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The Universal Perspective of Mahayana Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

... of universal consciousness or Buddhahood. And we saw that the Higher Evolution consists in what we may describe as a process of development from unconsciousness through self-consciousness to universal consciousness, or if you like from unawareness through awareness to Buddhahood.

But sooner or later we have to start operating with a fourth concept, with the concept of what Jung calls 'The Collective Unconscious', including the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

And we shall have to try to understand what part they all play in the process of the Higher Evolution of Man, in the process of the Higher Evolution of the Individual. And this we shall be doing, probably, in our next series of lectures. In this series what we're going to start doing is familiarising ourselves, if we're not already familiar, with archetypal, for want of a better term, archetypal material in general. And this is why in this series, in this course of lectures, we're going to study the parables, myths, and symbols of Mahayana Buddhism as contained in this very important text, this very important scripture, the White Lotus sutra.

Now some of you I know did not attend the previous series of lectures, but there's no need to worry about that. It's much more important that we should allow ourselves simply to feel the impact, as it were, of the parables, and the myths, and the symbols of the White Lotus sutra, as in due course we come to them. And in any case the previous lectures are all on tape, and if we do want to become familiar with the overall pattern, the overall structure, of the Higher Evolution in all its aspects, we shall have, no doubt, opportunities of hearing those lectures some other time.

We shall also be allowing some time for questions after the lecture.

Now to tonight's topic - the universal perspective of the Mahayana. What do we mean by Mahayana? Mahayana is a Sanskrit word. It consists of two parts - 'Maha' and 'Yana'. 'Maha' means 'great'; and 'Yana' means 'way' - it also means 'vehicle'. So 'Mahayana' means 'the great way' or the 'great vehicle'; and it's the great way or the great vehicle to Enlightenment. Now if you've read a little about Buddhism, if you've read books on Buddhism or articles on Buddhism, you might have got the impression that by the Mahayana, the great way or the great vehicle, was meant a particular sect or a particular school of Buddhism. Some writers even refer to 'The Mahayana School' or 'The Mahayana Sect'. But this is not really correct, as we shall see. The Mahayana isn't a sect or school as those terms are usually employed. We know that what we nowadays call Buddhism, but which in Buddhist countries is called the Dharma, we know that what we call Buddhism started in India some two thousand, five hundred years ago. The Buddha himself, Gautama the Buddha, Shakyamuni, was born and brought up in what is now southern Nepal, just over the border from India. But he travelled and taught after his Enlightenment, and for some time before even, he travelled and taught in what was known in those days to him and his disciples as the Majjhimapatipada, that is to say, the Middle Country or the Middle Region, a region comprising the two present day Indian states of Bihar and Uttarapradesh, an area roughly equivalent to England and Wales. And after the Buddha's death, after what Buddhists call the Parinirvana of the Buddha, Buddhism, the Dharma, lasted in India for about one thousand, five hundred years, and during that period it spread from the middle country, from northeastern India where it began, it spread all over the country or rather over the whole vast subcontinent. In fact not only that, crossing deserts and crossing seas, it spread, it penetrated over practically the whole of Asia. It even penetrated into the West, penetrated as far as Antioch and Alexandria - and this of course was long, long before the days of modern transport.

Now in India, during the one thousand, five hundred years of its existence there, its development there, Buddhism underwent many changes, not changes of essence, not changes as regards fundamental things, but changes of aspect, of appearance, of presentation, of interpretation. It passed, we may say, through three great phases of development, historical development, each lasting roughly five hundred years. First there's the phase, or the stage, of the Hinayana, secondly the phase, or the stage, of the Mahayana, and thirdly the phase or the stage of the Vajrayana. Now Lecture 95: The Universal Perspective of Mahayana Buddhism Page 3 we've seen that 'Mahayana' means 'great way' or 'great vehicle', but what do the other terms mean? 'Hinayana' means 'little way', and 'Vajrayana means 'diamond way' or 'adamantine way'.

Now at present we are not concerned with the Vajrayana, the diamond way or the adamantine way. We're concerned only with the Hinayana and the Mahayana, that is to say with the little way to Enlightenment and the great way to Enlightenment. Now just consider these terms - great way, little way. Now obviously a contrast is intended by whosoever was responsible for coining these terms, a contrast between the great way and the little way. So the question arises, in what does this contrast consist? How do they differ from each other? Now there are many ways of explaining this, of looking at this, and it's often said that according to the Hinayana, the little way to Enlightenment, one should devote oneself simply to the attainment of one's own individual Enlightenment, without bothering about anybody else, ignoring, as it were, the needs of other beings; whereas, it is said, according to the Mahayana, one should, on the contrary, forget all about oneself and help other beings to gain Enlightenment, to tread the path leading to Enlightenment. So it's in these terms, or terms of this sort, that the contrast between the Hinayana and the Mahayana, the little way and the great way to Enlightenment, is usually presented in many books and articles. But this is much too crude. It can also be very very misleading. It's much more correct to say, it's much more true to say, that the Mahayana realises, and realises very deeply, very profoundly, that concern for the well being, the welfare, for the development, the spiritual development, of other people, is an integral part of one's own spiritual development itself. The Mahayana realises this, has, as it were, insight into this. It sees, as it were, that to be concerned with one's own development, one's own spiritual development, to the exclusion of interest in that of other people, is in the long run self-defeating. The Mahayana realises, as it were, that all forms of life in the universe on all levels, and perhaps above all on the human level, are interrelated, that they all mutually interact, again just like Indra's jewel net. Not only that, we can go a step further. We can say that the Mahayana realises that the net is not, as it were, static, the net is in motion, or rather, the individual jewels that make up the net are in motion, they are, as it were, all travelling on the same road, all heading in the same direction. Some jewels admittedly are a little further ahead than the others. Some are lagging rather far behind, because the net is after all a big one and very extensive. Admittedly some jewels are bigger and brighter than others, some are smaller and less lustrous, and we can even say that some jewels unfortunately are dragging in the dirt, in the mud, seem to have lost all their beauty, and look more like ordinary stones, ordinary pebbles, than jewels. But nevertheless they're all treading, as it were, the same path, all travelling towards the same goal, and they're all directly or indirectly in contact with one another. Now this great realisation of the Mahayana is embodied in what it calls The Bodhisattva Ideal, and the Bodhisattva Ideal is the highest spiritual ideal, the supreme ideal of the Mahayana. The highest spiritual ideal of the Hinayana is that of the Arahant, the sage or the saint who has destroyed all passions, who has reached Nirvana for himself, but who does not concern himself at any stage of his career with other beings. Now what does this word Bodhisattva mean? Bodhi means Enlightenment. It means awakening to the truth, awakening to Reality; and Sattva means being, in the sense of an individual being, a creature. A Bodhisattva therefore is a being, an individual, a person, who has dedicated himself to the attainment of Bodhi or Enlightenment. But he has dedicated himself to it not for his own sake merely but for the benefit of all living beings whatsoever. To make this clearer, we may say that the urge to Enlightenment, the urge, as it were, to something above and beyond the world, is imminent in all creation, but it is a blind urge. It's like the urge of the plant which is groping for the light. But the Bodhisattva, we may say, is one in whom this urge, this aspiration if you like of the whole creation, has become conscious, has become self-conscious. And it's for this reason that, as we've seen in previous lectures, the Bodhisattva may be spoken of as the embodiment of the Higher Evolution. We can of course also say that the urge to Enlightenment has become self-conscious in the Arahant, the ideal man of the Hinayana, but in his case there seems to be a limitation. He does not realise that what is actual in him, or what has become actual in him, is potential in all.

And because he doesn't see that, doesn't realise that, he doesn't have the same sense of solidarity with all other forms of life. But the Bodhisattva does have this, he does realise this, he does have this solidarity with all other forms of life. So he cannot think in terms of his own individual Enlightenment, salvation, excluding, or at least ignoring, everybody else.

Lecture 95: The Universal Perspective of Mahayana Buddhism ...

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