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The Universal Perspective of Mahayana Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 95: The Universal Perspective of Mahayana Buddhism

Friends, There's a very important Mahayana sutra called the Gandhavyuha Sutra, which means the Scripture of the Cosmic Array or the Cosmic Adornment, or if you like the Adornment of the Cosmos. And in this particular sutra, in this particular text, the Buddha gives a very well known and very important simile; and it's called the simile of Indra's net. Now Indra, according to the Hindu mythology which Buddhism, as it were, inherited from Hinduism, Indra is the King of the Gods. He's said to dwell in the Heaven of the Thirty Three Gods. And Indra, the King of the Gods, possesses a number of treasures. And amongst these treasures, we're told, according to tradition, there is a net. And this net is not an ordinary net. This net is made entirely of jewels.

And this net, made entirely of jewels, and this net made entirely of jewels has a number of wonderful and extraordinary characteristics. And one of these characteristics is that each and every one of the jewels in the net reflects all the other jewels, in other words reflects the rest of the net; and all the other jewels reflect that individual jewel. So that, the Buddha says in this sutra, all the jewels shine in each, and each of them shines in all.

Now this is a simile; as a simile it has a meaning. So according to the Buddha in the Gandhavyuha Sutra, the whole universe with everything in it is just like this, is just like Indra's net of jewels. The universe consists of innumerable phenomena of various kinds, just as the net, just as Indra's net, consists of innumerable jewels of all shapes, all sizes, and all degrees of brilliance. We usually think of the phenomena that make up the universe as being separate, and distinct, irreducibly so in fact, from one another, as being mutually exclusive. We usually think of the universe as consisting of a number of particular things, and these things are all quite separate, all quite distinct from one another. This is how we in fact experience the universe, as consisting of innumerable different things. But in Reality, so the Buddha says, it is not like that at all. From the standpoint of the highest spiritual experience, the spiritual experience of the Buddha as revealed in the Gandhavyuha Sutra, all the phenomena of the universe, whether great or small, near or distant, all mutually reflect one another, mirror one another, in a sense even, we may say, contain one another. All contain each, and each contains all. And this applies throughout space, and throughout time, so that time and space are in effect transcended. Because everything that happens is happening now, and everything that is happening anywhere is happening here. So in this way all the categories of logical thought, all the categories of reason, are superseded. There's a very popular saying taken from the scriptures, which you find again and again quoted in the far East, in all the Mahayana Buddhist countries, which enters very deeply, very intimately, into their proverbial expressions, their literature, their poetry, even eventually into their everyday life. And the saying is that each and every single grain of dust in the universe contains all the Buddhafields, as they're technically called, all the Buddha worlds that is to say, of the ten directions of space and the three periods of time. They're all contained in a single grain of dust. Now this might seem at first sight a rather unfamiliar, a rather strange, a rather bizarre, a rather exotic insight, but we do have something rather like it a little nearer home. We may say, for example, that the English poet and painter and visionary William Blake had a glimpse of this sort of state, this sort of reality, when he says, or rather when he sings: To see a world in a grain of sand, And Heaven in a wild flower, Hold the universe in the palm of one's hand, And eternity in an hour. These are very familiar lines, it's a very familiar verse, but people usually don't take it very seriously. They think, 'Oh well, it's just a flight of poetic fancy. After all, he didn't mean what he was saying. Surely Blake had never actually seen the world in a grain of sand, it's just a figure of speech, it's just something not to be taken very seriously at all. But Blake wasn't just a poet.

Blake, as I've said, was also a visionary, a mystic, and these lines of his, this verse of his, surely springs, surely expresses, an insight and a realization, not perhaps in principle, in essence, very different from that of the Gandhavyuha Sutra, that of Indra's net of jewels.

Now this being the Buddha's position, as it were, this being the Buddha's teaching, it's perhaps not surprising that the Buddha's Dharma itself, the Buddha's teaching itself, should turn out to be like Indra's net. The Buddha's Dharma, the Buddha's teaching, consists of a number of different paths, consists of different individual teachings, different doctrines, practices, and so on. And all these paths, these teachings, these doctrines, these practices, all these parts are interconnected. We may say that they all reflect one another - each gives you a clue, as it were, to all the others. Each is contained in all the others; they all contain one another. So this means, and this is a rather important corollary, this means that one cannot fully understand, and I emphasise this word fully, one cannot fully understand any one part or aspect of the Dharma unless one understands the whole. Strictly speaking, a piecemeal understanding is impossible.

It's impossible, for instance, to take up one particular teaching, one particular doctrine, understand that fully and completely, without reference to the total Dharma, and then pass on, as it were, to the next piece, the next teaching, the next doctrine. This is impossible; and for this reason we have to keep on going back. We may think, for instance, that we know Buddhism quite well. We've read a number of books on the subject, we're acquainted with all the principal teachings. But one day we come across a teaching, a doctrine, that we hadn't encountered before, so we go into this, we understand it and so on, and that's very good. But it isn't as though we add this particular teaching, this particular doctrine that we've newly understood, onto our previous stock of knowledge, like adding a pebble to a heap of pebbles- no. We have to go back and, as it were, revise the sum total of our previous knowledge in the light of that new teaching which we've just studied and we've just understood. In other words, every single insight that we have into Buddhism, or into the Truth, into the Dharma, modifies, at least subtly, all our previous insights. So it isn't as though we keep adding, as it were, one brick after another to the edifice of our understanding of the Buddha's teaching. It's much more subtle, much more, if you like, organic, than that. Now not only is this true of the Buddha's Dharma, but it's also true, we may say, in the case of the different series of lectures that we've been having in the course of the last three years in this place on different aspects of that Dharma. These too, we may say, are like Indra's net, because they reflect one another, they throw light on one another.

Today, as you've just heard, we begin a new series. We begin a series on Parables, Myths and Legends of Mahayana Buddhism in the White Lotus Sutra. Now the first two lectures in this series are more or less introductory. Today itself we're dealing with Mahayana Buddhism, dealing in fact with the universal perspective of the Mahayana. And next week we shall be dealing with the White Lotus Sutra itself in general terms under the title of The Drama of Cosmic Enlightenment, because this is what it really is. And after that, week by week we shall be dealing with the parables and the myths and the symbols which we find in this great Buddhist classic, this great Buddhist scripture.

Now this whole series of lectures is related to all the series which have gone before as well as to the series that will come later on. Now how is that? Throughout all these series we've been concerned, and we shall continue to be concerned, with one sole topic. We've been concerned, and we shall be concerned with, the spiritual path, with what is known in Buddhism traditionally as the Path to Enlightenment, or the Path to Nirvana, or with what we've come to know in our own terms as the Path of the Higher Evolution of Man. Now our last two series of lectures have dealt directly with this topic of the Higher Evolution. The year before last we studied it in very general terms. We studied this subject of the Higher Evolution of Man in terms of biology, in terms of anthropology, in terms of history, in terms of comparative religion, in terms of the Hinayana and Mahayana forms of Buddhism, and also in terms of modern Western thought as represented especially by Nietzsche.

And last year, in fact last autumn, which isn't so very long ago, our scope, while we confined ourselves to the same topic, was somewhat more restrictive. We continued studying it but we studied it in terms of the Higher Evolution of the Individual. Our approach, if I may say so, was rather psychological, and we were in particular concerned with the problems, very practical concrete problems, that individuals encounter in the course of that Higher Evolution, in the course of that spiritual development.

Lecture 95: The Universal Perspective of Mahayana Buddhism Page 2 Now in the course of these two whole series, especially in the course of the second of them, we operated so to speak with the help of three main concepts, three leading concepts. One, the concept of unconsciousness or unawareness; two, the concept of self-consciousness or awareness or individuality; and three, with the concept ...

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