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The Growth of a Mahayana Sutra

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 123: The Growth of a Mahayana Sutra - Page 1 __________________________________________________________________________________________________ Lecture 123: The Growth of a Mahayana Sutra

Mr Chairman and Friends, Most of us who are here think at least from time to time of the spiritual life. We think about the spiritual life in various ways, in various terms. And usually I think - most often, I think - we think of the spiritual life in terms of development. We think of it in terms of growth. We think of it in terms of opening, as it were, even as a flower opens. And this is perhaps, for many of us at least, the best and most appropriate and most helpful way of thinking of the spiritual life, in terms of development, in terms of growth. This is perhaps the way in which we've come to think of it in the course possibly even of a number of years.

But we can think of the spiritual life in other ways. We can think of it in other terms. We can think of it, for example, in terms of transformation. Not just transformation in the verbal, the literal sense. Not just transformation in the sense of a change of form, but in terms of something much more radical, something much more fundamental, something much more thoroughgoing than that. We can think of it in terms of a change even of consciousness, a change of being, a change that affects us from the bottom to the top, as it were, of our individuality. We can think of it as a change from a lower to a higher state, think of it in terms of a transition from what is worldly to what is spiritual, from what is mundane to what is transcendental. We can think of it in these terms, think of it in terms of transformation. And many of us surely today feel the need for this kind of change, this very thorough, very radical profound change amounting to a transformation.

Many of us even, if we were honest with ourselves, if we were to allow ourselves to think and to feel at all deeply, would have to admit that we wanted even to die, wanted to be reborn. Not die, at least not die necessarily in the flesh, but to die spiritually. To die as it were in the depths of our being so that we could be reborn also in the depths of our being, even in something more, something greater, than the depths of our being, and be reborn spiritually. Many of us feel the need for this kind of change, for this kind of transformation. Perhaps even we would go so far as to say that we were tired of the old self. We're tired, not to say fed up with ourselves as we are, as we have been, for such a very long time, perhaps for years upon years. So we're tired of this old self, we want a change from this old self. We would like if possible even to discard that old self, just to leave it behind. We feel the need sometimes for an entirely new, shining as it were, pristine self. Of course I am speaking in terms of self - one mustn't take it too literally.

The self that one wants, of course, the new self that one wants, this shining pristine self, is a self that in Buddhist terms at least is not a self. We'd like to emerge if we possibly could just like a butterfly from the chrysalis of all our old conditions. We'd like to enjoy an entirely new life, we'd like to enjoy a life of greater freedom, of greater happiness, greater joy, greater awareness, greater spontaneity than we at present experience. So we want to be transformed.

And not only that, we're not only very often tired of the old self, tired of ourselves as we are and as we have been. We are tired of the old world as well. And we want a new world, a world that doesn't hinder us in our development, our spiritual development, at every step. A world that is more conducive to spiritual development. More conducive to the whole process of the transformation of self. So this means that also very often we're tired of the old culture, we're tired of the old civilisation which surrounds us, the civilisation which only too often attaches such an exaggerated importance to material things. Sometimes too we're tired of the old arts, tired of all those arts which express perhaps the sick mind and the diseased imagination. And also we're tired of the old social, political and economic arrangements of various kinds which in some countries at least hardly allow one to lead a decent human life - not to speak even of a spiritual life. So in this sort of mood, feeling in this sort of way, we want everything to be changed. We want everything to be made new, want even the world to be transformed.

So this transformation, this kind of transformation, this transformation of the self and of the world is the basic concern of the spiritual life properly understood. And as perhaps you've been able to understand from the few introductory words spoken by the Chairman, Lokamitra, it's also the basic concern of the Western Buddhist Order and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. It's the basic concern, in fact, of Buddhism itself. And it's this transformation, this same transformation, that we are concerned with in the Sutra of Golden Light. The Golden Light is the light that transforms, the light that transforms the self, that transforms the world.

And this light, this golden light, this light that transforms both self and world, is a spiritual light. We may even say more than a spiritual light, a transcendental light - not transcendental in its more fashionable Lecture 123: The Growth of a Mahayana Sutra - Page 2 __________________________________________________________________________________________________ modern sense, but transcendental in the traditional Buddhist sense of lokottara, that which is beyond the world, beyond the mundane, beyond the conditioned. And being transcendental in this way, being beyond, being beyond the world, beyond the mundane, beyond the conditioned, it is a light which we may say is without beginning and without end. A light which does not shine forth from anything, from anywhere, from any particular direction, any particular place, though it may appear to do so or even be spoken of as doing so. It is, we may say, the light of truth, the light of Reality, the light of the Buddha - or rather, that light is the light which is the Truth, which is Reality, which is the Buddha. And it is to this light that we shall in effect be exposing ourselves in the course of the next eight weeks as we go through the Sutra of Golden Light.

So, what is this Sutra of Golden Light or, as it is sometimes known, the Sutra of Supreme Golden Light? What is it? Briefly, in just a very few words, it's one of the Buddhist scriptures. It's a very popular scripture, a scripture that has been and still is very popular in China, in Japan, in Tibet, in Nepal. And speaking a little technically it's what is known as a Mahayana Sutra. So when we say that it's not only a Buddhist scripture, but that it is a Mahayana Sutra, this at once raises two further questions - that is to say, `What is the Mahayana?' and `What is a Sutra?' So first of all, what is the Mahayana? The word itself, which is Sanskrit, means literally `the Great Way', or the `Great Vehicle'. And the Mahayana, the Great Way or the Great Vehicle, is one of the three major historical forms of Buddhism, especially of Indian Buddhism. And it's important to understand it isn't a particular sect or a particular school. It's much more like a broad general spiritual movement affecting all aspects of the religious, the artistic and even the social life. It's a movement, we may say, of spiritual renewal and of spiritual revival, we could even say a movement of reaction against a narrow interpretation of the letter of the Buddha's Teaching. We could say that the Mahayana represents a return to the spirit of the Buddha's teaching. But at the same time the Mahayana is not simply, not merely a movement of reaction. The Mahayana, the Great Way, the Great Vehicle, possesses a positive spiritual character of its own that transcends the immediate historical context. And this character can best be described as universal.

The Great Way, the Great Vehicle is universal. Lama Anagarika Govinda, of whom I'm sure many of you have heard, indeed speaks of the Mahayana in these sort of terms. He speaks of the universal perspective of the Mahayana, the universal perspective, which is a very good expression for it indeed.

Now I've said that the Mahayana means Great Way or Great Vehicle. And it's so called because it is a Way or a Vehicle for a great number of people, a large number of people, in fact for all sentient beings. It's a way to Enlightenment for a great number of people. It's a vehicle to carry them to the state of Nirvana. And for this reason the Mahayana stresses the Ideal of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is one who is bent on Enlightenment (that's the literal meaning of the term), one who is self-dedicated to the highest spiritual real isation. But he's bent on it, he's dedicated to it, not for his own sake only but for the sake, for the benefit, of all sentient beings, all living beings. And such a Bodhisattva therefore makes in the Mahayana four great vows expressive of his dedication and determination. He vows: "However innumerable beings are, I vow to deliver them.

However inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them.

However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to master them.

However incomparable the Buddha's Truth is, I vow to attain it." Now I've spoken of the Bodhisattva, and the Bodhisattva is spoken of traditionally in the scriptures and so on, as a person. But if we look at the Bodhisattva closely, or if we try to look at the Bodhisattva closely, if we try to get some idea, some real feeling of what the Bodhisattva is like, we shall soon realise that the Bodhisattva is not really a person literally at all. A Bodhisattva is much more like a sort of suprapersonal ...

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