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Symbols of Life and Growth

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 99: Symbols of Life and Growth

I'm going to start tonight by being what many people would consider very English, and that is to say I'm going to start by talking about the weather, or rather not so much about the weather in the strict sense, but about the seasons, the seasons of the year. In the West, including this country, we have of course four quite distinct seasons. We've got spring, we've got summer, autumn, and winter. And at the moment as you know we are coming, we hope, to the end of winter, and to the beginning, again we hope, of spring.

But this particular pattern, this four-season pattern, isn't universal, a fact that we very often forget. In India, for instance, there are three seasons in the year, and each season lasts about four months. To begin with, you have the cold season, when it's cold all the time. It's a little bit like our summer in this country, except that there's no rain. Secondly in India you have for another period of four months the hot season. And the hot season is very hot indeed. There's no rain at all, not even a drop; and as the weeks, as the months go by, and it seems to get hotter and hotter and hotter, you see all the vegetation becoming brown, becoming dry, shrivelling up, and you see for the most part the leaves dropping off the trees, and even any vegetation that you do happen to see around is very very dry and very very dusty indeed. And as you walk over the earth you notice that the whole earth is not only dry but baked hard almost like brick. And as one comes to the end of the hot season you see that great fissures, great cracks appear in the earth. Sometimes they're so wide and so deep you have to be careful as you walk along that you don't fall into them. And not only that but everywhere you go there is a thick dust, especially where there are cattle, where there are cows about kicking up this dust, and very often the whole air, the whole atmosphere, is a sort of dull yellow colour in consequence.

And then thirdly and lastly there's the rainy season, the monsoon, and during the rainy season of course it does nothing but rain, with just very very few bright sunny intervals. And one rather remarkable thing about the Indian seasons, especially about the beginning of the rainy season, is the fact that the seasons begin quite abruptly, especially the rainy season. You can almost tell, I won't even say the day but the hour when it begins. It begins quite suddenly, and in the case of the rainy season you suddenly see a huge dark cloud. A minute before it was all hot, it was all bright, it was all dry, and then quite suddenly, with quite miraculous speed, this huge dark cloud appears, and in the course of just a few minutes the whole sky becomes first of all overcast, then a deep sort of greyish blue, and then finally becomes almost black, and on every side you see lightning flickering and flashing, and in a few minutes' time terrible crashes of thunder, which seem to roll from one end of the sky to the other, meet your ears. And then as you listen, after perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes you hear a noise, you hear a great sound, just like the rushing of a tremendous wind. And then after that down comes the rain. We think it rains in this country, but in comparison with the rainy season in India it doesn't rain at all, because there the rain comes down in great bucketfuls all the time, and it doesn't stop, very often, for days and even weeks together. Underfoot the water is swirling all the time, and the ground becomes very often a great sea of mud. The rivers become more and more full; their waters turn yellow and very often they start overflowing their banks. And here and there in the villages you find the mud walls of the huts collapsing and even sometimes whole villages are swept away.

But then again quite suddenly, just a few days, sometimes, after the rainy season has begun, a rather wonderful thing happens, and that is that the whole land, which formerly was all yellow, all parched, all dry, without any vegetation except a few brown leaves or brown blades, suddenly becomes completely and entirely green, and vegetation of every kind springs up just like magic, and you see that in the rice fields, the fields are entirely filled with emerald coloured shoots, and even the most stunted bushes and shrubs burst into leaf, and plants like the bamboo and the plantain, which we call the banana, they shoot up quite a number of inches in a single night. In the evening time when you go to bed it's so high, you get up the next morning, it's up there, and that happens every night until it's shot up, in the case of the bamboo, to a tremendous height. So every living thing, every shrub, every tree, every bush, every plant, each in its own way just starts growing.

And this is the sort of scene, this is the sort of picture that one can see in India every year, especially in Northern India - not quite the same pattern in South India, but especially one sees this in Northern India during the months, of course, July to October. And this sort of scene, this rainy season scene, is very often described in Pali and Sanskrit literature, is very often represented in art, especially in the Mogul miniature paintings, this sort of scene. And it's this sort of scene also that is depicted in the first of the two parables from the White Lotus sutra with which we shall be dealing this evening. This evening we're dealing, to begin with, with the parable called 'The Parable of the Rain Cloud'. It's also sometimes called the Parable of the Plants, and together with another parable that we shall be citing a little bit later on, it constitutes one of the symbols of life and growth with which we're concerned in this week's lecture.

Now both our parables for the evening occur in the fifth chapter of the White Lotus Sutra, and in both of them it's the Buddha himself who is again speaking. And at the commencement of this first parable, the Buddha compares himself to a great rain cloud that rises in the sky at the beginning of the monsoon season. Now so far, last week and the week before, I've been summarising the parables of the White Lotus sutra; some of them are very very lengthy. But tonight I'm going to give you the parable of the rain cloud or the parable of the plants in full in the words of the Sutra itself. And I'm going to read from an English translation of Kumarajiva's Chinese translation, which, as I mentioned in the second lecture, has very great literary merits. The Buddha says: two parables with which we've dealt so far. I want to spend the greater part of our time this evening dealing with some of the more general implications of the parable. First of all, the parable is a symbol, one of the symbols, of life and growth. It describes how rain falls from the cloud, and how as a result all the plants, all the shrubs grow. And they all grow - and this, as we shall see later on, is very important - they all grow in their own way.

But if we recollect the previous parables with which we've dealt so far, we shall probably see, we shall probably recollect, that they also are symbols of life and of growth. That is to say, the Parable of the Burning House, with which we dealt the week before last, and the Parable of the Return Journey with which we dealt with last week. Indeed we can go so far as to say that the whole White Lotus Sutra itself, and not just the parables it contains, the whole White Lotus Sutra itself is a symbol of life and of growth. And this is why in the second lecture in this series I described it as the 'Drama of Cosmic Enlightenment', because as we saw then it depicts a universe, a realm of being, in which all individual beings whatsoever are moving forward, moving in the direction of Enlightenment. It depicts a universe in which Arahants are becoming Bodhisattvas and Bodhisattvas are becoming Buddhas. It represents a sort of upward trend of the whole creation.

And this state of affairs is reflected in individual parables. It's reflected in the Parable of the Burning House. You may remember that the children of the parable are enticed out of the burning house by their father, who promises them all sorts of toys, and that eventually they all ride in wonderful decorated bullock carts. In other words, in the parable the children, that is to say sentient beings, are depicted as moving from a lower to a higher state of existence, depicted as moving from the conditioned to the Unconditioned, from a state of suffering, at least potential suffering, to a state of everlasting bliss and peace and happiness.

And it's the same with regard to the Parable of the Return Journey. In the Parable of the Return Journey we see the poor man coming closer and closer and closer to the rich man, becoming more and more like him, and in the end being acknowledged as his son and inheriting his wealth.

So in both cases, in both parables, there is growth, there is development, there is onward and upward movement. So a question therefore arises, the question being: What is it, then, that distinguishes tonight's parables as embodying symbols of life and growth? In what way do they differ from the previous parables that they are specifically described as symbols of life and growth, whereas the previous parables haven't been so described, at least not specifically? Now the difference between them is a quite simple matter, because in tonight's parables the symbols of life and growth which occur in both parables are what we may describe as vegetable symbols. That is to say, the whole process of spiritual development, of the Higher Evolution, is represented in terms of the growth, the unfolding if you like, of a plant.

Now what the significance of this is we shall see presently. First of all I want to point out that this sort of symbolism, if you like this plant symbolism, flower symbolism, is much more common in Buddhism, ...

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