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Enlightenment as Experience and as Non-experience

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by Sangharakshita

... festivals, celebrations, pageantry, social institutions, folk customs, law (Canon Law for instance) myth, legend, mysticism, asceticism, even marvel and miracle, all these things making up religion, going to make up religion up to the time of the reformation. And we can even include such things as painting, sculpture, architecture, music: all these were as it were incorporated and integrated into religion, into the dominant religious values, so that you had indeed a many splendoured thing - something very rich, something very complex, something very inspired. But that great synthesis did break down. With the Reformation came a change - again no time to go into details - and especially a change came about in the Protestant, or what afterwards became the Protestant, part of Europe. Doctrine became much more rigid. In fact there wasn't any one Christian doctrine any more; there were a number of conflicting and competing versions of the one true faith. Myth and legend, all the more colourful elements of religion, especially in the Protestant countries, gradually disappeared, and ritual dwindled we may say, to a ghost of its former splendid self. And in some areas, ritual was banished altogether. The fine arts became more and more secularised, the Church became separated from the State, religion became divorced from secular life, and it became more and more a matter of private morality and personal feeling. In England this trend was very much intensified during the Victorian period.

The traditional religious doctrine of the origin of the universe and of man was very much undermined during the Victorian period, as we all know, by discover is in the fields of geology and biology, in particular undermined by Darwin's theory of evolution. And intellectually, for many good, serious, sincere people, religion, the Christian religion, became more and more intellectually untenable. For some, like Matthew Arnold, religion became simply morality 'tinged with emotion' as he calls it. The morality was often little more than social conformity. And the emotion was often very little more than a feeling of nostalgia for the lost faith. For others, we may say, religion became not morality tinged with emotion but rather emotion tinged with morality. And as the decades went by, that emotion became less and less faintly tinged with morality. And it was at this point say roughly one hundred years ago that Buddhism first really entered upon the scene. If we wanted a date we could fix upon eighteen seventy I think it's three.

Someone may correct me perhaps; it might be four, the year of publication of Sir Edwin Arnold's celebrated poem, that very beautiful life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia; sorry seventy nine; I've been corrected from the chair. Seventy nine; if we want to fix a date, let it be 1879.

So we can already begin to see in what sort of way it was virtually inevitable that Buddhism would have been looked upon, at that time. It would have been looked upon either as a system of ethics, or as a particular kind of religious sentiment, as a particular kind of feeling as an experience. Buddhism would not, and in fact was not at that stage taken very seriously as a doctrine, as a philosophy, for want of a better word. The depths of Buddhist thought were not plumbed at that time. They were not begun even to be plumbed, and we're far from plumbing them even today, a hundred years later. And as for myth and legend, certainly in those days people were not very ready to regard Buddhism or look upon Buddhism in those terms; they'd had enough of Christian myth and legend which had been dressed up as historical fact. They were in no mood in those days for myth and legend, or for religion or Buddhism as myth and legend. And as for such things as ritual, festivals, social institutions - the whole more colourful or popular side of religion or Buddhism, they would have been regarded as simply out of the question, even by the very very few who thought of themselves in those days as Buddhist in this country. After all, they might have said, had not the Buddha, good Protestant that he was, condemned rites and ceremonies as fetters? So some of these reasons for not regarding Buddhism very seriously as doctrine nor as legend or myth of ritual, some of these remain unthinkable for Western Buddhists even today. So for many Buddhism becomes a matter still of ethics or of experience. And therefore one tends to think of Enlightenment as experience. It might even be said that one might well have predicted, at the end of the last century, which forms of Buddhism would be the most popular in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century: Theravada and Zen - Theravada as representing a code of ethics, and Zen as representing experience. Now in the second half of the twentieth century, we may say, the Theravada has rather fallen behind as, as it were, an independent school. And Zen, we may also say, at least in some areas, in some quarters, is beginning to be displaced by something else. What that something else is may be seen later on.

So, so much for the way in which we regard religion, for the way we've come, almost insensibly, to think nowadays, in the West, of religion, including Buddhism, in terms of experience. Now, what about the way in which we regard life itself? In other words, the organised life of the human community - social life in the very widest sense, along with its various aspects, political, economic, cultural, domestic. How do we feel about this? now often it must be confessed that when it comes to life, many of us don't feel very much at all. If we feel anything, when it comes to life, if you like Life with a capital 'L', life in general, or just life, we feel confused. We feel bewildered. Life is so very complicated, or has become so very complicated. And I'm sure many of us feel at times as though we have become caught up in a vast system, even a vast machine, which has become far too big and far too complex for us to understand, or to do anything at all about. All sorts of things happen all over the world all the time. And we it seems have very little, sometimes absolutely no control over them whatever. But there they are, happening all the time all over the world. And we've no control over them, usually, almost always, even when they most deeply and most intimately affect our own lives. |n respect of those events we are powerless.

We're impotent. We can do nothing. We're helpless. The juggernaut, as it were, of events - world events, global events - rolls on; we can do nothing, even if the wheels are crushing us, crushing the life out of us, we can do nothing. And very often that is the sort of feeling we have about life -that we can do nothing. So we feel helpless, impotent, frustrated. At the same time, very often, for many of us, life seems to us a very dull and very routine affair. We go along, we rumble along, or we creep along tracks which have been placed down for us, not by ourselves, but for us, before even we were born, perhaps before even our parents were born. You know the round: school. You didn't ask to be sent to be school usually. School!When school ends, well what? Work! One form or another, one level or another. Then, inevitably, marriage. And, as inevitably, for practically everybody, after marriage, mortgage!. And, not quite so inevitably nowadays, of course, for reasons I need not mention, children! And of course, still more work, perhaps promotion, if you're lucky, which of course means more work again, and then retirement, redundancy, and death! And this of course is what life, ordinary life, social life, human life, means for most people, certainly for most men. I think the women, sometimes at least, have it a little easier than that. And apparently... words of protest [i.e. from audience: transcriber]...alright! Accepted! And apparently there's no alternative. The wheel has caught you; the wheel has got you in its grip,and it rolls on and on. I saw today that .....to mind(?) [interference scrambles one or two words on the tape here] a very striking picture in the Burne Jones exhibition; it was called "The Wheel of Fortune"; i think it should've been called "The Wheel of Misfortune" - a vast wheel turned by a rather stern-looking female figure, with helpless male figures strapped on to it, and it was just turning, and turning, inevitably, and inexorably. So this is what life means, for most people, for men, and, let us say, for women too, usually, unfortunately.

Now, I've mentioned work, work in the sense of gainful employment. And it's quite a thought that we devote more time, and more energy, to work in this sense than to any other single activity in our lives. With of course one exception: sleep. And for only too many people, work is dull, repetitious, exhausting, and boring. There's no joy in it for the people who do the work, no sense of fulfilment, no feeling of creativity, and no real outlet for their energy. Some people are as it were bursting with energy but they can't put it into their work. That energy is not appropriate to that work, is not needed in that work. So there's no outlet very often for their energies. So what is the result of all this? What is the result of this sort of experience of life? The result is, the overriding effect is that people, too many of them these days, feel frustrated; they feel impotent, and they feel, deep down, very resentful. But again only too often, they're not in a position to express that resentment. The expression of resentment only too often is a luxury that the worker cannot afford. Only too often of course there's no one around anyway in the vast impersonal concerns of today, no one around to vent it on. Can't express their resentment without - and sometimes this does happen - without engaging in criminal activities, criminal violence. There's a small minority of people who sometimes ...

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