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The Heroic Ideal in Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 64: The Heroic Ideal In Buddhism P age 1 ____________________________________________________________________________ (Wo rds in sq uare bra ckets ([ ]) a re attem pts by the transcrib er to g uess th e cor rect w ord .) Lecture 64: the Heroic Ideal in Buddhism

Mister Chairman and Friends, One of the happier features of events of the last few years has been the gradual but fairly steady spread of the influence of Buddhism in the West. But at the same time it must be confessed that even though the influence of Buddhism, the influence of the Buddha's teaching is spreading, there are still quite a number of popular misconceptions about Buddhism in the West. Not only popular misconceptions one may say, but even quite a number of misconceptions which are current in scholarly and in religious circles, If one wanted to put the matter in a rather extreme form one might even go so far as to say that at the present stage to try to study Buddhism is to misunderstand it. One might even go further than that and to say to try to practise Buddhism is to misunderstand it still more. Some people for instance think that Buddhism is just an Eastern cult, it's something specifically and definitely oriental. Others again think that Buddhism is just an intellectual system, it's just a philosophy, it's just a system of concepts, it's just a system of conceptual understanding just like the philosophy say of Plato or of Kant and so on. Other people again think that Buddhism is just a code of ethics. When you read books about Buddhism written by orthodox Christians, especially by Roman Catholic scholars who for some reason or other have specialized in Buddhism, they always tell you this. In fact they always tell you that Buddhism is not really a religion at all it's just a code of ethics and they try to dismiss it in this way as something rather inferior and rather elementary and they praise it (of course they damn it with faint praise as we say ) - they say, "Yes it's very good and it tells you not to tell lies, it tells you not to steal and not to take life, of course it is wonderful but then it's just a system of ethics", and they make the point that of course Christianity goes far beyond that, Christianity is a real religion. So in this way there are lots of misunderstandings current. In fact we may say that misunderstandings are endless, and this evening we're concerned with one misunderstanding about Buddhism in particular and that is the misunderstanding which is still quite current in some circles, that Buddhism is rather weak, that it's rather feeble, that it's negative and that it's a rather passive and even emasculated sort of teaching and tradition.

Now the Question arises well how did this sort of impression arise? How did it get about? Why did some people at least start thinking that Buddhism was rather weak, rather feeble, rather negative, rather passive sort of teaching? Now this sort of impression seems to have arisen in quite a number of different ways as a result of quite a number of different factors: First of all it derives from some at least of the literature about Buddhism, certainly literature circulating in English. I think we don't always realise how old are the books very often on which we depend for our understanding of Buddhism. If you go along to any public library which has got books on Buddhism in it, ten to one that you'll find that most of those books are quite old books, and even if you go along to bookshops which are selling new books you very often find that what they are selling are in fact reprints of quite old books, books written some fifty, sixty or even seventy years ago.

In fact both in India and in America there are publishing firms which are specialising nowadays in simply reprinting old books without bringing them up to date or correcting misunderstandings or errors in any way.

So we are still, as it were saddled with quite a lot of literature on Buddhism which was originally produced some fifty or sixty years ago at the very beginning of the study of Buddhism in the West. And these productions, these books about Buddhism tend very often to see Buddhism, the Buddha's teaching, in terms of the religion then current - that is to say in terms of Christianity - and they tend to see the Buddha himself very much in terms of Christ, as though the Buddha was a sort of oriental Christ. Now we may say that at that time this was only natural, this was indeed inevitable. One has to go when one is trying to broaden one's knowledge, broaden one's outlook, one has to go from the known to the unknown, one has to go little by little, step by step. So it was only natural at that time that people encountering Buddhism or trying to explain Buddhism should make use to some extent of Christian concepts and so on, and it was even natural we may say that they tried to understand the Buddha in the light of their understanding of Christ. But the difficulty, but the drawback was that the Christianity which was then current, fifty or sixty years ago, was often popular Victorian Christianity. Not Just Christianity but Victorian Christianity and Christ was of course the Victorian Christ, and both of these tended to be, one may say, rather milk and water versions of the real Lecture 64: The Heroic Ideal In Buddhism P age 2 ____________________________________________________________________________ thing. I remember it has been said that for the Victorians, for our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, Christ was a ghostly figure in a white sheet gliding around Galilee and gently rebuking people for not believing in the Nycean creed. This was the Victorian Christ. So one might say that in the same way for this type of literature, the type of literature about which I am speaking, the Buddha, also, is a ghostly figure in a yellow sheet gliding around India gently rebuking people for not being kind to animals. Now not that one shouldn't be kind to animals of course but being kind to animals is by no means the whole of Buddhism. So this is just one of the ways in which we tended to get the impression about Buddhism, about the Buddha, that they were rather weak, rather negative, rather if you like emasculated.

And then again some of us at least derive our impressions of Buddhism partly, perhaps even unconsciously, from an acquaintance with later Indian Buddhist art. Now Indian Buddhist art has a long and a glorious history, but towards the end of that history it does become a little degenerate, a little decadent, and it often depicts the Buddha as a rather dreamy, rather feminine, not to say effeminate figure, and one might say that modern Indian art does this even more so. If you go around India and you find or you look at popular representations of the Buddha, well they're simply ghastly. He looks like a cheap thirdrate -film star. This is how he's depicted nowadays. So if one encounters this sort of picture of the Buddha, usually on calendars, or if you encounter images or little even plaster figures of the Buddha of this type, you will get the impression of something weak and feeble and as I've said even effeminate. In this sort of so-called art, in this popular art, the figure of the Buddha becomes very sugary and very sentimental. The Buddha is usually represented not with a smile of Enlightenment but with to sort of simpering smile, almost a coquettish smile which doesn't look like the real Buddha at all. So this sort of impression that we have if we are in contact with this sort of art in any way - this impression that Buddhism is something feeble and weak is a little strengthened.

Then again historically at least Buddhism is an Eastern religion in the sense that it originated in the East. It's a universal teaching, it isn't limited to the East but it arose there and historically speaking it is an Eastern religion, an Eastern teaching, and in the West even now only too many people tend to think of the East generally as being rather slow and rather backward and rather unprogressive as compared with the West. So these sort of epithets tend to attach themselves to Buddhism too when Buddhism is considered to be an Eastern or an oriental teaching or religion.

And then again we have to recognise the fact that a very great deal of contemporary Buddhist teaching in the East is in fact rather negative. If you look at the Buddhist scriptures themselves you'll find a very strong, a very powerful positive emphasis. There is a negative side too which is complimentary but only too often in the East today, in the Buddhist countries of the East today it's the negative virtues which tend to be stressed. They tend to tell you that you are not to do this and not to do that and refrain from this and abstain from that, but what you should do, what you should cultivate, what you should develop, this is not stressed nearly as so often, And very often in the East, especially in expositions of Buddhism written for the Western world in English and other Western languages, the teaching of the Buddha is presented very much in terms of avoidance rather than in terms of engagement, in terms of escape rather than in terms of commitment.

If one picks up some of these little popular tracts on Buddhism which come from Ceylon or from Burma or from Thailand one usually finds I'm afraid that it's this negative aspect of the teaching which is stressed more than the positive aspect.

So in these and in various other ways we tend to get the impression very often in the West that Buddhism itself is rather weak, is rather negative, rather passive and so on, and we tend to get the impression sometimes that in this way Buddhism is a religion for the old and feeble rather than for the young and vigorous. So this evening what I propose to do is to try to show just for a few minutes ...

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