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The Transcendental Critique of Religion

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 146: The Transcendental Critique of Religion

Mr Chairman and Friends.

What is it that as individuals we need more than anything else in life, that is to say once such basic needs as food, clothing, shelter and leisure have been met, have been satisfied. We need freedom, freedom, and it is not difficult I think to see why this is so. The real meaning of human life; as I think we gathered by this time, the real meaning of human life is to be found in growth, in development. Development that is to say of self-awareness, of emotional positivity, of responsibility for oneself and for others, and also development of creativity. In other words, it consists in the development of all our more distinctively human qualities and characteristics. It means, we may say, the development of - or development into - higher and higher levels of being and consciousness. But we cannot grow unless we have the space in which to grow, both literally and also metaphorically. We cannot develop unless we have the room in which to develop. In a word we need freedom. We need freedom from all that restricts and confines us - not only outside us but also even inside us. We need freedom from our own conditioning, need even freedom from our own old self. Now, what is it that helps us or is usually considered to help us to be free, to become free - apart that is to say from our own personal efforts. What helps us to become free, what is considered at least to help us to become free, what is considered at least to help us to become free is what is usually called - not a very satisfactory term admittedly as we shall see later on - what is usually called 'Religion'.

Religion is concerned with freedom, concerned with the freedom of the individual, concerned with the freedom of the individual to grow, to develop. And in the course of our first talk - as I think most of you remember - we saw that an alternative title of our sutra, The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, was 'The Achintya Vimoksa' or the Inconceivable Emancipation which we could also translate as liberation or freedom. We saw in fact in the course of that first talk that 'Vimoksa' - emancipation, liberation, freedom - was one of a group of terms that was very important in and for early Buddhism, very prominent in and for early Buddhism. We saw - just briefly reminding you - that in addition to 'Vimoksa' or 'vimokkha' which is the Pali form of the word - we have terms like 'mutti' and 'vimutti', as well as 'mokkha', and they've all got the same general sense, that is to say they all signify, they all connote emancipation, freedom. And we further saw this sort of experience - the experience of spiritual emancipation is very, very important for early Buddhism.

In fact, we saw that it is what the Buddha's teaching is really all about. We saw, that in a well known passage, the Buddha himself says 'Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt; so my teaching has one taste, one flavour, the taste, the flavour of emancipation: 'Vimutti'. So the goal of the spiritual life is envisaged in early Buddhism, in fact in Buddhism generally, in terms of emancipation; emancipation from craving, from hatred, delusion; emancipation from everything that conditions, confines and distorts our own deeper sources of creativity, our own creative impulse. It's the emancipation of ourselves , we may say, from all that prevents us from becoming even Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; emancipation from all that stands in the way of our growth. And in that first talk, in the course of that first talk, I went on to illustrate in some detail the importance of the conception of emancipation in Buddhism - there is no need to recapitulate all that here. It's sufficiently clear that, so far as Buddhism is concerned, Religion is what helps us to become free.

Now I have spoken so far only about Buddhism. But if we were to ask the followers of any other religions, where they stand, where those other religions stand in that respect, they will surely say they too helped the individual to become free; that is to say if we ask the followers of what I've called the universal religions. The Christian if you ask him that sort of question, might quote from the Bible, from the New Testament, might quote the words 'You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free'. But now let us ask another question. What is it that hinders us from becoming free, actually becoming free? - apart from that is to say our own sloth and torpor, laziness, neglect, forgetfulness and so on? Well, what hinders us from becoming free is religion.

So here we encounter a gigantic contradiction; we encounter a gigantic paradox. Religion which is supposed to help us to become spiritually free in fact only too often helps to keep us enslaved.

In fact only too often religion adds to our existing state of slavery; so much indeed is this the case that, to quite a lot of people, the idea, the very idea that religion helps us to become free sounds quite absurd, because they just can't associate religion and freedom at all, and for this reason quite a lot of people feel at least a little uncomfortable using - in a sense being obliged to use - this word religion at all. In fact I must confess that I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable using it myself but so far I haven't succeeded in finding any term to replace it, but I'm working on it.

So, why is it that we find it so difficult to associate religion and freedom - we in the West that is, I should hasten to add. It is not perhaps so much because of what religion is in principle, it's because of what we find when we look at it as a concrete historical fact, a concrete historical phenomenon; especially when we look back at the record of Christianity over the last 1,900 Years or perhaps I should be a wee bit generous and say, last 1,600 years. That is to say back to the time when Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire. It's fairly obvious that it isn't possible for us to develop as individuals unless we are free at least to think for ourselves.

But organised Christianity has hardly ever allowed the individual that freedom; certainly none of the major churches has ever allowed it. People in the past, in the West in all Christian lands had to think as the Church thought; they had to tow the theological line or else. I need hardly remind you that even today what the Church calls blasphemy is still a criminal offence in this country. Not only that, organised Christianity not only refused to allow the individual to think for himself, it obliged him to think in a way that was actually detrimental, actually inimical to his own personal development, obliged his to think of himself as a miserable sinner, obliged him to think of himself as weak and powerless; obliged him to think of such things as independence and initiative as wrong, if not positively sinful. And again I hardly need remind you that many of us suffered as individuals from the effect of this sort of teaching.

Now, what went wrong? How was it that religion that is meant to help us become free should in fact more often than not do the exact opposite? How is it that religion should help actually to enslave us? It's because it has been forgotten that religion is a means to an end - that end being the development of the individual. Religion has become an end in itself. The forms which religion takes have become ends in themselves; doctrines have become ends in themselves; institutions have become ends in themselves and rules have become ends in themselves So what are we to do in a situation of this sort. The individual needs to grow. To be an individual means in fact to grow.

The individual needs to become free; the individual needs something that will help him grow, help him become free. So, alright let us agree to call that thing 'religion' but how are we to make sure that religion does not become the means or a means of enslaving the individual, or stultifying the individual, even of crushing the individual? We need something that will constantly remind us of the limitations of religion, we need something that will constantly remind us that religion is only a means to an end. That end being, as I've said, the development of the individual. The individual's means of development from a state of unenlightened to a state of enlightened humanity; from mundane consciousness to transcendental consciousness. In other words we need what I have called 'the transcendental critique of religion'. And we find such a critique in The Vimalakirti Nirdesa; we find it in chapters three and four. And in Thurman's translation these chapters are entitled: "The disciple's reluctance to visit Vimalakirti and the Bodhisattva's reluctance".

You may recall from the last talk that Vimalakirti is sick and he's sick out of skilful means, sick out of great compassion, and many people come to visit him, come to enquire after his health; they are all laymen and he teaches them. So far we saw in greater detail last week.

Now, at the beginning of chapter three, we find Vimalakirti at home, in his own room lying on his bed and, as he lies there, a thought passes through his mind. or perhaps we should say, he allows a thought to pass through his mind because after all, he's a very advanced Bodhisattva you may recollect. And what is that thought; the thought is 'I am sick, lying on my bed in pain; yet the Tathagata, the saint, the perfectly accomplished Buddha does not consider me or take pity upon me and sends no one to enquire after my illness.' Now where was the Buddha all this time; the Buddha was staying in Amrapali's garden on the outskirts of the city of Vaisali and he was teaching the great assembly of Arahats, Bodhisattvas and others. And the Buddha, even as he was sitting there, even as he was teaching, he knew the thought that was passing ...

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