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The Dynamics of Being

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 24: The Dynamics of Being

Venerable Sir and Friends. I need hardly tell you that the religion which we known as Buddhism but which is known in the East as the Dharma or the Dhamma has not been known very long in this country. In fact it has not been known very long in the West generally. At the most we can say its been known for perhaps a 100 years - not very much more than that. A 100 years is perhaps a good round figure. Now this 100 years during which Buddhism has been known in the West and in this country can be divided I think roughly into three more or less distinct periods.

First of all, quite naturally, there is the period of what we may describe as purely scholarly interest. This is connected with the growth of what is very often alled orientalism. As you know in the last century and even into this century this country had very vast colonial interest in different parts of the world, including different Buddhist countries. And some of the civil servants who were engaged in the administration of those Buddhist areas within what was then called the British Empire which is now called the Commonwealth and sooner or later no doubt we shall not know what else to call it, engaged in the study of Buddhism as a help to their understanding of administration. For instance, Rhys Davids, the great Pali scholar found himself in Ceylon in the '70s of the last century. He found that in his capacity as judge he had to delve into rather complex questions of Buddhist law. So this led him to the study of the Vinaya - Buddhist monastic law - this led him to the study of Pali and the Buddhist scriptures generally and in this way he developed an interest. So in the last century we get this first period as it were of the development of Buddhism in this country, that of purely scholarly, often orientalist exploration.

Now, during the second period which began we may say towards the end of the last century, during the second period you get English people actually taking up Buddhism as a way of life.

Some of them actually calling themselves Buddhists, not approaching it just in a scholarly fashion, not just with a sort of dilettante or even serious intellectual interest, but considering it quite seriously as a practicable, feasible way of life which they could follow in the West just as others could follow it in the East. So that's the second phase, the second period.

The third period began about the beginning of the last century although it didn't get under way really until considerably later - began when you got not only English lay people but also English monks, when bhikkus and bhikshus started to appear.

So these are the three main periods we may say of the history or development of Buddhism in this country. First the purely scholarly orientalist intellectual interest. Then after that people taking up Buddhism as a way of life and then thirdly and lastly some even entering an English branch of the Order of monks in this country.

Now a 100 years as religions go especially a religion like Buddhism is not a very long time but it is quite long enough for various changes to take place. When I speak of changes I don't mean the development to which I have already referred - these three periods - but I mean rather changes in the very approach to Buddhism. A 100 years is quite long enough a period for changes of approach to the religion also to take place in this country. I need hardly remind you what a very, very complex, sometimes a bewilderingly complex phenomenon Buddhism is. All sorts of aspects, teachings, levels, schools and so on. And it may so happen that different aspects of Buddhism or different teachings within the whole body of Buddhism may appeal more strongly at different times according to difference of circumstances, different problems which arise and so on. So therefore we may say, that those aspects of Buddhism, or those teachings, parts of Buddhism which appealed perhaps more strongly or even most strongly 50 years ago are not those which appealed so much to people nowadays. It's not that those aspects or those teachings or those features are absent but they've become less important. They don't occupy the centre of the picture any longer but they've drifted as it were imperceptibly towards the periphery. Now one might generalise a bit and say that 50 years ago people in this country, if they were attracted to Buddhism at all were attracted mainly by three things. First of all they were attracted by the personality of the Buddha, as a human being, as a teacher, as an historical figure, as someone 1 wise and compassionate and so on. Secondly, they were attracted by the ethics of Buddhism, its code of conduct, the virtues which it laid down for its followers to practice. And thirdly and lastly they were attracted by Buddhism's teaching of karma and rebirth. These if we examine the literature, the books and the articles produced in those days seem to be the three features, the three aspects of Buddhism which most strongly attracted people then - the personality of the Buddha, the ethical teachings and the teaching of karma or action, reaction and rebirth.

Now today, I would say on the basis of my own experience that people tend to be attracted rather by other features of Buddhism. It's not that they don't admire the personality of the Buddha any longer. They certainly continue to admire it very much. They certainly appreciate the ethics of Buddhism and so on. But it is not these aspects we may say which are decisive in bringing them into closer contact with Buddhism or even in inducing them to describe themselves as Buddhists, to take the Three Refuges or go for the Three Refuges, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as in traditional terms we say.

Now one can observe that there are both negative and positive reasons for this change. I want to go into that a little later on. First, let us just try to understand that people were attracted by the three aspects or the three features of Buddhism which I've just mentioned. The first thing we have to bear in mind, I think, is that we cannot isolate the history of Buddhism in this country from the total religious history of the country. You can separate it, its part, however exotic it may seem, however even bizarre it may seem in some people's eyes at times, the history of this religion Buddhism is a part of the general religious history of our times - can't be separated therefrom.

Now, during the second half of the last century in this country the hold of Christianity certainly of orthodox dogmatic Christianity on people generally especially the more thinking people was very considerably, very seriously weakened. Partly as a result of scientific explorations and discoveries; 'The Origin of Species'; studies of comparative religion and all that and partly for other reasons into which I need not go at present.

Well, what happened was, and one can become very aware of this if one studies the general literature of th time, biographies and diaries and so on; what happened was Christianity became less and less intellectually acceptable to a great many sincere and thoughtful people who weren't by any means irreligious, who weren't by any means spiritually insensitive. It became intellectually unacceptable. At the same time, though it was intellectually unacceptable they remained in a way, a rather strange sort of way, emotionally involved in it. They could emancipate themselves from the dogmatic doctrinal side intellectually but their heartstrings as it were remained tied to the beliefs and practices, customs, traditions of their childhood and youth. Now for these people, originally one can say Christianity had meant three things. This is especially true of the evangelicals who were prominent in English religious, even social and political life in those days. Christianity meant in the first place devotion to the person of Christ as the saviour and the incarnate son of God. It also meant an ethical code by which they could shape their actions, by which they could live - the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, the Sermon on the Mount of the New and so on. And finally, Christianity gave them the hope of life after death. Perhaps we can't understand nowadays how strong an element that was in religion in the last century. I remember when I was a boy of about 13 or 14 I was sent down to the West Country to stay with some friends. So I stayed in a very old rambling house which was decorated and furnished in the style I think it must have been of the '60's and '70's of the last century. And I remember that in the bedroom in which I was put there were very large framed religious pictures on the walls. And one showed angels welcoming the departing souls to heaven and another showed a little bevy of angels having what appeared to be a little gossip, and another showed the heavens opening and a faithful soul aspiring upwards. There were all these sort of religious pictures on the walls. So this illustrates the fact that in the minds and hearts of our forefathers not so many decades, not so many generations ago the hope of life after death, even the conviction that after death you go straight to heaven preferably was very, very, strong indeed.

One can even find references to this sort of thing in popular fiction. If you take for instance Dickens', nowadays we would call it very oversentimental even pathetic description of the death of poor Little Nell. How the snow was falling and as she passed away the voices of the angels 2 could be heard calling her to her everlasting rest. He does really lay it on very thick and very heavy but that is what our Victorian forefathers appreciated because they felt, they believed this very, very strongly. But after Christianity became intellectually ?acceptable of course this faith was very much weakened, perhaps disappeared entirely.

As I've said though even ...

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