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The Dynamics of Being

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by Sangharakshita

... even after the intellectual abandonment of Christianity, these people often, as I must insist very sincere, worthy people felt an emotional need for something equivalent to these three things which had satisfied them in Christianity. So some of these people, towards the end of the last century, some of them, not very many, but a few found them in Buddhism. Now in the Buddha, in the person of the Buddha we cna say they found what we can describe as a non-theological Christ. That is they found a figure, an historical figure, so far as they could see with all the virtues of Christ, all the virtues traditionally associated with Christ plus perhaps a few more, but without the encumbrance, not to say embarrassment of Trinitarian theology.

In the second place, they found in Buddhism a code of ethics, a moral code by which to live but without any supernatural sanction, with, if anything, a purely humanistic sanction. They found one would say the Sermon on the Mount but without the Mount - the Mount of course being the dogmatic, doctrinal background. And again in the teaching of karma and rebirth they found a more rational, or what appeared to them a more rational basis for their hope in a future life, a future existence. Now with regard to this last item we can see their attitude was rather different to the eastern attitude. In the East this idea of rebirth, this idea that you have to come back again even after the flames of the funeral pyre have died down is accepted implicitly. No one ever argues about it, no one ever discusses it, it's just accepted. In the East, in India, in a Buddhist country, I think I don't exaggerate in saying, that you won't ever get a lecture on karma and rebirth. It isn't necessary. No one needs it, no one requires it. They just take it for granted that there is such a thing as rebirth; that you come back, again and again and again. But they also view it as a very terrible thing. It's nothing to be very happy about, nothing to be very proud of that you come back again and again. They think it's a very miserable sort of process having to come back and get into a body with all its limitations, all its pains, all its suffering. Rebirth is a terrible thing in the East. So nirvana, freedom from rebirth, represents the possibility of escape from all that.

Now in the West, 50 years ago, for these people about whom we are speaking after the collapse of belief in Christianity the prospect that after death there would be no life, annihilation as it were, this was a terrible thing. And this teaching of karma and rebirth represented for them the possibility of escape from this terrible predicament or terrible prospect. So we can see how different the two attitudes were. In the East rebirth is a terrible thing - you've got to escape from it, but in the West, at the end of the last century of these people, it was the prospect of [no] life after death which was terrible so this idea of karma and rebirth came to them as a sort of salvation from that.

Now to generalise we can say that some of those people towards the end of the last century in this country who in all sincerity and good faith took to Buddhism, were really treating Buddhism as a sort of Christianity substitute. This is what happens then. Now there is nothing wrong with this so far as historical development is concerned. This is an intermediate stage in the development of Buddhism in this country, which we have to expect. It's only natural that you can't jump all at once as it were into a new, strange oriental religion like Buddhism. You have to go down into it gradually step by step. You have to go from the known to the unknown. So in these early days, it's only to be expected, it's only natural that you get people coming into Buddhism, I won't say for the wrong reasons, because the sincerity was there, but certainly treating Buddhism to some extent, if not to a great extent as a sort of Christianity substitute. We can now begin to see I think, why today the position is rather different.

Today, we can say that the people who come into Buddhism, or into contact with Buddhism or who start getting interested in it, the majority of them, at least, are not conditioned by Christianity, or very, very little conditioned by it indeed. They are certainly not looking, whether consciously or unconsciously for a Christianity substitute. Nowadays we can say we are all more 3 or less, or those of us who are gathered here, post-Christian. It's not that we are reacting against Christianity but it often just doesn't mean much to us. We no longer think, for example, of religion in terms of devotion to a person. This was an integral part of religious ideology in the last century. It's an integral part of the faith of many orthodox Christians even today. But we don't think like that, those of us who come into contact with Buddhism we are not searching for someone to worship, not searching for a relationship with a person. We don't think of religion in those terms at all. We are not looking very likely for an ethical code. We certainly need a certain amount of guidance in our day-to-day life but we're not looking for a list of do's and don't.

In any case, as you know, nowadays ethics is very much in the melting pot. Not that people are unethical more than before, I wouldn't like to say that, but they certainly sit loose to any systems or codes of ethical behaviour. Most of them one might say ethically speaking live simply by rule of thumb. Also one can say that nowadays people are not unduly concerned about life after death.

During the last century even among the people we've been talking about this question of life after death was a burning one. They wanted to go on living after death. From the talks I've had with people over here since my arrival in this country 18 months or so ago, it seems that people are not unduly concerned about life after death. Lots of people apparently do not even mind considering the possibility that after death they might not continue to exist at all. One can say that for most people, interest does centre very much on this life itself. They are more concerned with this life than they are with any future life.

Now these are the negative reasons for the change about which I've spoken - change in those aspects of Buddhism which appeal to us more nowadays - the negative ones. Now let's take a look at the positive ones. I think we can say that nowadays in English Buddhist circles we are less exclusively concerned with the person of the Buddha because we have taken more to heart the Buddha's declaration, 'He who sees the Dharma, sees me!' If we understand the Dharma, the Truth, the principles taught by the Buddha, then and perhaps then only we truly see, and understand the Buddha himself. He being the embodiment, the living embodiment of those principles. Nowadays in so many Western languages especially in English and French and German we have so many more translations of the Buddha's teachings from Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese than people had 50, 60 or 70 years ago. So it's only natural therefore that the interest shifts from the person of the Buddha more and more to the teachings, especially if that shift is reinforced by his own declaration, 'He who sees the Dharma, sees me'.

Ethics I would say tends to be less central nowadays not only for the negative reasons mentioned but also because in the Buddhist movement nowadays people pay more attention to meditation.

If one reads through books and articles about Buddhism written say 50 or 60 years ago one sees very little reference to meditation. It is the ethics which are all important. But nowadays ethics seems to have gone a little to the periphery and its meditation which now occupies the centre of the picture. People of course don't neglect ethics, I wouldn't say that but they understand that ethical behaviour is important because of its effect on the mind because only a mind which has been prepared through ethical behaviour can really meditate, or concentrate and meditate in any way satisfactorily.

Then I would say finally that those who make up the Buddhist movement nowadays are less interested in karma and rebirth than their counterparts of 60 or 70 years ago, because they are more concerned at least theoretically with realisation here and now. And this I think is very likely connected with the increasing popularity of Zen. Zen as you know stresses very much the here and now. So that emphasis which many people take seriously tends to swing interest away from karma and rebirth and the whole future prospect of life after life after life.

Now our real subject this evening as those of you who were present last week will know, is the dynamics of being. As I mentioned also last week this title covers what we call pratitya-samutpada, conditioned co-production consisting of the twelve nidanas or links. Just as we saw the analysis of man covers the five skandhas or aggregates and just as we will see next week the title 'Texture of Reality' covers the three laksanas or characteristics. These three that is the twelve nidanas, five skandhas and three laksanas being three of the most important doctrinal 4 categories or formulations of Buddhism.

Now Pratitya-samutpada, the conditioned co-production represents the application of the general Buddhist philosophical principle of universal conditionality to the process of rebirth. And that's why in this rather lengthy introduction this afternoon I've spoken of karma and rebirth. And, as I've already made it clear this is not one of those aspects of Buddhism which tends to attract people most nowadays. But nevertheless it is of great importance especially historical importance.

It is an integral part of the whole Buddhist teaching and for this reason we are dealing with it in a cursory manner today. We can even say that while it is true that different ...

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