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The Rain of the Dharma

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by Sangharakshita

... the period of the rainy season, has also a spiritual significance, because in the Buddha's day the wandering monks used to just stay in one spot during that period, and they'd devote themselves to intensive meditation and study and recitation of suttas and so on.

And I myself, especially during the last eight or nine years of my life in India, I used to spend the rainy season virtually in seclusion. For a number of years I didn't step outside my monastery for the period of the rainy season retreat. I secluded myself: I studied, meditated, and so on. So the rainy season is something very different. It's a very distinctive feature of life in India. And as you might have gathered, in India the rain is very welcome. People don't mind when it starts raining, because for the rest of the year it's so hot and so dry. The ground is parched, the ground is thirsty, as it were. Everything withers, everything is brown. So people are very glad, very happy, when they see those first dark rainclouds looming on the horizon. The falling of rain is something really to be looked forward to, especially by the farmers. Rain is a very positive symbol, a very positive experience.

And so from this we can understand that the expression `the rain of Dharma' has a very special significance for Indians, and perhaps especially for Indian in the Buddhists. Perhaps in the West, well, certainly in England, the rain of the Dharma doesn't sound very positive, it has a rather depressing sort of ring to it. But in India this expression `the rain of Dharma' has a really very positive ring indeed, it's a very positive symbol.

So it's therefore not very surprising that there should be a parable of the raincloud in the Saddharma pundarika sutra. And, as I'm sure many of you do know, the Saddharma pundarika sutra or White Lotus Sutra, or simply Lotus Sutra, as we usually call it in the West, is one of the most important of all the great vaipulya Mahayana sutras. The Sutra of course, incidentally, is a Buddhist canonical text purporting to record the actual words of the Buddha, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. I say `purporting to record' because according to modern scholarship many of the sutras, and perhaps especially many of the Mahayana sutras, do not so much record the actual words of the Buddha but try to recast in contemporary format something of the essence, something of the spirit, of the Buddha's teaching as it has come down through the centuries.

So the Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, or White Lotus Sutra, is a Mahayana sutra. And so far as we know, in its present form it was written down in Sanskrit - in a form of Sanskrit, or perhaps more precisely two forms of Sanskrit - in about the first century of the Common Era. And doctrinally speaking, spiritually speaking, the Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, the White Lotus Sutra, is of very great importance indeed. It's of great historical importance, it's of great doctrinal importance, especially in the far Eastern Buddhism of China and of Japan. Whole Buddhist schools, in fact, have been founded on the teachings and on the practice of the White Lotus Sutra.

I'm not going to say very much this evening about the doctrine of the Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, the White Lotus Sutra. But very broadly speaking we may say, in a doctrinal sense or from a doctrinal point of view, there are two principal themes reverberating through the White Lotus Sutra. First of all, the first theme is that there are not in fact three yanas; there is only one yana.

So the question obviously arises, well, what are these three yanas? Nowadays students of Buddhism usually understand by the three yanas the Hinayana, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana.

If one refers nowadays in Buddhist circles to the three yanas this is what usually people think of: Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana. But it is not these three yanas that are referred to here, when the Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, the White Lotus Sutra, maintains that there are not in fact three yanas but only one. There's a quite different set of yanas which is being referred to, with some of which some of you may be familiar, others perhaps not. So perhaps I'll just say a few words about them.

The three yanas here, in the context of the White Lotus Sutra, are first of all the sravakayana, then the pratyekabuddhayana, and finally the buddhayana, also known as the bodhisattvayana. So let's just look at this briefly, just for a few minutes; this is sort of basic Buddhist doctrine, or at least basic Buddhist doctrinal history. Sravaka, the word sravaka, comes from a root meaning `to hear', and a sravaka is one who hears. So the sravakayana is the path or the way of the hearers, of those who hear, of those who listen. And by the sravakas is understood the immediate disciples of the Buddha, those who heard, those who listened to his teaching, and who after listening to his teaching gained Enlightenment for themselves, gained supreme Enlightenment for themselves, became - in traditional Buddhist terms - Arhats. So these followed the path of the sravaka, this was the sravakayana - the path of those who, hearing the teaching from another, followed it by their own efforts and gained Enlightenment, but did not - at least according to the Hinayana - did not actually teach, at least did not teach in the way that a Buddha taught. So such are the followers of the sravakayana.

Perhaps it should also be mentioned that according to Hinayana teaching, which is rather later perhaps than the original teaching of the Buddha himself - according to the Hinayana teaching the Enlightenment attained by the sravaka was somewhat inferior to the Enlightenment attained by the Buddha himself. So here we have first of all the sravakayana.

And then we have the pratyekabuddhayana. Pratyeka is usually explained in the commentarial sources in two ways. Sometimes it's explained as private or personal, and sometimes as relating to conditionality. The Pratyekabuddha is one who does not hear the Dharma, does not hear the teaching, from another. He discovers it by his own efforts. And the Enlightenment that he attains is the supreme Enlightenment of a Buddha, not the relatively inferior Enlightenment of the Arhant. This is the Pratyekabuddha. But after gaining that Enlightenment he does not teach. Here there is a difference, according to the Hinayana, between the Arhant and the Pratyekabuddha. The Arhant gains Enlightenment, the inferior Enlightenment of the Arhant, after hearing the teaching, but after realizing that Enlightenment, does not teach. The Pratyekabuddha, on the other hand, realizes that Enlightenment having not heard the teaching from another and having realized that bodhi by his own efforts, and then also he, like the Arhant, does not teach. This is the basic distinction according to the Hinayana. I say `according to the Hinayana' because it is a distinctively Hinayana teaching here, not that of the Mahayana.

And then finally of course there's the Buddhayana or Bodhisattvayana. The Bodhisattva is one who hears the teaching from a Buddha, by his own efforts achieves supreme Enlightenment, the Enlightenment of a Buddha, and also does thereafter teach. This is the great difference between the Buddha and/or the Bodhisattva.

So we have these three, as it were, spiritual ideals. We have these three yanas. We have these three spiritual paths. We have these three goals. Now it must be said here that the historical Buddha, so far as we know his teachings through the Pali scriptures, which are probably on the whole the oldest of the scriptures in their written form, so far as we know the historical Buddha did not actually teach that there were three yanas in this sense. The historical Buddha did not speak in terms of a Hinayana, or rather did not teach in terms of a sravakayana, a pratyekabuddha and then a bodhisattva or buddhayana.

The historical Buddha did not teach these three yanas, as far as we can make out. He certainly did not use this particular nomenclature. So far as we can make out from the Pali scriptures, and especially from the oldest portions of those scriptures, like the Sutta-nipata, the Udana, the Itivuttaka, some suttas of the Majjhima-nikaya, the Dhammapada, and so on, so far as we can make out from these older, even more archaic texts, the Buddha taught one bodhi for all. The bodhi that the Buddha himself had realized was also realized by his disciples; there was not, as it were, a higher and a lower bodhi, not a higher bodhi which he had realized and a lesser bodhi which they had realized. Sometimes their bodhi was spoken of in Pali as anubodhi, a following bodhi, a bodhi following upon his, a bodhi which they, following in his footsteps, realized - but the two bodhis, the two realizations, being one and the same. As the Master realized, so the disciple realized. As the disciple realized, so had the Master realized. That, so far as we can see, was the position historically in the time of the Buddha himself.

But gradually distinctions came to be made. Gradually three bodhis came to be distinguished.

Because it seems that after the Buddha's passing away, his disciples, or at least the disciples of his disciples, or the disciples of the disciples of his disciples, started feeling that the Buddha was a man of such extraordinary greatness, of such extraordinary spiritual attainment, that his Enlightenment must have surpassed that of his disciples. They couldn't imagine, it seems, that the disciples, great though they were, the Arhant disciples, great though they were, had attained to that supreme bodhi that the Buddha himself had attained to. So they started as it were distinguishing between a higher bodhi attained by the Buddha and a lower bodhi attained by his Arhant disciples; there was the samyak sambodhi and there was just sambodhi, or just bodhi.

There were Buddhas and there were Arhants. Buddhas ...

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