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The Transcendental Critique of Religion

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by Sangharakshita

... a large white ambulance, to a mental hospital); the son who is an artist destroys all his paintings; the maid servant becomes a nun and works miracles. In the last scene the father is shown walking through a crowded railway station slowly taking off all his clothes! The critics I remember had quite a gala discussing the meaning of this film, especially what the young man represented. Some said that he was a sort of Christ figure, others that he symbolised reality and some said that they thought he was being himself! So you can take your choice, but whatever that choice may be, there is no doubt that the impact of reality in any form has a shattering, has a devastating effect on our lives, and this is what we find is happening in the two chapters of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa. It's happening of course much more positively than it happened apparently in the film and happening on a very much higher level.

But the result is that the disciple of the Bodhisattva concerned is left dumbfounded we are told.

And Thurman - the American translator - has an interesting comment here. He says 'he' - that is to say the disciple or Bodhisattva - "is overwhelmed and speechless, yet intuitively recognised the rightness of Vimalakirti's strictures; - he can neither accept them and put them into practice nor reject them outright." So this is very significant: "He can neither accept them and put them into practice nor reject them outright." And this is perhaps very much our own experience sometimes on our own level of development. Perhaps our kalyana mitra, our good friend, our spiritual friend Lecture 145: The Transcendental Critique of Religion Page 4 tells us something; something about ourselves. Something we have not noticed before, or perhaps it's something about the Dharma. So what is our initial reaction to this new knowledge, this revelation as it were? We feel stunned; we feel stupefied. We are forced to recognise the truth of what has been said but we are quite unable to do anything about it because it takes time to adjust to the new knowledge, it takes time to get used to it; it takes time for us to start putting it into practice. So it's not surprising that the disciples and Bodhisattvas are reluctant to meet Vimalakirti, it's not surprising they are not very keen on going. It's not surprising,we may say, that the partial experience should be reluctant to experience the total experience; it is not surprising that the means to Enlightenment should be reluctant to encounter Enlightenment itself. The experience is too painful; too traumatic.

But we should be on our guard against a possible misunderstanding here. The experience may be painful, may even be traumatic but it is not a negative thing; in fact it's a highly positive thing. The purpose of Vimalakirti's strictures is not to humiliate the disciples or Bodhisattvas; he is not just putting them down as we say. His purpose, his deep, ultimate purpose is to help them to grow. His purpose is to help them to move on from their present partial experience, from their present relatively limited outlook. And I say relatively limited because after all they are Arahats and Bodhisattvas. In the same way, the purpose of the transcendental critique of religion is not to destroy religion, its purpose rather is to restore religion; to restore it to its true function - its function of being a means to an end. That means being of course always the spiritual development of the individual. All that is destroyed is religion as an end in itself.

The transcendental critique of religion is therefore essential to religion, essential to its very existence. It must accompany it all the time. It's important to understand this; it is important perhaps to understand it in detail. So let us look a little more closely at the encounters of some of the disciples and Bodhisattvas with Vimalakirti. Let us look at the encounters of the disciples Purna, Uppali, Rahula and Ananda, and the Bodhisattva Jagatimdhara Purna was teaching the Dharma when his encounter took place; he was teaching some young monks in the forest. He was apparently teaching them the Hinayana doctrine. Along came Vimalakirti and he said that Purna was teaching them wrongly; he said the monks were capable of following the Mahayana which was a higher teaching. Now, Vimalakirti was not criticising Purna simply for teaching the Hinayana instead of the Mahayana. After all as we have seen he was quite capable of exposing the limitations of the Mahayana too considered as an end in itself. He was criticising Purna for teaching the Dharma without being able to see what the actual spiritual needs of the young monks were. He was criticising him, we may say, for teaching the Dharma mechanically. He said: "Reverend Purna, first concentrate yourself, regard the minds of these young Bhikkhus and then, teach the Dharma". And again, he said: "Without examining the spiritual faculties of living beings, do not presume upon the one-sidedness of their faculties." And further on: "The disciples who do not know the thoughts and inclinations of others are not able to teach the Dharma to anyone." That's a pretty strong statement. So Vimalakirti is criticising Purna for not being in real contact with the people he is teaching, for not being in communication with them. Purna has got a fixed idea about the Dharma; he thinks apparently it is this and that particular teaching; this and that conceptual formulation, and it's this that he puts across regardless, regardless of whether it will actually help anyone to develop.

We find Eastern Buddhist teachers doing this when they come to the West. They've learned something in the East and they think all they've got to do is to repeat it in the West. They don't take the trouble to get to know people in the West. They don't bother sometimes to have any real contact with them. So they are unable to communicate - unable to communicate the Dharma. They usually don't stay long enough to get to know people anywhere. So, what Vimalakirti's criticism really means is that teaching the Dharma is a means of helping people to develop. So, one cannot therefore really teach it without being aware of people, without being aware of their spiritual needs. He is not criticising Purna of course for teaching the dharma, he is criticising him for teaching it in the wrong way; he is criticising him for regarding the teaching of the Dharma as an end in itself.

I had once or twice my own experience of this sort of thing in India; I was actually asked to teach the Dharma in the wrong way. Well you might be wondering how on earth that happened; well, Lecture 145: The Transcendental Critique of Religion Page 5 it happened in Calcutta. At one time, quite a few years ago but for several years on end, I used to give lectures in a certain Buddhist hall, in Calcutta; usually on full moon days and hundreds of people used to come - mostly Bengali Buddhists - and there would be quite a lot of noise; in fact everybody would be shouting and talking and screaming at the same time. And eventually on one occasion the noise became so bad that I complained to the head monk who happened to be from Ceylon. And I said that there was so much noise that nobody could hear what I was saying. So the head monk said: "It doesn't matter if nobody can hear what you're saying, we just want you to lecture on the Dharma." ! In other words, a lecture on the Dharma had become part of the ritual; someone just had to be seen giving it, it didn't matter if nobody could hear him; it did not matter whether anybody understood what he was saying or not; the whole thing had become quite meaningless. So in this way, I was actually asked to teach the Dharma in the wrong way. But this is a rather extreme form - I was almost going to say even for India - of the sort of thing that Vimalakirti was getting at on that particular occasion.

So now for Upali's encounter. Upali being - some of you may remember - the expert in the Vinaya or monastic law. Two monks had committed an offence, an offence against the monastic rule and they were ashamed to appear before the Buddha so they went instead to Upali and they asked him to remove their anxieties by accepting their confession and their promise not to commit the offence again; that being the regular monastic procedure. Upali then gave them what the text calls 'a religious discourse'. At this point Vimalakirti came along and the said that Upali was only making matters worse; he said: "Reverend Upali, do not aggravate further the sins of these two monks without perplexing them, relieve their remorse; reverend Upali, sin is not to be apprehended within or without or between the two; why? The Buddha has said living beings are afflicted by the passions of thought and they are purified by the purification of thought." Vimalakirti says quite a lot more of a quite metaphysical nature but this particular quote is enough for our present purpose.

Now, why does Vimalakirti say that Upali is only making matters worse; what is he getting at; what does he mean by saying that there is no such thing as sin? Let us look at the situation. The two monks have committed an offence; that is to say they've broken a rule. But why in the first place was the rule laid down? It was laid down in order to help the individual - in this case the individual monk - to develop, to evolve. So what does it mean when the two monks break the rule? It means that they failed to develop; it means that they may even have regressed. So, what should Upali be careful to do in the circumstances? What he's really got to do is to get them developing again. He should not be concerned simply with the fact that they have broken a rule because that would be treating the rule as an end in itself; he should be mainly be concerned - Vimalakirti ...

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