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The Magic of a Mahayana Sutra

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 143: the Magic of A Mahayana Sutra

Mr Chairman, and friends. Let's imagine that someone asks us to describe our lives. Suppose we were asked by them to say what it was essentially and specifically that characterized our lives as we ordinarily live them. I wonder what sort of reply, what sort of answer most of us would give? I wonder what most of us would have to say? That is to say, those of us who are quite ordinary people, not pop stars, not politicians, and certainly not T.V. personalities. Most of us, most ordinary people would say, that our lives more often than not, are characterized, by sameness. We'd say perhaps that we seem to spend most of our time doing much the same sort of things in very much the same sort of way. Not only for weeks together, not only for months together, but even sometimes for years together, or at least, what seems like years together, just doing the same sort of things in the same sort of way.

Of course if we reflect, we know that this is not really the case. We may in literal fact wash the very same identical dishes every day of the week, but we don't wash them in exactly the same way every day. We don't wash them in exactly the same sort of mood. We don't wash them under exactly the same sort of circumstances. One day, when we're washing them at the familiar kitchen sink, there may be sunlight streaming in at the open window. But another day, if we look outside while we're washing our dishes, the day may be dark and gloomy. In the same way, one day, we may be washing our dishes after a quiet reflective, perhaps even slightly boring, meal on our own, And another day we may be washing up after a pleasant meal with some fascinating stranger. But usually, we don't find it very easy to appreciate these finer differences, as we may call them. We feel that we are in fact doing the same thing every day. We feel that our lives are characterized by sameness, or at least by a sense of sameness, which comes of course, very much to the same thing. And this is true, not only of those who lead ordinary lives in the ordinary sense, it's true even of those who are leading or trying to lead, or professing to lead what we call 'spiritual', single inverted commas, lives - that is to say, those who are trying to develop as human beings. Such people too seem to spend much of their time doing much the same sort of things in much the same sort of way, in this case too, sometimes even it seems for years together.

If we are trying to lead the spiritual life, we find only too often, that we're observing, or trying to observe, the same old precepts. Even practising the same old meditations - in the morning, it's the 'Mindfulness of Breathing'; in the evening, it's the 'Metta Bhavana', and in the same way, we recite again and again, the same old Puja. We may even attend the same old Council Meeting, or the same old Co-op meeting again and again and again. Our lives seem really characterized by sameness. But of course we know it's not really like that. At least we realize that sometimes. At least we glimpse that sometimes - it's not really like that.

We know that every time we meditate for instance, it is a completely new experience. We know that it's not even a question of every time. There's only ever just one time. Each experience is absolutely unique, and therefore unrepeatable. Every experience, from the meditation to the washing the dishes. But we don't always feel that; in fact we don't often feel that. We certainly don't always realize that. Much of the time, we just feel we're doing the same thing every day. We feel our spiritual life even is characterized by sameness, or at least by a sense of sameness. And even sometimes we have to admit , our spiritual life, our life as we try as individuals to evolve, to develop, to grow, even that, is characterized more often than not, by a sense of dullness, of flatness, of staleness, of insipidity; and it's important, it's above all important, that we should somehow get out of this feeling, this feeling of sameness, of flatness, of staleness. It's important that we should get away, completely away, from our ordinary lives, even our ordinary spiritual lives, get completely away even from our ordinary selves, even our ordinary spiritual selves, if we can use that expression. It's important that from time to time, we should take a plunge, a plunge into some other dimension, some other dimension of existence, some other dimension of experience, some other dimension of being, even a plunge into some other world, some other universe, some other system of things, at least in imagination, and at least to some extent. A plunge into a world in which all the familiar landmarks are removed. A world in which we feel that we're being turned completely upside-down. So this is what we're going to be doing I hope in the course of the present series of talks.

In the course of these next eight or nine weeks, we're going to take the plunge into the unfamiliar, into the extraordinary, even as it may sometimes seem, the bizarre, world of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, or the Teaching of Vimalakirti. We're going to experience, we're going to allow ourselves to experience - because you just have to let go a bit - we're going to allow ourselves to experience the magic of a Mahayana Sutra.

We're going to take in fact a plunge into the Inconceivable Emancipation.

But what do we mean by the Mahayana? This may be a word which is quite new to some of you, and what is a Mahayana Sutra? And more important still perhaps, what exactly to we mean by 'The Inconceivable Emancipation'? So before we actually take the plunge, just a few words of explanation will no doubt be in order, at least for some of you. The word 'Mahayana' which is an Indian word, a Sanskrit word, means simply 'the great way' or 'the great vehicle'. And it's that form of Buddhism, it represents, it covers that form of Buddhism which sets no limit, no limit whatever, to the spiritual potential of the individual. It's that form of Buddhism, which encourages all living beings without exception, to aim at the very highest conceivable goal of spiritual life: in other words what we call supreme, perfect enlightenment. And one who aims at this supreme perfect enlightenment, not for his own sake only, but for the sake, for the benefit, of all, is known as 'a Bodhisattva'. In Mahayana Buddhism therefore, all living beings without exception are encouraged to become Bodhisattvas - to grow into Bodhisattvas, by the arising of what we call the Bodhicitta - the thought of, or will to supreme enlightenment for the benefit of all. All living beings are encouraged to take, as Bodhisattvas, or would-be Bodhisattvas, the four great vows, which are: However innumerable beings are, I vow to deliver them; However inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them; However immeasurable the teachings are, I vow to master them; However incomparable the Buddha Truth is, I vow to attain it; These are certainly four magnificent, four awe-inspiring vows, but we have to understand that here, it's not so much a question of the ordinary limited self as it were, taking these vows, as though it added these vows onto itself. Rather it's a case of the ordinary self opening itself up to the forces of wisdom and compassion which these vows represent, and allowing them, allowing wisdom and compassion, to work through it.

Allowing itself to be inspired by them, by wisdom, by compassion. Now the word 'Sutra' means simply 'thread' - especially in the sense of a thread of connection. And in a specifically Buddhist context, 'Sutra' is the name of a particular type, a particular kind, of Buddhist Canonical text. In fact Sutra is the type par excellence of Buddhist Canonical texts. When we speak of the Sutras, just like that, we usually mean the Buddhist Canonical texts, we usually mean what we might call in the West, the Buddhist scriptures. Sutras usually deal with a number of different topics in a more or less connected fashion. So in English, 'Sutra' is generally rendered simply as 'scripture'. In Chinese, in ancient and classical Chinese, 'Sutra' was usually rendered as 'Ching', which meant, as we usually translate that term 'classic'. But both these terms, that is to say the term 'scripture' and the term 'classic' as representing the Chinese 'Ching' - both these renderings are a little misleading, because they both suggest that the Sutras are primarily literary documents. After all, scripture means something actually written. But this is in fact not so - the Sutras are not primarily literary documents, they are literary records of oral traditions - traditions which originally were oral. It's very well known I think, that the Buddha himself wrote nothing. He went about North-Eastern India, he met people, he spoke to people, he taught them as we say, he communicated with them, he communicated to them the Dharma, to a lesser extent, or to a greater extent - as much of it as they could bear, as much of it as they could assimilate, but he did all this orally. He didn't do it by means of the written word, he did it entirely by means of the spoken word - he communicated orally, face to face, directly, and his disciples remembered, those who came in contact with him, remembered what he had said. Sometimes it made a tremendous impression upon them, sometimes it represented a turning point in their lives, so how should they forget it, how should they not remember it? It was burned as it were into their hearts, into their minds, into their being, so they remembered. They became one with what he had said because they put it into practice; and they not only put it into practice, in due course, they themselves attracted other people, attracted as we say disciples, and they taught their disciples, they communicated orally what they had heard from the Buddha of the Dharma, and they, their disciples, ...

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