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Buddhism and the Language of Myth

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 37: Buddhism and the Language of Myth

Sangharakshita Friends, This morning I spoke about Buddhism and psychoanalysis, a and you just heard this evening we are still on psychological grounds. This evening as Mike Waters has announced our subject is Buddhism and the language of myth. And there is, I may say, a definite reason for my selecting this evening this particular topic. We are all familiar I think or most of us are familiar I think with t he parable related by the Buddha called the parable of the blind men and the elephant. In case any one hasn't heard this story, this parable, this story with a meaning before it goes something like this, apparently in ancient India in the days of the Buddha there was certain king, and just to create for himself a little amusement he had an elephant brought into the palace court yard. Then he sent hi s minister out into the streets of the city to collect about a dozen blind men. And then when the minister had brought the blind men, when he had collected them in together into the palace court yard the blind men were shown the elephant, not literally of course but led towards it the elephant and made to feel it. they were all asked by the king to describe the elephant. So one caught hold of the ear and he said the elephant is like a great winnowing basket, another caught hold of the trunk and said the elephant is just like a snake another caught hold of the tail and said the elephant is like a broom another caught hold of the tusk and said the elephant is like a plough share, another stood underneath the elephant and caught hold of the belly. and said the elephant is like a great pot another caught hold of a leg and said the elephant is like the pillar supporting a house. In each way they gave the various descriptions and accounts of the elephant, and obviously they contradicted one another. They realized that they were contradicting one another. Neither believed any of any of the others and we are told they start fighting and quarreling, and the king highly amused by this sort of incident, it created a pleasant sort of diversion for him, apparently for the afternoon. So this little story illustrates the dangers of a o ne sided approach to the Truth. The Truth is something total, some thing multi-dimensional, something multi- faceted, but we see one aspect, we take on the one dimension as it were one facet, and we say this is the truth, the truth is this, not realizing that there are so many other aspects, dimensions and facets remaining blind to all of them, just concentrating on one particular aspect, dimension, or facet. The Buddha's parable of the blind man illustrates this sort of erroneous and one sided view to the truth. Now t his little story, this parable of the blind men and the elephant can illustrate not only one sided approaches to the Truth but also the history of the study of Buddhism in the west. Buddhism is the like the elephant has many aspects, many dimensions, as it we re, many facets, and the one blind man, as it were, one scholar after another comes, examines Buddhism, and says Buddhism is this, or Buddhism is that. One says Buddhism is humanitarianism another says Buddhism is mysticism, another says Buddhism! is atheism, another says Buddhism is a form of oriental philosophy, another says that Buddhism is rationalism tinged with mysticism, another says its mysticism tinged with rationalism. So in this way they all give their different accounts of Buddhism, all equally one sided, all containing some element of the truth, but none true as a generalization. But there's some difference between the blind man in the original story and these blind men, the scholars wh o describe Buddhism. In the original parable the blind men just start fighting and quarreling among themselves, but with regard the study of Buddhism, what happens is each blind man having examined one aspect of the elephant Buddhism goes away and then writes a book about it. S o in this way you get so many different one-sided presentations of Buddhism. If we look over some of the books written even 40 even 50 years ago about Buddhism by western scholars then we are quite astonished, because even within this short period our knowledge of Buddhism has grown so much, meager though it still is, that those older, those earlier presentations are still out dated. If you read for instance [Waddell?] The Lamaism Of Tibet, you can't help laughing at some of his descriptions of Buddhism. As when he says its philosophy is sophistic nihilism, and when he speaks of the Tibetans worshiping the fiendesses or great demonesses, or Buddha demonesses, and so on, but many of these are one sided presentations of Buddhism nevertheless are still quite widely current and this is perhaps not suprising in view of the fact that Buddhism is such a vast, and such a vast a complex system, or perhaps we should say organism, it is so vast, it has so many different aspects, levels, dimensions, applications, ramifications. Its like one of those vast old gothic cathedrals, not surprising that we cant grasp it in its totality all at once, or immediately. But this certainly does not mean that we should ever acquiesce in any one of these one sided presentations.

There is no need for us to do this any more. As th e years go by more and more material on Buddhism, more and more reliable au or authentic material is becoming available in so many western languages. Let me give you an example, for instance, Doctor Conze, in what is a very monumental labour of love, has quite recently, translated the whole of the Perfection of Wisdom corpus of scriptures. As you know every morning, of or nearly every morning, we've been reciting the Heart Sutra, the heart of the Perfection of Wisdom. This is a Sutra that occupies only one page, but it gives the essence of the Perfection of Wisdom. But there*s not just this one little Sutra related to the subject of the Perfection of Wisdom or Transl trans- cendental wisdom. There are more than 30, 34 35, of these Sutras or discourses of the Buddha dealing with the Perfection of Wisdom. Some of them are several volumes long, there's the Perfection of Wisdom Ian 1000 lines, the Perfection of Wisdom in 25000 lines, 18000, 10000, 6000, 500, lines, the Perfection of Wisdom in one page, the Heart Sutra.

There*s even the Perfection of Wisdom in one word, even a single letter. It*s all said to be concentrated there in the one letter, the letter `A*. Though how that comes to be, we are not going to examine just at present. The point I want to make, that this whole vast body of literature, the 30 odd great Sutras or discourse of the Buddha on the Perfection of Wisdom, transcendental wisdom, have all now been made available in English thanks to the labours of Dr. Conze. So we do have this enormous amount of material available for study, there*s no excuse at all for not having a very good idea, at least for what is meant in Buddhism, in Mahayana Buddhism particularly about the Perfection of Wisdom or transcendental wisdom.

There*s no shortage of material any longer on this topic. Somewhat more recently, to give another example, Dr. David Snellgrove has edited in Sanskrit and Tibetan and translated a whole Tantra, this is to say the `Heyvajra* Tantra. This is the first Tantra to be translated, first Buddhist Tantra to be translated in it*s entirety so far as I know into any European language, certainly into English, but we now do have this available to us for our study. If you just go through it by yourself without a teacher you won*t make head nor tail of the text, even Dr.

Conze when he came to review this particular volume, or these two volumes, he confesses that rather that he wasn*t able to make very much of it, because it is not sufficient just to read a text like the Heyvajra Tantra, one has to study it with a teacher, and actually practice according to the teachers instructions. But this is neither here nor there, the point I*m trying to make with the help of these illustrations, is that we have nowadays, have at least in the course of the last ten or fifteen years more and more opportunities of correcting and enlarging our total picture of Buddhism. It*s now possible top begin to see Buddhism as a whole, and it*s less necessary than ever, and there*s less excuse for us than ever, for relying upon one-sided, and to that extent, misleading interpretations of the Buddha*s Teaching.

One of the one-sided presentations of Buddhism which is still quite widely current is that Buddhism is rationalistic. I*m not saying rational, I*m saying rationalistic, a presentation which sees Buddhism entirely and exclusively in terms of rationalism. This particular presentation says Buddhism appeals only, at least appeals primarily to the reason. It says that Buddhism is a philosophy rather than a religion, for instance Dr. George Grim, a great German Buddhist scholar has written a thick book entitled `Buddhism, the Religion of Reason*. This is characteristic, he selects reason as the distinguishing feature of Buddhism, he calls it `Buddhism, the Religion of Reason*. He wrote this book about forty years ago, and it*s rather significant that fairly recently in the new edition there*s an emendation to the title, and it*s now called `Buddhism the Religion of Reason and Meditation*. But you see meditation comes as an after thought, there*s an appendix tacked on about meditation finally (?) conception of `Buddhism the Religion of Reason* with meditation just sort of tacked on as a sort of afterthought. Even though the change is significant. Forty years ago one could publish a book and call it* Buddhism the Religion of Reason* and leave it at that, but nowadays one has to at least to add (?) and meditation, one has to at least to bow in the direction of meditation, genuflect in the direction of meditation if nothing else. Now George Grim ...

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