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The Heroic Ideal in Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

... the other side of the coin, and that's why I'm speaking this evening on "The Heroic Ideal in Buddhism".

Now when I prepared this lecture I did look at my dictionary and my dictionary told me quite a lot about the word "hero", about the word "heroic". The word "hero" is a word with a long history and it has various shades of meaning. In mythology and in religion the word "hero" means in the first place "a man, especially a warrior of the Greek epic or heroic age." And secondly it means "a man honoured after death by public worship because of exceptional service to mankind and usually held to be in part at least of divine descent. Lecture 64: The Heroic Ideal In Buddhism P age 3 ____________________________________________________________________________ " These are the two primary meanings of the word "hero". And derivative meanings which the dictionary gives are: "1. The principal male personage usually of noble character in a poem, story, drama or the like" and "2. A person of distinguished valour or enterprise in danger." and "3. A prominent or central personage taking an admirable part In any remarkable action or event." Well this is what "hero" means. And "Heroic" is defined as "pertaining to or like a hero or heroes; worthy of a hero; bold, daring, brave, illustrious. So this is what "heroic" means.

So the question arises what does one mean by speaking of "The Heroic Ideal in Buddhism"? In what sense is Buddhism itself heroic? We know that Buddhism is a spiritual teaching. It's a teaching which has as its aim the attainment of that state of Enlightenment, which is traditionally known as Buddhahood, It has as its aim the attainment of a state of complete moral and spiritual perfection. So the ideal of Buddhism we may say broadly speaking is a spiritual ideal, it's not just an ethical ideal as sometimes people try to make out. It's a spiritual even a transcendental ideal, but this ideal, this spiritual ideal, this transcendental ideal of Buddhism is not a weak, is not merely a negative thing. We may say, in fact that the spiritual ideal of Buddhism is an heroic ideal. We can say that it calls for the exercise on the moral and spiritual plane of the sort of qualities that we call heroic. So that when we speak of the heroic ideal in Buddhism we are not speaking of anything distinct from, much less still opposed to, the spiritual ideal itself. When we speak of the heroic ideal in Buddhism we're speaking of the spiritual ideal itself under its heroic aspect. We're drawing attention to the fact that the spiritual life itself is heroic in the highest degree. Now we don't often think of the spiritual life in these terms. We usually think of it as something sort of in a way 'goody-goody' that you don't do this and you don't do that. You don't think of it usually in heroic terms but this is really what it is. The spiritual life is the heroic life and it's heroic in the highest possible degree.

Now the spiritual ideal of Buddhism is revealed historically speaking in the person of the Buddha. He didn't just teach about Enlightenment, he was the Enlightened One. He had realised the ideal, he had realised the goal. So we find that the Buddha is the representative, the incarnation if you like of the spiritual ideal in Buddhism. So we find the spiritual ideal of Buddhism fully revealed in him and also in what is known as the Bodhisattva Ideal, and this means that the heroic ideal is also revealed by them, by the Buddha and by the Bodhisattva Ideal. I'm therefore going to say a few words this evening on each of these; on the Buddha as the embodiment of the heroic ideal and also on the Bodhisattva Ideal as the embodiment of the heroic ideal.

Now the ancient Buddhist texts, whether they are in Pali or whether they are in Sanskrit regularly represent the Buddha himself as a spiritual hero. In these languages, in Pali and in Sanskrit, the Buddha has a number of different titles, and one of these titles is "Mahavira". "Maha" means "Great, noble, eminent" and "Vira" means simply "hero". It's the common word even in modern Indian languages for hero. So "Mahavira", this title of the Buddha means the great hero. So this is not one of the titles that we in the West are accustomed to using for the Buddha. We usually say the Buddha, the Enlightened One or the Compassionate one, we don't usually say the great hero, But this epithet of the Buddha does occur quite often in the original Pali and Sanskrit texts. The Buddha is also known as the "Jina". The word "Jina" in the original texts is almost as common as the word Buddha, so what does Jina mean? Jina means the "Victor" or the "Conqueror" and the Buddha is called the victor, the conqueror not on account of any material conquest but on account of the fact that he is victorious over, that he has conquered the whole of conditioned existence within himself, He is one who has conquered the world by conquering himself. There's a famous verse in the Dhammapada as many of you know which says, "Though one may conquer in battle a thousand men a thousand times, yet he who conquers himself has the more glorious a Victory." So the Buddha is the victor, he is the conqueror.

In later Buddhism in medieval ]Indian Buddhism the idea arose of what they called Trailokya Vijaya - conquest of the three worlds, victory over the three worlds. Not the worlds without but the worlds within, So this word Jina, this victor or conqueror sums all this up very well.

Then again by virtue of this conquest the Buddha is a king. In ancient times if a king went forth or if a hero went forth and conquered a territory, conquered a country, he became the king of that. So the Buddha is the victor, is the conqueror of the whole of mundane existence, the whole of conditioned existence which he has subdued within his own mind and consequently the Buddha is a king, and he's known in Pali and in Sanskrit as the Dhammaraja or Dharmaraja which means the king of the law, the king of truth, the king of spiritual Lecture 64: The Heroic Ideal In Buddhism P age 4 ____________________________________________________________________________ reality and we find that very often in Buddhist art in India and elsewhere that the Buddha is represented as accompanied by the insignia of royalty, shown accompanied by the parasol for example, and the fly whisk, and these are insignia, these are symbols of royalty in India, in fact in the East generally wherever the Buddhist cultural tradition has penetrated. Just as in the West we have the orb and the sceptre so in the East they have the parasol and the fly whisk. In the Buddha's day in India the parasol was the symbol of the king.

An ordinary person never used an umbrella. They didn't use it for keeping off the rain. At best they used a leaf, but a real umbrella could be used only by the king or by a very noble and very eminent person.

There's a whole background mythologically to this.

Lama Govinda has gone into it to some extent. He traces it back to the wise old man, the elder of the tribe or the village who sat in t h e e v e n i n g underneath a tree and with his back to the trunk and legislated for the tribe, settled various cases, gave advice. So the umbrella according to this line of thought is really a sort of artificial tree held above you as you go about. It's not utilitarian, nothing to do with keeping off the sun or the rain - it's just a symbol, just, a sign of honour. Ultimately according to Lama Govinda it's linked up with the cosmic tree which overshadows the whole world, the whole of existence but perhaps we need not pursue that line of thought but, it is sufficient to note that in art, in sculpture, in painting, the Buddha very often is accompanied by the insignia of royalty, Just as you might represent say in the West Christ with an orb and with a sceptre to represent his divine kingship, in the same way in Buddhist art the Buddha is shown with an umbrella held over him sometimes by divine beings and by gods flanking him with fly whisks.

I don't know whether you've ever seen a fly whisk. It's made actually from the tail of the yak. The yak as you know is a Tibetan beast and it has a marvellous tail which is like a great bunch of very soft white hair and in ancient times in India and even today these were made into whisks - they're very, very long - about so long, about two feet long and very very beautiful and this tail is mounted on a silver handle and the king is just sort of gently fanned with this to keep off the flies. And it's used in Hindu pujas, in Hindu ritual worship even today, there's a stage in what they call the Arati, the evening worship, when the fly whisk is waved in front of the image of the deity because the deity, whether Rama or Krishna or whatever it may be is being treated for the time being as a king, not only as a divine, but as a royal personage or royal being. So in Buddhist art, as I've said,the Buddha is represented very often with these insignia of royalty to show that he's the king of the Dharma, the king if you like of the spiritual universe.

And we find also that the Buddha's chief disciple in the Pali texts Sariputta (or in Sanskrit Sariputra) - is known as his Dhammasenapatti. So what does senapatti mean? Senapatti means commander in chief. So what a title! It's almost like the Salvation Army! But you can see the sort of ...

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