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The Symbolism of the Five Buddhas Male and Female

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 110: The Symbolism of the Five Buddhas: 'Male' and 'Female'

I'm going to start this evening with a few words of reminiscence, not to say autobiography. So far as I remember, my first conscious contact with Buddhism took place when I was about nine or ten years of age. And by the time I was about sixteen I had come to the realisation, or come to the understanding that I was in fact a Buddhist. Not that I became one, but that I realised, that I understood that I was one, and in fact had been one all the time. So this being the case, I may say that I have now been involved with Buddhism, or what we in the West call Buddhism and what is known in the East as the Dharma, or the Buddha Dharma, for rather over thirty years.

And when I say 'Involved', I don't mean casually involved, or superficially involved, or involved from time to time. I mean deeply involved and continuously involved, and involved in all sorts of ways. Involved by way of study, study of Buddhist literature, scriptures, canonical languages.

Involved by way of personal contact with other Buddhists of many different schools or traditions.

Involved by way of participation in organised Buddhist activities, Buddhist movements of various kinds, and involved also by way of writing and teaching, and so on. Now roughly half-way through this thirty year period, that is to say roughly fifteen years ago I came in contact with the Tantra. And when I came in contact with the Tantra I was living in a place called Kalimpong. Kalimpong is a small town as many of you know, by this time, situated in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas some 4,000 feet above sea-level. And it's situated within sight of the tiny Himalayan principality of Sikkim, the Kingdom of Bhutan, the Kingdom of Nepal, and also Tibet. Now when I say I came in contact with the Tantra I don't mean as one might mean here in the West, - I don't mean that I started reading books about it. In any case, there were at that time no books in English on the Tantra, or at least no really reliable ones, none that were really worth reading. When I say that in Kalimpong fifteen years ago I came in contact with the Tantra, I mean in the first place that I came in contact with followers of Tantric Buddhism, followers of the Vajrayana - people who were actually engaged in the practice of the Tantric Path.

I mean that I came in contact also, a little later on, with Tantric art, with Tantric ritual, and eventually came in contact with a number of great Tantric gurus - eventually came in contact with Tantric initiation and with Tantric practice. And as I look back - as I look back to that period of first coming in contact with the Tantra, as I look back on those days, on those years, I can well remember my early impressions, my early impressions of the Tantra. And I remember that my predominant impression as I came into contact with the Tantra, and tried to penetrate a little into it, tried to understand it, tried to see what it was all about, tried to see how it connected with other forms of Buddhism with which I was familiar, tried to see even how it connected with modern thought, modern psychology, comparative symbolism and so on, my first predominant impression was that the Tantra was a jungle. That it was a jungle in which moreover one could very easily get lost. Because after all, as I came in contact with the Tantra - as I came in contact with more and more practitioners of it, teachers of it, there seemed to be so many different traditions within the Tantra. Traditions of meditation, higher spiritual practice, traditions of ritual observance and so on. So many different kinds of offerings, even so many different kinds of robe and dress used on different ceremonial occasions. And even I may add just as a sort of lighter touch, there seemed to be so many different kinds in the Tantra, of ceremonial hats. Hats which were worn for various ritual purposes by various people in different traditions. So much so was this the case that I remember I used to tell some of my Tibetan friends who were followers of the Tantra that I found the Tantra far too vast and far too complicated to study as a whole, and that I was going to confine myself to the study of one little corner. I said that I was going to confine myself to a study of the hats. Some of which were very weird and wonderful indeed. And I used to say that I intended making a collection of these hats, and I saw at least a hundred I'm sure, very, very different, and very, very interesting. I used to say that I would make a collection of at least a hundred different kinds of Tantric hats, and then write a book about them. Not only that, but there were so many different images in the temples, - Tantric images - so many paintings, scroll paintings,. There were so many figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and gurus, and dakas and dakinis, and dharmapalas. So all these things - encountering all these things - on the occasion of my first contact with the Tantra made me feel that the Tantra was a vast jungle.

Now in the course of the last seven weeks we've been concerned with just one aspect of the Tantra, one aspect of that very rich and complex tradition. We've been concerned simply with the Creative Symbols of the Tantric Path to Enlightenment. Simply with this particular aspect.

But it may well be that some at least of those of you who've attended all these lectures may have already received the same kind of impression of the Tantra as I received ten to fifteen years ago.

You may have received an impression of incredible richness and variety, an impression of growth, an impression of fertility, an impression of an abundance of material. In other words you may have received an impression that the Tantra was like a jungle, - that it was difficult to find one's way around in the Tantra, - that the Tantra was something in which it was very easy to get lost. Now if one has been feeling like this, if in fact one feels like this, or is feeling like this towards the end of this series of lectures, then one should not be at all worried. One should not be at all concerned. In fact, in a sense, one should congratulate one's self, because this feeling, this feeling of being lost, - lost among the Creative Symbols of the Tantra is by no means a bad thing. In fact we may say it's a good thing. It's a positive thing. Because although we feel lost, and though in a sense we are lost, we are not really lost. All that has happened is that we've become, as it were, intellectually lost. Rationally lost. All that it means that we find ourselves unable to account rationally for whatever it is that we've been encountering, - whatever it is in fact that we've been experiencing. As some of the Creative Symbols were evoked we may have felt moved, we may have felt stirred, - but by what, and in what way? Why? That, perhaps we have been unable to explain.

So all that in fact has happened when we feel lost is that we're just unable to account rationally for the effect of these Creative Symbols on us, unable to make sense of them and our experience of them in terms of our ordinary everyday conscious experience. So that we find on further reflection, on deeper reflection, we find that the Tantra, jungle like though it may appear at first sight, is not really like a jungle at all. We may say that the Tantra is in fact much more like a garden. But like a sort of Multidimensional garden, or even we may say, the Tantra is like a system, a whole system of multidimensional intersecting mazes which are themselves gardens.

In other words, despite the richness of the Tantra, despite it's incredible profusion, despite its' superabundance of material, despite its' exuberance, there is running through the Tantra, a pattern. Or we may say even a number of patterns, a number even of interlocking patterns. And these patterns that we find in the Tantra, these patterns are not intellectual, - but spiritual. They're not imposed from the outside on the Tantra, as on some foreign body of material, but they unfold from within the Tantra, expressing it's innermost essential nature. And it is with one of these patterns, one of these patterns within the Tantra, that we are concerned tonight. We're concerned with the symbolism of the Five Buddhas, "Male" - in inverted commas, and "Female" - again, inverted commas.

And this pattern, the pattern of the Five Buddhas, is one of the most important patterns that we find in the whole range of the Tantra. Unless we are familiar with it, even very familiar with it, not just intellectually familiar, not just familiar by way of information, but emotionally familiar, spiritually intimate, if you like, then we have little hope of finding our way about in the apparent jungle of the Tantra.

Now I'm going to begin by going back to fundamentals, to fundamentals not only of the Tantra, but of Buddhism itself, going back to the idea of Buddha, even THE Buddha. Back to the idea of Buddhahood. We hear about Buddhism, and we're told, we're informed that Buddhism is named after the Buddha. So we want to know who the Buddha is. We're told it's not a personal name - it's a title. So we want to know what a Buddha is. What THE Buddha is. And we're told of course, we come to understand, we come to see that in the first place a Buddha is a human being. This is the first thing that we have to understand, and it's very important that a Buddha is a human being. But a Buddha is not just an ordinary human being. A Buddha is a special kind of human being. In fact a Buddha is the highest kind of human being. So far as we know, a Buddha is, we may say, is one who in his spiritual development so far transcends the ordinary run of humanity as to be in a sense no longer a human being at all. This is what we mean by a Buddha. A Buddha is a human being who has attained Bodhi. Or more technically, ...

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