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Building the Buddha Land

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 144: Building the Buddha Land

Mr Chairman and Friends, Last week as I expect most of you remember, we started experiencing for ourselves, something of what I called 'The Magic of a Mahayana Sutra'. The Sutra in question being of course, the text known as The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, or 'Teaching of Vimalakirti', the sage of Vaisali.

And this week we take up the first of our themes drawn from that extraordinary work, The Vimalakirti Nirdesa. We're considering this week the topic of 'Building the Buddha Land', and we're going to consider it quite systematically, going to consider it I hope, fairly thoroughly, under five main headings: First of all, what is the Buddha Land? I'm sure you'd all like to know.

Two. Who builds it? Three. Why does he build it? Four. With what does he build it? And Fifthly, and lastly, this is of course very important - How does he build it? It's pretty obvious that these five questions overlap to some extent, in fact to a considerable extent, and therefore the answers to these questions also will overlap to some extent. That I think is inevitable, and in any case we may say quite categorically, that in the spiritual life of the individual, there can be no question of hard and fast divisions and separations anyway.

But before considering this evening's topic of building the Buddha Land under these five headings, I want to go back just a little bit. I want to provide just a little bit of background information if you like, especially for the benefit of those who weren't here last week. 'Building the Buddha Land' is a theme, as I've said, taken from The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, and it's taken from the first chapter of that work, which is entitled 'Purification of the Buddha Field'. And we're going to consider it within that specific context, and this will involve acquainting ourselves with certain crucial passages in that first chapter of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa.

Before doing that however, I want to say just a few words, again for the benefit of those who weren't here last week, a few words about the expression 'a Mahayana Sutra'. The Mahayana, as I think most of you by this time appreciate, is the particular historical and doctrinal form of Buddhism. The word means literally 'great way' or 'great vehicle', and it's that form of Buddhism, which sets, we may say, no limit, no limit whatever, to the spiritual potential of the individual, the individual's potential for spiritual development. It's that form of Buddhism which encourages all living beings to aim at the highest conceivable - in fact, as we saw last week - the highest inconceivable goal of the spiritual life - in other words at what is traditionally known as 'supreme perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all'. And one who aims at 'supreme perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all' is of course known as a Bodhisattva.

A Sutra is a particular type of Buddhist canonical text. It's not primarily a literary document - rather it's a literary record, not to say, a literary recension of a previously existing oral tradition. Very broadly speaking, a Mahayana Sutra is a Sutra in which the Buddha, Shakyamuni, Gautama the Buddha, is represented as teaching, directly or indirectly, the Bodhisattva Ideal, or the ideal of supreme perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. So The Vimalakirti Nirdesa is a Mahayana Sutra, though not quite in the usual sense. It might in fact be helpful if we were to regard The Vimalakirti Nirdesa simply as a work of sublime spiritual imagination, without perhaps attaching to it that suggestion of authoritativeness, which the word 'Sutra' perhaps conveys.

So back to Chapter 1 of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa. As we saw last week, the scene opens in Amrapali's Park, in Amrapali's garden, in the garden which Amrapali, the erstwhile courtesan had donated to the Buddha and his disciples, towards the end of her life, the park, the garden, on the outskirts of the city of Vaisali. And the Buddha was staying there with a great assembly, a great concourse of his disciples. The text tells us that there were 8,000 monks, all in their yellow robes, all shaven headed, presumably all with their begging bowls ready, all of whom were Arahants, that is to say, they'd all gained individual enlightenment, all 8,000 of them. In traditional Buddhist art, the Arahant is usually represented as a wrinkled old man, in fact an old man bowed down with age, and sometimes even with a staff. There were also 32,000 Bodhisattvas, in addition to the 8,000 monks who were Arahants. 32,000 Bodhisattvas, and the Bodhisattvas are usually represented in traditional Buddhist art as beautiful young princes, 16 years of age. The text mentions 56 Bodhisattvas by name, and among them we have Ratnakuta, and Ratnapani, and Devaraja, and Ratanapriya, and Indarajala, Avalokitesvara, Mahastamaprapda, Manjusri, and Maitreya. These are just some of the 56 names which are actually mentioned of Bodhisattvas present.

And in addition there are 10,000 Brahmas, Brahmas being a very elevated kind of god indeed. And also, 12,000 Shakras or Indras who are gods ruling over heavens of the 33 gods, as well as all sorts of other powerful god - I'm not going to enumerate them - all sorts of gods, and what we would regard as mythological beings almost in some cases, mythological beasts, as well as ordinary monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. So that the Buddha, the text says, was surrounded and venerated by many hundreds of thousands of living beings.

And the Buddha sat on the majestic Lion throne, in the midst of the assembly, teaching the Dharma. As the text says, "Dominating all the multitudes, just as Sumeru, the king of mountains, looms high over the oceans, the Lord Buddha shone, radiated and glittered as he sat upon his magnificent lion throne." So that's the opening scene; that's the setting as it were. And then the text goes on to say that at this point, when the Buddha was seated there, in the midst of this wonderful assembly of Arahants and Bodhisattvas and so on, teaching or ready to teach the Dharma, at this point the Bodhisattva Ratnakara arrives from Vaisali, from the city of Vaisali, just a mile or two distant. Ratnakara by the way means 'mine of jewels' in the sense of mine of precious qualities. And Ratnakara the Bodhisattva did not come alone. He came accompanied by no less than 500 Licchavi youths, - the Licchavis being a tribe of people whose capital was Vaisali - accompanied by 500 Licchavi youths, and it must have been quite a wonderful sight, quite a marvellous sight, because each of these youths, according to the text, is holding a parasol - a parasol formed of the seven jewels; so just imagine it if you can. And all of them as they arrive, or upon their arrival, all 500 of them plus Ratnakara, they salute the Buddha, and carrying their 500 precious parasols, they circumambulate the Buddha, that is to say they march round him 7 times, keeping him all the time on their right as a mark of respect. This is one of the ancient Indian ways of showing respect - you often find it mentioned in Buddhist texts, that they circumambulated the Buddha or the Stupa, or whatever, that is to say, they went round it, and round it, 3 times, or 7 times, or 9 times, keeping it on their right.

So this is what they did on this occasion - they circumambulate the Buddha 7 times, and then, having done that, they offer their parasols to the Buddha. And the text says that by his magical power, the Buddha transforms all of those parasols, all 500 of them, into a single precious canopy, and this canopy we're told, is so enormous in size that it covers the entire billion world galaxy, and the entire contents, we are further told, of the billion world galaxy reflected in the interior of the canopy so that you can see them all just as you look up into it you see their limitless suns, moons and stars, limitless heavenly realms, limitless mount Sumerus, limitless oceans and rivers, limitless villages and cities, limitless people, and limitless Buddhas teaching the Dharma. And the sound of the voices of all these Buddhas can be distinctly heard echoing in the interior of the canopy. So not unnaturally, the assembly is astonished and delighted at this extraordinary vision, and they all bow down before the Buddha.

And then the Bodhisattva Ratnakara praises the Buddha in a beautiful, well we can only call it in English, a hymn: it's a 'praising' a stuti, and this hymn is not unnaturally, intensely devotional, full of great devotional feeling towards the Buddha, full of reverence, full of admiration, full of joy, but at the same time, and this is one of the extraordinary features of these Mahayana hymns, in fact we may say of the Mahayana generally, at the same time it is profoundly philosophical in content. The devotion does not exclude the philosophy, the as it were intellectual element. The intellectual element does not exclude the feeling, the devotion. And there's one particular verse which is especially philosophical, and this verse summarizes we may say, some of the insights that we were talking about last week in our first talk.

Ratnakara says in the verse, "All these things arise dependently from causes, yet they are neither existent, nor non-existent; therein is neither ego, nor experience, not doer, yet no action, good or evil, loses its effects; such is your teaching", he says, addressing the Buddha. And then, having praised the Buddha in this long and beautiful, this devotional but at the same time philosophical hymn, Ratnakara asks the Buddha a question, and he asks it on behalf of the 500 young Licchavis, those 500 Licchavi youths who've accompanied him. And these young Licchavis by the way, the text tells us, have set themselves on the path to supreme perfect enlightenment, ...

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