that brings us of course to the subject of today*s talk which is Buddhism in England. Now the question may be put as to why as part of a series Introducing Buddhism we have to consider, or should pause to consider this question of Buddhism in England at all? Some people might remark, `Well, why not get straight on with the exposition of Buddhism; why not get straight onto the philosophical first principles; why not get onto the spiritual and ethical path; why is it we have paused to consider something apparently irrelevant even though of interest like Buddhism in England. Why not get straight on, as I*ve said, with the exposition of the Dharma, of the Buddha*s teaching itself?' Now the question isn*t really so simple. The position isn*t really so straight forward as all that.

As I'm sure you*ve all gathered by this time, we're concerned with Buddhism, especially here in this Vihara, we*re concerned with Buddhism, not just theoretically, not just as a subject of study, but practically; not just as a matter of intellectual research and investigation, but as a matter above all else of the actual spiritual life; Now we know, if we*ve, tried, that it*s very very difficult indeed to lead a spiritual life, whether as a Buddhist, or as a Christian or a Muslim or as a Hindu, or as a follower of any other faith, in complete isolation from other people who are following that same path. Last week I think it was, we referred to the case of those people, quite a number of them, perhaps even quite a few hundred of them, scattered up and down this country, who though Buddhists, have no contact with any other Buddhists; who are quite isolated, quite cut off. And it does seem, from what we*ve heard of them, from what they*ve told us, that they do have a quite difficult time. And that*s why most of them do look forward so very much to occasional trips to London, where they can meet other Buddhists or else visits to Bidulph (?) for meditation, or else, once a year perhaps, a sojourn at the Buddhist Society Summer School. And they look forward to it so much because to struggle, to strive to lead a spiritual life by oneself, just with the help of books, with no-one to talk to, no-one whose advice one can ask, no-one on whom one can rely and depend, no-one to whom one can turn in difficulties, or at least for a little encouragement, a little inspiration, if not a little guidance, it*s very very difficult indeed.

Aristotle says somewhere that it a man can endure to live alone, well, he*s either a beast or a God! So most people as he himself goes on to say, are neither beasts nor Gods, but somewhere in-between. So they can*t stay alone. They need society, they need company, they need companions, they need friends, and in the spiritual life, even more so perhaps, than in the secular ordinary social life. So for most people we do find that the spiritual life is best, certainly most easily lead, as a member of a spiritual group. One may not even be in contact with anyone highly advanced spiritually, but at least if one is in contact with a group, that is with other people following the same spiritual path that oneself is following, then at least there is mutual encouragement and mutual stimulation. I remember in this connection, it just comes to me, as I happen to be speaking about this, that when I took up myself, the monastic life, I found it very very helpful indeed in as much as there were two of us together. I was ordained as a (?) as a novice, at the same time as my friend, who is now in charge of an important Vihara in (?) that is Bhikkhu (2) We both became together at Kusinagara, at the hands of a well-known Burmese Maha-Thera. After that, we set out on our travels together, stayed together in various Ashrams, various hermitages, sometimes in mountain caves.. So it was very encouraging sometime that if one flagged a little, then the other was there to stimulate. If one say wanted to get up late, well the other was there to say well no we must get up early this morning and meditate, and so On Or if one was studying and didn*t quite understand what he was reading, well there was the other one to ask, to discuss With, to consult, so one does find this sort of thing ...

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