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The Four Great Reliances - Criteria for the Spiritual Life

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 150: The Four Great Reliances: Criteria for the Spiritual Life

Mr Chairman, and friends.

Some of you, quite a few of you in fact, I know, have been to India. Some of you in fact quite recently.

Some of you I know have visited at least some of the Buddhist Holy places of India - that is to say those places in India, especially in Northern India, North Eastern India which are associated with events of one kind or another in the life of the Buddha. There's Buddhagaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment. There's Sarnath where he started upon his teaching career. There's Shravasti where he spent many many rainy seasons, and gave very many teachings to his disciples. And there's Kushinagara, where he finally passed away between the twin Sal trees; and so on.

And these holy places, these sacred sites, are nowadays in various stages of restoration, usually under the auspices of the government of India Archaeological Department. And these places, these holy places, are very different from one another, in various ways. But they all have at least one feature in common. They all have Stupas. Now what is a Stupa - some of you may not have encountered this word before. A Stupa is a dome-shaped structure, often of quite enormous size. It's made of brick, faced with stone. And it usually contains a body relic of the Buddha - that is to say it contains a tiny fragment of bone or ash. Some of these Stupas are at present in a state of extreme dilapidation. Some of them are really not much more than just heaps of rubble, heaps of brick and stone, and many of them indeed have been plundered, in the course of centuries, for their materials. As late as the 18th century for instance, bricks were taken from one of the great Sarnath Stupas in order to build a market-place in the city of Benares.

A few of the Stupas are relatively undamaged. A few have even been restored. But even those that have been restored, even those that have been so to speak, rebuilt, renovated, have a rather desolate look.

They're not decorated at all; after all the Archaeological Department's responsibility is perhaps to restore them but not to decorate them, not to make them look really beautiful. So they're not decorated at all. And more often than not, there are very few people around, and many of the people who are around are tourists or sight-seers anyway. But a thousand to two thousand years ago, things were very different indeed. If you had visited the Buddhist holy places of Northern India then, you would have seen a very different sight.

To begin with, all the Stupas would have been quite intact. They would have been entirely covered with stone slabs - you wouldn't have seen any brick-work visible at all. And many of the slabs would have been most elaborately carved. Moreover, the Stupa would have been very beautifully decorated - it would have been decorated all over with multitudes of coloured flags and banners. It would have been decorated with all sorts of streamers; some of these streamers would have been made of precious materials. Some of them would have been made of gold or silver plates, hinged together, just as one sometimes sees in Nepal even today. They would have been hung perhaps with strings of pearls, and festoons of flowers, and one would have seen, especially at night, thousands upon thousands of tiny oil lamps burning in all the little niches.

And there would have been gateways of flowers, of sweet-smelling Indian flowers, set up on the four sides of the Stupa - set up north, south, east and west. And above all, around the Stupas, in the vicinity of the Stupas, there would have been thousands upon thousands of people, thousands upon thousands of devotees, all dressed in garments of spotless white. They wouldn't have been just aimlessly milling around as though they were at a sort of fair. They wouldn't have been just gaping or gawking at the Stupa. They would have been circumambulating it - that is to say, they would have been marching round and round it, keeping it, as a sign of respect, on their right. They would have been marching round and round it perhaps eight, or perhaps ten abreast, and they would have been carrying in their hands, trays containing all sorts of offerings, offerings of flowers, offerings of lighted lamps, offerings of sticks of lighted incense. And as they march round and round, as they circumambulated, they would have chanted; they would have chanted the refuges, chanted the precepts, chanted all sorts of devotional verses in praise of the Buddha, in praise of the Dharma, in praise of the Sangha, in praise of the great Bodhisattvas; and there would have been accompanying all that chanting, there would have been the sound of drums and all sorts of other musical instruments. So that altogether, it must have been a truly wonderful spectacle - especially when the sun shone down on it all from a clear blue sky, as was usually the case.

So this sort of observance, this sort of celebration, this sort of festival one might say, this continual festival around the Stupa, was very popular, was very popular with ordinary lay Buddhists in ancient India, and it's usually known as "Stupa worship". But this expression "Stupa worship" is not really quite correct., Those people, those devotees were not in fact worshipping the Stupa at all. They were not worshipping the structure of brick and stone, however beautiful. They were worshipping the body relics of the Buddha enshrined within the Stupa. They were worshipping the Buddha. And this sort of worship is known as "!misha Puja" or "worship with material things", and it has its counterpart with more or less degrees of splendour in all traditions of course.

But here a question comes in, inevitably, and the question is "Is there not a better way of worshipping the Buddha?" and this question arises in Chapter 13 of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa which together with Chapter 14, Thurman, the American translator of the text, entitles simply "Epilogue", and it's in the course of the answer to this question that we come across what I've called "the Four Great Reliances".

And this of course is our theme tonight - the Four Great Reliances - criteria for the spiritual life.

Now before going into the Four great Reliances, I propose to do four things. First, I'm going to describe the general context within which both question and answer arise, and this will include a brief account of the previous chapter also of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa. And secondly, I'm going to say something about the need for criteria in the spiritual life.

So first of all the general context. Let's start with the events of the previous Chapter, Chapter 12. This chapter is entitled "Vision of the universe Abhirati and the Tathagata Akshobya". This vision in fact constitutes the principal event in this chapter. The chapter starts though, the chapter opens though, with a section on "Seeing the Buddha". The Buddha asks Vimalakirti, who in a sense, as you know is the hero so to speak of the whole text, the Buddha asks Vimalakirti "Noble son, when you would see the Tathagata, "that is to say, see the Buddha, "how do you view him?" And Vimalakirti replies. We may come back to this later on. Sariputra then asks a question. He asks the Buddha in which Buddha Land Vimalakirti died before reincarnating, so to speak, in this Buddha Land. The Buddha tells Sariputra to ask Vimalakirti himself. And Sariputra does so. But Vimalakirti not very surprisingly perhaps, is not very helpful. He becomes very metaphysical and very paradoxical indeed. So the Buddha then comes to the rescue, and he says that Vimalakirti comes from the presence of the Buddha Akshobya, in the universe Abhirati He is reincarnated in this Saha universe, this universe of suffering, and tribulation, voluntarily, that is to say, not as a result of past Karma. He has done so in order to purify living beings.

He has done so in order to make the light of Wisdom shine in the midst of the darkness of the passions.

Having heard this, everybody in the great assembly wants to see Abhirati. So Vimalakirti, at the Buddha's request, shows it to them. And he does this by means of his magical power.

In the next chapter, the first of those which go to make up the Epilogue in Thurman's translation, we're again concerned with the question of previous incarnations. On this occasion, including those of the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. At the beginning of the chapter, we find, Sakra, more usually known as Indra, the king of the gods, coming forward. He says that he has never before heard such a wonderful teaching as this of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, and he praises that teaching at length. He promises, he undertakes, to protect it, and from this of course, we know that the Sutra is beginning to come to an end. The Buddha approves of what Sakra, approves of what Indra, the king of the gods says. He says that the worship of the Dharma is the worship of the Buddhas of the three periods of time, that is to say, past, present and future, and he then refers to material worship. He says, suppose the whole great universe was full of Buddhas, as full of Buddhas as it is of plants, of bushes and grass and trees. As full as that. And suppose these Buddhas passed away into Parinirvana or, in ordinary parlance, died, and suppose somebody erected marvellous Stupas for each and every one of them. Stupas made entirely of precious stones, each Stupa as large as a world, and suppose they spent a whole aeon or more worshipping all those Stupas with flowers, perfumes, music etc, just as I described a little while ago.

They would gain, the Buddha says, much merit.

But suppose on the other hand, someone was to accept, recite and understand deeply this ...

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