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A Method of Personal Development

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 131: A Method of Personal Development

Urgyen Sangharakshita Mr. Chairman and Friends; What we have come to know as 'Buddhism' - but which, in the countries where it has been prevalent for the last so many hundreds of years, in more often known an 'The Dharma or 'The Sasana' - has been known now, we may say, in the West; in Europe and in America; for considerably more than one hundred years, and one might have thought that, in the course of that one hundred and more years, Buddhism would have come to be, at least in some quarters, at least in some circles, tolerably well-known, but, unfortunately, we have to confess that that is by no means the case. Buddhism, even after the passage of one hundred years; even after the labours, the researches, the investigations, the expositions, of so many scholars; is still not well known.

In fact we could even go so far as to say that, far from being well-known, Buddhism is, Buddhism has become, the subject of many misunderstandings. Some people, for instance, still classify Buddhism as one of the various religions of the world. You can read all sorts of books on comparative religion and you'll find Buddhism listed there along with all the other 'isms', some of them of historical importance, others, perhaps not of any importance at all.

And similarly, one finds that for some people Buddhism is simply a sort of mysterious distant exotic oriental cult. Or even, for others again, Buddhism is a system of abstract philosophical ideas; something quite remote from ordinary life; something not touching life, not impinging on life, at any point.

Others again - and this is, or at least used to be, a very widespread misunderstanding - others again think of Buddhism as simply a code of ethics: that Buddhism tells you simply what you should do; or rather, what you should not do, that you shouldn't do this; you shouldn't do that. Buddhism appears for these people simply as a system, a list even, of ethical rules, even prohibitions.

And again - and this is something I discovered still very much in the air when I came back from India (initially some twelve or so years ago) - for many people, Buddhism is a form of asceticism. I remember in those days people used to come and see me at Hampstead, where I was staying, and they were very surprised to find that there were no high walls surrounding the building where I was staying and no barbed wire, and that everybody could enter freely and talk to whoever happened to be living there. They expected that we would be completely secluded from the world, inaccessible and remote, and not holding, in fact, any commerce with the world at all, living in a sort of perpetual solemn silence. So this was the sort of impression that prevailed; that Buddhism was something rather negative, rather repressive, something life-denying, as it were.

Leaving aside all these sort of more general misunderstandings, we can say that, for other people again, Buddhism has come to be identified with one or another of its specific forms. For instance, they encounter the Buddhism of South-East Asia; they encounter the Buddhism of Ceylon, say the Theravada, and they think this is Buddhism, ignoring all the other forms. Or they come into contact with that very, very colourful, that very rich and that very precious form of Buddhism: that is to say, Tibetan Buddhism; and they're carried away by their feelings for Lamas and thigh-bone trumpets and little drums and thangkas and all the rest of that colourful Tantric paraphernalia and they think that this is Buddhism; just this, and nothing more. And then again, some of them get wafted away by some kind of Japanese or pseudo-Japanese dream; they read the works of Dr. Suzuki, they start trying to solve koans and they think `Zen! Zen is Buddhism'. All the other schools, all the other teachings, they're just not Buddhism at all - Zen is the real thing. Zen is Buddhism! So here's a further misunderstanding. Buddhism is misunderstood in the sense that it's identified with just one or another of its specific forms; its particular cultural variants; which is rather like identifying the oak tree, the whole oak tree, with just one single branch, or even, in some cases, with one single acorn.

So in view of all these misunderstandings - and I've just touched on some of the more prominent, some of the more popular, misunderstandings - in view of all these misunderstandings we could in fact say that Buddhism is not yet really known in the West at all. Sometimes there's a great danger in being just sightly acquainted with something or someone, because then we tend to overlook the fact that we don't really know it at all. A little learning is really a very dangerous thing; it's better perhaps, in some cases, under some circumstances, not to have any such learning at all. So perhaps we have to face up to the fact that Lecture 131: A Method of Personal Development Page 1 in the West, we don't really yet know Buddhism at all. So perhaps we'd better, as it were, wipe the slate clean - wipe it clean of all our misunderstandings, all our misinterpretations - and make a completely fresh start. Perhaps that would be best. Perhaps it would be best to assume that nobody really knows anything about Buddhism, in the West, and that perhaps we do have to make - after all those years, even after a century - a completely fresh start. To take, as it were, a completely fresh, a completely new look at Buddhism. And this, we may say, is what the FWBO was founded for in 1967, and what it tries to do. It tries to take, as it were, this completely new look. It tries to make this completely fresh start. It tries to make Buddhism, after all this time, truly known in the West. It tries to lift it, we may say, out of the rut - the rut which I found it in some twelve years ago - of little groups that met here and there just once a week or so, simply to talk about Buddhism and nothing more than that. It exists, we may say, to cut the Buddha's teaching down to its absolute essentials and to make those essentials really relevant to people's lives.

So that it was for reasons such as this that the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order was founded in 1967; which is nine years ago. Nine years ago! To some of us it seems a lifetime, because we may say in the course of the last nine years quite a lot has happened. These last nine years have been very rich indeed in event and in experience. And, of course, during that time, during those nine years, the FWBO has grown steadily. And when we say it's grown steadily. we don't mean simply that Centres have multiplied; we don't mean simply that we've become better known - though these things certainly have taken place. What we mean is that more and more individuals, as individuals, have committed themselves to the realisation of the ideals for which the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order stands.

In the course of these last nine years, we may say that the FWBO has discovered quite a lot about itself.

It's not that you start off with, in all respects, a very clear-cut idea of what you're going to do; you learn what it is that you're trying to do in the process of trying to do it. So in the course of these last nine years, the FWBO has come to understand its own nature, we may say, somewhat more clearly than before; somewhat more clearly than it did - than we did - at the beginning. And in particular, in the course of these last nine years the FWBO has come to realise that it has four things to offer men and women in the West.

Four things which are of greatest possible importance to them, as individuals, or as potential individuals.

Four things that correspond, we may say, to their deepest and their truest needs.

So what are these four things? What are these four things that the FWBO has to offer? These are: First, we may say, A Method of Personal Development; Secondly, A Vision of Human Existence; Thirdly, The Nucleus of a New Society; and, Fourthly & lastly, A Blueprint for a New World. And it's with these four things that this present short series of lectures will be concerned. In other words, in the course of these four lectures, in the course of these four meetings, we shall be trying to present the concentrated essence of Buddhism in a highly practical form; a form especially suited to the needs of Western man; needs which are fast becoming the needs of the whole world.

So tonight we find ourselves concerned with the first thing that the FWBO has to offer. We are concerned with 'A Method of Personal Development'. But at once a question arises, and it may already have arisen in your minds, and the question is: What do we mean by 'a Method of Personal Development' and why should people need one? Why should they need a method of personal development and, in any case, what exactly is development? This isn't perhaps as clear as it seems at first sight. What is development? What do we mean by this term? What does the intransitive verb 'to develop' really mean? If we take the help of the dictionary, we find that 'to develop' means to unfold, gradually, just as a flower unfolds, stage by stage, petal by petal, from the bud. To develop means to evolve; it means to pass through a succession of states or stages, each of which is prefatory to the next; it means to expand by a process of growth; it means to change gradually from a lower to a higher state of being. This is what is meant by 'to develop', what is meant by 'development'. And development - as we can very quickly see; as we can very quickly recognise - is the law of life. If we study, for instance, biology, we find that the unicellular organism develops into the multi-cellular organism; we find that the invertebrate develops into the vertebrate. We find, more specifically, that plant ...

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