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The Disappearing Buddha

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 183 - The Disappearing Buddha

Doctor Broom and friends. I must begin by saying how glad I am to be here in St James with you all this evening. A little earlier on, Doctor Broom invited all those who have not been here before, not been in St James and not been to Alternatives, to put up their hands.

Then I should have put up my hand, as I haven't been here before, I haven't been inside this building before. Of course I have glimpsed it from the outside on a number of occasions, on my way to the Royal Academy. Sometimes of course I glimpsed it behind a multitude of colourful stalls and I believe on one or two occasions I even had a stroll around those colourful stalls, but I must admit that I didn't actually find my way into St James or into Alternatives.

I'm all the more glad to be here this evening. I'm glad to have been able to witness the little preliminaries, the rigmarole as I believe they were called, and especially to witness the lighting of the candles. I was asked to name a quality which could be associated with one of those three candles. This isn't quite in my notes but I'm going to say it anyway. I was asked to think of a quality, and of course you heard the quality of which I thought was courage. Well, I thought, well probably everybody who comes here says something like peace or compassion, faith. And I thought, well I'll be a little bit different. I don't suppose many people would think of courage. But I also thought of courage for a very definite reason. The reason being that I think that in the world of today, if we can stand in any way with the upholding of any sort of spiritual values, we do need a great deal of courage. Love isn't enough, we need courage to implement that love and act upon it.

Truth isn't enough, well in a way truth is enough but we also need the courage to stand up for the truth, to stand by the truth in the midst of a world which only too often seems to deny the truth. So I was very glad to be able to witness and to that extent take part in the candle lighting ceremony this evening.

I was also glad to witness and take part, because in a way I felt myself to be on familiar ground, because in the context of Buddhist worship very often we light and we offer candles. Most often we offer them to the Buddha and in some forms of Buddhism we offer then reciting a little verse which may be translated something like this: "This light, this candle I offer to the Buddha, the Enlightened one who destroys the darkness, the darkness of ignorance". So the lighting of a candle, the lighting of candles has this sort of association for Buddhists, this sort of association for me.

Light is of course a universal symbol. We find this symbol in all religions, in all spiritual traditions. I remember during my days in India, I often had the opportunity of witnessing the Hindu Divali or Diwali, the festival of lights. And on that occasion it was very, very interesting, very beautiful to see that the windows and doors of all the houses in the neighbourhood would be just lit up with rows and rows of little lamps, of course they were all oil lamps. And they presented all the more beautiful a sight when in that particular town, as was the case still in those days, there was no electricity, no gas, just little oil lamps. And the whole of the town, the whole of the city, would be illuminated with rows and rows of these little oil lamps, in the windows, on the doorsteps, on the roofs, on the edges of the flat roofs, all over the town, all over the city. All representing, or symbolising, for pious Hindus, the triumph of light over darkness, the triumph of the forces of good over the forces of evil.

Light in Buddhism represents especially spiritual knowledge, represents what we may describe as transcendental insight, represents the higher wisdom. The Buddha after his enlightenment, after his attainment of enlightenment, is represented as saying to his disciples "There arose in me knowledge, there arose in me wisdom, there arose in me light". And it's therefore perhaps not surprising, perhaps it's not just a coincidence that the Buddha is known in English as The Enlightened One, though not of course in the sense of 18th century humanistic enlightenment. And of course it's about the Buddha that I'm speaking this evening.

And at this point I have a little confession to make. I have to confess that, glad as I am to be here in St James this evening, it's a very long time since I was in a church at all, apart of course from sightseeing. And it's a very long time indeed since I actually spoke in a church. I was actually looking up in my records the last time this happened and I discovered the last time was on Sunday 15th July 1987, which is almost exactly 7 years ago. And on that occasion, that Sunday morning, I delivered a sermon in the chapel of Kings College Cambridge. And I remember this occasion, I don't remember so much what I actually said - I very often don't - but I remember the congregation, because the congregation, which was about 300 strong, consisted as far as I could see mainly of American tourists. And they hadn't come for me, oh no, they'd come to hear the music, they'd come to hear the famous Kings College choir. But of course they had forty minutes of me first. But anyway, be that as it may have been, this evening I'm going to do more or less what I did on that occasion, seven years ago in the chapel of Kings College Cambridge. Since I'm in Rome, so to speak, if I can say that in an Anglican building, since I'm in Rome so to speak I'm going to do what Rome does. Or at least what I think Rome may still do. I'm going to give a sermon on a text. But it's not quite what trendy C of E vicars, even Rectors, do nowadays. And I must admit incidentally that for quite a few years I was myself rather prejudiced against this word sermon. I didn't like to use it, I avoided it. I didn't like, for instance, to hear the Buddha's discourses to his disciples referred to as sermons. People would sometimes speak of the Buddha's first sermon. I didn't like that. But in recent years I've changed my mind. I've concluded that after all sermon is a good old English word. It comes to us via the old French from the Latin sermo to discourse, probably from serere, which means to join together. So not such a bad old word after all, we may think. Of course, some of our greatest English literature exists in the form of sermons, believe it or not. One thinks, for instance, of the sermons of John Donne and of Jeremy Taylor. One thinks even of the sermon also of Cardinal Newman.

So I'm going to give a sermon this evening, I'm going to give a sort of sermon. Or at least this talk of mine will be a sermon to the extent that it is based on a text. I'm going to take my text from the Pali Mahaparanibbana sutta. So perhaps I should first of all say just a little about the Buddhist scriptures. In some ways you're lucky not to be a Buddhist, those of you who are not Buddhists, because the Buddhist scriptures are absolutely enormous.

Christians are quite lucky, they just have ­ well it's not a very small volume, it's quite a thick volume even printed on India paper ­ they just have got this one volume Bible.

Muslims are even luckier, they've got something much smaller. But Buddhists have got several hundred volumes of scriptures. So if you're a serious-minded Buddhist who takes your studies seriously, well, in a way, you've got a problem. But of course, some Buddhist scriptures are better known than others.

Let me give you some idea of how the Buddhist scriptures are organised and divided.

They're usually divided into three great main collections. First of all there's the collection of the discourses of the Buddha, talks given by the Buddha, or if you like, sermons delivered by the Buddha. Some of them are long ­ some of the Mahayana sutras are several volumes long, just one discourse. Others are very short, just a few lines, even a few verses. So first of all the collection of discourses. And then there's the collection of rules for monks and nuns. There are not so many of these, there are only five volumes, which most monks and nuns find quite sufficient. So the collection of rules for monks and nuns, many of which of course are really no longer relevant in the modern world.

And then there's a third collection which is rather difficult to translate, the term is Abhidharma, but let's say the collection of the rather more analytical, rather more philosophical teachings.

So there are these three great collections, these consisting of many, many volumes, the collection of the discourses, the collection of the rules for monks and nuns and the collection of more philosophical types of teachings. Now if we take the first collection, the collection of discourses, discourses by the Buddha, this consists of four groups of discourses. And the first of these groups is known as the group of long discourses. The discourses are simply long. They're classified as long regardless of their actual subject matter. And in the Pali recension of the scriptures, I won't go into this question of how many recensions of the Buddhist scriptures there are, but in the Pali recension of the scriptures, there are 34 of these long discourses. Some of them are about the same length as the Christian gospels. And I'm going to take my text from discourse No. 16, known as the Mahaparanibbana Sutta, or discourse, or if you like sermon, of the great decease.

That's how it's usually translated and the decease in question is the decease of the Buddha himself. Buddhists don't usually speak of the death of the Buddha, out of reverence for the Buddha. They speak of his Mahaparinibbana which means something like final passing away, or great decease. The Buddha, as you probably know, died or passed away at the age of about 80. Before ...

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