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Transcending the Human Predicament

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 97: Transcending the Human Predicament

Friends, The human mind lives in two different worlds. It lives part of the time in a world of abstract thought and it lives part of the time in a world of concrete images. It lives part of the time in a world of science, of philosophy, of systematic, rational, logical thought; and it lives part of the time in a very different world indeed, a world of poetry. It lives, again part of the time, in a world of concepts, of abstract ideas, generalizations from experience; and it lives also in a world of parables, of myths, and of symbols. Part of the time it lives in the world of the conscious, and part of the time in the world of the unconscious, even in the world of the collective unconscious.

Now so far as this present series of lectures is concerned, we've more or less left the first world behind us. We're living, or at least we've begun to live, in the second world. We've begun in the course of these lectures to live, or to begin to live, in the collective unconscious; and we're becoming, week by week, acquainted with some of the treasures that we find in the depths of that collective unconscious. And we're doing this, as you know, by way of a study - not a systematic study, a more intuitive study - of the: Parables and the Myths and the Symbols of Mahayana Buddhism in the White Lotus Sutra.

And those of you who have attended the previous two lectures will recall that they were more or less of an introductory nature. In them we tried to see the whole wood, before beginning to examine individual trees. The week before last we had something to say about the Mahayana. We saw that this word, this Sanskrit word Mahayana, means simply 'Great Way'; and that it constitutes the second great stage in the development of Buddhism in India. We saw again that while Buddhism itself is universal, while all forms of Buddhism are universal in principle, we saw that at the same time the Mahayana, the great way, is more effectively universal than some other forms, for instance than the Hinayana, the little way, the little vehicle, by which it was preceded. We saw that the Mahayana, the great way, follows not only the Buddha's verbal teaching as contained in, say, the doctrines of the Middle Way, the Eightfold Path, the Six Perfections, and so on. The Mahayana also follows the Buddha's personal living example. And because it does this, because it follows not just the verbal teaching, but also the personal example of the Enlightened Man, the Buddha himself, for this reason the Mahayana stresses both Wisdom - Transcendental Wisdom - and Compassion, universal Compassion. And it's because it stresses Compassion as well as Wisdom that it doesn't wait for people to come to it, but it goes out to them. And in going out, we saw, it learns to speak a number of different languages, and it learns to speak, as it were, not only the language of concepts, of abstract thought, of reason, but also the language of images, or if you like the language of the imagination, the language of poetry.

Now last week we were concerned with the White Lotus Sutra itself, and we came to understand that this sutra was one of the greatest and most important of all the Mahayana scriptures. Perhaps even, we saw, it has, with respect to form and content, no parallel in the religious literature of the world. Because in this White Lotus Sutra there is enacted nothing less than what we can only describe - even though the description is very provisional, tentative, and inadequate - what we can only describe as the Drama of Cosmic Enlightenment. We saw that the stage as it were of the White Lotus Sutra is conterminous with the whole universe, with the whole of space. We saw that the performance that takes place on this stage in the White Lotus Sutra lasts for hundreds of ages. We saw that the protagonist, the leading personage in the drama, is the Buddha himself, Shakyamuni; and we saw that the other actors on this stage along with him are all sentient beings, other Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arahants, gods, human beings, and so on. And we further saw that the scenery of this great drama was and is the most magnificent. the most splendid imaginable. And we saw that the whole scene, the whole drama, the whole mystery as it were, is pervaded by a sense of the marvellous and the miraculous. And the theme of this great aeonic drama which takes place in the White Lotus Sutra, the theme of this drama is Enlightenment, not just the Enlightenment of this individual or that individual, but Cosmic Enlightenment, so that we come to understand, we come to see, come to realize, that Enlightenment is not just something achieved from time to time by fortunate individuals, strenuous individuals, on this planet. We come to see that ultimately, taking the widest possible view, the widest, the broadest possible perspective, that Enlightenment is nothing less than a vast, than a cosmic, than a universal process, a process in which eventually all life, all forms of life, will participate. And perhaps we can say, perhaps it is not too much to claim, that this great vision of the White Lotus Sutra, the vision of existence, cosmic existence, as a drama of Cosmic Enlightenment, is perhaps the greatest, the most splendid ever revealed to the eyes, to the spiritual vision of man.

Now from this week we shall be dealing with the parables, the myths, and the symbols themselves. And tonight we come to the first of the Buddha's parables, which is, you may remember, the Parable of the Burning House. And we'll be dealing with it under the title of 'Transcending the Human Predicament'; and what this means we shall see shortly.

Now this parable, the Parable of the Burning House, occurs in Chapter Three of the Sutra. You may recollect from last week that in Chapter Two the Buddha has declared his previous teaching, the teaching which he had given to his disciples up to that date, to be merely introductory. It consisted in a teaching simply of the destruction by the individual of the negative emotions within his own mind; and the Buddha now says that this is not the highest spiritual goal. There's something beyond, there's a higher, a further, a greater, spiritual achievement still. And this is what he calls the attainment of Supreme, of Perfect Buddhahood, which consists not just in the eradication of negative emotions, necessary as that may be, but in the attainment also of positive spiritual knowledge and Enlightenment, knowledge of Reality, development of Wisdom, manifestation of Compassion. And the way to attain this higher goal, this goal of Supreme Enlightenment or Perfect Buddhahood, is by following the Mahayana, the Great Way - in other words by following, by practising what is known as the Bodhisattva Ideal, living for the sake of Enlightenment, but living for it not just for the sake of one's own individual emancipation, but so as to contribute to the cosmic process of Enlightenment, the Enlightenment of all sentient beings.

Now this way, the great way, the Bodhisattva's way, the way to perfect Buddhahood, this way can be followed by anyone who wishes to follow it. They simply have to choose. They simply have to take this decision, they have to commit themselves in this way. And in fact the Buddha says that all lower spiritual ideals, all lesser paths, ultimately they all merge in this one great way. So the great way, the Mahayana, is also called the one way, Ekayana; and the Buddha further declares that the declaration of this one great way for all living beings, leading to supreme perfect Enlightenment, supreme perfect Buddhahood, is the sole purpose for his appearance in the world.

Now you may recollect from the summary last week that not everybody in the assembly, not all the Buddha's disciples, were able to accept this new teaching, were able to accept that there was something above and beyond the previous teaching, something that they did not know, that they had not yet learned. Some could not bear to think that they hadn't yet achieved the goal, that there was anything left to learn. So five thousand of them, thinking that they had reached the highest goal, that there must be some mistake when the Buddha said that there was another higher goal to reach, they just walked out.

But after they had walked out, Sariputra, the greatest, the wisest in fact, of the disciples, he accepts this new teaching of the Buddha. And at the beginning of Chapter Three he gives expression to his great joy, his joy at being able to dedicate himself to the achievement of something higher still; and the Buddha predicts that one day in the distant future he too will become a perfect Buddha. But Sariputra goes on to explain that many of the disciples, many of the members of the assembly, are still very perplexed, so he asks the Buddha to clear up the confusion in their minds. And in response to Sariputra's request, in response to his appeal, the Buddha says that he will tell a parable. And he adds: 'Through a parable intelligent people reach understanding.' Sometimes it isn't easy to follow things when they are put in a dry, abstract, conceptual manner, but with the help of a parable, with the help of a story, much becomes clear.

So the Buddha tells the Parable of the Burning House. And of course like most parables, like most stories, it begins with 'Once upon a time'. And the Buddha says: Once upon a time there lived a great elder, and he was very very rich indeed. He was a businessman, it seems, and what we would call a multi-millionaire. And he lived in an enormous mansion; and this mansion was inhabited by hundreds of people, his servants, his dependants, and so on. But though so large and in a way magnificent, the mansion was very very old, and it was also rather tumbledown. It had lots of pillars which were partly decayed. Many of the windows were broken, and some of the floorboards ...

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