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Monks and Laymen in Buddhist Tibet

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 58: Monks and Laymen in Buddhist Tibet

Mr. Chairman and friends Most of those I think who study Buddhism for any length of time, superficially even, eventually come to realise there are three things which in Buddhism occupy a supreme position ­ and these are what the tradition itself terms the three jewels or the three most precious things. And they're called the three jewels or the three most precious things simply because they represent, what are for Buddhists, for the entire Buddhist tradition, the three highest spiritual values. Three things, for the sake of which as it were, everything else in the spiritual life exists. And these three jewels, also known as the three refuges, are as most of you know perfectly well, first of all the Buddha, secondly the Dharma ­ the doctrine or the teaching, and thirdly the Sangha or spiritual community.

These are the three jewels, the three refuges, the three most precious things, the three ultimate, the three highest spiritual values.

Now Tibetan Buddhism with which we are dealing in the course of these talks, Tibetan Buddhism adds to this series of three jewels a fourth. Usually it puts the fourth first so that you get your first refuge, your first jewel and then the three others and this fourth or this first jewel or refuge in Tibetan Buddhism is the Guru or the Lama or the spiritual teacher. In other parts of the Buddhist world when they take the refuges they say to the Buddha for refuge I go, to the Dharma for refuge I go, to the Sangha for refuge I go, expressing their committing of themselves to the realisation of these three highest values.

But in Tibet there is this addition, there is this fourth or rather first refuge preceeding the others and they say to the Lama or to the Guru for refuge I go. And they do this because according to the Tibetan tradition, especially according to the Tantric element in the Tibetan tradition you do not even know the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha except through the Lama, through the Guru, through the spiritual master or spiritual teacher. So they have these four refuges, the Guru, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Now the Buddha of course means the enlightened teacher, the one who initiated the whole great spiritual tradition which nowadays we call Buddhism. The Dharma of course means the way to enlightenment, the path or the method whereby we realise for ourselves the same goal of enlightenment or Buddhahood that the Buddha realised for himself all those centuries ago. When we follow the Dharma we, as it were, transcend time and we reach from the present the same point above and beyond time, that the Buddha reached from his point in time 2,500 years ago. We meet, as it were, in eternity.

The Sangha of course means the spiritual community of those who are following the path, those who are going along the path, as it were, hand in hand sharing the same spiritual ideals, having the same ultimate spiritual objective, pledging themselves and dedicating themselves to the same way of life the same path. This is the Sangha, the spiritual community.

Now this Sangha or spiritual community can be considered from three distinct points of view or we may say it can be considered as existing at three different levels. For those of you who have come to other series of lectures before, this is familiar ground, it may be new to those who are comparatively new themselves to our movement. The three levels as it were at which the spiritual community exists are known in the Buddhist tradition first of all as the Ariya Sangha, secondly the Bikkhu Sangha and third the Mahaya Sangha. But these represent three different levels at which the spiritual community can exist. The Ariya Sangha is the spiritual community proper those who share certain spiritual experiences, certain degrees or stages of enlightenment, those who are nearing the goal, those who are not far from Nirvana, who share that common experience, and that common realisation as they get nearer and nearer to the goal of supreme enlightenment, they are if you like, the spiritual elect or spiritual elite. And secondly there is the Sangha as it exists on the ecclesiastical level as we may call it, or the level of formal monastic life, the Bikkhu Sangha ­ the order of monks - these are those who have separated themselves from the world, who are devoting all their time, all their energies, to the spiritual path and the religious life. And thirdly there is the Sangha, the spiritual community in the sense of Mahaya Sangha, that you could say in the sense of all those who, regardless of the degree of spiritual attainment, or regardless of the fact as to whether there is any attainment or not, regardless also as to whether they are monks or whether they are laymen, whether they are nuns or whether they are lay women have committed themselves, at least verbally or at least to some extent, to following the path, practising the Dharma and realising the ideal of Buddhahood. This is the Mahaya Sangha the great community or the great assembly. The second we may say ­ the Bikkhu Sangha in a sense is contained in the third, the great community or the great spiritual assembly which includes as I said not only lay people but also monks and nuns.

Now this evening we're concerned with the spiritual community known as the Bikkhu Sangha. The order of monks and as the community of all the faithful as existing in Tibet.

And this is why this evening we are concerned with the subject of monks and laymen in Buddhist Tibet.

Now when we acknowledge this title, when we speak of monks and lay men in Buddhist Tibet we are not of course suggesting that you find Buddhist monks and Buddhist lay people only in Tibet. One finds them of course in every Buddhist country and much of what I am going to say this evening about monks about lay people in Tibet will be true about monks and lay people in Ceylon, in Japan, in Thailand, in Burma in Vietnam. At the same time, as I think it has become obvious already in the course of this series, at the same time Tibetan Buddhism has many distinctive features of its own. And therefore we find that Tibetan monks, Tibetan Buddhist lay people have certain distinctive features also within the context of a shared tradition as compared with the monks and the lay people in other parts of the Buddhist world. So I am going to try to emphasise these distinctive features more this evening even though this will be done admittedly against the background of a common tradition, that tradition which is common to all forms and all schools of Buddhist whatsoever.

Now if one has any contact at all with Tibetans or if one has any contact at all with Tibetan Buddhism one very quickly comes to understand that Tibetan Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhism itself attach very great important to what we would call the idea of precedence. Social, ecclesiastical, spiritual precedence and precedence is very strictly observed by Tibetan Buddhists on all formal religious occasions. And it is important for them because this idea of precedence, religious precedence especially, reflects the very important spiritual principal of spiritual hierarchy. And this is why we find that Tibetan Buddhism is very very particular about things which perhaps in the West we regard as being of comparatively little importance. Just to give you an idea, if you attend a Tibetan religious ceremony especially if this is held in a temple or in a monastery, you will notice that when you are seated for the ceremony the seats are graded. You will notice that towards the altar the seats become very very high. Now the seats may be even be 6 feet from the ground, real thrones, then you'll find seats that are 6 inches lower, then one 3 inches lower and it will come down and down until you are sitting perhaps on an ordinary mat. And this isn't an accident, this isn't in accordance with any aesthetic principles.

This is in accordance with strict ideas of precedence and hierarchy. And you can very quickly tell in your contact with Tibetans how they regard, you how they estimate you as senior or otherwise, according to the number of inches from the ground that you are required to sit. And very very great importance is attached to this, rightly or wrongly, by the Tibetan Buddhists themselves. Now this is just a very simple example, but there are many many others and here I can speak very much from my own experience. I've noticed that when I've visited Tibetan friends, when I've taken part in ceremonies in Tibetan monasteries and temples not only was the seat graded but the little table, the choksa (?) in front of the seat, where you had one, that also was graded. In front of the elevated seats there was a magnificent carved, painted and gilded table and the seat correspondingly had a sort of silk cushion, and even there were grades of cushions and I remember when I started arranging Tibetan ceremonies at my own Vihara (?) I had to be very very careful and I had to consult somebody when I invited certain incarnate lamas especially to see that everybody got the right cushion and the right number of stripes of brocade and all that sort of thing. It was really carried to a very fine art. And then not only the table but even the tea cups. When they served tea ceremonially the most simple kind of cup is of course an ordinary china cup. Chinese pattern of course, without a handle and that sort, but you can also go a little bit higher in the social scale than that, if they want to pay a little more honor. What they will do is put a little lid on the cup and a bit higher still you will find that the cup has not only a lid, but also a stand. And then you find the material changes. You may get a beautiful jade cup instead of an ordinary china one. And you may find that you've got a silver stand for your cup and a silver ...

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