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The Buddha God and Reality

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 23: The Buddha, God and Reality

Sangharakshita Friends. We know, even from our ordinary experience of life, that there are many different ways in which we can look at the same thing. There are many different angles from which we can view it, many different points of view. Not only this, but we can also look at one .and the same object, one and the same phenomenon, from as it were, different levels of existence, different levels of experience, even different levels of reality. For instance, we can look at a thing from, say, the standpoint of time and we can also look at a thing from the standpoint of what we may call eternity above and beyond, or outside, disconnected from time altogether. In the first case when we see a thing, or when we see things as processes we see them in terms of space and in terms of time. And in the second case, when we see things, as it were, in the dimension of eternity, we see them not as processes, we see them as unchanging realities, as we may say, outside space and outside time. Now when one says `unchanging* one doesn*t mean that those particular objects, those particular phenomena remain unchanged, as it were, within the time, within the temporal process, but one means that they are outside time, above and beyond time in a different dimension altogether.

Now, this sort of double standpoint, this sort of seeing things in time and space, and seeing them also, at the same time, outside time, outside space, seeing them as it were in eternity, under these two different dimensions, in these two different ways, from these two different points of view, this sort of double standpoint is reflected in the central thesis of one of the most important of all the early, in fact medieval schools of Buddhism. That is to say the Sarvastivada. The Sarvastivada is the principle Hinayana school of India, it was the dominant school in India, so far as the Hinayana was concerned, for well over a thousand years. And its teachings, subsequently, were very influential in China, in Japan, in Tibet, and so on. Now people often wonder what the name, or what the term Sarvastivadin means. It literally means, `those who teach that all exists*, `sarva* is all, `asti* means existence; so all things exist -- sarvam asti*. So, `Sarvastivada*, they who teach that all things exist. Now what does this mean? What did the Sarvastivadins mean by teaching that all things exist, one might think that it was pretty obvious that all things exist, so there most be, obviously, some more recondite, some more mysterious sense or meaning to their thesis that all things exist.

Now, `all* here, the sarva - all, means all dharmas and this of course at once raises the question of what one means by a -dharma. The word dharma is one of the most ambiguous words or terms in the whole of Buddhist literature, the whole of Buddhist thought. When we say dharmam, or dharmam saranam gacchami, here it means the teaching, the doctrine of the Buddha. But dharma also means truth, it also means law of the universe, or reality. It also means an idea in our minds, it also means cause. And also in Buddhist philosophy, more technically, a dharma is a sort of ultimate element, and especially it has this meaning in what is called the Abhidharma. The Abhidharma is the more advanced form of Hinayana Buddhist thought, and the Abhidharma analysis the whole of existence into a number of elements, a number of ultimate elements, irreducible elements, elements which can*t be reduced to anything else. So it is form of what (Sarvapali Ralakrishnum?) calls pluralistic realism. He holds that reality is, as it were, plural. That if you analyse and analyse you can get down to a certain, given, limited number of ultimate elements, some mental and some material, which are called dharmas. And the whole of existence, the whole of conditioned existence, according to the Abhidharma, is simply various combinations, various permutations of these irreducible and unchanging dharmas, or ultimate elements. So this is the Abhidharma point of view, and this is what is meant by dharma, a phenomenon in the sense of an ultimate element of existence, whether physical, whether material, or whether mental, or even spiritual.

Now, the dharmas, are, as it were, in a process of flux, or they make up a process of flux. They come into existence, they remain in existence, they go out of existence.

Now the Sarvastivadins maintained that though dharmas came into existence, remained in existence, and then as it were flashed out of existence, they Sarvastivadins maintained that there was all the time something, some element in them which did not change. And they expressed this by saying that in the dharmas there were some elements, some substratum, some substance if you like, which remained the same throughout the three periods of time. It*s as though there was a past phase, a present phase, a future phase of that particular phenomenon, that particular dharma, but it was as though, at the same time there was a substratum underlying those past, present and future aspects which lasted all the time. Which was in a sense eternal. And therefore they gave expression to this insight, or this understanding of theirs in the expression `sarvam asti*, everything exists. In a sense, everything is existing all the time. The past phase, the present phase, the future phase come and go but underneath that there is a substratum of each individual thing which is not subject to the temporal process.

Now this is all a bit obscure and a bit scholastic. But this was the central thesis of the Sarvastivadins and we can perhaps have some understanding of what they were trying to get at. They didn*t, perhaps, express themselves very well, their whole procedure, their whole scholastic procedure was often very cumbersome,, not to say clumsy, and they did eventually land themselves in a species of what is called substantialism, which in Buddhism is regarded as a sort of heresy. They got into difficulties and they had to be rescued by the Madhyamikas, another school of Buddhist thought, a Mahayana school of Buddhist thought, who solved the problem with their doctrine of sarva dharrna sunyata. Their doctrine that all these dharmas, all these ultimate elements of existence and experience, these were themselves Sunyata, Void. Or putting it another way, were in their depths both unreal and real. Sunyata after all is Reality, which is beyond time, so to say that the dharmas are essentially Sunyata, is to say that in their innermost essence they are above and beyond time. So in a way the Madhyamika teaching isn*t unlike that of the Sarvastivadins, except that the Madhyamikas, perhaps, were more skilful in their way of expressing it and more in accordance with the true Buddhist tradition.

But both of these, both the Sarvastivadins, and the Madhyamikas, they try to do justice to these two ways, these two different ways in which a thing can be looked at. That is to say that it can be looked at as within time, or functioning within time as a process within time, and that it can be looked at also as an entity, if you like, a reality, existing out of time. That one and the same object can be seen from one point of view as phenomenon and from another point of view, if you like as noumenon. But we may say that the Madhyamika, had on the whole a much more profound approach and they eventually identified the two, that the phenomenon is the noumenon, noumenon is phenomenon, Sunyata is rupa, rupa is Sunyata, as the Heart Sutra tells us.

However all this, we may say, is introductory, and also by way of illustration. For the last two mornings we have been dealing with Buddhism in terms of process. In other words we have been dealing with it in terms of time. We have been dealing with evolution lower and higher, which of course is a process taking place within time. And we have seen that the Buddha, for instance, is to man, even highly evolved man, very much as man himself is to the Amoeba. In other words the Buddha represents the goal of human development, much as the human being, we may say, represents the goal, ultimately, of the Amoeba*s development. And then again, on a very much smaller scale, on the smaller triangle within out big triangle we saw that just as the man of genius is the forerunner in terms of aesthetic sensibility and general higher culture, in the same way the Buddha is the forerunner of the human race with regard to spiritual development, with regard to Enlightenment. So all this, all this material represented by these first two lectures, evolution lower and higher, the Buddha man or superman, all this material represented also in terms of the chart or the diagram, all this is very interesting and very important, but it represents, we may say, only half the truth. We look at things, or we have been looking at things these last two mornings in terms of time, in terms of evolution, in terms of development, in terms of progress. So that is only one point of view, we now have to start trying to see things in terms of eternity. In other words we now come today to the other half, the other point of view from which things can be seen, from which they can be observed.

So today we are dealing with the subject of the Buddha, God, and Reality. In other words, now we are trying to see, trying to understand, trying to study Buddhism not in terms of time, not in terms of progress and growth and development, or evolution from the lower to the higher, but in terms of eternity. We are trying to see the Buddha now not as the culmination of a process occuring within time, we are trying to see him today as occuring, as it were, outside time altogether. In other words whereas for the previous two mornings our approach has been more evolutionary, if like e scientific, today it will be perhaps more metaphysical, even more mystical. are a familiar with the main details ...

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