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Western Buddhists and Eastern Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 141: Western Buddhists and Eastern Buddhism

Urgyen Sangharakshita Mr Chairman and Friends, In the course of these three talks we*re looking, as you*ve just heard, at a new spiritual movement. We*re looking in fact at a new Buddhist movement, a movement of comparatively recent origin, a movement called the FWBO; or to give it its full title the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. And in the course of these three talks spread over these three weeks we*re Just trying to understand the general nature of that movement. And we*re trying to understand the nature of that movement through, or with the help of, an understanding of the meaning of the name `Friends of the Western Buddhist Order' itself. And last week we tried to understand, we tried to explore, in what sense this movement, this new spiritual movement is Western. Because it's called the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. And we saw that it's called the Western Buddhist Order not just because it happened to arise in the geographical West, not just because it started in London, but because it arose under the conditions of modern Western civilisation; a civilisation which is in fact nowadays virtually worldwide; a civilisation in which unfortunately - unfortunately for us - there has arisen a serious imbalance between the individual and the group. And the title of last week*s talk was therefore `The Individual and The World Today'. And in the course of that talk we saw very briefly that nowadays the individual, the individual as such, is very much threatened by the group. And we saw that the balance between the individual and the group, the group and the individual, needs to be restored. And we further saw that Buddhism could help us, the teaching of the Buddha could help us to do this, to restore that balance; to give the individual in the modern world, in the Western world, more of his due. And we saw that Buddhism could help us to do this because Buddhism recognises the value of the individual; recognises the value of each individual, and places in fact the individual in the very forefront of its teaching. We saw that Buddhism essentially is concerned really with nothing but the individual, the individual human being, the individual man and woman and his or her development as an individual. And we further saw that unfortunately Christianity, the traditional religion of the West, could not help us very much in this direction, because Christianity as it has developed in the West over the centuries is very much on the side of the group, and has little or no respect for the individual. And in any case in Christianity, as in all theistic religions, the individual is overshadowed by God, by this tremendous omnipresent - if you like oppressive - personality of God, and feels even crushed by that. So this is what very briefly we saw last week.

Next week we shall be dealing with the meaning of 'Friends` in Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, and the meaning also of `Order'. We*ll be trying to see in what sense our new movement is a movement of Friends; in what sense it is an Order. And in this connection next week we*ll be dealing with the question of `Commitment and Spiritual Community'. Tonight we*re trying to understand in what sense our new movement, our new spiritual movement, is specifically a Buddhist movement. But before I do that, before I go into tonight*s subject proper, I*d like to try to clear up two possible misunderstandings that might have arisen out of, or as a result of, last week*s talk.

The first possible misunderstanding is in connection with the individual. I spoke, as you may remember, of our being an individual - spoke even of being a true individual - of developing as an individual. But when I spoke in terms of the individual, when I spoke in terms of being an individual, I did not mean by that, being an individualist.

So the question that arises, the question on which I*d like to spend just a few minutes, is what is the difference between being an individual and being an individualist. This is quite important, in a way it*s quite crucial. An individual is one who has developed a higher degree, a higher level, of consciousness - at least what we call `reflexive' consciousness. The individualist on the other hand still shares, so to speak, the consciousness of the group. In other words the consciousness, the level of consciousness which manifests in all members of the group. But the individualist has in a manner of speaking a larger share of this group consciousness than other members of that group. And the individualist therefore asserts his or her own interests at the expense of those of the group. In other words at the expense of other what I called last week `statistical' individuals. The individual, therefore, is alienated from the group in what we may call a vertical direction; whereas the individualist is alienated from the group, so to speak, horizontally. The individualist is a sort of fragment of the group broken off from the group and reacting - even rebelling - against the group. The individualist, we may say, is a sort of one-man group. Really it*s a contradiction in terms, like a one-man band. But that's really what the individualist is. He*s a one-man group. Or if you like, the group writ small. The individual on the other hand has passed or begun to pass beyond the group, which means beyond the group consciousness; he*s no longer limited by the group consciousness.

So much for that possible misunderstanding. The second possible misunderstanding relates to the traditional Buddhist teaching of `anatta' or `anatman' which some of you in the course of your explorations of Buddhism might have come across. `Anatta' or `anatman' literally means `no-self', or even `non-self' depending on the translation you prefer. And it's said, if you read any sort of textbook of Buddhism, it's said that Buddhism recognises - as I*ve been insisting - the value of the individual; that it places the individual in the forefront of its teaching. But it might be objected that this, to say this, contradicts the teaching of `no-self' or `not-self'. It might be said that this teaching of `anatta' or `anatman' denies the very existence of the self; denies the existence of the individual; treats it as an illusion. So what happens then to the individual and the development of the individual? The difficulty, we may say, is more apparent than real. Because the `anatta' teaching or the `anatma' teaching does not really deny the existence of the self. The Buddha in fact denies that he says that the self does not exist. He says this specifically. What the `anatma' teaching or the `anatta' teaching does deny is that there is an unchanging self. And it does this for two reasons. It denies that there is an unchanging self, with the emphasis on the unchanging, because an unchanging self would contradict Buddhism*s basic teaching of the impermanence - which means the changeful nature - of all conditioned things. And secondly, because if the self was unchanging, the development of the self, the development of the individual, would be impossible. And this would make the spiritual life itself impossible, and Buddhism itself impossible too.

So, what I said in last week*s talk does not therefore contradict the teaching of `anatta'. But we must be careful not to think that because development is possible that there is an unchanging individual who develops. We may say that the subject of the verb `develop' is in reality a linguistic fiction.

But now let*s go back to the meaning of `Buddhist'. In what sense is the Western Buddhist Order a Buddhist movement? In what sense is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order a Buddhist Movement? Well, very clearly it depends on what we mean by Buddhist; and that depends upon what we mean by Buddhism. And there are so many different versions of Buddhism; there are so many different interpretations. In fact the word `Buddhism' itself represents an interpretation. Buddhism was not originally called Buddhism. It was certainly never called Buddhism in India. It was certainly never called Buddhism by the Buddha. It was called the `Dharma' in Sanskrit, or `Dhamma' in Pali. And the word `Dharma' or `Dhamma' means Reality. It means Truth, it means Law; it means Doctrine, it means Teaching. Or, one may say, it represents Reality, or Truth as communicated in the form of a teaching from the enlightened to the unenlightened mind. And the originator of this `Dharma', this - so to speak - vision of Reality as a teaching is of course the Buddha, Gautama the Buddha. He communicates to his disciples, to his followers, Reality, a truth which he has personally experienced; the experience of which constitutes his enlightenment. And therefore the Buddha is the spokesman, in fact the best spokesman, for the Dharma; the best interpreter of, so to speak, Buddhism.

So what does the Buddha say that the Dharma is? What does the Buddha say that Buddhism is? And here, in this connection, we can refer to an episode in the Pali scriptures. The Buddha himself was asked this very question. He was asked What is your Dharma? What is your teaching? And he was asked by somebody called the Mahaprajapati-Gotami, and she - as perhaps some of you know - was the aunt and also the foster-mother of the Buddha himself who brought him up as a child after the death of his own mother, which happened when he was only a few days old. And subsequently Mahaprajapati Gotami, the Buddha*s aunt and foster-mother, had become a follower of his teaching. She*d not only become a follower of his teaching but she'd Gone Forth, as we say, after hearing his teaching from his own lips; she was so much impressed by it ...

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