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A Vision of History

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 136: A Vision of History

The Venerable Sangharakshita Upasakas and Upasikas, I need hardly tell you, on this, the third day of our Convention, that there are many advantages in our coming together in the way that we are doing at present. Coming together in this way, we get to know one another better, see one another, perhaps, in slightly unexpected lights. [Laughter]. We deepen our knowledge of the Dharma, both theoretically, and practically, we strengthen our commitment, our common commitment, to the Three Jewels, we intensify our positivity. Even if we did come to the Convention trailing a few clouds, not of glory, but of gloom, they soon get dissipated. And of course, we renew our inspiration, we find, as it were, in the midst of the Convention, in the midst of the Order assembled here, a sort of perpetual fountain of inspiration rising and falling, rising and falling, ever higher and higher. And for these three days, four days it soon will be, then five, six, up to ten days, these ten glorious days, we shall be living, we are living, a purely spiritual, or almost purely spiritual, life. We live in Sukhavati, not the Bethnal Green Sukhavati, of course, but another Sukhavati, another Happy Land, a land of bliss. We live, for the time being at least, for the moment at least, in the Dharmadhatu, the Realm of the Dharma, the realm of the spiritual, even the realm of the Transcendental, where we've nothing to do except listen to the Dharma, nothing to do except talk about the Dharma, practise the Dharma, and enjoy the Dharma in silence together.

There's another advantage, too, in our coming together in this way, however infrequently it may be. Coming together in this way, we learn to see things in a wider perspective. After all, we've come together to this place from many different places, we've even come from different countries. We've come from different chapters, different local chapters of the Order. We've come from different Centres of the FWBO. We've come from different communities, both large and small, and a few of us have come from situations in which we're relatively on our own, that is to say relatively on our own as Order members. And in many cases it might be that we've been connected with our particular local chapter of the Order, or connected with our particular local centre of the FWBO, or our own community, for quite a long time, and we might not have had very much contact with other Order members, or with the rest of the Movement. And not having much contact with other Order members, or with the rest of the Movement, we might have started thinking, or feeling, at least insensibly, that our own chapter was the Order. Or that our own centre was the FWBO, or at least, very, very representative and characteristic of it. We might even have forgotten, at least sometimes, that we "belonged", inverted commas, so to speak, to something bigger than any one individual chapter, than any one individual centre or community.

We might have forgotten, at least forgotten in any real sense, that we "belonged", again inverted commas, to the Order as a whole, as a totality, belonged to the Movement. More poetically speaking, we might have forgotten that we ourselves were just one single jewel in a whole vast network of jewels, forgotten perhaps that we were a jewel which should reflect all the other jewels in the net, and be reflected in them and by them. I remember, not so very long ago, that one Order member from a very distant place so far as this place is concerned, told me that when he was in his own centre, and I won't mention any names, he felt like a big fish in a small pond. But when he came to London, he said, and stayed at Sukhavati, he felt like a small fish in a big pond.

So this is a very positive experience, a very worthwhile experience, because it means that in this way we widen our experience. But even Sukhavati, I mean the Sukhavati, big and important as it undoubtedly is, is only one community, and when we come together, on convention, like this, we widen our perspective still more. We see how many Order members there actually are in existence, or at least begin to see, because they aren't all even here on this occasion. We see how different they are from one another in so many different, almost inexhaustible, ways. And yet, they're all committed, all committed, in their different ways, from their different standpoints, their different angles, within their different contexts, situations, circumstances, all committed to 1 the Three Jewels, all committed to their own personal development, not only individually, as it were on their own, but as it were, together, as members of one single vast all-embracing spiritual community. And we must never forget that the Buddha compared the Sangha, the Order, to the great ocean. The Order is a great ocean.

The Buddha compared it with a great ocean in a number of different ways, as some of you may recollect; we've gone into this in the course of one of the study seminars. And one of his comparisons is particularly relevant, particularly apt. He says that just as the great ocean contains all kinds of marine monsters, so the Sangha contains spiritual monsters of its own, contains Arhants, Non-Returners, Once-Returners, Stream-Entrants, and so on. Now in the ocean of the Convention we may not have met so far many monsters of that kind, spiritual monsters of that kind, but we've certainly met a lot of other fish! [Laughter] From little tiddlers [Laughter] to big whales![Laughter]. But who the tiddlers are, and who the whales are, is sometimes quite difficult to tell![Laughter] But, in any case, by coming here together on convention our perspective is widened. And if ever we had thought that our own little pond was the ocean, the ocean of the Order, then that impression should surely, by this time, have been corrected.

But even coming on Convention is not enough. We have to widen our perspective still more, at least in imagination. We have to go beyond the present place, even beyond the present time. We have to so widen our perspective as to include the whole world. We have to widen it to include the whole of human history, especially the history of civilised Man, and this is what we're going to do, or attempt to do, tonight - to widen our perspective in this way. Tonight we're going to try to achieve what I call 'A Vision of History', and I use the word 'vision' advisedly, because I want to convey just a vivid, general impression, and I can't do more than that. What I'll be giving you, as it were, or trying to give you is not so much a finished picture, to change the metaphor, but just a very rough sketch, drawn in with very broad, even crude, strokes, and leaving out quite a lot of detail.

Now, speaking of history, there are many different ways of looking at history. Most people, in their rather naive, unsophisticated fashion, that is, most of us, see history, or think of history as just a plain straightforward account of what happened in the past. But historians tell us that this is really incredibly naive, history is hardly ever that.

Facts are often very difficult indeed to ascertain. Did King Alfred really burn those cakes? Nobody knows. Did King John really lose his jewels in the Wash? [Laughter] Nobody really knows. Did King Richard III really do away with those two dear little princes in the Tower? Again, nobody knows. They're still discussing the matter. And very often accepted legend takes the place of real history. And even when it is possible to ascertain the facts, even when the facts are agreed upon, there are so many different ways of interpreting them, so many different ways of looking at them, so many different, as it were, philosophies of history. For instance, one can see history in terms of biography, history as consisting of the biographies of great men. You all know the little schoolboy saying, 'Geography is about maps, but History is about chaps' [Laughter]. And there are all sorts of chaps who are called 'great men'. History is about great men, history consists of the biographies of great men, of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Ghengis Khan, Cromwell, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Hitler.[Short Pause] [Laughter] So this view of history was very popular during the Victorian period, and many people do still think of history in this way. They see a particular period of history as the lengthened shadow of some great man, usually a military conqueror.

And then, there's the Marxist view of history. Marxism sees history in economic terms, sees it in terms of class interest, even class conflict, class war. Marxism sees history as passing through four great stages, stage of theocracy, feudalism, capitalism and then communism, in accordance with who controls the means of production. And the Marxist view of history, of course, is derived from the Hegelian view of history. Hegel saw history at once more abstractly and more concretely, in terms of the progressive manifestation of what he called 'Spirit', with a capital 'S', in the world. He saw history as a process moreover, that moved from East to West. He saw it as beginning in China, in ancient China, and as reaching its culmination in America. But what would happen after that, Hegel didn't say.

2 And then there's Toynbee's view of history. Toynbee sees history as the story of the rise and fall of civilisation, or rather of civilisations, in the plural, and he enumerates more than two dozen distinct civilisations. Some of these civilisations disappeared centuries ago, after a long and glorious history, for instance, the ancient Egyptian civilisation, the monuments of which, at least the architectural monuments, still do exist. Other civilisations, for instance ...

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