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History Versus Myth in Mans Quest for Meaning

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 147 : History Versus Myth in Man's Quest for Meaning Mister Chairman and Friends, As I look back over the intervening years it seems to me that the year 1957 was a particularly memorable one for me. Or rather perhaps I should say the year beginning with Wesak day 1956 and ending with Wesak day 1957 was a memorable, in fact a particularly memorable, year for me.

That was, as at least some of you will remember, a few of you will remember I hope, the year of the two thousand five hundredth Buddhajayanti to use the Indian expression. That was the year; that was the twelve month period, which Buddhist groups, Buddhist organisations, throughout the world in the East and in the West, agreed to celebrate despite their differing individual traditions, agreed to celebrate as the two thousand five hundredth anniversary of the Parinirvana, that is to say the bodily passing away of the Buddha, as well as the two thousand five hundredth anniversary of Buddhism itself. And at that time, 1956, 1957, I was of course in India. To be precise I was up in the hills within sight of Tibet at a place called Kalimpong. It was the year in which some of you may know even if you don't recollect, it was the year that 'The Survey' was published. In that year I also had the good fortune to meet the Dalai Lama a number of times. I also had my first major contact, my first really deep, also my first really extensive contact with the movement of mass conversion to Buddhism amongst the ex-Untouchables of Central and Western India, and that contact took place in Nagpur as some of you may know, following upon the unexpected, in fact the very sudden, death of Doctor B.R.Ambedkar, the leader of a very important section of the ex- Untouchables of that area. And in that same year, in that same twelve month period I also founded, established in Kalimpong the Triyana Vardhana Vihara. So in the course of that one year, that Buddhajayanti year, 1956 to 1957 quite a lot happened for me.

Quite a lot happened for some of you because that was the year, I believe, in which some of you were born! and I was kept, you can imagine, quite busy! And at one point in that year I found myself in New Delhi, in the midst of very fine weather, beautiful sunshine, brilliant blue skies; I'd been invited along with a number of other people by the Government of India, been invited in my capacity, as they were invited in their capacities, as what the Government of India was pleased to style 'A prominent Buddhist from the Border Areas'. I suppose they had some picture in their minds or some government officials had some picture in their minds of these aboriginal Buddhists turning up from the jungles of Assam and West Bengal, as in fact some of them did! There were I recollect altogether 57 of us. We were a very motley bunch in all sorts of shades of red and orange and yellow and there were a few even in white edged with pink, pink piping, whatever that may have signified. There were of course some truly prominent and distinguished Buddhists among the 57, including not least my friend and teacher Dhardo Rimpoche. I need hardly tell you that in the course of our journey we kept each other company very much indeed.

The whole 57 of us, the whole party was in fact given by the Government of India a special train and we were taken around India, Northern India at least, in this special train with everything laid on, from holy place to holy place. Also from Government project to Government project. I forget how many dams and steel mills we saw on that particular occasion! But after a quite busy and exhausting trip around India in this special train seeing all these wonderful places both old and new, ancient and modern, we finished up in New Delhi which of course is the capital of India and there we all took part in our different ways in the semi-official, at least Government sponsored, Buddhajayanti celebrations. And I do recollect that on that occasion a very festive atmosphere prevailed, not only in New Delhi itself but in many parts of the vast Indian Subcontinent. Most of the newspapers brought out special Buddhajayanti numbers. I myself contributed to quite a few of them. Even Communist weeklies brought out very dutifully their Buddhajayanti numbers, because of course the Buddha was the first Communist, the first Socialist etc. etc. And of course as I said a very festive atmosphere prevailed. People had come, people had flocked to New Delhi from all over the Buddhist world, all over the East and from many parts of the West as well. There was even I remember a contingent, believe it or not, of Russian Buddhists in their red robes.

Closely guarded by their entourage. It proved quite impossible to establish personal contact with them. I don't remember I must confess very much of the celebrations. All those meetings, speeches, except that in the course of one of them I did inevitably rather put the cat among the pigeons but that's another story! At this particular moment in time there's one thing that stands out rather clearly in my mind, in my recollection, which I was especially interested in, and that was an exhibition of Asian Buddhist art.

It was probably one of the biggest and one of the very best exhibitions of Buddhist art ever put on anywhere in the world, so I naturally went along; and all the different Asian countries were responsible for organising their respective sections. There was a Japanese section, there was a Cambodian section, Thai section, Bhutanese section, Tibetan section and so on; and next to the Indian section which was really vast, the biggest and perhaps the most important section was the one organised by the People's Republic of China. That was of course still in what we may describe as the palmy days of what was called in India then 'Hindicheeni bhai bhai' which means being interpreted, 'Indians and Chinese are brothers'. That was of course before the 1962 border war.

Some of the Chinese Buddhist exhibits were truly magnificent. I certainly had never seen anything like them. Quite a number of them had never been seen outside China and perhaps even in China had been seen by very very few people. And I remember one exhibit, one painting particularly and it was a mural painting or rather I must say it was a full scale copy of a mural painting, an ancient mural painting and it occupied the whole of one wall in the Chinese section of this exhibition. It dated as far as I remember from the Tang dynasty, perhaps from even earlier, and it contained quite a number of figures, and all these figures were life-size and there were two figures in particular which stood out and which attracted my attention. These two figures occupied in fact the centre of the picture, the centre of the mural, the centre of the wall, so to speak.

To the left under a bejewelled canopy sat a beautiful young man. He was seated on a magnificent lotus throne and he was clad in all manner of silks and jewels and he was surrounded by standing yellow robed figures, and from the position of his hands, from the mudra, as it's called, which his hands, which his fingers, adopted, he seems to be saying something, he seemed as it were to be speaking. He seemed to be saying something to the other figure. And this other figure was seated to the right within a sort of curtained pavilion and he was a very old man, He had a long white rather wispy beard, and his face was covered with tiny wrinkles. He was clad in a sort of blue-grey robe, the traditional robe of the Chinese scholar but this was of course, as you'll probably realise in a minute, a slight anachronism, and he was surrounded by standing white robed figures, and from the position of his hands, from the position of his fingers, he seems to be replying to the first figure, replying to the beautiful young man.

Now some of you have probably guessed already who the two figures were. They were Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom on the left, and Vimalakirti, the wise elder of Vaisali on the right. And the painting illustrates the famous meeting between these two. The meeting that is described at the beginning of Chapter five of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa entitled 'The consolation of the invalid'.

You will remember from the last talk that all the Arahats and Bodhisattvas present in the Buddha's assembly were reluctant to go and enquire after Vimalakirti's health when the Buddha, knowing that Vimalakirti was sick, asked them to do so. And you may remember the reason why they were reluctant to go. The reason was that each and every one of them had had a painful, perhaps a rather embarrassing, encounter with Vimalakirti on some previous occasion, an encounter which had exposed the limitations of their particular approach to the dharma. And in the end of course (you may remember this too) Manjusri agrees to go. Manjusri is of course fully aware of the difficulties of the undertaking. He's fully aware of Vimalakirti's spiritual greatness. He's fully aware, so to speak, of the danger. He knows what may happen if you come into contact with such a powerful current of spiritual electricity as Vimalakirti. You may get a shock. But in the end he says, "Although he cannot be withstood by someone of my feeble defences, still, sustained by the grace of the Buddha, I will go to him and will converse with him as well as I can." Now the word translated as 'grace' in this particular passage is the Sanskrit word 'Adhisthana'. It certainly doesn't represent, it certainly doesn't mean grace in the Christian sense. It represents we may say the influence, the non dualistic influence, of the Buddha's transcendental experience of enlightenment. As that influence appears within the framework of the dualistic subject-object relation as though coming from an external source, as though coming from an external source. It isn't really coming from an external source. What Manjusri means by using this ...

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