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The Taste of Freedom

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 139: The Taste of Freedom

Urgyen Sangharakshita Public lecture given in the Caxton Hall, London, on Thursday, 13th November 1980.

Mr. Chairman and Friends, And let me begin by saying that as I look around the hall tonight I really do see quite a large number of friends in the fullest sense, not simply people who belong, so to speak, to the FWBO, to our own movement, but quite a lot of people whom I know personally and have in fact known for quite a number of years in some cases. After a long interval - it is about a year since I gave a lecture - a public lecture in London - after about a year it is a very refreshing experience indeed to see gathered together so many friends.

I*m going to start, as I often do, with a question. A question that might have come to your lips at some time or other during the past few years, even the past few months, even the past few weeks, from time to time, and that question is: `What is Buddhism?' `What is Buddhism?' There have been quite a number of attempts over the years to define, to describe, this protean term. It*s been described as a code of ethics, as a system of ethics. It*s been described as an Eastern philosophy, even as a form of Eastern mysticism. It*s been described as a spiritual path. It*s been described as a tradition. By some people, at least on some occasions, it*s even been described as a religion. [Laughter] Worse still [Laughter], for the last hundred-odd years it*s been described as `Buddhism'. Until then, until about a hundred years ago, what we call nowadays `Buddhism' was known simply as `the Dharma'. Or, a little more elaborately, as `the Dharma-Vinaya' if you like, the principle and the practice. But if we go back, if we go back to the beginning, if we go back to the Buddha, we find the Buddha, the Buddha himself, gave us what is probably the best definition of Buddhism, or rather perhaps I should say the best description; and the Buddha gave it in the form of an image, that is to say in the form of a figure of speech, not in the form of a concept, not in the form of an abstract idea, not a formal definition.

The Buddha said simply that Buddhism, the Dharma-Vinaya, was an ocean. In fact he said it was a great ocean, a mighty ocean. And he is represented as describing Buddhism, describing the Dharma- Vinaya, in these terms in a Pali text called `The Udana'.

I don*t want to go into matters of detail; let*s begin in the middle. The Udana tells us that it was a full moon night and that the Buddha was seated in the open air, surrounded by a great number, surrounded by a great host, of what the text calls `bhikkhus'. The word `bhikkhu' is usually translated as `monk' or `brother' but neither translation is really very satisfactory. We could, perhaps, better translate, translate even more literally, this word `bhikkhu' as simply `partaker'. That*s what it actually means - a partaker. The Buddha was surrounded by a great number - a great host - of partakers. Partakers of what? Sharers of what? In the first place, partakers of the food of the land. They took just their share, given as alms; took just what they needed to keep them going from day to day. And partaker also of the spiritual life, sharer in the spiritual life. Sharer in it with the Buddha and with fellow - with brother - disciples. So the Buddha was seated on this occasion in the open air surrounded by a great number - a great host - of bhikkhus, of partakers. And the text tells us that they sat there silently together - not just for one hour - not just for two hours, as we might, but all night. And they didn*t say a word. They didn*t fidget. They didn*t even blow their noses. We could say that they meditated together, but perhaps by the time you*ve reached that stage you don*t even need to meditate. You just sit there, sit there all night. And further, the text says that towards dawn, just as day was about to break, a certain incident, into the details of which I*m not going to enter, a certain incident occurred, and as a result of this incident the Buddha gave a description of the Dharma-Vinaya in terms of the great ocean.

He said, addressing the partakers around him, that there were eight strange and wonderful things about the great ocean. First he said, that the great ocean flows down, it slides down, tends downwards, gradually. He said that there*s no abrupt precipice as you make the transition from the land to the sea.

The great ocean, he said, gets gradually deeper, little by little. Similarly, he said, in the Dharma- Vinaya, in his principle and practice, the training - the path - the course - the procedure - is gradual, little by little. There*s no abrupt penetration of knowledge, he said. We could say, bearing in mind a lecture I gave some time ago, that the path is a path of regular steps.

Second, the Buddha said that the great ocean is of a stable nature. It does not over-pass its boundary.

Similarly, he said, even at the cost of life itself, the Buddha*s disciples do not transgress the path of training he has laid down. In other words, in more familiar terms perhaps, they are committed; fully, wholly, totally, committed to the Dharma-Vinaya.

Lecture 138: The Taste of Freedom Page 1 Third, the great ocean, he said, rejects a dead body. If a dead body is cast into the great ocean, the ocean throws it up on to the shore. In the same way the Sangha, or spiritual community of The Buddha*s disciples, rejects someone who is not really, who is not truly, leading the spiritual life.

Even, he said, if he is seated in the midst of the Sangha, he is far from the Sangha, and the Sangha is far from him. In more contemporary terms we may say that there can be no nominal membership of the spiritual community. You can*t be an honorary member of the spiritual community. Sooner or later a merely nominal member will have to, inverted commas, `leave'. He*ll find himself literally outside.

Four, when the rivers reach the great ocean, the Buddha said, they lose their former names and lineages. From then on they*re not called Ganges, and so on, they*re called simply `Great Ocean'.

They become part - their waters become part - of the Great Ocean. In the same way, those who go forth from home to the homeless life, in or under the Dharma-Vinaya proclaimed by the Buddha, lose their former names and their former lineages, and they are called in the words of the Pali text itself `ascetics, samanas who are sons, who are daughters, of the Sakyan', that is to say who are disciples, followers, of the Buddha. They become part of the spiritual community. They become, so to speak, merged with the spiritual community, but without losing their individual identity, their spiritual identity. The Buddha, of course, spoke in terms of caste identity, that*s the identity that you lose. He spoke in terms of losing one*s name, losing one*s lineage as Noble or Brahmin or Merchant or Serf, upon Going Forth. The Noble, the Brahmin, the Merchant and the Serf were of course the four main castes, hereditary castes, of the Buddha*s day, and we can extend that; we can amplify that, we can speak in terms of losing our national identity. Because in the spiritual community there*s no question of national identity, there*s no question of being English, or Irish, or Scottish, or Welsh, no question of being British, or American, or Indian, or Australian, or Finnish, or Dutch. In the spiritual community one is simply an individual, a true individual. One is simply a spiritually committed human being, relating as such to other spiritually committed human beings.

Fifth, whatever streams fall into the great ocean, whatever rains fall, the great ocean remains the same.

There*s no shrinkage or overflow in the great ocean. This may not be quite literally true, of course, because in the Buddha*s day, people did not, it seems, know anything about polar ice-caps. However, that doesn*t really matter. We*re concerned with what the simile, what the comparison, is meant to illustrate. We*re not concerned so much with the factual accuracy of the details of the simile. So let us say, let us assume, that the great ocean remains the same. In the same way Nirvana remains the same.

However many partakers attain Nirvana, whether few or many, Nirvana remains the same. However many may, so to speak, disappear into it, Nirvana does not shrink, does not overflow. It remains the same.

Sixth, the great ocean, the Buddha said, has one taste - the taste of salt. It has a saline taste throughout. And similarly the Dharma-Vinaya, His principle-cum-practice, has one taste, the taste of Release, the taste of Emancipation, the taste of Freedom.

Seventh, the great ocean contains all sorts of gems. Or, as the English poet Gray puts it: Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear.

Similarly, the Dharma-Vinaya of the Buddha contains all sorts of precious gems of spiritual teachings, contains such spiritual teachings as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Five Spiritual Faculties, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Eightfold Path, and so on.

And, eighthly and lastly, the great ocean, the Buddha said, is the abode of great creatures, even the abode of monsters. The Buddha, or at least the Pali text, at least the Udana, is a little uncertain about marine biology here. Evidently the Buddha - or the Udana - means creatures like sharks and whales, besides more mythological creatures. But similarly, the Buddha goes on to say, the Dharma-Vinaya is the abode of great creatures, it*s the abode of Stream Entrants, of Once-Returners, of Non-Returners, Arhants. And we could add, though the text does not go on in this way, we ...

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