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The Bodhisattva Principle

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 159: The Bodhisattva Principle - Edited Version

WE ARE LIVING IN THE MIDST of a great debate. It is a debate which, in one form or another, has been going on ever since simple consciousness evolved into reflexive consciousness or, in other words, ever since man became man. All civilizations have been involved in this debate, all cultures, and all religions.

Some of the greatest triumphs of the human spirit are the product of this debate, and some of its most terrible disasters. Among the speakers in this debate, so to speak, on the one side or the other, have been names so well known to history that it is unnecessary for me to mention them. In the course of the last century, and particularly in the course of the last decade, this great debate has been growing in intensity, and involving an increasing number of concerned and thoughtful people in every quarter of the globe. On the outcome of this debate depends, perhaps, the future of humanity, for the debate is in fact nothing less than a debate between the forces of life and the forces of death, between creation and destruction, power and love, chaos and order, and the motion that is being debated, so to speak, is the motion `Man is/is not a spiritual being with a spiritual destiny.' The debate to which I refer does not take place in any one session, or at any one time, nor are the same participants always present. It takes place in a number of subsidiary sessions, as it were, in a number of different places, and one group of participants is constantly being replaced by another. Nor is that all.

There are debates, and conferences, on the great debate itself, and it is in one of these that we ourselves are involved here today. For the last six years the Wrekin Trust has sponsored a series of major conferences concerned, in its own words, `with different aspects of the emerging relationship between the mystical and the scientific experience of the nature of reality', and of this series the present conference is the sixth. We meet, as previous conferences have met, in the ancient and historic, indeed legendary, city of Winchester, with which some of our authorities identify Camelot, the capital of the illustrious King Arthur, and the seat of that goodly fellowship of the Round Table through which the once and future king strove to stem the tide of barbarism then flooding Britain. In later, perhaps more historic times, Winchester was the capital of the kingdom of Wessex, and the seat of the noble Alfred, who in a time of darkness was not only the ruler but the educator of his people, and after whom the building in which we are now meeting is most appropriately named.

Both Arthur and Alfred made contributions to the great debate of which I have spoken. We know on which side of the question they stood, whether they were for or against the motion, and their contribution was none the less effective for being expressed in deeds as well as in words. Today our task is infinitely more difficult than theirs. The forces of death have assumed forms incomparably more noxious than they ever knew, so that the forces of life are obliged to assume forms correspondingly more healthful and benign.

If we are not to become the hapless victims of destructiveness without limit, power without restraint, and chaos without end, we shall need a richer and more abundant creativity, a purer and more ardent love, and a more harmonious and stable order, than the world has ever known before. This is not all that we shall need. The terms in which the debate is being conducted are today more complex than ever before. Many cultures are involved, many scientific disciplines, and many spiritual traditions. Many languages too are involved, both in the literal and in the metaphorical sense. We shall therefore need a greater open-mindedness than ever before, as well as a greater mental agility, and greater powers of sympathy and understanding.

So far this series of conferences has conducted its contribution to the great debate, or at least to the debate about the debate, mainly in terms of Western (i.e. occidental) culture. The overall title of the series, indeed, is `Mystics and Scientists', and both the word `mysticism' and the word `science', together with their respective derivatives, are terms of Western cultural provenance. Moreover, the theme of last year's conference was `The Evolution of Consciousness', while this year our theme is, of course, `Reality, Consciousness, and Order'. All these are, again, terms belonging to Western culture, and in using them we are therefore speaking a particular language, both literally and metaphorically, and the fact that we are doing so determines, at least to an extent, the nature of our contribution to the debate as well as the conception we have of the debate itself.

That these conferences should speak the language of Western culture, and that their discussions should take place within a framework of Western cultural and spiritual values, is of course natural. The conferences themselves are held in the West, and they are attended (I think) by Westerners, whether by birth or by adoption. More important still, it is in the West that the great debate of which I have spoken has reached its highest pitch of intensity, generating shock waves that have travelled to the remotest parts of the world. Scientism, the Industrial Revolution, Capitalism, Parliamentary Democracy, Marxist Communism, and Secular Humanism, are all movements the effects of which are now felt, directly or indirectly, throughout the whole `global village', and all are movements of modern (i.e. post-medieval) Western origin. It was only to be expected, however, that sooner or later these conferences would begin to speak, or at least begin to understand, the language of some of the great non-Western cultures. It was only to be expected that they would eventually widen the framework within which their discussions took place, as I am sure the sponsors of these conferences would wish them to widen it. Even in King Arthur's day, a paynim was once admitted to membership of the Round Table. It was only to be expected that, sooner or later, Buddhism would enter into the discussions, even as it plunged, centuries ago, into the thick of the great debate itself. It was only to be expected that a Buddhist View should be heard in this hall.

In seeking to give expression to that View I am confronted by a serious difficulty. Like its predecessors, this conference brings together Mystics and Scientists, those working in the sciences with those following spiritual disciplines, and as I have already pointed out both the word `mysticism' and the word `science', together with their respective derivatives, are words of Western cultural provenance. As a follower of Buddhism, which historically speaking is an Eastern (i.e. oriental) cultural and spiritual tradition, with a highly developed and indeed sophisticated `language' of its own, I therefore find myself wondering which of these terms is the more applicable to me and in what capacity I am here. A Scientist I certainly am not, for I am not one of those working in the sciences. Does this then mean I am a Mystic, as presumably it must mean if the terms `science' and `mysticism' are not just contraries but contradictories? Although I have followed Buddhist spiritual disciplines for many years, I have no more thought of myself as a Mystic than I have thought of Buddhism itself as `a form of Eastern mysticism'. To me, as a Buddhist, terms such as `mystic' and `mysticism' are in fact quite strange, even alien, not to say repugnant, and in speaking and writing about Buddhism I prefer to avoid them. Notwithstanding the title of a well known book by Dr D.T.

Suzuki42 - a writer remarkable for fluency rather than precision of expression - they do not really correspond to anything with which I am familiar within the field of Buddhism.

Such being the case it is obvious that I am here in neither of the two capacities in which I imagine the rest of you to be present. I belong neither with the mystical sheep nor with the scientific goats (perhaps I should say scientific wolves) but to a rather different breed that some of you may not have encountered before. In speaking to you on the `Bodhisattva Principle: Key to the Evolution of Consciousness, Individual and Collective', and thus giving expression to a Buddhist View, I therefore speak neither as a Mystic nor as a Scientist, but simply as a Buddhist, leaving it to you to determine the extent to which my View as a Buddhist coincides with your View as a Scientist or a Mystic, a worker in the sciences or a follower of a spiritual discipline. In speaking as a Buddhist I speak as one who, having immersed himself in Buddhism for more than forty years, both in the East and the West, finds in Buddhism the Reality that works through Consciousness to achieve Order. To use Buddhism's own language, I speak as one who finds in Buddhism the Buddha who, together with the Bodhisattvas, works through the Dharma to create the Sangha - to create Sukhavati.

Yet though I speak as a Buddhist it is your language I shall be speaking today, the language of Western culture, not the language of Buddhism. Indeed, the fact that I speak to you as a Buddhist, and speak about Buddhism, means that I have started speaking your language already, for the terms `Buddhist' and `Buddhism' are not found in what I am obliged to refer to as Buddhism, both terms being quite recent Western coinages. It might even be said that I started speaking your language from the moment I agreed to address this conference not just on the subject of the Bodhisattva Principle, but on the subject of the Bodhisattva Principle as the Key to the Evolution of Consciousness, Individual and Collective, for the terms `Evolution', `Consciousness', and `Individual', are terms having no exact equivalents ...

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